Nina Chanel Abney finds her swift success in the art world hard to believe. “My friends say that I act as if it’s no big deal, but I think that’s because it doesn’t feel real,” she says. Since graduating from Parsons in 2007, Abney has had two critically acclaimed solo exhibitions at Kravets/Wehby Gallery, which represents her. She was also selected for the Rubell Family Collection’s prestigious 30 Americans show, featuring pieces by important black artists. Being included in the exhibition, which was on view at the collection’s Miami museum and presented at Art Basel Miami Beach 2008, “was cool,” Abney says, “because I was in a show with all the artists that I read about and look up to.” Her painting Forbidden Fruit is currently on display in the Brooklyn Museum, and the 30 Americans exhibition is on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC.
Abney’s gallery signed her after seeing her bold and beautiful work at the Parsons Fine Arts Thesis exhibition. “I knew that I had to do something big,” she says. “A lot of galleries come to the graduate shows, so I felt like it was my big chance.” The result was a provocative and powerful painting of Abney and her classmates. While the rest of the students were dressed in orange prison suits, Abney was decked out as a prison guard. But the most striking thing about the image was its race reversal: Abney painted herself as a blue-eyed blond woman and her white classmates as black. “When people heard I was making a class portrait, they all said they knew where I was going with it,” she says. “So I decided I had to switch it up.”
Although her paintings deal with highly charged issues like race, politics, morality, and sex, Abney remains casual to the point of being mysterious when discussing the work. “A lot of people are grasping for meaning and want to know what every object is about. I like to let people figure it out on their own.”