A first book is a special moment in an author’s life. After spending years honing my collection of flash fiction, Know the Mother, it came time to find a cover. I spent hours searching online for the perfect art. I wanted something surreal, not literal. I love vibrant colors and didn’t want the book to appear to be a dreary tome full of rhetoric about race and gender. I wanted it to be inviting to women of all races and ages, and for the art to preferably be made by a woman or a person of color. It was a tall order.
I searched “African American surreal art” and the gods of search engines offered up the astounding digital art of Karin Miller. As soon as I saw her work, I knew I wanted it to grace the cover of my book. It was a magical choice. Because of her art, my book won a da Vinci Eye Award for design in 2017.
Miller, it turns out, is not African American, but a white South African. Born in Pretoria, she is an accomplished digital mixed media artist. The married mother of four worked as an information designer in Johannesburg for close to 15 years until she became a visual artist specializing in collage.
Despite being raised on the other side of the world, she plays with the same themes I grapple with in my work: women’s rights, racial equality, ethnicity, classism and beauty. She takes prominent political figures and places them in striking settings, reducing their mystery and power (more on that in the interview below). Her art references religious iconography and highlight the ways the races are connected despite the history of racial strife in South Africa. Better yet, her work is bright, strident and often funny. I was in love.
I was thrilled when she agreed to chat with me about her work:
Desiree Cooper: Your piece, “Guess Who?,” graces the cover of my book. When I first saw it, it spoke to me profoundly. The classic, 1950s styling of the women reflected the perfect American ideal of womanhood, wifehood and motherhood. The fact that the women have exactly the same faces but are of different races made me smile – we are so much more alike than different. And the fact that each woman is blindfolding the other says how much women participate in gender politics themselves, sometimes becoming their own worst enemies.
Can you tell me more about the piece, your thought process and the symbolism?
Karin Miller: I created “Guess Who?” in 2011. One of the advantages of being an artist is that I can manipulate my subject, in this instance the ultimate colonial icon, Queen Elizabeth II, into someone else. I wondered what would have been the destiny of a charming, but non-royal, Elizabeth if she had been born and bred in South Africa.
That’s so funny. I had no idea that the woman depicted was Queen Elizabeth II!
Miller: Artworks are open to interpretation and I love yours!
What are the drivers of your art? What themes stoke your creativity?
Miller: I am, and always have been, interested in cultural dynamics. My art comments on social issues. Religion, politics, sex, race and patterns have been my main themes although I am finding politics becoming rather too overwhelming for me to handle right now.
I use irony to make serious themes more accessible. From political figures to celebrities, I have come to believe that no person should ever be idolized and put on a pedestal. This can be applied to the subject of mothers (and fathers) too. Mutual respect seems to be the answer—respect for each other, for life and for nature.
Did you have a formative life experience that shaped you as an artist?
Miller: I was born in South Africa in 1957 and have lived though, and experienced, important times and events in history, especially the history of my country. No one born in South Arica can deny that racial and cultural differences add to the complexity of our unique social fabric. Diversity lends interest and vibrancy to our society but also holds the potential for misunderstanding and conflict born of ignorance and a lack of respect for the “other.”
Themes including the Madonna and Child spool through your work. How does your experience as a mother affect your art?
Miller: I am married with three adult children. As a mother, I have been keenly aware of the significance of every new human life and the huge sense of responsibility it brings.
Well adjusted kids will hopefully make well adjusted adults who could ultimately make the world a more harmonious, peaceful place.
I can’t thank the Internet enough for giving me a way to find you. As a digital artist, how do you interact with a global audience?
I have a website and a Facebook page. I love the fact that the Internet allows us to communicate with people across the world. My interest in cultural differences, one I have had since childhood, flourishes online. And in a sense, the ability to connect directly with people around the world breaks down barriers and gives us more knowledge, which gives us power. Unfortunately this also means that we are losing our identities as individuals, to a certain extent. I guess that’s a good thing?
Karin Miller is represented by the Holden Manz Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa. To view her work, go to: www.karinmiller.co.za