Joy Yamusangie had always wanted to play saxophone as a child, but visual art proved to be a more accessible pursuit. “My parents would buy a pack of printer paper and I was pretty much set,” the London-based artist tells us. Art was therefore where they ended up channelling their efforts, making comics and animations for their siblings and later taking an illustration degree at university in Portsmouth. Their practice has since expanded to include film and sculpture, alongside a strong mix of illustrations, paintings and drawings, which tend to share a recognisable combination of block shapes, thick lines, vivid tones, and an intriguing cast of figures.
Visual art provided a career for Yamusangie, but music remained a steady undercurrent. Their first illustration job involved making posters for club nights in Hackney, and music soundtracks their time spent making art. “It inspires me to start making, songs see me through creative failures and successes and sometimes capture the energy of the painting better than I could explain myself,” they tell us.
No genre sets Yamusangie’s ideas in motion more than jazz – a foundation of their Now Gallery exhibition, Feeling Good, which situates their evocative artworks in an imagined club. The name calls to mind the classic number sung by Nina Simone, who features in the energising playlist compiled by Yamusangie, giving a flavour of the music that underpinned this body of work. Visitors to the exhibition space can also expect a jazz score and can even have a tinkle on the keys themselves.
Yamusangie began making the work in the exhibition in the same year as the pandemic took hold. During lockdown, they found a daily ritual in printmaking, with the outcomes displayed in a solo setting for the first time. Yamusangie also used lockdown to revisit their childhood dream of learning the saxophone: “It’s been a nice break from my very visual world and I can just close my eyes and experiment and paint with sound. It’s new for me and I love it.”
Above all, though, lockdown had been a personally significant period in which the artist was able to reflect on their identity. It was the first time they experienced the “gender euphoria” that others spoke of but had never resonated until then. “I felt good and I started imagining this space where other trans masculine people could also be and also feel good, and to me a space that looked like a jazz club,” Yamunsangie says of the exhibition’s genesis. Two figures were particularly influential: Joss Moody, the fictional main character in Jackie Kay’s novel Trumpet, and Billy Tipton, the real-life musician who inspired the character. Jazz provided a home for both, and Yamusangie wanted to recreate that sentiment through the work and the space.
Yamusangie cites the Bauhaus movement as a key influence on their work, though they have translated this to a distinct visual language of their own. “I’m drawn to the angles, the lines, the balanced composition and of course the colour palette. It’s simple but I enjoy it. Sometimes I don’t think I need anything more than red, yellow, blue and black.” Blue sat squarely at the forefront of Yamusangie’s joint show with Ronan Mckenzie in 2020, with the duo together evoking the water deity Mami Wata through photography, wall hangings, film, and a bespoke score.
In Feeling Good, many works are reduced to three primary colours in keeping with the principles of Sapology, a Congolese sartorial philosophy followed by elegantly dressed sapeurs. According to Sapology, Yamusangie explains, “when you get dressed you shouldn’t exceed any more than three colours. And just like in Sapology you choose colours carefully based on how you feel or the message you want to convey. So I thought about what these colours mean to me and chose Black (power and drama), yellow (wealth, jealousy and happiness) and red (romance, violence and confidence) and these are all moods or feelings that can occur within a club.”
Aside from the heartbreaks and tussles that often come after dark, there is a sense of togetherness in many of the moments Yamusangie depicts in the exhibition – from the candid conversations about life and self-love, to the club-goers connecting to one another either emotionally or physically, their clothing blending into one harmonious silhouette.
As for who might walk in through the door if Feeling Good were a real jazz club? “I’d dream for Nina Simone to be playing for a few nights. Maybe you’ll find Stormé DeLarverie on the door welcoming people to the club. And in these dreams I would hope that some people that inspire me like Campbell X and Cheryl Dunye would pass through on the odd night.”