Q&A: Diana Nawi

Diana Nawi,Associate Curator at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, “Breaks the Code” at EXPO Chicago 2016


Associate Curator at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, Diana Nawi initially began her career in the arts in a studio program. Even so, Nawi knew early on that curating was her calling. After achieving a master’s degree in contemporary art history at Williams College Graduate Program in Massachusetts, she spent 10 years working in art institutions around the country, from small nonprofits to major museums. In recent years, Nawi’s career trajectory has taken her from Chicago to New York to Miami. This fall, she’ll be heading back to the Midwest to head up this year’s IN/SITU program at EXPO Chicago. For this fifth iteration of IN/SITU (the fair’s installation and site-specific exhibition program), Nawi draws from her wide-ranging knowledge of artists from across the US for “A Break in the Code,” featuring works that question the forms and systems inherent in the world around us.

Art Ltd: You spent a year as the Marjorie Susman Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. What did you learn about Chicago’s art community while you were working at the MCA?

Diana Nawi: Chicago is a unique city, with so many great art schools and universities. I found it to be a culture with a strong civic ethos. It felt like a very intellectually engaged and curious audience. The art community has an energy from so many students and spaces, with a DIY culture as well as such remarkable institutions.

“Rotunda,” (detail), 2016, Bettina Pousttchi, Photo installation for IN/SITU
Courtesy: the artist and Buchmann Galerie Berlin

AL: You mentioned in a recent article in ArtNet that your IN/SITU program will “highlight the vibrancy of the city.” What is your plan for this?

DN: The artists in the IN/SITU program are from all over: Phoenix, Los Angeles, Miami. But a particularly ‘Chicago’ project is Carlos ‘Dzine’ Rolon’s vending cart piece, Nomadic Habitat (Hustleman), which was produced with Theaster Gates’ incubator at the University of Chicago. The design is based on a Moroccan housing project, though the content really comes from the street culture in the Southside of Chicago, and the street culture than can be found around the country. These carts sell all kinds of goods –not just food, but items that are responsive to the communities that they serve. It’s a take on that local phenomenon that Rolon observed. Anyone who walks into the fair will have this moment of recognition, as so many cities in the US are populated with these kinds of stands.

AL: What was your approach to “A Break in the Code”? What were you looking for in the works you selected?

DN: With some artists, we collaborated to figure out a certain project that would work, whether that was reconfiguring an old project or transforming something pre-existing to handle the scale of the fair. Certain artists were commissioned to make new work through their galleries. Still others had some wonderful work that they proposed to bring to Chicago.

My approach to the program is connecting all these disparate works of art. I looked for threads of connectivity: what artists are responding to at this moment, what makes sense for this context. One context is Chicago, and the other context is an art fair. What makes sense without a white cube? The way one spends time at a fair is quite different than the way one might spend it in an exhibition space. There are a lot of demands on one’s attention. I was thinking about objects that would give people a moment to pause, or that have some relationship to the experience of the fair.

“Mr. Potato Head Full of Ecstasy (Narco Headlines Series),” 2015,
Julio César Morales, watercolour and ink on paper, 22 x 30 inches
Courtesy: of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco

AL: What are some specific works in the program that stand out in your mind?

DN: I’m excited about a project by Julio César Morales, who’s based in Phoenix and shows with Wendi Norris in San Francisco. Morales did a gallery exhibition a while back that included these beautiful, handmade drawings called Narco Headlines. They were newspaper headlines related to failed drug smuggling attempts; one evocative example is Mr. Potato Head Full of Ecstasy. We worked together to produce large-scale vinyls and banners of these texts. They’re surreal snippets of poem-like language, though they allude to this huge underground illicit economy-a desperation that deals with ingenuity.

Another project that really encapsulates some of my thinking around this program is the artist Super PAC, For Freedoms, which is the brainchild of Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman. It infiltrates this hugely influential thing that is the Super PAC. It literally recreates and redeploys that logic on its own terms.

And, Miami-based artist Jillian Mayer will be presenting her Slumpies, these strange-looking, haphazard sculptural forms. They’re actually chairs and lounges that are meant to ergonomically support you while you look at your mobile device. They’re a very smart and funny way of thinking about our intimate, dependent relationship on technology.

“Slumpie,” 2016, Jillian Mayer
Courtesy: David Castillo Gallery

AL: What are you hoping the viewers will get out of this year’s IN/SITU program?

DN: I hope they have as much engagement and fun experiencing it as I had putting it together. The project came out of responding to the fair, and thinking about time and people’s attention in a space that’s as busy and dynamic as an art fair. I wanted works that ask for a certain kind of thinking from viewers, so there are repeated encounters with certain artist’s work and a number of pieces that disrupt or undermine familiar experience.

AL: What else you’re looking forward to seeing in Chicago and at EXPO?

I’m excited to see all the works installed at the fair! There are so many brand new pieces; it will be great to see them realized. I’m looking forward to the fair itself, to seeing old Chicago friends and colleagues and to visiting all the great Chicago museums, and especially to seeing the Kerry James Marshall retrospective again.