Karlee Mackie has lived a most intrepid life, travelling the world as a pro surfer, a brand ambassador and model for international brands and now is an incredibly talented artist creating under the name of Mlak. Mlak is Kalm backwards which was Karlee's original artistic name. Karlee’s art is bold and edgy usually featuring the heads of animals on human bodies. The tone is audacious and full of colourful revelry.
Her latest art show is in collaboration with up and coming Byron Bay photographer Portia Sarris who has made her own mark on the scene with her raw imagery mostly shot on film. Portia weaves texture and poetry into her photography in a beautifully visceral way to further invoke contemplation within the viewer.
Their collaborative show is titled B Eve and plays on the word Believe by removing the word ‘LIE’ from it. It’s about empowering women and their bodies and rebelling against the lies society has fed us about the female body.
I sat down with Karlee and Portia on a stunning late winter's day on the cusp of a lock down in Byron Bay, NSW to discuss the journey to discover Be Eve and the creative process behind their sensually stunning body of work.
Portia let’s start with you, how would you describe Karlee’s art?
P: Karlee’s art is so much more than what she puts on a canvas. It’s the way she exists and consumes the world. Her work communicates in this unspoken language, the one where you see something, and there is this intuitive understanding. With her insane colour palette and cosmic characters, she shares stories that are so personal and intimate, yet you can relate to something within them. Her ability to transfer her energy and wisdom into artwork is genuine and honest. It is an extremely vulnerable position as an artist to speak so openly. It’s a visual dialogue that embodies aspects of humility, acceptance, patience and understanding.
As much as I love to dissect and discuss the beautifully chaotic mind of Karlee, I also allow myself to get lost in her playful perception of the world. Art that holds my attention without all the analysing and talking is the kind of art that makes me really excited. Karlee and I have this super organic relationship, and we just kind of fell into each other’s worlds with this mutual appreciation of one another, our stories and our artistic practise.
In other words, I am obsessed.
Now Karlee how would you describe Portia’s photography?
K: Portia is an old soul, with the timing of the universe. Authentic and capturing the future enmeshed with the past, she is humble, with a confidence beyond her years and I have great trust in her work and unwavering awe. Portia, has the ability to work with her mistakes and create art out of it, finding curiosity and grace in her work.
To be critical, and also surrender to the external results of a beautiful inner hum that’s truly hers, is something I feel blessed to be a part of in the beginnings of her journey as a creative. Rare and progressive, it’s been wonderful to watch her exploring herself through images and thoughts. We have a sisterly bond, where we can be in each other’s company that seems fluid, intuitive and honest.
What sparked the idea behind B Eve?
K: The concept of B eve was not my genius but birthed by my dear friend Brigitte Serhan. We have enjoyed so many great conversations in her kitchen in Bondi and this was where this concept was founded. I have run hard with it, to highlight her brilliance, and every woman I’ve ever been fortunate enough to be in their presence.
I would stare at the letters BEVE since I was 25. Thirteen years now, and they are still in the same place. One day I asked her, and she replied, she took the lie out of the word believe. She shared with me, that's what I believe in, could be a lie for you.
How poignant that was. It sparked a fire for me, and my love of playing on words, as the very sentences that we read, are the outline of our existence.The power of one letter, or word, or sentence has the capacity to manipulate something to either cause an argument or empower one to achieve greatness. Our whole existence is made from the power of belief. Religion, stories, articles, written laws and even scientific data.
Every letter, combined and in rhythm of a sentence, that is a pathway to the mind and of relative understanding. Cognitive recognition, creating belief systems that are powerful. Society is a tapestry of woven belief systems. You will find it very hard to un-believe something.
I love the example in the book The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz as he explains so simply the power of words and beliefs systems.
If you grew up believing in Christmas, and Santa, that one day you whole heartedly believed Santa was real. When you find out, its a lie, you could never go back to believing in him in the same intensity with the innocence of a childs mind and openness to believe in anything presented, as children lack experience to formulate their own beliefs, hence the importance to protect them, nurture them, and love them.
That gave me insight and respect towards another’s beliefs. This project is an exploration of the female form, and attitudes towards her.
My Mother has always told me to believe in myself. I could never understand it, or how too. It was impenetrable, and caused much frustration. I now understand it back to front. I wish to share that and hope to understand how to shift one’s focus, or mindset in discovering a truth, that sets you free and into a space of love and curiosity.
My grandmother Masako taught me spirituality and the power of numbers and letter energy, and a playful array of other ways to understand oneself. Animal symbology and their nature is a great way to feel familiar with certain traits within oneself. It always interest me that we don’t relate to groups of humans as a species to find connection.
I love Symbology as its also a great way to navigate life. Portia and I have created a mashup of realistic images shot by her on 35 mm film and an imaginative symbolic narrative through art and animal symbology.
It seems we are asking a very long winded question. To invoke curiosity towards your own beliefs towards woman.
It’s a playful feminist story, inspired by so many elements and women that I have been fortunate enough to cross paths with over the years. Combining an emotive soup that hopefully can stir your belief systems. To be aware of how you talk to yourself, how easily you can become derailed or blinded by believing in something or someone that goes against your natural nature and how this can metaphysically harm oneself or another. To discover middle ground, by imploring love, curiosity, respect to thyself and thy neighbour in the face of adversity and fear.
Eve is the goddess of the story, she was written in as a temptress. In my eyes, before we defame her, she is actually the only way into planet earth. Which I find would be a great place to start, in sacred gratitude, towards woman.
Before we shared her through taught beliefs to arguably criticise her behavioural integrity, which finds us at the great debate of many beliefs towards sexual activity, and sexual power. Portia and I wish to gently stir up the narrative, towards the female form "B EVE", taking the "LIE" out of our beliefs towards the portal to earth, the holy Vagina.
A vision and collective collaborative activation will tease and shift your perceptions towards the vagina, the only way into planet earth.
P: Karlee definitely instigated this project, and I was so flattered and grateful when she asked me to be a part of it. I believe it is something that has been brewing inside her for some time now. Within my own practise I would often address notions of adolescence as there is part of me unwilling to let it go. Karlee has forced me turn my gaze and attention outside of my own personal experience and towards being a female and woman as a whole. For me this whole project has been about education, empathy, exploration and listening. Bit of a tangent there but Karlee sparked it and now I’m on fireeeee!
What has been your own experience with the way society has created a narrative about your body as a woman and how have you in your own life fought back against this?
P: I have been aware of my sex from a young age, and that stems from society's hyper awareness and fixation of labelling and separating/ defining this aspect of maybe what they believe determines how I must exist? For a long time, I was passive with it and accepting as it didn’t bother me.
As a young woman however I really felt the pressure and struggled with ideas of how I was meant to look. Whether that stemmed from being an athlete I felt it was my job to be this critical of my body?
I think I’ve been working at these concepts for over 7 years now whether that be passive or active work. It comes in all forms of conversation, seeking professional help, making art and listening to other people’s experiences (society has some pretty strong and backwards ideas about ALL human bodies, not just women). It wasn’t until my final year in university where I began a body of work that really spoke about these issues and for the first time I felt some clarity in my artistic voice.
K: In short. It’s been in my nature to never fight back. I am more likely to succumb, and from this, I have found a way to share that in a way that delivers a gentle thought provoking spoon to stir, rather than force, as I’m understanding how potent one's beliefs are. I do not see myself in any short comings of being female, my challenges are gifts that have only created a very versatile example of both female and masculine energies in a female physical form.
I truly am thankful for the movements of females in history, that fight back…but I refuse to see my flesh suit as any disadvantage in my pursuit to understanding my spirit and purpose in the world. Its a very detached mindset, I’m very fortunate, but I believe in abundance, and have experienced my pain and my fortune as points of transformation and gifted my generational trauma as powerful song notes to be a part of expansion towards a deep love for existence on earth, being a part of a symphony that hopefully is a song from the many notes that enriched the experience of life on earth in all its forms.
My almost forty years has shape-shifted and morphed and now I believe my body is incredible. It has created a human being, with the beautiful life force chemistry of male energy. I, in no way want to diminish male energy. I would love to demolish an age old attitude, or belief. To do so in grace, because the value of pain, or misconceptions and destructive beliefs towards woman are the air tank to dive deeper into the magnificence of the magic of the feminine.
I have chosen a man’s voiceover for the poem, (which is a part of the project) to honour the male energy, and by finding grave purpose and respect for woman to find the deep role of the protection of woman by man. To highlight each other’s strengths with love and respect to stop abuse against one another. To find a harmonious dance between these energies. A healthy belief towards both entities that are in combustion creating life force throughout all realms, animal, plant, insect and oceanic.
Tell us about all the women featured in the show and what they represent.
K: I won’t tell you a thing about them personally, they will remain anonymous. They are the most incredible females, all with stories of pain, and joy. Pain that would make you fall to your knees in awe of their ability to keep living life with grace and beauty. They also are women who are doing incredibly wonderful actions, that would bring you great joy to be a part of. All the women, who we are indebted to for sharing their beauty physically and energetically shines through Portia’s Images. Iconic and authentic, everyone was empowered to put themselves in a vulnerable position, raw and fearless.
P: To all of the women I have been fortunate enough to meet during the making of this project, I cannot express how grateful I am for their time, for their conversations and sharing their bodies with us. I understand what a vulnerable position it is to be in front of a camera and sharing your physical self with someone, therefore it is such a privilege to share this intimate experience of creating images with them.
There’s a lot of influence from different animals tied into the show, why did you choose to use the symbolism of animals?
K: Animal symbology has been used for years. It’s started for me, when my grandmother Masako passed away. We would find joy in learning alternate ways of understanding oneself and human nature. Either through the stars, or conflicting religions. It had no bounds. The goal to understand oneself and share empathy for human beings. My nan was Japanese, we looked into Chinese astrology, and for me, imagination is my way through understanding. Being dyslexic I have a very image based understanding.
I’m the year of the pig, and Nan is the tiger. The traits attached to these are fun to learn and gain a respected detachment of our behaviour and personality. It’s an understanding, instead of a personal attack on one’s perceived shortcomings.
When she passed, I did my first art show in honour of her. Painting pigs and tigers heads and a play on star signs, where the weird human cat was created. I haven’t stopped using this symbolic way to share a message of - it’s not what you see, it’s what you want to see - and there is the birth of your beliefs system.
I chose animals that have some of the most powerful traits in the animal kingdom. To invoke and honour the essence and fact, we are the gateway to earth.
What animals are featured in B Eve and what do they represent?
All the animals featured are powerhouse females in the wild. The hyena has a pseudo penis, the largest clitoris of the animal world! Tiger is femininity and courage. The Komodo dragon is capable of virgin births. The bee is featured because the whole hive is serving a queen and all the worker bees are female. Males are only born to procreate then they die quickly after. I featured the pig because they have multiple orgasms and experience immense sexual pleasure.
All animals featured were chosen because they're powerful feminine symbols and the women we shot felt represented or attuned to that animal energy.
What medias are you weaving into the show and what does each offer to communicate the overall concept?
P: What I love about this collaboration is how Karlee’s vision stretches so much further than her paints and canvas. Her ability to source and work with so many elements that contribute to this message is wild, yet it works. It will be a sensual show, to experience through visual, smell, feeling and sound. The photography elements are all analogue, then Karlee uses acrylics and oil pastels.
Who are some women that inspire you in art and life to create your own narrative around your body and unchain yourself from society’s expectations?
K: There is a saying, you have to learn the rules to break the rules. To be drowned in the expectations, has been fantastic in the explorative sense to re-create them in result to find a peace within myself, of self-love, care and nurture.
I’m in awe of the women I never met in my blood line, my grandmothers, my father’s mother, and mother's, and my own. I’m in awe of every female, and man that exudes his feminine energy.
The narrative is a wild beast, that will kick and buck its way to exhaustion, and only then when the dust settles can we stare into the eyes of the life force of a creature that longs to be free. Heavy breathing which subsides to a gentle flow of which we all share in common. Breathing in and exhaling out. The pulse is in the hands of the rhythm in which we bring forth consciousness.
P: There are so many this is freaking me out and I get emotional even just thinking of all the individuals I have met who have played a part in that journey for me. In my everyday life I think the ladies reading this know who they are. I am so insanely lucky to have the friendships and family that I do, abundant with women (both younger and older) who offer their time, conversation and experiences to share and generate a safe and progressive space for one another.
Artistically, some of the women who’s work regarding these issues that have really stuck are Camilla Calavante, Fredricka Heacock, Eloise Coomber, Sally Mann, Charlotte Culot, Karlee Mackie .. AH THERE ARE TOO MANY you will have to read through my diaries to find out.
The poem used in the show is incredibly powerful and emotive. What made you choose to include spoken word and what was your inspiration behind the poem?
K: Spoken word was inspired by Brigitte (Serhan), she has the most wonderful, spoken word poetry, that she will open the show with. Her writing, and views are my favourite and inspired me to mind spaces I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for words. I like all vehicles of expression.
When and where can we catch the show?
The date has not yet been confirmed due to current restrictions, but we will keep you updated as soon as we know. It will be at the Thom Gallery in Byron Bay.