Muzae: The New Abstract
The quest to interview Muzae started with a denim jacket. I first saw the image of a splatter painted jacket with the words, OAKLAND SPACE AND SCIENCE painted across the back, while scrolling through Instagram. Knowing there had to be more behind the primary colored ensemble, I slid into Muzae's DM's requesting to learn more about his art. Fast forward two weeks, and Muzae and I are meeting at his studio space in Oakland. His welcome is incredibly warm and friendly. Muzae's space is filled with friends, music, and art, and the energy is just as authentic as his story. Thank you Muzae, for the opportunity to experience your creativity and for sharing your context. Enjoy
See more of Muzae's work at www.muzaesesay.com, @muzae.
MO: So I guess to start off with, what are we listening to?
MUZAE: This is a comp tape from the record label Fuzzoscope, but I’ve been playing a few different beat producers. I collect all kinds of cassettes and records and physical media. I used to work at a record store.
MO: How long did you work at a record store for?
MUZAE: I worked at Rasputin Records Downtown and in the Haight for 4 years. I live in the Haight now actually, but I’m working on moving to Oakland next.
MO: It seems like there’s such a great community of artists here in Oakland. Is that the motive to move?
MUZAE: Oh of course. That's the creative process right there - community and social interactions, being with people who share the same values. That’s why I’m in Oakland so often, as opposed to San Francisco. I think it’s something that San Francisco used to be known for but I'd say it’s a lot stronger in Oakland right now.
MO: And it really is so vital to get that creative energy from your surroundings…
MUZAE: Exactly. Without space to create, there’s no community. So what do you do? You go out, you drink, and maybe you want to paint and do your thing, but the people around don't necessarily share the same values. You end up doing something else and not being inspired to create anything.
MO: That is so relatable… I feel like that’s also part of the growing process, learning how to spend your time and who you want to spend your time with.
MUAE: Yeah. Here, we want to paint and collaborate. Instead of just going to bars, we come to the studio and hang out. When you’re here every day, surrounded by people who are making art and making it work, it’s inspiring.
MO: What else is inspiring to you? What are the things that keep you going?
MUZAE: Going to art shows, watching my friends develop, and just having art be such a key part of my life. I truly believe everyone has an urge to create. The variant is if and how people foster it. You have to love what you create. Do something that intrigues and excites you. Then when other people like it, it’s just an added bonus.
MO: Did you always just want to create?
MUZAE: Oh yeah. Art has had an evolving role in my life. It’s always been a definite, and I always say that art is really comforting because it’s one of the only certainties I have. It’s nice to have something where you can know, “Yeah I’m definitely going to do that forever until I die.” It’s very grounding and fulfilling to think about.
MO: There is something very comforting in having a definite like that. Did you feel that way even as a kid?
MUZAE: I don’t know…I’ve always enjoyed making art. As a child, my mother and aunt would call my scribbles masterpieces and hang them up…and I was like, “Ok this is cool. These adults think these are amazing so…hell yeah this is great.” From there I just kept going. In high school I started doing street art. I’d put a weird stencil on a random electrical box that no one would see…in the middle of nowhere…and that’s how I got started! So yeah, I was always creating. I wanted to be a number of things – an architect, a musician, a clothing designer. I just wanted to do it all.
MO: At what point did you formalize art, did you go to art school?
MUZAE: At that time, I wasn't sold on art school. I wanted to learn something new. I thought art school would make it about selling work. Art school is geared to get students to find a job in art, and I never wanted to make art into a job. So I ended up studying Sociology at SF State. I’m pretty hyped on Sociology and I loved the experience of studying the subject. The school as an institution kind of sucked, but the faculty and students were all so great.
MO: Did Sociology play into your interest in the art world at all?
MUZAE: I can go on a rant about that… Art and Capitalism for hours. It’s a really interesting concept to look at, because if you think about it from one perspective, art is frivolous. It doesn’t make sense in a capitalist structure. It serves no direct purpose. The fact that it does function in this structure is very interesting. The value of art is real, however quantifying art becomes tricky. One of the things that I've notice happens to artists when they start to sell thing is they start to look to an outside audience for value in their pieces. The more someone buys into a painting, the more you validate it as being “good.” You start to question yourself, wondering if you should continue to experiment or make what people want to buy. That’s an artist’s dilemma working in capitalism. That’s why you see some artists painting the same thing over and over again instead of trying new things. It’s a weird balancing act, but you see it everywhere. You see it in social media – we validate photos on how many likes they get. That doesn’t really indicate whether the work is good or not. What do those likes really mean? Nothing.
MO: And the fact that an entire generation was brought up under that concept, on being validated by likes, it’s so twisted!
MUZAE: Yeah, we’ll see what happens to the kids…
MO: So back to the evolving role art played in your life…what’d you do right out of school? How’d you flow into where you are now?
MUZAE: My first job in SF was at Puma, where I did visual merchandising and sales. I got to design the mannequins and displays. It was less creative than I wanted it to be. I always tried to do weirder stuff than they would let me… Then I got the job at the record store, and that was like my dream job. I was totally romanticizing the idea of the artist that works at the record store. I loved it. I was really into music and constantly seeking it out at the time. It was a very chill job. They were so lenient…I lived down the street and would still be like an hour late to work…
MO: What would you be doing, were you doing art then?
MUZAE: My studio was my house at the time, so yeah. I’d get carried away painting.
MO: That's the best... The feeling of having something you love doing so much, that nothing can really stop you from doing it.
MUZAE: It is. If you love doing something, you think about it all the time. You want it, and you start to notice the correlation between it and other things around you. It’s like when you buy a car, and you start to see that car everywhere. When you love doing something, you pick up on things around you that will guide you to make moves. You subconsciously start to direct yourself down the right path. I see it as a yellow brick road, and just follow it. I really honed in on that path; I saw opportunities that correlated with my goals. I had this certainty about art, and so far it’s taking me way further than I ever thought it would. I’m really happy and grateful for that. I never thought I’d have a studio, in which I was making work and selling work, spreading it around. It’s awesome.
MO: Now that you’re on that path, how do you spend your time, to make sure you keep moving forward?
MUZAE: I always try to remain creative and to surround myself with other creatives. I do some photography, I spend time with my partner Olivia. I’m also part of a collective called Black Mail. We address the fact that there aren’t that many spaces for African Americans to show (art) in the city, and we work towards dispelling the stereotypes of the black male. We each have different stories that we tell through our work. For instance, I’m an abstract artist and I've noticed there aren’t many black male abstract artists out there. But I’m never going to let expectations dictate what I’m capable of doing. We’ve all been driven by being told how we have to live, how we should live. It’s hard not to. That’s why art is so interesting – it pushes the boundaries by challenging the standards.
MO: Very cool… And there are so many opportunities to push the boundaries through art.
MUZAE: What art really does is show people that you can’t label things. You can try. But it will never really work.
MO: Do you ever doubt yourself, or hesitate before sharing your work?
MUZAE: Oh yeah. It’s scary to put your work out there. You’ll compare yourself to other artists and discount what you’re doing. If you see someone killing it while making work that’s similar to yours, it’s discouraging. You have to learn to appreciate how your work reflects you. And that goes beyond art. Whatever you’re doing, make it mean something. Enjoy doodling. Enjoy writing. People have a tendency to compare themselves to the greats, but you don’t have to be that! You don’t have to strive to be at that level. Keith Haring has a very similar ideology. His work wasn’t technical. He believed everyone should create and enjoy it
MO: Have you had any challenges on the path? Have there been ups and downs?
MUZAE: Of course. I mean, the challenges are the fun part. I think allowing myself think of myself as an artist was a big one. It’s easy to push art aside, to think, this is just something I enjoy, I should focus on getting a job or working on a sustainable career. But it was important for me to respect it. Respect what you love. Challenge the social norms. And I’m still battling that. I haven’t figured everything out. I think about how the old me would think about things…I have to channel the younger me when I’m making decisions or starting projects. I realize, “Oh you would have not been about that…that’s against everything you’re about.”
MO: The kid inside is always the most intuitive. How do you channel that inner kid?
MUZAE: See that work over on the wall? I wanted to paint like a kid, so I painted that. It has a coloring book type of aesthetic inspired by the work of artists John Bankston Bankstown. I don’t know if anyone is going to buy it, but that’s not why I’m making it. People will come to the studio and look at my work and be like, “Oh what is this for?” It’s not for anything…it’s just expanding on an idea.
MO: That sounds very meditative.
MUZAE: It is! It’s so much fun, especially the process. For instance, when I drew this line right here, I was imagining myself in that space, standing on that line. Some of these pieces are representative of the interior of homes, so I imagine a person standing in the rooms. I still think I’d like to be an architect, to design a building. Even to just be a part of that process… I’d be all about that. I’d be so happy.
MO: I’ve noticed you have such positivity and enthusiasm, both when reflecting on what you’ve done and where you are now…
MUZAE: Well, you gotta love your life. If you don’t, that's on you. I come by people who don’t recognize that. They have so many opportunities, and they end up not enjoying it all because they just don’t see it. And that’s a shame because so many people don’t have those opportunities. It’s a state of mind, and it’s also a societal issue. It’s so important to be empathetic and humble, to appreciate what’s before you. I didn’t grow up with a lot…my family struggled the whole time. But I really appreciated what we did have. My dad’s from Africa. I’m first generation. People in Africa would to anything to just be here!
MO: When things happen that are not so good, what’s your mindset?
MUZAE: Situations are neither negative or positive…it just is what it is. You have the choice to interpret it how you want. If you use the negative to drive you forward, you make it something positive. Be in tune with yourself and make decisions based on what you already know is true. Manifest your own destiny.
MO: So, what’s one piece of advice you would give a group of young individuals, trying to figure out what they want to do and where to go next?
MUZAE: I think as you grow and change, there’s going to be a lot of new. And the new is always scary, right? It’s been a battle for all of time. So if you can focus on being in tune with yourself, you’ll find a constant. Know what feels good and follow that. I think things worked out for me because I realized what feels good for me, what makes me happy, and then just set my eyes on that. It’s this metaphorical path – you’re faced with decisions every day, even on a micro level. Make the decisions that feel right. And whatever you do, if you think it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be fun.