The Iron Speech of Lilliam Nieves by Pedro Vélez

dsc0190Having a long conversation with Lillian Nieves is a sonic experience. Her voice has been made for the theatre stage. She talks using ample and generous pauses. When she’s on a roll musing on her art, her hands turn into fists. When the subject of the conversation is important, she looks you in the eye never losing her distinctive tone. There’s a certain rhythm in the way she carries her ideas. Nieves can transition fluidly from a serious conversation to waves of refreshing bursts of laughter intertwined with sarcasm and humor. Her particular demeanor and distinctive intonation is visceral, hits you in the gut, ever-present throughout her artistic practice.  And just like Frida Kahlo and LaToya Ruby Frazier, her voice resounds because her identity is visible at all times imprinted in her self-portraits. Nieves is an excellent communicator and an expert at transforming her life experiences into social and cultural commentary.

With Iron Maiden the artist presents a thunderous speech dealing with patriarchal, misogynistic, conservative, and emotional oppression in the Caribbean. Iron urban security bars are the materials and metaphors which Nieves employs to amplify her public speech.  But don’t assume Nieves is portraying herself as the Iron Maiden. Historians have established that the Iron Maiden was a medieval torture device. An iron cabinet, or sarcophagus with hinged front and spike-covered interior. Victims forced to enter its insides would have their skin penetrated, punctured and ripped apart. For Nieves, this deadly torture device represents sexism and public judgment of our bodies in social spaces.

To comment on these forms of oppression Nieves has created a series of wearable iron crowns. They are as heavy as they are dangerous due to their extremely sharp edges. If the crown falls off your head, it could very easily cause bodily harm. Perhaps Nieves is riffing off Richard Serra’s macho aesthetics, or Miss Universe, where the winner hangs on forcefully to her crown as if her life depended on it. One can also sense a critique of superficiality and Hipster culture derived from the artisanal construction and rustic repurposing of the crowns and its forms so commonly seen these days in decorative elements of hip gastropubs around Santurce.

Complementing the crowns are a series of monochromatic engravings in which the artist negates the use paper by using only the wood block protruding from the wall like a relief.  Here, incisions on the wood’s surface work like metaphors for psychological injuries and ripped skin. In Beauty Queen II, Nieves used Photoshop to stretch out her self-portrait to make herself look thinner. In Beauty Queen III, another self-portrait, the artist appears as a giant standing over a world globe wearing nothing but underwear, boots and an iron crown on her head while gripping a power drill as if it were a weapon. Another tool in Nieves’ repertoire  that can penetrate, lacerate and rip the skin. To accentuate Beauty Queen III, Nieves has drawn, almost in illustrative fashion,  the famous “select icon.” A gesture that bridges traditional with  digital technologies. Beauty Queen III also references the iconic World War II poster by Howard Miller (1943) which carried the slogan “We can do it.” Meant to empower working class morale, Miller’s poster portrays a woman crowned with a handkerchief on her head, rolled-up sleeves showing her biceps and a proud look on her face. In reality, Beauty Queen III is a personal reflection on a surgical procedure the artist had to undergo due to health issues. As a consequence of this surgery the artist lost a lot of weight.  Not only was her reflection in the mirror different, but others started to look at her differently, judgmental. Nieves told me, “it felt like a Cinderella story.  I went from 200 pounds to 115.” This might seem a little dramatic, and it truly is, but what makes Nieves’ artistic rendition of the events so memorable is her sarcastic and self-humiliating approach to it. Nieves has an attitude similar to comedian Amy Schumer, who recently posed having coffee in her underwear for the 43rd edition of the famous Pirelli calendar, photographed and conceptualized by Annie Leibovitz. Schumer along with other public figures such as Serena Williams, who might be considered as possessing unusual body types outside normative beauty standards, radically reinvented the idea of the sexist calendar by showing the world a real-life examination of female beauty. I feel that’s just what Lilliam Nieves has accomplished with Iron maiden.

Not surprisingly since the artist has reinvented herself radically throughout her career. Her iconic piece “A little help for my lypo! (2009), is a good example. In it, she appropriates a beggar’s tin can and placed a label on it in which she appears wearing just her undergarments and showing her bulging belly.  The picture, which is a kind of homemade self-portrait, also has an inscription that reads:  “Lilliam needs a liposuction urgently so she can finally quit her addiction to Photoshop.” Once again, her voice resounds thunderously.  The artist ferociously resists being a passive victim as she places her own body on the stage, and in the line of fire, to give her speech. By doing so her self-portraits become a  mirror in which society sees its collective prejudice. More often than not society repudiates the artist because it can see itself in the mirror.


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