Decolonize Your Artist Identity: A Conversation with Maikiko James

By Alison Minami

At a recent Company of Angels’ table read of a colleague’s play, I recognized one of the actresses. I had met her nearly a decade and half earlier at a different reading. That reading was in New York City where I had been one of the readers, and she had been the award-winning NYU Tisch screenwriter to have her work presented by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre and Asian CineVision. Maikiko James has since moved back home to California, eventually making her way to Los Angeles as an artist, activist, and arts administrator. She is now the Senior Director of Programs at Women In Film (WIF) —amongst the many hats that she wears.

After meeting up for a coffee re-connection, coincidence soon revealed itself as kismet. We connected right away as Asian American women and artists who have both struggled with the economic challenges and existential questions surrounding the moral imperative of an artist’s life and the convergence of art and politics. For Maikiko, to be creative is to be human; it is our birthright and intrinsic to our value as individuals and members of a collective. And yet, the current state of an artist’s life—as evidenced by the writers and actors’ strike—is aligned with capitalist interest; it is inherently “extractive” and “exploitative.” Maikiko’s philosophy on being an artist is very much a critique of the economic structures that prevent artists from thriving. She says, “artists should not be traditional workers making a product; art is something everyone should just get to do” and “when you commodify anything, it loses its spiritual value. Dehumanization is actually the outcome.”

Maikiko readily admits that she had to sacrifice much of her ambition as an actress and writer, so that she could make a viable living. She further shared that WIF has a help line for anyone who has experienced harassment, abuse or discrimination in the entertainment industry, and one of the recurring themes that comes up in calls is shame over perceived lack of success. The internalization of shame resonated so strongly with me. As someone whose pay-the-bills job has always been in low-paying part-time education gigs, I have felt so much shame for my life choices because, as I would say to myself, I could’ve or should’ve earned more/done more if I had only chosen a different professional path, or alternatively, I could’ve or should’ve pushed harder and sacrificed more for my art. The could’ve/should’ve game is very seductive, but ultimately, self-destructive. It is perpetuated by a hamster wheel of self-blame in a society that purports personal responsibility. Maikiko expressed and affirmed such a valuable truth for me and so many other creative compatriots: “We should not be ashamed for wanting to be artists, for being artists.”  It seems like such a basic truism that you’d think it doesn’t bear saying aloud, but I felt so seen and heard (and liberated) when she said it.

In many ways, this is the core of her work at WIF, uplifting the voices and spirits of women and underrepresented voices in the entertainment space. It is so heartening to know that there is a deep and thoughtful philosophy that underlies her work beyond surface and obligatory nods to diversity and representation. And while Maikiko is honest about the bleakness of sustainability for artists in a capitalist structure, she is equally a visionary for what’s possible. Maikiko asks the essential question “What does the decolonized generative future of artists look like?” I love that she is even asking the question at all, and I wish more artists could first feel how these words land on their body, and secondly, consider their role in answer to this exact articulation. The starving artists—the strikers, the minimum wage workers, the freelance hustlers, the drivers and servers–are suffering, yet paradoxically, it is they who will get us through to the other side of the madness that is brimming all around us in the current climate of neoliberal fascism. It’s not the billionaire class that is going to save us or preserve our humanity. Maikiko is not just hopeful, but resolute, that “the artistic mind can change how our systems work and how we engage.” These words were very inspiring and made me feel less isolated as a tinker in my workshop. Maikiko affirmed that we as artists are part of something bigger and that our work is not just about expression for, say, personal catharsis or self-interested gain, but truly a moral and spiritual imperative for the survival of our humanity. It’s easy to dismiss this sentiment as hyperbolic or lofty, but it reminds me of Amiri Baraka’s poem “Young Soul” in which he writes: “First, feel, then feel, then/ Read, or read, then feel, then/ Fall, or stand, where you already are” and “Make some muscle in your head/but use the muscle in yr heart.”

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