Event explores how memes let us express ourselves

A recent meme by Atlanta-based artist Fatima Khan reflects how interactions with followers online can get hostile. Original image by Trevor Henderson. CONTRIBUTED
A recent meme by Atlanta-based artist Fatima Khan reflects how interactions with followers online can get hostile. Original image by Trevor Henderson. CONTRIBUTED

On a poster, former President George W. Bush paints his latest oil masterpiece: a pear-shaped Bugs Bunny in Gucci sandals. One of his hands is blurred out like Japanese pornography. Words in seven fonts and seven colors clutter and cover Bush.

Memes are everywhere, but have you ever thought about them as art?

Tonight, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center in West Midtown will host an event about memes in the latest of its continuing series of Discrit:Talks, its free art education initiative.

"Meme Spirited," as the event is called, kicks off with a conversation between four meme artists and a professor at Georgia Tech about the role of memes in contemporary culture, and finishes in a meme-making workshop with two Atlanta-based artists, Fatima Khan (better known as @djinn_kazama on Instagram) and Cynthia Fang (better known as @males_are_cancelled).

At its most basic and fundamental, a meme is a picture overlaid with text. Usually, the image is instantly relatable, like a man with a smug smile pointing at his temple, urging consideration, and the text is an idea or thought well-described by the image. Their special meaning comes from being recycled, repurposed and combined at the blinding pace of the internet, becoming relatable abstracted away from their original meaning.

Andre Brock, associate professor of literature, media and communication at Georgia Tech, is moderating the event. According to Brock, what makes memes appealing is that “people delight in wordplay, and reinterpreting things with different meanings. The idea of both invention and wordplay, and a different way of seeing the world.”

It’s easy to scoff this off as the latest episode of “Look What the Millennials Did,” but the memes made by these artists contain deep wells of reference to peer into. A recent meme by Khan shows a pale-faced beast, more maw and teeth than body, yelling down into a basement: “Hey, I followed u but u didn’t follow back How come.”

Khan explained that some followers feel that a single reply from her entitles them to an ongoing conversation. “Wow. So you’re just not going to reply to me?” her followers have asked. She responds: “No. I don’t know you. You asked me a question, I answered it. I didn’t even have to answer the question. And they get really upset.”

That experience isn't uncommon among female and femme-presenting internet pages. Many news outlets, including Buzzfeed News and the Guardian, have written about social media models receiving sexually inappropriate and aggressive messages from followers. Khan says entitlement is "common but doubts it's as common with the white men with 100k followers. Those are the people who can get away with (not interacting with followers) and still have 200k followers."

Tonight’s event was organized by the two Atlanta-based artists who run Discrit:Talks, Joey Molina and Chris Fernald, in part, because understood right, memes can be funny, instantly recognizable social and political critiques. Yet though memes have this potential, according to Fernald, they’re often disparaged and relegated to the “trash heap of aesthetics.” Bringing voices that are traditionally sidelined from cultural conversations by their art style, race, gender and identity is one of the primary projects of “Meme Spirited.”


7-9 p.m. today. Free. Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, 535 Means St. NW, Atlanta. 404-688-1970, atlantacontemporary.org/events/discrit-talks-6-13.

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