A conversation with Nadia Ayari


On August 5, 2014 & posted in Art, Editor's picks, Exclusive, Interview, Print


Nadia Ayari is a New York-based artist whose diverse cultural heritage, shifting identity, and expanding artistic practice describe the period of transition brought about with globalization.

As a process that embodies transformations in spatial, cultural, and economic relations, globalization involves the broadening and the acceleration of interconnectedness in life. Nadia Ayari’s experience suggests that the “fluidity” resulting from globalization may not result in a homogenous, unitary “order,” but it might inspire a more organic and flexible “ideology.” The increased fluidity is destined to giveway to new modes of operating which might implicate a redefinition of identity.

The GROUND found Nadia in her Lower East Side studio, hidden on the top floor of a building that once was a primary school, repurposed into art studios. Nadia is a radiant woman in her early 30s although she dressed in a simple white T-shirt and dark jeans, her crazy futuristic-looking wedges stood out.
This touch of feminine eccentricity in an otherwise laid-back outfit hinted at Nadia’s eagerness to challenge expectations while capturing the sense of tautness often perceptible in her work. Leaning on the studio walls, a sample of her new painting collection showing a fig, leaves, and blood – a motif that has been her obsession for the past year and a half could be seen. In the center, her color palette was covered with hues of red, purple, and green, and in the corner of the room, a small radio was rehashing NPR news. During the conversation, Nadia spoke about the changes visible within her artistic practice, and she attempted to trace some of the shifts brought about by new dynamics of globalization.

© Alone, oil on canvas, 78 x 76.5 inches, 2012

In addition to addressing international contexts in her work, one could say that Nadia’s identity and upbringing is a product of globalism. Presently based in New York, Nadia was born and raised in Tunis, in a Tunisian-American family speaking three languages. Yet, as a young woman from an ethnic background, Nadia views postmodernism as a key development in allowing her to exist as an artist.

“I see my career as a consequence of postmodernism. The deconstructive processes of late postmodernism and the multicultural discussion allowed a woman of a young age from an non-western background to exist within the painting canon or to be able to reflect upon that canon and make work from it.”

Although Nadia is a studio artist, she is also involved in a series of other project-based works and collaborations. In correspondence to her practice as a painter, she carries an array of other roles as fresco artist, curator and art space collaborator. Her interdisciplinary and fluid approach highlights her belief that with globalization, the parameters that once defined studio artists are shifting.

“I think the definition of a painter, at least for me, is changing. My practice is becoming more project-based. It is analogous to the aesthetics of globalism, its subsequent status updates, and the way content becomes contextualized. But, I do think there is [a] lingering modernist notion associated with being a studio artist: You do this thing, you make it this way [and] you struggle very hard to find your artistic voice and once you find your ‘truth,’ you hack at it and create ‘beautiful’ things. This is a very moral narrative that I think doesn’t apply to most of the contemporary artists, or at least the ones that make up my immediate community.”
In parallel to her solitary studio work, for the last three years, Nadia has been undertaking an urban (fresco) project that engages the public realm throughout the world. Looking to explore the limitations while investigating the role of context on works of art, this “more utilitarian” aspect of her practice is in a constant process of expansion.

“Recently, I have been reflecting a lot on the contexts of my paintings. If a painting had [an] agency over its setting, where would it want to end up and how would it be affected by its journey there? Most of the projects I have been working on allow me to trace the ways a piece is affected by its travels. I began Without Walls, a fresco project in Thessaloniki, Greece, when I was asked to produce a piece for the Biennale 3. The city was one of the seats of the Ottoman Empire and therefore, home to a number of ancient mosques. I thought that photographing frescos in front of these edifices now repurposed as churches and museum venues was a compelling conceptual outline.”

“For the New York installment of this project, I decided to focus on contested spaces. During the research phase, I noticed how rarely New York masjids [i.e mosques] publicized their addresses. This was motivating to me, particularly following the debate that Park 51 – the Islamic Community Center in Lower Manhattan, instigated in the summer of 2011. And so, in its process, the project became about re-mapping the city, offering these discrete facades a moment of visibility and placing the fragility of painting at the center of the piece. And so, the politics have changed from one installment of the project to the next. At first, it was about juxtaposing history, then it became about diffusing New York’s political sensationalism and now, in a new version of the project, I will be focusing on public spaces by way of Roman piazzas.”
Similar to her fluidly shifting practice, Nadia perceives identity as a fluctuating process.

© WildFlowers, oil on canvas, 72 x 118inches, 2009, Exhibited 12th Cairo Biennalle

“Identity is nebulous in the sense that it is constantly changing. A number of years ago, I read in a catalog entry that Phillip Guston gave his friend and collaborator, Bill Berkson, a painting of a blank book when that latter’s child was born. Guston explained that it was so the newborn could write his own story. I have since, taken that as a metaphor for identity, a collection of blank pages that we write as we go.”

Although born from an American mother, when Nadia moved from Tunisia to the United States, she experienced a type of tension. The atmosphere prevailing in the U.S. at the time, which reccurently reminded her of her bi-cultual identity, compelled her to negotiate her identity on canvas.

“When I moved to the States in early 2000s, I went through [an] intense culture shock. During this experience, I came to understand that though I was bi-cultural, I wasn’t American. As a bi-cultural individual, I felt a certain amount of responsibility, despite being acutely aware of the pressures the political events were causing. The climate forced on me, a public cultural negotiation. This lasted until my graduate school years, where the discourse put identity at the center of the work.”
When Nadia began working, she had a rather idealistic perspective about the nature and potential of painting. However, as she immersed herself into New York, she came to understand the commercial aspect of the art world, yet, as a politically aware and engaged individual, Nadia continued to address her views and beliefs through her work.

“I cringe to remember my excitement now. I was one of those young artists that thought painting could change the world! Finding painting was the ultimate ‘Oh My God’ moment. I felt I could finally contribute to the discourses I cared about and believed that it could be enough to ‘spark’ new discussions. I knew I did not want to let go of these idealistic politics completely, so I had to find a way to include these notions of expression, subversion, religion, and desire in the work while continuing to insert myself within the market.”

Growing up in a somewhat authoritarian environment regulated by men, Nadia was frequently confronted by discrimination. Although being youthful, she was marked by tension, knowing that they were biased and constraining.

Exhibition View, Monya Rowe Gallery, New York, NY, 2011

“If you look at some of my 2011 paintings where the eyeballs produce repetitive abstractions, one reading of those pieces could be that the collection of eyeballs represent a process of totalitarianism, the emptying of meaning through repetition. It was a camouflaging of politics, maybe even a desire to address the system I grew up in and how in middle school, under certain professors, we all had to have one blue bic pen and one red of the same brand in order to write down our notes. If you had any other kind of red or blue writing implement, you were kicked out. These are small things, but they make a difference, I think.”
While in New York, Nadia also faced instances of prejudice because of her gender. Yet, in order for the dialogue surrounding art to evolve, she said she believes that the feminist discourse and gender classifications should be disregarded. Nadia thinks that to move forward, artists and artworks need to be liberated from any stringent labeling, and instead, initiate the formulation of a new language.

“Four or five years ago, I had a dealer tell me, ‘I would offer you a show but you are a woman at a very particular time in your life and you may have a baby.’ I was so offended that I decided to work with a woman dealer instead of him. We need to try and let go of that discourse of feminism and identity and the idea of a very branded market place. As long as we continue to use that sort of language, which is passé, we will not be able to move forward. Even when we use this language, it just doesn’t sound right; It doesn’t resonate in your gut as being true. This indicates that something is shifting and I think that if you can find the right language, agency [agencies] may follow.”

Within her own practice, Nadia had to train herself to let go of the gender discourse. Once she recognized the distinctiveness of her strokes as bearing form of refinement and grace, she was able to experience emancipation from the more direct female imagery that used to impregnate her work.

“When I finally accepted that my hand was actually much more refined, that my aesthetic was feminine all the while conveying the language of abstract expressionism, with this sort of masculine thickness embedded in it, I was able to let go of representational images of gender within the work.”

Whereas in her early paintings, the outside gaze and society’s desire to better comprehend Arabness played a central role in the type of subject Nadia would explore. Today she has acquired a certain maturity that enables her to free her work from these expectations.

“These days, I feel I have been able to release the work from being beholden to a particular narrative. Whereas in former bodies of work, I felt I had to imbue the paintings with my identity or address identity through my work. This was very much a product of youth. The fact was that being an Arab in the United States, people really wanted to know about you through what you made. The awakening that this triggered and my desires to stop the Orientalization has definitely affected how I talk about my identity even outside of my work.”
In order for her artistic practice to blossom, Nadia emphasized the importance of letting go of both personal prospects and exterior outlooks. Now, she has come to embrace the transformations that occurred over time and accepts the changes taking place within her work while her effort to empty the work from particular political and gender narratives results in more abstract iconography.

© Fountain, oil on canvas, 22 x 24 inches, 2012

“There are some expectations you have to let go of. Maybe simply defining yourself as an artist is enough. Once I came to accept that, I could let go of a specific narrative and be more abstract. [It was] a slow process, which fell hand in hand with the idea of camouflaging political explicitness within my work.”

Nadia said she considers her openess to change is as a form of self-empowerment that offers her the freedom to grow not only as an artist, but also as a person. Although she recognizes that her aspiration to let go shows transformation within her body of work. Nadia believes that the process is part of a global shift.

“Now, the subtleness within the paintings is also a subtleness that I am looking for outside of the work and in my career. There is self-empowerment in creating the space and contexts to really take some risks and change – I mean, in allowing yourself to change as an artist. There are moments when I look at some of my older work and I feel it was endemic of the issues of its time. I have gone through my own shifts and changes, but I think it’s part of a global shift. I see it in other contemporaries’ work as well. And, when I visited home, [Tunis] in January, I saw it there too: a letting go of a certain kind of monolithic discourse.”

Today, people are starting to feel the impacts of globalization, noticing how the rapid flow of information and constant movement of people are gradually altering the parameters that once defined our perception of the world and conceptions of identity. Nadia’s experience and thoughts suggest that people are witnessing a time of transition and experiencing the fading away of certain boundaries, while still constrained by outdated systems structured by a fixed and established discourse.

“It is a very strange time – like an empty container. I think it is the backlash of globalism. Things happened at such a speed that we are sort of left with this ‘what now?’ feeling. Facing that abyss feels quite promising to me yet, at a same time, the language that we have inherited to discuss politics, aesthetics, and beyond is proving to not be up to the challenge. Or maybe it’s the way we use these inherited structures. Abolish the debt! That is what I say. The issue is that we are beholden to the old models because we are all in some sort of debt, at least in this country. So, in order to prosper, you have to aspire to this particular American dream that no longer exists and that most of us artists and queer culture residents know [that it] isn’t really an option for us. These are a few of the reasons [why] I am very seriously considering moving back to Tunis soon, at least for a little while.”

What comes out of this discussion is we are both perceiving a moment of change in which the language people were taught and words people use seem unsuitable to translate their present experience. With the rise of globalization, the world order has been altered and the boundaries that once defined roles, identities and genders are becoming more and more obsolete. Everywhere people go, they can be connected with a plethora of information available at their fingertips and yet, this excess of circulation may lead to a system overload from which they might get an impression of total chaos, a mumble jumble that really does not make any sense. In Nadia’s words, “these are weird times.” However, chronological proximity probably hinders a person’s objectivity and as in everything else, time is a good adviser. Maybe new words should be invented or everyone should simply wait and see.



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