Artist Nina Chanel Abney Talks About ‘Big Butch Energy’ at Art Basel Miami

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New York-based artist Nina Chanel Abney draws out the eyes one at a time. The life-size paper dolls of hers don’t seem to care. They huddle around the ankles of her standing desk, in blank anticipation, patiently waiting for her to finish her faces so they can continue her destiny as protagonists in her primary-colored collages. Abney points to the group surrounding her feet. “It’s a dance scene,” she says.

Assembling your dancers requires meticulous choreography. “A millimeter can change an expression,” says Abney. Despite her precariousness, Abney feels right at home in this cut-and-paste world. Over the past decade, her figurative collages depicting the lives and stories of Americans like her—black, gay, and working-class individuals—have become a fixture of the art world. The lushly colored paintings of her, executed with stencils and spray paint, mimic Abney’s collage aesthetic and make me think of artists like Henri Matisse, Kara Walker and Lari Pittman, but Abney rejects these historical touchstones of the art.

Nina Chanel Abney What I wanted vs what I got2022. Triptych collage on board.

Courtesy of Nina Chanel Abney and Pace Prints

She says that her mother, who is also an artist, is responsible for her love of drawing and collage. “I’ve been cutting and pasting since childhood,” says Abney. “I like the familiarity of that.”

Raised in Chicago by her mother, Abney used drawing as a way to connect. At school, she and her sister invited their mostly white classmates to commission portraits of black celebrities. Abney earned a BFA from Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois before heading to Parsons, where she graduated with a master’s degree in 2007.

In 2008, he participated in the innovative group exhibition. 30 american in the Rubell family collection in Miami, and as the exhibition traveled across the country, his exuberant images depicting the joy and pain of black people began to appear in museums along with other participants such as Rashid Johnson, Renée Green and Kerry James Marshall.

In 2017, he had an exhibition with the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, later appearing in monographic museum exhibitions. Abney vibrates on a cultural frequency of his own and has also collaborated to create Air Jordan sneakers, as well as a version of the classic card game Uno. His most visible pop cultural moment, an album cover created last year for Meek Mill’s expensive painit was a tearful cartoon portrait of the rapper surrounded by nude women, a yacht, a motorcycle, and dollar signs.

The ICA Miami exhibition of Nina Chanel Abney: Big Butch Energy, On view during Art Basel, it focuses on Abney’s college years, when the artist was less sure of her queer identity and struggling to find a community that reflected the kind of person she wanted to be. One epic shower scene, in particular, focuses on the awkwardness and awkwardness of forced group dynamics. Abney was drawn to the universality of the coming-of-age scenes; she engages in media laden with child resonance and the stories she knows can be found on the tip of her tongue.

The conceptual second half of the Miami presentation opens at the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art on January 27. Those plays focus instead on the more positive side of Abney’s college experience, and the energy is festive. “Like getting into myself and the celebration,” says Abney. The key work here represents a raucous dance party of the kind Abney would have liked to attend.

Nina Chanel Abney Mama has to have a life too2022, collage diptych on panel.

Courtesy of Nina Chanel Abney and Pace Prints

After the MoCA Cleveland show and a well-earned break, Abney will redouble his efforts to focus on public art and shift his language to three-dimensional sculpture. She’s still not sure what they’ll look like, but she does know that she wants these works of art to represent the lives of those who aren’t recognized in the Western canon and to be accessible to the public at all times.

“I always want the viewer to be able to feel that they have a connection to the work and to remember some of their own similar experiences,” he says. “I’m good at finding communities that want their stories told. I don’t feel like there is enough representation of masculine or queer African American women in the media, so if I can bring my experience to life and inspire others, then I feel like I’m doing a good job. In a previous job, I was trying to make the content more ambiguous; now, it leans the other way.”

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