Credit: Zan Wimberly/Courtesy of the artist

Not unlike the birth of Google Images, Claudia Nicholson’s interest in the late Latina icon Selena Quintanilla was born of a desire to see images of Jennifer Lopez.

“I was trying to locate these pictures where [Lopez] looked really amazing and I realised they were pictures where she was playing Selena in the biopic [Selena],” the multidisciplinary Sydney-based artist told GRAZIA earlier today. “That was where I started researching Selena.”

Nicholson’s fascination with the pop star, who was murdered by the president of her fan club in 1995, today takes its most significant form in her work All I Have Are Dreams Of You: an alfombra de aserrín – or coloured saw dust carpet, five metres in diameter – that functions as both a tribute, a memento mori and stage for further performances that investigate ideas of cross-cultural identities, while celebrating the liminal spaces that exist in between.

Lost Without You, 2016, (Alfombra de aserrín; sawdust and glitter), seen in situ at the Turnbull Family Funeral Home in Hobart for the Funeral Parlour Party held as part of MONA’s Dark Mofo festival
Credit: Courtesy of the artist

At a preview for The National: New Australian Art, the multi-venue Australian art biennale that concludes this weekend at Carriageworks, Nicholson’s work proved to be utterly magnetic on first unveiling. Stunning to behold and made all the more impressive for its inherent ephemerality, the work takes its title from the song Dreaming Of You, one of Quintanilla’s first recorded in English and released posthumously.

It’s also astonishingly labour intensive. First, Nicholson designs the carpet on the computer. She then dyes and dries the sawdust over a three week process using fabric dye, a rake and heaters until the dust is bone dry. She estimates using around twelve bags of sand to create a backdrop for the piece. Atop that, she stencils on the sawdust using a fine sieve. The process takes about eight days with the help of an assistant and a moveable platform that allows Nicholson to lie on top of the work and prevent, as much as possible, hard to amend missteps.

Nicholson has been making the alfombra de aserrín carpets for a year and a half. Time, experiences and growing resources mean it’s becoming an easier process, but they’re not getting faster, she says. All I Have Are Dreams Of You was created as both a tribute to and celebration of Quintanilla’s life and work, and combines images synonymous with the singer’s life with those from Nicholson’s oeuvre more generally. Those symbols include the Chanel logo, a nod to Quintanilla’s favourite shade of lipstick – a shade of Brick red – that functions as a kind of conduit to interrogate and celebrate the appropriation of brand identities by cultural minorities. ‘Adidad’ and ‘Nkie’ logos also feature in the work in a gesture toward Nicholson’s wider practice, particularly in painting and ceramics. “I bought a bag in Colombia and it had ‘adidad’ written on it”, she says. “It’s a way of using counterfeit brands as a nod to cultural authenticity and to point out that I’m not always 100% knowing what I’m doing. I just want to indicate that I’m a bit removed from Colombian and Latin American culture but I’m still trying to forge those connections through making art.”

All I Have Are Dreams Of You, 2017, sawdust, glitter, rose petals and sand
Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Nicholson was born in Colombia and moved to Australia when she was adopted at three months old. She has since returned to Colombia three times, and says that with each successive visit she is able to greater situate a sense of her identity between those two places and their social, political and historical contexts. “I’m learning the language but it’s still a little bit out of my grasp. I don’t mind that, but I do think of Australia as my home. I’m interested in that sort of ‘in between-ness’.” Nicholson, who will turn 30-years-old next month, has been practicing as an artist for the last five years, and is in the midst of a Masters in Fine Arts and the University of New South Wales’s College of Fine Arts which will encompass her floral arrangement works, painting and ceramic works, as well as the carpets that have brought her a great deal of acclaim. She has exhibited in Canberra, Melbourne, at Sydney’s MCA, in Perth and at Tasmania’s Dark Mofo festival, having also been the recipient of the Freedman Foundation Travelling Art Scholarship in 2015 and the 4A Centre For Contemporary Asian Art Beijing studio residency.

As part of the John Fries Award, for which Nicholson has also been nominated, a third iteration of All I Have Are Dreams Of You, albeit one produced on a smaller scale, will be accompanied by the documentation of a performance taking place this coming weekend. Curated by interdisciplinary artist, academic and curator, Consuelo Cavaniglia, the John Fries Award show will exhibit the work of twelve early career visual artists at Sydney’s UNSW Galleries from August 11 until September 2, 2017.

“I have six performers from the Spanish Speaking Community Choir who will be singing some of their own songs mixed in with covers of Quintanilla’s music,” Nicholson says of the performance that will disrupt the work for its last time at Carriageworks. This will be the second performance of the piece, following one staged to mark the opening weekend of The National that involved a performance of Selena’s original choreography over the carpet.

At left, Baby I Would Climb The Andes, 2014, Flowers and plywood; and right, Cry me a river, 2015, white earthenware, underglaze, ceramic glaze, gold lustre, diamantes
Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Accounting for Selena’s cultural legacy, which is ostensibly enjoying something of a resurgence of late, and Nicholson says that “she was part of those first conversations about Latin American and North American identity. She straddled both really well, she was successful and had those identities, which was an anomaly at the time. You were either too Mexican or too American, and she wasn’t either of those – people just loved her. I guess, she was also one of the first brown women that allowed young women to see themselves reflected back through popular culture. Those conversations are still happening and there’s a younger generation finding their voice much more around those conversations so she’s still relevant.”

It’s only fitting that the work should derive so much of its power from its representative qualities as much as its impermanence. The carpets have different purposes for different places, says Nicholson. In Mexico, they form part of Day of the Dead rituals; in Guatemala, they’re laid down during Semana Santa, or Holy Week.

“I would prefer that it gets ceremoniously destroyed than is left to be swept up. When they’re made in Guatemala, big religious precessions march over them a matter of hours after they’re laid down so I quite like that link to tradition.”

All I Have Are Dreams of You by Claudia Nicholson will be performed this coming Sunday June 25 at Carriageworks at 3pm. The performance is free and will run for 20 minutes

Tile and cover image: Courtesy of the artist