Nilay Lawson (American, born 1980)

Born in Würzburg, West Germany to an American serviceman and a Turkish mother, Nilay Lawson was raised on and around U.S. Army bases. Working across a range of media, including paint, sound, and video installation, she draws on her personal history of Cold War transnational crossings. She aims to render intimate exchanges and critical musings on matters of public expression and identity. In a piece titled What I Learned, Lawson sets out to mark the moment in 1989 in her third-grade classroom when a classmate brought a piece of the Berlin Wall for show-and-tell. This was her first experience with the Wall as a souvenir, rather than as a structure in a consequential border area. Lawson recalls, “He stood directly in front of me with that chunk while talking about how he acquired it from his father. I was aware of the great impact of the Wall coming down through the intense reactions of all the adults around me and the inherent feeling of fear of living in Europe through the Cold War.”

Nilay Lawson
What I Learned, 2014
Installation at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, 2015
Collection of the Artist
Photograph by Lisa Boughter

Lawson recreates the moment of her classmate’s reveal in a painted reformulation of her memory. Further, Lawson searched through her family’s VHS tape archive from before and after 1989, a mode of retrieval that she sees as central to her creative process. She selected highlights out of this trove of home video footage, including a family performance with her sisters in which they all wear American military garb, and several other intrusions of geopolitics into her home space. She offers these edited clips as a projection onto her painting, with interspersed glimpses of walls that she encounters on daily walks near her studio in Los Angeles. She contends, “This combination of video and painting recreates the magic of cinematic projection. That magic seals the weight of what it was like to be present and alive as a child during that unsteady time in global history.”

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