Paris-based artist Ealy Mays is somewhat of a paradox….and I mean that in the most generous and loving way possible. In his latest retrospective collection presented at the Hammonds House Museum/AARL Satellite Gallery, viewers experienced the juxtaposition in the simplicity of Mays’ narrative presentation with the depth of his social and political commentary.
Mays is an artist who knew without any reservation at an early age, as he put pen to paper and made a continuous scribble, he would someday become an artist.
“I didn’t have a very good relationship with my Art Teachers in High School,” chuckled Mays in a recent interview at his latest show, which showcases works from several Atlanta collectors. “In fact, out of the three “F’s” I received in High School, two of them were in Art.”
He was undaunted by the lack of support from his teachers, and kept forging ahead with his artistic endeavors. His father had his heart set upon his son becoming a doctor, and despite several attempts, including advanced medical studies in Guadalajara, Mexico, his art beckoned to him instead. During his tenure in Mexico, inspiration from master artists such as muralist extraordinaire Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo set Mays on a life-long journey of self-discovery, as well as his first taste of international success.
“I actually painted for the Godfather types in the white suits in Mexico,” he laughed “I was at the Fiesta Americano with Fidel Castro.”
In the colorful splendor of Mexico, the artist took wing, both in expressing his inimitable style and defining for himself what it meant to be a truly global artist, in a world that wanted to view him solely as a Black artist. Today, Mays has accomplished both feats successfully, and established his unique voice on all counts.
While in Mexico, he also took a French wife, opening up a new chapter in his International experience as an artist. “I saw the world with my art, not with medicine,” said Mays. He has held many artist residencies and shows in France, where he is a permanent recurring resident at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, as well as other venues. “What I like about Paris… it is like being a kid in a candy store. I have accomplished a lot there. Being a member of Maison des Artistes is not easy accomplishment,” quiped Mays.
Historically, Black artists of all genres have enjoyed unparalleled successes in Europe, particularly in the first half of the 20th century when racism sullied the possibility of not only becoming known in America European audiences and venues made it possible for artists to express themselves on their own unique terms. Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Henry Ossawa Tanner and Romare Bearden made cultural waves in Paris and delighted arts lovers all around Europe, expanding the possibilities of their creative lives, but never letting go of the true essence of artistic soul.
Bearden once said, “being a Black human being involves very real experiences, figurative and concrete”. Mays works reflect real experiences, imbued with humor, striking a fervent rhythm just below the surface of a sarcastic narrative. When looking at a portrait of Michelle Obama holding an American Flag and images of mammies in the upper corner, the phrase “truth is honey which is bitter” comes to mind. Mays makes a serious statement, in an almost disarmingly charming way. His paintings are indeed an extension of his personality in real life……charming, disarming, delightful, down-to-earth and unapologetically real.
This New Orleans writer particularly loved his Katrina series, where he simultaneously demonstrates the massive swirl of the eye of the storm next to a multi-cultural swirl of bodies dancing to zydeco in diptych panels. He nails down the fervent and dynamic energy of the storm and the undying cultural passion of my home spot on. Mays is a student of culture, life and passion. He fully understands what it means to be human in the world-- to love, to question, to live life to its fullest.
When confronted with the status of African American art and artists, he stated that African-American artists should be concerned with being American artists-- that Africa has taken over their sense of self.
“What has happened to African-American Art is that it has been cross-contaminated with African art ,” contended Mays. “I’m generationally American. I’m not African, but I see that a lot of African Art has infiltrated African-American experiences. I am an African-American but I consider myself a ‘global contemporary artist’”.
“It’s sad to say, but I am an endangered species,” Mays asserted. “I will not compromise what I know and I will paint what I know.”
I told him that I think he might have chance at leading the next generation, and being a visionary for other artists. He joked, “You know they usually kill the leader. I do like Paris, a city that has been there for 2,000 years where there is history, a foundation.” That artistic foundation has landed Mays in some auspicious venues over the years, including Mexico’s Galeria Clave, Paris’ Carrousel du Louvre, Mexico’s annual José Clemente Orozco Art competition, and New York’s Guggenheim museum, among others.
“The one thing I like about Paris, is that in this International setting I am catching the cross-roads of people from all over the world,” he mused. “I’ve made my studio my gallery. I don’t have to explain everyday who I am and what I’m painting.”
Will he ever leave Paris? Living around the corner from where Picasso painted “Guernica,” the pull of artistic legacy and history in the City of Lights is a tough call. With regard to the state of art in America and Atlanta specifically, the artist stated, “I am loving my country, but I want to see where the politics go in this country…..the decline of Western culture might be an issue.”
If his experiences in Paris allow him to be the architect of his own soul and work, then I certainly understand why he might want to remain in Europe. His fans and collectors will nevertheless continue to enjoy Ealy Mays’ joyful and paradoxical style!
“No More Mammies in the White House with Mammies” Ealy Mays
“Hot Sauce Kingdom“-from Ealy Mays’ Katrina Series
Robin Ligon-Williams is an award-winning cultural producer, curator and musician based in Atlanta, Georgia. Williams has served at the helm of several arts organizations, including the Indianapolis Philharmonic Orchestra, Garfield Park Arts Center, New Orleans Jazz Institute, and most recently was responsible for spearheading the Aviation Community Cultural Center for Fulton County.