Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Interview by Mark Tamer
Nadia Nervo is the head curator at Willesden Gallery in North West London and also an artist and a freelance art mentor. We thought we’d get some insights on how she manages her different roles, and the impacts of Covid-19 on the rather unique gallery at Willesden Green.
Nadia Nervo | Artist, mentor, curator at The Gallery at Willesden Green
We know you as an artist, curator and mentor, can you tell us a bit more about what you do?
I have worked in the arts for about 20 years. My academic background is in fine art Art Communication and Design (MA, Royal College of Art and BA Camberwell College of Art). My practice incorporates photography, video and performance. I have taken part in a number of art exhibitions and film festivals and have led many curatorial projects and live events in London. I am currently Head Curator at Willesden Gallery where I programme exhibitions, including artist’s calls, live events and artists' residencies. I also work with the University of Arts London as a freelance Art Mentor providing mentorship to their final year students and supporting them as they embark on their artistic career.
As an artist
In my work as an artist, I investigate the relationship between photographer and subject, often working with strangers and exploring the nature of connections being made. Intimacy and trust between artist and sitter are key elements in my practice and fundamental to the viewer’s relationship to my portraits.
Reappearing themes in my work are gender identity, the female body and movement. I work primarily on analogue formats.
The female figure features prominently in many of my photographs. In the series seen here, I invite strangers to sit for me naked. The project aims to capture intimate portraits of women. Throughout history the nudes have been predominately portrayed by male, I am interested to explore and embrace intimacy between women, between artist and subject that is fearless and empowering.
© Nadia Nervo | 'Nudes' series
How do you find balancing the different roles? Do they feed into one another or are they best kept separate?
They are all very much interlinked. For instance one of the Willesden gallery’s strategy is to support recent graduates and offer them the gallery for a month, free of charge. This is a great opportunity to gain hands-on experience on curating and organising a show, as well as having their work exhibited in a professional venue. Most of the mentees I work with are keen to get experience in the professional art world as soon as they finish their studies - this opportunity allows them to do so. They are completely responsible for arranging their own exhibition, including selecting other artists to show with, marketing and promotion, as well as managing any events attached to it. My role here is to support them to achieve this.
Equally, my photography background helps when curating shows, as it requires a strong sense of composition and overall vision as well as an eye for detail and precision. I have an understanding of how an exhibition as a whole can come together, be balanced and flow well within a given space.
The Gallery At Willesden Green
Can you tell us more about your mentoring for artists and the approach you take?
I am passionate about working with young emerging artists and recent arts graduates. The transition from an institutional framework or university to suddenly becoming a solo artist can be challenging, and overwhelming. I hear from my mentees that as soon as they finish college, they feel a bit lost and lonely - they lack the crucial support they get from the university and their college peers.
I am committed to making a real difference to the young emerging artists I work with, to their success and often I bring in my skills as a life coach to help them set up clear goals, encouraging them to have a short, mid and long term vision for themselves and their career. We put together an action plan, with clear tasks and deadlines by when achieving them. Each session is different, we might discuss how to set up a studio, applying for residencies, exhibiting at galleries, promoting their work and raising their profile on social media. I also support them with finding art-related work, from creating a bespoke CV, covering letter, filling in job applications.
One of the great benefits of every mentorship is that the mentor will hold the mentee accountable, to avoid getting side-tracked or procrastinate.
Why do you think so many artists get stuck with their careers?
From my experience of working with emerging artists, I find that very often, there is an underlining lack of self-belief and confidence in themselves as artists. When, for instance, they compare themselves to their peers, or others artists on social media who have more followers, more shows, more great news to share, etc. they can feel even more disheartened. I advise artists not to create work just to become successful, and not to worry about other artists and only compare themselves to themselves, to how they have developed and progressed in their journey.
The other challenge I find many artists struggle with is maintaining their practice whilst being able to financially support themselves. I always encourage artists to keep going, to keep producing work and developing their work even in full-time employment – which I am aware can be difficult.
© Nadia Nervo | 'Nudes' series
In your role as a curator, what is it you are looking for in an artist’s work?
I am not just interested in the artist’s work. I am keen to work with artists who are committed to their art, who have a message that they are trying to convey through their art and mainly who show a level of professionalism, for instance by being organised and serious about achieving their creative goals.
When I curate group shows, in other galleries, I look for work that fits the concept behind the show. For instance I am currently working towards a show by female artists who work with themes such as female sexuality, gender and feminism. The artists I am approaching all work within this topic and their work as a whole comes together.
As Head Curator at Willesden Gallery you are working with Brent Council - how does this affect how you work and what you show? Do you have a particular remit?
There aren’t any specific remits when programming exhibitions. It is a commercial gallery and we work with artists from all over London, as well as international artists; from recent graduates to more established artists who have their work collected by international museums. We showcase artists working within a variety of art forms, visual arts, new media and live performances too.
Artists are required to fill in an application form with their exhibition proposal. The proposal is then discussed with myself and the artists, within the gallery space, and then the exhibition’s process starts.
Exhibition proposals might be rejected if the artwork is offensive, violates any human or privacy rights and may cause damage to the building or risk injury.
© Nadia Nervo | 'Nudes' series
How has Covid-19 affected the gallery and what you do?
Though Willesden Gallery remained closed due to Covid-19, with our spring/summer exhibitions postponed for the autumn I have been holding an Instagram takeover offering artists the opportunity to share their artwork on the gallery IG platform. These virtual shows have been a great way to provide a creative outlet for our artist community, who have been badly affected by the pandemic.
Willesden gallery has now reopened to the public with an art residency by installation and mixed media artist Yang-En Hume. Yang-En will be working on a series of site-specific textile and cyanotype installations, an exhibition, Relics, will follow from 1 - 12 September.
Finally, what is the one bit of advice you can give to an artist?
Build and foster personal connections. Whether you have met curators, art buyers, collectors, other artists or generally interesting people you want to build a relationship with. Start by creating a database with all the people you’ve met or are going to meet in the art world. Keep them updated with what you are working on (perhaps through newsletters/social media), attend networking events, share your business cards, be interested in other people’s work - generally be nice to people!
Building and maintaining good relationships with people you have come across or are going to meet in the future is crucial. They could be your potential future clients, or new partnerships might develop amongst them.
Thank you Nadia for sharing your thoughts with us.
re-IMAgining the art world