Favianna Rodriguez combines art and activism in interesting ways. A native of Oakland who grew up in the Fruitvale District, in the past few years she’s taken a cue from her iconic butterflies and metamorphasized into one of the United States’ most compelling and widely-recognized visual artists, as well as one of its most outspoken.
Rodriguez has long been a crusader for women’s rights, immigrant rights, people of color rights and social and environmental justice, known for poster campaigns like “Politicians off my Poontang” and her recent work on behalf of undocumented workers, “Migration is Beautiful.” (Her fine art posters, clothing and earrings are available online).
Much of Rodriguez’ art has been overtly political. Yet in her new show, “Transmutation” (currently up at the Solespace gallery), she moves away from her familiar agitprop niche to find power in personal reflection and inspiration, while still being subversive – albeit more subtly so. It’s her first exhibition in Oakland in more than a year and one which is resplendent with rich and vibrant colors, lines, and forms.
“Often in the case of politics, we’re so limited by the conversations that are set by those in power. So if those in power are talking to me about being a Latina, then that’s the only context that I can define my life in. Instead, I want to explore my life and my creativity and all the bounds around me which is in all the visual language: lines, form, color.” -Favianna Rodriguez
The night of her gallery opening, Oakulture managed to chat with the pint-sized powerhouse about the artistic evolution of her creative process, her affinity for sex-positivity, and the encroachment of gentrification – and what artists can do about it.
With “Transmutation,” Rodriguez says, “I’m actually working a lot with form and color, and moving more away from just my overt political work and moving more into abstract work, trying to convey messages that don’t have words. I think it’s important, you know, as a woman of color and just as people of color, that we explore all aspects of our creativity.”
Moving away from in-your-face political statements, she says, was a conscious choice. She wanted to get beyond her comfort zone, to explore unknown territory and work outside of a predictable box.”People often expect very overt political work from me, because that’s what I’ve been used to,” she explains.
“But I also want to explore other aspects of my expression, and really delve into that as a practice of self-reflection. In these particular series, I’ve been much more loose, I’ve been doing things I’ve never done before and making time to just purely experiment,” she adds.
A giant painting which covers the gallery’s entire back display wall, she says, came out of her self-exploration in the realms of polyamory. In a matter-of-fact tone, she explains that she’s been having sex. Lots of it. With different people. Simultaneously.
“Recently, I’ve been engaging more with the poly community, and the act of loving many people at the same time, men and women, really inspired me to do a piece about how awesome it is to sink your face into titties and pussy and cock all at the same time, and I was so inspired by that, that I said, I want to transmit this energy into my work.”
(Note: Rodriguez is a professional artist. Try this at home at your own risk.)
In her new show, she says, “I’m exploring that, what it means to be fluid and what it means to be uncomfortable with the things that I’ve traditionally set as my boundaries.”
As a result, she says, “There’s more sex positivity flowing through my work, and also, I think as a sexual being, I’ve been exploring more and doing things I never thought I would have done. And that’s exactly what I’m doing with my art: doing things I haven’t done before and not being afraid of not being predictable.”
In the process of exploring her sexuality, she notes, she had to face her fears and anxieties, “often getting very uncomfortable and scared on how it’s gonna turn out, but taking the leap nevertheless.”
But she did so with the intention of bringing her personal experiences into her professional life. Her art is no longer purely literal; it glows with an inner strength which goes beyond sloganeering. It’s almost like she’s bottled up her most joyful O-faces and used them to paint with. It’s all part of her road to liberation, of recognizing that our personal experiences can be inherently political, if they result in meaningful change.
“You know what’s a trip?,” she queries. “I think that often, in the case of politics, we’re so limited by the conversations that are set by those in power. So if those in power are talking to me about being a Latina, then that’s the only context that I can define my life in. Instead, I want to explore my life and my creativity and all the bounds around me which is in all the visual language: lines, form, color. And it’s interesting that so much of myself has self-centered that, because I think that it’s almost like a luxury or it’s almost a practice of self-expression where I’m not somehow serving my community. But in a way, that’s how oppression works, is that it doesn’t help you think of yourself in a very liberated context. I’ve been struggling with that as a human being and now my practice is reflecting that.”
Rodriguez is clearly following her bliss, by reshaping her art into that which occupies an exalted personal space. But what does it mean when communities are being displaced from spaces they’ve occupied for decades? We asked Rodriguez her perspective on the artist community’s response to gentrification, a topic which she had much to say about.
She tells the story of how, for her current show, she was working with a printmaker in the heart of SF’s Mission, where there are many Latino families who still own homes, and during the midst of the process, one of her close friends got evicted. That led her to research gentrification through zip codes. Her investigation led her back to Fruitvale, the community she grew up in.
“My area code in the Fruitvale… is where gentrification ends,” she explains. “From 40th on down, they haven’t felt the impact. But it’s only a matter of time.”
She then relates how her normally quiet father commented about the influx of new people moving into the barrio. “My dad doesn’t say much, he’s just a man who’s been guarding his lawn since 1992, when we bought the house in Fruitvale, and he said to me, ‘Favi, who are all these white people who are running their dogs?’ He’s never made a comment like that about anyone, and the fact that you’re noticing that means you’re aware there’s a shift happening in your community that you just don’t quite know how to explain.”
That conversation, she said, became a flashpoint: “it just marked a moment with me.”
In typical Rodriguez fashion, she put on her activist hat and broadened the conversation, discussing the situation with her artistic peers: “I’ve been talking to people and thinking about how artists can more intentionally fight gentrification. Because often artists are the beginning of the wave which is to come. It’s sad but it also points to the need to put in measures, because the pace of gentrification is something that’s happening much more rapidly than it was five years ago even!”
What artists can do, she says, “is create intentional spaces where community members can talk about this, and can think about how they are affected in their lives. And how can their sentiments around their feelings of displacement and frustration, or even their questions around what they’re seeing, be translated into a practice of art-making. So that we’re able to at least heal through our art and eventually take those stories as a record of what’s happening.”
“Transmutation” runs thru December.
This weeks picks:
Oakland Local 2013 Holiday Party & Community Voices Awards, 12/11, 6-9pm, $20-$500, Classic Cars West, 411 26th St.
Sonido Baylando Internacional, 12/13, 10pm-3am, Cloud 9, 1320 9th, Berkeley
East Bay Bike Party Presents: Pirates vs. Ninjas, 12/13, 7pm, Rockridge BART
“Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer” 12/14, 7pm, $8, Solespace, 1714 Telegraph Ave.
SambaFunk Presents “Joy III” Holiday Party, 12/14, 7:30pm-2am, $10-$15, Shadow Ultra Lounge, 341 13th St.
“Skin” feat. DJs Cecil, Aebledee, Nina Sol, Diaztek, Son of Son & Special Guests, 12/14, 8pm, $5-$10, Venue Oakland, 420 14th St.