Marc Standing on Masks, Tribal Culture and Identity

Artist Marc Standing’s work is a mass of layers, textures and colours that instantly beguile the viewer. Somehow there’s a gorgeous semblance of cohesion, though this is achieved through multifarious elements each coming together into something new. Perhaps it’s little surprise his work is like this, a sort of half-deliberate, half unconscious semblances of moments and reference points: Standing was born in Zimbabwe as a “white African,” and hasn’t really stood still for long since. He’s spent a lot of time living in Australia and Hong Kong, but currently finds himself in south London’s Peckham. He’s been in the capital for two months, and says he “absolutely loves” it , and finds it “very inspiring.”

While the chillier streets of SE15 may not be quite as colourful as those of Africa, Standing’s work seems to take a sense of one place and rework it into something new, with just the subtlest links to a physical site. The focus is really on the emotional, and the blend of emblems with a unconscious drive to paint. We spoke to him about his travels, his imagery, and his sense of identity. 

Looking ForwardCollage -  Acrylic and Gold Leaf

Looking ForwardCollage -  Acrylic and Gold Leaf

How are you finding London? It must be a very different sort of scene to Hong Kong. 

It’s good to start getting involved in a scene here. In Hong Kong there wasn’t as much of a community: it was more about the money than grassroots organisations. When I first got there it was very difficult to meet people in the creative industry. In the last three years it’s changed a lot because Art Basel pulled in, then suddenly art became a way of making a lot of money. The White Cube and Gagosian opened, but the art schools need to catch up and change their concept that it’s not just about investment and money.

How have your Zimbabwean roots informed the work you make? 

I was born in Zimbabwe and when it was still Rhodesia and studied in South Africa, but that essence is really who I am, and it was really interesting growing up as a white African where you are part of the minority but you still feel as if you are very African. I think a lot of the work was always about looking for some sort of identity, and how you fit into that sort of scene really.

There are a lot of African-looking masks in your work.

All those influences of masks and masquerades, and that African religious teachings of communicating with a higher power, and of music and dance… that’s something that’s always stayed very strongly with me in my practise. I was very much interested in the tribal aspects of things and tribal cultures.

So would you say you make work as a way of exploring your own identity in the world?

Wilderness Acrylic, Glitter and Gold Leaf

Wilderness Acrylic, Glitter and Gold Leaf

Even when I emigrated to Australia i found it hard to get my head around Australian culture and that mentality, and I don’t feel Australian at all – it’s not in my blood. My Zimbabwe passport is now expired;  a lot of my family and friends left Zimbabwe, so is that my home?

I think a lot of my images and my source material always stem from where I am in the world, and what I’m really attracted to and drawn to. There’s something about the mask and the masquerade: the idea of putting something on that means you can hide, or become something else, or transform and become another being. You can communicate on another level completely. Even though I’m not religious at all, I love the idea of transformation and becoming something else. 

In my newer work I’ve used a lot of masks and foliage of islands; we’re all either our own island and we search for solitude or we look for enlightenment or belonging – where we feel we “should” be in a world of multiculturalism. You can live anywhere in the world, but you have to find a sense of identity.

Can you tell me a bit more about the birds that seem to appear in a lot of your work? 

I’ve always used birds for maybe the last 20 years, they become symbols of being able to hover between the natural world and the spiritual worlds. They’re part of the land but part of the sky and a lot of traditions around the world look at those sort of dualities. I’m even more fascinated by little ones like robins and sparrows; they are just fascinating creatures.

What were the considerations in paring back your work to make something postcard-sized?

I’ve always worked in lots of sizes, but the postcard was the smallest I’ve done. I was using a lot of collage in there, it’s a really good way of sorting out ideas and seeing what will fit.  I really enjoyed working with those constraints as there’s something something really precious in working on something so small like that.

I read that you are “driven by an innate compulsion to paint” – can you tell me a bit more about that?

In a way a lot of my work is very subconscious. I’ll start painting or working on things and they’ll come to me in the process of the work. That process is constantly changing: there’s a movement of how I’m feeling and what I’m concerned with that’s flowing through the work, but without me giving it loads if thought. I’ve always painted since I was five or six years old, and I’ve always felt it’s inside me in a way. If I haven’t painted for a while I get a bit antsy.

I feel like artists are Shamans in a way, and the paintings conjure up their own story for you to tell. That happens a lot with my practise – images will start appearing so I’m almost told what the image will be. It’s kind of magic.

Both of Marc's cards are in The UlitimART Golden Ticket with CultureLabel - get your ticket HERE!

About the writer

Emily Gosling is a freelance editor and writer based in London. She has contributed to AnOther, Vice,The White Review and Huffington Post, and was previously deputy editor at It’s Nice That and reporter/what's on editor at Design Week.