Merit Q&A - Nico Athene | Sasol New Signatures Merit Q&A - Nico Athene

Merit Q&A - Nico Athene

Congratulations on being announced as one of the 7 winners in the Sasol New Signatures Competition 2021.



Congratulations on being announced as one of the 7 winners in the Sasol New Signatures Competition 2021. Tell us what your reaction was when you received the news.

Art lives through conversation with an audience, and so it is exciting and encouraging when work is given a big platform to be circulated through,  engaged with, and become.

Is this the first time you have entered the competition?

I entered the last one (in 2019) and was a selected finalist.

Tell us a little about your artistic journey up until the point of entering Sasol New Signatures 2021?  

I became interested in discussions around art and aesthetic practice whilst working in a strip club 2015 - 2017, although I had been in creative documentary before that. I was curious about why some forms of ‘drag’ or ‘dress up’ or ‘theatre’ were considered artistic practice, or openly normalised through advertising and other cultural narratives, whereas others were swept behind the curtains of societal morality as something shameful and degrading. I was dressing up in high femme drag every night, and performing very calculated and often fun improvisation to read what clients were looking for and how to keep their attention so they’d continue to engage me. Through this process I realised that gender really is non-binary, that it is normalised and enforced through repeated gestures of gendered relations, trade and identity aesthetics. Following this I installed a number of works exploring gender and sex-work as aesthetic practice both in South Africa and overseas via various art residencies, and through some of my work and the conversations I was having, encountered the MFA programme at Wits. I didn't want to be stuck with the politics of that identity discussion forever. The MFA, along with the hiatus of the pandemic, really allowed me space to re-language and shift this exploration to newly generative spaces.

Who has had the biggest influence on your career as an artist to date? 

It is impossible to say… earlier in my career it was the artists engaged my interventions like the In Bed With Artists Residency. Through my MFA my supervisors Bettina Malcomess and Donna Kukama have been huge influences in terms of holding my process and introducing me to theorists and ways of thinking about and thus making work. I work a lot with Johno Mellish as photographer, as a way of troubling the power of the ‘gaze’ in the sense that I generally commission him or propose collaboration, and so of course his aesthetic and input and generosity of collaboration is hugely influential in my photographic work. In terms of exploring embodied aesthetics outside of gender drag I have been hugely influenced by butoh, and the teachings of my dance and embodiment teachers Tossie van Tonder and Tetsuro Fukuhara. Other artists i have discovered that sort of speak to and validate various dimensions of my practice through their work include people like Sin Wai Kin (previously Victoria Sin), Robert Gober, theorists like Timothy Morton, Ben Spatz, Sylvia Federici. I dwell too on Olu Taiwo’s ‘urban butoh’. And of course, my cohort and friends who make art. It’s nice to play with them.

Tell us a little about why you created the piece you submitted? 

Generally, I start with an idea and it sort of takes on its own life and sometimes it becomes a piece of art. I was locked down with my parents and my grandmother, who just turned ninety. We were being extra careful because of her age, and of my parents who are in their sixties and seventies. I was about to leave home so I could live a more active life and not risk them, and offered my grandmother a parting massage, and then, with her consent, invited Johno to come photograph it. I thought the juxta position of femme bodies that are all at once androgynous, aging, in a confusing relationship of maternal relations would be an interesting embodiment not only of spaces often relegated and then dismissed as domestic, but also the ways we are co-created, and of unbecoming as useful actions for humanity within the context of environmental destruction and hyper capitalism.

How have you navigated the past 18 months of this pandemic?  Has it affected the way you work or the messaging in your work?

The pandemic has been a huge personal challenge and, in my case, also an opportunity. I had to leave Johannesburg in the last days before lockdown to move back in with family. Work slowed down to a halt, I lost all income. And being locked in with my family triggered a bunch of unresolved stuff I had to attend to, probably also highlighted in the stillness and anxiety of the moment. At the same time their support, and the grace granted by that moment of workless-ness and a self-declared hiatus from my masters degree meant I was able to reconfigure my relationship to myself, and my practice, and take some time to reorientate to things that really interested me. The world also opened up in interesting ways as everyone went online. Far away teachers and different kinds of knowledge became more accessible. I am very lucky I have not yet lost anyone close to the Corona Virus.

Tell us about your preferred medium/s ...and why? 

I work with the body. And explore the experienced body (some might call it ‘identity’) as a moment of density within a landscape that is shifting, in relationship, and alive. You might wish to label it installation art, performance, relational aesthetics… but I’m not really sure these categories are useful anymore. It is more of a dance in-between. Photography becomes a medium of transferring some of these actions and ways of being beyond the moment. At the same time, I am always aware that the mediums that the photographs become, how they are displayed and where, is neither neutral nor merely ‘representational’. I like to consider how the mediums of the photographs themselves might be sentient, active, and agent. How they working on me and the landscapes they both locate and contain. I experience my photographic works as more relational, performative, and sculptural than ‘photography’.

When people view your work – what reaction/response are you hoping to create?

I don’t have a predetermined idea on how they should be read… would that not make it ‘propaganda’?

Why do you think your work was chosen as a top 7?

I think this work has depth, and a life of its own. It embodies its contents in ways that are stark but also soft, that are questioning as much as they seem declarative, collaborative as much as parasitic. Juxtapositions that can perturb in interesting and important ways. I think there is a power in its living and in its complexity - echoed through its content and presentation.

And if you are chosen as the overall winner?  How would you feel? Have you already got an idea or vison for your solo exhibition?

I’d be delighted! As an installation artist (we’ll go with that definition for the sake of this question) the idea of a museum show is very exciting to me. I have so many landscapes to explore and invoke myself into, and through, and the Pretoria Art Museum would be a great space to work with and in.

What are you currently working on? What is next for you as an artist?                            

I’ve been exploring sentient materialities a lot, and developed my performance practice over lockdown. I would like to continue, and to continue to explore these hybrid spaces of installation, sculpture and performance that trouble normative notions of ‘medium’ and ‘aliveness’. There is something healing in it. In letting go of any notion of self as completely autonomous in landscapes that are neutral. To realise that everything is alive, everything is in conversation, everything is co-creation. I would also like to teach more, to share what I have gained through the degree process.

Which South African artists do you admire and why?  

There are many, and at different times different artists are more salient to me. I mostly admire artists who work in the interface of some distinction that we imagine as ‘art’ and ‘performance’: Donna Kukama, Kopano Maroga, Tazmé Pillay, Gavin Krastin, Robert Hamblin, Tracey Rose, Tossie van Tonder to name just a few. Acknowledging our embodiment and being with it is brave in a world that often seems to prescribe that we were all equally abled, contained, neutral and logical in a hyper-linear cartesian sense. And Thuli Gamedze, who's words have traveled with me through the process of my MFA: ‘the experience of pain or sadness is often what allows us to come to terms with pervasive dissonances between our own spirit and the ways we are vulnerable to, and complicit in, the mismanagement of people in the world.’[1] And the world in general, I think.

Is there anything else you want to add?

Thank you for this opportunity. It is so important to support the arts. Art is an anecdote to fascism.