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Vibrant DC Indonesian American Muralist, Cita Sadeli (MISSCHELOVE) on Being Creative

Cita Sadeli is an Art Director, Muralist, Designer + Illustrator raised in Hyattsville (PG County) Maryland and is currently based in Washington, DC. Her art can be found across the nation from Miami to Pakistan and has been recognized and featured at Art Basel and many museums at The Smithsonian Institution. Check out her work and follow her social media at @MISSCHELOVE and www.chelove.com.


Cita in her studio in Silver Spring, MD. (Photos by Faye Saechao/SEAT)

She talks to us about being a first generation Southeast Asian American of primarily mixed Indonesian and European descent. However, raised and closely bonded to her single mother, she’s embraced her mom’s Javanese, Indonesian identity and heritage. A symbolism of the close relationship she has with her mother is her practice of including her mother’s name (Enny) within every mural. Look for it when you visit/pass by her work! She also talks about her artistic influences as the youngest of four siblings growing up in the 80s/90s Washington, DC streets. Read more on the interview below.

 

How do you identify yourself (ethnically or culturally)? And what intersections do you consider you have with your identity?


For people of mixed ethnicity, it's the age-old issue of not fitting with either side- I’m not fully Javanese, but also not fully European. It's interesting how you present as well - looks can be deceiving and folks would never guess that I'm half Javanese. If you test your DNA it gets even more complex because we are potentially composed of so many bloodlines, there might be 1% South Central African somewhere in there (which I apparently have). But for certain, I identify as Indonesian culturally. One interesting thing on that note is... *shows an engraved traditional Indonesian name placard reading ‘CITA SADELI’* ...my mother made this for me when I legally changed my last name from my father’s to hers. I was twenty-two and that decision was a big deal for me - as well as my family - and I know that this made my mother extremely proud. It’s complicated being raised by a mother who's from Java, but not in Java itself. This was my first real attempt at reclaiming my Indonesian identity.


I've been a professional creative for a long time - over 20 years. I've been producing mural art for about 10 years mostly through grants and public art programs. Before that, I grew up in the graffiti scene in DC. This provided unique creative training while growing up, but my professional creative career didn’t begin until much later.


As I said, my mother is from Java, Indonesia and my father is of Irish and British/Western European descent, an American from Indiana. I’m the youngest of four siblings growing up in Hyattsville Maryland (PG County) just across the DC line. My parents divorced when I was just a baby, so I don't remember much about life with my dad. I’ve grown up aligned almost completely with my mother's culture. There are so many threads that connect us to our motherland. Even though we grew up being separated from Java and all the family there - the bloodline and potential for genetic expression is still present somewhere deep inside. It’s important to remember that even if you're separated from your homeland, it’s never late to cultivate a connection. And when you do, something innate clicks into place.

"It’s important to remember that even if you're separated from your Homeland, you can still cultivate a connection. And when you do, something innate clicks into place."

That's where we got very lucky - our Mother was very involved in the Indonesian cultural community in Washington, DC via the Indonesian embassy in DuPont circle. It’s housed within a gorgeous historic fifty room mansion, complete with a classic old pipe organ. It’s just an amazing place, but imagine growing up there! Our mom was an active member of the Javanese gamelan troupe which practiced weekly at the Embassy. Gamelan is the traditional music of Indonesia, with major styles coming from the Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese peoples. The orchestras are made up predominantly percussive instruments, producing a uniquely polyrhythmic and hypnotic sound. There's a great distinction between the main gamelan styles: Balinese and Javanese. With Javanese the tempo is slower and more classical. Balinese Gamelan is a little more like rock and roll, fast and frenetic. You find that in other cultures too, with Capoeira you have the Regional and the Angola, or in Shaolin Kung-Fu the Northern and Southern styles. The classics and then the more modern spin on the original. We grew up here at the embassy, around our music, surrounded by our language and food. That was such a fortunate happenstance for us.

Growing up in Washington DC during the 80s, punk rock was an important musical subculture, with bands like Minor Threat, Fugazi and the Bad Brains among the most notable. Although we were so integrated into our Javanese culture, there was also graffiti, going to New York to the wall of fame, going to all these hardcore punk shows - which was totally not allowed, but happened anyway. It was just a really cool, open and expressive time. My mom being a single parent was just always working. As much as she tried to parent and be there, she held down several jobs and was gone for a lot of the time so there was definitely some mischief happening.

"We grew up with a lot of freedom and I think that allowed me to handle maybe some of the other struggles that folks go through being female & being of APPI background."

When I think of some stereotypes of AAPI folks and the struggles that they have with their parents, which are very real - we didn't have that. My mom really wanted us to express ourselves and feel free. This freedom was really important to her. She didn't impose any restrictions or expectations on us in terms of anything that we did not want to do. We grew up with a lot of freedom and that allowed me the space to figure out how to handle struggles that girls face, especially being AAPI within these subcultures of punk rock, graffiti, and just being on the streets at a time DC wasn't what it is right now. It was the 80s DC crack and “Murder Capital” era. There was a lot of drugs, violence, dilapidated buildings and despair. It was rough. There was all of this stuff happening and wasn’t the best place for a young twelve or thirteen-year old girl to be. But at the same time the energy and culture happening was so intensely rich.


When you were growing up, what did you want (or still wish) to be? And what motivated you to become or hindered that?


I think that's such an unfair question for kids. I remember being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I had no idea. I wanted to wait until I grew up to see what felt right. Ultimately this question urges kids to think about their passions. What makes the most sense is tapping into what you truly feel in your gut and going from there. I hope kids can feel the freedom to do that.


Art was very central in my bloodline. Also in practice it is something that I started to dabble in from a young age. Being the youngest of four, I was influenced by my older siblings who were doing artistic things. I began to draw and just stuck with it. Now I bring all of those early influences into my work. So you can always see here:

One of Cita's murals in Dua Coffee shop in Washington, DC. (Photo by Faye Saechao / SEAT)

For example, there's usually a tropical theme or something that is semi-spiritual that touches on Javanese culture or something that touches on indigenous culture. I find myself gravitating towards these themes.


The Client’s request was for a mural with an Indonesian theme, so there are some of those cultural touch points here. Her ear adornments are something you'll see in traditional Javanese/Indonesian dancers.


Where did you find the confidence, the motivation to just keep pushing with the art?


It's hard to explain because it was just so innate. It was just this is what you're going to do and you're not getting any resistance. So just do it fully, you know? I have this passion.

"Grit is one thing that folks talk about, it's the tenacity. You're just going to keep going. No matter what, and that definitely comes from the immigrant mindset and experience. You have to because you also have to support the family back home."

Folks can't be laying in bed all day. There's a creative fire and curiosity that I have. Maybe it comes from Javanese/Indonesian spirit - my hands wanting to create constantly. My Mother’s work ethic made a huge impression on me. I told myself I must keep making things.

Cita in front of one of her most famous murals in Thomas Circle in Washington, DC. (Photo by Faye Saechao / SEAT)

What social, economic/financial or cultural barriers did you encounter? And how did you overcome them (if at all)?


I didn't receive a lot of blowback or limitations in terms of my gender. I think it's a question that is natural to ask, and I've been asked that so many times, but I’ve been lucky to have not experienced many limitations in this way. I feel very fortunate for that. I didn't have to break through a lot of barriers, but I know many women do.


What resources or role models/ representation did you wish you had growing up?

I was the youngest of four, always looking up to my older siblings trying to mirror every one of them, especially my brother. I was a complete tomboy which maybe fostered that “I can do anything” mentality. I was on my bmx bike, skating, rolling down hills, being crazy.


As kids, my Mother used to tell us four kids: “We're like the five fingers on one hand - together we make a fist. We’re strong and unified.” My small family was my world, the house where I grew up, and the Indonesian Embassy. My mom was my ultimate role model though. We had the kind of relationship we were just really close. What she went through was so tough, achieving a Fulbright Scholarship, raising four kids as a single mother while attending University, in a brand new country with no family around to help out. I am so inspired and amazed by her, just as so many others who crossed paths with her were.


What would you say to young girls, women and LGBTQ+ individuals such as yourself that you wish you heard growing up?

Life is going to keep hitting you with really wild stuff that you won’t understand. The best thing to learn is how to emotionally regulate yourself, because sometimes you're going to be all alone and there will be issues and traumas. Maybe your parents have died, or you might be the only person from your family that made it out of a terrible situation. It’s important to learn how to hold yourself and properly process your emotions because there might not be anybody else to help. It’s called emotional regulation from a psychological standpoint. Look into resources on how to do that because you’ve got to build those survival skills. It's like a boat in the ocean. You’ve got to be ready with your bucket to bail out the water when it starts sinking and its a never ending task. Not that it's a negative, it's just life.

"...the best thing that you can learn is how to emotionally regulate yourself because sometimes you're all alone."

We all know about the five or so basic things that will help yourself be a healthy person, no matter what. For example, meditation is free even to do it with you. Even if you're incarcerated, you can meditate. Meditation is so integral to regulating how you react to what happens, because that's the key, right? If something happens you could be cool or you could freak out. The outcome completely depends on your reaction. Walking is another great practice. Drinking enough good quality water. Journaling. I can't remember the exact phrase, but in Hawai’i when folks greet each other they ask, “How is your water?” On a cellular level, even the thoughts we have make a difference. I think of the experiments by Dr. Masaro Imoto, a Japanese man who wrote “Hidden Messages In Water”. He wrote different phrases and words on pieces of paper and taped them to different vessels of water. The molecular structure of that water changed depending on the vibration of that word. There's a vibrational scale for all of these different feelings. For example fear has a very low vibration, whereas love has the highest. These vibrations have an effect on our biology and cells. Sunlight's another key force. These basic tools can help anyone on this planet who wants to be healthy and survive.




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