21.11 - 16.01.2021
It all looks very simple with its tight, consistent palette of oil and acrylic paints in amethyst, orange and bright greens but Cassi Namoda’s exhibition ‘To live long is to see much’ is intertextual spanning from family archives and dreamscapes, to history and magical realism1Magic realist novels and stories have, typically a strong narrative drive, in which the recognizably realistic merges with the unexpected and the inexplicable and in which elements of dreams, fairy story, or mythology combine with the everyday reality, often in mosaic or kaleidoscopic pattern of refraction and recurrence. — Shindu, K. “The Concept of Magical Realism in Laura Esquivel? ”Like Water for Chocolate”. SMART MOVES JOURNAL IJELLH, vol. 3, no. 10, May 2017. The first thing that struck me upon seeing the exhibition and reading the accompanying text were the references to magical realism: subject matter I first encountered in an English studies lecture hosted in a cavernous hall. Travelling from Latin American, European and African traditions the book under study in that class was Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of this World. The genre was ‘magical realism’ or lo real maravalisso (the marvelous real) as Carpentier referred to it in the preface of his book.
Going between the impossible and the believable the novel also fits into the genre of post-colonialist fiction and social realism among others. Similar to Carpentier’s books, Namoda’s paintings span across vast passages of time leaving one unsure of where in time they are located. The works in the exhibition are spread out sparsely in the exhibition space and the scenes in each painting are described as tableaus woven into the green landscapes of Mozambique, Namoda’s birthplace and home for several years. All in all, there are just a few works in the gallery but an understanding of magical realism brings weight to the exhibition.
Over this passage of time that Namoda proposes, the characters depicted in the paintings take part in activities like sleeping, dancing and kissing. Bodies of water stood out as a location for several of the most magical scenes in Namoda’s exhibition: an immersion baptism, the snapshot of the black-skinned fetus in the belly of a giant fish, Jonah and the Whale style and the shetani2Shetani are spirits of East African mythology and popular belief. Mostly malevolent, and found in many different forms and different types with different powers, shetani are a popular subject of carved artwork, especially by the Makonde people of Tanzania, Mozambique, and Kenya. Physically, shetani of various types appear as distorted human and animal figures. — Hirsch, Leon V. ‘The Authenticity of Makonde Art: A Collector Replies.’ African Arts, vol. 26, no. 1, 1993, pp. 10–100. JSTOR, a spirit co-existing with mother and son at the river bank. At first I thought the figures in front of me were one of many sets of conjoined twins that occur in Namida’s oeuvre but it was actually this spirit of myth and folklore. In this painting a multi headed figure with a hoe for arms is depicted ploughing at the river bank. Speaking of the shetani in the exhibition leaflet Wesley Hardin, writes:
Where once her hands grasped a trowel’s wooden handle, a joint is now fused; flesh becomes wood; wood becomes steel; she has transformed into a jet-black crescent, a sickle with a glistening grey tip. And with each downward arc of her great extremity, she no longer sows her grain, but instead gently strums the violet string that is stretched across the horizons.
Nomoda’s heritage is stretched across Latin America, the United States and Southern Africa. Namoda lived in Haiti more than 70 years after Carpentier’s first visit the island that inspired The Kingdom of this World. Considering that The Kingdom of this World mentions key historical events such as the Haitian revolution, and that Namoda’s works were made in Long Island amid heavy lockdown measures and protests for social justice, it is hard to ignore the feeling that the artist is making a commentary on the multiplicity of black life: that the trauma and bitterness that lingers in the post-colony can exist simultaneously with desire to seek joy, and that the real world and the magical one can present themselves equally.