Moses Salihou: Essence
401 Richmond Street, Toronto, Canada Suite LL108
August 17 through September 23, 2023
By BYRON ARMSTRONG September 10, 2023
Cameroonian artist Moses Salihou has a lot to be excited about right now. He’s coming off a successful group show at Tanya Weddemire Gallery in Brooklyn, preceded by several group shows at Akwaaba Gallery in New Jersey (his first in the U.S.), and another through BAND (Black Artists' Network In Dialogue) at Toronto’s Metivier Gallery. The busy abstract-figurative painter's current show “Essence” at BAND’s satellite gallery, precedes his upcoming representation with a major gallery in the city, cementing his status as an international artist to watch. Initially beginning with the figure before leaning into abstraction, Salihou’s most recent interpretation evokes a hybridization of the two. There’s a versatility or what Salihou might label “freedom” at play, and I was glad to have the opportunity to discuss this merging of directions during a walkthrough of the show with the artist. People and the relationships that connect them are complex, or abstract if you will, even if the community and familial bonds that tie them to each other seem corporeal. As such, it’s perhaps fitting that Salihou chose to explore those themes with Essence, a show that borrows from both elements to, much like family and community, create a whole.
So you're a self-taught artist. Tell me about that process. How did art even become a thing for you?
I think it was just something natural that happened accidentally. I started sketching and drawing at a young age back in Cameroon. Friends and people in my community encouraged me to keep focusing on art because I was good at it. Even at that early stage, I realized that art gave me a voice. I started out with basic materials and resources like paper, pencils, and stuff like that. No primary colors. I didn’t touch anything with colors or paint until secondary school, which was in the late 90s. Even then, we’re talking about low-grade, usually toxic paints and materials. When I’d run out, I would try out other things like collage because when you run out of material, there’s always a newspaper or print magazine lying around that you can create something out of. That's how I started.
Now that you have access to all of these materials, how has that affected your work?
I'm trying to reconnect with the limitations I had when I started because now that I have access to all the materials I want, it seems almost too easy. When I began my life as an artist in Cameroon, completing a single painting with little to no materials caused me to think more creatively about my resources. So now I take advantage of what I have available to me and try to hold on to that drive and focus I had when I started.
I see a big part of your recent work centers around family and community. Can you talk a bit about what you're trying to say about that in your own words and why that's important?
When I first visited BAND Gallery, what I saw was a community coming together, and it felt more familial than other galleries I’ve visited. I had a conversation with Karen Carter, and she agreed to come by my studio. From there she offered me a show. I needed to sort of recreate that community feeling in the work I presented. Family is something incredibly important to me and I wanted to showcase that sense of family or community that exists outside of necessarily race. Because I think the concept of togetherness, community, or family elicits emotions common to everybody. Of course, my focus is going to be the community I’m a part of first, with my lived experience and where I’m coming from informing the work.
Can I assume that this also relates to the French component of this exhibition?
Oh yeah, that plays a big role in this show because coming from Cameroon, which is French-speaking, I'm a French speaker. When I moved here, it was challenging to learn English. There are more French-speaking people moving to North American cities like Toronto, and with the theme of community, I wanted those people to feel comfortable visiting my show. 50 percent of the people at my opening were speaking French, and connected more easily with the subject matter I think because of the dual language exhibition.
This last show was entitled “Essence” which is also the name given to the first painting hanging at the entrance way of the show. How does the painting relate to the main theme of the show?
Although we knew the central theme of the show would revolve around family and community, both I and the curator of the show, Mariah Coulibaly, had problems coming up with a title for the show. The first painting you see on the wall was actually the last painting I created for the exhibition, about two months before the opening. I named it Essence. When she finally saw the work and could envision it alongside the other paintings, she came up with the title of the show. So all credit goes to her for the title of the show. I just created the work.
As an “abstract figurative” artist, there’s a lot of work here that seems more figurative than abstract, and vice versa. What do you think about the idea of artists being put into boxes like, ‘This is what you do and only this?’
I’m versatile. I don't stick to any one style. It's all about where I’m at and what I’m feeling that day. So you're right because when you see the dates credited to the work, you’ll probably notice the earliest series of work is more figurative in nature. As time goes by, you can see me starting to move toward more abstractionist expression, where there’s just more color and texture. I gave Mariah the freedom to select the works she liked for the show, and she chose work that would show the evolution of my practice. Today, I would say I’m somewhere between abstraction and figuration. Freedom is the keyword for me. In life or art, if you don't have it, you have nothing.
So now you're being courted by a major commercial gallery here in Canada, that’s going to take over your representation when this show is over, and prior to this exhibition had work on display in the “Cultural Caretakers” group show at Tanya Weddemire Gallery in Brooklyn. Considering your start as a self-taught artist from Cameroon, to an artist on the cusp of commercial representation, what has that success been like for you? Have you had any time to process it?
It's a big change in the sense that now I feel like I have an opportunity for my work to really be seen. That’s always every artist’s goal. When I left Cameroon for Toronto, I didn't see many opportunities for Black artists. It was tough to keep working in an industry where you don’t see yourself represented anywhere. This open door is like a reminder that you have the right to dream big because things are possible. I’ve already had younger artists come to me and say they are inspired by my success. I think that’s something I can offer the next generation behind me. Hope. And for me, that's everything. WM
Byron Armstrong is an award-winning freelance journalist and writer who investigates the intersections between arts and culture, lifestyle, and politics. Find him on Instagram @thebyproduct and on Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/byron-armstrongview all articles from this author