5 June - 17 July 2021
Maybe we will wake up singing is set in the formal living room of Nabeeha Mohamed’s family home. This room can be found in many upmarket suburban houses. It rarely gets used and is consistently immaculate – a room for ideals, a showroom even.
The painting shows a lumpy, sort-of neo-classical vase with awkwardly splayed legs on a wooden table, sparsely filled with Nabeeha’s signature drooping flower girls. The title is either foolishly hopeful or cruel, given that those wilting heads look more likely to drop to the floor than wake up singing. In a reference image of this work from Nabeeha’s studio, there are notes scribbled on the wall: ‘half-breed’, ‘STATUS’, ‘heartfelt valentine’, ‘the blueprint for heaven is in a woman’s dreams’, ‘BAD LOVE’, ‘Time is money, and I’ve got all the time in the world’.
These notes go some way to contextualising the artist’s practice, which draws on the clash of race, gender and class privilege in the failed rainbow of post-apartheid South Africa. Dreams, heartbreak, having fun and loneliness intrude on this clash, rendering the work intimate and personal without ever really allowing it to escape the anxiety of its sharp edges.
Dressing rooms conjure layers of shoes, wall-to-wall mirrors, heavy perfume and clothes being flung around. These are spaces where girls get ready to go out and decide who they want to be – even if it’s just for one night, even if they don’t actually make it out, but stay at home dreaming of dancing with somebody. Like formal living rooms, dressing rooms are spaces of privilege – they imply an activity so elaborate, involving a wardrobe so extensive, that it needs its own room.
Nabeeha’s paintings of cut flowers with human heads in decorative vases started off exclusively in watercolour on paper. These works maximise the speed, lightness and energy of the medium. The ‘girls’ began as archetypes of the artist’s moods. She now regards them more as communities or cliques. They are depleted girls, lonely girls, fickle girls, we’re-doing-okay girls, moth-to-the-flame girls, easy-breezy girls, heartbreak girls. They have brunch and luncheons and for most of them, life’s-not-fair. They wave, flap, sigh, flop, and throw themselves (or are thrown) around, riding lines that sit between joy, mania, misery and occasionally, horror. Dressing Room sees the ever-wilting flower girls flip from unnerving pastels into rich, brazen reds, blues and greens in heavy impasto.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody started off as a portrait with a rainbow in shades of brown, black and gold for hair. She painted over this, though its shadow still hangs in the swirling fiery background (I wanna feel the heat with somebody). The faceless flowers in this vase look to be weighed down by their own excess. The artist has used a technique here that can be seen in several of her oil paintings, which is to scrape loaded areas off the canvas, wait for them to dry and then incorporate them back into the work as sculptural elements to be painted over again. The flat blue vase that holds these heavy blooms is decorated with spiralling lines. The lines are bright and tidy but like many of the forms, faces and figures in Nabeeha’s work, they are unravelling. Whitney Houston’s upbeat and lonely hit makes for an unpromising soundtrack.
For Dressing Room, Nabeeha has produced a new series of paintings on hand-stitched rolled-hem silk scarves. The works also feature flower girls (this time lined up together) but their substrate alludes to luxury industries, where branded silk scarves are collector’s items and fetch exorbitant prices. This work falls in with several other works in the show that play a self-conscious game with the idea of luxury goods through luxury goods – that is, art in a commercial gallery.
The gold chain of Chanel Flap Bag with Top Handle beams from an otherwise sedate painting, glinting with the bag’s alarming worth. DEAL, makes its demand from alphabet charms on a series of delicate gold chains suspended from a corner in the gallery. Like the haughty stare of the woman in Crown, the only portrait in this exhibition, these chains suggest a bond that is fixed and sure. Each link inherits its security from the previous one and hands it over to the next in a closed circuit. Unlike cut flowers that signal the inevitability of death, these luxuries are forever.
Nabeeha Mohamed was born in Cape Town in 1988. She studied at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. Her very personal work grapples with the contradictions of identity and class privilege in post-Apartheid South Africa. Her position 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, is now celebrated in her paintings where colour and strangeness take centre stage. These celebrations of identity are intersected with a playful critique of the capitalist economy and class privilege from which she benefits.
Nabeeha has participated in group exhibitions locally and internationally, notably Map of the New Art (Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice), Outside the Lines: An Exploration of Abstract Materiality (WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town), HB (A Humble Little Show) and Fugly (Chandler House, Cape Town) and Close Encounters (SMITH Studio, Cape Town). She completed a residency at Casa de Ilhabela, Brazil in 2017.
Dressing Room at WHATIFTHEWORLD is her second solo presentation, following Sunshine on My Skin is My Favourite Colour at SMITH in 2020.
Text by Chloë Reid