Aliza Nisenbaum: Portraits That Subvert Traditions – Tate Liverpool Alice Lenkiewicz

Aliza Nisenbaum

Aliza Nisenbaum is a painter, living and working in New York. Describing herself as torn between wanting to be a social worker or a painter, she has been best known for her colourful paintings of Mexican and Central American immigrants. Expanding on the theme of portraiture, her current exhibition of large group portraits at Tate Liverpool, depict groups of people who have worked tirelessly in a variety of situations and work roles.

This exhibition depicts a coming together of life experiences – AL

Included in the portraits are staff from Liverpool Alder Hey children’s hospital, staff from the London Underground, friends of the artist, Researchers, staff from the Minneapolis Art Gallery where she was artist in residence, community groups and immigrants, all people who work extremely hard and have contributed positively to our society and communities.

Aliza Nisenbaum
Aliza Nisenbaum Tate Liverpool

On entering the exhibition, the first thing that comes across is the vibrant colour and a sense of positivity. I see people, flowers and plants. The artist was born in Mexico and I notice how her interest in Mexican mural art inspires her work. I remember travelling through Mexico many years ago. Aliza’s bold, vibrant paintings brought these memories back to me and I thought of the Mexican mural artist, Diego Rivera of which some of his murals, I went to see at the time in New York City. Rivera’s famed murals show the correlation between artistic works and general labour. Often political, they provided a voice to the workers and the communities and industries of the time. There were some similarities, I felt in both artists works in terms of vibrant colour and a sense of solidarity, focusing on the role of the workers, a keen interest in depicting people in their working environment and bringing a voice to the voiceless.

As you walk around the gallery space, you are faced with large bright, colourful portrait paintings. It reminded me of a cross between community art project paintings and the formal portraits of our historical past, in the way that artists used to paint status portraits of people who held ‘important positions’. However, there is more of an open approach to these portraits, focusing not only on those who are highly qualified but also those in more humble positions, who normally do not receive the attention they deserve but are of equal standing for their contribution towards society.

It occurred to me also that Aliza is a female portrait artist, creating portraits and therefore also subverting the traditions of portrait painters who are usually male throughout history. However, there have been a few female portrait artists who have managed to turn the tide of expectation. Aliza creates some humorous moments that refer back to some of these traditions such as in her portrait of London Underground; Brixton staff and Victoria Line Staff, 2019’, she paints her own self-portrait reflected back in the mirror of the station. I think this is a lovely twist on the idea of traditional symbolism which is invariably the male gaze staring back at us in reflections within traditional portrait paintings. Velázquez comes to mind in his own reflection within his famous portrait of ‘Les Meninas’.

There are some similarities in terms of social enquiry running through Aliza’s works compared to artists such as Rembrandt and Van Gogh, who also drew attention to people and their work roles in their social context. I feel I should also mention that of my own father’s paintings, Robert Lenkiewicz’s portrait paintings of teachers, people in the medical profession, those who work in museums and the homeless, people from many walks of life. As with these artists, Aliza draws our attention to the person, not just creating a portrait of someone in general but looking deeper into the psyche and social issues surrounding that person’s relationships, thoughts and feelings as well as the effects experienced by their environment.

This exhibition depicts a coming together of life experiences, an opportunity for not only the artist to show us what is going on behind the scenes but also for those people to be given an opportunity to share their experiences with each other, encouraging friendships and enhancing a sense of healing and well-being. Quite often, Aliza has asked members of staff at Alder Hey children’s hospital in Liverpool to draw their thoughts and feelings around the pandemic and their working life. Each person’s portrait is painted with their own drawings. These interconnections and layering of imagery bring a further dimension to the work, bringing us closer and allowing us to get to know these people on a deeper level. Their stories are listed beside the paintings as in the portrait:

Aliza Nisenbaum

‘Team Time Storytelling’, Steven Gerrard Garden, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital Emergency Department, Covid Pandemic, 2020

In this painting, “Aliza has brought together front line workers, all who have been involved in an initiative called ‘Team Time’, which focuses on staff well-being, using storytelling as a means of sharing emotional responses to situations at work. Reflecting on the importance of play when working with children, each person was asked to make a drawing about their workplace experiences during the Covid – 19 outbreak and these are included within the paintings.”

I found the paintings of the Alder Hey children’s hospital moving in that many of the workers described their jobs and what it felt like to work during Covid. There is no avoiding the fact that many of these workers dealt with a variety of emotions and situations that were very challenging, from coping with illness, death and bereavement.

There are stories of the stress and worry of juggling family life combined with working in the hospital, the difficulties involved in their usual communication at the hospital because of face masks and lack of hugging which normally goes with the job especially when comforting people who are upset. Some staff spoke about the detrimental effects of how the pandemic caused physical and mental health problems for children as well as increased accidents in the home. There were also discussions on staff and keeping the teams going. Mental health is a priority for staff and patients. Anxiety due to work and family pressures is something that is discussed. The Team Time sessions seem to be highly beneficial.

Although life’s difficulties and sufferings are expressed within the stories of this exhibition, it is also an exhibition of hope, focusing on well-being and positivity. I really enjoyed the feeling of community and friendship within these paintings. The artist has transformed her natural process of enquiry, befriending and getting to know her sitters. I also appreciated the way she brought their personal drawings into her artworks. Her friendly interaction with her sitters and their positive response brought a welcome ray of light to my visit. After a year of people being so aloof and forced to be apart, it was so refreshing to see groups of people again in her works, to be reminded of community efforts and everyone bringing something to the table, people smiling and together in her portraits but more importantly, humanity, caring and friendship, something that the world currently needs a lot more of right now.

Aliza, seems like a very friendly and warm person. You can see she enjoys engaging with her sitters also shown in several films that allow us to observe her paint and get to know and meet her sitters. This, in itself, adds to the inclusivity of the exhibition and shows how she engages with her subject. This isn’t just about painting sitters. This is about getting to know them as people.

I notice in her work there is also a focus on growing food in community groups, this sense of sharing, the coming together of people helping each other, linking in with human rights and stories that travel back through generations, concerning memory, travel, home, immigration, racial diversity, a sense of bringing people together to do positive things, to heal and to create a sense of well-being is lovely to see. In the past, Aliza was a volunteer at Immigrant Movement International, where she taught English around the subject of Art within the class of “ English through feminist art history”. It was during this time that she painted life portraits of many of the people in her class. She says “I’m interested in painting people who might not have entered the canon of Art historical portraiture in the past. “

Focusing on heritage, ancestry and racial diversity, Aliza’s painting, ‘Susan, Aarti, Keerthana and Princess, Sunday in Brooklyn, 2018’, was painted when she was undertaking a residency for immigrant Women Leaders in New York. Aliza has painted a family portrait of friends she met at the residency, depicting a family of collective, Indian and African heritage who came together through immigration and adoption. “Nisembaum has said that they are deeply committed to social justice and racial equity, adding that “both women have devoted their careers to advancing education and human rights.

Aliza Nisenbaum
Aliza Nisenbaum Tate Liverpool

The exhibition begins with a large portrait titled: ‘Morning Security Briefing at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, basement door open onto the Guard Lounge Pet Wall, 2017.’

In this painting, Aliza Nisenbaum depicts the staff and security guards of the Minneapolis Institute, again highlighting her interest in painting unconventional subjects. The films show the appreciation and interest of the staff being painted and how they feel about having their portrait painted.

“Throughout her three-month-long residency at Minneapolis Institute of Art in the summer of 2017, “Aliza worked closely with groups in the Phillips and Whittier neighbourhoods, including Centro Tyrone Guzman, Hope Community, and Mia’s own security guards, to create three large-scale group portraits each representing their respective communities. Through face-to-face portrait sessions, the artist bonded with her sitters, building a relationship of friendship and mutual trust. The resulting paintings represent the diverse communities that live and work in Phillips and Whittier, some of whom are Latino and Somali immigrants.”

The painting is wonderful and full of life and colour – AL

One of my favourite paintings in the exhibition was her portrait titled, ‘A Place We Share’ now exhibited as part of this exhibition at Tate Liverpool. For her first public art project in the UK, commissioned by Art on the Underground, Aliza Nisenbaum has created a mural for Brixton tube station in south London. The artist spent three months living and working in Brixton, which is known for the striking murals created in the aftermath of the riots there in the early 1980s. Brixton has such a rich history, being one of the first places where migrants from the Windrush generation arrived. When London was being rebuilt in the 1940s and 50s, many West Indian immigrants settled in Brixton and have contributed to its unique energy ever since.

Aliza Nisenbaum’s painting of ‘ London Underground; Brixton staff and Victoria Line Staff, 2019’, (Top Photo) depicts 15 people working for transport for London in various roles on the Victoria Line, train drivers, operational staff, people working in facilities and administration. Aliza spent many hours getting to know each person as she painted them in her studio. The painting depicts them against a backdrop of icons from the London Underground, such as tiles and fabrics innovatively incorporated within the portrait to create patterns and colour. The sense of pattern and liveliness in this painting creates a contrasting world of colour not often associated with the rather ominous tunnels of the underground.

This painting can also be viewed as a large installation print, displayed at the London underground itself. It is a welcoming artwork full of positivity and offers a warm and friendly welcome from its staff within the portrait. Aliza described how the neighbourhood itself inspired this piece of work and how “The colours in the surrounding markets are bright and vibrant and I want my work to resonate with that. I included icons from the station, such as the Brixton bricks and the other elements that one encounters inside the station itself. Like the “Mind the gap” yellow line, the fabrics inside the Victoria Line trains and other elements of the underground.”

I enjoyed this exhibition very much. I highly recommend people to go and see it. It not only raises awareness of experiences encountered by workers during the pandemic but makes us aware of how these people have come together during this time, risking their own health as well as many people working voluntarily and with optimism and innovation to keep our communities going.

Words/Photos: Alice Lenkiewicz © Artlyst 2020

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Aliza Nisenbaum Tate Liverpool 15 DECEMBER 2020 – 27 JUNE 2021 

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