June 28, 2016 Interviews
with the Artisan in her new york studio
Aziza Nicole is a painter, sculptor, and builder. In essence, she is a modern-day handcrafted artisan. Simultaneously a maker of jewelry and a visual artist, she draws inspiration from beauty, truth and her multi-layered cultural heritage. Originally from PG County in Maryland, Aziza is now based in New York City where she honors her craft as an artist. She tells us all about her love of working with her hands, not being afraid to learn from others and embracing her inner self.
By Sienna Fekete
Photography by Andre Gray
What are three things you love about yourself?
Personality. Confidence. Ambition.
Has it always been this way, or did you grow to value these things in yourself?
Ambition has always been there. Personality is something I’ve always had that. However, confidence, I didn’t always have. I had low self-esteem about my beauty when I was in high school. My best friend was the one who was always like, “You’re Beautiful! You need to believe that”, and I eventually gained confidence in my beauty and with my looks. Then I got older and didn’t have confidence in my art. I knew that I liked my stuff. It’s not that I cared what other people thought, it was more so, if anyone would ever purchase my stuff, because, as an artist, you want people to enjoy what you create. I wasn’t really confident in letting the world see who I really am. So when a lot of people came to my house they were like “Ooh, crap this is what you do? You did this? Why didn’t you tell anybody?” It’s because I wasn’t confident. Confidence is in my career and where I go. Confidence leads to so many things. It’s at the center of it all and there’s so many webs that take you different places.
What was the turning point for you in being confident in your art? Was it instant or gradual?
I had confidence when I was in Maryland. Coming to New York, I lost it. It’s so much to take in; it’s not even about the competition. There are so many people here that you can learn from. They’re so good that sometimes you’re like, “Wtf, I don’t do shit like that.” Then you find out that the artists are big, meaning well known for that technique and style. So you learn different methods. You ask yourself, “How can I step aside or do art this way one week and a different way the next?”
What made me confident here was pretty much my homeboy. He was like, “Yo, you’re the shit, you’re fire, you know?” He was a known artist in the Bushwick area. I told someone about my art. I finally had a piece in an art show and people were like,” You did that?! You did that?” My reaction was, “oh crap.” People had already liked my artist style and I see style as a form of art, so I already had that. I’d have to say my job at Bossa Nova actually gave me the confidence as an artist.
What’s your primary medium with your art? Do you like to draw from different styles?
I’m a painter, a sculptor, and a builder. I’m a handcrafted artisan. That’s what I am. I work with my hands. When it comes to building, I know how to do it. When it’s time to sculpt…I’m a sculptor. That’s my go-to medium. I like creating with my hands. Making jewelry is something I adore because it’s something I’m making with my hands that you can wear - how awesome is that? Seriously! It’s an art…that you can wear. Not just have on your wall, and bypass it each day, like “That’s nice”. It’s something you can wear that people notice, that’s crafted by your hands.
Now I want to see all of your different pieces, in your house, your jewelry.
I’m more pro-heritage. So I have things that would symbolize my culture of Black, my culture of Native American, my culture of Irish. When you come to my house you’d think, you must be Native American! You must be Catholic! I have a sort of bohemian room that has a kind of altar. But then you see my jewelry, you see my tattoos, you’re like, hold on…you have a lot of Arabic stuff on you. You have a whole cathedral over here. You have a dreamcatcher over here.
As an artisan, what do you think a contemporary artisan of color looks like today? Is there a variation; is it evident in your work? Also, tell me a little about your background. Does your heritage, affect your work?
My background really does consist of why I am that. My dad is a mason. He’s a construction worker. He taught masonry classes to the new boards. So I know a lot about marble, granite, concrete. I learned how to build things from him. I can fix a car because of him. My mom, she was always the one to say “Why buy it? Create it.” She was big on putting her own creative touch on things. She always knew I liked arts and crafts, so I started making jewelry when I was a kid with little beads, and then making dreamcatchers when I was, what, nine? They were always buying me kits. I would make my own dream-catchers. My mom would say, “No I’m not gonna buy you one, you’re gonna make your own.” If I wanted a tie dye shirt, she’d tell me to make one. So it was pretty much my mom being like, “If you want it, you have to make it.”
Honestly, art is my therapy. When I want to escape, it can be so zen. I could be trapped in my room and just create. I have been trapped in my house for a week. When my mom was younger she was the same way. She did more fashion stuff though, like fashion design. She did more sewing. I can sew; I had a sewing machine. I’d rather come up with a design and just do it. I don’t like the pattern-making. I’ve tried everything honestly.
Can you tell me more about the stories behind your tattoos?
When I was in DC, I always wore a head wrap and bamboo earrings. My art is really abstract. So the giraffe tattoo - I always got made fun of for having a long neck. As I got older, I recognized I am queen. I used to have really long nails with different designs on each one. That was my style. I could have that alternative fashion look but I would wear head wraps and still be that queen. I’m Nefertiti. She was an alpha female and demanded respect. I’m that, but the street Nefertiti. They show me respect in the streets, in the community. Everything pretty much relates to heritage. I got a giraffe, that’s my favorite animal. Its long lashes are on fleek. Their necks are so beautiful. You don’t ever see an ugly giraffe. The way they walk is so graceful. Except when they fight, that’s ugly. I have a dreamcatcher tattoo. I have symbolic pieces of my family. I got “I love you”; my little brother wrote that on me when he was 13. I got my older brother’s signature, my dad’s birthday, a lily, Lady of Guadalupe; who I pray to, a peacock feather because that’s my favorite bird. I have cheetah print for my alter ego; her name’s Cat. I have a feather on the side of my neck, just because I have my own individual freedom. Then I have little small tattoos of my favorite artists, my favorite poet…Brooklyn and California are on the back of my thigh…Long story, but I started off in California and came here, ended up in Brooklyn. What a coincidence, I didn’t plan that. They all relate to my name, my family, and who I am. All of my tattoos are original. There are some that were just because I was young when I got them.
Can you tell me a little bit about your cultural background?
My dad is Irish-American. My mom is Black. I’m Native American five generations down when the Germans came over. I say that because you get an eye roll when you say, “oh yeah, I’m Native American and Black.” I learned in New York that when you tell someone what your ethnicity is, they expect it to be immediate. My dad’s really Irish-American. My great grandmother came over via boats to New York and my grandmother is Irish, full blood Irish. My mom now, she’ll tell people, I’m Native American and Black, but that’s like six generations down. And yes, that’s what I am, but here, it’s so funny because when I tell people I’m Native American and Black, they’re like “Oh ok what part of Native America? Do you go to pow wows?” I’m like oh y’all make it a big deal, shit, I’m Black. (Laughs) I’m just Black. I’m biracial. My mom’s from Georgia, Massachusetts, and my dad’s from, actually, Avenue J, the Flatbush area in Brooklyn.
Does being biracial influence your work at all?
My mom would go to pow wows so; I can say that I am in tune with my Native American side. I’m also in tune with my Irish American side as well and I am extremely pro-Black. My mom was a Black activist that dated a white guy. People could not believe it in my family. My name’s Aziza. So my siblings and I have African Arabic names. Pro-blackness influences my jewelry. Before I started doing the jewelry that I’m making now I used to make jewelry with cloth. I used to make Africa shaped earrings with kente cloth, and denim on the back. I’m from DC- c’mon now, that’s pro black. My favorite subject in school was African American history, because there’s so much that people do not know. So, if you see a lot of my work, I say it’s godly. I got a Nefertiti tattoo because I am a queen. I keep that in my art, consistently, whether it’s my Native American side with my dream-catchers, or household interior decorations. When you go even further with that, it goes into Native Americans doing the herbs. I pray to Lady Guadalupe and I refuse to pray to Mother Mary. Why? No shade, but I’m not going to pray to a white woman. My mother’s Black. So, I’m going to pray to a woman of color, because that’s who I feel I’m more connected with. I pray to Lady Guadalupe, from the Catholic religion, which is so big, I do rituals, which, back in the day, Catholics called witchcraft, but it was more of a manifestation. It’s not just saying, oh yeah, I’m Native American. No, I don’t take medicine. I only resort to herbs. Back in the day, Native Americans, that’s all they worked with. So, when I make candles, I put sage in my candles, I do things that incorporate my Native American, my black, my Irish sides.
How do you feel you create or find sisterhood amongst other women of color artists?
Okay, I’ll be real with you because there’s no other way to explain it. We can all help each other. I’m not scared to sit there and say, “Oh you’re good at this, can you teach me?” I guess a lot of people respect that because it’s intimidating. A lot of women are intimidated, and don’t want to ask for help because they think. “She’s going to think I need her. She is going to think she’s better than me”. It’s not that! If you know something, share. I want to have a show that’s just women of color artists. We need to come together. I hate when I hear people say, “Blacks don’t support each other.” We do! But it’s just not as dominant as we want it to be. I don’t hate. I know my home girls make glasses and the others make clothing, another bomb artist, stylist, performer, we can do something together! I don’t hate, I don’t discriminate. I don’t judge. I like to come together. I’m sometimes oblivious to some people’s attitudes nowadays.
Confidence does not just mean your beauty, your style, and your looks. You have to be comfortable with whom you are inside and not let anyone tell you any different. You have to be comfortable with your art, be comfortable bussing tables. Even if you know that’s not your career, you bus those tables hard. Nothing will make you feel insecure. Nothing will take your pride and joy. Nothing is going to make you question who you are as an individual. Yeah that’s it, I’m confident.