IT WAS August 2008 in a giant stadium in Denver, Colorado. A
crowd of 70,000 people were waiting to see Barack Obama stride out
on to the Democratic Convention platform and accept his party's
nomination as candidate for the United States presidency.
In the moments before he arrived, the crowd, electrified by the
significance of the event, erupted in a Mexican wave.
Jumping up with them was the British artist Nicola Green, who,
commendably, kept her artist's head in the intoxicating atmosphere.
In the speeches leading up to this moment, she had sketched the
expressive hands of people around her. And, as the wave cascaded
through the crowd, she photographed the hands as they waved,
pointed, or reached up in expressions of joy and praise.
Green is a London-based artist, whose portraits take viewers by
surprise. She discovers character and stories in overlooked human
details, such as the hands in the Denver crowd, rather than in more
obvious head-and-shoulder compositions.
Her portrait of the children of the writer and film director
Hannah Rothschild is a good example. She shows us three pairs of
blue school shoes on a hall floor, abandoned after they and their
owners have arrived home from school - a daily occurrence for many
years. The painting "sums up the carefree spirit of my -hildren
perfectly", Mrs Rothschild said recently.
In 2010, Green collaborated with the charity Anti-Slavery
International, which works to eliminate all forms of slavery around
the world. She produced a stark triptych, "House Slave - Field
Slave", which prompts the viewer to consider the misery of modern
slaves. Like the Rothschild portrait, the three images focus on
human feet, showing "slavery" in the home, and in actual iron
Following the convention of religious icons, the legs and feet
of the images are on a field of 24-carat gold leaf, which, the
artist says, is there to raise questions of value and identity. How
do we value people, and why do we value some people less than
GREEN's appropriation of traditional religious imagery arises
out of her Christian faith. In fact, her experience as an artist is
closely related to her experience of faith: "In my work, I have to
follow my heart, and my beliefs, and what I think is important.
When I do that, there's no certainty whether I'm going to earn a
living from it, whether I'm going to make good work, or how I'm
going to do it.
"In that sense, I would equate it to my practice of faith, which
is that you follow something you believe in, you think about it,
you go through periods of doubt, you don't have any certainty, and
you have to follow your inner guidance."
Green's most significant project to date, In Seven
Days. . . , is the perfect example of an artist's setting out
into the unknown, in an act of faith. It had its genesis in 2005,
when her husband, the Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, met the
then Senator Obama on a visit to Britain. They forged a friendship,
and, when Green was pregnant with their first son, Mr Lammy came
back from an American trip to say that Obama was considering
running for President.
"As a mother who was about to have a mixed-race son, who would
look like Obama, I started thinking about what that might mean for
him," she says.
"I looked around at who the mixed-race role-models were for my
son, outside of popular culture - and I couldn't see any. I started
to think about how my husband and I would talk to our sons about
what they could achieve, and what is possible for them in their
lives. The idea that this guy who looked like them would shoot for
the highest office in the Western world was a big deal."
REFLECTING on how her own story of family and politics meshed
with what was happening across the Atlantic, Green realised that
she wanted to create a portrait of Senator Obama. But, to do that,
she knew she would need to witness the story from the inside, on
the campaign trail.
No US presidential candidate has had anything approaching an
artist-in-residence before, but she was, first, able to secure his
agreement; and, second - and more critically - she was able to
persuade his staff to take her work seriously. Initially, they
said: "We'll send you some photos," but, through a mixture of charm
and persistence, she eventually gained access to the candidate at
significant points in the campaign.
For her, the closest analogy to what she was doing is the
position of war artist. The wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, for
example, are considered so important that somebody is sent who can
experience it in real time, reflect on it, and then produce work
that is not for the next day's newspaper.
"It means that future generations can look at the event through
the artist's eye, sharing in their reflection and sense of
perspective," she says.
She made six trips to join the campaign, soon after her second
son was born, beginning in Denver and ending with the inauguration
in Washington DC in January 2009. Early in the process, she
discovered that she did not want to make a one-off portrait of
Obama, or even to focus solely on him.
'Every time I went on a trip, I would hear him talking, and
watch what he had done in the realms of achieving something
impossible. He was an African-American in a former slave-owning
nation, standing to be President, and that was massive. In terms of
identity, and race, he was representing something truly
GREEN began flying in for campaign events. She sat in the front
row and sketched as Senator Obama made speeches. She talked to
staff behind the scenes, and citizens in the crowds. She collected
magazines and ephemera on the campaign trail.
She took a photograph of him at six one morning in Philadelphia
which proved to be one of the most arresting images of the
campaign, and which metamorphosed into one of the pieces that she
created. And she witnessed the night in Denver when Senator Obama
received the Democratic nomination.
"That night was the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's 'I
have a dream' speech," she says. "The energy there was unlike
anything I have ever experienced. There was this connection to that
particular moment in history, and also to the future, and what
other moments might connect. As human beings, we live for those
moments. We live for hope, because if you don't have any hope, then
you don't have anything."
She also noticed something that the TV coverage - with its
hunger for images of hoopla and hysteria - never truly captured.
"What I saw was people queuing endlessly to [attend] rallies,
people waiting patiently. I saw this much quieter, patient sort of
hope. In the case of the black community, they had been waiting for
generations. The women sitting there talked about their own mothers
and grandmothers, and it was incredibly moving. They just couldn't
believe what was taking place. It made me think about what hope
Each time she returned home, she adopted an almost monastic
silence about her activities. She told no one - apart from her
husband and parents - that she was going on the trips, or what took
place. Even when she returned from election night - where she had
talked to Senator Obama just minutes after he gave his victory
speech in Grant Park - she did not tell anyone that she had been
there, nor what she thought about his election as President.
THIS strong sense of self-denial reveals a powerful link between
her faith and her creative work. "I try, as far as I possibly can,
to remove my ego and my personal desires from the outcome of my
work," she says. "That's my spiritual practice, not just to do with
Green returned to her studio, and began to work from the
mountain of primary material that she had collected, to distill
just seven images. The images are spare and minimal, each
expressing, in an iconic form, the essential themes of the story as
the artist experienced it: light, struggle, hope, change, fear,
sacrifice/embrace, peace. She conceived In Seven Days. . .
as a cycle, without beginning or end.
Like the seven days of the Old Testament creation story, her
cycle begins with light and ends with peace. It was not her
intention, however, to model the cycle on the biblical account. She
sees this story, and her work, as following themes that are
universal, regardless of particular faiths. But, having said that,
she does see connections with the theme of creation.
"The overarching things I wanted to convey in the work were: how
do you achieve something impossible; and what does it mean to do
that? The business of achieving anything impossible is essentially
a story of creation. That was the most important thing for me to
convey to my children; so that future generations who look at this
work, whatever they want to achieve, whatever their politics, could
look at this story and think about that."
ONE of the images that stand out in the cycle is "The Sixth Day,
Sacrifice/Embrace", in which the silhouetted shapes of Senator
Obama's head and outstretched arms float in a square of intense
blue. Her desire to transcend the politics and personalities of the
2008 campaign - in order to communicate a story of timeless and
universal value - truly succeeds here.
Like all good icons, this is an image that calls for the
participation of the viewer, as he or she mentally conjures the
standing figure out of the negative blue space. It echoes one of
President Obama's main election themes: that it was not just about
him, but about all of us, working together for change.
In Seven Days. . . was unveiled for the first time in
Britain last month, in an exhibition that is still running at the
Walker Art Gallery, in Liverpool. The cycle has been acquired by
the US Library of Congress in Washington, and the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York, which described it as "an artistic and
Green is currently working on another project that is as
ambitious in its scope as In Seven Days. . . If not more
so. Noticing that the leaders of world religions have been meeting
over the past decade, and that this is a relatively new factor in
world history, she has gained access to some of the meetings as an
artist. She wants to understand why they are happening now, and
what they mean for us.
Since the fear of difference governs so much of what happens
between people of different faiths, it will be fascinating to see
the final shape of this new project.
"All my work is basically about exploring identity and
difference," she says. "All human stories are actually about how we
relate to each other and understand each other's differences. It is
the key to how we can live together peacefully."
Simon Jenkins is the editor of Ship of Fools, and
blogs at simonjenkins.com.
"In Seven Days. . ." runs at the Walker Art Gallery, William
Brown Street, Liverpool, until 14 April. Phone 0151 478
The Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature opens today at
Bloxham School, near Banbury, Oxfordshire. For details, visit www.bloxhamfaithandliterature.co.uk.