Artist Profile: Layqa Nuna Yawar
Newark, Essex County
Fueled by his fervent passion for social justice and informed by his immigrant heritage and extensive travels, Layqa Nuna Yawar (b. 1984) is best known for his huge, collaborative, site-specific murals. Telling the stories of those people who are largely disenfranchised shunned by the power structure and mainstream media, Layqa’s public artworks focus on such issues as displacement, cross-cultural identity, and injustice.
Currently based in Newark, New Jersey, “the unceded lands of the Lenni-Lenape,” Layqa was born in 1984 in Cuenca, Ecuador, and emigrated to the US at age 14. He first began using the streets as a canvas as a high school student in West New York, New Jersey. “It was just play,” he recalls. “It was something fun to do. And I liked the freedom to try and also to fail.” But it has since evolved into so much more. “Now it is a way for me to share my vision and collaborate with others, as I tell people’s stories through my eyes. And it’s also my way of giving back to the people. It’s important to me that the end result has been in conversation with the community.”
Layqa particularly enjoys the interaction with locals and passersby as he paints in a particular locale. “Kids coming by and giving you props is the best,” he remarks. And he loves painting in sites that have been neglected, abandoned, or merely in dire need of color, intrigue, and interaction. “I see the work on the streets as another layer added to a city’s history, architecture, and community,” he explains. “I consider street art successful when all three layers come together.”
In addition to his work in the public sphere, Layqa also maintains an active studio practice. Brimming with artworks in a range of media from sketches to sculptures—many referencing his family—Layqa’s studio is a space for exploration and experimentation. Many of the concepts and actual drafts of his large-scale murals are first conceived in his studio. “There’s a beauty and a power to being outside and seen, but there is also a beauty in having a studio place to come and paint. I’m lucky I haven’t had to pick,” he comments.
During the pandemic, when Newark was largely shut down, Layqa discovered alternate ways of “collaborating” with his local community. “I ended up working with organizations here in Newark, including the Ironbound Community Corporation. I created fliers for their activism, events, and campaigns,” he reports. “I think the pandemic brought me closer to Newark and to the community and organizations.” Spending extra hours in his studio also gave Layqa additional time to hone his technological skills, enabling him to further enrich his studio art.
Layqa’s work has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a Monument Lab research residency, a Creative Catalyst Fund Fellowship by the City of Newark, and a Moving Walls Fellowship by Open Society Foundations. He has held multiple teaching residencies, including projects with the United Nations’ World Food Programme, Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education, and Rutgers University. He has also exhibited at several museums including El Museo del Barrio, the Newark Museum of Art, and The Zimmerli Art Museum.
Layqa Nuna Yawar is a featured artist in On and Off the Streets: Urban Art New Jersey.
Image Caption: Layqa Nuna Yawar, Trade Dollar, Acrylic paint, graphite pencil, 2021, 13’ x 15’. Photo courtesy of Lois Stavsky