Nicole Awai: out of the depths | Closeup

Picture it: ten million tons of pitch, the largest natural deposit of asphalt in the world, its surface a charcoal-coloured crusted thing, flat and without lustre, for as far as the eye can see. Until it rains, and it becomes a mottled mirror, with rippling signatures of water, a patchwork of bruises, one hundred acres of blues, purples, grays, a festering sore that secretes, gurgles, spits gas and miracles, holds pools of mystery, pools pierced by reeds and wild lilies, pools that conceal darker matter; an exhausted thing unburying itself, breathing out objects back to its surface, objects swallowed years, decades, centuries ago like some kind of ancient trash compactor — this is Trinidad’s Pitch Lake.

Artist Nicole Awai’s work is hard to pin down. It straddles mediums (her materials include paint, paper, resin, plastic, nail polish, clay, polyurethane resin, nylon netting, metal fencing, construction foam, and wood) and even dimensions (some of her pieces cross the line into sculptural assemblages.) It’s as though paintings have peeled themselves off the wall and become artefacts, agglomerations of stories, people, places, textures, colours, as in Awai’s 2018 work Persistent Resistance of the Liquid Land. Or 2017’s Vistas, in which moving puddles of bitumen seem to have picked up nearby detritus and become beautiful clumps that look two ways at once: backwards and forwards.

Paradoxically, while inconsistency is a kind of consistency in her work, it is also evident that Awai is not concerned with depicting one thing: the artist has no programme or set agenda. What her motley band of painted forms and ideations amounts to is difficult to say, might baffle even the most alert viewer. Until, that is, you consider the Pitch Lake. Once you see the lake in Awai’s work, it is hard to unsee it. 

But when I speak with Awai — who was born in Trinidad but is based in New York City and spends time in Texas — the distance between her and the lake could not be more apparent, as is the distance between her present and her past. 

“I’m sitting here in Austin after all of that winter storm crap,” she says. It’s late February. A few days earlier, a historic winter storm pummelled through the state, triggering a power crisis and prompting shortages of water, food, and heat. “The buildings here are not insulated like up north, so you feel the cold to a degree that’s unbearable. I have colleagues whose roofs caved in or the heat broke down.”

Awai is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches painting and drawing. However, she’s based primarily in Brooklyn, New York. She has exhibited at such institutions as MOMA PS1, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Queens Museum — all in New York — and the Salvador Dalí Museum in Florida. She has been an artist in residence at institutions like the Studio Museum in Harlem and the John Michael Kohler Centre in Wisconsin. She has been invited to discuss her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and was a critic in painting and printmaking at the Yale School of Art from 2009 to 2015. Her work has been featured in The New York Times

In 2000, Holland Cotter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic at the Times, described Awai as “a figurative painter with an unprettified technique and a metaphorical bent. Colonialism and how it shaped the West Indies is her subject, built up through overlaid images of tropical birds, wallpaper patterns, antique prints, and illustrations from the British-published schoolbooks with which she grew up. Background and foreground in her paintings keep shifting, which is a good way to think about history.”

I find Cotter’s reading persuasive until I speak with Awai. I ask her about her past in Trinidad, about her relationship with the Pitch Lake. We speak about this for some time, but at one point in the conversation it’s clear she’s mindful of the risk of narrowing the scope of her work. She gently resists any kind of pigeonholing. She’s not “depicting” a lake or specific place or history. Her ties to spaces and elements of her identity are, if relevant, just parts of a broader framework. She’s inclined to look forwards. It’s understandable: we all resist being labelled and packaged. We all prefer to look forwards rather than back. 

“We live in such multiplicities,” she says. “Things are many things at once, and I have always been interested in multiple perspectives.”

Awai was born in Trinidad in 1966. She grew up in Blue Range, Diego Martin, but during her early life she shifted back and forth between Trinidad and the United States, where she spent some years as a child before returning to attend university. There was one constant through all of these movements. From the time she was three, Awai sensed what she was going to become. 

“I was always an artist,” Awai says. “My mom said I was forever painting and drawing. She said while we were in the States, I’d be sat at a little utility table painting. I’d take a break to watch Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, Sesame Street, and The Electric Company. Then it would be back to painting.”

In Trinidad, Awai went to Bishop Anstey Junior School then Bishop Anstey High School — both in Port of Spain. She took up oil painting at the age of seven. “At home I would be oil painting, but at school, classes involved water-based stuff.”

But the idea of being an artist seemed scary, especially in Trinidad, where such possibilities were not widely embraced. “For a hot second I thought about architecture,” Awai says. Good sense prevailed. Her mother supported her interest in art and ensured she got extra lessons. It was clear that she would have to study further abroad. She received her BA in 1991 and an MFA in multimedia art in 1996 from the University of South Florida (chosen for the warm weather.) She also attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1997.

“I just wanted to do art, which felt like a huge decision,” Awai says. 

Perhaps it is safer, then, to agree with Cotter’s assessment of Awai’s work as shifting. Shifting between axes: past-present, past-future. Or perhaps we can go even further and say the work dispels with linearity entirely. Each piece is a kind of Janus: facing all directions at once so that we trouble our understanding of what encompasses it and us. 

“My practice moves in and out of dimensions,” Awai says. “Over the years, it has moved from two-dimensional to three-, and everything in between.”

Then during her time as artist in residence at the Studio Museum, from 1999 to 2000, a breakthrough happened. “I remember making these paintings where the objects started to take on a life that seemed like they needed to step out of the paintings and into a physical space,” she says. “It was this idea around the idea that worlds could be parallel: they were coming up to the surface of the canvas and they wanted to cross over into our own world, and I thought, ‘I want you to come out and reach out from the surface. I will let you loose.’”

Flowing through Awai’s work is an interest in these types of antinomies: inside, outside, fluidity versus solidity.

“Her drawings, installations, and sculptural works process a range of inferences derived from her negotiations with the persistent, mired, and myriad games of identity and labelling,” the Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier wrote of Awai in a 2004 BOMB magazine profile. Cozier ended by noting Awai had begun a new venture, one exploring “a world of conflicted components and definitions in an endless process of amorphous meltdown. It is also an in-between state.” 

In 2013, Awai returned to Trinidad briefly for an artist residency at Alice Yard, the contemporary art space in Port of Spain, to explore more fully the presence of the Pitch Lake in her work, a presence manifested by a concern with “oozing.” She had not visited the lake before, but had, like most people in Trinidad, heard stories about it. In local lore, the origins of the lake, which is said to be inexhaustible, is tied to the fate of an indigenous tribe. The tribe is said to have done the forbidden by eating hummingbirds. As punishment, the gods opened up the earth, swallowing the village. 

“What I was realising was that ‘ooze’ in my work was about that space, but more importantly it was also the idea of that space being the site or place where there is a connection between narrative and materiality, between history and materiality,” Awai says. “It’s a place that makes time irrelevant.”

For her residency, she produced an installation called Asphaltum Glance, a wall drawing/painting that was simultaneously a visual and olfactory experience. Images of dark residue coated the walls of a small white gallery space, visible through a wide glass door. Awai used bituminous paint, its pungent smell noxious yet familiar to anyone in Trinidad who has been on a road being paved. The effect was both epic and intimate: a sense of something being overwhelmed, of having to hold your breath. 

“It was also acknowledging that somehow we are connected to the environment,” Awai says. “For me, the ooze is a site of destruction and creation where time is elastic. We are using these carbon resources but we are all going to end up part of that ground anyway. It’s all a cannibalistic circle of life.” It’s perhaps ironic that the same environment is now fighting back, she says, noting the storm damage that occurred in Texas. 

Home, history, personal life — they are all combined and compressed, like carbon matter under pressure oozing out from beneath the surface of things. 

Awai would like to look forwards and move beyond the notion of the lake as a specific reference in her work. But five years after her 2013 trip, when The New York Times asked a group of artists to imagine new monuments, Awai created The Spirit of Persistent Resistance of the Liquid Land. It’s an artwork in which the solid becomes molten in order to recast the future. The ooze is still there, as though Awai has tapped into a subterranean resource she can never fully exhaust.

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