Updated: Apr 15
When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit in March 2020, the universities closed and many final-year nursing students were given the opportunity to work on the frontline while completing their qualifications. Alan was one of these students, and applied to finish his nursing degree at The Walton Centre, a major neurology hospital in the suburb of Fazakerley in the city of Liverpool. The day before his placement induction, Alan received a phone call from his sister: their mother’s ventilator had been lowered. She soon passed away. ‘I still went to my placement, as I knew my mum would have wanted me to’, he told the Mexican-born artist Aliza Nisenbaum, and ‘when I woke up on the first morning of my placement, I noticed her hairbrush and put some of her hair in a locket so I could always keep part of herself close to me.’
This poignant recollection of loss and renewal is the subject of a large-scale watercolour by Nisenbaum, which is part of a series of portraits of Merseyside NHS staff currently on show at Tate Liverpool. In Alan, Student Nurse (2020) the gentle lines of his reddish-pink scrubs arc and crease in the dappled light of the common room, and the thin strips of his lanyard in Pantone 300 NHS blue fold over and reform, while Alan intently fixes his gaze on the locket between his thumb and forefinger. As in many of Nisenbaum’s portraits, the pigments that make up the face and the skin congregate in polychromatic build-ups with contrasting edges that offer a glimpse into the interiority of the sitter. Alan, Student Nurse is a portrait of isolation and the ways we remember absent beloveds, in this year as in any other.
Nisenbaum’s latest UK installation, which follows her Art on the Underground commission at Brixton station in 2019, should have featured that all-too-British subject of people on their allotments. Unable to travel to Liverpool, and in quarantine in Los Angeles away from her usual residence in Harlem where she teaches at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, Nisenbaum instead transformed the exhibition into a homage to NHS workers and their stories. While on the Art on the Underground project Nisenbaum was able to spend three months with Transport for London staff in a back-room of Brixton station meticulously building a mural-size work that traced the temporal experience of commuting, this time around she painted the sitters from Zoom.
The paintings represent the different departments of the hospital, incorporating porter staff, nurses, health carers, doctors, housekeepers, and consultants. The figures appear strangely distinct and alone yet indivisible, crystallising an atomised year of social distancing and support bubbles while reminding the viewer of the fundamental interdependence of the community. These are paintings of assembly, reflections on the shifts in how and why we have assembled in new ways over the course of the pandemic, from clapping for care workers on doorsteps to Zoom. Nisenbaum’s practice of working from life, spending extended periods of time with her sitters in an observational and intimate mode of close looking, both speaks to the experiential pace of lockdown while being totally unsuited to social distancing and red travel lists. ‘I’ve found Zoom surprisingly intimate’, reflected Nisenbaum and, while ‘it’s not the same as face-to-face… you can get very close to a person.’
Nisenbaum composed the figures individually from Zoom calls and photographs, and then constructed the compositional organisation of a cohesive group united by shared experience, a common story, which is both necessitated by and greater than their employment. Like a Frans Hals or Rembrandt van Rijn group portrait, which might feature the members of a clothmaker’s guild or the assembled schutterij (a civic guard), Nisenbaum teases out the idiosyncratic personalities within the collective scene. Whereas the sense of grumbling competition cloaked in cheerful comradery is implicit in the Dutch masters, Nisenbaum is here attuned to the profoundly felt inter-reliance and vulnerability of this collective; a healthcare assistant drops her shoulder to allow conversation with a porter behind, a puppy reassures a recuperating staff sister, a play specialist practices blowing bubbles for the children on the ward.
Two works set against the backdrop of Alder Hey Children’s Hospital are entitled Team Time Storytelling, so named after the Team Time mental health initiative, which enabled staff to share personal and professional experiences relating to situations that had an impact on them. At Alder Hay, the group uses drawing as a way of communicating with their young patients, so Nisenbaum asked them to each make a drawing of their own experiences during the pandemic. These are then scattered at the foot of one group portrait like an illustrated pathway through the past year, from crossed out schools to rainbow arches, weighing scales measuring impossible choices to the vulnerable on ventilators.
Many of these portraits are also paired with flowers the artist had found on her afternoon constitutionals around Los Angeles, where the vegetation recalled her childhood in Mexico City as well as accompanying her mother, herself a flower painter, to the Marianne North Gallery in London’s Kew Gardens. The accompanying flowers are therefore entered into a cycle of what Nisenbaum calls ‘gift-giving and matrilineal lineages’, as well as the traditions of the historical still life or the vanitas, extending beyond mere decoration or equivalence and becoming reflections on the transience of life in the midst of crisis . In Alan’s case, his portrait corresponds with a bulbous vase and gorgeously textural orange, green, white, and pink flowers set against jagged tree branches at dusk. ‘It was my way’, Nisenbaum reflected, ‘of sending them a bouquet.’
Southern Californian flowers paired with meditative and intimate figures have been a persistent feature of Nisenbaum’s humanist visual language before and since the NHS series. Atanacio, Study & Cactus, LA Walk (2020), a gouache and watercolour work on paper in the collection of Alexander V. Petalas, was recently exhibited in Aliza Nisenbaum: Flora at Anton Kern Gallery in autumn 2020. The sitter’s name is Atanacio, who was one of the first people Nisenbaum met at Immigrant Movement International, an interdisciplinary arts project and socio-political movement founded by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera.
While working on the portraits of healthcare workers, Nisenbaum returned to sitters she had represented in the past and began to paint – or re-paint, reimagine – former sitters like Atanacio and paired them with the wild flora of Los Angeles. These new works are reconstructed from memory and from photographs, including distilled moments painting Atanacio in two sets of clothing – one in a relaxed green Adidas tracksuit jacket and another in fabulous ostrich leather belt and boots – and become lyrical addresses to absent others, just like the NHS portraits. ‘It’s amazing how much comfort one is finding in nature now, taking walks, and finding flowers’, Nisenbaum has said, ‘it’s a renewing force.’
By Matthew Holman.
 Taken from the accompanying wall text at Aliza Nisenbaum, Tate Liverpool. Aliza Nisenbaum, in ‘Complex Issues: Painting the NHS with Aliza Nisenbaum’, YouTube video, posted 9 February 2021 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TbypVWk30Y&t=2146s> [accessed 10 March 2021].
 Aliza Nisenbaum, interview with Juliet Rix, in Studio International, published 10/08/2020 < https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/aliza-nisenbaum-interview-ive-found-zoom-surprisingly-intimate-anton-kern-new-york-tate-liverpool> [accessed 02 February 2021].
 Aliza Nisenbaum, in ‘Complex Issues: Painting the NHS with Aliza Nisenbaum’, YouTube video, posted 9 February 2021 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TbypVWk30Y&t=2146s [accessed 10 March 2021].