Artist and activist Niki Lopez is a survivor. From age 11 to 25, she was trapped in a religious cult in Georgia, where she was separated from the rest of her family. The cult's leader sexually abused her. But in 2000, Lopez escaped and worked with the FBI to put him in prison. She was later given a humanitarian award from the FBI for her help in putting her abuser behind bars.
But Lopez never shared her experience until more than a decade later, in South Florida, when she began the art and activism movement What’s Your Elephant?, which uses art to create conversations about uncomfortable and taboo subjects. This Friday, Lopez will continue to share her story when she opens her solo show, "These Eyes: A Retrospect Exhibition," at Ali Cultural Arts in Pompano Beach.
“Art for me is a cathartic way of working through [trauma]... Art is healing, and it gives other people permission to share their stories. When we hold on to certain things, we feel isolated, but when we share, we take off the shame that holds us back," Lopez says. "I use art as a catalyst for change, whether it is against molestation, racism, or gender inequality. We cannot change if we cannot acknowledge things that we need to change.”
Lopez moved to Florida to flee harassment from other members of the cult in the early '00s. She says she still receives occasional threats online.
The retrospective will include two of Lopez’s early pieces, including the mixed-media installation All the Pretty Dresses and the video installation Caressed. Lopez cites these projects as the inspiration for What’s Your Elephant?, which includes workshops, talks, gallery shows, and events that engage the public. She wants to help others “acknowledge the elephant and own it so it doesn’t define you.”
All the Pretty Dresses addresses the cult's culture of reward and possession. Lopez says the violet and gold dress on the sculpture was given to her by her abusive cult leader as a way of demarcating her special status within the community. Material possessions were used by the cult’s leadership to maintain the hierarchy. In the written accompaniment to the installation, Lopez explains, “Dresses, jewelry, and even food were used as a reward and aided in creating a caste or class system. These ‘rewards’ would be used as a bait to encourage people to strive towards it or be manipulated into making it a thing to be coveted. It was a part of the endless mind games to create a hierarchy and sense of loyalty to one person.”
In Caressed, Lopez recites a poem in voiceover, addressing the molestation she endured, while fleeting images of her body being painted and manipulated play across the screen. She says, “When people see [Caressed] and All the Pretty Dresses, a lot of the time, they feel that it is a safe space to share something that has impacted them.”
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Though it has been nearly two decades since she escaped the cult, the scars of the trauma remain. Lopez continues to process the experiences through art and therapy. “I have gone through a lot of things. I was separated from family... I was raised in an orphanage setting [at the cult] with 20 to 30 girls my age and room workers. I only had access to my mom once a week,” she says. “This is stuff I am still dealing with. The past couple of years, I have been doing counseling to start dealing with some of my traumas that I have gone through and also to be more of a support for the people who see my art and share their stories. [I think of myself as] a wounded healer of sorts. I’m using something I love — the art — as a way of dealing with my touchy subjects, as well as helping people deal with theirs.”
Lopez encourages others who are struggling with trauma or uncomfortable situations to seek help. “Be open to trying to find a way to create an outlet, whether it’s writing, drawing, or singing, as well as doing counseling... There are free resources, like the Nancy J. Cotterman Center in Fort Lauderdale, that help victims of rape and molestation. It doesn’t matter how many years have gone by — that trauma is there to be dealt with, and time doesn’t make it go away,” Lopez says.
“For me, What’s Your Elephant? is a way of dealing with that trauma. It’s tough. It’s hard work. I’m not fully healed. I’m in the process. I’m sharing with others while I’m going through a process myself... Keep trying to find the courage to talk about it, to start the conversation and not give up.”
"These Eyes: A Retrospect Exhibition." Opening reception 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, April 6, at Ali Cultural Arts, 353 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Pompano Beach; 954-786-7876; aliarts.org. The show runs through May 26. Admission is free.