This series focuses on individuals who give to our community and make a positive impact on the lives of others. Often it is through our personal adversities that we discover who we are and transform the challenges into strength.
Niki Lopez is a multimedia artist and activist based in Fort Lauderdale and her art has been exhibited across South Florida, New York, and California. She is an independent award-winning graphic designer and social media enthusiast well known for her community spirit and avant-garde art shows. Niki is passionate about grassroot initiatives and community outreach and she is affiliated with non-profits like Women In Network, Island City Stage, and Arts 4 All Florida. Niki is the founder of the What’s Your Elephant? movement and plays a major role with creative collaborations like 1310 Bandits, Artists for Black Lives Matter, and Thou Art Woman. She is the 2020 recipient of Broward County’s Arts & Culture Visionaries Award by ArtServe. She has also donated artwork for fundraising initiatives for the Human Rights Campaign and Equality Florida. Niki recently sat down with us to discuss her work, her life, and her advocacy.
Andrew Armano: First, since COVID-19 is the topic of nearly every conversation, let me start by asking if you and your loved ones are OK.
Niki Lopez: Yes, thank you, we are all well.
AA: How has your work adapted to COVID-19?
NL: Like many, I have increased my digital and online presence. It’s an opportunity to grow and evolve.
AA: Your work is highly personal and you have been very forthright about the trauma from which your expression flows. Yet, I am drawn to it because there is hope and healing inherent in it. How did you find your voice?
NL: It was a journey to find my voice. I was in the art community, barely a budding artist, and I started doing some painting and photography. I started learning by trial and error. I had the raw talent, so I put myself through art school and I have a graphic design degree from the Arts Institute.
All along I kept asking myself, “What am I going to do? What’s my thing?” I was going to workshops and studying and trying to find the answer. Then I turned inside – and just like that – out it poured. Sometimes we look so hard on the outside for our calling, when it actually comes from inside you. I’m getting goosebumps talking about it now.
AA: I find it so admirable that your work speaks your truth, but you invite others to share their personal experiences as well. How did this happen.
NL: I had encouragement from other artists. One friend said, ”Wow, you should show this to Women in Distress. They may be able to relate to your work and it may help them open up or to feel less alone.” As I started to share my work, people began to confide in me things that happened to them. It was an honor to hold this space for them. In time, I evolved this give-and-take into the What’s Your Elephant? movement, where the goal is to use art to create safe spaces to talk about all these unspoken things. My What’s Your Elephant? series sprung from my experiencers as a sexual abuse survivor and a survivor of being raised in a cult. But, for others, it may be different issues or experiences.
AA: You have overcome a lot. Can you share with us a little about your challenges and how they shaped your life and your work?
NL: I’m going to try to say it very short because I have a very long, crazy history. I was born in Queens, New York. My mother is Panamanian with roots in Panama, Cuba, and Jamaica. My dad is Jamaican, with Cuban and East Indian on his side. When I was a child, my mom got into a religious cult – an Islamic, Hebrew religious group. We wound up moving into the cult and that was a whole traumatic experience for me. There was all kinds of abuse: sexual, mental, physical, and spiritual abuse. There was extreme isolation. After escaping the cult, there was a big court case. I was one of the key witness victims. I was awarded the Louis E. Peters award by the FBI because of my contributions to the case. It is the highest civilian humanitarian award given annually by the FBI.
AA: That is so admirable.
NL: I still have many members of the cult always trying to demonize me anytime I speak out.
AA: I read a lot about psychology, especially mental and psychological manipulation and gaslighting. I understand that leaving a cult and isolating communities is extremely difficult. What survival skills did you have when you left the cult?
NL: I left at 25, and I was completely alone. I found my real dad, thankfully, and started my life. I mean I was baldheaded, maybe 109 pounds if it rained, with nothing to my name. I didn’t even finish ninth grade and for many years I had resentment about that. But, I got a GED and I put myself through college.
AA: How has your artwork helped you process the trauma?
NL: At first, I was expressing myself through my art, but I found myself emotional, depressed, and I didn’t have the words for it. As I started sharing a little bit of my story through my art, that led me to go into counseling.
AA: What did counseling provide for you?
NL: I found out how past trauma was blocking my life because I hadn’t dealt with it internally. Before counseling, I could be on a high, motivating and inspiring people, but then I would also be depressed because my internal dialogue was horrible to myself. I was so critical of myself. My way of coping was to pile work on myself. After all, I’d been working since I was 13 years old and that’s all I knew. But what I needed was to go deep and heal myself. I sometimes hear someone say, “Oh, that happened 20 years ago, why is this woman or that guy talking about it?” I tell them we all have to resolve our past trauma. You have to deal with it at some point or another because it’ll start cropping up in other areas.
AA: I admire the way you have taken your journey, shared it, and opened up the path for others. You are known for your events and exhibits and for creating a safe space for artists and audiences.
NL: Last year someone came to my show and they said, “You’re not just curating the art, you’re curating people.” I’m pushing and encouraging people subconsciously to integrate with other people. There’s gay people, there’s white people, there’s black people, there’s straight people, there’s people with disabilities – just really great diversity within sharing the same space. So, it’s not just about the art, it’s about community, it’s about connecting. It’s about bringing these people together. It’s about giving to people.
AA: That’s magic. It’s so inclusive because it’s about the conversation between the artist themselves and between the audience and the artists. Your ability as a communicator is showcased in The Circle. Can you tell us a little about that project?
NL: The Circle is a weekly video podcast that I do live on the Niki Lopez Creative Facebook® page and now on YouTube® and OutClique’s Facebook® page, where I’m sharing stories from artists, activists, social entrepreneurs, and people doing great things in the world. It’s a half hour show every Tuesday, 8:30-9:00PM EST.
AA: Beautiful. You are so amazing and I could sit, I don’t know, for hours and talk with you. Some of the things you said really resonate with me and personally as well. Just on a really personal level, I’ve had a lot of trauma in my childhood, so a lot of my adult life has been trying to figure all that out and sort that out. One of the things I have found for myself is that there’s really two important components to healing for me. One is that therapy is very helpful. I need to have a cognitive, intellectual understanding of things, but that’s not enough. It has to be in “here,” and it is one of the most healing things for me when I am in any kind of situation. Whether it’s one-on-one or a group situation and I hear someone else sharing his or her story, I look at them and I say, “Oh my God, my heart just breaks for you.” I think I don’t give myself that same compassion.
NL: “Thank you OutClique Magazine for sharing my story. Thank you to the many people who have collaborated with me and supported my work over the years. My work centers around visibility, building community, and creating safe spaces where we can share, bring awareness and understanding, and create change. If sharing my elephants empowers even one person to consider their choices and its impact, speak up when they see injustice, or be a voice for the many who are still living in fear and denial, my job is done.
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