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.
The trip to Sri Lanka was a turning point in her artistic evolution. Maya gathered images from VHS tapes of Tamil rebel soldiers who had died. The videos were made for parents who wanted to know the fate of their missing children. It was also a way for the Tamils to share their side of the story, without any interference from the BBC and other media outlets. “If you wanted to hear the other story, you had to go find it,” Maya writes. She was aiming to bridge the gap. The art she made after that trip was a blueprint for the movement of her work in the years to come—it evolved from a documentary to film stills to photographs to stencils to prints to songs. She photographed and blew up the video stills of missing Tamils—some were “faces of girls her age, frozen in a moment of video, sometimes between life and death” and others had images of rockets, tanks, palm trees, and camouflage uniforms.
The images were the impetus for her first gallery exhibition, M.I.A., which was shown in 2001 at Euphoria, a clothing store on London’s Portobello Road where she worked at the time. They were pixellated and lacked perfect detail but were also intriguing and visualized violence in a pop, digestible fashion. The works sold out seconds after the preview, the show was nominated for an Alternative Turner Prize, Diesel released a pocket-sized book of the show in 2002 (also titled M.I.A.), and Jude Law famously bought multiple pieces. The work in the show transferred to the album artwork for her first LP, Arular, which came out in 2005 and featured militant electro-dancehall tracks with videos filled with spray-painted, stenciled agit-prop graphics. As Loveridge writes, “Her record deal from XL came easily and with so little fuss. She was fully formed from day one.”
The trip to Sri Lanka was a turning point in her artistic evolution. Maya gathered various forms of imaging from VHS tapes of Tamil rebel soldiers who had died. The videos were made for parents who wanted to know the fate of their missing children,
But back to the birthday party.
I stuck close to my friends, not wanting to expose the depth of my admiration. It became pretty obvious that M.I.A. was the coolest person in the Western hemisphere, with newly bleached blonde hair, a relaxed British accent, and a sharp smile. But she also seemed approachable. I went up to wish her a happy birthday, and she offered me a cigarette. I obliged, despite having never smoked before, and soon felt extremely lightheaded. To this day, I have never smoked another. I imagined she would be difficult to talk to, maybe argumentative or something, but she had a soft, welcoming demeanor and was OK with small talk. She said how nice her skin and nails were when she was pregnant, and I admitted to being a nervous, nail-biting college student. Her baby and fiancé weren’t around, but she seemed happy and at peace in the company of her friends.
In my limited experience, meeting someone who you admire (and have idealized into some sort of superhuman) is a deeply unfulfilling experience. At the time I was just a kid who spent my time aimlessly driving around Los Angeles, blogging, and going to shows. In fact, I only met her brother because he was hiring me to make a website. Neither he, nor his sister, knew that two years before, I had been an intern at Universal Music Group, who stumbled upon 30 posters of the Arular album cover and tiled them on my apartment wall like works of art. I had discovered “Galang” through an iTunes “free download of the week” in 2005 and instantly connected with it on a visual level.
At the time, I didn’t think about the violence she was talking about in songs like “Sunshowers” or “Fire, Fire,” but I loved what I imagined in pop lyrics juxtaposing “razor blades” and “purple haze." Swiping the posters at UMG felt like collecting art more than it did an album cover, but over time, and through the book, I’ve learned that her artwork and music are intrinsic to one another. Little did I know that the Arular print started in her bedroom as well, and as she writes in M.I.A., “Arular went from jungle to street to wall…It went from my bedroom to whoever was looking.”
Before Arular, M.I.A. did an unofficial release of a mixtape titled Piracy Funds Terrorism Volume 1, produced by Diplo, which mashed up her vocals with uncleared samples from Jay-Z, Salt-n-Pepa, Missy Elliott, Ciara, and LL Cool J. Since she couldn’t legally sell the record, 2000 were distributed hand to hand. It became a document of her influences, a precursor to Arular, and the foundation for the way her music would permeate and be reacted to, working in the same way her art did—from the street to whoever would listen. It was both a political statement against piracy and terrorism and a hip-hop influenced pop mixtape that spread like wildfire on the Internet. Songs like “Galang” and “Sunshowers” went from the mixtape to Arular to dancefloors and fashion runways. They went viral before people were really using the term “viral,” and suddenly lyrics like "It's a bomb yo/So run yo/Put away your stupid gun yo" were being celebrated and danced to.
On all her albums, from Arular to Kala, /\/\ /\ Y /\, and the VickiLeekx mixtape—a twist on Julian Assange’s subversive WikiLeaks project—Maya has been hands on with her album art, knowing that it’s an essential part of the total experience. I learned this while I was an intern at Interscope Records' creative department in the summer of 2010. We never planned or produced her photo shoots or art direction, we’d just receive the final product and the occasional invoice for people she would hire herself. It wasn’t unusual to have multiple photo shoots for other artists as we figured out what would work best for the album and single covers. It was unspoken but obvious why M.I.A. controlled the visual presentation of her music—she knew it was an integral part of her artistic statement.
M.I.A. the book reveals the ways Maya used her art and music to elevate one another. Over time, she had to factor in the role of technology in both the world and her practice, writing that Kala reflected digital changes in the third world, and /\/\ /\ Y /\ “was about the Internet itself becoming your medium.” The aesthetic of her later work, which was already spray-painted in Arular and pixellated in Kala, eventually became digitally corrupted and distorted, incorporating screenshots from applications like YouTube, iTunes, and iChat.
“Everything I did as an artist or everything everyone does an artist comes down to these two things: people or money," Maya writes in the Kala chapter. "And as 2006 turned into 2007 then 2008, this concept became bigger and bigger, finally crashing with the financial crash and ‘Paper Planes’ making radio.”
“Paper Planes,” also produced by Diplo, was the single that catapulted her into the mainstream beyond music. It became the title track of the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, and it was used in the trailer for stoner comedy Pineapple Express. For his 2008 Paper Trail album, T.I. sampled the line, “No one on the corner has swagga like us,” for a song named “Swagga Like Us,” produced by Kanye West and featuring ‘Ye, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne.
A very pregnant M.I.A. sang the hook live at the Grammy Awards on February 8, 2009— which also happened to be her baby’s due date. Five years after Piracy Funds Terrorism came out, and two years after releasing “Paper Planes,” there she was on worldwide television singing alongside four of the biggest names in music, who were all rocking to an anthem she originated about impossible swag. Jay-Z went from an uncleared sample on her first mixtape to a fellow artist, and the song went from being a story about refugee struggle to an unforgettable moment in hip-hop.
Days after her birthday party, a few of us met at the Shangri La in Santa Monica for drinks. She was going back to London the next day. The conversation went from Britney Spears and Kreayshawn to stories of her mother, a commissioned seamstress for the British Royal Family. But when Maya decided to speak, in her mellow yet matter-of-fact tone, everyone stopped talking, and no one would dream of interrupting her. Between her brother’s admiring gaze and the wide eyes of her friends, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one who was a little bit starstruck.
I didn’t see her again after those two days, so I didn’t really get the chance to find out if there is much of a distinction between M.I.A., the artist, and Mathangi Maya Arulpragasm, the person. What I do know is that I started to understand her as a total artist, and not just a musician. Reading this book only confirms that. Constructing M.I.A. from her early days in college to her trips to Sri Lanka and all around World Town has been an art form in itself.
When I went to Postmodernism class the next day, the coursework seemed pretty irrelevant compared to the real-life meeting I had the night before. No amount of Barthes or Foucault could match the stories about her mother sewing the blue sash for Prince William's wedding, or her plans to make videos in Africa. I realized I had already met the quintessential Postmodernist. The best of art exposes both the artist and the viewer, and there is no one doing it better than Maya.
All images © MIA by MIA, Rizzoli New York, 2012