Because he frequently works with a mixed-media format, Germantown-based visual artist Mikel Elam repurposes a lot of ordinary objects in his art. It’s evident in pieces adorned with materials like pennies—collected from his once-upon-a-time travels with Miles Davis, he says—and, curiously, keys.
One day while working at an art supplies store, he recalls, a gentleman came in with a bag of keys and suggested he take it.
“I was like, ‘What?’” laughs Elam. “He said, ‘I saw this painting of yours, and I feel like you’d love to have my keys, because you’re using all sorts of things in your work, and I saw one with keys.’ So, he brought me two pounds of keys.”
Those keys now live in the titular work of the “Bliss Consciousness” exhibit, on display now through Feb. 18 in the Arts Lounge at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. The piece depicts a meditating figure, with the keys representing the means to unlocking the subconscious. Elam practices transcendental meditation daily.
The show, which contains 13 artworks, was curated as a collaboration between The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation, Penn Live Arts, and Heather Moqtaderi, who teaches a “Re-Presenting History” for Penn LPS and runs the arts nonprofit Past Present Projects, which was awarded a Community Partnership Grant from The Sachs Program in 2022. As a follower of previous Arts Lounge exhibits, Moqtaderi thought Elam would be a snug fit for the space. She chose the works alongside The Sachs Program team.
“We were drawn to Mikel’s paintings that reflect music and performance, given the exhibition’s location at Penn Live Arts,” says Moqtaderi, explaining that four of the pieces (pictured) were created as album art in tribute to Miles Davis. “And the painting ‘Seven Acts of Humility’ is based on a collaboration between the artist Robert Rauschenberg and choreographer Merce Cunningham, and its sense of dynamism in performance felt well-suited for the atmosphere at Penn Live Arts.”
Also of note is “Nocturnal Conversations,” which she says “nicely encapsulates the characteristics of Mikel’s broader practice.” Elam explains that he’d just finished that work when the team came to visit his studio.
“It’s about my dreams, and I document things that are coming from my imagination and dreams, which I think are [the same],” he says.
In the piece, he says, he’s an observer of his dream, occasionally interacting but largely invisible. He stands by, watching as others discuss worldviews.
Many of the pieces are inspired by the violence against people of color in 2020, he says. It became a working theme for the past three years; he says the work is a slight deviation from his usual more futuristic approach, since some of the pieces call attention to America’s history.
“I don’t like to dwell on dark things for too long, but I felt I had to address it as an artist, and I’d never done that before,” Elam says. “So, I got it out of my system and made probably 20 paintings in that genre, and then started to say, ‘OK, we know this is a reoccurring situation, but where are we going?’ And that’s what led me into Afro-futurism.”
He describes his work as layered and containing emotion, but encourages viewers to pluck out what they uniquely see while thinking about how cultures communicate with each other.
“‘Bliss Consciousness’ ignites a multi-dimensional dialogue about the intricate facets of human existence and interconnectedness,” says Tamara Suber, executive coordinator for grants, equity, and community strategies. “As Elam eloquently expresses, ‘We coexist in this realm. Everyone is equal. Awareness and empathy guide us towards the future. Art is a form of healing and love.’ This perspective is in perfect harmony with the core values of The Sachs Program: to create an inclusive community where everyone’s creativity is valued, and where the diversity of human experience is not just acknowledged but seen as essential for societal well-being.”
In explaining the title work, Elam says it reflects his headspace recently, wanting to grow with each moment.
“I think that in this world of turmoil, the one thing we all need to address is that we are living in a place of external issues that need to be addressed, but we all have to also learn how to handle the stress of all that,” Elam says. “So, for me ‘Bliss Consciousness’ is evolving to the point where we can rationally handle what’s going on, or emotionally handle it.”
The Sachs Program will host programming around the exhibit in the months to come.