Writing Art History Since 2002

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One of our favourite interviews this year, ART AFRICA had the privilege of sitting down with Zimbabwean artist Misheck Masamvu during his exhibition ‘STILL STILL,’ which was on show at the Goodman Gallery, Cape Town between the 15th September to 20th October 2016.

AA Newsletter 2016 Dec20 STILL001Misheck Masamvu, Gatekeepers, 2016. Oil on canvas, 175 x 453 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town.
ART AFRICA: So let’s start from the beginning. Please tell us a bit about your childhood? Were you an only child?

Misheck Masamvu: No, I was born in a family of what was meant to be six siblings, six children, but then my twin died. So there were five that survived. I’m the only boy. I grew up in a family with girls. It wasn’t easy, as I was quite frail. When my twin sister was born they didn’t have the technology to know that my mother was pregnant with twins. I think they were like “Guys, it’s time to clean up,” and I came out, so I looked at myself as maybe a renewable energy, some part of the garbage or something [laughs].

My father had been hoping to have a son, and I was that frail, fragile little boy. They weren’t really certain whether I was going to make it, so as a baby there was that tendency to be overprotective. That feeling from my parents was also pushed onto my sisters. Whenever I would want to go and play with other children there was always that thing, like “Hey, if you get injured…” It was a menace, you know. Last year I was told a story by one of my peers that because of my sisters I was the strongest. Nobody would pick fights with me because they were quite loud. So that’s me as a small boy, and still now.

I always wonder what it means if someone dies immediately and you have a chance to live. I’m trying to understand whether the life of my sister has been a sacrifice for me to live, and if my decisions and actions are actually worth the sacrifice. So that’s why I speak more of my sisters than I speak of myself, especially the one who’s absent. I work in a very aggressive approach, drawing from those feelings of being vulnerable, the element of wanting to be protected. I think there is also that feminine element, a desire to find out who that person could have been. Sometimes I live a double life in that sense.

Was the environment you grew up in quite religious?

For any generation coming out of war, you are quite spiritual – dealing with your ancestry, with tradition – you look up to a higher power, so my parents picked up the Christian faith. They had access to that and pushed it onto us, so I’ve been raised Catholic. I was quite lucky to be born in an urban environment, although there were times of conflict. My parents had to relocate and we found ourselves in the countryside, which proved to be safer because of the communal setting. That’s where I spent my childhood, before moving back to the city.

Were you still living in the countryside when you began painting?

If I want to look at when art really matters, I look at my children. They are most creative now, between the ages of two and four, before they go to kindergarten. They just want to see their marks on everything. When I was in the countryside I didn’t have the conventional materials so I used to draw on the ground, on any surface I could find. I think that’s where it started, seeing what my mark was and how relevant it could be. I also wasn’t the first choice to play with amongst other boys so I had to find a way to be creative so that I could attract friends to come to me. I was never really inspired by television and all these other invasive things. They were really quite distant for me. There were rare moments when one would sit and listen to the radio, but for the most part it was what you had in front of you, nature, and trying to decipher your own voice.

AA Newsletter 2016 Dec21 STILL2AMisheck Masamvu, Jump spread your legs, 2013. Oil on canvas, 210 x 370 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town.

Do you find process more important than product? The therapeutic aspect of art?

Painting is like a sunset. It’s nice to look at, but I also enjoy looking at the reflection of it – the opposite side – where the colour is much stronger and nobody is really paying much attention to it. I’m always interested in the unknown, so when I’m painting there’s a starting point – which is the drive, the why – but that’s just a factor, an element. It does not need to constitute the final outcome. What I’m much more interested in is God’s process, the dialogue when I sit, look, and reflect. I then play all these different scenarios out in my head. Sometimes I say “You know, if I’m dead today, is it finished?”

Sometimes whatever you’re thinking comes out, I do not have to ignore it, and sometimes I loose what I started with and something else happens. At the same time, it’s quite nice to have a team of people who have time to look at what I’m doing, have that conversation and then give me the time to do what I want. I believe painting has to be a search within those layers. Reflecting back to that notion of the sunset, usually it is much more beautiful when there are clouds.

That’s a great analogy…

In a way painting is like nature, it creates itself. There is nothing that is ever done from one end. You dig the soil; there are different textures, different energies. I don’t want to work with the idea of locus – placing an image within a certain context and geography. I’m not driving an agenda, a concrete message or particular motif. I’m really interested in the unlimited space that you can create being part of the whole, the cosmos. I don’t want to create shooting stars, that move and die. I believe in the constellation of different things. All these elements, depending on where you stand, can add a certain viewpoint, a certain self reflection or awareness, and that’s how I feel the work has to be. Everyone has the ability to enter, add, or subtract. It doesn’t take anything away from the work.

AA Newsletter 2016 Dec21 STILL3AMisheck Masamvu, Ranked Heads, 2016. Oil on canvas, 245 x 175 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town.

This body of work is called ‘Still Still’ and was derived from a previous body of work you exhibited at Goodman Gallery (Johannesburg) earlier this year. The press release talks about it being a continuation of your own grammar, your language. How has this evolution played out over time?

When I did the show ‘Still’ in Johannesburg, I was already in motion. Everything was still happening and I had other things that I was working on. Even the hanging process was quite organic. Some of the very early work that I did found a space, and some of those works actually pay homage to the current work. Placed together you realise that link. So within the context of grammar, I like to think of the works as part of an alphabet. There are some letters you spend more time perfecting, and then you ignore others. It is quite interesting to look at what is repeating itself, what is becoming more dominant. The English alphabet has twenty six letters, but when you start to create your own artwork, you don’t necessarily need all of them. Sometimes you only need one letter in different shapes. Here I like the idea of Chinese martial arts. If you are aware of your strength and the other elements involved, your actions are more effective. You can use your enemy’s energy to defeat them. It’s the same with art – you draw that energy from within but you also extract it from the work itself. There has to be that exchange, and the more you give that thing energy the more it reveals itself. If my idea is dominant it means I’m just killing the opposite. To me ‘Still Still’ refers to anything that is in motion. Putting it in an exhibition has never been to box it, but to find another element within it, that link. It reads more like a scroll than a book; you roll the pages instead of opening them.

I’m quite grateful that at this moment I have a body of work that I can look at in one go. It is a privilege that I usually don’t have, to see all these things at once. Right now there is no need for me to say I have to be in a situation to be inspired. Right now it’s just to look and continue looking, not with the intention of stumbling upon something because there is already something there. It’s just to find a way to unlock it. I really believe that there has to be a bigger reason why everything is happening.

AA Newsletter 2016 Dec21 STILL4AMisheck Masamvu, installation view of ‘Still Still,’ at Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, 2016. Photo: Sven Christian.

I liked the description of creating a type of alphabet – that when you place the different letters together sometimes there is a word that adds to the individual parts. Let’s play with that analogy a bit…

For me, the official grammar is not what you use everyday, which is actually sound. It comes with a certain character and behaviour. When I’m writing it’s a kind of performance. Like with the poem, everything appears like a continuation of titles, but when I was working on the writing of ‘Still’ I was asking myself “Still what?” I’m not trying to elicit some kind of reaction or to put you in a situation where you start to feel miserable. I see it as a reminder that we have agency. Once that awareness is there you begin to see other things in front of you, to realise that this current situation is not everything it appears to be. I’m just urging people to move on from this, to find ways to deal with it, and to recover in a nonviolent way.

I say non-violent because I’m coming from a very politically charged space. Violence seems to be the last resort – the current element that is needed – but at the same time you know you’re following a stereotype. People feel like they are at a kind of stale mate, that they need divine intervention. The argument in the streets of Harare is that if this group of people were not here things would be good for us. It has become so clear in people’s minds that only death can serve them. This idea of ‘kill one, create room for another’ is quite ridiculous. I have to go beyond this. I’m looking at these things and thinking, if I die today, what is going to kill me? I’m performing a kind of post mortem on myself, to find the impurities or the things that have contributed to my own demise. It’s really like “What are you consuming?” Honestly, when I am on that table am I happy with the things that they are going to find inside my body? Am I going to be happy with the condition of my liver? Am I going to be happy with what I’ve done to my brain? Hopefully God is not scared or disturbed.

One of the ‘letters’ that appear throughout this exhibition is the skull. Where does this come into the mix?

I haven’t seen dead people, I don’t have the courage, but I really enjoy painting them. My work does not deal with death from memory; I am recreating death, decorating it. Just look at the skulls in my work – it’s not what’s covered, it’s what’s outside – a beautiful costume. When I look at the Zimbabwean elections the process itself is riddled by elimination. The most useful candidate for us is a dead one. Living candidates are just people who we vent our frustration on. At least a dead candidate is an applicable symbol. Symbols are much more convincing than real things with life in them. At the end of the day people are lazy, they just want someone who is moving around like a robot. People are being cloned through education, through subversion, through submitting to a cause that had nothing to do with them; or them just being in denial. Rather than creating a new system our leaders are just responding to problems, and we can’t wait for natural disasters to shape our future, we can’t play Gods. We are far from it. We are even incapable of taking care of ourselves. Imagine being a tiny ant, watching mankind destroy its home, and each day it tries to find a way to survive in the concrete, through the cracks and everything. It’s watching us, even pleading with us to say “Guys be nice” and we find sprays and everything because we believe we need a clean environment but we actually do not know what constitutes a clean environment. It’s quite sad. We build prisons and we call them homes, we’re busy cementing relationships where there’s actually no love. Everybody wants a guarantee, and that’s where the problem is: “If I’m in a relationship how long am I going to last? Put a ring on it!” Really, the kind of insurance fraud that is happening with this life… Pray so much and pay tax in church…

I don’t know but I feel like we don’t have enough time anymore to self-reflect. There’s not enough content out there to provoke that space of thought. We just consume whatever is given to us and we are happy; as long as we are in a group, we can just throw an emoji at everything.

In a way, I believe that the best solution to things is never to do group work, but to actually inspire those who might think they are not watching. If most people are within that realm, then it means that those who are watching are also causing a certain effect. A movement would naturally happen without being confrontational.

AA Newsletter 2016 Dec21 STILL5AMisheck Masamvu, Saint Ant, 2016. Oil on canvas, 130 x 150 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town.

In your press release, you re-iterate the point that people want things to be digestible, especially in our current information age. Your work, on the other hand, is not a containable thing that can be easily digested and understood.

I think this has to do with packaging. As a painting you feel like you want to have it, to be part of it. It’s not trying to say something to you, but is more of a window to yourself. When you are ready for it you see it. At the end of the day my work is just a space, a flat surface. Within it however are multiple rooms which you will open when you’re ready. You are not forced to stay in that room. When you enjoy it it’s good, but when you want to ignore it it’s also quite ok. I really am grateful in that, at this moment at least, I feel like I can do work and it’s like I’ve planted a seed. This tree which I am planting is not like one I put in a vase which needs my attention everyday. This is like a seed in the wilderness which takes its own form. It will have its own relationship with the forest. I don’t want something that people can point at, that becomes a geographical pointer where you say “When you get to that tree than you know you have arrived.” I want it to be a situation where if you go to the forest you will start asking yourself, “There was a tree somewhere, where is it?” Then you realise that the whole time you were looking down this tree has actually grown, it is much taller. We always expect to see something at a certain level and never give ourselves the chance to look up.

We are young, we have a certain perspective on things, and I don’t think we are comfortable with the way things are going.There has to be an idea of how we want things to be, even if you are thinking of your own retirement age, it has to make sense. Young people looking at the future would rather look forward to the next dance move than think about retirement. I don’t think most young people think they are going to reach that far.

We enjoy the sounds we make, the image that comes through the mirror, but unfortunately we are not part of those things, those are borrowed images. We know very little of ourselves. Just picking up paper, canvas, or paint; accepting the uneasiness of it, respecting that this space was clean before I actually started painting it… When I work I don’t really think of the frame or the size of the work, it reveals itself. It’s not like you are trying to be rebellious to a certain structure, but actually realising that this is another way of doing it, that there were no set rules to anything, and what actually matters is that which you have done, rather than how you have dressed it. My work should not only be viewed through the political lens, but should question how I have lived. It has to be a genuine record of my times – as proof of the fact that I lived and was given a chance to think and try out new things.

Misheck Masamvu’s exhibition ‘Still Still’ was on show at the Goodman Gallery, Cape Town from 15 September – 20 October 2016.

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