Interview: Mwinga K. Sinjela and Nabila Wirakusumah of NUANCE

By Kristin Chang 

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NUANCE describes itself as a dynamic online platform for artists and writers of color across all mediums.  Based at Sarah Lawrence, but currently expanding to encompass artists of color outside of campus, NUANCE showcases the creative work of young people of color in an ongoing series of “Happenings,” as well as through shows and performances.  They are currently accepting submissions for their second Happening.

As a first-year and a poet of color on this campus, I’ve often felt wary about presenting or sharing my work with a largely white audience that I felt would not understand – or worse, not care – about my writing.  When I heard about NUANCE, I was beyond excited that such a gorgeously-imagined, interactive platform for creative people of color would provide a space for work like mine, as well as help create a generative and supportive atmosphere that can sustain an arts community for people of color on this campus.

Read on for an interview with NUANCE’s creators and founders, up-and-coming artists Mwinga K. Sinjela and Nabila Wirakusumah.

What inspired you to create NUANCE?

N: NUANCE directly came from a conversation that started [with Mwinga] when I began working in the city.

M:  I was really high-energy one day, and talking about the art world and who that’s catered to right now, and also how frustrating that was.

N: Mwinga was working for this company in the art world that said they were engaged with social justice, and said they were going to be the answer to what the art world needed, that they were going to interact with real people [but Mwinga’s boss committed a lot of microaggressions]. We realized we can’t look to the older generation to make the solutions for us, or to create these publications for us. I feel like I’ve been looking for a publication like NUANCE my whole life. Part of the foundation of our friendship is that [Mwinga and I] are very international people, and because we’ve both grown up in so many places, our identities feel very conflicted. They’ve crossed the boundaries of East and West. Growing up as an Indonesian Muslim woman but being educated in an American context, I thought about what the repercussions of that were, and Mwinga was one of the people who understood that.

M: Yeah, we vibed on that immediately.  Sophomore year, when things started getting really political, when Black Lives Matter and a lot of other things started popping up, one of the things we would talk about was how everything seemed to be focused on a Western viewpoint, and how a lot of our culture and what we hold dear was being looked over, that there was no room for that to be incorporated.

N: More than that, the groups that we identified with were being reduced to soundbites and internet memes, without any nuance. We wanted to add that level of “things aren’t as digestible” as what’s being served on the internet.

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Art by Nabila Wirakusumah 

What do you think is the relationship between art and social justice?

N: I studied modern Chinese literature with Ellen Neskar, and we were talking about how in the Chinese revolution, Lu Xun started writing in vernacular Chinese for the common people, and that sparked so much of the political movement. Thinking about how art can be applied to real world problems, I just had this moment where I realized that what I do is important, and I’m tired of artists being shoved to the sidelines. This culture that we create is what drives people’s dreams and drives what they do every day. Art is living and breathing, and joy is so important. We have to turn around and sing and dance and laugh.

M: It’s really frustrating when people say that you can’t be politically-minded and an artist, or a singer – because it doesn’t tie in.  But that’s why we created NUANCE, because that’s just not true.

N: At the end of the day, art is our means of creating empathy.

M: It’s communicative and it’s informed, and it always comes from some place. And that’s never talked about.

What were your goals for NUANCE at SLC, and how has that changed and evolved?

M: I think our goal was to create a really safe space for artists of color, where there voices were heard and they would have a space to speak out and be showcased. A lot of the art here at SLC is a specific type – you know what that type is – and it was getting kind of overwhelming to walk into Heimbold and see the same thing over and over again, when you know there are so many great things being produced here that aren’t getting showcased. And there’s no place for them to be seen. So we really wanted to create this as our own space.

N: Before getting involved with NUANCE, I wasn’t even sure who some of the artists of color were. I felt really out of touch with the community here, and I wanted a way for us to come together, especially when the times feel so uneasy. I felt like we should all support each other. I’m so amazed how this has helped us find each other.  I found a place for us to celebrate each other, and to know there’s a space that’s open to [artists of colors’] work. Sometimes I [would create work] and people wouldn’t really understand where it was coming from.  We have a unique standpoint and sometimes it’s not digestible for the “typical” Sarah Lawrence audience. We don’t exclude them from looking at NUANCE, but the space is for us.

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Art by Mwinga Sinjela 

Which artists of color inspire you?

N: My mom is from a village in West Sumatra, and they developed this weaving technique that’s on the most complex textiles in the world, but it was about to go extinct.  When she inherited some looms, she went back and started to revive it.  She had an exhibit in Malaysia and she’s going to have an exhibit in Switzerland next year.  Just the beauty of reviving this beautiful weaving technique that is centuries old and was about to disappear, and engaging the community – I’m really proud of that.

M: I don’t know how to follow that up! I was going to say Solange –

N: People like Solange and Beyonce, [what’s great] is that they also really engage with their community.

What themes do you explore in your own work? How would you describe your own work?

M: I struggled with that question for a long time, just because I would see an image [in my mind] and refurbish it, and I’d look for another artist’s work to help me finish it, just because it was really hard to get my own vision together in a way that I liked. This year, I’ve come to terms with my art and the direction it’s going, and I’m very much a mood-maker and a vibe-maker. I like to create an atmosphere and I like to rely on myself.  I look towards everything for inspiration, like I’ll just be outside and bopping to music, and just like that I’ll get an idea and sketch it, and it’ll become what it becomes. Everything inspires me. I feel like now I can look at something and see it repurposed.  I’ve been working a lot with denim recently and incorporating it on Black figures, just because I love fashion, and I love Black people. Denim was also a huge part of my life growing up, because everything I wasn’t wearing that was new was a hand-me-down, and my hand-me-downs were denim.  I’m not afraid to mix mediums anymore, either.  I’m not a fan of just working on canvas anymore, and I’m not afraid to bring my paintings into motion through film, which I’ve been really passionate about lately.

N: I feel like I have two roles as an artist and a designer. I started off doing print-making as a first-year, and I always incorporated photography. I’m not a classically trained photographer, but Hong Kong is where the lomography factories were, so there were a lot of cheap plastic cameras floating around that I collected in high school that my dad and I would go out and shoot. I loved using those as a base and working on top of them.  Most of them were taken in Hong Kong, so my home and where I’m from ends up showing through my work. Last semester in my art from code class, I took vintage photographs of “classic” American, aka white, families and I scanned them in and separated the layers, then coded between the layers, so they had a dimensional effect where I was altering the narrative of the image by creating a generative system through code, disrupting the white supremacist system.  With coding, I try to introduce new technology.  My auntie taught me Photoshop when I was seven, and I grew up mixing art and technology, which is what I’m interested in. In the future I’d like to work with light and robotic and push the art in that direction.  I feel like my big thing right now is developing projects with friends, like NUANCE is a big passion project of mine, and I’m a big believer in making things with the people you love.

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Art by Mwinga Sinjela

Being an artist or writer of color can feel very isolating, so what advice do you have for those who want to stay connected or join the community?

N: We would love to grab more people, but we don’t always know what to do. If you have something you want to do that NUANCE can support you on, like if you have an idea or a project, even if it’s a film and you need help with something like lighting, we want NUANCE to be a place where people can come and ask for advice, and if we can’t help you, than we can point you to someone else.  This really is my response to feeling isolated – this is my solution to this, and I’m hoping NUANCE can be that for everyone else.

M: Sarah Lawrence can feel like a very anxious environment, especially when you’re walking around and people aren’t looking each other in the eye and you don’t know why. And you’ve tricked yourself into doing it too.  You can start with a simple “Hi” and figure out each other’s interests, because you never know who you’re going to bump into and vibe with.  I know so many people I’ve met on this campus who I see every day but wouldn’t really know, and they all showed up at the NUANCE meeting, and I didn’t know that we had these things in common, or that they felt the same way as Nabila and I.  Honestly, my advice would be to start with a simple “Hi.”

Kristin Chang is a staff writer at Even If Your Voice Shakes. She is from California.  She studies languages, cries over poetry, and invents alter-egos-of-color for Wonder Woman. If you liked or learned from this article, please consider paying her: cash.me/kristinxchang.

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