Memoir VI: Across the Atlantic Pond

Disclaimer: Before we start this memoir, I would just like to state I do not own the following pictures. The aim of all these memoirs is to educate.

America, The Land of Opportunity. I remember growing up and dreaming of living in America. The shows at the time made the US seem so hunky-dory – you had That’s So Raven, Lizzie McGuire, and Drake & Josh. People were given swirlies and stuffed in lockers, and you had school dances such as Sadie Hawkins.

You had films such as American Pie, College Road Trip and Drumline which made university seem like a crazy adventure. I really must applaud the US entertainment industry because it did a phenomenal job selling America to me, it made America look like this angelic place where everyone was having a blast. But that’s the thing with TV shows and movies, they are crafted specifically for an audience – they are designed to be entertaining.

I think there are multiple sides to America, you have this America which is America by Simon & Garfunkel (1968), Living in America by James Brown (1985), and American Teen by Khalid (2017). But you also have this America which is This is America by Childish Gambino (2018), GOOD MORNING AMERIKKKA by Joey Bada$$ (2017), and Who Will Survive in America by Kanye West (2010). Fun Fact: The outro track sampled the spoken word poem, Comment #1 by Gil Scott-Heron (1970). To add to that, you also have this America which is American Idiot by Green Day (2004).

If we look at 21st Century America, things have been interesting. The country has seen its first black president and vice president, and as of this memoir, it has the world’s highest GDP. But we’ve seen some blunders, such as Bush going to war with Iraq and the orange blonde guy who loves Twitter. I think now more than ever America has become polarized, both sides of the political spectrum are shouting at each other; with such a massive rift in the country compounded with a pandemic, you really must ask yourself, how is Biden’s administration going to solve this? Because I don’t have the faintest idea.

What I will say is a conversation needs to happen, and in the words of Malcolm X, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made”. America and even Britain need to look at that knife, pull it out, and tend to that wound before it is too late.

With regards to conversations, especially ones based around society, Muzae Sesay is an individual who is doing this within their work. So with this being the first memoir about a contemporary American artist, it’s time to go across the Atlantic pond and delve into the life of Muzae Sesay. 

Like all the artists in this series, Muzae’s story starts in childhood. As a child, Muzae would use crayons and draw on paper. Once finished, he would give his drawings to his mother, and she would put them on the wall. “My mum and even my aunt would look at what I created, and act like it was the greatest thing that ever happened. I would see the joy from their faces, and I would go away and do it again”.

During his time in high school, Muzae still did art. But in college (university) Muzae studied sociology.

I was fascinated by Muzae’s choice in major (degree), so I asked the artist, what spurred you to study sociology? And what factors played a role in your decision? Muzae responded: ‘It was my parents who influenced my decision, they had a massive influence. Also, financially, I didn’t have the money. My mother passed away when I was young, and she supported my art, and that’s the thing, the people who got me interested in art weren’t in my life anymore. Also, my dad is from Sierra Leone, and in a West African household, they’re just not messing with art (laughs). They weren’t like, ‘Oh! Let’s get an art degree’”. But sociology still wasn’t enough for his parents, in the words of Muzae, “sociology was too liberal for them”.

But besides family and finance, Muzae wanted to study sociology because he was interested in people and social dynamics, as Muzae expanded: “I wanted to gain that context behind these social situations we see in our everyday lives. So I thought sociology would be more useful, I guess. Also, I didn’t really know what they would teach me in art school. Although now, I think there are some things I could’ve learnt – for example, technique”. 

After finishing college, Muzae began searching for jobs that would incorporate his major and art. He eventually came across an internship with the San Francisco Art Commission, and while there, Muzae was involved in several social-driven art projects. After finishing his internship, Muzae landed another job at San Francisco’s Art Museum. “I learnt a lot from working at the museum. I started off by selling tickets in the museum, and then I quickly became an art handler to preparing art. It even reached a point where I was hanging the work and moving it around – it was crazy, I was hanging Matisse paintings! All of this knowledge I would have got from art school; I was learning on the go”.

While those opportunities were occurring, Muzae was also painting. As Muzae continued to network, his career as an artist began to develop. One of the first series Muzae painted was Manoeuvring Through Dark (painted 2015).

Manoeuvring Through Dark {Spaces 3} (painted 2015) [Vinyl on paper 18 x 24 inch]

Manoeuvring Through Dark is a five-piece series, and combined they form a quintych. I enjoyed our conversation about this piece because it brought some nostalgia to Muzae, it was a trip down memory lane. “This was a whole different era of painting for me”.

When I discovered that this piece was done using no tape, I was immediately shocked, and it is feats such as this that are proof of Muzae’s talent.

Another aspect that I love about this piece is its dual colour combination. By combining black geometric shapes with a white background, Muzae creates an environment that is easy to navigate. Do we go up the stairs or through the arch? The choice is ours within this labyrinth. “This piece was done before I got into colour, which is funny because, after this, I really got into colour; this was an era where I wasn’t really interested in using colour”.

Manoeuvring Through Dark – Quintych {Spaces 1-5} (painted 2015) [Vinyl on paper 18 x 24 inch]

In terms of when he felt like an artist, Muzae stated: “I have always been one, I have always had that identity with me. If you ask the people close to me, they will tell you I was an artist before any type of representation or any art show, and in high school, people saw me as this weird art kid (smiles)”.

Muzae further stated that his home state, California, also influenced his understanding of what an artist was: “In Southern California, so the suburbs of Los Angeles, art is this thing where if you’re not making money from it, people kind of see it as a hobby. But in the Bay Area, where I grew up, it’s a different kind of energy – there are more creatives, people are making things, painting, and doing all kinds of things – it’s not necessarily for money, people just do it for the sake of making art and having a great practice. So I gravitated towards that, and that’s what I carried into my practice”.

I followed this up with, when did your family acknowledge you were an artist? And Muzae responded stating: “My family fully accepted and understood what I did like last year, and that was when I did a project with Facebook. When they found out they were like, ‘Okay… Now I get it.’. But before, it just didn’t make sense to them. I remember when they came to my first show, and it was funny because they’ve never been to an art show or a museum. So my step mum saw one of my paintings and smacked it, and was like, ‘Huh?! What?! That’s the price?! $10,000?!’ – she was gawking at the price (laughs). So yeah, it’s been an interesting journey”.

When I asked how he would describe his art, Muzae stated: “It’s something that is always changing. I depict space in a certain way that allows the viewer to enter and navigate the piece. It’s almost like a guided meditation where I can prompt things. So one thing I like to do is have two-dimensional planes of colour interacting with each other, and this along with spatial queues. So, in my paintings, you can sometimes see stairs or doors or chairs, and these are things we understand within a given space, and it’s this understanding I try to prompt, in order to make the viewer think. So once you are thinking, it is at that point you are navigating freely around the piece”.

Manoeuvring Through Dark and Sitting with Thoughts (painted 2018) are good examples where Muzae demonstrates this concept of guided meditation.

Sitting with Thoughts (painted 2018) [Acrylic on canvas 72 x 72 inch]

The story behind Sitting with Thoughts is very interesting – the piece is about a ghost Muzae thought was in his house. Upon entering his new apartment, Muzae stated he could feel an eerie presence: “It was super weird because I would go to sleep and have sleep paralysis; I could feel this entity watching me. It wasn’t evil, but it was like, ‘What are you doing in my space?’”.

To this day, Muzae believes the ghost was a woman from the 1900s, “I live in a neighbourhood which is called the golden gate district, and it’s named after the golden gate bridge in San Francisco – the workers who worked on the bridge lived here. Every morning people from my neighbourhood would go by boat to the construction site to work on it – it was a dangerous job and many people died –  people were welding underwater for the first time. So my theory is there was this woman who waited for her husband to return every day, but he never came back because he died, and like any classic love story, she waited and waited, and she eventually died. So her spirit remained in this house because she is still waiting for her husband. Also, the energy I got from the spirit was very feminine”.

To soothe the spirit residing in his house, Muzae enlisted the help of his friend, Salami Rose Joe Louis, a musician. After telling Salami his theory, she composed a song based on the story. Once the song was finished, Muzae created this piece based on the song, and once the two were finished, Muzae played the song and hung the piece in his house. “It was like a ritual, I played the song and had the work in the room, and me and the ghost kind of made amends – from that day onwards, the ghost didn’t mess around with me. It was like the ghost said to me, ‘Okay… Yeah… You’re a real one. I won’t mess around with you’”.

Sitting with Thoughts has an impressive composition, and we see this theme of exploration Muzae referred to. However, compared to Manoeuvring Through Dark and the other pieces we will see in this memoir, we don’t see any stairs or arches. This time, we are confined to a room, and this is evident with the chair and desk. 

Along with this, I also like the choice of colour, the piece is a hybrid between dark and light colours. The colours add to that exploration; as the audience, we are not visually confined to just one region, the various colours, both light and dark, are spread evenly across the piece.

Another point I must add is the level of detail, Muzae’s skill as an artist who deals with geometric shapes is on full display here, and it surpasses what we have seen so far with Manoeuvring Through Dark. I asked Muzae if he used tape here, and to my surprise yet again, he said no, Muzae explained: “I did all the lines by hand, and even though it looks like I taped it off with the yellow lines, I did not use tape. I used a ruler, sketched it out with pencil, and did the lines with a flat brush. It took forever (laughs), but yeah, that’s how I got the lines all nice and crisp”.

With regards to what his art means to him personally, Muzae responded with the following, “I think that’s an interesting question. When it comes to my work it’s super personal to me. I feel like my art practice is about navigating things in my head and theories. A lot of the time, the paintings start with a sort of sociological question – so that’s how I incorporate sociology. Every day I’m thinking about life, and I have these questions, and I’m thinking about these theories, and I’m seeing how things connect with each other in these interesting intersections. I am working with all these ideas and projecting them onto the canvas. I recently did a show in Sierra Leone last summer and it was interesting, I was delving into my Sierra Leone heritage. I was thinking about a lot of things, like the fact I have never been to Sierra Leone. I was thinking about the country’s stability and the hurdles it has faced. For example, the civil war that happened during the first 12 years of my life – that prevented me from seeing the country. Then you had Ebola, and now COVID. But that’s the beauty with art, and doing your own research, because you can create something that helps you develop your own narrative, and it makes you feel as if you were there, it’s so therapeutic”.

They Cut The Heads Off Our Trees In The Dark Of Distraction (painted 2020) is a good example of how Muzae uses his art to talk about his environment.

They Cut The Heads Off Our Trees In The Dark Of Distraction (painted 2020) [Oil pastel, vinyl paint, coloured pencil, and graphite on canvas 84 x 66 inch]

They Cut The Heads Off Our Trees In The Dark Of Distraction is a piece that examines our relationship with nature. “There were these trees around my studio, and one day, I noticed they were cut to around 6 foot. They were stumps, and around them were fences. The fences were there to protect the trees. But what’s even weirder is I didn’t even notice that this occurred – I was distracted”.

It was only until Muzae drew a tree as a stump that he finally noticed the trees outside were cut. After finishing his drawing, Muzae’s studio mate noticed the drawing, and questioned him. Once Muzae linked the two together, he was immediately shocked by the subliminal impact. “After having that conversation with my studio mate, I went outside and I saw the trees, and it made me upset, because how did I not see this? Every day I would walk past those trees, and I would just be on my phone and take no notice. This superficial thing I was using stopped me from paying attention to my community”.

It was this ugly realisation that Muzae wanted to capture in this piece, “The title mentions The Dark of Distraction, and this dark distraction is this perpetual obliviousness and being unconcerned with important things. The trees were planted to enrich the community. They needed to be nourished, and they were cut by someone, I dunno who? It could have been the man. Regardless, it was done by people who were not concerned with nature”.

If we compare this piece to the other paintings in this memoir, we can see a stark difference. Things are less geometric; the lines are not as straight. We don’t have this perfect and ordered space seen in Sitting with Thoughts, and this works to the piece’s advantage. Because, if the composition was similar to Sitting with Thoughts, then the message wouldn’t be so powerful, the viewer wouldn’t understand the importance of Muzae’s message.

Additionally, there is a juxtaposition between the left and right side. On the left, we see tree stumps, and on the right, we see a lavish setting, Muzae explained: “The left side is a subtle nod to luxury and decadence but also escape. If you look, you’ll see a table with a glass and a bottle. But if you look even further, you can see some stairs, and they are leading to this other place”.

Since this is the Maverick Series, I asked Muzae what makes his work different compared to other artists, and his answer focused on him ensuring that it is unique compared to other artists, and unique compared to his past pieces: “When it comes to my work I strive for uniqueness. I want to create something that is even new to me. I don’t focus on other names or what’s going on around me, and I think that kind of process allows me to create something that just blows my mind because there is still this newness to what is formed. For the work to leave my studio, it must be new to me, and from what I’ve seen so far… I haven’t seen anyone replicate what I am doing, so I feel good about that”.

When it comes to artists who have inspired his work, Muzae stated names such as Matisse. He also cited abstract art and minimalist art having an impact on his work. “It was art like that which kind of gave me this rationale of anything goes, and that rationale entered my practice because I love pushing away from realism and seeing what I can do on a canvas”.

However, it goes without saying, European artists such as Matisse and Picasso have been a driving force for Muzae, as he explains: “When you look at those artists, it’s a bunch of old white guys from Europe, and you know that some of them are clearly taking inspiration from certain regions across the world. Take for example, Picasso with his cubism… Within art history, I’ve seen a lot of people who don’t look like me, and honestly, I’ve used that to galvanise me. So instead of being turned off by that fact, I’ve used my art to say, ‘You know what? Imma show them that people like me can do it’”. 

Additionally, Muzae stated his appreciation for the late artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Although, it also goes without saying, when he discovered the artist, Muzae wasn’t a fan, as he explained: “I’ve gone from not liking him, to liking him (laughs). My dislike for Basquiat started from the 80s pop art movement. They turned art into this socialite thing, kind of like what we are seeing on Instagram now. They made art into this thing about clout and making money. So seeing Basquiat in that environment with Warhol just made me feel a certain kind of way. But as I’ve grown, my opinion of Basquiat as a person has changed because he just got caught up in that environment. But I appreciate him more as an artist because he just went for it, he just attacked the canvas, and that’s something I’ve tried to incorporate a little bit into my practice. I’m more of a planned-person, I do sketches and I think about things. But at times, I have those moments where I’m like, ‘Damn, I wish I could just get into it’”.

If we look at contemporary names, Muzae stated the Oakland born artist Robert Colescott, American artist Keri James Marshall, and the Danish artist Tal R.

But besides art, Muzae stated his inspiration also comes from his life: his friends, his community, his family, and the sociological aspects of life, as Muzae explained: “I love looking at people’s interactions with things. I feel like humans are so dynamic and interesting. Even in our flaws, humans do stupid yet interesting stuff all the time, especially here in America. I’m an observer, so when I see social dynamics, I’m like, ‘Hmm? This is interesting? What is happening here?’. I think those are the things that inspire me more”.

In terms of his art’s message, I found Muzae’s answer to this very intriguing and powerful too: “I think my art’s message is such a human message. I think I want my work to show the curiosity of humanity. Along with this idea of we don’t have it figured out. We’re still making sense of the world we are in. We think we know everything, but we’re just babies stumbling around, putting our faith in these institutions and authority figures – who are also infants. Everyone is still at the beginning phase, and I think my art captures that and explores it; it’s a visual conversation about abstract ideas that are open-ended. By having this rudimentary approach to space and ideas, the work shows the volatility and infancy of human connection, but it also gives this message of my hope in humanity. This hope that one-day humanity will be this utopia, where everyone will have empathy and understanding for each other. So yeah, that’s my art’s message, I guess (smiles)”.

In both Building a House in a Mess (painted 2016) and The U.S Department of Education (painted 2016), we see this exploration of human nature.

Building a House in a Mess (painted 2016) [Acrylic, oil, aerosol and wax on canvas 48 x 60 inch]

Building a House in a Mess was painted in response to the 2016 US election. Muzae began this piece on November 8th 2016, Election Day, and completed it a week after.

With the election coming to an end, and Trump being elected the 45th President of the United States. Muzae wanted to ask the viewer, how does America move from here? “I knew America was bad… But I never knew it was this bad. The election took all of us by surprise, especially here, in the bay area, because we’re liberal over here”.

The day after the election, protests began in Muzae’s hometown, Oakland, California. Muzae stated this was a scary period for the community because peaceful protestors were being tear-gassed in the street, and the Oakland police were using military tactics. “People were coming to my studio to seek shelter, and it became this hub. There were so many conversations going on. While this was all happening, I noticed this unstretched canvas and I began to work with it”.

As each day passed, Muzae would add a new layer to the canvas. The first layer of this painting consisted of writing which was in red and blue crayon – Muzae was writing about his initial thoughts: “I was writing about how upset I was, and every day I would just talk to people, and it would lead to me having different approaches to this painting”.

As the days continued, Muzae sadness evolved into anger. This can be seen by the splashes of paint – in fact, Muzae even threw the piece around his studio.

His anger would eventually subside, and this would impact the piece, as the final layers would be more structured and ordered. “As things progressed and conversations progressed, we started talking about more constructive realities, and I started to construct more visibly on the canvas. I started to work with the mess I made”.

Moving on to the piece’s colours, the main colours are red, blue, and yellow. These are primary colours, and in my opinion, their inclusion is symbolic of this piece’s narrative. These colours are the building blocks of every secondary and tertiary colour. Additionally, the white background symbolises starting from a clean slate.

Building a House in a Mess is a piece that takes the viewer on a journey through chaos into order, in the words of Muzae, “We have the result, but what can we do now? What can be done? And what do we need to do for each other? Let’s build a tighter community, and let’s start thinking more about our actions, instead of just being frustrated”.

The U.S Department of Education (painted 2016) [Acrylic, aerosol, glaze, wax pastel, china marker and enamel on canvas 24 x 24 inch]

As the title suggests, this piece is a commentary on the US education system, in particular, the previous US education secretary, Betsy DeVos. DeVos was the education secretary of Trump’s administration, and just like Trump, she too had an interesting tenure. Before being elected as education secretary, DeVos was met with a lot of opposition, in fact, she took the senate into a 50-50 deadlock when she was appointed before them – this was eventually broken by former Vice President, Mike Pence. If we look at some of the policies she tried to lobby, they were very pernicious. For example, DeVos consistently pushed for an expansion of federal vouchers, if this policy had come into effect, it would have caused the funnelling of public school money into private schools. Another example was DeVos’ poor support for students with disabilities. In terms of firearms, DeVos urged for more to be placed in schools. She also proposed that federal grant money (intended for academic and student enrichment) be used to purchase firearms for teachers. What’s even more shocking is DeVos tried to lobby policies that would impact assaulted students.

It’s because of these examples and more, Muzae felt compelled to create this piece. “During the beginning of Trump’s administration, I was more critical of things. I knew our education system had problems, but things became bad. I was getting more involved in US politics, and what I saw was this person, Betsy DeVos. She was actively destroying public education; she was destroying it from the inside”.

Muzae wanted to use this piece to show the destruction and chaos caused by DeVos. If you look at the piece, you can see an upside-down half-smile in the bottom right. Additionally, you will notice in the bottom left, a window, Muzae explained: “The window on the ground is leading towards something which could be anything, and that same window is in the black space too. By having the two, it just allowed me to talk about the chaos I saw with DeVos, and I thought that was super important to me”. Lastly, you can see a labyrinth on a chalkboard. In my opinion, the labyrinth is a great addition to the piece because it’s symbolic of DeVos’ tenure as education secretary. “I think we’re in this mess because of a lack of understanding. We had all these Americans thinking about these crazy realities. When I encounter these Americans, it really emphasises the point that education is so important – it’s a valuable thing within society. Trump’s era is such an important era because it is a reminder that if we don’t take agency over certain things, other people will”.

So, what can we expect from Muzae? As of this memoir, Muzae has completed a mural in his hometown, Oakland, and is also gearing up to do a mural in Philadelphia – Muzae states this will probably be his last mural.

In terms of exhibitions and shows, Muzae’s diary is booked. As of this memoir, Muzae has a residency with The Cabin, a gallery in Los Angeles. While there, he will be producing 5 to 6 paintings, and after their completion, they will be showcased. Additionally, he will be showing his work in UTA Artist Space, Beverly Hills, California. Outside of the US, Muzae has a show in London with Public Gallery, “I’m excited to work with Public Gallery, London has always been a place I’ve wanted to visit. I’ve never had the opportunity until now. So yeah, hopefully things will clear up both here, and in the UK, just in time for summer”.

When it comes to 2021, Muzae is definitely feeling optimistic, as he explains: “I see 2021 as a good year, I am definitely excited. I saw 2020 as the year I would leave the bay area and get out of California. I thought I would do some more stuff around the states and internationally, but COVID just had other plans. But still, this will be the year I do all those things: break out of California and expand my practice too. So I’m just working on putting that energy back into the studio to get the work where it needs to be”.

There’s a famous quote by David Scott, the Commander of Apollo 15, and it goes like this, “As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley, I sort of realise there’s a fundamental truth to our nature, Man must explore… and this is exploration at its greatest”. From the first moment I saw Muzae’s work on Instagram, it spoke to me, and after having our conversation, he too is a maverick. As Muzae eloquently puts it, “My work is about making observations about the absurdity of life but also the beauty”. Artists such as Muzae are important because their work allows us to think retrospectively and introspectively about ourselves, they make us go on a journey and acquire something new. So make sure you pay attention to the artist across the Atlantic pond known as Muzae Sesay.

To see more of Muzae’s work visit www.muzaesesay.com or follow him on Instagram at @muzae

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