A'Driane Nieves is a former member of the U.S. Air Force and the creator of an art magazine and an art nonprofit organization. Nieves began painting on her own around ten years ago as a form of art therapy in 2011 while recovering from postpartum depression and after being later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, at the advice of her therapist. She used abstract expressionist painting as a means of overcoming the traumas of childhood abuse, particularly emotional repression, because of her earliest experiments. Nieves' paintings, which draw inspiration from Joan Mitchell, Cy Twombly, Bernice Bing, and early Black Abstractionist painters such as Alma Thomas and Mary Lovelace O'Neal, provide a peaceful area for introspection and thought for both the artist and the viewer. She gives both the written and visual elements credit.
LVH: You began your artistic journey after a discussion with your therapist prompted you to start painting as part of your recovery. How do you view the relationship between art and healing?
AD: I know art opens a field of possibility internally, allowing me to process things intellectually or emotionally that I can’t process elsewhere; this is true whether I’m the viewer/consumer or the creator of it. I view the relationship between art and healing to be an intimate one. In Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, one of the characters asks the other, “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well? … Just so's you're sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you're well.” This is what art does for me; it checks in with where I am in my own healing journey which is always nonlinear and questions if I’m still up for the work healing involves. It also helps me bear being well and whole, which is a lot of weight as Bambara says. Healing is just one gift among the infinite amount that art gifts to us individually and collectively.
LVH: The human body and identity are two themes that many contemporary artists are fascinated by. Why do you think this is? Could you also describe the relationship between your work and these two themes?
AD: I think artists celebrate, question, contend, and document the human body and identity—at the very least our experiences with both—in our work because we have such deeply intimate relationships with each— the two are really intertwined or interconnected. Our relationships with our own bodies are the most intimate we have and aid in shaping our sense of identity. Our bodies can be home for our identity or at war with it. One informs the other, I don’t know if you can truly examine one independent of the other…at least I know in my own work that I can’t. For me personally, the abuse I experienced in my childhood and adolescence impacted my physical body during those years certainly, but those experiences also very much disrupted an emergence of my own identity; I was a shell of a person simply behaving in whatever ways might keep me safe from harm and met the expectations and demands of my parent. I wasn’t allowed to be outwardly expressive at home—emotionally, verbally, and even physically there were times when my body wasn’t allowed to move, which I’m aware sounds quite bizarre and extreme, but that’s the kind of environment I was living under for years. The violence impacted my physical body but so did the nonphysical forms of abuse. Being forced to suppress emotion and absorb torrents of verbal abuse often took me out of my body as well; dissociation was both protective and destructive to my relationship with myself both physically and mentally.
I use my practice to investigate all the ways in which my lived experiences—both traumatic and healing—transform me physically and enable me to find, understand, and integrate parts of who I am that were suppressed in the past. This allows me safer frameworks to view myself from and provides a supportive scaffolding that enables me to feel the full weight and range of my emotions so that I can trust instead what they must tell me about myself or my external world instead of fearing I’ll be crushed by them. My work is where I get to kind of thrash around and fully express myself without retribution, which as a trauma survivor is significant; my therapist once told me that trauma can only be stored deep within the body for a certain amount of time before it begins to break the body down physically as well as psychologically. Painting helps me move that junk around and expel it from my body so that I’m not holding onto and continuously reabsorbing pain. Painting also affords me the ability to contend with the physical impacts suppressed trauma has had on my body and health; autoimmune and rheumatic disease ravages my body, so through paint and movement, I’m able to process how that impacts my relationship with my body and alters my perception of who I am or will become as I age, and the disease progresses.
LVH: In recent years, museums and galleries have made a conscious effort to spotlight female artists that have historically been overlooked. How do you feel about this rebalance in the narrative?
AD: I believe it’s long overdue and commend the effort while believing that there is so much more work to be done for an actual rebalance to occur. The latest Burns-Halperin Report revealed that Black women American artists, for example, represent just 0.5% of museum acquisitions in the United States. This kind, of course, correction must be sustained by diligent—and even aggressive—action. This is the kind of work that will take time, but I have faith that ongoing, consistent efforts will get us where we need to be.
LVH: You are the founder of ‘Tessera Arts Collective’, which supports and champions under- represented abstract artists. Can you tell us about the mission of the organization and why it’s such a personal cause for you?
AD: Tessera Arts Collective exists to support and celebrate the lives and work of Black & brown women & non-binary abstract artists. In the past, we’ve done this through a gallery space and a street art campaign during Women’s History Month in Philadelphia. Since late 2020, our focus has been on producing creative projects; in fall 2020, we released an activity & coloring book honoring pioneers like Alma Thomas, Mildred Thompson, Bernice Bing, & Carmen Herrera alongside today those working such as Chakaia Booker and Barbara Chase-Riboud. We also released a t-shirt in collaboration with our friends over at Art Girl Rising and Black Women in Visual Art honoring Black women abstractionists both past and present. And in 2021 we released the first issue of Abstractions, a magazine featuring essays, interviews, and reviews focused on abstract artists and abstraction through this very specific lens. We went on hiatus last year, but in 2023, we will continue to produce that publication (work on ISSUE 002 begins soon!) while also focusing on grant-making; we believe providing artists with direct financial support in the form of unrestricted funding is essential. The mission is personal to me because I’m literally the type of artist Tessera seeks to serve; creating—and holding—space for others to be seen and heard is something I’ve always been deeply passionate about. While there has been some progress made in terms of visibility and appreciation for the contributions Black and brown artists have and continue to contribute to abstraction, there’s still a significant gap that exists. We’re a very small organization, but it’s my hope Tessera can play a role in continuing to elevate and center these artists in the conversations about abstraction and share how so many of them are pushing it forward in significant ways.
LVH: We are excited to be featuring one of your works in our upcoming Hong Kong show, ‘Women in Abstraction’. While seeking out your own style, which other abstract artists did you look to for inspiration?
AD: Joan Mitchell—whose work is also featured in the show—is an artist I have been inspired by; I always walk away from viewing a Mitchell painting revitalized in some way that I wasn’t anticipating beforehand. Cy Twombly is of course another. But there are other abstract artists whose work and lives I have been inspired by even more than Mitchell’s or Twombly’s: Bernice Bing, Mildred Thompson, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Lillian Burwell, and Makoto Fujimura among others.
LVH: What’s next for you in 2023?
AD: I just had a solo in Paris—my first in Europe—which was an incredible way to start the year. This Spring there’s a group show in Berlin at BODE Projects curated by Dexter Wimberley, and then I’ll have a presentation of new works in Seoul this Fall during Frieze week. Between exhibitions and fairs, the last 2.5 years have been extremely busy for me, which has been fantastic but at times draining; so even though I have a few shows on the calendar this year, I will mostly be focused on replenishing myself and my practice both in and outside of the studio through study, rest, gardening, experimenting with new materials, choreographing/developing a performance piece centered around movement and ritual, and lots of writing. I’m writing my first book, a memoir, and I’m currently exploring ways I might use neon to help integrate the written and visual aspects of my practice.
This year I’m also focused on the more tedious, boring aspects of being a working artist: professional development things like ongoing estate planning and building my archives. (The Joan Mitchell Foundation has an excellent workbook and guide titled Career Documentation for the Visual Artist available on their website for $13—highly recommend!) I turned 40 at the end of last year, and while that isn’t “old” by any means, I have been thinking quite a bit about legacy…which is most likely influenced by the fact that my oldest child will be 18 less than 2 years from now; also, living with chronic physical illnesses means I’m often thinking about my health and how that will impact my practice as I age and the disease progresses. It’s important for me to ensure that I am actively building systems and infrastructure that support not just my practice but my career and the business of being an artist as well. I believe investing in myself in these ways will help me sustain my career for the long term and assist my family in being able to manage my affairs (studio, artwork, writing) when I’m no longer here. I know this subject is not something many artists discuss very openly, but I think we should. I know this answer is not very glamorous, but hey, it’s real! *laughs*
WHAT'S UP/ HONG KONG 'Women in Abstraction' is on view between 20.03.2023 - 25.03.2023 at 6/F Pedder Building, Hong Kong