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Guided by her ancestors, Liana creates art that heals her spirit

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Liana Nanang with her sculpture AfrIban (Photograph by Ajala Omodele)

Liana Nanang was in therapy for childhood trauma four years ago when someone handed her clay.

Suddenly, she had a new passion to explore.

“I was at the Life Healing Centre in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said. “Art therapy was part of the programme. They gave me a lump of clay and said I could do with it what I wanted. I had to choose an intention. I chose to be more grounded. I made a sculpture and loved it.”

After transitioning to outpatient services, she joined a clay studio.

“I had enough money for materials and the $150-a-month membership for the studio,” she said. “But I could not afford sculpting classes.”

She taught herself by watching the other artists, and picking up tips from them.

“Stumbling on sculpture in my thirties felt powerful and lovely,” she said. “I have always acted and painted, but I did not know there was going to be a whole new art form that would be such a central focus of my life and such a central focus of my healing. I love it.”

Masthead by Liana Nanang. Her work is inspired by her ancestors (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

This week, four of her pieces went on show in the latest Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art exhibition, Taking Shape, a group sculpture show.

Her work explores themes such as mental illness, identity and generational trauma, and is deeply influenced by her heritage.

Her father was the late lawyer and politician Julian Hall. Her mother, Isabella Hall, is originally from Borneo in the southwest Pacific Ocean and has a Scottish and indigenous Iban background.

Ms Nanang never plans a sculpture ahead of time but instead asks her ancestors for guidance.

“I sit and close my eyes and ask my ancestors what they want me to make and then I start building,” she said. “I get a bit of an image of what is coming but it is always very blurry. I am not sure of the colour or the shape, but I keep building with clay.”

She chooses titles for her work in a similar way.

Self Truly by Liana Nanang (Photograph supplied)

“When the piece is finished it has generally told me a story that I needed to hear,” she said. “All of my pieces involve aspects of indigenous culture, or African or indigenous spirituality, and all the different motifs that combine into someone who was born in Bermuda in the 1980s.”

Her piece Masthead explores the generational trauma created by the Middle Passage and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Meanwhile AfrIban represents the melding of African and Iban cultures. There are deliberate gaps in the work.

“After generations of trauma, we are never going to escape the fracturing and breaking,” she said. “You cannot erase it; you must embrace it.”.

Self Truly, was formed around the idea that we all have good and bad within us.

“What we show the world is actually a dull, human-like mask,” she said. “In reality, what is inside of us is a more animalistic creature that we often try and hide, but that is where our true beauty is, within the complexity of who we are.”

She has attempted to strip away the mask that she wears for the world, by writing and speaking extensively about her struggle with bipolar disorder and depression. In August 2024, she will release a memoir Menoa: Ancestral Healing for Trauma, Addiction and Fractured Minds.

“We often think, I have to get rid of all these demons, but these demons made us who we are,” she said. “If we integrate those parts of ourselves – the beast, the demon, the monster – we become more whole. If we don’t show this part, we are dulling the shine.

“My pieces all have this glowing light that comes from them. Regardless of the atrocities and trauma that we have all experienced the light always shows and reveals that which has been hidden over many years, and that indomitable spirit, the light that for ever exists no matter what has happened.”

She achieves this glow through pottery glazes although she resolved not to use them when she first started sculpting as they intimidated her.

Once she was back home in Bermuda, however, potter Johnny Northcott gave her pointers on how to make glazes and let her use his kiln to fire her work.

“He has been an incredible source of support,” she said.

This year, her art and poems were accepted into the Bermuda Biennial at the Bermuda National Gallery.

The first exhibition she entered was the 2019 Charman Prize at Masterworks. She was thrilled when the competition’s patron, John Charman bought her sculpture, Ancestry Dismantled.

She entered the Charman Prize again last year and won praise for the best use of materials for her sculpture We Are The Return. That piece is included in Taking Shape alongside works by Stratton Hatfield, Zoë Dyson, and Scott King.

“My art has been an incredible journey of healing in terms of mental health,” she said. “It is what I always turn to when things are extremely tough. I think the healing is perpetual. You never get over it but you do move through it. I used to hear voices that haunted me and now I hear voices that guide me.”

She was thrilled when Masterworks invited her to participate in Taking Shape. She said that although sculptures were sometimes on exhibit there, it was rare to devote an entire show to them. Her pieces range in price from $2,000 to $6,000.

“It is great to be in this show with other sculptors whom I admire. I don’t think many people know of me as a sculptor,” said Ms Nanang, who this year gave up the corporate communications business she ran for several years so she could devote herself to art.

Her business Unstoried produces films and books that educate, entertain and empower people of colour. She now calls herself a “multimedia storyteller”.

Taking Shape is on exhibit in the Rick Faries Gallery at Masterworks until January 10. For more information: masterworksbermuda.org

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Published December 09, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated December 10, 2022 at 8:42 am)

Guided by her ancestors, Liana creates art that heals her spirit

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