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Raúl de Nieves, Beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end

Video by Art21

What does it mean to be an American artist today?

From his basement studio in Ridgewood, Queens, artist Raúl de Nieves creates an epic stained glass mural for the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Born in Mexico, de Nieves immigrated to San Diego at the age of nine and has been living in New York since 2008. "Growing up in Mexico was really magical because I got to see a lot of forms of celebration," says the artist. "I got to experience death as a really young child. That's what my work is about: it's like seeing the facets of happiness and sadness all in one place."

His commission from the Whitney Museum of American Art gave de Nieves the opportunity to experiment with the tradition of stained glass, and combine this new light-infused installation with existing figurative sculptures. With gaffers tape, paper, and color gels, de Nieves created a narrative that begins with personal struggle and self-doubt, but ends with "a celebration of life." In reflecting upon his father's early death and his mother’s courageous decision to move their family to the United States, de Nieves sees the installation as a form of remembrance. "The mural talks about this experience—this journey," says the artist, "I feel really happy that I could put so much emphasis on this idea of 'a better tomorrow' in my artwork."

Raúl de Nieves (b. 1983, Michoacán, Mexico) lives and works in New York. Learn more about the artist at: https://art21.org/artist/raul-de-nieves/

CREDITS | “New York Close Up” Series Producer: Nick Ravich. Director: Ian Forster. Editor: Morgan Riles. Cinematography: Andrew Whitlatch. Additional Cinematography: Ian Forster. Sound & Production Assistant: Nicholas Vore. Design & Graphics: Open & Urosh Perisic. Artwork Courtesy: Raúl de Nieves, Rafa Esparza, Aliza Nisenbaum & Whitney Museum Of American Art. Thanks: The Dreamhouse, Friends Of The High Line, Christopher Y. Lew & Mia Locks. © Art21, Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved. "New York Close Up" is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; VIA Art Fund; Lévy Gorvy; and by individual contributors.
Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

[New York Close Up] Being in the Whitney Biennial is really interesting right now because of my background as a Latino queer artist. [Ridgewood, Queens] Essentially, I'm showing in "the museum of American art" and I'm from Mexican descent, but, you know, what does that mean today? And what that'll mean for tomorrow... I don't know. [Raúl de Nieves is an American Artist] I'm listening to a lot of techno right now. It's so that I can keep the momentum. I never try to be a perfectionist with my work. I've always wanted to make stained glass, and I feel like it's a little heavy, you know? So this makes it lighter and I can do it anywhere I want. Sometimes my friends come over and we, like, chill out. [LAUGHS] And they'll watch me cut a bunch of paper together. [LAUGHS] I grew in Morelia, Michoacán. Growing up in Mexico was really magical because I got to see a lot of forms of celebration. I got to experience death as a really young child. That's what my work is about: it's like seeing the facets of happiness and sadness all in one place. Color was such an embedded part of my life that I always saw things as bright as they could be. The most interesting part about this to me is you can make something out of the simplest things and it can translate into a different reality. Not knowing how it's going to turn out is extremely exciting. Because I'm just anticipating... Um... the day I get to put this up and see what it does. --Holy shit! [SCREAMS] --Hi guys. --[ALL] Hi! --How's it going? Oh my god, this is so crazy! [BREATHES OUT] It really hits the wall! Oh my god, this is so cool. [ALL LAUGH] This is so cool! [DE NIEVES SCREAMS] --Okay, should we start moving these things... --[MIA LOCKS] Yeah. --[DE NIEVES] Okay, cool! --So, I'm picturing the orange one... My mom had already been living in the United States for about two months. One day, my aunt came to pick us up from school, and she said, "You're going to America. Let's go." And we got on a plane without a bag. --This woman is supposed to go right here. --She's kind of like going, like... --Yeah, like this. --[LOCKS] What would you like the posture to be? --[DE NIEVES] Well, I mean, I wish it was a little bit more animated, --because that looks so real with these, like, hands in the air. --But, I figured even if it could just be like... That day that I got into a plane, knowing that I didn't have any belongings, a lot of things went through my head. I was obviously scared, because I was nine years old and couldn't speak English. [Mia Locks, Curator] But I knew that I would be able to survive. And that I just have to trust what ever life was going to bring me next. --But, --can a viewer come right here? --Is that illegal? --I mean... Creating this narrative, with all these figures and symbols-- just taking what I've learned from experiences and being able to put it in one image-- is really important for me right now. The first panel in the stained-glass mural is of a person in sickness. He is challenging his mentality to turn from bad to good-- or is asking for help. And then it trickles down to a personal fight. Defeat is really important. It should be somewhat of a struggle to continue. I think the fly is actually the core of life. It's constantly watching-- you know, it's like a secret. At the end, I want it to be a celebration of life. --[INTERVIEWER, OFF SCREEN] You're 33? [DE NIEVES] I'm 33! Yeah. My dad died when he was 33. My dad died when I was two years old, but I feel like he's closer to me now than... ever. I mean, I don't know, but his remembrance allows me to keep going. It feels more of a gift. To me, it symbolizes my dad's spirit. My grandfather. My grandmother. My own personal spirit. It's a celebration of my mom's courage to bring me to this country. She had to do it for her and three other kids. I always believed that the United States was the land of all nations, and I guess I'm starting to realize that's not completely true. The mural talks about this experience-- this journey. I feel really happy that I could put so much emphasis on this idea of "a better tomorrow" in my artwork. The fact that there are so many diverse groups in this exhibition is really important. And hopefully it reminds people that this is 2017. We don't want to go back in time-- we want to move forward.