Niki Lopez is the founder of “What’s Your Elephant,” a movement that provides a safe space so that people can create art as therapy and have an open discussion.
She is also co-founder of 1310 Bandits and Artists for Black Lives Matter.
Lopez is a creative advocate, multi-disciplinary activist, and social media guru with a multi-faceted approach to intentional networking and community engagement.
Lopez’s life revolved around Malachi Z. York’s teachings, in which his compound seemed inescapable.
From age 11 to 25, Lopez was trapped in a doomsday cult where she suffered years of sexual and emotional abuse until she finally managed to escape.
The United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors preached Black supremacist ideals, Islamic mysticism, a hybrid of extraterrestrial references, the significance of ancient Egypt and pyramids, and occult Judaism.
Grooming, sexual, and emotional abuse were rampant.
Lopez recounts the innumerable times that she was beaten within the compound by men and women with belts, brooms, and buckles.
Lopez shared stories regarding the time she was living in the Georgia compound. York had used material goods and food as incentives and rewards for the children. There was a strict caste system in place on the compound. Dresses and trinkets were used in the reward system.
While she was in the compound, she was not even allowed to see her own mother. Visits were allowed once a week at most. She was raised with 20 to 30 other girls in a single room under the constant eye of room workers.
Local police and FBI had taken notice of an abundant amount of ammunition and illegal firearms and were worried about an event similar to the 1995 Waco massacre.
Four years after her escape, Lopez testified against York, which led to a 135-year prison sentence for a multitude of charges.
“I literally started my life from scratch at 25 years old,” she said.
She was reunited with family members she hadn’t seen since she was 11 years old.
Lopez left Georgia and moved to Florida to become one of the original members of the Sailboat Bend Artists community. During this time, Lopez feverishly dove into work and absorbed herself in her art and her work. Art was always her refuge, her sanctuary, but she realized her work had become stagnant. Her past trauma was still untouched and it began to take a toll.
“I realized when my voice was taken away and through all the things I had to survive, art has always been my refuge,” she said.
Lopez began to speak on panels at symposiums about her experiences as a survivor, her work as an artist, and the various forms of activism she’s involved in.
“My intentions for #WhatsYourElephant are to create a safe space where people can share and bring awareness.”
What’s Your Elephant?
Lopez weaves art and therapy together by using art as an outlet and to bring about difficult conversations as a vehicle for healing and empowerment.
For the first time, Lopez started to develop a project that addressed some of her own “elephants.” It was restorative and cathartic, so she wanted to share the experiences with others.
“‘What’s Your Elephant’ — it’s those things that you want to ignore, you see it, but because it’s uncomfortable, you don’t want to talk about it. The [birth] of ‘What’s Your Elephant’ came out of my own, personal journey of being a survivor of sexual abuse and multiple types of trauma while growing up,” she said. “Even though I was really into art, I never went to counseling. I just kept busy. After a while, certain things began to take a toll.”
One piece of Lopez’s artwork stands out starkly from the rest of the colorful paintings that hang in the 1310 gallery space. That is a 3-foot tall mixed media sculptural piece.
The face is a molding of Lopez’s own face: her eyes are shut tight, and her hands dangle by her sides. The figure is of Lopez as a child. The words, “Homegrown,” “No longer silent,” “Why?” are scribbled on sheets of paper. These words and feelings welled to the surface — Lopez explains and she kept writing these words down. Lopez was confronting her childhood trauma as a child sex slave.
Lopez takes a moment to reminisce, then continues, “Why, if I am doing all this work, why is my work becoming stagnant?” She continues, “One of the pieces I [created], ‘Home grown,’ where I started writing all these words that just came out of me. As soon as I started [reconnecting] with some of the things I went through as well as going to counseling, that’s when my work took leaps. Me, being able to share these traumas was cathartic.”
In 2014, a movement was born: “What’s Your Elephant.”
The movement uses arts as an agent to tackle discrimination, abuse, unspoken trauma, and then sharing the work in safe spaces in order to heal and empower.
Lopes shares an anecdote: “Last year, I did a workshop for ‘What’s Your Elephant’ that focused on overcoming trauma which culminated in an event. In a low-income community, we have high crime rates. One thing that goes unspoken is the unprocessed trauma. These kids are in and out of jail, but they have had rough lives, they have been sexually or emotionally abused. They don’t have access to health care [nor behavioral health care], and there is a stigma. Many people are uncomfortable talking about mental health. We need to normalize it.”
Lopez adds that she isn’t a health professional but works very hard to stay updated with all the support and services that are found locally.
“I brought in some mental health counselors to be part of that conversation with a safe place and safe environment,” she said.
The attendees were creating art, and would then take turns discussing it.
“There’s stigma about mental health, especially in the Black community and counseling,” she said. “Or even the Caribbean community, we’ve always had, ‘keep it in and keep going’ modeled to us.”
Talking openly about the trauma is not easy, nor comfortable, but Lopez sees the direct impact it has on people. Talking openly and honestly, or being heard sometimes makes all the difference.
Lopez is reminded of an incident, when she was working with SunServe’s youth during a workshop, she explained that she has endured due to the trauma of molestation.
One of the young adults then felt compelled to share her story. Subsequently, it opened up the conversation into seeking counseling for their trauma for the first time.
“Many elephants cause us shame, and we then isolate ourselves,” she said. “So being able to talk about it is cathartic in some ways. Someone else might be grappling with similar things.”
“For me personally, I have always done art since I was little, but really making an effort to be a professional artist,” she said. “What is this thing I can create and connect to? It was self–discovery that led me to find this power inside of me. I was always looking outward. But it was always there.”
Engaging the Community
“When I take projects, it has to be something that makes a difference, even if it’s a small ripple. Eventually it will create a tidal wave.”
Lopez is involved with the Housing Authority of the City of Fort Lauderdale (HACFL) to create a call to artists and curate artwork that will be selected for a permanent installation in the Sailboat Bend II building. The Aya Arts Project is a community, art engagement and acquisition project.
Lopez is a huge fan of symbolism and explains that the name “Aya” is a Ghanaian Adinkra symbol, the Aya, or fern, is a symbol of endurance and resilience. It’s known for being a hardy plant that can grow on infertile soil.
Lopez chuckles and then explains, “It’s a fern, it’s known for its resilience. The Black and Brown and indigenous people are resilient. All that we’ve gone through, we’ve been through the ringer, and we’re still here!”
This endeavor is an affordable housing project dedicated to seniors and in the heart of downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Lopez’s goal is to create a sense of space and pay homage to the rich history of Broward County. Using the arts to highlight the First Nation people and their fertile hunting grounds to the immaculate sea of grass to the rich Black history of a thriving Fort Lauderdale lined with Black-owned businesses.
“We are occupying indigenous spaces, but I still want to show how interconnected we are,” she said.
She is collaborating with local artists specifically for this project to create a deep appreciation and sense of place.
Lopez says she will continue to share her story in hopes that it will empower and encourage people to speak out about their trauma and abuse. She encourages everyone to find a creative outlet, whether it be writing, drawing, performing, in conjunction with counseling.
Lopez firmly believes that no matter how much time passes, the trauma will not heal; ignoring it will only make that elephant in the room bigger. As difficult as it is, confronting your elephant will be the only way to defeat it.
This is a part of an SFGN series on local BIPOC leaders making a difference in the community. Check out the other stories at sfgn.com/bipoc.