Willian Nassu’s MFA Fibers thesis exhibition, Savannah Icons, debuted at the Andaz Salon on Thursday, May 19. The exhibition was comprised of ten portraits of local icons woven with acrylic yarn on a Jacquard loom. In case you missed his show, we chatted with Nassu to find out more about this extraordinary body of work. You can see more of his work here.
SAI: Why “Savannah Icons”?
Willian Nassu: I didn’t start out working with local icons. At first, I was working with Hollywood actors and then I moved on to Instagram celebrities and people whose image is available online. But for my new show, instead of continuing to look at these people I don’t know and will probably never know, I decided to look at local celebrities and that’s how I came to Savannah Icons.
I’m not from the U.S. so it was a nice way to research the city and try to get to know people. I’ve been here for two years almost and I barely know anyone outside SCAD. At SCAD we stay in this very small world and this was an opportunity to break out of that.
SAI: How did you choose your subjects?
Nassu: Well, first I had to do research online. I literally Googled “Savannah Icons” to see the names that would show up. From there, I started creating a list of people. I tried to pick people from different fields. I had to come up with 10 people but the first list was much bigger than that.
SAI: What were you looking for in these people? Were you looking for people who had achieved a certain level of popularity or were you looking for people who were a voice for others in Savannah? What was your criteria for what an icon is?
Nassu: It was a little bit of both. For example, Jessica Lebos is able to reach a big audience – she has a voice within the community. For me that was something remarkable about her.
But I was also looking for people who had given interviews and who could think about Savannah or had spoken about Savannah before. For example, John Duncan gave an interview on TV and with the New York Times. He’s a historian, he’s a former Armstrong professor. I tried to look for people that had some voice within the community, or people that I thought were strong somehow, like [CEO of Telfair Museums] Lisa Grove. I thought it was interesting to see a woman in a very powerful position. That was something that stood out to me.
SAI: I noticed you’ve integrated glitter and sequins into a lot of the pieces. Can you tell me about that choice?
Nassu: I was trying to find a way of creating a shiny surface so it would draw people’s attention, but it also relates to the idea of glitter and glamour. Although it’s a very cheap material, it has this idea of celebrity.
The other reason is, well, I’m from Brazil and sequins are very related to Carnival in my culture. All those costumes during Carnival have tons of sequins. I had tried working with different materials but I realized that when I used the sequins they became more personal to me. I experimented with sewing other fabrics on top of the surface [of the portraits] but, though it was much slower to attach the sequins one by one, I had this connection with them.
There’s also a story behind my entire thesis research which is related to gender and gender stereotypes. The sequins are related to this idea that materials are gendered in fashion. A girl can go out at night wearing sequins whereas a man is not supposed to. So I tried to put a bit of femininity into these pieces.
SAI: You’re working in fibers, which is seen as a more feminine kind of art form. Obviously, that’s ridiculous but unfortunately that’s the way it’s viewed. You’re also working in color palettes that are traditionally deemed feminine. But you’re creating these images of such powerful people. Are you being a bit subversive?
Nassu: Yeah, it’s a little subversive. I try not to be disrespectful to these people because that is not my intention at all. It’s really just about questioning why we use certain colors and I also looked into – I have a background in marketing too and we’re taught that color palettes represent things, like pink is used to evoke femininity. Not just the color pink but mellow tones, yellow, light yellow with the light pink… So they have this docile characteristic to them. I was playing around with that too in a little bit a subversive way but trying not to be disrespectful.
SAI: Can you talk about the process for actually making these pieces?
Nassu: The idea was that these photographs had to be available online to the public. I was already working with Instagram celebrities and how they portray themselves versus how others portray them. It was important to me to find these images somehow and not receive them directly from these people.
As soon as I got the images, I had to digitally manipulate them. After that, I started testing on the loom. It takes about three different tests until I get the correct proportions.
I don’t know if you’ve been to Pepe Hall but we have this very gigantic loom – it’s a Jacquard loom so it’s a manual loom with a digital head. The information that I choose before I start weaving is all in the computer but throwing the shuttle and advancing the cloth and the warp is all manual. In that way, it also relates to the feminine and masculine practice because, as you said, fibers is a very stereotypically feminine thing whereas a jacquard loom and the mechanics sort of evoke this more masculine practice. The making is related to the concept.
Due to the size of the portraits, I have to throw the shuttle 1500 times and it takes me about 8 hours. I’m a power weaver – I like to weave really fast – but after those 8 hours I’m exhausted.