Aliza Nisenbaum paints immigrants, volunteers, and others in Whittier and the Wedge

Aliza Nisenbaum; Untitled (Mia Guards)

Aliza Nisenbaum; Untitled (Mia Guards) Aliza Nisenbaum

Nimo Mohamed sits among ascending vines of purple flowers, her face haloed by a neon-yellow hijab. Below her are echinacea flowers and black-eyed susans, and behind her is a depiction of a sign she made describing the basics of gardening techniques.

Mohamed, who is 20, has always wanted to be painted by an artist. She got her chance recently when New York-based Aliza Nisenbaum arrived in the Twin Cities for an immersive residency through the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

For the residency, Nisenbaum set out to build relationships with neighborhood groups in Phillips and Whittier. She made multiple visits to Hope Community, a nonprofit organization in Phillips that manages a conglomerate of affordable housing buildings and runs leadership and community programs. At Hope, Nisenbaum met Mohamed, who lives with her family across the street from the center, where she currently works as an intern teaching other members about gardening and growing food for healthier living.

“She said, ‘You’re really beautiful. Let me do a painting of you,’” Mohamed recalls. But first, they got to know each other better. Nisenbaum came to visit the garden every Tuesday night. “She was learning so much from us,” Mohamed says. “She just inspired me. She didn’t look at me differently just because I’m Muslim or Somali.”

Part of the reason Mohamed wanted to be a part of Nisenbaum’s project was to challenge the negative views of Islam in media. “A lot of people are hating on Islam, claiming things we’ve never done, hating things that we’ve never done,” she says. “I just want to send a really good message that we are not what people are making us [out to be] on social media.”

Nisenbaum’s artistic process falls into a relatively recent movement called social practice art, where the artist actively engages with different populations. She spends time getting to know her subjects, learning about them, and discussing how they want to be portrayed. Then she ruminates in the studio on how to formulate her painting.

Aliza Nisenbaum connects with a guard.

Aliza Nisenbaum connects with a guard. Image courtesy Mia

Her work emerges out of the relationships she builds with people. “There’s a lot of interacting with people ahead of time, going out into the world and engaging with whatever activities they are doing, and then they make choices about the clothing they want to wear, the way they want to sit, how they want to be portrayed,” Nisenbaum says. “And that comes into the painting. So in the end it’s somewhat collaborative in that way.”

Born in Mexico City, Nisenbaum comes from a Russian Jewish immigrant family on her father’s side. Her grandfather came to Mexico when he was 5, during a period when the U.S. borders were closed to immigration. Nisenbaum’s mother, a Scandinavian American, traveled to Mexico to study art.

While in college, Nisenbaum decided she wanted to be an artist, and moved to the United States. She currently lives in Harlem and teaches at Columbia University.

On her first day at Mia, Nisenbaum noticed one of the security guards standing near a painting by Alice Neel, who is one of Nisenbaum’s favorite painters. “When I saw her... guiding a mother and daughter around the museum, telling them a little bit about Alice Neel, I was like, ‘I have to start here. This is the first community,’” Nisenbaum says.

When she was invited to the security guards’ morning meeting in the basement of the museum, Nisenbaum noticed a camaraderie among the guards, many of whom are artists themselves.

The guards also teased her about the ghost living in the brownstone apartment she was staying at, as well as the ghost in the museum itself. “It’s such a fun, convivial space in the basement,” she says. “I went through a bit of a hazing.”

As she got to know the guards, she included those details in the painting itself, such as the wall in their meeting room filled with photographs of pets. She also featured biographical details, like one of the guards being a New York Yankees fan, and the musical instrument played by another.

“Sometimes I think of my work as a document,” she says. “It’s kind of like re-transcribing a space, giving homage to that space and to the artists who made that. I changed it quite a bit so it’s not an exact copy, but it’s a reference.”

Nisenbaum’s version of social practice art is more of an exchange than traditional art-making. She doesn’t use people and places as source materials without giving anything back. Instead, the relationship is more of an attempt to be balanced. 

“When they sit here, it’s based on trust quite a bit,” she says. “Having somebody look at you, every part of your skin and stuff… it’s a really intimate conversation because they have to give themselves to me in some way for me to paint them.”

When she was working with Centro, a local Latino service organization, Nisenbaum went back many times before she settled on a group of eight people who were really interested in art. “I presented a kind of art history class. We talked about portraiture and art, and then I did two sessions of portraiture class with their classmates,” she says. The drawings that the elders made ended up being in Nisenbaum’s painting as well.

Working with Nisenbaum gives the community a chance to see underrepresented faces in the museum. “I think people can learn about contributions, the strengths, the hopes these elders in our community have,” she says. “It’s important to highlight those positive stories.”

Chaka Mkali, director of organizing and community building at Hope Community, agrees. “[Participants] were able to cross that line and see themselves prominently displayed in a position of power,” he says. “Those people sitting were paid a fair hourly wage. Those kinds of elements are important when engaging communities. So many times people are engaged but there’s no follow-through.”

Nisenbaum’s three paintings will be displayed, along with a documentary video about her residency, at the Cargill Gallery at Mia. The gallery will also include a space to be used by the communities with whom she collaborated.


“A Place We Share”

Minneapolis Institute of Art
September 30 through February 4, 2018
There will be an artist’s talk and preview
6:30 p.m. Thursday, September 28