Nina Chanel Abney is an African American artist who boldly combines representation and abstraction in disjointed narrative paintings and collages, steeped in political and social commentary. Her works are contemporary pop culture genre scenes with commentaries on social injustice.
Abney was born in Chicago but lives and works in New York. She attended Augustana College in Illinois and received her B.F.A. in 2004. In 2007, she received her M.F.A. at New York’s Parsons School of Design. Her M.F.A. thesis show at Parsons was a single work, “Class of 2007.” This large diptych portrayed herself – the only black person in her class – as a white, blonde, blue-eyed armed prison guard. Her classmates – all of whom were white – were portrayed as black prison inmates. It was her way of showing both the racial imbalance in the art world and in America’s prisons. Years later she would reverse this racial roll-playing in paintings, showing black policemen barking orders and arresting white men.
Abney paints scenes taken from her own life, current events, and traditional storytelling. She draws on mainstream news media, animated cartoons, video games, hip-hop culture, and tabloid magazines to make paintings with symbols that have the immediacy of text messages or news reports. Her style is that of pop-surrealism as she makes cartoon figures in a seemingly playful way to depict the depressing state of contemporary American race relations. She often uses stencils which she makes herself and uses “everyday imagery as inspiration, to make a new kind of gesture loaded with many meanings.”
Her 2008 “Close But No Cigar” is a seven-by-twelve-foot canvas based on the scene of Martin Luther King’s assassination. However, instead of painting Martin Luther King lying on the ground, she paints President Obama. Howling over him are not civil rights protestors but a group of tramps, grotesquely dressed.
In 2009, Abney worked with a flatter style taking caricatures, appropriated from art history and pop culture, and turning them into mock classical portraits as well as strange fairy-tale scenes to show racial injustice. In 2012, she switched to geometric abstraction and to a loose stencil-and-spray paint version of modernism, adding African American heads crying and yelling.
In her 2015 “Always a Winner” series, she addresses the Black Lives Matter movement. Police batons are phallic symbols, and the use of clown makeup suggests racial distinctions. The series reflects the absurdity and information overload of the internet era and questions how people are affected by abuses of power.
In 2017, she painted an eighteen-foot-long four panel work, “Catfish.” A mixed-media work of pigment print, acrylic paint, and spray paint, it shows stilted forms and provocative female figures. With their backs facing the viewer, her eight naked women have heads turned to look out brazenly while two of them are actually bent over at the waist with derrieres facing out. Its geometric, cartoon-like figuration recalls Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” as well as digital-age selfies.
Her “Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush” was her first solo museum survey and included paintings, watercolors, and collages in narrative works which chronicled urban life of the past decade. Her works contained art historical references, Northern Renaissance still life paintings, and European artists as her way of dealing with social issues and police brutality. This was a traveling show first exhibited at the California African American Museum and then at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 2019.
Her work was recently featured in the Barnes Foundation exhibition “30 Americans” where thirty well-established, contemporary African American artists made art that demonstrated racial inequalities in the world.
She has a site-specific mural at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, ending this March 2020. Her work is in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.