I'm just playing with dolls
The several dimensions of artist Nina Surel and the importance of creating her sisterhood.
On a cloudy December morning, while driving to Nina Surel’s studio, I was listening to an NPR story on the dangerous cracks democracy has been suffering. It got me wondering if cracks in the way that we live could also be seen as an opportunity for women to surface differently? It was a wild thought and when shared with Nina, she was quick to immediately associate it to the container she believes we women are and to our ability to give birth “because we have a big crack from which humanity comes through” she said smiling. The juxtaposition of these ideas set the tone for our fantastical conversation.
Nina Surel is tall and lean, smiles broadly, and is in constant movement. As I sit by her I can feel an invisible field of thoughts being released in waves. While we speak she is working, alongside her assistant Pilar, on a ceramic piece: a small table from her series Narratives of Female Metamorphosis commissioned to her by a collector whose wish is to have it hold two martini glasses she will share with her husband. The small table is hinted from under gently draped fabric forms. Feet, molded from the collector, peep out from under the drapes.
Nina’s practice has always explored the feminine, its myths and rituals, through the female body. From performances (Rite of Womb) and video installations (Grávida), her work has now transitioned into tangible ceramic sculptures (Core Series) adding a different dimension to her work.
Her spacious and airy studio is a stand-alone building within a complex called Collective 62, an artist-run space she founded, and houses another dozen or so studios and an exhibition space. A kitchen and dining area adjacent to the main room and a shelved hallway lead to a side entrance. While we speak, both women are caressing the ceramic piece with wet sponges, giving the finishing touches to the draped form. Nina’s thinking is sharp, her words come fast and delightfully unfiltered.
CARMEN: The feminine has always been at the core of your practice from your early extraordinary paintings that crowned females literally covering them in history and tradition, to performances and works on video, to your focus now in ceramic sculptures. Could you speak of your trajectory and the evolution of your practice in relation to the female body and its meaning in your work.
NINA: Initially my work included men as a physical presence. I was working with paper dolls and addressing the differences of, for example, men being assigned movement (they were given cars, they traveled), while women were expected to stand still (have a baby, feed it, change its diapers). In order to work women need to have someone else taking care of the children. Men can eventually adopt more participating roles in raising children, but women are assigned them. It is our responsibility.
Over the years, I moved from paper dolls to portraits, duplicating my image: I was the woman and the man in the same portrait. I was holding the baby, breastfeeding it with one hand, and being alert with the other. Your body needs to be relaxed and connected with nature in order to release the milk allowing it to flow when you’re breastfeeding. Now, if someone asks you to deliver something or send an email, the flow might not happen.
Women run from one place to another carrying a baby and fulfilling many roles. That’s when I started to duplicate, and even triplicate, the figures in my portraits which eventually became my sisterhood. I asked my support group to join me in those first paintings and then performances. I was asking for their help, seeing how we could multiply our hands.
It’s no coincidence that I moved to ceramics now. The ceramic work deals with the container and with the multiplicity of hands involved in its production. As you mentioned before about the making of history through walls, murals and bas reliefs. What are they showing us? Daily life. And who was able to do that? Mostly men, who were the ones conceiving them while women were responsible for the daily labor of building it. Moving to ceramics gave me, for the first time, the structure to tell the stories I wanted to tell. With the murals, more than size or materiality, I'm interested in new perspectives, on women understanding each other beyond race or cultural beliefs. These murals change as I am making them. They can grow, like the paper dolls did because it's the same process. This one started at 8’ now it's 12’ and it could turn into 25’ or it could become a 360º mural mounted around the studio walls.
When I started with these ceramic collages I was inspired by the idea of staying with the world we created, staying with all the troubles we are dealing with in a positive way because if we can see ourselves in them, if we can see ourselves as the creators of whatever is happening, then we can deal with anything. I feel that as long as we have more women in politics and culture, there will be more caring rather than ruling.
CT: What was initially covered and dressed with references in your practice is now fragmented, undressed, and unapologetically nude, especially in your recent work, the Core Series, where you molded the pelvis of a group of women and then presented them in a totem form. The symbolism around the pelvis is abundant, from identity and eroticism to fertility and motherhood. Could you speak about your process of creating the pelvis and transforming them into a totem? Were secrets unveiled? Mysteries revealed? Would you say the pelvis became containers?
NS: The idea for the Core Series started before the pandemic with a movement and a conscious connection with my own body. The nudity, the undressing comes from that time. I invited 33 women to participate in a rite of passage—similar to the Right of the Womb (1) a ritual I've always been interested in as a fertile woman. When I realized I was dealing with menopause, I wanted to honor my core that had given me the possibility of having 3 healthy kids and creating a family. I needed to have closure and wanted to extend the experience to other middle-aged women. I asked them to wear white dresses. Soon after the pandemic came and those dresses disappeared. During the performance they had been left behind.
When we were allowed to reconnect again, those lost dresses translated into the actual presence of each one of them, and showed up in my work as the mold of their individual pelvis. That was when I was able to connect with them individually. Once you felt the shape of the pelvis with the clay you could be seen from the inside because our core is a container, a vessel that can hold so much information. The references each brought to their core were different: some were more connected to sexuality, some to sadness, others to joy; each connected to their own powerhouse that the undressing and molding had unveiled. The process of reconnecting with each woman, then piling their pelvis in a totem-like form was a way of keeping them together. After the pandemic, the totems became a celebration of being able to see each other again.
Those containers, the sculpted pelvis, have now become multifaceted: sometimes I pile them like a column, referencing strength. Other times seeding them I will show them as planters, referencing growth.
CT: They also portray multiplicity.
NS Totally. Ceramic gave me the possibility to work with different clays, colors and pigments. When the dress was left behind, the color was also left behind leaving me with clay’s natural color. Through these bas-reliefs, I'm moving into something that is similar to what I did before in terms of compositions and colors.
CT: You’re completing a new cycle now?
NS: Yes, first the work is clean then I start adding elements in a more meaningful way asking myself: “Why use these colors? What is it that I am trying to describe?”
CT: Phenomenology “addresses the meaning things have in our experience, notably, the significance of objects, events, tools, the flow of time, the self, and others, as these things arise and are experienced in our life.”(2) You were born in Argentina and have been living in Miami for many years. You are the mother of 3, your eldest being 18. How would you say your surroundings and your background have influenced and gave meaning to your thinking and practice?
NS: Growing up, my cultural references were European. My grandparents were from Russia, Austria, Italy, and Spain. I have no Argentinian ancestry. Schools there offered limited education in theory and history. My 18-year-old son, for example, is taking gender studies in school. He has created transgender Barbie dolls, tinted them in different colors, added tattoos and some have amputated legs. He created a new identity out of this standard barbie doll, adding whatever he needed. I found it incredible. It’s very interesting for me because I learn from my kids. I think in Argentina this would be impossible.
Now I am more rooted in Miami. I will enjoy returning to Argentina to see what I have missed, what I became, and why I feel I am different now.
CT: That is going to be so interesting because it may be part of a cycle as with the paper dolls which now are three-dimensional dolls. There was that Nina, and now there is this other Nina, that has a different dimension.
NS Yes! The first gallery that represented me in Miami was from the Caribbean, followed by one from Santo Domingo, Costa Rica and Italy. So I had the opportunity to interact with a diverse group of artists and not be pinned down. I am not a Latina, I am not European and I'm not indigenous. I'm just playing with dolls!
The fact that I am always working with collage means I am cutting and pasting. What I always liked was the misplacing it allows: heads that don’t correspond to bodies or body parts; skin colors that can be mixed and matched. Growing up we played with calquitos, (3) a sticker that you paste on top of a figure. For me the fun part was pasting them in all the wrong places.
CT: Which artists do you admire and could call mentors?
NS: I have many, and they change through time. Lee Bontecou and her incredible sculptures is one. MoMA did a retrospective of her work. When I saw it for the first time I thought: “Who is this artist who did all these works? How come she didn't have the urge to show her them?” She did not look for approvals. She just worked for the sake of it.
Lately I would say I admire Judy Chicago. I went to the recent museum survey of her works and I saw her individual and collective pieces. Through letters she connected and worked with people around the world sending different works that then would be unified. We all know The Dinner Party, but not all the embroideries and patchworks they've been doing collectively. She has always considered women as powerhouses, both individually and collectively.
CT: She was creating a sisterhood.
NS: Big time. And when you see it for the first time, in a museum survey, it's so moving. Judy Chicago actually thought she would not be alive to see a retrospective of her work. She was aware of Hilma af Klint and other artists that, like her, were painting for the future.
CT: What advice would you give to a young artist?
I think it was Schnabel who said:. “Do your art. The rest will follow.” Recognition might take one hundred years, as it did for Hilma af Klint, or thirty to Judy Chicago but they never stopped doing their art and not the art that someone else was expecting. You can do many things on the side but continue with your art and the rest will follow if you're consistent with that practice and the discipline it takes.