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MASTERS: Monsieur Zohore

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Monsieur Zohore is nothing if not intentional. Every flower, wig, paper towel, diaper, Windex bottle, art book, and designer clothing item within his studio has its place. His studio and physical presence are enigmatic. Zohore describes his artistic self first as a “producer” and secondly as a “clown.” 

I was lucky enough to be fully immersed in one of his productions when I witnessed his “MZ.05: GRÂCE” performance at the Baltimore Museum of Art last year. The first act in the Art After Hours: Wickerham & Lomax x WDLY takeover, Zohore welcomed guests to the event with a sea of applause and orchestrated veneration that vibrated the walls of the BMA. (Full disclosure: I participated in this event as a WDLY curator.) Conducted and produced by Zohore, this performance, like every move that he makes, was a work of art. 

During our conversation, Zohore spoke about how artists like himself are often expected to perform, to mime, for an audience that sometimes forgets their humanity. But Zohore knows who he is and what his art means, and understands that sometimes these realities are inseparable. His decision to attend graduate school in MICA’s Mount Royal program in 2018 was an extension of this innate self-reflection.

His work ranges from performances painted with the sound of applause, to video work of him covering his body in lotion, to eight-foot-tall canvases adorned with puce-colored paper towels. His most traditional works are radically untraditional, a result of not only his process but also his use of unconventional materials. The spectacle of his creations is nearly ineffable. When I visited Zohore in his studio, he spoke succinctly about his work, explaining that he creates most of his work using household materials—inspired by his mother, a caterer and event planner—as a way to explore the meanings of hospitality, spectacle, and performance in response to his own experiences. “My main medium is my history,” he says.

Artist: Monsieur Zohore
Pictured Wearing: Dries Van Noten blazer, Marc Jacobs pants, sweater from TopShop, and shoes from ASOS
Instagram: @mzohore
Graduate Institution: Maryland Institute College of Art, Mount Royal School of Art (Multidisciplinary MFA)
Tuition: $48,510 per academic year

 

Teri Henderson: What is your real name?

Monsieur Zohore: I have a lot of names. In my practice I go by Monsieur Zohore and I think it’s a very easy way to organize everything. It’s also my dad’s name and I think it’s really funny. Monsieur Zohore, that’s my father. It’s also me and my brother and a bunch of other men in my family. In New York, everyone calls me Peter. With everyone I grew up with it’s Alex, because my first name is Alexander… and then in Baltimore, Sandy is short for Alexander. I change my name every time I move, and it keeps it going. That’s why I’ve got so many damn names. 

How old are you? When is your birthday?

I’m 26 years old. My birthday is February 27th, 1993. I’m a Pisces. My brother and I have the same birthday, three years apart. 

What do you think about that? 

Um, that bitch stole my birthday, but it’s okay. We’re friends now. I forgave him.

Where are you from?

I was born and raised in Potomac, Maryland. My parents are both from La Cote D’Ivoire in West Africa—I spent a lot of time there growing up as well. And I cut my teeth and got a couple black eyes on the floor of a bar in the East Village.

How long have you lived in Baltimore?

I’ve lived in Baltimore for just over a year now. I moved here in August of 2018 to attend MICA. Baltimore is a completely different country, you know? And I made sure to treat it as such. When I got here, I made a very big effort to not show up with any kind of baggage from my parents. 

Your feet seem firmly planted.

I’ve always been really good at finding myself in a place. Even when I was a kid, and we would travel as a family of five, one person had to sit with a stranger. And I always elected to sit with that stranger because I was always interested in knowing something I didn’t know, that I hadn’t heard before. Even before I got to Baltimore, I made a very concerted effort to start on social media, paying attention and connecting myself with my surroundings. 

Where did you go to undergrad? 

I went to Cooper Union from 2011 to 2015. It was a really wild time because when I was there, they announced that the tuition would no longer be free. So half the time was spent in the studio and half the time was spent protesting. It was really a turbulent time. It was exciting to be part of making this big change in my life and then having that change be compounded with this sudden change at this institution. I just didn’t take that for granted—and the people that I was able to meet in this whirlwind, the energy was something I used to propel me forward.

That’s really beautiful. When did you decide you wanted to apply to grad school?

It was 2017, because I remember my [graduate] interview [with MICA] was on my birthday on February 27, 2018. And so I applied in December and I had an interview in February, and then I got in a month later. It was a very quick-turnaround process. 

Why did you decide to come to MICA?

I was very interested in the idea of learning from Baltimore, and also trying to learn about my Blackness in a city that was and is undeniably Black. I am trying to understand what brings me closer to everybody and what sets me apart. As a first-generation African person, there is always a misalignment, a miscommunication between cultures and I wanted to really parse through that. 

Do you feel like you would be able to make the work that you make without having gone to art school?

I’m not sure I would have known to call what I do “art” if I hadn’t gone to art school but I’m sure I’d still be making a fool of myself somewhere.

How do you describe your practice? Are you a painter, a sculptor? 

I struggle with this, but I would call myself a producer. I practice in performance and in painting. I think I make performances about painting or paintings about performance.

Maybe you’re a poet.

I am a comedian. [Laughs] I’m a clown.

Okay, I’ll write your job title as “I’m a clown?” [Both laugh]

No, write that down, honey: “I’m a clown.” I clap in museums for hours on end. I love to cover myself in lotion, for no apparent reason.

I think that something that you do that is tangential to your grad school experience but still embodies the spirit of your artistic practice is the Real Housewives of Atlanta Watch Party that you curate weekly. Can you tell me more about that? How did it come about?

I host The Real Housewives View Party and Discussion every Sunday night at 8 p.m. at Rituals. I see it as being a part of my practice. It’s a performance I get to do every week. To me, that show is like Anna Deavere Smith’s early experimental theater works. It explores the human condition in a heightened and messy way. 

How can institutions better support Black and brown graduate students?

By showing up and buying things. By amplifying our presence. By not misspelling our names.

What is the best thing you’ve ever read?

I was profoundly moved and inspired by the catalogue of a show Helen Molesworth curated in 2006 called Work Ethic which was mounted right here at the BMA. I’ll be giving a lecture on the show sometime in 2020, so please stay tuned. 

If you could give a single piece of advice to an upcoming MICA grad student what would it be? What wisdom would you impart on an individual who is in the process of applying to the Mount Royal School of Art?

Don’t come if you don’t already know what you want to get out of yourself. Don’t come if making art is just your hobby, because there are better ways of spending 80 grand, and I would be more than happy to help you do that.

Do you visit your work at your studio every day? 

Yes, every single day I’m here. Even if I’m just watching Real Housewives or taking a nap, I come here every single day and stare at something. 

Can you walk me through a typical day of yours when school is in session? 

I don’t really have classes. I come to my studio and maybe we have a meeting or seminar or lecture or something. And then, back in my studio, I stare, when I have time to stare, or I’m sending an email confirming a venue for performance. During my time here at school, I’m mostly processing. I do really enjoy working in secret, so the parts of the work that I touch happen when no one’s looking. And then when people are around, I am processing the work with them as they see it. If I made work while people are around, it would dilute my process or just allow too many voices to infiltrate. So I’m here and I work, then I go to a lecture and then I teach. 

Is the opportunity to teach something that is unique about your program? 

We are allowed to go into the undergraduate department and take on teaching assistant positions. Graduate teaching interns is what they call it. And that’s how they get away with not paying us that much. My first year I taught an interdisciplinary freshman intro class that was a year-long class. And then the next semester I taught surface-resist dyeing with Christina Day. This year I am teaching interdisciplinary and senior thesis sculpture with Sarah Doherty (the chair of the sculpture department) and renowned artist Abigail DeVille, and for me it’s really fun to meet kids on their first and last days of school. I like understanding where they came from and where they want to go. 

How do you take care of yourself?

I make my work. I laugh with my friends. I invite them over and make elaborate meals for them. I call my sister. I try to remember to buy underwear and socks.

Who is your favorite living artist?

Tracey Emin is someone that I recently have fallen in love with after hating her work for many years. When I was in New York at Cooper Union, I was trained in this elitist mentality, that “selling out is for sell-outs.” I had this posturing without any understanding and I didn’t like Tracey Emin, because I thought that artists who make neon signs are stupid. It was last year, over winter break, that I asked myself, why do I hate Tracey Emin so much? And I realized that she talks about life being dangerous and difficult in her work, and there’s also a religious read to it, and an obvious love of art history. And there’s a religious read to my work also, and I found a sense of kinship. 

I think that part of the reason why your work resonates with me is that my college minor was in religion. Especially in the performance piece at the BMA’s Art After Hours (The House We’ve Built: A Wickerham & Lomax Takeover in Collaboration with WDLY), I appreciate the clapping, the rituals that you enact, that are part of your process. 

It took a while for me to be able to articulate the religious impulse. As a lapsed Catholic, it’s very difficult to understand. I’ve read Nietzsche and, like, yay, God is dead and all that. But I kept having these ideas, wanting to make a ceremony, wanting to explore process as spectacle, and to honor ideas of devotion. I may or may not be religious, but giving myself that permission has opened me up to the possibilities.

Who are your favorite musical artists? 

My favorite musical artists is a slap-in-the-face question. I find it really sad every day when I look at Beyoncé and I try, but I’m sorry, Lady Gaga takes the cake. I think Lady Gaga is one of the most undeniably talented forces. Inescapable. I wrote my thesis paper and another grant about her.

Give me a second. I’m just about to pass out. 

I know, I know, I know, I know. But Lady Gaga, her artistry is unparalleled. I think that the way she approaches ideas of fame and endurance is unsurpassed. It’s like something I’ve never seen before in the pop landscape. I believe that if it wasn’t for Lady Gaga going up, we wouldn’t have the Beyoncé you see today. I think we wouldn’t have a lot of the performers that we know see that the landscape of pop music.

Do you like being an artist?

It is my job. I see myself as an employee of artistic practice. I work for it. It doesn’t work for me, but I wouldn’t do anything else. I wake up every day, I go to bed thinking about it, wake up every morning dreaming about it. I think that liking what you do isn’t necessary because people have things to do, people need money, people need resources and jobs provide that. I think I have the luxury of having a job where I get to think about working. I get to address ideas of labor and for me that’s a privilege. I’ll never take that for granted.

How does your identity, however you want to describe that, inform or affect your artistic practice?

Being a queer man of color is in and of my practice. I think it’s my relationship to humor and sadness and being able to like understand those two ideas, my relationship with my Blackness and Frenchness, my Africanness, is truly the material that I started to build my practice off of. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I was one less thing, or one more? I think everything would look different. Truly, my main medium is my history. I think a lot about my identity. I think a lot about acts of labor. I think about who’s working and what work they are doing. I think a lot about privilege and who has it and what it is. I think about it from a lot of different perspectives. 

If you had to give one distinct piece of advice to yourself when you were applying to your program, what would it be?

“Good job, girl. Truly good job. And, you know, finish that application.” 

What major decision have you made recently that has impacted your work and life?

Leaving New York was one of the biggest and scariest decisions I ever made because of this idea that you’re taught there, that you work all the time to make your work, and then you work some more. In New York, you have to stay there and grind without stopping until something happens. And I think this is a hoax manufactured by the city of New York to keep you paying the high rent. I realized that a lot of my friends didn’t live in New York anymore. And while everyone else was off doing their work, paying the rent, and going to parties, I was done there.

What place in Baltimore inspires you the most? 

The Crown on Tuesdays at 9 p.m.! Karaoke Forever is a place where I really found my voice. I’ve always performed; I’ve always performed live. I’ve always sang live in my performance work, but I’ve always had a fear of microphones and the amplification of my voice. It is terrifying and disorienting. Being able to go there every Tuesday and, just in general, the idea that I can go perform karaoke every night is powerful. I perform somewhere every night in Baltimore. It’s been such an enormous help. Also the fact that I can get feedback from an audience keeps the work moving.

Where do you get the materials that you use in your work from? How do you pay for them?

I’m attracted to domestic materials. I am attracted to the symbols. I’m also attracted to objects that you could just straight buy from the art supply store, but usually life happens in a Costco or or Kmart or Target. I like consumables, things that people already have access to, and I like watching myself reinterpret them or explore them. I’m attracted to objects that have an intended sense of labor and I’m interested in excusing them from that task.

Sometimes I find that art—art making, art craft—those materials can be a little too elitist for me. I never really liked the idea of oil paint because—why would I waste my time? It’s a time suck, you know? And it’s expensive. Especially when I can find more meaning in household materials. My mother is a caterer and event planner and I always found my lexicon in her practice, and I always told myself that if my mother doesn’t have it in house, I can’t use it. So I work with canvas, fabric, paper towels, cotton balls, and diapers and [looks around studio] Windex and fake flowers, and find purpose in the repurposing. 

You have an eye for fashion and you briefly mentioned that you have a fashion background. I know that your practice weaves in fashion, but why don’t you just straight up become a designer?

I still might be, girl. I feel like I can’t stop myself like that. When I was an undergraduate, there was a very big conversation about my relationship to practices outside of fine art making. I got to New York and they were like, if you want to go do fashion, girl, go over there. Here is an application to FIT—literally one of my teachers gave me an application to FIT. And what does that say? I smiled and said thank you. And I kept pushing it, and then I started making performance art. I just doubled down on it because I can’t simply be a fan. I still have ideas for clothes. I still have intentions to make clothes. 

Has anything about being a student at this institution disappointed you?

I have had a hard time finding time within my program to enact my performances due to the sheer fact of there’s a lot of students… and the more time I take away to have people view me takes time away from another student. So if I did a 10-minute piece that’s really a lot, and then I would still need my 30 minutes of critique afterwards. I was disappointed about that at the beginning, but I’m no stranger to time constraints. I present performances that I can do in a short amount of time. I have also found that working outside of the institution and using Baltimore as my venue solves the problem.

That’s something that I find endearing and dynamic, your relationship with this city. 

Baltimore is a place where, if I am not getting what I need from the program, I can get it somewhere else. I don’t know if I went to school anywhere else that would’ve happened… 

What are you working on right now? 

I’m working on my thesis. It’s a massive, three-part spectacle that is going to be taking place in the Main Building at MICA. Keep April 20th open. I have a whole building to myself and I will be presenting the girls my thoughts on the last two years. 

What are your post-graduation plans?

I’m not sure just yet. Baltimore has been so welcoming and gracious to me that part of me wants to stay. But part of me wants to keep moving and see where else my journey can take me. But if anyone reading this has any ideas, I am open to hearing them. 

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The purpose of MASTERS is to highlight artists who are studying in graduate programs in the Baltimore area, and to allow other creatives the opportunity to see what it is like to be a graduate student in the arts. 

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