Favianna Rodriguez Encourages Students to Incorporate Activism into Artistic Mediums

Erin Davenport – The Center for Civic Engagement and the Bonner Scholars Program partnered to invite artist-activist Favianna Rodriguez to campus.

Rodriguez is the co-founder of Culture Strike, a group created to “increase the capacity of migrants and marginalized communities to tell new stories in new ways” towards the goal of “inspir[ing] new artists and audiences with visions of social justice.” Aside from founding the artistic group in 2011, Rodriguez has also lectured at over 200 schools about the intersection between art and civic engagement. She spoke about her last few months: “I’ve been trying to change [this travel-heavy schedule] because I’m using so much fossil fuels flying around the world….in the whole year, I travel to at least 30 cities.”

As part of her visit to campus, Rodriguez hosted “Reproduce & Revolt: A Social Justice Poster Workshop” on Monday afternoon. Catherine Cartier ’20, who attended the poster-session, described her experience. “Rodriguez encouraged us to make a poster that we would like to see, one that would make us feel like we belong here, but also one that would recognize and represent the people we collaborate with, whose identities may intersect and differ from our own.”

Cartier’s poster features graphics of the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, and a dove, all overtly political symbols. Reflecting on the experience, Cartier added, “I decided to make this poster ‘Freedom for what?’ March 20th marked the 14th year since the U.S. invasion of Iraq and, with the launch of missiles into Syria over the weekend, I was thinking about recent US interventions, and questioning the rhetoric which positions these interventions as part of a nationalistic quest to spread ‘freedom.’ What and who is this ‘freedom’ for? Why do drone attacks that kill hundreds in Yemen, Pakistan, and other countries, receive so little public and media attention from U.S. citizens? In this sense, like Lady Liberty shown on the poster, we are silent to this violence.”

According to Cartier, attending the workshop was a way to create a tangible representation of questions that she has been pondering, including: “…as a U.S. citizen white cis person, what am I using my ‘freedom’ for, if not to speak out and try to change this legacy and everyday reality of violence?”

Other students also felt impacted by the event. Gloria Nlewedim ’17 said, “The event was amazing. She went over some of her work from the past and explained the power of imagery and the simplicity and complexity of a lot of her work. It made me appreciate the power of art as social justice and the idea that there is a lot more behind an image than what you physically see.”

Explaining her desire to have both a postermaking session and a keynote address, Rodriguez explained, “Art has to be created and done. I believe in embodied leadership where you actually go through the motions of making stuff, so that’s why I always try to have a hands-on art making activity because it allows people to think about ‘Okay, I see the theory of art as social justice, and now I can also make my own’ and it breaks this idea that ‘I’m not an artist.'”

Rodriguez’s address occurred in the 900 Room; she focused on how artists have the ability to enact social change on issues of racial and migrant justice. The talk began with Rodriguez mentioning that the last time she was in Charlotte was in 2012 when she protested at the Democratic National Convention against President Barack Obama’s deportation record.

Rodriguez followed that anecdote with additional personal background, describing her childhood in then-dangerous Oakland. “It’s now been totally gentrified,” she reminded the audience. She spoke about how California has seen a drastic change in its receptivity to immigration in her lifetime. When Rodriguez was growing up in the 90s, she felt a massive anti-immigration movement, but she now points to the fact that California gives healthcare to undocumented residents.

A theme of Rodriguez’s lecture, which she posited after explaining her background and context, was the connection between culture and politics. She argued that culture must change before political change can be realized, so she thinks art is just as important as any other form of activism. Rodriguez specifically mentioned how traditional activism can feel reactionary, as protestors are waiting to be pushed to the brink before they respond. She counters that artistic expression allows minority communities to envision a different future, thus it takes a more positive approach to social change.

Marlene Arellano ’17 added, “Hearing Favianna talk about the purpose of storytelling through her art was refreshing. Her words were the most unapologetic thing I’ve heard in my nearly four years at Davidson so it makes me wonder why, as a campus, we’ve yet to fully embrace the label ‘activist’ despite the continued commitment of so many individuals to issues of religion, documentation, sexuality, and their intersections.”

Rodriguez herself responded positively to the visit, explaining that “What I really love about Davidson… is that students here really feel like they’re social entrepreneurs. It feels like the school is really supporting social entrepreneurship.” Further- Following the poster-making session, Cartier (second from right, seated) and Rodriguez (fourth from right, standing) pose with Davidson students. Photo by Erin Davenport more, she referenced the work of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative on-campus, saying, “I like that it’s moving beyond theory to practice and that there’s a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. People here are really set up to go out and practice these ideals.”