Currently reading : An interview with Sadaf H. Nava
SADAF H. NAVA
The representation of the body is a theme that runs through much of the work of multidisciplinary artist Sadaf H. Nava. Based in New York, Nava’s practice incorporates a variety of mediums, often linked through a foundation in performance. In an era where self-performativity and documentation is prevalent, the conceptuality inherent in contemporary performance art often seeps into tactics of advertising and brand-formation. Sang Bleu has asked Nava a few questions about self-portraiture, the accessibility of “art” and consumer culture.
How did you start making art?
As a toddler my preferred medium was drawing, but I would only draw faces with no eyebrows and no nose. I insisted that everyone would look much better without these features. Then around [ages] 9 or 10, I got into panhandling my drawings. I would go door to door in my neighbourhood and try to sell them for a dollar each, until my parents made me stop. Fast-forwarding to middle school, I would draw portraits during lunch to make friends. I never really thought much about pursuing anything else. I wasn’t derailed from being a doctor or psychologist or anything like that.
Is performance your preferred medium of art-making?
Performance is the most freeing medium. I got into performance mostly because of material constraints. I didn’t like the fact that other [art] forms such as painting and sculpture required having a studio. I wanted to have results faster, I wanted a direct experience, and I didn’t want to have to put my work in storage. It was important for me to be mobile. A lot of my work is concept-driven. Even if I make something formal, the object is often secondary. The body always comes first. Performance is the thread that links all of my work together. Often the photographs, videos, and even paintings I’ve produced can be seen as a form of documentation.
Also I have a lot of negative energy. There is something in me that likes to destroy pristine, beautiful objects. I am very annoyed by tedium.
Unfortunately I am not able to spend years sculpting detailed tableaus out of marble, or whatever it is people do or sell. I’m more into narrative, ideas, anxiety and negation. There are so many objects in the world, too many objects, and I feel somehow responsible if I’m contributing to that heap. The arbitrary value and sliding scale of objects also bothers me. Commodity culture is annoying.
Are there any rituals you perform before a performance?
It’s not like I’m chanting or burning incense or anything, but there is often a constricting, intense costume, hair-and-makeup-situation happening. Getting ready in itself becomes the ritual.
Why turn the camera on yourself?
I did a piece in August for Bullet Magazine that was called “Why Shoot Yourself in the House? Shameful But Regular Self Expression.” I find it interesting how these everyday acts of investigation, like looking in the mirror and taking selfies, are seen as shameful. I think it comes from a puritanical culture. The body is a palette. It can be morphed, altered and is constantly in flux. To look in the mirror is to slowly see yourself decay, change and evolve. To want to preserve ourselves from this change is to challenge our mortality. But ultimately, I shoot myself because I like to be in control. It’s like a director that writes their own screenplay. There’s also a playful sense to how I decorate myself, direct myself, and photograph myself that is very childish.
The artist Bianca Casady has talked about “creating characters” in order to romance oneself, to act out memories, and to compile a personal mythology. Your work seems to place importance on self-decoration, alteration and documentation. Is this focus on the self political, social? Or is it a way of forming a personal mythology through alter-ego?
Although I am aware of the political or social aspects of my work, I try not to be didactic. Whatever I do is a reaction to my experience of the world. There are a lot of things that simultaneously turn me on and disgust me. Addressing ‘Vanity’ is a big part of my work. But the comment on that is not necessarily a negative one. There is also a connection to the past, to history, to the gaze. Decorating the body has been around forever. These rituals are beautiful. I am interested in eroticism, in sensuality pushed to a limit, in decoration, make-up pushed to a limit. I am also interested in dialoguing with traditional or ethnographic costumes mixed with contemporary club culture, for example.
The ‘Interior Re-Decoration’ performance is extremely successful in its simplicity. Can you talk a bit more about it?
I see it as a documentation of a performance, but the video medium is definitely a character in itself. It is another exercise in self-reflection. I think the most interesting part of that video is that I am looking to the side. As a viewer who was not there with me during the shoot, you wonder what is being looked at. Is it another person in the room directing the action? Is she performing for someone or is she staring at a monitor? Is she looking at herself? In this way the video addresses the gaze. It is also about the symbolism of the action itself, of eating flowers.
Would you say the accessibility of self-portraiture can act as a form of resistance to the ways in which mainstream visual culture often depicts an idealized homogeneity? Is self-portraiture an individualizing genre?
It’s accessible to me because I can do it alone. I don’t need a model or a production team. It’s individualizing in the way of distinguishing myself but also finding multiple personas through myself.
Also, it’s about control. Having control over your personal image, your personal brand. A lot of times young women are used to sell products, and the qualities which sell these products are part of a larger vision. I’m interested in what it means to remove the product, the production assistants, the brand ideology and the photographer. The image without commercial intentions. The model taking charge of their own image and having creative control. In this way it is a political act.
There is a consistent use of objects in your photography, video work and performance. These objects seem to act as “stand-ins” for the body, the kinds of material residue we leave behind. Do these objects have direct relation to the body? To the ‘absent subject’? Are the objects performing, too?
Yes, exactly. Sometimes the body morphs into an object, and sometimes objects act as bodies themselves. Objects often represent a loneliness for me. It’s also about our relationship to objects, how we fetishize clothes and [other] inanimate objects, and how they can come to represent different things. To shoot objects like bodies is to eroticize objects, and therefore goes back to advertising and commodity culture.
I love to look at perfume advertisements. The bottle and the name can evoke entirely abstract philosophical concepts, like “eternity,” “love,” “sensuality,” “poison,” “addict.” It’s very sophisticated, to connect a smell to a concept that everyone experiences differently and to connect that in turn to a brand, a logo, a bottle.
What kind of affect, if any, has the internet had on your work?
An enormous effect. Huge effect. The problem with the internet, Facebook and Instagram culture, is that it encourages creativity in a homogenous way. Everyone becomes a photographer, everyone becomes a DJ. This keeps
art-making from being too political, or original, and stunts it. Everything becomes about form not content, and it reduces art to hobby. It’s not so much that everyone is famous for fifteen minutes, but that everyone is famous in their own social network. That being said, what is accessible through the internet is accessible globally, and therefore it’s a great platform to communicate and connect. This interview, for example, is more accessible than if it had been printed.
What are you doing these days?
I have been working on an EP that will come out on HOSS records in the next few months under SADAF, which incorporates a lot of my sound work with a more structured pop approach. I am also in the early stages of writing a new play/performance piece that should come out next year.
What do you want to do in the future?
As well as producing more video and performance art, I would like to explore longer narrative works. There are a lot of images and moments that are tattooed in my brain, that have been sitting there for years with the intention of one day becoming a film. I would love to turn them into a feature length film, partly autobiographical, partly constructed. My biggest influences have been filmmakers, which in some ways makes no sense. But in terms of ideas, communication, and what touches me the most on a human level it has always been film. Fassbinder, Pasolini, Rivette, Tarkovsky, Breillat: I have so much respect for these artists. It goes beyond medium or trends. It’s universal.