Erasing marks; erasing identity.
Artist Goia Mujalli’s works are intensified through layers of process that hark back to times of identity denial, sparked when moving from Brazil to London to study. Using her sense of discomfort from this stage in her life, the artist started to erase her own gestures in an act of denying identity. Since then, Mujalli has been solidifying these erasures as intentional marks, which have become repetitive motifs in her work. The artist documents and collects items from visited places, almost creating a trail of her past movements that become collaged into her canvases. Stemming from her roots in graphic design, the artist utilises both digital and analogue processes in her works, focusing on creating playful compositions that often have the illusion of texture. Mujalli pushes her work to have multiple stages as an explorative practice that allows her to try new techniques and ideas as she works. To better understand her intuitive process of destruction and obliteration of images, layering of gestural histories and building up of elements and forms, I spoke with the artist in her Stockwell-based studio earlier this month, where she tells me more about the complexities in her paintings and how these mirror certain cultural, political and historical complications in Brazil.
Regarding your education, you went from studying Graphic and Industrial Design to Painting. Would you say that those two languages still synchronise themselves in your works?
While studying graphic design, I was also practicing painting. For a long time, I tried to move away from graphic design, but then I realised that certain things are part of us and it is really difficult to break with them, it’s better to accept and embrace them. Graphic design came back into my work when I became interested in using digital images on my paintings, for screen-printing. The use of software’s became very useful to explore images I wasn’t able to do with the hand. I wanted to use images I couldn’t make with the brush and that became another element in the work, such as pixelated images and pixelated digital brush marks. I was then interested in the destruction and obliteration of an image digitally and then using that to screen-print together with painting.
For a long time, you denied your place of origin, this being Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Did this rejection at the time transform the works? Do you think that there is a barrier of denial from Western culture to understand South American culture in general?
My personal denial that you mention came from when I moved away from Rio to London, as I wanted to start everything from zero. Part of this denial was to neglect what I was doing before and where I came from. Almost like losing a sense of my identity or searching for a new one. I struggled in the beginning because at school not many people had South American references to give me. No one knew much about Brazilian art, or its history. I was constantly given European or American references. At the time, it was good because I was trying to move away from my own culture. Now, I see it as important to constantly raise awareness and be involved with that culture. In the end, I realised it’s impossible to escape one’s roots. That made me realise that I am responsible for that culture, and that I care deeply in how my work comes out of and relates back to it. It seems vital that my work speaks about Brazil, even if it is layered under the surface, as that is where I am from. But it is also a part of the world the west looks on without depth, as something exotic and mysterious. Brazil is an open, deeply spiritual, vibrant culture, with difficult histories, and complex political issues, especially in this moment. As a Brazilian in a foreign culture, I feel that people are unaware of these things, and so it is something that is necessary for me, and in that way, denial is no longer an effective choice.
By choosing to live and make work here in London, you are displacing yourself from your own culture. Is the need of feeling discomfort essential to your practice? Are you diving into topics of cultural and geographical identity through your work?
I constantly feel discomfort in London as it gives me a constant feeling of solitude. I don’t feel this way when I am back home. The shift of difference of culture really attracted me. In England, the climate is so different, the light, the social life, the way people interact with each other. In the beginning, I really struggled with it, but now I like it. Everything about it is very different, but that is attractive to me because it constantly makes me feel out of place. This discomfort brings me a desire to make work all the time, it keeps me moving and curious to explore.
Fruits such as the exotic yet now everyday pineapple have travelled from South America to Europe in the colonial period to arrive to the UK. Do you mirror yourself with this particular fruit, which has been transplanted and is never truly placed or displaced?
In Brazil those fruits aren’t exotic, they are just our fruits, whilst the city of Rio is kind of built around nature so it’s impossible to avoid and becomes the fabric of how one moves through the city. My research about the pineapple and fruits started when I encountered Tarsila do Amaral’s painting called the fruit vendor. It shows a man carrying a pineapple on a boat in a Brazilian landscape. That painting brought me questions about the origin of fruits and where the pineapple really came from. It turned out to have come from the south of Brazil, later to the Caribbean and finally to England, being used as a symbol of wealth. Tarsila’s painting lead me into a whole research about Brazilian identity and perhaps it is related to the fact that I have been displaced from Brazil to London. But the reality is, the violence of Rio and Brazil is what keeps me here.
Through layering motifs of color, exploring textures and repeating patterns with rhythmic compositions, you investigate the different possibilities of mark-making. Do you enjoy the complications and complexities of this process?
I feel more and more that this reflects the complications of Brazil. It is a really difficult time at the moment, with the new president and the drastic shift that is happening that seems to point in a dangerous direction. I am cautious not to speculate too heavily on what is happening in Brazil, but I am afraid for the situation there. For now, I know I want this complexity in the paintings and I happen to deal better with the stages of the work, in their own time. Painting is something that stays in the brain even when I am not in the studio, so at some point all these things begin to mix, and it gets a bit complicated. I suppose that’s what you mean, but it’s hard to explain why things get complicated, or why I am trying to make it complicated. A lot of the time it is just happening.
Screen-printing and pixelating images are other techniques you’ve used in the past. Does this mechanical and planned aspect coexist or confront with the intuitive and improvised characteristics of your works?
Not really. My work is intuitive and I use these different methods to keep asking questions to the work. I need chance, otherwise I become bored and frustrated, so when I do plan or screen print it’s only a way of finding new problems that I then have to answer through painting.
Ideas are investigated through color, repetition, transparencies, movement and erasures. Are you drawn to revealing this history and labor through the surface? In that sense, do you bring out parts of this process into the final piece?
I usually start with a repetitive element in the work and then I build up layers of other elements that slowly creates a playful composition and depth into work. I always try to leave a window with forms that reveals the initial layers of the work. When that gets covered up, I bring back the first element that I started with. These windows which shows the previous layers appear from the erased sections.
Your paintings offer a close insight into what seems as stitched fabric, interlacing of thread or multiple loops of yarn. Are you interested in creating the illusion of texture and material through the medium of paint?
I had thought that the paintings might look like textiles, but hadn’t thought of these elements in the work being threads or loops of yarn, or the illusion of these. I am interested in creating the illusion of texture and material and within each area of the painting, I try to recreate a clash between the sections.
By depicting the gestural expressions of erased brush-marks, you solidify something ephemeral, a momentary action, into a permanent motif. When and why did you become interested in removing your own marks?
It was through the process of painting that I found that. I see these removals as a form of denying an identity. It started when I was actually denying my past and where I came from. I was experimenting a lot with paint on paper and most of my actions were doubtful, which lead me to always erase everything, so I noticed that some stains would remain in all the works. My thought was: how can I make these accidents (stains) into an intention in the work? Since then, I have been making them as intentional erased marks, which later on became repetitive motifs in the work and areas of texture.
When visiting your studio, you were working on bringing new motifs into your work, sourced from the botanical garden in Rio de Janeiro. Is it the first time that you are working with pre-existent elements rather than imaginary ones?
I have worked with photographs before, and used them as collages to then paint. It’s funny to see how things that I previously did, years later come back into the process. I see the process like a spiral, we go past a place we were before, but a bit more evolved. For a long period, I was using imaginary elements and now I felt I needed to add existing ones again and those having to be specifically from Rio.
I’m interested in how you’ve abstracted these plants from the botanical garden through a process of photographing, collaging and projecting them onto the canvas. Do you regularly move between digital and analogue processes?
I do. When exploring places or what is around me, I document things and bring back images into the studio to study possibilities for paintings. I then print these images so I can have them for collages and now I have been projecting these images onto the work. It’s a way of working through process, to move between the digital and the manual. I need to be in constant movement with the work, even if that is going somewhere to gather more images and then coming back into the studio and perhaps not even using these images. It’s like having different states and stages of the work, so the mind doesn’t get bored of only one thing.
It has been a great experience to collaborate and work with Cecilia. Collaboration is all about letting go of ownership, ideas and ways of creating things. It’s about acceptance and allowing someone else to lead in certain situations. It is about losing your own control with the work, at least that’s what I found out. Creating these garments opened up many possibilities for me to combine painting and sewing. I had already started sewing into my work last year for a show I did at the Arcade Project curated by Anna Skladmann, but this was big a leap forward in terms of the manner in which we approached the work and the techniques we used. So, let’s see how it affects my practice, I try not to exclude anything in that sense.
Words by Vanessa Murrell