The second in a new series of commissions for Brixton Underground station, Art on the Underground presented a large-scale public artwork by Mexican-born and New York-based artist Aliza Nisenbaum, on view from April – September 2019.
The work is the first public UK commission by Nisenbaum who used the Brixton murals from the 1980s as inspiration. As we approached the prospect of the UK leaving the European Union, a defining moment for the UK against a backdrop of worldwide geopolitical change, this commission formed part of Art on the Underground’s 2019 programme which looked at the role artists can play in drawing out ideas of future utopias of togetherness and belonging.
Influenced by the Mexican mural movement and its depiction of social history, Nisenbaum’s work probes the politics of representation by bringing overlooked groups of people together in exquisitely painted portraits. She continued this practice for her commission where she was artist-in-residence, living and working in Brixton for three months. Through an open call, Nisenbaum selected 15 people working on the Transport for London network across the Victoria line – including train drivers, operational staff, and those working in facilities and administration – who over several hours, were individually painted in her studio to create a large-scale group portrait specifically for the entrance of Brixton Underground station.
Through her artistic process, Nisenbaum seeks to transform the traditional artist-sitter relationship by creating works which challenge the hierarchies of portraiture. For her, the process of painting portraits from live sittings is a reciprocal act, one that sets up an ethical encounter in which both participants give their attention and trust, and learn about one another. These long sessions allow Nisenbaum to explore the experiences of exchange and engagement and to deeply engage with the people she paints.
Nisenbaum is the second commission in a new series at Brixton, following ‘Remain, Thriving’, 2018, a new site specific work from Njideka Akunyili Crosby. The programme selects artists to respond to the diverse narratives of the murals from the 1980s, the rapid development of the area and the wider social and political history of mural making.
Aliza Nisenbaum stated: “I was extremely moved by the response from those who replied to our open call to have their portrait painted. They expressed pride in working for Transport for London and wanted to represent the diversity of the community. Many of the staff who work in Brixton station or across the Victoria line have seen Brixton develop into a landmark station over the years. We heard from those who grew up nearby that they would take the train everyday as children, and now mentor youth from the neighbourhood, wanting their portrait to stand for the change that one can see across generations. Other staff members came to Brixton as a result of immigration and the Windrush generation and one of the sitters is among the first train operators from the Seven Sisters station. It’s a huge honour for me to be invited to collaborate in this portrait project with each of them, and to bring these faces and stories out into the public sphere.”