Q&A with Merit Winner 2019: Nico Athene

Tell us about your artistic journey up until the point of entering Sasol New Signatures 2019

My artistic practice began as an interrogation of how my body – as all femme bodies – exist in systems of expected transactions. It was initiated by my experience in the local film industry, where glass ceilings and a culture of male entitlement, forced sexualised readings and gendered performances of my body. After seven years, I quit the industry to work as a stripper in a Cape Town club. It was a performative protest that helped me further unravel the dynamics of how my body is obliged to perform in hetero-patriarchal economies. Stripping allowed me a more nuanced understanding of boundaries and consent without obligation, in a space where I could choose, and charge for, the labour.

The stigma of having a job in the sex industry had very specific, complex and often harrowing implications. Following my interest in how we alternatively sell and police the sexualised femme body, I worked to elevate the position of the stripper/sex worker to one recognised as a calculated site of cultural and aesthetic production, by inserting my stripper persona into the ‘art world’, as a means of de-stigmatising her, but also of illuminating her position. “Curating the Body’’ was my first intervention - a series of conversations held with artists in my flat at 4:30 am, when I came off shift at the club, exploring the criteria that decide when performance is considered art. My performative-photography series “Fantasy Friday Featuring Real Artist” followed, where I traded performances of intimacy and the mundane for the cultural capital of socially vetted artists, and then in 2017 “In Bed With Artists Residency” where artists could apply to spend 24-48 hours with me in my bed. 12 jury-selected artists from 4 different countries took part. The work was intended to raise important questions around different kinds of queer and intersectional identities, performing gender, nuances of consent, coercion, obligation, the domestic space and its relation to ‘commercial art worlds’ and, of course, the political matrix that determines who has access to safety, who has a right to do what they will with their own body, what kinds of labour we value and what kinds we keep invisible for the benefit of the dominant hegemony.

This year I have begun my MAFA at WITS University, having never previously studied art, and under a generous grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation. Having worked on the edges of institutionality, and in spaces that have at times felt dangerous to me, it is a relief to be able to re-imagine my practice, concerning self and identity, with support from colleagues and mentors who are all dedicated, engaged and fascinating people.

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

I guess my own experiences have been/have had to be if I am to make anything authentic, and in many ways I guess they have been dominated by a sense of gendered injustice, and often even dysphoria… and, obviously, also community, in its shifting and not necessarily always human terms. Maybe simply because somewhere I’ve inherited the belief that ‘art’ (that nebulous space and term), allows (or at least it should) space for the expression and realisation, and in a way, I guess, legitimisation, of ways of being that, don’t necessarily find recognition in the known, or norm. But making art is about having a conversation, so I am influenced by all my interlocutors - sentient and material.

What motivated you to enter the Sasol New Signatures art competition this year?

Being in Johannesburg, where people seem bolder and less afraid to take up space in the market, inspired me to enter, and perhaps the confidence I have found in being part of an academic cohort and with the legitimisation of the institution. Besides, I now have more tangible work to show as my practice is becoming more sculptural, having been performative and somewhat ephemeral before. This shift is, in part, a way to remove my direct body from the space and separate my personal and professional lives as a way of diversifying my identity. I’m very excited to enter into this space of materiality.

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

This work is a continuation of my project of making visible the labour of the femme position (and sex worker and stripper) as a site of aesthetic production. As such it challenges the status quo of gender binaries and their assumed roles. It asks the viewer to consider the moral assumptions that normatively define the public versus private sphere, and by extension, the different kinds of labour we recognise/devalue and at whose expense/interest. It asks how we construct positions of authorship, what we take to be subject and what we define as an object. And it asks what happens beyond, or after, the tradable body – what potential exists beyond the capitalist gaze, in that space where the discourse of exchange no longer makes sense - spaces narrated as ‘ruin’ according to expansive capitalism. What happens after entertainment? Who is left when the after-party is over? Where do the cakes go? The people performing gender and other kinds of labour? The excessive opulence? What life goes on? It is connected to my preoccupation with ‘what next?’ The photograph is more sculpture than an image – the glass not only heightening the soft sensuality of skin and icing, but creating a surface that reflects the view, or voyeur, back at themselves. The figure photographed does not engage with the audience, does not return their gaze. Her position is opaque, hidden. She refuses to be seen, even while on display. She reflects rather, the viewers own projections. It comforts me to recognise my opacity in this image through work that is normally considered very ‘exposing’. That through it I have reconstructed my definition of privacy and self-possession that does not rely on how we normatively moralise transaction and visibility.

Art competitions can be a huge motivator for artists. What do you think of this statement?

Definitely. The potential of one’s art finding its audience makes the risk and investment of entering the work worthwhile. Work comes alive through public discourse and with its high profile and structured process of review, Sasol’s competition offers an invaluable endorsement of the work, encouraging the artist and supporting the public to take the work seriously. Sasol’s competition is especially motivating for me, in that the prizewinner gains access to, and the resources towards, a big exhibition. Having reached a place where my art is proliferating, the possibility of being awarded the opportunity to bring the work into being is the most exciting.

Why is it important to focus on the experience rather than just the prizes?

I don’t think we should underestimate prizes! In a way, almost all contemporary art is at least in part about discussing value. What society considers a valuable idea, or position, or worthy of attention, representation, and remuneration. Aesthetics is always political. And money is enabling. Once you have it, you can realise more ideas, you can broaden the conversation, you can increase visibility for positions that are potentially excluded, or not yet imagined. Being a finalist already raises their profile, and gives the artists a taste of the possible.

Do you have a mentor and how important is mentorship in developing a career?

Mentors are everything. Art does not exist in a vacuum. I think art is always a part of a conversation, or at least, good art is. And part of becoming a better artist is being shown your blind spots, where your conversation falls short or is naive or insensitive, but also building the confidence to claim artistic space and show and share your work. A good mentor pushes you to all these places by having a conversation with you. Careers are built on conversation. My artistic community is a mentor to me in some way. Before having dedicated supervisors via the institution, I would seek out mentors. Every artist that has ever engaged in my co-optive works has been a mentor. If we are not pushing and growing and being challenged through the process of art, we may as well give up. Currently, at Wits, I am extremely grateful to my two supervisors Donna Kukama and Bettina Malcomess who stretch and challenge me and constantly push my thinking both in form and theory. I feel very lucky to be supported by two women who are so nuanced and sophisticated in their thinking and practice.

What excites you about the creative process?

Probably the same thing that terrifies me - leaping into unknowns, and pulling things up, out and through them. At the moment I feel like I am proliferating, into all these new materials and ideas. Which is hugely generative and exciting. The creative process can be alchemical. It can allow for transformation, and nuance of feeling and thought that is not necessarily known or binary. I like that it allows for processes that do not need to be known, or excavated, to be valued. Something very important in realising the ethics of encountering difference.

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

People usually consider me a performance artist, although I have always considered myself more of an installation artist, installing my body in space. At the moment, I am mostly exploring sculpture created through a series of gestures and relationships, so it is both. I am interested in creating landscapes of the relationship between different materials and sites of sentience, and between artists and the public, to reimagine relationship as a site of change. Reimagining and reinventing relationship is a queer imperative, I think. Also important for anyone who agrees that current systems are in urgent need of transformation.

If you could summarise your entered work in three independent words, what are they?

Sensual, Slippery, Subversive (or should I say excessive?)

Has entering this competition taught you anything about yourself?

Yes, that my ideas are not so out there that they cannot be engaged with by the corporate world. That sometimes my work is also really good! I do love this piece. It feels like it is a simultaneously sensual and punchy portal to a conversation I’ve been a part of for a long time, so I’m honoured to be able to share it with a growing audience.

Which South African artists do you admire and why? Wow. So many. I think we have some truly exceptional artists. Five that come to mind are:

Donna Kukama - who is also one of my mentors, for her mind and ephemera and eloquent way of bridging it into other objects and modes.  

Heidi Sincuba - for work that is brave and bold. Their fearlessness. Their aesthetic. Their energy and activism. (Note to ed: the gender-neutral pronoun is intended).

Dineo Seshee Bopashe - for work that transcends binaries and schisms and linear thought. That pulls into consciousness alternate ways of being. I think her work is somehow very firmly and non-defensively a realisation and portrayal of femme ontology.  

Gabrielle Goliath -  her ability to negotiate both corporate and traumatic spaces with such deep integrity, and without compromising reverence for her subject matter.  

Brett Seiler - for his work that is unapologetically queer, tender and political at once. That is bold and clever and deeply personal.

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

At the moment I am thinking of ways to diversify identity, and to create conditions through which we can realise ourselves as sights of symbiosis and experience encounter as an opportunity for change. It is part of my project exploring what survives, or even thrives, in spaces of capitalist ‘ruin’. A huge part of this is letting go of fixed narratives of relationship and progress to hold ourselves in spaces of uncertainty, as an ethic towards communally surviving the Anthropocene, and communally surviving what we have inherited in terms of hetero-patriarchal and violently expansive modes of consumption. Part of this is about learning to encounter difference, without necessarily understanding it. I am hoping to do this through the creation of sculptural, photographic and performative landscapes. I am interested in my process of how materials talk to each other, and myself in recognising new sites of sentience towards an understanding of our existence as densification of consciousness and experience within much larger, much more complex ecologies. Specifically, at the moment, I am also thinking of how to make sculptures that grow or change over time, that are responsive within these environmental ecologies.

What impact would winning this competition have on you?  

It would be so huge. Not only in the validation of the issues and things I think about and make work about, but also of a non-binary position. And in the opportunity to realise the work that I feel is brimming in me. The prize money from Sasol and the opportunity to make work for a solo exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum would lend credibility and protection in furthering these explorations. It would be such an honour.

The winner and the merit award winners receive lots of publicity. Is this something that excites or daunts you?

Both. Certainly excited for publicity for the work, but always a bit nervous for myself! While my work frequently elicits predictable public projections, countering such easy readings is a part of the work itself. Publicity has been an important part of engaging discourse through the work to date. It is essential if the art is to be part of a growing conversation - and I believe my work has something important to say.

What does innovation in the visual arts mean to you?

The flexibility in terms of medium and approach that is ‘allowed' under ‘arts’ and ‘artistic research’ presents an opportunity to challenge existing structures, to present and invoke new modes of being, thinking and relating. The way we can follow concepts or experience through different spaces, relationships and materiality. In terms of trying to imagine life outside of linear structures and narratives, finding the space and scope for this is extremely important. This space of visual arts is maybe by definition innovative. I think art can facilitate our entry into previously unimagined spaces and relationship. And that this is of pressing importance.

In your work, how important is the commentary on current social or political issues?

To me, art is really about being in conversation with the broader community, and recognising that everything is in conversation - our social and spiritual selves are not disconnected from our ecological, biological, relational and political selves. It is inauthentic to imagine that we can live separately from the social/political, that we can converse, or experience, outside of its mechanisms, and that they don't impact our deepest lives and experiences in the most fundamental ways. And this is not the time for inauthenticity. The threat to each other, the planet and all life is too urgent.

Art is… many things for many people, but it can take one to the edges of the known to encounter otherwise unfathomable things, and sometimes to bring back the possible.

Download the 2019 catalogue here