Masamvu’s impressive painting Pink Gorillas in Hell are God, which was selected for Art Joburg’s MAX section in 2019, fills the back wall of the exhibition space. This monumental painting is an example of the tension between abstraction and figuration that has become synonymous with Masamvu’s practice. From the centre of a teeming landscape a group of entwined skeletal figures can be identified. These figures are enveloped by a distorted red figure which takes up significant space within the canvas.
While the skeletal figures it envelops appear fragile and delicate, the red figure appears heavy and bodily, its weight pushing back against the seething landscape. Masamvu’s ability as a painter to convey both fragility and bodiliness is beautifully expressed in this complex and intricate painting.
Pink Gorillas in Hell are Gods, 2019
Oil on canvas
280 x 550 cm
US $70 000
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00:00 / 00:46
Therapy Lounge was first shown on Masamvu’s solo exhibition Hata at Goodman Gallery in 2019. In this work the same red figure, which exists in Pink Gorillas in Hell are Gods, emerges from the landscape but this time it is enveloped within a mass of black paint, its arms appearing on either side of it. As with Pink Gorillas…Masamvu has portrayed the weight and sturdiness of the figure – and we are given impression that the painter has caught the figure just before it throws off the shackles of the heavy black mass and emerges from below the surface.
For Masamvu this red figure symbolizes a shedding of the surface, that part of ourselves that is so influenced and moulded by societal conventions and what he refers to as the “forced ideology of governance”. In shedding the surface we are able to return to our true selves, to the rhythm of the natural earth and the blood which courses through our bodies. Speaking about the return to nature, which is so important within the symbolism of the paintings, the artist states: "I am aware of the communion of the body, the soil and spirit and am interested in the transfiguration and memoirs of body and soul that evoke a real sense of vulnerability."
Therapy Lounge, 2019
Oil on canvas
180 x 400 cm
00:00 / 01:07
Unaccounted Histories, like Cat’s Cradle, depicts a landscape haunted by what appear to be skulls and ghostly figures. These paintings are precursors to the other works on the exhibition. In these works the landscape is still holding those figures, the ghosts of the past, the “unaccounted histories” that need to be released by the land. Here Masmamvu makes manifest the historical relationship between humans and land, and examines both the legacy of colonial control of the land and the way in which it exists in the post- colony now.
In Cat’s Cradle a distorted figure is covered by skulls and ghostly creatures. Its hands are twisted out of shape and appear too large for its body. White threads connect and ensnare the figure’s hands which can be read as a metaphor for labour, for that part of the body which writes, creates and works, creating links between the self and the world. The title of the painting suggests that the figure is involved in a game of Cat’s Cradle, where two hands appear to be constrained by string but are in fact easily released within a few swift movements. For Masamvu these hands represent a way of being in the world where we can undo ourselves from the systems that oppress the true self, so that the ghosts and skulls which emerge from the landscape come to symbolize a letting go of the restraints of institutionalization and a return to nature
Masamvu’s figures are always positioned in relation to the abstracted landscapes. Describing his works as “mutants”, he understands the relationship between the landscape and figure as feeding off each other, slowly changing one another. The more abstracted the paintings become, the more the figures metamorphosise, slowly amalgamating into the abstracted space. In a work like Combed Grass the figure is less abstracted than the figures in Pink Gorilla’s… or Therapy Lounge, it is as if we are witnessing the very early stages of the metamorphisis and the return to nature. This figure is not yet red and has not been completely stripped of its surface layers — its social conditioning. We can, however, see the beginnings of this process through the red lines which appear behind the figure like veins, ready to absorb it, to change it and to return it to nature.
In Budding Spirits, we witness the process of metamorphosis towards its end. Although it is possible to identify the hands and shoulders of a figure, Masamvu’s mark making here is much looser than in a work like Combed Grass or Pink Gorilla’s…the figure is slowly becoming one with its environment. By inserting the figures back into nature and the new, abstracted, space, he allows for the beginning of a new consciousness or rebirth.