I met Maya in 1998 at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. She joined the film degree program late, with no interview. She just blagged her way in on the phone and turned up halfway through the term.
We all dressed in dark colors and talked serious art theory. Maya wore skintight pink jeans and stilettos, she had pink lipstick and fingernails, and she couldn’t spell. Her accent was South London, but her grammar was always kind of off and she wasn’t very articulate, didn’t talk much in class (and 90 percent of the degree was talking because we didn’t have much equipment)
She wasn’t a stand-out student.
Saint Martins was the college that everyone wanted to be at in the late ’90s—Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, and John Galliano are all ex-pupils. Fashion was massive, Kate Moss was everywhere, the Britpop and Brit-Art scenes were populated with London art school graduates.
If you read ‘The Face’ or ‘Dazed & Confused’, they made it seem like Saint Martins was the center of everything and a golden ticket to a creative career, but that was the fashion degree. We did film, which was in a separate building located far from the rest of the college, in a dark, damp basement in Covent Garden, where there were twenty of us in a room, talking about “Film as Fine Art.” For three years. We watched projections of seminal art films from the ’70s, and visiting lecturers like Steve McQueen and Isaac Julien gave talks on their work.
I remember first noticing Maya because she seemed like she wasn’t enjoying it. During the lectures she looked bored and frustrated. I wasn’t enjoying it either.
We were in the same circle of friends but not particularly close—we chatted sometimes, but nothing special. Then, one night we went to the ICA (the Institute of Contemporary Arts on the Mall). Just us two—I can’t remember why—and we got talking. We talked about Saint Martins and confessed to each other that we had no real interest in obscure art films projected in galleries and that we were there because it seemed like the coolest place to do a degree.
I suppose I had already formed an idea of what her background was in my mind. I figured she was Indian, and so her mum and dad probably had come over in the ’60s with the wave of immigration, found jobs, and had a family. And now Maya probably lived at home with them in an overcrowded Indian house with an entrepreneurial father and a house-proud mother and one of those strict traditional grandmothers who complained all the time and wanted her to have an arranged marriage to someone’s idiot son and wear a sari to family weddings, but Maya snuck out the window to go clubbing and smoke weed with boys. Just like in all those ’90s films, like ‘East is East’ and ‘Bhaji on the Beach’ and anything with Meera Syal in it.
But then she told me about her actual life.
I’m not sure if anyone had ever really asked her to tell the whole story before, but as she was telling me, it came tumbling out of her, drama after drama, and she cried. And when she’d finished, we just sat there in silence, taking it all in.
Years later, I’ve watched her do so many press interviews about the same story—telling it over and over again—and I know it by heart. I myself have written it up as a press release to send out to journalists and record reviewers. It’s been edited and condensed into a single paragraph, been doubted and defended by music critics and bloggers, become Sunday magazine column inches and a Wikipedia page, but right then, it was the first time she’d formed the words, and it was very real.
So anyway, we plodded along at Saint Martins and learned a lot about ’70s feminism from our ’70s tutors. We all got drunk a lot in the pub next door to the college—Maya had Malibu and pineapple. We were very undruggy. Drugs had gone out of our scene somehow, and we couldn’t afford them.
Being on a film degree in 1999, we kind of fell into the crack between two technology waves and missed them both. Film and analog video were dying, but digital hadn’t quite come through yet. It was waaay before the Internet took over—the Web was just for fact-finding, and you could use it in the library. The video equipment was cheap-looking and domestic. It was hard to edit, and there was a ‘homemade’ atmosphere to using camcorders to shoot on, which we mostly wanted to avoid. And so, we shot on 16mm because it looked professional and made what looked like a “proper” film. It was £200 a can, with developing and printing costs on top. If you fucked up, you just had to show a reel of bright white or black where you’d laced up the camera wrong or exposed all the film while you were loading the camera, or let the gate slip and so you had two hundred quid’s worth of streaks. We watched a lot of slipped-gate films.
So no one had any money, and we all lived in shitty, rented flat shares. Maya did a lot of shoplifting—clothes and makeup. She never bought Tube tickets and knew how to get through the barriers and where. When I ran out of food, I asked her to steal me some. She came back with a bottle of Champagne and a tin of rice pudding.
As we progressed through college, Maya started mixing with the cool kids. She began to dress differently—not smarter, but more creatively. She styled herself better. She seemed to be penniless but somehow doing better than the rest of us— Versace jeans and a cab to college, but no money for lunch.
She spent her summers in L.A. with her Tamil cousins, who had escaped to the US when they all left Sri Lanka—and Maya’s work was always influenced by rap and hip-hop, which set it apart from everyone else’s on the degree.
We graduated from Saint Martins in 1999. Maya’s film was a Harmony Korine, ‘Gummo’ - style edit of Indians in London: Tamil street drinkers in the park, and two Bengali schoolgirls who’d run away for the day on a bus down from Nottingham. She re-created Indian studio photos, where people wear their best saris or crazy ’80s Miami Vice jackets and Michael Jackson shades, and stand in front of painted backdrops of beaches and motorbikes. It was called ‘Bindo’. We both got a lower second-class.
On the day we got our results, we were all standing around the entrance to Saint Martins on Long Acre, near Covent Garden, smoking and bitching about our terrible grades and the one girl who got a first. Maya got a phone call from her sister, who told her that their cousin, Janna, had gone missing in Sri Lanka. The details were fuzzy—she’d had several family members involved, died, or gone missing in the war so the stories sometimes got confused. Maya took the news very quietly. She told me that he was the same age as her and had been the one she remembered the most clearly, because they had played together when they were little.
We stayed in touch. Maya got a job as a waitress, and I worked in a camera shop. There were no jobs around for fine art filmmakers. We didn’t have any specific skills, and so we started making work to try to get a break.
She wrote a whole, feature-length script about her brother, Sugu, being in a young offender’s institute. He had been in prison for eighteen months while we were in college. He sent her diary tapes and letters about his life there, and she turned them into a script called ‘Gratis’, which were the tokens you got in packets of B & H cigarettes; they were like cash in there. She lived and breathed this script. Her bedroom walls were stuck all over with photos and references and cigarette lighters, phone cards, and bits of documents from Sugu’s time inside. We used to film and interview Sugu and bug him incessantly.
She gave it to me to read, along with a sketchbook of photos she’d taken of teenage boys, looking like the characters.
The script was amazing.
Like, not just ‘good’ ; not, ‘art-school-friends-hyping-eachothers’-work-up-good’
…I mean, I thought it was the best thing I had ever read. Seriously.
It really shook me, and it was the first time I saw her as a real talent. It had a plot, but the observational stuff was incredible, bursting off the pages—like how they wore their clothes and customized them and their way of passing stuff to each other from cell to cell without getting caught. The slang and the language and the music were all spot on. It was partly 'Gummo', like one long awesomely styled film shoot with the best-ever Larry Clark–type shots, but it also nailed that type of urban kid before anyone had got there. It was all full of uths and the “wot-wot-wot-u-get-me?” boys that were around everywhere but not visible yet in the media. This is years before So Solid Crew blew up and ‘uths and chavs and scallies were everywhere in the mainstream. To this day, no one’s actually made a film about any of that world that is as good as Gratis would have been.
When the script was finished, she stuck it in her suitcase and went out to L.A. to stay with her cousin Dale to try to get it funded in Hollywood. Somehow, Dale knew John Singleton who made Boyz N The Hood, and so Maya was able to get her script looked at by New Line.
She used to phone me once a week and tell me how things were going. Eventually, she was offered work on hip-hop promos, but it wasn’t anything permanent or well paid so she left. When she came back, we tried to hit up Channel 4. She waited outside the building for hours, trying to bump into someone who could get her in.
She took Gratis to a features director, and he stole the whole idea and lifted scenes directly from it.
I watched it on TV. He missed the whole point, left out all the energy and cleverness, and just made some shite film about teenagers doing time; the caring warden, the nasty warden, and the worried mum. It won loads of awards.
In 2001, at a gig by the band Air, somehow Maya ended up getting pulled out of the crowd and invited backstage. She met a bunch of West Londoners who took her under their wing. They were the Britpop crowd—just entering their early thirties as the ’90s scene was winding down.
She bonded instantly with Justine Frischmann, the lead singer of 'Elastica', and eventually ended up moving into Justine’s Notting Hill town house. Maya arrived there with a couple of sketchbooks, a camera, and a suitcase of clothes. Four years later, when she moved out, she had a record deal, management, a demo tape full of songs, and a successful career as a visual artist to fall back on if she felt like it. Meeting Just was a life-changing event for Maya. This was all routine for Justine, who’d founded Suede with Brett Anderson; been through the whole rise-and-rise of ‘Blur’ as the long-term girlfriend and muse of Damon Albarn; then, with her own band Elastica, had what was at the time, the fastest-selling UK debut album ever.
The West London friends Maya met through Justine had all had their creative successes: They were the photographers, bands, artists, and actors who had been the faces in the magazines of the ’90s when we were students.
Maya had no idea who half these people were, because she’d never had any connection to British indie bands. She’d spent her teenage years with the Bengali boys on Brick Lane, going to Bagley’s nightclub and driving around London trying to find raves. The track “XR2” on Kala is all about this (“where were you in ’92?”)
The stability of living at Justine’s, with a room of her own and encouragement on tap, gave Maya a chance to concentrate on work. Initially she devoted herself to photography. She would shoot everything on slide film then have it “cross-processed,” which meant you printed slide-film negatives onto normal photographic paper. It gives the photos a soft, oversaturated and aged look, a lot like Instagram.
She got her first commission, shooting a double-page spread of girls’ underwear for the newly resurrected ‘Nova’ magazine. She did sixteen photos of a girl’s arse, cropped tight, so that you just got three horizontal colored stripes—the bottom of a T-shirt, some skin with a bit of butt crack, then the waistband and the top of the knickers. When the photos were laid out together, it looked like a set of flags.
Elastica had re-formed to make their second album, after a several-year hiatus from recording. For their first single, “Mad Dog / God Dam,” Justine asked Maya to create the artwork and shoot the video. She took photos of Justine’s mouth (Justine had an amazing mouth) and got her to wear some toy plastic vampire fangs to make “mad dog” teeth. She brought the photos round to my house for us to make into a single cover.
This was our first-ever proper creative job together.
I had bought my first Windows PC and got set up with a cracked version of Photoshop. I was still working days in a camera shop but trying to be an animator, drawing, and scanning in my spare time, experimenting with “digital,” which all seemed fresh and new in 2001—after years of splicing celluloid at Saint Martins. Maya LOVED Photoshop. She never did learn how to use it properly, and that rubbed off on me. She taught me not to learn the workings of any software more than I absolutely had to. It used to take about five minutes to load and while it did, we always used to look at the second name in the loading-screen credits “Seetharaman Narayanan.” Every time, she would point and tell me, “He’s Tamil.”
Sitting next to Maya Arulpragasam, making a piece of work with her—music, or art, or just baking a cake—is the most exciting, addictive thing ever. It’s why everyone (including me) who bitches about how tough she is to work with, comes back for a second and third helping. Just going though Photoshop filters, choosing “invert” or “posterize,” “glowing edges” or “hue and saturation” was so exciting at the time, that we were exstatic, nearly pissing our pants with the thrill of it all.
Maya has knife-sharp, unwavering confidence in her own taste. It’s hard to describe, because under all the mess of the music, and her outspoken politics, and her family story, and all the Cinderella-shit of some little Tamil refugee girl ending up on stage with Madonna at the Super Bowl, is basically a human being that puts a blue next to a purple, or a sound next to a word, with a speed and decisiveness that you just can’t compete with. She’s just really, really good at what she does, and it’s amazing to be around.
Anyhoo, we finished making Justine’s CD cover for the “Mad Dog” single. Elastica completed their album “The Menace”, and Maya became the Art Director. She shot the album cover and made her first-ever music video for “Mad Dog.” The budget was about £15. She scouted two teenage black girls she found in a London club doing some routines they’d made up in their bedroom and got them to come and dance to the track with a tape deck in a car park.
Elastica’s first album had been black-and-white Juergen Teller photos—black clothes and pale skin. Maya’s footage of them had saturated color, sunshine. She shot Justine in a bright red basketball vest, dancing in the basement, and she intercut tour and gig footage that she’d filmed at the Glastonbury and Leeds festivals, all re-filmed off TV screens, so it had a pixellated and glitchy surface.
When Elastica took off on a tour of the UK and the States, Maya went with them on the tour bus as videographer, working on shooting the Elastica tour documentary.But Elastica broke up and the documentary was never finished.
After the disappointment of trying to get her young-offender’s film ‘Gratis’ off the ground and getting so near—then not finishing the Elastica film, Maya’s new artwork was all motivated by a sense of resentment towards the London media scene. Somebody else had the power to bestow who got the lucky break and they never chose Maya, which started to piss her off. Being around white, middle-class people doing well with their bands and their fashion labels and their photography projects began to irritate her. Even me - I finally got a grant from Channel 4 to do animation fulltime for a year, and that totally fucked her off.
This attitude was a real turning point. Instead of never talking about it, she became more outspoken in conversation about her childhood and what she’d been through. She got more confrontational. She turned away from what fashion and art was doing in West London and started to make completely different work about her childhood and Sri Lanka.
And people responded to it. They wanted more. September 11th had just happened, and the mood of everything had changed. The ’90s were firmly consigned to history now, and politics and the world beyond London had become much more a part of everyone’s consciousness. An angry, confrontational Sri Lankan girl who’d had her childhood marked by terrorism, bitter about the puffy, trivial art-and-music scene that she was witnessing—poking everyone’s conscience about their privilege and spitting in the face of all the magazine fashion fluff she was offered as “creativity”— this persona was something new and vital and different. Now that Maya was angry and fired up and wasn’t being polite about it, everybody began to listen. And it all came out the mouth of a beautiful twenty-three-year-old Tamil girl with a great face.
I filled out the forms and wrote an application for her to the ‘Prince’s Trust’, which will give you some money to get a small business started, and she got three grand. At first, it started with a documentary, as this was what Maya knew how to do best and she had access to cameras.
She interviewed her mum and dad and brother about Sri Lanka and her upbringing. It was confrontational and uncomfortable stuff; it gave her the chance to ask her dad about how and why he wasn’t around when she was growing up. The footage was compelling and shot with Maya’s innate sense of style; it was beautiful.
But £3,000 isn’t enough to make a feature-length documentary.Though she tried hard — she did make it onto a plane and took a camcorder out to visit the Sri Lankan houses she grew up in — but the bigger ideas and schemes (to document the Tamil girls who had stayed behind, to see the Tiger-controlled areas and what life was like there) , that stuff never happened. It was unsafe, she couldn’t find the money to do it, she was without a crew, and no one would help an unaccompanied young woman into a war zone with no documentation or official backing.
More disappointment and another shelved project, but she kept going, knowing it was the right direction. As part of the research for the documentary, she investigated the Tamil community in London and tried to find out as much as possible about what life was like in 2001 in Sri Lanka, particularly for girls her age. She was interested in what her life would have been like had she never made it out, how different things could have been from her now-comfortable West London life, living with pop stars and designers.
So, as part of her research for the documentary, she had managed to collect these video “newsletters” that were sent out to the Tamil community. They were VHS tapes, or sometimes DVDs, that she found in Tamil shops, or when she visited ‘Eelam House’, which was the London hub of the Tamil diaspora.
Copies of copies of copies, these video tapes were filled with glitches. Usually, they featured a reporter filmed in a makeshift TV studio, with ’80s-style video transitions and a few analog effects with fuzzy titles in curly Tamil fonts. There were reports of recent Sri Lankan political events, then film of the Tamil Tiger troops, training and parading, using weaponry in the field and testing new acquisitions. Maya was interested most of all in the “Freedom Birds,” who were the Tamil Tigers women’s combat unit.
Sometimes the tapes would have cultural and natural history segments, celebrating the beauty of Tamil Eelam (the name they used for the independent Tamil state that the Tigers aspired to win). These parts of the videos would have educational footage of exotic birds or flowers, or a traditional dance performed by the Tigers’ theater troupe.
The tapes would always end with a sequence of the Tigers who had been killed or reported missing in action – ‘ M.I.A.’, like Maya’s cousin. On a black screen, faces would appear, each framed in an oval vignette, with their names written in Tamil beneath, one person after another. They were like ID or passport photos, always facing the camera head on, with expressionless stares. As many girls as there were boys, these now-dead or missing kids all looked very young—younger than us—and nothing like soldiers or guerilla fighters. Girls with their hair in plaits, tied with ribbons, and skinny teenage boys with buck teeth and their moustaches just starting. All in Tamil Tiger camouflage print uniforms.
Maya photographed stills from the tapes from the TV screen, and she blew up the photos to make large prints of pixellated, glitchy images of Tamil faces with a TV-screen glow to them. Faces of girls her age, frozen in a moment of video, sometime between life and death; combat and murky silhouettes of rockets being launched through palm trees; tanks and camouflage uniforms. They were the first set of M.I.A. artwork.
I now had a rented studio to do my animation work in, with a Mac and a large printer, tons of paper, and boxes and boxes of acetate sheets for doing traditional 2-D hand-drawn cel animation.
When Maya came round to help me, she brought her Tamil photos and the video sequences, and started working on turning them into artwork. Maya had never gotten into traditional painting, but this was more about scaling up and reformatting photo images onto canvas.
We put the acetate animation sheets through an A3 printer and found that black ink-jet ink printed really accurate versions of the video stills—with all the glitch lines and pixels preserved—and that the ink dried enough to stay on there if you left it for a while. We pressed the ink-jet printouts onto paper and linoleum floor tiles, and they worked as transfers, leaving a crisp but slightly degraded image. It was a really fast way of making prints. Maya cut the acetate printouts with a scalpel, creating stencil templates of the video images, and with these, she began to make spray paintings on those cheap, pre-stretched canvases, which you can buy in high-street art stores, and bits of scrap wood.
She worked up a small art factory in Justine’s basement andfinished her first art collection—” M.I.A. ” by Maya Arulpragasam—which featured the series of TV-screen photographs, a video installation of the animated stencils, and a set of stencil paintings on canvas and wood offcuts.
On Portobello Road in Notting Hill, around the corner from Justine’s house, Maya had a part-time job in a boutique fashion store called Euphoria; the other shop assistant was Carri Mundane, who had just started the label CassettePlaya and later became one of Maya’s creative collaborators on the Arular and Kala album campaigns. ‘Euphoria’ had a prominent window display, located between Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove and two blocks up from XL Recordings, the record label. Annette, the owner and designer, hosted Maya’s debut art show. Maya presented the stencil paintings, photos, and video and held an evening private view, which was packed. All the work for sale sold out in minutes.
At that time, Diesel, the clothing stores, produced a series of books with an independent publisher called Pocko Editions—pocketsized books you could buy at the shop counter that presented the work of upcoming artists or designers. ” M.I.A. ” was printed in 2002, with an introduction by Justine Frischmann. Everything was going well. Maya’s art career had legs—this was her big break—and things were finally moving, but the puzzle wasn’t complete. She was dissatisfied with being a fine artist. Art was not where the debates were happening, or where the new ideas were forming. That was only going on in music.
I’d known Maya for seven years at this point, and music had never been on the cards. When she began writing songs, it seemed surprising, but also inevitable after four years under Justine’s wing, touring with bands, and hanging out with musicians. She applied the same attitude she had with her artwork, worked the same imagery into the lyrics, and blended the same recipe of politics and fashion. Her demo tapes were amazing. Her record deal from XL recordings came easily and with so little fuss. She was fully formed from day one.
The stencils, the photographs, and animation loops from ‘M.I.A. the art show’ became the visual backdrop for ‘M.I.A. the recording artist’.
We had banks and banks of images already made to work from. There was no need for any stylists or graphic designers to step in: Maya had a fully realized aesthetic ready to go.
For the “Galang” music video, we just sprayed and animated more of the stencils. The“Sunshowers” video was shot in Tamil Nadu, India, using local girls dressed to resemble the Freedom Birds from the Tamil newsletter videos. Maya saw every opportunity to make a visual statement as a challenge, and so everything was treated as art. The website, the record covers, the fonts, and the clothing all were formed from the style that Maya had spent years honing before music had entered the equation.
Then, when her debut album “Arular” was released in 2003,
something radical happened to the artwork…
It became massively offensive to a lot of people.
From hanging on the wall in an art show, to now being presented as a record sleeve and a music video background—the change of context had suddenly made the imagery dangerous.
It was too close to being crass and exploitative, and it made everyone uncomfortable.
It inspired the debate and criticism, divided opinion, and got under people’s skin.
After seven years of waiting for her moment, Maya was ready for the fight.
- Steve Loveridge, 2012