In Conversation with

Wendy Nanan: Art as a Place of Freedom to Define Oneself

On display at the exhibition Everything Slackens in a Wreck, at the Ford Foundation, in New York, the Trinbagonian artist of Indian descent talks to us about her career and the challenges of thinking about art as an exercise in freedom to narrate her own particular worldview.

C&AL: How would you define the themes of your work and yourself as an artist?

WN: The theme of my life is as an ethnic Indian feminist living in an Afro-Caribbean island community. My duty as an artist is not to create beautiful paintings, but to comment on that life, visually, from my special point of view—a woman, of East Indian heritage, an observer of the post-colonial politics of the islands, drawing from this rich backdrop, my multicultural background.

C&AL: The moment, as a university student in the UK, when you started working with papier-mâché, and stopped doing mural painting, seems to be an important turning point in your practice. How do you see that time today?

WN: If the clothes people give you make you feel uncomfortable, you’ll always want to undress. That was a moment of finding my own identity and voice. And realizing that my Trinidadian past was filled with a deep wellspring of images and ideas that were endemic to this island nation, to this creolization of the Indian home life of pujas and carnival, and that’s why I needed to return to it. Still, people try to define your voice, “you’re not African, so you shouldn’t talk about Black issues”. Don’t try to tell me what I am, I’m what moves me to speak.

C&AL: Similarly, when you started to draw scenes from cricket matches at that time, it was also a way of inserting your Indian cultural ancestors into your work. In both cases, the choice of subject and material seems to be a very political choice, and not at all random. Has it always been this way for you?

WN: I feel like life and the decisions we make are all political, there’s no separation. You come to them through personal stories that react within an environment, fighting for their own space and earning respect and equality in that place. I tell people that I struggle with many disadvantages in my career: 1. I am a woman; 2. I am Indian; 3. I come from a middle-class background; and 4. I’m not willing to cater to cliques. In fact, there is nothing attractive about me, people often say “Wendy Nanan, she is very difficult to deal with”. Yes.

C&AL: You recently had a retrospective solo exhibition at the AMA | Art Museum of the Americas in Washington DC, and you are currently participating in a group exhibition at the Ford Foundation Gallery in New York. Have these last few years of the pandemic been an intense period, in terms of your work? What are you planning now?

WN: The isolation of the pandemic turned it into important time to be alone and work on the things I’d always wanted to do one day. Discovering dolls stored in a suitcase and reimagining the reasons why I was always intrigued by them and picked them up. When I visited Cuba about 10 years ago, I bought two dolls at a tourist shop. I was kind of surprised that caricatures of Black people with that kind of negative connotation were being sold in Cuba. I expected to only find them on smaller island countries. Is that what tourists expect to see as representations of ourselves? Local artisans make and supply them, so they must sell. We promote our stories of slavery and servitude as commercially viable items. Now I’m working on making dioramas with the West Indian dolls I’ve been collecting for years on my travels in the Caribbean. The work deals with identity, how we present ourselves to the tourist market and why. In addition to an exhibition of these sculptures, I would like to organize a forum with an audience of artists who are rethinking questions of identity, what sells, our love of nostalgia as a subject.

Wendy Nanan is an artist of Indian origin, born and based on the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago.

Nathalia Lavigne is a researcher, journalist and curator.

Translation: Zoë Perry