Nadia Asencio is a Cuban-American artist, playwright, and US Army veteran based in Harlem, NYC. Born and raised in Hartford, CT, her unique expression in the visual and performing arts combines elements of her Euro-Caribbean roots with street art, expressionism, pop art, and the abstract to evoke both introspection and social consciousness as it applies to female gender roles and the feminine psyche. She is represented by Saphira & Ventura Gallery, NYC.
Can you tell me your life story in brief?
No. [Laughter] Okay, I’ll tell you how I started painting, how about that? So I was painting a couple of years ago and then I kind of gave it up because I was writing a lot and I got three of my shows produced for off-Broadway. Once that happened, I was like, ‘this is it, I’m cool, I’m good.’ Painting took a back seat, but I was still interested in it here in the city.
What initially made you want to start painting?
I don’t know, it’s like I’ve always been that kid, you know… when I was little, before I could even write, I used to ask my mom ‘mommy, I have a story’ and my mom would stop everything and she’d get a piece of paper and a pen and she’d say, ‘go ahead.’ And she’d take dictation, like she’d write all my morality stories. You know I’m like four years old and I’m telling people about eggs and horses and ‘this is why this has to happen’ and whatever. Of course, the most annoying kid ever, but my mom kind of nurtured that in me. I have the best mom in the world.
My godfather was really big into the arts, he collected art, he’s the one who taught me what theater was, he’s the one who taught me what art was, how to revere it, its place in the world, what it means and like that whole reverence for art. And all of that together and it was just nurtured in my family where those things were encouraged.
Where did you grow up?
Connecticut. Which, that’s a whole other story. [Laughter] So just understanding art, getting exposed to different kinds of ar and artists. Everything from Haring, to of course Basquiat, all of that. I remember we used to come to New York to see my godfather. And so this kind of art was very active when I was a kid, so I was seeing it a lot even though I didn’t really understand it. I didn’t have the maturity to do that. But I was super interested and would draw and would paint and all that. So it just continued on. But like I said, after I started writing, once my stuff got picked up, I was like ‘oh that’s it, I’m a writer, that’s all I’m ever gonna do.’ And then, something happened, and I ended up in Connecticut.
This was last November 2017. For love. And it ended up where I was in a situation that I was home a lot. I couldn’t find a job to save my life, I lived in downtown Hartford, so there were still theaters around and stuff like that, but culturally I was starved. And I couldn’t find a job, so I said, ‘you know what, I have to get all this out.’ I just started painting again. And painting and painting and painting…. And then something else happened. And I wound up in the hospital with twenty stitches to my eye. Let’s just say, the relationship didn’t work out, and it crushed me.
It crushed me in a way that… I mean, it wasn’t even the physical part of it, because to be honest with you, it was such a shocking event that to this day I can’t tell you I ever felt pain. I never felt any physical pain. Like I don’t remember getting hit. I don’t remember any pain at all. I went to the hospital, of course, things got out of hand, and I got all my stuff out and literally one day to the next I was in Jersey, and now I’m in my cousin’s house. Now, mind you, I have nothing. This just happened out of nowhere. So I started painting again.
But now, I was painting, not because I’m home bored, but because I can’t psychologically process what happened to me. And that is the only way I can do it. So a lot of my early stuff, which I won’t sell, is literally just me with a black eye, like over and over and over… again. And it’s so ironic because he had told me, ‘keep painting, I believe in you, it will get you far.’ And it’s literally because of him.
What did you do in 2018, and how did it bring you to 2019 now that you’ve got your own show coming up?
So I came back and I was like, ‘I’ve given so much up, I need to get back on track.’ And then also, I need to ignore what happened to me. So I became just completely focused on my art. I was lucky enough, I guess, just because I was producing so much work and, you know, people started to notice and I got this opportunity. And I didn’t expect it. It was connections that I had, it was all just very random.
Random things where, is often the case, like my cousin goes to this veterans thing and he’s like ‘oh, there’s this cool spot there’ and then I go meet the guy and the guy’s like ‘oh there’s a gallery upstairs.’ It all happened by chance. And it all worked out so well, but of course, like, without all of these wonderful connections in my life, I probably would not have gotten out of the situation I was in, first of all, and certainly I wouldn’t be where I am right now.
You mentioned you’re a veteran. Could you tell me a little bit about your service experience in the Army?
As a woman, or just in general? I think that it’s really difficult, but the military is probably one of the most rewarding things that anybody can do. Just from the aspect of you learn so much about yourself, you know, and what matters in the world. A lot of perspective. In our culture, in our society, it’s all like very ‘this is what I have’ or ‘this is what I’m wearing’ or ‘this is where I’m at’ or whatever. But in the military, because it is life or death, you realize that none of that matters, and the only value anybody has is what they have to give. And what you can contribute, the more valuable you are. So that’s it, that’s your only use as a person. And sometimes people are like ‘oh I could never be in the military, I could never do it.’ Yeah you could. If you had to, you’d be shocked and surprised at how strong you are and how capable you are. Until you test yourself.
What led you to want to join the Army?
9/11, of course. I had moved from Florida, from Miami to New York six days before 9/11.
Connecticut to Miami, could you explain how that happened?
Uh yeah, we’re Cuban, so by law, we have to live there eventually. [Laughter] So eventually, I went down there because why not? And then I was there for a couple years before I was finally like ‘nope.’ And then I came back to New York right before 9/11. I had a job set up at the paper and they called me, they were like ‘look’ and I was like ‘I know’, so that first year was like, unbelievable.
I remember I went to a job interview for like, some hostess gig, they were opening up some new club or something. They were just looking for some bar staff and stuff, the line was around the block. And they were asking for headshots, and it’s like maybe 30 jobs, and there’s like 300 people there. So it was crazy, I mean, you learn from everything. You know? You really do.
As a kid, I always wanted to be a spy. That’s my bachelor’s degree, international relations and economics. So that was me too, I was like, ‘I’m gonna be in the CIA, and I’m gonna kick some ass,’ and then after I went into the military and realized that with the CIA… you don’t ever get out, I was like ‘yeah, no…’ I just didn’t want too… I’m just too much of a big mom for all that. I have too many opinions.
What mediums do you like to use and how would you characterize your style?
I don’t have a style. I could say, like street, or it’s not street, it’s expressionism. It is whatever it’s gonna be. Like when I approach the canvas, I always say, ‘reveal yourself.’ And then I just do whatever it is. You know, whatever comes out. It’s always a female, and it’s always me, because I can only paint from my experience.
How does identity shape you as a person and artist?
I’d like to see more women in art. I don’t see why women have to be 60 before they get recognized in the art world, or why they’re completely ostracized from even being in the street art world. There’s so many talented women out there, but it’s just a huge circle jerk. I don’t know, either because women pose a threat, or because you know, if you can’t control something it’s a threat to you, or if it’s because there’s actual better skill, there’s more originality, whatever the reason is, I can tell you, at least in New York City, it seems women are not welcome. You know, you can be somebody’s girlfriend, you can be the cute DJ or whatever, but that’s it, and it’s difficult.
There are a couple of really talented women here that have been able to grind it out and keep it going, but I would like to see more of that. And I would like to see more galleries representing female artists. It doesn’t have to be a male dominated industry. Street Art or Urban Art, is so small of a niche. You know, it’s such a small niche, there’s not really a ton of people doing this, are you really going to make it smaller by not even including everyone?
How do you think of yourself? As a street artist, a contemporary artist?
Hmm. That’s a good question. I don’t know, I guess just… artist.
Is there anything in your life that has influenced your art that you think people should know about?
My goal when I create anything, I just want people to know that it comes from a real place. Authenticity is really important to me. And I do it for myself, but I do hope that it will connect with other people. I think that my experiences, whoever’s been through it will know what it is once they see it. You know, because I’ve had people message me on social media and I put up something completely abstract. And they’ve hit the nail right on the head.
People say things like, ‘oh my god, thank you, I went through the same thing.’ And I’m like, ‘okay, how did you see that?’ Which makes me think, ‘what am I showing people?!’ [Laughter] Because sometimes I’m painting and I’m not thinking about anything. I’m not thinking about it all, it’s just like ‘this here, this here, whatever,’ and then it’s done and I’m like, ‘alright cool,’ I know when it’s finished. And when it’s finished, I just put it out there, but it’s so weird to have a stranger see it and feel it.
With Joan of Art, why did you create a separate brand from New York Nadia?
I want to branch out. Once my name starts picking up, I’d like to pick up other artists. I’d like to have a platform where other artists can get exposure. And I’d like to be able to get the underground, like maybe people that haven’t had the opportunity or didn’t know where to go. Like, I’ve met a ton of artists just on the street. You know, just walking up to them and saying, ‘hey what’s up, who are you?’ And just talking. And to be able to say, ‘hey I have a platform for this.’ I would love to have a gallery one day and show other artists and give them that platform, so I’m starting now, you know, just kind of putting the name into people’s heads. Right now it’s just me, it’s just my art, but eventually I would like it to be more. Leave a legacy, a little mark in the world.