Philly's cultural shapEshifter
Written & Photographed by Amari Ross
Malachi Lily, 23 is a Philadelphia based shapeshifting, queer, nonbinary, poet, visual artist, curator, and moth who creates works of art and literature that resonate spiritual light and combat our present day cravings for instant gratification and toxic individualism. I attended their most recently curated show titled O:O (Othered Others) Our Black Arts Festival, where they specifically highlighted the artwork of black people who feel marginalized or even persecuted within their own communities. Although I did not have the courage to introduce myself at the time, I was intrigued by their ability to bring such a diverse group of individuals, specifically millenials, together to celebrate such a necessary yet highly unspoken of cause. I decided to reach out to the artist in hopes of gaining some insight into their creative processes and noteworthy perspective on the current climate of the black arts community. To my surprise I was imparted with an abundance of those two aspects as well as one of my most mind blowing collaborations to date. Check out our conversation below. (Malachi is non binary and prefers the use of pronouns they, them, their)
For the past three years you have curated the Annual Black Arts Festival in Philadelphia, however you titled this year’s show O:O (Othered Others) Our Black Arts Festival and specifically highlighted the works of “black people who feel marginalized or even persecuted within the black community, the arts community, and the black arts community.” Why did you feel like it was important to create a space for these kinds of individuals, and how has the response from these events influenced the trajectory of your curating career?
ML: I spent some time this past summer with my work showcased in black art spaces. Not only did my work feel out of place, but I felt unwelcomed as a person, as a queer, femme body, by a room primarily composed of older, cis-het black men. I talked to other queer people, non-neurotypical people, and others who have had similar experiences of prejudice, unfriendliness, and sometimes absolute persecution from within the black community. A space needed to be created for these people who are further marginalized by the marginalized, the "othered others."
From my experience at the event I learned quickly that this was an environment that absolutely was needed. I saw queer black folx and all kinds of people utterly joyous as they celebrated each other. In our POC queer communities we can easily take for granted the freedoms we feel in our chosen family and or the social media bubbles we create for ourselves. Society does not support us, sometimes our own family will not support us, but we will support each other. As I go forward in my career as a curator and aesthete I want to continue to celebrate and connect othered others, and I realize by doing so many will be against us and what we do, but that gives me all the more reason and passion to continue to make space for othered others and their art.
On your website you refer to yourself as “a shapeshifting queer poet, artist, curator, and moth who seeks to challenge others to go deeper”, and that you create works of art that “combat our present day cravings for instant gratification, as well as tackle toxic individualism”. What role do each of these characteristics play in your unique creative processes?
ML: I wouldn't consider them "roles" rather they are who I am, meaning I cannot create any piece of work without some intersection of those identities coming into play. The process of poet, artist, and curator may seem different but for me they contain the same imaginative root that first manifests as words, then refines as poetry, or other times it will morph to become image or curation. My shapeshifter identity allows me to seamlessly exist in and between these roles, especially as a person of liminal gender and racial identity. The rest could be considered spiritual traits. The moth, or more specifically the Death's Head Hawkmoth is one of my spirit guides which directly links to my desire to create work that is psychically and cosmically linked, and doesn't only appeal to people's aesthetic sensibilities.
Aesthetics are a yummy, sweet treat but they cannot sustain you alone. When the funnels for what is deemed as "good" art are through things like Instagram where you get a 2 second, 2 inch snapshot of a creation before it is swiped away, it's easy to see how our society's desire for the cheap and easy can corrode our capacity for more engagement than a double tap and a "heart." My work, especially my personal work, is not easily consumed, and thereby not easily liked, and that's good. It may be more to chew, but I certainly hope it's more nutrients. And if I may continue on this food metaphor, I hope to feed truths and visions of ourselves below even the surface of our egos. It is in the unconscious that we are connected, where concepts and symbols begin to surface, where we're reminded we are one.
The intricacy and attention to detail in your illustrations coincide with your poetry quite beautifully. How did you develop such a distinctive style of image making?
ML: Why, thank you! I was definitely one of those children who immediately started creating art as soon as I was consciously able, and cut-paper or collage was a pretty immediate part of my practice, along with drawing, poetry, dance, and story making. Flash forward to junior year of college and I picked up the xacto blade for the first time and just began cutting paper instinctually. My thoughts and concepts can get pretty complex, and the medium of paper forces me to simplify in a way that helps me connect my ideas to others. There's also something about the physical creation of an object or image that is really important to me, as opposed to only manipulating pixels on a screen (which can still produce incredible work).
This physical act of birth, of pulling an object into consciousness is important to me. Both my writing and my image making come through a similar practice of research and "word hoarding" or "image hoarding," where I collect all that inspires me to make the work. I cannot make the work without some version of this step. Then I must hone the research and sift through to find my image, story, and line. I try hard to fill my mind with influences that are not contemporary. I don't want to create work because the current pulse says that's what's marketable. My influences of post WWI poetry and illustration such as Mexican Modernism, late Victorian narrative and illustration, Japanese woodblock, and folklore from around the world are just a few things that influence my art and writing as one artistic practice.
Your currently working on a book of Illustrated poetry titled Mayflies where you talk about “healing from childhood sexual trauma through the lens of Jungian psychology, biology and fairy tales”. what inspired you to start this project and how did you find the courage to explore something so personal?
ML: I didn't have the courage for awhile. Issues of sexual assault, sexual corruption, and pedophilia were something I knew I wanted to talk about in my thesis project at UArts, but I kept them at a distance from me, from my story. Then my mom gave me legal documents from what happened to me as a child and I began to process them in therapy. Through that experience I knew that I needed to face my own story and put it to the front. It was the only way that I could write authentically. Through that process of healing, I discovered the importance of symbols, archetypes, fairy tales, and the unconscious as I began to engage more and more with the Jungian practice of Active Imagination. My story was no longer just my story but merely one point in a series of intricately connected lines, intricately connected lives and stories, so tightly knit, it is as if they make one being. It will be a book of my healing, but it will also be a book of our healing, of our collective language and shadow.
You have such an imaginative and expressive sense of personal style. Have you always been so experimental with fashion?
ML: Taking clothing objects and reinventing them or arranging them in as you say "expressive" ways is just as much a part of my identity as black, queer, Christian mystic, etc. As a child I used to take tutus and wear them around my head like a lion, ha! I think I still am trying to look at clothes and have fun with them! I've been trying to upcycle more and more, but that takes time and craftsmanship I don't always have, but I know it's a direction I'm moving toward. I'm tired of being dissatisfied with the clothes presented to us. It's time to take it into my own hands.
Where would you like to see your career within the next 5 years? Although your primary focuses seem to be curating, Illustration, and poetry, are you interested in exploring any other mediums?
ML: I want to have many residencies tucked under my belt, which to me translates to: I've made a lot of connections, I've travelled to a lot of places, and I have made so much work! I would like to get pretty consistent commissions for all my work, curation, writing, and illustration. For O:O to be expansive while maintaining its heart and potency. Ooo I'd love to do animation, either creating my own films or working with an independent company as a writing/director. I want to be able to thrive just on freelance work. I'd love Philly to be my home base, but have lots of opportunity to travel too. And I want lots of love in my life haha! Oh, a few more glow-ups would be nice too. The more I can look like the buff, longhaired, androgynous offspring of the fairy queen and the creature from the black lagoon, the better. (Those aren't necessarily career, but it's true!)
Amari Ross is an emerging Philadelphia based photographer and self proclaimed art enthusiast who is seeking to develop a deeper understanding of himself through analyzing the life and work of other emerging creatives. ALIST, a digital platform developed by Ross, is a tool he primarily utilizes to document his encounters with each artist as he delves deep into the origins of their unique perspectives on art making and creative processes. In doing this, he hopes to bring awareness to the value of each artist's work, establish a curated, cutting-edge source for new talent to be discovered and enrich his personal creativity.