Friday, January 16, 2009

Favianna Rodriguez: Political Digital Artist and Printmaker

"I think about how many times I didn't like the color of my skin, because I didn't see myself in any art. I think about how hesitant I was to become an artist, because I didn't see role models, and even to this day how hard it is for me sometimes to find peers who are women of color, because of how systematically they are pushed out. And I think, I don't want that to be the situation in another 50 years. I think that's something I want to leave with everyone is that we have the ability to do many things, not just what is within our categories, or our boxes."
--Favianna Rodriguez

Below is the edited transcript of a Big Vision Podcast interview from November 13, 2008 with Favianna Rodriguez, a political digital artist and printmaker based in Oakland, California. Utne Reader named Favianna one of their 2008, 50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World, and she recently received a Sisters of Fire Award from the Women of Color Resource Center. Favianna is the co-founder of the EastSide Arts Alliance and Visual Element. She is also the co-founder and president of Tumis, a bilingual design studio serving social justice organizations.

For people who are unfamiliar with your work, how do you describe your work?

I'm an artist and an institution builder. As an artist, I feel like I'm breaking boundaries, I feel I'm not the traditional artist that just works in their studio. The kind of art I do is art that gets engaged into the public. Whether it's my posters in the street, or books that I'm publishing that are getting out to bookstores, or workshops, or my speaking in different universities with different young people, I really see art as a way of changing our communities. I think that we have to be very innovative in how we do that, and that includes building institutions, doing actual art, having art jams, and just getting people involved in the artistic process. My favorite thing out of all of the things I do is being a printmaker, and doing a lot of posters around political causes.

What are the issues that you're the most passionate about, and that most of your work revolves around?

The issue that I'm most passionate about, is being a woman of color. As an artist, in the art world, I have seen how systematically many women artists are marginalized, and artists of color are even more marginalized. I think that it's a shame, because art, I think, is a human right for anyone. Everyone is entitled to art in their life. Art is what helps you be a critical thinker.

I really see my role as someone to break into the field and always demand accountability and really look at, "How are these art institutions serving people in this country when the demographics are changing very rapidly?" Yet, the art world does not reflect that.

In my content, I really like talking about the fact that I'm a woman of color, and how it is that through that perspective I grapple with many things, whether it's being in the business world, or being in the art world. Everything from dealing with my sexuality, to dealing with what it means to be an independent woman, and an entrepreneur. I do a lot of things around identity.

Can you describe your creative process?

I'll start with some examples. In 2006, we had these huge immigrant rights marches happening all over the country. Actually, my parents were the ones who told me. My uncles and my aunts, they said, "Favi, we're going to go march. We really want you to come." It was a surprise for me, and at the same time I saw all these symbols of the American flag.

As someone who's kind of an activist, an anti-war activist, I really had a problem with that. And I said, "Well, I want to create a poster around what we, as immigrants, are demanding. Like, we want amnesty for the billions of undocumented workers here that are working so that Americans can have a cheap lifestyle." I did a poster around that.

Similarly, for International Women's Month. I was working with the Women's Building, and they were doing a play around how, as women, we have two sides. We have the side that's constantly struggling with all the media messages we get. And the other side that's just very much around ourselves, and who we are, not caring about any of those things. So, I did a piece, kind of an autobiographical piece, of myself looking in the mirror and just releasing all the messages that I had been conditioned with.

I feel like I get inspired by everything that's happening around me. I think that it's too bad that our stories are not in the common language of arts and entertainment because I think our stories can be very powerful - the stories of an immigrant family, of a single family, of a family who's organizing, or fighting evictions, a young woman who's questioning her sexuality.

All those things, I think, are really powerful stories, so my process is that I like to take those stories and do something beautiful with them, which is a piece of work. I work in multiples. I don't do one painting. That's why I'm a printmaker. I do works on paper so that I can distribute them to schools and community centers, and just post them up in the street.

Who are some of your influences?

When I was growing up, and I said I wanted to be an artist, many of my teachers showed me Picasso and Matisse, and a lot of white European men. Of course, back then, I realized that they didn't look like me, but I didn't quite understand the fact that the entire art world looked like that, and that it was going to be years of me looking at that.

I learned about Frida Kahlo. I learned about artists like Yolanda Lopez from San Francisco, or Ester Hernandez, or even male artists like Malaquias Montoya, who were doing very radical work, and were getting into venues and areas that I really wanted to get into.

Frida, I think, a lot of her work, even though people constantly try to de-politicize it, a lot of it deals with this Mexican identity, it deals with globalization and so, of course, she was one of my inspirations. Many political poster artists gave me the power, and the confidence to know that I could paint, myself. I think that is really important.

If you think of artists like Gaugin, or artists who paint naked indigenous women-- as women it's easier for us to get into a museum if we're naked in a painting. What does that do to a young woman who wants to be an artist? What kind of messages do you get?

I got a lot of those messages, and I decided I want to do things more around how I'm struggling with those messages. I want to do things around people getting pushed out of school and the school system not serving my peers. Or the violence that's happening in my community, or the fact that immigrants are fighting for equal rights. Even stuff around "green."

I feel like, as artists, it's our responsibility to make a commentary on our contemporary society. That is the most powerful art, when you're able to see what's happening around you, and do something of your time.

Can you talk a little bit about your new book, Reproduce and Revolt, what inspired it, who should buy it, etc.

Well, the new book was a really interesting project, because as a political artist, the art that we were seeing for many years was stuff from the '60s and '70s. Even if you think of the hammer and the sickle, that's still a symbol for labor rights, but people are working on computers, they're janitors. They're working in the service sector. It's no longer applicable. It's the same thing with graphics that have to do with social justice. They're outdated.

In the '60s and '70s, you had this huge outpouring of political graphics. We went into the '80s. With the '80s comes Reagan, and people like Jesse Helms, who said that art shouldn't be political, and was actually very repressive, and censored a lot of art.

Then, we move into the post-Reagan era. We move into what happened on 9/11, and you start having this rise of artists responding to the war.

When I started seeing that rise - I think in the late '90s, early 2000 - artists were starting to create a lot more political artwork, but we were all isolated from each other, because we didn't have the social justice movement, like you had in the '60s and '70s, to bring us together.

Every year, after 9/11, you saw increased art. Bush, I think, has been one of the biggest inspirations for artists. The amount of artwork that has been done in response to Bush's policies is amazing, because artists said, 'I'm going to say something about this. This is so bad that I have to say something.' And that created a whole kind of birthing movement of political art.

Around three years ago, my fellow collaborator, Josh MacPhee, reached out to me, and he had this awesome idea. We said, "OK. We're putting out a call, and we're asking people to submit artwork on everything from prisons to military, to the war, to the environment to being vegan, to biotech foods, women's stuff, everything." Every single topic you can imagine was on there.

Initially, we had 500-600 entries, over a few years. Then we decided, "You know what? We can no longer be America-centric. We need to make this bilingual, and we need to really encourage more artists from Latin America." I mean, look what they're going through. How could we not open it up to them?

So, we did. We translated the call. And before you know it, we had over 1000 entries. We selected the best, and the most representative in a way that's gender-balanced, and balanced in terms of what countries it's representing. We created Reproduce and Revolt, which is really a toolbox. The purpose of this toolbox is for activists, and just people, art lovers, to have a selection of images that reflect the 21st century - the politics of the 21st century.

We have images there on transgender stuff, on biotech stuff, on media monopoly, on a corporatized war - all these things that you may not have necessarily seen in the '60s and '70s, but that are issues now, so we have to create artwork around it.

It's a collection of graphics. And all the graphics in the book are royalty-free, which means that you could reuse them. And we're putting them all online so that people can download them and use them at will.

We're also crediting the artists, because another thing that has been a problem is that artists are not always properly credited. Especially in movement work, there is this almost push to be anonymous. But, we didn't want to do that. We wanted users to have a sense of who was creating their art, where they're located, what they do, and their bio.

I encourage everyone to get it, because we also have an essay on the history of the black-and-white political graphic, and tips on how to create design for social justice movements. Everything from thinking about - who is your audience? What is your messaging? What are you trying to say? How is it that you are a responsible political artist? That means that, for example, if I'm somebody who's straight, and I'm doing artwork about a gay community, what is my responsibility in fairly and accurately representing those issues, when I'm not in that community?

It's a great resource, for teachers who are looking for source material for art projects, for activists, and just for people who are interested. Art lovers in general.

You do a lot of work with young people and young artists. Can you talk about why you do that work, and share a success story about how a young person doing this kind of art has created change for themselves, or for their community?

I work with a lot of young people, and it's interesting to me that, at any given moment, you sometimes cannot measure how you impact a young person's life. I know that many of the young people I work with were not necessarily youth that were going to go to college - or even youth that were going to go to art school, for that matter. They were more youth who were on track to go to jail, sometimes, and who were struggling, in and out of jobs, sometimes in and out of jail.

It's amazing to me how much art can give anyone a voice, the ability for them to be able to talk about, and to have an outlet for what they see happening in their community. Many of my young people now say, "Oh, Favi, I'm starting my own little art business. I'm painting murals here on the side," or "I decided to go back to school."

One kid, his name is Bunthoeun Hack, I remember meeting him. He was part of my arts program, and he didn't want to leave his Nintendo. I remember having to walk into his house and saying, "You know, dude, I'm going to teach you how to paint a mural. Come paint with us." He said, "No, no, no, no, no." And I said, "Come on, dude. Just give us a chance."

Anyway, he was very young at that time. He was 15. Throughout the years, he became one of our best artists. Eventually, he helped me open my business, along with my former business partner.

He was such a transformational figure for people in his community that the Dalai Lama came and named him an agent for peace, because he went from being a kid that witnessed, and even sometimes participated in all this violence, to being someone that was an advocate for peace and such a demonstration of what personal transformation is. Later, he became my business partner.

I always look for the young people that have become discarded, if you will, by some institutions, especially by schools. A lot of these young men I feel are unjustly tracked into a juvenile justice system, and later into prison. I think that they can produce some of the best art.

They will, with proper training, mentorship and guidance, be some of the most powerful artists. I mean, that's what happened to me. I never went to art school. But, I had people who gave me skills. and who gave me the self-confidence to be able to have that voice.

Can you talk a little more about the path that brought you to this work?

My parents were immigrants here in the '70s. Of course, like many immigrant families, they wanted their daughter to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or something that would really bring status to the family. Early on, I knew I wanted to be an artist. They were able to put me in free after-school programs here in the neighborhood.

Actually, I'm thankful that, while I was never able to go to those art camps, or anything like that, I was exposed to a lot of community artists, and that formed my ideology around art and how accessible it was.

I ended up going to college, trying to be an architect, because, again, I was one of those honor-roll students. My parents put a lot of time, money, and resources into me and my brother so that we could be excellent students, we could get into all those colleges - that kind of kid. I was that kind of honor-roll kid.

I went to Cal with the intention of doing that, because that had been something that was so ingrained, of being a "professional," if you will. That's the language that is always used - that you have to be something "professional," that you have a "profession."

I started learning architecture, and then I realized that school's really expensive. And I was like, "Wow." I ended up dropping out. I decided, "You know, I'm at UC Berkeley. This is one of the best schools in the country. But, something is not working for me."

I think, at that point, I really decided to actively pursue my art, and actively be an entrepreneur and open my business, because I saw my family always run business and I wanted to do that.

I decided that, "Hey. You know what? I'm not going to," in art school, because, at Berkeley, I wasn't in any art classes or anything like that. I decided that I was going to reach out to the mentors and the adults who I could learn something from.

Little by little, I feel like I got this huge set of skills. I think that now I'm a professional artist. Even though a lot of people don't like to think of art as a profession, necessarily, I feel like I'm a professional artist. I'm able, at a young age - I'm 30 - to pretty much have art sustain me.

When people think of what an artist does, I think there's a big misconception. I think that people think that artists are just creating. In reality, artists are only creating maybe 20 percent of their time. The rest of the time, they're adminning; they're working with galleries, with institutions, with schools.

I think that I am someone who is an entrepreneur, in the sense that I run my own business, and I run a web-design firm named Tumis. I'm able to apply the things that I learn in business, and the connections that I make into my art.

It's such a powerful tool for me, because I'm able to look at, "OK. What works? What doesn't? How do I fail and how do I succeed?" Trial and error. All these things that you actually don't even learn in art school, I feel like I've learned.

That's my story. I know that many people do go to art school. I do see that as a legitimate thing, but at the same time, I think there's something to be said when people take the tools into their own hands and really go after what they want to learn, and go after the people who will teach them that, through mentorship, through apprenticeship. That's really what I did.

What advice do you have for people who are listening and who are aspiring political artists?

Well, first, as artists, I think we have a really bad rep, and I think we have bad habits. I say that because I've gone to so many artists' meetings. I mean, I work with so many artists, and I feel like we almost have this ingrained way of thinking of what an artist is.

We are at a time when arts funding and arts programming is getting cut everywhere, across the board, and so we have to be innovative with our models. We have to think about things like audience development. We have to think about how do you reach people you think you may have nothing in common with, and to really think strategically around our art.

I mean, art is not just something that happens that can be beautiful. Art, like anything, even like math, there's a process to it, and there are ways that you can leverage the most out of it, and that you can engage people you never thought you could have engaged.

But, it takes research. It takes you understanding things like, who's your market? It takes you thinking big, thinking, "If I was to reach the people that I would most want to reach, who would they be? Would they be women? Would they be lawyers? Architects? Parents? Single moms? Greenies? People who do yoga? What are they?" Think about who you're trying to reach, how you're trying to reach them, and think, "What are the steps I can take to do that?"

In business, you have to plan out your next few years. You always have to think ahead. As artists, sometimes we have this thing of, oh, "We have this Bohemian lifestyle," or "This should just be free." It actually ends up really hurting us. I don't think we should think like that.

I think, as artists, just like in any career, you have to be a planner. You have to think about where you want to go with your art in the next few years, and think about how you can reach a larger public. Don't just limit yourself to the galleries. I don't show at galleries a lot. I show in community centers, in streets. My artwork is in many places, including, now, my artwork is even going to go to a youth court. I think we have to be more innovative.

I have always tried to work with my fellow artists to think of ways we can lead ethical lives, which means that we can live the values we talk about in our work as political artists, collaborate with each other. Collaboration is also a big cornerstone of doing political graphics.

And, make an impact with them. If you make this beautiful piece around somebody's suffering, and yet it has no impact on that actual struggle . . . I think that if you're talking about political issues, you have to always figure out how they're going to trickle down to the very communities you're depicting.

Is there anything else about your work or that you haven't gotten to talk about that you wanted to share?

I want to say that I'm a very multidimensional person, because I think the other thing that happens to political artists, and women-of-color artists, even if you're a woman artist, a Latino artist, whatever, you get put in this category, and there are expectations built around what you should produce. I think that that can be very dangerous.

I know that I'm also an abstract artist. I do a lot of things where people say, "Well, where is the political message in that?"

I feel like what happens a lot to us is we get put as two-dimensional characters. Even if you look at entertainment - Latinos are very two-dimensional. And it's not about that. We're a multidimensional kind of people.

I think that the most powerful thing I can do, the most anti-oppression thing I can do is to exercise that and be able to say, "You know what? I don't just do something called political art. I do art that can be very universal, to anyone." I took my artwork to Japan, and to Mexico City, and to places where you think, "Well, you know, I'm not dealing with people in East Oakland." But, art is universal like that. I mean, you can cross so many boundaries.

What I've learned from that is that I really want to think big with where I'm going and what it is, what kind of impact I want to do. Do I want to be somebody like Frida? Of course. I don't think that's thinking too big. I think that we shouldn't think in the context of what things have been done before us. We have to think about how to do things that haven't been done - new models - because those are the things we leave for the generations to come.

I think about how many times I didn't like the color of my skin, because I didn't see myself in any art. I think about how hesitant I was to become an artist, because I didn't see role models, and even to this day how hard it is for me sometimes to find peers who are women of color, because of how systematically they are pushed out. And I think, I don't want that to be the situation in another 50 years. I think that's something I want to leave with everyone is that we have the ability to do many things, not just what is within our categories, or our boxes.

For more information about Favianna's work, go to and check out her blog at

You can watch a talk she gave last spring as part of a panel, "The Political is Personal: Contemporary Women Artists and Political Expression," on the Artists Talk blog post, Favianna Rodriguez on Political Art, Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, 2008.

An additional interview with Favianna is available on Ilvox's post, Laying Bricks to Build Social Change: An Interview with Favianna Rodriguez & Josh MacPhee.

Cross-posted from

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