Lilliam Nieves doesn’t fit into a mold.
She’s a sculptor, writer, performer, painter, photographer, videographer, media artist and educator. But, above all things, she’s a provocateur and a “Barbie killer.”
Early in her career, the girl whose notebooks were crammed with drawings, decided to confront the harmful thoughts about body image that haunted her and use that creative energy and anger to generate a critical dialogue around the female body, gender politics and colonialism.
In the process, this prolific artist has chiseled a radically original series of self-portraits carved in wood, videos and installations, leaving an imprint on the local art scene, while gaining praise and recognition across the Atlantic.
A few months ago, the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art acquired two of her pieces, making Nieves the first female artist from Puerto Rico to be a part of their prestigious collection.
Now, she’s going after another record.
At the end of February, Nieves will travel to Ecuador to participate in another art residency program. She is the only Puerto Rican, and woman, among the 11 artists selected, to explore the intersection between the contours of the body, art and creativity.
During a recent visit to her studio, this restless woman with an amazing sense of humor and deep understanding of the artistic language, spoke to THE WEEKLY JOURNAL about the journey to (re)claim her body and the essence of her distinctive creative expression.
“All that shi* works and it screws you up. I decided to face and accept myself. I began to criticize myself so that you could understand that the same thing happens to you when you look at the fuc* mirror and don’t understand what’s happening to you,” Nieves explained.
“What a better way to trigger a conversation than by illustrating the unexamined assumptions that underpin our concept of beauty and femininity,” she added.
To rebel against the beauty myth, Nieves embraced her body without inhibitions and turned it into a canvas. Not only does she have eight tattoos, but her appearance, internal battles, insecurities and anxieties also became the fabric to weave her biting political and cultural commentaries. She alters her figure, removes body hair, applies sunblock to transform the color of her skin in an effort to shatter idealizations of the female form and claim control over her body.
“I had to experience the death of the Barbie in me,” Nieves stated of the ideal of beauty promoted by the popular doll. “My mom wanted me to be a Barbie, cute and delicate, not ordinary and clumsy like I am. At one point, I had to tell her that it was her dream, not mine.”
Barbie debuted in 1959. For a long time, feminists have chastised the typically blonde, big busted and thin plastic doll for perpetuating unrealistic and damaging beauty standards.
That rupture with the traditional beauty system and the rejection of patriarchal ideology runs throughout Nieves’ work. With unapologetic and sheer audacity, she deconstructs beauty rituals “of excessive and incomprehensible nature” to uncover what they are not overtly saying.
For this reason, she calls attention to the concept of perfection, especially in beauty pageants. “All those women fighting for a crown, and when you look at them they all look the same, like Siamese cats. Perfection doesn’t exist,” she argued without qualms.
“In my work, the crown is a metaphor for the heavy weight society thrusts on women. My crowns are heavy. When you try them on, you feel they can almost break your neck because that is how the power of social pressure and patriarchy makes us (women) feel. As part of the exhibit, I invite men to wear them so they can feel the weight.”
One of her first (re)creations was a crown made of tampons. Then, in 2015, the sculptor and performer unveiled “Iron Maiden”, a series of iron crowns that showcase how these devices represent sexism and the commercialization and commodification of women’s bodies.
“I have another piece where I ask for money for liposuction because I want to be a Barbie,” Nieves stated in her iconic piece “A little help for my lipo!” (2009).
For this critique, she uses a simple can with a label that has an image of herself in black underwear, holding a hand over her protruding belly. The jar also has an inscription that reads: “Lilliam needs liposuction urgently so she can finally quit her addiction to Photoshop.”
By juxtaposing traditional notions of womanhood with non-conforming sexualities and gender identities, “Anarchy and Dialectic in Desire” reenvisions the canon and refutes enduring social myths about the body and gender
The excessive use of Photoshop, a picture editing software, is a recurring theme in her body of work. One example is the “Beauty Queen” series, a collection of self-portraits carved in wood where she stands on top of the world in underwear while holding a drill as if it were a weapon.
For “Beauty Queen III”, Nieves used Photoshop to make herself look thinner in a self-portrait, whereas, in “Beauty Queen II”, she conquers the world in her full-figured self. The computer mouse’s arrow -symbolizing editing- appears on her thigh.
For the piece commissioned by the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, “Beauty Queen IV”, the arrow was placed on her belly. “Since I crossed over to create that piece in Oregon, I decided to leave my right leg floating to exemplify how we don’t learn from the lessons of the Old World and that’s why everything in America is upside down,” Nieves explained. “It is a piece of empowerment. I show my body with my imperfections.”
“Beauty Queen IV” is currently on display at the museum through Feb. 23, in the group exhibition “Resistance as Power: A Curatorial Response to Under the Feet of Jesus”. “Corona I” and a selection of the artist’s videos also became part of the museum’s collection last fall.
Her craft has been greatly influenced by the work of French artist Orlan, who delves into carnal art and has even altered her body for the sake of art. Nieves gets her creative juices flowing by perusing through the book “A Little Feminist History of Art” by Charlotte Mullins, a gift she cherishes like a treasure.
A collective that reflects on the scars of gender violence and the healing power of art opened recently at the MAC
#“I am not trying to be a role model. If I am, cool, but that isn’t my goal. My point is to engage in a conversation, maybe in that dialogue, so you can gain some insight and be a better person. Art is also a language for me to express my thoughts and deal with uncertainties so I won’t get frustrated.”
Out of that discomfort zone, “51 Miles” was born. It’s a video, where you only see her feet in heels walking on a treadmill in front of a white wall. She also explored colonialism and the political situation on the island during her residency at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2018. In the 14 minute video, “To be a disaster, to be diaspora, to be a state, to be an island, to be Puerto Rican”, you can see her wearing a bikini top resembling, on one side, the U.S flag, and, on the other, the Puerto Rican flag. She plays with her hair, presses her breasts together and applies sunscreen SPF 50, an allegory to the 50 states and in an attempt to turn her skin white but, in the end, she wipes the lotion off her body as if rejecting the impositions of the metropole.
“You try to leave a legacy and raise some awareness,” Nieves concluded.