An artist’s journey through time
For 34-year-old Oakland artist Favianna Rodriguez, merging activism and art is something that comes natural. The curly-haired industrious champion of the disenfranchised is unafraid to speak her mind, verbally or through her colorful prints and digital art. Although she’s won many awards, Rodriguez has a genuine humility and calmness about her that belies her firebrand spirit and her in-your-face work.
Her Peruvian parents met in Oakland in the early 1970s where they settled in the Fruitvale neighborhood and raised their children amid a community rich with Latino culture and political awareness. As a child Rodriguez learned about social movements at Centro Infantil school. Her art journey began in a children’s program at the Spanish Speaking Citizen’s Foundation where she was taught by Chicano muralists.
But in the early ‘90s, 14-year-old Rodriguez began to feel trapped by Oakland’s growing violence. In the eighth grade, after friends were beaten and sexually assaulted, Rodriguez’s parents agreed to her request to go to school in Mexico City.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life, because in Mexico I was not seen as an outsider,” Rodriguez said. “All the education was about me. I learned about Simón Bolivar, El Che, the muralists. It felt so relevant to me and it made me realize that in the U.S. young Latinos are treated as outsiders. The history is not ours. We are always on the sidelines.”
After three years she returned to the U.S. and enrolled at U.C. Berkeley, majoring in architecture and Chicano Studies. She began exploring art and the Internet, learning to code and build websites. Three years later she left school before getting her degree to explore art on a deeper level. When she couldn’t get into art school because she lacked formal training and a portfolio, she decided to learn on her own.
“I really am a champion of being an autodidactic,” she said. “Especially now with all the cuts, you have to go outside of the institutions.”
In her quest, she worked with Xochitl Nevel Guerrero, an Oakland artist who taught her to have a voice as an artist. Other mentors included Bay Area artists Yolanda López, Ester Hernandez and Jesus Barraza. She soon extended her network to Los Angeles when she met Yreina Cervantez, Barbara Carrasco and Diane Gamboa. She also worked with author Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez on her book, “500 years of Chicana Women’s History.”
“They all gave me the confidence to know that I could do anything I wanted to do,” she said.
A turning point happened in 1999 when Rodriguez got her first print made at Los Angeles’ Self Help Graphics.
“Going to Self Help Graphics was like walking into art heaven for me. It is the place where Chicano and Latino artists thrive. And they loved my art.”
In 2001, she and artist Jesus Barraza created TUMIS, a multi-purpose design and web-consulting firm with a mission to help communities of color. On a wave of tireless creativity and organizing, Rodriguez went on to establish the Eastside Arts Alliance, Taller Tupac Amaru, CultureStrike and Presente.org, a national organization working to promote the voice of Latino communities.
According to Rodriguez, Latinos are six years behind the technology curve. She saw the massive 2006 immigrant marches as a missed opportunity to use tech tools.
“That’s why I started Presente.org, because I saw it as an opportunity to really leverage our power via technology, ” she said.
While many people see her art as empowering the Latino community, Rodriguez said it’s larger than that. “It’s about serving humanity, about serving mother earth. It’s about serving all of us and not just a few of us.”
And she is not afraid to take on her community when they oppose issues like gay marriage.
“As an artist it’s important to know that sometimes your work has to be groundbreaking. Sometimes it has to disturb people—get people mad.”
As a result, pro-military people attacked her post-9/11 anti-war work. Her pro-immigrant stance was attacked when she taught a class at Stanford University. And, she’s gotten “slut bashed” for promoting an alternative way to think about sexuality through her “Slut Power” and “Pussy Power” series.
But Rodriguez is prepared for the backlash: “My arguments are pretty sound so I can explain all the positions of my work. It’s okay for people to feel uncomfortable.”
She was honored at the recent Chicana/Latina Foundation awards where she spoke about sex positivity and her personal experience with abortion.
“When I began to do posters about coming out with your abortion I felt like I needed to speak my truth and just be honest about it. That was a turning point because I got so much love from my own gente,” she said.
After ten years of non-stop work Rodriguez is ready to take a break, but then, a list of projects come rolling off her tongue: “I want to develop more story-based medium. I’m getting bored with art that you interact with and that tell a short story. I want to do longer stories. I want to do graphic novels, short films, and write illustrated books. I want to take people on a journey.”
It doesn’t seem like this talented artist is going to slow down anytime soon.
Rodriguez’s work can be viewed at www.favianna.com
For more info on Favianna Rodriguez, please visit: www.favianna.com. You can also find more information about the different organizations mentioned at: www.tumis.com, www.eastsideartsalliance.com, www.culturestrike.net, www.tallertupacamaru.com, www.presente.org.