By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST October 11, 2023
I first saw the work of Moyosore Martins at a show put together in a Downtown space by Asher and Michelle Edelman in June. The vibrantly colored pieces co-mingled abstraction and figuration in a wholly distinctive fashion. I was introduced to the artist, a tall Nigerian, who I noted with some surprise was keeping to the periphery of the cheery group of party goers at his own event.
I followed up with a visit to the building on Third Avenue and 134 Street where the artist works. I roamed the space awhile after arriving in advance of our talk, looking over canvases, and taking note of recurrent motifs, such as the blue and white stripey shapes and a repeated arrangement of globular painted forms, referencing googly eyes, above a form suggesting an open mouth with spiky but oddly unthreatening teeth.
Martins has described the look he likes to give his work as being “intentionally raw”, and this is mostly accurate, but I also saw deftly painted portraits, each with a painted date, 1986. His birthdate. The space is also replete with work not of his making, such as tribal African art, mostly carved heads, one being pierced by extremely long nails, and a spread of Pop-inflected pieces, from superhero toys to work by artists, such as Kenny Scharf, Takashi Murakami, the Chicagoan Hebru Brantley, a cluster by Kaws and a sofa upon which he has himself painted characters from Peanuts.
My first question at our get-together, though, was about the portraits. Who were the subjects? It went back to his growing up in Nigeria, said Martins, son of a Brazilian father and a mother from the Yoruba tribe. Which was crucial. “We are amongst the most spiritual beings in the world,” he says. “It’s in the genes. We see things, we know things differently, we have different intuitions, we can mix things and make them work.” Martin’s mother had brought him to the US in 2015, then returned to Nigeria, leaving him to make something of himself.
So the portraits? “It’s like me having a flashback, Being there but not there. Through their eyes I can tell what they are going through … the struggles. So I try to repeat that in the pictures and that’s where the soul is.”
Why add his birthdate?
“The work with the birthdays started years ago, when I had a show” Martins said. “I’m a naturally shy person”. He was hanging out at the back of the show, just as he had been when we met, and overheard a discussion of the work. “This art critic saying I think this work was done by an elderly man.”
“I was like Hi! No! This is my work!”
“And he said No!”
“I said my name is Moyo. And this is my painting”.
Martins returned to his studio on a mission. “Okay! So I’m going to start adding niceties to all of my paintings,” he said. “So that people will know. It’s all about communication.” What did the blue and white striped shapes communicate? “They came from my granddad,” Martin said. “I come from a family of seers. When you come from such a community you have regalia so that a normal person from that society will see that you are different. So you wear stripes.” He pointed to a canvas. “This is my dad right here,” he said. “You see the stripes? This is my granddad. You see the stripes? It’s like everywhere. They need to have them”.
Other niceties are even more personal. The word MOMO was painted upon one canvas. When artists paint words it is usually to channel popular culture but there have been resonant exceptions as when Robert Indiana referenced his mother’s last action before her death, with the words EAT and DIE. What did MOMO reference?
“Momo is the name that people call me back home” Martins said. He realizes that he is now much changed but made the painting to indicate that he is still essentially the man who left. “It’s like this is me now. This is who I am today,” he said. “This is the first time I put emphasis on character in a piece.” It channels what he experienced telephoning friends in Nigeria. “I went through a lot, trying to explain to people I grew up with that this is me now and them trying to understand what I had become. I had to stay away from so many people, it was lonely. And there were so many memories.”
Another word he frequently paints is WHY.
“Why are we here?” I guessed. Wrong.
His works, he says, bud from dreams, visions.
“Why is it going this way? Or why do I see the things I see? What does it mean when I see things?” he said. “Ask no questions and there’s no clarity. When I’m making the pieces I ask questions because I’m having a conversation with the pieces.”
He works mostly at night. “I really don’t paint during the day,” he says. “During the day, I do what I call scribbling and scratching, the final touches before the work is complete. Sometimes I paint to study what I’m going to paint overnight.”
With what lighting?
“A very low lamp”.
I returned to the loaded meanings. What messaging were the googly eyes communicating? Those toothy mouths?
“It’s because closed eyes don’t see and a closed mouth doesn’t get fed,” he said. “This is reality. These are not fictional paintings or just slapping inks on a canvas. It’s way deeper than that. And it’s so deep that at times it can get spooky. And some people actually do gravitate towards the paintings because there’s something in them that connects with the paintings. Because it’s reality. You can kill your old self and invent a new self. There’s a ladder right there”.
“It’s going up.”
“To Infinity. To anywhere you want to go to change what you aspire to be. You can’t escape the process. That’s the point of the ladder. You must be comfortable to grow.”
We moved on and I asked about the tribal head impaled with long nails.
“It’s Ibo,” he said, referring to another Nigerian tribe. “It’s called a station of peace. It protects the firmament, it provides the energy. I do love that piece. I love the pieces I collect.”
We reach another of his paintings, a long oblong, a striking depiction what I took to be a two-headed crocodile.
“It’s not a crocodile,” Moyosore Martins corrected me. “It’s a study of an African sculpture. And the sculpture represents No Going Back - it speaks about my career. There’s no going back.” WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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