Nafisa Naomi’s artworks explore the depths of passion, reports JYOTI SHANKAR
I first met Nafisa Naomi in March 2010, when she had just won the Packing Room Prize for her painting of Glenn A Baker at the Archibald art competition, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious art awards. I remember thinking, “Now, here is somebody who lives life king size!”, and it was not just the size of her paintings that made me think that. It was her vivacious personality and obvious talent. A Sydney-based artist born in Mumbai and raised in Hong Kong and Sydney, Nafisa’s father has a Parsi Indian background, while her mother is Dutch. Less than two years later, she has produced an astounding body of artwork, a series of paintings and sculptures titled ‘PAssION’, which exhibited at the Richard Martin Art Gallery at Woollahra recently. The paintings were well-received with over 200 people attending the opening night.
This substantial body of art covering 18 months of work, breaks new ground by combining painting with sculpture, both in their purest forms. The two art forms sit besides and compliment each other, and while they can exist by themselves, their relationship essentially completes the other. Nafisa confesses that PAssION is largely autobiographical. They reflect relationships of all kinds: man-woman, parent-child and with non-human entities, such as a passion for painting or music. The sentiment that the artworks convey is more of reflection than regret, though the titles suggest otherwise. As Nafisa says, “I never regret anything in life. All life experiences are a part of learning by reflection.”
Australian flowers are often featured in Nafisa’s work. “In this exhibition too, they are a metaphor for passion,” she says. “As we discover and pursue our passions, the more it becomes a larger part of our life, to the extent that you feel you cannot breathe without it.” In the paintings – a series of Acts in the play of Passion – the slow build up of this passion from realisation to fulfilment is depicted by the increasing closeness of the female form and the flowers. Australian wildflowers have resilience, toughness, even a masculine side that compliments the feminine figure. Just as Australian native plants thrive when there is a fire, women are tested under fire too. “We suffer adversities and as a result of surviving these we become more mature and beautiful,” believes Nafisa.
Using sculpture as a media was new for Nafisa, and a part of her learning. Her unique technique of using resin with bronze was to bring out the colours from her paintings into the sculptures. The flower petals were created in resin so that she could juxtapose the rich colours of resin with the strength of bronzes. “I could be working with film for my next project,” she says. “My work takes on its own life and does not remain static, though the subject matter is always around beauty and nature. This comes out in different forms, but is new each time.” Nafisa indicates that her strong sense of colour and compulsive use of vibrant colours – so unlike Western artists – can definitely be traced to her Indian roots.
In September 2012, Nafisa will be one of the 30 artists selected from over 8000 artists to exhibit at the Chianciano Museum of Art at Tuscany. From there she heads off to Zimbabwe on an African safari with Dr Tammie Matson, to raise money to build a school there. Late last year Nafisa was in Assam with the Wildlife Trust of India and Dr Matson, following the trail of orphaned elephants released into the wild. Her elephant series of drawings done after an earlier visit to Assam to research and document human-elephant conflict, are realistic and detailed. Prints of these are sold by Animal Works, an organisation that is a coalition of artists, filmmakers, authors and conservationists who try to draw attention to the plight of threatened animal species through written word, visual medium and artwork. She rues the facts that we wake up to major disasters such as tsunamis or earthquakes where many lives are lost, but do little to stop the gradual daily destruction of wildlife and environment happening everywhere. Nafisa literally wishes to ‘draw’ our attention to this matter.
Animal Works is not the only charity with which Nafisa is involved. She participates annually in creating a painting using jeans donated by celebrities. Hugh Jackman, Cameron Diaz, Hilary Swank and Mick Jagger donate a signed pair of their jeans which Nafisa incorporates into a painting of the celebrity which is auctioned at the Jeans for Genes Denim Dinner, an annual fundraiser of the Children’s Medical Research Institute. Last year, Nafisa’s painting with Cate Blanchett’s jeans was purchased by Addisons, the law firm, for $8000.
Working from a studio in Mosman, set amid the beauty of natural bushland with Sydney Harbour as a backdrop, it is easy to see where her inspirations come from. Nafisa’s award-winning paintings of native Australian flowers and plants, Regeneration, won a gold medal at the Florence Biennale in 2007, chosen from over 800 entries by artists from 60 nations. A wellspring of beauty and talent, Nafisa seems to live the words of Nelson Mandela, “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living”.