In Misheck Masamvu’s solo exhibition Still Still, the painter expands on a body of work begun in Still at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg from earlier in 2016. The title of the show reflects repetition as a crucial reflex for Masamvu, with motifs and marks being replicated over and over. It is both a nod to the previous exhibition and a statement of progress; the artist growing what he terms his ‘grammar’, through seemingly indefatigable reiterations. This grammar comprises expressive brushwork, chaotic compositions and perpetually altered or mutated figures that he often depicts between states of animal and human.
As a resident Zimbabwean, Masamvu’s work is inevitably situated within the socio-economic realities of living in a failed system. The human figure is found in a space of limbo; subject to an unstable environment and in varying states of distress or transition. The artist, however, rails against an overt political reading in his work: “I think what I find quite sad is the idea of politics being pushed in as part of the content. I’m not saying politics are not important but are more of an element within everything else. What really shapes the whole narrative in my work is surviving the politics but not talking about the politics.”
It is in the personal that Masamvu invests his thematic weight, indicated initially in the darkly humorous and reflective titles he gives his works. He speaks of each painting as a proposal for a new reality, an arena for him to work through personal hopes and frustrations but also to offer alternatives, for himself and others, to the constraints and constructs of daily reality. Masamvu states, “My work does not have a specific location, it doesn’t have a specific background.” There is a sense that he is inviting the viewer to attempt to place themselves in that undefined and disorienting space.
Masamvu uses colour atypically to achieve that disorientation. In the catalogue to the group show Working Title, held at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg in 2012, critic Sean O’Toole writes that the painter “purposefully uses colours in ways that destabilize their fixed metonymic qualities… it can even be a way to impede a viewer’s entry into a painting.” Contradiction and contrast operate at every level of Masamvu’s works in Still Still. Line is obfuscated by repetitive mark-making and then clarified in a series of accompanying drawings, figures are deformed then ultimately reconstituted, and overarching all this is a constant pull between representation and abstraction.
Misheck Masamvu was born in Penhalonga, Zimbabwe in 1980 and currently lives and works in Harare where he also facilitates and mentors the work of peers and aspiring artists. He trained at Atelier Delta, Harare and Kunste Akademie in Munich, Germany. He has participated in many major exhibitions and events including the 54th Venice Biennale, where he represented Zimbabwe, as well as the Sao Tome and Dakar Biennales. His work was included on the Cape Town leg of New Revolutions, a group show looking back on 50 years of the Goodman Gallery.