Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy is a Haitian born, Harlem and Brooklyn raised mixed media queer womynist artist currently living and loving in New Orleans. Soraya is the co-founder of Wildseeds: New Orleans Octavia Butler Emergent Strategy Collective. Wildseeds' work, steeped in Black feminist traditions of survival and healing, engages Octavia Butler and other F/SF authors as a resource for social change. In 2014, Soraya was awarded the Alternate ROOTS Visual Scholars grant. In 2015, she served as the creative facilitator, curator, and contributing artist for Wildseeds' “Sacred Space” at Exhibit BE and co-organizer of Black Futures Fest: A Celebration of the Black Fantastic in New Orleans.
Soraya provided art for this week’s story, “BlueBellow” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs.
This interview was conducted by email in January 2017.
Tory Hoke: As an illustrator, how did you get where you are today?
Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy: I'm a self-taught visual scholar with a medical anthropology background. I'm blessed to come from a line of healers, artist, educators, entrepreneurs, and ancestral alchemists. I started to seriously create as a healing modality as a result of the stillbirth of our daughter, Iyasi, in 2009. Creating saves my life every day.
Tory Hoke: Your work is graphic and stylish but emotional at the same time. How did you develop this style? What effect do you wish to have on your viewer?
Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy: It's important for me to tap into my nuanced self; I'm an emotional being, and that is part of my praxis. I'm honest, and my entire life informs my work. It's less of a style and more of an unapologetic necessity. My work is intentionally thoughtful and I'm primarily creating what I need for myself, for my healing, and then for the archiving of diasporic Afro-Caribbean/black feminist futurist centered stories. It's a wonderful bonus if other folks are also emotionally impacted by my work; I love that but it's not my focus when creating.
Tory Hoke: How does your work as an educator, author, and doula influence your art? How does your experience as an artist shape what you bring to those roles?
Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy: My work in all these areas is deeply connected. I see all of these specific skills as creative healing and conjuring love tools for love work/s. I don't really experience them as unrelated entities. I'm able to be expansive and visionary in my implementation of all of these related roles. My visual scholar work wouldn't be possible without my medical anthropology, community health educator and doula, mama, earth relative, wife, immigrant, queer, black feminist futurist Wildseed, etc. All of my lived experiences are in relationship beautifully.
Tory Hoke: How do you balance your devotion to your family, community, and work?
Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy: I don't balance. I'm emergent and ever shape-shifting, always conjuring and manifesting.
Tory Hoke: What is the art community like where you are?
Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy: The art community is thriving and spectrally radiant in New Orleans. This is a city of rebellion and resistance and art is at the center of that. I'm Haitian and there is a deep ancestral connection here; a history of artistic agitators and wild healers permeates every cell of this indigenous sacred land.
Tory Hoke: What other artists inspire or interest you?
Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy: A mixed bag of too many to name but: Fabiola Jean-Louis and Gael Jean-Louis, my siblings—their work is magnificent! I love the work of Wangechi Mutu, Romare Bearden, Frida Kahlo, and writers like Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Nnedi Okorafor, and of course Octavia E. Butler.
Tory Hoke: What would you like to see more of in contemporary F/SF art?
Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy: I would love to see more spaces for black queer feminists to be beautifully curated. I would love more visionary, thoughtful work that is abundant and expansive with nuanced representation. I wanna read about Afro-Caribbean black teen mama witches who are scientists and alchemists who save the world from white supremacy. I wanna see more of myself and communities I represent.
Tory Hoke: What's your dream project?
Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy: There are so many. This year, I would love to collaborate with more artists I enjoy locally and abroad. I would love to raise funds to support my pop-up living museum of scared artifacts of healing and resistance via the centering of the inner lives of black feminist futurist. I would love for my work to be published more this year and beyond and also more creative workshops locally and non-locally. I would love more creative retreats that center black queer/spectrally radiant creatives.
Tory Hoke: What's next for you?
Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy: I'm currently creating the annual Audre Lorde Week commemorative poster. This is my fifth year and I'm really honored to be part of this history. I'm looking forward to curating some beautiful events with Wildseeds this year, participating in a group exhibition being published, and creating more love works!
Tory Hoke: Thank you for your time, Soraya! It's been a pleasure.