Exhibition of Interest
When home is everywhere and nowhere at all
with Misheck Masamvu
Encompassing painting, drawing, writing and sculpture, Mishek Masamvu’s practice attempts to articulate and examine the domestic and social impact of political post-independence. Although informed by his relationship with what he refers to as Zimbabwe’s “stagnant state of trying to resolve its humanitarian crises”, being at home in abstraction and figuration, Masamvu’s mutating (or adapting) scenes are expansive enough to apply to the socio-political plights of others. Titled Safety Pin, Masamvu’s latest solo exhibition at Goodman examines the precarious act of withholding vulnerability. Using intergenerational relationships as primary reference, the artist confesses the effects he has seen this have. Featured in this week’s Of Interest, Masamvu puts the exhibition into the context of his practice this far.
“The more time I spend here, the higher the chance that I may quit art and become exactly what I always wanted to be: a priest” says Mishek Masamvu, half joking while taking in the deconsecrated church surroundings that are now home to Goodman Gallery in Cape Town. Here to prepare for a performance of the poem accompanying his current solo exhibition, Safety Pin, he uses the interview to catch his breath after a morning of errands.
In Cape Town for the week, Masamvu says he will head home to Zimbabwe for a few days before spending some time in Johannesburg. Or maybe it was first Johannesburg and then Zimbabwe. He shrugs, settled in his transient nature. Nomadic, Masamvu’s practice documents the ways the artist moves with certainty between styles, themes, mediums and locations.
Aware of this, Masamvu introduces Safety Pin as “a passage where all my past exhibitions meet”. A punctuation where past presentations meet, one of the things the exhibition does is invite the public to join him as he assesses the ways his practice has shown up. Leading us through the survey, we caught up with him to talk about the anonymity of abstraction, mutating figuration, being multidisciplinary and never calling any place home.
You have had fourteen solo exhibitions and participated in even more group shows. You have had your work exhibited at multiple biennales and your public facing practice is more than two decades old. Considering all of this in the context of Safety Pin, where would you say you are in your practice at the moment?
Essentially, with this exhibition I struggled with articulating what I want to say. I’m having relapses with different memories and experiences so I felt that picking a standpoint from which to perhaps synthesise my thoughts would be more productive. I wanted to offload. That’s why the exhibition is very much of a confessional nature.
You’ve referred to individual works as a part of an alphabet. Can you tell me more about that and where you would say your alphabet is right now?
If you look at just the academic understanding of the alphabet, you are taught to master these letters. When put together they have the potential to create numerous words, numerous worlds. But I felt like I needed to create my own grammar. I wanted to create my own to see how they can transform, you know, how they mutate, how they respond to different environments. I also think the work has a tendency of referring to a tenure cycle. Once the tenure is done you want to see how you can campaign again back to the same people, back to the same words, but with a different delivery. I guess that’s what it is. It’s going back to those things in memory and hopefully mastering them better than the time before.
Is this how the poem you wrote, that now accompanies the show, came to be? Is it you defying the struggle to articulate?
When you speak of a burden there’s lack of sleep, you talk of lack of appetite, you also have difficulty concentrating or focusing on something. So one night the lack of sleep resulted in the poem you see. It’s a rumble of thoughts revolving around the idea of a safety pin. Whilst the safety pin is holding everything in the napkin together, it’s an amicable situation. Even if you can smell something, as long as the pin is still holding, things are okay. I’m looking at the safety pin for its properties to hold something temporarily, which will need to be discarded. I look at the act of removing the safety pin as the passage of confession. It can also be the temporary moment where you feel safe because whatever is in that sack has not come out. It speaks to many different realities.
I would like for us to go back to this idea of confessional vulnerability. Is it always personal or are you a narrator offering others anonymity?
When I speak about being a priest and why I know it wasn’t going to work for me, it’s because I don’t have the character to comply with non-disclosure. I have seen the weakness of keeping things that can be of shared value. I think that the show involves many other players who may want to remain anonymous. I would struggle with saying this is just me trying to say I’m experiencing fragility and vulnerability.
Let’s talk about the ways that this anonymity and layering of narrative materialises. What would you say that your style, and the mediums you work in, do for your practice and style development?
I work in a number of different mediums and I think that each medium has a specific attribute that defines who I am. Essentially, when I’m drawing I’m quite fragile in the sense that drawing is the first markings. In that sense I’m trying to occupy space with really minimal marks. I also look at my entire drawing practice as a celebration of my twin sister who only managed to survive this earth for three hours. So that is me reaching out through those marks because I don’t know how she would have occupied the rest of the space. It’s often figurative and the figures mutate. Like I say, it’s a homage, a mutant space that could be anything. When I pick words, it’s words that could mean anything. I write quite a lot and sometimes the writing gives the work direction. But then to expand on that, the writing is the body of work before the body of work is realised. It’s the energy that drives everything. Painting allows me very much a space where I can reach into the unlimited. I can layer a number of different things, I can hide others, reveal some. It’s a continuous space where things are in constant motion. That’s the main reason why I do that. Then sculpture is often when I’m trying to bring my work into the public space. The sculptures then have this activism format. Like the bus with the graffiti. I also don’t want to work with sculpture from the point of materiality. I look at it from what has survived. From that I add my own or dissect it to expand it.
Lastly, it isn’t quite known where your studio is based. Does this means location isn’t significant in your practice?
Currently I have four studios that I am operating from. One in Johannesburg and another in Salt River. I have one in Harare and another in Mutare. I also often have a studio in Europe almost every year. These studios help me maintain my nomadic nature or practice. What I find most important is not to constrain the work and force it to come out because the environment encourages that. If that happens, I move the work to a different environment so that it finds its life and freedom. My work rotates within these places. In most instances, most of the work doesn’t get completed in one studio. So they pick up on various energies based on the environment. So each time it’s like I’m a visitor. I’m always trying to have this fresh look on how I do my things.