INTERVIEW: JUSTIN FAVELA AND ¿QUIHÚBOLE?
Las Vegas-based artist Justin Favela is a featured artist at Fusebox Festival 2019 and has landed in Austin to install ¿Quihúbole? on the façade of the Festival Hub. Favela’s work draws from art history, popular culture, and his Guatemalan/Mexican heritage. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Studio Arts from UNLV and has participated in exhibitions across the United States. Recent exhibitions of note include the group exhibition Tilting the Basin: Contemporary Art of Nevada at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno; Con Cariño: Artists Inspired by Lowriders, at the New Mexico Museum of Art and the Denver Art Museum exhibition Mi Tierra: Contemporary Artists Explore Place. I called him up recently to talk about everything from piñatas, art history, family fiestas, and our mutual love for podcasts.
Kaila Schedeen: I first saw your work Fridalandia at the Denver Art Museum a couple years ago now, and I still show people photos of it. Something that I’m still drawn to with that work is that it felt so joyful, while at the same time it was clear that it was tackling some really complex issues of identity, stereotypes, and the hierarchies that exist within the art world. Could you talk about how that work came about and what your involvement in that exhibition Mi Tierra was like?
Justin Favela: Yeah, that piece has many different layers conceptually. I was really thinking about this idea of nostalgia and longing for home. Especially when you are a first-generation immigrant, and a lot of times your parents have this fantasy of their homeland, and then you go back to visit and it’s nothing like you expected it to be as the child of that immigrant. That’s where the fantasy, the Frida fantasy—Fridalandia—came from. I’d been looking a lot at pop culture and how that represents certain countries, and looking at our history. I’d been making work about José María Velasco’s work—he used to do a lot of romantic landscapes of Mexico back in the nineteenth century, and his work was looked at as a symbol for the nation. Fast forward to Frida. Frida and Diego and a lot of artists of the time were also doing the same thing with their work. Again, thinking about pop culture and representation of culture within the media, I immediately thought of the movie Frida. So what I created for the exhibition was the movie version of Frida’s garden from the Casa Azul, so it’s removed from what it actually is, which is the same idea behind a painting. It’s the idea of Mexico through popular culture, or through popular media. There were also recreations of certain Pre-Columbian artifacts that I copied from the museum’s permanent collection into paper, so that was another element of that install.
KS: How did the idea of using piñata paper come about?
JF: I’ve been making objects for many years before this, kind of blowing up these symbols of Latinidad and Chicanismo. I was doing lowriders or giant piñatas for a long time, and then I started to think of the piñata not as an object, but as a medium. So I started making these “paintings” that are like paper collages, or paper mosaics, so using the piñata was a way for me to highlight certain art as a way to celebrate it, but also to take it apart, to deconstruct it, and maybe to highlight the exotic or romantic messages that are behind the work that are sometimes overlooked. There’s another element to it, which is doing these installations with the piñata is almost an institutional critique about visibility and representation. A lot of times with my installations I take up as much space as I’m allowed to. For example, with the Denver Art Museum, I’m like, which gallery is mine? Ok I’m going to take up every inch of space in that gallery and cover all these white walls with color.
KS: What kind of relationship do you have to art history and museum spaces? I can see that it’s complicated, but you’re also making these references to people like Kahlo, Velasco, and Michael Heizer, so how would you qualify this relationship you have to art history, as this institution that upholds these sorts of hierarchies?
JF: Yeah, I think I’m always reacting to art history. I’ve always made work about it ever since I was in art school. In the beginning before I was making piñatas, I was making a lot of cardboard versions of art historical pieces, almost like spoofing art history. When I learned about minimalist art from the 60’s, it was really funny to me. I was like, how do all these white men get away with doing all this stuff? So I would make these carboard versions of Henry Moore’s, or Carl Andre works, or a Richard Serra, or you know, have a party with a piñata in the middle of one of Michael Heizer’s earthworks as a critique on institutional inclusion. I’ve always wrestled with art history. Then when I started learning about my own heritage and history behind Latin American art, then I was able to make a bigger statement, or a different statement. Most of us who go to art school are taught the white canon, we’re never really taught Latin American history unless we take a specific class. If you just go to your assigned art history classes and don’t go beyond that you’re never gonna learn about Latin American art…other than Frida, right?
So I think making art about my own personal identity, it has led me to learning about my own history. I’m half Guatemalan, half Mexican, so I still haven’t dived into Guatemalan art history, but I’ve been able to take Mexican art history classes after I graduated school, just to really see art from a different point of view.
KS: I have a related question about identity, because it does seem like it’s at the forefront of a lot of your work. With shows like Mi Tierra and the label “Latino,” which often identified with—and that identity being one that is obviously rich and generative for you—do you ever feel like being labeled Latino artist first, rather than American artist, or rather than something else, is more of a fraught label?
JF: It’s tough. When I was in art school as an undergrad, I knew that if I made art about being brown, about being Latino, that I would get more attention, and I knew it was going to be because of that. So I actually stayed away from doing that for a few years. And then of course as soon as I made my first piñata piece, people were going crazy about it, as expected, right? Because that’s the art world.
It’s been an interesting time thinking about that, because of the political climate of America the last four, five, ten years really…Latino art has really been highlighted because of what’s happening between our country and Latin America on the border. There’s been a lot more institutions paying attention to artists with Latin American roots, so there’s plusses and minuses, right? Are they only commissioning us or curating us into shows because of our skin color, or because of our biography? Absolutely. Is that wrong? Yeah, because if curators only see artists because of their identity and not because of the actual work, I think that’s problematic. But…on the other hand, it’s given a lot of us the opportunity to have these platforms and the experience of having these institutions actually listen to what we have to say, and better their practices after having a show about Latinos. Having a show with Latinos in it every five to ten years, an inclusive institution that does not make. You actually have to include people of color all the time to truly be serving that community.
It's almost what Frida was doing—she was exploiting her own identity to make moves within the art world, and I feel like that’s what I’m doing a lot within my own practice at the moment. But I think if you’re aware of that dynamic, you can at least be a person that talks about things openly and changes the dynamic. Instead of just exploiting Latin American artists, that they’re celebrating us in the correct way.
KS: What sorts of figures—artistic or in your personal life—do you look up to?
JF: Well, I’ve always looked up to my family. I think I decided early on in my art career that if my family didn’t understand what I was doing, I needed to rework my art, because I think accessibility is really important when it comes to the art world. I think it should be more inclusive of everyone. Whenever I make work, I think about my grandmothers, and I think about my youngest cousin, and I think to myself, would they understand what I’m doing right now? Could I explain this to them? If the answer is yes, then I’m on the right path. I think that helps me and challenges me to make work that’s not just for art world people. I think that’s so boring.
KS: Definitely. Speaking of family, I wanted to ask you about the Family Fiesta, which you briefly mentioned. I’m curious about that and some of the other performances where there’s this sort of impetus to create these popup community gathering spaces in areas where there might not necessarily be one. I’m thinking especially about Family Fiesta when it popped up at Michael Heizer’s Double Negative in Nevada. I’m wondering how that performance started, and then more broadly, how do you see performance aligning with your larger practice?
JF: That performance has evolved. The first one that I did was at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, and it was an idea I had because they were having a family weekend on Day of the Dead weekend, and I was thinking about the idea of authenticity, and family, and parties. I had attended a few “Mexican” themed parties, and I always thought it was so offensive. They asked me if I wanted to propose a workshop in the museum, and I said instead of a workshop, can it be some sort of activation where the public interacts with me? I thought about having a cookout, or a fun fiesta would be perfect activity. Originally I was just going to do the party by myself with all the elements of a family party, but then there was enough money in the budget to actually fly my family out.
KS: That’s awesome.
JF: Yeah! So I flew out 15-20 family members and friends for that original Family Fiesta. The piece again was about taking up space, and institutional inclusion, about who the museum is really for and what these spaces are about. I also had this idea in the back of my mind…I always wanted to make an artwork about the fact that when a minority group, specifically Mexicans here in the Southwest, or in Las Vegas, if they find a nice space to have a family event, they will usually use it and take it over. When it comes to a public park, or a public space where you’re allowed to have a cookout, and a lot of times, like we saw a couple years ago with BBQ Becky, people get mad because minorities are taking up space within a community or a public place. So it was this idea of putting my family in this institution to see how that would change the dynamic of the museum, especially if we had a party at the entrance of the museum. Claiming that space is hard—having the permission to do that is so important.
Family Fiesta just keeps evolving. The next one we did was at Double Negative, and I wanted to talk about Land Art, and could it actually be used for Family Fiesta? Or is it just a monument to patriarchal white supremacy? Yes, and yes, it could be used for both. My family ended up loving it out there, and there was enough shade because of the canyon that we were able to hang out for a little bit longer. The next few have been at museums. They’re usually at institutional art places.
KS: I want to switch over to talk about the podcast you’re apart of, Latinos Who Lunch. So who is Favy Fav? And how did the podcast with Babelito get started?
JF: Favy Fav is my internet name. We used our internet aliases at the beginning because my co-host is an art historian in academia, so he didn’t want to have to filter himself. We started the podcast almost three years ago now, and it was because I’m an avid podcast listener, and I would listen to all these shows and none of them represented queer Latinx people. I just wanted to hear two people that talked like me and my friend on a podcast. I was able to find that in Black media with podcasts like The Read, or Another Round, I think those podcasts are super important. So I decided to start my own. When I found Babelito I had never met a Mexican art historian. That was so refreshing to be able to talk with somebody about your own culture, your own history. We would have these really long conversations at coffeeshops and finally one day we were like, we should start recording. And that’s how “Latinos Who Lunch” came about.
Piñata Motel. 2016. Paper and glue on existing motel. Photo: Krystal Ramirez
KS: I also want to talk about the new Fusebox Festival Hub. I’m super excited to see what you’re doing with it. Do you have plans you can share for the space?
JF: Yeah, so I’ll be covering the façade of The Fusebox Festival Hub. As a place where people are going to go to meet, I’ve kind of stuck with this idea of open communication and the exchange of ideas. I was thinking about my recent trip to Guatemala and how text messaging and Whatsapp have really changed the communication between me and my family. My grandma who’s in her eighties texts me everyday, and when I was in Guatemala I was texting her pictures like “Hey, I’m at your childhood home. It’s amazing.” So what I’m going to do for the Hub is make a collage to zoom into a text conversation with me and my grandmother, or me and my mom, and then have that be an abstracted image that I piñata The Hub with. And then The Hub place itself is going to be called ¿Quihúbole?, which means “what’s happening?” in Spanish. And it happens to have the word “hub” in the middle of it, which is awesome. So the piece has all those different elements, and I’m just excited to do another big architectural piece like this because it gives me the opportunity to learn from an installation again.
KS: I have one last question, and it’s a rather large one. Going down to the core of your work, what do you hope that people take away from it? What sorts of conversations do you want your work to start?
JF: I hope that when people see my work, they see themselves. I think it’s really funny, a lot of people don’t know I’m the artist sometimes and they’ll make a comment about my work when I’m in an installation, and they’ll say, like, wow this person had a lot of time on their hands. Or they’ll say stuff like this is just paper, I could do this, or my kids could do this. And I think that’s awesome! I’m like, yeah, you could do it. Thankfully I have the privilege of having enough time on my hands to do this, and so do you if you really wanted to. But I like this idea of people finding my work accessible, and that has a lot to do with the materials I use. It’s just cardboard and paper. Anybody has access to that, you know?
I think that laughing and having fun is really important—bringing some kind of joy, and letting people in on the joke when they see my work. My work does deal with some serious topics, but at the end of the day, I want people to have fun in museums and see something cool. Something that makes them think and something that puts a smile on their face too.
Kaila Schedeen is a second year doctoral student in art history at the University of Texas at Austin, where she also received her undergraduate degree in 2014. She specializes in contemporary American art, with a particular focus on Native American and African American artists within the United States and the Caribbean whose works examine the intersections of identity. While working on her Masters at the University of Delaware, Kaila held positions in Special Collections and at Mechanical Hall Gallery on campus, as well as Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library. In these institutions she assisted on the exhibitions Lasting Impressions: The Artists of Currier & Ives and ReSoundings: Garth Erasmus and Siemon Allen. Kaila is currently the Collections Management Assistant at the John L. Warfield Center for African & African American Studies at UT Austin.