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The Ruby is a catalyst for creativity and a new home for making art at Duke University.

The noted painter and muralist Nina Chanel Abney is among the first artists to hold a Nannerl O. Keohane Visiting Professorship, a joint program of the Provosts at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University that brings scholars to both campuses for residencies intended to advance social engagement and innovation programs and inspire students and faculty to consider how their work can improve our communities.

According to notes from her 2017 retrospective exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art, Abney is “at the forefront of a generation of artists that is unapologetically revitalizing narrative figurative painting. A skillful storyteller, Abney visually articulates the complex social dynamics of contemporary urban life.”

Abney’s works are lively menageries populated by characters who are violent villains, unwitting victims, aspirational heroes and ineffectual anti-heroes, set against the backdrop of narratives that touch on politics, race, homophobia, celebrity, consumerism and other potentially incendiary topics. She comes from a generation raised on screens, in which multitasking and processing multiple streams of information simultaneously is the norm, and thus loads her works full of visual data.

These densely packed paintings can be challenging to decipher. The artist has said that her work is “easy to swallow, hard to digest,” and certainly its playful and seductive nature belies its often serious tone. She was identified by Vanity Fair magazine as one of the many artists championing the Black Lives Matter movement.

During her term as a Keohane professor, Abney will be in residence in the painting studio in the Ruby. She will participate in a public panel discussion with Duke faculty Mark Anthony Neal and Ninth Wonder  and will make several visits to Duke classes in painting and screen printing. She will also work with a mural-painting class at UNC-CH.

In a piece for the 2017-18 UNC-CH Performing Arts brochure, she shares her thoughts about the upcoming residence:

“My overarching aim is to unite many of the themes found in my work, and through my process collaborate with faculty across the university,” says Abney of her role as a Keohane visiting prof. “I want to take time to utilize the combined university acumen,” she says, noting that there are many areas of study across the UNC and Duke campuses that overlap with her work.

Abney sees parallels between her work and a wide range of academic departments including those of African, African American, and Diaspora studies; American Studies; and Sociology, as well as with departments addressing the topics of race and government, food and medicine. She is eager to explore university connections on multiple fronts and to avoid “easy definition” in any of her projects. For instance, she says, “my fluid and intentional use of ambiguity on the subjects of race and gender would be interesting to examine through the lens of public policy.”

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