Woman Crush Wednesday: Nika Nesgoda
Interview by Nelly Latypova
What is “Virgin” about?
My VIRGIN series is meant to be a playful look at art history and the tradition of sex worker as artist’s muse.
How did the idea come to you?
In 2001, I was reading about the life of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (otherwise known as Caravaggio) and was fascinated to learn that many of the women who worked as artists’ models were actually sex workers, and not the demure virgins being depicted. The moment the idea came to me of placing adult film stars into the role of the Virgin Mary, was when I asked myself, “who is actually worthy of being worshiped?”
In the Bible, Jesus is reported as saying to a crowd of people who were ready to stone a woman charged with adultery, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone…” That quote says it all for me. Why should my choice of model bother anyone, if our highest calling as human beings is to have compassion and be inclusive?
Why do you compare your photographs to Old Masters’ work?
The misogynistic attempt to categorize women as either virgins or whores has been pandemic throughout history, and the history of Church-commissioned art is no different.
The Church always sought to have the finest artists of any given time period commissioned to paint their cathedrals. The artists would bring their models to portray the Virgin, and often times these models were known to be sex workers. The Church condoned the presence of these “sinful women” in their cathedrals under the auspices of trying to convert them into good Christians. But, let’s face it, it was most certainly about obtaining the best art from the most famous artists.
Considering that many of the women who worked as artists’ models were, in fact, sex workers and other women who lived on the fringe of society, all doing what they needed to survive, I felt that the modern-day equivalent to these models would be porn stars. I included then-newcomer Stormy Daniels, established adult performer Tera Patrick and many others.
The models were funny and lovely to work with. Especially when placed into this religious context, depicting important events in the life of the Virgin. They have much in common with the original models who posed for these paintings. A woman who would even consider posing for an artist in this manner andin those days would, by definition, be free-spirited. I gave attention to Catholic iconography: exposed feet (humility), exposed breasts (humanity), the lilies symbolize the Virgin’s purity. The use of chiaroscuro lighting and classic composition are elements which pay homage to the Old Masters.
The Virgin is always silent, she barely says four lines in the Bible. And what she does say gives no indication of who she really was as a real person. She was put on display and portrayed as a vessel for the birth of the Savior and then worshiped for that alone. She has an enormous number of devotees. And we know almost nothing about her personal life.
The porn star also is mostly silent and is alsoplaced on pedestal, albeit covertly. She too has an enormous number of followers, yet few will admit to recognizing her. And we know almost nothing about her personal life or even why she would choose this profession. In the case of Stormy Daniels, this thesis may need an update!
If the Catholic church were to declare in 2019 that women are eligible to enter the clergy and priests are permitted to enjoy their life with a consensual of-age sexual partner, we could end the majority of abuse and restore the faith, or at least the tradition, for many lapsed Catholics. Faith and tradition, as long as it provides a tide that lifts all boats, is a hallmark of being human. Was it Einstein who said that “problems cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness that created them”?
Is there a power of aesthetics over your creative process?
I consider most of my art to be conceptual, because it’s more about the meaning behind the work and the reason for doing. Aesthetics and lighting are extremely important, but the concept takes precedence over a pleasing visual. VIRGIN is foremost about backstage elements, what’s going on before and after the shot.
About Nika Nesgoda
My background in theater led me to experiment with photography as an art form. Early in my career, I discovered the work of Man Ray and Rene Magritte and I was arrested by the surrealist nature of their photographs. Visual storytelling through still images became my passion. I enlisted every friend and between-work stage actor I could find as my subject. My early photography attempted to capture a dream or private moment. I began experimenting with recreating dream scenes in total darkness with 35mm infrared film. Eventually, I moved to large format 4x5 sheet film to capture greater detail and chiaroscuro light. Lately, I have been working with encaustic medium. I build up pigment and wax over a mounted image. Through melting and burnishing the wax, I make my subjects disappear and then reappear in a faux-altered state of awareness. I try to expose a brief moment of vulnerability, the state of being human. It’s something we all have in common. This vulnerability can be realized through a person as subject, but also through still objects and landscapes. The innate loneliness of the human condition and how we revitalize, either through introverted or extroverted activities, leading to self-discovery…this is what drives me to explore my medium.
Describe your creative process in one word.
If you could teach one, the one-hour class on anything what would it be?
I took a process/structure course with one of my professors at Columbia, Dr. Mary Hefali, and it really opened my mind to using new materials. We would build different fabric remnants, paint, carve wood, destroy and burn paper, all to different types of music. Then we would critique each other’s work to try and figure out which piece of music was associated with which part of the installation piece. It was so inspiring and took my photography work to a place that it might never have gone before. So, I guess I’d like to teach Mary’s class.
What is the last book you read or film you saw that inspired you?
I’ve been reading SPQRby Mary Beard. It’s a narrative about the history of Rome and gives the account of many ordinary people, which is sort of unusual in books about ancient Rome. History usually focuses on the most salient people in the room, the most powerful ones who help write it. This is different and gives a voice to the people whose stories are often more interesting. I love to read history that shows this perspective. It helps the reader self-reflect and prevents us from making the same mistakes. It shows us how humanity has improved, and all the things we still have to work on.
What is the most played song in your music library?I tend to get into a new song, then listen to it ad nauseam. Then it’s out of my system and I rarely go back to it. The only album that is consistently at the top of my playlist is Pablo Casals playing the Bach solo cello Suites, recorded in 1939. I’m especially partial to Suite no. 5 in C minor. It’s so earthy and scratchy and full of raw passion. Casals plays like a string is about to pop. You can even feel the smoke in the air. The rest of the Bach cello Suites are fairly amazing, too.
How do you take your coffee? I’d like to quote the Beastie Boys because, “I like my sugar with coffee and cream” (but I also like it very strong and black!).
To learn more about Nika’s work please click here.