On view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami is Nina Chanel Abney’s exhibition “Big Butch Energy” (November 29–March 12, 2023). Curated by the museum’s artistic director, Alex Gartenfeld, it is the artist’s first body of work to foreground gender and sexuality, seen through the lens of college life. After recently rewatching films from the slapstick American comedy genre—including Animal House, Porky’s, American Pie, and House Party—Abney reflected on the power of image-making and the representation of femininity and masculinity. Through a suite of new works, she’s challenging audiences and institutions to take a closer look at representation and the importance of visual culture. Whitewaller asked Abney about how she arrived at this theme and subverting sexuality signifiers in figurative art.
WHITEWALLER: How did movies like Animal House guide you to the theme for “Big Butch Energy”?
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: These movies were not only comedic at the time I originally watched them, but in many ways also felt aspirational, informing my perceptions of masculinity and femininity. I can now say that most of these movies have not aged very well. While their depictions of Greek and college life informed my ways of thinking about identity, they did so while sidelining the formation of my own.
“Big Butch Energy” utilizes film depictions of Greek and college life as a backdrop to explore the legacy of image making and storytelling around representations of masculinity, and how theses references are in direct conflict with my own personal identity as a masculine-presenting woman.
WW: Why was it important for you to address the ways in which institutions and individuals are complicit in perpetuating ideas of identity and gender?
NCA: I am centering Black, queer, masculine-presenting women in contemporary art. Through this, I am challenging audiences and institutions simply by virtue of uncovering the erasure and lack of representation of these individuals in the canon of art history. I am also reflecting on compulsory heterosexuality and investigating what gender means when it doesn’t meet expectations. I’m interested in what determines how a viewer identifies or genders a figure in a work of art. What are the traditional signifiers of gender and sexuality within figurative art, and how can we excavate and subvert them?
These works are reflective, but also are reimaginations and subversions of exclusionary social rituals that are widely circulated in visual media. In these works, I am centering my own experience with how my gender perception and performance has been impacted by what is generally depicted in our society as “the norm.” I am interested in exploring what has been widely accepted and disseminated as male or female, gay or straight, and how they may or may not influence one’s own gender perception and performance.
WW: “Big Butch Energy” encapsulates the idea of social belonging. How are you personally handling the idea of social belonging?
NCA: I know what it feels like to be an outsider, to be in environments in which I had to compromise my own identity in order to fit in and/or feel safe. Gratefully, ideas around gender and sexuality have evolved since my coming of age, but there is still so much work to be done. I am interested in ways in which I can help create space for those, like me, who are considered outliers. I strive to do this both through representation, and through creating actual events and spaces, such as The Josie Club, which was established by myself, along with Jet Toomer, Racquel Chevrement, and Mickalene Thomas, to create a safe communal space for queer women from the African Diaspora to gather and support one another as a community. I have simply been handling my need for social belonging by surrounding myself with those I feel connected to, and in turn creating my own community in which I and those around me can feel fully expressed.