Adrienne Skye Roberts at SFMOMA Open Space recently interviewed Bay Area artist Melanie Cervates, one of the minds behind the Dignidad Rebelde collective. The group’s graphics and posters have distilled the energy and spirit of a global movements into incisive, memorable images, and if you’ve been following any of the latest campaigns related to immigrants’ rights, civil equality and Occupy, you’ve probably seen their work. But they’re not trying to be a new vanguard; as this interview shows, the artists see their work as a vehicle for grassroots organizing, and the message of the movement is always in the foreground.
Toma las Calles! Take It to the Streets! An interview with Melanie Cervantes of Dignidad Rebelde
If it is true that there has never been a movement for justice without the arts, and I believe it is, then the recent history of movement building in the Bay Area exists in part through the work of Melanie Cervantes and Dignidad Rebelde, the collaborative project of Cervantes and Jesus Barraza. If you have ever attended a protest in the Bay Area organized by a coalition of social justice organizations and activists or the Occupy movement, you have seen their work: bold digital and screenprints depicting community members demanding justice and accountability, and telling the story of their struggle and resistance in their own words. Since 2005 they have created a prolific amount of posters illustrating the demands, successes, struggles, and resiliency of communities of color, immigrants, poor people, and those who continue to fight for self-determination in the face of state repression. These posters bring awareness to issues of immigration, the prison system, the history of colonization, and gang injunctions, and are created with and for those most impacted by the issues they depict. Cervantes and Dignidad Rebelde are, in so many ways, the face of the recent uprisings, or as some of us often say, the revolution.
Adrienne Skye Roberts: We are less than a week away from the major actions planned for May Day, International Workers’ Day. Can you describe the poster you made to promote the upcoming May Day actions?
Melanie Cervantes: I created the May Day piece called Toma Las Calles, or “Take to the Streets,” at the invitation of a cooperative effort called Indig-nación. This group of folks came together in response to the Occupied Wall Street Journal that was published in New York and written entirely in English. People had a strong response to the newspaper; they felt like it was a useful tool. Indig-nación wanted to create a Spanish-language newspaper with the same idea. They asked if I would create a poster for a Spanish-speaking audience, and later Occuprint reprinted the poster en masse.
I started researching May Day posters, and eventually I landed on a poster created by the Soviet artist Nikolai Kochergin, from 1920. The image was strong and had so much ideology behind. It featured three central figures: two men and one woman and children in front of them toppling over symbols of the old regime. The design elements, the use of shapes, and the format were super engaging to me as a viewer. I wanted to play off this historic poster with its basic structure of a circular background and grid pattern. I chose to use the Toltec stone stamp created 3,000 years ago. In this design, this juxtaposition of ancient and new imagery brings together printmakers across generations — pre-colonial, current, and post-colonial.
The characters I used are different races, multigender, to invoke a vision of a multiracial, cross-class movement that connects a lot of different people. The three figures are all looking in the same direction, so it is not a vanguard but a mass movement of people with a shared horizon. The crowd is based on a photo that I took at Occupy Oakland. It is always important to me to show a reference to the real movement in my images because that is where I’m at, that is where I produce from.
ASR: How was the process of creating the May Day poster different from or similar to your process of creating other posters?
MC: I categorize my work into two different groups. There are pieces that are more of an explicit collaboration between an organization and myself. A recent example of this is my work with Detention Watch Network, a national organization that builds awareness around mandatory detention for migrants. The poster is part of their visual campaign to call attention to how people are getting integrated into the prison industrial complex as a result of immigration laws, how criminalization and immigration are colliding in people’s lives, and how detention is affecting not just the people incarcerated but society at large.
Then there are pieces that are collaborations with artists. In another recent project, I collaborated with my partner, Jesus Barraza, and the poet Mark Gonzales to create a piece commissioned by Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts for the ”Current Preoccupations (Palestine, Oakland, and Arizona)” section of an Occupy Art class led by Jeff Chang. Our piece is a reflection on the triangulation of Palestine, Oakland, and Arizona. So, it’s very broad and it’s open to interpretation. When we collaborate with organizations, my belief is that we are collaborating with organizations that work with the people most impacted by the issues we are addressing. With an artistic collaboration, it’s more about working with artists who have something to say about what is happening in the world.
ASR: How does the function of the poster differ between the two different forms of collaboration?
MC: With the first one, there is clarity around the function: it is going to be used for promoting a standing campaign, with a clear strategy in place for how it falls into the organizing. It could be about promoting an event, a campaign, or a broad vision based in ideology. The artistic collaborations are more like, “Let’s create this, and then let’s see what legs it has in the world.” It is a little more esoteric in terms of its purpose.
For the full interview, go to SFMOMA’s Open Space blog.