Recently, I visited Tate Liverpool and the Aliza Nisenbaum free exhibition that is currently being held there. The exhibition, lasting until 5th September, is an incredible collection of portraits that are full of colour and vibrancy.
As soon as you walk in you are met with large paintings, and they are so bold against the white of the walls. The bright colours are joyful and uplifting and are a tribute to the wonderful and varied characters that are her subjects. You get to see the painting process for some of her works and the stories of the people in them through videos placed in the exhibition and descriptions to the side of the pieces.
Aliza Nisenbaum was born in Mexico City in 1977. She takes influence from the Mexican muralist movement and the murals she grew up with. She trained at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and has been based in New York since 2008.
After volunteering for Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International in 2012, Nisenbaum switched to figure painting (where the primary subject is a human figure) after around 10 years of working abstractly.
Nisenbaum’s figure paintings are made extra special by the personal connection she builds with the sitters of her pieces. Usually painting people she meets through teaching or community centres, she gets to know their stories and this deeper knowledge shines through in her paintings. She has a clear drive to gather understanding and form a relationship with the person from whom she paints.
From a young adult, Nisenbaum was interested in both art and social work and she went on to begin studies in psychology. I think her interest in human nature and community really come through in the exhibition.
The first painting I came across in my circular route of the exhibition room was a large-scale, group portrait of the underground staff working at Brixton Station and the Victoria Line. In the painting, 15 staff members are boldly translated: each personality emanating from their poses and expressions.
In the process of creating this painting, Nisenbaum firstly gathered the group to see who was friends with whom and how they wanted to be depicted. I suppose this first step helps to capture the group dynamic and the natural way the cohort interacts with one another.
After this, the sitters were individually painted from life. She describes painting from life as an “intimate exchange between the artists and the sitter” in which interesting conversations spark.
What is very striking to me is that the people in the painting felt really appreciated by the piece and valued. One sitter said she felt like “a member of the royal family” and another sitter described the staff not being noticed usually and then suddenly, they’re at the top of Brixton. Nisenbaum says she paints “a variety of populations that maybe wouldn’t get represented otherwise”. I think this group is an example of representing people who haven’t necessarily felt represented or valued like this in the past.
Other paintings in the exhibition include two large group portraits of NHS workers from Merseyside – a commemoration of their amazing work throughout the pandemic. There are also smaller single portraits of NHS workers with flowers next to them, which were painted as expressions of gratitude. For all that they are going through with the pandemic, it is brilliant to see NHS workers being recognised and honoured in this way.
These paintings were done very differently to others as Nisenbaum had to do them remotely, using video chats to get to know the sitters and paint from life!
I really liked the painting of the three women in the community garden in Minneapolis, which is a positive, bright and hopeful work. The group portrait of the Wise Elders portraiture class – that Nisenbaum taught in Minneapolis – also caught my eye. The people in this one are in a formation, displaying their art. It carries a sense of belonging from their shared experience in the portraiture class.
I don’t know how else to describe it other than you can imagine the real people from viewing these paintings: not just what they look like but who they are and how they act. We often think of portraits as stiff and rigidly posed but these are relaxed and informal. They feel candid and honest.
The paintings are uplifting and heart-warming and the exhibition is a must see if you’re in Liverpool!
The exhibition runs from 15 December 2020 – 5 September 2021.