Art has always been a way for people to express the need for social justice. Maya Mercer uses her artistic abilities to help one group in particular–the teenagers wrought by class struggle in her rural neighborhood. Often left ignored, Mercer employs art to demonstrate their innocence tarnished by struggle, aiming to bring attention to this forgotten group.
Mercer is a Franco-American photocinema artist opening at David Lynch’s Silencio during Paris Photo on November 7th, with a show entitled “The Parochial Segments”. In Trump’s America, minority groups are suffering, and Mercer aims to give this group a voice using her artistic abilities and platform. Her distinct lens uses projections, pictures, song, and theatre to create a multifaceted experience.
HS: I read that you grew up in an artistic environment; how has that impacted you today?
MM: You mean the fact that I was raised with writers and actors? I can say that it has shaped my life, in terms of seeing all these people around me with all their ups and downs and problems and addictions and tortures. My dad was a British screenplay writer and he died pretty young, and I’ve been brought up around this older generation of people with these problems. It has impacted my life today, in that I’m trying to transform all of this into something positive, and I’m trying to help all the people I work with. When I work with these girls, I’m trying to share an experience, something I went through when I was a young kid, too. It’s almost cathartic. I’ve been through a lot of difficulties, myself, and I could have gone the other direction. You know artists can be very egocentric, too, so I’m trying to be the total opposite and be really compassionate and send an important social message. I don’t even believe in just photography anymore. I’m using photography, film, [and] writing together to create a strong message about what I’m seeing around me.
HS: What message is your work conveying about class struggle?
MM: It is difficult for me to see kids in the rural area I live in. They’re very poor people, and there are drug problems around here. Girls get pregnant very young. What really makes me sad is that it is hard to see how these people are forgotten. They’re outsiders, and I’m trying to show something [that’s] usually hidden. There are obvious things things that people talk about with class struggle, but this is more of a “grey-area”. People don’t want to hear about it; it’s not very “attractive”. You can talk about the obvious poverty in certain countries, but these people, these young teenagers, they really have no future. It’s like a cycle that never ends, and there is nothing built to bring them to a cultural awakening. They are almost like “punks” of their own rebellion. And I remain an artist. I’m not a therapist or a social worker or something that can really help. I will try with time to put together a non-profit organization for all these girls. I could try to raise funds, for example, if they are pregnant, or if one goes to jail. I wish I could do something practically. But for now, I’m almost vain in saying I could do something practically because I just can’t. I do everything I can as an artist, but I struggle myself all the time. For the moment, I’m not at the stage where I can practically help. I can just send a message with my art, and I can try with time to put down a foundation.
HS: Speaking of that, what else have you worked on/are working on, either with your art or in helping in this crisis?
MM: I have worked in the theatre as an actress, and at one point, I thought it was totally useless for me and had to go back to my first passion, which was photography and film. I’ve always worked around subjects of difficulty in youth. Because of my own past, I really relate, and I think young people are the future of this planet. It’s important to bring awareness to help them survive and not be victimized [by] everything adults are doing.
HS: I also read you have been living a minimalist lifestyle; how has that impacted your art?
MM: This has really pushed me to give me lots of positive range. When you’re not diverted by consummation, material life, and everything that happens in the city, it really helps to go down to the essentials. The one real thing is my mission to transmit what I have in me. It’s given me a lot of strength to work with these girls because I’m one of them, too, in a way. I can see myself in them; I’m part of them. The struggle of everyday life is almost a necessity. I have to gain what I need. It’s like a survival mode that keeps me awake all the time. In my art, I look at people outside of myself all the time.
HS: That definitely gives you a unique perspective that has shown through in your art.
MM: Yeah, for example, when I drive to town, I often go to Marysville, a poor town in Yuba county. I’m very interested in this town because in the Gold Rush it was the gate to the gold fields. Now, it’s almost like a ghost town; many people are sick or on meth. When I go there, I am aware of everything; I’m so sensitive to it. It’s almost like a three-dimensional sensation every time.
HS: In contrast, I know that this fall you are showing at the Silencio, a private club dedicated to creative communities and conceived by David Lynch. How does it feel to have reached this level of success?
MM: I’m really scared, but I feel like it’s an incredible opportunity! I met the artistic director, Coralie Gauthier, [and] she’s really amazing. She completely trusted me and made me feel very special and comfortable. She gave me this incredible opportunity and amazing platform. David Lynch designed the place, and you enter a whole world. It’s like entering Twin Peaks. There’s a stage and a cinema room. It’s much more interesting than a gallery for me. I can hang my photos, and I’m directing a performance because I wrote some ballads that reflect the stories girls from the trailer park. I have singers singing one of my ballads and an actor tell all the journalistic parts of what is happening. In the projection room, I will have a slideshow of the whole series projected with a recording of one of the girls saying a narrative I wrote, along with the photographs. I have a musician that works with me making atmospheric music and a soundtrack with the girls voices and pieces from the news with some of Trump’s voice. It’s going to be a very interesting mix for all the photos projected in the slideshow. I’m working really hard and putting all my soul in that show and I’m really grateful to have this opportunity. It’s an incredible place to be able to show. It’s such a diverse platform, and it’s really incredible to have image, sound, other artists perform the songs I wrote.
HS: What do you hope people take away most from this exhibition?
MM: I hope that it will bring the girls awareness. We all should be equal and have access to culture and social guidance, to have a roof over our heads, to have food. I just feel like there’s such a gap between social classes. The middle class is disappearing, and there’s only extreme poverty and wealth. It breaks my heart to see that. Young children go into drugs and wander in the streets because they don’t have a roof over their heads or proper food. These girls end up in really abusive situations; I see it so much. Every time I work with them, I talk to them, and I really wish they could defend themselves. It’s still a “man’s world” and girls are so vulnerable. Even though there’s a lot of awareness being brought recently, it’s still very intense.
HS: Transitioning from that, do you have any advice for women or female artists in particular?
MM: Actually, I am working with a female artist Fiona Sanjabi putting on an association, Fiona will also sing in the performance at the Silencio. We are a collective of women artists to support all female art from around the world.My advice is to never give up and to say what you have to say. The position of women in art is still difficult; it’s almost prehistoric, especially If you look at how male artists are thriving. You would think that the world has changed since the sexual revolution, we would have more of a voice. It’s still not really there. There are so many obstacles to be reached.
So many times, I’ve entered a gallery with my work and tried to talk to a man, and I kind of impose. I can already feel that noncredibility. It’s really painful. Women are the feelers, the artists, very spiritual. I think women are so important. And I don’t have any bitterness against men. I just wish in the social, cultural world we could have the same input as them. I also have to add that one of the subjects of my work is gender fluid, and I’ve been speaking out about that a lot recently.
My father was a writer and a strong activist in the 60’s. He was very engaged, so I feel like he has really transmitted through me the important point that art is about trying to pass a message. Otherwise, it’s just decoration. I feel similarly to him, that I have to use that rage. I call myself a photocinema artist because I’m trying to tell a story about something inspired by reality. I’m not a journalist or reporter, so I’m not going in with my camera to show poor people as they are. I’m trying to transcend something with them. I’m not a voyeur of their condition. I’m working with them, trying to transform something together. This is how we share our experiences, and together, we transcend.
Sophie Wilkes is a New York University student and contributor at Honeysuckle Magazine.