At first glance, Massa Lemu's Rapture (pictured below right), which is on view at the Episcopal Diocese of Texas (EDOT) Gallery in Houston through Aug. 10, appears to be a colorful abstract painting, which may depict cells magnified under a microscope or an underwater scene. There is something very organic about the forms, whose dramatic composition suggests intense movement.
"The figure is so abstracted that what remains are merely suggestions of a body and outstretched limbs in the form of lines, spheres, [and] curves," says Lemu, who grew up in Malawi and held a fellowship in the Core Residency Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Glassell School of Art from 2010-12. It takes knowing a little bit about the artist to peg the work as a religious painting.
"The shapes and colors capture this great emotion, this moment of rhythm. The painting also refers to the state of being lifted away, to the Christian state of being taken to heaven," he adds.
The EDOT Gallery show, which includes 12 of Lemu's acrylic paintings on paper, came together with the help of Viktoria Gotting, associate pastor at St. Christopher Episcopal Church in Houston. St. Christopher assists orphans in rural southern Malawi, Lemu says, and Gotting invited him to visit and discuss Malawian culture after seeing his work online. Gotting introduced Lemu to the EDOT Gallery, and Lemu says he took it as a "grand opportunity" to show his work to a new audience.
Asked about why the works in the EDOT Gallery show are on paper rather than canvas, Lemu says he uses both painting surfaces. "I work with whatever material seems well suited for the idea," he says. "I can use graphite, watercolors, ink, oils, sound, earth, etc. For most of these ideas, it was enough to paint with acrylics on paper."
Coming to Houston, where he has enjoyed the MFAH residency, has been a big change for the artist. At the museum, he has the rare opportunity to work closely with -- and be challenged by -- some of the "smartest emerging artists and intellectuals from different parts of the world," Lemu says. "The larger museum environment that I was immersed in gave me access to some of the most advanced thinkers and refined artistic ideas of our time. Working in that context has made me to continuously reflect upon and re-examine my own practice in ways that I had never done before."
In Malawi, there are no great museums or art schools, although one college has a "limited undergraduate major in fine art," according to Lemu. "The Malawian art scene is not as advanced as that of the United States, nevertheless artists produce work," he says.
"There are a few commercial galleries in the two cities of Blantyre and Lilongwe which offer an outlet for artists to showcase their work. Much of the work shown in these spaces is in the form of salable curio and souvenir that caters for tourists and an expatriate community," he adds. "However, I do not think that what are needed are galleries and museums as much as art schools."
One promising aspect of Malawi's art scene is an "enthusiastic press that is ready to review exhibitions and publish stories related to the arts," he says.
Coming to Texas, several aspects of Houston urban life surprised Lemu, and he created art in response to those experiences.
"The ubiquitous panhandler as a figure of abject poverty amidst all this tremendous wealth is one example," he says. "The contrast is so glaring when you walk in downtown Houston where the Homeless like to 'hangout.'" He responded by performing a series, "Passages for the Undocumented" (pictured above), in which he communicated with motorists via cardboard signs that featured very different sorts of messages than panhandlers tend to bear.
Another thing that has caught his attention in Houston are the "humongous" fish in the bayou, he says. So Lemu created a series of semi-abstract acrylic paintings titled "Smoked Bayou Tilapia" (pictured on right), which, he explains, "refer to a number of issues such as the environment, migration, and the like."
As an artist who was raised Christian and who describes himself as deeply influenced and inspired by the Bible, the EDOT Gallery is a logical context for Lemu's work.
"I remember as a primary school-going youngster being fascinated by biblical stories and creating pictorial compositions of these stories," he says. "I also used to copy illustrations in the Christian books in my home to make my own compositions."
"Biblical narrative, and verses, have been a source and a constant feature even in my art," he says.