Nicola Green, artist, on her representation of angels of colour.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
NG When I was growing up, my granny collected cherubs and she had all kinds of physical and painted cherubs around her house; they were mostly gilded and it was a sort of Victoriana thing. Sometime after I’d got married and had my children, I spent time with Obama, and I was about to embark on making a huge series of work called In Seven Days. I was feeling quite overwhelmed by how I was actually going to make and manifest this work. My mother-in-law had recently died, and I was really sad because I’d felt like she was going to be part of me creating that work, which is really for, and about, my mixed heritage children. I was there in my studio with some of the cherubs my granny had given me, and I realised that all cherubs, certainly in the Western canon, but also in any painting I’d ever seen, are always white. I took my granny’s cherubs and I started painting them not only the different colours of my children, but also the people I felt were invested in the work I was making, especially the ones who weren’t alive anymore. Then I went further than my mother-in-law and my granny and I named them all. So, I had Harriet Tubman in my studio and I had Martin Luther King there too, all kinds of people as well as family members, all painted different colours. That really began a journey for me of thinking about how we represent the divine and the celestial, everything that is encompassed in the rendition of an angel.
GB If something’s beautiful, does that predispose you to thinking it’s good?
NG I think with the sunbursts, yes, I’ve focused on how it makes you feel when you look at it. I was thinking about how to capture the divine, the unknowable. For me, it’s about how you access that kind of divinity or the unknowable, through finding the peaceful parts in yourself, or you can think about somebody who’s passed away, and bring the good bits of what you had with them to inform your life. In the whole conversation of life and death, when manifesting it, I want to touch on the beauty more than the darkness.
GB Can we talk about the gilding? Does the gilding have a sort of holy side to it?
NG Gilding and gold has had a presence in all cultures. It was used in many African civilisations, such as the Egyptians, the Asante, and the Mali Empire as a symbol of wealth, status and power. Legends such as El Dorado and The Golden Fleece have fascinated people throughout history. It has been used for manuscripts, jewellery and currency all over the world. But its relationship to light makes gold inextricable from holiness. I find that gold has a radiance that captures something intangible and celestial that really embodies the divine. That’s why gold is used to adorn the architecture of almost every major religion from the Vatican, the Dome of the Rock, to golden Buddhist pagodas and the Sikh temple in Amritsar, gold is used to enhance the religious experience of congregations.
Gold has always been associated with putting value on things, and therefore elevating them. So, by putting gold on something or next to something you’re elevating the subject matter that’s within it, or your thoughts, or a sense of spirituality. Obviously, in terms of furniture and actual objects, its role is sometimes to add beauty, but also sometimes it’s to add actual value. Even the gold I use in my work, like In Seven Days, holds a value that exists outside the artwork. I always use the rarest, most expensive 24k gold. Playing with the history of gold, during the Renaissance for example, when the holy family were whitewashed, gold came to be associated with the value of whiteness. I use gold to challenge this history and to appreciate people, skin tones and cultures that are persistently undervalued, to construct a new inclusive narrative.
GB Do you believe in universal beauty? Gold might be an example.
NG I think that nature holds essential beauty; our planet and human beings and we’re all part of that. But I also think that beauty holds opposites and duality, it holds ugly as well as beautiful. In that sense, universal beauty holds both of those things for me, and I think nature is the ultimate example of that. Gold is something that comes out of nature and because it doesn’t change and because it holds light and reflects it, I think probably there is something beautiful in its intrinsic nature. Most things need light to survive. If we turn off all the lights in this room but there’s just the tiniest bit of ambient light left, the gold in here will shine out and hold its own light. It has its own energy. It becomes almost like a light source. In our subconscious, it’s like a sun.
GB Going back to sunbursts, you’ve simplified the fussy Baroque style and you’ve taken the decadence of Versailles and made it something for everybody. Was that your intention?
NG Firstly, circular frames are incredibly hard to make so they tend to come as mirrors where the frame is made first, and then the mirror is inserted into it. I’ve made these artworks in the same way. I make the artwork after making the frame, because otherwise, it’s just too costly and hard to make it circular. With sunburst mirrors we’re also going back to this idea of a manifestation of light. And there’s a perfection about the circle and its appearance throughout nature. That’s why I chose the sunburst form. But it is also true that Louis XIV favoured them in that era of aristocratic decadence. That was interesting for me to think about, how we, in society, place value on different things.
I wanted to use the exuberant grandeur of the Baroque and Rococo period, but combined with non-Western modes of production, imagery and inspiration so that the characters are re-claimed and re-defined, and the work could transcend the hierarchy of Western art.
GB I like that your art makes a political point, but without being overtly political as art.
NG I make art about the things that I’m thinking about, and the things that interest me. My starting point is always the subject matter not the technique and I’d say that’s especially true of these sunbursts. My work is not political, to the same extent as some artists, I suppose, where the entire purpose comes from a place of wanting to focus on the point you’re making; I see myself more as a social historian. My work often develops over a long period of time, and it doesn’t tend to be about a single issue.
GB Do you think there is anyone now who’s aiming to create the most beautiful thing in the world in the way that 18th century artists were?
NG I think for me, I love all kinds of work, not just the concept of beauty. But I suppose I want to have some sense of stillness in the process of making my work and in that way, a form of therapy. But I can see how you might go the other way. Outside my bedroom I have a Francis Bacon Screaming Pope, and to me that’s filled with all kinds of beauty. It connects me to anger and darkness and difficult feelings and allows me to think those through. For me, those are part of beauty; that duality is really important. I spent time with Pope Francis and Pope Benedict and that’s how I got into looking more closely at Francis Bacon’s Pope pictures.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
NG I think if it’s a manmade object then the beauty comes from somebody’s perspective, so someone could find beauty in the most banal object depending on their angle on it. It can become invested with someone’s emotions, thoughts and feelings. And the other side of the question is, if it’s not made by a human then all nature has this intrinsic quality. We’re not in control of it. For me, there are no parts of nature that don’t have beauty in them, even the ugliest frog!
GB How do your angels fit into this?
NG It’s a representation and when they were created, they were made to be these pudgy white males, but I suppose there’s also a sense of innocence and the connection of life and death. When a child is born, they’re connected more to the kind of purity of death in the sense that one comes from the other. When my second child was born, my mother-in-law was in a hospice, and he was lying in her arms as she passed away. It was so incredible. He was so tiny. It was so deep, that sense of new life entering and life leaving.
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