The Creative Force of Paloma Modupe
Paloma Modupe is stretched out on the floor of a very small room inside the Krowswork gallery in Oakland. Her long dark hair scatters on the floor, her clothing loose. She is a wisp, thin and airy. The low ceiling makes the room feel even smaller. The space is filled with artwork, paintings and drawings scattered on the floor and leaning against the walls. The lighting is low and there is a soft blanket drawn across the doorway. It is almost like a womb.
Self taught, Modupe spent her life in museums. She asked artists if she could sneak in and see their studios. She never studied art; she never thought anyone could tell her how to create. Art school seemed redundant. Art was a force bigger than herself. But now, she feels differently about it. Not having gone to school, she lacks some of the more classical vocabulary to talk about her work. Still, the impact she aims for is clear. “When people see my work, I don’t want them to know me,” she says. “I want them to feel something about themselves. For my art to affect someone the way it’s affected me, the maker.” It appears to do exactly that. When fellow artists visit to look at her work, they often tell her that they are driven to go home and create art themselves. Being that inspiration is the best compliment, she says.
These days, art is therapy for Modupe. In the past six years, she lost her parents and grandparents, one after the other. “I’m transforming into the second phase of my life,” she says. “I’m 39 and I’ve had all this loss. A lot of my work represents that.” The stark colors and straight lines in her work make sense now. A face seems to appear in most of them. “Mother Earth,” she says. “Ever since I lost my mom, the only thing that would make it okay was the earth–it’s all we have. In a lot of tribes, you’re buried fetus-style so you can go back to the earth, back to your mother.” The art installation at Krowswork was her first show in years, and having work on display allowed her to open up and grieve in a way she never allowed herself to before. Grief made her question everything: who she was, why she was here, what her dreams were. But, she says, we would be lost in the world if we didn’t have grief to make us ask such questions. Out of that process, she began to create everything from sketches to full-scale wall hangings. The collection is naked, sparse; it has rawness to it.
When people see my work, I don’t want them to know me. I want them to feel something about themselves. Art is so personal. I would love for my art to affect someone the way it’s affected me, the maker.
I’m always drawing landscapes and faces. It’s about Mother Earth. The earth is my mother. Ever since I lost my mom, the only thing that would make it okay was the earth.
We’re all so alone. I feel very alone. I’m finally letting myself grieve, the way I never allowed myself to. But I also believe that being alone is what makes us.
I never studied art because I never thought anyone could tell me how to create – it’s a force
in me, it’s bigger than me.
Moving forward, Modupe wants to branch into film. “I always say, in my fifties I’m gonna do film.”She smiles. “But maybe I’ll do it in my forties.” She tells young artists to remember they have two responsibilities. “One, to create your own language. Nothing’s new, especially now. You have to create a way of saying things so that everyone knows it is your language. Two, what do you have to say? You must have something to say.”
“And if you don’t have anything to say,” she says, “Listen.”
This interview was conducted in June 2015 during the Krowswork installation in Oakland, Calif.
words by Jena Binderup
photographs by Kelsey McNickle