Myth and History: Cassi Namoda Interviewed by Will Fenstermaker

Paintings as novellas.

A painting of a black woman crying while being hugged and surrounded by two other people with buildings in the background titled, One night in Beira town, by Cassi Namoda

Cassi Namoda, One night in Beira town, one Fernando, one Afonso. Maria Joao tells Maria Ana to “let him go” at 2 a.m. but, living a novella seems practical for Maria Ana, 2020, oil and acrylic on cotton poly, 48 × 66 inches. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.

The emperor of Gaza. A plain, blue car. Burning red suns and ancient weapons. A young girl on crutches. A man eating a rose. A yellow canary. Conjoined twins and one’s suitor. Sermons in a lake.

Cassi Namoda’s Mozambique has a vagueness and gravity that gives it the feeling of a communal dream. Populated by recurring figures and enchanted with an impermeable reverie, her paintings offer a mythopoetic vision of Lusophone Africa. While Namoda sometimes depicts gods and heroes—figures like Hermes and Eduardo Mondlane—her works often find their sagacity in the rhythms of daily life in Mozambique.

—Will Fenstermaker


Will Fenstermaker Writing plays an important role in your work. Your exhibition opens with a short text that you commissioned from writer Wesley Hardin. It feels like an origin story. The narrative begins with primordial colors that form into vignettes that you’ve painted, including a sermon in a lake, maybe a baptism.

Cassi Namoda After we collaborated on research, I asked Wesley to write a short piece to reflect the many conversations we’d had about the vast literary space in painting. I think of these paintings as novellas. I constantly look to craft a literary connection or to suggest a longing to write and reflect. For this show in particular, I created specific, almost dramaturgical titles. Some are a paragraph long. Usually the title is birthed first, and then I come up with what it means. That religious painting is the first one I thought of after coming up with To live long is to see much.

WF That title is intriguing because many of your figures’ eyes are bloodshot. The strain manifests in their eyes. 

CN Yes, the red is the fatigue of living. The title is a Swahili proverb. To me, it’s about the perseverance of a life that’s godly and bigger than us. It’s about the sacrificial, the mundane, the essence of time. I was on Lamu Island, in Kenya, thinking of circular time, and I wanted to transcribe a sense of living through nostalgia or memory; that’s why the colors have this dreamlike quality in the writing.

WF Many characters recur throughout your paintings. For example, you’ve painted a pair of conjoined twins many times.

CN It’s almost divine when I’m working with figures and they start to form themselves. It would be a waste not to bring them back. They also sometimes identify themes or symbols. For example, there’s a painting of a boy with vitiligo in the show. The yellow canary in his hand is an ode to Spanish portraiture. I was thinking about enfreakment and how Black bodies aren’t always our own. With Millie and Christine McKoy in the conjoined twins series, so many aspects of their representation, both historically and today, deny their agency. You know of Sarah Baartman, or Hottentot Venus, the Khoikhoi woman who was taken by the Germans and shown around in so-called “freak shows”? Colonialism created the circus, the clown, the “freak,” and it’s crucial to afford these figures an existence outside Europe. Why do we think vitiligo looks unusual, if not through an occupation of the white, Christian gaze?

You mentioned “origins,” and that word kept coming up while I was working. Robert Motherwell said that every painter has a history of painting inside them. Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brâncuși, and other artists who adopted and co-opted African aesthetics are such an important part of my rationale; the Old Masters also speak to me. But in navigating that you have to maintain your individualism. I’m a young woman of color from a place that’s orientalized. How can I dovetail all of that?

One way is through the Négritude tradition of poets like Léopold Senghor or Aimé Césaire or Édouard Glissant; but I’m also trying to introduce a global audience to the Lusophone story. There’s not much awareness of places like Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique, but they house a dense concentration of authors: Mia Couto, Luís Bernardo Honwana—all these amazing literary figures.

A blue fish with a black child curled up in its belly titled, Womb, by Cassi Namoda

Cassi Namoda, Womb, 2020, oil and acrylic on cotton poly, 40 × 30 inches, Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.

WF I thought José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion (2013) was stunning, but Luso-African literature is generally a blind spot for me. How has your experience living throughout Anglo- and Francophone Africa, as well as living in Haiti, influenced your understanding of Mozambique? 

CN I was born in Mozambique, and while I was young, I lived in Indonesia, Kenya for quite some time, then Haiti, and then the Dominican Republic. I only lived in Haiti a short time, and I was quite young, but something resonated with my development as a child. Certain places have powerful, magical landscapes, and Haiti has always been a place of mysticism and rich folklore. It was also my first time experiencing the diaspora outside of Africa. When I moved to Benin at fifteen to study at boarding school, I learned of vodun. I understood it was the same essential connection I had made in Haiti: these magical spiritualisms and rituals as a part of daily life. Then I finished schooling in Uganda, which has a very English, evangelical state of mind.

John Mbiti’s writings are a constant reference for me. Once I read his work, I could make sense of what I had experienced living in East Africa, from Kenya to Uganda. He was a Christian theologian who wrote that East African societies believe God exists everywhere. It’s spiritual and animistic. 

WF Does this explain the symbolism in your work? Your motifs recur, but they adapt from painting to painting, which opens up the symbols’ meaning and retains their mystery even as you codify them. In some paintings, this godly presence is overt—I don’t know what Womb (2020) depicts if not some kind of myth. There’s a human fetus inside a large fish, and an ochre moon. 

CN Yeah, certain divine objects appear as symbols throughout my work. The centaur battling Hermes in We have become strangers (2020) has an orange rock as well, so that motif finds itself in different moments. There, I was thinking about Francisco de Goya’s Fight with Cudgels (1820–23).

A painting of a black man attacking a centaur with a black head and body titled, We have become strangers, by Cassi Namoda

Cassi Namoda, We have become strangers (Fight with a javelin and boron). An ode to Goya, 2020, oil and acrylic on cotton poly, 60 × 84 inches. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.

WF Right, and I think you see this symbolic order as an active presence, not just a metaphysical one, because it’s in the cityscapes and the more mundane paintings too.

CN Even in an urban setting, like downtown Maputo, I’ll put a burnt orange moon in the corner. Or there’s the red chair that always accompanies the three Marias. There’s always a spiritual moment within the painting. We’re all familiar with dreamlife and how within the dream itself you may not know what the symbols mean. All you can do is observe and feel, and it’s not until you wake up that you can have a conscious effort to make sense of them. I’m not looking for extremities; I’m looking for a middle ground that feels unusual, but where we can relate to what’s happening in the picture. It’s hard to describe, but with each show I’m getting closer to that. 

WF Your exhibition also includes a video. What does it present?

CN It’s a short video of Eduardo Mondlane, the founding father of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO). In it, he travels to London to speak at the Africa Centre about what FRELIMO means for Mozambique’s liberation struggle. Africa had all these great leaders—Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba—and now they’re all gone. Today, Africa is, I think, in its most complicated and sensitive state.

A photography of a gallery with figurative paintings of black figures titled, installation view of Cassi Namoda: To Live Long is To See Much

Installation view of Cassi Namoda: To Live Long is To See Much, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.

WF FRELIMO, of course, rebelled against the Portuguese. Has Lusophone Africa had to contend with Lusotropicalism, the idea embraced by the Estado Novo that the Portuguese were “better” colonizers than, say, the Spanish or English? Portugal didn’t always consider itself a European colonial empire; it saw itself as pluricontinental and therefore diverse.

CN The Portuguese were not unlike the Arabs in that they adapted to African systems, particularly along the Swahili coast: Lamu, Zanzibar, even some parts of Somalia. In Mozambique, the Portuguese married into communities, and some families benefited from that. And ever since the days of Vasco da Gama, they traded with India through the Zambezia Province of Mozambique.

I just picked up a book of photographs by Moira Forjaz called The Islanders (2019). It reminds me of Ricardo Rangel, who photographed Maputo’s red-light district, a sailor’s haven. Forjaz documented people from Ilha de Moçambique in the ’60s and ’70s, and these women spoke about the lavish parties they had when Portuguese came to trade. It was a very sexually liberated scene. A lot of women ran away with sailors. When FRELIMO took power, they banned prostitution. Women had to work on secret farms or become freedom fighters, even though a lot of them didn’t believe in the movement because their lives were already good.

It’s a complicated history. I’m heading to Lisbon to create a wall facade of Gungunhana, who was king of the Gaza Empire. FRELIMO used him as a paradigm for how one should behave. He was a hyper-intelligent, moral figure, but he was also very savage. They idolized Gungunhana as an image of strength and terror, someone who could wreak havoc with his gaze. The Portuguese captured him and exiled him to the Azores, where he died with his several wives. I’m transcribing an image of him into azulejo tile, taking this figure who detested the Portuguese, who wanted freedom by any means necessary, and rendering him in a distinctly Portuguese aesthetic.

WF Azulejo came from the Moors, I think. 

CN Yeah, I mean, that’s the history of the world, right? The Portuguese have their own unique history. Then, through colonization, they created a culture in touch with African sensibility. When you experience Mozambique’s cities and the landscape, when you walk through Maputo’s boulevards, you find an urban, European past; that style of living is juxtaposed with African sensuality. It’s a complex, mixed culture—one that can only be embraced as a layered community, a layered mystery.

Cassi Namoda: To Live Long is To See Much is on view at Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg until January 16.

Will Fenstermaker is an art critic based in New York.

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