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Making Art, Finding Identity

When Manik Nakra was an economics major at The University of Texas at Austin, he never imagined pursuing art in any serious way, preferring just to “splash paint around” as a hobby in between classes. When a college professor offered to buy some of his pieces, Nakra thought, “Really? Okay.” And after graduation, he decided to get serious.

In between his 9-to-5 job as a cartographer at GeoSearch Environmental, Nakra was quietly working long hours searching for his own artistic voice. “I just retreated back into my studio and just worked,” he recalls. “I would go to art shows, not talk to anyone, just look at the art and come back home.”

Though Nakra was born in the United States he attended elementary school in his parent’s native India. “Now there [are] Wal-Marts in India, but back then it wasn’t like that” he says of the country’s modernization. “Like my dad, his family died in a monsoon, and my mom would have monkeys just come in to her house. She tells me stories of when she was a little schoolgirl [and] hundreds of monkeys would be waiting to walk home with the kids because the kids would give them fruit. That’s gone, though.”

Sitting at the Wright Bros. Brew & Brew on a recent Saturday afternoon in jeans and a T-shirt with a hamburger illustration on it, Nakra admits that as a young, displaced American boy living in India, he was more concerned with why he couldn’t have pizza and watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles than with appreciating the more traditional India. It was only as an adult that he reconnected with “old” India and, in doing so, “really started developing my voice as an artist.” Says Nakra, “That’s when I really started concentrating on Indian imagery.”

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Nakra, who still works as a cartographer, has unparalleled drive, taking on and completing wildly ambitious projects like his recent series “THE TIGERING!” which consists of over 400 individual renderings of the kills attributed to the legendary Champawat Tiger. He has put out zines with creative collective Raw Paw, and is working on a mural for the new south location of Michi Ramen. He put out a “best hits” book of his tiger drawings, and collaborated with AmanKouture to turn those images into a clothing line.

“I’m never not working, like in my head,” Nakra says. “I don’t think any artist is never not working.”

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Claudia Gizell Aparicio-Gamundi is certainly always working. “I like to keep busy,” she says humbly over tacos and coffee at Habanero on Oltorf Street. Working full time as a designer at the Sanders\Wingo Agency, Aparicio-Gamundi — who strikes a rare balance between being both effortlessly cool and incredibly warm — is also a member of Puro Chingón Collective, and serves as co-program director of AIGA Austin. “I get to be creative with work, and that’s rad,” says Aparicio-Gamundi. “But what I do for myself is much more personal. So a lot of the work that I do has to do with immigration and identity and how you identify yourself. I’m queer ... so a lot of time my work is about that.”

Like Nakra, Aparicio-Gamundi uses her art partially as a way to reconnect with her culture and explore multiple identities. Born and raised in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico, Aparicio-Gamundi moved to Dallas when she was 15, believing she was only coming to Texas for a visit. “My mom was engaged to man that lived in Dallas, and so we would come and visit,” she explains. “This time around she was like, ‘We’re staying.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god. What about my dog? My friends?’ And the very first day she took me to school they put me back two years. It was definitely culture shock. Now, basically all of my work is nostalgia for that time … by the water, up north in Mexico.”

It’s not uncommon for artists to create conversations between their art and identity. But for both Nakra and Aparicio-Gamundi, their work is more than a personal journey. Both artists also feel strongly that it’s a way to contribute underrepresented perspectives to Austin’s art scene.

“I’m basically just practicing going back to my roots,” Aparicio-Gamundi explains. “That’s the way it’s been for awhile, getting back in touch with who I am, basically, and putting it — somehow projecting it — onto everything that I’m doing. I really wanna do more [to] focus on diversity.”

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One way Aparicio-Gamundi is working to diversify Austin’s art scene is through The Puro Chingón Collective, which she founded three years ago along with James Huizar and Claudia Zapata. The collective produces zines, eclectic designer toys and seriously epic parties, among other things. “There’s an enormous void with the Latino community and I think they aren’t represented [in the art scene] and so we decided to take it upon ourselves,” she explains.

For Nakra, it was a similar need that drove him to explore Indian imagery in his work. “As I was teaching myself about art, I noticed when I was going to art shows I was the only brown person,” says Nakra. “That’s when I was like you know what, I’m really gonna push Indian imagery because if I don’t I have this rich culture and heritage that I come from, and I [need to] acknowledge it in my art.”

CREDITS

Photography by Leann Mueller

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