Collage is an artistic language made up of fragments, found images and uncertain shapes. The process of collecting visual material and assembling it can abstract the visual elements allowing an artistic vision to shine through. There are three artists working in collage who, to me, use the medium to communicate something similar. In the works of Neo Matloga, Ndijeka Akunyili Crosby and Lunga Ntila, broken images become a strategy to consider interiors – both as a place and a state of mind.
The relationship between collage and interiors is opened by the text for ‘Back of the Moon,’ Matloga’s solo exhibition opening online with Stevenson. The artist ‘employs contradictory arrangements of posture and expression, offering a kaleidoscope of interiors and interiorities that question common understandings of social relations.’ Interiors are referred to in the architectural sense and interiority is understood as subjectivity in all its dimensions: as understanding, reflection, spirituality, memory, imagination, privacy and self-reflection.
Being endowed with interiority cannot be disassociated from the physical and spatial aspect of human life, particularly the environment closest to the person. This piece oscillates between the architectural interior and the psychological interior, going from space to subjectivity, from interior to interiority.
Matloga’s variegated characters play out their scenes in living rooms, kitchens and stoeps. Motho Waka, staged on the stoep in front of the butler (burglar) gate, is steeped in nostalgia of township life. The scene shows two people: one person with a perfectly round afro, cut out from original print material, that harks back to a different time and the other person sitting on the low wall. The eyes and hands are shown in twisted perspectives and even though the features are distorted, the scene is familiar. Though the relationship between the characters is ambiguous, the title Motho Waka (My person) opens a window into this exchange telling us that even though we don’t know the woman in the polka-dot dress and the man wearing the high-heeled shoes, the encounter is romantic – this scene staged across the wall, a boundary between interior and exterior, is common to those familiar with the conventions of black life.
The eyes, lips and noses are a nod to realism and act in opposition to the flat backgrounds of charcoal, ink and liquid charcoal. The effect produced is one of an interior that is convincing in the local vernacular and speaks of interiority in the figures. There is an earlier work by Matloga, titled Bo mam’gobozi, in his distinctive style where the interior functions simultaneously with the exterior. In this work one woman stands behind the boundary while the other two stand in the street-side – the title of the work tells us that the exchange is one where the neighbourhood women who gossip, bo’mamgobozi, are engaging in their ritual of trading secrets .
What lies at the centre of Matloga’s kaleidoscope of collage characters is that living and loving continues in spite of our country’s various socio-politics – a sentiment that resonates globally as people are retreating to the domestic interior to be safe from disaster. As we carry on with daily living and loving, we are also in the process of preserving memories that we will only be able to recall in fragments. Matloga’s use of collage mimics this process of fragmented recollections.
Like Matloga, Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s works are also concerned with showing interiors that are familiar to a particular group of people, in this case people from middle-class Nigerian homes. Akunyili Crosby explained that she approaches her work in a similar fashion to Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. The writer often portrayed his characters speaking in their own dialects and omitted translation, as though to say to the reader who does not speak the dialect: ‘This is not for you.’
An anecdote I’ve read1Nigerian Artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby Is Painting the Afropolitan Story in America in W Magazine goes that during her residency at Studio Museum in Harlem, Akunyili Crosby ran after Wangechi Mutu in the streets and asked her to visit her studio. It was during this visit that Mutu suggested she look to the newsstand and consider composing her images using the method of collage. Akunyili Crosby has lived in Nigeria and the US, and her work documents the objects, interiors and domestic scenes of the places she has lived. Her large-scale works combine painting, drawing, and acetone transfers of personal photographs and found images from Nigerian magazines into a flattened perspective. The results are richly textured surfaces that convey the complexities of the African and diasporic experiences of Akunyili Crosby and the people she depicts in her paintings.
Multiple works show scenes where Akunyili Crosby and her husband are the main characters – the works simultaneously show a blend of interiors as home space and her individual psychology – making us voyeurs to the couples daily family life. Akunyili Crosby’s insistent focus on the tenderness of her marriage is touching for many reasons but mainly that the insertion of her husband relays complex narratives about cross-cultural life. It tells of her family’s fear that in marrying across colour and culture, she had turned her back on her people and culture. But in the works her interiors are mirrors into her interiority; the works are heavily collaged in layers of Nigerian texture with patterned fabric, found images such as photographs and Nollywood stills that bleed into the figures making her connection to Nigeria read strongly.There is of course the suspicion that the authenticity of the work is affected by the need to make and exhibit the work but this tension is a dimension within interiority itself.
Lunga Ntila’s practice combines self-portraiture and collage-making to explore her spirituality. She takes a photograph of her face and uses it as the raw material for the production of her digital collages. Dismantling traditional realistic representation, she uses digital techniques such as cut-and-paste to repeat and stretch individual elements in places where they traditionally do not belong. With the photo collage, Ntila’s voice is active because she’s not just capturing images but also imposing a viewpoint by restructuring, distorting and displacing the visual information. In the process she is exploring self-understanding and the inner world through disclosure that is inherent in self portraiture, a move that similarly to Akunyili Crosby plays with the tension between interiority and exteriority.
The repetitive process of cut-and-paste employed in Ntila’s work is an occasion for introspection in seeking deeper connections into to indigenous knowledge particularly ukuzilanda – a term used to name and describe the conscious process of putting together the fragmented self and connecting to the past in the present. Ntila is drawn toward the interior life, toward the search for the invisible and a dialogue with the divinity. In Something keeps calling, a surreal and eerie work showing the artist’s eyes and lips as enlarged and uncertain is similar to her other works in that she is devising a language to express and convey her spirituality. The works don’t possess any religious iconography or signs we could point to as spiritual, but they speak in a language that is suited to the needs of our age.
Matloga, Akunyli Crosby and Ntila emerge from a wide variety of perspectives that are shaping the panorama of collage. To suggest interiority, Matloga’s work integrates fragments of ‘memory’ to create a cohesive whole. Using found images that are from Nigeria or reference it, paints a picture of Akunyili Crosby’s domestic life and the psychological processes that go into creating that life. Distorting the shapes of her features and cobbling them back together speaks to the uncertainty ruling the spiritual aspect of Ntila’s interior world. The artists use the method of collage to create works that pull from a variety of raw materials to let us into the private and intimate universes of interiors and interiority. To me, at this time, their works are a reminder that the search for home and home within oneself is never complete.