NEHEMIAH CISNEROS: EXPLORING TRAUMA THROUGH BLACK AMERICANA
In the throes of the Rodney King riots in 1992, Nehemiah Cisneros’ family store for Black collectibles in Inglewood was razed. Black illustrated books and Golliwog dolls salvaged from the ashes wound up on the shelves and in the closets of Cisneros’ childhood bedroom, ambivalent and uncanny reminders of both violence and resistance. “As the lifeless doll eyes of racially exploitative faces stared back at me while [I was] trying to fall asleep, I formed an atypical relationship with trauma; trauma became my guardian angel,” the artist tells me.
Thus was Cisneros’s earliest experience of the powerful nature of visual art forms, as vessels of human emotion and history. Some two decades later, these themes and concerns with violence, inequality, desire and destruction transpire in his first major body of paintings, ‘Violent by Design’, (2019 – 2021), conceived as telling of an ongoing war between people with blue and yellow skin. Referencing the historical artifacts and ephemera of Black Americana that was sold at the Cisneros family store, the figures deliberately reflect caricaturesque, archetypal and highly stylised depictions of African-Americans found in this typically racist memorabilia. Reclaiming this approach in acid-bright colors, Cisneros creates vast tableau, steeped in narrative details, that he describes as “epic sagas of time travel through ancient, ancestral and contemporary landscapes that augment grand themes of good and evil”. They are scenes that are reminiscent too of the satirical Baroque paintings prevalent in Europe in the 1600s to 1800s – such as William Hogarth’s lively and acerbic criticism of the social mores of his day in his genre paintings in the 18th century. Hogarth, too, grew up witnessing first-hand the brutal effects of inequality, watching as his father, a schoolmaster with a strong work ethic, frequently suffered mistreatment by the wealthy upper echelons of London.
Take the large-scale painting, Summer of Seneca – dense, dynamic composition is inspired by the maximalist oeuvres of Pieter Bruegel and William Hogarth in which “the formalist allure of the linework and vibrant palette veils the explicit subject matter like makeup on a cadaver.” The works are the result of Cisneros extensive research into political satire in illustrations relating from the abolition era in New York, 1855, “when formerly enslaved Black people inhabited Seneca Village (now known as Central Park).” Seneca Village was also home to Irish immigrants, and for a time, the two communities co-existed peacefully. “I transformed this narrative into a utopia of interracial courtship between my figures, whose costumes adorned with Nordic Viking and African Adinkra symbols. Meanwhile the equally beguiling Another Day in Paradise plunges us into a reconstruction of Western Ave and Santa Monica Blvd in East Hollywood. “I morphed the streetscape into anthropomorphic buildings and roads made of human and beast-like anatomy, inserting easter eggs of pop culture, such as the text-covered blimp in the sky from the movie Scarface with the message reading “the world is yours”; yet mine is exploding, contradicting the ego of the anti-hero.”
Another Day in Paradise. 108 × 64 in., Acrylic on Canvas, 2021.
Cisneros views his paintings as ‘ghetto mythologies’ – “as if Lord of the Rings met Boyz n the Hood”. The aesthetics of the lowbrow and street visual of California – Cisneros cites the underground comic movement of the 1960s galvanized by Juxtapoz founder Robert Williams, and 1990s skateboard graphics by Marc McKee - collide with historical iconography and references that reach further back into the past and inquire into timeless themes about the human condition and behavior. These are works that encourage the viewer to pour over and decipher, replete with drama and spectacle, theatrical and sublime.
In addition to the strong narrative and politically charged premise of his paintings, Cisneros has also become known for experimenting with different layers of materials - an alchemical approach that involves charcoal, spray paint, oil and acrylic to convey their own messages. “Material manipulation is a form of magic,” Cisneros enthuses, “the way the grit of charcoal realizes the stubble of concrete… material play aids in understanding the psychology of the stroke: for example, I recently have been applying wispy spray-painted glows to my figure's contours, which visually conveys spiritual possession.”
In 2018, Cisneros moved to the Midwest to complete his undergraduate degree in painting at Kansas City Art Institute, which marked another shift in his artistic sensibility, recognising patterns in human desire that extended beyond his home state. “I observed pockets of the Midwest proudly representing the Confederacy by decorating their cars and homes with flags. I draw parallels to the same "neighborhood nationalism" street gangs of Los Angeles expressed as they scrawl signage on buildings. Although entirely different regionally, the same need to be fraternal exists in us no matter where we are, whether in a cult, gang, or institution,” the artist says. Now back in Los Angeles, where he is completing an MFA at the University of California, Cisneros says he feels compelled by the urgency to understand the legacy of Afro-Futurist and Pop Surrealist artists of color, “and figure out where and how to assert myself in that conversation.”
“There is an opportunity to tell a story,” he adds. And if there’s one thing Cisneros clearly excels at, it’s his skill as a storyteller, his ability to shake the status quo and strike at the core of what it means to be human.
This story was originally published in the first issue of BEYOND CONTROL and has been condensed for online reading. BEYOND CONTROL is available, free of charge, at CONTROL Gallery and BEYOND THE STREETS Flagship Los Angeles.