Niki de Saint Phalle
February 27, 2015 – June 7, 2015
Themes | Nanas and social activism
"I saw a fat woman on the beach today and she reminded me of a great pagan goddess. Black is different. I have made many black figures in my work. Black Venus, Black Madonna, Black Men, Black Nanas. It has always been an important color for me . . . Black is also me now." —Niki de Saint Phalle(1)
Niki de Saint Phalle Black Rosy, or My Heart Belongs to Rosy, 1965
Fabric, wool, paint, and wire mesh, 226.1 x 127 x 85.1 cm
Niki Charitable Art Foundation, Santee, California
In the 1960s, Niki de Saint Phalle (b. 1930, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France; d. 2002, La Jolla, California) radically changed her way to depict women: from sad, melancholic, and passive characters to cheerful, energetic, and powerful figures. She called them “Nanas,” a familiar mildly rude French term for a girl or young saucy woman. In 1964 Saint Phalle created the first of what would become an extensive population of Nanas, large-scale sculptures painted in bright colors, representing voluptuous women who portrayed femininity and motherhood. The artist was inspired by a visit from the wife of the American artist Larry Rivers (1923–2002), Clarice Rivers, who was then pregnant with her first child. Initially the Nanas were made of paper maché and wool, with found objects attached. By 1965, Saint Phalle began to introduce polyester to create plumper, more active and vibrant figures, and to be able to display them in parks and other outdoor locations.
Saint Phalle made numerous Nanas during her career. Several Nanas were created in response to the African American civil rights movement in the United States (1954–68), a testament to the artist’s belief that all women are goddesses, regardless of color (2). Black Rosy, or My Heart Belongs to Rosy (1965) is one of the first black Nanas created by the artist. She is a tribute to Rosa Parks (1913–2005), the African American woman whose refusal to vacate her seat on a bus for a white man in 1955 triggered a nationwide civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) against segregation laws.(3)
Saint Phalle was always appalled by oppression, and particularly by sexism and racism toward women and black people. Black Rosy was part of a series of black Nanas that Saint Phalle created during her career. The artist created black Nanas as tributes to black women, whom she believed were doubly victimized, as being both women and black.(4) Saint Phalle said, “I am in solidarity with all those that society and the law excludes and crushe[s]."(5)
1. Niki de Saint Phalle. Black is different, 1994. Silkscreen, 800 x 1,200 mm. Collection Mamac, Nice. Donation from the artist. http://cache.20minutes.fr/photos/2014/09/15/black-is-different-planche-cea9-diaporama.jpg
2. Tate Liverpool, Niki de Saint Phalle: Room 4 http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/niki-de-saint-phalle/niki-de-saint-phalle-room-guide/niki-de-4
3. Audioguide Niki de Saint Phalle, www.grandpalais.fr/fr/article/niki-de-saint-phalle-decouvrez-lapplication
4. “Niki de Saint Phalle, Dossier Pedagogique,” p. 14.
Show: Black Rosy, or My Heart Belongs to Rosy (1965)
Look together at Black Rosy. Ask students what they notice about it. Start by looking at the formal aspects of the sculpture. Describe the posture, gender, and the placement of the sculpture. How would they describe the colors and decorative elements? How would they describe her clothing? What associations do the colors and shapes evoke? What can one learn about her by looking at the way she is dressed?
Next, ask students to think about Black Rosy’s body language. Have a student volunteer pose like this woman. Does the stance look comfortable, nervous, or confident? What do they think this woman is feeling? What message is Niki de Saint Phalle sending about Black Rosy by creating her in this way?
Saint Phalle exaggerated some of the woman’s features. Why do you think she did that? This sculpture is 225 × 150 × 85 cm. How does that influence your perception of it? How might it feel to encounter it? Compare the size of the sculpture with the students’ height.
The sculpture pays homage to Rosa Parks. The title of Saint Phalle’s sculpture is Black Rosy, or My Heart Belongs to Rosy. What does this title tell us about the artist and the artwork? Why do you think Saint Phalle was inspired by Parks’s story? Students can learn more about Parks by doing their own research or by reading the listed resources.
- Write a short story or poem or make a drawing in which Niki de Saint Phalle’s sculpture comes to life. Where would the figure go? What would she do?
- Ask your students to research the African American civil rights movement in the United States. What was Rosa Parks’s involvement? After reading all the information they have found, encourage them to create their own work of art in reaction to the research. They may select the medium they want to work in: photography, painting, drawing, or collage.
- Saint Phalle’s first exhibition with the Nanas was titled Nana Power, making a clear reference to “Black Power,” the political slogan aimed at achieving self-determination for people of African/black descent. Brainstorm with your students about topics that concern them today. Possible topics could be oppression, bullying, racial profiling, immigration, etc. Have your students pick one to use as inspiration to create a campaign against these problems.Similar to how Saint Phalle created Black Rosy as a figure, a female goddess, that symbolizes the power of black women, ask your students to create a figure to combat these problems. They can start by sketching their character and later create a three-dimensional papier-mâché sculpture. Find instructions on how to make papier-mâché in Resources.
- Exhibit the sculptures in school. Title the exhibition.
Segregation: Act of enforced separation of different racial groups
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (center devoted to the struggles of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s)
Brutsche, Paul. "Niki de Saint Phalle: a Psychological Approach to Her Artwork and the Symbolic Significance of the Tarot Garden." ARAS Connections Image and Archetype 1 (2012).
History Channel articles, videos, and more on Rosa Parks
Instructions to create a papier-mâché sculpture
Rosa Parks Scholastic resource
Tate Liverpool, Niki de Saint Phalle: Room 5
The National Civil Rights Museum in the United States
The Smithsonian on Rosa Parks’s chronology
Carbone, Teresa A., and Kellie Jones, with Connie H. Choi, Dalila Scruggs, and Cynthia A. Young. Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties. Exh. cat. New York: Brooklyn Museum and Monacelli Press, 2014.