We are what we are because we’ve lived what we’ve lived, and that is something no one can run away from. Artist Dana Nechmad celebrates just that, the visceral nature of physical memory – every bruise, every step, every experience. Her pieces “are a collection of moments and feelings that I find hard to communicate in any logical way, so instead, they manifest as material form”, she explains. Discovering her work is like entering a world of emotions and self-exploration, a room for intimacy. On April 29, she’ll prove so with the exhibition In Tension, opening at The Bee in the Lion gallery in New York City
Dana has an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (where she is based) and a BFA from The Libera Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence (where she lived for a few years). But what catches my attention when going through her pieces is the role that techniques play and how they transmit that huge range of emotion – among them, painting, needle-pointing, video-making, embroidery, drawing or textile manipulation. We get to meet her and talk about female struggles, the connection of body and mind, her insecurities as a young girl, vulnerability and her upcoming solo show.
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The Two Face video is a sort of introduction where you present yourself in an artistic way; a performance of your own double image. For those who haven’t seen it (and for those who have), could you introduce yourself a bit more?
This piece was inspired by a video I had seen by Hermine Freed where she kisses her own image. Seeing her work, I started to think of self-love and how I feel about myself versus how I present myself. I was performing different personalities within me: the seductive, the hesitant, the fearful, the suspicious, the annoyed, the ill, etc. It starts as a confrontation but concludes as a visual Ouroboros of myself.
This work was made when I was at a very low point in my life and was trying to face my demons. My dad has a saying that ‘nobody can see their own back’, which basically means we all have aspects of ourselves we want to ignore or are not comfortable with but everyone else is well aware of. Facing my ‘backside’ and exposing my own fragility and insecurity was an empowering act that promoted a new creative path for me.
Your videos are an invitation to different worlds, they’re intimate and self-investigative. These performances create an aura of pure emotion. In Two Face, we can see you double, and in Red Eyes, you stare at the viewer and start to cry as an invitation for them to cry as well. As an artist, how important it is to analyse oneself? What’s the point of showing those ‘dark’, more vulnerable moments to the spectator?
The first time I showed Red Eyes, I was so afraid that people would think I was vain or would be bored because it is basically me crying for six minutes. But then, I realised nobody even sees me. People project their own image onto me; I am just a vessel for their own emotions and tears, that’s the magic of art. The best work allows for an outlet of emotions that is pretty rare in everyday life. You get to pause in front of an image and experience something in you. Just feel, without consequences.
Being an artist involves looking into your inside and sharing it yet getting inspiration from the outside world. Honesty, vulnerability, open heart; what made you want to express all those issues in your work? I mean, was there a moment where you knew you had to tell something in particular, or it just came as a natural reaction to embrace pain from all your personal experiences?
I was raised in an environment that valued logic, function and ‘bottom line’, but as I grow older, I find that actually, the moments of vulnerability and fragility are the most important to me. Only when I let myself go and my guards down, I can learn about myself and the world around me. It is not always a pleasant feeling, and what I find is often hard to face but it is important because it opens up room for intimacy and honesty that allow for connection. Imperfection is more beautiful and interesting because it is real, perfection is not.
The processes in your textiles, varied and laborious, are a combination of painting, hand-dying, needlepoint threading, embroidery, drawing, textile manipulation and even video-making. Let us know about how you got to know all these techniques and make them work together. In your work, do feelings relate to concrete techniques?
For a long time, I have been focusing on the technical aspect of art making, I studied traditional painting in Italy – I lived there for almost five years and studied old masterpieces. I came to textile and video work later during my time as a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There, I was encouraged to experiment and question my role as an artist beyond one medium. Working with different materials gives me a wider range of expression.
Also, through time I’ve come to realize how much the process of making is important to the work and often adds another layer of meaning to it. Every material I use is already charged with its own history and emotional energy, which are altered through my manipulation and contributes to the content of the work. I am still grateful for my traditional background and I think of everything I make through the lens of painting, but I use my knowledge of aesthetics as an open-ended tool and not as a predetermined formula.
“Only when I let myself go and my guards down, I can learn about myself and the world around me. Imperfection is more beautiful and interesting because it is real.”
Art can be taught at schools, and it is somehow necessary to learn the technical and theoretical sides to it. But that’s far away from turning into a real artist. Tell us something art schools won’t teach you.
Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out what ‘real artist’ means. But I wish art school would emphasise more the fact that there is no one way of being an artist and that each of us should figure out what success means to us. It is a very challenging road and a lonely one in many ways, so it is important to remember why you do what you do and that making art is a real privilege. Also, surround yourself with supportive friends and be there for each other. A sense of community is key for progress and growth.
On your website, you have this interesting sentence saying that “we carry our life experiences on and within ourselves. Every engagement with the world is imprinted in us; every bruise, every argument, every kiss, every fall, every sexual encounter, every birth.” Is your work a reflection of your own experiences as a woman?
Yes, all my work comes from my own personal experience. My pieces are a collection of moments and feelings that I find hard to communicate in any logical way, so instead, they manifest as material form. That is why I love image making so much, because it allows for an expressive language that is complex and contradictory. I often feel that I can articulate better myself through line, texture and colour than through words. But it is not about telling my own narrative as it is allowing for an exposed moment to be revealed and, hopefully, opening a space for the viewer to reflect on their own.
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Female is the main subject and object in your work, through which you tackle issues such as sexuality, fertility, pleasure or pain, among others. So, your artworks are somehow displaying a side to women that we can’t usually access, as many of them are still taboo, like mental health. But many more, which aren’t usually talked about, not even in schools when young girls need it the most. The change in women’s bodies is a constant (the period, pregnancy, gaining weight or losing it, etc.) and violation or abuse happen every day. Is there anything you miss someone had told you – about life and as a woman?
Growing up, I was so detached from my own body, I did not feel it – almost ignored it. I was interested in the mind and thought my physicality is a nuisance. Only when I got pregnant, I realised what a connection there is between body and mind and how motherhood is an opportunity to get to know myself through my physicality on a deeper level.
Our cycles, our moods and physical shifts are also an opening to the many versions of ourselves; we should allow for that change and celebrate it because it gives us the freedom to exist in the world in a creative, fluid way. I wish someone had told me to be proud of my ever-changing body and that it as a key to the many possibilities of existence I have on this planet. It is a strength to be able to change and grow – it is development.
Let’s go back for a second; what were your biggest fears you had to deal with as a young girl? And how has art helped you overcome them?
I was a very ‘good’ girl and I absorbed everything around me without questioning it too much. I wish I was more critical of my surroundings and more rebellious. My biggest fear was letting other people down. I think it is a very feminine fear and I am still struggling to put myself forward and claiming my space without apologizing for it. Art was always my passion and the one area that I had no doubt about. Through painting, I learned about who I am and what I am worth. It also allowed me to travel and see the world at a very young age and opened my mind to other ways of seeing.
“I wish someone had told me to be proud of my ever-changing body and that it as a key to the many possibilities of existence I have on this planet.”
What issues do you feel are more urgent in the (female) fight for equality?
I think the fight for equality is a fight of everyone and not a female fight. Men should fight for equality alongside women and womxn people. There are so many urgent issues, but on a practical level, I tend to focus on physical safety and economic equality; when we win those, the rest will follow.
In Tension, your upcoming exhibition, will inaugurate on April 29 at The Bee in the Lion, New York. You present a ‘different communication’ somehow, nearly braille-like because of the textures and the combination of elements. What do you want the spectator to experience?
I hope the spectator will take the time to experience the work in an intimate way. Being with the pieces in the space is different than seeing them online and I hope the viewer will feel that. 
The Don’t Go There piece is a hand-dyed canvas with bleach. Through its opening cut of fabric, we can see a vagina embroidered in velvet on its inside. The female figure is covering it as if it hurt or as if she was ashamed. Censorship is somehow taking part of our essence, our pixeled bodies on Instagram (just an example of this) is creating a message that says, ‘don’t look at my body’ (let’s think for a second about the #freethenipple movement). People getting scandalized by a simple part of our body is nonsense. As females, we feel sometimes that they are taking away part of us – our magic, it’s a matter of rights and identity. As a woman, what do you feel society took from you?
This piece is not about the girl but about the viewer. The real focus is on the gaze because, in order to see the embroidery, one needs to really push their head in the opening of the fabric (the vagina). I wanted people to take notice of the act of looking and think about it.
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And, something you would like to give back to society?
Honestly, these days raising my son is my best contribution to society. But I am also organizing with the artist Samir Nahas a collaborative artist book project titled Pen Incest. Our project is based on the tradition of exquisite corpse, where each artist responds to the work made before them. We already published two versions of it in Chicago and are currently circulating a book between twelve Los Angeles artists with the generous help of the artist Bridget Driessen. Collaboration is a great creative way to bring together diverse artistic voices and, hopefully, we can reach different audiences with this project as it continues to expand in the future.
The exhibition In Tension will be on view from April 29 to June 28 at The Bee in the Lion, 310 East 23rd Street, 2H, New York.
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