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Mekdela Maskal

Deep thinking, intention setting, and digging through the family archives with this fearless woman, who gracefully defies categorization.

Photography Beth Garrabrant

Fashion Doria Santlofer

Words Natalie Shukur

It seems only fitting that a bright stream of sunlight cascades into Mekdela Maskal’s small bedroom, even on this deepest winter day. Her humble space, within a rambling Brooklyn rail-road house, is drenched in color — a lemon yellow robe hangs on the back of a door; a lipstick-red beret on a handle; a flourishing Alocasia plant is perched on an eclectic assortment of books, and her own vibrant paintings lean against a wall. If we were to describe Maskal, we’d call her a thinker but also a communicator. A philosopher and a poet; painter and photographer. A budding ethnographer. She is thoroughly modern, inherently stylish, and someone who inspires us to look to our roots, as well as advancements in technology, in order to think outside of the box.

“My biggest loves are the outdoors and technology. Seems like two extremes but, for me, a favorable pairing.”

When I was 12, I broke down crying because I was so frustrated with people asking me what I wanted to be or do. My dad, at age 50, with laughs between words said, “sweetie, I have no idea what I want to do”. I did not enjoy that answer then, but it now allows me to journey calmly, and be OK not knowing how to answer this question.

I’m first generation American. My parents left Ethiopia in their late teens and met in LA. They left to attend college and to escape a military coup that had erupted there in the late 70s. Although grateful for their asylum, my parents maintained a strong connection to their culture and home country. We made visits when it was safe to do so. Some family, including my dad, have moved back within the last ten years. I now visit as often as I can. I grew up in Northern California, split-ting my time between my mom and dad. Mom in the South Bay, and dad in Tahoe area. My biggest loves are the outdoors and technology. Seems like two extremes but, for me, a favorable pairing. By weekday, I was obsessed with the emergence of the internet. By weekend, I was living out of a tent with my dad, building his house, winning archery competitions, and teaching kids how to ski.

I’ve been working through the transition from data-led tech marketing towards content and journalism, although I think they’re inextricably linked in the age of the internet. I’m having fun distilling my foci points — currently studying communication strategies for conservation, as well as the relationship between digital literacy and mental health.

Fashion has been about biography and confession in my life. I’m interested in dress as a method of understanding a person or population’s environment, history, and values. There’s a lot to learn through clothes. It’s also had a confessional quality in my upbringing. Most people could surmise that I had divorced parents by eyeing the duffle bag of clothes with me at school. Little did they know, I found devilish joy in changing midday to confuse everyone. It was also obvious that I had brothers, as I’d use their closets to expand my own. I continue to take pleasure in talking and listening through fashion. My choices in adulthood are focused on being sustainable, communicating an existence outside the gender binary, and expressing my family’s history.

My relationships and the earth.

Ha, this may be the one favorite question I can answer to some degree of certainty. The horn of Africa, because it’s the land of origins.

I’m a research nut. I’ll get into a hole around one subject, current event, or author/director and go deeper for days. I was most recently researching the travel writing space. I think it’s currently a wasteland of “Five hot spots to go to in _____”, skewed for the elite. I’m interested in writing long-form narrative pieces that reveal travel as an attainable method (and what should be a right, in my opinion) of seeking education, safety, family, etc. I’d also like to specifically highlight relationships between the people and the planet in indigenous cultures. A few standouts from this deep dive: Love and Lies in Iran by Mario Kaiser, Into the Inferno by Werner Herzog (anything by Werner Herzog!), Rokia Traoré's Commitment To Her Culture on NPR (then, listen to her albums).

Every morning I turn over in bed, pull my journal out from under my pillow, and write. I drink the rest of the water that’s bedside from the night before. Then, I call my mom.

My family, their stories and photos. We had a ritual around storytelling growing up. After family dinners, we’d cuddle on the floor with pillows and blankets, and my dad would take out a new box of slides to put through the projector. It was like a movie night of our own family history. Certain slides would evoke something powerful for a relative, and they’d dart off into an explanation of that memory or emotion. Documentation and storytelling continues to be paramount for inspiration, as well as for my own choice of medium.

I love that New York doesn’t allow me to get complacent. The only thing stopping me from growth is myself. Well, at least more so than, say, Tahoe or San Francisco. Both charming places I’ve lived before but felt stuck in, because of finances, limited industries, hard racial boundaries, etc. On the other hand, it offers me a sense of belonging that I hadn’t experienced before moving here. I think anyone in the world can come to New York City and find their tribe. Then, you can decide to change your vibe and live a whole different life the next year, month, day. I started in the east village almost seven years ago. I’ve lived so many lives. It’s beautiful.

No fear.

It reminds me of something I wrote in my journal a while back: “I want to stay far away/from the realities/that are being constructed for us.”

Yes, I have many. My new year is August 27th. That’s when I start thinking about the things I want to shed from myself throughout the fall. Then, once winter hits, I’ve made room to think about the things I want to focus my energy manifesting. One of utmost importance that spans many areas in my life, is to share more. Share fears and failures, share joys and triumphs. And, more importantly, share your path to those moments. There is so much individual and societal growth to be achieved through openness.

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