Our latest artist in residence Nabeeha describes her work as autobiographical:
"I use mostly oil and watercolours. In terms of mood, colour palette, composition and subject matter the work plays between romantic and playful. There are a lot of domestic home scenes, from my mother's flowers in her house to portraiture: self as well as of friends and family."
Nabeeha Mohamed studied at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town and graduated, specialising in painting, in 2011. Mohamed’s very personal work grapples with the complexities and contradictions of identity and class privilege in post-Apartheid South Africa. Her identity as a woman of colour, hushed during her childhood years in an attempt to assimilate to the white society and culture she grew up in going to an all-girls private school, is now celebrated in her paintings where colour, boldness and strangeness take centre stage. Her paintings offer a tension when these celebrations of identity are intersected with a playful critique of the capitalist economy and class privilege from which she benefits. – Biography via THEFOURTH
We caught up with Nabeeha to learn more about her journey as an artist as well as her process.
I first studied business science before fine art. It was a very necessary change. I then spent four years being very focused on my art. Everything in my life revolved around it. Then during a two-year break after I had finished at Michealis, I didn't actually make any. I didn't step into a gallery for two years. I think that there might have been some hidden trauma there. But when I started up again, it was on a part-time basis, where I was making work for myself mostly, and then started showing in one or two group shows, including with Smith, which is sadly now closed, but after working with them for a little bit, I approached them about doing a solo show – my career really started there.
I typically start with a sketch; they can be drawings in a notebook to watercolours. Though, I find a lot can change with the transfer from paper onto canvas. Also scale is a big determinant. As soon as something becomes bigger or smaller, it might not sit as well as it does, say on a paper surface, so I allow for a lot of change to happen. Then the colour palette is very much determined as I move through the painting. I work in quite a conversational way with my paintings. I will probably spend more time looking at my paintings than actually putting brush to canvas. I also enjoy letting my paintings sit in my studio for a while afterwards so that I can just be with them; and there might be minor changes, or they could be quite dramatic changes.
I haven't painted an almond eye painting in a while, but I will touch on that later. When I started doing portrait pieces, they weren't focused on self-portraits initially. I understand that viewers see them as self-portraits because there are markers of me that are quite identifiable in them. It is more about tackling a face as a technical challenge. I don't consider the fact that I'm painting myself in them. My face is the most accessible face that I have. I like being able to look into a mirror and then paint, look in the mirror and then paint the memory of what I've seen. I think that it produces a more interesting result than trying to mimic a nose and eye in a painting. The memory of the thing I think can be more interesting.
How painting naturally works is that you start off quite loose and then get a little tighter as you finish. But I find that when I become too focused on representing painting an object as it is in reality, it loses its playfulness. It can lose humour too. I can exaggerate a feature. Or an ugly hand I think can be more interesting than a perfectly present represented hand.
So the almond eyes were originally something that I think is an identifier of me. I know that almond eyes are supposed to be a complimentary kind of feature, but I read an article years ago where a woman of colour was describing how she noticed that when people describe women of colour they were using food descriptors a lot. So like cappuccino skin or chocolate skin, almond eyes, but that wouldn't really be done for white skin.
My work is very autobiographical. Describing my background assists in understanding it. So while I am a woman of colour and have faced discrimination on those levels, I do also come from a background of wealth and privilege. My work deals with that intersection, and how one can assist and the other can disable. A lot of the still life's for example, the original ones were very much based on or inspired by Dutch Vanitas paintings from the 17th century that typically showed objects from a person's household were supposed to symbolise that person's wealth, but then also of life and death. The use as a starting point is more of a critique of what those objects of representation can mean. Things that I often place on my works are luxury sunglasses, or designer handbags. And flowers are often wilting. There's an element of decay.
On one level, I'm just very interested in the surface of painting. I like very flat edges, or areas rather, against more impasto sculptural parts. This is probably something a lot of painters also struggle with - the desire to move into other mediums. Every now and then I like to make a sculptural piece, but I think that how I've started making my paintings brings in a lot of sculpture to them. Sometimes I can start a painting and then halfway through it I decide that I don’t like it –I’ll then actually scrape off the paint and put it on a piece of canvas that's already in my studio. That's essentially another palette, and then I let that paint dry. When that's dry, I pick it up and begin to sculpt it with my hands on the surface of the canvas. It's enjoyable in a tactile kind of way. It feels very different to painting, obviously, because your hands become the paintbrush. You have a different kind of control.
Thinking of those words: “… but is this archival?” which pokes fun at the collector who is interested in the work, but who also wants to know whether they’re paying for something that's not going to last? It speaks to the value of work or the value that's assigned to the work. Every painting behaves differently.
As soon as I got there I felt incredibly focused. I am quite a solitary person; I had no problem being there alone, as I had no distractions. Things immediately got into a nice routine. Waking up with the people on the farm, I’d go into studio for early morning sessions. The days went by so quickly. I spent my time trying to make works bigger than what I have previously been making, so I increased the scale and it was an interesting challenge. I'm very keen to be in a space now where I'm making bigger and bigger pieces. I really enjoyed the space to explore something new.
The fields where the cows would graze, that was very beautiful. I love farm animals in general. And then just below the cottage is an overgrown meadow, very beautiful and quite fairytale-like. There are also these avenues of trees, which sprouted white blossoms – which were so special on my morning runs.
One still life piece did, on my first day. I was just sitting in front of my cottage and did a few drawings of the flowers in front of me. I obviously take a lot of artistic license once I start painting them. But I do think of this as a Tulbagh still life.
Yes, very much. I have specific feelings attached to my artworks. I struggle with my portraiture pieces. It’s a pit in the stomach kind of feeling where I'm reminded of the time that I made them and how I struggled through them. And so it crystallises in that form for me. Though, there are also indicators in terms of technique about where I was at that point in time and what I was trying to achieve in an artwork.