BARBARA NAHMAD: YESTERDAY NOW
by Megakles Rogakos
WHAT? Yesterday Now is the title of an exhibition of portraits of VIPs of the 1960s painted by Barbara Nahmad at the distance of the new millennium. The series is replete of the fashionable set of figures that imprinted their presence throughout that decade, and are still active hitherto - at the very least in our minds. At the same time, the title makes a clear reference to the 1965 Beatles' song "Yesterday", that needs no introduction. Nahmad is convinced that, by looking at the media from the 1960s, one can comprehend many otherwise arcane aspects of our own time. In order to facilitate this process, Nahmad has chosen stereotypical stills of people who made a difference through the impact of their personalities and work. The indirect titles Nahmad uses for her subjects (for example, Casta Diva for Maria Callas' portrait) are also intended as a verbal crystalisation of their personality at the climax of their achievements. All her subjects are represented at an apparently key moment in their public appearance. Nahmad holds that one does not have to be obsessed by the new to be revolutionary; the appearance alone of her models suffices. It is now an extraordinary sensation to see Nahmad's paintings at Image Contemporary Art gathered together as a connected series of works.
WHO? The personalities Nahmad chooses to represent are tragic, in that they carry the burden of their time and the drama of their destiny. Nahmad is attracted by their deeply perceived constructive energy; to her an essence of progressiveness. All of these personalities whom Nahmad revisits with Yesterday Now have changed our understanding of the world as a socio-political and economic eco-system, with its enormous cultural consequences. In so changing the world, these figures influenced the present and shaped the future. This extraordinary series samples the entire spectrum of the major figures of the 1960s; uncategorisable artists like Marcel Duchamp and Yoko Ono, painters like Andy Warhol, actors like Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren, film-directors like Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini, singers like Maria Callas and Mick Jagger, musicians like John Lennon, politicians and human rights leaders like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, fighters like Che Guevara, pioneering trail-blazers like Yuri Gagarin - all, in their way, subverters of a fossilised status quo. As icons, these figures take kinship with religion and - for many - take its place. They are still promoted as figures of contemporary fascination and influence. Over time they have become detached from their own human dimension and have been hallowed in posterity. It is indeed curious that a younger generation having no experience of who these personalities essentially were or of what they achieved, nevertheless they know who they are and what they look like. To take a handful of examples, Che Guevara continues to be inarticulately revered as an icon, Marilyn Monroe is worshiped as an icon of femininity and sensuality like the Madonna, and Gagarin is admired as a hero with no more significant successors. There is an element of tragic ephemeral insubstantiability associated with these figures; a sort of matrix of a sort of system of easy-rise-easy-fall. The 1960s was a decade in which it seems too many things happened too quickly. Presently, Yesterday Now is a stasis of perception, a fermata for reflection.
WHEN? Though the 1960s are spiritually close to us, we have need of the chronological distance – at present almost half a century or, anyway, the gap of a whole generation - so as to appreciate now what happened then. Those times invited a cultural subversion. As a matter of fact, it was easy to be culturally subversive back in the 1960s, because the target was identified and perceived; this target was conservatism. The time was ripe for reconstruction, in the aftermath of the destruction caused by two World Wars, Civil Wars, and The Cold War. The world wanted something new - though it knew not what. There was a new aspiration in the fields of culture, science, society, politics, economy, geography, religion, and sexuality. And, coinciding with this generative 'mix' at that time, it was Youth that - for the first time - had some actual power. Youth of the 1960s - miraculously it seemed to the ageist culture and still seems now - managed to retain its freshness despite the individuals' present physical condition. Of course, there was a condition that helped the perpetuity of these figures' reputation; the 1960s was the beginning of mass media technology - as it has now come down to our own time. The great personalities of that time became mythical figures by virtue, at least in part, of being pioneers in the use of the mass media effectively.
WHY? In revisiting the 1960s, rather than pass judgement or express criticism, Nahmad reinforces with her painting the ongoing myth. The concept of Yesterday Now is to single out these iconic figures, and to return to their past in order to review the origin of its structures that have made the modern Western World. By looking in the past, perhaps we may have some new comprehension of our moment now. We may draw energy and inspiration from these personalities’ resourceful store of experience and pain. Yesterday Now elucidates our thought. Today, the world is going through an extremely difficult era, in which authorities are questioned and archetypes ignored. Our times may be free from values, qualities, ideals, ideas, and dreams. This absence of such parameters has opened a gap of rather detrimental consequences. The cultural pioneers of the 1960s were examples for western culture and modern thought. They were ambassadors for a society full of ambitions and dreams. In a way - it may be just to say – that these figures are pure in a world that had been purged of its past. This cleansing operation may explain why today's VIPs get nowhere near their predecessors of the 1960s. With Yesterday Now Nahmad looks at the past as a means of dealing with the present. Witnessing how, today, terrorism pushes western society towards closure, Nahmad reminds us of the kind of pluralism and the cultural uinversalism these stars of 1960s endorsed; showed us a way of living that could inspire people to communicate with one another and celebrate their differences.
HOW? For her material, Nahmad looked at the media from the 1960s. Inspired by Andy Warhol, who appropriated found material from magazines and newspapers, Nahmad displaced the portraiture from its original background and sets it against a purely monochrome ground. The figures, painted in oil, remain in black & white - as they were recorded by history and the medium of their times. However, they are set against a monochrome background in enamel. The colour, carefully chosen to contrast with the faces, evokes a relevant sensation - either acidic or hallucinatory - and a contemporary feeling of a distant purity. Unlike the hyper-realistic strand of conventional portraiture, Nahmad style is characteristically flat and abstracted, as evidence of an aesthetic engagement over critical detachment. In keeping with portraiture anytime, every painted face contains some essence of Nahmad's life and mood in response to the spirit of the time. Above all, however, this exhibition is an aesthetic and emotional reminder of our ongoing debt to the 1960s. The time is now indeed ripe to look at that period, it is not by chance that institutions like the Tate launched, earlier in 2004, their exhibition titled This Was Tomorrow. The gist is that the 1960s are closely relevant to our own times, and - just as the title of Nahmad's exhibition suggests - this moment is a celebration of the 'Now from Yesterday'.