Karmimadeebora McMillan, "Ms. Merri Mack" (installation detail)

Project Room No. 1

Karmimadeebora McMillan

This exhibition introduces the Mills Gallery Project Room Exhibition Series. BCA Studio Resident Karmimadeebora McMillan will be the first artist in residence to exhibit in the Project Room.

 

During the public reception for Project Room No. 1: Karmimadeebora McMillan, visitors will also be able to see M’Kenzy Cannon: PLEASE LET ME IN in the main gallery space. And as an additional treat, the BCA Artist Studios Building will be open from 5–8:30pm. If you get to our campus early or feel like stepping outside during the reception, you’re welcome to explore the four floors next door and visit some BCA studio residents and their studios. Please RSVP.

The iconic Mills Gallery at Boston Center for the Arts launches a new exhibition series featuring work by BCA Studio Residency artists in the gallery’s Project Room space, coinciding with more expansive exhibitions in the main gallery space. During the same time period as any 1:1 Curatorial Series exhibit you can also experience the work of a BCA Studio Resident in the Project Room at the Mills Gallery.

The protagonist in artist Karmimadeebora McMillan’s exhibition is Ms. Merri Mack, whose name comes from a character in a nursery rhyme sung by enslaved children. Through wonder, play, and fantasy, McMillan depicts her as living her best life. In the artist’s brightly colored work on wood and canvas, the figure becomes a catalyst for change, a reminder to Black Women and young girls that things can go from pain to power.

 

ARTIST STATEMENT

The majority of my work comes from a place of empowerment. I’m motivated by research of Black History and the resilience of Black communities. 

I use a character that was originally meant to instill fear in Black Communities, the character I call Ms. Merri Mack. Ms. Merri Mack was initially depicted as a picaninny, a derogatory term used to pick on dark skinned black children, to make them feel less than, unworthy and shame for the color of their skin. 

Through this shame colorism evolved — Colorism is prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.

The name Ms. Merri Mack comes from a nursery rhyme used as a hand clapping game with children and was actually sung by slave children. 

Slave children were taught corn ditties (the original name for Negro spirituals) to take their young minds off harsh plantation life. They would work & clap their hands in rhythm while singing. 

Miss Mary Mack happened to be one of those ditties. As with other corn ditties, Miss Mary Mack was symbolic in that the Merrimack was an ironclad Union ship coming to fight the confederate army. It was built with rivets (silver buttons) & ships have always been referred to as females. There is also symbolism in the song where the child is asking her mother (the Confederate States of America) for fifty cents (a metaphor for change) to see the elephants (symbol of the Republican party who “freed the slaves”) jump the fence (Mason-Dixon line). 

Because of the constant trauma Black Women and young girls face I want to talk about our power instead. I’m using Ms. Merri Mack as a catalyst for change. A reminder that things can change if you work hard enough for it. 

To engage this way of thinking I combine wonder and play and a sense of the fantastical to show that she is just a dark-skinned Black girl living her best life. From pain to power is how I think of the rebranding of this character. 

Most of the history you find on Black Women especially in America focuses on the negative. I think it’s important people to know there are lots of positive powerful Black Women in our histories as well.

 

“History has not been herstory, and modern women seriously need ways to connect with and understand, their ancestral warrior strengths and power.”
—Lilith Dorsey 

 

Miss Mary Mack Lyrics 

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack 
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons 
All down her back, back, back. (or “Up and down her back back back”)
She asked her mother, mother, mother 
for fifty (or 15) cents, cents, cents 
To see the elephants, elephants, elephants (or hippos or cows)
Jump the fence, fence, fence. 
They jumped so high, high, high 
they reached the sky, sky, sky 
And didn’t (or never) come back, back, back 
Till the 4th of July ly ly.

About the Artist

Karmimadeebora McMillan

Karmimadeebora McMillan was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina and is based in Cambridge, MA. She has a MFA (2013) and Post Baccalaureate certificate (2011) from The School of the Museum of Arts at Tufts, Boston. McMillan’s paintings are influenced by her southern childhood through brightly colored fragmented quilted landscapes combined with characters from racist’s propaganda and black dolls found in southern flea markets.

After graduate school McMillan worked for the well-known street artist Swoon for five years as her business manager and helped start her non-profit organization Heliotrope Foundation.

McMillan has also performed with her mentor Magdalena Campos-Pons at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Queens Museum in New York, and Havana , Cuba Biennale 15. Karmimadeebora is currently the Director of the Post Baccalaureate Program and part time lecturer at SMFA at Tufts, Boston.

Karmimadeebora has been a BCA Studio Resident since 2021.

Watch Karmimadeebora McMillan talk about her process along with BCA Studio Resident Joanna Tam in this episode of ‘Hello My Name Is…’