T. Eliott Mansa (b. 1977, Miami, FL) came of age in the era of Reaganomics, crack cocaine, and the sounds of Black nationalist hip-hop. He is an alumni of the New World School of the Arts High School and was a recipient of the Thalheimer Scholarship from the Maryland Institute College of Art, receiving his BFA from the University of Florida in 2000. His paintings have been exhibited at the African American Museum of the Arts, Deland FL, the David Castillo Gallery in Miami, and the Miami International Airport. Today we got the chance to talk to him about his art and the state of the Miami art scene.
What did you have for breakfast today?
Just a cup of tea with a heap of brown sugar, for functionality sake.
Dali or Picasso?
Given the choice between Picasso and Dali, I would have to pick Picasso because of all that he tended to discard. Dali’s rendering was very traditional, leaving you with his imagery, more than anything. But Picasso, carried this African imagery to the West, that they didn’t have any preparation for. He was so prolific in his lifeline, that he explored many styles within a very small visual confine. I tend to be conflicted, because of his great appropriation, but I would be happy spending my life looking at a new Picasso painting in person a day.
Favorite artist of all time?
That’s quite a tough one. I may have to say Romeare Bearden. When I see one his paintings in person, it’s almost a religious.
How did you get into art?
Well, my older brother drew. He would draw the insides of these space ships that are etched in my mind to this day. The doors looked like aperture shutters. My first drawings were inspired by those. By the time I was in kindergarten, I was drawing superheroes and villains and what not. They must have been pretty good, because as I got older, I found out that my kindergarten teacher kept my drawings in hopes that they would be “worth something” when I grew up.
Explain “The Blood of the Seven Martyrs”
That painting, started off as an experimentation with the collage work I started using in “Blood Sweat Milk Honey”. I included advertising for everything from beer ads, fast food, to Klan meetings and slave auctions. When I finished, it was all over the place. I painted into it it, and brought in other media. It came together, and it reminded me of a cross between the allegorical blood on the wall of the Passover story, and the burns of Miami’s riots of my youth. I named it in tribute to the seven brothers that have recently been shot down in the streets of Miami.
Should people charge to enter art exhibits. The same way you’re charged to go into the movies to see a director’s art, why not charge to see an exhibition?
You know, it’s possible. I have seen it done. The problem is we have enough of a problem getting people in the galleries as it is with the free liquor! I think that, if you create a high standard and atmosphere, people would be more than happy to spend money to attend an event. The elephant in the room is how you get “the people” to support their own local artists and art community, and bring it into their homes.
Why even cater to the people just coming for free liquor you know. I feel like we are almost telling people this is something just cool to come see. Making it free almost says we see no value in it ourselves.
Hmm, I hear that. Ideally we all hope that collectors will swarm these openings and buy every piece in the house. But it seems, that, until that day comes, dealers and curators poor money into this out of love and that hope. I may be biased, as an artists, but if there was an event with beautiful people, beautiful art, and great music, I would rather pay a cover charge there than a night club.
I think that, coming from the perspective of poor and working people, art is viewed as inaccessible. Growing up we were told that, artists only make money posthumously. Art is almost discouraged, compared to say, music. Music is thoroughly saturated in the lives of urban people, in my background, people of African descent. You don’t need to earn a living on music, to go to choir rehearsal. You don’t need to make a living from music to clean house on a Sunday morning with the radio blaring. Music is so present in our lives, that it is invisible. Art on the other hand, is seen as a niche thing. People that go to free art shows, kind of hoping to see something mind blowing, but too often, go home dejected and rather frustrated. There is definitely room for a venue, or a brand of events known for top notch work, that could be viable on a pay per entry basis. I, personally, would like to see us support local artists. Could you imagine if all the make it rain money, and bottle popping money, was funneled towards fine art? The hood would have world class art collections! So, what we really are talking about is a cultural shift, where the talents, the value and the humanity of the people are celebrated. If we can get to a point, where we put our own cultural well being in a higher priority financially, we could party with a purpose and support the art, rather than this kind of “let me spend this money on the weekend to feel better about being a wage slave during the week”
Do you think there is a reason behind the lack of art support here in South Florida compared to a L.A , NYC or San Fran.?
Miami is famous for non-support. Sports teams don’t get support, the arts don’t get support. I think that South Florida is blessed and cursed
by so many things to do, that people won’t trade South Beach for an art show. The weather is so good, where you have unlimited options all year round. The environment also, is a little more hedonistic than high brow. The great thing about the South Florida art scene is its potential energy. There is so much room for future development, that you have to see the cup as half full, because, historically, the art scene ‘cup’ in Miami has never been full.
What is creativity to you?
To me, creativity is the realization that, though you are the reflection of countless ancestors and unborn, you are a single reflection of a divine attribute that only you can show.
Okay. This is a little egotistical, but for the sake of putting it on record I will say it. I’m not sure how I will know whether I have succeeded, but I want to be a part of the ‘canon’. Of course, I want kids, a wife, a house and a dog, etc, but I have to be honest, I primarily want to leave a historical legacy. I am an avid reader and book lover, and as justification for spending more money on books than food, I say it’s research. Growing up in Miami in the 80’s, I have seen the crack epidemic first hand, in my own house. From my childhood to this very moment, I have been impacted and surrounded by those who have chosen pharmaceutical exploits, when faced with a post-industrial age that has no use for their kind. I watched all of this, while Nancy Reagan said “just say no”. As, a teenager I tried to make sense of this mélange I grew up in. As KRS-One told me “You Must Learn” and Public Enemy taught me to “Fight the Power”, I expressed the answers to my questions. The more I learned, the more I questioned. To this day, art is a place where I ask questions, more than provide answers.
My hope is that, when my career and life is over, my art will be a record of my questioning. I want to record the questions of my place in time and space in the same way Jacob Lawrence explored the “Great Migration”. The same way Romare Bearden expressed the lives of African-Americans in the greater part of the Twentieth Century. How Basquiat explored the mythos and fetishization of Black masculinity In American culture. This is the “goal” I want to accomplish. To leave a legacy of Socratic questioning of race, class and power dynamics in the era of globalism.