Nina Chanel Abney, “Fishing Was His Life”
Nina Chanel Abney, “Black People (BP),” 2022, triptych collage on panel. All images © Nina Chanel Abney. Photos courtesy of the artist and Pace Prints
Henry Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
Continuing through February 5, 2023
In her new body of work Nina Chanel Abney departs from narratives of Black agriculturists and looks instead at the fishing industry in Black communities of the Southern Gulf Coast — a region whose fish and wildlife populations have been repeatedly obliterated. The declarative title, “Fishing Was His Life” is, like the work itself, straightforward at a glance, but not when one pauses to ask, “Why the past tense? Was it his life out of necessity or pleasure?” The answers are also not so straightforward.
Abney’s work always gives a layered view of Black labor, nodding to legacies of exploitation while also rejoicing in its self-sufficiency. But whereas agricultural work is tied to historical plantation labor and contemporary prison agriculture, fishing connects more immediately to a broader ecological (and existential) threat.
Much of the mayhem in southern waters has been the result of obvious bad actors and human folly. One of the most dramatic examples was the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, whose explosive crude oil spill devastated fisheries and wetlands around the Gulf Coast. British Petroleum’s (also known as BP) culpability, their attempts to sidestep responsibility, and their eventual multibillion payouts as compensation were in the media for several years, but after the initial disaster, little attention was paid to the long-standing effects it had on those coastal communities.
Abney’s largest piece here is an 18-foot-long triptych nodding to this event and its impact. Titled “Black People (BP),” it shows Black workers (and a dog) mired in a vast brown sludge. Their expressions are typical of Abney’s work: vaguely cheery, nondescript, a strange contrast to the dire situation around them.
Nina Chanel Abney, “Captain F.S.,” 2022, collage on panel
They are more or less the same expressions one sees on disembodied (or severed) heads displayed for sale alongside fish and crab in other of Abbey’s works. They are expressions that deny us the satisfaction or comfort of an obvious emotion or narrative.
Abney’s work is, as a whole, a jilting play with bathos. The simplicity of shapes, bright colors, and pleasing compositions set one up at a glance for something easy and mundane. Then the strangeness or uncomfortable matter of the scene actually sinks in. And when we go looking for a reaction from the human figures that make up that scene, we don’t get horror or even a knowing nod, but rather a sort of dead-eyed amicability.
Nina Chanel Abney, “Brutha Who Fish,” 2022, collage on panel
It has become a cliché to hear institutions and their apologists offer praise, rather than material support for the resiliency of disadvantaged and oppressed communities rather than material support. Abney’s work is the sort that might bait that hook, but the work is pretty plain about why one shouldn’t open one’s mouth around that bait: Not everyone survives. Resiliency is not enough, and shouldn’t be the thing that proves a community’s worth in the first place.
In this light, the past tense of “Fishing Was His Life” takes on a darker tone. But it isn’t just about “Him,” whoever he may be. It is also about the fish.
It is morbidly apt that, just weeks after the opening of “Fishing Was His Life,” news came that billions of snow crabs were missing around Alaska and the Bering Sea. Shortly thereafter, the annual snow crab hunt was canceled. Long considered a safe and sustainable species by NOAA and the fishing industry, it is now apparent that the snow crabs may not ever return to previous population levels.
Warming waters are the main culprit for this sudden die-off and lack of viable juveniles, as the crabs’ hunting and breeding grounds have shrunk and made them more susceptible to predation and hunger-driven cannibalistic behavior. While non-climate-deniers can trace this phenomenon back to the fossil fuel industry, the connection is more abstract than the Deepwater Horizon crisis that obliterated wildlife populations in the south, and easier to forget amid recent midterm elections. It’s just one of those things, ya know … the new normal on a warming planet, where Alaska is the fastest-warming state of all.
Yet, long-term situations will be increasingly difficult to ignore because alternate supply chains don’t exist for snow crabs the way that they did for the fish and crustaceans affected by the BP crisis in the south. Abney’s work is a faceted window onto the lives of those on the front line of these disasters. They have long been overlooked (which is sometimes a blessing when it is better to be left alone), but doing so now is to everyone’s peril.
Abney strikes a fine balance here. Her ambiguously stoic figures exist in a world where contentment in one’s labor is still possible, where there is still abundance. Yet our food industries exhaust, maim, and destroy lives in a gluttonous pursuit that is steadily driving scarcity and extinctions. In Abney’s work this figurative cannibalism transforms into something more literal. It’s snow crab season, indeed.
The Bering Sea seems a long way from the southern Gulf Coast, but on an interconnected and compassionate planet this shouldn’t matter. Resilient or not, the communities there have suffered for our collective inaction, and by reminding us of this, Abney is prodding us to think soberly about our shared future, not simply memorializing a colorful past tense.
Nina Chanel Abney, “Anthony,” 2022, collage on panel