For Artist Sadaf H. Nava, Performance Is Therapy

For Artist Sadaf H. Nava, Performance Is Therapy

The noise musician and nightlife master is bringing uncharted territory to the club

The noise musician and nightlife master is bringing uncharted territory to the club

Photography: Jeff Bark

Styling: Lana Jay Lackey

Text: Whitney Mallett

“I resist when people ask me, ‘What does that mean?’ I don’t think an artist should have to explain what something means,” says Sadaf H. Nava. The New York-based artist navigates a wide variety of mediums while producing a solo music project. “I don’t like things that are easily understood or pinned down.”

Whether she’s DJing deep dancehall cuts at the Guggenheim gala pre-party or yelping into a microphone tangled in industrial chains at a Chinatown art gallery, Nava’s work is rooted in experimentation and improvisation. “Because things aren’t really planned out, hidden desires and recurring themes come out,” she explains. Constraint, she says, is one thread woven through many of her performances. She’ll often bind limbs with elastic bands or blanket herself in fake hair. “Maybe it has something to do with being Middle Eastern, or being a woman in general, but I think this relates to the idea of performance as therapy,” notes the 27-year-old, who was born in Iran and grew up largely in Canada. “I must be working through something.”

JACKET COACH 1941 T-SHIRT VINTAGE FROM BYRONESQUE EARRING BEN-AMUN

Her most recent single, “Stillness,” which premiered on Pitchfork this year, echoes another concern of Nava’s work: anxiety. Spoken word lyrics, jumbled crashes and screeches, reggaeton beats, and jungle drums suggest a strung out state, easy to relate to in this era of digital noise. “I think anxiety today may come from the fact that we can be traced so easily,” says Nava. “Surveillance makes me anxious.” But even if the panopticon of cookies and filtered search results unnerve her, online tracking has also been a tool for finding the global sampling of pop music that shows up in Nava’s DJ sets and the music she produces.

“Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of rocolera music from Ecuador. I really don’t even know how I find these things. They aren’t the sort of tracks that pop up in the suggested videos sidebar on YouTube for the average person—but I listen to a lot of South American music,” she explains. Nava has received a cinematic education online as well. “I just rewatched one of my favorite films, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Luna. I saw a really beautiful print at Anthology Film Archives, but the last time I’d seen it, someone had uploaded the whole thing onto YouTube, and I watched it as a 16-year-old,” she says. “I owe so much to the Internet, like being able to watch rare-ish movies like that when I was a teenager.”

Nava has a recent habit of adding the suffix “-ish” onto the end of adjectives. “You can kind of add it to anything,” she says. “Stupid-ish, cool-ish, strong-ish, bland-ish. I think that, along with being the anxiety generation, we are the -ish generation; -ish is an in-between, it has to do with taking references from everywhere, and identity-wise I really relate to it, too. I think most first-generation immigrants relate to feeling in-between, like you don’t belong to either culture.”

Nava plans to call her first album, due out later this year, ISH. “In all capitals, an assertive -ish,” she notes, “I’m embracing my own ish-ness.”

Credits: MAKEUP LISA HOUGHTON (TIM HOWARD MANAGEMENT)  HAIR SHINGO SHIBATA (THE WALL GROUP)  PHOTO ASSISTANT CHRIS WHITE AND MICHAEL CASKER  STYLIST ASSISTANT KINDALL ALMOND MAKEUP ASSISTANT ARISA KAWAMURA  LOCATION HUDSON STUDIOS  CATERING GUY & GALLARD

UP NEXT

Club Chameleon DeSe Escobar on Her Art and "Slaysian" Brand