Meet the nominees for the NN Art Award 2024 III: Mónica Mays

For the eighth year in a row, the NN Art Award will be awarded to a promising artist who completed their studies at an art academy in the Netherlands and is exhibiting at Art Rotterdam. This year, for the first time, the nominees will exhibit their work in the prestigious Kunsthal Rotterdam, from 1 February to 14 April 2024. The nominated artists for the NN Art Award 2024 are Maaike Kramer (Art Gallery O-68), Mónica Mays (Prospects section of the Mondriaan Fund), Jan van der Pol (CREMAN & DE ROOIJ) and Peim van der Sloot (Brinkman & Bergsma). 


Mays’ sculptural practice combines autobiography, material process and historical archive. Her pieces are composed of assemblages taking the shape of animated domestic objects that are spilling over, distorted or in a process of transmutation. Drawing from catholic body horror and baroque iconography she has been working with excess, ornamentation and exuberance. From the depiction of maladie and magical thinking in female figurines, to colonial representations of nature, dominance, desire and control, the baroque is deployed by Mays to create works that exist in a tension of fragility and violence.

After having studied Cultural Anthropology at the University of New Orleans, she graduated from the École Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Strasbourg in 2015 and received an MA from the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam in 2017. She has developed projects in artistic residencies such as Rupert (Vilnius, Lithuania), Fundación Bilbao Arte (Bilbao, Spain), Matadero (Madrid, Spain) and Cemeti Institut for Art and Society (Yogyakarta, Indonesia). Mays’ works have been exhibited in spaces including the Frascati Theater (Amsterdam), Tallinn Art Hall (Tallinn), Punt WG (Amsterdam), Blue Velvet Projects (Zurich), Centro Centro (Madrid), KUBUS (Hannover), La Casa Encendida (Madrid), Industra (Brno) and Atelier Chiffonier (Dijon). She has been awarded the 3PD prize bestowed by the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts 2022, the Mondriaan Fund Young Artist Stipendium 2023 and the Generation 2022 prize from the Montemadrid Foundation.

Mónica Mays | Photographer Nikola Lamburov

Could you tell us a bit more about the work you are presenting at Art Rotterdam and in the Kunsthal? 
“I present a series of sculptures and boxes that I’ve been working on over the past two years. With these pieces, I aimed to cultivate and explore forms of reproduction that might sit outside of patriarchal structures, industrial means of production, efficiency and futurity, and the violence that these logics impose on different bodies. I’ve been exploring these ideas through a close engagement with the life cycle of the bombyx mori silk moth — an organic reproductive process that has been irrevocably altered by human intervention, domestication and industrialisation. In order to fully extract a silk thread for use in textiles, silk moth cocoons must be steamed to kill the grub inside before it can hatch and break through the single line of silk it used to create its cocoon. Those moths that are allowed to hatch do so only to breed and die shortly after; thousands of years of production-oriented domestication have rendered the moth blind, albino and flightless, with a vestigial mouth that cannot feed. The silk moth cocoon, for me, contains a multitude of semiotic and biological meanings — both those of extractive violence, biopower and heteropessimism, but also the potential for the breaking of linear logics, the refusal of reproduction, and the embracing of mutation.

Shadow box primary

Last year I cultivated the bombyx mori, accompanying them through them their reproductive cycle, allowing them to all hatch, and working with them and their products towards a series of assemblages, collages and sculptures. These assemblages are composed of a combination of found anachronistic domestic objects that are interrupted by the excess of other bodies: wool, feathers, vellum, cocoons come together to make a body out of bodies. In addition I present “Shadow Boxes”, wooden gridded objects that are employed for scientific categorization, division and taxonomical separation in the drawers of archives and museums. Discarded ones are often used by individuals for collecting small memorabilia, appropriating the grid as a subjective and personal mechanism. In a similar way, I have been collaborating with the bombix mori and their products to parasite the boxes, preserving their cocoons intact by covering the boxes with silk and botanical imprints that interfere with the grid’s structure.”

What are your plans for 2024?
“In March, I will be going on a three month residency at the Cemeti Institute for Art and Society in Yogyakarta with the support of the Mondriaan Fund, where I will be continuing a project I recently started at the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Throughout my projects I lean on certain examples as containers of both violence and fragility. In this case, I have been looking at the iconography and symbolism of the palm plant through its paradisiac, biblical and industrial imaginaries. The project began by looking at the ornamental function of the plant to gentrify coastlines in Southern Europe in contrast with its exploitation in other regions, Indonesia being one of the largest producers of this plant for the fabrication of palm oil. I am considering palm oil as an ubiquitous material, present in almost all of our bodies through our consumables, and drawing a parallelism with the religious concept of omnipresence often used in biblical depictions of palm plants. So far this has materialized through a series of clay pieces fired with the combustion of palm leaves and creating assemblages with found factory objects. I don’t really know how this will continue to materialize as I feel quite in the middle of the process, but throughout the year I will be presenting some of the pieces in Art Basel, in Arco Madrid and in several galleries in New York, Basque Country and Bucharest for example.”

Breeding value, 2023

Could you describe how you felt when you heard that you were nominated for the NN Art Award?
“I was very happy of course. It is a really nice feeling when the work comes across and is recognized amongst so many of the beautiful projects that a lot of my colleagues and peers are presenting at Prospects. I have been living in Amsterdam for eight years, making work in all sorts of studios throughout the city, but it has always been quite hard to present the work locally, partially because of the lack of spaces, but also because of a lack of visibility. I have mostly had invitations to present work abroad so for me, this is a really nice opportunity to share my work with the context that has helped me incubate most of my works.” 

What project would you immediately tackle if you were to win the award?
“There are always more projects to work on. If I was to receive the award I would like to make a work that is no longer at the scale of my own body, that is not so conditioned by practicality. When I talk about my pieces, I often say that they are animated domestic objects because I imagine them moving, opening, closing, extending their arms, but in the end their forms are static. I think I would use the opportunity to engage with the necessary engineering requirements to make them performative. Maybe, but it feels very uncertain, I would finally make the film about a specific crying statue that I have been talking about for five years now.”

Without icons, 2023

How would you explain your work to someone who might not be as well-versed in the art world? What should their most important take-away be?
“It is my hope that the pieces I make don’t need a very eloquent verbal explanation and that they can narratively or affectively communicate themselves. Most of the work is process, materials and forms coming together in the studio, which is actually the hardest part to talk about. I can always tell stories, give analogies, introduce some of my chaotic referential framework, but ultimately, I would like them to not need a well-versed explanation and to speak autonomously through eroticism, tactility and tension.”

What is the most rewarding compliment you have ever received about your work?
“That it moves somebody.”

The winner of the NN Art Award will be announced in the Kunsthal Rotterdam on Thursday 1 February at 20:00 CET. The work of the nominees will be on display there until 14 April 2024. During Art Rotterdam, Mónica Mays’ work will also be exhibited at the Prospects section of the Mondriaan Fund.

Written by Flor Linckens

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