Nene Humphrey


My multidisciplinary artworks combine drawing, sculpture, performance and video to depict a seemingly infinite space of emotion and memory as it is processed in the brain.

As a focal point, the brain is a site where external stimuli are filtered through the webs of its biological and psychological systems. This integration of art and science is fundamental to my practice. As a long-term artist-in-residence at New York University’s LeDoux Lab I collaborate with scientists, who have directly contributed to my artworks. Using the lab’s microscope and camera lucida, I draw cross-sections of the brain’s intricate amygdala, an almond-shaped mass with thousands of neurons: the powerhouse of human emotion. These vibratory and energetic drawings result in dense, layered, chaotic lines. Coming together and breaking apart, these thin black marks—resembling thread or hair—mimic the amygdala’s systems of energy and communication. I also incorporate such disparate elements as the buzzing hum of the brain’s neural/ electrical activity and the recorded whistling chirp of rats serenading each other in the lab. I integrate these elements—the scientists’ works, drawings, and recorded sound—into performance video, and installations. These works are often deeply personal and immerse their audiences in tangled narratives.

One of these collaborative projects, Circling the Center, a meditation on grief, has seen multiple iterations of video, installation and performance since 2009. After the loss of my husband in 2006, I needed to find a deeper, more personal articulation in my work. Searching for visual expressions of grief, I stumbled across the Victorian art of mourning braiding—a popular craft that acknowledged loss by gathering mourners around circular tables to intricately braid the hair of the deceased into plaits which they turned into memorial jewelry. I was struck by how this act turned stark solitary grief into unified beauty and by the startling visual similarities between the braids and my drawings of the amygdala.

A 2013 interview revealed my thoughts, “I wondered what would it be like to create a community of people and braid together. How could animating my drawings or using film as a collage device amplify the scientific and emotional processes I was exploring? Could sound from the neuroscience lab and the communal braiding process become a powerful compositional element, weaving in and out of the visual layers?”[1] In Circling the Center Humphrey has been following these questions in live performance, video and installation; fusing science, art, music, and craft; turning grief into beauty. Hyperallergic reviewed the 2016 performance at 3LD Art & Technology Center, “Watching the performance feels like peering into a stranger’s dark, interminable dream. And as with dreams…It’s an abstract narrative—a montage of evocative images, sounds, and choreography that comes together to create a striking visual metaphor for grief…” [2]

From this last production came the opportunity to rework Circling the Center independent of its live performative element while still bringing the audience inside its ritualized space. This installation, Transmission (Circling the Center Series), at Lesley Heller Workspace examines the products of grief. It represents a moment where the ritual has ended, but the processes of mourning remain in the nebulous space of the brain. Here, in the absence of ritual, rewired mechanisms continue churning and memories linger.


[1] Humphrey, Nene, interview with Nancy Davidson, “Surrender to Something Dangerous: A conversation between Nancy Davidson and Nene Humphrey”, artcore b(log), Volume 2, Issue 1: Women, July 21, 2013.


[2] Dunne, Carey, “A Performance where Victorian Mourning Braiding Meets Neuroscience”, Hyperallergic, New York, October 13, 2016.