Kristin Farr: How are you?
Cassi Namoda: Summer in Long Island; I can’t complain. I’ve been in the studio prepping for shows, and I’ve taken up a new hobby of surfing, which has been a nice way to move my body and be out in the water.
I was admiring your painting, Maria Outside Bar Mundo, and wondering about the figures.
I look at older paintings a lot, sometimes in a more literal way, and I apply them to a more personal context, in terms of what I’ve been exploring with post-colonial Mozambique. I have an old Shaker box full of all these archival images, and one of them is Edvard Munch’s lithograph from 1895, The Alley. So, I’m translating this lithograph into a painting, and that’s the gist of how I work.
Any painter should access the history of painting and those who came before them, and others have always done the same before me. I started looking at van Gogh’s work, and he was making French rural paintings when he was checked into the St. Paul asylum. He was looking at Millet because he needed material to paint from in order to keep himself occupied. Since he couldn’t do much research, he thought, why not just make these paintings that I love?
There’s a van Gogh painting, Rest from Work (After Millet), with two figures on a haystack. His use of color and gestural strokes helped educate me, since I don’t have a formal background in painting. I can find amazing material in bookshops about the history of painting and how artists have been inspired by culture—like Giacometti, with his sculptures that have a primitive essence, or Picasso with the masks. Painting is this assemblage of ideas that come through me, and I lay them out in a way where the narrative is honest to what I want to portray.
I made a painting that has this old, broken-down church from the fifteenth century, a Byzantine-style church in Northern Mozambique, where my mother is from. I took that essence of architecture and place—and I always think about landscape. We’re looking at so much figurative painting right now, and in that excess, I feel there’s almost a duty to step outside of that. That’s why someone like Millet is interesting for me, because he’s looking at movement in a rural context, and the faces aren’t really that important—it’s just washer women, or people tending to the field. I like these different concepts of living that can show up in painting.
My painting with the church has an abstracted background with pale greens, and then these prawns walking into the church. The prawns are symbolic of the appetites of the place my family is from, it’s a very particular dish you’ll find there, so the prawns walking into a church are these quite surreal elements. For lack of a better way to say this, it’s keeping things interesting and authentic, and in the world of individualism. That’s what I’m striving for—and then the evolution of being, for whatever that means, stylistically, or through process.
Growing up, I’ve always had to adapt, and it’s given me an attribute where I’m able to connect dots. I might be looking at this Munch painting, and then I’ll find it’s bizarrely similar to Ricardo Rangel’s work. He’s a photographer from Mozambique, and his work was mostly documenting downtown Maputo. His images intersect with the historical paintings, and I’m looking at the vulnerability of the figure.
And collapsing time through multiple references. Do you think about timelessness?
After my show at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London, a lot of comments I received were from people who felt they didn’t know who was behind the paintings. There’s an ambiguity with time, but, ultimately, I don’t know if that matters. If I’m connecting with The Alley, and Edvard Munch made it, there’s some sort of human experience that underlies the work, and that’s universal. It’s just living.
Not being able to tell who’s behind the paintings sounds like success in that they’re universally read.
That’s what it’s about. There’s no ego, it’s just me wanting to put an essence of a picture out there, something someone can ruminate over, consider, or relate to in a visceral human experience, whether it be uncomfortable or confusing. Sometimes it’s just a nuance.
I’ve always been told that I’m an old soul. I don’t really know what that means, but the weight of the paintings feels current to me. Sometimes the work feels like it’s from a different time, and it truly is also a question of time. Maybe I’m stuck in ’60s or ’70s rural Africa in my spiritual self. I think about the authenticity behind the characters, and the dignity behind them.
Those decades preceding the time we’re born have an appealing or nostalgic pull because their influence lingers.
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