Jul 14, 2018

How Fort Lauderdale artist Niki Lopez survived a doomsday cult

Niki Lopez
Phillip Valys
Reporter SouthFlorida.com
July 13, 2018

Niki Lopez’s home art studio in Fort Lauderdale is filled with elephants. Her workspace at Sailboat Bend Artist Lofts has porcelain figurines of Ganesha, a many-armed, elephant-headed, Hindu deity who is believed to remove obstacles. There are pachyderm-shaped stickers and coffee-table sculptures.

But the biggest elephant in the room lies in Lopez’s “Homegrown,” a waist-high, light-gray sculpture of the artist with her eyes closed. “Homegrown” stands behind a wall emblazoned with handwritten notes, such as “No longer silent” and “Don’t want to be special,” which address her childhood as a sex slave in a New York black-supremacist cult.

Lopez, now 43, creates performance art, sculptures and paintings that bear the scars of her trauma. Five works drawn from her past are featured in Lopez’s art show “What’s Your Elephant?” opening Aug. 18, at 1310 Gallery at Sailboat Bend Artist Lofts. She also appeared in a recent episode of the series “People Magazine Investigates: Cults,” which aired earlier this week on the Investigation Discovery television network. (The episode is available on demand at InvestigationDiscovery.com.)

Between ages 11 and 25, Lopez belonged to an end-times cult called United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, headed by pseudoreligious leader Dwight “Malachi” York. First at his Brooklyn headquarters and later at his Egyptian-themed compound in Eatonton, Ga., York molested Lopez and other children from the 1980s until 2002, when the FBI arrested York. York pleaded guilty in 2004 and was sentenced to 135 years in federal prison for transporting minors across state lines for sexual purposes.

The title of “Homegrown,” Lopez says, refers to York’s vulgar term for girls and women he groomed to be his concubines. Her mother joined the cult when Lopez was 11. York raped Lopez when she was 15, taking her virginity, she says.

“The man who abused me taught me to think the world was going to end, that we were going to burn,” says Lopez, who is uncomfortable saying York’s name. “I internalized a lot just to survive. We were voiceless and being tortured for no reason.”

Like many followers of York, a former Black Panther who preached ideas of black supremacy and mystical Islam, Lopez and her mother believed even his most outrageous claims. Over the years, York claimed to be a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, to be a member of the Sudanese royal family and to be an extraterrestrial.

“He lied constantly,” Lopez says. “But everyone looked up to him as the spiritual imam of the community.”

“All the Pretty Dresses,” another installation in the “What’s Your Elephant?” show, concerns one of York’s lies. It’s a sculpture of Lopez wearing a gold-and-purple dress, a reference to the cult leader’s manipulative “reward system” of giving soda and clothes to the most obedient girls. “We’d have to perform sexual things on him, and we’d get candy and T-shirts,” Lopez recalls.

For her performance-art video “Caressed,” Lopez appears nude and partially cloaked in shadow, her body bound with wire that presses deeper into her flesh as she recalls one conversation with York. She asked him about an unfamiliar phrase from a song lyric — “caressing your fingertips” — to which York replied, “When you’re older, you’ll find out.” “How was it fine to [be molested], but I’m not mature enough to grasp ‘caressing your fingertips’? ” Lopez asks in the video.

Lopez created “What’s Your Elephant?” five years ago to confront her past, but she’s since used the exhibit’s premise to prompt local artists to reveal the uncomfortable “elephants” in their lives, she says. Artists can submit works for the show through July 23, and Lopez is partnering with Stonewall Gallery in Wilton Manors to present a “What’s Your Elephant?” workshop on Aug. 2. Since her television interview aired, Lopez says her struggle has inspired friends to create fundraisers to cover the exhibition's costs.

“When we hold things in and feel isolated, we always have art to heal us,” Lopez says. “I share the elephants in my life in the hopes that other artists share their own.”

The “What’s Your Elephant?” exhibition will open Aug. 18 at 1310 Gallery inside Sailboat Bend Artist Lofts, 1310 SW Second Court, in Fort Lauderdale. The show will accept artist submissions through July 23. Admission is free. Go to NikiArtStudio.com/Whats-Your-Elephant.


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