MINNEAPOLIS — The subjects in Aliza Nisenbaum’s group portraits, now on view in A Place We Share at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), look almost regal in their presentation. The groups are carefully composed, as if they were posing for a formal photography shoot, though in reality Nisenbaum had each person sit with her individually. While these people don’t wield a huge amount of social or political power, Nisenbaum portrays them with majesty and importance, and in so doing upends class and status structures.
Nisenbaum, a Harlem-based artist who was born in Mexico City and raised by Russian-Jewish and Scandinavian-American parents, spent three months in Minneapolis last summer on a social practice residency sponsored by Mia. The resulting three paintings portray guards that work at the museum, Muslim women that belong to Hope Community (a development agency and community organization), and a group of Latino elders from Centro Tyrone Guzman, which serves Latinos in Minneapolis. Both Hope and Centro have ongoing relationships with Mia, and Nisenbaum chose to also work with the guards, as they were the first community she encountered when she came to Minneapolis. On her first day at Mia, she went straight to the paintings of Alice Neel, one of her favorite artists, and encountered a guard giving insight about the artist to a mother and daughter who were visiting.
Nisenbaum has said that she draws inspiration both from Neel, as well as the legacy of Mexican muralists. Indeed, her work reflects a mixture of Neel’s intimacy and the Marxist political bent of the muralist movement.
Each person in her group portraits comes to life. Their faces are imbued with personality, even as their expressions rarely give away emotion. A slight curve of the lips or a squint of the eye gives the viewer much information, as does Nisenbaum’s expressive use of bright, contrasting colors.
At the same time, the groups’ fellowship is palpable. Here we find strength in togetherness, and the fierceness of community. The three women from Hope Community, for example, sitting amidst the herbs, flowers, and signs from Hope’s community garden, look mighty in their quiet grace. Gazing curiously at the viewer, they seem to hold a closeness with each other that will not easily be broken.
In the background of the portrait of the Centro elders is a mural, one of many that don the walls of the building. The subjects also hold up drawings they made in an art class that Nisenbaum taught. These techniques place the group within the legacy of Mexican and Mexican-American art history, suggesting they are players within a distinguished tradition.
Part of Nisenbaum’s process is to see her subjects as collaborators. By getting to know the community as well as the individuals she paints, she discovers what will eventually become part of the painting. For example, Nisenbaum told me that one of the women portrayed in the painting of Hope Community, Nimo Mohamed, chose the color Nisenbaum would use to paint her hijab. In the painting of the museum guards, the Yankees logo makes an appearance on the bulletin board, because one of the guards is a big fan. Meanwhile, you can see photographs of the guards’ pets behind them.
This process of reducing the distance between artist and subject, making it a dialogue between the two, changes the power dynamics. The artist isn’t an omnipotent auteur, but a co-narrator of the story.
At the same time, the paintings still involve an outsider coming into a community to tell their story. It made me wonder the art that they would come up with if they were telling their own narrative. Still, the apparent esteem, and even awe, Nisenbaum has toward her subjects creates a sense of deference that shifts the attention to the people portrayed.
Aliza Nisenbaum: A Place We Share continues at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (2400 3rd Ave S., Minneapolis) through February 4.
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