Kymia Nawabi doing a studio crit with Simone de Pury (image courtesy the artist and BRAVO TV)

Kymia Nawabi doing a studio crit with Simon de Pury (image courtesy the artist and Bravo TV; all images courtesy the artist)

Kymia Nawabi took home first prize on season two of Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, taking home $100,000 and a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. On the final episode of Work of Art, she organized her works in a presentation titled Not for Long, My Forlorn, a series of drawings that acted as meditations on life and death channeled through ravenous, otherworldly beings and animals that inhabit a purgatory-like space.

Nawabi was the last winner on Work of Art as a show proper. There will be no season three. Echoing China Chow’s “your work of art doesn’t work for us,” Bravo decided that Work of Art did not work for them. Regardless, Kymia made art reality TV history with her win. After spotting her on a mutual friend’s Facebook wall, engaged in a funny comment thread about Simon de Pury, I decided to chat with her about life post–reality TV stardom.

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Alicia Eler: Were you interested in reality TV prior to being cast on Work of Art? Why or why not?

Kymia Nawabi: Absolutely not. The only time I genuinely had interest in reality TV was when I was in high school and the Real World on MTV came out. I hate reality TV shows like Real Housewives, I think they are a waste of money and people’s time. I can’t believe people like watching such stupid, low-class people.

AE: Did you watch Work of Art, season 1? If so, who were some of your favorite contestants? Why? Did you have a single favorite?

KN: I honestly did not watch Work of Art season 1 until I was applying to be on season 2. I had not heard of it actually because I did not have TV for years. I really wanted to know what I was getting myself into so I downloaded all of season 1. My favorite contestants were Peregrine, Miles and Abdi; I agreed with the judges’ choices.

I think that Peregrine is my all time favorite because she is such a great drawer with such bizarrely beautiful visions, but Abdi is an incredible painter …

Kymia Nawabi, "You Will Do It Again and Better, We Live Forever," (2011), acrylic, glitter and ink on paper, 72 x 84 in.

Kymia Nawabi, “You Will Do It Again and Better, We Live Forever,” (2011), acrylic, glitter and ink on paper, 72 x 84 in

AE: Your performance on season 2 was very emotional. That is, you appear very emotional in front of the camera! Would you say this is true to life? How was it, for you, being emotionally vulnerable on camera?

KN: This is very true to life, in fact I was a little relieved as to how much of me crying they edited out! I have always been a very nervous, high strung and overly emotional person so it was only weird to be myself in front of the cameras when things were super tough. I remember thinking about things like, “how am I going to look or sound to others when I am freaking out about this and that, especially with how they are going to edit this with a soundtrack.” I was very aware of the fact that there was going to be a public eye soon and I just had to let go and accept to be myself. I was not there to act.

AE: Did you know you were going to win the show? Or, did you sense it?

KN: NO WAY. I never thought I was going to win, even when I made it to the final three! I was up against such talented people. Although I was very intimidated by Sara and Young’s abilities, I have to say I never saw my portrait coming off of that elimination wall. It just never came to mind that whole taking my piece off of the wall and saying goodbye. Maybe this is what kept me going?

AE: OK, the show ended, you got a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, and you are now … famous? Am I right? What does “fame” feel like to you? What’s it like being famous, if you feel that you are?

KN: I AM THE FURTHEST THING FROM BEING FAMOUS. PERIOD. I am still waiting tables to pay my bills soooooo, I cannot answer what “fame” feels like to me because I do not know yet. I have had folks recognize me on the streets and in the subway, but by no means am I well known for my artwork.

AE: How do you think being a visual artist who has achieved a level of reality TV “fame” is different than being, say, a famous actor or musician? Has becoming famous through a reality TV show affected your ideas of fame both personally and as it is viewed in popular culture?

KN: Well, again, I am not a ‘famous’ artist or person as a result of being on a reality TV show, but I have had people admire me for sweet reasons that have nothing to do with my art. Please do not get me wrong, I have gained some fans for my artwork which is lovely and so touching, but I think perhaps once you are in the public eye, you can be loved not necessarily for your craft but more for what others can relate to about you like what kind of person you are, how you sound, or how you dress even. I wish the “fame” and interest was more about an appreciation for the art and ideas you are presenting and working so hard for.

When discussing fame I think that there are subcultures to take into account also. Obviously there are certain generations and cliques that will know of an artist as famous, when another will not even know whom you are speaking of. There are different levels of fame and I am not so sure I fit into any of them at the moment. I recently watched a documentary called Beauty Is Embarrassing, about Wayne White who is a genius. I am in shock this man is not widely known for his work, but then again, he speaks to my aesthetics and my world. Discussing fame and its inhabitants is a very strange topic to cover because it is directly related to whom you are surveying in relationship to his or her world, upbringing, views and interests really.

Maybe musicians and actors are the luckiest artists within this arena because these art forms are more mainstream and revered than the fine arts by way of TV, movies, radio, magazines etc. all over the world and Internet. Whereas the fine arts seem to be neatly tucked away in galleries within specific hot spot cities with specific zones for these galleries and particular magazines exclusively for the fine arts; all of which individuals cannot easily stumble upon. I am not so sure if you asked the average Joe who Matthew Barney is they would know who you are talking about, but if you asked practically anyone in the world who Madonna is they would know and say ‘Of course,’ I would imagine (and she is not even that current!). I think that is the difference: you can be a contemporary actor or musician part of popular culture and become mega-famous, but I am not so sure that the fine arts are widely appreciated and/or accessible to the point where contemporary artists are a part of popular culture to then become a part of common knowledge. I am still in disbelief that there is not a late night talk show that showcases fine artists with their work and life stories! This is so sad to me (it is also so sad that TV is the strongest tool to reach the masses). If I had a million dollars I would start this type of show. There are so many unbelievably talented artists out there that are not “famous” and it upsets me. It upsets me because I define fame as simply being known and paid for your work that is seen, celebrated, discussed and respected.

SO, maybe actors are the ultimate luckiest of all the artists because they do get paid. Musicians do not get paid the way they used to, now with everyone downloading and sharing their music for free. You can discuss fame all you want, but even if an artist, any kind of artist, is well known, that does not mean they are rich and famous.

Kymia Nawabi, "Not For Long, My Forlorn," (2011), acrylic, crayon, glitter, ink and watercolor on paper mounted to box-panel frame 48 x 48 in.

Kymia Nawabi, “Not For Long, My Forlorn,” (2011), acrylic, crayon, glitter, ink and watercolor on paper mounted to box-panel frame, 48 x 48 in

AE: Do you believe in fate and destiny?

KN: I do not know anymore. If you asked me this question four or five years ago, I would have said yes, with no doubt. But, I am not so sure, because when I think of fate and destiny I begin to think of karma as well, and as I have gotten older this has been a sensitive topic for me. I am in a stage of my life where I am not sure what my answer to this question is.

AE: How did you spend the money that you won? Was it weird getting a check for that large amount of money, all at once?

KN: I paid the stupid taxman a lot of money and cried about it. With what I had left I started myself a retirement account and invested some of it too. I have been trying to be very careful with it and not just piss it all away. Money is the scariest belonging to have, especially as an artist that is not consistently selling.

It was not weird at all to get a check for $100,000 considering how hard I worked for it. I felt as if I was getting paid for years worth of work, versus for one reality TV show experience.

AE: How has the show impacted your career?

KN: Unfortunately, the show has not really impacted my career in very obvious ways (yet). I thought there would be some galleries interested in my work: nope. I thought I was going to make a ton of new sales: nope. I even thought there would be some strange turn of events where I would be asked to do something out of the realm of the arts just because I was exposed, not just my art: nope.

Out of the whole reality TV show experience, my exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum has been the most powerful and helpful part for my career. I now have a solo show at a major museum on my CV, which is migrating to another museum in 2014 (the Museum of Art in Greenville, NC). The whole experiment of participating in Work of Art is another art adventure to add to my personal history of being a fine artist, which I have no regrets about. I learned so much about myself and my work, that these are the ways the show has impacted my career. It is all very personal and within the confines of my studio and mind.

AE: What has it been like making work since the show ended?

KN: Honestly?

It has been very hard. Even though I am constantly in the studio and making notes to myself for the next piece, I think I am going through a lot of self-doubt and fear. Right after the show ended I had a printmaking residency with the Lower East Side Printshop and I was receiving some orders for commissioned works. I also had to begin a long awaited stop-motion animation project that was put on hold because I went away to be on WOA. The residency was amazing, but I think I went into it with tweaked nerves leftover from the show, making my work and process a bit stiff. I know a residency with new processes, people paying me to make them my work and making a short film are all wonderful happenings, but I have not had any time to just sit and make a new body of my drawing and painting work. I am feeling very sensitive and vulnerable about all of this, because although I have stressed I am not famous by any means, I still feel a responsibility towards my fans, friends, family and self to A) make work and B) not make bad, bad work. There is a strange sense of the clock ticking with all of this new work to be made. It is all probably in my head, but I feel like I am behind and that I should have made more work and better work since the show has ended.

I am almost done with the short animated film, and once this is finished I feel I can go back to my usual studio practices. I feel very excited to make new drawings. It has been too long.

AE: Do you miss the constant audience, or are you relieved that they are gone?

KN: I miss the constant audience at the museum. I do not miss the constant TV audience because they were not solely looking at my art; they were watching “Kymia Nawabi,” too, which is a scary and stressful position to be in.

There is something to be said for privacy and time to just work without worrying about how you look, or who hates you, or what you are saying, or what stage your work is being seen in!

AE: Work of Art was not renewed for a third season. Were you disappointed to hear this? Why or why not?

KN: This is a complicated question.

I am upset for China, because I think she was trying to do something very brave and important for the arts and she was also attempting to bring some culture back to this country. BUT with the format of reality TV, and what makes these production company’s and TV networks money, there has to be some dirty, dirty moves in there. So, maybe in the end the ratings just were not what they were supposed to be. How “House Wives” has millions of viewers hanging onto every curse word and drunken move these stupid people make, versus viewers being introduced to a new world with artists making things and could not care less, is beyond me. I appreciate what China was trying to do with this show. It is a shame it did not work.

Again, if only there was a talk show dedicated to the arts!

Kymia Nawabi wins "Work of Art," Season 2 (all images courtesy the artist)

Kymia Nawabi wins “Work of Art,” season 2.

AE: Have you watched the reality TV show Gallery Girls at all? If so, what do you think of its portrayal of the art world and the notoriously misogynistic term “gallerinas,” which is unfortunately accepted as such in the sexist art world?

KN: I have never seen it. I refused to watch it. Blagh.

AE: Do you watch Lena Dunhan’s Girls at all? If so, what do you think of the character who works at a gallery?

KN: I do watch Girls. I think her portrayal of the artist “Booth Jonathan” is more important to point out and even more hilarious actually, especially because the characters think he is a genius. Lena poking fun at conceptual art and artists makes me very, very happy. It is about time someone says something! There is a film called (Untitled) that takes this whole parody on shitty-bullshit-conceptual contemporary art even further and had me crying I was laughing so hard; totally worth watching. I would like to say for the record that I have very close friends that make amazing conceptual art and that I respect good, well thought out and executed conceptual art. It is the people that call themselves artists who make horrible conceptual work for the fashion of it all, that get shows and somehow sell their work that get under my skin. It happens a lot and I think that the individuals that are hypnotized by this whole way of seeing and making are the ones to blame really, not even the bad wanna-be artists that are making the crappy art to begin with.

AE: In 10 years, do you think people will remember Work of Art: The Next Great Artist?

KN: No, unfortunately not. I mean, who is to say, sometimes strange things can get kicked back up again, but it only had two seasons … so probably not.

AE: Do you think by that time reality TV will have become completely passé, what with the internet and social media?

KN: I cannot wait for this to happen, if it ever does. I think that watching a created world is much more interesting than a forced series of dramatic events with “real” people stuck in it. I am not sure if the internet will really be the reason why reality TV could become passé, but perhaps people will just wake up one day and realize that they have been wasting their time staring at ill-tempered chefs, drunken plastic-y bimbos and cookie cutter bands and singers.

I like the reality shows that challenge the contestants and the audience to think and be creative or simply feel happy because you are watching something genuinely amazing, without all of the ‘I didn’t come here to make friends,’ bullshit or ‘(cuss words galore) you suck and are out of here!’

When you look to reality TV from the late 40’s through to the 60’s it was so much more interesting and uplifting even. For example, in the late ’40s there was Candid Camera, and The Original Amateur Hour. Then we look to the ’60s to The Dating Game, and The UP Series, which is what really personally interests me: a documentary showcasing seven children starting at the age of 7 and following their lives every seven years having run for eight episodes, 49 years in the making!

If it were just better TV then I would have no problem with it.

AE: What’s next for you career-wise? Any shows coming up? Tell us!

KN: I have a solo show at the Museum of Art in Greenville, NC in early 2014.

I have also been invited to be in a group show at Wave Hill, in NY this fall.

A lot of work needs to get made, so I can have more studio visits and showing possibilities. Plain but not so simple. Time to draw, draw draw!!!

To view more of Kymia’s work, visit

Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...

3 replies on “Winning “Work of Art,” 1.5 Years Later”

  1. I enjoyed the show and even tried to contact the producers (via Jerry Saltz) to offer a residency at Djerassi Resident Artists Program ( as a weekly”prize”. Sorry it won’t be back.
    It worked on two levels for me. It gave a sense of and celebrated the artistic process AND it provided some insight into arts criticism.
    Good luck Kymia!

  2. Kymia, Keep saying “yes” to your art it is wonderful and if I had bucks I would buy it (and I can always spot a winner).

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