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“Easy to Swallow, Hard to Digest”: An Interview with Nina Chanel Abney

The Live Unchained team and I were discussing how artists, in general, but conceptual artists in particular, are often stereotyped as tortured functional depressives. You don’t really hear about how these artists have to be resourceful and trust their instincts. From an early age Nina Chanel Abney created pieces that resonated with her, even if they didn’t fulfill others’ expectations–i.e. young Nina’s painting of a bloody eyeball that caught her art teacher off guard.

Paper Magazine described her work as combining “strong feminine and masculine images infused with humor, irony, perversity, satire and fantasy.” As to the playful, challenging nature of her paintings, she says they’re “easy to swallow, hard to digest.” Having exhibited works throughout the United States and abroad, being featured in The New York Times, Essence and Glamour, people like us, are eager to see the stories her paintings have to tell because they make us better–even if we have to choke a little. Here, Nina discusses how she came to be so bold in her work, her creative process and visual storytelling.

Nina Chanel

Could you share with us a little about your background? What made you want to become a painter?
My love for art and my hate for the “9 to 5” drove me to seriously pursue painting as a career. I’ve been drawing and painting since I was a child. But it wasn’t until graduate school that everything started to come full circle for me. My boundless imagination and I moved to a place where “anything goes.” Prior to coming to New York, I had a very limited view of who an artist was; I had a very limited view of art in general. I had never been into a gallery. I had no idea how artists made a living. I had no notion of contemporary art.

Most of the schools I attended insinuated that a “good” artist was one that could draw and paint realistically. And though that was what was typically taught, because my gut told me differently, I began a mission to find my own truth. And that started by me purposely doing the opposite of what my art teacher expected. As a fifth grader, I remember having to paint Rene Magritte’s “The False Mirror” as an assignment, and I turned in a painting of a bloody eyeball. And from then on I continued to push the limits of my assignments and my teacher’s buttons by doing my own thing.

And I never meant to be rebellious in a disrespectful manner. I just needed to paint by emotion and instinct rather than paint out of docility.

"Close But No Cigar," Acrylic on canvas

To me your work appears to possess a playful yet mysterious quality that I am drawn to? How would you characterize your artwork?
Easy to swallow, hard to digest. The playfulness of my work is a result of my use of vivid colors and my interest in satirical cartoons. I love the fact that anything taboo suddenly becomes tolerable as long as it’s not “real”. I’m a huge fan of The Family Guy because of their ability to spoon feed their audience touchy topics with the use of humor and animation. If it were a sitcom with actual actors, they would no longer be on television. And as far as the mystery…I personally find the artwork that I am mostly drawn to is work that keeps you guessing and keeps you coming back for more. I enjoy work that doesn’t give me a definite answer, but challenges me answer my own questions. I cannot even sketch an idea for a painting because the definitive nature of the act itself would make me lose interest in the painting before it’s begun, so I couldn’t possibly expect the viewer to want to continuously look a painting that is too literal.

"Null and Void," Acrylic on canvas, 77 ½ x 45

During the opening of my second solo exhibition, “Emma’s Basement”, there was a woman who came into the gallery, stood in front of my painting, “Null and Void,” and left with a look of utter disgust. She then came back about 10 minutes later, and I knew then my work was doing exactly what I wanted it to.

When looking at your work there appears to be layers to the narrative, which I find really interesting. Is there usually a specific story that you wish to be conveyed in a piece?
When I begin a painting, I never have a specific story in mind. I usually have a few general topics that I want to start a discussion about, or attempt to resolve for myself. And in that process I usually end up with a lot of contradictions. It is not until then that I meld together all of these disjointed elements to create a narrative or multiple narratives. And to adhere to the mysterious quality of my work, in my most sinister voice, I say, “I NEVER share the stories!” ☺

From what sources do you get your inspiration?
Most of my inspiration comes from personal thoughts and experiences and the things that arose from those experiences, or resulted from those thoughts. I then relate them to specific songs, emotions, movies, celebrities, world issues, etc. So I am constantly watching television, movies, browsing the internet, looking through books, magazines, and listening to music in order to immerse myself in the things that relate to the topic at hand which is usually what I am dealing with at the moment in some shape or form.

But when I find myself in some sort of slump, in which for whatever reason I am not feeling very moved by anything in particular, I usually go to any art museum, or go check out some gallery shows to rejuvenate myself.

Could you discuss your collection GO BERSERKER? What made you create this collection? I was specifically drawn to your pieces: “A Capitol Offence” and “The Liquidators,” could you speak about those?

THE LIQUIDATORS (2010) acrylic on canvas 66 x 80 in.

A CAPITAL OFFENCE (2010) acrylic on canvas 36 x 36 in.

I don’t attempt to communicate anything specific to the viewer. I simply share my thoughts and hope that the viewer will have an experience, rather pleasant or unpleasant, that will start a conversation, spark an emotion, or help to them to convey their own message to themselves. And I don’t have a specific audience in mind for my work. Creating work for a specific type of person would create too many boundaries. I create the work for myself, and then share it with anyone who is interested.

The pieces in my exhibition Go Berserker, explore introspection and the idea of fighting against and/or accepting the things one might find when looking inside oneself. With that body of work I was also interested in exploring the collision of instinct and intuition, as well as the power in the ability to harness both.

Are there any specific pieces of art you would like to share with us?

Nina Chanel Abney The Escorts, 2008 Acrylic on canvas 93 x 66 1/2”

Nina Chanel Abney Law and Order, 2010 Acrylic on canvas 65 ½ x 74 1/4"

Nina Chanel Abney Holey Grail, 2011 Acrylic on canvas 48 x 40"

 

Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?

Living unchained for me is living for myself without regrets and obligation.

I have a shameless plug…

I’m currently collaborating with a well-known brand to develop my own line of limited edition t-shirts that should be out sometime this summer.

I will be in the traveling exhibition 30 Americans, which is coming to North Carolina in March.

http://www.ninachanel.com

http://twitter.com/ninachanel
(I haven’t tweeted anything since July, but I’m working on it, ☺)

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On Meeting Queen Afua, an International Women’s Day Dedication

When we met Queen Afua at a women’s group gathering back in December, she gave hugs.  Real hugs.  Big hugs.  The kind of hugs that touch you deep down to your core. And, I felt like a giddy little teenager.

I thought, What do I say to a woman who has dedicated her whole life to helping women heal themselves?  A woman whose work has helped me work on me?  A woman whose picture on the cover of a nutritional pamphlet I received at a Women of Color Conference in college would help solidify my resolve to become a vegetarian, years later.  A woman whose book our women’s group references now as we set aside time to honor ourselves and commit to our own healing.

I was taken aback.  My, how life is circular!

On that day, I realized that the words that were burning in me to say were these: Thank You.

On this 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, as we celebrate all the women who help our lights shine brighter, we say… Thank You.

My, how far we’ve come!

“Art is the Battery”: Delphine Diallo Discusses Her Photography and the Magic of Spirit

Magic Photo Studio, Delphine Diallo

“We’ve been influenced by the pessimistic vision of photojournalism, and the obsessive, perfect fashion aesthetic…These images are still in my mind, printed in my subconscious. It is time to transcend them.” –Delphine Diallo

Delphine Diallo transcends the status quo in photography by simply following her spirit.  Trusting it led her to Senegal–her father’s homeland, Indi–the little girl that became her muse, and dipping herself in blue after being inspired by the film Avatar.

Delphine was born in Paris and currently lives in New York where she has continued to work as a photographer, graphic designer, illustrator and filmmaker among other creative ventures. After graduating with distinction from the Académie Charpentier School of Visual Art in 1999, she worked as a graphic designer and animator for several musicians, including Coldplay, Smashing Pumpkins, and Manu Chao.

In speaking with Delphine about her background, travels and views on art and style, we learned that her major influences are love and spirit.

Indi, Delphine's Muse and Mona Lisa, Delphine Diallo

Avatar, Delphine Diallo

How does your background influence your work?
Being mixed and having an African dad and a French mom makes me realize that I might have something different to express. Also, working in the music industry with great artists inspires me to create artwork that is personal and very emotional. It helps me to take a risk and be totally free–to open my mind about a different vision of the world.

Some say art is like a window into themselves and the world. Do you agree?
Yes it is… art is a reflection of my thoughts, my beliefs, my fear, my love about the world. I have direct connection with the world… it is like a fluid, where media influences become secondary and where your mind is feeling every single moment of your life and translates to your own vision through photography. This vision becomes the part of your real world and you are able to build a strong link with the world around you.

Photography allows me to develop images that transcend stereotypes in a world that consistently perpetuates a singular attitude as to what is deemed beautiful.

"Monica" and "Azza" from the Queen of New York series by Delphine Diallo

What does art allow you to discover about yourself and others?
Art is the key to live in a better world if you know how to use it.  Art has opened my mind to understand how as an individual you can contribute to improve others life too.  I became more tolerant, less selfish, giving myself the freedom to understand the other and discover that without your friends and family, you won’t be inspired.

Can you tell us about how Africa came to be a recurring theme in your work?
Africa is the first place where I was inspired. In this land, no one is running and people take time to share and stay in family. I’m inspired because of the nature, light, people, colors, wildlife…everything about Africa is inspiring. It has a pureness of the beauty of the moment.  A natural moment is unique, like a magic chemical, instant. My pictures are raw and full of natural emotion.

"Dream Life" from the Renaissance Series by Delphine Diallo

You created a body of work called “Renaissance,” which captures images from your trip to Senegal? Can you share with us what you learned from your experience in Senegal and what you wanted to capture in pieces inspired by that trip?
I FLEW to Saint-Louis, Senegal, land of her ancestors, in search of Something permanent. “Renaissance” is the body of work that resulted from this trip. It is a series of stories in which the protagonists are heroes of ancient tales, where beauty and violence coexist on parallel planes, the one reflected and made possible only by the other. The men and women featured in “Renaissance” are spiritually strong, beautiful, full of life, and proud despite life’s cruelty. In “The Beautiful Ones,” Anta, an eleven-year-old girl appears frequently in the photographs, symbolizing youthful strength, potential and innocence not yet lost. Khady Kebe & Loli, two seventeen year olds represent young ladies full of life, joy, and (perhaps naïve) hope for a better future. Kine Diop is a twenty eight-year-old who represents the proud African queen, symbolic of maturity and serenity in the face of hardship. My work is often autobiographical and these women are me at various stages of my own life. The images encountered are filled with weakness and suffering. “The Goats” depicts tranquility and slaughter, innocence as well as a supreme vulnerability culminating in death. “Le Boucher” is the story of a slayer, one who carves food from the dead to sustain life. He represents the cycle of life – destruction, distress, and the raw violence of reality in balance with life-sustaining nourishment and renewal. metaphorically, “Le Boucher” also represents a broken heart cut in pieces. The flesh is dead and from this carcass the spirit is reborn.

"Universal Magazine" and "Superstar" by Delphine Diallo

"Oulofs" from the Magic Photo Studio Series by Delphine Diallo

Could you talk about the use of collage and layering in your art? What draws you to merge photography and other mediums as seen in your collection “Magic Photo Studio”?
Photography is a process that can be reproduced and copied. I was trying to find a way to do something unique, so… I was definitely interested in drawing on top of it. The purpose of “magic photo studio” was to create a strong link with my family that i just discovered.  It was also a powerful message about giving love through photography to the one who makes your life beautiful.

You once said your art reflects “spirituality and lots of love.” Can you say more about that? Would you consider yourself spiritually grounded and do you think that helps your art?
Being spiritual is sometimes something that you have in yourself since you are born.  Let’s just say that for me, I was already with strong spirit but I didn’t know what it was. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s like having a lot of energy and feeling and not knowing how to use and control it for a long time. The maturity and experience help you to channel this power and transform it through art. Love, love is the key.  It is hard to love yourself and be confident but that’s the first part, to be able to embrace your spirit.

Art is the battery, a meditative process to connect with yourself… you will believe I am crazy… but I think we should be able to be educated this way. Our wisdom and connection to the planet have been lost growing up in the 21st century.

What does living unchained mean to you?
I am, and my life is a journey to discover everyday what I’m going to become–with no fear.

Follow more of Delphine’s art, thoughts and musings on her blog, http://delphinediallo.wordpress.com/, and visit her professional site at http://www.delphinediawdiallo.com/.