Nabeeha Mohamed’s bold, colourful paintings feature a graphic simplicity that belies the depth of meaning they contain. She uses everyday items like flowers, jewellery, and cigarettes to explore ideas about privilege, identity and consumerism.
In describing her art, Mohamed says her work can be labeled as Bad Painting. A style of painting which aims to be a critique of the idea of ‘good taste’. Since much of her work deals with class privilege and its perceived association with good taste, it’s a language of making art that makes sense to her. She explains, “There is a tension that comes from painting beautiful objects and people in a crude, garish and tacky manner. It both questions conventional ideals of beauty and is simultaneously somewhat mocking, given the knowledge that these “ugly” works will be bought by rich collectors to hang in their lavish homes.” (Mohamed, email correspondence)
Nabeeha Mohamed was born into a wealthy family in Cape Town (1988) and experienced a privileged upbringing. Upon completing school, she began studying toward a Business Science Degree before realising that her real interest lay in making art (Muhlenberg). After persuading her father to allow her to study art, she attended the Michaelis School of Fine Art (UCT). Mohamed went on to specialise in painting, graduating in 2011. She worked briefly in the family business, before creating and designing her own line of clothing. In due course, she decided to dedicate herself to her art career on a full time basis. Since then she has participated in several group shows in South Africa and abroad. In 2017, Mohamed completed a residency in Brazil. More recently she participated in the Rotterdam 2020 Art Fair at the Nuwelands Gallery, and held her first solo exhibition titled “Sunshine on my Skin is my Favourite Colour” at the Smith Studio.
As a woman of colour, Mohamed’s work often explores the complex issues around her identity. She had a multicultural upbringing since her father is Muslim, while her mother was raised as a Catholic. Although she has never been drawn to either faith, she embraces the cultural practices of both. During Mohamed’s early years she was one of a few girls of colour in an all-girls private school, and growing up, she was urged to assimilate to white culture.
Mohamed has based some of her work, such as the still life paintings shown above, Trust Fund Baby and My Rolex, on the genre of 17th century vanitas paintings. This type of paintings became popular in the Netherlands when the Dutch became a wealthy nation due to seafaring and trade. This newfound prosperity was at odds with their Calvinist religious teachings which called for simplicity, humility and service to God. Thus the vanitas paintings contained symbols such as clocks, skulls and candles that served as a warning to Dutch society against materialism and earthly pleasures since death (and its unpleasant consequences for sinners) was inevitable.
In her still life paintings, Mohamed has created a contemporary take on those symbols – the gold locket and watch allude to wealth, while the cigarettes and food represent pleasure. Words also add to our further understanding of the images. The label ‘Trust Fund Baby’ refers to someone born to wealth, privilege, and a life of ease which most people envy. This stereotype is derogatory since it does not take into account that a ‘trust fund baby’ can be hardworking, productive and face legitimate personal struggles. Perhaps this is a stereotype that Mohamed, given her privileged background, has had to overcome.
The text in My Rolex -‘I love you almost as much as I love my Rolex’ – refers to the relationship between the couple pictured in the locket. The intention of the artist may be to imply that in our consumerist society, the love for material possessions (especially luxury, branded goods) seems to be more important than the love for another person. An expensive watch like a Rolex clearly signals one’s status to others. However according to vanitas symbolism, clocks/watches also represent the fleeting nature of time and the brevity of life. So the pleasure associated with wealth can only be experienced for a short time. Mohamed often references this obsession with status symbols in her work, for example in the two sculptures, Everyday Louboutins, and On Mondays We Wear Gucci.
They’re a nod to the Dutch Vanitas works but perhaps more playful in tone. Alongside the consumer goods such as designer shoes and sunglasses that I often include in my paintings, are symbols of time and decay, such as burning cigarettes and withering flowers (Mohamed).
Other widely used symbols in vanitas paintings are fruit and flowers which often appear in Mohamed’s works. The Smell of Rot that Ripe Fruit Makes, features a densely packed bowl of fruit which appears to be bright and tempting, but the title and the overripe bananas indicate decay. The quantity and variety of fruit indicate the pleasures of eating and of abundance. However these pleasures can be marred by decay, while abundance can also be seen as excess. Mohamed’s paintings of flowers (for example Sad Flowers below) are also frequently shown drooping and past their prime, alluding to the fleeting nature of beauty. This is a reminder that pleasure is transient and that all living things eventually die.
Mohamed’s process of making art can sometimes be spontaneous as evidenced in the painting Detox Boss Girl, which was inspired by a photograph that she took of a stylishly dressed friend. As she painted the image in oil – the “pomegranate head revealed itself on the canvas” (Mohamed, email correspondence). She points out that despite preparatory sketches, an artwork can evolve on its own. This image is faintly reminiscent of a work by Magritte – where an apple obscures the head of a man. “I did not consider Magritte’s Son of Man when I made the work but I do believe all the millions of visual references we collect that sit in our subconscious crawl their way to the front of our minds when we need them most” (Mohamed, email correspondence). The white power suit and the confrontational stance of the woman suggested the title Detox Boss Girl and “is a playful jab at the modern day have-it-all woman” (Mohamed).
As a young artist Mohamed is an interesting example of how to be conscious of one’s privilege and deal with it in a responsible way. Her attempts to explore issues of identity, the influence of her privileged upbringing as well as her cultural heritage, all form key aspects of her artwork. She shows us that the status symbols of wealth can be meaningless, and that pleasure can be fleeting, allowing us to reconsider our values and relationships. Despite the serious ideas found within her works, Mohamed is not heavy handed but uses a light touch and humor, together with a very personal view of the world.
Mohamed N. Email correspondance
Muhlenberg D. Glass Shaped Box @superbalist.com
Catalogue Smith Studio. Sunshine on my Skin is My Favorite Color.