Raúl de Nieves brings the color of Michoacan's sierra to the eclectic art world of New York City.
The streets, museums, and art galleries of New York have witnessed all kinds of art, from the greatest private art collections that include the likes of Van Gogh and Renoir to flashmobs that bring music and movement to the chaotic streets. Maybe it's the constant coming and going of so many people, or the arrival of the tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to be free that draws the deepest creative instincts of those who step on NYC soil. But still, a city to the very end, there is always this feeling of being trapped within the never-ending gray. The cacophony created by more than eight million inhabitants and the palette that their restive commutes generates brings an almost incomparable variety that is, hopelessly, devoid of glee.
In comes Raúl de Nieves, a Mexican-American queer artist who has become a sensation in galleries around the world thanks to his colorful exhibits full of movement and a nostalgic joy that is hard to shake once witnessed.
Born in Michoacán, Mexico, he attributes his artistic inclinations entirely to his childhood experiences. At school, he says, they were taught everything, from cooking to crochet, so he learned the value of creating things with his own hands, but the colorful beads that characterize his works are completely borrowed from the Huicholes, one of Mexico's indigenous tribes that still live in the sierras around Michoacán.
The Huicholes have been making art with precious stones for centuries. Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, Huichol shamans used turquoise, sapphire and other materials such as seashells to represent what the gods showed them in their peyote-infused communion. Then, as the tribe fled the massacre and sought shelter in the mountains, the stones became harder to find, so they replaced them with the simple crystal beads that are still used to this day. Although now it's not just shamans who do it, the art still preserves its meanings. Blue is for the deer god, helper of “Grandfather fire” with an essential role in the creation of the world; he feeds the soul, shines like the stars, and is the axis of the world. Red, yellow, and orange represent the god of fire, protector of the Huicholes; it purifies, cleanses, and burns off all the impurities in our body. Eagles represent the communication between gods and humans, and a man with deer horns and feathers is “the older brother," the benign predecessor of humans on Earth.
Raúl de Nieves took this sacred tradition and turned it into his own communion to express his journey and experiences, like the things he had to go through as an immigrant; his relationship with his father, who passed away when he was only two years old but; and his admiration for his mother, who made the brave choice to move him and his two siblings to another country all by herself when he was just nine years old.
When he was older, he moved to San Francisco to study art with his friends, but soon he discovered it was too expensive, so he decided to learn on his own instead. He developed the discipline to do all the exercises his friends had to work on and did more than thirty variations of the scene between Saint George and the Dragon, a display of courage and strength that reminded him of his own story, as if he were a different student each time. Some of these can still be seen at his underground studio in New York.
He has come a long way since then. It all began with his reimagining of everyday objects while he worked at a Victorian antique shop. There he learned to work with jewelry, furniture, and fabrics. He focused on shoes, but instead of making them look old, he began turning them into something completely new, filled with color and a bold style that makes them hard to pull off, but still extremely cool. His pieces have appeared in photoshoots along with Gucci, Fendi, and Dolce and Gabbana.
In 2016, he covered MoMA in pastel colors and vivid movement with his statue, "Day(Ves) of Wonder," which he affectionally nicknamed Dave. This wasn't an easy peace to make. It took him many months and a lot of frustration because Dave would not stand on his own, and he would fall down and turn into a mess of beads on the floor. But he managed to complete it, and it paid off, with Dave becoming one of the most popular residents of the MoMA exhibition. Named after the daycare his mother set up, Days of Wonder, he now rests in a box at his studio.
Raúl then started working on another one of his passions: stained glass. However, the old technique was too heavy for his taste, so he turned to a much simpler method with cardboard, cellophane, and other materials that looked stunning at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. He has also worked with friend Colin Self to do a performance chamber opera called The Fool at The Kitchen, one of New York's oldest non-profit spaces that have helped the careers of great artists who wouldn't have been able to present their work otherwise. The Fool is a characterization of their learning process and a representation of their friendship. “My friends teach me how to give, how to receive,” says de Nieves. “Without the little help each one of us gives one another, it would actually be very hard to sustain a normal life." His art is also available on Artsy.
His stained glass mural, his art, and his approach to life are a reflection of the Mexican spirit, which faces the darkest situations, even death, with color and joy, processing pain and hardship through art and laughing it off. A much welcome change to New York's discordant monotony.