In the Studio with Monsieur Zohore

Words by

Alex Leav

In the Studio with Monsieur Zohore

A self-proclaimed diva bitch, Monsieur Zohore is not afraid of controversy. With a signature humor and wit, the Ivorian American artist interrogates the past – and its most contentious characters – to better understand the present. Crafted from imagery and anecdotes pulled from the annals of history, Zohore’s graphic, juxtaposing compositions entertain, educate, and enrage.
I recently spoke with the artist about humor as a defense mechanism, clowns jumping through canvases, paper towel sponsorships, and his current exhibition at Amanita.

AL: Where are you Zooming in from?

MZ: I’m in my studio in Florence. Can you hear me ok? The Wi-Fi isn’t great. 

AL: Yeah, I can hear you. I studied abroad in Florence during college, so I’m familiar with Florence’s Wi-Fi situation. It was nonexistent. I was like, “well, I guess they don’t want me to study!

MZ: Oh, totally. No need for Wi-Fi here. Nobody works. No one has a job. Like, the stores close at 3 o’clock for lunch so that everyone can go take a nap. It’s great.

AL: I love it. I know you’re typically based between Richmond, where you teach, and New York. How has your experience been in Italy?

MZ: It’s amazing. It’s really been so wonderful being so immersed in this space. I’m turning into a bowl of pasta <laugh>, but I think it’s well worth it.

AL: Totally worth it. You’re doing a residency? Working towards an upcoming solo exhibition at Amanita? 

MZ: I did a residency at Numeroventi this past winter. Now, I’m in Florence working in my own space. Working towards the Amanita show, which opens June 30th.

AL: Can you tell me a bit about the residency and the show?

MZ: Numeroventi was great. The people were wonderful and the space itself was amazing. I'm always really interested, especially when I'm traveling, in making a show that reflects the location I’m working in. It’s kind of a site-specific kind of mentality in that way. So, the upcoming show at Amanita deals with Italian history. I’m really drawn to this character in the comedia dell’arte tradition called the “arlecchino,” or the harlequin. A character we’d typically recognize as a clown.

AL: Why the harlequin?

MZ: Traditionally, the harlequin performance was done in blackface, so that’s where I jumped in. I've always considered myself a custodian of history and art history. My job is to maintain, preserve, glorify, and at the same time interrogate these histories that, for the most part, either have excluded me or actively pushed me out.

The harlequin became a jumping off point. I started doing a lot of research on figures in Italian history that have messy or tricky histories… people I might consider to also be “clown” characters – socialites, politicians, fashion designers, members of the church, etc.

AL: So, you’ve combed through Italian history and have plucked out its controversial characters to use – and, perhaps, recontextualize – in your work.

MZ: Exactly. I’m very much a diva bitch. It comes down to my being like, oh yeah, that’s right. You did this shit and don’t you forget it!

AL: <laugh> Like most of your previous exhibitions, the broader theme of this show is an examination of contemporary culture. You’re using historical and art historical references to explore current social and cultural themes. 

MZ: Yes. The work is about teaching and learning. I think of the paper towel works as essays; I don't really think of them as paintings. Ido a lot of learning while I’m making the work, and I feel that it’s my job to teach that information. Through my comedic lens, I inform the viewer about various histories. Who was doing this? Who was doing that? Who wasn’t paying their taxes? Who was sleeping with who?

AL: I know you grew up between Cote d’Ivoire and America. How would you say your upbringing has influenced the way you interpret the world and its history?

MZ: Being a foreigner has totally influenced me. My place as an outsider is an important and interesting aspect to my practice. I'm always thinking like, okay, this is a foreigner's understanding of all this crazy shit that a bunch of people did hundreds or thousands of years ago to, like, ruin a bunch of other's lives, or to just make things more complicated. 

AL: It seems like your position as an outsider has given you a unique perspective, one that provides for us new angles to consider. After the initial ideation, what did your process look like? 

MZ: I always start with research. Once the research has been done, I collect images to use. Mostly from the internet, but sometimes from archives or other sources. Then, I ask myself, for example, what is the best way to convey this research? Is it a video? Is it a performance? Is it a painting? Is it a paper towel show? The creative process looks like… well, it looks like a lot of me lying on the ground in the studio. <laugh> I usually lie on my giant beanbag chair and just stare. I don't really make drawings or sketches. I work intuitively when it comes to the construction of the compositions. Once a painting has a certain set of images that I’ve decided need to go onto it, then I sit there with the canvas and I just kind of mark out like the sizes. What image can go on top; what image can go behind? I use that to create a visual comedy within the composition. Then, I just build up the surface.

AL: The surface, which is made up of printed images on paper towels?

MZ: Yeah. The paper towels are cleaning up the mess that I’m unpacking, cleaning up these messy histories.

AL: The paper towels aren’t unique to this specific show, though. You’ve been working with the material for a while… it has become a signature of your work.

MZ: I’ve been working with paper towels for 15 years or so. I started making the paintings in undergrad at Cooper Union. My professors hated them, they told me to never make them again. They told me they looked like the paintings in the backgrounds of fifties movies. 

AL: <laugh> Oh my god.

MZ: Yeah. And you don’t have to cut that out. You can definitely include that.

AL: So, the lesson, I guess, is to not listen to your teachers.

MZ: Learn from your teachers, but don’t listen to them.

AL: Said by a teacher!

MZ: Exactly <laugh>. No but, I wasn’t satisfied with my teachers’ reasoning. I also wasn't satisfied with what the paper towel works were doing themselves just yet though. And so, the show at Amanita is really beautiful for me, because it's a culmination of my 15 years of experiments in using the material and finally getting to a place where I’m satisfied with it.

AL: And you’ve named the show after the Italian brand of paper towels you used to create the work, Tutto.

MZ: Yes, the show's called Tutto because of the brand, but also because of the word’s meaning. In Italian, tutto means all or everything. And so the show in itself is a funny joke. It’s everything. It takes on everythingI can think of that's Italian, you know?

In America, though, I only use Bounty. It's the best. It’s too bad they don't sponsor me. One day.

AL: That needs to happen eventually. Fingers crossed for you.

MZ: Literally. They did once comment on my Instagram about a few months ago, and I was like, ok, this is it! It’s happening. But no, nothing ever came from that. <laugh> Bounty, if you’re reading this, have your people call mine.

AL: You mention the show being a joke, and I know that you’ve become known for your comedic approach to art and art making. What do you think the importance of humor is in art?

MZ: I think it's really important to be funny. Humor diffuses an audience so that they can arrive at the work without actually hurting themselves, you know? Or they could arrive at the complications of the ideas without initially being confronted with the horror of it. At the end of the day, I think a lot of my work is horrific, because I treat these horrendous, historical things with a level of love. For all the things I hate about the world, I secretly love them too. And so do we all. The only reason why we keep it all going is because we kind of love it just a little bit, right? So, when I present things through this lens of love, I'm like, oh yeah, isn't it so funny that so-and-so is doing this dumb shit? Don’t we love it? You know, you ask that kind of question and it's funny, but then it's funny in a different way.It's ‘funny-haha,’ then it's funny like, ‘Oh God, what? Why? Gross!’ Playing with these muscles of humor is how I'm able to pack and unpack these works to make them survive.

AL: Humor as a defense mechanism, or a way of making sense of things.

MZ: Yeah. 

AL: I was talking about your work with a friend yesterday, and I was laughing to myself just describing some of the things you’ve done. For example, “at NADA, he acted as a frat guy playing beer pong” or “in LA, he put himself in a coffin which doubled as a kissing booth.” Like, those sentences are just great. They’re so ridiculous.

MZ: <laugh> I love that. Yeah, I just love creating these ridiculous scenarios and putting them out there in the world. I love coming up with these jokes and then being like, okay, cool, now let’s make it happen. Like, wouldn’t it be funny if I had a bunch of clowns jumping through paintings? Yes. Yes, it would.

AL: <laugh> Should we expect to see a bunch of clowns jumping through paintings at your show at Amanita?

MZ: Yes, there will be a performance happening at the show’s opening. I’m working with a local theater school here. The acting troupe and I will be dressed as the arlecchino, clowning around the gallery space. The clowns and the audience are also invited to jump through the paintings. Like, you’re forced to enter the space. You have to jump through a painting or move around a painting… things like that. The comedy doesn’t just end at the visual images. It’s also inside of the way that we move around the gallery space. We become the joke! It also gets us thinking about Florence as a comedically walkable city. The city is tiny. It’s literally so small, it’s funny. 

AL: Lastly, what do you love most about creating?

MZ: I love the ideas. I love the moment when I’m like, am I gonna be able to pull this off? Am I gonna get away with this? Am I actually going to be able to bring this to life? And every time, it’s just that feeling of like, wow, I don’t know. And I love that. Am I going to convince someone to give me $20,000 so I can, you know, get a money blower machine and fill it with rose petals? I don’t know! That really keeps me going. It’s amazing when I do pull it together, but very quickly I’m like ok, onto the next.

The apprehension. The chest tight feeling. That’s what keeps me going.

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Stefano Casati