Artist & Advocate: Jonathan “radbwa faroush” Mayers

Mayers is a Louisiana Creole artist, writer, and independent curator with an impressive list of accomplishments, including being recently named the 2021-2022 Baton Rouge Poet Laureate.

Q:  Please describe your work and the medium/media you use. Why do you make this type of art? 

A:  In my current practice, I paint vibrant representational landscapes to evoke feelings of familiarity, wonder, and adventure, then connect the real and the illusionistic by adorning my work with materials from those distinct locations. Each scene represented in my paintings is linked to either travel experiences, contemporary or historic environmental events, or my personal ancestry. Through Latannyèrizm, a style of colloquial visual art that weaves regional language and physical place, I attempt to champion narratives by addressing human-inflicted and natural consequences through personification in mythological beasts and spark heritage language (re)acquisition in Louisiana by writing trilingual texts in Kouri-Vini, the endangered Creole language of Louisiana, French, and English.  

I use natural materials found in Louisiana – sediment, clay, beeswax – plus acrylic paint, and more recently casein, in my visual artwork. I used to use oil paint, though they can become pretty toxic without proper ventilation, so I stuck with acrylics. Ancestors on both sides of my family were tied to the oil and gas industry in one way or another, so using acrylic paint is my attempt at creating something specific, sparing, and conscious with the precious materials we’ve been given. I still have some paint that’s 5-10 years old, so I try to use it sparingly. I try to be mindful about how and what I make, but sometimes I fail and that’s ok.  

Akòz mo linm nouzòt lenvironmen é rakonté. M’olé fé in bon mak dan nouzòt lakilchi, osit. Because I love our environment and storytelling. I want to make a positive mark on our culture as well. 

Q:  What is most striking or inspirational to you about the wetland landscape?   

A:  Lésens, ça ki pouyant o pouri o byin vivan, é sentimen dan maré-la. Swa dan lamèsh obòr kot o dan sipriyè miské, mo va janmé trapé asé yê lésens. The smell and feel of the wetlands. Whether in a salt marsh or in a musky cypress swamp, I’ll never get enough of their scent. I have a lot of fond memories of my time in the wetlands including going fishing with my dad down in the roseaux near Venice, limiting out on specks in Lac Méchant southwest of Dulac and Lac de Cade, holding up a line of sac-à-lait and brème at the landing on Fòs Rivyè (La Fausse Rivière/False River), jumping into La Belle Rivière from the community pier, and paddling through various locations in my pirogue.  

Q:  In what ways has the Louisiana wetland landscape changed in your lifetime? 

A:  As I mentioned earlier, I used to fish near Venice with my dad and we’d make runs to the Wagon Wheel, whose canals were sadly cut during oil and gas expeditions. This was before I was a senior in high school. Since then, I’ve seen that same Wagon Wheel wash out and become less dense – having taken a flight to survey the Mississippi River only a few years back with, Géraldine Laurendeau, a fellow artist-in-residence at a Studio in the Woods from Montréal. The Bayou Corne sinkhole, which was addressed very poorly – among other things – under Governor Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, also permanently changed the community and landscape of that area. Exacerbated by canal digging, oil well disrepair, and seas of concrete, traka-la (the tracas) brought by Hurricanes Katrina, Ida, and Laura plus other weather events have drastically changed our coastline and swamps as well.

Q: Why is it important to you to create art about Louisiana wetlands? 

A:  I believe our environment and cultures are to be cherished, our experiences appreciated; therefore I create art about and of Louisiana wetlands. In my visual artwork I use acrylic paint, repurposed frames, wood panels, sediment, clay, and adorn each painting with natural materials from our landscape. I view these works as illuminated charms, decorated sarcophagi. I encourage folks to appreciate the very real and physical locations depicted in theses illusions of spaces and encapsulation of real places that very well may no longer exist as we know it within our lifetime. These works exist under clear acrylic film – an attestation to one of perhaps a very few conscious uses of plastic materials that likely wouldn’t exist were it not for the destruction of our environment due to extraction and refinement. Concerning the titles of my work, I think it’s extremely important to continue using our heritages languages in all facets of life – from everyday conversation, to business, and yes, to art, so I make sure to use them. The more we lose our wetlands, the more we lose physical spaces where our languages and cultures exist. This is a global issue regarding land loss, not necessarily just a local or regional one.

Q:  In your opinion why is coastal restoration in Louisiana is important? For folks out of state, why is  Louisiana’s coastal restoration work important for the nation? 

A:  I believe coastal restoration in the state is important because our estuaries and environment are crucial to the survival of our communities, food ways, and natural regional resources. Louisiana is one of the most important and thriving creative hubs on the continent, perhaps in the world, whose communities year-in and year-out adapt themselves to changes which occur through weather patterns and manmade disasters. I’m not proud that many of our people are subject to some of the poorest education conditions or are living below the poverty line, nor of the folks who don’t believe in science, but I am proud there are still people here who fight the good fight through engineering, education, art and various forms of activism. We have a love for our state that I rarely see anywhere else.  

For the folks out of state – Louisiana has seen some of the worst hurricane devastation on this continent é li kontinnwé kaminm (and yet she continues). We’ve had leaders in the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries organize and fight for liberty, equal rights, civil rights, and social justice. We’ve inspired generations of artists, writers, and musicians. We’ve been full of engineering and innovative genius. Our seafood and natural resources fuel a great part of the economy. Yet, Louisiana is still used as though it’s the “plantation” of the U.S – an extraction colony as some have put it. What’s important about Louisiana’s coastal restoration is that much of what you love about Louisiana won’t exist in the same way without protecting and nurturing it. 

Q: How does your art challenge existing barriers and assumptions about our environmental crisis? 

A: It may not. I’d say my work presents those barriers – and also triumphs – as myths and legends. Contemporary folktales, really. Many of my paintings and their narratives are derived from subjects related to real people in our communities, experiences tangential to historic events, or imagined creatures inspired by the real physical flora and fauna that exist in our land-, swamp-, and waterscapes.

Q:  Where can people view your work (displayed in galleries or links to websites)? 

Artist Bio (Kouri-Vini):
Jonathan “radbwa faroush” Mayers éné dan réjyon aou Houma é Bayougoula té divizé yê latè par in istrouma ou in baton rouj. Li té élvé desi gran shènn blan pré larivyè Émmit, in plas ki wa dékouvèr é èksplorasyon. Kan li té piti, li té fé in konèksyon avèk sô lenvironnmen ap “soté dan lak pou trapé kawènn, kréyé strikchi en labou, bati pont en bwa, é ap imajiné li-minm konm in tatay pi krazé skayskrépe dan vil krébis.”

Mayers, in Kréyol Lalwizyàn ki lartis, ékrivin, é komisè-lèkspozisyon, gin in lalis komplismen imprèsyonan. Par ègzemp, li té nommé Poèt Loréya a Baton-Rouj 2021-2022

Vouzòt olé tendé plis apré Jonathan? Li va donné in diskour a Water in Poetry (17 novemb 2021, Sliman Theatre, 6PM) prézenté par Smithsonian Water/Ways & lèkspozisyon “I Remember…” a CWPPRA dan Bayou Teche Museum a Nouvèl Ibéri en Lalwizyàn. Programm-çila çé fondé par in sibvensyon a Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, divizyon léta pou National Endowment for the Humanities.

Artist Bio:
Jonathan “feral opossum” Mayers was born in the area where the Houma and Bayougoula once divided their tribal grounds by the istrouma, le batôn rouge (the red stick). He grew up under the white oaks close to the Amite River, a place that welcomed discovery and exploration. As a child, he formed a connection with his environment by “plunging into lakes to catch turtles, creating mud structures, building wooden bridges, and imagining himself as a monster to then smash skyscrapers in mudbug cities.”

Mayers is a Louisiana Creole artist, writer, and independent curator with an impressive list of accomplishments, including being recently named the 2021-2022 Baton Rouge Poet Laureate.

Want to hear more from Jonathan? He’s a featured speaker at the Water in Poetry event (11/17/21, Sliman Theatre, 6PM) hosted in partnership with Smithsonian Water/Ways & CWPPRA’s “I Remember…” Exhibit on display at the Bayou Teche Museum in New Iberia, LA. This program is funded under a grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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