Goodman Gallery, Cape Town
15.09.2016 – 20.10.2016
‘Still Still’ showing at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town is a second iteration of Masamvu’s ‘Still’, which was shown previously at the Goodman space in Johannesburg. Masamvu is a Zimbabwean painter who by now has formed a local reputation for his dark and, at times, humorous work. He seems to draw on his experience of living among the corruption and collapse of his home country. He has an aversion to explicit political content, and opts rather for his personal experience in “surviving the politics” to inform his work. This show is delirious with the derangement which succeeds ruin, visible from the details in the handling of his material to his chosen imagery.
On entering, one is faced with the largest work in the show, the aptly titled Gatekeepers. And first you see Masamvu’s lurid style. The tense overlapping and what looks like evidence of his fighting with the stubbornness of the medium, invite scrutiny. He has left the paint to drip, and at unpredictable stages of progress and rotation; he scratches over and under blotches of colour with something like an oil crayon; thinned opaque paints glow with the vibrant colours beneath them. This urgency runs rampant past figure and into background, as he slips in and out of abstraction. Although these pictures are large and figurative, there are telling intricacies close-up. In Gatekeepers the racing colours make large, disturbed flowers over the landscape spread, and these are interspersed with nightmarish forms as archetypal as a skull or perhaps a disembodied blue hand, and other such forbidding things.
These flowers are not of this world. Masamvu renders as ugly and sick the objects of so many past painters’ desire. Their past as a form of beauty, as idea of beauty, is actively subverted, recalling the rebellion of the early 20th century Expressionists. This first becomes recognisable in Masamvu’s aesthetic decisions, but then even more pronounced in his desire to assert himself as human witness, as a witness desiring freedom from any constructed system and its values. Expressionism is defined by these acts of rebellion – be it against beauty, or uneven social hierarchies, or a temperament doomed to a life of suffering. The hidden vibrancy of abstract works by Philip Guston or the raw art brut of Jean Dubufett, for instance, describe a beginning in this kind of painterly corruption.
Painting today has a hard time proving itself, found either scrambling for novel acts to define its contemporary place in history or, too late, embodying times past. A persisting distinction of the medium is in its unique capacity to reach the imagination through both imagery and materiality. The handled material maintains the living touch of its human maker, as immediately as the image that it makes. Masamvu uses this to stress that behind the imagery persists their human maker, trapped in this world. The decided naïve manner acts as a signifier for the innocence he wills into his touch, as he works against the deceptiveness of even one’s own, taught thinking. Similarly, we perceive a child’s innocence in relation to the discerning and tainted adult.
A few pictures on and the iconography takes hold. His symbolic language pushes the imagination where the emotional mass cannot go. In Amen! Amen! Amen!, two figures make a crucifixion scene; one plays the cross, the other the crucified. The feet of the crucified are nailed between the spread-open legs of the cross. This is arguably Masamvu’s most figurative picture (and his darkest). Recalling the sinister allure of Marlene Dumas, Masamvu leaves the paint thin and bleeding like a nightmare burnt to memory, returning only ever as a flash.
Masamvu draws imagery from moralising biblical narratives of heaven and hell, or the traditional stories of the Pinky Pinky Tokoloshe, who haunts the girls’ bathroom. In Lost Angels the ground is laid thickly with dark purples, trapping beneath it a pair of quivering eyes; what is an angel like in this ‘upside-down’ world: does it persist as infinitely good, and suffering because of it? Or does it turn rotten? The bad omen of Pinky Pinky is summoned and the presence immortalised in a close-up portrait. Life of the hair could easily be taken for a Georgina Gratrix picture, but then again the cynicism is no tongue-in-cheek: his humour always reduces to darkness. By using these symbols he summons the impressions one has to these subjects, not as an adult, but rather with the susceptibility of a child.
What happens when an artwork assumes a childlike hand, overlaid with depictions of the unholy, the sick, the obscene, or even just the uncomfortable? Masamvu distorts each image into a far more overwhelming, and far more damaging violation. It is with this voice which he narrates this upturned and hellish place. Again and again he returns to this combination of the childlike and the adulterated, vulnerability and harm, the fearful and the oppressor.
Even the titles of his works describe an atmosphere tense with hierarchy, tense with injustice and exposed helplessness. Gatekeepers suggests security and filtered access; Amen! Amen! Amen! is so frantic as to suggest worship only founded in fear; First Lady represents a systematic hierarchy; Ranked Heads sounds like a punishing military system; and Jump spread your legs takes the tone of an authority, making a command.
The title of the show, ‘Still Still’, suggests persistence against such invincible forces; a world which is not fair, and seems not to budge whatever you do. These hints to the presence of coldblooded authorities – from one’s president in power to the Fates’ cruel decree — place the solipsism, attributed to expressionist working, into some collective experience. And this is far more a tendency of recent African Expressionism: a breaching of the vivid individual, into communal camaraderie. It seems Masamvu and other recent African expressionists, such as David Koloane and Portia Zvavahera, as preceded by Gladys Mgudlandlu or Helen Sebidi, bend this form to their own present-day needs.
‘Still, Still’ gives the sense of a man’s curiosity with the persistence of people, even through the most hellish of circumstances. It is a move of solidarity and identification with such on-going persistence; it is an act of resistance in itself. The human is fragile to its environment, and this loss in control both of one’s environment and one’s self is frightening. It can reduce one to feeling like a child again. In this place which Masamvu describes, each system of dominance seems to be enclosed by the next, interminably: is our vulnerability something we can ever outgrow?