Influenced by the work of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and his theory of “the Other,” which is grounded in Jewish ethics of responsibility and humanism, Nisenbaum aims to portray the “back regions” of everyday life — a term coined by the Jewish sociologist Erving Goffman.
Nisenbaum, 42, has explored the idea for years, beginning with a series of intimate portraits of Central American migrants she met while working at a New York City community center in 2013.
Artist Aliza Nisenbaum in her studio (YouTube still)
For a solo show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, she painted Latin American seniors at the Tiron Guzman Center and Somali refugees working at the Hope Community Garden. Nisenbaum, who teaches at Columbia University and has a master’s degree from the Art Institute of Chicago, also painted a mural of London Underground workers in Brixton Station.
Most recently, she showed portraits capturing the backstage vibe of a New York salsa dancing group at the Kern Gallery in Manhattan.
The process of painting a portrait live, in front of a subject, is a sort of embodiment of Levinas’s theory and a recognition of the materiality of the body for Nisenbaum.
“I find the process extremely deep,” she said. “Here is a real person with their body, indivisible, sitting in front of you for six hours. It’s very intimate, and you feel responsible for her.”
Here are a few of Nisenbaum’s works — and what she thinks of them:
London Underground: Brixton Station and Victoria Line Staff, 2019
“During the process of painting this mural I talked to people with a diversity of opinions on Brexit. If you are with them, and you see the weight of their body or how they are sitting, you come to understand their positions.”
“I’ve painted Marisa, Gustavo and Veronica many times after my work at the community center in New York. I’ve seen Marisa grow up and go to an Ivy League School. Bear in mind this is a girl with undocumented parents.”