Since her first gallery exhibition in 2017, Cassi Namoda has quickly become a comet of the contemporary art scene. She has had around thirty shows and events, and her paintings, with their common threads of storytelling and narrative transmission, are well sought-after (one sold for $65,000 during the Armory’s VIP preview last week).
In a new show at Chelsea’s 303 Gallery, “A gentle rain is dying,” Namoda presents seven new paintings that explore the entanglements of humans and
Namoda has traveled a lot since childhood but Mozambique, where she was born, remains her “ancestral interior.” As such, she draws inspiration from its people, vistas, mythologies, strength and struggles. Echoing Namoda’s other works, the paintings represent scenes of daily life depicted in semi-figurative form. Namoda uses a modernist palette applied to a minimalist expression to create collage-like chronicles that resonate with cultural anthropology, sequential art and reinterpreted social realism.
In rare landscape paintings, Namoda introduces us to the overarching theme of the works: a flood and its human impact on affected communities. First, Namoda sets the stage. Two paintings show a moonlit view of the ocean framed by lush vegetation. Their cool tones suggest quietude. The full moon’s diffused light resonates with the notions of fecundity and metamorphosis. It also allegorically whispers the dawn of a crepuscular world. We don’t see the flood’s wrath (briefly alluded to in Rhapsodic flood of Namacurra, 2023) but rather the uncanniness of what preceded the event and the way that “before” images linger through its aftermath and human ramifications—life originates from nature and nature guides us on a social journey.
The only single portrait of the series, Shazia flees and arrives to Mocuba (2023), shows the three-quarter bust of a woman whom we understand by the artwork’s title to be displaced by the flood. Her bi-tonal flesh evokes vitiligo as well as the possible metaphorical marks of the trauma she wears on her skin. A pastel blue halo envelopes her head and its shape reminds one of an empty thought bubble, a veil, or a magnified spot of
Existential migrations in Mecufi (2023) represents another scene of displacement. Three boys walk on flip-flops carrying the flimsiness of their conditions on their backs, wrapped in blankets. Characteristically, Namoda chooses to keep their faces unspecified as if telling us that they could be anyone, that they are multitudes amid their hardships.
One of the group portraits, Ancestral trauma in Sagrada familia (2023), directly engages with intergenerational trauma and healing. There, the living co-exist with other forces, which incarnates a pull and dialogue between the present and the past, a bridge between visible and invisible spirits. Women carry their children. The silhouettes of what could be accumulated trauma or ancestors tower above them. Their presence forms a reminder, a thread that connects these individuals to a larger history.
One of these silhouettes seems to outline a priest, and we perceive post-colonial dimensions in that insertion. As the embodiment of a personal lineage, these shadows work as totems and protective pillars, while the outline of a tree of knowledge and abundance deploys its branches in a parasol-like cover. A man seems to converse with one of the ancestors. Yellow pastel defines the living, while greige demarcates the ghosts. The sky stretches in a solid lavender-lilac shade and the color palette denotes a sense of otherworldliness.
Namoda’s paintings can often be viewed as composites. For instance, the children of Aquipa and Musa find temporary settlement on the road to Xalala (2023) play, but we can distinguish the watchful care of their parents in the background. How do the adults navigate their children’s fleeting joy and the doom that has befallen them? Each subject carries individual and collective stories that they experience at the same time.
Communities face uprootedness and learn how to survive in Namoda’s essentialized paintings, as they do in their everyday life. Several natural and man-made crises have affected Mozambique in recent times. Rivers have flooded. Cyclone Idai and Kenneth in 2019, as well as superstorm Freddy last March, hit the country causing the deaths of thousands while affecting millions in addition to physical damage. In northern Mozambique, the province of Cabo Delgado which borders Tanzania has become the site of armed conflict with the presence of a terrorist insurgency and violent extremism on the rise since 2017. At the height of the violence, one million people left their homes to find safety.
Within that context, Namoda forces our gazes onto the people often left out of these headlines and interrogates our evolving relationship with an ecology under immense stress.
Namoda spoke with Observer to offer additional insights on her practice and “A gentle rain is dying.”
What’s your approach to visual storytelling in painting? I’m thinking in particular of the relationship between color and subject, but there’s so much more.
I’m always navigating the alpha and beta states in the prelude of painting. The beta is really cognizant and is engaging in color theory and form whilst the alpha is really ancestral; it’s the storytelling that comes through me.
Your work alternates between depicting historical figures and everyday people. How do you navigate these two spaces, and is there one that draws you more than the other?
It’s culture; we can’t have the “everyday” without having history involved somehow. I think it’s hard to tell everyday stories that negate historical significances whether it’s figures or landscapes. I like to encompass the whole thing.
Your work has been very grounded in your lived experience as a Mozambican in the country and in the diaspora, but you’re also a great traveler. How have your recent residency in Senegal and other travels affected your practice and relationship with your subject matter?
I always think regionally about stories and landscapes that inspire me so it’s really all felt; it’s quite a visceral thing. To remember colors and textures, the tonalities of different peoples and cultures, this moves me in a profound way. The Albers residency in Senegal took me on a path of simplicity. As an artist, that’s truly liberating.
Focusing on “A gentle rain is dying,” how do you see the opposite forces and tension between
water‘s nourishing and destructive qualities? Are there specific artworks that illustrate this? Climate change seems to permeate through your work—for instance, in Existential migrations in Mecufi.
I think that landscapes are portals to the spiritual world and as human beings, we are really vulnerable to the possible calamities that arise when
You’ve done a lot of press. Is there a question or issue you wish people asked that you’ve never had the opportunity to answer?
This is certainly a good start. Climate change in the Global South and forced migrations are things I hope to raise awareness of. I also always enjoy speaking about the sort of things that inspired me to bring a body of work to life, but essentially it’s just lived experiences and sensitivity.
“A gentle rain is dying” is on view at 303 Gallery through October 21st.