Art in Conversation with Melita Çekani
Reframing local narratives with Staten Island Art's Re: Discovery series
Aliyah N.C.: I came to Staten Island only once before to visit the St. John’s University campus, and the greenery, I remembered that. I loved that. I’m a person who loves nature; I’ve loved outdoors culture since I was younger and that’s something I always shared with my mother. So when thinking about this place as a home, that’s something I considered. I love how they have all of these parks here; these natural wonders and lovely lakes. I love the Silver Lake and South Beach. People say, “It’s dirty,” but as a person who had lived in New Jersey for years— away from the ocean for like, the first time —I need the coast. I love the coast. I need to see it. I’m connected to it.
Melita Cekani: Me, too. I love the coast. Even when I lived in Brooklyn I would go around the water every time I had a chance. It’s just great, it’s very relaxing. Home has to be relaxing in its own way. Let me know when you go to South Beach. We can go together. We can bike [laughs].
MC: Was it hard for you to adapt here?
ANC: In terms of just coming, I was like, “I know I’m gonna need this and that.” I’ve moved so many times I now find that aspect really easy, really natural for me. The aspect that was hard was coming here emotionally, not having people that I knew and that kind of support. It’s hard emotionally. It takes a while to build that community—those friends and whatnot.
MC: It is. I was feeling that, too, when I first came here. I started meeting people by chance, but the circle of people you meet might change from time to time. Especially here, people are very busy, and you get busy, your life changes from month to month. But it’s important to have places you like, that you want to go to, or people that are there. Even though you might meet them once a month or less, they are there.
MC: How did you meet with Kiara at Kinetik Arts? What made you join their program?
ANC: Actually, what happened is I first got a place here in the south, but I wanted to try a different one, in the north where I am now. It was a really different scene, and I went out to the mall and was just looking around. The first day I was there I just walked up. Something made me look up at the windows there at the Kinetik place, and I was just curious. Because I’m that kind of person, I just went up.
MC: That’s nice. Yeah, I’m really glad I met you there. That was a nice project and working together was great, too. Everybody was different, you know. Everybody had different skills, and then working together—there was so much growth to explore. I’m glad that I met you as a gallery artist so we can keep on doing projects and collaborate together.
MC: I would love to share my knowledge with younger students; not just teach them how to draw and paint but how to have freedom over their canvas or paper. Most kids are used to following instructions like they do in school, but in art it’s pretty different. Some people have a harder time understanding, or they don’t know how to own their canvas. Like, don’t be scared. Just draw a lot of lines, and then you can choose from these lines.
ANC: I tell my students the same thing, oh my gosh.
MC: They’re like, so frozen.
ANC: It’s not what I expected, honestly. I thought that they would just be doing whatever they want. I didn’t realize a lot of my work is just getting them emotionally to not have that fear. Just experiment! See what happens!
MC: Yeah, I know right. I started to teach in public schools, too. I want to teach them not just art history but something that they can take with them when they get home. Like artistic freedom or experimenting with different mediums. To not be afraid to try new things. It doesn’t have to be perfect; you don’t have to care about what others think. You just have to enjoy the process. You have to be the master of your canvas and then of your own life. So, that’s the message I want to give them, and I feel like they’re not taught that in schools.
ANC: My approach is mainly more about storytelling, I guess because I’m an illustrator. I really try to build their confidence in using their own ideas. They often think about art as mimicking. They don’t have that confidence in their own ideas. Art is personal. You have a choice. So, I really try to get them to take on that responsibility. It may sound insane because they’re kids, but I want them to practice making [decisions] and to not be afraid. I want them to care about what it looks like. It’s not about trying to please me.
MC: What are your plans? Do you want to keep teaching? Do you want to open an Aliyah academy [laughs]?
ANC: I feel like I might see what happens. Yes, I accepted teaching. I love it. It’s a way of connecting with people. I like art, but people … don’t [always] think past what they see. Teaching allows me to make that connection. Art is about ideas. It communicates. It’s like a language, and when people see that, it’s like they have this lightbulb; they’re like ‘Whoa.’ That’s what I love. I love teaching them this way of communicating. These other ways of expressing themselves they never knew they had.
Originally published in Staten Island Art’s latest newsletter Re: Discovery which aims to reframe the narrative around the borough through arts, culture and conversation.