By Jessica L. Peña Torres
Justin Favela is a mixed-media artist whose work draws from art history, popular culture, and his heritage. Favela will be creating “¿Quihúbole?,” an art installation at the Fusebox Festival hub the week of April 15-21. Last week, I talked to Favela on the phone about his creative process and what he has in store for his installation at the Fusebox hub, which will activate, or “piñata,” the space by drawing upon the colors, aesthetic, and materials of piñatas.
Favela has been working with piñatas for over 10 years: “I was thinking about my identity as an artist of color.” To Favela, who is half Guatemalan and half Mexican, there is a downside to creating work that reflects his identity as a Latino. “Everyone will see me as a Latino artist. White people can do what they want—they are the default in America.” He was drawn to the piñata as a symbol that represents his Latinidad but also had a presence in America. The materials of the piñata engaged him because the piñata, after all, is a traditional element of Latinx culture that has permeated the border. To Favela, the piñata is a paradoxical symbol: one of violence—in the hitting of the piñata—but also of celebration—we break piñatas at birthday parties, posadas, and anniversaries. Favela started with an idea for a single piñata and ten years later, the piñata has become his primary medium of creative expression.
As far as his work for Fusebox, he will be creating “¿Quihúbole?” on the facade of the hub. “Quihúbole” is Latinx slang for “what’s up,” the phrase from which the phone app WhatsApp got its name. Inspired by his own WhatsApp messages, Favela thought of how people communicate, especially now, since the internet has changed the ways we talk to each other. “I feel close to my family in Guatemala because of WhatsApp. It’s a useful tool. It brings us together. It reminds me that there’s no borders,” said Favela. Since the Fusebox hub serves as a communication haven for artists, Favela will look into his own WhatsApp messages with his family and translate them into a design for a piñata that will cover the façade of the building. “It’s going to take me three days,” Favela said. With help from some local friends and volunteers, he will complete this project during the first days of the festival for the attendees to enjoy.
“Do you think of your art as a performance?,” I asked him. “I think of every art as performance art,” he said. For Favela, creating art is a part of who people are. Like Andy Warhol and Frida Kahlo, who wore clothes that acted as uniforms, Favela is interested in letting people know when he is performing as his artistic persona to create work.
Thinking ahead to the reaction of the Austin audience to his work, I asked Favela “How has the reception for your art been in the different places you have worked?” He responded that reactions differ in each location. “Sometimes my work is not looked as art, but decoration […] It depends on the attitude of the people that are looking at the work,” he said. If the art is displayed at a museum or a public building, people might look at it differently than if displayed on the streets. And “who is your audience?,” I wondered. “I decided that I was done doing art for art people,” Favela affirmed. For him, the most important audience is his family, his people, and himself. Because he focuses on the personal to create his work, he tries to keep it relatable. “Whenever I make an installation, I make it for my grandma. If she doesn’t understand what it is, then I’ve failed.”
“And what about your process?,” I asked. Trusting his intuition, Favela starts with an idea, which then develops until it becomes an entire concept. Working with installation, his sketches have to be ready ahead of time, so the project can come to completion. He conducts a lot of research before the sketches are drawn. For example, a couple of years ago, he got the idea that he wanted to make replicas of Tex-Mex food. After some research, he decided to make a giant pile of nachos (20 ft. tall). For Favela, nachos represent the globalization and the appropriation of Mexican culture. Since this snack was invented right in the border, it relates to Favela’s identity, which is continuously contested between Mexico and the United States. “I proposed the idea for a show in the UK. So I went to Ireland and made a giant pile of nachos.”
Because of his frequent travel, Favela gets to meet a lot of people. In addition, Favela is a host of two podcasts: Latinos who Lunch and The Art People Podcast. As a host, he converses with people about their lives and seeks suggestions on what to read or listen to: “I like to listen to a lot of oral histories.” Through conversations and interactions, he conducts research organically. All of this combined makes for a rich pool of information which he can then mine for future projects.
“I’m excited to be in Austin,” Favela commented. “As soon as the work is up, I’m going to party, enjoy the city, and the festival.”
Jessica L. Peña Torres is an M.A. student in the Performance as Public Practice Program at The University of Texas at Austin where she is studying ballet folklórico through a social, political, and cultural lens.