In person, Favianna Rodriguez is nearly as eye-catching as her paintings and political posters. Speaking on a recent Wednesday at the Kala Art Institute — where she has spent two years as an artist-in-residence — the petite thirty-year-old raced through twenty slides in about fifteen minutes. She looked much younger than most people in the audience, with her spaghetti-strap top and shock of dyed-red hair shining like a geranium in bloom. Her slides showed a fierce but very considered body of work: Bright tints, bold outlines, weighty political slogans. A "sex positivity" poster featured an orange-brown woman with pink hair and squiggly facial features. A green-collar jobs graphic featured pictures of immigrant workers — one wearing a gas mask, another at a sewing machine — and the message "Green Is Not White." In another print made for a banned books exhibit, Rodriguez reinterpreted Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple by wedging a feeble, diminutive "Mr._" between two women's heads.
"When I read The Color Purple I was, like, 'Wow, I really want to show the story of these two women.' Rodriguez recalled. "On the left and the right you have the two sisters, and in the center the man who divided them."
Rodriguez' whole oeuvre is populated by women. They come from all walks of life: Some are sweatshop workers, others yell into megaphones, many are drawn in loud, sexy tints — vermillion reds, lemon yellows, the orangiest shades of orange. Even the women who look abstract or amorphous are part of Rodriguez' form-meets-content aesthetic. Taken as a whole, her work is partly about gender affirmation, but it's also geared toward a certain visual mythology of the oppressed. Supporters deem her a torchbearer, while detractors call her a propagandist — labels that can be equally damaging, the artist said. "I get asked a lot, 'Well, you're doing political posters, at what point does your art stop being political?'" she told the audience at Kala. "Honestly, I think that's a very narrow way to look at things."
It would be difficult for Rodriguez to create anything that didn't seem innately political, given her background and her anomalous role in the art world. Born in Fruitvale to Peruvian immigrant parents, she moved to Mexico City as at age thirteen to escape corrupting influences at home. "Oakland was a little dangerous for a teenager, and I was kind of going down the wrong path and hanging out with the wrong people," said Rodriguez. At the time, she identified more with Chicano culture than with her Peruvian heritage, having grown up surrounded by Mexican immigrants in East Oakland. She went to Mexico in search of order and stability, and instead found a rigid, traditionalist society that wasn't fast enough for her.
"I was too liberated," she recalled. "I was too Americanized for Mexico. I would hang out with a lot of boys, I would talk a lot of shit to boys, I would be very open with my ideas but in a way that was viewed as being too liberal. I would hang out with a lot of the queer girls — or the girls that didn't know they were gonna be lesbians in their future, you know what I mean? I would hang out with all the outsider kids. All the gay boys, all that. I would just hang out with all the outcasts. ... It was culture shock for me, but for everyone who interacted with me, they were probably like, 'Wow.'"
When she first got to Mexico, Rodriguez moved in with an aunt, and after that didn't work out, she started renting a room from an old woman. (During those years, she said, her mother would discipline her over the phone.) She now characterizes those years as a period of artistic maturation. Being an outsider was not necessarily a horrible thing — especially for someone whose later work would focus heavily on cultural "othering."
"When I was alone I would paint and draw, and it made me happy," she said. "I mean, think about it: When you're a teenager, you'd rather be hanging out with boys." It was during her Mexican sojourn that Rodriguez began to identify strongly with the well-known Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, who was famous for challenging cultural mores. "She broke boundaries around how to depict the brown woman body — I mean, she was just amazing to me. She was a cross-dresser, you know?"
Rodriguez repatriated to the United States her junior year and graduated from Skyline High School in 1996, then went on to study architecture at UC Berkeley at her parents' behest. (Most immigrant parents weren't too keen on watching their children flounce around in the arts, she explained.) She took one art class from the Chicana painter Yreina Cervantez, who introduced Rodriguez to printmaking (i.e., creating multiple impressions of a single work of art). At that point, Rodriguez decided to quit school and follow a new vocation. "What I loved about printmaking is that you didn't have a one-of-a-kind. In Mexico I was making these huge paintings and drawings, and that's it. There's just one of them. ... I don't like this idea of having one thing that's really valuable."
Given the political bent of her work, Rodriguez easily cottoned to the idea of reproducible art. After dropping out of Cal she launched several arts organizations, including the bilingual graphic design studio Tumis, and the muralist program Visual Element (co-founded with then-boyfriend Estria Miyashiro). She helped found the EastSide Arts Alliance, which later birthed EastSide Cultural Center in Oakland's San Antonio neighborhood. She began hanging out with graffiti artists, and said their go-it-alone work ethic rubbed off on her. In 2003, she started the printmakers' collective Taller Tupac Amaru with two artist friends, Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza. The three of them wanted to reinvigorate the medium of screen-printing, which, they decided, was one of the best ways to mass-produce political poster art.
Despite citing Frida Kahlo as her main historical antecedent, Rodriguez is a lot closer in sensibility to the graphic artist Emory Douglas. Her bold hues, scribbled lines, and photographic collages have the same tabloid-newspaper aesthetic that characterized his Black Panther images. She churns them out quickly. Rodriguez currently works at the rate of one commission a week, making posters for nonprofits and album covers for hip-hop groups in Mexico. Recently she began designing set pieces for the ShadowLight Productions, a Balinese puppet theater group. She displays a lot of her work on a chatty blog that also contains updates on agribusiness, fertility issues in the Latina community, and protests of oil and mining projects in the Amazon region of Peru.
During the Q&A portion of Rodriguez' Kala lecture, a woman asked if she had drawn any images for the 2008 Obama campaign. It seemed fitting, after all, for an artist whose work is so tightly intertwined with social movements. But Rodriguez said the Obama campaign was one thing she'd quietly sidestepped. "I felt like it was saturated, especially for some of the things I'm doing," Rodriguez explained. "I want to do stuff against corporate America ... globalization, free trade, and stuff. I just decided to sit that one out." She did, however, just print an image of Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor.
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