It’s simple for Favianna Rodriguez: There is no climate justice without racial justice. That’s not to say she hasn’t spent much of her life fighting for the rights of others — people, creatures and the planet itself.
In 2011, she co-founded an organization — The Center for Cultural Power — that has roots in Tucson. That movement grew into a national call for migrants rights at the height of the impact of Arizona’s anti-immigration law, SB1070.
The organization went on to inspire and influence artists like dream hampton, a producer, filmmaker and writer who would help mobilize musician John Legend to host a performance at the border in 2017, following the election of former president Donald Trump. The Center for Cultural Power supports artists by providing fellowships and other opportunities for engaging and connecting with cultures, communities or societal issues. The collective works to ignite change through art, intersectionality, justice and cultural strategy.
Based in Oakland, California, Favianna is a 45-year-old Latina and renaissance woman: Artist. Entrepreneur. Social justice mobilizer. Cultural organizer. Climate justice activist.
Favianna’s art and work centers her experiences as a woman of color through personal transformation.
Arizona Luminaria spoke with Favianna about “Desert Symphony: Mobilizing Creativity and Stories for Social Change,” her newest art installation. The piece, at the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center, focuses on the intersectionality of migration, climate change and the uniqueness of Tucson’s cultural and ecological home at the desert border.
Favianna will unveil her artwork on Tuesday, Oct. 24 at a 6:30 p.m. reception. The artwork is part of the Tucson Humanities Festival.
Favianna shared insights into the realities of artistic activism. She spoke about why she believes art can help people see the world in simpler, more caring terms, and center people in common ground on complex social issues.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Q: Going through your gallery online, one can say that your earlier work revolves around fighting and taking a stand. Some might say your art was brash and had more stress. Harsh with sharper edges. Your more recent works take more of a ‘take care of yourself’ and empowerment through self-care feel/stance. Softer with more movement and curves. The colors, though equally as vibrant, are also softer. Is that a reflection of your life and what you are going through, or of the art you are creating for a society that you see needs this softer approach in these times of crisis?
A: That’s a really wonderful observation. I really appreciate that you see the evolution of my work. I grew up in Oakland, California. I was very influenced by the Black Panthers. A lot of my teachers were men of color — Black or Brown men who were creating art that was very bold and direct and really incorporated the powerful black line. My mentor actually would tell me that if my art doesn’t work in black and white, it doesn’t work. And so for the first 10 years of my artistic career, I was creating posters in that style in the way of being bold and direct and high contrast.
A very important incorporation of the black line, which to me is the fundamental of printmaking because my teachers were doing screen prints. They were doing newspaper covers. They were using the Xerox machine because that was what existed. They were doing linoleum blocks, wood blocks, and that is how I got trained.
I would say, as I learned from more women artists and I embraced my feminine, soft side.
Our social movements went through a shift where it was not just about fighting and struggling. It was also around joy, pleasure and softness; my art has shifted.
I still make bold posters that are black white and red. I just actually finished a poster that stands against genocide and stands against the occupation of Palestine. I am using bold red and black colors because the moment requires that.
At the same time, I feel that as an artist my role is to create work along the entire spectrum of emotion. I think that for a long time we’ve been told that political art or socially engaged art has to look a certain way and I really resist that.
I think that I have been moving towards more curvy shapes and soft shapes because I want my language to evolve.
I want to make art about the land and the earth, and the land and the Earth doesn’t have sharp edges. It has all kinds of colors. It has soft edges. I want to make art about animals. I want to make landscapes that are about the places that I live and the places where I go rest and relax and so my art reflects that.
I make art about what it meant for me to have three abortions in my life and in that work. My colors are very soft and I can still talk about the right to my bodily autonomy and do it through softness, through a color palette and a use of shape that is about healing. And it’s about healing my generational trauma, but also my family’s generational trauma.
I’ve been doing art since 1999, so it’s been over 20 years. I would say about half of that has been my bold work.
Q: The timeline of your art, from the outside, seems like a smooth transition. But for you, was there a personal or professional pivot?
A: The pivot really happened after I came to Tucson.
It happened because I saw just how awful immigration policy was. That it was state governors who were pushing that.
I don’t always use a black line anymore because I have really entered into a phase of being an environmentalist and I am so inspired by nature.
I would say that nature has really changed me because there is no black and white in nature. There’s no binaries. There is a spectrum. That’s how I make art now.
Q: You say you really felt the change when you came to Tucson. Talk to me more about your decision to build The Center for Cultural Power here.
A: In 2010, when SB 1070 was passed, a musician who I admired and who I’ve previously known of his work, Zack de la Rocha, declared a strike for the state of Arizona. I think there were so many artists who were so appalled by what was happening.
I’ve always been involved with social movements and yet I haven’t always seen that artists are leaders or that they are able to mobilize other artists.
When I saw that writers were signing on to the strike of Arizona. When I saw that Zack de la Rocha was asking Lady Gaga to not come, and how an artist could use their influence and power as an artist to create ripples and to really say: We as artists can also take a stand.
That was tremendously inspiring for me.
I had already been working with the immigrant rights movement. There was a call out for artists to come to Arizona.
There were so many artists and social justice leaders there, and yet we as artists, we sort of need our own space. Because something that happens to artists is that often people want to use our talents but they don’t necessarily want to integrate us into the work.
So together with other cultural leaders like Jeff Chang, who is a hip-hop historian, we decided that it would be a good thing to bring all of our artists friends to Arizona and create an opportunity for us to just be artists and to learn what was happening here.
There was so many artists here making things, but I really wanted a space for us to also just absorb and to also understand how the stories of what was happening here could inspire us to do not just what we needed right in the moment, but, you know, a novel, a TV show, a comedy skit. How could we really be in community with each other?
Today, artists like my friend dream hampton or Kamau Bell tell me that that was such an inspiring moment because it shaped them for the rest of their lives. Kamau Bell went on to create a CNN series, “United Shades of America,” and did a short episode on the border. Hampton advised John Legend about how to make sure that when he talks about anti-prison stuff that he’s talking about the so-called detention centers, which are actually prisons.
We needed an organization that was about artists who wanted to engage in social justice because believe it or not, there are not a lot of organizations … connecting them to the front lines. That’s when my organization — today it’s called The Center for Cultural Power, but back then it was called CultureStrike — that’s when it was born.
I realized that this was something I wanted to lead. I still work with many of these artists and today we are a national organization of over 50 people.
I feel like we are changing the space of arts activism and cultural strategy. We are saying ‘Hey if you don’t have an artist at the table, we’re not going to win.’
Artists transform you, they work your imagination and we cannot have social movements without artists and yet that’s the norm.
This is a problem that my organization is looking to help solve. That’s what happened in Tucson and it’s a place that we’ve been returning to ever since.
Q: That’s incredible history to hear. You have talked about climate action versus climate justice. You’re intentional about this environmental perspective. In what ways are climate change and climate justice similar and in what ways are they different?
A: When we say climate justice, we are explicitly making the connections with racial justice. When you had the genocide of native people who were the original stewards of this land is when the climate crisis began.
The disruption of ecosystems at horrendous levels happened here during invasion, and why? For the consolidation of wealth and power. That is the exact same thing that continues to happen today.
The world view of racial capitalism is killing us.
Climate justice is how we need to be looking at this frame. Not just environmentalism, but justice.
Those of us who have grown up in polluted communities, in food deserts, we need justice. We need repair. We need repair for what was actually taken from our ancestors and we have to be a part of solutions.
That is why I am a climate justice activist, not just a climate change activist.
Q: Does climate justice vary or is it something specific to each place?
A: Climate justice overall, I think, varies in how the solutions happen.
Marginalized communities being a part of solutions with the recognition that they have been harmed for hundreds of years and the people who have benefited are the people who were part of the colonial superpowers.
So climate justice has an intersectional analysis like that that we cannot talk about environmental solutions without centering the most impacted.
Q: Your Desert Symphony installation is beautiful. How long has it been in the making and how does it differ from your past projects?
A: I have been working on this since the summer. I was really excited to connect with Robert Villa who’s a naturalist, and also a climate activist in being a knowledge keeper of non-human species in the desert.
What I have known, through my work in immigration, is that the border wall is not only impacting human beings, it’s impacting all species.
It’s impacting the jaguar. It’s impacting the migration patterns of birds, of many mammals who live here.
I think that we live in such a colonial, human centric world that has allowed for the exploitation of animals to the point that the amount of species that are disappearing every single minute is overwhelming. In my work, I really want us to understand that as human beings, we have to protect life.
In being able to show the roadrunner or the Gambel’s quail or the gila monster or the Sonoran toad, which is actually facing crisis because there’s a psychedelic boom that people think that they are gonna get high off this toad …
Q: Wait, so again, someone exploiting something?
A: Yes, exploiting something! I wanted to visualize them so that people can ask themselves. What is this beautiful little bird? What is it? What does it do? Why am I looking at it?
In my past projects I’ve done work like this in order for people to understand that some of these animals are really suffering right now because of human-made environmental disasters.
To protect life means to protect the natural world, to be in partnership with the natural. Not to dominate, but to be in collaboration. To really be in a regenerative relationship, because the repair and the reconciliation that we need to do with the natural world is very deep.
In my environmental work, I have taken a big interest in understanding the entire environment in order to shift narratives. So for this project, I wanted to concentrate on creatures that are impacted by border militarization, as well as the climate crisis and to elevate their stories. To work in partnership with people who are working for their protection.
Q: How does this installation, and your art in general, navigate the complexity between helping communities understand the gravity of our situation and at the same time, not lose hope?
A: First, is that I always present the root causes of what I’m talking about. When I talk about abortion, I talk about the lack of sex education. When I talk about me connecting to the beautiful landscapes in coastal California, I talk about the fact that I live in a polluted neighborhood. My family, my community has been relegated to the dirtiest parts.
In all of my art, it is always a reflection. Even when you see beauty, there is a connection to that beauty that is actually rooted in oppression and in pain that I need to heal from. That we all need to heal from.
Q: And in what way does that help people not lose hope in these times?
A: I encourage them to decolonize their mind. I tell them in the same way that I’ve unlearned, you can learn. This stuff is deeply deeply ingrained, you have to go to spaces to heal.
You need to build real friendships. You have to question all these things you’re seeing on television, which are dominant culture. I encourage people to take back their power through introspection. Questioning, focusing on themselves. Caring for themselves, caring for each other.
In a lot of my work, I encourage people to stand in their power. I think we’ve been told for so long that we’re not powerful, that we have believed it. That’s the core of my work.
This story is supported by an internship from the Resilience Internships and Student Experiences (RISE) Program at the University of Arizona.
Editor: Dianna M. Náñez Copy Editor: Irene McKisson Visuals: Teressa Enriquez and courtesy Favianna Rodriguez