From and back to a Crack in the Earth: On Nicole Awai’s Material Re-Pose

Rippled, gassy, viscous black substance, roadkill in various states of decomposition squashed into the asphalt of a road, a pattern for a bearskin rug, appropriations of the graphic illustrations of “local types”—these are just some of the seemingly incongruous elements that overlap, blend, merge, and multiply in Nicole Awai’s body of work. The two- and three-dimensional, the representational and non-representational violently collapse into and seep out of one another. The boundaries between natural and man-made, human and nonhuman, familiar and alien blur. A naked body, disintegrating animal carcass, paved sidewalk, bubbling surface of a tar pitch and heap of paint take on intimate resemblances even as a cutout form seeks to separate and distill them into distinct entities. The repeated shape of an animal hide brings into focus their relentless materiality, at once always different and always, at the core, the same.

In her expansive painting practice, Awai examines what she identifies as “the inextricable union of narrative and matter.” She investigates this union through “varying material states of being in immediate time and perpetual history,” encapsulated in the transformative moments of earth, things, and bodies—from and into one another. As the 2012 Art Matters grantee, the artist explored the La Brea Pitch Lake in her native Trinidad as both a physical and psychological locus through which to grasp the complexities and uniqueness of her identity as a contemporary artist from the Caribbean. At the Lake, the perceptual site, imagination, memory, and received narratives intersect. From their nexus, Awai considers the mutually intertwined histories of material exchanges and human dislocations: a global circulation of the highest-grade asphaltum on the planet, African and Asian peoples violently brought to the Caribbean to produce export commodities, and their diasporic descendants. Their material traces and graphic signifiers coalesce in her work with a dual aim. One is to recalibrate our perceptions into “an acute awareness of here—our present/presence.” Another is to suggest that our presentness is always embedded in the incessant, cyclical flows of matter and time.

Awai creates image-object-facts willfully extracted and fabricated from the uninterrupted movement of asphalt and magma; from the constant propagation, composition, and decomposition of bodies. Hers is the matter in re-pose—captured in a momentary, dual, dialectical state. On the one hand, in Awai’s work, materiality crystallizes itself as a pose when brought to our attention like the liquid asphaltum rendered a perceptible, concrete form by the imposed shape of a bearskin rug. On the other hand, it is simultaneously the matter in repose—that is, the matter that appears at rest, still, concealed, or dormant while it awaits the next material transformation. At their generative junction, invisible stories ooze out and temporarily jell, speaking to our persistent desires to control and transform the matter to our own ends and its enduring command over our lives.

Dorota Biczel is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History whose research focuses on modern and contemporary Latin American art in the global context. She served as the 2015–2016 Curatorial Fellow at the Department of Art and Art History’s Visual Arts Center.