Marryam Moma, photographed in her home studio by Isadora Pennington.

“I reflect the place and space that I live in, so in my work I am bringing my foundational experiences of Black life and highlighting Black joy,” said artist Marryam Moma as we talked about life and art in her sunny home studio. 

It has been a long and somewhat unexpected road that led Moma to where she is today. Over the next few days she will be putting finishing touches on her artwork for ‘ICONoclasts’ a solo exhibition of her work opening Friday, July 28 at 7 p.m. at the Emma Darnell Museum and Conference Center. 

I watched Moma work on a piece as we discussed her life and career as an artist. Her nimble fingers danced across a sheet of paper, carefully freeing a twisted vine from the paper on which it was printed. The sun glinted off of her hands as she worked, deftly maneuvering the paper and blade across a cutting board. In her studio Moma exudes a distinct sense of peace.

“Meditative and cathartic,” said Moma. “I could collage for hours.”

Marryam Moma works on a collage. Photograph by Isadora Pennington.

Moma is a Tanzinian-Nigerian collage artist whose work has been shaped by her varied life experiences. Since she was only a few months old Moma has been able to experience the world in ways that many of us could only dream of. She has visited over 18 countries with her tight-knit family and she speaks three languages. Her multitudes of experiences have both informed and influenced her art and subject matter. 

At the age of 16, Moma relocated to the United States to study. She attended the Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and eventually found her way to New York City where she received her MBA and also began to work as a fashion model. For Moma, fashion, architecture, and design have remained constant sources of inspiration throughout her career. 

For a while collaging was merely a hobby for Moma. She finds the process soothing and cathartic, and says she could easily lose herself in the work for hours. When she moved to Atlanta in 2016 it marked the beginning of a deeper dive into collage as a form of fine art and social commentary. 

“Being a Black African and having grown up in Nigeria, when I moved here at 16 to study it was a totally different experience,” said Moma, who recalls many instances of ignorant and offensive commentary about her heritage when she was a student. 

“I never felt racism while I was living at home in an African nation. As I grew up and learned more about the United States, now I get where these questions are coming from.” As a young woman she was initially bothered by these interactions, but eventually she found peace with the interactions and decided that she wanted to empower those she meets with information and a new perspective. 

From a hobby to a career, Moma began using her art to tell new stories that reimagine the Black experience as one of joy, hope, and love. 

“Collage is this really beautiful, undulating space where I tell stories about Black joy, Black heritage, intergenerational wealth, familyhood, sisterhood, joy, and love… Love is a really big part of my work.” 

Though she doesn’t necessarily shy away from trauma in her art, she told me that she doesn’t focus on it. Today she is happy and joyous, and it is from a place of peace and belonging that she creates her works. 

So what exactly led Moma to Atlanta? Two of her siblings had been living in Atlanta already, and she had visited the city many times over the years. In 2016 she made the leap to relocate down south and she has quickly settled in here, developing deep and lasting relationships with her community and fellow artists. 

Flash forward to 2019 when Moma was awarded a Migration Art Residency with Tracy Murrell Studios. “It’s a collage artist studio but a very different manifestation,” said Moma. On her first day, when she walked into the space she looked up and was surprised to see one of her collages hanging on the wall of the studio. “It had been in that space for 8 to 10 months before I got there,” she said, shaking her head bemusedly. “Tracy Murrell purchased one of my collages and I had never met her in person.” 

“Serendipitous things like that… since I moved here things like that just keep happening. I am looking forward to all the miracles and the wonder that continues to come my way.” 

For Moma, serendipity isn’t just about good luck. It’s also tied into her spirituality. “I think God is in all the details,” said Moma. “I think that He shows up in the most unexpected and beautiful spaces.” All of the wonderful connections, full-circle happenstance, and positive community interactions she has had in Atlanta have led her to embrace the city as her new home. 

“A man is as he thinks, and what we think is what we manifest. That’s the radical changing of your mind; that’s repentance to me,” continued Moma. “When we talk about God and christianity, it’s about coming back to the space where there’s a radical change of heart. It all comes back to me empowering spaces for Black bodies.” 

The body of work that Moma is currently working on she calls ICONoclasts, and for those wondering the term iconoclast means a destroyer of settled beliefs and institutions. She said she wants to provoke the audience and encourage them to consider the subjects of her pieces from a different lens. 

Some figures she features, such as Miles Davis, can be considered controversial. She hopes that those viewing the works can have a new perspective on the stories of these iconic Black personalities. Moma says she wants them to find themselves in these stories, and be inspired to leave the exhibition and learn more about the people she features. 

“Iconoclasts are a disruptor; a door opener,” said Moma. “Within these works are disruptors, starters, founders, and birthers of new ideas and ways of thinking.” She hopes that her works will uplift not only historic and celebrity figures, but also contemporary creatives such as Melissa Alexander, a local photographer and Lorraine West, a jewelry architect who hails from New York City. 

Reframing and reimagining the stories of Black people is at the core of Moma’s art practice. With florals and sequins donning recognizable figures such as André Léon Talley, Nikki Giovanni, Grace Jones, Bob Marley, James Baldwin, Marvin Gaye, and a couple of very popular current Tennessee state representatives, she uses a whimsical approach to otherwise challenging and confronting narratives. 

“Florals are specific, I’m kind of giving you a map without a map, if you will,” Moma explained. She pointed out that the Marvin Gaye piece features American Beauty roses, the official flower of Washington, D.C. where he was born. She uses opulent floral displays to add elements of softness, grace, and growth to her portraits. 

Since moving to Atlanta, Moma also met and married her husband Kevin and they recently welcomed their first child together, a son named Edric. Her postpartum recovery was challenging with a combination of health problems and a vastly lacking experience of community support than what she was accustomed to back in Africa. “My family, the peace of God, and the work itself kept me sane. Kevin was a joy to be around; he was so helpful and attentive.” 

Now that she has emerged from her postpartum recovery, Moma seems to radiate positive energy. Her collages serve as a visual representation of that loving, positive energy that she channels through cut paper assemblages and glue. Moma has received numerous accolades, awards, residencies, and recognition. She has exhibited at Zucot Gallery, Echo Contemporary, Kai Lin Art, MINT Gallery, Facet Gallery,, the annual Hambidge Art auction, and the Swan Coach House Gallery, among others. “I am feeling so connected to my new community here,” said Moma. 

“For me, Atlanta has presented itself as this melting pot of opportunity. There’s a reason it’s called the Black Mecca. I have seen so many opportunities to grow and thrive. Atlanta is slowly becoming an arts epicenter, and it’s really inspiring to be surrounded by my peers, the culture, and the arts community.” 

The opening night celebration for ‘ICONoclasts’ at Emma Darnell Aviation Museum will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday night, July 28, 2023. Moma has provided free tickets for our readers by following this link. The exhibition was made possible thanks to the efforts of Creative Director Rodney LoveJones of GraphiteHouse and Curator Tisha Smith. Moma’s sponsors include ComfiArt, PPR Atlanta, Sam Flax, Starbucks, Revanche Cognac, Folkus, Dashboard (hardware), the National Black Arts Foundation, Vuvoi, the Jones Collection, the BrownHaus Collection and Fulton County Arts & Culture. ‘ICOnoclasts’ will remain on view through September 8, 2023.

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.