Mafalda Vasconcelos‘ artistic process is personal and spiritual. Initially trained in fashion design, an aesthetic influence you can see clearly in her paintings and drawings, the Melbourne-based artist grew up in Mozambique, Africa, surrounded by strong women and rich culture. It’s these women and her homeland that inspire her striking portraits, often pictured in silhouette, adorned with bright, colourful shapes, patterns and symbols referencing African masks and fabric patterns.
Identity, emotions, memory and spirituality are inherently imbued in Mafalda’s practice. After finding out that her family had such little knowledge of their original culture due to the devastating effects of cultural assimilation, she has made it her work to explore the beliefs of her ancestors, and in turn, find her place in the narrative.
Impressively, Mafalda had already shown two exhibitions of her paintings this year before lockdown in Melbourne, but the last 6 months have allowed her to slow down and create more spontaneously. We chatted with Mafalda from her beautiful Melbourne home studio to learn more about her deeply personal practice.
Hey Mafalda! To start off, could you briefly outline your background, and how this brought you to working as a full-time artist?
I was born in South Africa, but my family is from Mozambique in Africa. I grew up in Mozambique with a very rich culture and strong female figures around me. I lived in Mozambique until I was 18 years old and moved to Europe for university. After graduating from a BA in fashion design I pursued a MA in entrepreneurship.
I absolutely love fashion, but I couldn’t see myself designing just clothes or accessories – I recognised a need for more freedom to create other objects and to paint. After a few years of working in fashion both as a designer and illustrator, I decided to pursue art full-time.
My work has evolved greatly the last few years. It has become introspective, a way of exploring emotions and memories but also my identity. I have found a lot of meaning in what I create.
Can you tell us a little about the space you create from?
I create from my home studio in Melbourne. My partner and I bought a house two years ago which we have been living in and renovating since. We made one of the rooms my home office and studio. The studio has large, beautiful paned windows facing west which allow the mid-day and afternoon sun in. The house is quite minimal, but my studio has a lot of books and objects that I love and am inspired by.
There is a built-in daybed on my studio window, overlooking the street, where my dog sits, and watches people walk by, and where I sit if I need a break. It looks wonderful when the sun sets, we can see the beautiful cotton candy Melbourne skies which always amaze me.
You mention that you use art as a way to explore your identity. Can you tell us a little more about the different cultural identities in your life, and what you’ve learned about who you are from your painting?
I am biracial. My mother and her whole family are native Mozambican, my father is Mozambican but white, born in Portugal of a Portuguese family. Growing up in Mozambique I was always surrounded by all kinds of people from different ethnicities, but mostly mixed-race or black family members.
My mother and her family are from the Nharinga ethnic group from the north of Mozambique. This was a very small ethnic group and due to assimilation, most of their culture was lost and not documented. After finding out that my family has no knowledge of their culture (apart from a few beliefs and spiritual practices), exploring this became my motivation for creating art. By creating portraits, I try to fill in the gaps of who my ancestors were, and what they believed in and inform my identity on this narrative.
My work is based on the theory behind masks. In my culture, each mask represents a soul and spirit of an ancestor, and is called upon during a ritual to bring a specific energy to the land. When I create, I follow the same principle – the act of painting or drawing a head or face is an allegory to wearing that face or mask during a ritual.
My process is about spiritual self-discovery, identity, cultural exploration but also about love and admiration for ancestry and womanhood. To me, art is not just a spiritual quest but also a way of exploring emotions and how they relate to identity.
What are your key points of reference or inspiration in this exploration of self and culture?
My parents are art collectors and have a very unique relationship with objects, which I have inherited. My Dad also works in agriculture and is very invested in gardening – his gardens yield the most beautiful flowers which he keeps sending me photos of and inspiring me greatly. The patterns and symbolism in my work are also inspired by African art, mainly African masks and fabric patterns.
One of my favorite artists is Roberto Chichorro, a wonderful Mozambican artist that explored color and symbolism in a beautiful and poetic way. I hope that one day, my work has a similar impact on others as his work has on me.
How has the year that has been 2020 affected your work, or your approach to your work?
2020 has made me become obsessed with painting, and with being productive and working at a higher pace. Living in Melbourne, we have basically been in lockdown since March. I am lucky to have a home studio, but it has also meant that I spend a lot more time creating or working, instead of living. I have a lot of fun and I love it, but I wonder if I will be able to go back to normal. I am sure many people feel the same way.
On the other hand, this time has allowed me to research and explore more about our humanity and learn more about others, which has been brilliant.
Shop Mafalda’s original works and fine art prints here and keep up with her on Instagram.