The Artistic Benefits of Forgetfulness
Bay Area artists Rewina Beshue and Muzae Sesay discuss how their faulty memories inspire their work and frame their experiences as first-generation African immigrants.
Muzae Sesay (L) and Rewina Beshue. Photo by Olivia Krause.
"Broad Strokes" is a column celebrating creative community. We ask an artist we love to engage an artist they love in conversation about the ideas that inspire them.
When Rewina Beshue was in school for graphic design, she would sometimes turn in work that didn’t have perfect perspective or was slightly asymmetrical and her excuse would be: “It’s experimental.” Now, not long graduated, the San Francisco native creates surreal digital renderings of disorienting interiors that pop with color, calling to mind early computer graphics from the 80s.
For Broad Strokes, Beshue chose to talk to Oakland-based painter Muzae Sesay, because he tackles similar aesthetic themes and employs similar color combinations, but through a different medium. Sesay’s vibrant paintings of interiors and urban landscapes, like Beshue’s, require viewers to not merely look, but navigate through them—getting lost in a fragmented world stitched back together like an old, splintered memory.
Inside Sesay’s painting studio in Downtown Oakland, the two discussed how having a severely shoddy memory can function as a source of inspiration, what it was like growing up in California as a first-generation African immigrant, and finding a sense of self.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
BROADLY: What draws each of you to want to explore space as a theme in your work?
MUZAE SESAY: For me, I like to explore space as a way to also explore the limits of memory. Since childhood, I’ve had a really spotty, shoddy memory where I only remember fragments of things and sometimes I'll take two events and merge them into one. So I like to look at space in that same way and play with its dimensionality by painting it as if I’m remembering it—playing with multiple points of views and piecing together a complete image from these differing angles and feelings. Through this process, I’ve learned that a lot of times it's not about remembering a space in its accurate form for me, it's more about the emotional takeaway from the memory. Like I don't exactly remember my childhood house but I remember how it felt and I like to convey those same feelings in my paintings with really vibrant colors and evocative color composition.
What about you, Rewina?
REWINA BESHUE: Honestly you hit the nail on the head for me, too, because I have a really wonky memory and I’ve struggled with my memory for a while. When I was a kid, it would always embarrass me in class—I would stumble on a question or couldn’t remember my times tables or whatever. I’m also dyslexic, so. And with friends, I could never remember things that were really important, like I couldn’t remember their birthday or they would have to repeat things and they're like, “I already told you that.” My art just kind of ties back into how that affected me growing up.
Also, I never remember my dreams and a lot of my work is what I want to see in my dreams, or like what I imagine they’re like—even though they're probably not actually that colorful or cool. I guess my day dreams, that's kinda was I create.
Sesay: Yeah, I had the same experiences growing up!
The way I relate the memory thing back to a social standpoint is that people use memories to pretty much be the foundations of their beliefs, their morality, their social consciousness. Pretty much everything is based on how you remember to think about it. It's like, if you're taught a way to think about something, you’re going to hold that memory true and have it guide the rest of your life. Having a shoddy memory has actually helped me in a sense, because I feel like I’m able to be critical of my memory and be critical of the things that I believe and why I believe them.
That’s really interesting because looking at both of your works, the theme of spatiality is really clear, but I wouldn’t guess memory.
Beshue: Yeah, I actually didn’t know memory was a thing for you.
Sesay: Yeah, I didn’t realize we had that in common!
Another way that I approach some works is based on implanting memory into my own head and consciousness and telling myself that I’ve been to a place that I’ve never been and making work about it. It’s kind of odd. I did that with some work regarding my father’s home country, Sierra Leone. I made a series called Lumley Beach about this beach in Freetown that I’ve never been to but I've heard so many story about, that my family talks about all the time. It’s this real positive aspect of a culture that’s been deemed so negative in American culture.
Growing up, I was never really proud of being Sierra Leonean until my later years when I was reflecting on that in some work using the stories I've heard passed down from family members. I’m now formulating this space as if I knew it—it’s not a one to one representation, but comes from this feeling of it.
Beshue: That’s really interesting. Have you been back there?
Sesay: No, I was gonna go when I was a little kid but then civil war broke out for about ten years and it was really bloody. My father wasn’t really helping me out, showing me videos of kids getting their hands cut off. I was like, wow, OK I don’t relate to this at all right now. I don’t want to go there.
Then I was gonna go again in 2011-ish. I was like, “Alright grandma, I’m gonna see you in six months, im gonna get a ticket and do this.” And then literally a couple months later, ebola broke out over there and plagued the country for quite a while. It’s under control now, but the US is still really wary about letting people back in.
Beshue: That’s interesting because when I was younger, I went to Ethiopia when I was 11 for the first time, for three months. My whole life before that, I was really afraid to go also, just because of what my parents had told me or what I'd seen on TV. Obviously, when you think of Ethiopia, especially in the 80s and 90s, it’s like, starving kids and famine. So I was like, it sounds like a horrible place. My parents were both refugees and they would always tell stories about how they were close with death a billion times, having to surrender or else get shot in the back.
Sesay: Exactly, it was the same stories for me. What you know about West Africa and East Africa are the negative aspects that are promoted by Western media. And the series I did, Lumley Beach, on this beach that's like this really beautiful, popping recreational spot there, I had a good time focusing on this positive aspect and retraining myself to recognize that these negative things are the only things that we’re being told about these places and not necessarily how it feels to actually be there and live there.
Beshue: Yeah totally. And that’s why I really appreciate Black Panther for depicting Africa in such a good light; whereas before, growing up, there was Starvin’ Marvin [from South Park] and kids would be like, “Oh, you're African, you're Starvin Marvina.” And people would be like, “Is your cousin dying in a hut?”
Sesay: Exactly! People gave me the Starvin’ Marvin thing too. Even though I’m from the other side of Africa. And people didn’t know that there were actual buildings in Africa. People think that it's like straight up huts.
Beshue: Yeah! But the thing is, I myself couldn’t even defend Ethiopia because I had never been there and I had never heard anything great about it. So I couldn’t even be like, “No, that’s not true. We have skyscrapers and movie theaters and bowling alleys.” I couldn’t say that.
It’s interesting because it seems like there’s potentially an analogy between this experience of memory loss and of having this tenuous connection to a place that, in the US, you are expected to have a very strong sense of connection to as a first-generation immigrant and yet are finding yourselves actually having to actively build a relationship with, almost in this same way you go about reproducing these lost memories.
Sesay: Yeah, definitely. For me, the process of having to go back and find that connection makes me feel a sense of intersectionality, of being able to relate to this side of me while also being a first-generation American. You have that duality in your personality inherently [as a first generation immigrant], having this connection to a culture that is very different while also having a connection to where you are. For me, I’ve found a sense of individuality in being able to connect to both.
But I’m wondering how growing up in San Francisco has influenced your work, Rewina?
Beshue: Growing up in the city, I would say you could be who you want. That’s the thing about San Francisco that people really love, you can move out there on no money and meet people who really appreciate you for you. Growing up I was super weird. I was growing up in a predominantly Black neighborhood, the Fillmore, and I was kinda different, but everyone still loved me anyways. So SF has kinda opened me up to be the person that I want to be rather than the person that people expect me to be. I’m really thankful for that.