I Realized I Could Only Do It By Steps: Interview with Michaela Bridgemohan

Vol. 1 Issue 02 Fall 2019

Interview held by Anj Fermor on 08 September 2019  on Treaty 7 Territory in Mohkintstis (Calgary)

Michaela Bridgemohan is a Canadian visual artist of Australian and Jamaican descent. She is currently located in Mohkinstsis, also known as Calgary, Alberta. Her work fluctuates between a collaboration of drawings, sewing, photography, and sculpture as she tries to capture the transformative interactions associated with female biracial identity. Using her own body as a spectral, she explores Caribbean folklore to interpret personal narratives of “otherness”, hegemonic ideologies linked to racial dichotomy and the stoic nature associated with womanhood.

"I was creating my own form of symbolism for what I wanted for myself, and to justify my existence. As a biracial person a lot of people subject you to their own view of who you are."

While researching your work, I spent a lot of time considering your documentation for Fresh and Clean (2018). It looks like the work has many different iterations, ranging from performance to sculpture and installation. I’m curious how that work came to be and how its evolution enabled it to be presented across so many mediums. 

That’s a good question. I’m interdisciplinary: my mind jumps everywhere. How Fresh and Clean came about was that I was accepted into the Feminist Art Conference (FAC), at Artscape Gibraltar Point on Muggs Island [known as the Island of Hiawatha and as Menecing in the Ojibwa language; it is a part of the Toronto Islands] in 2018. For the residency, what I proposed to them was an exploration of intersectionality, feminism, and biracial identity: “What is that? How do you exist? How do you present biracial identity within a physical form that represents duality but in a single essence?” I told them I wanted to explore that with ideas of transformation and metamorphosis. And so during my stay there I got to meet all these beautiful women from across the world — people from Australia, the U.S., Europe. It was amazing. And there were other biracial girls there. When talking together about making Fresh and Clean, I realized that I could only do it by steps.

"... my parents projected that [Western] normativity onto me so that I would be able to function normally. But I feel like it made me less functional and made me unsure about myself. And so, with Fresh and Clean I want take back an agency and make myself what I want to be."

Michaela Bridgemohan. Fresh and Clean, 2018. Photo courtesy of the artist.

It’s kind of self-deprecating but I feel like, as a biracial person, I’m considered a barbarian: I feel like a reduction. Because I’m this weird, mixed hybrid. I feel like I’ve been injected into this stream of Western normativity. And my parents projected that normativity onto me so that I would be able to function normally. But I feel like it made me less functional and made me unsure about myself. And so, with Fresh and Clean I want take back an agency and make myself what I want to be. 

For the first step, The Rebirth, I was creating my own form of symbolism for what I wanted for myself, and to justify my existence. As a biracial person a lot of people subject you to their own view of who you are. So I can go to a black person and say, “I’m half black, half white” and they’re like, “You’re not black.” Or if I got to a white person, they ask, “What are you?” I say that I’m half-black, half-white and they say, “I feel like you’re kind of white, but not really.” It’s a foreign feeling for them. So The Rebirth is me setting my own ground and saying, “This is who I am.” 

 

What kind of materials did you use? 

Michaela Bridgemohan. Fresh and Clean (The Rebirth), 2018. Photo courtesy of the artist.

1. Louise Bennet Coverley. "Back To Africa", 1982.

That was a performance. I used natural, found materials (which I always do in my practice) for the stage. I collected [those materials according to] what I was taught by my dad, and my own research about Jamaican folklore and the occult. Part of The Rebirth performance is using a mortar and pestle and grinding white powdered paint. The colour white is used in Jamaican culture as a form of dressing yourself. Specifically, relating to the Obeah practice which stems from a melding pot of different practices associated to the African Diaspora that originated from the transatlantic slave trade . For example, when you go to baptisms you dress in a white gown. So I wanted to use white paint. I was naked, because I wanted to be myself. And I did a long but rushed dressing of myself in the paint to say, “I am cleansing myself, I am becoming new.” And during the dressing I played an audio piece that was spoken by my dad in Patois. 

Which is weird for me as well, to have my dad in the performance. A lot of the girls I met at the FAC were biracial, and a lot of their father’s were black, their mothers are white. So we would talk about how we feel like we’re black women, but we have this father figure that we have to refer to all the time to justify our blackness. And that pisses us off. 

 

That the connection is through a patriarchal link. 

 

Exactly. And because there’s a seeped racism and patriarchal idea that black men only want to date white women. So it’s a conflicted falling back for us. But I love my father. And I’m going through a path where I want to forgive him, and I want to embrace him. And he is in a path as well where he wants to find commonality and mutual respect for each other. 

But that lineage is why I chose him to read a poem that was written by Louise Bennett-Coverley titled, “Back to Africa”1. She was a good friend of my grandma and dad. She lived in Toronto with them for a bit and then she moved back to Jamaica. She passed away in the early 2000’s. She wrote a poem about Black identity in Jamaica. Jamaica is heavily interracial — during the slave trade they brought over Black people, East Indians, Chinese people. It was mixed. The poem is about displacement, removal of land, re-finding your identity. My dad is reading it as I’m performing a ritual.

Michaela Bridgemohan. Fresh and Clean (The Rebirth), 2018. As performed at Dicken's Pub. Falanafoto. 

The second part of Fresh and Clean was The Ovulator. I identify myself with animal species, especially Jamaican mongooses. They’re vicious, they’re amazing [laughs]. They’re a sign of independence and a never-ending force because they ruin eco-systems; they eat anything. They decimated the Jamaican ecosystem. They decimated Europe because Europeans would take them back to deal with snakes because they eat snakes. But when the snakes ran out, then they went for lizards, the insects. 

Europeans brought over Indian Mongooses and African Mongooses and they interbred them to make Jamaican Mongooses. They’re this weird looking, feral thing — there’s something about them. I keep referring it back to this tale about female vampires in Jamaican folklore. She’s transformative: she can be out in the daylight and night. And mongooses, when they kill their prey, they bite the groin and drain the animal of their blood first. And after draining their blood, then they’ll eat them. 

 

So the vampiric, that’s the The Menstrual Monster phase of the performance. The third phase. 

 

What did that one look like? 

Michaela Bridgemohan. Fresh and Clean (The Menstural Monster), installation view at FAC studios, 2018. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

"Story is such an important aspect of human growing, we tell stories to children all the time. But I feel like I really lacked that when I was young because I wasn’t raised conventionally."

It was a lot of costume making. I was making headpieces from natural material I was finding on the island, while at FAC. I draped one with iridescent cloth. I created both video and photographic imagery of the costumes but I wasn’t happy with the shoot so I melded those images together and it became this ghostly overlapping apparition. So it was performance, but sculpture and images. 

 

But the documentation for the performances when I did them again in Calgary for REVERSED RACISM: Black Out, on the stage at Dicken’s Pub in February. Not a lot of the people in the Black arts community in Calgary are studio artists like me — a lot of them are musicians, burlesque performers, spoken word, and drag. So I’m asked to be a part of these shows and I want to be participating more in the Black arts community. So I was like, “I wonder if I just use my Fresh and Clean performances and see what happens.” That was an interesting response from an audience [laughs]. A lot of people were like, “What’s happening?” because they were just normal people dancing to music being played at a bar and then I went out on stage. And they see this girl painting white on her face while naked and this recording of an old Jamaican man playing over the bar [laughs]. I would still do that kind of space again, but I’d rather do it somewhere like a gallery space. 

 

In descriptions for Fresh and Clean, you say, “the work creates a new form of folklore”. How does referring to a folklore help you navigate a contemporary identity or practice? 

 

I think it helps ground me. And, most importantly, it helps me to create my own myth-making. Story is such an important aspect of human growing, we tell stories to children all the time. But I feel like I really lacked that when I was young because I wasn’t raised conventionally. I was prevented education in private or public schools from when I was young. I didn’t know how to read until I was in grade four and I had to do it all myself. And today I still struggle with that in my writing and reading so I find storytelling an easier way for me to express what I’m feeling. 

 

That’s interesting. I was just in a residency with Calgary Allied Arts Foundation at cSPACE King Edward, and the portrait series that I was working on there has a theme similar to the term that you used — “personal myth-making”. Because I was the only queer person in my family growing up, I didn’t really have a sense of lineage. I didn’t see myself reflected in my family. So for the series I started making portraits where I use my own form for the figure, but the figures are also dressed as different queer archetypes that I looked up to when coming out (the pulp fiction lesbian, the leather daddy, the sailor) …

 

That’s so interesting, that makes a lot of sense. I realize how privileged I am because many of the women in my family are queer. 

 

Lucky! 

 

[laughs] I couldn’t imagine being the single queer person in the family. It must be alienating. 

 

I guess it just means that I learned about my community and queer family history through books and movies instead. But your idea of personal myth making makes sense to me. Do you have other works that you’ve made using the theme of folklore or personal myth-making? 

 

My little duppies. 

"Jamaican folklore is intertextual: it shows the traumatic, colonial landscape. It describes what was happening at the time it originated."

Michaela Bridgemohan. Cotton Tree: An Anomoly of Embedded Spirits, 2018. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I saw them on your website, I love them so much. 

 

I wanna make so many! They’re biodegradable. So people have had a hard time installing them for me. Because they were melting; epoxy resin is a biodegradable resin. 

 

And it starts melting at skin-temperature? 

 

Yeah [laughs]. So the duppies come from a Jamaican folklore tale. Jamaican folklore is intertextual: it shows the traumatic, colonial landscape. It describes what was happening at the time it originated. There’s a story about how you should never drink or get drunk near a large silk cotton tree because if you get drunk and you pass out, a ghost — a duppy — will find you. The reason that it is specifically this type of tree is because it was on those large tree’s branches that they use to lynch slaves. And the word, “duppy” isn’t something good to say now within Jamaican culture. It’s bad luck. But I blame Catholic missionaries for that. Because it used to be an open word, a term that evolved from African people. 

 

I was fascinated by the duppy and the story around it, so I wanted to make them somehow. I wondered how I could make a form that’s visceral, but not human. So I made the sculptures using epoxy resin and natural material that I would find when I went out hiking: bone, wood, cotton, seeds, prickly pear cacti. I want to make more of them but biodegradable epoxy resin is expensive. 

Michaela Bridgemohan. Cotton Tree: An Anomoly of Embedded Spirits, 2018. Photo courtesy of the artist.

It is, sadly. Another question that I had for you is in regards to how your work is about biracial identity and you often locate that conversation within the specific context of Alberta. Whenever a conversation about a marginalized identity is localized to a place, I appreciate it. Within my own art and writing I understand it as a way to be accountable. 

 

Yeah, definitely. 

 

Accountable to sincerity of voice, but also to the political, geographical, and social contexts that it was made in. So I’m wondering if there’s a reason that, when writing about and choosing the materials for work, you’ve cited Alberta. 

 

I do that because accountability and ownership is important me, especially in my work. When I was going to Australia for a school exchange during my bachelor program, or when I was going to Toronto for FAC — even though there was people who had experiences similar to me, I had to remind myself (and they reminded me) that the traumatic experiences that I had were because of the socio-economic environment of Alberta. It was leaving this province that made me realize how different Alberta is compared to British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario. It reminds me to put myself in the context of my place. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity, with Brdigemohan's consent. 

Anj Fermor is a writer and artist living in Calgary, on Treaty 7 Territory. They are the founding publisher and editor of Studio and have provided artwork and writing for organizations through out Calgary. In 2018 they participated in the New York University Summer Studio Residency, was a finalist for the 20th Annual RBC Painting Competition, and received the M:ST and Luma Quarterly Critical Writing Prize. This past summer they were a resident with Calgary Allied Arts Foundation at cSPACE King Edward, and attended the Momus Emerging Critics Residency in Montreal. 

Click here to see Fermor's other writings for Studio. And click here to visit Fermor's personal website. 

Click here to visit Bridgemohan's website and here to visit her instagram.