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Nina Chanel Abney: Femme Games

Aug 6, 2021 – Oct 24, 2021


Nina Chanel Abney is at the forefront of a generation of artists that is unapologetically revitalizing narrative figurative painting, and as a skillful storyteller, she visually articulates the complex social dynamics of contemporary urban life.

Her large-scale, colorful, abstracted figurative paintings, have been compared to masters such as Romare Bearden, Stuart Davis, and Henri Matisse. Her works address a wide range of themes, from race and politics to celebrity, religion, sex, and art history. Her oeuvre includes paintings, public murals, 3D figures and toys, interactive animation, and augmented reality pieces; and her work can be found in public spaces, on basketball courts, in museums, and in private collections worldwide.

Abney’s densely packed paintings can be challenging to decipher. The artist has said that her work is “easy to swallow, hard to digest,” and certainly its playful and seductive nature belies its often-serious tone. She comes from a generation raised on screens, in which multitasking and processing multiple streams of information simultaneously is the norm, and thus loads her works full of visual data. Identified in 2020 by Vanity Fair magazine as one of the many artists championing the Black Lives Matter movement,  and whose work graced the May, 2021 New Yorker, her distinctively bold style harnesses the flux and simultaneity that has come to define life in the 21st century.

Several of the paintings seen here are inspired by Abney’s recent experiences. In May, 2020 in response to the pandemic lockdown, she bought a bike which she loaded onto her car and headed out of her New Jersey apartment and out of the city. That trip led to others and the rural destinations stirred up ideas. Of that time she said she was thinking in part: “Is there space for Black autonomy in a world organized by white supremacy? If it were an actual place—a space absent of race relations, antagonistic or friendly—what would it look like?”

In Femme Games (2020), Abney creates a woodland setting with layered brown fragments that depict tree trunks and branches, blocks of blue with wavelike strokes that evoke water, and striped rectangles that resemble picnic blankets and beach towels. On the same visual plane, a group of lively characters sit around a pregnant figure, their expressively angled limbs and hands suggesting vibrant conversation, their activity fully integrated into their environment.

This series responds to these questions by reimagining Black people’s relationship to nature, property, and each other. Taking inspiration from the fugitive utopias of Black queer social life, these scenes refuse the enclosure of Blackness to topographies of the city and to ideals if heteronormativity. Instead, Abney offers a parallel story of sanctuary and community via abstracted landscapes across which Black people build and enjoy a world of their collective making — figures cycle, pick flowers, bake pies, gather around camp fires, and breast feed babies. . “I was thinking about people leaving the city,” says Abney, “and what it would mean to own a bunch of land and kind of start your own thing.”


Abney was born in 1982 in Harvey, Illinois. She attended Augustana College, graduating with a dual BFA in studio art and computer science in 2004. Abney then pursued an MFA at the Parsons School of Design; her thesis piece, Class of 2007, a diptych which casts her grad school cohorts as black inmates in orange jumpsuits and the artist as a blonde corrections officer, captured the attention of the prominent Rubell family of art collectors and toured the country in the acclaimed group show 30 Americans. Abney’s first solo museum exhibition opened in 2017 at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, and traveled to Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The following year, she presented a series of monumental scale monotypes at Pace Prints, some of the largest works on paper ever created in their studio. In addition to her ongoing studio practice, Abney has lectured at numerous universities and arts centers; in 2013, she was a guest lecturer at the New York Academy of Art and in 2015 she was a featured speaker at the Summit Series in Powder Mountain, Utah. Abney currently lives and works in New York.

Abney’s work has been accessioned into the permanent collections of such important institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Brooklyn Museum and the Burger Collection in Hong Kong.

Artist Talk: Nina Chanel Abney


Exhibition Sponsor

Stene Projects, Stockholm


Dr. Robert L. Brandt, Jr.

Production Partner

Hospitality Partner

Operating Support

The Co receives operating support from Culture Works, Montgomery County Arts & Cultural District, Ohio Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the Andy Warhol Foundation, and the Virginia W. Kettering Foundation, and Members.