Artists possess a gift of distorting reality, to bring forward their own viewpoint on a canvas. Few let brushstrokes paint out their emotions; giving spectators a chance to experience art in the artist’s time. Meet Mafalda Vasconcelos. The exploration of her identity and emotions inspires this expressionist artist to favour these themes in her work. Mafalda Vasconcelos’s contribution to the modern art world reveals refreshing stories of heritage and her journey displays how her craft blossomed into a fulfilling life’s path while giving flowers to the ancestors who came before her within the digital sphere.
Tell us about yourself: Your journey into the art industry.
My name is Mafalda Vasconcelos, I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa to a Mozambican mother and a Portuguese father. I am of mixed ethnicity. I grew up in Mozambique, surrounded by the Mozambican side of my family. I spent my formative years there and developed a deep connection to my country.
When I was 19 years old, I had the opportunity to move abroad and study fashion design. After graduating from fashion, I couldn’t find any jobs and so, I started doing freelance fashion illustration and sharing the work I did through Instagram. That was in 2017. It took me a few years to fully journey into art, but I was always aware that I wanted my work to have meaning beyond illustration, so I took a leap of faith. It hasn’t been a straight path to success; I have had to work many jobs to be able to pursue this passion, but I am incredibly grateful that it worked out.
I wanted to explore consciousness and identity; art was the only path that allowed me to explore these important topics in an authentic way.
I infused a bit of my culture in it with the use of colour and geometric shapes but also with the topic of divide feminine.
When did you know art was your calling?
When I was a teenager, I did a “career path test” that measured my aptitudes and skills and what profession I’d be good at. “Art” was one of the main paths that I got on the test. I thought it was funny and went on with my life pursuing other paths like fashion and entrepreneurship. Art was always a hobby until it became a necessity and my only way of surviving (I say surviving because I barely made enough money to survive each week), but it was something that my other degrees were not providing me with. Today, I realise that life goes full circle and I take this calling very seriously and I thank my ancestors for their guidance.
How did you discover your style of work?
I studied fashion design and for every project we did, we had to create fashion illustrations that would reflect on the concept of the project. Through experimentation and with the help of a friend I started developing my style. It took a very long time to cultivate the style and get it to where it is now.
I experimented with mixing many styles together to see what that would look like – that is how it started. I infused a bit of my culture in it with the use of colour and geometric shapes but also with the topic of Divine Feminine. I think of style as a dynamic form of expression and a way to explore new visual languages. If the style isn’t evolving, then you are not learning. To me, the process of learning is crucial to my creative process and it is one of my main motivations.
Who are your biggest influences?
My biggest influences are great Mozambican artists like Malangatana Ngwenya and Roberto Chichorro. I always look at their works for inspiration in colour and also general mood. I feel like there is a mysticism in Mozambican art that is uniquely special and inspiring.
I like to look at how Roberto Chichorro played with colour and texture and how he incorporated postmodern abstraction in his figurative work. I also admire the works of Frida Khalo for their meaning, symbolism and humanity and the works of Joan Mitchell for the colour, composition and movement.
Tell us about your process when creating a new piece/art series: What does it look like? How do you get into your creative element?
Usually, I am inspired by an emotion or moment of stillness I experience. As my work is mainly portrait and figuration, I sometimes look in the mirror for a posture, facial expression or body language that would best illustrate that emotion. Otherwise, I ask family and friends for a portrait image of themselves for me to paint. After that, I start sketching until I reach the right composition. When I move to the canvas, the challenge becomes colour; the artwork always changes from my initial intention, which is a beautiful outcome.
Creating is a form of ritual for me, it is essential to my spirit. Music is essential to this ritual – I listen to South African deep house or bossa nova. Music that takes me back to a place where I saw things for the first time, it takes me back to Mozambique; it fills me up with nostalgia and emotion that inspires my creative process.
What messages do you try to convey through your art?
No messages per se, I try to convey emotion and connection. Connection to my culture through symbolism and to my identity through expressing emotions and depicting friends and family members. I try to convey the duality of being. To me, that is manifested in my ethnicity; being mixed and how I experience the world.
Most importantly, painting is a form of loving. I hope that people seeing my work feel that.
What’s your favourite painting you’ve created?
Nolwandle. I made it inspired by my great-grandmother Faneta and kept the painting in my home as a reminder of her spirit. I get requests about this painting almost every day, but I don’t want to let go of its meaning.
Connection to my culture through symbolism and to my identity through expressing emotions and depicting friends and family members. I try to convey the duality of being.
So many artists struggle to find their feet and get their work/name out there. How did you grow your audience and do you have any tips for upcoming artists?
My biggest advice would be to be authentic to who you are and to your experiences, try to portray this in your work if you can. We are all unique and there is space for everyone to express themselves. Secondly, I’d say do the work and don’t give up. If your work comes from a genuine place, your audience will find you. It may take time, but what is meant for you will always be yours. Believe in it.
Do real-life experiences and culture contribute to your creative journey? If so, how?
Definitely. My work is a reflection of my culture and my ethnic background.
My mother’s family is from the Nharinga Ethnic group near Quelimane in Mozambique. This group was secluded from other ethnic groups in the region and there is very little history and traditional knowledge that is known. Due to colonialism and assimilation, this group and my family members lost the connection to their culture. It is not like my father’s European culture that in a google search I can find everything I want to know about them. There is nothing about the Nharingas anywhere on the internet or in scholarly articles and it is a devastating effect of what happened in our country.
This has inspired my art; I try to piece parts of my lost Nharinga culture together in the work I do, to keep it alive in my life. Through painting portraits, I connect to the spirits of ancestors. It is something very personal and not many people understand.