Cassi Namoda’s Spiritual, Authentic Approach to Art
Cassi Namoda, Meat is meat, 2021. Photo by Paul Salveson. Courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly Gallery.
Portrait of Cassi Namoda by Kunning. Courtesy of Cassi Namoda and François Ghebaly Gallery.
Cassi Namoda has worn her share of hats. Flitting between the worlds of art and fashion over the last decade, she’s found work as a studio assistant, a curator, an art director, an antiques dealer, a brand agent, and a window dresser, among other roles; and collaborated with friends on collections of cotton garments, jewelry, swimwear, and a limited-edition perfume.
But today, at 33, Namoda is recognized first and foremost as a painter. Her flat scenes of daily life in her native Mozambique, rendered in soft brushstrokes and vivid tones that pop against her characters’ Black-Brown skin, have seduced collectors and curators alike. Informed by memory, literature, and archival research, her paintings are rooted in reality, but often veer into the realm of dreams, as the artist draws from a personal and cross-cultural lexicon of symbols and characters to add layers of postcolonial allegory and narrative ambiguity.
For Namoda, who is self-taught, her recent fine art practice is an extension of the creative pursuits that precede it. “If you have a creative spirit—like an interested sort of disposition—and an authentic sense of self, anything that you delve into could actually be quite fascinating,” Namoda said over the phone from her SoHo studio. “It’s just what you happen to fall in love with.”
Since Namoda first presented herself as a painter in 2017, with a modest show of watercolors at Los Angeles’s Front Room Gallery, her profile has risen quickly and steeply. In 2020, she opened solo shows in London, Los Angeles, and Johannesburg, and attracted mainstream-ish attention when she was one of eight artists invited to illustrate a cover for Vogue Italia’s sustainability-themed January issue. (That September, she was one of 100 faces to appear on the magazine’s covers herself.)
In 2021, Namoda made her South American debut with “The sun has not yet burned off the dew” at Mendes Wood DM’s São Paulo space, and participated in group shows in New York and Beirut. Her work has been collected by the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden in Marrakech, X Museum in Beijing, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. In December, she opened her third solo show with François Ghebaly in Los Angeles, titled “Forgotten Limbs,” on view through January 15, 2022.
Every artist dreams of international reach, but that her career would take on such a global dynamic straight out the gate seems particularly fitting for Namoda, who reminisces warmly and often about her family’s “peripatetic lifestyle.” Born in Maputo to a Mozambican mother and an American father, who worked in the nonprofit sector, she moved often throughout her childhood to accommodate her father’s job, spending time in Indonesia, Kenya, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the United States, and Uganda.
Now based in East Hampton, New York, Namoda still retains a nomadic impulse, and has completed residencies in Oaxaca, Mallorca, and a Kenyan palm plantation. She can paint, it seems, anywhere. “At the end of the day, I think the grandest studio of all is life, and getting out there and experiencing the world,” she said. “So as much as I think it’s nice to have a couple of white walls, I’m totally fine with not having that either.”
In her early twenties, Namoda moved to New York, where she worked primarily in fashion, before settling in Los Angeles with her then-partner, the painter Henry Taylor, in 2016. It’s there that she began to take up painting in earnest: Feeling alienated and misunderstood in her new home, she began painting as a way to reconnect with herself. “[My practice] was the essence of free time and an emotional catharsis; there was really no ego…I was just thinking in terms of helping my spirit,” she said.
Though she had no formal training (she studied cinematography briefly at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco), painting felt natural. Growing up, Namoda said, she’d painted on and off, falling in love with pigments and paint. A suite of early paintings—naïve watercolors inspired by her “unrequited love” for the Island of Mozambique, a UNESCO-protected city renowned for its colonial Portuguese architecture—would lead to her first exhibition, and establish some of the themes and motifs that would become central to her practice: family, culture, mundanity, and color. The work itself, though, has evolved dramatically: Works on paper have been replaced by oil and acrylic on large-scale canvases; the palette is more vibrant; the brushwork more refined.
Africa has maintained a particular hold on Namoda’s spirit and imagination—not only its cities, but its villages, too. “There’s a cadence in rural Africa in which I’m able to see God, if I’m going to be absolutely spiritual about the whole thing—because for me, painting is spiritual,” she said, recalling the quiet, fragrant tea plantations of Gurúè, the village in northern Mozambique where her grandfather was born. “Even the nicest of resorts or the fanciest hotels in Tuscany can’t replace that feeling. I appreciate beauty in every sense possible, but I think there has to be an earthen quality in order for me to really be completely moved, and the earthen quality can’t be bourgeois for me.”
Stylistically, Namoda points to Leon Golub, Georges Seurat, Henri Matisse, and George Grosz as some of her more transient sources of inspiration (“These artists come through me when they need me to see something,” she said). But ultimately, she aspires to reflect the “canon of thinking” represented by artists whose oeuvres speak to the experiences of Black people directly—like James Baldwin; African American painters Bob Thompson and Beauford Delaney; and Ethiopian director Haile Gerima, whose critically acclaimed film Sankofa emphasizes the importance of ancestral roots and racial consciousness.
“So often as people of color, we have to, in some ways, dilute [our work], and I see that in the art market right now,” Namoda said. “Are we actually telling the most authentic story that we’re able to tell? It’s not just about hanging on Eurocentric walls. There’s a bigger picture; it’s [about] those who are coming after us.”
Going into 2022, Namoda remains as curious as ever. She wants to rest, yes, but she’s also eager to collaborate with fabricators on projects that reflect her interest in architecture, and to realize a work of performance art. She’s been thinking about branching into fiction, maybe; she has a residency in Senegal planned for 2023 that could provide the necessary quiet.
“If you’re just painting 24/7—at least for me—it can get quite mechanical,” she said. “You owe it to yourself to be able to explore, be able to ruminate, be able to rest.…Nothing is permanent, right? So we might as well really take time to find our true voices.
“The work is never done, the learning is never done, and I’m only scratching the surface.”