Alumni Spotlight: Jonathan Mayers
Jonathan “radbwa faroush” Mayers, BFA 2007, artist and Baton Rouge poet laureate, has taken on a daunting challenge: continuing Kouri-Vini, the endangered creole language of Louisiana that many call Louisiana Creole. To this end, Mayers’ artistic practice celebrates the rich cultural heritages and the unique landscape of Louisiana, while integrating written language with visual art. He calls it “Latannyèrizm.”
“Language is a part of all of my work,” he said, “If I didn’t have any language aspect to my work or didn’t speak any other language, I wouldn’t necessarily be as interested in making artwork and writing as I am right now.”
A Baton Rouge native, Mayers is a writer, visual artist and cultural activist who majored in studio arts with a concentration in painting and drawing from LSU and his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of New Orleans. As poet laureate his hopes to “opens up a dialogue on multilingualism and bridging communities through poetry.”
“Jonathan’s work inspires others to protect and preserve the historic Creole cultural within Louisiana; the combination of both Kouri-Vini and his talents will help keep this language alive for future generations,” said Sharon Weston Broome, Baton Rouge Mayor-President.
He is co-editor of the forthcoming book FÉVI, set to be published soon. Written in Kouri-Vini, a language that has historically not enjoyed much institutional or educational presence, FÉVI will help to continue Kouri-Vini and hopefully reach larger audiences who have yet to encounter it.
“In your heritage languages, when you have folk tales and stories and traditions that exist in those spaces and didn’t necessarily get translated or get passed down because of the idea that your language is ‘lesser than,’ then you lose part of your culture.”
So Mayers aims to continue to evolve the culture and language into this century, by actively creating new artistic works in the language and in sharing the cultural traditions to perpetuate rather than crystallize Louisiana’s legacies.
His path to this project has not been straightforward – when he started out at LSU, he had no idea of the journey he would embark upon. When Mayers first went to LSU in 2002 he began studying computer science before switching to graphic design, and finally studio art to focus on painting. He went on to get his MFA from UNO in 2011, and married.
After going through a divorce in 2015 he decided: “I’m going to do this thing that I’ve been wanting to do for like 10 years and that’s go actually learn French and be able to speak it.” So he started learning in the immersion program at Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia. Upon learning French, he then decided to learn Kouri-Vini, another heritage language of his family.
“Kouri-Vini was born and bred here in Louisiana, now spoken by less than 10,000 people around the world, and it’s in danger,” he said.
Through exploring the languages historically spoken by his family, he gained perspectives and a greater understanding of the culture that he comes from, he said. Before, “I didn’t necessarily understand why we did or said certain things that was not exactly like how other people would say it or do it.”
“And so I just have a different understanding of what the world is, or could be like.”
As a painter Mayers includes written stories to accompany the works, both in English and translated into Kouri-Vini, integrating the traditions and mythologies of Louisiana’s historic culture with his works.
As an artist with an interest in environmental activism, he uses natural materials in his artwork that have meaningful personal connections. Now he is making strides to find and visit places where his ancestors lived and take some of the physical earth itself to use in his art. “Sediment or sand or mud, clay – I use those in all of my works.”
“Place is something extremely important to me and my work.”
“I bring a little bit of the real physical place to the illusion so people get a sense of what the earth looks like; the feel that it’s a wet environment because of how I adorn the frames,” he said. “Making that real physical connection with the place, at least for me personally, and then bringing it to folks to be able to see, is [so] meaningful.”
Louisiana’s natural environment also plays a central role in the themes of his paintings. Mayers is acutely aware of the effects of climate change on Louisiana’s environment: the places where his ancestors lived are changing drastically as sea level rises. “We don’t know exactly how things are going to be built down here in the next hundred years. Some of the places that I’ve been to could be underwater by the time I’m my grandfather’s age.”
So his work is like a time capsule, a sarcophagus. “It’s a painted illusion of the place, but then, all these creatures inhabit this space,” he described. ”These creatures are sometimes metaphors for humans and what we’ve done to the environment. Sometimes they become new myths and legends for people who protect the environment. They’re all different stories.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, he started writing more, beyond “the micro stories and prose poetry” that had accompanied his paintings, and ideas for a book began to take shape. At the end of 2020 he put out a call for submissions for a new book of poetry written in Kouri-Vini and received many of responses – and FÉVI was born.
“In this new book, it ranges from people who have been reading and writing and speaking it for quite some time to people who are just learning so it’s kind of a nod to the cultural and linguistic activism of the community of people who have been learning it.”
“One of the goals is to show that our language is still here. It’s still living. We’re still here and still living and breathing and creating and continuing a language that even 100 years ago was thought to be dying, soon lost.”
As Baton Rouge poet laureate he is pushing for the community to continue or begin writing about their experiences. As a language activist, he encourages people if they are interested in learning more about language and culture, to pursue studying it further.
Mayers has been working with Henry Johnson, current LSU Art & Design student, to start a Louisiana Creole club at the university to connect students interested in learning about Louisiana’s cultural heritage. “What I’m trying to do is teach people, whether Creole or just someone interested in cultures, mainly the Louisiana Creole language, but also its history and development, music, food, really just trying to hit everything that makes the culture as beautiful and vibrant as it is,” Johnson said.
“I wanted to do this because I feel for people looking for the culture whether for familial or just educational purposes; you can’t really find much on your own without knowing what exactly to search for because the Louisiana Creole language as we know it has been endangered for a while for a long list of reasons and when you do try and search for things on it, it’s overshadowed by the idea of everything being ‘Cajun,'” he said. “When I came I noticed LSU, despite their motto of trying to exhibit Louisiana cultures, only had a course for Louisiana French. So I decided I wanted to fill that void to give people like me, and many other Creoles interested in knowing more about their heritage, a place.”
Mayers hopes that LSU students, now and in the future, find their places. For aspiring artists, Mayers offers the advice that was given to him as a young artist by Carrie Ann Baade, this year’s guest juror for Baton Rouge Gallery’s Surreal Salon 14: consider “what will your retrospective look like in 30 or 40 years? Reflect on it and start making the work that you want to see in 30 years.”
“If you come from a culture that is being muted, or if you as an individual are being muted in some form or fashion, use that in your work. Infuse that in your work, because your work is also going to become part of your culture.”
Mayers’ personal website: www.jonathanmayers.com
Learn more about Kouri-Vini, the endangered Creole language of Louisiana: