Artist Profile: Elizabeth Mputu
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Manuel Arturo Abreu: You created one of the most active Facebook selfie groups I’ve encountered, inb4. It quickly grew too large for you to moderate alone, if at all, so—now that you have some distance from the project—I wanted to ask how you feel about it, and how it fits into the context of your practice (if at all), which often deals with networked affect and the elusive nature of digital community. And a related question—TeachMeTeaseMe, archived on Tumblr here, was a bit before my time as a Facebook group (in that by the time I heard about it, it was gone), so I would love to hear a description of the project from you.
Elizabeth Mputu: !! Thanks for the acknowledgement, it was definitely not intentional. /inb4/ started off as a DIY/Underground “virtual magazine, by U 4 U” in the form of a Facebook Group that was meant 2 b an antithesis to the culture praised in online spaces like Rookie Mag, Dazed, Vice, and the like...which seemed to mostly highlight niche cool yt young hot artists who didn’t really portray what it was like for me and people like me to be involved in a DIY scene. I was living in Chicago a few years back and at the time a lot of my energy was spent in queer nightlife where the looks of my friends and strangers who would frequent spaces like Berlin Nightclub, the Dustbowl, parties in Pilsen, at Parker Bright’s house, Smartbar, and elsewhere constantly inspired me. I remember hanging out with someone one day, picking up a FRUiTS book and thinking “damn, that’s my life, these are my friends. Let’s make a virtual version of this.”
Sooner rather than later, a bunch of people were in the space (which at the time was managed largely by myself, Parker Bright, Seashell Coker, Isabelle Mcguire, Todd Diedrich, Maya Danika, and a few others) whose styles really touched me, like Laina Berry, Judas Melendes, Jimmy Hassett, Zaina Miuccia, Claire Van Eijk, Emily Alexander, Angelo Valerio, Zain Curtis and Olivia Hatfield. I personally believe that was a really exciting time for the group because there was a lot of love shown in the space, the art of finesse was celebrated without shame, and people could connect to each other internationally. The group’s downfall came when we implemented the “After Hours” portion where people could submit nudes. The addition started to take away from /inb4/’s aesthetic centered intentions and the group lost focus, everyone wanted to post nudes but people didn’t want to express their creativity through clothes as much. Although there’s nothing wrong with that at all, it simply was not the original purpose.
I, among others, had wanted to shut down the group many times, and announced that would be the case but a lot of people didn’t want the community to be disbanded so it’s running to this day. Constantly evolving. That was a large reason why I never wanted to be too hands on with the project because it wasn’t meant to be about my curation of the space but about how people made it out for themselves. We got to see many different iterations of the group, for better and for worse-- from the rise of normcore to the death of healthgoth, but, ultimately I’m happy about the experience because I feel it gave all of us a look into how we could queer the platform of Facebook (many people created their own versions of the group thereafter) and through everyone’s participation, introduced me to the idea of Unapologetic Self-Love—self-love and self care being at the forefront of my practice now.
Elizabeth Mputu, /inb4/, 2014
TeachMeTeaseMe came into fruition while I was in a mutually abusive relationship and dating someone who was very challenged by my sexuality whether it be how I identified or how I expressed it. I came out to someone in an anonymous chat group when I was in second grade and always appreciated how an online forum could comfort people when their IRL environment didn’t offer the same compassion. In this space people could bring up whatever topics they wanted related to sex, sexuality, the taboo, body positivity, gender identity, etc. and make dialogue with one another. Using the internet to help educate is something I think, to really live by, so my job as a moderator was to take nudes that people would submit (anonymously or not) and turn them into informative memes on whatever subject was requested. The group was deleted by Facebook a little after a year but you can still catch remnants of its activity archived through its very outdated tumblr lol.
meme created by member of TeachMeTeaseMe
Artist, curator and critic Kenya Johnson also did a write up about the project that divulges a bit more.
MAA: Your older work featured your physical body more prominently, such as your piece selling soiled underwear, and digital media like photos and videos served as documentation of the work. This differs from your recent video work, beginning with your meditation mourning Sandra Bland; the new work focuses on digital embodiment, specifically on devising means of reducing the stress that, most days, seems inevitable as a black person (especially a black femme, I imagine) browsing the internet. This reframes the physical body, to me. Do you agree? Was this shift intentional? Which trains of thought, if any, connect these two practices? On that note, I’d be interested to hear about your online cyberserenity store, which sells a number of digital, spiritual, and immaterial items. What led to a monetization of some of your aesthetic and meditative gestures?
EM: Absolutely, this was a survival/anti-erasure tactic. In my naivete I thot that making selfie based art work like many other of my peers would suffice in establishing myself as a respected artist because everyone at the time who was known for that work re: Molly Soda, Amalia Ulman, etc were white or white passing. I believed that being black was enough to separate what it was I was doing especially since creating virtual communities that made space not only for the visibility of people who look like me but others as well to explore these tropes, was such a huge part of my practice as well as the regular lives of most people I was acquainted with. I, and many in the group I’m sure, foresaw a renaissance where a dialogue that included people of all body types, races, and gender identities would take place, but instead the notoriety that came from this work just ended up labeling me as a cool, hot, token black person and I was reduced to a “thot” (which I wholeheartedly embrace), “classless May Waver” or my favorite “hoodrat with an iphone” who couldn’t keep a Facebook account.
After a very humbling stay in New Orleans, I became agitated by my own complacency when it came to allowing myself to be consumed by an audience that was honoring aspects of me that solely appealed to a white patriarchal heteronormative society and diluted my overall mission to notions rooted in those ideologies.
I had gotten very ill physically as well as mentally and had begun doing my own research into concepts like black consciousness, African spirituality, and holistic healing as I’m first generation Congolese American and was seeking insight into how my ancestors viewed illness, death, and wellbeing. This lead me to rework the foundation of not only my art but my way of life, causing the shift you and I’m sure others noticed—in fact, inspired by a conversation with Anais Duplan I ended up creating a document pairing a block of some of my Instagram posts with Keyiona Ritchey’s Black Identity Development essay and guidelines in order to better comprehend the thot processes that motivated this journey.
And the store is a sham, it’s never been used lol. Last year, wanting to find a way to support myself financially using the internet as a medium that wasn’t always through seekingarrangement, millionairematch, other sugar baby websites, findom sites or craigslist-- I opted for creating this store because someone mentioned an artist had been selling chunks of her Facebook account as work. But, much like in my pleasure-based professional work it was difficult to ask people to pay me fairly or value something they felt entitled to. So yeah I never use that site and will probably delete it soon. I really don’t believe in making a profit in that way. Traditionally, indigenous healers treat their patients free of charge so all of my exercise and meditation videos are public/can be accessed on my most recently updated site here, and I don’t actually charge members to participate in any of the groups mentioned above. So yeh, cyberserenity the store is a giant troll page and you’ve been rickrolled lol.
Elizabeth Mputu, screenshot from cyberserenity store. How 2 Dispose of Undesired Net-Energy: Package of 5, $13.00, 2015
MAA: I love being rickrolled. What role do your ancestors play in your work, aesthetic, and/or life? How does this inform the way you relate to your peers?
EM: My ancestors are the fire that cause my blood to boil when facing anything from casual microaggressions to blatant hijacking of my people’s culture. The first time they spoke to me I was living in NOLA with my then-girlfriend in a trailer behind the house of the self proclaimed “white voodoo priestess” who ran the healing center off St. Roch. One day I was outside and began to hear African drums, feet stomping, and people singing. While this normally triggers me to get up and twerk something, for some reason this particular show of it made me really angry, and if you know me that’s very counter to my laid back nature. I paid attention to where this emotion surfaced and allowed it to physically lead me to the space where the ceremony was taking place. I walked past a fence of stereotypical voodoo imagery (I’m refraining from referring to what they were practicing as “vodou” because as far as I’m concerned what they were doing spoke to powers outside of that) and landed in front of a home with the door open. Inside were a bunch of people dancing and worshiping but none were black/African and this really challenged me. It was not so much about white people connecting with this branch of spirituality, but the fact that the person who was the gatekeeper for this experience also had the audacity to hang demonizing paintings of black children shooting guns in a space that was meant to be safe for the community, despite said community’s inability to afford the services offered in the healing center, and despite the center’s exploitation of black faces in order to disguise the fact that it was in actuality ran by a white woman who heralded herself as the modern day Madame Marie Laveau (*side eye emoji*).
I think I’ve faced some backlash for making my spirituality so apparent, like being labeled as hoetep or a “black racist.” But, I think if you really pay attention to the sort of dismantling that I and others of the POC Excellence Digital Resurgence movement are trying to get accomplished here then that aspect of the work comes off more nuanced and natural. I’m also not worried about people’s inability to resonate with the work. It reaches who it is meant to reach and we’re all welcome to do as we please on the world wide web. So long as I honor the legacies of nganga marindas (shamans) before me, like Vita Kimpa-- I’m content with my content.
MAA: You were one of few women of color (the only black femme, in the NY version) to participate in Kate Durbin’s Hello Selfie performance. What was that experience like?
EM: Challenging and inspiring. I really admire Kate Durbin and everything she has done for me as a mentor. Ultimately, I believe that when it comes to being an artist who is also black you need to align yourself with people and work that can handle the type of dialogue that comes with that. I feel a lot more rewarded when I surround myself with people who can acknowledge racism, colorism, sexism, ableism, classism, etc. without fragility and while centering active reformation in their lives. I don’t think anyone belonging to a marginalized group who desires change should settle for anything less.
I’ve written a more detailed write-up on the experience in a survival guide doc meant for poc in creative fields to share tools and techniques for navigating their respective fields, however, another woc artist who participated, Jennifer Tamayo, had her write up on the experience published. I stand by her words and will share them with you in solidarity. //CLICK HERE 2 CHECK OUT JENNIFER TAMAYO’S WRITEUP DETAILING HER EXPERIENCE AS A BROWN PERSON PARTICIPATING IN THE HELLO, SELFIE PIECE//
With that said, although I was the only black person in Hello! Selfie NY. I was one of four at the Miami Art Basel execution of the piece, so I salute Kate for her efforts there and especially shoutout those sisters (Lindsi Arrington, Shanette Cox and Julissa Douglas) as they navigate their own terrains as well. We are not props and we are not working alone.
Elizabeth Mputu in Hello Selfie, 2015. Photo by Emily Raw
MAA: Do you consider social media an aspect of, or platform for, your practice? If so, how do you deal with the constant racist policing that goes on, which has resulted in e.g. many of your Facebook accounts being forcibly shut down, erasing work or documentation of work that might not exist anywhere else and forcing you to ‘start from scratch’ with a brand new account? As you say, “black bodies can just vanish without anyone really knowing for certain how to put the idea of them to rest,” and I was wondering if you wanted to expand on this regarding the digital.
EM: Social media is definitely a platform for my performance. People like Devin Kenny, you, and Winslow Laroche have really helped me to stay confident in that. I deal with constantly having my social media identities and works jailed, blocked, or banned by seeking the counsel and comforts of artists and dear friends like Sofia Moreno, Fannie Sosa, and Poussy Drama who deal with similar harassment, Mx Angel who meditates and casts spells of redemption onto the web with me, and Alfredo Salazar-Caro who helps me manifest new mediums and realities to get my work out.
There’s a phrase that was widely used in the Zapatistas movement of the early 90s in Mexico that goes, “they buried us but they didn’t know we were seeds.” That’s how I like to think about marginalized bodies in this digital landscape. “They erased us, but they didn’t know we were seeding.” Even if it’s not my work that awakens someone to stand for everything they are, there are others out there like me doing the same work and these messages will get passed down to our beloveds who will take it upon themselves to make their identities known and demand the means necessary to not just survive in this world but to thrive and to be great by their own definition.
Photo by Vanessa Andrade, artist and co-head of A Place Gallery in Orlando, FL, for Tabita Rezaire & co.’s forthcoming digital-based zine Malaxa, 2016
Age: 22, ancient bb
Location: orlando, online, the breeze
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
In highschool i did a lot of journaling, poetry writing and content curating on Tumblr like every other weirdo with a web connection lol. I was also rly into making lip sync videos on youtube, broadcasting on stickam, editing my myspace pics to make them more “scene”, and lookbook.nu
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I dropped out of DePaul University and spent a semester at SAIC studying performance art where I met my then mentor Maria Gaspar <3
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
Right now I’m freelancing as a Social Media Marketer (hit up my email if you’d like my services) and more recently blessed souls have been throwing some of that young mula my way for my artwork. In the past I’ve been a canvasser, a sugar baby, a dancer, a server, an erotic masseuse, retail, etc. but no matter the title or position however, we always end up compromising some aspect of ourselves for money, so to me I’ve only had one occupation and that’s of a hustler.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
I j cleaned my desktop so we all lucked out lol
Additional shoutouts 2 my fellow peers: Xena Ellison, La Porscha, Qutress Trevino, Nathalie Encarnacion, Adam Whyte, Tabita Rezaire, Mark Andreatta, A Alexandra Johnson, Brandon Drew Holmes, Paula Nacif, Jake Weeks (Mop Nog) of Hot Schmucks, Rain Love, Breeze Burds, Rafia Santana and Toi Scott of Queering Herbalism among others 4 making work that inspires and challenges the masses-- and of them who i am also blessed enuff to consider friends, a special shoutout 4 ur consistent presence in my life and 4 steady holding me down wen a bimpsch feelin some typa way. I acknowledge and honor you. Much love to the Mputu (Jon, Pat, Nelly & Tosh) /Mbu family as well! Aight that’s it !! Now I’m out! Black ppl do shoutouts!! I’m sorry (i aint sorry) !! Lol :P
Top image: los pirámides de Teotihuacán, 2016. Taken by: Alfredo-Salazar Caro