Cassi Namoda at Goodman Gallery, Cape Town
By Zoë Hopkins August, 2022
Cassi Namoda’s paintings greet me with a shock of orange. The two rooms they take up at Goodman Gallery in Cape Town are woven together by a crisp, pared down palette of tangerine, turquoise, periwinkle, and mahogany—an orchestra of vivid contrasts rendered with impenetrably thick brushwork. But yet even more bold than the chromatic vocabulary with which Namoda paints are the figures whom she paints.
Titled Life Has Become a Foreign Language, Namoda’s exhibition at Goodman reads as both an archive of lived realities and an incubator of dreamed possibilities centering Black women. Namoda is currently based between New York and Los Angeles, but the paintings at Goodman are an homage to her homeland of Mozambique, a place whose histories, visual practices, mythologies, and people have surfaced throughout her body of work. Of particular import for Namoda is the history of photography in the country: most works in the exhibition are loosely if not directly inspired by photographs of Mozambique by Mozambican photographers. The artist’s fascination with photography is not only motivated with a desire to tend to history, but also to tell a new story about the moment Mozambican women are living now, to build the archive into a fresh visual narrative that might heal the violences the very same archive testifies to.
The story unfolds in two parts, both of which are accompanied by elusively metaphorical titles that each seem to contain their own stories, yet collectively defy a single coherent narrative. The section is a quietly powerful quartet of large scale portraits on linen. The Malagsay women depicted here are painted from memory and infused with Namoda’s colorful imagination, which takes us to landscapes of green, blue, and red, vacant of any context clues. In The Drowning Woman (ode to Goya) (2022), a woman crawling on her knees cranes her neck to look with penetratingly turquoise eyes at something beyond the borders of the canvas. Her body is enveloped by a background of thick orange-red paint, yet its edges are assertive and clean, her presence crystal clear. A golden light coats her forehead, but without a setting, its source remains unknown. Gazing at the painting demands a certain feeling of unease, and the more one looks at it, the more it edges towards the surreal.
Across the gallery, Heartbreak takes new forms (2022) takes this magic of the unknown to the extreme. Here, a nude woman balances on an ox, riding it into a flat terrain of cerulean. With one arm she grips a chalice, leaving us to speculate about its content. The other is outstretched as if reaching for something we cannot see, something she leans towards with urgent expectancy. Her pose is so strident that it takes me a moment to realize that she has in fact been impaled by a thin rod. Yet life, miraculously, continues to stretch on into the mass of blue paint ahead of her.
In the next room, Namoda shifts to a smaller scale and slightly less spare visual vocabulary, often involving more than one figure and comparatively elaborate backgrounds. The scenes here, which continue to draw from historic photographs, have a cinematic, noir-ish mystique that carries the same disorienting affect as the paintings in the other room. In Bar Texas and At rest, the tragedies of a fantasy II (both 2022), the floors play illusionistic tricks, expanding and contracting to the effect of undoing the spatial and perspectival logic of the painting. But the motif that truly lodges these paintings into the realm of the uncanny are their shadows, silhouette-like shapes that haunt spaces behind the characters in the painting. Like the light source in Namoda’s large scale paintings, the shadows in these scenes come from unknown sources, asking us to wonder what lies beyond the physical and psychic space of the canvas. The shadows lurk in black, leaving holes in the canvas—they are absences that imply the presence of burdens, fears, and the past.
Are these mythologies, dreamworlds, or archives? Namoda leaves us in the limbo of this question: her scenes are ripe with mystery that bars viewers from fixing her figures into one archetype or another. From the fraught substance of history, Namoda paints towards an undefined space somewhere above reality. WM
Zoë Hopkins is a student at Harvard College, where she studies Art History and African American Studies. She is a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and has previously been a Carol K. Pforzheimer Fellow. Zoë has worked in various capacities with Creative Time, Artforum International Magazine, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Harvard Art Museums, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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