Nadia Ayari’s Paintings Negotiate Personal and Political Views

Nadia Ayari (b. 1981) is a New York-based artist whose paintings are characterized by a noticeable balance between abstraction and figuration, often depicting what she sees as a negotiation of her personal and political views.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from originally and when did art first enter your life?
I grew up in Tunis, Tunisia. My mom swears that my first word was “picture.” She always beams with pride when she says it because she was the one that brought art into our family’s life; taking us to museums, signing us up for extracurricular art classes and always letting us make a mess at home. I just know remembering that she would let us paint with gouache on a designated kitchen wall. My brother and I took it super seriously- we were like: “Ok, this our mural. What are we gonna paint? How are we gonna use this space?”

Has your work always taken on the style it currently embodies?
Stylistically, my work has changed since I started painting. I would say I fully arrived at the process and imagery my work currently embodies in 2016- with hints of it as early as 2010.

Artwork by Nadia Ayari

What’s a day in the studio like for you?
Well, primarily I am either mixing a palette, which can take me up to three days per painting or I’m applying a layer, one of many, to a painting. So yeah- to further explain, in my studio I mainly preoccupied with mixing and tweaking gradients of color and adding solvent to paint blobs so the paintings are built as healthily as possible. When I started oil painting, I never thought the words “fat over lean” would loom so large in my day to day.
There are also days when I am creating compositions for new paintings and those are distinctly different from painting or mixing days. I have to really look at the canvases I am working on at that moment and consider them as a whole in order to decide what to make next. “Where is the narrative going? Which set of elements do I want to explore in the next work?”
And then there are sculpture days and those, for the most part, are a release from the painting days and are very fun because I put less pressure on myself since I in no way consider myself a sculptor.

What’s next for you?
Currently, I am focused on making works for my upcoming solo at Nina Johnson Gallery in Miami which will open in late November 2022.

From where do you draw inspiration?
I think of it less at inspiration and more as motivation. Our political realities motivate me to paint. When I paint, I am satiating an important part of myself which in turn allows me to take a better care of others. I frame this within politics because showing up as a daughter, sister, friend, and community member is frankly hard to do in our current systems.

What source material do you base your work off of?
A conversation with a Tunisian art student a few years ago reminded me that the flora I use has its origins in the landscape I grew up in. He was like: “is the flower based off a jasmin and is the leaf based off an olive tree leaf.” He was absolutely spot on. I had been using them as protagonist for so long, I had nearly forgotten. It was very grounding to remember.

Does your work reference any Art Historical movements?
No- but I do recognize that my work exists in a very specific context which is loaded with what came before it. In other words, while I do not reference any movements, I am aware that my work contains within it a response to what has preceded it.

What is your process like? How do you begin a work?
My painting process is very labor intensive and quite slow. I begin with a composition and then start a very particular layering of oil paint to ensure that I am building towards the highly textured surfaces you see in the finished works. In addition to “fat over lean,” another dictum I rely on is “move from general to specific.” So the when I’m on the eighth layer of a painting, all its elements; color, texture, line, composition, etc are more specific than they were in the layers below.

Artwork by Nadia Ayari

At the end of every interview, we like to ask the artist to recommend a friend whose work you’d love for us to interview next. Who would you suggest?
Ooo I love this- I would suggest talking to Sarah Anderson. She is a sculptor whose work I really admire for its sophisticated use of diverse materials.