In Conversation with NYC native, Dominican artist Kiki Bencosme: On Art, Housing Insecurity & Latinx Heritage Month
Pictured Above: (L) Photo of the artist courtesy of Kiki Bencosme, (R) Photo of Bencosme’s work with NYCHA “Dimelo Cantando” NYCHA Pomonok Houses: Buildings 31 & 35.
Recently we interviewed Kiki Bencosme, a New York-born and raised Dominican artist whose practice is powerful, and centers on themes of public art accessibility, housing insecurity, gentrification, sustainability, connecting with nature and more. Kiki’s art has been seen in the Queens Botanical Garden, galleries throughout New York, and on public streets and bridges throughout the five boroughs. Recently, Kiki collaborated with NYCHA and NYCHA residents through art workshops to create “Dimelo Cantando,” currently displayed at NYCHA buildings nearby where Kiki grew up in Queens. (Read more) Kiki is currently completing her MFA in Studio Art at Queens College as well as an art residency at Governor’s Island with BronxArtSpace. Below are excerpts from that conversation. More work by Kiki can be seen at: http://www.workbykiki.com/.
On making sustainable art with found objects and sharing work on the street:
“I started using found objects and recycled materials when I was in art school, because I wanted to work three-dimensionally but I couldn’t afford traditional materials, like wood or metal. I started using recycled objects to create my work. In the process I found that it tied into the work that I was making, whatever the art piece was, the materials had a lot of conceptual meaning. I would often collect materials from other people, so they also became represented in the work.”
“Growing up watching my father give a second life and to all of these items, really influenced me. Working with recycled materials became a representation of living with scarcity. When you grow up poor, you’re basically surviving with what you have. And for me in art school, that was my situation, I didn’t have the money to spend on materials, but I had to make work for my career. So, it was born out of necessity, but it became what made my workflow stronger.”
“I started putting my art on the street because I wanted it to be more accessible. My private art school was full of non-minority students, very wealthy students and I felt like my work didn’t really fit in those walls. So, I started putting my art on the street to connect with the very people that I wanted my art to talk to. Once I did that, it opened up my art practice, and I kept doing it because I felt like the conversation that I wanted my art to have didn’t belong in a space where people have to either pay to get in or spaces you don’t really see yourself or your peers represented. I really want to blur the lines of what an institution is and just put art directly on the street, and have it be an experience.”
“Growing up in NYC was a big influence on creating public art because when I was in high school, all of my friends were graffiti writers. I felt like I already had a foundation of what it is to create a dialogue with a building or a street with your artwork.”
On her Dominican roots’ influence on her art:
“My experience of being a mixed-race Dominican person has really influenced me. Growing up in a family where everyone looks different relates a lot to my work. My parents have different skin colors, so I create my work knowing the kind of privileges that I have, knowing about the experiences of colorism that the people who raised me experienced made me have a very mixed perspective when I make my art.”
“I try to connect my art with nature a lot, and I think that’s a big part of our [Dominican] ancestry and where we come from. As an artist I think that’s part of the reason why it felt right to put my art on the street. Right now, for my residency and my MFA, I’m trying to come up with land art installations, I want to install things in park and I feel like that’s me connecting with my Afro-indigenous roots.”
On Art and Mental Health:
“I think that the arts play a huge role in people’s mental health. For me, when I was growing up, and I discovered art, it changed my life. I found something to have a voice in and as someone who has dealt with housing insecurity, it was so important for my mental health to be able to express myself.”
On experiencing housing insecurity:
“I grew up in an illegal basement, so my family didn’t have housing rights there. The infrastructure wasn’t built for an apartment, we didn’t have any windows in the apartment. Our electricity was faulty, and we were right next to the boiler room, and it was really hot. Sometimes my cousins would come over and they would get nosebleeds. For a brief time, we also were an overcrowded home because my oldest sister was a young mother, a teen mom.”
“You may have shelter, but it’s also not a proper housing situation.”
“I feel like I left home sooner than I wanted to because I was uncomfortable living there. I identify as pansexual, and I didn’t grow up with parents who are open to queerness. I had so much trouble with housing as a young person because I had no financial foundation. I was constantly figuring out where to live. I was a full-time student at the time and was working part-time living paycheck to paycheck.”
“It’s so important to amplify native New Yorker’s voices because it is really hard for us. I’m the only person left in my immediate family that lives here. Everybody else left New York City because it got too expensive.”
Note: The US Department of Health and Human Services defines Housing Instability/ Insecurity as:
Housing instability encompasses a number of challenges, such as having trouble paying rent, overcrowding, moving frequently, or spending the bulk of household income on housing. These experiences may negatively affect physical health and make it harder to access health care.
Oftentimes, people in New York, especially young people or people with less socio-economic means experience housing instability and homelessness without realizing that they fall into that definition. Breaking down these terms helps to flesh out conversations about the need for more affordable and supportive housing and helps to break the stigma related to homelessness and housing insecurity.
See also: Federal Definition of Homelessness via School House Connection.