Muzae Sesay’s latest solo exhibition, When We Were Here Last, prompts a contemplation of personal and public history through five large-scale paintings. Each piece references specific restaurants and bars in Oakland, where the artist resides and works, imbuing the exhibition with a sense of local significance. From Happy Burrito (all works 2023) to Legionnaire, Maya Halal, Shan Dong, and Ruby Room, Sesay’s choices spark a curiosity about the stories and memories associated with these beloved establishments.
When We Were Here Last exists alongside two additional exhibitions at pt. 2 featuring the work of Sesay and two other Bay Area artists; one featuring the works of Oakland-based painter Alicia McCarthy alongside flat, colorful pieces by Sesay alluding to exterior landscapes (including Port City and Ashby Flea II) and another showcasing McCarthy’s art in dialogue with Marin County-based artist Martha Shaw.
Upon entering the gallery’s first room, you are immediately invited into the realms of fragmented interiors depicted on each towering seven foot tall canvas. Skillfully experimenting with geometry and spatial relationships, Sesay fuses linear and aerial perspectives, distilling familiar forms and collapsing reality in favor of ambiguity and subjectivity. Using a vibrant and melodic palette of varying complementary hues of oranges, reds, greens, and purples, he produces a medley of angular and spherical shapes in skewed proportions to indicate tables, lamps, doors, glassware, plants, and other unique building elements, converged by soft, almost glowing lines in oil pencil that create a visual symphony and activate the space. There is a shared rhythm that resonates across all five works; presented next to each other as a series of windows, the pieces share an interplay of light and shadow. Furthermore, the artist frames each piece with a border of multicolored squares, creating a sense of continuity and prompting meditations on the real-world geographic proximity and interconnectedness of the places the artist is referencing.
Remaining self-referential to painting as a medium—equally its formal limits and its liberatory possibilities—Sesay embraces a tension within his constructions between representation and abstraction, the familiar and the unacquainted. As Sesay ricochets between depicting somewhere and nowhere, making these places/spaces large enough to swallow the viewer, we are offered an opportunity to wander into a communal dreamscape. Depicting spaces for gathering while omitting any human presence, he evokes feelings on the social relationships, memories, and associations built and sustained here. The exhibition’s titular phrase, “when we were here last,” also serves as a catalyst for a dialectical process of remembrance and site specificity, as it sometimes exists as a preface in conversations with loved ones just before breathing life into descriptions of a collective past.
As I stood before the works and began to notice details from Legionnaire and Shan Dong, I remembered my last time doing karaoke with my friends at the former and once ordering the handmade noodles at the latter after Googling “best Chinese food in Chinatown Oakland.” Being relatively new to Oakland, I reflected on the subject matter; what these places may mean to the artist, the changes they and their surroundings might have undergone over the years preceding my arrival, and what might lie ahead in the future.
The energy was tangibly supportive on opening night. The exhibition featured music by Dakim, IDHAZ, W.A.L.A, and Sesay, presented by Smart Bomb Oakland, an audiovisual curatorial project with a decade long history of “showcasing the eclectic vanguard of the Bay.”* That evening, as the crowd spilled onto the sidewalk, I overheard people excitedly giving their exhibition reviews in real time and proclaiming their reverence for the artists and the shows, a testament to their impact. The artist pairings elsewhere in the space also established generative personal and artistic relationships, a curatorial decision further reifying these ideas of Bay Area community and celebration, creative connections, and mutual inspiration.
Perhaps what I appreciate most about When We Were Here Last and Sesay’s oeuvre more broadly, is his ability to discern and formally encapsulate a beauty that resides within every facet of life (at least the parts of his that he’s generously chosen to share with us). Amidst the social and political implications of modern life everywhere, in Oakland, in the Bay, it feels imperative to have artists in our communities that encourage a practice of sustaining wonder and inquiry.
Muzae Sesay: When We Were Here Last
pt. 2, Oakland, California
June 24th-July 29th, 2023