M.I.A. on Paper: A Q&A With the Pop Star About Her New Art Book for Rizzoli

Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam
(Courtesy Universal Music Group)

Most know M.I.A. (Mathangi Maya Arulpragasam) as a vibrant and outspoken pop artist who has infused international club hits with messages of political awareness, all the while helping to define the style of the ‘00s with eclectically blended musical genres and glittery neon fashions. Now, she's taking a turn in the spotlight as a visual artist: her instantly recognizable patterned-and-pixelated album art, collages, and photographs will be the subject of a monograph to be published by Rizzoli on October 23rd. The book focuses on her road from visual art student — she studied film at London’s Central Saint Martin’s — to international music star, charting the evolution of her aesthetic chronologically with each album to date, and showing how her visual art is inextricably linked to her music.

One image — a single elegant film still of a Tamil woman’s face, mid-conversation, spray painted on cardboard, and off-set by a tiger mid-stride atop a coat of radiant red paint — stands out as representing how visual art has shaped M.I.A.'s musical identity. Arulpragasam describes the history of the image in the first section of the Rizzoli book, saying, “The birth of M.I.A. as a concept stems from these stencil paintings. The single frame is part of a series that made a 3-minute video, which was accompanied by an interview with Nisa [the woman in the film still], during which she tells the story of what made her become a Freedom Bird.” She adds, “I was obsessed with her because she was just so beautiful – at the time of the video she was alive – she was really pretty and really innocent. She was the first face of M.I.A. when I start in on the art thing.”

Subsequent chapters (one dedicated to each of M.I.A.'s albums) are filled with collages of digitally manipulated images and textual slogans that relate to songs, like “Born Free,” or images of war, from Africa to the artist’s native Sri Lanka. The work shifts from stencils and collage to frames from M.I.A.’s music videos, many of these containing designs and art by the artist herself. Her voice is present throughout, providing a narrative back-story in each chapter that relates her artwork with her development both as a performer and artist.

ARTINFO reached out to her to ask her about her artwork, transitioning from visual art to music, and how changing technology has shaped what she does.

What inspired you to put this book together?

Just making the new album and the artworks. The three albums that came before were important to the story. You live through things and experience things and make stuff, but by the time I got to this point I felt like everything added up to something but it was important to see what that was in a chronological order.

What motivated your transition from (visual) fine art to music making?

It wasn’t something that I consciously chose, and music sort of just seemed like something I was trying in the beginning. The message was the same, but I just tried a different medium. It just happened that music was the one that got the most attention. I guess it’s the easiest to access. I don’t know why it happened – it’s weird.

At the time I was doing film and sidestepping into art because I couldn’t get a film made – due to loads of legal restrictions. Then, the music thing happened, I think because there were a lot of musicians around, and they were like, “Go on, you look like you could make music.” And they sort of forced me in to it.

How has your visual art background affected your music? What comes first? Does artwork lead to music or does music inspire your artwork?

Everything feeds together. What it does is it creates a little bubble for you, so whenever you’re doing something it makes complete sense to you when you’re in that space. You can see it, and you can feel it, and you can hear it, and you can touch it. It happens simultaneously in different forms, so it makes what you’re trying to do (and what you’re going through at the time) more coherent and more consistent because you can manifest it in different mediums. If that happens naturally, and if that happens in a very easy way, then I know I’m doing the right thing, and if it doesn’t then I’m not.

It’s almost as if in order for you to find the most important molecule in a whole bunch of molecules you have to keep doing lots of different things, and look for the similarities when they happen. That’s what I do. I just repeat the same thing using different mediums. The one that repeats itself is the one that I go to, and the one that I’m supposed to be doing.

Do you have a different process and practice for making visual work than you do for making music?

With music you have to use equipment, get in the studio, and have an engineer to do it for you. When you get in the studio you have to be – especially if you’re a woman – really articulate in what you’re trying to express, and have that idea already fully formed.

When I do all the other stuff, I think it’s more direct. If I’m making something visual like a sketch, or if I find something that inspires me, then there is a direct input and output, but with music you have to communicate it to somebody else first. The things I can control are the feel of the music, the textures, and the lyrics. You can set up visually the thing that you’ve already been thinking about, or been inspired by.

It’s better for me to get to the music last now, but then again, I have done all of it at the same time. With this album, I started off doing the artwork. I went to India and I spent a month there making stuff. You make all of it. You make the clothes, the art – you make whatever you want to make. And then, I started writing more of the songs as things were happening to my real life.

This book has been affected by both the fact that I was moving around a lot and by the evolution of technology. As an artist I started when Mac put out their first laptop. That also changed the way I worked and the way I was able to carry my work around. You could go to any part of the world, and if you made a painting you didn’t have to carry it with you. You could just have that image in your computer and you could print it out and stick it on the wall – or stick it in the studio – so you were still around the thing and environment that you were building. I think all that sort of made everything gel together more.  

In your book you talk a lot about the Internet and how access to computers, information sharing, and software programs has changed your work. What are some of the current things going on the Web that inspire you? What are you following?

I don’t think that the Web inspires me as much now. I think that was definitely a phase. The book gets up to the point where the Internet actually became my subject and my art.

I don’t look to the web for inspiration anymore; I had an epiphany after my third album. I think times changed after that, the Internet doesn’t hold as much substance for me anymore as it did before. I feel like I would be going through the same process again if I were to reference the Internet now.

Where does your inspiration come from now?

Looking back to where I started, and to where I’ve gotten to on the last album, I think the general gist of it was about basically trying to do whatever it takes to communicate something really confusing to people, and to simplify something so that it could be easily understood. As an artist I’m heavily dependent on whatever forms there are for communicating the one, primary point.

I think that hasn’t changed. I’m still the same, and I’ve just evolved into an artist for whom all these means are necessary to me, because people have said to me so many times that I’m really difficult to understand. I think this is still an extension of that. There’s a process for simplifying and distilling the message, or the point for what you’re trying to say. I just feel more confident about it now.

Can you talk about the role of political awareness and activism in your visual work, and its affect on the evolution of your artwork/aesthetic choices?

I think art is just social commentary. For some people, you’re just mirroring or reciting what’s going on, and I’ve always stayed true to that idea. Whatever time and space you’re in, you just embody that and reflect that. If I weren’t doing that then I really wouldn’t be an artist.

And the activism part, sometimes it’s been seen as controversial. Sometimes it’s been seen as necessary. I feel like that depends on the environment and social conditions at the time, or the wave of what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. Those things change all the time. If you’re like a little boat on the ocean, the floor underneath changes all the time. So, one year I could be seen one way and 10 years from now I’m seen as something else and that depends on social consciousness, and the change that is naturally happening all the time.

I think my activism is something like that. It’s like, I’m just always going to stay true to whatever motivated me to do something in the first place, and when I started doing this it was already part of the fabric of who I am – which is where I come from – and I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way, so it’s just been a part of who I am.

I think that as an artist, it is very important to have social commentary in your work, because that’s kind of what you leave behind – a comment on the time you existed in. Whatever color it is, or whatever shape that is, is in the work. You have to take all of it: the ugliness, the truth, and the beauty. You just have to be open to all of that.

Who are your favorite artists, contemporary or otherwise? Is there any artist your work takes particular inspiration from?

I recognize the struggle or quest to find answers. Because I happen to be in the music industry, in the art world I can’t fully engage in the community without them looking at me like a musician. But, I think I connect to artists on a human level more than to musicians at this point. I’m happy to spend my life just trying to figure things out. I don’t know, maybe everyone’s like that – I don’t know if you have to be an artist to be like that.