June 28, 2023

Iowa City-based artist and professor Meka Jean, hereby known as her alter-ego T.J. Dedeaux-Norris (they/them), indulges in limitless methods and materials to dissolve the imagined separations delineating identity-based dichotomies in our society. Through rap music, filmed or live performances, textile work, and curated assemblages and installations, Dedeaux-Norris peels back the layers of inherited genetic information that codifies prescribed structures of race, class, gender, and occupation. Their practice chips away at these hardened ideas and their histories, revealing an intrinsic fluidity that serves as the key to both personal and broader liberation.

Hyperallergic: What is the current focus of your artistic practice?

T.J. Dedeaux-Norris: My embodied practice extends beyond the studio where I develop performances, edit videos, sew textiles, assemble installations, and paint into a life-wide investigation of the interformativity of individual and collective identities and how that manifests in the body and its labor over time. I experiment with physical, mental, and spiritual modalities, from boxing to chiropractics to cognitive behavioral therapy, to test their conceptual and technical impacts on my work. Here, healing becomes its own media, both visceral and tangible, as I seek to reconcile the seemingly oppositional past and present — rapper and contemporary artist, sex worker and university professor, runaway and mother’s caretaker — to highlight the necessarily generative nature of difference. 

T.J. Dedeaux-Norris, “Coffin” (2020), “Untitled (self-portrait)” (2012–2021), and “Fabric of our Lives #3” (2017–present) on display for Part I of the artist’s 2021 Second Line exhibition at the University Galleries of Illinois State University

H: In what ways — if any — does your gender identity play a role in your experience as an artist?

TJDN: I am intrigued by and committed to a practice of working my inheritance, to the agency of “picking up and putting down” (to reference the Black vernacular tradition) what is given to me —from previous familial generations, but also from earlier performances of Self, from competing art histories, and from the intersecting imaginaries that impose corporeal limitations on those of my racial, gender, and class backgrounds. My inheritance includes not only the epigenetics shaped by my biological ancestors’ lived experiences — a scientific reality that fascinates me — but a broader spectrum of presumed violability and active resistance to it. I take the time to assess these inheritances and transmute them into work that defies boundaries. My work challenges the presumption of people of color and female-bodied and working-class people’s passive receptivity and subverts the economy of time. I have and take all of the time I need. In accordance with the Black Feminist tradition, the only thing I cannot afford is dichotomy.

H: Which artists inspire your work today? What are your other sources of inspiration?

TJDN: I want to live a long and peaceful life, where my nervous system is calm, and I wake and fall asleep with ease. That’s my inspiration each day. My daily practice of choosing my meals, my thoughts, my labor, and my rest are all inspired by my ancestors’ whisperers. 

The artist in Katrina (2005–present)

H: What are your hopes for the LGBTQIA+ community at the current moment?

TJDN: My hope for our collective community is that our minds, bodies, and spirits have the healing space needed to (re)integrate and heal from the physical and emotional labor it requires to merely exist. This healing, I hope, can allow each of us to discern where and with whom we feel safe, valued, and loved.

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