David Rios Ferreira‘s energetic drawings, paintings, sculptures and installations flirt with cacophony yet manage to stay on the verge, creating an idiosyncratic sense of order out of chaotic turmoils. Through turbulent lines and vibrant colors, his imagery projects a rigorous visual universe where Geo-political and mythical narratives fuse organically. David Rios Ferreira shares with Art Spiel the main ideas behind his work, elaborates on some specific projects, and sheds some light on his prolific curatorial practice. Although our interview process started a few months before the Corona pandemic and the recent global protests related to the Black Lives Matter movement, David Rios Ferreira added his response to the current events, implemented at the beginning of this interview.
AS: Our interview was conducted a while before the Corona pandemic. Life has changed since. How are you coping these days and what are your thoughts about the road ahead?
David Rios Ferreira: Life has changed since we began this interview, in more ways everyday. I have been working from home since the Children Museum of Manhattan closed to the public on March 14. Shortly after, New York and New Jersey (I live in Jersey City) issued orders to shelter in place due to the rise in Covid-19 cases. I was prepared in some ways and not in others. However, being at home has allowed me to slow down a bit, to reflect.
My first solo show in New York scheduled for April was postponed as well as other projects, but the need to continue making work was something oddly enough I couldn’t escape. Conducting my studio practice at home has been challenging, but one that has opened up new ways of thinking about my work and informed new avenues in my personal relationships with my husband. We have found a great rhythm in creating art together at the end of every workday. I’ve also had formative discussions via text, phone and zoom with artist friends and colleagues discussing both the evolution of our work and reflecting on this current moment. Also, universities moving online paved a way for requests for artist talks and zoom panels which have given me the opportunity to reflect on my work— what I have done thus far and ultimately informing where I’d like to go (for instance, I’ve delivered artist talks and produced a virtual studio visit for the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey).
While I am blessed that my family is healthy and safe, these last couple of weeks have been emotionally erratic. With the murder of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and countless others by the police, and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and countless other Black brothers and sisters by white supremacists, its been difficult navigating my emotions. I’ve been thinking about these issues and events as an artist, as someone with young Black and Brown little ones in their life, and in my work in a museum where I want to be responsive to both the public (which includes children) and my fellow colleagues. We are seeing a lot of heartfelt messages of solidarity from museums these days but we haven’t seen, both historically in practice and in current promises, plans to change systems that perpetuate inequality and inequity in these spaces. One can hope these spaces move past what Kaisha Johnson in her article, “Enough Already with the Statements of “Solidarity,” Arts World,”says is an inactive approach to “changing hearts and minds,” but instead, by her urging, move to systems of change and real action.
AS: You were born in the Bronx and in your artwork you seem to draw on your Puerto Rican heritage and history. Let’s start with your background and what brought you to art.
David Rios Ferreira: I am a first-generation mainland Puerto Rican raised in New York City and come from a large family. In their own way my family respected the arts. On any given day Tchaikovsky or Puerto Rican Plena and Bomba music would play in our home. My siblings also dabbled in design, the performing arts, and writing. As far as I can remember I’ve always drawn pictures. My mother would have a small pad of paper and pens for me to draw while on train rides throughout the Bronx and Manhattan. Whether we were running errands together or visiting family, I would pass the time drawing the people I saw on the train or the landscape outside the train car windows. This skill was always encouraged by both my parents and my older siblings who would take me to art events and museums.
These experiences informed my focus on getting an art education. I attended the High School of Art & Design in New York where I studied traditional animation in hopes of working for a company like Disney. But it was when I took free classes with the Saturday Program and Outreach Program at The Cooper Union where ideas of how I could become an image-maker would broaden. Later, I would attend The Cooper Union to earn my Bachelor of Fine Arts, working with artists like Walid Raad, Shelly Silver, Ernesto Pujol and Rina Banerjee who helped me hone my voice and develop a studio practice that was as personal as it was research-based.
AS: You mention in your statement that you reflect in your work on deculturization practices conducted by the U.S. on children in Puerto Rico from as early as 1917 through the 1950s. Can you elaborate on that and how you think it is expressed in your work?
David Rios Ferreira: My parents are among a huge generation of Puerto Rican’s who were exposed to a variety of atrocities inflicted by the United States upon the citizens of the island. From women’s tubes being tied without their knowledge, to those in incarceration subjected to radiation testing, to attempting to wipe clear the culture and language of the Puerto Rican people through the school system— the island has suffered at the hand of the US in multiple ways. This continues today with restrictions in aid during Hurricane Maria, and now with the series of earthquakes pummeling the island in which Donald Trump seeks to veto attempts to bring aid.
I have been particularly drawn to the narrative of the deculturalization practice that occurred in the school system on the island. It was here where the US put into practice strategies that were aimed at wiping out Puerto Rican culture. The government knew that attempting to assimilate older generations would result in resistance and lack the long-term impact they desired. So, it was thought that applying these strategies to children as young as 5 years old in the public-school system, would have multigenerational effects and result in far deeper assimilation into American culture. What my parents, who were children attending public school during these times, remember fondly, are the classroom songs and pledges that were actually subtle but effective tools to psychologically and culturally build apathy and indifference for one’s Puerto Rican identity, making way for the eventual pride in American ideals. While this ultimately failed with resistance from students themselves, there is no way to identify the impact these and other practices have had on the island’s people and later generations.
Like many colonized places there is a complexity in the narrative between the colonized and the colonizer. Researchers, writers, and artists have written about and analyzed these complexities through the lens of relationships. For much of my work, I interpret the sentiments behind these historical narratives through romantic, familial, dysfunctional, abusive and symbiotic relationships. I’m interested in the question of what results in this cacophony of histories, narratives, and relationships. What comes to the surface and what stays receded?
AS: You also share a fascinating observation from your personal life – looking at animated films and cartoons as a source for language. Cartoons seem to play a central role in your imagery. Can you trace your fascination with this form and elaborate on how you develop its relationship to language in your work?
David Rios Ferreira: For a long time, I thought I wanted to be an animator. While I stepped away from this career trajectory, the aesthetic of animation, its broad lines and the illusion of motion would permeate my work for years to come. Through traditional animation, you’re viewing an optical illusion that places 27 images per second one after the other to make an image appear as if it is moving. That said, I was always interested in the idea of lines as they pertain to time. If you placed all the animator’s hundreds of drawings for a single scene over a lightbox, you’d be viewing the past the present and the future on a single plane. I like to think of my drawings as a matrix for the past, present, and future.
Growing up, I was obsessed with the “behind the scenes” documentaries Disney would produce after every new film. Before my family had cable television, we had a VHS machine and owned many Disney films. I would watch these repeatedly, destroying our VHS copies along the way. I would hog the television from my siblings as I paused and slowed and paused the films in order to draw my favorite scenes.
This constant replaying of cartoon scenes would take on new meaning when my nephews came into my life. My nephews are on the autism spectrum, and for the most part nonverbal. However, they exhibit behavior in which they borrow lines from cartoons in order to communicate. Their interest in animated films goes beyond childish obsession and becomes their source for language. Their remixing existing material to navigate their world has heavily influenced my work and has informed my practice of accumulating images and source material to remix and navigate complex abstract concepts. My process begins with researching and archiving different sources to create a cache of imagery. Coloring books, historical etchings, and political cartoons become my ‘found objects.’ Familiar characters like Astro Boy, Pinocchio and Peter Pan are deconstructed and reconstituted to become temporal beings and repositories for personal and political histories.
AS: Let’s look at your series And I hear your words that I made up from 2018. There is a strong sense of continuity in this series. How did you start it, what can you share about the imagery and how do you see the relationship between the pieces?
David Rios Ferreira: And I hear your words that I made up is a series of large-scale drawings that debuted in my first solo museum exhibition at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center in Vermont curated by Sarah Freemen. For this series, I was inspired by the lyrics of a love song—a love song of self-realization and empowerment, but also denial and infatuation. A lot of my work is driven by the persistence of colonialist narratives in the mainstream imagination. The power dynamics that have informed these popular narratives are emotionally complex, and centuries later the thorny relationship between the colonized and the colonizer echoes in our daily lives through our connections with others—with lovers, with “authority,” and with ourselves.
This series explored the role of familial relationships and their impact on an entire culture. Pedro Albizu Campos was the leading figure in the Puerto Rican independence movement (Nelson Denis’s book War Against All Puerto Ricans provides a backdrop for this legendary leader). Like the tales surrounding mythological beings and folkloric heroes, Albizu Campos’ origin is steeped in tragedy; before he became the leading figure in Puerto Rico, he was nearly murdered by his mother, Juliana Campos, called by the community La Llorona (the Weeping Woman), who attempted suicide by walking both herself and the then four-year-old Albizu Campos into the Río Bucańa, a river in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Albizu Campos was saved by family members, but in another suicide attempt, his mother succeeded—swept up by the river and dragged into the ocean. The orphan Albizu Campos was adopted by Juliana’s sister, his aunt Rosa Campos.
While this is a story of sadness, Albizu Campos grew to be the catalytic force behind Puerto Rico’s labor and later independence movements, being dubbed an enemy of the United States. My mixed media drawing La Llorona de Río Bucaná, from 2018 is inspired by the transformative nature of this narrative but recognizes the complexity behind the choices of these two women. Their motivations, choices, and sacrifices impacted not just the life of Albizu Campos but an entire people.
AS: I am looking at a drawing you did in 2015, like Bodies burn with longing can only be the work of some greater force, and the later drawing, Running wild with sentiments I cannot hold, which is part of your ArtSlant prize IXwinner exhibition at Spring/Break art show in 2018. Can we take a closer look at these 2 drawings – their genesis, your sources, the ideas behind them and perhaps reflecting on the development in your drawing from the early to the later work?
David Rios Ferreira: Bodies burn with longing can only be the work of some greater force was created while in residence at the Elizabeth Foundation of the Arts in their SHIFT residency program. It was the first time in a long while where I had the space to sprawl out and develop larger work. By this point, I had just started compiling images of etchings that depicted historical narratives like the violence inflicted on enslaved peoples in the Caribbean and the South. Here I began to look at the line of these images as fodder for developing space— in particular, ideas surrounding the landscape. In this drawing the scroll-like mylar houses various images such as slaves being inspected for sale to children being separated from their families. These images merge with sources from cartoons that reference elements in traditional landscapes like trees or boats in an ocean. The brown figures in this piece become building blocks for the landscape, being thrust into and forced upon this reimagined narrative.
Running wild with sentiments I cannot hold is one in an ongoing series of large-scale works. This work could not have happened without Bodies burn. While Bodies burn looked at developing a landscape space through the layering of these historical images, Running wild explores how similar images form new bodies.
Working on Bodies burn and Running wild opened the door to exploring ideas of cultural influence and erasure in narratives from the Caribbean and specifically Puerto Rico. I further investigated the vejigante, a carnival character found in Puerto Rican festivals. This horned dragon-like figure emerged from Taino (the indigenous peoples of the Greater Antilles) and African artistic and religious practices and was a response to colonial repression by the Spanish. The vejigante led me to other Afro-Caribbean and West African carnival practices. Like the vejigante, practitioners and artists from these areas use familiar objects to remix them in order to create new bodies that are as much representative of spiritual beings of power but are also demonstrations of political protest and activism. Running wild with sentiments I cannot hold draws from these practices and evokes a similar composition of found objects/images to create a new being.
AS: In your solo show And by each crime and every kindness at Wave Hill’s Glyndor Gallery, as part of the 10th anniversary for the Sunroom Project Space Program, you made a site-specific installation consisting of line drawings, painted acetate and collaged prints installed on the windows, altogether forming a landscape inhabited by hybrid forms and creatures. Can you elaborate on the idea and process behind this project?
David Rios Ferreira: For And by each crime and every kindness, I explored location as a function of identity formation. This collaborative landscape features otherworldly bodies that arrive on, or encounter, large sailing vessels. Engaging with the natural scenery outside of Wave Hill’s Glyndor Gallery, the multilayered collage is a clash of cultures, contexts and time periods that creates an in-between space, one in which the body both bears and transforms historical memory. I first initiated this project through community engagement with teenagers from youth programs at Wave Hill and Casita Maria, two Bronx-based cultural institutions. The students created collages employing a “remixing” process using appropriated images that I shared. These images included 18th-century newspaper etchings, 1920s and ‘30s political cartoons, children’s book illustrations and architectural drawings of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings in the Bronx.
As the son of a retired NYCHA maintenance employee and former resident of Bronx housing, it was important to me to give the teens an opportunity to tell their own stories through this creative process. The teens were invited to reimagine the landscape through these images and their own drawings. They invented fantastical characters of mixed identity, fusing disparate historical and pop-cultural sources. With their permission, I engaged in another level of remixing with the collages they produced. This amalgamation of landscapes from the participants with my own interpretations became the basis for the final work on the windows of the gallery.
AS: In the description of your 2018 mural Don’t you see I got everythin’ you need at Bric cafe, curated by Elizabeth Ferrer, it says that you integrate imagery referencing monster movies, cartoonish characters and hints of historical structures representing disturbances in the urban landscape as a metaphor for cultural appropriation. What does cultural appropriation mean to you and how do you express it in your work?
David Rios Ferreira: It’s important to distinguish the use of the term cultural appropriation in this context. At this moment when people hear this term, they think of advertising, poor marketing choices and college campus Halloween costume fails. Cultural appropriation as a practice has been around forever and is responsible for many things the general public accepts as originating from White European American creators.
Perhaps in this instance when thinking of the mural at BRIC, Brooklyn, N Y, Don’t you see I got everythin’ you need, the word ‘assimilation’ could be a better word as the mural is inspired by the complex relationships surrounding gentrification, which in many ways mirrors colonialist practices. And that, depending on the perspective, these relationships resemble one of difunctional symbiosis. Many of the images I appropriate are derived from already culturally appropriated (and then Americanized) sources. In this way, I engage an act of appropriation with a postcolonial bent, in which I am reclaiming and colonizing pop-cultural images in order to explore the human consequences of the control and exploitation of colonized peoples.
AS: For me, your sculptures form a fascinating dialogue with your drawings, and I am curious to know how you see the role of sculpture in your work, specifically in relation to drawing and site-specific work?
David Rios Ferreira: For a number of years I have been interested in the way lines that I am colliding beautifully or violently from various sources—sources with distinct narratives, histories, and meaning,—forming altogether something new. My drawings on drafting film and mixed media layers of paint and collage play with the illusion of space by way of the film’s surface translucency. And the sculptures are an extension of this idea of illusory space, but further confronts the viewer with similar layers in ‘real’ space.
AS: You are also a curator. What would you like to share about your current curatorial project at the Children Museum of Manhattan?
David Rios Ferreira: In addition to managing a studio practice, I also am the Director of Public Programs and Curator of Contemporary Art at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. In my curatorial role, I have featured contemporary artists in the Museum’s immersive exhibitions such as America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far, Hello From Japan! and later I developed a series called Collage Collaborations. Last year I curated a 2,000 square foot exhibition called Art, Artists & You and last month opened our newest exhibition Inside Art. This exhibition and program experience invites you to get up close and personal with art installations and immersive sculptures by eleven contemporary artists. Guests are invited to create their own works of art with teaching artists and collaborate with the museum’s latest artists-in-residence in studios directly in the exhibit.
Inside Art is the second in a series of exhibitions that continues the museum’s unique approach to creative art spaces, where children and their families can find the exhibition of art, artists-in-residence, and spaces to create their own art inspired by the exhibit and artists under one space. We looked at ideas around Creative Placemaking and maker space philosophy to invite eleven artists to develop new works or to think about their work in the context of a space such as a children’s museum. What we found were artists with experience in sculpture, installation and public art who we commissioned to create new works that explore how we affect our environment and what we can do to change our world and communities for the better.
David Rios Ferreira: I think for many artists, the current piece you are creating informs the next one. Questions get solved and new questions surface, whether you’re talking content or process. With my recent experience creating large work for public spaces like Wave Hill, BRIC, and a new artwork on the way for the New York Public Library, I am excited to work on pieces in my studio that have a similar monumental scale. Regarding my curatorial work, I will be soon working with the Children’s Museum of Manhattan on a third contemporary art exhibit and will be guest curating for other cultural institutions in 2021 and 2022.
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: firstname.lastname@example.org