Thinking too much about death can be unsettling. Imagine taking your last breath and then everything goes black. No matter what you believe happens after that, it can be tough to digest. Yet, centuries of artists have mused over mortality. Kymia Nawabi is one whose compelling pieces are leaving a permanent mark in the art world.
Nawabi explores concepts related to dying and the afterlife in her Lodestar exhibit at Davidson College. It's powerful and breathtaking work, inspired by the inevitable. The collection is an analysis of the artist's quest to understand death.
Before moving to Brooklyn, New York, Nawabi lived in Durham, North Carolina. An Iranian-American artist, her father passed away unexpectedly when she was 15 years old. She also grew up without religion in her life, but research in mythology, alchemy and cultures around the world has since influenced her belief system.
"I'm sort of preparing myself for what will come at the end of my life," says the 34-year-old. "You know, for example, I know now that I want to be cremated and not buried for personal reasons based around reincarnation."
Her works are filled with symbolism and sometimes eerie details. Not surprising, since she's also influenced by her study of burial rites.
In the painting "Not For Long, My Forlorn," for example, a morbid body is defined by what appears to be decomposed flesh. Nawabi freely uses acrylic, crayon, glitter, ink and watercolor to illustrate a dead man dug up from the ground. He is passing onto a new form from within the earth. His soul — seen crouched nearby — has taken the form of a human comprised of colorless blades of grass. Nawabi explains that the looming half-man and half-bird creature in the piece is Thoth, a god from Egyptian mythology. Thoth is associated with balancing the universe and greeting folks in the afterlife. In "Not for Long," he appears to console the dead man.
"I love the use of [the word] 'forlorn' here because it suggests the most sad and alone state one can be in, and in this case, one's death," says Nawabi. "But for another to speak to you and console you in such a state, it reminds us we are never alone."
"Not For Long, My Forlorn" is TV-famous. Nawabi was a contestant on season two of Bravo's Work of Art: The Next Great Artist and created the painting for a body of works with the same name in 2011. The now-defunct reality TV show pit artists against one another in a competition that offered a grand prize of $100,000 and the promise of a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.
Nawabi's earned first place during her season. Some of these works have made their way into the exhibit at Lake Norman, while three other, newer pieces comprise what she is currently dubbing as the "Future" series.
"It Is Written In The Stars" is one of the newer works and one of the most colorful — sparkling with glitter — in the exhibit. In it, a woman falls into a fire pit (a reference to cremation) though netting, released from the feathers of a whippoorwill, surround her. The bird is known in New England folklore for its ability to capture souls as they depart from the body. In Native American and general American legends, it's also known to sing death omens.
"The bird wants to take the soul of this woman, but we see she has a grip on the whippoorwill that suggests control over what is hers," says Nawabi.
On the other hand, wood falls mysteriously from an unknown source in the sky to fuel the fire below. Look carefully to find the words "The Future," spelled out with these pieces of wood — possibly a reminder of what we can and can not control.
Another work, "Initiation," draws influence from rites at Masonic lodges. The painting shows a woman, her face covered, being pushed from an ambiguous platform by a celestial figure. A patch of ground suspended in the air by a net awaits her, but it's unknown how high above the ground this space hangs. There's something cryptic in this image, emphasized by what seems like a nod to hangings and execution, whether or not implied by the artist. The woman's spirit leaves her body, causing another pesky whippoorwill to make an appearance.
The last new work in the exhibit is titled, "The Future." This one, probably the most personal of the bunch, features a portrait of Nawabi with her husband. The couple lies on a bed-like surface with their bodies intertwined — their veins run like spaghetti noodles spelling out "Future." The background is pitch black, with bubbles surrounding the couple; floating above is a box with the artist's head. She exhales, releasing more bubbles. It's an illustration of Nawabi's own peace with the future.
"I'm calling the show Lodestar because that's what I think this body of work is doing for me," says Nawabi. "Even though I'm the one creating, when I step back and see what's out of myself and my subconscious, I realize that it's a guiding force for me in feeling one with the universe and coming to terms with the fact that there will be an end, but not necessarily a definitive end."