Written by Cedar Pasori (@cpasori)
When I first met M.I.A., it was at her birthday party in Los Angeles in the summer of 2011. By birthday party, I mean a gathering in the back room of a club that her younger brother arranged a few hours before. In attendance were his girlfriend, my two best friends, and six of M.I.A.’s friends, mostly filmmakers and creative types, including the director of her “Born Free” and “Bad Girls” videos, Romain Gavras. It was a school night, so I had to decide whether going to Paul and André’s in Hollywood would be worth the next day’s potential hangover in my Postmodernism class.
It was definitely worth it.
Though she is best known for her electro-dance songs, Mathangi Maya Arulpragasm is really the ultimate 21st century artist—arguably one of the first pop stars of the digital age. Her new book, M.I.A., published by Rizzoli, puts Maya in a new light by examining her roots as a fine artist. The book contains original drawings, collages, photographs, and digital artwork, with intermittent textual commentary, detailing the political and artistic evolution that led her to pursue music as a more publicly accessible, aggressive medium.
While the other film students dressed in black and dreamt of getting their art films shown in galleries, Maya was in skintight pink jeans and stilettos making work that was, 'always influenced by rap and hip-hop,'
M.I.A. has discussed her childhood repeatedly in interviews, having escaped the civil war and Tamil rebellion in Sri Lanka with her mother, sister, and brother. These experiences also inform her music and her videos, but they haven’t been fully put into context until the arrival of M.I.A., which is both a book about her art and about her artistic persona—arguably her greatest creation.
Since her first forays into fine art, which included filmmaking, screenwriting, photography, printmaking, and graphic design, Maya has challenged what it means to be a creative individual in a globalized society, where social media and file-sharing technology allow information to flow freely across national borders, defying governmental attempts to stop it. Her work across mediums uses storytelling, much of it personal, to talk about injustices that often go undocumented and unsolved around the world (or as she calls it, World Town).
M.I.A.'s work speaks for the many people whose lives and stories are “missing in action,” which is partly the source of her pseudonym, M.I.A. It’s also a pun on Acton, the West London neighborhood where she was living when she started making music in 2001. For a time she considered herself “Missing In Acton,” before finding her voice and vision.
The book’s foreword, written by her college friend, Steve Loveridge, details her dissatisfaction as a student at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. “Students at the art school were exploring apathy, dressing up in some pigeon outfit, or running around conceptualizing," she writes in the Introduction, and thus "missing the whole point of art representing society.”
Maya was never one to wear a "pigeon outfit." While the other film students dressed in black and dreamt of getting their art films shown in galleries, she was in skintight pink jeans and stilettos making work that was, according to Loveridge, “always influenced by rap and hip-hop, which set it apart from everyone else’s.” Her time in school showed her everything she didn’t aspire to be, and her frustration with uninspiring lectures made her eager to prove that she could do more with less.
Maya’s resourcefulness wasn’t just a means to get by in school, it allowed her to form the basis of her aesthetic—which included teaching herself Photoshop, stealing clothes, and befriending artists like Justine Frischmann, the lead singer of Elastica, who encouraged her creativity and introduced her to the West London scene of British indie musicians. She was also generous. Loveridge writes, “When I ran out of food, I asked her to steal me some. She came back with a bottle of Champagne and a tin of rice pudding.” After she graduated, she photographed and art directed album artwork for Elastica and wrote a screenplay called Gratis about youth offenders based on her brother’s time in jail—he was in a correctional institute for eighteen months while Maya was in college. She took the script to Los Angeles, to no avail, and waited outside Channel 4 in London until she could get the attention of a features director to read her script. "She waited outside the building for hours, trying to bump into someone who could get her in. She took Gratis to a features director, and he stole the whole idea and lifted scenes directly from it," Loveridge writes.
The combination of Elastica breaking up before she could finish her documentary with them and frustrations with her script left Maya momentarily disillusioned. “She turned away from what fashion and art was doing in West London and started to make completely different work about her childhood and Sri Lanka,” Loveridge writes. This turning point was painful but important; it made her reconnect with her roots after becoming immersed in the frivolous West London art scene. It made her isolate herself from the crooked London media, which she saw repeatedly privilege those less talented than her.
She had been telling the stories of others—Indians in London, Elastica, and her brother—and it was time for her to turn inward. After fleeing Sri Lanka as a child, she disconnected from her father’s Tamil rebel cause, but as an adult trying to figure out her artistic identity, it became imperative that she return to it. “I decided to go back to Sri Lanka for the first time in a long time,” she writes, “because up until that point, I was so in denial I didn’t want to deal with anything to do with that country.” Her creative vision became clearer once she started examining her refugee past—making art with guns, grenades, and bloodshed while realizing she could spark a bigger conversation by confronting violence musically.