A garden oasis and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River

Shattering Cloudy Mirrors: An Interview with Nicolás Dumit Estevez

David Xu Borgonjon, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, helps make Wave Hill a welcoming space for artists and a stimulating experience for visitors. 

Nicolás Dumit Estévez speaks with a softness that belies his convictions. In a decades-long practice of art as life and life as art, he’s made pilgrimages to the museums of New York, was baptized in the Bronx River, and led discussions over PB&J sandwiches. Because Estévez places such emphasis on a community’s coming together, we began with a simple question about his time with us here.

David Xu Borgonjon: What have you been doing at Wave Hill, and what’s coming up?

Nicolás Dumit Estevez: I very recently led a mostly silent workshop at Wave Hill entitled Sounding Silence and the Winter Walk for which participants strolled through the gardens and then gave shape to their experiences by ways of different materials. Cell phones, cameras or any other kinds of recording devices were not permitted. In the studio I am developing an action (more like an inaction) within the context of the greenhouse. I plan to spend five to six hours sleeping with the tropical plants at Wave Hill.  So if, while admiring the orchids, you encounter a ghostly figure resting on a flowerbed, it is likely to be me! It is my performative attempt to continue the process of greening myself, and of embracing the World as Lover, World as Self, as [environmental activist and author] Joanna Macy titles her book.

DB: Your artwork tends to focus on actions such as baptism, marriage, pilgrimage, sleep, eating… Can you talk about what links these rituals in your work?

NDE: There has been a recurrent preoccupation on my part to approach art as part of a larger experience called life. I therefore shed light on key aspects of my personal path through the day-to-day, turning them into rites of passage of a public nature. An example of this is my baptism as a Bronxite, a citizen of the Bronx. Through my initiation into Bronxhood I sought to generate community, expand the boundaries of identity, and thank the borough that has nourished me in many ways for a quarter of a century.

Baptism as a Bronxite performance, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

On that occasion I asked William Aguado, a long-term Bronx resident [and former Executive Director of the Bronx Council on the Arts] and Susan Newmark Fleminger, a Bronx native [and former Director of Visual Arts and Arts-in Education, Henry Street Settlement/Abrons Arts Center] to be my padrino and madrina, respectively speaking. Martha Wilson [Franklin Furnace’s Founding Director] officiated the ceremony that was attended by friends, students from Banana Kelly High School, gardeners from Drew Gardens and some curious passersby.

DB: Much of your work—and not just your artwork—is public in that way. You have many extra-artistic practices that often put you in an institutional position, including curation, interviews, administration, which all serve to build community. What’s the relationship for you between private experiences and institutional belonging?

NDE: For example, Office Hours (OH), the project that I developed with El Museo del Barrio’s artists, audiences and staff, re-envisions the institutional as personal, intimate and familial. Some actions illustrating this are LuLu LoLo’s baking spree in the kitchen of El Museo, or the Communications Department’s conception of an M Callejera, a three-dimensional logo of El Museo that is meant to travel out of the confines of the institutions and into the streets of the city. In the past, all of this blurring of art and life, personal and communal has translated into the act of inviting curators, administrators, and family members, among others, to perform with me, or to assume the role of the performer.

DB: You’ve been included in an upcoming show in New Orleans called EN MAS’, which emphasizes a genealogy for Caribbean performance traditions that goes back not to the European avant-garde, but to experiences of migration and slavery.

NDE: My first exposures to the performative, before I heard the term performance art or read RoseLee Goldberg, the pioneering scholar of performance art, were the rituals of the Catholic Church as well as those of the Dominican Vodoun. With Vodoun in particular I was introduced to the vast repertoire of characters, playful or otherwise, that those mounted by the loas (spirits) embodied.

As for the exhibition EN MAS’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean, this is the brainchild of Claire Tancons and Krista Thompson. They recognized that many artistic legacies aren’t interested in passing as, or belonging to, imperial canons that dismiss all which doesn’t speak their language. Tancons and Thompson’s timely endeavor gave me the opportunity to travel back to Santiago de los Treinta Caballeros, the place where I was born in the Dominican Republic, to rethink my relationship with the local pre-Lent festivity of my early years.

Last year, I proposed to invite friends, friends of friends, and acquaintances to enact carnival behind the closed doors of the Museo Folklórico Don Tomás Morel, an institution temporarily inactive due to a traumatic loss of part of its massive collection of traditional masks, historic artifacts and other tchotchkes. The personas, ghosts, monsters, and beauties that emerged out of an eight-hour action that combined live music, healing herbs, props, bodies, and spirits attest to the carnival’s possibilities to counteract the dogmatic, the orthodox, and the canonical. Going back to where my umbilical cord is buried, as my friend Josué Gómez referred to my sojourn to the island, is a step ahead in my decolonization process. The time has come to start shattering cloudy mirrors!


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