Vivid colours and expressive brushstrokes characterise Zimbabwean artist, Misheck Masamvu’s paintings. Anamorphic figures appear to emerge and dissolve, camouflaged by brightly coloured backgrounds. The childlike colours conceal a somewhat sinister tone in the works, a quiet violence that lurks in the canvases. While Misheck has spoken against an overt political reading of his work, his expressive images are composed from his lived experiences as a practicing artist in Zimbabwe.
The figures that populate his work are in a space of limbo, restless but unable to fully shake themselves of their chaotic background environments. The titles of Misheck’s two solo exhibitions this year make reference to this agitating state of restless inertia, Still and Still Still. In the statement accompanying his current exhibition on at Goodman Gallery in Cape Town, Misheck says that “each painting [is] a proposal for a new reality, an arena to work through personal hopes and frustrations but also to offer alternatives, for himself and others, to the constraints and constructs of daily reality”. We caught up with the artist to find out more about his thoughts and work.
How has your upbringing influenced both the kind of work you make and your creative process?
It was kind of a nomadic upbringing. My path of upbringing follows the rural to urban migration – except I lived in these areas during the transition as people were being regrouped or relocated after they had been displaced during the war. My family settled in the rural areas along the Mozambique border where the war in Mozambique could often spill almost to our doorstep. Later, I moved to the city in pursuit of a collapsing academia frontline. High-density areas were and/or are befitting the colonial template of segregation, a post-colonial residential expansion that promotes a division of class. In time, I grew in confidence and began to travel across borders. My upbringing is drawn on my skin. It has the feeling of scars that recount every event with a broken smile. Within these scenarios, I found myself constantly in search of relevance, hence the need to speak creativity was the only option left.
Has your technique of painting changed over time? What are some of the things that have influenced your style?
I believe my work still embodies the human figure, particularly how it is influenced by the social decay. I always found myself speaking about the rot of systems of governance. I have grown to accept that one can only speak of the violence or the suffering endured but, through my work, I have to speak of hope within the will to overcome necessary suffering.
What appeals to you about the medium of painting?
I find painting in oils flexible. It feels like you are playing in the mud mixed with tears and your sweat. You cannot rush the painting – it is a medium you can work with without fear of making a precise mess.
You’ve mentioned in an artist statement that you’ve been working towards understanding your own “grammar” of mark-making. Can you tell us more about this and how it can be read in your work?
There are nuances or afflictions guiding the story. Sometimes there are motifs or symbols that reappear as the story develops. The marks, or my approach, are not defined in manner of identity, but rather the marks are a response reacting to the time and emotions.
How does colour function in your painting?
To give life and meaning to symbols.
There’s a lot of blurring of boundaries in your work – between subject and background, shifting anamorphic figures and even the pigment, which you’ve let run and drip down the canvas. Can you tell us about this?
The content of the work must never be identifiable with a physical locus. I am placing an object in space, space undefined. I find the need to raise the appetite to instill interest to look at things on common ground, and employ common sense in addressing issues beyond current social status.
There’s a quiet activism at play in your work although you actively discourage any overt political reading of it. When does the personal become political and vice versa for an artist?
Everything becomes political, when the lazy hand of the tax collector pleads to hack knack the sweat of my toil. If people entertain the idea that the president’s birthday be turned into a national day, that rips any sense of dignity that could have remained in me. Personally, I am not bothered by ‘dem politicians’, they are full of words without reason and direction.
Are you still still? What’s next for you and your work?
Open the floodgates of my mind and let the swelling ease. I wish to have a conversation with blood-stained walls and break the walls with words. Speak my mind and stand with humanity.
Still Still is on at Goodman Gallery in Cape Town until 11 October 2016.
All images courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery.