Joy Yamusangie: Primary Colors

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Primary Colors

Interview by Shaquille Heath // Portrait by Ronan Mckenzie

Joy Yamusangie is an artist who knows how to harness the essentials. Their artwork that we see today has evolved from a practice in which they would stare into a mirror and draw lines that outlined their likeness. Who else is there to pull from, if not first starting with your own reflection? Realizing that their first works were similarly created from basic sheets of paper, one of the first exhibitions that really cleaved to Yamusangie’s soul was Henri Matisse’s paper cut-outs. Where else is there to begin in art, if not from the most accessible components? The pieces often feature bold applications of color, as they find themselves time and time again coming back to hues of red, blue and yellow. How else to bring one’s work alive, if not from pulling from the foundational colors of everything we see? Yamusangie’s artistry is a rediscovery of the fundamentals. Evidence that to make beautiful art, all you really need is to look around.

Joy Yamusangie: Primary Colors

Shaquille Heath: As someone who has a name that comes with a lot of expectations, do you feel any pressure to show up a certain way?

Joy Yamusangie: Outside of art, in my day to day life… yes! Haha. I think when you say your name is “Joy,”  the responses that I usually get are the same. So if I have my normal face, which is neutral, people will say, “Oh, how come you’re not smiling?” I get many of those kinds of comments.

My name also always comes with baggage and a conversation, so I get that. How do you fight against it? Is that a battle with yourself where you have to say, “No! I’m not showing up with ‘joy’ today. I’m showing up with whatever I want!”

I think I’ve just heard it so many times that it makes me laugh. It doesn’t bother me too much. I like having a name with meaning in this way, even though it’s not how my mother intended it to be. She actually just named me after someone in a TV show she liked. It has nothing to do with the feeling, haha. But I like that it means something else to other people. I like what it means for my mum. I’ve got so many different nicknames! So it’s one of my many nicknames.

With a name that is expressive, do you feel that you are more tapped into feelings? I personally sense, when I look at your artwork, that it’s very clear what your subjects are feeling.

Oh, you know what? I’ve never thought about it that way! That’s a really nice way to see it. It hasn’t been something that I’ve thought about in the past. I’d like to think so after you say that now. But actually, maybe it has had an influence on it. Or maybe how other people perceive my work, knowing that it’s made by someone called Joy, they might see it in a certain way. 

Joy Yamusangie: Primary Colors

I’m going into your subconscious! My partner is a behavioral analyst, so I’m very interested in what influences our behaviors. Your background as an artist started with illustration. I’m wondering if you remember one of the first things that you made that you were really stoked about.

That’s really cool! Yeah, it goes way, way, way back to my childhood. I made a drawing of a circus and I gave it to my mum. She actually still has the drawing. I mean, it’s not something that looks like what I make now. But I remember being like, I love drawing. I really love drawing. I used to make comics for my siblings, and I used to make animations. I was always trying to make stuff. When I was young, I was really encouraged with my art and always kind of felt proud of whatever I was making, even though it’s not necessarily work that I would put out there now. 

Hearing you say you made comics, I feel like illustrators are usually fans of cartoons. Did you watch a lot of cartoons growing up? And did any of those influence your practice?

I loved watching cartoons. I watched everything on Cartoon Network and everything on Nickelodeon. I loved the Powerpuff Girls! I loved Dexter’s Laboratory. I originally thought that I was going to take the path of animation. I thought that’s the kind of thing that I want to be able to do because I used to make school drawings and then trace over them. And then I made the ones you could flip through in the pre-computer days. When we had family portraits taken, I’d do editing… I think I might have used something like PowerPoint to make animations. Yeah, I was definitely influenced by all that TV. I watched so much TV, haha.

You often have playlists that accompany your exhibitions; I’ve actually been listening to one of them non-stop. Remember Me!

Oh, that was my last one! Yeah. I started making playlists for my parents for my first exhibition, actually. I think what made me think about doing that was that I wanted to invite my mum to the exhibition. She just didn’t really go to galleries. Part of that reason is because I feel like it’s not really a welcoming space. You go in, and you feel like you’re not meant to be there. People look at you, and it’s just silence. I always thought that if I had an exhibition, I’d love for there to be music playing so it just feels comfortable. And even if you don’t know what to say about the work, I can pair songs with the paintings, and then maybe you could understand it a bit more. So for my very first exhibition, which was called Do You Know Your Middle? I actually got my mum to make a playlist for me. And she made a really good playlist! Some of the songs I couldn’t even find on Spotify, they were just old Congolese songs that weren’t online. But then I had that playing throughout the exhibition. I also invited this collective called Touching Base, which had drummers and someone on the saxophone, to interpret the paintings. But ever since then, I’ve been making a playlist for every single exhibition that I’ve done.

Joy Yamusangie: Primary Colors

That’s such a beautiful origin story. I wonder how your mom felt walking in. 

Yeah, she loved it because they were songs that she recognized, all these old Congolese singers. She had a great time! She told all my family about it. She posted on Facebook. That’s how I know I made it when she posts about it on Facebook. 

I love that! I understand that your work is inspired by a mixture of dreams and reality. Do you find that it starts more from one side than another?

I will say more from reality, actually, just because there’s so much going on. There is so much going on in my life that it ends up affecting what I dream about. And the dream is just the unrealistic version of it where anything can happen, which I like! I like drawing from the conversations that I have with friends and close ones. Or memories I have that I want to remember. But then, if I have dreams that maybe kind of stick out to me, I will make pieces off of them. 

I had an exhibition a few years ago that was just based on dreams. I actually felt like it was quite, I want to say, exposing, you know? I’m sure someone like your partner would be able to read into the deeper meanings of these dreams. But I guess being an artist is playing with your whole life and sharing it anyway. 

Joy Yamusangie: Primary Colors

Are you able to recall your dreams easily, or do you have to wake up and write them down immediately?

I don’t write them down because I’m a bit lazy, but I’ll do a voice memo. When you listen to them back… I just cringe so much, haha! Because it doesn’t make sense. And then I just take long pauses… It’s actually quite funny. Yeah, I have to do this almost instantly. But then I have some dreams that really stick with me. I think the ones that are really weird in terms of the visuals—I actually remember even going into the day.

What about the people in your work? 

Most of them are actually me, or versions of myself. Only in the last couple of years have I included the people who are around me. And I think that is because of the way that I got into drawing. I felt confident drawing from these exercises that I used to do in college, where I would get a mirror and then draw line drawings of myself. So I spent a lot of time in college just drawing myself. That’s why a lot of the figures start with me.

That feels like a very vulnerable place to start from. Through that process, what have you learned about yourself?

I think when I first started, it was quite uncomfortable. Like being a late teen and having to extract all the time at that age when you’re changing quite drastically. But I’m actually really grateful for an exercise like that because it kind of made me appreciate my blackness and my features. Features that my family has. I think that it really made me see beauty in that, at an age when you’re just seeing so much media that is not reflecting people who look like me at all. I kind of understand much more why my teacher, who was a Black man, gave us, a predominantly Black class, this kind of exercise. And it’s something I still do. Yeah, I think you can learn a lot about yourself, but it also helps with confidence. Yeah, it definitely helps confidence.

Joy Yamusangie: Primary Colors

“I feel like it sounds so basic, but I always love the primary colors red, yellow, blue. I think they’re the foundation of everything.”

That’s a really beautiful sentiment to add to that. I feel like you’re constantly working with new materials or in different ways. What are some of your current obsessions right now?

Obsession… Oooh, that’s a really good question! I’m constantly obsessed with something. It’s not necessarily like a medium, but more so about color. I think right now it’s the color purple. I’m absolutely obsessed with it. I know that not everybody likes it, but I still think that it looks so good with red. It looks so good with blue. And I don’t know if that’s just me, like being delusional, thinking that it is everything. And I also really love yellow, too. So I’m kind of obsessed with that and want to do more.

Are there certain colors that you always find yourself coming back to? 

I feel like it sounds so basic, but I always love the primary colors red, yellow, blue. I think they’re the foundation of everything. Even with just those three colors, they are really strong. For one of my projects not too long ago, I was looking at sapeurs, which are Congolese dandies, and their rule of dressing is that you don’t wear any more than three colors at a time. I really like that, and I was thinking that maybe I could apply that in my painting. Maybe focus on red and then have black and other colors complement it. And working in the same way that Congolese people dress. Also, Congolese people love the colors red, yellow, and blue. It’s a flag thing. Yeah, I really love those colors. I think red probably the most out of those three because it’s just so layered. It has so many different meanings. To some, it is the very obvious: love. To others, it is anger. It has so much range in one color. So I think that’s why I love it the most.

Joy Yamusangie: Primary Colors

Do you remember some of the artists that first influenced you the most?

My uncle used to take me to galleries. I absolutely loved it, and I had a really good time. I remember the first exhibition that I went to, one of the early ones that I went to on my own and had a sense of awareness as an artist, was a Henri Matisse cut-outs exhibition at Tate Modern. I really enjoyed the show because I really liked his use of color and cutouts. And just that much was done with paper. I was thinking a lot about my own practice and how I didn’t have a lot of money at the time, and I thought about what I could use to be able to make artworks, starting with paper, too. I would definitely say that the way that he worked really influenced me in the early days. There are so many artists that I want to list, but I think that actually it’s just the people that I know and am surrounded by. They really inspire me. One of my favorite photographers is one of my friends, Bernice Mulenga, who’s also Congolese. I love their work! Their photographs kind of show people living in every way—whether it’s in happiness, joy, or partying. I’d like to think I do that a bit too with my work. Yeah, I’m definitely inspired by my contemporaries.

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