We are all in this together: Favianna Rodriguez and the ecology of social movements

The redwood trees that tower over the UC Santa Cruz campus are glorious manifestations of an ecosystem built on symbiotic relationships. The mighty redwoods, the iconic banana slug, the small sorrel are all interwoven in their existence and survival. 

Favianna Rodriguez’s solo exhibition at the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery, “Power From The Roots,'' draws parallels between the interconnectedness of the redwood ecosystem and principles of mutual aid. This concept, people coming together with shared responsibility and respect to address common challenges, resonates throughout Rodriguez’s work. 

An Oakland-based artist and activist, Rodiguez is renowned for her impactful social justice posters. In “Power from the Roots,” she illuminates the deep connections between critical social issues–climate change, migration, gender justice, racial equity–and the ecological landscape that we share with our more-than-human neighbors. 

The exhibition, which opened on January 9 and will run until March 9, is thematically organized around portraits of local species of plants and animals alongside activist posters. Rodriguez’s iconic image of a monarch butterfly is displayed next to migrant justice posters, while her portrait of a coho salmon is positioned alongside decolonization and food justice posters. The arrangement exemplifies the exhibition's theme of exploring activism from the roots.

Martabel Wasserman, the curator of the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery this year, emphasized the unique connections Rodriguez draws between activism and the environment. Wasserman explained, “Power from the roots refers to the idea of understanding power on a systemic level … It's easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless as we're facing so many interlocking systemic crises. I think what's inspiring about this show is to see the important role art can play in social movements and the ripple effects of just one person expressing themselves.”

The exhibition also highlights the gallery's commitment to student involvement. Chancellor's Undergraduate Intern (CUI), Malia Reid, a third-year History of Art and Visual Culture major, played an important role in exhibition planning. Reid's efforts culminated in a Zine that provides a connection between the artwork and different themes. She described the Zine as "another way for students to engage with the story behind the work."

Reid explained, "It’s beautiful how [Favianna] turns these very complex and important issues into a full body of beautiful graphics and art. Through the art form, students are able to confront topics that are more difficult and challenging to deal with. I feel very lucky that we have this space where we can get these ideas out to students in a visual way."

Part of the gallery has been turned into a makerspace during the exhibition, and Reid leads an art workshop for students every Friday to explore themes and tools used by Rodriguez in her work. 

Founded in 1966 at Cowell College, The Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery has a long history combining art, activism, and education. 

“The art that we promote goes beyond the gallery and goes beyond being just a visual space,” said Shelly Grabe, associate provost at Cowell College. “We try to make it multidisciplinary and help students understand the social topics that are being taken up through the art.”

The namesake of the gallery, Eloise Pickard Smith, was an artist and founder of the California Prisons Arts Project who felt art could contribute to social change. In honor of its founder, the gallery is hosting a year-long sequence on art activism, focused on women activists and artists. 

“Favianna is an artist who works doggedly on issues related to inequity,” explained Grabe. “She is a brilliant, truth-telling powerhouse. There's so much integrity in her, lining up with her values and the contribution she wants to make in the world.”

Rodriguez will provide insights into her decade-long artistic journey and activism during an Artist Talk on February 7, 2024, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Stevenson Event Center, Stevenson College.

“Favianna is really an amazing example of someone who hasn't compromised her message and has been able to build a career as an artist,” emphasized Wasserman. “Being able to hear from someone who's done that is an inspiring opportunity.”

The exhibition, artist talk, and related events at the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery offer a unique opportunity for the entire UC Santa Cruz community to explore the roots of critical social and environmental issues and be inspired by the catalytic power of art towards the social good.

If you are interested in supporting the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery and its initiatives, please reach out to Shelly Grabe at sgrabe@ucsc.edu

"Power from the Roots: In Conversation with Favianna Rodriguez" is scheduled for February 7, 2024, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Stevenson Event Center, Stevenson College.

Favianna Rodriguez: Power From The Roots will be on view January 9 - March 9, 2024

at the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery, Cowell College.

Gallery hours: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from 12 p.m. - 5 p.m.; Thursday from 1:30 p.m. - 7 p.m.; Closed Tuesday and Sunday

The exhibit is co-sponsored by The Humanities Institute, Dolores Huerta Research Center for the Americas, Institute of Arts and Sciences, and Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) Initiatives