1970s “Joburg,” South Africa radiated a restlessness that a young Justine Mahoney couldn’t quite grasp.
“Gangs of kids roamed freely in the streets, going up and down the road on skates and bikes,” said Mahoney to the crowd at Michigan Theater Thursday night. “But at the same time, there was a feeling of unease. Something wasn’t quite right. You could feel it.”
She didn’t know what was going on in her country. The agitation that she felt was from an environment that resulted from of the apartheid system, the forced segregation of Black and white people by the South African government.
A similar agitation haunted Mahoney when she tried to sleep at night. In her bed, she feared those monsters that might creep in through her windows and gremlins that threatened to crawl under her sheets and bite off her toes as she slept.
“To this day I still have a huge fear of something grabbing me from underneath my bed, but at the same time I also believe that it’s the space where your dreams collect,” Mahoney said. “It’s a place that I feel that I need to go to. It’s really scary, but I’m ok with that. I need to go there to make the work that I do.”
As a child, her nightmares contained make-believe horrors. As an adult, she is inspired by that same big imagination and childlike worldview to create her artwork. She infuses her imaginings with her two inspirations grounded in human reality: popular Western culture and African culture. Her interest in these two elements of culture is why the concept of afrofuturism is so interesting to her, a movement that could categorize the nature of her own work. Her artistic repertoire is comprised of collage and sculpture that take an innocent approach to exploring nightmarish human experiences. Her most recent sculpture series, “Tainted,” is a collection of nine “creatures” — make-believe characters who have bodies but are not quite human — but who represent very human “emotional and physical states … by an array of growths, swellings, attachments, and almost parasitic mutations,” as described on Mahoney’s website. Mahoney was in Ann Arbor on an invitation to speak on her work and her “Tainted” series as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker series.
Mahoney described cartoons as having become a part of her consciousness and “Star Wars” as having become a part of modern society’s mythology. For her, “Star Wars” infiltrated her imagination so that on her trips to Cape Town or the coast, “I would superimpose my imaginings of androids and robots and creatures onto the landscape.”
Mahoney looks to her other artistic source, African sculpture, “for the way it simplifies the human form to its most basic geometric elements, but to me it also feels like these pieces contain the human spirit, not only the human form.” She is especially inspired by the women of the Ndebele tribe, “who immerse themselves in design and painting,” Mahoney said. “I’m drawn to the boldness of their colors and geometric designs and where their belief systems are.”
In her own art, Justine Mahoney finds that, through collage, she can translate the image of South Africa — she sees through her own eyes, “an extremely schizophrenic place. It’s intense, it’s wild, it’s extremely exciting.” From Pinterest and old images she gathers motifs to create her collages through digital means, which she then categorizes into heads and bodies before making an assemblage. Mahoney described collaging as a very intuitive process she gets lost in, a process on which she doesn’t like to put any limits.
In a way, her work speaks to her and guides her through her artistic process. When creating a collage, “They’re basically telling what they want,” Mahoney said. “So I’ll take, say … a head, and the head will say to me ‘okay, I need this.’ And I’ll then find a body that kind of works with it.” She then uses those collages to guide her sculptural process. In the same nature as her collages, as she works, “the piece of clay is also telling me what it needs.”
And when Mahoney asks questions of her work, it answers. In speaking on “Heroine” from her “Tainted” series, she describes her inquisition with the sculpture. Mahoney asked of her, “‘Are you me?’ and she says ‘We are all each other,’ and I believe her.”
Mahoney’s first sculpture which she created for her series “Innocence” does not have eyes, and in this way, this sculpture based on her inability, as a child, to understand the situation in her country as she grew up. This sculpture is also based on a girl that collected money for disabilities that Mahoney often encountered on trips to the grocery store with her mother. At age three, she had a bone degenerating disease in her left leg that resulted in her hospitalization and her wearing a cast for a year. And so, Mahoney said she “completely identified with her. She became my best friend… and I based all my work on her.”
It is innocence, faith and trust in humanity — those childlike qualities — that are essential to Mahoney’s work. She believes that children are those most suited to handle the situation of dealing with what is alien in life, and it is their approach to life that inspires her exploration of humanity through collage and sculpture.