At a large studio in West Oakland, Favianna Rodriguez sifts through pieces of colored paper and begins arranging them in an abstract collage. Tacked up on the wall are a series of her finished collages, ready to be realized as prints. To produce a print, colored inks are pressed onto paper using an aquatint copper plate.
Her assistant has just completed a print with deep ocean blue and summery yellow shapes. “Yes!” Rodriguez cries as she admires the print, its wet ink still glistening.
Rodriguez is a prolific artist and activist, whose Latina-American roots inform her art practice. For the last six years, Rodriguez has produced a body of work titled Migration is Beautiful, now on view at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). Rodriguez’s prints, murals, and posters are political, visualizing the themes of immigration, racism, sexism and inequality. A recipient of the Robert Rauschenberg Artist as Activist fellowship, as well as the winner of a competition held by the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) in August, Rodriguez is about to embark on her first major public art project: a largescale glass mural to be installed at the Garfield public pool in the Mission district in San Francisco.
Born and raised in the Fruitvale to immigrant parents from Peru, Rodriguez said it was Oakland’s supportive community of artists and mentors who enabled her to become an artist herself. The murals and graffiti that animate the city streets and the rich political history of the Bay Area has influenced the type of work Rodriguez produces today. “I’ve always had access to a very political culture, whether it’s the free speech movement or the Black Panthers, or Chicano Power, or even the sexual liberation movements that were born out of the Bay Area,” said Rodriguez. “Those have all informed my practice. They’ve all influenced my work.”
Rodriguez developed Migration is Beautiful in response to the anti-immigrant climate she observed in the United States. The series consists of large murals of butterflies—a migratory species—overlaid with text and paintings of human faces. The faces, Rodriguez said, represent how immigrants are in search of one another. “I needed to be responsive to the anti-immigrant movement. I needed to create something that was about beauty and empowerment at a time when there was a lot of suffering from deportation,” said Rodriguez.
René de Guzman, senior curator of art at OMCA, thinks Rodriguez is one of the most important artists in the Bay Area. “She really symbolizes the strength of the creative community here,” de Guzman said.
Migration is Beautiful is part of the Metamorphosis and Migration: Days of the Dead exhibit at OMCA which celebrates the stories of immigrants to the United States. “There’s a real political impact when framed that way—to give migration a sense of naturalness, a sense of grandeur, a sense of beauty, and then hopefully those positive associations will be attached to that concept,” de Guzman said.
Though her roots are in Oakland, Rodriguez views herself as a national artist, and sees her work as a response to the challenges faced by marginalized communities. “My biggest interest is to make change across the country,” she said. Rodriguez travels giving talks, showing work, and participating in protests. In 2012, Rodriguez brought Migration is Beautiful to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, to advocate for a more humane immigration policy. Before that, she traveled to Tucson, Arizona, to use her art to protest the hotly-debated Arizona Senate Bill 1070, which enacted strict immigration laws in that state.
For years, she has also printed colorful posters with political messages, including, “The artist must fight for justice & peace” and “The war on women is a war on everyone.” Rodriguez also plans to work on projects on the effects of incarceration on immigrant communities and people of color. Her aim for these projects is “sort of to unify black and brown people,” Rodriguez said. “Because there’s so much division between the two communities right now, and yet our communities are impacted by many of the same issues.”
After winning a public art competition, Rodriguez will spend the next year working on a glass mural to be installed on the structure surrounding the Garfield Pool. The mural, Rodriguez said, celebrates the history of Latino families in the Mission, and uses colors and images reminiscent of Latin American art. Rodriguez’s design includes colorful natural imagery, Aztec and Mayan symbols of water, and images of a group of children dressed in swimwear and carrying a beach ball.
The mural, scheduled for completion in November, 2019, was commissioned to revitalize the pool grounds and to create a more inviting environment. Susan Pontious, program director of public art at the San Francisco Arts Commission, said the judges were looking for a design that would encourage the Latino population of the Mission to use the pool as a gathering place.
“There was a real interest in making the site feel more welcoming and inviting to that population, to make them feel like they belong there, to make them feel like this was for them and not for somebody else,” said Pontious. “The panel felt that her piece, because of the figurative elements of it and the figures looked like the people who lived in the neighborhood, would best achieve that goal of trying to really invite that public in.”
The mural is Rodriguez’s first attempt at using glass in her art practice. “My foundations are as a print maker, and yet I’m also really excited to delve into other spaces, like sculpture, or working more with wood or laser cut shapes. So, the glass mural is going to be an opportunity for me to do some learning and testing, but also for me to take my work to a whole other level and size,” said Rodriguez.
Art and culture are not tools for activism, Rodriguez said, but rather they are key components of social change, and it is up to artists to instigate those changes. “If we create the stories about the world that we want to have in the future,” Rodriguez said, “that is going to create the ripe conditions for future policy change.”
This article is part of a series profiling women artists and gallerists in Oakland.
Click here to read the profile of Pro Arts director Natalia Mount.
Click here to read the profile of ArtVale gallery founder Shoshana Zambryski-Stachel.