Art Young Artists 2020

Artist Haleigh Nickerson Wrestles with the Unknowable Edges of Identity

A self-portrait from 2020.
A self-portrait from 2020.

In one of Haleigh Nickerson’s most recent sculptures, from her installation Through the Fire: 1, bubblegum pink plastic curlers encase a mannequin’s head like a helmet, or perhaps a crown; each is adorned with a nameplate framed by two, kissing doves. In the place of a name, the pendants read “Rzlient,” an alternate spelling of “resilient.” Narrated in her words as “a deconstruction of many different tools” and “a play on armor,” this resplendent sculpture, which I have been unable to forget since seeing it for the first time in an Instagram post earlier this year, merges several of the concerns that interact and overlap in Nickerson’s layered, multidisciplinary oeuvre—the rituals of material culture and adornment, the construction of identity, iconicity and the exuberance of strength.

“Identifying as an artist means exploring and questioning the world around me, but also taking things apart and reassembling them in different ways,” she tells me on the phone from Los Angeles. Originally from the Bay Area, Nickerson moved to LA to work in film. In the studio, her process consists of constant, active research: reading, looking at and compiling ephemera. She’s currently in the process of expanding a series of personae and costumes that re-imagine warrior archetypes using sartorial materials, objects and media that relate to Black identity. One of these—a spike- encrusted black cape with a stack of bamboo hoops for a breastplate—was donned by Nickerson for a photographic self-portrait titled Searching for Self As Hero, on view in the group show “Celebrate Longevity” at Superposition Gallery’s Hamptons outpost this past summer.

Searching for Self As Hero (2019).

“I’m always thinking about the Black female body in relation to time and space—in whatever way that manifests through form or media—whether through costumes, objects or any other configuration, reconstructing spaces and worlds,” Nickerson explains with intense clarity. “This array of fragmented parts comes together like an orchestra or a band—like a film set. Blackness is uncontainable. Identity is multilayered, transformative and ever shifting. That’s what I’m working through. It’s a retracing of memory, an accumulation of time, a piecing together of new moments and mythologies that reference the past and the future.”