Artist Spotlight: Nelson Cabán

Photo: courtesy of Lorenzo Pickett

Art is not just a sign of the past, it is the reflection of the contemporary – and in order to not undervalue this concept, we need contemporary creatives with enough fervor to help translate this message to the larger masses.

This month the spotlight artist is Nelson Cabán. A contemporary artist from Spanish Harlem, who has worked with countless talented artists and has traveled the world – garnering accolades from critics – and even getting the seal of approval from none other than President Barack Obama.

Nelson’s passion for the arts started at the young age of three, after a freak motor vehicle accident renders him bedridden. As a form of entertainment, he would spend his time drawing his favorite cartoon heroes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As a teenager, he started scaling up the ranks and perfecting his craft by working as an apprentice for politically outspoken artist James De La Vega.  And now, as an adult, Nelson is a full-time artist showcasing his work both here in the States and abroad.  As he explains in our interview, (featured below) his journey into the art world has surely not been an easy task; but by facing adversity, it has only made him more determined in turning his dreams into a lucrative reality.

The artist in his own words: Nelson Caban

Photo by Lorenzo Pickett

RATC: For those unfamiliar with your art, how would you best describe your work?  

N. Cabán: My work takes facets of the human social and political condition as its central theme and examines the most fundamental of issues: the curious fact of our existence, the ungraspable experience of immediacy and intimacy found in personal narrative, and the illusive and unknowable nature of reality. It calls attention to our misperceptions: the gulf that exists between how we see and how we think we see; how we think and how we think we think; and the inconstant and constructed interchange between authorship, documentation and memory. In short, the post-colonial ramblings of a neo-Taíno.

RATC: What sparked your initial interest for the arts?

N. Cabán: I recently proposed the same question to my mother because I have been painting as far as I can remember. She said I began to really draw at the age of 3 when I was in a motor vehicle accident and hospitalized for a few months. I had to take time off from preschool and I began to entertain myself by drawing ninja turtles, imaginary friends, family members, etc.

RATC: In researching your background, I discovered that as a teen you worked with politically outspoken artist James De La Vega – how was it like to work with him at such a precocious age?

N. Cabán: It was an amazing experience and largely responsible for my later development as an artist. I grew up in the same neighborhood as De La Vega so I was already familiar with his art and his social and political views long before working with him. Issues of social, cultural, and economic marginalization were apparent to me growing up in Spanish Harlem, I did not need him to point that out to me. His biggest impact was demonstrating that an individual from the neighborhood could have a positive impact and affect change in the community and eventually, the world.

‘Geronimo’ 2012 Acrylic and permanent marker on canvas / Height: 28in. Width: 22in. Depth: .75in.

RATC: A) As a young Latino artist, do you believe your culture influences your work? B) The art world is such a competitive field, have you ever experienced adversity and/or setbacks?

N. Cabán: A) Culture definitely serves as the prism in which every individual, whether an artist or not, views and processes their physical environment. Moving to Asia nearly two years ago, I began doing work that was obviously influenced by China and Japan aesthetics and I hated it. The work was not authentic to me even if I was not consciously making an effort to focus on Asian themes. So now I have shifted back to a cultural narrative that I am familiar with and which best suits my work.

B) Constantly. In the outcomes of the paintings I create. In business dealings with clients that do not return emails or calls. Leads that go nowhere. Setbacks are a part of daily life, in all its facets, you just have to toughen up and keep at it. I think my background in marketing definitely keeps me level-headed. I am fully aware of how ineffective marketing and promotional campaigns can be. An artist can consider themselves lucky, especially earlier on, to convince even 2-5% of the people they met that their work is something to consider and worth noticing. 

RATC: A) I’ve noticed that some your portraits are of legendary salsa artists such as Celia Cruz and Héctor Lavoe – what kind of music motivates your work? B) Does music serve as a source of inspiration for you? C) What does your music playlist look like while in the zone?

N. Cabán: A) I listen to jazz and old Cuban Son and early Puerto Rican salsa melodies while I am working. I cannot listen to music that has too many lyrics because it is distracting. Melody is very important and it allows my mind to wander off into the distance.

B) I would not say that music serves as an influence but rather as a tool for creation.

C) I do not have any playlists. I left my iPod on a plane in 2009 and never replaced it and I do not have any music on my phone, either. What I do is pick a Youtube video such as Muddy Waters “Mannish Boy” and then I will click another video of the same artist or a similar artist and then it will keep branching off from that point, maybe onto a different direction entirely. My absolute favorite song to play while creating is Ravel “Bolero.”

RATC: You live and work abroad, how does it compare to galleries/art spaces here in the States?

N. Cabán: Depends. Galleries in Paris definitely have their caché to them and the French are legitimate lovers of art. Rarely do they go just for the free food like in New York (I am guilty of this) and often there is no food. But I think that galleries in Shanghai and Beijing, for example, tend to be more open to different mediums and more avant-garde. There is a definitely freshness to the work that I can only compare to what I know of the New York scene in the 1980s. Contemporary Art is about pushing the boundaries of the craft and you need venues that are willing to be trendsetters in that regard and right now China is in the lead.

‘Femme Noire’ 2010 / Oil and Acrylic on canvas / 20in. circle

RATC: What under-appreciated art spaces/galleries/museums do you think people should know about and why?

N. Cabán: The Art Club in Singapore because the art is really good and the staff is the furthest thing for pretentious. I always approach galleries and watch how they interact with me and take that as an indication of how they would possibly represent my work to clients. Also, the tiny 2P CONTEMPORARY ART GALLERY in Hong Kong, it has been at the forefront of launching the careers of talented Asian artists such as MORGAN WONG and Will Kwan. The owners have a remarkable eye for spotting emerging talent and are great to sit and chat with.

RATC: This past week you served as host for Shanghai Social Media Week, for those unfamiliar with this event, can you give us a brief description of the festivities?

N. Cabán: Social Media Week is a massive event held simultaneously in 12 cities around the world and Shanghai was merely one of the cities where I was invited to give a presentation about social media and its role in the visual arts. Its mission is to help people and organizations connect through collaboration, learning and sharing of ideas and information. All of the discussions are live-streamed and then archived and the physical attendance is free. 

RATC: You recently tweeted a pic of President Barack Obama holding a self-portrait you painted – what was it like to have the President recognize your work?

N. Cabán: Personally, it was a great moment in my career but I never discussed the event publicly, which took place in 2008, until the birthday of President Obama this year in 2012. Sometimes, I wonder if the painting is floating around the White House somewhere or maybe his residence in Chicago.

RATC: How was the transition from working a regular 9-to-5 job, to full-time artist?

N. Cabán: I worked in the marketing field and although advertising definitely utilizes art and makes heavy use of visuals, it is not the same as being a full-fledged artist. It was a bit bumpy at first but I was 24 years old and it seems as good a time as any to begin a different path.

RATC: In this tough economy with unemployment still high, what recommendations can you offer those aspiring to follow in your footsteps?

N. Cabán: Create your own job security and pursue your passion. My advice is to save as much as possible from your 9-to-5, skip the clubs for a bit, new clothing etc., and then put all your energy and resources into your dreams. Merely taking the leap of faith is often the biggest impediment for an artist.

RATC: What is the most indispensable item currently in your art studio?

N. Cabán: Titanium white

RATC: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

N. Cabán: Ha! Five years ago I would not have envisioned being in Hong Kong, so who knows. I do not expect I will be in Asia. I really love Ecuador and the Andes and after a certain age you get tired of being in large cities all the time. The goal is to be established enough where you no longer have to chase work but the work and the clients will chase you – even if that happens to be on the side of a mountain in Quito.

RATC: Are there any upcoming exhibitions and/or projects we should look out for?

N. Cabán: Yes. Next up for me is the Asia Contemporary Art Show in October here in Hong Kong, which is a major art fair and will be a great opportunity to make an impact in this market. Also, October 18th I have a show in Philadelphia at City Hall for Hispanic Heritage month. In the new year, me and my assistant will be finalizing some projects for Shanghai, New York, Hong Kong and Bangkok and releasing some branded merchandise such as iPhone 5 cases, silk scarves and a line of artist accessories. It should be a very exciting 2013 for Team Cabán.

‘Harmony (Lei Leen)’ / 2011 Oil on wood / Height: 12in. Width: 9in. Depth: .75in.

For more information on Nelson Caban‘s work, purchasing services and gallery dates, you can follow him via the web / fb / twitter. Or you can visit his website at:  or

— Roz Baron

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Quotes from Nelson Caban’s site:

“Fear is the cheapest room in the house.
I would like to see you living
In better conditions”..


起死回生 (Kishi Kaisei)

~Japanese Proverb

2 responses to “Artist Spotlight: Nelson Cabán

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s