What do you see when you look at this image?
The visual itself is simple enough: a woman and child, a house, Earth. Bold and bright colors, a cityscape outlining the globe’s peripheries, an inquisitive look on the child’s face, who is being clutched tightly by the mother. There is something about this print that makes the viewer linger as they begin understanding the clear message of the print, accurately titled “Defend Your Home, Defend Your City, Defend Your Planet”.
Despite its simplicity, this piece translates a powerful story about protection of and connection to Earth, our universal home. This is a recurring and intentional theme in work by internationally renowned artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez, whose vibrant prints and digital artwork focuses on race, migration, globalization, gender equality and environmental justice.
For a special conclusion of the 2017 Better World Series, LoaTree invited Favianna to lead an event for the final Wave: “Art as Activism”. With over 20 years of experience as a printmaker, cultural advocate, and community organizer, the Oakland-based artist came to Santa Barbara to discuss art as a tool for building a better world at our Casa de la Raza event on November 9th.
Growing up in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, Favianna grasped the concept of environmental justice at an early age. Fruitvale lies along the 880-freeway intersecting an airport and the Port of Oakland, where diesel trucks idle and plane emissions fumigate the air with extreme levels of pollution — amounts that still prove 80-90% higher rates than other parts of the Bay Area. The stark difference between air quality in Fruitvale compared to the money-laden Oakland hills sparked Favianna’s passion to fight inequality as a systemic problem. Through her journey, she has solidified a theory on how to drive social change through three critical keys: culture, economy, and policy.
As an artist, Favianna plays a role in culture, which is what shapes our identities and how we connect to each other. Culture is created by narratives, and according to her, “those who tell the best stories are those who shape policy.” Favianna was inspired to create counter-messages to the media stories she saw growing up to better reflect the world she lives in. She wanted to shed light on environmental injustice in Fruitvale, create safe spaces for vulnerable communities to find support, and give a voice to underrepresented populations. This is where her Migration is Beautiful Project came in.
Favianna calls upon the power of symbols as being tremendously effective to activate individuals in cultural change, particularly underscoring the importance of simplicity to connect with wider audiences. Recently, amid fear-based messaging found in anti-immigration posturing, Favianna created a symbol of hope, life, and clarity with the message: “Migration is beautiful.” Regarding this symbolic approach to a hot-button, polarizing issue, Culture Strike says, “The butterfly image and tagline serve as an approachable way to reimagine borders as permeable rather than militarized, reinvigorating a metaphor that many migrants have looked to for generations.”
Looking at a more historic use of symbols/symbolism, Favianna points to the first moon landing in 1969 and the earth’s ‘Blue Marble’ shot of 1972 as important historical and cultural symbols. This latter image, an image of Earth from the outside and unfamiliar perspective of space, galvanized a deeper understanding of our relationship to the universe. In the years that followed, the environmental movement began taking shape. Earth Day was created, along with critical conservation policies such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Earth Day has since evolved into a cultural ritual to discuss our relationship with the planet, which spurs new ways to interact with our environment.
Using the environmental movement’s cultural evolution as an example, we have seen environmental efforts translate into an emerging and powerful social economy. The for-profit sector is now brimming with eco-friendly business, generating a significant amount of economic prosperity from green and sustainably-minded innovation. Sustainability has created trends in everything from the energy sector to luxury automobiles to fashion brands. Sure, solar panels, Teslas, and Patagonia jackets can be considered trendy — but their success hinges on a market created by the culture of the environmental movement. Most recently, when outdoor retail brands such as Patagonia, REI, Northface, and others publicly criticized the federal government for moves to withdraw millions of acres of public land from protection, these brands are leveraging their political power that is a direct result of the new social economy at plan.
Policy, the third component of Rodriguez’s social change theory, oftentimes takes longer to catch up to the other two. While there is no doubt we have stronger environmental laws than in the 1970’s, years of protections and conservation efforts are now at risk of being rolled back. Millions of Americans doubt or deny climate change, and their uncertainties are reinforced by policy makers uninterested in environmental health. Millions more are simply complacent in the wake of increasing environmental and social degradation.
Favianna argues that there is a cultural shift that needs to happen to get everyone on board to affect political change, and that symbols are a key strategy. “We need visual depictions of the world we want to see,” she claims, which is why she strives to share her own vision of the world with us through her art. Favianna’s work reflects real issues in society, but rather than translating them through a lens of doom and gloom, she uses positive and playful symbols to spark the pressing conversations we need to be having. When communities begin these conversations, it spreads to cultural spaces, to economic spaces, and ultimately, to the political landscape.
Looking forward, consider the world you want to live in. Imagine what it looks like, what people value, and the forces that work together to make this possible. What symbols can you think of that inspire people to be good, caring citizens of the planet? Let’s incorporate them into our everyday life — maybe these symbols come out as action that inspires others, language that empowers those around you, or ideas that ignite innovation. You don’t have to be an artist to make an impact; all you need is a vision.
Couldn’t make it to Art as Activism with Favianna? No worries — we recorded her lecture so everyone can hear her words on justice, climate, policy, culture, and how to use art to leverage change in each of these issues.