Nena St. Louis Nena St. Louis

Comments on Nena St. Louis' Work

San Francisco Bay Guardian, July 27, 2005 "No paper dolls" The AfroSolo Arts Festival XII kicks off its Visual Arts Exhibition with "… And They Were Fruitful" A Dedication to the African Diaspora. The exhibit showcases artist Nena St. Louis's dynamic wood sculptures. Inspired by the Dogon sculpture of Mali, West Africa, St. Louis carves each piece by hand in intricate detail. The evocative beauty of the work can be further appreciated in St. Louis's emotional rendition of the universal struggle to survive amid great adversity - her tribute to the inner strength of African women. Through an ancient art form from a distant land, the exhibit manages to tell the story of the African Diaspora from the often silenced perspective of the women who suffered, sustained, and triumphed for generations to arrive here in America. Each sculpture is a celebration of survival and femininity - as strong and enduring as the wood they are carved from. Through Sept 17. Opens today; reception Aug 11, 5-7 p.m.; gallery hours, Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sargent Johnson Gallery, African American Art and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton, SF. (415) 922-2049. (Exhibition occuring concurrently Aug 6-Oct 6, San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin, SF. (415) 786-2500, ext. 228.)

– Kim, SF Bay Guardian

SF Weekly, July 27, 2005 "Charred Icons AfroSolo's debut act ONGOING 8/1-9/17

Enraged by the genocide and mass rapes in Bosnia and Rwanda in the '90s, sculptor Nena St. Louis began performing atrocities on her own work: She held her delicate figures over the kitchen stove, charring the wood and erasing gender cues, then "mummified" the results with wrapped cloth and dabs of paint. St. Louis' technique, as well as her emotional response to what ails the world, continues with her solo show "… And They Were Fruitful: A Dedication to the African Diaspora." Highlights include Three Elders, in which three 18-inch figures, despite having faces burned beyond recognition, appear to stand watch on the plain, staring out from masklike visages. Kicking off the 12th annual AfroSolo Arts Festival, a six-week event featuring a variety of African-American artists working in performance and visual art, "Fruitful" opens at 10 a.m. Monday (and continues through Sept. 17) at the Sargent Johnson Gallery, 762 Fulton (at Webster), S.F. Admission is free; call 771-2376 or visit

– Michael Leaverton

What does it take to overcome one's demons? San Francisco artist Nena St. Louis conjures primal, intensely personal sculptures out of construction timber, many painted and wrapped in canvas like mummies testifying to their fates. People's visceral reactions to her sometimes disturbing pieces are often to step back; it is uncommon to come closer, to touch them. With palettes of fire and the abattoir in vivid reds, browns, and blacks, her works evoke the rawness of Francis Bacon. The term 'Expressionist' frequently comes to mind: 'Expressionism' can apply to any work done when you don't start with theory. "I use anatomical knowledge," says St. Louis, "but that's about it. It has to come from inside."

In "Wraith's Mother," circa 1993, a figure with back facing outward appears to reenter, headfirst, the womb of a huge mother. With exaggerated breasts, the sculpture is an arresting, terrifying fertility symbol: the shades are blood-red, tinged with the blue of afterbirth. Inspired by her distress over atrocities in Croatia and Rwanda, the artist formed the triplets that comprise 1994's "Rape." Clad only in loincloths with burnt-out crotches,they stare out from clay masks – they can't be hurt any more. In the recently completed (2004) hanging wall sculpture, "August 6, 1945" (date of the U.S. attack on Hiroshima), a totemic figure casts a shadow dominated by reds, yellows, and blacks – as if burned by an atomic blast – standing as a mute witness against the charred background.

Although St. Louis' work tends not to be overtly political, she explains that the latter two pieces are more about human cruelty. "It's letting a lot out, but it's also holding in quite a bit, contained by the solidity of the wood blocks." Herein lies the dualism of her work: the calm amidst the chaos, the fierceness of the initial impression contrasted against the courage of documenting suffering and offering to humanity the depths of one's psyche. The artist has dealt with themes such as anima, in "Anima," a women's group show; and self-evolution, in "Manifestation: Evolving Movements," a three-person show at the San Francisco African-American Historical and Cultural Society.

After studying art in Nebraska, St. Louis further explored sculpture and drawing in New York City, with a passion for human anatomy. Her art teacherfinally relented to her repeated entreaties, teaching her how to use a chisel and mallet. This was the only instruction she received in this unique medium: "I thought, if somewhere in history someone figured out how to do it, then I could do it too." She had to divine how to express herself exclusively in wood, and her works are imbued with this spirit: "I don't know any technical tricks; I've had to invent my own." Some twenty years later, St. Louis continues to invent and create, carving and cauterizing her figures like a one-woman force of nature, the center of the storm swirling around her.

– Irene Barnard is a San Francisco writer who currently is writing a book about her family in Russia.

Nena St. Louis' "stormy expressionist paintings and sculpture smacks of a personal exorcism and ongoing excavation of her own psyche. One thing is clear. We are entering an intensely private realm… (P)eople tend to gravitate towards her lifesize totems as if they are mangled reflections and refractions of themselves (which is what they are)."

– Harry Roche is a Bay Area-based art critic and independent curator-at-large. He's currently a contributing editor to ARTWEEK, associate editor of TEA PARTY MAGAZINE, and has written for the SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN, the SF WEEKLY, the EAST BAY EXPRESS, and SCULPTURE MAGAZINE among other publications.

St. Louis' sculptural work presents women of courage. "The Bridal Pyre" is a bleak tribute to Indian women who follow their husbands in death by joining in their funeral pyre. Another piece, a tribute to the martyred St. Joan, is charred, evoking a haunting piece of history. Built of construction timber, acrylic and canvas, the work is brilliant and not for the weak of heart.

– Margie O'Driscoll, SF ARTS MONTHLY, Oct. 1993

Nena St. Louis
Nena St. Louis