No Corras (Don't Run)
Que provocarás una estampida.
Tienes que relajarte
You’ll cause a stampede.
You’ve got to chill.
–José Rubén Hernández 1
COSAS ANTES Y DESPUÉS (Things Before and After) is a body of work Nadia Hernández made following her return to Australia after visiting Mérida, her hometown in Venezuela.
I’ve only met you recently. Our conversations are long and full. As I read through the transcript made by an anonymous A.I. in 48-hour delivery turn around, I can see the beginnings of a friendship in the 11pt Calibri font, kerning and spacing, pauses and ellipses. We both have a habit of saying ‘WOW’, using repetition as emphasis and of finishing the other’s sentences.
And put them all together,
… and put them all together.
… from across the world.
… and lived experience.
Listening to the past with my eyes while looking at PDFs and JPEGs. A séance of images, conjuring my first encounter with your exhibition at an art fair in a convention centre comprising works emerging from your invitations to family and friends to ‘tell me what to paint’. Thinking and listening, my frontal cortex is hacked by a mash-up of images: Instagramable moments of Nadia and Jason Phu, an ‘Oh-What-a-Feeling-jumping-for-a-car’ memory and paintings-cum-drawing-as-poster-cum-speech. Listening to the past with my eyes simultaneously looking out and looking in, tracing narratives I am yet to know, by a hand I am yet to meet.
Cosas antes y después / things before and after.
Listening and reading; observing and hearing that I am talking about writing behaving like painting. Seventy-one pages, 15,000 words; the writing of painting, the painting of writing. Text in your paintings speaks to fragments I collect, fragments we all collect – all-a-board movements for change; saved chats, archived screenshots, notes from overheard conversations, notes from conversations had, glimpses shared, images distributed. While nothing might be whole, the fragment is still contained, even when your texts-cum-poems are cut from canvas and hung tentatively, edges frayed. There is an impossibility of being able to consume the entirety. A language in circulation, swimming in pools of meaning and farce – your colour bleached and spritzed, light rendered in humble, zesty marks.
I tweet: photography is painting and painting is writing and writing is data. I know what I mean, but I can’t write what it is.
Matrilinear and biographical, this is a relatively young body of work conversing with millennia, myth and a perplexing present. ‘Chao, mi vida / Goodbye, my life’ your Aunt might say, and a collage it will become. The phrasing of an ongoing ending in a breath so cherished it prefaces a name.2 We have only met three and a half times: ‘hello, hello, let’s walk, goodbye’: a Collingwood café we coincidentally share a love for, a road trip to Brighton to see your work in a prize for women, and a trip to the airport that doubles as a book exchange, food rescue and farewell. You are off to Majorca to visit your girlfriend, sharing a language and an intimacy of speech that parallels experience.
They were always there, intimate with each other in one way and intimate with me in another, as if I were a beloved sibling. They weren’t watching over me, exactly; they were the protagonists of their own stories. But this story? This one’s mine.3
‘No corras. Que provocarás una estampida. Tienes que relajarte / Don’t run. You’ll cause a stampede. You’ve got to chill.’4 Your grandfather says this to you. A family protesting, your body on the street. To return to a home with intention. Your body on the line, the radical and the hopeful; a contribution to, well, any kind of shift. Economics. Environment. Politics. Oil. The familial and social bound by the conditional – place, history and colonisation. Home land. Homeland. All-a-boarding a movement for change, a confrontation, an encounter walked; an all-a-boarding the State attempts to intercept. Your body of work, their bodies on the street.
Cosas antes y después / things before and after.
You are thinking about archives and the 200 or so drawings you will send over to Perth from your studio here in Melbourne. You tell me to read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House. A semi-surreal break-up biography, In the Dream House is arranged in five parts containing 153 vignettes or lenses of experience and observations written under titles beginning with Dream. Some are as short as a single quote, others unravel as pick-a-path. The Dream House as Prologue riffs off Saidiya Hartman and her account of African slavery and the violence of the archive. You mention this containment of information: what is held, what spills out, the private and the shared. An archival silence, a screaming abyss. The archive, Carmen tells us via Jacques Derrida, comes from the ancient Greek ἀρχεῖος (arkheion), ‘the house of the ruler’. Architecture and power, an authoritative voice whose completeness is mythological, whose femininity is discreet – the studio, a gallery, a museum, a vitrine; the family, a house, a suburb, a dream.
Places are never just places in a piece of writing. If they are, the author has failed. Setting is not inert. It is activated by point of view. 5
In conversation, you and I circle narratives about absence: a collage that will not be lent, a little-known father whose narrative can’t be told. A question shared, DNA testing and genetic unknowns. Known unknowns. Or, we both ask, do we make do with the experience of the two sides we can know? What does science really reveal as it intersects with generational change? The multiple experiences had in places over time; an accumulation of memory and jumping through space. We segue to that movie: Everything Everwhere All at Once. I’ve written it before. Gestural sculptural movement markers guiding us between banners, psychological kitchenscapes, and pictographic scraps: a head of corn, your grandmother’s arepa, the roof of a house. The everyday things we’re made of; a broken timeline, a break in time.6 Cotidianidad you say, everydayness. Colour keys in and icons prompt; the good, the bad, the ugly, us: aphoristic and memorable: No pude recordar la casa, pero pude recordar mis sueños / I couldn’t remember the house, but I could remember my dreams.7
This prompts recollection of a sound work – you must remember to tell Robert. A compilation of cousins and aunts and extended family whistling your grandmother’s whistle-while-she-waits-for-family-to-return-home. Paintings as hauntings, spiritual parlance; mediated by strange and familiar iconography – paper cuts, oil stick, linen. Textiles, text-tiles. Fiber, as noun, la fibra or el carácter – el personaje. Woven marks, a conversation with drawings and texts, a collection of poems by your grandfather, murals you have seen and speech you have stolen. Settler narratives shared, an energy and synergy. Image as language and language as image, beside your historical lineages nodding … wait, cheering you along. A chorus of artists in reverence. Picture the Instagramable less probable: on a sunlit windowsill sits Sister Corina Kent chatting with Atelier Populaire looking to Nadia, coaxing her along. Pop and populous, Kent and the Atelier are born in times of radical change, conflicting ideals and productive contradictions. My crash course in Venezuelan history is an echo coalescing.
Así es la humanidad, compadre, que cuando uno quiere hacé una gracia le sale una morisqueta. Pero yo lo que digo es que si las cosas están malas, toavía se pueden poné más piores. / That’s humanity for you compadre, you try to do something nice for folks and you end up falling on your face. What I always say is, things might be bad now, but they can sure get a whole lot worse.8
It is a Saturday. I am a tourist at a conference on Extractivism. A background narrative in my head is trying to process the brief but intense encounters with you and my attempt to catch up on Venezuela-as-Venezuela, mining resources and settler migrants; bio-products of colonisation. Blinkered optimism. I remember from afar, the early 2000’s and Hugo Chavez, red t-shirts and Socialism’s hope. You were young, but your politically progressive family was already weary of the Chavez rule, aware of the attempt to topple democracy in the 1992 coup attempt.
A century old petro-economy, its petro-delerium and petro-excess-wealth. Mene Grande, the name of the first oil well, still pumping. Mene – an indigenous word for oil seep. At the conference I write a note in my book asking if research is extractive. Alejandro Haiek is speaking about water, architecture and ecology. I am not paying enough attention. He throws to an image of a drawing and says: ‘Amazon cosmology’. I stop running on my floating world and think to your paintings, cosmological in form. The antithesis of ecosystem, cosmology negates the mechanical and questions the industrial of arrangements categorised. Cosmologies allow for gaps; in your work the need to know is neither the imperative nor the drive behind this placement of, then engagement with, form.
A cosmological picture plein air. Your friend’s dog, and a worm that emerges from your Aunt’s nose, a serpent as border, the bridge for crossing. A bridge for crossing. Fixed on this point, I recall more refugees fled Venezuela than those that fled Syria – social, economic and ecological wars. In these paintings, your paintings, I find circulating gestures, an energy of trying to hold narratives that might easily disappear. The materiality of presence, a rupture of loss. We have come to talk about painting through what might be missing. To rend is to tear, as tear might be to wound. I write this a lot. To heal a wound, to confront an animal: our bodies, our places, our cosmologies, our myth. Touch. To experience joy en route to transformation through struggle, the existential face of failure, the beauty of the local, yet spoken at a distance.
Cosas antes y después / things before and after.
I message Robert and thank him for introducing me to Nadia. We are women painters writing and painting a world we inhabit and encounter, intersections and vivisections, muddy puddles and deep ravines – listening with our eyes, seeing with our ears. There is a visceral in the cerebral, en plein air in the studio, the slogans of our regimes muralised by the poetry of our polis.
William Neuman ends his Venezuelan history by referring to the painter Armando Reverón. He lived on a beach near Caracas and painted a world drenched in the savage white light of the Caribbean, a light that seemed to chase away all colour from the landscape. ‘Painting is truth’, Reverón said once, ‘but light blinds you, it drives you crazy, it torments you, because you cannot see light’. I think that Reverón meant that truth was elusive because you could approach it only through something you could not see.9
The afterword for In the Dream House references Joanna Russ and women’s literary history as being ‘written on sand’. There is a partiality in this observation. For Carmen Maria Machado, writing her memoir felt like pinning down fragments of history, as she describes it, with well-aimed throws of a knife. Fragments pinned down before they could shift or melt away.10 There is a necessity in the Project, as there is in Nadia’s. Like writing on sand, she mediates memories, negotiating distance and time, more choral than coral. Her paintings write a fabric.