AfroRomantic//AfroErotic: Christina Nicola
Christina Nicola’s paintings are a direct reflection of herself — a liberated, queer, Black femme. With the erotic and intimacy front and center on her canvases, whether they’re miniature or large, Christina’s work offers a lens into this moment in her life — a moment intentionally focused on reclamation & personal exploration. In addition to honing in on her practice, she has also carved out spaces for Black and brown femme and non-binary artists to showcase their work with a series of exhibitions, the most recent being Sapphic Summer at Brian Leo Projects. Looking forward, the self-proclaimed “AfroRomantic Lyrical Abstractionist ” plans to publish a memoir in conversation with her paintings, debut her first solo museum exhibition, and continue to build the Sex With Me universe.
What medium(s) do you work in?
I work with oil pastels, acrylics, watercolors and collage.
How long have you been working and how did you get started?
I’ve been making art since I was about four or five, and my paternal grandmother is an artist, so I was influenced by her.
Can you share more about her impact on you and what you’ve taken from her?
We’re actually born on the same day, so I’ve always felt connected to her in that way. She did a lot of different things in addition to being an artist. Having the opportunity to see someone I know finish works on the wall, actively have an art-making practice, produce things, and talk about their practice encouraged me to continue studying art and believing in my craft. Having someone like that in the family inspires other people to be creative — my dad is also a musician. Those forces influenced where I am today.
Queerness, the erotic, and intimacy are the main explorations in your practice. Additionally, you’ve been transparent about your inclusion in the polyamory community. What relationship does your work have with these parts of your identity?
I would say my openness to display sexual images is inspired by the freeness and openness I feel when I embrace my queer identity. Also, it’s easier to move away from traditional subject matters and points of view when embracing polyamory.
(L) I’m a little bit scared of what comes after (a study, a selfie) (2021); Acrylic, oil pastel and watercolor on paper (R) Handle Me (2021); Oil pastel and watercolor on paper
Congrats on your inaugural show Sex With Me that opened earlier this summer! It was amazing to see Black women & femmes exploring their sexualities through a variety of artistic styles from collage, painting, performance, and even quilting. As one of the curators, how did the idea come about? How did you bring the show to life?
The idea originally came about when Nneka and I were working on putting together a two-person show. It was going to be called Wet Dreams and focus on the femme identity, spirituality, and how moving away from the Christian ideology around sexuality shaped me into who I am today. We weren’t able to do that, but we spoke about putting on a group show surrounding Black & brown femmes, and we were trying to figure out a title. We really liked the idea of using Rihanna’s song title “Sex With Me” because it was both fun and exciting. I found it interesting that none of the artists we worked with tried to do anything explicit or anything most people would imagine when hearing the title. It was interesting to see our original idea of working together turn into this whole community.
What did you enjoy most about curating Sex With Me? Is there anything you would’ve done differently?
What I enjoyed most was seeing this idea come to life! Seeing this subject matter that’s personal to me and seeing my work be meaningful to people was important to me. I’m just excited to find a community of people on the same page. What I would have done differently is get better with organization and marketing. I would’ve liked to work with a team of people a little bit longer. Also, I would’ve liked to find more sponsors so the show could’ve happened on a larger scale.
How does your family receive your work & the subject matter behind it?
They knew the name of the show a few weeks before it happened, and they listen to my talks and know the subjects I’ve explored for different shows — they’re not completely caught off guard. I didn’t start painting explicit works until December or January, so I don’t know if they’ve seen that work. I’m not in a rush to show them, but other family members have been supportive. I try to separate the really graphic pieces from a lot of my family because they’re religious, but for the most part, they’ve been supportive.
What inspires your practice? What gets you going?
Generally, when I started making my personal works. This started when I was ending undergrad and applying for a residency. I focused on myself and the Black identity — it’s not easy to do that, but it’s the subject matter I chose because I went to a PWI. Many times, there’s nothing else to talk about. Well, there’s a lot to talk about, but that’s the most obvious thing when you’re in a class with all white people, and you’re making art. I was doing many portraits back then, and even when I would paint the white models, people would say my work was African when I’m actually from Texas. I thought, why am I not intentionally painting Black people, Black femmes, and myself? With this more sexual work, I’ve been able to turn the lens more on myself than on other people, which has been exciting.
L: I bleached my hair for every time i could’ve died (2021); Acrylic, oil pastel and watercolor on paper R: Do you remember what it feels like to know someone (biblically) (2020); Acrylic, oil pastel and watercolor on paper
It’s so true that when you are in non-Black spaces, especially within the arts, the work Black people make has to be political — there are many moments where we can’t express ourselves in the ways we’d like. How did you bridge the gap between what people expected you to make to honing in on your personal expression?
I was going that route for a while. It’s not a bad route to go, but you’re always “on” in a way. With everything happening in 2020, I was trying to make works specific to that, and it was hard and unnecessarily retraumatizing because every day something different would happen. The artwork was coming from a negative place. Work about those subject matters is valid, but that’s not where I want my energy to go. It was hurting me in a way.
I was making work for a specific audience and was doing the holiday market at the House of Yes. A few years ago, I was doing sketches under a different name on IG, which was very pornographic, and I wanted to get back to that. This holiday market was the best option to do that, so I started painting small, explicit images. There was nothing really political, well there is because the Black body is always politicized, but I wasn’t intentionally talking about Black death or anything I was talking about before — it was very freeing.
I was learning more about abstract expressionism and Joan Mitchell — a lot of her work is about flowers because she liked them. I thought, why can’t I do that? I don’t want to hurt myself to make work. I’m also working on a memoir, and I wanted to create paintings around that as well. That pushed me to make paintings that are closer to my life.
Who is an artist or piece of work that’s impacted you over the last year?
I bought this recently published book by Noah Davis, and I felt a kindred connection to his work through the book. I was moved by the painting he has with the unicorn. I’m very inspired by his application of paint! There’s this one image in the book where they photograph him with a painting, and the painting in that particular photo was unfinished. Someone mentioned that the painting no longer exists because he painted over it, and I often do that with my work. I also work on many pieces at once, so I felt a connection there.
You say that you work on many pieces at once, can you share a bit about your process?
Usually, I do a sketch first. Depending on what it is or if I have an image in my head, I usually look for a reference, then I merge myself with the reference. Lately, I’ve been doing small studies, so I’ll get an image, make a sketch, paint an acrylic or oil pastel study, then go off of that to make it larger. I’m really embracing color right now, so I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about abstract expressionism and using color to say more.
Can you share something you’re proud of in your career?
I’m excited to be showing! After I moved here a few years ago, I made a point to not exhibit because I wanted to focus on refining my practice and making it something I enjoyed rather than feeling burdened by it. The shifts from making overtly political work to creating work I actually enjoy have allowed me to have a more positive approach to art-making.
Your current show Sapphic Summer at Brian Leo Projects brings together the work of four other artists that are subverting the expectations of the cisgender, heteronormative gaze by exploring their personal experiences with femininity, identity, and sexuality. How did you & Isis Davis-Marks conceive of Sapphic Summer & what do you want visitors to walk away with?
Personally, I’ve been referring to summer 2021 as Sapphic Summer as an anthem for queer exploration and reclamation. This summer has been about reclaiming my agency as a queer, black, femme and I wanted to explore these thoughts with this show. Isis and I also discussed Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic as the main inspiration for the curatorial text and theme for the exhibition.
How is Sapphic Summer in conversation with Sex With Me and other experiences you’ve curated?
After Sex With Me and The Morning After, Isis and I wanted to produce a more intimate show focusing on each of the five artist’s experiences, identities, and proclivities. While Sex With Me was a larger show with nearly 20 artists, Sapphic Summer features five of the same artists, allowing the audience to take a longer look at the work and the themes behind them.
Where do you see yourself and your practice in the future?
I may go to grad school for art history sometime soon. I really like the idea of continuing to curate shows in the community and taking Sex With Me to other places and see what kinds of conversations we can have around that topic. I’m publishing that memoir and hoping to move further with that. Also, believe I have a solo museum show coming next year — so I have to figure that out and get work done for that show.
Can you leave some parting advice for other artists?
I would recommend staying true to your ideas and staying true to your initial loves.