An interview between Bobbito Garcia and Nick Quijano
Bobbito Garcia is a DJ, filmmaker, and author, whose creative vision guided an entire generation. He is well known for his role as co-host of the Strech Armstrong and Bobbito Show, which featured underground hip hop and was broadcasted from Columbia University’s WKCR station from 1990 - 1998. His conversation with multimedia artist, Nick Quijano, explores the influences of their shared cultural heritage and the intricacies of Quijano’s artistic practice.
Bobbito Garcia: First of all, let me say, pleasure to meet you.
Nick Quijano: [laughs] Same here.
BG: Prior to Adam and the gallery reaching out, I’ve since become a fan, in just a few short days since seeing your art and it definitely resonated with me. Many of your portraits look like exact photos from my own family photo albums. Like, exact, I’ll bug you out! But I want to start with the first thing I thought of. At an early age when you were growing up in New York, what art were you digesting? What art were you expressing at a very young age? Did you have anybody guiding you to get a sense of what art is and what art isn’t?
NQ: It’s a great question. It’s a great start. I was about eight years old. I was at Saint Anthony of Padua Parochial School, in the South Bronx, off Prospect Avenue. In second grade, the teacher was a nun and she gave the class an assignment to make snowflakes, with construction paper, pieces of cotton, and whatever we could find in our homes. So, I had this great idea, but I did not know how to manifest it. Here I am with two locked hands and my mind is going crazy. The nun saw my predicament, and she took me by the hand. I was sitting in my desk, and she began to help me to make the form. You know, to fold the carboard with my scissors, and we began to create a pattern. When I opened it up and began to do the piece, I was so amazed that she was able to facilitate the connection between my mind and my hands. From then on I went crazy. She appreciated it to the extent that she put it as the outstanding snowflake of the class.
BG: That’s great. You got your first award. [laughs]
NQ: Yeah, she also recognized the possibility of a talent. When I saw that Bob, I said wow, I want to do this for the rest of my life. I loved it. I don’t know what it was. I didn’t have a name for it, but this is what I wanted to do. So, desde ese momento, I started doing everything she wanted to do in art. I was the first one to go for it. That’s what I was into from second grade till I graduated from eighth grade when I graduated from Saint Anthony of Padua Parochial School.
BG: So, you were born in the 1950s. At what point do you transition to Puerto Rico?
NQ: Si, I was traveling to Puerto Rico since I was a newborn. I was born in July, and eight months later I was in Puerto Rico. I had a lot of relatives from Puerto Rico who were still here. My parents from my New York side, my nuclear family, wanted me to hook up with my Puerto Rican family. I was brought to Puerto Rico by my dad, and I stayed there for a couple of months so I could link up with all my relatives there. I was baptized in San Augustin De Puerta de Tierra and I was brought up Catholic until eighth grade. My parents were born in Puerta de Tierra and that’s how we got to immediately hook up with my Puerto Rican family. This was the perfect moment to create a bond with who I was, in terms of my heritage. That stayed with me my entire life. I went back to New York, I finished elementary school, and then we moved to Puerto Rico when I was thirteen. This was 1967. That’s when I came to live permanently in Puerto Rico.
BG: It is interesting you say that. You have contemporaries who were born in the 1950’s, some of the first writers of graffiti in New York history, or global history: Coco 144, Boricua 444 St, Julio 204. Some of the pillars of that movement started in 1971, however, you just missed that because you moved to PR. What art did you notice on the island, in your formative teenage years, when you were starting to get a sophisticated eye, a vision of the world? Was there urban art, street art or gallery art? There are fantastic museums in Puerto Rico. You have the one in Santurce, the one in Ponce is phenomenal. It is a treasure that no one knows about. Were you going to these museums? I am trying to get a sense of your inspiration during your teenage years in Puerto Rico. Or were you still coming back to New York, and starting to see the art emerge here, from the neighborhood?
NQ: I’m going to backtrack on that because, I have to tell you that when I was a kid, I had this incredible education in New York at Saint Anthony’s. I was exposed through that discipline to the art world. I saw the Mona Lisa when I arrived in New York, I was at the World’s Fair and I saw Michelangelo’s Pieta.
NQ: So I am talking about New York, you know, you can feel the vibe. New York was the center of the art world! In the 50s, we’re talking about me growing up in the center of cultural history, in this incredible city. Coming from Puerto Rico, I already had this baggage on my back. It was part of me already, and I had taken it for granted that everything is world art wherever you are, if it’s good. Getting back to your question, Puerto Rico is inserted through a culture of recognizing its own institutions, and its own legacy in terms of its art, and its manifestations in art. So we’re talking about Rafael Tufiño, Carlos Raquel Rivera, Tony Maldonado, Antonio Martorell. We’re talking about heavy hitters: Lorenzo Homar, Epifanio Irizarry, José Alicea, Myrna Báez . A group of really incredible talent, that was already being expressed and shown to the public through public programs like DIVEDCO, the Division of Education for the Community, which is a big deal and where a lot of production took place by these protagonists. The common people were exposed to that because these were art forms that were communicating to the people, not to the upper echelon, but to the people at large. The people had an incredible visual education. We had a group of people that had a social mission to project well-being for the general public. I look at that and say this is what it’s all about. That is me too. You know being un Boricua. The look was through this prism of universal art I had acquired during my early years and it translates into a purpose, which is us, you know human beings, its own Boricuas. That’s probably another way of thinking of the things that you saw, and identify with. I think you have that feel too. I see your social agenda, and how you want to do that as well. We really want to talk to people.
BG: Right. Absolutely, you just made me think about how growing up, my father had a poster of Pedro Albizu Campos in our living room.
NQ: There you go... [laughs]
BG: And years later, I actually read the biography of his life, and one thing that actually stuck with me was that he was a lawyer, who graduated from Harvard… you know he could have done anything. Instead he moved back to Puerto Rico to be an attorney for the people. It was instilled in me that it doesn’t matter if you are speaking to President Obama or a person who doesn’t have a home. You afford everybody the same respect. The United States does not have that sentiment across the board as a cultural value, but in Puerto Rico I truly feel that, sure there is a hierarchy of class and racism, but I get the feeling that the good-hearted people of our island really have this sense of respect and care for the neighbor. When I saw your work it was immediate that you had that sensibility because you’re painting for the common people. You’re painting people dancing, family members, you’re not painting famous portraits. It also made me think of Francisco Oller from the 1800s, who was a prominent artist on the island but also, he created public education for people who couldn’t afford to learn how to draw and paint. Getting back to the point, in real terms, how have you seen your art play a part in the education of its subjects?
NQ: I would like to think that I will leave something that people can relate to, and not just walk by on their way to an exhibit space. We’ve all seen that where you go to museums and you don’t relate to the piece, but I hope people can relate to the pieces. As you say they are autobiographical. If not physically or metaphorically, then symbolically. It creates a system of ethics, a system of well-being. That’s what I hope to leave. Of course, the bottom line is love, and that you can laugh. I’m sure this is something you can relate to yourself, but to be able to laugh at yourself and enjoy your difference. I think that is so cool, that we can look at that and actually just become the way we are supposed to be: laugh at ourselves, cry at our tragedies, and enjoy the fact that we are alive.
BG: I am wondering, do you have a personal moment, or a public moment, where you got feedback about your work and you felt like ‘Ah, I got through to this person, in a meaningful way and I’ll never forget this moment’ ?
NQ: You see, well I have many moments that are like that, Usually day to day moments when people come by my studio and say, ‘I can dig it’ or ‘I’m into it’. You know I’m just talking to you right now, acaba de pasar, a buddy of mine Totín Agosto who is a wonderful street player-
NQ: Oh, you know him?
BG: I know Pablo Candella, he has put out records with Totín.
NQ: Si. So these are the guys I relate to everyday. And just a minute ago Totín was coming down my street while I was talking to you. This is what makes it happen. It’s not one person. It’s the fact that it’s still the people. It’s still who we are. I keep my studio open, I just love the freedom. I can feel it in my bones, by the streets, when people come by. It’s the little things, to me that are the great things. You know, having breakfast with my wife, conversations with my students, people come by, and they look at the stuff and ask questions. That really lifts my spirit.
BG: So Nick, let me ask you this then, I mean you’re clearly de la gente, de la comunidad…
BG: Now, let’s imagine if this exhibit or one that you do four or five years from now, causes your art to become out of context. What I mean by that is collectors have their favorites. They see art for its value and some see art for its resell value. So how does an artist, like yourself, deal with or feel when someone outside of this emotional bondage you have, buys your art and hangs it on their wall, and you may never see that painting again? It may not mean anything to them or the person they sell it to afterwards. With the purpose that you have, that you’ve expressed for your art, are you okay with that? You know, there is Buddhist principle for people who do art by the ocean and the waves wash it away, and its never to be seen again, and that’s just what it is. And there’s other artists who want their art to be cared for and appreciated for the way they created it. You know it’s a fine line when people are creating fine art and commercial art. Sometimes fine art becomes commercial art, not by design but just because it does.
NQ: Si. I am glad that you brought that up, the Buddhist concept, Bob. You let life do what it has to do. What matters is that you never know how things rebound, how stuff happens. We have no clue. One thing for me is to be aware that it doesn’t displace the energy, that it doesn’t alter the love behind it. If someone wants to buy a piece, I’m honored.
BG: The first piece I wanted to touch upon was Pasadía en Condado (Day trip by the promenade). What moment was this that you captured? It looks like something from the ‘50s, judging by the guy’s shoes.
NQ: Yeah, yeah. When I was a kid going to Condado was part of the route to go to San Juan. So un pasadía en Condado was like, you know, walking the strip and mingling with the tourists, because that is a really heavy tourist spot. When we were kids, we used to go to that beach in Condadito on the 24th of June which is San Juan’s Day. It’s like visiting a sacred place and of course the beauty of it. You probably appreciated it too, the open sea with the beach, the proximity, and the lights, and it just feels good to go by the Condado area because the scale is just right.
BG: Why don’t we move forward to another beautiful piece Baila la calle (de noche, baila la calle de dia) (Dance night and day) and speaking of Condado, I used to go to Parque Barbosa. On Sundays there’s a rumba jam right by the beach. People are up there, twenty deep with the drums and the singers and the circles, and seeing this painting reminded me of that sort of dance on the street. It doesn’t need to be a party, it doesn’t need to have an entry fee, it doesn’t have a dress code.
NQ: Yeah, that’s it. We still do that, and I’m sure you know that. We have one here in El Callejón de la Tanca which is like an all-nighter, not now, because you know of the situation.
BG: Yeah, yeah.
NQ: You know we dance in the alleyways. It’s like what you just mentioned with Parque Barbosa. I love that scene. It brings us back to Totín Agosto, Beto Torrens and Pablo. I grew up with that stuff. It’s just part of who we are. You feel so many great sensations when you’re into that.
BG: So in this Baila la calle painting, is this a moment that you were watching and you started painting, or was that a photo, or was it something that you just had etched in your brain?
NQ: It was etched in my brain. It’s something more emblematic and metaphorical. There’s a song that’s a merengue and it’s called Baila la calle, de noche. Baila la calle, de dia[singing]. It portrays, what you just mentioned and described. It’s a memory of people in the streets dancing in the city, an urban context. It’s a thought I wanted to put down. I have large paintings of stuff like that. I’ve been doing it for 40 years. I started painting in 1980 professionally. So I have a lot of that information in my head that I would take out. One of them is Baila la calle, which is more emblematic than the physical place.
BG: The other thing that struck me about this painting was the representation of Black culture In Puerto Rico that often gets masked, or forgotten altogether, or you know purposely taken away from the public eye. You look at the novelas, and it’s not quite often you see people of color or dark-skinned people representing Loiza or Mayagüez or you know the various communities from the Island. We often see a Eurocentric representation in media so its wonderful to see a Black Puerto Rican in a work of art from an artist that is being noticed outside of the island for all the greatness that brings in terms of the current Black Lives Matter movement, but also the entrenched racism that still exists in institutionalized ways in Puerto Rico and so on. I wanted to know if you had any reasoning behind that or if that was just naturally what you drew?
NQ: In my case, as you know, and have lived, I grew up in the South Bronx – the mix. You know, you walk out the door and there they were – everybody. We are all people of different colors and because I was brought up in that atmosphere, there was a lot of simple, no nonsense mixing. And in your profession the mixing is natural. These are people who are incredibly expressive in their culture and their identity. I was able to blend in with my community of all sorts of different ethnic groups. But just to give you a graphic sense of what you’re bringing up, these are people man. Tu sabes. This is the way it is. So naturally, by my childhood upbringing it was natural to be with everyone. It was cool. It was actually really really cool.
Going back to your question - painting the people is what I do. We come in all shapes sizes, genres, sexual preferences, and its okay. I am totally in love with that, because that is the way it is.
BG: It’s wonderful to see a liberated, progressive mind. You know, the movement of independentistas in Puerto Rico is generally stemming from the arts community and the music community, because those are the people who are less likely to be constrained by the norms of society. I want to move to another piece called Mercado (Market). What I found interesting about this one, as well as Ave María is that, I am noticing that you have this specific kind of framing. I don’t know if this is something that is consistent through your whole history as an artist or if this is something that you’re just arriving at in this series from 2020. You are extending the work through the frame and it gives it this dimension, but also a sort of openness. All of a sudden, we are not contained in this little box anymore, but we are extending, and I was curious about what the inspiration behind that was?
NQ: I had a very dear friend from back in 1980. Her name was Marta Pérez, may she rest in peace. She was twenty years my senior, I was twenty-six and she was forty-six. We would go to the beach, and she would flip over stuff I did, and I would flip over stuff she did. We would paint together and one of the things we’d do together is break away from the constraint of the canvas. Of course, I just kept going at it. I’ve been doing that for a while. It’s just part of breaking away from the convention and speaking to other areas of the work of art. It makes it more real. It feels like it’s a piece of furniture that you can actually touch, that you can actually handle.
NQ: Back in 1976 or 1979, I went to this show of Antonio Martorell, another mentor of mine. In that moment, he did an exhibit called “A Family Album.” He portrayed his arena of affection, the people from Santurce. I said wait a minute, I have people who are just as normal and beautiful as this and they are not white, they are not bourgeois, they are like little proletariats that are working-class people. They are incredible. And they have as much to say as anybody than the people that were shown in this exhibit, so that was one breakthrough moment for me where I was able to create my own language. I believe in the reverence that all of our ancestors deserve rightly so.
BG: Alright, so I have two more questions. Just a little comment, I was laughing because underneath the berenjena in the piece called Mercado (Market), you have china and I don’t know if this is true but somebody told me the reason why in Puerto Rico the oranges are called chinas is because when the US first colonized the island they were bringing in bags of naranjas, but they were from China. And so people started calling the oranges chinas.
NQ: Yes, I heard that story as well. That piece is an homage to the market places. Hopefully the market places are coming back with a vengeance now! I am thrilled here in Puerto Rico there are many mercados sprouting and we are so grateful to the farmers. We’ve got young girls and guys who are going to the farms and they’re cultivating. I think that’s so beautiful. We should be so proud of ourselves as human beings to be doing that.
BG: The last piece I wanted to talk about was Las Noticias (The News). If you had shown me this painting and not told me you were an artist based in Puerto Rico, I wouldn’t have known if this was in New York, Chicago, PR, Miami – I mean to me, this is just the affinity that Puerto Ricans have for gathering, sharing news, the dress, the style, it’s endured. As much as the minds and the island have been colonized, we still have this strength of identity no matter where we are. In a painting like this, there is so much strength in it and its simplicity. It’s like, yo these dudes in the placita just hanging out, you know. This can very well be 149th and Grand Concourse or 109th and 3rd Ave and you’re in el barrio. You know, just as easily. So I wanted you to talk about it, and I wanted to see – now that you’ve lived on the island for so long – have you come back to New York to find new inspiration? And have you done paintings of subjects or locations in New York in all these years?
NQ: That scene in the piece you mentioned, its La Plaza de Armas and Plaza Colón, it’s around the corner from where I live, it’s down the street from San Jose Street. Right between San Francisco and Fortaleza Street that’s the Plaza de Armas which faces City Hall. So these guys are there every day, you can stop by and they’ll be in the corner giving news about the latest on whatever. And that’s the way it is. The amount of knowledge that you acquire in those plazas is awesome. It is so entertaining, they do it with a sense of humor, and with respect you know. So, that piece is an homage to – as you say – the people that get together to share. And I wanted to bring this up, now that you asked that question about New York, I am actually doing some paintings that are reminiscent of my upbringing in New York and they will be bigger. They are going to talk about my life in New York. I’ve never done that before. We’re talking about the night sets, playing basketball at night, we’re talking about all sorts of things that fortunately I can do because I can feel it. You guys get a first-hand view at that.
BG: Beautiful. I look forward to that. Alright my brother, I have to start getting ready and cook dinner for my son. Lots of love man.