A Memoir: From Jail to Yale
Funding provided by:
Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Mary L. Nohl Fund
Milwaukee Arts Board.
Courtesy of the artist
TJ Norris fka Tameka Jenean Norris was born in Agana, Guam and received her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles before graduating with an MFA from Yale University School of Art in 2012. Norris has recently participated in numerous exhibitions and festivals including at Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC; Yerba Buena Museum, San Francisco, CA; Prospect.3 Biennial, New Orleans, LA; The Walker Museum, Minneapolis, MN; Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Houston, TX; and The Studio Museum, Harlem, NY, Rotterdam Film Festival, Rotterdam, Netherlands Mission Creek Festival, Iowa City, IA among many others. Norris has participated in residencies at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, the Fountainhead Residency, and The MacDowell Colony. She is the 2017 recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a tenure-track Assistant Professor at the University of Iowa.
Norris began her career in the Los Angeles hip-hop scene before migrating to the fine arts. She supplemented along the way with a broad array of odd jobs, from call-center customer service representative to sex worker. Her artwork is informed by her experience of how exploitation is built into these systems, particularly for women of color and queer communities. She often combines intensely personal experience with overtly performative personas to critique the ways that identities are appropriated and exploited by high and low culture alike.
A Memoir: From Jail to Yale, is a new iteration of Norris’ interdisciplinary and multimedia work, The Meka Jean Project, whose narrative interweaves personal tales of exploitation, mobility, and success with research on subjects of intellectual property rights, race, gender, and institutional critique. A Memoir focuses on the narrative and identity of Meka Jean, TJ Norris’ alter ego, whose strive for success, agency, and self-empowerment across cultural landscapes unveils the systems of exploitation built into the entertainment industry and academy alike. Narrated by Meka Jean an artist and aspiring rapper, Meka finds power in her ability to code-switch from the ivory tower to the strip club, from New Orleans to Los Angeles and Berlin; she creates her own world since she doesn’t quite fit elsewhere.
Meka delivers a candid retelling of her life experiences and how they relate more broadly to systems of exploitation, including the theft of footage from Meka Jean: How She Got Good, a short film that lost its place in the film festival circuit as a result. In 2014, a woman who was hired as an assistant for the project, made an unauthorized and derivative film from the original content shot for Meka Jean: How She Got Good. Through her memoir, Meka Jean ultimately owns her own story, joining other black female authors in the entertainment industry such as Tiffany Haddick, Karrine Steffans, and Issa Rae who have taken back the power to define their own identity through memoir.
In A Memoir: From Jail to Yale, Meka Jean draws on the black oral history tradition in order to re-take ownership of her story, dispensing with the gaze of the camera and pretenses of performance present in previous iterations of the project.
In A Memoir, Meka Jean capitalizes on the current #metoo and #timesup moment of reckoning in the entertainment industry to frame her own narrative of intellectual property theft and its analogies to her experiences of physical violation, abuse of power, and the historical precedent for the systemic intellectual property theft, disproportionately affecting women and people of color.
Now, I ask you, “What is your story? What needs reckoning in your narrative? How can we create platforms (private and public) to share our collective stories?"
Through film, collage, painting, song, performance and photography- I explore and express my experiences. I invite others in joining me to explore and share theirs as well.