New Voices in the Nordics: Wardell Milan

An interview between the artist Wardell Milan and curator, art mediator and writer Håkon Lillegraven

Wardell Milan working at BORCH Editions 2023-2024

Courtesy of the artist and BORCH Editions

Hi Wardell, it’s an honour to get to speak with you for this CHART interview series. As a former curator and mediator at Fotogalleriet, an institution in Oslo, Norway, dedicated to problematising photographic art and visual cultural production, it’s great to be able to speak to an artist who builds on photography both as a space of representation (to be problematised), and who expands on the medium through different methods and layers of application!

First of all, where are you in the world right now?

I’m currently in New York City. I’m very happy. The weather has finally turned warm and sunny. Summers in New York can be very fun and magical.

Wardell Milan, He darts his tongue out of his tingling lips, 2023, drypoint, line etching, burnishing, aquatint, soft ground etching, spit bite aquatint, water bite aquatint, woodcut, linocut, 116.5 x 144 cm

Courtesy of the artist. Photo by BORCH Editions

For CHART 2024 you’re showing a new series of large scale-prints soon to be published with BORCH Editions, can you tell me about them?

I often think of myself as a journalist or documentarian. Reporting and recording the state of the world through the use of images. With this understanding, I approached the making of my first portfolio with BORCH titled The Balcony, as if I was a news reporter.

Making images that consider the world that we, as individuals and as communities large and small, live in. The global migrant crisis, the Covid pandemic, political and social unrest as well as, etchings that illustrate resilience and hope. All of these dense and unresolved themes and issues were meditated on in this portfolio.

When approaching this new project and series of prints. I wanted to make a body of work that’s thematically completely different from The Balcony. These large scale-prints are about the erotic, love making, and sexual pleasure.

Wardell Milan working at BORCH Editions 2023-2024

Courtesy of the artist and BORCH Editions

What are you finding conducive in working with large scale print-making?

The Balcony prints are much smaller in dimensions, measuring 50 x 39.5 cm. Prints this size encourage the audience to have an intimate more meditative viewing experience.

Whereas these larger etchings, the copper plate measures 101.6 x 127 cm, command the audience to stand at a distance to be fully viewed.

I love the substantial size of the prints and how it gives the etchings this significant physical authority.

Wardell Milan working at BORCH Editions 2023-2024

Courtesy of the artist and BORCH Editions

Natural environments have been present in your artistic output to date, but a series depicting human bodies immersed in nature seems to me to mark an increase in your interest in these kinds of landscapes.

Your frequent use of collages and the incorporation of artists such as Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and Eugene Richards has appeared to me as an interest in depictions of humans in human-made environments, in sickness and health, function and dysfunction, which I find opposite to the vast and universalistic etymology of depictions of nature in art.

But I’m very happy to be proven wrong! Can you talk more about your interest in placing human bodies in nature?

My interest in placing figures in nature or outside interior spaces stems from wanting to create a place of refuge, a site for affirmation for the created figures and communities of people.

Often the figures depicted in my works, belong to marginalised communities: the LGBTQ community, the Black American community, etcetera. In the indiscriminate natural world, these communities and bodies can find rest, solitude, and lovemaking.

Wardell Milan, Giovanni and his erotic spirits, 2024, Burnishing line etching soap ground aquatint soft ground etching spit bite aquatint sugar lift aquatint water bite aquatint woodcut, 116.5 x 144 cm

Courtesy of the artist. Photo by BORCH Editions

I feel like a “return to nature” today plays a role in this specific fantasy of liberation; from the commodification of our bodies, modern neuroses around nudity created by heavily edited photography, and the exploitation of our basic human fear of undesirability by algorithms and the corporatisation of our social lives.

How do you perceive the relationship between more “natural” surroundings and the capacity for liberating our "physical, psychological, and photographic" bodies?

It's healthy to take pauses from social media and all the algorithms, right? I think doing so is good for one's mental health. And allows you to remember that most of what we view online, especially on Instagram, is people performing.

I always find the feeling of liberation when in nature. Whether it's in a city park or a large natural national park. The sensation is less of a release from the weight of social or political structural oppressions, and more of a deliverance from the mental clutter – a momentary relief form the psychological and physiological garbage we accumulate daily.

When considering all of the conflicts of the world. The many lives oppressed and suppressed by conflict and wars. I recognise the great privilege it is to have the access and safety to return to nature and exist in the natural world with abandon. That’s liberation.

Wardell Milan working at BORCH Editions 2023-2024

Courtesy of the artist and BORCH Editions

Can you tell me about how you see the interplay between our bodies “understood as a multi-faceted, intersecting site of gender, race, sexuality, and history”, and the presence of eroticism and abstraction in your work?

It's important to complicate the narratives around the erotic, so that the storytelling includes what’s happening along the peripheries.

Often, White couples engaging in heteronormative sex, are the bodies showed and celebrated in the presence of eroticism. I’m often motivated to explore the center and the edges of this dichotomy - to consider the more complicated relationship.

For example, in The Balcony portfolio I created an etching that shows a man dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe, being aggressively penetrated by two Black men. The print is tilted Fuck The Klan. Is this “Race Play”? Is it consensual ? Are these Black men rewriting the historical inequality in America’s racial power dynamics?

The hope is that with the presence of eroticism, abstraction and absurdity, these complicated histories, and how history informs the present, can be considered in new and unexpected ways.

Wardell Milan, Fuck the Klan, 2019, aquatint, line etching, soft ground, burnishing, spit bite aquatint, sugar lift aquatint, 50 x 40 cm

Courtesy of the artist. Photo by BORCH Editions

Your artist biography expresses a desire to contend with photography’s visual lineage and its claims to representation. Can you expand upon this? In our current visual culture, what makes you optimistic and what makes you pessimistic on behalf of the medium?

I often appropriate the images of Robert Mapplethorpe. Specifically the images and pages from his publication The Black Book. When I originally started using the pages from this book to cut-and-paste to make collages. The motivation was to rewrite the history of these images.

For many, myself included, I struggle with the fraught debates these formally stringent and highly erotic nudes, of Black men, photographed by a White photographer generates – the racial overtones of the images and Mapplethorpe’s relationship with the models. Who gets to photograph, record, and then disseminate the documentation of marginalised communities?

My approach with the history of this image and the images themselves, is to not answer the many arguments around this work, but to reimagine the personal history of these men – cutting up their portraits, to collage and construct new “portraits”. Many of these Black, gay men lost their lives during the AIDS crisis. So, had they survived this epidemic and been able to contribute to their communities, what would those contributions have been? This is what I like to consider when appropriating these photographs - thinking of these men as my forefathers, and using their portraits to imagine and collage their descendants.

I love how egalitarian photography has become. We ALL have cameras on our phones. Everyone is taking photos and documenting their life experiences. What saddens me is that most people have no understanding of a camera’s functionality. So many have no understanding of a f-stop or shutter speed, or even how to load a film camera! It’s sad, so sad.

Wardell Milan working at BORCH Editions 2023-2024

Courtesy of the artist and BORCH Editions

Last but not least, what are you listening to these days? Where will you be spending the summer?

Oooooo, the albums currently in heavy rotation are: Beyonce’s Cowboy Carter, Gossip’s Real Power, Kamasi Washington’s new album…mmmm, what else? Dua Lipa new album, and all of Kendrick Lamar’s Drake diss tracks. His single Not Like Us is FFFFIIIIRE!

Raul (my boyfriend) and I did a lot of travel earlier this summer. As of now, where the plan is to stay in the States. We’ll visit my family in Tennessee, and travel to Los Angeles the spend time with his. I am happy to be spending most of the summer in NYC and working in my studio.

Look forward to seeing you in Copenhagen!

See you!

"My interest in placing figures in nature or outside interior spaces stems from wanting to create a place of refuge, a site for affirmation for the created figures and communities of people."

Wardell Milan


Wardell Milan’s work explores the absurdity of politics, sociopolitical structures, power dynamics and spectatorship of one’s personal existence.

Wardell Milan (b. 1977, Knoxville; US) received his BFA in photography from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and his MFA in Photography from Yale University. His work investigates topics like identity, gender performance, as well as social and political structures.

His practice includes large-scale figurative drawing, painting, photography and collage, using material from a wide variety of sources. Milan effortlessly translates his drawing skills into detailed, masterfully crafted etchings, combining his old-masterly drawing skill with his experience in the medium of collage.

Håkon Lillegraven (b. 1992) is a curator, art mediator and writer, based in Oslo. He works as a curator and arts mediator inside and outside of institutional vantage points, with a particular interest in queer, anti-normative, and performance-based artistic practices and intergenerational genealogies.

From 2020-2024 Lillegraven was Curator and Head of Mediation and Communication at Fotogalleriet, Oslo, and from February 2024 he is Curator of Education and Public Programmes at the National Museum in Oslo.

He holds a degree in Culture, Criticism, and Curation from Central Saint Martins in London, and was a curatorial resident at iscp - International Studio & Curatorial Programme in New York in 2023.

Photo by Jannik Abel