Nina Chanel Abney is Selling Out (In a Good Way)
Nina Chanel Abney’s gift was obvious from an early age. These days, her work is in such high demand that even SHE has to wait for a painting.
Nina Chanel Abney is an acclaimed visual artist whose bold contemporary work explores race, celebrity, religion, politics, sex, and art history.
Born in 1982 near Chicago, Illinois, Abney studied at Augustana College and Parsons School of Design. She first achieved wide recognition for her MFA thesis project Class of 2007, which presented her as a blonde police officer and her white classmates as African American prisoners. She received her first solo exhibition in a museum, Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, at the Nasher Museum of Art in North Carolina in 2017. It traveled to the Chicago Cultural Center, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the California African American Museum. Her work also appears in the permanent collections of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Rubell Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Nina Chanel Abney: I don’t even know if I honestly enjoy the actual act of painting. I just enjoy that I’m able to create what I want to—whatever’s in my head, or whatever world I can make for myself on this canvas. But the actual act of painting can be tedious.
But, for as long as she can remember, Nina Chanel Abney’s gift for painting has been obvious. Still, love did not a career make. And after graduating from Augustana College with a degree in studio art in 2004, Abney didn’t quite know how to move forward. So she accepted a job on an automobile assembly line. But the frustrations of this job quickly drove her back to school.
Abney: When I first got to grad school, that first day of class, I was crying, because I didn’t know any art theory. I didn’t know all the things you’re supposed to know in an MFA program or in grad school as an artist. Quite honestly, I feel like, by the end of grad school, I returned to what I was doing in the beginning—just, I guess, in a more informed way.
AJC: And a more confident way?
Abney: And a more confident way. It’s so intuitive, and I’m just throwing all these things together. Sometimes, I don’t necessarily see the bigger picture until long after it’s finished. And maybe I’m writing something about the work, and I’m almost researching myself, and going back to try to say, “Oh, I wonder why this was in here.” And then I see the correlation.
One piece for which Abney’s inspiration was obvious: a portrait of her class at the Parsons School of Design. In addition to flipping the skin colors of herself and her classmates, she put them behind bars, with her as their jailer.
Abney: We could talk about racism, but I want to find a way where you could experience something without us having to have a conversation. So what would it mean for someone who’s uncomfortable about black people if they’re turned to a black person unknowingly? I asked everyone if I could paint them, but I didn’t tell them what the painting would look like. ‘Cause, at the time, I wasn’t even quite sure. So I was curious about the response once I flipped the painting over, and everyone started to recognize themselves, and what their response would be. Would some people be angry about it? Or, if they were uncomfortable, what does that mean? So that’s how that painting came about.
AJC: And how was the response?
Abney: It was mixed. Some people thought it was fun, some people seemed uncomfortable, some people questioned if I was angry for making that work.
If she were to make that work today, it would probably sell before the paint was dry. These days, Abney’s paintings are so in demand that she herself is even on her own waiting list.
AJC: Does that feel like all of your children went off to college a little early?
Abney: I mean, now I’ve been thinking about that, and trying to make work for myself. So I maybe own, like, three of my own paintings. So now I’m fixing that, I guess.
Nina Chanel Abney is one of those artists who seems perpetually dissatisfied, always striving for the unobtainable—but not without hope.
Abney: I’ve always had this ideal painting in my head, like this ultimate painting that would have different elements of what I’ve done over the past years. That painting would have how I worked in 2007, mixed with all the things I’ve done. So I feel like my ambition is to work towards that painting. Every body of work, everything I try, is to lead up to, I don’t know, this—
AJC: A masterpiece.
Abney: Yeah, a masterpiece.