Meet Moya Garrison-Msingwana, the Painter Pondering Fashion as Ego

The Toronto-based artist’s “Laundry” series is now on view in New York City for the very first time.

A portrait of Moya in his studio
Photograph by Othello Gray

For visual artist Moya Garrison-Msingwana, creating his latest work, “Laundry,” was a cathartic feat. The series includes a collection of paintings that represent the artist’s examinations of how fashion can be an outward-facing experience driven by the utterly personal. In the second iteration, “Laundry 002—A Thread Is a Vein,” Garrison-Msingwana’s work sits at many intersections that inform people’s relationship to fashion: sustainability, access, popular culture, isolation, identity, and more. Beyond the visual art world, he’s worked closely with fashion brands, creating campaigns with Loewe and designing t-shirts for Stüssy.

In his first exhibition in the United States, the Toronto born and bred artist expands on the notions from both “Laundry” projects. He does so by painting figures or “PILES,” as he calls them, which inhabit a human form through layers of various fabrics, clothes, tchotchkes, and popular visual references (like a Telfar bag). His feelings on the topic (he has many) have been conveyed across a body of 12 new works that vary in scale, all housed at Hannah Traore Gallery in the Lower East Side.

Traore, who makes it her business to feature traditionally marginalized artists, told W during a walkthrough at the gallery, “I have never, ever seen someone paint figures or objects in the way Moya does, conceptually.” Below, Garrison-Msingwana opens up to W about using fashion as a medium and his favorite Toronto-based artists.

Congratulations on your first Stateside exhibition. What is the significance of having a show here vs. in your home country?

My mom’s side of the family is American. My aunt and uncle actually lived in LES for 15 years, so when I was growing up, I would visit all the time. As I got older, I made friends online that just happened to be based in Brooklyn and LES as well. The opening was crazy for me, because it was a merging of two of my worlds. Some of the pieces in the show even reference America in one way or another.

Moya Garrison-Msingwana, PILE_017. Courtesy of the artist.

Does your city inform your work at all?

I don’t know how much it informs what I do, because a lot of my inspiration comes from being very bookish or watching films, and going to museums. But we don’t have the richest museum and gallery culture in Toronto. We definitely have one, but it’s not as transcendent as New York’s. The city doesn’t foster things quite the way I wish it would, but I’m definitely surrounded by people who inspire me.

What made you want to expand upon your “Laundry” series?

The first one I came up with right out of school [at OCAD University in Toronto]. It’s a cathartic body of work in that I get to contemplate all things clothing and fashion in the positives, the negatives—almost every aspect, whether it’s sustainability in the industry or identity for the individuals wearing clothing.

Will it continue beyond 002?

Yeah, absolutely—because it’s my way of being critical of that world and praising and appreciating it at the same time. I don’t think my misgivings or love for fashion and what it can do for humanity is going to disappear; I’ll always have a dialogue related to it in my work. My ideas about it keep transforming, so I can’t see myself getting bored of it.

Moya Garrison-Msingwana, PILE_012. Courtesy of the artist.

One of the major themes in your latest show is identity, and how what we wear accentuates certain aspects of our personalities. Can you speak to that in terms of your own experience?

From a philosophical perspective, the idea of reflecting your ego in an outward way and trying to influence how people perceive you is an interesting prospect. And I think the way you look as a person can only change so much. I mean, we’re able to more and more, which I think is great, but clothing is such a tried-and-true way of expressing yourself. A lot of this work is me wrestling with the ideas on a social scale, of the impact that clothing can have, and then also on a personal scale, what it does for your sense of happiness as an individual.

Moya Garrison Msingwana, PILE_019. Courtesy of the artist.

It’s really interesting as Black folks (and other POC as well) that our identities are sometimes dictated to us by others. I feel your paintings work against that idea—your work represents the intricacies and nuances of identity through things that society deems “trivial,” like fashion, pop culture, cartoons, etc. Is the layered aspect of what you do intentional?

Definitely. A big thing for me and what I’m doing is trying to normalize and show how smart and multidimensional a Black person can be in the context of North America, specifically, where we still are oppressed or boxed in. It’s super important to show the kaleidoscope of my experience, which is growing and changing—and all of us are this way. It’s not just white people that get to be this way.

Now, onto the Culture Diet questions. What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?

The first thing I do when I wake up is just lie there. I probably go on my phone eventually, but I like to chill in bed for as long as I can. Being the type of artist I’ve become, that time to just not do anything is an essential part of my day. And it’s nice I have the luxury to do so.

What books are currently on your bedside table?

Right now, I have “Dilla Time.” I’m not done with it, but it’s really fascinating. I’m not a huge biography or autobiography reader, but J Dilla has impacted my life.

Photograph by Othello Gray

What’s the last thing you Googled on your phone?

“Suzuki Jimny Kijiji.” It’s a beautiful compact SUV. In the past four years, I’ve been obsessed with cars.

What albums or playlists do you have on repeat right now?

My friend just gave me “Call Me If You Get Lost” by Tyler, the Creator on vinyl, so I’ve had that. I listen to “Mahal” by Toro y Moi all the time. Freddie Gibbs just put out a new project. I’ve been a big fan of his stuff forever. I also went on a deep J Dilla dive because of the book.

What are some of your favorite galleries in Toronto?

Cooper Cole is a great one. I would also say the Moca, but I haven’t been there in a long time.

Can you recommend any Toronto-based artists we should know?

My studio mate—who’s actually working on a couple of paintings beside me—his name is Devon Pryce. He’s pretty new out of school, but a very talented oil painter—Black man, very expressive with his work. There’s Aaron Jones, a beautiful collage artist. My friend Kendra Yee, who is an incredible ceramicist and illustrator who I went to school with. Joshua Advincula, a Filipino-Canadian artist from the east end of Toronto. His work has this sophistication, but naivety to it at the same time.

Do you remember the last movie you saw in theaters?

It might have been Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. I saw it with my grandma, my mom, and my dad.

What’s the final thing you do before going to bed?

Again, nothing! Just brush my teeth, lie down, wind down. I’m not a big routine person in that way.

“Laundry 002—A Thread Is a Vein” is on view at Hanna Traore Gallery until November 10th.