“In my early teens, my mother didn’t allow me to wear makeup. Her way of negotiating that was to allow me to wear nail polish. The nail polish was more than an accessory, it was a creative outlet and it became an expression of my identity. In 2002 when I realized that I was still in possession of a bottle of nail polish that I had since I was 15 years old, I started to think about the ways in which women use cosmetics as a means of personal codification. I originally made paintings in which I used and arranged the nail polish colors into a map legend of sorts and called it ‘The Sensation Code’. The code would imply further possible narrative directions in the work. I was plaing with language, with the viewer’s expectation for familiar canons – Awai spreads her fingers wide open looking at her transparent flesh/pinky colored polished nails – and sometimes a nail polish name would start off an idea for a work or, when seeing a name on a bottle, one of the ideas that I am working on would come to mind and it would become part of it.”
Sasha Dees in conversation with Trini-American Nicole Awai.
Nicole Awai, Oooooooozing…….
Vista 1: Curling, 2013
I was introduced to Nicole Awai by Christopher Cozier in 2010. Intrigued by our first meeting and the conversation we had, I went to her next exhibition that year in Manhattan. Her works –from the series ‘Specimen from Local Ephemera’- fascinated me at once. Her works were (and still are) so universal that they naturally speak to a large international audience. In our times where the world has become small and accessible to all, many of us live in different countries, cultures and environments at least periodically. The topsy-turvy drawings that were my introduction to her work speak of alter egos, parallel worlds and the space in-between. Her work is about multiplicity in every aspect; sources of inspiration, use of material, intuition and instinct yet studied and technically framed. It makes you curious about what is beyond boundaries and it speaks of fluidity (or at least the wish for it).
Specimen of Local Ephemera: Go Go Gone Compression, Mix More Media! 2010
Awai’s practice has been progressing slowly but steadily: oozing.., a term she herself often uses in describing her work and in her titles. Her works have a back-story, it is not by chance, sources of inspiration may be coincidental, but the finished work, never! She collects her ideas in little sketchbooks and makes notes. Ideas that turn into sketches that repeat in the sketchbook come back again, and again, until they satisfy her and finally it all comes together in her head. Before starting a new piece in her Brooklyn based studio she might glance at her sketchbook one last time, but after she starts working on it, she never goes back to it; being a process oriented artist she lets the piece come alive on its own. Although you will recognize her work as always unmistakably Awai’s, she keeps changing, evolving, she is in motion, constantly in transition; she keeps the audience on its toes. Awai, an easy going relaxed person to hang out with, is as meticulously precise and eloquent in her work as in talking about it.
When did you know that you wanted to become an artist?
My mom tells me that I have been making art since I was three years old. I knew I was an artist, which meant in Trinidad that I actually still needed to figure out what else I would do? I always knew that I would go to university but I was not always sure that it would be for art specifically, I did think about Architecture and Fashion for a bit. By the time I was ready to go to university, I was clearly passionate about art but still considering doing a double major in art and business and at that time, there was no art program at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. I did not want to go to England or Canada. I didn’t think strategically about picking “the right school” in the US. I chose Florida mainly for the weather and affordability. I didn’t want to be in the cold, I didn’t think I would survive that. I returned to the University of South Florida to do my graduate studies because they were quite visionary and flexible for the time when other institutions were not so, and offered me the opportunity to be their first graduate student to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree in Multi-media Art. After graduating, I was associated with vibrant group of artists in Tampa but it became clear that there was no market for what I was interested in making. A few months after I graduated I was accepted into the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture residency program. Later that year in the fall I moved to New York and did the Artist in the Market Program at the Bronx Museum in spring of 1998 and in 1999 to 2000 I was an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
“They gave me a glass of rum, and one said to me, what did I think about all this?” 2000,
Acrylic on canvas and painted ceramic, 52 × 140″. Photo by: Oren Slor.
Tell me about the ‘ooze’.
The ‘ooze’, a flowing, viscous substance has been apparent in my work for over ten years now. Early on, it manifested in the colors red, white and blue in an installation on a bed called Oozing Red, White and Blue on a Banana Leave Mat (2001) followed by the related sculpture installation Oozing Red White and Blue: Red Recession, White Infraction and Blue Incursion for the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art in Italy (2003). The sketches for these sculptures became the basis for my drawing series Specimens from Local Ephemera (2003 – 2011). After a few years, the ooze in the drawings transitioned into color, to black.
Oozing Red, White and Blue: Red Recession, 2003
The Ooze is a site of creation and destruction, a passage between perspective and periphery, the elasticity of being.
Your Caribbean identity, your experience as an immigrant, has that been a big part of your narrative?
It was never a fixed narrative or agenda for me. In my early years here, particularly in Florida,
I was responding to the ways in which people were responding to me or their expectations of who I am or who they thought I should be as a black Caribbean person living an American life. My views and reactions to America evolve as well (Awai has lived in America since 1989 SD) but I will always view my American life through my Caribbean lens. I respond to the interactions that I have, things I see, articles I read and events that take place.
Cracked Black Love Ooze (detail), 2008-2010
When I was doing the residency at Smack Mellon (2010-2011) an editorial in the New York Times written by Nicholas Kristoff, ‘Rising Above IQ’ in which he addressed the reasons for the success and mobility of the Asian Americans, Jews and West Indian Blacks made me recall an issue of the New Yorker from 1996 subtitled ‘Black in America’, that was given to me in 1997 by a friend in Florida who thought that I would be interested in having it. I have often responded to things and artifacts that people give to me or that I find randomly. In the issue there was an article, ‘Black like Them’ written by Malcolm Gladwell. In the article, Gladwell refers to studies that sociologists were conducting with managers in urban companies looking at the preferences in hiring minorities for labor oriented and blue-collar jobs. These managers spoke of the West Indian community as “the good blacks”; hardworking, productive, responsible they did not cause problems. I became interested in the concept of good blacks in terms of the history of art and the practice of artists investigating black as a color, as state of being, along with its social implications and this became my visual investigation that I presented as ‘The Good Blacks’ during Open Studios at Smack Mellon.
Your early work was more figurative and you were in your work a lot. Later you disappeared. Why?
I might come back in the future – she laughs and clearly doesn’t want to be pinned down to one thing or another – It was just easy to use myself, that way I didn’t need models. I was always available. The ‘material’ implication in the drawings was becoming more dominant, the amalgam of the figural elements was always an abstraction to me, and it became more about the fluidity and multiplicity. In my exhibition ‘Almost Undone’ at the Vilcek Foundation (2011), the ooze escaped from the drawings, dripped off the walls back into material, three-dimensional form maintaining its predominant blackness.
Go Go Gone, 2011
My work is now often described as sculpture but I still think of it as painting. The language of sculpture, the vocabulary, I find limiting for the works I make and how I make them.
Since you are a multimedia artist I expect a variety of genres, techniques and materials. I did not expect nail polish as one of them?
In my early teens, my mother didn’t allow me to wear makeup. Her way of negotiating that was to allow me to wear nail polish. The nail polish was more than an accessory, it was a creative outlet and it became an expression of my identity. In 2002 when I realized that I was still in possession of a bottle of nail polish that I had since I was 15 years old, I started to think about the ways in which women use cosmetics as a means of personal codification. I originally made paintings in which I used and arranged the nail polish colors into a map legend of sorts and called it ‘The Sensation Code’. The code would imply further possible narrative directions in the work. I was playing with language, with the viewer’s expectation for familiar canons – Awai spreads her fingers wide open looking at her transparent flesh/pinky colored polished nails – and sometimes a nail polish name would start off an idea for a work or, when seeing a name on a bottle, one of the ideas that I am working on would come to mind and it would become part of it.
The Washington Square Window Project I did for instance was called: “Mi Papi, Dream On – Happy Ending…” (2012). The title refers to the three nail polish names, colors that inspired the piece conceptually. I used these colors as paint material as well in the installation.
“Mi Papi, Dream on – Happy Ending…” (2012)
Tell me more about your latest work?
I was an artist in resident at Alice Yard last summer facilitated through the Art Matters Grant that I was awarded. I started a project that was inspired by my visits to the La Brea Pitch Lake that resulted in a short-term painting installation and olfactory experience, ‘Asphaltum Glance’ that I exhibited at Alice Yard.
Asphaltum Glance, Bituminous (asphaltum) black paint, acrylic paint, nail polish, graphite and soft pastel
Wall drawing 206″ × 84″ At Alice Yard, Trinidad, 2013
Detail: Asphaltum Glance, 2013
The work I did in Trinidad greatly influences my current body of work ‘Vistas’. The first three works from Vistas were recently exhibited in ‘American Beauty’ at Susan Inglett Gallery in Chelsea– Awai‘s pieces in the show were defined by Holland Cotter in the New York Times as “gorgeously sinister wall sculptures” – This is an ongoing series that I am vigorously working on now, she smiles.
Vista 3: Emerging Properties A, 2013
What can I expect in the future that you are excited about? Will there be more of ‘The Ooze’? Will it stay black?
Yellow has been on my mind for sometime now. I see it as a transparent yellow. Where black ooze represents creation and destruction, I see yellow more as the present and perhaps the future but it is certainly more open ended. It hasn’t materialized quite yet, its not the right time, but there might be yellow ooze in the future…
With that in mind I’m leaving the studio to Awai for her to continue working with what’s left in her, on the Vista series. Walking outside to the subway its cold but the sun is shining bringing a smile on my face. I can not wait for the transparent yellow ooze to materialize and see what our present and future looks like according to Awai!
Work of Nicole Awai can be seen till July 14 in the exhibition ‘Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation’, John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI
Nicole Awai (Trinidad) was educated in the US receiving her BA in 1991 and an MFA in Multi-media Art in 1996 from the University of South Florida. She also attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1997. She has exhibited widely in and outside the US at such institutions as PS1 MOMA, the Brooklyn Museum, The Salvador Dali Museum and the Queens Museum. Awai’s work was included in the Biennial of Ceramic in Contemporary Art in Italy in 2003 and in the Busan Biennale in Korea in 2008. She has been an artist in residence at numerous places including The Studio Museum in Harlem, The John Michael Kohler Center and Art Omi. She was invited to speak about her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art as featured artist in the Initial Public Offerings series in 2005.
Recent exhibitions include her solo exhibition, Almost Undone at the Vilcek Foundation, Mi Papi, Dream On – Happy Ending… ,Washington Square Windows, 80wse Galleries NYU, the Biennale of the Caribbean in Aruba and Be Inspired! at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Awai was awarded the 2011 Joan Mitchell Painter and Sculpture Grant and an Art Matters Grant in 2012. She is appointed as a Critic in Department of Painting and Printmaking at Yale University School of Art in 2009.
She lives and works in New York.
Sasha Dees is an international cultural producer and curator. She is currently producing the art films: My American Dream (USA) and Witte Dieren (Russia), is guest curator for the Centrum voor Beeldende Kunsten, advisor to the Mondrian Foundation for projects in USA and the Caribbean (NL), visiting curator for Residency Unlimited (NY), juror for Akrai Residency (Italy), editor – with Rob Perrée – of the planned publication “I wonder if they’ll laugh when I’m dead” on Tirzo Martha (Curacao) and freelance contributor to ARC Magazine and Africanah.org.