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I first met Kymia Nawabi in a Graduate Student Association meeting in the Fall of 2003. She was beginning her first semester in the painting department at the University of Florida while I was going into my second year in the Photo Department. She was very friendly with a warm smile. When she introduced herself I knew immediately she was Iranian. She looked at me with surprise then asked how I could tell.
‘By your smile,’ I replied.
Iranian women have beautiful, open smiles, large expressive eyes and lustrous dark locks. Kymia is no exception to this rule. And while I thought she was pleasant enough, I dismissed her immediately, figuring she was yet another one of those tedious chicks who made what I call ‘girl art.’ You know: pretty girl paints herself as a monster because ‘that’s how she feels on the inside’ or pretty girl photographs herself in an open field in a white slip with dirt smudges on it because ‘it’s a Third Wave Feminist comment on patriarchal domination of female sexuality.’ We had one too many of these girls in our school but, as it turned out, Kymia was not to be one of them.
After viewing her work in a local exhibition I knew the ever-present (in public at least) toothy grin masked a deep reservoir of psychological pain brought about by years of dealing with a crippling Social Anxiety Disorder and feeling like an anomaly in her mostly white hometown of Durham, North Carolina. However she avoided depicting herself as a mere victim by representing the complexity inherent to social interactions filtered through the haze of an anxiety disorder. Her self-portraits were not a series of victim tableaus but rather psychic battle scenes. Her work possesses everything I’m drawn to in Art: portraiture, contour lines drawn with ball point pens, a nuanced but violent color palette, sharp contrasts, dramatic depictions of incomprehensible emotions, and personal histories rife with pathos. And then there are those creepy miniatures she makes out of sculpey as 3D companions to her drawings and paintings. I thought she was a genuine human being and one of the better artists in our program. I also thought she would be “Most Likely to Succeed” after graduate school.
A few years later I attended an opening in a makeshift Brooklyn Gallery and there she was showing some drawings from the Nincompoop series. It was a surprising departure from the work I saw in graduate school. I was reminded of Aubrey Beardsley’s erotic drawings but less comical and way more sinister. I was impressed that she managed to transcend the victim stereotype to create highly complex, visceral (but never spiteful) commentary on the unsavory aspects of life. I thought, “One day she will be featured in Artforum.”
That time hasn’t come yet. So for now she will have to make do with a feature her here in FLABmag. Besides, we saw her first.
FLABmag: You’re primarily known as a painter but you also make sculptures and draw. So when you describe yourself and your work what do you tell people?
Kymia Nawabi: I always tell them I am a multi-disciplinary artist because I do painting, drawing, sculpture, and now, stop-motion animation. I’m a little bit across the board, one medium informs the other and makes my work much richer. So it makes sense to say I’m a multi-disciplinary artist but I also think most artists are these days.
Fm: Does narrative writing figure into that mix? I ask because I was reading your artist statement on your website and it’s pretty involved in describing a mythology and to your characters in your series The Nincompoop? Actually the images themselves have a narrative quality? Have you done any writing?
KN: (Laughing) I’m an awful writer! The statement on the website took me forever to write. I keep revamping it but I’ve gotten a lot better since Grad School. They really forced us to get better, drilling it into our heads that just because we’re Fine Artists doesn’t mean we can’t be writers as well. So I’m trying to get better at writing about my work, personally, but as far as writing stories about the work…? The closest I’ve come is writing in my sketchbooks when I thought no one was going to be reading them and I wouldn’t have to worry about editing or criticism or any of that.
But when I had to write my thesis paper I definitely went further into the mythology of the characters, their make-up and personalities. That was the first time I felt like a real writer because I had to become more poetic with my words than I ever had to before. But one day that would be an amazing battle for me to defeat: that I finally get over the self-consciousness that I feel about writing. For now, definitely just gonna keep going along with making visual work.
Fm: Well it’s interesting that you’re moving into animation because I believe these characters lend themselves nicely to that medium. Have you made any videos so far?
KN: Yeah, I actually have two, that were successful enough, posted on my website. I made them with a Super 8mm Canon film camera. Those reels are usually about three minutes long so I was working within that time frame, not really planning on editing them together to make a longer feature. I was doing these super-short stop-motion animations. The first one I attempted was at UF; it’s also on my website. It’s called I Know, I’m Sorry. And the second I actually did here in New York City while I was working at my Lower Manhattan Cultural Swing Space Residency. That was about three years ago. They’re really rough with no audio but my dream was that the sculptures would start to move on their own and get up and walk around. They are by no means sophisticated (the animations), maybe not even interesting, I don’t know.
Fm: But at least you are trying.
KN: Yeah, at least I got it (the animation project) going and I am able to say I’ve started in this direction. My dream is to take some lessons in film and animation so I can get better at it. I do have a project coming up to do a video for the band, Future Islands (Thrill Jockey Records), using stop-motion animation. I’m about to launch a fundraiser to support this project actually, through an organization online called Kickstarter, so please to all the fans, donate just three bucks if you can!
Fm: Let’s talk about your MFA thesis project, The Nincompoop.
KN: That project came about…well…it goes as far back as my first year at UF. I was working on a continuation of the pieces I was creating in college, and that for me was making these very literal portraits of myself as hybrid girl-woman, but also myself with the body of a bird, really literal interpretations, and very much about my portrait. I got a lot of criticism for the literalness of the pieces, but the symbology within the work was fine and good but the self-portrait that was reoccurring closed everyone else off to the work. So they challenged me to find a way to recreate the self-portrait but in a more metaphorical way. Instead of representing snap shots of experiences as a child with Social Anxiety Disorder they asked me to represent whole chapters of those experiences. And that’s how I developed this more complex mythology and the creatures in The Nincompoop. Actually that’s how my portrait was reborn, through this character called the The Nincompoop, which is the protagonist, and the antagonists were the Superior Super Senses Stalkers that are these super-anthropomorphized characters that represent groups and crowds of people.
Fm: Do the Superior Super Senses Stalkers also represent the anxieties you were either made to feel or imagined that you felt as a result of having Social Anxiety Disorder?
KM: The Superior Super Senses Stalkers represent the crowds of people I would have to face everyday in every situation you can think of, whether it was sitting in a classroom, to pushing a cart through the grocery store….but, you know, it’s funny; because the more I talk about the older work the more I think that, yes, my sister and me were the ‘minorities’ within our community (of Durham/Chapel Hill, North Carolina) as the Middle Easterners, but it wasn’t like we were mistreated every day, nor spit on, but it was the subtle things that would happen but then they would magnify and come together and become this bigger internal thing that would multiply and get worse and worse. It shapes who you are because the more you are told something, and it keeps happening over and over again, you begin to believe it. And next thing you know you’ve got this giant complex on your hands. I developed this internal vision of who and what I was based on this abjection from my external experiences, and it changes the way you interact with people. In my thesis work I represented myself as the abject object; the abject being foreign yet familiar.
Fm: Would you say then that The Nincompoop represents not only a stylistic shift in your creative output, but also an ideological shift in the way you represent yourself and your struggles?
KN: Yes, yes. I don’t think I got to push it as far with the earlier works. You know, of me with the sad expression wearing my childhood clothes with a child’s body and an adult’s head. I took it way further with the mythology of the The Nincompoop being lodged in this state, like a child, for so long, and not having grown out of that stage, and in the real world she (the protagonist) is going through the motions of getting bigger (physically) and growing older, but mentally she is in a different place, and how does that represent itself within one figure you create? I started to ask questions that created the characters. Asking myself, “What if, instead of growing out of your baby clothes they grow over you and become a skin?” And with that simple thought in mind it created options for how I presented myself in the work.
Also, really delving into the human abject experiences I was having as well, where this despicable character I was portraying was showcasing so much that is considered taboo in society, for example, her uncontrollable pissing, shitting, or her beastly hair growth. This exploration in the work began by going back to my own history and remembering through the whole body of what I went through mentally and physically because of the disorder.
Fm: That’s an interesting way to approach such a complex subject. Something I noticed in the series is the intensely sexual nature of the characters, yet there is this developmental disjunct, spiritually and emotionally. Is this intentional and what are you referencing here?
KN: Yes, well, I always hoped there was a level of sexuality in the work because it is another phenomenon of being a human animal in this world and again, having these abject experiences. We are sexual beings but we don’t get to share the experience of maturing sexually with many people and all the nitty-gritty it can entail. What I got most excited about when developing this work was that there is this being, a woman/child hybrid, and how I could really exploit this cognitive dissonance, the simultaneous divide and coexistence. She has on all this lacy frilly-type clothing that doubles as children’s bonnets and dresses yet they can be seen as lingerie as well. This is one example. So there are all these aspects of womanliness and girlishness but they symbolize many different layers of growth and can be read in many different ways or at least I hope they do.
Fm: And because it is not a straightforward representation of a woman/girl form it’s completely androgynous, or almost a monster. Is that an intentional result?
KN: I wanted the characters to become asexual or even hermaphroditic. So it’s not just about ‘woman vs. something else.’ So instead of it being about my portrait, it is a portrait of humanity I hope.
In the earlier works (under-grad) the monster-like portraits were about being misunderstood and simply portraying what I felt people perceived me to be on the outside. In the newer works (grad school to the present) the inherent monstrosity of the characters represents dejection as an un-representable human experience.
Generally I think human beings, regardless of gender, mentally experience these milestones in life in a similar way where we all have these parallels with doubts, questions, concerns, confusions, insecurities, urges and dark sides deep down inside. With all these personal experiences (concerning love, lust, sex, acceptance, even down to our moments of why we think we are here in this world and what comes after), we don’t often get to openly admit or talk about them when it can be about the darker, dirtier side of things nor is it usually part of every day discussion.
Fm: What would be an example of the shared experiences you are trying to represent?
KN: Connecting the older works to the The Nincompoop series there is a continuation of the coming of age theme. This is a huge stage of life where healthy, positive, functional mental development can be supported or destroyed for humans. Depending on your individual experience you arrive at who you’re supposed to be as an adult concerning ideas of identity, ideally feeling at home with who and what you are and whom and what you’re surrounded by. I didn’t.
Also in my latest works, I began to speak of the parallels found within the complex experiences of the personal sexual lives of human beings. While continuing to observe and log from my own life, I even pluck from the media, including porn, to continue speaking of the abject. What I’m trying to arrive at with this work is that when sharing individual experiences of all the fantastical and raw stuff that cannot necessarily be put into words, others will see and feel something that is peculiar yet familiar.
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