“It’s the imaginary that interests me. I think working with narrative to communicate ideas will always involve using your own imaginative voice. And so do my paintings – I rely on personal history and fantasies to describe this interest in the imaginary.”
INTERVIEW: NABEEHA MOHAMED
PHOTOGRAPHY: OLIVER KRUGER
With eight solo shows behind you, you’re a fairly established name in the discourse of contemporary South African artists. But for those who are unfamiliar with you and your work, could you tell us a little about your background and career thus far?
I studied Visual Communication at Stellenbosch University, which I immediately followed up with my Masters Degree in Fine Art. Ever since my first year doing honours I have had a website and was posting my sketch projects online. In 2005, after seeing some of my Immediate Nonsense drawings online, Lucinda Mudge and Francesco Nassimbeni, of The Drawing Room, invited me to be part of their second exhibition to be held at a brand new gallery in Cape Town, called Whatiftheworld. The response to my work was really great and I decided to continue partaking in small exhibitions and build a relationship with Whatiftheworld Gallery. Ten years on, I’m still working predominantly in the drawing medium, and still prefer to make narrative style art. And, yes, Whatiftheworld is my representative gallery.
Beyond producing a final art object, the process of making is usually of paramount importance to an artist. Would you mind giving us a little insight into your art-making process?
The process is fairly straightforward. I put pencil or brush to the paper and make something or someone happen. Everything to me is about the drawing. Lines and marks happen all over the place. Sometimes when I’m working on a series or sequential body of images, then maybe I’ll do some sketches. But most of the time – where it starts is where it finishes.
How and where does the language of painting assist you in unearthing conceptual curiosities, where pure illustration might prove insufficient?
My work is predominantly about narrative ideas and making sure that a very particular kind of character, or attitude, comes forward in the image. Intense colour use and exaggeration of elements draws focus to deliberate visual peculiarities. Visual contradictions. I want the viewer to look twice, constantly rethink the drawing’s narrative.
I’m sure you’ve heard comparisons drawn between your work and that of Dana Schutz. Your paintings share a playful and expressive gesture as well as a tongue-in-cheek undertone. Are there any particular artists that you feel a close creative affinity to?
David Hockney is always at the back of my mind. And my favourite storyteller is Edward Gorey. Cindy Sherman’s portraits I also find influential. There’s a strong sense of the imaginary in her work that I’m very drawn to. In Dana Schutz’s work, there’s a kind of hysteria that I think shows up in my images as well. Also her deliberate painterly mannerisms, that’s something I do too. I’m such a big fan of George Condo’s and John Currin’s paintings. And I think Rose Wylie is my fave faux naïfist.
In 2013 you were shortlisted by Thames & Hudson as one of 100 Artists to Watch. Whilst we seem to have finally passed the dried-out critique of painting as a “dead” medium, do you have any suggestions for aspiring painters on how to cultivate a relevant and contemporary practice of their own?
Satisfy your own visual needs first. Keep the work interesting and relevant for yourself. If you can find a way of creating the time for yourself, then spend it by making stuff. Maybe put a little bit of yourself in the work…
Could you talk to us more about your interest in fiction and memory in creating your paintings?
It’s the imaginary that interests me. I think working with narrative to communicate ideas will always involve using your own imaginative voice. And so do my paintings – I rely on personal history and fantasies to describe this interest in the imaginary.
Your work is a very strong example of how the personal is political. For example in Trophies, your most recent show at WhatiftheWorld, you scrutinize your own role as a “male homemaker. Could you elaborate on the theme of the male ego in your practice?
The male ego has been my theme of choice for the last three years. And I’ve been doing mainly group portraits of different types of men in themed scenarios (‘end of the world’, ‘yoga class’, ‘skinny dipping’) over this period. These are fictional scenes, or fantasies, and the men of these representations are all quite different in character, and the drawing style for each of them tends to show that. Sometimes funny, sometimes surreal, sometimes abstract – these portraits are all actually meant as self portraits. Me in conversation with myself. Me, stroking my own ego. Me, having a good laugh.
Satire seems to be a sort of device you find useful in creating your narratives. How do you think humour contributes to encouraging viewer engagement with your paintings?
It’s there to disarm the viewer. It makes them see themselves in the image and to help create personal narratives.
There is a persistent hum of the theatrical in your work – in the geography of the scenes of Mumbo Jumbo and I Was Born Yesterday to the often tragicomedy composition of your narratives. Are these theatrical elements very conscious decisions in your creating process?
Absolutely. I like nothing more than to create a space where foreground and background merges, where characters seem to hang on or fall over each over, and where there’s almost always some sort of drama about to unfold.
I’m very curious about the digital flipbooks that you use to create. Could you tell us a little more about them and if there is anywhere online that we may still find them?
As part of my Maters degree work, I created an online sketchbook project called ‘The Book of Immediate Nonsense’. E-zines were very popular at that time, and I thought I’d create an online version of my sketchbook that challenges people’s understanding of looking at, and reading through, a sketchbook. I made these little onscreen flipbooks for almost 10 years, but this year decided to stop that format (you can still view all the collections at www.immediatenonsense.blogspot.com). And I still do these drawings, which anyone can look at – on the Immediate Nonsense Facebook page – and I’m planning on bringing out a book with a selection of my favourite drawings from those 10 years in 2017.
What does it mean to you to be a practicing artist in South Africa today?
I feel lucky to be able to do this full time. People recognise the kind of work that I make and support it so keenly. And a lot has to be said for gallery representation in South Africa. Whatiftheworld supports me in every way.
I realize that this is hot-on-the-heels of your most recent show, but are you working on anything new yet?
I’m about to start work on a series of large colour drawings, which will be a personal interpretation of the Stevie Smith poem, ‘The Jungle Husband’.
Have You in My Wilderness
I Am Not a Doctor
Rid of Me