Meet #bossbabesATX's Fall URL Resident Artist DJ Mahealani
The first mermaids were a strike of inspiration — the culmination of influences DJ Mahealani had waded through along her way in life including La Sirene, Voudou, musical artists and the pervasive water metaphors that entered her dreams while living in Maui.
The DJ started rendering her favorite musicians and artists as sirens in July and has now created more than 80 of the magical creatures she hopes will function as more diverse, more creatively inclined Disney princesses for young girls, like those she works with part time. Though mixing and layering music helps pay the bills, collage is a more personal form of expression for Mahealani who makes her art just because she “want[s] to look at it and feel something.”
Below, the artist discusses how the mermaids — the whole pod of them — came to be.
How do you know you’re an artist (besides the obvious)?
I was raised with a small town/old school country tradition of leatherwork (my dad) and sewing/ quilt making (my mom) — but out of necessity of saving money, not to make any money. If you wanted something [growing up], it was necessary to be creative and figure out how to make it yourself, but none of that was considered or called art in my house. Also, my older sister (by 9 years) was always really talented at drawing and my parents actually got her art supplies when they could, so she was called an artist in my family. I could never draw or paint like her, although I did try! Because of that I never called myself an artist until I was grown and out of my parents’ house, even though I stayed creative, sewing thrift store finds, making collages, making cassette mixes and jewelry — all kinds of things growing up. I was basically using what I had on hand to create my world because I didn’t feel like I fit into the world as it was in front of me. I never took art classes. I was an honors kid that dressed weird in middle and high school.
After college, my sister and I were super close. I moved in with her in Maui where she lives as a professional artist to help take care of her daughter, my niece. I was/am really into reading; Toni Morrison is one of my favorites and I really wanted my sister to read her because of parts of our family history. My sister shared with me that she never considered herself a book reader; she knew how to read just fine, but never really considered herself “smart.” That blew me away because I always thought of her as smart. And, at the same time, I shared with her that I never considered myself an artist. That blew her away. So that day, we gave ourselves permission to be both. That’s when I started thinking of myself as and calling myself an artist. (And she fell in love with Toni Morrison too.)
When did mermaids become a part of your imagery? What was the impetus?
When I started [creating the mermaid collages] this summer, I had no idea I’d make 100 of them in a span of a couple of months. The first one I made, I happened to come across that picture from the 1999 VMAs of Diana Ross and Lil' Kim (where Diana Ross is tapping Lil Kim’s boob) and it just hit me in some kind of way and I wanted to make it into digital art somehow for me to enjoy. In the picture, their legs were cut off behind the podium so I just decided to give them mermaid tails.
After I made that first one, every time an artist would float through my mind, I’d see them with a mermaid tail. Next thing you know, I made a Dolly Parton [mermaid], followed by Aaliyah and Selena [mermaids] and they just made me so happy to look at. After I'd made the first five or so, I was reflecting on the first two I'd made (Diana/Lil' Kim and Dolly) and it hit me that Diana was in black — a new moon elder — and Dolly was in silver and gold — a full moon elder. Both [were] older than Lil' Kim in the middle. Mahealani means the fullest blossoming of the moon and was given to me in a dream in Hawaii, so when moon ideas show up, I pay attention. So I got curious and realized I really appreciated the support between those two different aged women in that moment. And then I laughed because Lil' Kim has her boob out and Dolly — well, she is about those boobs! So there was this epiphany about women’s bodies and how women navigate their pride and womanness and all that without becoming prey. Both of those things were connecting to very personal things in my own life, so at this point these mermaids were getting deep for me. And I couldn’t stop making them — up to three or four a day sometimes.
I appreciated how each artist I chose dealt with their emotions differently in their art and music. And I reflected on how I wanted to appreciate that more within myself. I knew how so many times women are called overly sensitive, many times by men with their own anger and insecurity issues. I also knew I carried shame about feeling overly sensitive, but at the same time a good radar, antennae and many other things are very sensitive and that’s a good thing. So I needed to redefine that for myself. Seeing these mermaids I was creating was doing that for me. There was no shame or judgement from me when I’d feel the emotion of their art and they were helping me grow that for myself. It hit me that symbolically our mermaid tails are how and why we feel so much in the waters around us: a symbol of our sensitivity and also the muscle we need to swim through and navigate all of that emotion.
Why mermaids? What inspires you about that form?
Moving to Maui after college graduation deepened my mermaid connection in all kinds of ways beyond the obvious ocean. I found that my journal entries for those three years I lived there were all about feeling like I was underwater — metaphors about drowning/swimming/floating/sinking/ seeing things as if they were underwater all over the place. My collages at the time tended to have a fish in the sky somewhere or a mermaid, as if my whole world was the ocean itself. During and after college, I took Afro-Haitian dance, where I learned the ocean connection in Voudou and about La Sirene, a Lwa that lives under the sea and rules music. And somewhere between Maui and dancing in that class, this kind of mermaid metaphor was born that keeps swimming back around every few years with something for me to learn.
Why have you rendered musicians and artists in particular as mermaids? How do you choose who to feature?
I didn't set out with a specific idea of who I would make into mermaids. Frida Kahlo was my sixth [mermaid] I think, and soon after I made one of Octavia Butler and I wondered if I'd be compelled to make Toni Morrison, for example, but at this point I haven't [been]. All the rest have been people in music. And as I saw that, my deejay brain began making mind mixes of the musicians I chose and just kept thinking of women in music that have inspired me in some way over the years. So many — and so many total badasses I believe are overlooked and under appreciated compared to male counterparts many times.
Somewhere in all this, it hit me that I want to make a DJ divination deck out of them so that folks can consult the mermaids, pull from the deck and make a healing playlist. And then reflecting back on the Frida and Octavia mermaids, I suddenly saw them as representing quiet in the midst of all that sound — a break time for no music — which is really important to me too. Go look at art. Go read a book — that kind of silence helps the listening brain too in my opinion. So for right now, I am feeling they will be my only non-musicians. I was remembering La Sirene and the fact that I am a deejay and so making music mermaids felt like it was for her too — in her honor, being a ruler of music and all.
And I get to work and play with kids part time and so I see little brown girls of all shades with too many white princess backpacks and I was listening to mamas talk about how hard it is to find black and brown mermaids for their black and brown daughters and I began fantasizing about little girls seeing these mermaids instead. And how music helped me as a kid and how way before there was the Disney Little Mermaid, there was La Sirene and Yemoya and Oshun and Mami Wata and it all kind of began swirling together into this thing I dove into.
What does the collage medium give you that music/deejaying can’t and vice versa?
One of my favorite things is the alchemy of juxtaposition and collage and deejaying are both that. Whether it’s a mermaid tail on Bjork or a Grace Jones record mixed with Outkast wax, worlds are born and it’s fun to see what happens. That’s my jam! I think that’s why I figured out how to teach myself both.
So far the biggest difference for me is that compared to my visual art, with deejaying I have learned to hustle and pay bills from it. I see how the more I’ve been able to make money deejaying, the less room I may have to play as creatively and personally as I used to. I can’t get fully lost telling a story with my records on a Saturday night downtown when folks just want to dance. (To hear that find me at Mixcloud.com.) There are some songs I can get tired of playing, but when they make folks happy I just do it for the people anyways. Little choices like that are made all the time with my deejaying. I also have to have booking and money conversations that my sensitive artist heart has had to learn to distance from in a lot of ways.
My collage I only do because i want to look at it and feel something in particular. It’s way more personal and I don’t go out of my way to make money from it. It’s also super compulsive. It hits me, I honor it with the work of creation and it flows through. I very recently opened a Redbubble account so folks can buy some of my art on stickers and T-shirts online — but only after the suggestion of another artist after many folks kept telling me they wanted a poster or a shirt or whatever with my art. I don’t make much money from it, but I also don’t have to spend any money upfront either. It’s very manageable for me right now.
Will you give us five life recommendations?
Native plants and the birds, bees and butterflies that love them.
A frozen tank top or bra: Keep in a backpack to change into after riding a bike or loading in equipment in the summer.
Mistakes. I never learned to stand up surf until I wasn’t afraid to fall. I never got better at deejaying until I wasn’t scared of sounding bad. The smartest women I know make mistakes and learn from them.
You can catch DJ Mahealani at our Oct. 24 meet, spinning vinyl and slinging a few of her Siren prints. The 11x17 prints are available for $25 and all proceeds benefit Hurricane Harvey and Puerto Rico relief efforts.