Artist of the Month: Nadia Waheed
Nadia Waheed is a cosmopolitan and abstract person.
She works as a visual artist, almost to the point of obsession. She produces paintings at an astonishing rate and with a unique and gripping style that is as soft as it is sharp, rife with purpose and meaning. Eileen and I met with Nadia in her studio at the Museum of Human Achievement in Austin, Texas. We talked about abstraction, extremism, and genitalia.
Nadia: I’m normally not a lock person, but…
Jason: Should I zip the zipper back down?
N: Only if you want to! Do you want me to put a heater on?
J: Sure! That’d be great.
N: Alright, so I’ve got a chair here, a chair here… Let me go grab another folding chair.
[Nadia walks into a storage closet and returns with a chair]
N: I met you at the studio tour, that was a while ago now. I think the work that you saw was earlier – it was heaps earlier work.
Well, not heaps earlier, like 2 or 3 months ago? Yeah, so this is the newer stuff [gestures around her studio] Kinda different but kinda the same. This one is actually supposed to go that way. [Nadia makes a gesture of rotation]
J: What would you say is different about it?
N: Let me actually rotate this one. This is supposed to go that way. [Nadia stands to rotate her painting]
Whoop whoop whoop, I’m sorry!
J: You’re fine!
N: I don’t know, I didn’t have as much strange imagery in there before. I don’t think it was as nonsensical or random spatially. I wasn’t trying to create any kind of interior with the last ones.
N: [to Eileen] Maybe not any of those if you couldn’t, yeah. For the blog or whatever, there’s some sensitive stuff on the post-its. From far away is okay. It’s thoughts that I’ve had while I was making work, or something that I read that I think is really poignant. [Nadia points to a note on the wall to her right] This one I think is really good, I was talking to my friend, Keith Tolch, he’s an excellent painter in LA. He was talking about how everyone is everything at once. And people who you don’t think you can get things from, you can.
By the way, thank you so much for doing this, thank you for thinking of me.
J: Thank you for your time!
N: I’m really scatter-brained right now, because I’m very tired, so I will probably do a lot better with direct questions. My mind is in a million different places. [laughs]
J: [laughs] You actually already started talking about something that I wanted to ask you about! The abstraction in your work. As you’re painting, what is your process like for deciding how to generate the abstract? Is there narrative?
N: Yes. There is a narrative. My work is – I hesitate to say that it’s purely autobiographical, but I do draw a lot from my own life and my own experiences. All of my work is really just me trying to legitimize my feelings as I go through the world. A lot of the non-sensical stuff – I call it non-sensical because I come from a place in painting…
Well, I come from drawing, I’ve been drawing my whole life I’m very fluid in in it, it’s been the thing that people have noticed about me from the beginning. My parents would always say ‘Oh look at her always drawing’ when I was making stick figure drawings when I was six, or however old. With painting, I didn’t have the same vocabulary or language, I didn’t have the same fluidity with it. I didn’t know how to express myself the right way.
When I was starting to learn how to paint, which was four or five years ago, I felt like I constantly had to make the paintings make sense – spatially, proportionally, in terms of the narrative of the work. Everything had to make sense, everything had to exist for a reason. When you are making a piece of work, everything is really deliberate. Something doesn’t exist in a location unless you want it to be there. I took that really seriously before, but now, I’m having a lot more fun with it.
The paintings that I had at the pod/solo/pop-up gallery thing? I think that was the beginning of me just starting to say ‘Fuck it.”
Can I say bad words?
J: Of course you can!
N: I really struggle with abstraction because I come from a very rational place, the way that I put things together. I think it’s a cultural thing because my father is an engineer, my mother is an engineer, my step-father is in bio tech, my brother works in tech and I’m the only abstract thinker. My brother can think abstractly too, but they’re all very grounded and very ‘one plus one equals two’ kind of people, whereas I like pushing the boundaries of those kinds of questions. I don’t know how to see things in a stark black and white way. Everything exists on a spectrum. So for me, I learn the most through metaphors. I read a lot of non-fiction. I learn so much from life through very indirect things. I learn a lot from experiences and I learn a lot from, you know fucking like, I’ll step on a rock and be like “Oh, that’s why this happened!” Ha, that wasn’t the best example…
J: No, I think I know what you mean. That there’s sort of a thread between things.
N: Yes. Perfectly said. I really enjoy that element of it. Another reason that I’m starting to paint whatever I want to paint is just that the projections that the audience is starting to put onto the work is so much more interesting than the shit that I’m thinking about when I’m making it!
N: And I love that! People send me messages through my Instagram. There was a girl who made a comment on one of my paintings, this one, [ Nadia points to a painting behind her] and she was talking about an abusive relationship that she had where her girlfriend only liked girls with long hair, and she had a shaved head and so this piece felt very liberating to her. I’m glad that people can say ‘I feel something from this’ or ‘I can relate something in my life to this painting’. If I made the paintings really tight idea-wise and if I made them make a lot of sense, they wouldn’t really apply to so many people.
I I also really believe in, this is going to sound really contrived, but, the power of your own subconscious. There are so many actions we make subliminally that say so much more about our state of mind and self than we're consciously aware of. I think my paintings are like that for me – I make work and a year later I’ll look back and think ‘Fuck, I was really lonely when I was making this ‘cause it’s just really fucking sad.' I can see clearly how sad I was, but I had no idea of it at the time. Another reason my more recent work is different is thatI’m coming out of a huge transition and feeling more free. I think it shows in the paintings.
A super long-winded answer to a very simple question.
J: [laughs] No I think it’s great!
N: Welcome to my brain! [laughs]
J: So you said that some of the work isn’t that tight, but obviously there are some recurring themes and colors – shapes, lines.
There seems to be a theme of femininity throughout your work can you speak to that?
N: Yeah. I never considered my gender to be an element of my identity for some reason. I think just because I’ve moved so much. I’ve made six or seven continental moves in life. Moving from place to place and going through all these cultural shifts, existing in these different places – I don’t know if it was something that I could handle considering – having to take on my own gender as a relevant factor or something that does actually affect the way that people treat or deal with me. I still am really confronted by that, I’m not fully ready to accept that that is something that people will judge me on.
Same with race. I’m not fully ready to deal with it because it feels really fucking heavy. And it is so layered.
I’ve been reading a lot about the feminist movement and it scares me, it really does, because when you start to look at how deeply engrained some of this fundamentally unloving behavior toward women is, when you see how far it goes? The fact is, it’s in everyone, its in all of us. It’s in women too, we are taught to hate ourselves, and to yield to men and not be as forthright. I don’t think it’s simple. I have a lot to say about this just because I’ve spent so much time thinking about it over the past few months. But my work now deals with my female selfhood. All of us contain multitudes of things, no one is a one-dimensional person.
I think that’s one of the things that I’m very interested in in my real life, as opposed to my studio life. In my studio world, I’m touching on all of this stuff but it might not be super direct. One of the things that matters most to me is that all of us are fucking real people. There is excellent documentary director her name is Deeyah Khan, and she’s won a BAFTA, multiple Emmys and shit. She made this documentary called Jihad, or Jihadi – it’s all about why men join ISIS. What’s the pull? The one she recently came out with is called White Right. She examines why young men join the KKK, or join these alt-right movements. There’s not a uniform answer, but overwhelmingly, these men are just looking for community, looking for a place where they feel like they belong. That’s heartbreaking. We all have felt that. The thing that I keep going back to is that I am always here for myself, even if no one else is. Because I’m an unnecessarily sensitive person. [laughs] And the world hits hard! And I don’t think its easy to be a human, I find it really difficult. I don’t think people say it enough! Like fuck! It’s hard! Going to the fucking grocery store could be a minefield of shit. Something really mundane happened to me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for hours…
[turns to point at painting]
Like, that’s the KKK logo. Why?
I don’t know if I answered your question, I’m so bad at answering questions. [laughs]
J: No, its great!
N: I pour a lot of my questions into my paintings. I’m not making work to try and solve any problems, I’m not trying to say that I know what the solution is because I don’t know the solution. We all change day to day. But I’m really pleased that we are moving in a direction as a population where we all understand that everyone is many fucking things. I’m excited about it because I see it happening in the world and I’m like ‘Fuck yeah!’ We can all do whatever we want! We all see these t-shirts! [laughs] My favorite one is the one that says ‘Be a slut! Do whatever you want!’
I really love that shirt because I come from a super sexually repressed background. When I was thirteen I asked my mom what a vagina was and she said ‘That’s a bad word, don’t say that!’ and now I’m like, that’s fucked up! Because I have a vagina! I didn’t even know I had a vagina until I was sixteen! Fuck!
J: And you grew up in Saudi Arabia, right?
N: Yeah, so I was born in Saudi and I am originally from Pakistan. We moved to the states… umm I turned 12 here, in Austin. I went to high school here, and then I went up to Chicago. But before the states we lived in Cairo and Paris and Qatar and Kuwait and Pakistan. Since then I’ve also moved to Australia, I lived there for a couple of years. I was really sensitive to Australian culture. The humor is so different there. It was very personal banter. After a couple of drinks, I think everyone is a little sensitive, like ‘please don’t say that I’m a Paki!’ That doesn’t feel good. That word doesn’t really carry a lot of weight to me because I’ve been called it so rarely, but using my brownness as a joke was weird! You know, Australians! [in an Australian accent] You know, fucking whatever! [laughs]
J: What about Chicago? How do you feel like your experience in school there shaped your art?
N: Chicago has such a deep well to draw from - with art, on social issues, on race issues - but I was working full time and I was in school full time. And I was going through a lot of shit, 18-22 is a nightmare. Going to the The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which is the museum school, was one of the best things I could have ever done because it taught me how to think about art and how to look at art. It’s something that anyone can learn - anyone can learn how to think about art and how to look at art, but I had access to some of the most incredible painting minds of the past few generations. Such a fucking privilege to be able to take classes with people who [have work featured] in these massive museums and who make incredible, incredible work. You get to pick their brain about your stuff!
I had my head super far up my ass when I was younger, just learning how to be a person was really hard. When you are thrown out into the real world on your own for the first time, you are contending with a new set of problems that you haven't faced before, with people you haven't faced before, who have problems you haven't faced before. Huge learning curves. Being in Chicago taught me how to work at things I didn't want to work on. I discovered my limitations and learned how to fucking work. I’m happy about that but it was a tough lesson to learn.
J: So you began with drawing and painting, but you’ve also done some ceramics and sculpting?
N: I didn’t do any throwing, the ceramicist I worked with, she threw, which is a specific type of pottery that is really difficult. She was really intense and she is a great ceramicist. We collaborated on some really bespoke, boutique shit. One-of-a-kind things that ended up being really beautiful. I have made some busts before, I really liked making those – I like the feeling of giving life to something – to make something exist completely in a space. My paintings that I think are successful… they have that feeling- they feel really real. They feel very resolved. They feel like the have the weight of a real person. I know that I'm done with a work when I can step back and feel like I have a connection with the figure in my painting. And that's why I make work- to learn how to understand the connections between things in the best way I know how to learn- by painting it.