“To the writer,” as Janet Malcolm once wrote, “the painter is a fortunate alter ego, an embodiment of the sensuality and exteriority that he has abjured to pursue his invisible, odorless calling.” That dynamic haunts many an artist interview, where you find the writer, consciously or subconsciously, trying to pry some secret out of their subject — a skeleton key to their work that may not exist. I tried to avoid this in my conversations with the painter Cassi Namoda, who has spun out a defiantly original narrative, both on and off the canvas. Her paintings draw on visual artifacts from archival photography, history, and folklore, and demonstrate a genius — she is self-taught — for color, figuration, and perspective. Our dialogue, around the occasion of her new show, A gentle rain is dying, at 303 Gallery in New York, was kick-started by parallel obsessions with Lusophone Africa, in her case, and the British Raj, in mine, and we quickly bulldozed through subjects ranging from the princesses of the Swahili coast to the mythology of twins — she is one — to the impact of climate change on our food, as well as the incentives for young women to work in both conventional and experimental forms. But just when I thought I had a handle on things — having, for instance, prepared questions about the Berkshires, where she lives and works — Cassi would throw a curveball, like announcing that she was soon relocating to Italy. Rarely had I encountered someone who so re-enchanted the idea of movement, travel, and cosmopolitanism, albeit with a distinct focus on lesser-traveled byways of the globe.
Namoda, born in 1988 in Maputo to an American father and Mozambican mother, started painting a decade ago, in Los Angeles, out of a nostalgic longing for far-away places. Though she has been showing paintings to increasing acclaim, she has long had a foot in the fashion world, too; she used to work for Maryam Nassir Zadeh, and has partnered with J.Crew and Catbird on capsule collections.
In her paintings, she’s been drawn time and again to African cultures, from many different angles. A 2022 show was inspired by photos of 1960s nightlife in Maputo, while her new show affectingly depicts contemporary forced migration. I spoke with her twice last month — first from a home she had rented on the North Fork, alongside her siblings Nicolette and Armando, and her dog Bernadette, and second from Manhattan, where she was passing through for her show opening. In between, I went to see her seven new paintings at 303 Gallery, in Chelsea.
Krithika Varagur: I was struck by the palette of these new paintings, which seem novel within your body of work. How would you describe their colors?
Cassi Namoda: I separate the new show into three bodies of work. There are the cooler, sort of ephemeral lagoon paintings, and those are based on seafoam, purple, soft yellow. Then there are the more visceral migration paintings, which have raw ambers and browns, and I created contrast with red and what I’d call a soft linen blue, or sky blue. The last set of paintings are these dream paintings, and those use really vivid colors, like moss green, as well as a lot of white, to create the feeling that you’re thinking back on a memory. When I’m working, I’ll always sit down and figure out the palette first. Sometimes it takes me a few months to figure it out. Some of it comes from nature; like, right now, I’m looking at the water, and that blue brings me a sense of calm. And I’m looking at this pink, outside the window, which makes me excited.
KV: What kind of pink is it... Can you flip your camera?
CN: Yeah, I’ll flip it. [Cassi shows me a fuchsia rosebush, and beyond it, the sea, under bright sunlight.] Right outside! I’m a little sad; I totally forgot to bring my watercolors.
KV: When you figure out a palette, do you put the colors down on canvas immediately, or make a note of it somewhere?
CN: No; I only shop for colors about twice a year, and then work with what I have in the studio. I think every pigment can have an opportunity to shine — think about Goya’s Black Paintings. I’d never really made anything with a brown background before this show, and I came to it by thinking through how to depict something intense, with an ominous quality, but set in a rural, earthy environment, somewhere far from Western society. I felt like the best way was to use earthy, dark browns. Though, now that I say that, of course the Old Masters also used a lot of brown.
KV: That reminds me of something the Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf says: “Brown is also a color,” meaning, you can learn to appreciate dead and decomposing plants as much as flowering ones — or, every color has its day.
CN: Brown is also a color. Absolutely. Even on the High Line in the fall, those beautiful dead flowers that have turned into different shades of brown are really stunning. Also, I think brown reminds you of your mortality, right — like, you end up in soil.
KV: In your nocturnal paintings, were you painting actual trees and plants that exist in the world, or riffing on forms you have encountered?
CN: I was thinking about a lagoon that I’d seen over a decade ago, in Bilene [in southern Mozambique]. It was the first time I’ve ever watched the moon set, and I thought it was the most wonderful, godly, awesome thing. I wanted
to really delve into that landscape as a pillar of the show. I was also looking through some archival gelatin prints that I acquired from a bookstore in San Francisco, and found an image of a lagoon that brought me back to the one I saw; it matched my memory exactly, it was uncanny. And I realized I had to paint this triptych.
KV: Figurative painting is a privileged medium in the West, and many of your early works to get traction were on large canvases. Do you feel like people have wanted more of those from you, though you also make smaller paintings and drawings?
CN: I don’t know if it’s necessarily people, but it’s the market, right? And definitely, yes. That’s driven by capitalism, and swayed by whatever is trendy or whatever is working at that time. There’s a whole ecosystem there too: museums, galleries, advisors... I think you’re really a strong artist if you don’t care about that at all. When I was 26 or 27, I had a works on paper show, and everyone was like, “Okay,
now you’ve got to go bigger.” In a way, at the time, that was exciting; it was a challenge. I certainly felt like I had to prove myself. Since then I have thought, at times, “Okay, bravo, you did it.” But, after that, you have to ask, are you happy, and are you fulfilled?
KV: I can relate to that; as a young woman of color in any creative field, you want to convey that you can work in prestige forms — so that no one can write you off — but in doing so, you also create a space to experiment, if you’d like.
CN: Exactly. Exactly. You have to do that. That’s the reality. But you yourself are the only one who can make your own reality. And it takes intent, and it takes manifestation, and knowing yourself, and also spending time alone. I think it’s really important that any artist knows how to sit with themselves.
KV: You made many of these paintings at your new studio in the Berkshires. Has anything changed about your process there?
CN: What’s most interesting to me is to set up a place to create — not even to work, but a place to create, a place to ponder, in different places in the world. I love that studio, and it’s beautiful, but I’m not fixed there. I’ll migrate again. I’m planning to go to Italy, as I said, and I’d like to start working a little bit more from the [African] continent. I’m approaching 35 in October, and I’m feeling ready to move on from living in the States. I usually have a four-year mark with living in places.
KV: Are you already there with America?
CN: Actually, I’m past it. I’m moving soon to the Italian Alps to be with my partner, who lives there and really loves it, but he’s also from Africa. So, I don’t know. Zanzibar is something I think about; Mozambique again, Morocco. I’m redefining what I want for myself, and I don’t think it’s the traditional path people set out for artists where it’s like, “You make lots of money and buy the house, you get the big giant studio, and then maybe you buy the building where your studio is.” I think this lifestyle is just a product of capital and I’m not interested in engaging in it. I think
it actually kills any life force you have, in terms of creating.
KV: Were you always able to articulate things like having a four-year mark on a place, or knowing you might stray from the traditional path of the “successful” contemporary artist?
CN: I think I have, yeah. I’ve said no to a lot of things, which has been very healthy. I don’t think I’ve ever been a difficult artist to work with, but I’m very clear about what I would and wouldn’t do, and even my decision never to work in a city. I don’t work well in the city; it’s distracting, it’s ugly — to me. I’m much happier in Oaxaca, or painting in a garage in Maputo and watching the passers-by. I think the studio is the most boring place any artist can put themselves.
KV: How do you pack?
CN: When I was just getting started, I had one briefcase that I took everywhere. I would just pop it out and start painting whatever I felt like; it was like journaling, and it was liberating. But then when things became more, let’s say, abundant, I had to shift towards canvas and become a more traditional contemporary painter. Then I would often pack a full suitcase with lots of paints, and a big roll of canvas. In some ways, I miss the old me. There’s nothing more special to me right now than making small paintings. I also love to work on paper, and I’m absolutely in love with my watercolors. I think those are the most joyous and inherently “me” things, because they’re free of pressure. There’s so much to observe — right now, for instance, I’m watching the waves, the breeze, the pine cones and the roses, the fire bush, and I think, if you take out a massive canvas, you do compromise something. So, I’m traveling light.
KV: We’ve been talking about the joys of traveling, but its clear obverse is the forced migration that’s so pervasive in today’s world. The subjects of your new paintings include a flood, a temporary settlement, migration, and refugees. Why did you want to paint this, and were you inspired by real displaced peoples, in Mozambique or elsewhere?
CN: It’s obviously something that everyone should be thinking about, because it’s the world that we live in. In this case, I was thinking mainly of climate change and how it’s impacted my home country and my family’s village in Mozambique. Tropical Depression [my 2022 show at Xavier Hufkens] was about climate change too,
though it may not have been obvious. Here, I’m really kind of going into it more explicitly and telling a story about these forced migrations in the Global South, whom I think are the most vulnerable people. I think if you come from the Global South, it’s almost a duty to speak about it, because any of our family members are vulnerable, and we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. My family has been impacted multiple times by cyclones. Cyclone Idai in 2019 is what really sparked my interest in this. Every year now, I get amazing photographs from my mother of crazy floods in our village. She’ll be in a yellow rain jacket, boots up to her thigh, and surrounded by crocodiles in the water — the river, once named my Vasco da Gama, as the River of Good Signs. When that overflows, all the crocodiles leave, and they eat people. Northern Mozambique is also now destabilized by a terrorist group called Al-Shabaab, which has forced many people to flee, and that has also been a big trigger in my storytelling too. “Shazia flees and arrives to
Mocuba” [a portrait of a woman with vitiligo] is directly connected to the stories emerging from there.
KV: Did you meet Shazia?
CN: No, I’m a storyteller. I make up names, I look at places, I look at the map.
KV: I love that this painting participates in the genre of portraiture, but your figurative choices — the abstract, almost color field, background — and the context of a real geopolitical conflict, both subvert conventions of the genre, which has historically been about broadcasting its subjects’ wealth and possessions and privilege.
CN: Exactly. And this is literally about no possessions. It’s not my first painting on this theme. If you’ve seen Condemned to perpetual earth II from last year, the woman is literally counting her last dollars, and she has all her goods on her head. Or the boys in Existential Migrations in Mecufi [from the current show], all they have is the blankets they’re wearing, and that’s it.
KV: How do you know if a painting is finished?
CN: I actually don’t grapple with it directly. It’s just a feeling. I think it’s almost like there’s an expiration date on every work, but it’s not printed anywhere. You just know that the end is so near, and then one day you’re just in the studio and it’s clear. You come in the next day and now it’s just like, “Okay, it’s done. Time for touch-ups.” It just dawns on you. I think that's part of the magic of painting.