We had the good fortune of connecting with Jemila MacEwan and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jemila, do you disagree with some advice that is more or less universally accepted?
“Survival of the fittest.”
It is my hope that we are moving out of the fiercely competitive modality that dominated the last three decades into an era of mutual-aid and courageous collaboration. The notion of survival of the fittest is a misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolutionary success that has stubbornly stuck in the collective entrepreneurial imagination for far too long. What I have learned from working closely with soil, fungi, plants and animals is that the endurance of life depends greatly on mutually beneficial exchanges of resources and habitat sharing. Contrast that with the stark image of nature as ruthlessly competitive – a dogma that has been used to justify a socially dysfunctional system of competition that has left us with vast inequalities which are often racist, sexist and ableist. Collaboration over competition is a mentality we need to adopt if we as creators are to counteract the violent oppression and exploitation of people and the natural world. To me, success is creating with an emphasis on sustainability and an investment in livable futures. This brings meaning and purpose not only to oneself but to a broader community of people whose success you are equally invested in.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’m an artist who works directly in and with living landscapes. My work confronts the emotional complexity of our present relationship to the planet – specifically within the context of climate change and anthropogenic extinction. We need better collective tools to assist us in emotionally processing the overwhelm of the present moment. Through art making – earthworks, sculpture, performance and film – I build mythology into the environmental crisis with which our planet is currently grappling.
I take a personal and empathic attitude to contending with our humanity. It is a soft-power approach rooted in kindness, compassion and patience. I often put myself through a repetitive action of labor or meditation as a way to work through the complexity of these feelings. For instance, in the work ‘Human Meteorite’ (2017) I spent thirty days digging an impact crater by hand to meditate on what it means to make a slow violent impact into the earth. My current project ‘Dead Gods’ reverses the process of extinction by resurrecting a pre-historic super-fungi by growing them from their contemporary descendents.
Many of my ideas are very simple and give space for thinking more deeply and sitting with the feelings as they arise. The works themselves offer a way to slow down, pay attention and provide catharsis to the state of emotional paralysis that occurs when we try to comprehend the immense scale of human impact all at once. The work itself has always been my guide and my teacher.
This might sound absurd but making art has taught me everything I know about making art. It takes a lot of courage to bring art into this world but it’s the one thing I trust to help us evolve to meet the challenges to come.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
When friends visit it is usually all about finding some place to talk for hours and hours. My apartment is an oasis for this purpose and has a rooftop from which we can watch chimney swifts fly around as the sun sets over the city. A few other places I love to meet are Governors’ Island for the lush grass and minimal crowds, and Washington Square Park which always feels like the beating heart of this city.
At some point when we get hungry, I’m lucky to have some places close to my house that I love: Bunna (Vegetarian Ethiopian) is delicious and I like eating with my hands, Mally’s (Mexican) make my favorite tacos because their tortillas are freshly pressed, and Semkeh (Lebanese) are always friendly and have bomb vegetarian options. If we are eating further afield, Birds of a Feather (Sichuan) and Tonchin (Ramen) are heavenly. For bars, I would take them to Mood Ring or to see a film at Syndicated.
Even though I’m an artist in NYC, there are not many museums/galleries that I regularly visit. That said, two spaces I love and always find nourishing are the Noguchi Museum and Moma PS1.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Oh geez so many…
The brilliantly supportive community of artists and arts organizations in New York, All the ambitious self-sacrificing people who have the courage to found art-residencies where I have been able to grow and make work. My family who exposed me to so much interesting art and culture as a kid, and gifted me with a love of conversation.