These days, Nina Chanel Abney is everywhere. Whether she’s designing site specific works for Lincoln Center in New York or cooking up NFTs for the metaverse, Abney is working nonstop to bring her arresting works around the country and beyond.
Set to coincide with Art Basel Miami Beach, the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami is presenting a new suite of works by Abney in a show titled “Big Butch Energy.” Meanwhile, it was just earlier in November that she opened a new show at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle.
“She’s somebody who just has a million ideas and a million issues she wants to tackle,” Alex Gartenfeld, the artistic director of the ICA Miami, told ARTnews. In the case of “Big Butch Energy,” the issue Abney was tackling involved a common misconception about her work: audiences kept confusing Abney’s female figures for males.
Gartenfeld said, “It led her into an inquiry of her own work: what attributes signified a masculine of center, female-identified person?”
As Abney was considering the nuances of representation, she had also been rewatching films like National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and Porky’s (1981). Both comedies revel in the sex-obsessed culture that was associated with young men in America at the time. With these movies’ depictions of Greek life on college campuses in mind, she decided to make a new series of work illustrating a frat house full of butch Black ladies.
“Big Butch Energy” includes two paintings and a handful of large-scale collage works. Utilizing powder pink and baby blue, Abney depicts figures who attend parties, wear collegiate sweaters, and even hold babies, as in Mama Gotta Have A Life Too (2020). There are a wide range of references used, from archival photos of HBCUs and stills from Porky’s to Baroque still lifes.
“Abney has this incredibly wide palette she draws from, and that’s always exciting and thrilling to see,” said Gartenfeld.
This isn’t the first time Abney’s work has imaged utopian queer spaces. In a 2020 solo show at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, Abney depicted scenes of queer Black and Brown people enjoying themselves in nature, breast feeding, biking, canoeing, and flirting outside a cabin in the woods.
Unlike that exhibition, however, “Big Butch Energy” is composed mostly of collages. Abney’s work has often taken inspiration from graphic arts and graffiti, and she has often said that her earliest interest in art came from her love of cartoons. While this edge to her work makes her paintings quite accessible, there’s also another influence at work here.
For example, in her work Because I Am Somebody, Abney depicts two adaptations of a very famous graphic work, a protest poster that reads “I am a man.” The poster was originally designed for the Memphis sanitation workers strike of 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was photographed with the sign in the protests in which he had participated. In Because I am Somebody, the poster is represented, but the word “man” is clipped off.
“In that work, Abney is opening up the meaning of that message,” said Gartenfeld. “But she’s also specifically referencing the tradition of posters and printmaking in political and aesthetic protest.”
In this way, the graphic arts are folded into her work as a piece of art history that often isn’t considered art history at all.