Ludovic Nkoth and Moses Sumney on Faith, Fulfillment, and Finding Home
Since his early childhood in Yaoundé, Cameroon, Ludovic Nkoth has always made art to make sense of the world around him. Now that the Paris-based painter finds himself in demand across continents, he’s grappling with the idea of belonging more than ever. After completing a residency with the Académie des Beaux-arts this summer, he’s moved on to two back-to-back solo exhibitions of his rich, satiny portraits of Black life: The Is of It, opening this weekend at François Ghebaly in downtown L.A. and What If, opening October 16th at Le Corbusier’s airy Maison La Roche in Paris. To make sense of it all, Nkoth joined his confidant Moses Sumney, who just embarked on a Canadian tour with Daniel Caesar, over Zoom, where they delved into life in the Carolinas, spirituality, and what it means to find home.—MEKALA RAJAGOPAL
LUDOVIC NKOTH: Hey, Moses.
MOSES SUMNEY: Ludovic, ça va? Where are you?
NKOTH: Très bien, monsieur. Currently in Paris in my new studio. I went from the 18th to the 19th. I was getting distracted in the last studio, so I needed to be further away. Where are you?
SUMNEY: I’m in my house in North Carolina. Basically, I live in the forest. It’s all green everywhere and there’s bears roaming around sometimes.
NKOTH: So when you go home, there’s no noise. Just quiet Asheville.
SUMNEY: Exactly. Although these days I could use a little bit more noise. It’s so good to see you. I feel like a nerd. I’m like, “That’s my friend from school.” There’s so many people you could have asked and getting to talk to my favorite painter is a treat. So you were in a studio in Paris for the last 11 months doing a residency, and now you have two shows coming up. Are you only showing work that you made in Paris in the last year?
NKOTH: It’s just work that I’ve made here. It’s been such a different experience than living in the South or New York. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the middle of both. So with the work that I made for the residency, half of the works are going to L.A. with François Ghebaly, and the other half is staying here in Paris and it’s going to be shown at an institution here, Maison La Roche. Since I’ve been in Paris, it’s been a process of making the studio mine. Do you feel a difference when you go from studio to studio? What do you do to spread your energy and make the space feel like yours?
SUMNEY: I like wherever I record to feel like a home space. I make sure that there’s a portion of the work that is always done in my house. Usually I’ll record all of my vocals by myself in this room. I don’t like to be in sterile or super fancy environments around a bunch of strangers.
NKOTH: I also have to make my studio feel like a home. When I moved to Paris into the first studio, it took me like a month before I started painting. I was buying plants once a week. Whenever I miss home, I go buy a plant and put it in the studio. After doing that, I paint a self-portrait and hang it up. That process starts making me feel a bit more at home. Before Paris, I’ve never worked and lived in the same space because I always like to have that separation, so my brain is always on ten now.
SUMNEY: How do you decide what works go to L.A. and what goes to the show in Paris?
NKOTH: A lot of the works are about my primary experience here as a foreigner, but also as someone that belongs, because French is my first language. So I wrote two theses for the shows and when I get in a painting hole, I go back and read the ideas and make works that pertain to those ideas.
SUMNEY: Do the galleries fight over who gets what work?
NKOTH: That happens. For me, it makes it more exciting. I like the messiness, as you can tell. It’s fun having two, because the conversation you have with one is sometimes different from the conversation you have with the other.
SUMNEY: So you’re pro-polygamy?
NKOTH: With business, yes.
SUMNEY: Very political. A lot of the work I’ve made, especially in my second album, is about the idea of home and the placelessness of moving around a lot and being an immigrant. How do you define your sense of home, especially as an African-born person in a place that has a colonial relationship with where you’re originally from? Does that create any tension in the work?
NKOTH: That’s a very good question. When I was invited to Paris by the Académie of Beaux-arts, my research proposal was to investigate the relationship between Cameroon and France because that’s the country that colonized us. Moving here, I already had a feeling of home, if I can use that word lightly, because I was already accustomed to the language. But there’s a little bit of tension where I’ll be reminded while I’m outside or having a conversation that this isn’t my home. Similar to you, I’ve lived in so many different places—you between Ghana and the States and me between Cameroon, the States, and here. As Africans, we were raised knowing that home is where your family is or where you were born, but I’ve realized that home doesn’t have to be a place. Home is a concept. Do I feel present? Do I feel like I’m in touch with myself? I’ll be honest, growing up in South Carolina, I didn’t feel at home. I moved to New York to cultivate this chosen family. Now I’m in this place where I’m seen as an African European, but really I’m not either. I’m just this African man just trying to find himself within the world. So I’ve realized that home is what you make it, and home is where you go. Does that rant make any sense?
SUMNEY: It does. Do you ever feel a sense of vacancy internally or are you able to find fulfillment where you are?
NKOTH: In the past I was searching for fulfillment. From an early age, I’ve always searched for balance and calmness within my space, but now I’ve built it within myself, so I don’t look for a physical space to call home. It’s just wherever I can set up and feel alive. Since we have a similar background, how do you grapple with that idea of home?
SUMNEY: I asked the question about vacancy because I do have a little hole, honestly, and it feels a bit insatiable. Sure, I’ll go into a space and get a plant and sage out the demons and it’s my home. Whatever. But my homes are really California, North Carolina, Ghana, and London, and if I could create an ideal home, it would be all of those places as one. And because I can’t live everywhere at once, there’s always this other thing. It’s like—problematic, but—the other woman. You’re always kind of wondering, “I got married, but…”
NKOTH: The one that got away.
SUMNEY: But it’s idealism. And maybe because it doesn’t exist, I’m driven to create work.
NKOTH: It’s a big blessing that we both share, that we’re both artists and get to figure out our relationships to these things. It’s the only way I’m able to feel like I still have my sanity. We’ve both lived in the Carolinas. How do you think the Carolinas have shaped you?
SUMNEY: I’ve started to have tension with North Carolina that I didn’t have before. I’ve been here for five years, and the difference between you and I is that I chose the Carolinas. You were like, “Where the fuck are we going? What is it called?”
NKOTH: Fresh off the boat. [Laughs]
SUMNEY: I do love the south. I love the parallels to Ghana in the values. But it’s hard for me to answer how it has influenced me because I live in my own world. I live in North Carolina, but I live in my house on my property. Literally, I live in my imagination. So I love the pace of life and the nature. It gives me the space to explore my work without interruption. It gets my creative juices flowing to be next to a creek or a river or a tree and hear a bird chirping annoyingly. But I have this North Carolina that is just mine, so I don’t necessarily feel like I’m in the Carolinas like that.
NKOTH: I think it’s probably for the best, because when you’re in a place like the Carolinas, you have to carve out a space for yourself. If you just try to live as if you’re from the Carolinas, the place can directly affect you more than it should. As a kid moving there, I didn’t even have a world yet. I barely spoke English. I was just being pumped with Carolina juice on the daily.
SUMNEY: As you’re trying to shape your own identity.
NKOTH: Exactly. It does have its beautiful parts.
SUMNEY: It’s stunning. But the thing that I realized is that there’s not a place in the world that I can go where I’m like, “Ah, finally I’m with my people.” I am just me. People always ask me, “How can you live in North Carolina? Are there any Black people there? Is there anyone like you?” And I’m like, “Well, is anyone really like me?”
NKOTH: One of one.
SUMNEY: [Laughs] Do you feel like you share a commonality with people in France more than New York because of your proximity to French-speaking Africans?
NKOTH: Some parts feel more like home because I can go to a place like Chateau Rouge that mentally takes me to Cameroon. But I don’t think I know anyone that could mirror me in that sense, because my journey has some holes that I don’t know too many people who have gone through. And because I have experienced the whole triangle of Africa, America, and France, I think I’m sensitive to many more things than someone who is fresh off the continent here sees.
SUMNEY: And you’re not navigating in survival mode.
NKOTH: No, not anymore, which changes the way you experience life.
SUMNEY: Yeah. The first time I came to your studio you were telling me about meeting different people in Paris on street corners and families you’d interact with, and then going back to your studio and painting based on that. That was so beautiful, but also felt different from what you would’ve painted if you were in New York.
NKOTH: Yes, I’m a bit more focused on capturing life and the human experience. My work is so tied to me that if my routine changes, my work will change too. When I came here, I had to readjust so many things after living in New York for four years. And maybe you won’t agree because you’ve seen me in the wild, but I think I’m a bit more quiet now.
SUMNEY: Sorry, a bit what? I’m just listening.
NKOTH: [Laughs] I think my energy is more balanced on the day-to-day. Parisian people might not agree, but coming from Cameroon or Acra and New York, Paris is pretty slow. I can enjoy a beautiful day of doing my thing and painting all day. In New York, you cannot do that. There’s too much happening and too many people wanting to see you. I mean, I’m not complaining. It’s nice to have a community, but sometimes you have to get away.
SUMNEY: It’s so hard being so popular and cool. Life fucking sucks.
NKOTH: Leave me alone.
SUMNEY: I’m actually glad you said that because it leads me to another question. As someone who is very cool and very hot—
NKOTH: Cool? Hot?
SUMNEY: That’s my opinion, but it’s not a unique one. But as someone who has a social bone, how do you separate yourself from the noise and focus on your work?
NKOTH: It’s important to set boundaries and discipline. You have to say no sometimes. But I enjoy the fact that I’m connected to people like you who are super creative on so many levels. I love hanging out with people that do similar things as me, but I also love people that do things I have no knowledge on. I just take it all in as a sponge. And you’re more social than I would say I am. I know we both have our holes that we run to, but when it comes to Fashion Week or Cannes, you have to be out there.
SUMNEY: Actually, the reason I moved here was that I didn’t want to speak to no one. I didn’t have friends for the first two years I lived here and all my work was very internal. Now I feel like I need to actually be around people and have sex and hang out.
NKOTH: How easy is it to date there?
SUMNEY: It’s not popping. I’m not a huge dater anyway, but I think I’m a little too dissimilar for their taste. But I have another question for you. As Black artists in this day and age, we are encouraged to navel-gaze and think about ourselves and our bodies. But as a painter, starting out as a child, what were the first things you were interested in painting?
NKOTH: I think I was always interested in painting the things that were directly in front of me, physically and mentally. In Cameroon, I was sketching to create different worlds because the world that I was physically in wasn’t always in the best condition. Moving to the States, there was a second where I felt a bit lost, and drawing and painting what was directly in front of me in the South helped me dissect the fabric of the space I was in and carve out a place for myself.
SUMNEY: What were those things?
NKOTH: For example, I grew up next to a golf course in Cameroon and at the end of it, there was a hotel called Hotel Mont Febe. Every morning, I would sit on our front porch and try to draw that hotel. When I was younger, I was fascinated with the fact that I could draw what was in front of me. It felt like magic to me. I see something and I’m able to actually draw what I see and how I see it. When I moved to the States and met this new family of mine, I started drawing them first, allowing me to understand them better, but also to figure out how I fit in within their dynamic. At school, I would draw the teachers when they were talking to me. I couldn’t understand them, so I would just draw them.
SUMNEY: Did they ever see that you were drawing them?
NKOTH: Yes, dude. I kept the sketchbooks. Every assignment I turned in had a drawing on it. There was a point in time when I didn’t even know what was happening and I drew what was around me to feel like I understood what the space was made of. It’s a bit of the same way that I use art now. I came to Paris and painted to dissect what it means to be a Black artist that was colonized by this country. I’m always trying to figure out, is the space changing me or is my work changing the space? I’ve always used art as a compass to find myself.
SUMNEY: That’s a good pull quote. Y’all got that? [Laughs] What was it like being a Cameroonian child interested in art?
NKOTH: My family knew nothing about that world. They didn’t know the possibility of taking painting or drawing to the level that I am right now, so it was not very supportive because they were just scared. Your parents come to this country and they’re like, “We brought you here, you’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer.” And then I come with two pencils like, “I actually like to draw, guys.” I was in an environment that didn’t understand me. I was very good socially and I did sports, so I had that side of me to blend in the public. But whenever I was alone and being my full self, I was back in my sketchbooks.
SUMNEY: Where did you find that passion?
NKOTH: It’s just the one thing that I’ve always done. I’ve been drawing since I was around five years old. Maybe I was pulling the energy from the source because our people were the best artists to ever live. African art is inspiring contemporary art and I think the spirits back home were speaking through me. That’s the only explanation I can think of. There was a point when I lived in Spartanburg where my parents were like, “What are you going to do with this? This is just a hobby.” And it took a lot of hearing them but not fully listening, because how do you let go of something that has helped you navigate through your whole life?
SUMNEY: I love that you say hearing and not listening. It’s so important to choose when to listen to people’s opinions, but it’s also so important to listen to the divine.
NKOTH: Exactly. That’s what faith is. You have to just follow and believe that something bigger than you will take you to where it needs to take you. So I just followed blindly and—
SUMNEY: It led you to two fucking shows at the same time. You got shows in different area codes, like Ludacris said, or whatever.
NKOTH: [Laughs] I’m very blessed. When did you discover your gift?
SUMNEY: I think I was meant to be a musician because there were no artists of any kind in my family. I never had any training, I just always loved music and singing as a child. Everyone would be like, “Can you shut up!” It was not like being in your sketchbook. I was seven when I wrote my first song. I loved reading, so writing came naturally, and I always heard melodies in my head. I would read books and put melodies to what I was reading. I don’t know why, but I thought I was meant to become a singer.
NKOTH: I don’t think you can teach anyone to sing the way you sing. Do you remember when we were in Venice during the Biennale and you were performing at Kehinde [Wiley]’s show? This is embarrassing, but you started singing on stage and the blue light was shining on you and you just looked like a fucking god. Were you singing in Italian?
SUMNEY: I was probably singing in Hebrew.
NKOTH: Ooh la la. So you made your way to the crowd, and you started parting it like Moses did. I was so shook that I didn’t move for like five seconds. And then I was like, “Oh, shit, I need to move,” because you were moving everyone. It feels like something very spiritual whenever you sing. It’s almost like you’re in a trance. I don’t think you can teach that at all. You have to be a conduit for the spirits to travel through you.
SUMNEY: Thank you for saying that. That’s very kind. I don’t remember that because I do go into a trance-like state. I have a plan, but the specifics are hard to recall because I’m just in the music. I wasn’t formally trained so I never necessarily thought I was talented, but I knew how it felt to connect to something bigger than me. Even if I’m recording, I’ll be singing for hours, and I’ll just look up like, “Wait, what happened?” With your painting, how much of it feels spiritual in the moment?
NKOTH: It’s such a long process. The building part of the painting at the beginning is a mechanical thing that has to happen. But once the canvas is on the wall and I have my music on, I go into this trance where I’m painting for hours, like yourself, and then I’ll step back and look at the painting like, “How did that happen? If I try to make that mark again, I cannot do it.” You’re tapping into a different space spiritually, and once you tap in, once these ancestors are touching you—
SUMNEY: Wow, I love that.
NKOTH: You just sing. Through our work, we’re telling so many stories, but sometimes they’re stories that we know nothing about, stories that have happened so long ago. I’m sure when you’re recording, sometimes you surprise yourself because you’re being touched by your ancestors.
SUMNEY: I love that. We are, in a way, spokespeople for everyone who came before us.
NKOTH: That’s why we can’t explain what we do. This felt really good, man. Thank you.
SUMNEY: It’s an honor. I’m going to call you as soon as we get off.