Portraits with Voices: Susan Katz’s “The Woman I Am” Project

During the 1970s Feminist Art Movement, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party and art historian Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” celebrated great women in history and brought to light the institutional challenges that prevent women artists from succeeding professionally. In the midst of this, photographer Susan Katz (b. 1947) began work on a photobook project titled The Woman I Am, documenting 18 women’s experiences as professional artists.

Susan Katz, Untitled (Portrait of Alice Walker) from “The Woman I Am,” 1974–1976; National Museum of Women in the Arts

Katz is an American photographer from Brooklyn, who in the early 1970s became involved with the Women’s Liberation Movement, anti-racist activism, and the New York art scene. The Woman I Am reflects her passion for activism and art. Unfortunately, Katz’s book was never published. Katz gifted the full model of her project, as well as her negatives, slides, contact sheets, photographic prints, and notes, to NMWA’s Archives of Women Artists at the Betty Boyd Dettre Library & Research Center.

Susan Katz, Untitled (Portrait of Barbara Kruger) from “The Woman I Am,” 1974–1976; National Museum of Women in the Arts

The project sprang from Katz’s quest to discover how to fully center art in her own life as a personal and professional commitment. From 1974 to 1976, she photographed and interviewed well-established women artists, dancers, musicians, and writers in their New York City studios. Each artist is represented by several photographs and a short personal essay facilitated by Katz and writer Leslie J. Freeman, based on interviews with the artists.

Katz sought to portray each artist’s “self-doubts, conflicts, excitement, frustration, and the decisions she made to commit herself further.” Katz captured the determination of her subjects in her photographs, as seen in artist Barbara Kruger’s unwavering gaze or in the total concentration of writer Alice Walker while working.

Katz wished to explore how each artist felt their gender impacted their art. Writer Alice Walker, for example, spoke with Katz about the new opportunities open to women of her generation. “What we’ve decided is we want everything,” she said, including the chance to work as an artist professionally and have children.

Susan Katz, Untitled (Portrait of Gillian Bradshaw-Smith) from “The Woman I Am,” 1974–1976; National Museum of Women in the Arts

Artist Gillian Bradshaw-Smith spoke with Katz about how her chosen medium was sometimes perceived by critics from gendered perspectives. Bradshaw-Smith creates sculpture out of fabric and stuffing, and she expressed her frustration with those who looked at her sculpture as simply a woman’s craft instead of engaging with it as art. She said, “Sewing can be thought of as a put-down. It makes me angry when I hear, “That’s what women do, they can sew.”

What Katz experienced during the course of her work on The Woman I Am project may be best summarized in the personal essay of photographer Eva Rubenstein. When photographing someone, she said, “You can’t help but get involved with that person, at an emotional level.”

—Shannon Neal is the summer 2018 intern in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Questions with Blanca Muñoz

The fifth installment of NMWA’s Women to Watch exhibition series, Heavy Metal, is presented by the museum and participating national and international outreach committees. The exhibition showcases contemporary artists working in metal, including those who create sculpture, jewelry, and conceptual forms. Heavy Metal engages with the fluidity between “fine” art, design, and craft, whose traditional definitions are rooted in gender discrimination.

Heavy Metal—Women to Watch 2018
Artist: Blanca Muñoz
Nominating committee: Spain Committee / Consulting curator: Lucia Ybarra, YGB Art and Factoría Cultural

Blanca Muñoz with her works in Heavy Metal; Photo: Sarah Baker

1. What do you like best about working with metal?

I like the ability to create something that seems soft and light, but is made from a heavy and strong stainless steel.

2. How do your works on view in Heavy Metal fit into your larger body of work?

I think it is a small representation and not very recent work, but feel reasonably comfortable.

3. As an artist, what is your most essential tool? Why?

My most essential tool is electric welding. It gives me a way to build almost anything I want.

4. Who or what are your sources of inspiration and influence?

I am inspired by science, art history, nature, and the universe.

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Blanca Muñoz, Bujía, 2013, Stainless steel, 10 1/2 x 23 1/2 x 21 1/2 in.; Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery Madrid; Photo © Arturo Muñoz

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Blanca Muñoz, Sirenio, 2011; Stainless steel, 11 7/8 x 25 1/4 x 15 in.; Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery Madrid; Photo © Arturo Muñoz

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Blanca Muñoz, Atrapada, 2013; Stainless steel, 16 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 23 3/8 in.; Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery Madrid; Photo © Arturo Muñoz

5. What is the last exhibition you saw that you had a strong reaction to?

My favorite is the exhibition Georges de La Tour: 1593–1652, which was on view at the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Visit the museum to see Heavy Metal, on view through September 16, 2018. Hear from more of the featured artists through the online Heavy Metal Audio Guide. This exhibition received support from Acción Cultural Española.

5 Questions with Kelsey Wishik

The fifth installment of NMWA’s Women to Watch exhibition series, Heavy Metal, is presented by the museum and participating national and international outreach committees. The exhibition showcases contemporary artists working in metal, including those who create sculpture, jewelry, and conceptual forms. Heavy Metal engages with the fluidity between “fine” art, design, and craft, whose traditional definitions are rooted in gender discrimination.

Kelsey Wishik; Photo: Jessy Cook

Heavy Metal—Women to Watch 2018
Artist: Kelsey Wishik
Nominating committee: Mississippi State Committee / Consulting curator: Pat Pinson, Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center

1. What do you like best about working with metal? 

Although metal seems solid and cold, it offers a great range of malleability and receptivity to shaping processes. Different metals offer strength and softness. I enjoy the physicality of working with steel. Working with metal provides me with an outlet for physical energy.

2. How do your works on view in Heavy Metal fit into your larger body of work? 

I have been investigating form and force. I’m interested in observing universal forces and the imprints they leave on life. Such forces include things like speed, momentum, pressure, flexibility, mass, and buoyancy. These forces also enter into more ethereal realms of love, nature, compassion, culture, and exploration. Each of my pieces embodies a force or series of forces.

 3. As an artist, what is your most essential tool? Why?  

My greatest tool as an artist is curiosity. It precedes all physical tools. As I’ve grown as an artist, curiosity keeps me asking questions that bring depth to my work and to my process of creating. How can I serve with art? How can I invite uplifting, imaginative attitudes without adding to the chaos? Is this work authentic? What are my intentions?

Kelsey Wishik, Sprout, 2014; Mild steel, 17 x 50 x 22 1/2 in.; Courtesy of the artist

4. Who or what are your sources of inspiration and influence? 

They are infinite. I find inspiration through my surroundings, my intuition, and other people. I am influenced by literature, music, landscapes, and different vantage points. I am also inspired by rites of passage, especially those of the Indigenous cultures of North America. My interests include quantum physics, sci-fi, and energy fields (biological and geographical). Within the realm of women in metal arts, Lee Bontecou has always been a huge inspiration.

5. What is the last exhibition you saw that you had a strong reaction to?  

The National Gallery in London’s paintings from 1600 to the 1700s, specifically works by Caravaggio and Vermeer, took my breath away. When I was younger and studying portraiture in art history, the subject seemed uninteresting. Seeing these portraits eye-to-eye was mesmerizing. Detailed faces from the past seemed alive. It was poignant to feel the passage of time preserved in a frame.

Visit the museum to see Heavy Metal, on view through September 16, 2018. Hear from more of the featured artists through the online Heavy Metal Audio Guide.

Casting, Construction, and Catharsis: Metalwork Processes

Metalwork has been considered a masculine practice due to the laborious, physical processes involved in manipulating metal. Despite this stereotype, women have long been artists and manufacturers in this dynamic medium. NMWA’s fifth Women to Watch exhibition, Heavy Metal, spotlights contemporary women artists who work with metal. These artists employ fascinating, diverse processes in the creation of their works.

Beverly Penn, Maelstrom, 2011; Bronze, 108 x 108 x 6 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Lisa Sette Gallery, and William Campbell Contemporary Art; Photo by Christopher Zaleski

While many of the featured artists manipulate scrap and recycled metal to make their works, others cast with liquid metal to create new objects. Beverly Penn’s intriguing, detailed bronze sculptures of invasive plants, such as Maelstrom (2011), are cast directly from the plants themselves. Penn calls this method “lost plant casting,” a play on the ancient metalworking method of lost wax casting. It also references the fact that plants burn away in the casting process. In this sense, the resulting sculpture is like a memorial to the plant, immortalized in metal.

Leila Khoury, Summer House, 2015; Steel and concrete, 12 x 48 x 1 in.; Courtesy of the artist

Other Heavy Metal artists find the process of creation to be a deeply personal or cathartic one. Leila Khoury’s steel and concrete works respond to the horrors of the ongoing Syrian civil war, which began during her time in art school. Khoury, of Syrian descent, created Palmyra (2015) in the aftermath of the destruction of the ancient city, attempting to create an image of the place from her own memories.

Khoury’s sculpture Summer House (2015) references her childhood memories of visiting her grandparents’ home in Syria. The structure recalls a row of windows, which Khoury filled with cement to symbolize that she may never return there. She describes the process of making as a way of grieving.

Holly Laws, Three Eastern Bluebirds, 2017; Copper, steel, mahogany, found ironing board, and plywood pedestal, 50 1/2 x 60 x 28 in.; Courtesy of the artist

Holly Laws’s Three Eastern Bluebirds (2017), made from cast bronze, a found ironing board, and plywood pedestal, is a response to the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. For Laws, this work served as her own “personal art therapy.” She meticulously cast 144 bird feathers for Three Eastern Bluebirds. Artists such as Laws reclaim meticulous handwork and other craft techniques, which have traditionally not been considered high art.

Alice Hope also used repetitive handwork to create her untitled 2016 sculpture. Hope patiently strung together thousands of crimson Budweiser beer can tabs—which the artist refers to as “found color”—into a massive spiral form.

The variance and vibrancy of the works in Heavy Metal testifies to the intriguing and often innovative methods that these women artists apply to metal.

Visit the museum to see Heavy Metal, on view through September 16, 2018. Hear from more of the featured artists through the online Heavy Metal Audio Guide.

—Nana Gongadze is the summer 2018 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Get to Know NMWA’s Director: Part 2

NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling answers questions about art, equity, and travel. This is part two of a two-part questionnaire. Explore part one.

Yael Bartana, What if Women Ruled the World, 2016; Neon, 98 1/2 x 38 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase, Belinda de Gaudemar Acquisition Fund, with additional support from the Members’ Acquisition Fund; © Yael Bartana; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

What do you consider your greatest achievements regarding women and the arts?

First, helping NMWA founder Wilhelmina Holladay and the board of trustees to build this museum. Second, having the privilege of working in contemporary art and being in the exciting position of introducing artists to the world.

What is your favorite museum outside of your own?

It could be the last one I’ve visited. The Science Gallery in Dublin is working in an innovative way. I have always loved the Musée Guimet in Paris and the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich. I like museums that surprise me. There’s a real sense of discovery when you are at a smaller museum, and it becomes a jewel box experience.

What has been your most inspirational travel destination?

I traveled to Brazil in 1993 and saw phenomenally important work from the 1960s and 1970s that I had never seen, the flipside of what was happening in the U.S. at the time. I was one of the first curators in the U.S. to recognize that this work was missing from our lexicon of great contemporary art. As a result of the trip, we were able to show two exhibitions of work by Brazilian women artists at NMWA.

Frida Baranek, Untitled, 1991; Iron, 44 x 75 x 46 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: The Lois Pollard Price Acquisition Fund; © Frida Baranek / Galeria Raquel Arnaud, © Frida Baranek

What do women in leadership positions in the arts need more of?

According to the 2014 Association of American Art Museum Directors survey, there is a gender gap in salaries. We need more women in executive leadership positions and more women in board leadership positions. We also need to create more time for women to speak with experts from other fields, creating centers for relevant conversations about the future of our culture. And we need an influx of younger people who believe in what museums do.

What does gender equity mean to you?

Women need to be recognized both as sole producers and as part of a larger context of women. Equal representation has a ripple effect. Communities will support women if their work is valued. We need to focus on a wider world view including women of color.

What artistic talent would you most like to have?

It may not be an artistic talent, but I’ve always wanted to be able to see the future.

Tell us something we might not know about you.

I like science fiction—especially Star Trek and Westworld. I wonder what art would look like on another planet or galaxy.

5 Questions with Carolina Rieckhof Brommer

The fifth installment of NMWA’s Women to Watch exhibition series, Heavy Metal, is presented by the museum and participating national and international outreach committees. The exhibition showcases contemporary artists working in metal, including those who create sculpture, jewelry, and conceptual forms. Heavy Metal engages with the fluidity between “fine” art, design, and craft, whose traditional definitions are rooted in gender discrimination.

Carolina Rieckhof Brommer, Self-portrait 4, 2005; Welded steel, 47 1/4 x 27 1/2 x 19 3/4 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Photo by Natalia Revilla

Heavy Metal—Women to Watch 2018
Artist: Carolina Rieckhof Brommer
Nominating committee: Peru Committee / Consulting curator: Sharon Lerner, Museo de Arte de Lima

 1. What do you like best about working with metal?

Working with metal allows me to make changes. I can just cut it and weld it again. Because I make wearable sculptures, I like to think about what the material can add to the work. What can a metal apron or jacket say about the body that wears it? There is power in sewing, embroidery, and stitching, and I add a twist by using hard materials.

2. How do your works on view in Heavy Metal fit into your larger body of work?

I always wear my sculptures. My themes are related to a feminine world. For example, I am currently working with maternal themes. I made an alabaster belly, which I attached to my body with a leather harness. I asked women questions about maternity and it became a shared experience. I am interested in portraying my own ideas, but also seeing how my ideas connect to other people.

3. As an artist, what is your most essential tool? Why?

I don’t think I have one essential tool, but a pencil and a camera are useful. With a pencil I can draw and write down my ideas. The camera allows me to compare my ideas with reality. I take pictures of myself wearing my sculptures and I know if something is working or not. I print those pictures, draw on them, and imagine how to finish the work.

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Carolina Rieckhof Brommer, Self-portrait 3, 2004; Metal sponges and metal mesh, 98 1/2 x 47 1/4 x 27 1/2 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Photo by Natalia Revilla

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Carolina Rieckhof Brommer, Self-portrait 3, 2004; Metal sponges and metal mesh, 98 1/2 x 47 1/4 x 27 1/2 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Photo by Natalia Revilla

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Carolina Rieckhof Brommer, Self-portrait 4, 2005; Welded steel, 47 1/4 x 27 1/2 x 19 3/4 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Photo by Natalia Revilla

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Carolina Rieckhof Brommer, Self-portrait 4, 2005; Welded steel, 47 1/4 x 27 1/2 x 19 3/4 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Photo by Natalia Revilla

4. Who or what are your sources of inspiration and influence?

I need to create something when I am frustrated by reality. There is the sense of impotence that makes me want to make something in order to cope with it. I absolutely love the work of Louise Bourgeois, and how she addresses her subjects with an amazing amount of honesty, intensity, and power.

5. What is the last exhibition you saw that you had a strong reaction to?

Rachel Whiteread’s exhibition at Tate Britain was great. The idea of casting a space and materializing the void is amazing. While I was there I was surprised by a visitor guide for blind people. How do you explain art, especially Whiteread’s work, to someone who cannot see? I love how art can open new connections and engage people in dialogue, and in equality.

I also saw an exhibition in Lima called JEDEQUE: el retorno del Cordero. Artist Miguel Cordero uses dark humor to confront reality and to talk about political issues. Cordero considers his work visual poetry, and I love this idea.

Visit the museum to see Heavy Metal, on view through September 16, 2018. Hear from more of the featured artists through the online Heavy Metal Audio Guide.

Get to Know NMWA’s Director: Part 1

NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling answers questions about art, equity, and travel. This is part two of a two-part questionnaire. Explore part two.

NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling; Photo by Michele Mattei

Was there a pivotal moment that led you to working in the arts? If so, what was it?

From the time I was in fourth grade, I had the good fortune to take school field trips to the Cleveland Museum of Art. We went on Mondays when it was closed to the public so I always felt like it was a very special place. Since it’s an encyclopedic museum, you could see everything from early civilizations through to the early 20th century. The now-famous director Sherman E. Lee brought in Asian art that glowed on the walls. In high school I was able to have a one-day-a-week internship, working with Henry Hawley who was an expert on Fabergé eggs.

Which women artists do you admire most?

I admire the next artist I am about to see. But to narrow it down, right now I deeply appreciate great artists who are all about creating social awareness with intentions to incite social change. I am drawn to artists who are handling big topics, and creating art that makes you think about our world.

Which historical women artists would you like to invite to a dinner party?

I would like to dine with women artists from French society in the 18th century. There was a brief period when women held court in the salons of Paris before the French Revolution. It was the beginning of the modern age. At the table it would be great to see Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun—who became the court painter to Marie Antoinette—as well as Marguerite Gérard, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, and Anne Vallayer-Coster.

If you could change one thing in the art world, what would it be?

The reputation of women in the art world. In music, there are blind juries so the judges can’t see the gender or race of the person playing. Perhaps this needs to be considered more within visual art competitions.

What is the role of art in our society?

It’s central! Essential!

Motifs in Memories: Symbols in Hung Liu’s Art

Throughout history, artists have imbued their works with the language of symbols to deepen meaning, create tension, and provide visual impact. Chinese painting, for example, has a rich history in which works often feature symbolic plants and animals from the natural and supernatural worlds. Chinese-born American artist Hung Liu (b. 1948) employs traditional Chinese motifs in her works on view in the special exhibition Hung Liu In Print, layering and superimposing them upon images of often anonymous figures from history, including 19th-century Chinese courtesans, laboring farmers, and migrant workers.

Hung Liu discusses her works in Hung Liu In Print at NMWA; Photo: NMWA

Liu’s 2005 series “Seven Poses” features layered imagery, frequently including animals that have symbolic meanings within Chinese culture. In one print from “Seven Poses,” a large crane fills the foreground, while a seated woman holds an open fan. The crane can be a symbol of longevity, happiness, and eternal youth. In another image, a woman lies on a couch that melds with the cherry blossom tree branches around her. Beneath her is a white swan, a symbol of grace and beauty.

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Hung Liu, Untitled (from “Seven Poses” series), 2005; Digital print on paper, 14 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Greater Kansas City Area Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu

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Hung Liu, Untitled (from “Seven Poses” series), 2005; Digital print on paper, 14 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Greater Kansas City Area Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu

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Hung Liu, Untitled (from “Seven Poses” series), 2005; Digital print on paper, 14 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Greater Kansas City Area Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu

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Hung Liu, Untitled (from “Seven Poses” series), 2005; Digital print on paper, 14 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Greater Kansas City Area Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu

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Hung Liu, Untitled (from “Seven Poses” series), 2005; Digital print on paper, 14 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Greater Kansas City Area Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu

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Hung Liu, Untitled (from “Seven Poses” series), 2005; Digital print on paper, 14 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Greater Kansas City Area Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu

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Hung Liu, Untitled (from “Seven Poses” series), 2005; Digital print on paper, 14 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Greater Kansas City Area Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu

In these works, the aesthetic beauty of the animals is aligned with that of the women, prostitutes who were prized for their beauty, but whose identities outside of their images are now lost. They are re-contextualized and collaged with these recognizable Chinese cultural symbols. When presented without context, they become cultural prototypes. Liu’s layered surfaces and expressive, calligraphic brushstrokes highlight this long process of image change and how a symbol can be meaningful or mostly aesthetic, depending on context.

Left to right: Hung Liu, Sisters in Arms I (State II) and Sisters in Arms II (State II), 2003; Lithograph on paper, 30 x 36 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Another symbol that reappears in often Liu’s works is the circle. In Chinese writing, a circle denotes the end of a sentence. In Zen Buddhism, the circle alludes to emptiness, wholeness, and the cyclical nature of everything. In Liu’s words, circles are “a kind of Buddhist abstraction.” They cover the surface of Sisters in Arms I and II (2004), works depicting three women at different stages in life. In playful youth or hardened adulthood, they still stand arm in arm. In these detailed lithographs, the circles unite the two images, as well as provide a visual link to the Liu’s oeuvre.

Ultimately, Liu’s depictions of anonymous figures like these prostitutes and laborers are a humanizing attempt to insert them back into the canon of memory. “I communicate with the characters in my paintings, prostitutes—these completely subjugated people—with reverence, sympathy, and awe,” says Liu. By combining them with recognizable and distinct imagery from Chinese culture, she asserts their place in Chinese history.

—Nana Gongadze is the 2018 summer publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Questions with Paula Castillo

The fifth installment of NMWA’s Women to Watch exhibition series, Heavy Metal, is presented by the museum and participating national and international outreach committees. The exhibition showcases contemporary artists working in metal, including those who create sculpture, jewelry, and conceptual forms. Heavy Metal engages with the fluidity between “fine” art, design, and craft, whose traditional definitions are rooted in gender discrimination.

Heavy Metal—Women to Watch 2018
Artist: Paula Castillo
Nominating committee: New Mexico State Committee / Consulting curator: Laura Addison, Museum of International Folk Art

Paula Castillo and Tethered in NMWA’s Heavy Metal galleries; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

1. What do you like best about working with metal?

You can always come back to it and it is generally still much like it was when you left it. It’s both still and fluid.

2. How do your works on view in Heavy Metal fit into your larger body of work?

They are similar. These works are generative pieces marked by hyper desire to arrange and weld modest forms to mimic the manic intensity with which we structure our world, like the human agency to arrange and work with nature and culture.

3. As an artist, what is your most essential tool? Why?

Suffering. It breaks me down so I that don’t try to contain every experience.

4. Who or what are your sources of inspiration and influence?

Poetry, history, literature, the natural world, and human geography influence me. All are complex and malleable with their hundreds of intersections between the physical and the cultural landscape. The manmade microcosms combined with the expansive natural environment have been the catalyst for my interest in the systems and spaces we inhabit.

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Paula Castillo, Tethered, 2014; Lock washers and hand-cut and twisted wire, 15 x 18 x 11 in.; Courtesy of the artist; © 2017 Paula Castillo

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Paula Castillo, Inverted Star, 2016; 22-gauge mild steel with auto-body finish, 15 x 3 x 18 in.; Courtesy of the artist; © 2017 Paula Castillo

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Paula Castillo, All Those Portions of Small Waves, 2012; Steel byproduct, 3 x 27 x 27 in.; Courtesy of the artist; © 2017 Paula Castillo

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Paula Castillo, The Second Part, 2014; Fencing nails and auto-body finish, 16 x 52 x 52 in.; Courtesy of the artist; © 2017 Paula Castillo

5. What is the last exhibition you saw that you had a strong reaction to?

It would be Javier Téllez’s Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See (2008).

Visit the museum to see Heavy Metal, on view through September 16, 2018. Hear from more of the featured artists through the online Heavy Metal Audio Guide.

5 Questions with Rana Begum

The fifth installment of NMWA’s Women to Watch exhibition series, Heavy Metal, is presented by the museum and participating national and international outreach committees. The exhibition showcases contemporary artists working in metal, including those who create sculpture, jewelry, and conceptual forms. Heavy Metal engages with the fluidity between “fine” art, design, and craft, whose traditional definitions are rooted in gender discrimination.

Heavy Metal—Women to Watch 2018
Artist: Rana Begum
Nominating committee: U.K. Friends of NMWA / Consulting curator: Caroline Douglas, Contemporary Art Society

Rana Begum; Photo: Josh Murfitt

1. What do you like best about working with metal?

I look to architecture for inspiration, which accounts for my attraction to working with industrial materials. Using metals gives my work a physicality and feeling of permanence, juxtaposed with more abstract, meditative, and contemplative pursuits. Combined with color and light, these materials allows me to push visual boundaries and work on a variety of scales.

2. How do your works on view in Heavy Metal fit into your larger body of work?

These works are made from extruded aluminum bars, something I use extensively. I like to work with aluminum as a lightweight material that I can physically handle. As material can often inform the outcome in my work, it is essential that I can engage with it in a hands-on manner.

These two works continue the dialogue with light, form, and color. They are part of a series which explores the way in which the viewer may connect with a seemingly static work as light and color are activated by movement.

3. As an artist, what is your most essential tool? Why?

Light, because without it neither form nor color can survive. Rather than mixing color by hand, I use light and reflection instead. Light delineates form. As it changes in density, it constantly refreshes the work.

The main challenge I face is how to capture and control light in a way that also allows space for the unexpected.

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Rana Begum, No. 161, 2008; Paint on powder-coated aluminum, sixteen elements, each 98 1/2 in. high; Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London; Photo by Philip White

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Rana Begum, No. 161 (detail), 2008; Paint on powder-coated aluminum, sixteen elements, each 98 1/2 in. high; Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London; Photo by Philip White

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Rana Begum, No. 161 (detail), 2008; Paint on powder-coated aluminum, sixteen elements, each 98 1/2 in. high; Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London; Photo by Philip White

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Rana Begum, No. 546 Chevrons, 2014; Paint on powder-coated aluminum, 77 1/2 x 208 1/4 x 2 in. overall; Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London; Photo by Philip White

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Rana Begum, No. 546 Chevrons (detail), 2014; Paint on powder-coated aluminum, 77 1/2 x 208 1/4 x 2 in. overall; Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London; Photo by Philip White

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Rana Begum, No. 546 Chevrons (detail), 2014; Paint on powder-coated aluminum, 77 1/2 x 208 1/4 x 2 in. overall; Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London; Photo by Philip White

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Rana Begum, No. 546 Chevrons (detail), 2014; Paint on powder-coated aluminum, 77 1/2 x 208 1/4 x 2 in. overall; Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London; Photo by Philip White

4. Who or what are your sources of inspiration and influence?

I draw inspiration from my surroundings and the way light affects them. Just as the light changes each day, so too does everything it touches. When I am out in London or other cities, the majority of photographs I take have light as the focal point. This can be the way light is revealing a specific element or how it is creating patterns through reflection. Capturing these fleeting moments inspires and informs my work.

Tess Jaray has been my mentor and a huge influence on my work. I am also very fortunate to be working with amazing women—those who run galleries I work with and curators such as Diana Campbell, Helen Phyby, and Anne Barlow. These women have been an inspiration to me, encouraging me to keep aiming higher and keep pushing myself and my practice.

5. What is the last exhibition you saw that you had a strong reaction to?

I loved seeing Rachel Whiteread’s exhibition at the Tate. The way she transforms and elevates everyday objects—creating solidity from impermanence—really resonates with me. There is a delicacy and poetry to the way she uses materials, akin to what I am trying to achieve in my own practice.

Visit the museum to see Heavy Metal, on view through September 16, 2018. Hear from more of the featured artists through the online Heavy Metal Audio Guide.