Cassi Namoda Paints Places from Memory, Knowledge and Imagination
Cassi Namoda refers to her painting as a constant process of transformation. She is a vibrant storyteller, with a warm personality that is reflected in the colours she uses to paint the people, landscapes and character of her native Mozambique. Over the last several years, her approach to painting has certainly evolved, steadily moving away from figurative painting to become more experimental as she settles deeper into a professional artistic practice. Born in Maputo, with an upbringing between East Africa, Haiti and the United States, she maintains a remarkably nomadic lifestyle as an adult, and this ability to adapt to the many places she inhabits is reflected in her pliant attitude to working. Currently, she keeps a studio in Long Island in the U.S., but Cassi is also enthusiastic about painting on the move, often packing a briefcase of essential materials to equip her with the flexibility to work in unusual or unexpected locations.
“I use [painting] as my pastime. Some people read, I would be painting. It’s worth it to keep exercising a practice,” she explains over the phone, recounting her recent experiences painting en plein air in Oaxaca, Mexico. She emphasises that, for her, part of the process of making work comes with the challenge of working outside her comfort zone. Though her artistic focus tends to be on the African diaspora, Cassi finds inspiration from myriad sources: classic cinema, African religion and philosophy (in particular, the writing of Kenyan theologian John Mbiti), Afro-Portuguese literature, European master painters of the twentieth century (the aforementioned reference to plein-air painting is indeed no accident). It is her ability to deftly mix these disparate references into a visual language all her own that makes Cassi so captivating an artist.
When I spoke with Cassi, she had recently returned to her Long Island home after a month spent painting in Kenya. Like many people right now, her travels were prematurely cut short, giving her pause to consider how her plurality of homes has shaped her, and further, how understanding oneself provides the necessary groundwork for finding home in many places.
“I use [painting] as my pastime. Some people read, I would be painting. It’s worth it to keep exercising a practice.”
Sarah Messerschmidt: Cassi, you’re back in the U.S. now?
Cassi Namoda: Back in the U.S., you know, it is what it is. Part of me wonders, is this the end of days? I don’t think that in anyone’s lifetime, even someone aged one hundred, has seen anything like this [COVID-19]. It’s fascinating to me that there is nowhere and no one you can go to, because nobody has answers right now. It makes you realise we’re so vulnerable, and emotions swing with the economy. It’s a big learning curve; it’s really a time to set the ego aside, and not let your boredom prevent you from accepting the reality of the thing.
On my side, not much has changed. As far as the work I make, and my livelihood—I mean everyone’s livelihood depends in some way on the economy—but my day-to-day is still very normal. I can work from home, and my studio is also two blocks away, although that might not last for long. Soon it might not be possible to step outside. But continuing to paint, to do the things I like to do, this sort of thing normalises life in some respects.
And keeping the arts alive, whether we draw, or paint, or write, is a crucial way of staying connected… I’m curious about when you began painting, and why you’re drawn to painting over any other medium.
I’ve always painted, but it took my living up to twenty-seven years to come to painting the way I do now. I believe in the idea that we’re born with our callings, and if we’re in touch with ourselves and our individual voices, and if we want to create something with permanence, I think you adhere to this truth. It’s a process of maturity, and I came to this in my twenties. My twenties were about discovery, as I think they are for many people, although if discovery doesn’t happen in your twenties, then it happens in your thirties, and so on. Life offers you these opportunities to come into yourself.
“Growing up between these two worlds, I have thought a lot about this duality; I also thought about magical realism [and] about time, which stems from the literature I read.”
So painting is a fairly recent practice?
I didn’t necessarily find painting; painting just chose me at the time I needed it. What I mean is that it wasn’t about a conditioning, like going to art school; it was something more holistic that pushed me to really pursue it. I’m not formally trained in painting, although I’ve always painted, and throughout my education I’ve been consistently involved in the arts. But for me, it’s not totally about the application of paint on canvas: it’s about narrative, it’s about sharing stories; painting just happens to be the medium I work in. In terms of how my painting has developed, I use it as a way to think about expansion, to be open. Stylistically, my work is constantly evolving, from the shows I had with Nina Johnson and François Ghebaly to this last one with Pippy Houldsworth. It’s not that one is better than another; I leave that up to the audience, who might prefer earlier works to how I paint now. For me, the question is about how the work evolves: is there a shift, and what does the shift look like? Am I continuing to learn in my process, and to enjoy this process of learning?
The exhibition with Nina Johnson, Outside the Witch Doctor’s House, amounted to an exploration of questions I had about myself and my background: observations made during my time spent living in Africa, and later in the U.S. Growing up between these two worlds, I have thought a lot about this duality; I also thought about magical realism [and] about time, which stems from the literature I read. General observations, memories, archival images—they all dovetail with one another. I studied cinematography, and this train of thought—thinking about narrative—comes from that education.
“I was sensitive to space and nature. I’m a very spiritual person, and I think painting takes spirituality—any kind of craft or artistry does.”
There’s a definite progression from your earlier work to Little Is Enough for Those in Love. I see this series as more allegorical, rather than cinematic, and that might be due to really simple things, like you outline less in black, or the figures are less stylised, more pared down compared to how you’ve painted in the past. It’s a really interesting prospect, this drawing together of references to build on a concept of expansion.
There was something very narrative in Nina’s show. The show with Ghebaly was very intense in colour: everything was striking and in-your-face; the composition was more dynamic. With Pippy’s show, I just wanted to let the painting breathe, and for it to allow me to breathe. I was sensitive to space and nature. I’m a very spiritual person, and I think painting takes spirituality—any kind of craft or artistry does.
My life isn’t entirely based in one place, and it interests me to be able to adapt and to adjust. I’m now in Long Island, but things are subject to change. That’s just the nature of things, and I have to be honest to that. Recently, I spent almost a month in Lamu, Kenya, and before that I was in Oaxaca, and those experiences came through my work. Now I’m working on a show with Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, and with this new show comes a lot of research. You have the research, the inclination behind the work, but on top of that you have the sensitivity to space. I think you can’t have one without the other. Or maybe you can, but if you solely have the research then you lack something, and what you lack is spirit.
“It’s a process of questioning and sensitivity, and also just being in love with what it is to paint, to do the thing that you’ve chosen to do.”
How do you describe the way you work?
For Pippy’s show, I made the whole body of work in Long Island in the East Hamptons. In the mornings I would walk my dog somewhere in nature, and I would think about landscape: what it is to make a landscape, what it is to be sensitive to light and colour, and what it is to formalise that in painting. It’s a process of questioning and sensitivity, and also just being in love with what it is to paint, to do the thing that you’ve chosen to do. It was a result of where I was geographically.
To begin, I always formalise the title of my exhibitions, and then the body of the show starts coming through that. Language is such an important part of my work. The title of this newest show is based on a Swahili proverb—just like Little Is Enough for Those in Love—and I’m finding now that proverb has become an important part of my practice. This newest one is called To Live Long Is to See Much, and it’s a strangely accurate reflection of the times we live in. I spoke with my father the other day and he said, “In all my years of living I’ve never seen anything like this.” The show at Goodman will be more political than exhibitions in the past, which is new territory for me. I’m looking now at medical violence, looking at these lost names that have been given away to medical research, people who maybe never had an opportunity to be part of a community, like Sarah Baartman, for instance, who was named ‘Venus Hottentot’. I’ve also been painting conjoined twins, not only because I am a twin, but in reference to Millie and Christine McCoy, who were never actually accepted in the Black community in the U.S…
…they were treated as entertainment.
I feel haunted by them, and I want to give space for these people, or these spirits. There’s an intensity around them, but at the same time they can be painted so beautifully, maybe with healing colours, soft colours. One of the other characters I’ve been exploring is a wet nurse in Ethiopia who you might find on a postcard of King Menelik II, which I connect to Lucian Freud’s paintings of these big, bloated bodies. I have to wonder, then: what is coming through me in terms of just painting?
You can see in Pippy’s show there are two styles of painting: there are loose, broad strokes, and that was what I had done in East Hampton—a response to landscape. The paintings dried slower, and those works had a sort of static measure to them. You go to the paintings that were made after Oaxaca, and they’re almost like patchwork: there’s a lot of energy, a lot of explosion on the canvas. The dance scene, for example, and the show’s titular painting, is followed by a Swahili saying, “mimi nakupenda,” or “nakupenda,” which means “I love you,” and that also has a lot of energy. Learning to paint this way was due to a different environment I was in—outside my studio, without the materials I usually have—which ultimately made me a stronger painter. And this came through conceptually in the exhibition: I need sometimes to struggle, or to be challenged, in order to be grateful for what I’ve got. To adapt and adjust, my style evolves from that. That’s where I am right now in terms of expansion.
I’m curious about the twins you mentioned. More generally, especially in this last series, most of the figures, if they’re not painted alone, are touching in some way: holding or being held, standing or sitting close. It’s very warm, very familial. There’s a strong visual language of togetherness, and though you express being inspired by landscape and nature, I wonder where this attention to togetherness comes from.
Right. In Pippy’s show there’s a lot of closeness and touching. Humans need one another. But until you mentioned it I didn’t actually think of the twins. I thought instead of a painting called Love Doesn’t Go Alone, which shows two hyenas, or wild dogs, and behind them is this barren landscape with rough mountains. This painting looks at the need to be together: not in terms of the interdependence of human systems, but in a more animalistic way. In the purest sense of community, of familial bonds, of primal or primordial, or earthly evolution, we’re stronger together. Of course, I think that these things can be complicated.
“I’m not only interested in the human form; I’m also interested in the way the moon sits in the sky.”
For me, wherever I go, I feel like I always have community. You know, in Lamu, if someone told me, “Cassi, you’re stuck here, you have to live here forever,” I’d feel fine. A fisherman in Greece is not so different from a fisherman in Lamu, if that makes sense. But maybe this adaptability has to do with my upbringing, and I’m grateful for that. It’s sometimes tricky to be with me, perhaps, because moving around is in my DNA. I also have a twin, and having a twin has always pushed me to think of someone outside of myself, like the way people might feel when they have a child. Someone else to consider, who makes you challenge selfish notions. I’m grateful for that too. I’m really grateful to what the universe has provided for me, in terms of learning, in being able to be sensitive to all of these things. They show up in my work, all these things I feel are a part of me; they’re realised in the painting, including the way the figures interact with one another. At the same time, just as important as the figures I paint are the backgrounds. Where are they? What does that feel like? What does it feel like to have absent space? Space that is warm and inviting? I’m not only interested in the human form; I’m also interested in the way the moon sits in the sky.
“I felt as though it was important for me to tell these stories, but to also be true to myself, in the way that I sit in a Black body, but I have two different worlds coming through me.”
In Little Is Enough for Those in Love you’re dealing with postcolonial Mozambique, and you describe your painting as “Lusotropical”. How do you use the term in relation to your work? Is it specific to when Maputo is your subject, or is it always an overarching way to describe your work?
It’s sort of a made-up term, but I love it because I began using it to think about sub-Saharan Africa. More than sub-Saharan Africa, I’m thinking about Mozambique, I’m thinking about Angola, and I think, artistically, I have to acknowledge that these places don’t often appear in international settings. For instance, people don’t usually know what to call a Portuguese speaker who is Lusophone, who is from Lusophone Africa.
I didn’t grow up in Mozambique. I was born in Mozambique and then I lived there again in my twenties, which is when I began wanting to understand Mozambique and how it is that people there think. And besides politics, besides the historical sense, I wanted to know the spirit of the people. Because of this I looked to literature, which is where my usage of ‘Lusotropical’ comes from. Literature is the most direct link to understanding the sensibility, or the artistic frame, of Mozambique and life there. And then I also started thinking about architecture, because physical space is very important. And then, of course, you have a whole cohort of really wonderful painters who hail from Mozambique. I felt as though it was important for me to tell these stories, but to also be true to myself, in the way that I sit in a Black body, but I have two different worlds coming through me. I lived in Africa, but I have a white father; I have an African mother, but I’ve lived in America, too. But I don’t make a painting with direct reference to the fact that I am a woman and I am in a Black body; no, I make a painting because I’m telling a story. I had interesting comments after Pippy’s show, like, “We can’t really tell who’s behind the painting,” and I thought that was fascinating, because so often when you look at a painting, the first thing you think about is identity. For me, the Lusotropical sensibility, at its core, is coming from all the things I love about my culture, and then working with that in an international way. I haven’t actually adapted anything stylistically from Mozambique—I’m usually looking to European painting for inspiration—but then the stories are really personal. I think it has to do with bloodline, or lineage. Sometimes it’s just familial: sometimes I just want to paint my mom. A lot of the titles, like, Smiling Woman in Angola, or A Mother in Chinde, Zalala, are really just me thinking about these places, wondering about what life might be like there. It’s as though I’m taking agency over something that was only closely examined by colonialism.
“There’s a fantastical and beautiful mix of memory, things you know about a place, and the things you are imagining about a place.”
I like the idea that the agency has something to do with fantasy, or as you mentioned before, magical realism. You invest something more than hard reality. There’s a fantastical and beautiful mix of memory, things you know about a place, and the things you are imagining about a place.
Exactly. And there’s a real joy in it.
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In Issue No. 1 we meet Australian fashion icon Jenny Kee, translator from Italian Ann Goldstein and French-Cuban music duo Ibeyi. We learn about Ramadan, the Aboriginal ball game Marngrook, the Kiribati dance, the art of pickling, and the importance of home. And we see what it’s like to dress up in Myanmar, live in Cuernavaca, make ceramics from different soil, and walk the streets of Florence.
Issue No. 2
In Issue No. 2 we meet New York-based Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson, and Croatian painter Stipe Nobilo. We discover how the French protect their language and the way women—all around the world—have used textiles as their political voice. We listen to lovers rock, prepare a boisterous Korean barbecue, venture to go to Feria de Jerez and eat our way around Hong Kong.
Issue No. 4
In Issue No. 4 we meet Nigerian-born artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, Indigenous Australian Elders Uncle Bob Smith and Aunty Caroline Bradshaw, and Palestinian-American chef and artist Amanny Ahmad. We peer inside the Parisian ateliers Lesage and Lemarié, muse over the iconic lines of European chair design and celebrate the colourful woodblock prints of Japanese artist Awazu Kiyoshi. And we venture along Morocco’s Honey Highway, get lost in the markets of Oaxaca and discover the favours of Ghana.
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In Issue No. 5 we travel to the mountains with Etel Adnan, along coastlines wherever waves roll in, and then all over the world through the photographic archive of Lindsay James Stanger. We celebrate hair braiding in South Africa, Salasacan weaving techniques in Ecuador, Vedic jewellery traditions and the new sound of Ukraine. We meet artist Cassi Namoda, choreographer Yang Liping and lace-maker Mark Klauber. And we visit a bakery in Tel Aviv, discover the joys of making arak, and spend a summer stretching mozzarella in Italy.