Kevin Quiles Bonilla – Interdisciplinary Artist

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Kevin Quiles Bonilla - Interdisciplinary Artist

Kevin Quiles Bonilla (b. 1992) is an interdisciplinary artist born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Through photography, performance and installation, his works explore ideas around power, colonialism, and history with his identity as context. He received a BA in Fine Arts magna cum laude from the University of Puerto Rico (2015) and an MFA in Fine Arts with honors from Parsons The New School for Design (2018). He has presented his work at Brooklyn Museum, Queens Museum, Lincoln Center and Ford Foundation. Recent solo shows include Real Art Ways, Hartford, CT (2021), and Wave Hill Public Garden and Cultural Center, Bronx, NY (2022). His first public artwork, For centuries, and still…(anticipated completion) made in collaboration with artist Zaq Landsberg, was presented through NYC Parks in 2022-23. He has been an Artist-in-Residence at the Arts + Disability Residency (2018-2019); LMCC Workspace Residency (2019-2020); Smack Mellon Artist Studio Program (2022-2023); Monira Foundation Residency (2024) and a Fellow at En Foco Inc Photography Fellowship (2021); Art Matters Artist2Artist Fellowship (2023) and the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop Kahn|Mason SIP Fellowship (2024). His work has been featured in Hyperallergic, The Washington Post, BOMB Magazine and The Guardian. He lives and works between New York and Puerto Rico.

AF: Hi Kevin! We are so excited to speak with you today. To start us off, we would love to ask you our classic first question: where are you from and what is the arts community like there? 

KQB: I was born and raised in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, and I moved to New York 7 years ago. The art scene in the island is small but mighty, and constantly expanding. I’m very fortunate to maintain a connection with many artists still living there, and I get to visit them during the holidays which is usually the only time of the year I have to go back home. I’m specifically excited about the artists from my generation. Artists like Javier Piñero, Lulú Varona, Sofía Gallisá Muriente, Natalia Lasalle-Morillo, Jonathan Torres and Estefanía Vélez Rodriguez, who are very tuned with notions of community building as the means for creating collectives dialogues between the island and the diaspora. 

AF: Please tell us a little more about yourself, when did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?

KQB: I consider myself an interdisciplinary artist, with a focus on photography, installation and performance. Although I’ve worked in video, sculpture, and public art as well, the photographic and performance mediums are always present in the works, whether explicitly or implicitly. My formation began at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras, where I completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts. I was very lucky to take classes from the greats: Photography with Tari Beroszi, Performance with Raquel Torres-Arzola, History of Art with Laura Bravo and Vanessa Hernandez Gracia, and Photo Etching with Néstor Millán. These individuals were creating a big impact in the arts scene on the island, not only as scholars, but as artists themselves. I knew I wanted to continue my Master’s Degree in the arts, but unfortunately this opportunity wasn’t available on the island. That’s when I made the decision to continue my graduate studies at Parsons The New School, where I studied under Andrea Geyer, Aliza Shvarts, Neil Goldberg and LJ Roberts

AF: What was your first job? What is an important lesson from it that has carried with you? 

KQB: Although I did work as an artist and teaching assistant while at school, my first full time job was as a Gallery Assistant in the Chelsea area for 5 years. Something I’ve carried with me from this experience and have subsequently incorporated in my own practice is the proper cataloging and archiving of one’s own work, as well as the administrative labor we have to do as artists, which often goes unnoticed and unpaid. Finally, having a plan B and C, in case plan A doesn’t work. (Murphy’s Law is real haha!)

AF: You are an interdisciplinary artist, utilizing photography, performance, and installation. Tell us more about your practice! 

KQB: my practice at the moment is focused on my transits between the island and the US, and what the ramifications of that colonial relationship means to both the islanders and the diasporic communities. I’m specifically interested in the recent history of the island, and the impact that many catalyst moments (Hurricane Maria being one of the most significant) have left on the island as a result of this colonial experience. As I’m writing this, about 400,000 people back home are without electricity in their homes. This is a direct result of the hurricane (but more so, the lack of resolution from the government to properly fix the island’s electrical infrastructure 7 years after María).

I take my own lived experience as a queer, disabled, Puerto Rican of color in the diaspora as the starting point, while acknowledging that these are also collective themes, so my work leaps between the one and the many. 

AF: What does a regular day look like for you? What does a great day look like for you? 

KQB: I was very fortunate last year to have been awarded a grant, which allowed me to focus on my practice for the past year. But this was not the case for a really long time. Living in New York meant a high (and still increasing) cost of living, for which I had to be employed full time. This meant that my practice, like with many of my colleagues, became secondary and had to revolve around my work schedule. So I would wake up, go to my 9-5 job during the week, then focus the little time and energy I had towards my practice, mainly after work or during the weekends. I would find ways to make it work. Once it was time to leave my job, I would run to my studio, and work for at least two hours, then catch the train, and head home. This unfortunately took a toll on my mental and physical health, as I almost never had time to just rest, so there were times where I had to put my practice on pause altogether. These are the negotiations me and all my colleagues in New York and beyond have to do with ourselves on a daily basis. 

AF: You have a solo exhibition opening from June 20-July 31 this year at Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York. We would love to know more about this show.

KQB: The show is titled A small patch of sand, yet it holds so much, curated by my dear friend Ezra Benus who’s also an amazing artist (we first met at the Arts + Disability Residency back in 2018), and will be on view at Baxter St. at the Camera Club of New York from June 20 through July 31. The opening reception will be on Thursday June 20th from 6-8pm (hope you can all come!), and programming for the show will be announced soon.

The exhibition will focus on three bodies of work made between 2018 and 2024. Carryover is a series of photographs where I engage with a blue tarp (which became an iconographic symbol in the island after Hurricane María) in site-specific locations between Puerto Rico and New York, highlighting the large exodus that happened back in 2017. While you dried in the sand references the souvenir towels sold at the tourist shop in Old San Juan, which often have stereotypical images, fonts and island symbols. I appropriate this language to create custom beach towels that act as tapestries of the island’s recent history, using imagery and language from the time of the hurricane.

Lastly, islotes (Spanish for “small islands”) is a new series where I interpolate sand on photographs from my family’s photo album. At the time I began working on this, I was simultaneously studying the formation and topography of islands, and the idea of the archipelago as a community of islands (Puerto Rico being an archipelago), seemingly separated from above, but interconnected underwater. This became a metaphor for my family memories, and thinking of this as well as the geographic separation, I began to cover the subjects in the photographs (myself and members of my family from multiple generations and time periods) with sand, until a topography, or an island, is shaped from their outlines.

AF: What are some personal or professional goals you have for yourself at this moment in time? 

KQB: I honestly just hope for me and my artist friends to find a balanced way of life, where we don’t have to forgo our goals for the sake of paying the bills. That artists get properly paid for their labor, and that we can eventually live off of our practices beyond the confinements of the commercial world. That more opportunities appear for us to expand our time working on our craft, in the shape of grants, paid residencies and artist development programs. And time to rest, so much more time to rest.

AF: As you know, Art Frankly is a community that cares about job transparency and supporting fellow art professionals. What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world? 

KQB: Community building. And I use the term ‘community’ instead of ‘network’ consciously. We’re taught early on to network and make connections to move along in the art world. This always comes with a transactional notion attached to it. I give you something, you give me something. I think the building of a community counteracts that very idea. I would’ve left New York a long time ago had it not been for my community of artists, my chosen family, who are going through the same experiences and struggles, and we help each other any way we can. For example, this exhibition became an opportunity to reach out to our community and to collaborate. The foldout catalog is being designed and printed by friends whom we have met in residencies and fellowship. I commissioned my sister Keishla, who is a writer, to create a poem that will be featured in this catalog. Our programming will also become an opportunity to highlight family and colleagues in the arts, and provide an opportunity for them to talk about the respective practices. This type of collaboration is priceless in these intense times we’re living.

AF: How do you think the art world can become more transparent? 

KQB: Through more honesty, by not relying solely on the partnership of galleries, and by providing more opportunities that can benefit artists exploring any type of medium, not just those that are commercially preferred. 

AF: Kevin, thank you for participating in Frank Talks, it has been our pleasure! To finish off, we want to know: If you could own work by 5 different artists/craftspeople, who would be in your collection? 

KQB: Thank you for the opportunity! In no particular order, I would love to include these artists in my collection:

  1. Ana Mendieta
  2. Alex Dolores Salerno
  3. Regina José Galindo
  4. Félix González Torres
  5. Finnegan Shannon 

and honestly, this list can go on, and on…

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