Mía Lee is a selfless visual artist who prides herself on using her creative ability to amplify Black voices without using words. Her work is an authentic reflection of her rawest experiences while growing up on the South Side of Chicago. When discussing her art, she exclaimed, “It’s important for me to depict the raw and emotional sides of Blackness.” Lee’s art has already taken her past her wildest imagination. Therefore, she uses each day as a new canvas to add to her ever-evolving legacy.
Lee’s fast-growing list of collaborators includes Nike, Jordan Brand, Bleacher Report, fellow Chicago resident Chance The Rapper, and many more. Her project with the GRAMMY Award-winning MC landed them a spot in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. This life-changing installation is one of her proudest accomplishments that shall serve as the perfect springboard to further cement her as one of the greatest Black expressionists of her generation.
The humble multihyphenate sat down with REVOLT for a unique interview about her experience working with Chance The Rapper, the importance of relatability, being inspired by Ye, and her mission to provide representation for all young Black girls. Check out our conversation below.
First, how would you explain what you do and who you are to a fifth grade student?
So, I am a painter, a contemporary artist. I am a textile designer. Basically, I create anything that I want.
Chicago is home to some of the biggest pop culture icons. Who would you say inspired you from the city growing up?
I am privileged to be from an area full of recognition through music and artistry. I know for a fact that Ye is No. 1 no matter what. He represents my era growing up in high school, which is what we listen to daily. Seeing that style, we felt like his recognition was our recognition. He was like a cousin who made it big for everyone in Chicago.
That has undoubtedly influenced the coolness that I look for in my art. Especially when he dropped Graduation — it was my first introduction to Takashi Murakami. That introduced a whole new world for me regarding making illustrative art. I did not look at it as a commercial. I thought it was cool and close to what I was already doing.
Of course, my mother inspired me. I come from a family of artists in their own right. My mother is a painter, and she introduced me to a lot of art books that I would not be able to find in the library. Having her meant access for me, and she always supported my art early on.
Your “YAH KNOW” collaboration with Chance The Rapper is at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Talk about how this project came about and your relationship with him.
Chance and I are actually from the same neighborhood. We’ve always known each other in passing. Chicago is so small and going from elementary to high school, the degrees of separation get shorter and shorter. Once we got older, we started having more conversations and crossing paths much more often while doing work in the city.
Luckily, the universe aligned for us to discuss art and his interests in stepping into the more visual aspects of art. There are so many artists from Chicago, and he’s found a way to tap into that and try to tie it into his music to elevate the city. He approached me about his newest project and allowed me to interpret a song he did and create art based on the music. I remember riding back and forth down Lake Shore Drive trying to think about what I would create. He trusted me; he first saw the painting at the video shoot.
Why is it vital for you to depict the raw and emotional side of Blackness within your art?
How would it not be important? That is the essence of who I am. That is the essence of what I paint and what I know. I’m not the best at creative writing, so I took a class and would always get stuck. I remember the teacher telling me to speak about what I know. I started applying that to all of my work going forward.
The pieces I make are narratives of my life, what I have seen, or what I have been told by the people closest to me. I depict them through characters that represent these stories. When Blackness comes to play in my art, it is because Blackness is all around me. Everything that I have experienced as a Black girl from the South Side of Chicago is Blackness. Even as odd as it looks, there is a narrative that speaks to it and is rooted within the truth that I was raised by.
Do you agree with Oscar Wilde’s theory that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life”? If so, why?
I think my art imitates life. Life is what guides everything. When I say I want to speak on human emotion and our relationships with one another, it takes the experience of life first, which gives me my inspiration. Say it is one of the hardest breakups I have ever been through, and it happened years ago. That experience will drive me to create based on my emotions during that time. My art definitely imitates life.
You’ve worked with Bleacher Report, Jordan Brand, and many more. Do you have any dream collaborations? Because it seems like most of them have already come true…
These are beyond my wildest dreams. These were not even on the list. I do wish to tap into outside of the U.S. I want to take it outside of the motherland. My family is from a very small island called Roatán, and I want to take it back there. I want to hit everywhere that Black girls in other countries can see this too. My main thing is visibility for other groups to see this work. I am all-inclusive, but primarily, I want young Black girls to see this first and give them that representation we need. I had a list, but I had to throw it out a long time ago. I am very open to everything that comes my way. I feel like when my art reaches a museum, we all did.
Relatability is so essential to you. What do you do outside your work that keeps it so familiar?
It does help that I am still in Chicago. I have lived in New York and Los Angeles before, but I always tried to tap in with people from Chicago. It is always about creating a space or working in areas that are made for us. I used to seclude myself, but now I can be more open. I’ve realized that community inspires me, so I try my best to remain a part of it.
Your art is a reminder that rules are made to be broken. What would you say the word “rebellion” means concerning your creations?
I don’t think a traditional form of painting should be the only thing celebrated. I know that I was taught in museums here that the big beautiful strokes and photos of white people that look real are nice, but I don’t know how to do that. It is boring to me, and there’s a lot of skill that goes into it, but I do not enjoy it. I don’t do things I do not enjoy, and if I do it, it is reluctantly.
If I choose to give it my all and pursue this, then I will do it exactly how I want to. If it means I am being rebellious, then so be it. I spent so much time making the art people wanted me to, but I am at the point where I do not feel anything. I want to make art as stressful as it is and feel worth it. All of the exaggerations in my art are intended, and that is always how I have drawn. It is an elevated, more mature version of Mía’s drawing from when she was like 5.
In a world that moves so fast, how do you slow down and take the time necessary to create something that stands the test of time?
Unplugging helps me. I do not usually subscribe to all technological advances in art, especially when I do not understand. I devoted a lot of time to learning about NFTs, and I do not feel them because I do not understand them. So many people spend their time trying to fit into every cultural moment and lose themselves. You can only do that so many times. I make the art, and people who relate to and love it stay. I want the consumers who mess with me because I cannot keep transforming into everything Instagram tells me is the new trend.
Name five people (dead or alive) who inspire you to take them to dinner at your favorite restaurant.
My favorite restaurant in the city is Virtue. It is a lovely Southern-style restaurant in the heart of the city’s South Side. I take my parents there every time they come into town or if I need to celebrate anything.
Regarding guests, I would bring Prince, Michael Jackson, Miguel, Whitney Houston, Chance The Rapper, and Marvin Gaye! Chance and I have to talk to Whitney about what we did with her song.
What should your fans look forward to from you soon?
Chance and I are going to share our piece in Ghana! I am so excited about that. He is doing a festival in Ghana, and we are going to share our collaboration there. Other than that, I am gearing up for springtime. People will be able to come to see my work at some installations in person next year. I hope there will be international places to showcase my art set in stone.