The Immigrant Artist Biennial – In Dialogue

Interior Worlds of Sculpture and Performance: Bonam Kim, Raul De Lara, and Nyugen Smith

Nyugen Smith and Marvin Fabien, After the Fracture 2019. Performance at Pérez Art Museum, Miami. Photography Pascal Bernier.

Creating work that both resists and grapples with their immigrant experiences, Bonam Kim, Raul De Lara, and Nyugen Smith offer distinctive approaches to sculpture. Their perspectives on their immigrant experiences show some overlap but also many differences. As part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial, Kim’s work in Enmeshed, Dreams of Water explores how new morphologies of identity emerge across time, place, and patterns of self-reflection, while Smith and De Lara’s work that will be on view in Excavated Selves, Becoming Magic Bodies begs the viewer to interrogate place through storytelling. Together with the artists, co-curator Anna Mikaela Ekstrand discusses the politics of art and how the artists approach personal histories and historical and political events before the exhibit.

Although the material you use and the way your source material is different—especially Smith and De Lara—your material has objecthood. How do you source material for your sculptural practice, and what do you take into consideration to do so?

NES: The materials and objects incorporated in my work come from multiple sources. I find them as I walk in my neighborhood; friends and family offer things they no longer want or need, and sometimes, I purchase items for other projects and end up incorporating them in the sculptures after their intended use. There is usually an initial attraction or “exchange” between us (the object/materials and me) when I see them. I see them (or parts of them) for their potential transformation into something else that serves an imagined function within the work. For example, when cut in half and reformed into a half-sphere, a small hollow plastic ball found crushed at the roadside can become an object that emits and receives signals from the sculpture. Sometimes, I discard found things after I’ve brought them to the studio because there is a vibration or energy in them that’s not in accord with my own.

BK: I react to current circumstances: things on my mind and situations I’m going through. Maybe this is a vague answer, but I think it is natural for artists to accommodate and react to their environment. Through the years, I have kept using dollhouse miniatures as my materials. It makes more and more sense to me, given the scarcity of space in New York. Also, manipulating the scale of mundane objects and taking a bird’s-eye perspective makes me feel like I have more agency over my current situation. I like controlling everything with my hands, which is opposite to my reality, given the difficult conditions of making a living in the city as an artist. My processes of making miniatures vary; they are composed of handmade, 3D-printed, and purchased components.

RDL: I source wood from the United States and Mexico. When selecting a wood species, I consider where the tree grew, its material capacities and limitations, aesthetic qualities, and the species’ historical and traditional uses. When sourcing in the United States, I try to work with wood native to my area. Occasionally, I will go out and harvest my logs; otherwise, I use Facebook Marketplace or other digital platforms to connect with small businesses in my area that harvest and mill their product. Since I can’t travel to Mexico, sourcing materials from there is an entirely different process—I remotely work with my mom and a family friend to gather materials from my home country. Using different technologies, I travel virtually with them to explore and select materials. Once we have the materials, we have to find ways to transport them from Mexico to my studio in the United States.

Bonam Kim, Untitled (Classroom), 2022. Dollhouse miniatures, wood, paint, paper, 36 x 24 x 23 inches. Courtesy of AIR Gallery. Photographed by Matthew Sherman.

The concept of ‘personal safety’ is desired in our contemporary society. However, for many immigrants with a relationship to the U.S. immigration system, the surveillance and bureaucracy associated with various ‘safety’ measures of recording, tracking, and surveilling can be associated with discomfort and, at times, great risks. What is your relationship to surveillance and personal space?

RDL: Every day I am in the U.S., I am at risk of being deported due to my immigration status—but amidst this uncertainty, I remember that the government cannot take away my craft. The mastery of tools, processes, and ideas I have developed through my artwork lives within me.

My family immigrated to Texas from Mexico in 2004 due to terrible circumstances in our home country. Since then, I have not been able to step outside of the U.S.—19 years—leaving will trigger a 10-year return ban. I lived in the shadows before I was approved for DACA in 2012. I stayed under the radar of the police and many other authorities. Through the DACA program, I now have a work permit and can access more social services; I feel a small slice of comfort. However, I had to put my family at risk by outing their undocumented status to apply for the permit. I must re-apply to renew every two years, and politicians consistently contest DACA. There is a chance that if I get denied, my family and I will be deported. It is hard to explain the constant risk of being deported, let alone to a country I only remember as a child. It goes beyond my understanding that my artwork can travel to art fairs abroad, but I cannot visit my dying relatives back home. A few months before his death, my father received his Green Card. After his death, we cremated him and kept his ashes with us because he wanted to be buried in Mexico—I do not know if we’ll ever be able to have his funeral.

BK: In my miniature sculptures, I give viewers the chance to engage their desire to watch another’s life. Yes, there is a thread of surveillance and voyeurism as viewers can survey from above—the advantage of a bird’s eye view of the enclosed landscape.

These days, it is hard to find a space in which one is not being watched through cameras. Surveillance cameras are everywhere, from the urban environment to our smart devices. They are mostly installed for preventing crimes, but with that comes a level of voyeurism we accept and welcome; isn’t that what social media is about, to a certain degree? The pleasure derived from being seen. I touch this sense in my work, which is my miniature world. To be seen up close, from a distance.

A decade ago, when I first came across your work, it was as a performance art; you have since extended your practice further into other formats. How has your understanding and approach to performance as a medium changed over time?

NES: I’ve come to the place where my performances are fewer and more developed. I now prefer to spend time developing the ideas for performance work, examining the relationships between the site (e.g., its history, geographic location, technology available, audience) and the themes and topics I choose to work through in the performance. My relationship with “repeating” performances is also shifting. In the past, I would have said, “I don’t repeat performances.” Now, I am flexible in this position. I am also very much invested in continuing in the tradition of and amplifying the rich history of “Performance” in the African diaspora and blurring the lines between “performance art” and “theater.”

In my artistic practice, performance art can significantly benefit from the thoughtful incorporation of elements and principles borrowed from visual art, including sculpture. These elements encompass balance, emphasis, movement, proportion, rhythm, unity, variety, line, shape, form, value, space, color, and texture. When carefully integrated, they possess the potential to elevate the overall impact of a performance.

On a basic level, both sculpture and performance register with the viewer as three-dimensional in space; kinetic sculpture and performance are even closer. Can you speak on the relationship between performance and sculpture as it appears in your work?

NES: I contemplate the inherent pleasures of engaging with sculpture, appreciating the multifaceted experience it offers viewers from different angles and perspectives. I am convinced that this multidimensional engagement not only deepens understanding but also enriches the viewer’s overall experience. When extending this approach to performance art, it becomes evident that providing witnesses with a similar immersive encounter, unless deliberately opting for an alternative approach, enhances the artistic work and fosters a profound connection between the witnesses and the performer.

A consideration of The Immigrant Artist Biennial curatorial team is to explore multiculturalism, belonging, and alienation as an effect of moving from one place to another. Childhood becomes a specter we must be cognizant of. What from your upbringing is reflected in your work?

BK: I’ve admired architecture since I was young. Probably many sculptors have the same feeling. When I see architecture, I appreciate it as a giant sculpture that people can enter. Also, I’m influenced by my family. I remember growing up with my brother’s architectural models scattered around our house. I was captivated by the relationship between model and space. It allowed me to gain a sensibility to my spatial surroundings. This awareness and my love of making things with my hands led me to construct miniature takes of my surroundings.

NES: The practice of reusing, reconfiguring, and intuitive construction has been a part of my experience, and the environment(s) I’ve lived and traveled have informed my work. African-based Spiritual practices and traditions and their aesthetics, which I have been exposed to since childhood, have shaped how I consider materials and objects and how I use them. Growing up with all of this has shaped my intellectual pursuits, ultimately informing my work and practice.

RD: I grew up in my dad’s woodshop in Mexico. From a very young age, he introduced me to woodworking through forms and functions. He taught me how to respect and utilize a tool’s potential in the workshop. During those years, I also became interested in collecting masks of all kinds: wood, paper, metal, clay, and glass. These masks were my introduction to how someone can share their story and ideas through materials.

Arriving in the United States, I didn’t speak English but could communicate through my bicycle. After some years, I became a sponsored freestyle BMX rider, and I was always in awe at how body language, the use of a tool (bike), and the built world interacted with each other. I didn’t have to speak English to communicate with others around me. This early exposure to silent communication expanded my interest in storytelling through forms and functions.

Aside from material qualities, my current work reflects my Mexican heritage and my transition into America. Growing up in Texas as a non-English speaker and still unable to leave the USA, my work questions ideas around nationality, queer identity, and immigrant experience. My upbringing has been a constant state of limbo between countries.

Raul De Lara. Courtesy of Foundwork.

Writer Bio: Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is a Swedish/Guyanese writer, researcher, and curator interested in feminism, social practice, and decolonization and the founding editor-in-chief of Cultbytes. Anna Mikaela holds dual master’s degrees in art and design history from Stockholm University and Bard Graduate Center. Her latest books are “Assuming Asymmetries. Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects in the 1980s and 1990s” and “Curating Beyond the Mainstream,” published by Sternberg Press in 2022. She is co-curator of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone and the organization’s Associate Director.

Bonam Kim, Raul De Lara, and Nyugen E. Smith are part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone held across venues in New York and New Jersey from September 2023 to January 2024. Curated by Bianca Abdi-Boragi, Katherine Adams, and Anna Mikaela Ekstrand. Find the complete programming here.

Art Spiel and Cultbytes are, for the second time, proud media sponsors of the biennial, and this interview is part of an interview and review series that will be published throughout its programming.