Shondaland: A’Driane Nieves Embraces the Abstract

VIVIAN MANNING-SCHAFFEL, Shondaland, 29 Jun 2023

The artist and activist talks to Shondaland about her journey from the U.S. Air Force to her skyward trajectory as an expressionist painter. 


When you take in a painting by A’Driane Nieves, you feel something. Her work evokes shocks of energy and raw emotion with each dash of color emitted by each frenetic brushstroke in contrast to her choice of a (usually) sedate base color. These strokes can meet to take the form of amorphous beings that seem to dance across the canvas, reflecting not only the energy of her internal dialogues but also ours.


For Nieves, painting is an instinctive and intuitive process. “I don’t go into a piece having a preconceived idea. The only thing I might know for sure is what background color I’m going to start with,” Nieves tells Shondaland. “From there, it’s just really going off of intuition, mood, and any associated memories that might pop up while I’m listening to certain songs, reading certain things, or researching things that are percolating in my mind.”


In the art world, Nieves is a star on the rise. Last summer, her work was selected to be shown in prestigious international art fairs, like Art Basel in Switzerland and Frieze in London — sort of the Coachellas of visual art. Her first solo show was in Paris at Galerie Marguo; her work was in a group show in Berlin and hung in a Hong Kong group show next to a Joan Mitchell painting — an achievement that thrilled her to no end.


She’s realizing dreams she once didn’t dare have. “I was the kid in seventh grade whose art teacher was like, ‘You’re great in drama club, you’re a great speaker, you’re great at performing arts, you’re a great writer, you’re on the debate team — you don’t have to be good at visual arts. Don’t stress over this terrible still life,’” Nieves recalls. “To their credit, I really struggled with painting and drawing in art class. I always knew I was a creative person, but my identification as an artist or as a creative only extended to my writing or more performance-based arts. I didn’t see myself as a traditional visual artist. Back then, when I heard the word artist, I thought of people who paint or draw.” As a child, her first dream was to be a marine biologist and then, as a teen, a music journalist. “I wanted to be the Lisa Ling of music journalism. I was like, ‘I’m going to work at Rolling Stone! I’m going to be Kurt Loder [former host of MTV News]!’” As an older teen, Nieves fled her abusive father in Texas and decamped to New Jersey to live with her mother and stepfather. After a year in community college, the trauma she endured left its mark, and she dropped out of school to process it. Before her 19th birthday, she found herself in a Philadelphia Air Force recruiting office. “I did what my dad had done [join the military], what my mom had done, what my stepdad had done, what my uncles had done, even my aunts,” says Nieves, who bopped around between military bases as a kid.


Nieves was accepted to display her work at a large, prestigious outsider (meaning emerging and not from fine art academia) artist exhibition called “The Other Art Fair,” produced by Saatchi Art. Her paintings didn’t sell, but she was encouraged and enriched by conversations she had with booth visitors: “It showed me how important it is for people to be in spaces where people could really be present with it [her work] and have access to it. My practice was telling me my work was more than just about me and my experiences — it was about connecting with people and helping people connect with themselves in different ways.” Inspired, she decided to stop waiting for a gallery to discover her, rented a space in North Philadelphia, and created an arts nonprofit called Tessera Arts Collective in 2018 to show her own work and the work of other BIPOC women and nonbinary artists of color — especially those working in abstraction. “There’s still a significant gap between the contributions Black and brown people have made to abstraction — of being recognized, mainstreamed, and centered when we talk about abstraction as a medium, as a style,” Nieves elaborates. “There’s so much more to abstraction as a style than we’ve been taught in art history and who are deemed the masters of it.”


Nieves hopes that when people discover her colorful explorations, they can receive and experience the same sense of healing in their own way. After all, in the fall, there will be plenty of opportunities for this to happen. She just finished painting works for a pop-up exhibition in Seoul presented by Galerie Marguo at EDIT Gallery Space, and also, in January, she’ll have her first solo show at Various Small Fires in Los Angeles. We have no doubt she’ll enchant many new fans.

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