Maya Jeffereis

March 5, 2024
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Maya Jeffereis (b. Los Angeles, CA) is an artist and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. Jeffereis’ work has been presented in the United States and internationally, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Brooklyn Museum, The Noguchi Museum, and Queens Museum, among others. Jeffereis has been an artist-in-residence at Lower Manhattan Cultural Center (LMCC), Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity, and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. She is a recipient of the A.I.R. Gallery Fellowship and Cisneros Initiative for Latin American Art. She is currently a 2023 Bronx Museum of the Arts AIM fellow and an artist-in-residence at The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts SHIFT Program. She teaches art, art history, and Asian American Studies at Parsons School of Design and Hunter College. She earned an MFA from Hunter College, and BA and BFA from the University of Washington.
Tell us about your practice.
My work centers on counter-narratives of diasporic Asians, including my family’s history of forced removal and unjust incarceration during World War II and their role as indentured laborers on Hawaiian sugar cane plantations. The work might start with an aspect of my family history but then extend beyond the personal to look for connections across oceans and continents of shared struggles and resistance movements. In my most recent work Passages II, I was inspired by Tongan and Fijian writer Epeli Hau’ofa’s concept that the ocean is a means of connecting–Oceania becomes “a sea of islands” united by a vast ocean, the site of ancestral history, resilience, and futurity. The video takes 1898 as a point of departure in which the United States annexed Hawaiʻi, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, extending US imperialism across the Pacific and Caribbean. These islands share a history of economic and military exploitation by Western powers but also a rich legacy of resistance and solidarity with one another.  
I work with colonial archives and ethnographic photos and films and, rather than presenting back images with inherent violence, I look for ways of obscuring and obstructing the gaze. Recently, I’ve been working with direct animation and hand-processing 16mm film. I find working in an analog medium liberating because of its experimental possibilities, especially when it comes to abstracting archival footage through chance processes. Passages II includes cyanotype on 16mm film and I’ve been thinking about Teju Cole’s writing on how the camera is a tool of imperialism and what it means to resist the gaze using cameraless photography.
You’ve mentioned that your practice “seeks to expand upon overlooked histories and fill in archival gaps with counter-narratives” – where do you look to begin to uncover these histories? Does it start with a specific question or a line of inquiry?
For me, it’s more about an approach to acknowledging the limitations, inherent biases, and omissions within archives and histories. I look to scholar Saidiya Hartman’s theories of speculative fiction that write against the archive and paint a fuller portrait of those omitted from historical records: “It is a history of an unrecoverable past; it is a narrative of what might have been or could have been; it is a history written with and against the archive.” Where history and its methods of recording fail us, we can imagine and reclaim that which is impossible and those are the spaces of potentiality, of what might have been and what could be.
You’ve done a lot of work as an arts educator – are there any learnings from being an arts educator that you bring into your artistic practice?
Working in museums and universities has helped me to clarify what is important to pass down and hopefully plant seeds of thought. Art can speak truth where there is silence in dominant culture, institutions, and history but it can also be a balm and an agent of radical imagination for better worlds. Teaching is a practice and an exchange, it is never an endpoint. I’m always learning from my students and adapting to meet the moment so that the work we do is relevant so that we can draw from the past and connect it with the present. 
I teach art and film history in the Asian American Studies Department and these histories inform my practices; likewise, the research I do for my films informs my teaching. I try to make my syllabus as geographically inclusive as possible to include artists from the Pacific, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Western Asia, as so many of these studies can skew toward East Asia. I talk to my classes about the 1968 student uprisings, anti-war protests, and the rise of colleges of ethnic studies brought about by the cooperation between Asian American, Black, Native, and Mexican student unions. The term “Asian American” was not just an identification term but was a political term coined to bring together people of different Asian backgrounds, inspired by the Black Civil Rights Movement. I try to get my students to think about how the past informs the present, without romanticism or nostalgia but with reimagination and reinvention.
Many of your works have directly dug into your family history and even included them in performance. What surprised you the most in delving into your family’s archives? And what has your experience been like collaborating and telling their stories?
Much of my work begins with my ancestral history, which I am connected to because of my mother. These memories can be passed down through song and dance as cultural memory and oral tradition as familial memory. Together, we’ve researched, filmed, and performed at sites important to our family history. 
While we were researching archives in Hawaii, unsurprisingly, we were unable to locate any specific information on our ancestors. On Hawai’ian sugar cane plantations, plantation officials assigned workers with bango, an identification number, used instead of names. So when I was researching in plantation archives, I couldn’t locate any record of my great-grandfather because we didn’t have his bango number and without the number, he doesn’t exist in the official records. This is where my work departs from being about my family’s story and becomes part of a larger narrative about immigrant laborers.
I’m also thinking about the power of home movies to narrate your own story, to bear witness to your existence. Cameras were banned in the Japanese American internment camps during World War II so very rarely do we see footage from the perspective of those in the camps. 
What has been inspiring you lately?
I just discussed Edward Said’s “Permission to Narrate” with my class and something he wrote has been resonating with me: “Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain and circulate them.” This gets to questions of dominant narrative which is often a kind of nationalist mythology versus the importance of a counter-narrative. I’m inspired by small acts of resistance to the global solidarity movements around the world in support of Palestinian liberation. 
What are you investigating these days? Is there anything we can look forward to seeing in future works?
I have a few video projects that I’m excited about. I want to continue working with histories of Hawai’ian plantations contending with questions of sovereignty, solidarity, and hauntings of the past as they persist in the present. Specifically, I’m interested in the stories of Picture Brides, women and girls from Japan and Korea who entered into arranged marriages in absentia and traveled across an ocean to join their husbands on plantations. I’m also interested in examples of resistance and interethnic cooperation among Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, Caribbean, Black American, and Native Hawaiian plantation workers, despite racialized hierarchies and extractive practices, and how we might learn from historical solidarity movements as we think about liberation today. I also want to start working with my patrilineal history which intersects Muslim Indian and British colonial histories in South Asia to explore diaspora, distance, and divisions.

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