16.01 - 27.02.2021
“Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colours, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential.”
I found myself revisiting these words by Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky, a Russian painter, and art theorist, when I encountered Misheck Masamvu’s ‘Talk to me while I’m eating,’ an exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in London. The artist introduces his colourful expressionistic abstract work through a well-crafted poem that evokes images in the reader’s mind in the same manner his work induces thoughts in the viewer’s psyche. In other words, besides the poetic nature of his paintings, Masamvu is an accomplished wordsmith who paints with words too. Completing the exhibition is a set of multiple neatly framed figurative pencil drawings exuding combined animal and human elements, showing that the artist’s practice stretches beyond the medium he is famous for.
The poem is a narrative of brevity in the face of injustices around Masamvu. It captures the philosophical sentiments, intentions, and emotions of the artist in his quest to ‘recognize and reconcile elements that bind two people in a set,’ that which draws humanity together, and ‘around what it means to preserve a state of being with dignity.’ It is also a reflection as he ‘draws inspiration from the past’ and looks ahead. Though he questions if he still has the appetite, he also cautions himself against losing his sense of bearing, which is a sign of unwavering commitment to confront the injustices, and not be a mere spectator. As artist and curator Gina Maxim enunciates, “these feelings and frustrations towards the ‘remnants of old behaviour’ from those in ‘power’ has given birth to works like Whispers in the Mist where these misdeeds must be confronted, challenged and made visible.”1Gina Maxim. A Neglected Generation at the Mercy of the Host. Available here.
In this body of work, every one of his paintings surprises me. The visual impact is immediate. I search for the symbols that I have seen in some of his work in the past, the characters that constitute his visual grammar. I struggle to find heads, skulls, and flowers for example. Still, the constant feature in these rapturous chaotic compositions is the ‘remarkable synthesis of mythical figuration and scallop patterning, a strategy that persists in his work.’2 Sean O’Toole. 2018. Carnivorous Politics, Defiant Bodies: Harare Painting in Turbulent Times. Available here. The figures only begin to unravel from the many layers of dense strokes on the canvas as I spend a bit more time looking at a particular work. In Semi-Detached, I notice the distorted portrait of a black beast-like figure floating on a colourful surface. It stares to the side like it is refusing to directly engage with me. In Thoughts before the Rain the human figure floats horizontally on its back, yet its feet seem to be firmly grounded. Shielding it from its surroundings is a circular womb-like feature, or perhaps torrents circulating around it in whirlwind motion. The unnatural posture it holds suggests that the body is trapped and is struggling to free itself. It is distressed. The grounded human feet in Ephemeral Space suggest there is a body sitting upright, carrying baggage or burdens on its lap. After a second look, I am no longer certain whether the feet are grounded or hanging. The figures are complicated and disconcerting.
It is these ‘perpetually altered or mutated figures often depicted between states of animal and human’3Nicola Daniels. Artist Misheck Masamvu uses a ‘coping mechanism’ to process history on canvas. Available here characterising Masamvu’s work, that play a crucial role in articulating the message the artist intends to convey. In almost all the paintings in this exhibition, the anamorphic figures appear against abstracted backdrops of bold and furious intertwining strokes of colours ‘into which they seem to be amalgamating’. On this aspect of his work, the artist asserts:
I use figuration and abstraction in my work because I am looking for an alternative space – one that is against the forced ideology of government and the breakdown of the pursuit of humanity. For this, the symbolism of the landscape and the figure in constant states of entangled metamorphosis are important. I am aware of the communion of the body, the soil and spirit and am interested in how transfiguration and memoirs of body and soul can evoke a real sense of vulnerability.4Misheck Masamvu. Talk To Me While I’m Eating. Goodman Gallery London. Available here.
Mostly drawn from the artist’s observations and experiences in the fractured space and highly polarised political climate of post-colonial Zimbabwe, Masamvu’s work consistently provides mature and neutral social commentary. However, the work is not always understood or appreciated that way, for to render a voice to the struggles of the downtrodden subaltern is perceived as an act of defiance in certain quarters of the divided society. In that atmosphere to portray the narrative of the oppressed masses’ coping mechanism is ‘to survive the politics’5Still Still at Goodman Gallery: Press Release. Available here. yet doing so is read as making a political statement.
In a nation where the stone sculpture tradition announced Zimbabwe’s arrival on the art world, and a found materials based artform continues to register and sustain the country’s presence on the contemporary art scene, Masamvu remains the torchbearer of a strong painting tradition where many other emerging artists draw inspiration from his style. He is an artist in complete control of his medium. Why it is difficult to unpack his work without talking about his genius is an unresolved matter, at least for me.