By Alicia Dietrich
Assistant Professor Nicole Awai has a had busy year full of travel and making new work as she has split time between her home and studio in New York, an artist residency in New Orleans and in Austin, where she teaches painting in the Studio Art division.
Her most recent work, inspired by a monument near her home in Brooklyn, has been attracting a lot of attention. For an installation that Awai created for the Alchemy exhibition at BRIC House in Brooklyn, she drew inspiration from an image of an image of an African American sailor on a Civil War monument in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza in her neighborhood. Awai worked on the bulk of the piece in New Orleans after she was selected for The Joan Mitchell Foundation's 2018 Artist-in-Residence program.
The work, Persistent Resistance of a Liquid Land, features a three-dimensional installation that Hyperallergic described as a “Rorschach ink blot that’s been stretched into a pillar” using asphalt, resin and other materials to create a black ooze. The column is surrounded by winged black-and-white portraits of the African American sailor from the monument.
“This African American sailor figure who is not in chains, not enslaved, not the victim, is very much in control of the situation, looks like he's poised, calm and ready to spring into action, into the battle. Whatever's to come, he's prepared,” said Awai. “He became this generator of ideas for me for the work, and also the spirit of him is embodied in the work.”
Awai also incorporated imagery of the same sailor as she conceptualized what should replace the empty pillars on the UT’s South Mall that were, until 2017, pedestals for statues of Confederate generals. Awai was one of five artists the New York Times asked to re-imagine new uses of the public spaces once occupied by “markers of our country’s racist and violent history.”
Awai created a rendering featuring a sculpture of the winged African-American sailor, with ooze trailing down the pedestal. In the New York Times, Awai wrote of the sailor: “He inspired this piece, which I call The Spirit of Persistent Resistance of the Liquid Land. It could alight anywhere and activate and occupy any of the recently divested plinths of Confederate monuments.”
More recently, Awai designed a poster titled “Reclaimed-Water-CC’d" with a street drain in the shape of a man’s torso and face and with the label "Christopher Columbus" carved into the metal at the bottom. The work was created for the exhibition New Monuments for New Cities by the nonprofit Friends of the High Line as part of a public art project asking artists to re-imagine new monuments. The exhibition will travel to five cities in the next year, including a stint in Austin in March and May of 2019.
Awai has been exploring ideas around ooze in her work for many years, as it offers a perfect metaphor for exploring ideas of fluidity, social interaction, the elasticity of time, space and place, life cycles and so much more.
“It's always the idea of things in constant movement or in a state of flux or in many states at once,” said Awai. “I think that's so much the ooze for me—something that can't be easily contained, something that can seem innocuous but is not, something that can appear as one thing and be something else. It always finds a way through things. That's what fascinates me with this idea around ooze, materially but also historically. It's got so many other implications, and when you look at us, we aren't separate from the earth beneath our feet. It's all the same thing.”
She’s currently working on a solo exhibition that will debut next fall at the Leslie Heller Gallery in New York, her second solo exhibition there. Her 2017 exhibition Vistas embodied what Awai called “momentary glimpse experiences” that “could be windows to the past, the future or even moments that cannot be specified.” The works used ooze as a framework to explore metaphors around time and physical states and visual materials.
Awai moves easily between dimensions in her works. As a multimedia artist, she works primarily in painting, but her works are never constrained by the bounds of a two-dimensional canvas—often stretching beyond the frame through use of textures, found objects and non-traditional “paints” such as resin, nail polish and asphalt.
“For me, I do not think of painting as being medium-specific,” said Awai. “I really think everything that I'm doing as paintings that are coincidentally sculpture as well.”
Images, from top: Nicole Awai's Persistent Resistance of a Liquid Land from 2018.
Awai's digital rendering of The Spirit of Persistent Resistance of the Liquid Land to fill the empty pedestals on UT's Main Mall for the New York Times. 2018.
Awai's Now You See Me Pounce from her 2017 exhibition Vistas.