“M”, Heritage, 2014, acrylic and collage on canvas. Image courtesy the artist and the Gallery of African Art (GAFRA).
This May I went back to the Gallery of African Art (GAFRA) for the opening of an exhibition of work by “M” – Marie-Geneviève Morin. “M” was born in Montreal, Quebec where she is currently based. This is her first solo exhibition in the UK. I got chatting to her and was engaged by the story of how she came to make the works that are currently on show at at the gallery. M is self-taught and has only been making this work, in any sustained sense, for the past 3 years, which is remarkable given the substance of the work. Through conversation with her, I see the potential for her to expand to practices such as performance. I asked her if we could talk more about the process that led her to the decision to put marks down on a surface and to transform found objects and materials through practices such as collage. What brought her to this moment? The art world, and who is and isn’t visible as an artist, and why, is such a complex and contested story. How do artists who have no formal art training claim a space for themselves to make and exhibit work? I also think that M’s story will be inspirational for others who connect with her work and who, do not necessarily follow formal routes into art-training (whether because of choice or personal circumstances). I enjoyed the emotional and expressive registers of her work and her art-making process in and of itself: the physicality of throwing paint at a blank surface; her use of whatever is at hand including ordinary domestic materials and objects; and her own saliva.
I am amazed that you have only been making work as a visual artist, in a sustained sense at least, for the past three years.
I didn’t know I was an artist even though I wrote lyrics for albums. I was 20 years old when I started writing. Then, I did costumes for movies, theatre and operettas. But it still wasn’t enough. I wasn’t fulfilled. I have always had a day job working as a secretary or executive assistant. At night, I would do my passion or art (whatever that is). But I would never call myself an artist. I believe there are no limits in art, on when or where you can make art.
What led you to the point where you started making marks on a surface? Tell me a bit about your process.
I made my first painting when I was in my early 20s. I was dating an artist. One night he didn’t come home and so I picked up whatever he was using to make work and made Vertigo. It’s a painting and it has lines going in all directions. Twenty years later I found that work. I found it when I began to make paintings.
I begin with a clean surface or a white surface. I am not comfortable if there is nothing on it, if it’s too clean. I have to make chaos. I call it “attacking a frame”, introducing it to myself. So, when I start I make a mess or chaos. And then, I try to find an equilibrium. The vinyl records I found and painted on are displayed on a clean surface. This was very hard for me to do. I am not used to that; it’s new to me. I am discovering myself through this process but usually I like to give the work life, give it energy.
“M”, Celebration, 2015, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist and the Gallery of African Art (GAFRA).
How do you imagine your work geographically? You are based in Canada but I can relate to your work because it reminds me of imagery and practices that I am familiar with (I am thinking of artists who have a relationship to the African continent).
I was born, and raised and adopted in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. My adopted family is white and their culture is Quebec culture, that is what I know and that is who I am. But my painting is about something else. I never felt as though I have belonged anywhere. I feel that I am elsewhere. My biological mother is white, from Quebec. My biological father is from Haiti and my grandfather is from the Bahamas. I did not know these roots, this family, this DNA. I didn’t know anyone until I started painting. I have always been missing that half of me that I didn’t know. I have never been to Haiti. I’ve never been to Africa. Once, I went to see a Haitian artist and said I want to know my roots. I asked him to make me a totem with my hair and my son’s hair. He said: “No. I want to exhibit with you”. I showed him a display I did with feathers. He loved it and said: “Oh, you’re an artist”. I said: “I don’t paint. I am paying you to make me something that will make me feel grounded”. He invited me to his studio. After going there, I bought paint and canvases but I forgot the brushes because I didn’t think you needed brushes. I used a rolling pin to spread the paint. I used plastic garbage bags as a brush. I used my saliva because I didn’t have a brush to hold and a bowl of water. I didn’t even think of water to dilute the paint. Saliva was the first thing that came to my mind. The first paintings I made were done only with the garbage bags and my hands and fingers. I love to put my hands in paint and to paint with my fingers. When I work I am covered in paint.
Have you ever thought of performance art?
I have never done that.
Many artists dealing with things such as identity, the body or sensations of belonging and not belonging have made use of performance. I think the way that you began to make work is very performative in the sense that you immerse yourself and your body in the making of work. You use whatever is around you and act with these things to put paint down on a surface.
I was twenty-two years old when I made my first painting that I called Vertigo, I also made pictures of myself dripping paint onto my body.
Tell me more about these pictures of yourself.
I had a friend who was a photographer. He passed away. I asked him to take pictures of me as I dripped paint on my body. When I made these pictures and when I made Vertigo it was nothing thought, it was all felt.
Can you talk a bit more about this sense of something that is felt rather than thought?
Everything is felt. Nothing is thought. I had to accept that I was an artist in a way. I never wanted to become one. It just happened. The word artist bothered me. What is an artist? I never thought of myself as being an artist. But I am one.
Why do you call yourself “M”?
My name is nineteen letters and when I started painting I didn’t want to sign nineteen letters! M also makes me think of the word for love in French – “aimer”. I only do what I love or what touches me or what I feel. I also like that you don’t know whether it refers to a girl or a guy.
Have people ever mentioned to you that your work makes them think of Basquiat?
People who know art talk to me about Basquiat. When I started painting I started exhibiting in a park. This was my first exhibition. A journalist said to me: “Do you know Basquiat?” People who saw my work would say Basquiat. I didn’t know Basquiat. I decided to go and see who this guy is because I’m fed up with hearing his name and I don’t know what he does. I saw his work which to me is very profound. I think that when people look at art and they can’t place it, they have to find someone in their mind that it can look like. I don’t think this is important.
“M”, from a series of paintings on black plastic garbage bags. Image courtesy the artist and the Gallery of African Art (GAFRA).
In this exhibition, as well as the mixed-media paintings and collages you have also created objects from black plastic garbage bags. You have stuffed them to fill them out and then you have painted faces (portraits?) onto them. On others there are hand prints. There are also sheets cut from black plastic bags on the roof with abstract patterns and motifs on them.
If I could, I would paint on big walls. If I had the opportunity. I just moved into a smaller space which is why I am making smaller work. I made these works on black plastic when I did not have any canvases available. I thought: “What am I going to use?” I had the idea of the garbage bags because they are just there, in the kitchen. Garbage bags also fit onto a table and lately I have been painting what fits on this surface. I also had old LP vinyl records and I said to myself: “Why don’t I just pick them up and do something with them”.
You have used gold paint on the vinyl records. The images have a magical, mythological quality to them.
I don’t like to paint in gold. For me, that’s very rare. I paint on gold when I have no money or no paint. Once, I bought a lot of gold paint and so I have a lot of it. I don’t have a lot of the bright colours. I usually pick up the bright colours first but when I run out of paint I am stuck with gold. I then realised that as I was painting with gold I’m almost adopting another attitude. I’m being careful. When I painted these records I felt like I was painting plates. This is not what I do usually on canvas. I heard operas in my mind and I felt like a music conductor. It was a special feeling and once you put the gold down you can’t re-do it. You can’t erase on a record.
You also work with collage.
In my life, I have been a collector of manuscripts. I have always loved the handwriting, the old music sheets. I like old things that have life. I often paint on music sheets. I especially love the old handwriting on music sheets – ladies would write their name. Some of the music sheets I buy are 100 years old. I have always collected things. I like antiques. This is an old report card from 1907. I’ve also used pages from my school books. This one is from a dictation, from when I was 10 years old. They would make us repeat the same words over and over. If you made just one mistake you had to copy out the same word 20 or 50 times. I use whatever is around: official letters and documents, cigarette packets. I use all these things.
The surfaces of your paintings are also layered like your collages and mixed-media works.
I call it “painting in reverse”. I drip paint. The whole canvas is full of drip and then I use white gesso to outline. Instead of painting a face and filling it, I just paint the empty space.
The paintings at the entrance to the gallery, from 2016, are very expressive. You are not working with collage, just paint. There is a lot of emotion and energy in them.
I was going through a chaotic time and painting keeps me grounded. I just threw paint at the canvases hard. I use acrylic. I use my hands and a paintbrush. I made this one while I was dancing to Afropunk, YOUNG PARIS.
“M”, Resilience, 2016, Acrylic on Canvas, 120 x 91 cm. Image courtesy the artist and the Gallery of African Art (GAFRA).
The exhibition closes 17 June 2017. For more about the artist and the gallery see here.