The Mozambique-Born Artist Changing What It Means to Be a Painter

Cassi Namoda wants to make art more accessible.

Cassi Namoda. Photo: Alina Asmus
Cassi Namoda. Photo: Alina Asmus

“Some would say your late 20s are a little bit late these days to start a career as a painter, which is weird and unfortunate,” says Mozambique-born artist Cassi Namoda, 33. After studying cinematography at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and working for fashion designer Maryam Nassir Zadeh sourcing artisanal pieces from abroad for the store to sell — Namoda turned to painting from a very personal place. She was living in Los Angeles and yearning for home. “There’s a term in Portuguese, saudade, that’s a longing that can’t be replaced,” she says. A self-taught artist, she began showing paintings in a friend’s living room, then another friend’s bookshop, building a career through word of mouth. Now she is represented by Goodman Gallery and François Ghebaly.

Most recently, Namoda has been painting in Cape Town, South Africa, for a show there this summer. “Me choosing to physically be here is me saying that I want to engage with the people,” she says. “I don’t want to just send paintings over and be like, ‘All right, sell them.’” Later this year, she’ll spend time in Guatemala City working on a show involving ceramics, drawing, performance, and video art in an open floor plan for the experimental gallery Proyectos Ultravioleta. Her mode of traveling and painting from new places is intentional, a way to slow things down in an industry that can otherwise get “really commercial really fast.”

Namoda spoke with the Cut about her artistic journey, her inspirations, and why the light in East Hampton, where she’s based, is unlike that of anywhere else.

What in your early life put you on a path to be a painter?

It was my time spent observing nature in Kenya, where I lived when I was about 6. I was so in love with these animals that I so badly wanted to have pictures of them in my room. I would obsessively draw them whenever we would come back from safari, and that stuck with me. I was drawing consistently up until middle school.

When I was 25, I moved to L.A., and the geographic position of Los Angeles, for me, felt very alienating. So painting became this form in which I decided to start negotiating my homesickness. I was surprised because I have a natural tendency to be a writer. Painting had been something I had always done growing up, but school interrupted that path for me so I found other forms of expression.

I just started drawing again. It feels very vulnerable; it’s like writing to me. My next show, called “Tropical Depression” at Xavier Hufkens in Brussels, is essentially large drawings with a minimal amount of paint.

You said you started painting because you were homesick. As someone born in Mozambique who lived in Indonesia, Kenya, Benin, and Haiti, what has “home” come to mean to you?

I call Mozambique home, though it’s not home. It’s my ancestral interior. My mother’s there, my family’s there, my grandparents are in the earth there. Growing up, we moved around quite often. My father had different notions about living and experience and that one must see the world. That also benefits my practice. If I look at Emil Nolde’s work, or even Gauguin or van Gogh, these painters would travel, and they would exist in these places. In some ways, there was also an exotification of these paradises, these foreign lands. But I’m not exotifying; I’m existing in a Black body. I’ve lived in many places. I understand the world in a way that is beyond a textbook but more about the nuances. So I feel like I can be anywhere — Budapest or Tangiers or Kyoto — and feel very excited about some sort of familiarity in the sensation of a new experience. We need novelty in our human experience. But then I need to retreat and sit with it all. I guess East Hampton is that place for me right now.

What thrills you about being a painter?

It’s almost like you’re always negotiating with yourself. You have to sit with yourself at the end of the day and ask, Is this really me? When that can be answered, then I know I’ve made something honest, authentic. At the end of the day, if I’m not painting, I feel incomplete in a way.

Photo: Alina Asmus

When you began painting in L.A., how did you support yourself with your art?

When I started, I was really shocked that all my friends wanted the paintings. It was such an amazing thing. All I needed to do, really, was sell one or two paintings a month, and that would help. Also, keep in mind, my work on paper was selling for $500 to $1,000 — my watercolors and paper didn’t even cost a fraction of that. My materials weren’t really the issue, and I didn’t need a studio. It wasn’t until much later, when I was painting on canvas and I had people more curious, that I was like, Okay, I guess I have to have studio visits not in my ex’s garage. And I got a little studio.

Now, painting supports my lifestyle, but at the same time, I don’t want to overproduce. It’s a purely logistical business way of approaching work. You can’t flood the market. There has to be a sort of preciousness to the painting. It’s also very physical. I don’t have an assistant, so doing collaborative projects with brands like J.Crew helps. Whether it be the perfume I did with Linda Sivrican or my collection with J.Crew — though the perfume project was purely charity-based — I’m curious to create nuances within collaboration that can still have the spirit of the art.

You recently worked on a textile for Marimekko and launched a jewelry collaboration with Catbird last summer. How do you tie your interests in other areas to your painting?

I need my brain to work in different ways. Everything informs something else. Now I’m taking ballet, so that is informing something about my practice, about me as a person. It makes your feet so strong that now I can’t paint with shoes on. My feet are like, No, I’ve got this. I have the ground. Once I get back into the studio, refreshed, having learned something new, my mind works in a different way.

How does living and working in New York or having that home base in East Hampton inform your art?

I carved out a pretty nice situation for myself there. I like the history of artists that have come before me. Jackson Pollock’s studio is less than five minutes away from mine. Just knowing that exists there, as a pillar, is really cool. Thinking about Helen Frankenthaler — there’s something about it that almost gives me more energy.

The colors also inform me. There’s something really special about the light there. It feels like a piece of land has just drifted off into a soft morning sunrise, and it kind of stays like that. And my relationship to the sunset has been really important to me. Stopping my studio practice, rushing to the ocean to watch the sunset, and retreating back to working — it’s almost like time moves in a very circular fashion for me there, which I feel is very ancestral. It’s a good place to retreat. I don’t have many distractions there. And when I need to go into the city and eat at Balthazar at eight in the morning and then jump and see a couple shows, see a couple friends, that has its place too. We always need to recharge and see other people.

As you mentioned, your work makes use of color. What’s your approach to the vibrant hues you use?

I eventually want to make my own pigments. I think this is where it’s going. When it comes to painting, usually what I will do is I’ll just stare at sketches, for sometimes a month, before I even decide what colors to embody in the work. Then I start living and breathing those colors and it just shows up in many different ways.

When I did Mendes Wood’s exhibition in São Paulo, it was this really bright fuchsia with this opaque black and this powder blue. That was a very tight-paletted show. I was working in the lens of mourning and grieving because it was a very hard time in Brazil and in the world with COVID. The fuchsia is symbolic of compassion.

I also think about color in the realm of spirituality. Any religious philosophy or theology has colors that embody it. In Hinduism, marigold is really strong. The Catholic church also has its specific colors. I think color is probably a religious approach to painting.

Do you feel like your presence in the art world and your growth serve some sort of social duty?

One hundred percent. That’s just what happens with any sort of frame of work once a certain status is given. I like to be able to connect and show people. In 2018, when I presented my first show, at Nina Johnson in Miami, I’d invite the local postman and the woman who braided my hair, and they would just come and see, and they were just so taken aback by the scale.

Even yesterday, a girl from the café next door said, “What are you doing? You’re always covered in paint.” I said, “I’m a painter.” And she’s like, “What?” She’s from Zimbabwe. And I said, “Why don’t you come by?” She came at the end of the day, and she was just like, “Wow, you are doing this? I didn’t know that we could do this. I didn’t know Black women could do this.” That’s why I talk about accessibility. Because these ideas are not often introduced on this continent. If I can be around to just chat in a very democratic way with people, that feels good to me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

This Artist Is Changing What It Means to Be a Painter