Critics’ Picks

Misheck Masamvu, Black Soul, 2019, oil on canvas, 56 x 49 1/2". Image courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Cape Town

Misheck Masamvu

Goodman Gallery | Cape Town
176 Sir Lowry Road Fairweather House, 3rd Floor
July 20–September 28, 2019

Best known for his neo-expressionist paintings of figures incarcerated in color, Misheck Masamvu has recently added text to his armory. In 2016, the twilight of former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s oppressive rule, the artist transcribed his free-verse poem “Still” (“Still in prison,” read a line) onto his Volkswagen campervan and drove it around Harare in a conscious baiting of authority. An example of Masamvu’s self-described “dysfunctional political commentary” introduces his current exhibition of figure drawings and not-quite-abstract paintings. An uncredited text composed from vinyl lettering and pasted onto a wall at the gallery’s entrance mourns his deceased mother and rages against the impoverished state of his homeland, which currently faces mass starvation, compounding years of political instability. His requiem nonetheless ends optimistically: Masamvu proposes the hata, a cushion used by women bearing loads on their heads after which the show is named, as a metaphor of “resistance” and “coping.”

Masamvu’s ten oil paintings do not provoke in the same way as his writing, in large part because his ambitions have shifted. Earlier in his career, the artist composed politically charged figural allegories characterized by their scruffy luxuriance. That early extravagance persists, but the figure is now less of an obvious destination. In Benediction and Counting Coins (all works 2019), there are the barest of rudiments of a face—cartoonish eyes, perhaps lips. Severed Relations, the only wholly abstract work, features blotches of emerald, crimson, pink, and white overlaid with slashes of yellow and orange. In Therapy Lounge, two consoling hands reach out from a dark cumulous mass over casually delineated heads. Masamvu’s unrestrained use of inky pigment in Black Soul, which depicts what appears to be a bespectacled figure with an enormous Afro—the subject’s righteous hair described with thick, wet brushstrokes—thrillingly rehearses this conflict between decomposition and figural statement.