The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! by Miah Jeffra / Sibling Rivalry Press / 978-1-943977-73-4 / 140 pages / March 20, 2020
An ekphrastic piece of writing responds to a work of art–usually one completely separate from the writer. Miah Jeffra’s The Fabulous Fantastic Ekphrastic! is a collection of ekphrastic nonfiction, with pieces in response to other works as well as artifacts from their own past.
Jeffra’s pieces are “After” works of visual art, pop songs (Madonna, John Denver), and written works as well. (I wasn’t familiar with most of the art, but the works were all visible after a quick Google search). Tributes are given to written works like David Wojnarowicz’s “Untitled (One Day This Kid)” and “A Natural History of the Senses” by Diane Ackerman. This seems to suggest that as writers, we are each made up of the works that influenced us and the different ways we weave and create out of those influences. We go through life switching between multiple browser tabs, so to speak.
We are made up of our own experiences, as well. A few pieces respond to pictures from Miah’s childhood or past–songs that conjure memories of childhood on a military base in Hawaii, or a photo of their mother on a road trip.
A personal favorite responds to an artwork with the memory of when they first saw it in person. “Denotation/Connotation (Or, The Relativity of Shit) (after Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary)” is a vivid memory of being young and queer in late-90s Brooklyn, stoned with a friend in the Brooklyn Art Museum. The recollection of the controversy surrounding the “Holy Virgin Mary” painting locates Jeffra geographically and politically. (“Pasta-sounding” Catholics decried a statue of Mary made out of dung as disrespectful, while “neoliberal Park Slope white folks” tried to defend the artist but only displayed their own ignorance.)
Perhaps the controversy and notoriety surrounding this piece were the public’s ekphrasis all along.
Because an intentional rendering of life on a page or canvas can feel impossible. “The Treachery (after Renée Cox’s Yo Mama’s Last Supper)” explores another controversy involving religious imagery, this time Cox’s recreation of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” as a photographic installation, featuring a nude woman in Jesus’s position. It is impossible that anyone living now (or in the 15th Century) could really know what the Last Supper looked like, Jeffra argues, so modern flourishes or reimaginings cannot be any less accurate than Renaissance ones. Jeffra reflects back on photos with their ex–all smiles. These images aren’t false, but there aren’t any pictures of fights or bad times. Could one photo or image ever be a fair representation of a human relationship? Looked at this way, it seems an insurmountable task to capture life in art or writing at all.
Or at the very least, exhuming and examining their own past may not result in Jeffra’s intended consequences. “The more you stare at something, the more you feel it was never there,” Jeffra says in “Otherwise (after Joan Brown’s Noel in the Kitchen).” This chapter includes descriptions of Noel’s painting mixed with tender imagery of Jeffra’s childhood. Both seem vivid to the reader, at least.
Identity evolves over time–depending on what art, people, or places a person is exposed to. In an essay in response to Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Self Portrait with Whip,” Jeffra recalls their first visit to San Francisco’s Folsom Street Fair, “which brought the leather daddies, the piss pigs, the subs, doms and in-betweens, the Vincents, into the soft embrace of NorCal light.” This is a tense, overwhelming experience for young Jeffra. “I was blind that first time at the Fair. The monochrome lens of my Catholic upbringing had me only see the black of the leather, the shrouded sex, the darkness that doctrines edify so well.”
But the modern speaker of this essay is much more comfortable with Mapplethorpe’s work and Folsom Street Fair Culture. This highlights how works of art should be just as dynamic as people themselves—different viewings of the same pieces of a lifetime can evoke different reactions, when the work is nuanced and rich (as Mapplethorpe’s is).
Not that evolution of identity–as a person, or in art–is ever neat or settled for Jeffra. “Make Sure To See The Exit Door (after Keith Haring)” is a meditation on how gender binaries within gay men’s community can be frustrating, if not isolating. Jeffra launches a litany of “binary bullshit” that impacts Haring and themselves: “How much liberation has there really been that we still liken ourselves to Lucy and Ricky, to Ozzie and Harriet, to high heels and work boots?”
“I want none of it, so I can be all of it,” Jeffra concludes.
The personal lives of artists like Mapplethorpe and Haring–which ended too soon due to the HIV/AIDS crisis–influence Jeffra and countless others. Indeed, the world is bereft on personal and artist levels due to the losses of their genius. This isn’t responding to art as much as it is describing being in a queer, art, or human community.
The Fabulous Fantastic Ekphrastic! also explores the way art influences us as life unfolds–specifically, that phenomenon where we expect life to work like we’ve seen in the movies. “A Miracle Of Miracle (after NOVA’s The Miracle of Life)” is all about birth—from watching a live birth documentary in a middle school health class, to being in the room with a friend on the delivery table, all of Jeffra’s memories are described by the Hollywood scenes they evoke. The doctor in the NOVA video was a capable Sigourney Weaver in Alien, and the mother was an attractive Princess Diana. In real life, when friend Sarah asked Jeffra for support, they decide, “of course I would support her, hold her hand as I had seen done on every Emmy-nominated prime time TV show.”
This begs the question, what is reverse ekphrasis, when real-life experience feels like a tribute to media or art?
I read The Fabulous Fantastic Ekphrastic! with multiple browser tabs open at all time—perhaps the perfect response to modern life that a book has ever evoked in me.