Oppositional Responses: Jackie Milad’s Mixed-Media Narratives

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A hand-dyed, pink-tinted canvas pinned to the wall, ripped at its center like an aging bedsheet lying out on the lawn to dry, provides the ground for Jackie Milad’s recent painting “Gold Bars” (2020). Bright yellow fringe gives shade to a smattering of snake-like lines, evil eyes, emojis, text, and patterns that scatter and accumulate like dust across the work and peer out from under layers of overpainting and rosy thread. Offering a cluster of different processes of mark and labor, “Gold Bars” gathers a variety of multidisciplinary moves into one totality, like the practice of musical sampling mobilized for visual means.

This painting forms the basis of a new series of mixed-media works from Milad’s solo exhibition at Julio Fine Arts Gallery at Loyola University Maryland in February 2020, where bold, symphonic constellations of colors, symbols, and historical strategies—from collage and archival methods to handicrafts and graffiti—form a palimpsest of oppositional responses available to artists critical of the medium- and genre-specific silos that so often frame contemporary art.

Through a rich accumulation of visual, textual, and symbolic content, Milad invites us to struggle with the act of making meaning as well as our desire to know, understand, translate, and thus take ownership of her pieces and their many disparate elements.


Jackie Milad, It Means Desert, Desert at Julio Fine Arts Gallery, Loyola University Maryland

This is most evident in Milad’s use of shiny, sparkling materials and textures that refract light, not to grant illumination to the viewer as the history of these materials in the Western tradition are often prescribed to do, but to obfuscate and conceal complete access to the image and its meanings instead. By holding visual wholeness (and therefore comprehensive narrative) at bay, Milad’s works present a rejection of the various demands placed on artists and artworks to unfurl themselves as totally coherent and available to the observer-interpreter.

The works in the exhibition, titled It Means Desert, Desert—nodding to a joke between Milad and her father about the absurd repetition in the English translation of “Sahara Desert”—are piled thick with humorous quips, private references, and linguistic codes culled from various languages and visual cultures that thrust clarity and legibility back into the viewer’s face.

Not only are Milad’s techniques of assembling these visual barricades acts of authorial agency where she freely explores her own experiences as an Egyptian-Honduran first-generation American, her paintings point to the possibility of greater understanding to those initiated few who can crack the codes and reward those who find new narratives in them.


Jackie Milad, It Means Desert, Desert at Julio Fine Arts Gallery, Loyola University Maryland
Jackie Milad, Chaos Eyes Redux (detail), 2020, 72 x 72 inches

While Milad is deeply invested in holding meaning in suspension, this does not imply that her art is devoid of shared affinities or community—quite the opposite, in fact. There are many treasures to find and luxuriate upon in these works, which are often made from an archive of past drawings and paintings, an exciting act of transgressive self-appropriation resistant to the tradition of rendering prior works precious and forgotten.

A bounty of art historical references enrich surfaces already pregnant with meaning. While Betye Saar’s object-based dioramas, Cecilia Vicuña’s visual poems dedicated to Chilean ancestors, and Sanford Biggers’ coded freedom quilts come to mind as contemporaries to these mixed-media paintings, the implosion of iconographic systems in the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat resonates the most fiercely. Like Basquiat, Milad’s work displays a radical openness to her environment, her intuitive capacity to find and gather, and her refusal to see signs as detached, empty ciphers.

Just as Basquiat saw the tags and touchstones of Black diasporic history and life under advanced capitalism as a system of codes he could use to navigate the forces of art and commerce, so too does Milad mine the sequence of linguistic proprieties to tell the story of her own experiences. Glitching between English, Arabic, and Spanish words, symbols, slang, and hieroglyphs, Milad’s works give form to living, speaking, and laboring between languages, cultures, and memories that never fully cohere.


Jackie Milad, Sim Sim, 2020, mixed-media collage on hand-dyed canvas, 68 x 68 inches
Jackie Milad, Putting My Finger Here, 2019, mixed-media collage
(detail) Three Warriors, 2017, Acrylic, flash, marker, and collage on paper

In “Catracha Deux” (2020), layers of geometric forms, bodily fragments, and stamped or stenciled decorative patterns turn the image’s surface into an archaeological site where layers of private and vernacular allusions pile up like memories and histories. Akin to Basquiat’s own sense of personal and familial displacement, Milad shores up the power of living between distinct worlds within her thickly layered, fragmented canvases in order to build an alternative, hybrid world outside the restrictions and assimilations that American culture so often requires.

Perhaps a better way to unpack Milad’s cryptic and deeply personal archive of gathered fragments is to be reminded that the incorporation of symbols is not always an invitation for viewers to decode, but rather to exist in a more uncomfortable state of suspended misunderstanding. While Milad offers clues, she also resists exposing an exact translation, choosing to keep the full interpretation to herself. Holding onto a painting’s secrets for a select few is not a recapitulation of the elitist inaccessibility that runs rampant in the artworld, however. It can instead be a form of refusal to institutional conditions that demand total disclosure from artists who are relegated to the margins of society and culture.

(L-R: )Jackie Milad, Sim Sim, 2020, mixed-media collage on hand-dyed canvas, 68 x 68 inches and Nada Que Decir, 2020, mixed-media collage on hand-dyed canvas, 58 x 68 inches

In a discourse dependent on looking and perceiving to create value and meaning, Milad’s mixed-media process refuses to reveal itself completely, catalyzing a new ecology of relationships between the artist, the viewer, and the piece itself.

By denying the traditional order for artists (women artists and artists of color in particular) to essentially “undress” and perform for the expectations shaped by predominantly white viewers and institutions, Milad’s art instead asks the audience to sit with their lack of knowledge, make space for their incomplete understanding, and resist the temptation to wholly identify with the work and/or artist when it is inappropriate for them to do so. In this way, the onus of learning is relocated to those who stand in front of Milad’s artworks and the institutions that present them, suggesting it is time for marginalized artists to do less, and institutions and viewers to do more.

Jackie Milad, Chaos Eyes Redux, 2020, 72 x 72 inches




Images from It Means Desert, Desert, solo exhibition by Jackie Milad, February 13 – March 10, 2020, Julio Fine Arts Gallery, Loyola University Maryland. Photography by Vivian Doering

Header image: Jackie Milad, Nope, No Way, 2019, mixed-media collage on paper

This story is from Issue 10: Power,

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