[R]evolution: Nina Chanel Abney

Before we dive deep into the new year and in the spirit of reflection, we’re circling back to a luminary we’ve featured in the past. Below, reconsider selections from our conversation with Nina Chanel Abney in HANNAH’s second edition print, along with a fast forward to her most recent projects.

“…I appreciate how they set the stage for younger contemporary artists to approach the art world and how to make sure that finding our unique niche is priority.” – Abney on Thomas, Walker and Mutu

A decade after her majestic Class of 2007 showed in the Rubell Gallery’s inaugural traveling exhibition “30 Americans,” Abney’s first solo museum exhibition Royal Flush was on view at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. We were curious about the Black women artists who inspired her at the start of her career. She named Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, and Wangechi Mutu as archetypes for claiming the driver’s seat in amplifying their work and acuminating singular styles.

“A big part of my personal liberation and owning my identity happened when I shifted from doing what I knew was going to be “safe,” and really trusted my gift and answered my calling.”

That being said, it seems Abney’s unique artistic identity has been her calling card from day one. Her self-described style of “bold, colorful composition of figuration and abstraction” launched into popular demand by the end of her thesis show. Royal Flush opened the floodgates for a host of solo museum and gallery shows, including but not limited to:

November – December 2017 – Seized the Imagination

at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City

December 2017 – Fair Grounds – at 29 Rooms in Los Angeles, CA

January – March 2018 – Focus at The Modern in Fort Worth, TX

February – September 2018 – Hot to Trot. Not.

at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France

February – June 2019 Neon at the Norton Museum of Art

in West Palm Beach, FL

February – March 2020 Who’s Got Team Spirit?

at Pace Prints in New York City

“I talk all the time about the intentional use of ambiguity in my work. I much prefer the viewer tell the story of what they see and work to challenge what that can be.”

Her most current exhibition—The Great Escape—ended last month at Jack Shainman Gallery’s 20th Street space. Created in the time of Corona, the 22 pieces explore connections between Black people and nature, land and ownership. In true Nina Chanel fashion she has left time and place ambiguous, challenging the concept of home and whether it is a location, a feeling, or a space in your mind.

“I just look to continue to break boundaries and create new avenues to explore success.”

Speaking of breaking boundaries, Abney recently became the first living artist to collaborate with Mattel Creations for their UNO Artiste series. She joins the legendary Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat; both also featured in “30 Americans,” as the third artist reworking of the iconic game’s imagery. The alignment of the trio’s ideals regarding accessibility in art, possibilities outside of a traditional canvas and presenting beyond the white walls was evident to her. Also evident is the integral accessibility of the game itself, a characteristic Abney embodies as a lifelong UNO player. It is a full circle moment that her art can now live in virtually anyone’s game collection.

“From materials, shape/form, concept and execution—I work intuitively.”

Her process for this venture was no different—she blended the elements that make UNO a household name with her signature style and let it unfold naturally. Already rife with vivid colors, text and numbers, Abney’s work makes the cards pop in a way that is both fresh and familiar. Amongst our folks at least, UNO matches are often passionate and the spirited facial expressions she’s painted reflect that. Each tells its own story sure to provoke discussion during play. In keeping with the tradition of setting house rules, she’s added her own twist with a new “Wild No” card. It’s one of our favorite touches and allows players to reverse a “Draw 2” or “Wild Draw 4.’

Photographer David Chickering

The UNO Artiste: Nina Chanel Abney deck is a joint effort with Pharrell’s organization Black Ambition Opportunity, Inc. As such, Mattel is contributing funds to the organization to benefit their work supporting Black and Latinx founded startups. You can pre-order your deck on the Mattel site where they’re predicted to ship out on January 18th.

Photo of Abney Courtesy of Vanity Fair, Shot by Shane LaVancher