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Color Blocks & Commentary

Artist Nina Chanel Abney debuts a new mural at the ICA

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Color Blocks & Commentary
“I Left Three Days Ago” (2016), by Nina Chanel Abney. Acrylic and spray paint. Library Street Collective, Detroit, Michigan. PHOTO: Courtesy of Nina Chanel Abney studio

On Jan. 17, Chicago-born artist Nina Chanel Abney will unveil her site-specific mural at the Institute of Contemporary Art. This is Abney’s first presentation in Boston and will be displayed on the museum’s Sandra and Gerald Fineberg Art Wall, which is accessible to the public without museum admission.

“Her work attracted us because it has a really exciting, accessible and bold language,” says assistant curator Ellen Tani, who organized the installation. “Nina’s aesthetic is flat and graphic, but she works comfortably on a large scale.” The artist’s work is characterized by bold colors and a geometric style. Many of her works include narrative figures and comment on the sociopolitical realities of black life.

Typically Abney works with spray paint but due to the ventilation system in the space, her ICA mural is created with a combination of painting and collage color vinyl. “Our wall is the largest manifestation of that medium,” says Tani. A black-and-white checkered background and large blue-and-yellow color fields will serve as the canvas for her work. The checkerboard serves as a reference to “leveling the playing field” politically and socioeconomically and will anchor the characters, or “players,” that Abney paints there. Though Abney planned the mural with the ICA team in terms of theme and style, the end result won’t be known until it debuts Jan. 17.

Abney’s work is imbued with references to hip-hop culture, video games and celebrity gossip, images of the contemporary world mirrored back to the viewer through a barrage of symbols. She uses the language of play, bright colors, flat symbols and narrative figures to comment on serious issues. In addition to her public artwork and murals, her repertoire includes collages, paintings, works on paper and fashion collaborations. She currently has exhibitions at the California African American Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

The Sandra and Gerald Fineberg Art Wall is an important exhibition area not only for its accessibility to viewers without a ticket purchase, but also because it’s viewable from outside the museum and it resides in a space often used for private events. That a black artist will exhibit in that space for a year (through March 2020) is significant. “The art wall is really an annunciation of where you are and who we are,” says Tani. “Particularly for this space, we were attracted to Nina’s work because she’s able to imbed social and political commentary into her work without producing alienation.”

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