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.