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A Conversation With Keza Gahisha-Morin

Gloria Badibanga 

Staff Writer 





Via @k3zart 


Keza is a black Burundian visual artist currently studying at Concordia University. Their passion for visual arts began at the age of 14, being influenced from starting to explore the internet, joining sub-communities of their interests and making fan art. However, prior to this, growing up, they’ve dabbled in other forms of arts including playing musical instruments and taking part in artistic sports such as synchronized swimming and figure skating. 



How would you define/describe  the kind of art that you make?

"For the past two years, my art has been going through a bit of a transition, both stylistically and materially. I am now predominantly an oil painter, but I try to explore materiality and fragmentation through the surfaces I paint on. Combining textile work by sewing together canvas and burlap scraps, as well as using unstretched canvas and fabric, I attempt to step away from the conventions of traditional oil painting, which has dominated the art historical canon."


Is there any black or POC artist who inspired/inspires you artistically?

"As with many people, my first exposure to black representation in the visual arts was with Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose transformation of cultural narratives to images inspired my willingness to illustrate my cultural experience through symbolic imagery and text, having grown up in predominantly non-black environments. Kerry James Marshall was my main inspiration for my late adolescence: his use of the black body, used as a surface of inscription of meaning by the Western art canon, and its transformation as a means of cultural survival implanted many thoughts and questions on how I'm perceived by those unlike me. His colours and scenes of black joy and mysticism were crucial in understanding the radical act of simply existing in a post-colonial white-centred world as a person of colour. Finally, Salman Toor, a contemporary queer Pakistani painter, has, in recent years, played a big role in my treatment of paint as a material, as well as [acting as] a starting point in my exploration of queerness and blackness as experiences lived, but also experiences imposed." 


Do you think your culture has had any influence on your art? 

"Art gives me the opportunity to express pride in my culture when I feel unsafe to do so out loud. Art is a very personal practice, and even when actively trying to avoid it, culture will shine through the hand of the artist. I think any marginalized or oppressed person, when given the chance to express themselves creatively, will, in one way or another, showcase their culture and personal experiences (by virtue of their voices being silenced elsewhere). As a Burundian who has seen and heard of the violence and discrimination that has permeated the country since colonization, my artwork has a strong tie to anti-imperial and anti-colonial ideals that I have the privilege to express, when my ancestors did not."


As a black artist, do you sometimes feel restricted in the kind of art that you make?

“I find that there are certain expectations imposed on black art, stemming from the Western tendency to categorize it as "other"; on the outskirts of white art. This categorization leads to an expectation of the performance of our identity as a spectacle for the non-black viewer, giving them insight into a mode of living and thinking inaccessible to them. Being in university, and making art that is to be validated by my predominantly white peers and professors, has definitely made me think twice about who will be viewing my art and the power of their gaze on the contextualization of my art. I have found that white professors will feel more strongly and are more likely to refrain from giving (necessary) constructive feedback when my work is based on traumatic experiences regarding my race. While this has not stopped me from creating art that mirrors my experiences, I find myself censoring myself in discussions and critiques that may result in me having to validate someone's white guilt or apologize for someone's unfair discomfort. It's frustrating when I need to stop myself from expressing the reality of my experiences, but I've come to understand it as [being] a means of self-preservation.” 


Do you feel like there is an underrepresentation of black artists or POC in the field of art, precisely in visual art? 

“Definitely - African and black art has been a "genre" that exists on the periphery of ‘legitimate’ art history as a means to propagate otherness for years. Of course, this is in terms of the high-art world; galleries and museums, which have always been inaccessible and the epitome of institutionalized systemic oppression. This realm, like many institutions, was built on the pain and cultural appropriation of marginalized communities. Hence, I think we need to step away from viewing this as the marker for success as an artist - especially an artist of colour. There are now more options offering the right kind of representation for black and POC artists that focus on de-colonizing and removing capitalistic incentives from the equation. Artist-run centres, artist collectives, and independent POC-owned publications can offer fulfilling representation, that doesn't force POC to participate in systems that exist to oppress them. Unfortunately, it is a larger societal issue that both inhibits and discourages black voices from being heard.”


Ideally, would you want your art to lead you to a career, or would you want to keep it more of a hobby?

“I struggle to imagine a situation in the current economic climate that would allow me to sustain myself fully on my art while still having complete creative control of materials and subject matter. This comes from a devaluation of the traditional arts in late-stage capitalism and the general commercialization of art that has made the industry incredibly inaccessible, as I've said before. I think my generation generally has a bleak outlook on the future job market, and art is an unsteady field that necessitates a certain amount of privilege to be stable in. Social media has been a remedy for a lot of the inaccessibility in making a living with art. However, personally, I'm not too keen on using it, especially when one painting can take months or years to complete, and keeping an online platform requires a lot of quick output that I'm unable to produce and would not be happy making. Ideally, I will stay in the creative field to look for a job that offers financial security while still painting for fun on the side in hopes of one day finding an avenue of publishing my art that suits me and my lifestyle more.”


Are there any particular disadvantages you face as an artist? 

“I struggle a lot with creative blocks, which I think stems from a long-term struggle with anxiety. Growing up anxious and feeling like all eyes are on you, and then becoming an adult and gaining consciousness of the reasons why they are looking at you, has made me very hesitant to share my work. It is such a personal process that the art I feel the happiest showing is normally the art I see myself the least in. I think I also have a particular need to separate myself from my art to protect myself from taking criticism of my art personally, which I am constantly trying to work on and get over. There are certain characteristics that one needs to be an artist, such as being able to balance vulnerability with a detachment from the emotional connection to the work, which is still a work in progress for me.”

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