Experimental art renegade Nancy Azara is a leading feminist artist, teacher and activist whose work encompasses gender equality, healing and individual connection to the divine. She sees “woman’s myth” and the diverse cultural processes of ritual as the spiritual sources for her totemic configurations.
Her work manifests as sensitive, revealing, spiritual explorations of how hands and plants help heal our everyday stresses and inner turmoil. She connects these powerful symbols with precise techniques that connect viewers to her own robust personality and unique history, transforming natural wood into totems that are culturally universal in their portrayal of womanhood and Azara’s personal journey.
In this exclusive, GO discusses with Azara the spiritual femininity in her artwork, her thoughts on the contemporary feminist art scene, and her ideas on the intertwined connection between gender equality and LGBT equality.
GO: How does Feminism inspire your art?
Nancy Azara: I’ve been involved in the art world for a long time. Once I understood the social and political experience of myself as a woman, I began to look for a definition…a way to express myself in my art. And I think that has gotten deeper and deeper as time has passed.
GO: We notice that trees and hands are recurring motifs in your artwork. Do they have special meaning to you?
N: “Hands” are really an instrument of making art happen. So there is a fascination with hands in every culture, especially early culture, because they are connected to the expression of creativity within ourselves. The “tree” is such a manifestation of the experience of life and living—the way it grows and the way it branches out. The tree is an excellent metaphor or stand-in for the human.
GO: You’ve said that you associate “trees” with the symbolism of women. Can you tell us about that connection?
N: Trees have a kind of spirit connection to women, I feel. And if you look at our culture over the years, you often find a metaphor used in art for a woman as a tree and a tree as a woman—the expression of growth and outstretching of itself.
GO: What do you think is the significance of feminist art in today’s society?
N: I think that feminist art and art by women— and whether there is a separation and something really different in our expression—is something we will find out, but it will take quite awhile. Women have been unable to make art as a group for a very long time, so the actual manifestation of what is feminist art or if there is difference in women’s art will perhaps show itself, or perhaps there will be no difference, but that will be something that we may be able to see in the future.
Feminist art, considering it at this moment, is about intent. It’s about examining and looking at oneself and expressing that in a way that relates to people in general—to woman specifically—to reach a kind of understanding that I think is a little different from the way men see the world. And I do find that women see my work in ways that are much different than how men see it. Or, if I have the opportunity to have a dialogue with women about my work, that often doesn’t happen with men in the same way. So, I would just say that feminism is about giving ourselves freedom to be who we are as women, without the limitations that have been thrown around us for thousands of years. If you are looking at your art from that point of view, from a way of examining yourself and developing wisdom, interpreting some of the mystique we are confronted with in terms of living—and you do that freely as a woman, then you are expressing yourself in a feminist manner.
GO: How do you feel feminist art is being adapted by the younger generation?
N: The younger generation has a way of looking at the world and at themselves in ways that I never thought about. Growing up in the 1960s was a vastly different experience than was growing up in the late 1990s and 2000s, so it makes sense that the work is different. For instance, the idea of gender and all the definitions of different genders is something that I previously hadn’t thought about and requires me to examine and rethink ideas of feminism. Many [younger artists] do performance art, which I’m quite interested in and find fascinating, and it’s very sensual in ways I wouldn’t have conceived of exploring as a young person. It requires me to think in a new way.
GO: Where do you think gender equality and LGBT activism intersect?
N: I think they’re one and the same in many ways. I don’t see them as separate experiences; I see them as interrelated. The intersection between the two is hard to discern, one is so closely tied to the other. For instance, I think gender fluidity is such a wonderful word. The concept of being fluid with one gender was, I think, mostly inconceivable 50 or 60 years ago. Now it’s something people examine and explore and it’s very exciting. Without gender equality, LGBT people have very little chance to be acknowledged as worthy humans. Equal rights are not separate and not in a vacuum. They are everyone’s human rights.
GO: Do you have current projects is the realm of feminist art?
N: I will hold a workshop this Saturday [July 23] on self-reflection. This workshop will metaphorically bring to view a reflection of ourselves and examine the different aspects of that reflection through meditation and art-making. Participants will make collages and drawings using various materials such as watercolor, pencil, crayon, etcetera. It will be at my studio in Woodstock, N.Y., and the fee will be $100. For more information, people can go to my website [nancyazara.com] or reach me at 212-925-5777.
In 1979, Nancy Azara co-founded the New York Feminist Art Institute (NYFAI), a feminist art school where she served on the board and taught a workshop named “Consciousness Raising, Visual Diaries, Art Making.” She was a participating artist in the third Lesbian Biennial, “A Lesbian Vision: Art By Women Who Love Women” in the Leslie-Lohman Museum Of Gay and Lesbian (LLGAF), and the 40th Anniversary Lesbian Herstory Archives’ “Art Benefit Friday” in 2013.