Interview with Artist Mee Jey

Who is Mee Jey or is that Mee and Jey?

You are right in both stances. I am Mee Jey and my partner is Jey Sushil. We together are called Mee & Jey. 

Tell us a little bit about your most recent work. 

Currently I have two parallel and related projects, both happening in St. Louis. One of them ‘MY BABY’ is a performance piece created for the exhibition Hostile Terrain 94 at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum that is part of the Undocumented Migration Project headed by anthropologist Jason De Leon. 

Millions of people leave their homes and undertake arduous journeys in search of a better future. Thousands die or go missing and many bodies are found that remain unidentified. According to Hindu belief system, if a dead person is not given a due farewell, the soul wonders on the mortal world suffering in pain. Assuming the role of a ‘Ghost Mother’, I am giving these lost-souls a due remembrance by renaming them as ‘MY BABY’ and helping them to rest in peace in the ‘Other World’.

Mee Jey, MANNAT, 2021, 21 ft x 12 ft, donated fabric and recycled plastic.

The second project is a community powered art work titled MANNAT: A special prayer for children victims of violence. This work emphasizes the fact that children are the first and last victims of violence. A 21×12 foot fabric drawing of a child laying face-down forces us to think on the issue of borders and immigration crises around the globe. The scale of work is in proportion to the enormity of the issue. 48 people came together in different capacities to shape this work over the span of 2 months in St. Louis. This work was created for Paint Louis 2021 and was assembled for viewing on the Mississippi River Flood Wall in St. Louis, where I live currently. This wall is also the largest graffiti wall in the world. 

Is that child in the drawing your child?

No and yes. 

That drawing is of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who was found dead on the sea shore in Turkey at 6:30 am on September 2, 2015. His funeral and burial were on September 4th. Out of respect, on September 3 and 4th, 2021, I installed this work, MANNAT, for public viewing. I feel every child is my child and perhaps this motherly connection with all the child victims of violence made me create this enormous and heart wrenching work. 

Mannat - Artist Mee Jey
Mannat, 2021, detail.

You had (and have) an established career in India before you came to school in Washington University in St. Louis. Can you describe?

I have a research degree in history and also had a parallel practice of studio and community based art in India since 2012. The travels into the 18 states of India on motorbike with Jey Sushil, brought forth the power of exposure to the outside world. In India our experimental art projects were not being acknowledged in the manner we were expecting. When the offer to study at Sam Fox School of Arts along with a full scholarship from McDonnell International Scholars’ Academy came across my path, we decided to move to this new continent even though we were 6 months pregnant. It was a remarkable move for both of us in many ways. 

While I moved into a life of a student, after a short break, Jey Sushil took a 2 year sabbatical and eventually left his 17 years of association with the BBC to pursue his literary & academic interests also at Washington University as PhD student in literature. 

Then you came to Washington University (WashU). How was that experience and what did you learn?

Being at WashU was the most memorable time of my and our life. Life moved into the 5th gear. I was a student, a community artist working with local communities and institutions, a teaching assistant and a new mother. I knew I only had four semesters to make it big or let this culmination of opportunities go to waste. I created four sets of public art pieces in collaboration with local St. Louis organizations. I received the prestigious Dean Travel Grant twice for my community art project in India with visually challenged kids. My second trip was to travel to South Texas to work with undocumented immigrants seeking asylum. I also received Dubinsky Art Grant for a workshop in Provincetown, Boston. I also received my first professional commission from an international brand FILA.

It was the first time I went on experimenting with materials and forms. My approach became interdisciplinary and I truly was fortunate to receive the guidance of visiting artists and critics. It changed my perspective of looking at my own work. 

Mannat - Artist Mee Jey
Mannat, 2021, detail.

With the virus, Mee and Jey are still in St. Louis. What are you up to now with your family? Are you still affiliated with Washington University?

The Covid-19 crisis put a hold on our travel and art plans in India for the year 2020-2021. We are sticking together through the thick and thin of this pandemic with our visual and textual projects. However this journey has become easier with three competitive art grants that I have received in past few month from Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Regional Arts Commission, St Louis and The Luminary Gallery.  

Myself and Jey Sushil have switched gears now. I am practicing from home and he is a PhD fellow on Track for International Writers, Department of Comparative Literature, Washington University in St. Louis. 

Since before the pandemic, Mee and Jey have been doing a series, “Constant Variable,” a new work for each day. What is this project about and how is it going? Is this type of work made for challenging times like present?

Everyday art projects like ‘Constant Variable’, is the third consecutive collaborative time-based project we have done. This project is about two things: the interdisciplinary nature of my art practice and the only constant in my life, Jey Sushil. Under this project, I have been making a portrait of Sushil every day since the 1st January 2020. The pandemic struck us in mid-march and one can see the impact of the unprecedented times on us in these portraits. This is a visual diary of Mee & Jey in many ways. The work needs to be theorized and put into perspective as such a work has not been done by any artist yet. These projects can be seen as a successor to works by artists Tehching Hsieh, On Kawara and Renee Gladman

We have a background of doing time based projects. In 2016-17, we did a 52 week photograph series “I in Togetherness” which traced our journey as a couple and in that project we discussed the issues of any relationship and how to make that work in a better way.

In 2018, Ageing of a Mango was an attempt to trace the process of maturing ending at death. I photographed the same mango for 72 days, symbolizing an average life of a woman according to UN data, ending in a burial ceremony on the last day. 

In 2019, we made another time based work “365 days of Mee & Jey” which is a video project where we talked about art for common people every day for one year. The project can be viewed on Youtube on our channel Artologue

Mannat - Artist Mee Jey
Mannat, 2021, detail.

Your work CENTRAL PERIPHERY is made of recycled materials? Do you often work with found materials or what many call zero-waste materials in your works? 

Yes, the CENTRAL PERIPHERY is an 8x8x4.5 foot kinetic sculptural installation that is primarily made of repurposed materials. 

I am a scavenger. I collect materials from people, public places, dumpsters, thrift stores and when absolutely necessary, from art stores. The choice of materials and its treatment is partly an economic as well as ecologically conscious choice. Inevitably, these factors play into my practice prominently and my immersive installations are often a commentary on the global economic disparity and ecological degradation in the Anthropocene.  

My approach to ideas vis-à-vis materials and their treatment, theoretically falls close to the advanced understanding of ecofeminism that knits women, nature, and natural resources closely, within a male-dominant social structure. 

What materials are you looking for now?

Interesting question. Let me think. Do I look for material? Do I work according to the material. I work on an idea and most of the times the idea chooses its own material. I am always looking for ways to represent a complex idea in simple manner and that takes me to the material which can be twigs, wood, leaves, everyday objects to use or traditional art material such as fibre glass, copper, iron, steel. I believe that the idea will lead me to materials and subsequently to a form that best represents it.  

To be honest, at this point I am looking for galleries, curators and critics who can give my multi-media works, my inter-disciplinary approach and experimentations a more considerate attention, as well as wider audience and platform where people can engage with the work and ideas more intently.

Mannat - Artist Mee Jey
MANNAT, 2021. Artwork to scale with the artist, Mee Jey.

The work PRAYER is ongoing performance. When was the last time it was performed? How was this performance initiated?

PRAYER is a work that went through a long process of presentational experiments. It was a response as well as a remedy to my anxiety as a pregnant immigrant in America upon the declaration of DACA by the American government in the Fall of 2017. I started writing MY BABY repeatedly on the sheets of paper that I had readily available, with an unusual choice of color, red. 

The writing calmed me down. It eventually transformed into a prayerful act for a safe and better future of my family and my yet-to-be-born child. While I initially visualized it as an installation, considering the obsessive act of writing and rewriting as a response to the on-going global crisis of immigrant communities, it became an ongoing performance. 

I still write a few papers every week and overcome any anxiety I might have. They are like mantras in a prayer for me now. 

The last time it was performed was while I was at an artist residency at a gallery in New Delhi, July 2018, during a show opening.

What is the future?

Right now with the pandemic, I feel like I am stuck in a tunnel. I hope at the end of the Tunnel there should be some light, light of wisdom. 

What is your hope for the future?

I am a habitual optimist and always believe that the future will be better. 

What is the hope for YOUR future?

I hope my works will be recognised sooner than later. I hope to have a fulfilling career as an artist and showcase my work all over the world. I want to travel again and work with communities as I used to do.  

How can people see your work?

Most of my published works are available to see on my website https://www.meejey.com

Most of my relational art projects are published on https://artologue.in/

All are welcome to visit my studio for my most recent work by contacting me on Instagram @mee_jey

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