Nail Art: The Latest Addition to the World of Contemporary Art

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Nail Art: The Latest Addition to the World of Contemporary Art

New art forms are always emerging into the creative world as artists innovate and create new techniques and new ways to express themselves. One of the more popular new art forms on the rise is nail art. While decorating and painting nails is commonplace for women around the world, nail art is being adopted as a contemporary art form and has even been popping up at art museums and specialty exhibitions in recent years.

While nail art as a medium is only recently appearing in museums and art exhibits, using nails as an artistic medium is no new concept. For thousands of years humans have decorated and altered their nails for a variety of purposes. Both men and women in ancient civilizations would often dye their nails with henna or natural polish to indicate social and economic status. The first nail polish dates back to about 3000 BC in China, and was made with egg whites, gelatin, beeswax, and vegetable dyes. Royalty in the Ming dynasty would grow extremely long nails and use jewel-encrusted protectors. The first recorded instance of true nail art is from the Inca Empire; Incas would paint eagles on their nails as early as the 15th century.

As nail polishing techniques have developed, so has the art form of decorating nails. Modern nail enhancement methods have been advanced in extreme ways, such as SNS nail art techniques like the spray on ombre or marbelizing products. Acrylics, nail gel, and fiberglass have transformed the world of nail art and given artists the ability to create works of beauty and meaning on small canvases. Within the last decade, nail art exhibits in these contemporary museums, among others, have showcased the ability nail art has to be an impressive form of creative expression:


In 2011, DegreeArt in London hosted one of the more notable nail art exhibitions, with a variety of works from top nail artists around the world. Many uses of nail art in popular culture were on display, such as Beyonce's golden manicure from her "Run the World" music video. Other installations focused on new developments in nail decoration and expanding the definition of nail art. One series featured manicures designed to recreate existing paintings; artist Sophie Harris-Greenslade used cement from her grandfather's shed to mimic one painting's actual texture. Overall, it can be described as a celebration of the world of nail art and its recent accomplishments.

Vanity Projects

These nail art exhibits are also often accompanied by pop-up nail salons with esteemed artists offering manicures at the exhibition. The Museum of Modern Art in New York held an event of this nature in 2013 called Vanity Projects, featuring artists Fleury Rose Waldau and Regina Rodriguez. Participants could receive unique manicures for $50.

Imperial Nail Salon

Also in 2013, Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art hosted Imperial Nail Salon, an interactive installation that recreated the nail salon run by artist Dzine's family within their home. Nail artists offered exclusive manicures to visitors within the exhibit.

Beneath the Lacquer

This creative event at the Arcilesi Homberg Fine Art gallery in Brooklyn, New York featured an artistic narrative composed entirely of nail art displays. Displayed in 2014, the artists Ran Kowatari and David Dupuy told a story about same-sex marriage through nail designs and photographs.

Tiny Canvases: The Art of Nails

More recently, in 2019 and 2020 the Oceanside Museum of Art held an exhibit to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the development of CND polymer resin. The event showcased the polish method and its capabilities, as well as gave visitors insight into how nail designs are created.

These exhibits, among many others, are bringing exposure to the realm of professional nail art and artists and introducing a new outlet into the world of mainstream modern art.

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March 23, 2021


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