On ViewEverard Read / Circa Gallery
The Owners of the Earth (Vissaquelo)
August 11–October 1, 2022
Johannesburg, South Africa
Teresa Kutala Firmino’s fantasy worlds are animated by a decidedly campy materiality. The fulsomely textured surfaces of her collages currently on view at Everard Read’s CIRCA Gallery in Johannesburg are brimming with buttons, stickers, glitter, feathers. Set against brightly polychromed backgrounds, masked female figures are resplendently clothed in fabrics drawn from digital prints—floral dresses, polka dotted bikinis, and geometric skirts. Others wear nothing but their frank nudity, sometimes accentuated by a glittery sheen. At first glance, these painting-collages strike us as Eden-like playgrounds of colorful femininity. But discreetly, they are also somewhat surreptitious elegies for the dead.
Titled Owners of the Earth (Vissaquelo), Firmino’s exhibition harnesses the waywardness of fantasy as a healing response to trauma, both personal and collective. For the Johannesburg-based artist, the weight of remembrance has long been artistic fuel: hers is a labor of revisiting and retelling the past. But the new work at CIRCA Gallery represents a departure in some ways. While Firmino’s previous work has been more concerned with social history—engaging the ongoing effort of redressing the violence of colonial epistemologies—the paintings on view at CIRCA Gallery are honed to the more intimate scale of kinship. Mostly titled after female family members, they are honorific responses to recent loss in Firmino’s family. One might call the work commemorative, yet Firmino’s insistently vivacious, painterly style seems to invoke the present tense.
The exhibition, which was inaugurated with a performance by the artist, features eighteen collage-paintings, taking up both floors of the gallery. The first floor showcases a series of small, intimate individual portraits including Sarita (2022), in which a winged, glittery figure skates against a blue horizon and Florida (2022), where a nude cyborg-like being gazes cheekily over her shoulder at the viewer. Meanwhile, upstairs is a gathering of large-scale genre scenes that often verge on a Bosch-esque vocabulary of the uncanny.
Though the large canvases are more pronouncedly Baroque in that the imagination is afforded a broader terrain to play in, Firmino’s elaborate and unrepentantly quirky symbolic lexicon and approach to composition remains consistent in both the small and large-scale works. The figures are treated with a sort of otherworldly fauvism: skin is painted in shocking hues of red, blue, orange, and green, striking up optic confrontations with the equally vivid backgrounds. While their bodies are fleshy, their visages definitively depart from the human, instead resembling West African masks. As viewers, we are tempted to wonder about the faces that have been subsumed in these sculptural disguises. But perhaps it isn’t up to us to wonder; perhaps we must accept Firmino’s figures as they are, shrouded in the brightness of paint—masked and not fully readable to our gaze.
The artist’s compositional strategies redouble this unearthly feeling. In Kwakwete’s Hope (2022), for example, Firmino’s figures seem to float somewhere above us: surrounded by pink clouds and a blue background, they are guarded by a feathery cherubic figure and rest on what appears to be a trapezoidal black floor that is not attached to any walls. Instead, a blue sky opens around them, suggesting a vastness that reaches far beyond the canvas. Though some kind of horizon line is present in all of Firmino’s paintings, more often than not, perspective is done away with: figures appear on the same representational plane, and the earthly realities of three-dimensional space give way to a magical flattening. Yes, these are figurative paintings. But the women in them are liberated from the realm of mimesis, assuming their own vocabulary of representation. They occupy the seemingly atemporal landscapes of Firmino’s imagination rather than any earthly place that we can recognize. They are hybrid shapeshifters, trying on different colors. They are painted from the feeling of memory, rather than historical reality.
But all of this is complicated by the title of the exhibition, Owners of the Earth. The title is excerpted from a text by Firmino that has been pasted to the wall of the second floor, anchoring the exhibition. Here, a lamenting yet hopeful dreamscape of ancestors and offspring unfolds: alone in a lush forest, the speaker imagines that “three figures appear / They are as tall as the tallest tree / They are the owners of the earth.” What is the earth these figures own? Perhaps it is one we cannot know. Perhaps it is beyond our gaze, where the dead and those they have left behind find safety. Firmino’s visual vocabulary draws this world of sanctuary: it refuses to define mourning in terms of the funerary. Instead, it embraces the strange play and power of fantasy to redress wounds. Her collages are an assembly of love as it appears in the world of her mind’s eye. Lying beneath their masks, Firmino’s loved ones are shrouded, held in the graceful remembrance built from the artist’s psychic interior.