Feature: In Conversation: Karen Miranda Augustine

By Tiana Reid Friday, July 4th, 2014 Categories: Features, Updates

Karen Miranda’s Augustine’s stance is a resolute one. And her art reflects her answers here: sure, to-the-point, but most of all, expressive. Born in Toronto of Dominican and Kalinago Indian descent, Augustine’s interest in pop art, an image-bleeding style, makes sense only against her interest in other forms of expression: she was a poet; she was founding editor of the urgent publication, At the Crossroads: A Journal for Women Artists of African Descent; and former radio host of the show “BASS: Black Afrikan Sistuhs of Soul.” It was a long Saturday on the first day of summer when I went to the darkly lit gallery where Augustine’s latest solo show, a decade-long survey titled Outgraced, was on display at A Space Gallery in Toronto. The day itself deserved all of the words but couldn’t hold them; there was a bursting sensation that filled the space between the work. Curated by Rachel Gorman, the show of mixed-media paintings and video installation highlights a heroine-centered band of witchy women who don’t fit in, making it very relatable—even if we know, deep down, that it never could be us. 

Portrait of Karen Miranda Augustine at Outgraced. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo taken by Spy Dénommé-Welch

Portrait of Karen Miranda Augustine at Outgraced. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo taken by Spy Dénommé-Welch

Tiana Reid: The title of your show, Outgraced, is a neologism that can be taken in so many directions: being “out” in the World Pride sense, but also simply out and about; a state of disgrace; the slow and quiet power of grace; an outshining of someone or something; and, as the show’s text explains, an outlaw or outlaw status. What does a word like “outgraced” lend itself to for you and your work?

Karen Miranda Augustine: There were two main things that came to mind when the title was put forth to me for the exhibition. The first was anyone who is part of a subculture, who has experiences that may not be thought of as acceptable or as part of the norm and whose realities are contextualized in a way that is not dignified or respected. The second was more of a word play on life situations that may appear negative or traumatic, but to which one is able to see herself through, despite all obstacles.

In the context of my work, I’m always trying to resolve the bigger picture of how we perceive ourselves at times when we are deeply broken. And, strange as it may sound, I try to take the position of a deceased loved one — or whatever one considers a “Higher Power”— and revision what s/he may perceive of that person, of their situation, through a lens of unconditional love that cannot be fully understood if left solely to the domain of the material world. So in all of those ways I found the title fitting.

Karen Miranda Augustine. Eva Lux(2014) Mixed Mediafrom the series "Painted Love: Requiems for Salacious Sex Queens"

Karen Miranda Augustine. Eva Lux
(2014) Mixed Media
from the series “Painted Love: Requiems for Salacious Sex Queens”

 TR: I saw your MA thesis footnoted in some of the text for the gallery. [Augustine has an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies from York University.] It seems to me that a theoretical language emerges in and through your artwork, almost like winks to, say, the late José Esteban Muñoz. Can you tell me a little bit about the importance of public performance and a queer practice or strategy of disidentification? 

KMA: I don’t create from an academic place and abhor the culture of detachment and classism that it so often seems to breed. Whatever theoretical language one finds in the work is never a personal consideration, as I’m more concerned with viewers connecting to it in a way that they find meaningful.

When I did my MA it was a way to focus on my artwork, hopefully better articulate where my work was situated and to finally get a piece of paper from the university, as I was a repeat undergrad dropout. Muñoz was useful in that he succinctly expressed in one sentence what was taking me several months to explain to my advisors. But really his theory is a rework of Erving Goffman, and they both serve a purpose. Perhaps the most significant writer I came across was Kathleen Stewart who writes in a stream of consciousness prose style (which confused the hell out of the PhD students) and class-wise tries to be much more self-aware.

If my work gives a nod to anything, it’s to all the tangible things that influence my art practice: African cosmologies throughout the diaspora, Haitian and African ritual arts, hip hop, punk rock, pornography, sex, pop culture and my personal life.

To speak to the last part of your question, the issue of disidentification is not a strategic act for me, it’s just a theory that best describes my natural approach to things. I relate to shared experiences, so I’m more interested in interconnections with others and the ways in which “community” becomes a place where you find it, leaving you open and amorphous. That surpasses labels, which really mean nothing, just policing—and I like my freedom.

So I think the real questions are: Why is there such a push by some to compartmentalize others? Why is there such a push to put some people into a box? There is something inherently dehumanizing in speaking about people solely in terms of a physical attribute or a perceived difference to make a point. As an artist, why would someone rather talk about my skin colour, where my family is from, my sexuality or personality rather than the art that is displayed directly in front of them?

Karen Miranda Augustine. Selected works from the series "American Empress: Credit for the Empire's Troubled Royalty"(2009) Mixed Media

Karen Miranda Augustine. Selected works from the series “American Empress: Credit for the Empire’s Troubled Royalty”
(2009) Mixed Media

TR: How is this connected to you categorizing your work as “ritualistic pop art?”

KMA: I coined the phrase because of the strong spiritual references that form the foundation of my work, which include an obsessive interest in the ceremonial and funerary arts, mythology and near-death experiences. As someone who finds no joy in drawing, my Dadaist penchant for incorporating discarded items in a semi-assemblage style works for me. I am also a pop culture fiend and relentless death hag, so the term was one that felt most apt in contextualizing what I’ve been doing.

TR: The cultural spaces you draw from in your ‘American Empress: Credit for the Empire’s Troubled Royalty’ series are sort of hazy, places of love and desire but also something more dangerous. These are people and ideas of people that are on the edge or on the verge—of something. I don’t always know what. Along those lines, what do mainstream cultural symbols (Rihanna, Tonya Harding, Courtney Love, American Express, etc.) offer you as both a mode of identification and a tool of transformation?

KMA: I think whether one follows pop culture or not, it is something so ingrained in our day-to-day lives that we can’t escape it — advertising and billboards are everywhere. And with public figures, because so much information is out there, it’s very easy to feel a connection to them. It’s almost sensory.

With my American Empress series, I was looking at female public figures who have dealt with various forms of adversity and was thinking of the remarkable ways some have passed through the catastrophe of it all, as well as others who developed lingering struggles that have consumed their lives. And I felt empathy for that. It was a way to both humanize these women and their personal problems, which I felt were presented in a dehumanized way, and elevate their status to something that would celebrate their true nature. Since all of us have experienced times in our lives where we have lost ourselves, be it through trauma, grief or failure, this was my way of saying that it’s never really gone, that the essence and beauty of who we are always remains and with a little time we will return to it. We will get it back.

Karen Miranda Augustine. Pauline Chan Bo-Lin(2014) Mixed Mediafrom the series "Painted Love: Requiems for Salacious Sex Queens"

Karen Miranda Augustine. Pauline Chan Bo-Lin
(2014) Mixed Media
from the series “Painted Love: Requiems for Salacious Sex Queens”

TR: In what ways do you identify with the women you create as subjects? 

KMA: Ultimately, I tend to seek out women that I connect with on an experiential level. Because I always struggled with people expressing to me the ways I do not quite fit in due to class, culture or sexuality, what has become important to me is acknowledging the reflection I see of myself in these women and the stories they carry that resonate with me.

TR: Are there subjects that you revisit? 

KMA: I revisit sex industry workers a lot. They have very complicated lives, are quite strong, and many have really interesting perspectives on social issues that I definitely dig. I have followed the adult industry from quite a young age and have followed certain women who have been involved in it. So I have a very unconventional understanding and connection to it, and these women are endearing subjects for me.

Anyone that I choose to work on is chosen for very specific reasons, which are not always the reasons some pro- or anti-sex trade feminists think, and I’ve noticed that some porn heads get a sense of that right away. A former industry worker came to my opening and discussed a lot of her experiences with me. She said she could feel the dignity and love that I have for these women — that she felt like I was exposing their humanity — and it made me happy to know that stood out for her.

Otherwise, I have also done multiples on, or reworked to death, pieces on Wendy O. Williams, Tonya Harding and Amy Fisher for reasons based on class, sex and shared histories of depression and sexual assault.

Karen Miranda Augustine. The Three Erzulies / Ezilis yo Twa(2011) Pacquets Kongo and giclée printby Marie Ketty-Paul and Karen Miranda Augustine

Marie Ketty Paul and Karen Miranda Augustine. The Three Erzulies / Ezilis yo Twa
(2011) Pacquets Kongo and giclée print

TR: [Are there] subjects you’ve never dared to put into your work but crave to?

KMA: I hesitate around two sets of local news stories that I constantly collect details from: children who were murdered by their parents and young women who have committed suicide from bridge jumping. Perhaps it’s unfair to reference highly public figures so freely because they are just high-profile human beings, but there feels to be more of a boundary with the local stories that I’m not comfortable crossing.

TR: Regarding the Painted Love: Requiems for Salacious Sex Queens series, what’s the aesthetic difference between a sex queen and a sex worker? 

KMA: In the context of that working series, the women that I chose stand out from the rest for a wide variety of reasons. For example, ’70s/’80s Plasmatics frontwoman Wendy O. Williams was a very interesting shock rock performer who performed in various states of undress, which surprisingly were very nonsexual. As a friend put it, “she wore her nudity as a form of armour” — something I have yet to see replicated ever since. While someone like Pauline Chan Bo-Lin was quite prominent in China, but had such a heavy personal life that it just sits with you. So it’s a combination of their personalities, accomplishments, salaciousness, cult status and an empathetic connection to a part of them that remains an open wound.

But aesthetic differences as a whole? I would say there are none.

Karen Miranda Augustine. Still shot from the video skett?(2001) Silent Video

Karen Miranda Augustine. Still shot from the video skett?
(2001) Silent Video

TR: How do you imagine queendom to be conjured or represented? 

KMA: That sits with the individual subject and would have a lot to do with their personality, backstory and how I would perceive a deceased loved one visioning her. I tend to go with whatever lingers with me the most or what I find most intriguing that may not be highlighted.

TR: Many of these works have their own frames as part of the art, whether it’s acting as a traditional frame, a diamond crown of nails or a sort of unstable frame within the surface area of the work. Either way, I found that this drew a lot of attention to the work by framing it in terms of telling a story. What draws you to frames?

KMA: I normally don’t use frames of any kind in my work, but because this series is of small pieces it was the only element that I could pull in to both unite the series and to give it a sense of intimacy. I’m very specific with certain materials: sequins, nails and hair holding deeper significance and directly referencing Nkondi sculptures and Haitian drapo.

In Painted Love, it’s pretty much a dead giveaway whom I have the most fondness for if they have nails driven into the framing (Eva Lux and Wendy O. Williams) or nails forming a sectional border within the body of the piece (Lorena Escalera Xtravaganza). As Nkondi’s are protective, animistic works of ritual art, for me those women hold a special place in honour of deeper reverence.


Tiana Reid
Tiana Reid

Tiana Reid is ARC's Junior Arts Writer. Her work has appeared in or on Bitch, The Feminist Wire, Hyperallergic, Maisonneuve Magazine, The New Inquiry, The State, The Toast, VICE, and more. She is also a PhD student in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.