In her art, Sydney-based multidisciplinary designer and artist Nadia Hernandez dives deep into her homeland, its beauty and its social and political troubles. She uses elements of Venezuelan folklore, culture and tradition to call for solidarity and change. This week the artist opened an exhibition of around 30 new pieces at Mild Manners Gallery, including a set of new large-scale oil works.

Hernandez is known for her vivid paper compositions. But in a studio in Precinct 75 in St Peters, the Venezuelan native channels her distinct style into other mediums, too; commercial work and her broadening art practice. She’s created a life-size baby elephant sculpture for a Golden Age Cinema party; a mural and branding for Freda’s; and the cover art for Melbourne-based literary journal Stilts.

Hernandez left her hometown of Merida in 1999, around the time of a dramatic shift in political power in the country (when Marxist-Leninist leaning Hugo Chavez was installed as president). Hernandez watched on from Arizona in the US and eventually Australia, where she studied fine art and graphic design. “As a way to maintain my connection to [my home], I started making paper cut outs that were messages of encouragement for things such as elections that were coming up, to encourage people to vote, to not be afraid of the government,” she says. “And this is where my art practice began to develop.”

Titled Cosas Antes y Después (Things Before and After), the new exhibition continues to explore those themes, borrowing from and preserving her rich, colourful cultural past to create a better and brighter future. “In seeing what was happening from afar, and then seeing it first hand when I have gone back [to Venezuela], I thought that it would be interesting to pay homage to the concept of folk art, but then focus on painting scenes that were occurring right now,” she says. “I wanted to create new symbols and new iconography that represented these moments, to tell these stories and better explain these situations to people here.”

Through its symbols, text and narrative Hernandez’s work is decidedly active – one slogan reads: “It’s not art, it’s not culture, it’s torture”. Another: “No more misery”. And: “Peace!”. No artwork is aggressive; each has been tempered through colour, shapes and softened abstraction. “It’s a challenge of communication to draw people in, to talk about more complicated things,” she says.

The large-scale oil paintings have been created with thick oil-paint crayons and have a gentle, childlike feel to them. “They’re [the crayons] super messy, they take a long time to dry, but they’re nice to work with,” says Hernandez. The texture feels more immediate and raw compared with the cut paper constructions and has become a way for Hernandez to focus her message. “It’s been interesting to go from sketches to paper and then to add a larger, gestural scale,” she says. “Though each medium has its purpose and its moment for me.”

For the artist, storytelling with the idea of preservation of culture is a great part of each piece. “Folklore is essentially that idea that stories get told and passed on. My work is quite visually engaging, but there is also a story there, almost like a poem or a legend.”

Cosas Antes y Después (Things Before and After) is at an off-site location, Special Group Studio until April 4. Open Monday to Friday 11am–5pm or by appointment.

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