Raul De Nieves"I'm experiencing my spirituality coming back."
Looking at Raul De Nieves broad creative output, whether it's a painting, drawing, an immersive environment, clothing, or a performance with one of his many music projects, there is an intensity present that is uncontested by his peers. This is probably the reason he has been used as a performer by Ryan Trecartin’s films as well as Xavier Cha’s “Body Drama” at the Whitney last year, and his upcoming role in Vidas Perfectas by Robert Ashley. Unafraid of collaboration, and unwilling to give less than 110%, Raul's work stands on it's own, showing his audience the creative potential of any context.
Tell me where you were born and about your childhood.
I was born in Morelia Michoacán, which is in Mexico, on September 29, 1983. You could say my childhood was a little rough.
What's your sign?
I'm a Libra. I was the second child, or actually kind of the third child—my mom’s first child died right before she gave birth. Then my older brother was born and then I was. When I was two, my mother gave birth to my youngest brother, Adrian, and then our father passed away from an accident.
Yeah, all boys. And it's so crazy because the way our birthdays line up too, we're all born with the number nine. My birthday's September 29th, my older brother’s is August 9th, and my little brother’s is July 29th. It's kind of interesting. We have these weird patterns and numerology and things. When I moved to America I was nine too. We lived in Mexico up until 1993 when my mom came to the United States for a short visit to see my aunt. So she was here and then she decided she wasn't going back. She then met her ex-husband who he helped bring us here. I remember one day in school—my older brother, my little brother, and I went to the same school—my Aunt came and was like you're going to America. We literally left class, got on a plane, and came to America.
What state did you arrive at from Mexico?
We landed in Tijuana. My Aunt came to pick us up and she was with—we came here illegally—this woman that was going to help us cross. It was really easy because it was before 9/11, so I think it cost like $1,000 per child.
It was you and your two brothers?
Yeah. We met this woman and she had a binder of photographs and green cards. She found one that looked like us and told us to tell the police that we were going to McDonalds. So, when we were stopped we literally just said “We're going to McDonalds.” We didn't even speak English, just “McDonalds,” and he let us go.Then we were in San Diego. I lived there for about 10 or 11 years.
Was your mom still with the man who she had remarried?
Yeah, they recently divorced; well, they divorced about seven years ago. They were married for 13 years. He was kind of crazy. He was also an immigrant. He came from Colombia when he was really young and succeeded. He made it clear to us that he was the immigrant poster child.
Yeah. He always used himself as an example. He would say, “I'm the perfect one! I started washing dishes until I got to who I am, a business owner,” but then you forget that he's crazy.
What was your mother like?
At this moment, I feel like my mom has the power of light and is very lively. I think during that marriage she kind of became a shadow. She looked older to me. She was living a conservative life because of this person who drove my brothers and I out of the house. I was the first one to move and I chose to move to San Francisco because I thought it would be the closest and easiest place to move to that was also a big city.
How old were you when you left San Diego?
I lived in San Diego from the age of 9 until I was 20, and then I lived in San Francisco from 20 to 24.
Why did you leave?
I left for many reasons. I also chose to go to San Francisco because I wanted to go to art school. I really wanted to go to CCA, California College of the Arts. When I lived in San Diego I was taking community college classes. I took a painting class and a color theory class. They were exciting, but they were also a little bit on the edge. The teachers weren't so supportive.
It is sad because community college a place where middle class people can find opportunity to become more educated people, but because of poor teachers, I think that happens a lot.
Yeah. I believe in schooling and wanted to go to CCA. I applied, but wasn't able to get any financial aid. Once they told me how much it cost, I freaked out. I thought- wow, do I really want to do this? So I decided not to go. Instead I decided that I would stay in this city for four years, almost as if I was in school and try to develop what I wanted to learn, or who I wanted to be or what I wanted to do. I really wasn't aware that I wanted to be an artist, but I knew that I loved painting.
Had you always been painting?
No, in high school I only took one art class and it was one of those college credit classes and I didn't pass. So I failed in that direction, but my teacher was an extremely strict teacher who pushed me— almost wanting to guide me in this different direction by being a little bit colder about what I was doing so that I could find myself on a different level. I remember the first pieces I worked on. I was taking records and breaking them into so many pieces and creating these dioramas and then she actually told me that I should paint. I thought painting was boring, but then she said, “Well you have to do it for this class.” The paintings we would do were very school-oriented—monochromatic panting or painting with patterns, these kind of repetitive things.
What was San Francisco like?
When I moved to San Francisco I realized that there were so many people. The city is just so very artistic and it's super DIY as well. Everyone had their own band. People were making clothes—Everyone was an artist. There were freaks everywhere you went—even the homeless were singing songs to make money. That was a really beautiful thing about the city. You encountered all these weirdos and they were all kind of performing all the time. You didn't know if they were crazy or not. You'd just think to yourself, I see them every day this way so they must be this character that now they've embodied.
Were you making music?
In San Diego I had a band with some friends called Merdivorators, but I mainly did performance for them. I was kind of like the mascot of the band. I got introduced to music really early on because in San Diego the music scene was amazing. You grew up with the hardcore scene. There was this place called the Ché Café where every Indie rock band would play. We got to see The Locust before they got big and the Make-up and all these other legendary awesome bands. I also joined this group called AntiQuark in San Diego and did mainly performance for them as well. It was cool because I was really young. I think I wasn’t even 18 and they took me on tour all the time. The best was when we went to Italy for a whole month and toured all of it because the person that started the band was Italian.
Had you always felt performative? Did you always have a drive to get in front of an audience?
Yeah, when I was little in Mexico I led a dance group. We would all do the Charleston. I was always in the middle with all the girls. So yes, I did always have performance in my life. The more I grow up, the more I see how important it has been. I've always been pushed towards performance through music. I really react to music in a certain way. It gives me a voice in my performance work.
Your energy is unlike other peoples. I'm sure that you sensed that even from the youngest age. Some people are born to go into the spotlight and give other people that energy. Even if you're shy, others are usually pushing your performativity, regardless of how brave or how much courage you have, but it's hard to always show that.
It is. I'm so thankful that I've met all these people that have allowed me to voice this. It’s funny because San Francisco was also so musical. Right before I left, I started this band that I thought was so good. I started it with a girl named Rhani Lee Remedes who was in the Veronica Lipgloss band. I always looked up to her. I was almost scared of her her onstage. Her energy was so intense. Six months before I had planned to move to New York we started this band called The Ghoulz. It was the first time that I was in a band writing music and not just being a performative aspect of the band. We came up with all the melodies and everything—it helped me to go in my own direction of creating musical groups.
That's just being a front?
Yeah. I remember people would always say, “You're just an accessory to the band.” I would respond that I did just as much work—I was always sweating and nearly fainting after the shows. They didn’t get it. People would say, “You're not a musician.” Maybe I'm not, but I know music.
Crazy, what did you think they meant?
It's just people.
Do you consider yourself a religious person at all? spiritual?
How have you interpreted it in your life?
I definitely find that aspect of my life to be something special. I wasn't pushed to be so religious. Everyone in my family would go to church, but after church they would maybe drink or whatever—it's typical Mexican family. To this day, I believe in religion, but I don't stress it in myself. For example, I definitely think that I have a guardian angel with me at all times and that maybe my grandfather and my grandmother or other people that have passed away in my life are looking out for me.