Raúl de Nieves

Interview by Paulina Sokolow


Tell us about growing up in the city of Morelia in Mexico, and about what happened after that.

I lived there until I was 9, and then we moved to San Diego, where I stayed until I was 20. Then, I moved to San Francisco. My family was very hands-on, and they made a lot of things with their hands. For example, my paternal grandfather was a sign painter, my maternal grandfather was a leatherworker, and my mother was a teacher. That had a huge influence on my outlook on life, obviously. My dad, who died when I was very young, was also artistic. The whole notion of sharing knowledge has had a great impact on me. Mexico is so creative, and so loving, and that’s what I’ve taken with me from my childhood: the flourishing culture, and all of its traditions. When I first arrived in the US, I felt so empty-handed, and I needed to find a new way of being creative. In San Diego, my outlet was listening to music. A lot of riot grrrl punk. The live music scene there meant a lot to me. What they had there was a kind of DIY culture. After a few years, I moved to San Francisco, where I discovered something I really wanted to be a part of. There was a strong DIY subculture there, too. I considered going to art school at first, but decided not to in the end. Instead, I made friends with artists, and realised that there were so many ways to do creative work. The artists there didn’t need to show their works in galleries; they painted on walls, or dressed in a certain way. It was an amazing atmosphere. The city has a strong queer history, and it is a vital space for that kind of thing. I wanted to be around these people and fit in without having to adjust. It was all so open. It inspired me. Just imagine San Francisco in the 60s! I spent four years there, and then I met some people from New York, and one of my friends suggested I go there. But it was in San Francisco that I was first able to fully experience the reality of being gay–as well as the whole transfeminist movement, and the sexual openness.

New York is incredibly open. This was in the early 2000s, and you didn’t see many gay people on TV back then. It was still a bit taboo. I don’t think people are that uptight about it anymore. New York brings all these people together, and it’s a very permissive place. There is such a powerful life force here.

When, and how, did you decide to become an artist?

I never intended to be an artist, it was more a case of having a strong desire to learn to be a creative person. Sharing my life with my friends, and turning my emotions into tangible ideas or craft. I simply ended up doing this. It’s all about the experiences you have, that make you who you are.

How did you get by in New York?

I had lots of different jobs. For example, I’ve always been into clothes, so I worked in vintage clothing stores, antique stores, and as a barista. It’s all part of the experience. So, I’m familiar with all walks of life, and I enjoy being around people.

How did you end up working with beads?

I made sculptures to express myself, and the things that mattered to me. I was about to throw out an old pair of shoes, but then, I decided to turn them into something completely different instead. Beads were simply what I had around at the time. I found them at Mardi gras in New Orleans, and I brought a bag of them back and began gluing them together. I found the repetitive nature of the work very relaxing; getting to see an object transform through a process of accumulation. It really happened almost by mistake, as an experiment. And that was that. No matter what work I’m doing, I have one demand: it has to involve a metamorphosis of some kind.

I love finding a personal style, transforming and changing clothes to make them look more sculptural. It’s the same way with children, they have that same ability to imagine transforming into something else. Living through the imagination. It’s like being connected to your inner child, your inner self. Working with beads is similar to embroidering. The beads help you construct these experiences. You put things together, and when you do, it starts to grow. To my mind, the bead is almost like a particle of life. Life couldn’t go on without it.

The bead has become the single most important element of my practice. It’s not just about the content; it has to do with the material itself. Putting them together is a way of presenting the big picture. It’s like human beings: taken in isolation, we’re quite useless, but together, we can create all this beauty.

Tell us about your collaboration with Bulgari and Art Basel Miami, the full-size carousel?

It’s the beauty of time, and how it pays off to believe in yourself. Not just believing in yourself, either; it’s also about letting other people in. The whole thing was like a dream come true, only a dream I’d never even had. Bulgari has a program for new art projects where they accept various proposals, and they asked me to come up with a large, public work. I wanted to make a carousel, because it’s all about time, memories, and experiences. To this day, it feels like I won the lottery. I visited their studios and got to see how they make the jewellery, and it was so beautiful and inspiring to see them working. In the end, we decided to collaborate, and I was able to work with around 20 people. Together, we achieved something I could never have done alone. I’m grateful to Bulgari for granting me this very special experience!

What is your own relationship to luxury?

The way I see it, it’s not about luxury, it’s about caring. Investing care into the things you like. The materials you use. I work with everyday materials after all–what makes something an object of desire is the craftsmanship.


Raúl de Nieves (b. 1983 Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico) lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. De Nieves is a multi-media artist, performer, and musician. De Nieves’ work often develops its own intricate visual symbolism drawing on both classical Catholic and Mexican vernacular motifs to develop his own mythology. He was included in the Whitney Biennial, 2017 and MoMA PS1’s Greater New York, 2015. And has exhibited widely, including his first solo museum exhibition, Fina, at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 2019; and group presentations at the New Orleans Museum of Art; The Museum of Art and Design, New York; Rod Bianco, Oslo; Mendes Wood, DM Sao Paulo; and the Zabludowicz Collection, London Solo exhibitions include Company Gallery, New York, 2016 and Apalazzo Gallery, Brescia, Italy, 2017. He has performed at Documenta 14, Performa 13, MoMA PS1, ICA Philadelphia, The Watermill Center, The Kitchen, Artists Space, Real Fine Arts, and numerous other venues. His work is included in the collection of The Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA.