It is easy to see how the lush, green tropical settings that define Kimathi Mafafo’s exhibition Alone in Spring, at Ebony/Curated, have taken root in her barren, cramped studio in Woodstock, Cape Town.
The verdant, life-affirming season that colonises her canvases and embroidered works offers a pleasing escape for the Kimberley-born artist.
A natural setting provides a break from city life and social pressures and duties (she is a busy mother) and entry into a space where she feels relaxed and at peace, she says.
Her subjects are quasi-biographical, though not strictly modelled on her. She is much too shy to depict her naked body in her art; these stand-ins enact an activity for which Mafafo might yearn.
She implies that she wants to make peace with her body as a mother whose physique has been altered through childbirth and rearing. The title of a small embroidered work, Metamorphosis, speaks of transformation, and the full-figured female figure depicted in the characteristic green vegetation does not fit a fashion-magazine ideal.
Her models are voluptuous with sagging breasts and tummy rolls. Yet they are seemingly at ease, comfortable with their bodies. They are not fierce, proud or aggressive figures confronting the viewer with their identity and presence as has become de rigueur for artists driving a strong feminist line.
Mafafo’s subjects exist as if in isolation of viewers – hence the "alone" in the title. The absence of a desire to be looked at and valorised is what gives them freedom and peace.
She may have put her finger on an aspect so many young feminist artists have overlooked or struggled to negotiate — claiming visibility without needing to be constantly visible.
She seems to have figured out how to present a naked female form without it appearing to be objectified. In this way, she rallies against not only a patriarchal history of painting that centred on the female form, but one in which the black woman is the object or subject of beauty.
The mosquito net, which appears in almost every work, is an important device in advancing this. How it is employed in each image reveals her subject’s relationship to themselves or the world. It is a nuanced reading of existence that is never fixed.
In the painting, Reverence and the embroidered work Embolden, the female subject is completely covered in a transparent mosquito net.
"She needs some protection from nature, it is a threat," says Mafafo, but it is also likely that the net’s positioning speaks of a weariness around visibility and a desire to withdraw.
Through her art, she implies that an act of liberation cannot be done for others and does not need a witness to be authentic. Her subjects are posing for themselves. Mafafo is not enacting these scenes over and over for viewers but for herself – affirming her space, creating it and living it.
Since her first major solo exhibition in 2015, she has been painting various versions of the same scene. The tropical setting, the naked black woman and the net are reconfigured into different compositions.
The consistency of these elements allowed her to evolve her technical abilities – she is getting better, though in some works you can’t help yearning for a more hyperreal rendering. Machine embroidery has extended her language, adding a textural feel that recalls her sartorial leanings.
Embroidery allows for a more dense and thick foliage surrounding her subjects, evoking a sense of embeddedness in the space that contrasts with the sense of freedom and lightness the paintings capture so well.
The woman in the painting Cradle of Womankind looks as though she is on holiday in Bali. You can almost feel the warm balmy breeze.
Not all her subjects allow themselves to be transported and uninhibited. Withdrawn III presents a bespeckled woman holding a piece of fabric against her naked body. She hasn’t yet found the confidence to wind down and let go.
While Mafafo appears to paint the same scene, there are subtle and not so subtle differences in each work. Through this sense of repetition she trains eyes and society to "accept" this full-figured black woman. In these leafy settings she vicariously lives out a sense of tranquility that escapes most.
• Alone in Spring shows at the Ebony/Curated gallery in Cape Town until October 27.