Things Around and In Between

KATIE WINTEN IN CONVERSATION WITH NADIA HERNÁNDEZ 

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The work is a contrast of culture, history, time and resource between the two places [Venezuela and Australia], the effects of migration in the evolution and appropriation of popular traditions.

These ideas are from email correspondence with Nadia, in reference to her piece of music, ‘The Summoning of Remedios Pulitzer’, which was included in the 2016 exhibition Waves. Though her new work is informed specifically by the current political climate of her home country, her diasporic experience as a Venezuelan woman living abroad always anchors her practice. Articulated through paper constructions, painting, music, installations, sculptures and murals, her identity allows her, or perhaps encourages her, to create work that negotiates complex political narratives through the personal, the institutional and their intersections.

Nadia’s works are structured yet fluid, solid shapes carefully overlapping, meticulously balanced within their frames to create imagery that seems to wriggle and dance while still operating within their own cohesive visual logic. The composition, shapes and colours speak to, and with, Venezuelan folk art; the visual culture and heritage of her home plays an integral role in the formation of her work and with her understanding of identity;

I grew up around folk paintings which lined the walls of my grandparents’ house, I grew up listening to folk and popular music such as Serenata Guayanesa and Simón Díaz. I wanted to preserve this when I was living in Australia – it made me feel richer. I also saw my country be destroyed from afar and wondered what would happen to the dignity of a nation if all pride was reduced to waiting in line to buy food, or whatever was being distributed on the day. I want to communicate the nation’s story through art, which has also made me curious about the cultural wealth of my country. In folk painting you often see scenes of everyday life depicted. Folklore has informed my style and it informs my narratives.

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Nadia’s studio is filled with new paper constructions, conceptually and stylistically informed by a recent trip with her mother back to Venezuela. She recounts the stories of motifs that appear in different pieces, as though she’s narrating the trip through the construction of fictional characters – Reverdecer, the plane with hands, the red figures shooting guns. She tells me about attending protests, her matriarchal upbringing, reconnecting with her grandparents, and briefly witnessing the decline of her birth country firsthand, grappling with the tensions between poverty, privilege and responsibility.

Ya Pronto Volveremos (Soon We Will Return), Nadia Hernández, 2016

I first created this artwork in ritualistic anticipation of my return home. In sadness and hope post-trip, I think it’s very relatable. The plane with hands is a bittersweet icon of nostalgia, an homage to the nearly 2 million Venezuelans who have emigrated in the last 17 years.

Why are paper cuts and constructions important for the work?

It allows me a certain sense of freedom in terms of composition. I like the intensity and consistency of colour that the paper offers and I like the layering of shapes, which is another way to be more gestural and personal in terms of style. I also like the connotations associated with the medium. Collage is accessible, it’s practiced by children, it’s reminiscent of childhood. Because my work is so specific to place and those stories are so dependent on moments in time, I feel as though paper collage takes me back to my moment of departure (from Venezuela), the beginning of it all!  

Eight years have passed since Nadia last visited Venezuela, during which time the country has entered into an economic recession, become home to the world’s highest inflation rate and lived through four years of ongoing protests over parliamentary elections and a failing government system. Her work gives voice to her frustration, her reclamation of identity, her relationship with her mother, taking action and building community, the power of analysis and the refusal to normalise what people in her home country are enduring.

How is culture defined and remembered?

In essence, folklore is loosely defined as the stories of a community, it’s tied to place and tradition.

Folklore also offers alternate versions of history that aren’t archived, operating as a counterpoint to the art that is absorbed into museums and historical representations of a culture. Folklore becomes a form of cultural remembering. But who decides what is culturally important and therefore remembered? Political, commercial and cultural interests have conspired to promote certain festivals and traditions that contest and reinvent Venezuelan identity;

be it the contested history of a performance, the appropriation of a tradition to serve national and corporate interests, or how the very nature of these diverse traditions exposes the contradictions inherent in Venezuelan identity – African, European, Indigenous, Catholic, colonial, slave, poor, elite, urban, rural, Black, White or Brown[1].

Nadia’s work references the tensions inherent in folklorisation as a form of cultural remembering, situating her own form of political interpretation and remembering in an Australian context. The narratives she creates are informed by her personal experiences, exhibited to an audience both physically and metaphorically distanced from the political turmoil of Venezuela. The coded references to destruction, violence and poverty in Nadia’s works are juxtaposed with naïve, child-like form, bold colours and rich textures, poetically inviting the viewer to engage with the work and its contexts.

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Nadia and I discuss her conflicting sense of identity and the influence her daily negotiation of identity has on her artistic and personal worlds. She speaks of the oscillation between belonging and displacement at the conjunction of inherited and adopted Venezuelan, American and Australian cultures:

Right now I feel like my sense of place is really complete. That has to do with acceptance, that which I felt when I went back home but that which is inherent (acknowledging my roots, family, querencia*, etc). I think there are aspects of my culture which I’m attached to because as much as they’re a part of me I’ve also chosen them, retained them, nourished them, because I see their value but part of that ability to see it has come from growing up elsewhere and always missing something, someone.

*Querencia is a metaphysical concept in the Spanish language. The term comes from the Spanish verb “querer”, which means “to desire”. Querencia describes a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home. 

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Cosas Antes y Después (Things Before and After) speaks of a personal understanding of culture, heritage and identity, in a time of global political cataclysm. Though the work is influenced by specific understandings of migration, remembering, tradition, protest, feminism, familial lineage and political oppression, it also implies an interconnectivity between intersections of experience. This brings me to my original entry point into Nadia’s work, a painting in her 2015 exhibition ‘100% Certain’ – Todos Somos Todos (Everyone is Everyone):

Todos Somos Todos (Everyone is Everyone), Nadia Hernández, 2015

Everyone is everyone is a philosophy. We are all related, we are all the same, we can achieve more through compassion. We can strive for democracy and come together to solve bigger problems, it’s a universal message but at the time of construction it was dedicated to Venezuela. I made it in a time when the country was still polarised and the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro didn’t have the alarmingly low approval rating he has now, 21.2% as published by Reuters midway through 2016. This means nearly 80% of the population want a change. To put it simply you can say most are on the same side, most are affected, and most want to elect a new government. When there’s a collective sentiment as strong as this one, I believe that you simply can’t extinguish hope.

 

[1] The Festive State: Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism as Cultural Performance by David M. Guss
Image credit: Kurt Davies

Nadia Hernández’ second solo exhibition, Cosas Antes y Después / Things Before and After opens tonight, Thursday 23 March 2017, at Special Group Studios at 6pm.
270 Devonshire St.
Surry Hills NSW 2010
Exhibition opening hours: Monday – Friday, 9am – 6pm
Closing 21st April 2017