'People said "What's next? Love Island in the Louvre?"' – How nail bars became high art

Nail bars haven’t always been associated with high art, or ‘high brow’ conversation.

In fact, they can be portrayed as places filled with little more than idle gossip, and acetone fumes.

But the ReNailssance exhibition at the National Gallery is shows that there is much more substance behind nail art.

The exhibition marks the end of a collaboration between the gallery and camp and kitsch nail bar Tropical Popical.

For the past 18 months, Tropical Popical nail artists have been creating miniaturist masterpieces on nails inspired by artwork hanging on the gallery walls.

The collaboration kicked off when the gallery relaunched in 2017 with exhibition Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting.

To coincide with the re-launch there were plenty of complimentary gallery tours, academic talks, screenings, and public lectures.

But Head of Education at the Gallery Sinead Rice was keen to get a new audience into the gallery.

So she turned to Andrea Horan and the team at Trop Pop.

“The salon had been doing Creative Wednesdays where we would look to an artistic movement or artist like Roy Lichtenstein and devise a nail around that,” Andrea explained.

Sinead Ryan thought it was the perfect fit and so, Andrea and Sinead launched their first nail collaboration “Dutch Gold and Details”.

Since then, their team of TropPopette’s have covered nails with teeny artworks inspired by Turner’s turbulent seascapes, Mainie Jellett’s ringmaster, or Caravaggio’s Judas.

When the collaboration was first announced it was met with a degree of snobbery.

“I remember when we first started someone wrote an article saying ‘Nail bars in the national gallery what’s next? Love Island in the Louvre?’ But I would love to see that – wouldn’t you?” Andrea said.

“Nail art is art – painting a Caravaggio onto a nail is artistry.”

The exhibition has achieved its ambition in attracting a new young audience into the gallery, but in the process it has also subverted Ireland’s art canon.

Historian and Assistant Professor at UCD’s Gender Studies Department Dr Mary McAuliffe believes this is the most significant aspect of the exhibition.

“Women have always used art to express ideas and gendered solidarity and freedom in society. Women’s art has always been considered not canonical; it is considered arts and craft,” she said.

“By placing this exhibition in the national gallery it is subverting that idea. It’s men’s work being done by women. It’s bringing the marginal spaces into the centre and showing it is as worthy as the other art there.”

In recent years, some (not all) nail bars have become sites of activism.

In 2017, trans activist Charlie Craggs set up Nail Transphobia – an organisation that exists to educate people on trans issues and make new allies, while also delivering glamorous manicures.

UK’s WAH Nails also conduct workshops to empower women and support young businesswomen in the trade.

In the run up to the referendum on the eighth amendment, Tropical Popical became a place where people could discuss topical issues.

“Nail bars and hair salons can be safe havens for women,” Dr Mary McAuliffe said.

“Places where they can let go and be themselves. Men had pubs and gold clubs and sports clubs. Aside from the ICA there weren’t as many places for women. So hair salons and nail bars became very important”.

Renailssance runs at the National Gallery until September 12th and admission is free.

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