Do What You Love, The Rest Will Follow: An Interview with Indigenous Artist and Activist Mer Young

Mer Young is an Indigenous (Chichimeca and Apache) socially-engaged, Southern California-based artist whose body of work includes collages, drawings, paintings, and murals. She is the founder of Mausi Murals, and she has been widely exhibited nationally and internationally. Some of her public artworks can be found in a wide range of Southern California towns, including Long Beach, Glendale, South Pasadena, San Pedro, Paramount, Anaheim, Tustin, and Los Angeles.

Bioneers reached out to Mer to help design the beautiful look and feel of Bioneers’ latest podcast, INDIGENEITY CONVERSATIONS. She worked closely with the hosts and guests to create the singular images of each guest that appear alongside each episode, highlighting the power and depth of the work each of these leading activists.

She was interviewed by Bioneers’ Polina Smith.

Polina Smith (PS): Mer, you have had such an extraordinary career as an artist and activist. How did you start off on your path as an artist? Were there specific people and/or events that inspired you?

Mer Young (MY): I have always been moved to help others. When you go through the trenches yourself and are able to come out of them, you know what many people have to go through, so it was natural for me to want to give back. As a youth I used my gifts to help me survive through some hard times in very hostile and volatile environments: art was my outlet, but it wasn’t until my early adulthood that I began to use my art as my voice to create change. The light went on, and I felt a calling from within.

Many people have influenced me: my son, some of my relatives, my shimá (my mother), those from my community, the Trask sisters from Hawaii (Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask and Mililani Trask), Assata Shaku, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Wendsler Nosie Sr., Lozen, Dahteste, Gouyen, Goyaałé, Casey Camp Horinek, Corrina Gould; the list goes on, but these individuals molded me into doing better for the greater good.

PS: Is there a particular project of yours that you feel especially, deeply committed to and passionate about?

MY: I have been creating collages inspired by the “Land-back” movement. Land-back is long-term, lifelong work. All over North America, Native folks are seeking to bring a number of traditional lands back into Indigenous hands. In this collage project, I reimagine 1900 photographs that were taken by privileged men with cameras who took posed photographs of Natives in unnatural settings in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I try to learn about each photograph: the individual in the photo, their tribal nation, the land they came from, etc., and then I cut the original image and place it into a photo of their actual ancestral lands. Photographs are long lasting, like time capsules, so I felt it was important to me to reframe those images and give them back their lands in this symbolic way.

PS: Do you have any projects on the horizon you’re really looking forward to?

MY: I am also a muralist, and I am always happy when I get to go out and paint and create public art. I have a project coming up, and the wall is approximately 30x30ft, so it will be nice to get out in the sun and create something on a large scale for the community.

PS: What role do you hope your art will play in the world?

MY: My hope is to bring awareness, to invoke change, to inspire the hearts and minds of the young and of future generations.

PS: When things feel challenging and seemingly insurmountable, what keeps you going?

MY: My family keeps me going. I have a four-year old son who looks to me for love and guidance, and fighting for my people keeps me going as well. I was always taught never to break, to keep pushing and have courage to move out of whatever vortex you’re in and to show resilience. I believe there is nothing that can stop us from overcoming what’s wrong on this planet. Even in death, our lives move into the spirit world, and from there we can live through our relatives and ancestors to keep the struggle and the good work going forward.

PS: Could you share some words of inspiration to young artists who may be feeling scared or just aren’t sure where to begin?

MY: I was told as a youth that art wouldn’t take me anywhere, but when I created, it did. It provided a safe place from all the ruckus around me. I kept at it and continued, and I found my voice, so my advice is: Continue doing what you love, and the rest will follow. Show your work to your relatives, to your peers, to your community, and they will see your gifts. They will have different things to say, good and bad. Take them both equally, and that will help you get better at what you do. Never be afraid to use your gifts: they were given to you for a reason, so listen to yourself and your heart. It is always an honor to share your talents; it brings life and appreciation even when no one is looking. You can begin by simply putting your work on the wall with tape. Be proud of yourself because no one, other than you, created those marks. You can only get better and soar beyond your imagination. The best part is that there is no end in the universe, we are a part of that, so there is no end to us. Ahéhee’

PS: Thank you Mer, for taking the time to speak with us today and for your extraordinary work!

Learn more about Mer Young’s work at:

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