Visual Culture: Nicola Vassell Interview Part 1

Words by Eddie STATS Houghton, photo by Martei Korley

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In case you haven’t heard us drop her name before, Nikki Vassell is one of our favorite people. The world at large may know her as fashion model, staple on the soho scene and a former director at the most cutting edge gallery in New York (Deitch Projects) but we knew her first as a fortunate daughter of Jamaica and a fierce dancehall queen who knows her way around a bashment. Deitch closed its doors when proprietor Jeffrey Deitch broke left to accept a directorship at the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art and Nikki has since moved from the most cutting edge to the most distinguished with a position at the legendary Pace Gallery, helping to run their new 25th street space. But she apparently holds down a second full-time job being in magazines, like NY Times, Giant and most recently, a little fashion zine called Vogue. We didn’t give her much of a chance to catch her breath either, because as soon as she had a spare moment we cornered her for an interview of our own and she graciously allowed us to pick her brain on the state of dancehall, fine art and the many other worlds of Nikki. Read part 1 below:

LU: So what I really wanted to talk to you about is this idea of Jamaican visual culture—for instance, how did you get involved with the world of visual art?

NV: Well, I would definitely say that coming from a place like Jamaica, one’s attitude towards things that occur naturally, beautifully is…you might not know it at the time but at a certain point you realize that you are in fact surrounded by beauty and appreciate and love it. For me, it was certainly heightened by coming to a city like New York where culture, visually, was almost a canonical experience; you have the great museums of the world, you have the best houses for interfacing with interesting bits of visual culture. Again, I came from the world of fashion so maybe semi-consciously you begin to understand the idea of beauty and what it means, definitely the objectification of beauty—and how you can either admire or reject that. So I would say the 3 major influences were living in Jamaica, moving to New York and being in the fashion business. (Those) are really the foundation of what became a huge appetite for visual communication.

Q: Can you pinpoint the moment when you thought about what you were going to do after modeling and came up with fine art? As opposed to becoming a fashion photographer or design critic or something more expected.

A: I guess I didn’t really think about it at the time. It’s a bit like when you see something you really like and you just gravitate towards it without any premeditation or any map of strategy or design. I happened upon the story of the gallery (Deitch Projects) that I went on to work with for 5 and 1/2 yrs and I was really fascinated by it because it seemed to meld all the things I had been interested in, whether it was fashion, art, music—all these fabulous cross-pollinations that Jeffrey (Deitch) took very seriously and tried to present in an interesting way. Also by that point I had spent the majority of my life in downtown New York and adopted a very downtown way of thinking. Downtown was the first place I ever landed and that stuck with me and probably will always, the convergence of all these components. And when I read the story I said this is amazing and so…me. I didn’t really make a plan but ended up meeting him (Jeffrey Deitch) at the Armory Show. His was of course the most energetic and interesting booth and I introduced myself to Jeffrey. That introduction turned into an internship, the internship turned into an assistant directorship and the whole thing just built its own life, its own propulsion. That was all she wrote.

Q: Was this before going back to school for Art History and Business?

A: No that was after, at the tail end. That’s how I came to it because I was doing a course on museum and galleries, who leaves what kind of legacy, specializations in the art business, that kind of stuff…

Q: So can you identify when you decided to get way from modeling and turned to art?

A: I don’t think it was one specific moment, to tell you the truth. There were a succession of shifts, minor shifts. I mean I had been interested in writing, I did small pieces for magazines—Trace, Vibe–and going to school, so there were significant breaks in what I did previously and my relationship to fashion. At a certain point I realized art was going to allow me the ability to write, to think deeply, to look at beautiful things–all the things I really wanted.

Q: It’s interesting that you credit downtown New York as a formative environment because there is definitely something in Jamaica that tends to favors music or non-visual forms of expression. Do you have a sense of what that is?

A: Well, first there’s all the practical issues that direct each one of those disciplines. The reality is that at a certain point something like music is a much more universal facilitator, it doesn’t cost much to transmit it, it barely costs anything to receive it and the history of it–its relationship with the masses as a kind of collective unconscious–is distinctively different from the history of art or even contemporary art has with the larger society. Artists always rest more on the elite, the wealthy classes and only in the day and age of free museums could one even begin to say art has a mass appeal. But it has a different relationship with the basic numbers—filmmaking, probably the same thing. Film is a much more recent medium, probably it could become something universal in decades to come. Music is just one of those things that transmits easily, cheaply and has a massively profound effect

Q: But even if you look at popular forms of visual culture—it’s not like there’s no audience for film in JA. A Hollywood film budget might be a higher bar to entry but  if you look at what it takes to run a studio and put out records as compared with picking up a video camera and taking photos or images, its not that different. There’s definitely something cultural that I’ve been trying to put my finger on.

A: Yeah because of the relationship, the history with the people. Its natural to us, our make-up–from the African to the Caribs, the Spanish the English, the indentured laborers who came after from China, India—each brought its own unique musical reality. And definitely the whole slave economy, the whole ecosystem depended heavily on music. It really was one of the basic ways that people enjoyed themselves in the middle of what were very deadly circumstances.

Q: So you think music is more of a release valve on that pressure, more than these other forms of culture?

A: Yeah, absolutely. The majority population is underclass, struggling, garrison. That music continues to be a massive release even if it costs the same to go into a studio or make a short movie the reception is just different –you can count on massive waves of interaction; spiritually, psychologically, physically, mentally. And movies are also from the turn of the 20th century—the musical history goes hundreds of years back.

Q: So do you feel like its changing, there do seem to be some new shoots of visual culture, new film-makers like Storm Saulter…

A: Well here’s what happens, you have great kids like Storm–he’s been doing interesting things for a few years now, so that underscores that there isn’t this viaduct through which someone interesting, really fresh and young can just sort of zap through and hit, connect with their open-armed group of investors or supporters. That tells you that there’s still some stagnation, there’s some stagger or stutter between having the talent and actually making it in Jamaica, and then there’s the transmission of that sort of thing to an American audience or European audience. I think the talent is there, its also weighed down somewhat by the tendencies that occur in art forms there, it leans towards folky or what’s already been depicted, there’s very little innovation.

Q: I don’t know if I agree with that

A: Maybe I have a different set of criteria of judging innovation.

Q: Well, let’s look at the other side things—when you were in Jamaica were there any role models or factors that positioned you to go against that grain? or is just really because you came to New York and experienced a whole different reality?

A: Yes, because the way I think practically about what would be accepted as innovation by an audience…that is simply a complete result of growing up here and learning through the New York way of doing things.

Q: How old were you when you moved to NY?

A: 16. I did a fashion show in Jamaica and won a couple contests  and then the person who was judging it said, Oh well you know you can  come to New York right away and sign with an agency and keep going. My mum didn’t think I was old enough so I waited a year and then did that. Pretty straightforward.

Q: What were your first impressions of NY?

A: Scary. Now I can barely remember it, because it’s so much a part of me, but just weird; so different from anything I’d ever encountered. Much larger, everything was like a macro version of anything I’d ever experienced and it was shocking.

Q: So as somebody who first met you in Jamaica, hanging out at Quad and Passa Passa, I know that you embrace and are totally comfortable in that world, and then are equally comfortable with other side, the fine art world, Are they the same in some way…or are they two different parts of your brain that don’t talk to each other?

A: No they are always in dialogue…and those are 2 of several thousand, ok?

Q: OK, so introduce me to a few of the other worlds of Nikki Vassell…

(To Be Continued)