Q+A with Nicole Awai

Nicole Awai was awarded the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors Grant in 2011 and an Art Matters Grant in 2013. She earned her Master’s Degree in Multimedia Art from the University of South Florida. Her work has been included in several seminal exhibitions, including the first Greater New York: New Art in New York Now, at P.S. 1/MoMA (2000), the Biennale of Ceramic in Contemporary Art (2003), the 2008 Busan Biennale in Korea, Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art (2007), and Open House: Working in Brooklyn (2004), the latter two held at the Brooklyn Museum. Ms. Awai was a featured artist in the 2005 I.P.O. series at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Recent exhibitions include her Washington Square Windows installation Mi Papi, Dream On – Happy Ending… at 80wse Galleries NYU, Be Inspired! at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, the Biennale of the Caribbean in Aruba, American Beauty at Susan Inglett Gallery and FLOW: Economies of the Look and Creativity in Contemporary Art from the Caribbean at the Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.


Thao Votang: You moved to Austin back in 2015 to take a teaching position at The University of Texas at Austin. How do you balance or negotiate teaching and your own studio practice? What have you found most interesting (or confounding) about Austin?

Nicole Awai: I am in Austin during the semester and my studio practice is in New York. What is interesting and confounding is the way folks here seem to consistently talk about what Austin used to be as if they just couldn’t accept what Austin is becoming or has become.

TV: In your current exhibition, Material Re-Pose, at the Courtyard Gallery, you installed three drawings directly to the wall. I like that you used the original wall color and used the preexisting seams in your drawings. Why did you make these decisions?

NA: When I do this kind off work, I respond to the space, the actual environment. I assessed that I could utilize the value of the existing color as being just a step or two above ‘middle grey’.

TV: All three of the works are very kinetic — tumbling and oozing, as you would say. Can you describe what you mean by oozing?

NA: This oozing materiality has been present and persistent in my work for a very long time. I have come to understand that it is a site of confluence, of our histories, our physical existence and the elasticity of time, space and place.

TV: What will happen to these drawings once the exhibition is over? Is it common for you to create works that will not be repeated or the original copy saved?

NA: I assume the work will be painted over with the wall color. All the wall drawing works and installations that I have done were meant to be temporary artworks created for the duration on an exhibition.

TV: You appreciate and speak a lot about the materials you use: how it looks, how it works, how it feels. How does the media you chose to use for your drawings/paintings inform what you will create, or how do you balance the two?

NA: The concept for the painting or drawing dictates the media/ materials that I use. Sometimes the concept is embodied in the material for example, when I am directed or re-directed by a nail polish color and the name that has been assigned to it. A work that will be in my upcoming show at Lesley Heller Workspace (May 17 – June 30, 2017), Vista 7.1: Audacious Asphalt was inspired by the nail polish color Audacious Asphalt by Sally Hansen. I did use some nail polish in two of the three Material Re-Pose wall drawings. For the last 15 years, I have used nail polish in my work for its conceptual implications and as one of my painting materials. I have been able to map urban American sociological progression through the names designated to seasonal nail polish colors. Names such as I Am Not A Tourist, Mi Papi, Drama Queen, Black and Blue and I Vant To Be An A Lone Star locates the current zeitgeist.

TV: What are you reading, looking at, or listening to right now for inspiration or research?

NA: Unfortunately, I have not been able to do much reading, looking or listening of late because I have been hectically trying to make art for shows and teach classes at the same time. I am looking forward to the summer when I will be able to do some reading, looking and listening and I will also be participating in the BRIC Visual Artist Residency in Brooklyn where I will be making more art.

All images courtesy of the artist and the Courtyard Gallery.

Awai’s exhibition Material Re-Pose will be on view at the Courtyard Gallery through April 29, 2017.


Thao Votang is co-editor of Conflict of Interest, a writer, and co-founder of Tiny Park. Votang previously was the director of communications at the Department of Art and Art History where Awai teaches.

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