The Visual Artist Bringing a Second-Generation Latinx Experience to Life

Lucia Hierro on learning to speak up, making work for herself, and why perfection is so overrated.

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Sep 11 2018, 4:08pm

Photo by Miranda Barnes

Lucia Hierro is constantly navigating spaces. She navigates space as a Latina, a woman, a first-generation Dominican American, a New Yorker, an Ivy League graduate from the inner city. And, perhaps most importantly, she navigates space as an artist fighting to create room for her experience and her ideas. Her work is vibrant and deeply personal. Mercado, her first solo show in New York, is filled with her signature multimedia pieces. They depict, among other items, a Yale coffee mug alongside a traditional “Greca” coffee percolator, gigantic shopping bags filled with cans of Goya beans and Vick’s Vapo Rub, and towering stacks of oversize bags of plantain chips and pork rinds made from aluminum sheets. “They’re shared cultural markers,” she says. “To me, Goya beans are what we use to make arroz con gandules. But to someone else, they’re just what they see in the ‘Spanish’ aisle. And someone else will say, ‘Oh, I use that in my Guyanese dish’.”

At her recent Red Bull Arts Detroit residency Aqui y Ahora —where, for the first time, the three featured artists were all Dominican American women—Hierro further explored the bicultural themes already present in her work, which is deeply influenced by her upbringing in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood and the years she spent living in the Dominican Republic. Her pieces directly combat the anti-immigrant rhetoric and divisive politics that have grown louder in recent months under the Trump administration. In work and in life, Hierro is all about speaking up.

Photo by Miranda Barnes

We talked with Hierro about the importance of asking questions, being comfortable in your own skin, and working within—and beyond—family legacies.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On her recent Red Bull Arts Detroit residency
It was awesome. Normally this funny thing happens at residencies where artists “perform” work. We say, "Oh, I'm a busy artist, I'm gonna perform,” because you're being watched. But once the three of us broke down those walls, it was so great. It was. We still text each other and keep in touch because we felt so supported. I know this may sound really strange, but I felt the most womanly while I was there. I would never wear a short dress to one of my openings, and I did for this one. I felt so good! I was just so happy and comfortable and felt good in my body. And we did that damn thing. People showed up in the hugest numbers and we had the most diverse group you could imagine at a Red Bull opening. For us, that was huge.

On being in—and out of—control
In high school I was really struggling [with schoolwork], and I was embarrassed to tell anybody that I was struggling. There were some great teachers that would see that and ask, "Hey, are we checking on her? Are we making sure she's doing all right?" Art class was the first place where I felt like I was in control. And I always knew that I needed foundational art. I thought, "I need to learn to draw. I need to learn to really draw the human figure. I need to draw from observation." But I also was into fashion and fashion illustration. So I was still a little confused as to what I wanted to get into.

I still ended up falling through the cracks anyway; I didn't even apply to college. I didn't know how, and I didn't ask questions. One day, I bumped into a friend from high school and he mentioned that his dad taught art at SUNY Purchase. I remember hounding that kid afterwards. I was like, "Okay, you know what? If I wasn't asking questions before, now I am."

Photo by Miranda Barnes

On taking over the family business
I realized when I was living in the Dominican Republic [for a 2018 residency at Casa Quien] that the youth culture there is very tied to the literary scene. There were all these book fairs going on while I was there. So I got to meet a lot of writers and go buy books and do a lot of reading and just thinking about things. And the relationship between my dad Henry R. Hierro’s career as a musician [and co-founder of popular 1980s merengue band Victor y la Gran Manzana] and mine became really clear. I realized there was a thread between what I was doing and what dad had done in the ‘80s, which was draw attention to the tie between the Dominican Republic and New York via music.

I realized then that these bags, these sculptures I’d shown at Elizabeth Dee in Harlem—and the conversation around that exhibition—were also about that back-and-forth, about my mom bringing these bags full of things to my grandmother in the Dominican Republic, and then bringing things back to New York in those same bags. That was a sort of nostalgia.

On dealing with sexism in the art world
My seriousness is questioned often. “How serious is she? Can we give her a solo show? How much work is she going to make? Does she have the money to produce the work? Is she gonna go off and get married and have kids and not be able to produce a full show?” It's a weird art world. Even the collector base is very male-driven, as are the heads of institutions—although that's changing. Still, I'd say there are women in these institutions that have adopted the same misogynist ways of thinking. I've been conditioned to prove myself over and over again. When I'm presented with those assumptions—that I'm not serious or that I don't know my shit—I don't get angry. I just think to myself, "Oh, you'll see. You'll see what I can do. You'll see what I can make."

"One of the reasons I'm so tied to New York is because I refuse to fail here."

On refusing to fail
I didn't know my grandmother very well, but the stories about her were always about how strong she was. Just the story of her coming to the US illegally and working her ass off for her kids, even when her kids didn’t always realize [the sacrifices she] made, is powerful. She wanted to be a designer. She wanted to travel, and she managed to bring her kids to New York and to be the head of an atelier, which was great—but still not exactly what she wanted. I'm pretty sure she wanted more.

I have that same drive. One of the reasons I'm so tied to New York is because I refuse to fail here. This is where [my grandmother] wanted to make it, and I think of her all the time: all the bullshit that she must have confronted in her life, not just here but in the Dominican Republic. She didn't care [how others perceived her]. And I think about that when I consider the spaces that I enter, how I value my time, how I price my work. She's in the background of all of that, [reminding me to] take charge of whatever space that I enter.

On putting yourself first
I think that getting into any field, not just the arts but any field, with the drive to become famous and rich will just not be satisfying. That's not gonna get you anywhere. The work is gonna be crap and that's not gonna do anything for you. It’s about wanting to make an impact on the history of [your field] or to be in conversation with it—asking yourself questions and being curious.
I think of the Latinx community first when I'm making pieces, although I sort of make them for myself first. I think, “What object would I have loved to have seen walking into the Whitney when I was younger? What would have happened if somebody like myself was in conversation with [Claes] Oldenburg or [Andy] Warhol?” I think about that, and then I also think about the impact on a young kid walking into a space. I'm interested in their questions. How are they piecing together what they’re seeing?

There really are no stupid questions. Really. If you want to know something, just ask. If you're really curious about something, ask! I see this often with students or with young people in general. They play it cool all the time and don’t ask questions, but that's not gonna get you anywhere.

On the power of being vulnerable
I've become stronger learning about my weaknesses. That's been a thing lately. Knowing where I tend to drop the ball on things. I feel like when I confront those things head on and tackle them, I feel stronger. I’m running my studio now, but I didn't study business! I suck at organizing 7000 emails about things that people are interested in me doing throughout the year. Before, I'd hide. I'd make work in the studio, and put that stuff off to the absolute breaking point. That wasn't very good for my career. Now I’m definitely seeing the difference in sitting down and saying, "Okay, I'm ready to tackle this." And I feel better. [It’s okay for me to] stop pretending that I have it all together. I don't. I’m on my way to getting things somewhat together—and that's okay.

25 Strong is a new series highlighting people who have broken barriers and changed culture in 2018. Created with Reebok.