Nicolas Moufarrege is having his first solo museum exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston—33 years after the artist died of AIDS. The exhibition, entitled "Recognize My Sign," showcases the artist's idiosyncratic embroidered paintings, which appropriated imagery from a vast array of sources—like Pop Art, Arabic calligraphy, comic book heroes, Islamic tile work, Classical sculpture, and Baroque paintings. The paintings are, for lack of a better word, amazing. With equal parts camp and deft, and with a range of non-western and non-heteronormative referenes represented, these works feel just as relevant today as ever.
Below, we've excerpted a conversation between the exhibition's curator Dean Daderko and artist Elaine Reichek, from DUETS—a series of publications that pairs artists, activists, writers, and thinkers in dialogues about their creative practices and current issues around HIV/AIDS. (These publications are produced by Visual AIDS’, an organization that promotes and honors the work of artists with HIV/AIDS and the artistic contributions of the AIDS movement.) Daderko and Reichek talk about the work and life of Moufarrege, which is inseparable from his experience with the disease. The introduction is written by LJ Roberts.
“Do you think being at home with AIDS is political?” read the slide projected onto the wall at the New HIV Discourses conference that I attended in the fall of 2015 at the University of Arizona. I had gone to the conference not only to meet up with friends but also to hear Alexandra Juhasz speak. Juhasz was a founder of the WAVE (Women’s AIDS Video Enterprise) Project. WAVE was a collective of women, mostly women of color, who made videos about their experiences of activism and caregiving in the early 1990s during the height of the epidemic.
The slide struck me, reminding me of a small embroidered piece by the late Nicolas Moufarrege. I had seen it in the exhibition “Not Over: 25 Years of Visual AIDS” at La MaMa Galleria (2013). I recalled standing in the exhibition with Sur Rodney (Sur), one of its curators, starting with confused curiosity at the glittery and campy work installed in minimal salon style on the back wall of the gallery.
“Banana Pudding,” read its text. “Banana Pudding? What’s the reference?” I asked Sur. He explained: When men were together in hospice dying of AIDS, one of the favorite desserts they ingested was banana pudding, but banana pudding was also a term for the ejaculate produced by a good blow job.
I smiled, acknowledging the humor of the piece—a cheeky humor, filled with politics, celebration, and sadness. Banana pudding brought a confluence of nourishment, impending death, and sexuality into the same room. I like to think that both kinds of banana pudding were there as physical nourishment, as acts of resistance, and as part of an effort to survive psychically, sexually, and emotionally. Within the complexity of the raging epidemic, both banana puddings served to self-preserve and care for others.
What could be more passive than pudding? At first glance, Moufarrege’s Banana Pudding could be seen as benign, with its glitter and its rainbows. But the pudding, spooned into the mouths of those men, was made from a phallic fruit that was pulverized. That’s more than a metaphor, that’s an incitement.
I see tactics as much as a temporality pulsing through the textile work of Moufarrege. He mixed camp and domesticity—nodding to the queer stereotypes of drag. That fusion recognizes and defiantly owns what I imagine was an often-ridiculed masculinity that was pinned onto gay men at the time.
In their conversation below, originally printed in DUETS, artist Elaine Reichek and curator Dean Daderko speak of the power of relationships between gay men and women, straight and queer; the sharing of love, care, artistic collaboration, and creative community. Elaine and Nicolas shared a medium—embroidery—and an extensive knowledge of art history. While Elaine was busting the canon open, shifting concepts of mark making using thread and knitting, Nicolas was infusing his work with queer politics, nuanced history, and feminism. Of course, these strategies are bedfellows, and Moufarrege’s and Reichek’s ways of working were not only ahead of their time but also timely artistic and political interventions.
In the midst of their artistic friendship and navigation of a wild New York City, Nicolas developed AIDS, and his health declined rapidly. Horrified by the treatment he received when he was finally admitted into a hospital in the Bronx after being turned away by many in Manhattan, Elaine and others fought to ensure he was physically cared for, pairing that fight with one against the stigma that pervaded the epidemic; they fought for their friend’s body and his emotional well-being.
When we ask the question “Do you think being at home with AIDS is political?” we know the answer is yes. And we know that it surely is in the hospital as well. We know that AIDS is political everywhere.
Dean talks here about “Side X Side” a show he had curated in summer 2008. Dean stated that he “wanted to bring women I knew as caregivers to the table” because he felt that a lot of them had been “edged out of the conversation.” He was also “”acutely aware that the men in the show were no longer with us” and wanted to include “works made over the arcs of the artists’ careers—some of them cut too short.”
Nicolas’ work was included in Dean’s show, along with the work of Kate Huh, who also moved to the East Village in the 1980s. In 2015, Kate and I embarked on a long-term collaboration combining collage and embroidery: mediums Nicolas frequently used. Though Kate and I are of different generations, we, like Elaine and Dean, share a social experience. This kinship is a key them of the work. And so as we watch New York City change rapidly, the legacy of gay men, women, and trans people whose friendships merge with creative output carries on. Together we create and care for one another to survive, to cope, to thrive, to be with one another in our homes and to help one another be at home in the world.
Dean Daderko: The first time I ever say Nicolas’s work was in “The Downtown Show” at the Grey Art Gallery. I remember walking downstairs into the basement and right at the bottom of the stairs on a wall painted black was a small, embroidered painting; there was a brooch attached to its surface and it had a psychedelic, mystical demeanor. I loved it and had never heard of the artist who made it. Since I like discoveries like this, I started researching and asking around and found out very quickly that Nicolas was no longer with us but that he had had a huge influence on the East Village art scene. I found out he was a close friend of Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, and Chuck Nanney, among others, and that his essay “Another Wave, Still More Savagely Than the First: Lower East Side, 1982” really put the East Village art scene on the map.
Elaine Reichek: Nicky was a kind of cultural poet of the East Village.
DD: From what I understand, he first came to America in 1968 on a Fulbright grant to go to Harvard, where he studied chemistry.
ER: He was Lebanese, born in Egypt. The family had left Egypt for Beirut, where they lived in a high-rise apartment in an area that was relatively safe and were spared the more sever bombing. Nicolas left Lebanon in the mid-1970s and settled in Paris, where he acquired an affection for French literature and culture. He was a friend of Pierre Restany, who was a big influence.
DD: What were your first impressions of Nicolas?
ER: When I was 18 or so I read a book called À rebours (Against the Grain). Back then it was a cult novel, by Joris-Karl Huysmans, a realist writer whose disappointment with Zola made him turn to the Decadents—Flaubert, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Baudelaire. I thought of the book when I first visited Nicky in his apartment, because he had created a specific kind of aesthetic vehicle for the “exotic,” using quotation and juxtaposition to create a particular ambience. I guess there’s not a direct parallel between the main character in the novel and Nicky, but there is something. Nicky spoke three languages fluently and was extremely sophisticated in his taste for literature. Translation, which has been central to my own work, was also part of his.
DD: I remember seeing one of his beautiful embroidered works—on one side was the cartoon character the Silver Surfer next to a statement written in Arabic. A friend translated it for me. It read, “My father taught me Arabic calligraphy.” I was kind of surprised; at first I was expecting something more philosophical, but instead found it intensely witty. It is not the only instance of how Nicolas intermingled text with images of superheroes, cartoon characters, and cultural icons like Santa Claus.
ER: Saint Nicolas! He was so witty and had such an ear for language.
DD: What do you remember about his time in New York?
ER: When he came to New York in 1981, Nicolas was bowled over. He found a like-minded community here, for which he was truly grateful. He told me he could never imagine the degree of sexual freedom and lack of moralizing. He was thrilled!
The East Village was historically an immigrant community. Much of the housing in the neighborhood was built for dense dwelling—so you had the rich and the poor cheek by jowl. I’m from New York, and for me it’s always been a city of immigrants, where everybody is welcome. If you come to New York and you want to be part of something, you can be. But it was also a specific time in New York’s history, a time of enormous appetite and energy. Things were changing. Warhol’s legacy had opened up the art world to people from other places. It was the early ‘80s, when the clubs accommodated everybody. People might say, “Put up or shut up” or “Tell me who you are and why you’re here,” in the rudest, most frank way, but if they thought you had something good to say, you’d get a seat at the table. There was a whole city full of starry-eyed people, where there was too much money, too many drugs, too much everything. It was a really interesting time, but it was also a very sad time. There was even sadness in the excess. It was a very bright star that burned itself out quickly… It had a fin-de-siècle sadness.
DD: I wonder if the plurality of New York at that time isn’t what enabled a postmodern aesthetic so conducive to appropriation and pastiche?
ER: Nicolas’s own personal history comes out in his own approach to pastiche. I think globalism was part of his interdisciplinary practice. He and I talked about the global discourse on textiles, for instance. He was really looking a lot at textiles and carpets. We did not talk about embroidery in terms of Greenbergian flatness. I was interested in the idea of piercing the support—but that was not part of Nicky’s discourse. Nicky loved Pop.
DD: Clearly, yes. But his work also incorporates a sensibility that’s less Pop and more about ornament, surface, and pattern. It’s Pop and classical. This and that.
ER: Nicky had a love of embellishment and gold and richness.
DD: The embellishment, I imagine, also came out of a kind of love for Islamic tile work, and classical, rational structures like the golden rectangle. Nicolas’s work amalgamates Eastern and Western art histories. His juxtapositions—say, of a Lichtenstein-like figure and a Hokusai wave—were created in sophisticated ways. There’s a friction between the parts; they jostle against each other. You see unexpected things push up against each other in his work.
ER: There is all this information—multicultural information. His “painting by numbers” is so fabulous in its reference to his own tracings and pastiche. And while Nicolas had an ethnological or sociological interest in jewels and embellishments, and he loved them personally, it was also part of an East Village aesthetic. He had an immediate context for his love of ornament—in the East Village at this time Rhonda Zwillinger was wielding her hot-glue gun and Artch Connelly was using every kind of glittery or shiny material. It was a really good scene! The East Village was full of people making wonderful work.