A closer look at the work of Nina Chanel Abney in "30 Americans"

The acclaimed traveling exhibition “30 Americans”, featuring 30 of the most notable contemporary artists from the past four decades, will be extended through September 6, 2020, giving Honolulu audiences another opportunity to see this important group of artworks.

30 Americans challenges racial and gender stereotypes, promotes discourse, and speaks to the power of art as a tool for communicating a diversity of viewpoints. Artist Nina Chanel Abney’s oversized figurative paintings engage in socio-political themes and comment on topical issues including institutionalized discrimination, police brutality, and the media.

From the start of her career, Abney’s paintings have directly confronted racist attitudes in contemporary culture. While a graduate student at Parsons School of Design in New York City, Abney was the only African American student in her class. Her final thesis project, a monumental painting titled Class of 2007, represented her MFA class as black prison inmates, while portraying herself as a white gun-toting guard. The NAACP website states that African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites. This racial disparity, combined with Abney’s experience in graduate school, inspired the work. “I saw that there weren’t a lot of black students accepted into Parsons, or not really applying. Then at the same time, I was also interested in the disproportionate amount of black males in prison. I wanted to combine all of those things and I felt that a portrait of my classmates black and in prison was a good way to combine all that I was interested in at the time.” (Culture Type, 2016)

Nina Chanel Abney (b. 1982). The Party’s Over, 2007. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy Rubell Museum, Miami. © Nina Chanel Abney.


Although she tackles serious subject matter, Abney chooses to include multiple perspectives in her work. This approach enables her paintings to remain open to interpretation, while sparking a range of questions and possibilities. The Party’s Over, included in HoMA’s presentation of the 30 Americans exhibition, features a wide cast of characters closely packed into the picture, including black and white police and paramedics, nude figures, a moose, and a screaming child. All direct attention to a man in clown makeup, tied by his neck to a tree. Red streaks drip down his forehead in a scene reminiscent of a circus stunt gone awry. Some of the figures appear to cheer on this spectacle, while others raise their hands as if in surrender, or to offer up a middle finger. Abney encourages the viewer to step back and attempt to assess the situation for themselves. In a 2015 interview with Out of Sync, the artist stated, “I think my work is really about me figuring out how I feel about a particular subject and that battle and my struggle with police brutality and coming to my own conclusion for myself. And out of that if someone looks at the work and they can relate to it, I’m glad, but I don’t necessarily make work to have the viewer think something in particular.”

Abney does not sketch out her compositions, but works intuitively, sometimes using photographs or the internet to aid in referencing current news, events, or media figures. The artist’s visual style of intense color and stylized figuration is inspired by an interest in satirical cartoons that began in childhood. Cartoons are approachable and appeal to audiences from diverse backgrounds. Once drawn into the piece, a viewer has the opportunity to think more deeply about the social and political topics that come into play.

Distress, anxiety, and violence pervade The Party’s Over. The work remains as timely as when it was created 13 years ago, as it clearly captures emotions of horror, sadness, anger, and frustration, currently seen in news images of protest marches in cities across the globe. Abney’s work suggests that there is no going back—this is the moment to acknowledge the long history of racially motivated prejudice, inequality, and discrimination in contemporary culture, and work together for a more just future.

Nina Chanel Abney (b. 1982). The Party’s Over, 2007. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy Rubell Museum, Miami. © Nina Chanel Abney.

– Katherine Love, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art