How Artist Esmaa Mohamoud's Debut U.S. Exhibit Uncovers Black People's Rich Complexity
Artist Esmaa Mohamoud
Esmaa Mohamoud isn’t here to confine to your rules—she’s making her own. The Toronto-based artist’s work is rooted in Black lives, uncovering the beautiful and sometimes complicated nature of our community. Her work cuts through any predictable contemporary art notions, which can often trivialize the Black experience.
Now, Mohamoud is sharing her unique viewpoint stateside with her first major solo showing at Chicago’s Kavi Gupta Gallery. Running from April 14th through July 29th, the exhibit (titled “Let Them Consume Me In The Light” includes shea butter busts of young Senelagese girls, a deconstruction of a pink Cadillac and sky-high rattan chairs.
I was reading that you grew up with four brothers, and that also helped inspire your initial direction with your art. How did being around all of that masculine energy fuel the work that you've done?
That was where that work came from, reimagining that experience now as an adult. I would say that a lot of what influenced me when I was younger dealt with Black men. That was because I was surrounded by Black men in my family life, and it wasn’t really until I went to get my undergrad that I started to interact with Black women. All my real experiences were family experiences. Once I got to my undergrad, that's when I really started getting to know other Black women and having that bond and sisterhood.
More recently, I've been feeling the need to make work about Black femininity. A lot of the new works that I can show you today are in that realm. I never really wanted to focus on works about sports. I just used the visual vernacular of athleticism to have a conversation about race. In Canada, there are deniers and there are passive-aggressive racists. You'll be eating dinner with someone and then find out that they're racist, as opposed to America, I know when someone's racist.
Yeah, they're very blatant over here.
To be honest, I prefer that. It’s really f—-d up if you're having a relationship or friendship with someone, and then you find out the racist. You’re just like, “Whoa, where did that come from?”
There was a lot of that energy here, and that's why I was making the work around sports. Then I just, between you and I, got really bored. I needed something new, so I started making the shift. That's when I started with the chair pieces. And a few other new works that I'm going to show you.
While it’s pulling up, you mentioned all the racism that's in Canada, and I definitely relate to that. I went to a private boarding school on Long Island and it was primarily white people. Now I'm realizing the work that I do with EDITION is very Black-focused. It’s like I’m responding to all of the things I couldn't do or couldn't speak about when I was in high school. I'm wondering if you have had a similar experience.
Totally, a lot of what you're saying is a lot of the stuff I experienced. I had a really hard time in my undergrad because I was the only Black student and I was bullied. I was beaten up, and I didn't have a good time there. I felt that I couldn't say anything, and even when I said something, these people were really hard to deal with. They threw Kool-Aid and chicken at me in class. It was just really abusive.
London, Ontario is a scary place. They would full-on tell me to my face, “Take your n—-r shit to Detroit.” London is a different kind of racism, they don't mind being in your face. I noticed that the rest of Canada is pretty reserved, especially Toronto. It's like “No, no, no, we're the most multicultural city in the world. We don't experience–” no it's all bunch of bulls–t. Eating a Jamaican Patty doesn't make you not racist.
Anyway, I'm going to take you through some work, maybe I'll skip a bunch since you've seen most of this work online already. This piece, A Seat Above the Table, I made because I felt that so many Black people who have been doing work for so long, we're not given their due. The chair actually started with a famous NFL player who, at the time that I made the piece, was the only Black NFL player to make it to the Hall of Fame as a quarterback. I thought that was insane, and then when I did more research, even more ickiness came up. Basically, the NFL wouldn't really allow Black quarterbacks into the Hall of Fame because they believe that the quarterback position was made for whites. So, I started making these chairs that were far unattainable to even sit on. This chair sits 10 feet tall. There are pieces named after Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham and of the more recent ones I’ve done, Regina King.
Esmaa Mohamoud b. 1992 A Seat Above the Table (Warren Moon), 2019 Found rattan peacock chair, rattan, paint, tape, plastic, adhesive, nails 114.1 x 26 x 26 in 289.6 x 66 x 66 cm
Is there a reason why you're doing it with the wicker style? I feel like it’s very reflective of your culture.
Exactly. Basically, what I do is find the rattan chair that already exists. Then, I have the extension built to match that chair so that it feels like it's carrying over. The reason I chose the rattan chair is for the history that it has in the Black community. This chair used to be a stand-in for Huey P. Newton whenever he would get arrested. During the Black Panther movement, they would have this seat up on stage in place of him in his presence. I thought that was very interesting, especially when I'm thinking about who actually gets a seat at these tables. At some point, I had to say, “F–k the table, I'm rising above the table.” That's why I was pushing for this elongated shape.
I watched Judas and the Black Messiah last weekend. The immediate image I see is of Huey P. Newton holding his rifles in that rattan chair. It’s powerful.
Almost all the Black people I know grew up understanding what that image was. It feels like a very collective Black experience to understand the importance of this chair. I've adapted it, and now I'm working more, as I mentioned, toward Black femininity. I felt Regina King needed a seat, and then right while I was making hers, I also wanted to make one for Angela Bassett. Then, obviously, she got snubbed [at the Oscars], which is really f—ing unfortunate. This is the one that's actually going to be in the show for Kavi. It's still in progress, obviously, but this one is for Angela. This is the tallest one that we've done yet, and it stands at 12 feet tall.
How long does this take you to do?
So I actually work with a carpenter. With a lot of my projects, if I had to learn the skills to produce them, I would be so far behind because I love material exploration. I don't want to stick with one medium. So I usually hire people who I who know what they're doing. Yorgio, the guy who's woven all the chairs, is a very skilled carpenter who learned how to weave for these projects. I create the shapes I do the designs and then he physically fabricates.
And then just to go back to this, this piece was also shown in New York. This involved 500 black metal dandelions that I had hand-made in my studio. I felt that June 2020 was a really depressing time for not just myself, but for a lot of my Black friends and Black people. Around that time, I felt that there was a collective Black sadness around seeing the disposability of Black bodies over and over again. People continued to circulate these images of dead Black bodies, and I don't know about you, but that really affected my mental health.
I had to take Instagram and Twitter off my phone. Looking at this piece, the first word that came to mind was “morbid.” When you first started the videos, I felt goosebumps.
People were telling me if I stayed off Instagram and Twitter I’d be fine. They didn’t realize that people were calling me, texting me and sending me articles. I couldn’t escape it. People didn't really realize how bad it was for us. That was really damaging for our community, and it was hard to watch. I think that now, we've entered a space where we no longer need to circulate these videos in order to know that these things happen.
That time really affected me, so I wanted to create a space for Black people to just exist. When I was thinking about this piece, I was thinking about the parallels between being Black in North America and the experience of the Dandelion. North Americans are so dumb, and they think that this flower is the worst thing ever. They try to eradicate it by any means. The ironic part about it is that it's actually a healing plant. It's used for so many things, especially in African and indigenous cultures. When people were eradicating them, I remember thinking as a kid that this plant is f—ing beautiful. Why are people trying to always rip it up?
Esmaa Mohamoud b. 1992 Darkness Doesn’t Rise To The Sun But We Do, 2020 Steel, paint, epoxy 8.5 x 12 x 9 in 21.6 x 30.5 x 22.9 cm
It’s considered a weed. And that’s also reflective of how they see us.
Exactly, the eradication of Black bodies.
That and like gentrification. It’s like they're always trying to remove us. That's so brilliant for you to choose the dandelion.
Thank you. It was hard to choose, I knew that I wanted to create a space that where Black people could just exist. I know that we cannot escape the thoughts and all of the microaggressions that we suffer every day, but I wanted to create a space of peace. I did this orange-to-yellow gradient, and I nicknamed the piece, The Melanin Charging Station. We would have seats for people to sit amongst the dandelions and get on the ground. When my show was up in New York, people sat there for like, three or four hours. I also sat there for hours. There's something peaceful and quiet about being in this space. I know that it's in a gallery, but the physicality of coming into a space and experiencing this, then taking a deep breath and absorbing this energy before having to go back into this world that hates us and wants to eradicate us and all these things. That's why I thought that it was really important to create this like field in this space. We made 500 of these, it spans about 40 feet long, 40 feet by 20 feet, I believe. You could kind of fit it into any space, to be honest, and sometimes it'll shift in size. However, this is more or less what it looks like.
I want to take you down to the shea butter works. This piece came about when I applied to Kehinde Wiley’s Black Rock Senegal residency. The work I was going to do there was around the shea butter industry because I started looking into things and it was getting very, very icky. I found out that it's a $2 billion industry a year, but these young shea nut harvesters in Ghana and Senegal were getting paid 50 cents a day. It’s really freaking gross, considering our North American consumption of this product, which is Africa's number one beauty export. I became quite fascinated with the shea butter.
I went to Senegal to do this residency where I was planning on capturing these young Senegalese shea nut harvesters and capturing them with this process called photogrammetry, in which essentially, the person or the object will sit in a room and pose. 160 cameras take the image at the exact same time and create a 3D composite file that I can then work with. It's very fascinating, especially for people who work in sculpture. Technology can do so much nowadays. I would say, in order for this technology to be perfect, it probably needs another 10 to 15 years, because when the 3D composite gets produced, there are still aspects of it that look very digital or not sharp. Then, you have to actually go in with the digital sculptor and sculpt it further.
Unfortunately, I got sick when I was in Senegal and had to come back after six days, which really sucked. But I was really determined to continue to make this work. So when I got back to Canada, I invited a few of my friends’ children, young African girls and the person you're looking at right now is Kenza, an East African dancer. She was the original shea butter girl that I started with. It's sitting on Italian Black marble, and what you're seeing at the bottom is at the bottom of this one is 2000 Shane nuts. I had the Ghanaian nuts shipped to my studio, and then from those nuts, I casted them. From the cast, we do the shea butter mixture, and then we hand carve all of them. Each one with a single girl, or girls has 2000 at the base. When I was originally pouring in the mold, it came out very pristine looking, and I kind of hated that. This thing is it's disgusting, but if we make it all pristine, the viewer doesn't actually have to confront themselves. They just go “Oh, wow, a pretty object.” I was like, I'm gonna do what many mold makers have told me is illegal in mold making which is open pour the mold. I don't believe in rules, especially not in sculpture. So I was like, “I'm going to do this and just see what happens.”
By pouring the mold open face, I was able to create certain nicks and dings. All that is done through hand pouring and wrestling a bit with the mold. Once that's done, I put them all back together and then fill the center. So that's what you're seeing there.
These are the two new girls who will eventually make up the triptych, which is what I'll show you. These are going to be part of the gallery as well. It'll be this girl that you see here, the girl beside her. The Bantu knots, the straight-back cornrow, and then the two bun girl, which you'll see here.
Esmaa Mohamoud b. 1992 Ebony in Ivory, I, 2022 Shea Butter, Italian black marble, wax, damar resin 60 x 30 x 30 in (installed) 152.4 x 76.2 x 76.2 cm (installed) Unique Edition 5 of 5 (+1AP)
The Bantu knots bring me right back to my childhood.
Right? My friend who's from Trinidad came in the other day and was like “Everyone had this hairstyle in the 90s.”
My mom did that for me all throughout elementary school and I didn't like it. I used to take it out when I got to school. Now that I'm older, it's one of the coolest hairstyles ever.
So this one is called Kifiyah. She has the two buns with the thicker cornrows and then she's got the twist of the cornrows at the front. As I was mentioning, normally when I do the one girl, I have 2,000 shea nuts at the bottom. Then with the triptych, technically I should do 6,000, but this time we did 15,000. I titled it Gluttony, Gluttony, Gluttony. I'm still trying to work out how I should be doing the orientation. It might not look like this, but right now my gut is feeling this endearing feeling of big sister, little sisters, and they're both looking up at her.
I love how rebellious you are.
Someone's got to stir the pot. Let me just show you what it looks like.
Esmaa Mohamoud b. 1992 Ebony in Ivory, I, 2022 Shea Butter, Italian black marble, wax, damar resin 60 x 30 x 30 in (installed) 152.4 x 76.2 x 76.2 cm (installed) Unique Edition 5 of 5
While you're pulling it up, I'm noticing that you're not afraid to get “ugly.” There's such beauty in imperfections, and I just want to get your perspective on celebrating the ugly truths that we deal with.
I really like that you just pointed that out because the title of the exhibition is “Let Them Consume Me in the Light”. I think with this piece, I had to ask myself, “In light of what?” In light of the truth? In light of the things that we don't want to talk about? In light of the things that we're ashamed of?” I think that this exhibition is about opening up these conversations and dealing with your uncomfortable feelings. This is out in the open, we can talk about it, and if you feel that this rubs you the wrong way, I suggest that you think about it a little bit more as to why that makes you feel a way. I'm a Sagittarius, I'm not scared. I like to say what I have to say. If people understand it, they do, and if they don't, that’s just how it is.
The next piece to show you is “Nirvana”, which is a car piece.
I was told that you were deconstructing and gutting out a Cadillac, and I just had to see that.
I have a sneak preview for you. I actually thought of this piece in 2015. At the time, I was fresh out of school, and I didn't have money, time or space to even make this work. I just sat on it and put it in my back pocket. The good thing about Canada is that with artists, we have a really good grant system. They'll give you like $100,000 to do a project. You just have to like prove that you've actually executed it and all this other stuff, but it's really great. So it's [called “Nirvana, Oh, Sweet Elham”. Elham is my grandmother who raised me and she is a part of the reason that I'm an artist, but also part of the reason for this specific car and this specific piece.
I have this Achilles heel where I believe that can make anything I can imagine. Because of it, I think that anything is possible, so it was really difficult to do. We did almost everything for this piece in the studio, except for the fabrication of the wheels and the gutting of the engine, mainly because of toxic chemicals and things like that. The rest of the gutting and the body job, plus this car used to be a really gross pale yellow, and we had painted the whole body pink in here.
Was there a reason why you chose pink?
I mean, I love the color. It's so classic. The piece is about financial literacy in the Black community. As someone who grew up with parents who could not manage money, and were always poor, we lived in a welfare complex, we were always struggling. The understandings that I had around money as a child were always around whiteness. It took a lot of unlearning to realize that there are many, factors for why you come to this type of understanding.
When I was younger, probably six years old, Disney’s Cinderella was really popular. I spent a lot of long weekends with my grandmother. She had this VHS rewinder that was a vintage 1970s Cadillac. It was like the car and then it would open and you would put your tape in, and you would rewind and it would sound like a car. I loved that thing. I was like “Who wants me to rewind their movie?” I was so excited. I would watch Cinderella over and over and rewind and all that stuff. When my grandma moves out of her apartment, she was like, “You know, it's DVDs now we don't use VHS. Do you want this thing?” So I took the VHS rewinder and I went to my room, and I dabbed it with a pink bingo dabber. I don't know why I thought it would work. It wouldn't stick to the surface. Obviously, as a child, you don't understand how materiality works, really.
Then my brother's telling me to use paper mache, so I did that. It ended up looking not even like a car by the end of it, but I finally got it pink. I think that that really stuck with me. So the piece “Nirvana” is challenging our understanding of financial Black literacy. What I had realized about all these things that I wanted as a child was that I couldn't have money-wise, I had realized that a lot of it was really shiny and glitzy from the outside, but it was shit on the inside. It wasn't real. None of these things actually made me feel any better when I bought them. When I started, making money off my art, I was making good money. I was buying things like Prada this, Balenciaga that, and I thought that those things would make me feel better, but they didn't.
A lot of this work is deconstructing understandings of Blackness that you had as a child from now the perspective of myself as a 30-year-old Black woman, and realizing that a lot of what I thought was real was bullsh-t. One of those things was this over-excessive wealth facade that we have in our culture. These things don't make you whole. I've worked on it a lot in therapy, and I think being poor was very hard for me and my siblings. I think it really did take a toll on us mentally, especially because we were raised in a city with all these well-off white people.
It was kind of hard to swallow those understandings. We have this very glitzy and glammy car from the outside, but we're actually letting the inside physically oxidize. Through that process, the outside will remain pristine, but the inside will continue to get darker and darker, even though it's untouched.
You have that juxtaposition of the prettiness and the shininess of the interior, but inside it's rotten and nothingness. Sometimes we do cover up with the glitz but we actually have to peek inside to really address the nastiness within. There are so many layers to this.
Thank you for seeing that. I know that it is hard to have these discussions. I think there's a small sense of embarrassment that I have to admit that things were that hard growing up and that I believed that if I had these things, they would make me feel good. I had to learn very quickly that they weren't. I really appreciate you for holding space in this conversation for that.
I appreciate you sharing it. What you’re relaying to me is such a heavy weight that you probably had to carry as a child. For you to not shy away from that and embrace it in your work, it’s a very courageous thing to do.
Thank you. I appreciate that. So, these are the wheels. They're huge. They're 50 inches tall. I actually had these designed like actual wheels. I sent drawings to the fabrication studio in China, but it essentially just goes together like an actual car wheel. What we've done is we've created a locking system, so it doesn't actually move. It can be altered to create a functional wheel, but it operates exactly like a wheel with the exception of turning.
Essentially, what I want to have happened is that this piece, scale-wise, will hover above your head.
The idea originally was that people would be able to stand inside the car and be able to experience it from the inside out because there are a lot of small details that are involved. One of which we had to change because of Kanye [West] being Kanye. So I just switched to Jay Z. What we're doing now for the vinyl mirror is this: “Rich n—a, poor n—a, house n—a, field n—a. Still n—a” [from 2017’s 4:44 single “The Story of OJ”.
There's an importance of having to look in this mirror, at least for me. It doesn't matter if you have all these things, still n—a. I think that that is something that we all feel. A few other details that we're doing in the work is this American license plate. The background will be different, but it will be an American flag. Every time this piece travels, we're creating a new license plate for it. The text will say “Nirvana”, and then underneath, I chose for it to say In God We Trust, mainly to highlight the relationship that the Black community has had with Christianity and how they essentially used to brainwash slaves into believing that this is what God wanted and what God intended. I think that's ironic.
I noticed something very interesting when the piece was finally gutted. There is this thing that they used to do on cars, this tint at the top of the window. You can see here how the ground is blueish. That blue is coming from the tint in the window. It's hard to see in my studio because we have a full thing covering the lights. Once you shine the light through it, it's very, very blue. It was this idea that this piece is like rising above your head, it's going to go into the air. I'm having Kavi’s team cut a hole in the ceiling and make it glow blue as if it's transcending upwards. The whole idea around “Nirvana” is this lack of material desire and this enlightenment that I feel like I’m entering. I still have these issues, and I'm working on them in therapy, but a lot of my understandings now are shifting. I really wanted this piece to feel transcendent and that's why we have the highlight.
The air freshener, I’m going to burn in it: “OutKast is so fresh and so clean.” The last thing I should show you, detail-wise is a steering wheel that I had custom-made. It's ironic because the key will be in it, and it'll look as if the steering wheel would function. But in fact, there's no engine. So it's the irony of that.
I love that it's a chain because it reminded me of your previous work. There's this constant link.
Yeah, exactly, that's why I chose that.
What is your perspective on disrupting what we've come to know, as contemporary art? Granted, art can be whatever you want it to be. But I enjoy that you and other Black artists are challenging this pristine frame that we view art in by invoking tough conversations that can only be led by us.
100 percent. I think that my work really aligns with the direction that you're speaking of. Having grown up in London and starting my undergrad there, I realized all these people wanted to keep me in this little box. They wanted me not to talk about these issues in our community—their racism. At first, I succumbed to that silence. I thought, “I gotta be quiet, I shouldn't take up space. I shouldn't bring this up.” Then there was this shift in me when I was around 19. I was like, “You know what? F–k that. I'm gonna say what I want to say. If they don't like it, they don't like it. It needs to be heard.”
I think when I had that shift, it really helped change the direction of my work. I wasn’t worried about taking up space or respecting these institutional walls, not worried about any of that. That takes a while and I had to build that confidence, but I honestly don't think I could be any other artist than one who's causing the ruckus. It might be ugly and we might be uncomfortable, but we need to talk about it. I’m not one to shy away from those conversations.