An Interview with Magi Amma by Lisa Leonard © by CRUZIO
Freedom has glass chains of fear wrapped about her feet.. oops, knowledge just appeared …tap-tap…watch out for those glass shards. Please hand me the dust pan; this is women’s work. Ignorance leaves such a mess to sweep up.
It was last October, during a pleasant weekend I spent touring Santa Cruz County’s artists’ studios. This annual event, called “Open Studios,” is sponsored by the Santa Cruz Arts Council. It’s a fantastic opportunity to see some of the best art and, better still, to meet the interesting people creating these treasures.
I was in pursuit of it. Of what? I had no idea. (Not an unusual condition for me.) As I strolled up the last driveway of the day’s tour, I thought the elusive “it” might have to wait…Wait! No. Slam my brain into the pavement. “It” was here.
Stopped dead in my tracks, my mouth gaping open, my mind slipping out over my tongue, my world frozen. The driveway poured forth the outline of Nicole Brown Simpson‘s demise, so neatly chalked out. As I read the statement about the issues of domestic violence against women, prepared by the artist, I tried to reach for some composure, thinking to myself, “Don’t step on the crime scene, please, the studio is to your left, guess she doesn’t do floral still life.”
Unfasten your seat belts. The tour has just begun….meet Magi.
Magi, it appears that your work primarily focuses on women’s issues. Is this true?
Yes. When I quit working in the computer industry in 1991, I came home and wrote a mission statement.
It sounds like you were doing that engineering-organizational, right brain thing.
I was. I’m probably a lot less linear now. But it made me think what my primary focus is. What did I really want to do? What was it all about? I just decided that if I could do anything that could help raise women’s consciousness, that I would. So I started making art based on this direction.
I began by collecting pictures and images and scanning them, from different eras, images, power images of women, archaeological images, all throughout history, from everywhere, Africa, Europe, Egypt, India. What ever I could get my hands on. I collaged and composited pictures of me and my kids. Then made images from those composited pictures. The actual piece that I did had three computer monitors, also integrated audio/visual. For example, the middle monitor would have a picture of me or the kids and the other two would have the same pictures collaged with the historical power images of women.
Then I took classic literary pieces, like from Shakespeare, and changed the “He’s” to “She’s”, so there was my recording of these famous statements from different times and places while the pictures where changing on the monitors. The name of the piece was “I am she”. A friend of mine, Allison Cadbury, wrote a piece to go with this called “She is not he”. It talks about how men own, through the use of the word “He” as the default pronoun in our language, both ownership of the word and the world. This allows young girls to be minimized. So this initial piece is the grandmother of all my other art. It was important to let people understand that it is not OK to use the word “He” in all incidents, especially when both women and men are involved.
Magi, you have worked for some of the Fortune 500 technology corporations. My own experiences, having been with SRI International’s Engineering Group for 18 years, a male dominated, educationally elite environment presented daily barriers for me to overcome just to attend to routine business affairs. The vying for power and control rather than cooperation and participation was most often out of control. So, from your experiences was there something that acted as a catalyst that prompted your departure from the computer science field, and that brought you to the point of writing your “Mission Statement”? Or was it independent of the corporate science experience?
It was interesting, because of what happened. I was working in a building at Sun Microsystems that was housed over a biochemical engineering company. A lot of us began to have ailments. I became sick, went to my doctor, and she said “Just get out”. So I just moved on.
While at Sun you were the Art Director for the Multimedia Product Group in charge of art development for hypermedia products. I would have thought that you would continue in this venue exclusively. Could you explain some of the transitions in direction your work took after leaving Sun?
When I got out of the industry, the first year I did computer art, far-out forefront stuff. What I found out is that I really missed working with my hands.
That mouse just isn’t quite the same, is it?
No, it isn’t. It’s like trying to draw with a two-by-four. You’re sitting there being bombarded by all these electrons and all the interesting nuances wear off very rapidly. I use my computer now for writing. My early computer pieces were less fulfilling for me compared to my other work. At the time it was fascinating to do all this stuff on the computer. Also, I was trying to find out what you can do uniquely with a computer.
For the first three years I focused on doing computer integrated kinds of pieces, computer/video types. The first big piece (of this kind) was for the San Jose Art League Gallery show called “Addressing Images”. The work is called “Art Dresser” and it integrated into seven dresses that several women had made. None of them had any computer experience, so I had to tell them how to hook-up their dresses to the network. So basically it was teaching them how to integrate the technology which was a lot of fun. It was very empowering for them, very empowering.
What happened was the gallery had me set up my piece “Art Dresser” in the back of the gallery. I had thought it should be placed at the front. But what happened is people would walk into the gallery and see my piece in the back, and there was no way to know that my piece had any connection to the other’s. So people would sit down and play with my piece which would grab a picture of their face. They could then run these different animation’s over the image of themselves. As if they were preparing their makeup, fixing their hair, putting on jewelry. What happened then was that this new image was connected directly into all the video monitors on the top of the heads of the dresses, so when they got up from the dresser and walked back through the gallery they would see their face on all of the pieces. People would just freak out. It was great! They would say “Oh my God!”! All the time it was a consistent reaction.
So as it turned out, it was appropriate to have the art dresser placed in the back of the gallery.
Yes, it was wonderful. Then I took this piece and did about seven different revs of the dresser; it has been in many different shows, in LA and several over the hill (in the S.F. Bay Area). The remaining shows featured the dresser only.
I was one of ten artists invited to show at an event called “Celebrating Women’s Resilience”, a poetry reading featuring Dr. Maya Angelou at Dinkelspiel Auditorium at Stanford University. I brought the art dresser. While I was standing there speaking with Mary Warshaw of the Women’s Caucus for Art, other women were looking at the Dresser and Warshaw said “What’s really interesting about this piece is that people stay there for more than two seconds because it has something to do with them. First they are drawn in by seeing their own faces in the video monitor which pleasantly surprises them. They can interact with it, which leads them to take the time to read what you have written about the issues of the beauty myth in our culture. They are grabbed by it on a very personal level.”
So this was a catalyst for me. What could I do that would really grab people. I want people to really stop and think about my work. I love art! Where ever I am I go to see the museums. I’ve been to just about all the great art museums in the world. I love good art. But I think my art goes a step beyond just art.
all rights reserved by the author and artist, part one