Painting personal histories
The painter Cassi Namoda situates herself squarely in the artistic history of Mozambique, especially its rich tradition of anticolonial photography, as she turns outwards to the world.
- Interview by
- Drew Thompson
Through her paintings, Cassi Namoda humanizes the lives and stories of often neglected and erased historical actors. Namoda imagines and renders figures previously deemed by society as unworthy of hagiographic visual depiction. The figures she depicts come to her through her own dreams, thoughts, and photographs that she astutely interrogates. She was born in Maputo, Mozambique, but to see her as a Mozambican painter is a narrow lens on her expansive and performative practice that spans from Mozambique to Los Angeles and now East Hampton, New York. (She also grew up partly in Benin, Haiti, and the United States.) Namoda is accustomed to her audiences not knowing how to place her and her artwork. She does not feel the need to fit into artificial collection categories, such as “African” or “American.” She is proudly peripatetic in her travels and artistic influences, which specifically range from German Expression to the late Kenyan philosopher John Mbiti. Part of her practice involves looking at family, documentary, and colonial photographs. She is attentive to the perspective of photographers, but keenly interested in how photographed sitters look back at the camera. Painting is a way to see from the limits of photography and to imagine anew. Through illustrated moments in time, viewpoints, and emotions that are too easily dismissed, her ultimate aim is to challenge audiences to consider the pain and joy of others.
Namoda is coming off a busy 2020. At the start of the year, she opened at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London, Little is Enough for Those in Love. She finished the year with To Live Long is To See Much, her first show in South Africa at Goodman Gallery’s Johannesburg location (November 21, 2020 to January 16, 2021). Namoda spoke from East Hampton, New York to AIAC contributor, Drew Thompson, about her recent exhibitions, the personal histories that inspire her, and how she situates her work within the rich lineage of mostly male Mozambican artists that have preceded her.
Can we talk about your love for the Mozambican photographer Ricardo Rangel? When did you first see one of his images? I was struck because one of your first exhibitions was called “Meat is Meat + Our Nightly Bread,” a rift on one of his most famous series “Our Nightly Bread.”
In a more personal narrative, or context, to your question, my mother’s middle name is Maria, and I created this character out of Ricardo’s series in “Our Nightly Bread,” which was when he documented the red-light district Rua Araújo. [Ricardo’s photographs are] some of the best work to come out of African photography to date; there is nothing like it. I studied cinematography briefly, and I was always fascinated with lens art and the essence behind a photograph. I thought about how the world understands African photography and studio photography, and then to be able to look at someone like Ricardo’s work or [the Mozambican press-photographer] Kok Nam, I think stylistically was so different from anything that I had seen in the black-and-white gelatin prints. Then going deeper into it, I find out later that my mom was working with Ricardo, developing photographs at [weekly Mozambican magazine] Tempo [where Rangel worked as a photojournalist]. For me, it was really amazing, this was the time before I delved into painting. There was this cultural and familial connection.
Everyone [in Mozambique] fought for revolution, whether you were a woman or man, and some of the women’s duties were to create these secret farms to feed guerrillas and then to fight. But then [during Portuguese colonial rule] you had these women who became street walkers, [who] owned their own agency. [T]he work on paper, “Meat is Meat + Our Nightly Bread” (2017), was the prelude to me giving homage, or an ode, to Ricardo and translating it to the medium outside of photography. Those prints are black and white, [and] I was able to reimagine them in color with vibrancy. The three Marias would always show up [in my work] in different scales and scenarios. When I look at Rangel documenting [the lives of women] I am not looking at them as prostitutes. I am looking at these very beautiful women. Maria is a character of polarity, and this polarity is something that I examined in African life. There is a lot of polarity in terms of the exhaustion of living. Maria always shows up in different characters, reclined on bed, or in a bar, with a kind of sensitive red eye.
The exhibition “Meat is Meat. Meat is Meat” (Los Angeles, CA, 2017) is very dark in subject matter and color. Your show “Little is Enough for Those in Love” is lighter and more colorful. How do you account for this transformation, from being engrossed in a personal history and working with varying shades of red and grey to one who is embracing a lighter color palette?
For me painting is personal. I believe in duality. I think you can’t have joy without suffering. In some ways, I needed to provide something for people to walk away with that felt sensitive. I am not only thinking for others. I am also thinking for myself, to my truth. My truth at that moment [was that] we have to accept that a little will take us a long way. I mean that in a metaphorical sense, and literally. When I made that show for Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, I would wake up early. I just got my coffee and would go for walks around the bay. The examining of the nature came really through me. I was looking at the soft pinks of the sand, the pale yellows and blues, and I thought about it in relation to the beauty of African life. When I think about John Mbiti’s writings and sort of societal duties, it [life] is very sinful. You want to be a good member of your village or society, and to do so you must adhere to your responsibilities and those steps: You are born. When you are born, you will be named, but named again once you reach puberty. When you reach puberty, you shed blood for your ancestors for the land, and now you are a real person, real member of society. Now you have real responsibilities and that is to find a partner, to proceed in marriage, to have children and that’s the real work, the children, working with children to create homeostasis for your village. So, you have “Family Portrait in Gurúè, 2019”, and I thought about it in a contemporary more dualistic sense. Being a younger family from a town and being in a city in Africa, your family does not really know who you are. [There are] these gazes and those characters. A story that I wanted to give [in the exhibition at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery is] that it is not all dark from my side. A lot of people [say,] “Cassi, you paint these said characters. I find them honest.”
In that early work, there were such close ups of people and intimate relationships. There seems like there is a certain comfort with the distance, looking in, not as an outsiders but taking perspective. You are comfortable with both proximity and distance.
That also, in a way, is something that I had to explore in my life and also come to understand. I grew up in New York during middle school, and then went to boarding school in West Africa, Benin. In Benin, I spent a lot of time in the home of Vodun. I spent a lot of time observing. When I think of my observations, they were not personal. They were made from a distance looking at a culture. Coming to understand some of the things that I deal with my own flesh. Then there is a class divide. For me someone like Mbiti, who I often refer to because I feel the closest to it, Africans don’t believe in wasting time, but we believe in producing time. I think this show with the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery was an actualization of all of that and then also has a static energy with the sand and flowers. [With the] conjoined twins on sand overlooking the marriage from a distance, there is sensitivity to space and time and progression of life. It feels as if there is circular motion to life. There is a lot of ideas around swimming, the women holding the conjoined twins tenderly, and even the two women peeling corn and papaya. It is less about the depictions and more about how they make you feel or how it makes you understand, relate to a time removed from you. Then, the gaze is something that reminds you that you are not a member of their society.
What kinds of moments in time are you seeking to capture, especially when considering how photography influences your practice? Could you also talk about where this idea of the conjoined twins comes from in order to think about a twining of portraiture or four sets of eyes that have to look without each other?
I am a twin. It is less about me about being a twin. When I did “The Three Marias” (2018), there were multiple eyes looking at you. Most of the time they were not looking at you [the viewer] in discourse between themselves. I am fascinated by the gaze. So, to have these conjoined twins, with the gaze maybe penetrating deeper. You are seeing them as one sole individual with multiple eyes. People want it [the significance of the conjoined twins] to be very literal; they want me to explain who the conjoined twins are. When I started painting the conjoined twins, I was not thinking about anyone specifically. Then I started research, and I learned about Christine and Millie McKoy, who were twins born in the 1800s into slavery in South Carolina. The context of [my] Goodman show, “Too Live Long Is To See Much,” is a little darker. I am thinking about haunting and enfreakment of the image, and how being in a Black body has been under this category. We have been treated as if we are other. I want to tell stories without overtly telling the same narrative as what is in the stratosphere right now. I have thought about taking agency over Christian and Millie, and rendering them in a beautiful and painterly light. Because their whole life they have been under medical enslavement. You know they were subjugated to doctors. It was a life that was not theirs. At the end of it all, with the money they made after travelling the world, they gave a lot to the Black community. I don’t think we know about them yet. I felt like I wanted to release them in some way. It is very cinematic for me. These characters just come through me. Until they are out of my system, or I need to put them to rest for a little bit, they will keep just showing up. I am very interested in anyone of color that has been sold to the world of queer, who has been de-freaked in a sort of horrible enslavement. It is a calling that I feel I need to bring; it is a sort of digression from how I usually tell stories, [which] are not personal to me but I do understand the idea of ancestral baggage. I think that is something that we can all, as people of color, relate to.
When I read some reviews of your work, I heard this idea of “Lusotropical painting” and how you engage ideas of colorblindness. How are you thinking about the dynamics of race and representation through your rendering of skin color?
As a viewer, we are always thinking about who the painter is. I am not so fascinated with the idea of telling a racial story, but I am more interested in telling stories of a world that people might not seem so knowledgeable about. I am not just talking about Black people in general. [There is] this idea of broadening, or expanding our understanding, of African and Black life, in a world that people don’t know so much. I stress “Lusophone” or “Lusotropical,” because the real work of the work is with me, as a painter dealing with “Lusotropical narrative.” When you look at the titles, “Smiling Woman in Angoche” (2019) and “Young woman makes a dress in Quelimane” (2020), I think a lot about regionalism. When I am thinking about the character, I am not thinking about a Ghanaian or Kenyan girl, I am thinking about the girl that I know in my personal context in terms of my roots. I want people to feel curious and know more. It is not that I want you to step in and have an idea of what Black fatherhood is like or what it is like being a lady of the night in 1960s Mozambique through my paintings. I want to challenge what you might expect. With “Little is Enough for Those in Love”, it felt necessary to be sensitive in a way that did not feel photographic. I wanted my viewers to think about what it is to make a painting or to color, composition or something that might be fascinating, and then maybe you can think about the figure. With “Meat is Meat + Our Nightly Bread” (2017), it was more about the emotion that you might share, and deep into the human psyche what isolation or sadness might feel like. We all feel that at times. I am interested in the in-between, like that in-between before crying or that in-between before laughing.
I look at your work and I understand the inspiration from German Expressionism. Also, I can see cultural references with Mozambique, and am drawn to think about Mozambican artists like Malangatana Ngwenya and Alberto Chissano. How do you situate yourself in the artistic history of Mozambique just as you turn outwards to understand your personal dimension?
I always say to people who are not from Mozambique that the best way to understand Mozambique is through literature and painting. Magical realism is definitely the foundation of Mozambican expression. Malangatana worked off imagination and memory, and he also worked off a lot his dreams and nightmares. I can’t help but not make work thinking about Malangatana and Gonçalo Mabunda. Mozambique is still a young country and it is learning from itself. I feel like I have a duty to keep storytelling and exploring narratives around Mozambique. I feel that part of the identity about being from Mozambique is to be a creative, to be a writer, to make music, to do woodcarving. In my work I will often think about people like Picasso and Brancusi, who looked at African art works and carvings, and sort of implemented in their way [their own visions of Africa] that became in a way a savage work. [When] I think about African Expressionism, I am taking agency between the two, a love for European painting but still keeping it very much in the realm of belonging to the continent. In the work I made for Goodman Gallery, I am looking at Tingatinga. For me, that is African pointillism. I am negotiating how that might feel in the work, with sort of introducing pointillism meeting the two in the middle but keeping with the personal to me. I am sort of in between the two, keeping it open. It is the beauty of painting that you can have the breathing room for so many worlds to enter.
In Mozambique, there are so few painters. So interesting to hear this rich history and connection that you have to photography, which strikes me as the history that would make you a photographer. Yet, you chose to be a painter. Why was that?
When I was in Uganda, I found this street in the Bugolobi neighborhood, where there was a German war photographer [living]. His last big project was the Rwandan genocide. I knocked on his door and said, “I would like to learn photography,” and asked if he would teach me. I started documenting people and different subjects and landscapes. It became for me a prelude to sensitivity. I would spend summers in Brooklyn and would stay in Crown Heights, where there was Nsenga Knight, Laylah Amatullah Brown, and Allison Caviness—Black women at Howard University working in lens art. Nsenga put me on a project about people in the community who had converted to Islam prior to Elijah Muhammad. The world of photography became super personal for me. I had become assistant to certain casting directors, Onye Anyanwu [for example]. I always painted quietly to myself. I always felt so at ease painting. I am walking with the language of cinema and photography, but I am curious what would it be really to perfect Ricardo’s work in terms of painting, with the essence of femininity behind it and more sensitivity behind it. I would never understand [what it was] to be that woman or subject that he [Rangel] was photographing. But, I can bring a bit more dimensionality in a way. The language of painting has always felt to me so abrupt. It is actually no different for me than taking a photo. It is immediate when it comes to understanding the composition. It is a lot of the reason that I paint in acrylic. I need immediacy, very much like a photographer.
What kinds of questions do you find yourself trying to answer in your most recent show at Goodman Gallery?
I titled my first solo show with Goodman Gallery, To Live Long is To See Much because the work explores a metric in time through different reflections and thresholds. I am encouraging audiences to have some audacity around living. [The exhibition is] a story about nativity. I relinquish agency over my paintings and retain the art form of prose. The cadence of the paintings is set in tone by palette of tight borders—the “connective tissue.” There’s a restraint seen in all the works, perhaps a discernible one. Emotion is abundant in the way that humans can connect to story. There are multiple facets of question I am navigating, particularly around the imposing reality of the work of being caught in some lucid dream, how to be honest to that world, how do those [emotions] translate within painting, and how to make that relevant.