Shel­ter af­ter the Storm: The Work of Tameka J. Nor­ris

The Iowa Review - - JOYCE TSAI - joyce tsai

With the ex­cep­tion of her Post-ka­t­rina Paint­ing se­ries, the prac­tice for which Tameka J. Nor­ris es­tab­lished her rep­u­ta­tion en­com­passes per­for­mance, film, and video, all of which chal­lenge the perime­ters of tra­di­tional me­dia. But it was with paint­ing that Nor­ris be­gan her prac­tice at UCLA and later at Yale, pur­sued in part be­cause the medium promised in­fra­struc­ture and re­sources lack­ing in other fields. Declar­ing her­self a painter gave her ac­cess to her own stu­dio, a room of her own. As a BFA student at UCLA be­tween 2007 and 2010, the paint­ing stu­dio served as lit­eral and metaphor­i­cal shel­ter; she watched her own fam­ily in Louisiana and Mis­sis­sippi grap­ple with Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina and its af­ter­math from afar. In the stu­dio, Nor­ris de­vel­oped her Post-ka­t­rina Paint­ings on bed­sheets (see Post-ka­t­rina 7), a sup­port adopted by artists like Max Beck­mann in the face of catas­tro­phe. She pro­jected pho­tographs of her fam­ily’s homes on the sur­face and fol­lowed the out­lines and planes with her brush, in­vest­ing the sur­face with the myr­iad mean­ings that the process un­locked. The hor­i­zon­tal, warm in­ti­macy of the bed, the sense of bod­ily con­tact is made up­right, the sense of con­ti­nu­ity bro­ken when ren­dered into Paint­ing with a cap­i­tal P. The dis­tance be­tween the events her fam­ily ex­pe­ri­enced and her own was made all the more pow­er­ful through the as­so­ci­a­tions and his­tory of the medium. The fol­low­ing se­lec­tion fo­cuses on Nor­ris’s en­gage­ment with Ka­t­rina, first as a student through Post-ka­t­rina Self-por­traits and more re­cently as a re­cip­i­ent of the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts Grant for Some­where is Here: Sumter County. In both, she sit­u­ates her body in land­scapes im­pacted by disas­ter but in de­cid­edly dif­fer­ent ways. Her early work fea­tures self-por­traits printed half her size on gator board and cut out, then sited in the rub­ble along the Mis­sis­sippi Gulf Coast. The ten­sion be­tween her glam­orous cutout pres­ence and the ruin of her sur­round­ings is jar­ring. Th­ese works un­der­score how re­mote the ex­pe­ri­ence of Ka­t­rina was for most, seen and felt at a dis­tance. Her body in th­ese im­ages mim­ics fash­ion pho­tos gen­er­ated as part of a shoot she com­mis­sioned. The ab­sur­dity of her clothes is cap­tured in A Por­trait about Iden­tity, where the dress it­self over­whelms the wearer.

Some­where is Here: Sumter County re­vis­its the scene and con­cept of the Post-ka­t­rina Self-por­traits but does so from the per­spec­tive of a vested par­tic­i­pant. This work was made fol­low­ing her own in­vest­ment in an­other flood-rav­aged area, this time as a home buyer in Welling­ton Heights, Cedar Rapids, still re­cov­er­ing from the dev­as­tat­ing floods of 2008. Some­where is Here took place over the course of a year, al­low­ing for in­ten­sive re­search and modes of ac­tivism, com­mu­nity build­ing, and jour­nal­ism as part of its en­ter­prise. Nor­ris staged a se­ries of per­for­mances, filmed and pre­sented here as stills. In th­ese works, she rit­u­al­izes the lit­eral ex­pen­di­ture of sweat eq­uity in or­der to in­ter­vene upon the land­scape of the Gulf Coast. In­stead of high fash­ion, Nor­ris trans­forms ma­te­ri­als that might oth­er­wise be seen as mere de­tri­tus or the util­i­tar­ian shield of the disas­ter worker into gar­ments that hold out the prom­ise of re­birth.

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