The third installment of Perspectives features Mozambican artist Lizette Chirrime who will be exhibiting later this year at 1:54 in London and whose show “A Sinfonia da Alma Liberta II” (Sounds of a Free Soul) is currently on view at Worldart.
Originally from Mozambique, you’ve lived in South Africa since 2005…as an introduction perhaps you can talk to us about moving here as a way of beginning to talk about yourself and your work.
I came to South Africa to find a space, a bigger space, because in Mozambique as an artist you don’t have big spaces. There’s lots of artists but not much space, and there’s lots of struggle.
So when I had my first solo in Mozambique which was successful, people enjoyed and liked it and I got exposure in the media, but I didn’t manage to sell and was going up and down and up down. So I realised that I can take my tools where ever I am and find a space and try to stay as an artist.
Where was your first solo?
In Mozambique at the Association of Photography in Maputo.
So, when you moved to South Africa what was the pull that drew you to Cape Town?
Well, I felt it was just right, I had never been here before. Being in Mozambique having experienced much hardship, beginning from my childhood, I decided that I need to go somewhere, where I can start from the beginning.
So I had a lot of chances to go either to the U.K. or to Portugal or to Spain, because I have family in the U.K. and Portugal and friends in Spain. But when I think those countries out there it didn’t feel right…firstly it was too far and because I’m a single mother it’s too complicated. Everytime I thought of Cape Town it comes with positive energy and I heard a voice calling me to come here so I decided to follow my instinct. So I saved money and then came to Cape Town.
When I arrived in 2005, I walked everywhere with photographs of my work, I knocked on galleries doors…but I knew that you can’t just go galleries and say that “I’m an artist”, so it wasn’t easy.
But then it happened, I met a priest funnily enough, and he took me took me to Greatmore Studios. They liked my work and they found funders for me to do a residency program for three months, so that’s when the doors were opened for my art.
It must have been quite difficult arriving without any of the materials or works, and just documentation saying “this is what I do…”
I had a few works that I had brought with me in a suitcase, but mainly photographs, because the works that I brought with me was all I had. I didn’t have any materials to make more and I had only R5000 that I had saved, that’s all.
So, back in Mozambique, how did you find your way into art, what were some of the origins of your art making?
I think they were my tears. Because I cried a lot, a lot a lot. I felt that I was the victim for a long time, and that wasn’t helping me because I had a bad childhood. Then I said you know what, I need to find something and I felt there was calling me inside, something creative in me. Because in my house I would always decorate and make stuff, and people when would come in they had a feeling of a gallery because there was always things I made.
So then is when I started. Even when I found a job I wasn’t happy at work, I felt locked. So that is when I decide to follow my instinct and I started to recycle material…
What kind of materials?
When I started to work I worked with hessian sacks and bags used for coffee and beans…and are thrown away or reused as door mats and things. So then I was making tapestries, incorporating stuff that I found… So I started there and it was successful and I liked it, but then I started to realise that this material doesn’t really last long. And that is when I started to transform my work, and it came slowly slowly until I came to my quilting technique.
So in terms of your subject matter a recurring motif has been hands and feet, was that motif something from the beginning?
I started doing it from the beginning, hands and feet. So for me hands always symbolise stop. Because stopping for me was something I couldn’t say to people, but I could feel that I needed to say for them to stop, the way they used to treat me, not in a good way, from childhood.
So when I came into the world I projected rejection and so I always would attract people that would reject me and treat me in a way that I didn’t feel comfortable. So for me hands where stop, stop, stop. I think it was my sub-conscious or soul saying to them stop doing this until I learned to speak up. Before I couldn’t speak up, I would just take everything in.
And the feet are movement, a calling for me to go somewhere, to do things, to leave the place, to not be in one place. So I always believe in that, the movement. Because you learn a lot, you enrich your soul, your being from moving from one place to another.
And is there any traces of those motifs in art in Mozambique or is this particular to your practice?
I would say it is particular to my practice, because people express themselves in different ways, they have different experiences…
Because it is almost like your work conjures some kind of spirits in a way…
Yes. I have that, I am also a spiritual person, because of lots of sorrow one finds comfort inside, and then you seek spirituality, because it calms you down and gives you comfort. Because I was lost I didn’t have this guide, like a mother or father to guide me in my growth. I had to find out for myself, so I see life as an open book that I could just read through and follow, and in a way I learn from people and my experiences.
I fall, I get up, I fall, I cry and hurt myself, I heal. So that took me to my inner soul and in order for me to completely heal I had to be silenced…I had to be in peace. I had to find peace…I had to dig for that peace because I couldn’t find it from people. So that is when I went deep inside my soul…I even went to do sangoma training…because I was lost.
My mother is muslim, my father is catholic. But then when I was with mum I followed the Muslim faith, but then when I was seven years old I met my father and I went to stay with him…
That was in Maputo…wasn’t he part of Samora Machel’s guard?
Yes, he was part of the motorbikes.
Ahead of the convoy…?
Yes, so because of that he wasn’t present. He was always up and down with Samora Machel travelling, so he left me with my stepmother who wasn’t happy to be with me, and then I suffered discrimination. So because I didn’t have that guide.
Then after my struggle, I am seeking love, understanding, happiness, for someone to listen to me. So at my fathers place, everyone went to church and they would go to study the bible, and I didn’t have that chance. So I was the pagan of the house because I never attended church after my muslim background. I never had a chance to go to church because I was cleaning, washing, looking after my family. After I grew up I really felt as if I was a pagan because of never going to church.
But I had a strong faith with god, I even spoke to god directly. I would speak alone to god and I felt he could hear me. I had this energy, I had something that is guiding me, something that was holding me. But then that wasn’t enough, in a way because I was looking for a concrete answer. People would say to me that I had a sangoma spirit. And I had a lot of heavy dreams…
They say that your ancestors come to you in your dreams…
Yes, I would dream a lot. The reason why I decided to go to sangoma training was that I dreamed. I would dream of dead people coming to me to tell me things, and I would dream that things would happen to people and I began to be afraid. So I thought I need a guide for that.
But then I didn’t feel it was home, because I felt my communication with god was vanishing because when I would pray I would call for my ancestors whereas before I had a direct relationship with god. Then after the training I wouldn’t talk to god directly I would talk to my ancestors for them to translate to god. I felt faraway, heavy.
So that’s when I decided to quit.
That was in Mozambique?
Yes. But that wasn’t it, because I followed the training for more than a year. And then I came to Cape Town, when I was in the middle of my training, so I decided I started to feel the spirits still calling me, so I decided to try and finish. Because they say if you don’t you get sick or go crazy, so I was in that mindset.
I carried on for three months and then I finally quit because I think if I have those spirits, my art is the way that I manifest them, this is my way of communication and of healing people so I decided to follow my instincts and I’m fine.
So talk me through the spirits that you manifest in your work or are they from dreams, from yesterday and tomorrow?
They are spirits from dreams, to give you an example; when I started to work, when I started to follow my own way, it was a Friday, full moon, it was 13rd, June…it was considered a witch day, but for me it was considered the best day of my life. I woke up, at first I felt strange, I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I just started looking for stuff, picking up stuff, I made a doll out of fabric and then I was fine.
And from that day on I never stopped working. Then I would go to sleep and I would hear a voice in a dream and they were telling me what to do…before I used to work with hessian and cow skin…and they would guide me how. So that’s when I would start to follow, I would wake up and do exactly as it said.
And It felt right…I’m not alone, I don’t feel alone when I do this, it’s not just me…
I dream of a jaguar in the ocean…I begin to draw free hand and the characters emerge.
So is it a process of dressing these spirits?
Yes, to bring them alive.
By giving them form?
Yes, because when I draw them they don’t even make sense. But after they are dressed up I see that this has to do with me, what happened to me…how I feel, what are my experiences.
So tell me, with such deeply personal work, how do you feel sometimes when you have to let it go..?
I learnt that…
Was it difficult?
Yes, it was…I just wanted to keep everything for me.
Because it becomes a record of your being…like a record of your dreams…?
Yes, later I leant that it’s my way of living, of generating income maybe? But also something more. So I just had to let go and then I accept that they are to be with somebody else.
And I believe they choose who to be with and they would always go the right person. So that makes me feel comfortable. These works, they know where they’re going, they’re here for a reason so I shouldn’t keep them all for me because if I keep them all for me, they’ll make me crazy.
It’s too much…
Because it’s a concentration of you?
There was a time when I was going crazy because when before I had lots of work here I didn’t communicate…after I had my initial exposure outside I just sat here and made and made and made. I felt I would explode. That’s when I felt that I needed to do something. I can’t just be here with all of this, it’s too much energy for me, I can’t handle.
They have to go, I can’t be them. Otherwise they kill you.
So, now you going to show at 1:54, but before that..tell us about some of the highlights of your art career after it took off in 2005.
I had had exposure before in Mozambique, lots…an exhibition at the American Consulate, at the Portuguese & French Consulates, so in Mozambique I was quite out there but I didn’t make money.
So then in Cape Town I was at Greatmore and I had a residency at the Castle of Good Hope. From there is where Nandos found me. They don’t necessarily commission me but they now buy a lot from me. As well as Spier. And some group exhibitions…Mario Pissara was representing me, so slowly slowly I have a few things…I did some collaboration with the artists at the Scalabrini Centre.
So now I’m very happy to have had my first solo…
This was your first solo..?
In Cape Town. I had two solo’s in Mozambique. But in Cape Town I’ve only participated in group exhibitions and I didn’t feel at the time that I was ready…I felt nervous, that I still needed to grow in order to expose.
It’s rare to find someone whose so prolific yet with such patience…
So why were you so nervous?
I had an incident at the Castle when I came with my hessian sacks and was told “this is not art”…so then I felt my wings cut…because I couldn’t fly the way I want to fly…so that’s when I started to learn painting. I put my needles away and I started to paint…because they didn’t believe in my way of expressing, because it was different.
What was your reaction?
It made me feel awful, very few people understood…
Why do you think that is? Very often there’s this debate between “what is art and what is craft…”
I have no idea! I think I decided that if it’s art, it has a certain box and I can’t belong to that box, because I’m not a painter…and I’m not doing sculpture…so then I’m not an artist I’m just a creative person, I create. Maybe I don’t fit into such a category.
But after I left the Castle I went back to my comfort zone, because this is where I feel comfortable. When I paint I always feel that I’m doing something wrong. I never had an education, I’ve just learn as I do…
So that’s why I felt nervous, because my work is not necessarily painting and would people accept it as art or anyway would they understand them? But it feels that people have been enjoying them…I’ve had good feedback.
Yes. Now I’m very excited!
Tell me a little about the project?
It’s Nandos. I’m lucky enough to be on their top 5 list with a big platform…so it looks like they believe in me. It’s my first time overseas, so my heart is counting the days. The curiosity has always been lying there but I’ve never made the effort, so when they called me it was exciting.
So what’s your impression of the term Contemporary Art from Africa…because you’re now at the forefront of what that means…what do you think about that definition and how important it is?
I think it’s important for people to stop labeling things. Because when you do you somehow cut someones wings, because I am African, so when I express myself I do it in a way that I’ve been raised…as an African. But then if somebody from overseas has lived in Africa and had an experience of Africa they can also express themselves in an African way but they won’t call that African, because he’s not African.
So for me it’s a bit strange but, you know, what can we say? I would prefer it if you’d just call it art. Yes it’s an African person who did it, but I don’t know…
So after 1:54 any plans?
Well good results and to come back inspired. Because now I need to travel. Cape Town is big. I never thought it would get small for me, there’s lots of places for me to go and get lost in and come back to….
(The phone rings..)
It’s my sister., I’m applying for a Schengen Visa, I want to visit France and Switzerland…