Caring for a Living: Aliza Nisenbaum's NHS Portraits

Review in Los Angeles Review of Books

The noun “care” stems from the Old English noun cearu, or caru, meaning distress or anxiety. To “be careful” is to carry concern for the stakes of one’s behavior, while “caring for” someone or something projects this concern outward, beyond the self. For those who perform care work — who make a living by caring for other living beings — the pandemic demonstrated in excruciatingly novel ways how decentering a vocation it can be, especially for those whose communities already exist at the margins. Nisenbaum strove to commemorate this labor by embedding her own care, and carefulness, into her work. The essential everydayness in which she attentively steeped her painting process strikes me, bringing to mind theorist Sara Ahmed’s characterization of living a feminist life. For Ahmed, a feminist life is defined not by prescribed behaviors, imposed ideals, or participation in discrete occasions, but by implicitly asking ethical questions about “how to live better in an unjust and unequal world,” “how to create relationships with others that are more equal,” and “how to find ways to support those who are not supported or are less supported by social systems.” These endeavors underpin Nisenbaum’s practice, and as her NHS portraits attest, they also underpin her sitters’ ongoing work. Melded into these paintings are both ordinary and extraordinary acts of care. Care as labor, care as occupation, care as art.

 

For full review, click here.

November 11, 2021
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