Nicole Awai

2012 Grantee

Asphaltum Glance, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

We are not fixed. Do we really live this life within the boundaries of our skin? Are events contained in the sequencing of time? The distance between reality and mythology is just our ability, at any given time, to access, understand and to relate. Experience is molecular, chemical, embedded, recorded, coded, decoded and then re-experienced. It is beyond history and memory. If painting is not just a gesture but is a language -and is a language that I believe is not medium- specific - then in truth, the materiality of what I refer to as ‘ooze’ can be an inherently conceptual feature /directive/ charge in time, or space and place.

My proposal to Art Matters was based on my realization that the La Brea Pitch Lake in Trinidad, may be a significant influence on the consistent presence of an oozing materiality in my work and then beyond that initial acknowledgement, discovering that I had never actually been to this site as a child as I had thought I had been. I realized that this was an imagined experience that sat in my head as reality but now moving past the experience - processing and absorbing it - I know that this influence was not just imagined, it was already embedded.

The significance and the resonance of this recent experience is in the way that it reinforces and re-focuses my vision. I have always been interested in interaction as a transformative experience social, material and temporal, art that transgresses or transcends location. In my earlier drawing series Specimens from Local Ephemera, Local Ephemera referred to the world of in-between, a liminal terrain where nothing is fixed and time is elastic.

The idea of a liminal terrain has affected my visual expression since graduate school where I studied African cultural and visual production with Daniel Biebyk at the University of South Florida in the mid 1990’s. Liminal (which has since been incorporated into art jargon to mean any and everything) was first an anthropological term often used to describe specific initiation ceremonies and practices. Many of these ceremonies are rites of passage during which a child transforms into a full-fledged adult member of the group with ‘special’ knowledge and powers. Some groups believe that, in this process of transformation, the initiate physically becomes an animal or the spirit of an ancestor. Local Ephemera is a parallel world. A journey to and through this world and then back is a transformative experience; an initiation, of sorts, to a more acute perception of HERE - our present/ presence.

This is what I experienced at the La Brea Pitch Lake, a merging, and a confluence of everything -not our persistent impulse to separate, categorize, creating oddity and ultimately objectification that becomes disconnection and absence. I took pictures to initially retain the experience. One image in particular that I call Pitch Pot, has become a conceptual generator for me. The image had such presence, the gravity of material reality, temporal suspension, mythological and historical retention of that given site. Pitch Pot refers to the center of the pitch lake, the place where all its chemical activity emanates. The image was captured right at my feet and comprised of an area that was actually as small as my foot. Right there, was the folklore, the tale of the retribution of the gods on the Amerindians who lived there centuries ago, for killing hummingbirds as a way to celebrate victory over another tribe. The gods were furious and called into being the Pitch Lake, which consumed the village. As an image, the picture also quietly captures the lake releasing gas bubbles and emergent viscous material.

I played with a small series of photographs that included this image, which implied aspects of containment, the 'edges' of an occurrence. As I flipped the images to produce a mirroring effect, mythological faces appeared - witnesses to the eons of ‘presence’ at this site. The process of manipulating the Pitch Pot image in this manner, led me to create the performative, painted environment Asphaltum Glance at Alice Yard, a contemporary art space in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Asphaltum Glance developed as a painting that was meant to exist only for the duration of the time that I was an artist in residence there. I added to it everyday and it was only in a state of stability or completion for five days.

I wanted the painted environment to be a visual and olfactory experience. I used bituminous asphaltum paint that is produced in the factory right on the edge of the Pitch Lake. This paint is used all over the world as a water proofing agent in construction applications, shipping, road building etc. The exhibition space was permeated with the smell of asphalt. Three principal varieties of asphaltum are found at the Pitch Lake in Trinidad; asphaltum glance is the purest grade.

Asphaltum Glance was an immediate response to what was initially implied in the Pitch Pot image. Over time that image has become even more significant. I think of the possibilities of what could be achieved in painting that is implied, what can be expanded, posited and retained. In that image I now recognize and experience the conceptual imperatives of contemporary art in light of recent conversations about the reflexivity and agency of painting. Painting is being recognized as a language that emanates beyond the boundaries of the canvas and this concurs with my understanding of painting. Painting has an active, implied meaning that circumscribes, inscribes and establishes an expectation for any given viewer the possibility of new, illuminating and variable cultural encounters.

Nicole Awai

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