Third World Press Collective just had a great talk with sometimes-stencil artist Melanie Cervantes. Melanie and her husband Jesus Barraza crank out amazing political posters for many great causes. Years ago, Jesus told me that he learned how to screen print from old school printers who called the screens "stencils" (and acutally used stencils to occasionally put the image on the screen). I first met Melanie while photographing her stencils at the old Counterpulse space.
"Brown & Proud" by Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza (Stencilada 2009)
Feminist Fistbumps: Artist Melanie Cervantes Discusses Art as Decolonial Activism
Happy Monday! This week we move the arts conversation from the East coast (remember Maribel and Cristy, who are living in Brooklyn?) back to the West coast! Here is our latest interview with California-based artist Melanie Cervantes, who donated a fierce piece to the online art auction that was curated by Chris Davila in December.
Third Woman Press Collective (TWPC): Melanie, we know you’re really busy, and we thank you for joining us this week. Let’s start off by talking about your group, Dignidad Rebelde. Can you tell us a little more about it?
Melanie Cervantes (MC): Sure! Dignidad Rebelde is a collaborative space for building community and producing art. We believe that art can be an empowering reflection of community struggles, dreams and visions. Following principles of Xicanisma and Zapatismo, we create work that translates people’s stories into art that can be put back into the hands of the communities who inspire it.
We recognize that the history of the majority of people worldwide is a history of colonialism, genocide, and exploitation. Our art is grounded in Third World and indigenous movements that build people’s power to transform the conditions of fragmentation, displacement and loss of culture that result from this history. Representing these movements through visual art means connecting struggles through our work and seeking to inspire solidarity among communities of struggle worldwide.
TWPC: We love that! Y’all are located in the San Francisco Bay area, right? Are you originally from the Bay area?
MC: I’ve made my home in the Bay area for twelve years now, having moved from my hometown in Southern California. I was born in Harbor City and grew up in a small inland city called Lawndale which neighbors a wealthy, mostly White beach city as well as other working class cities like Hawthorne and Gardena. The funniest thing is that I now live in San Leandro with my partner, Jesus Barraza, and it is the city where my parents first met nearly fifty years ago.
TWPC: Aww, that’s so sweet! We guess it was meant to be then, huh? When did you get into creating art?
MC: As long as I remember, I have loved creating. I was surrounded by ingenuity and creativity my entire life. My mom used to sew all my clothes. She would let me dream up the outfits I wanted, and she let me choose the colors and fabrics I liked best at the Los Angeles swap meets that sold fabric that was left over from the nearby garment districts. I like to joke about how my dad was king of upcyling before hipsters gave it a name and made it popular. He would transform what other people considered trash into new treasures. So it came naturally for me to make things but it wasn’t until I was enrolled at UC Berkeley, where I met my mentor, Celia Herrera Rodríguez, when I claimed an artist identity. Calling myself an artist is a political decision I make to carve out space, to elevate my feelings and views on what is happening in the world. It allows me to have a conversation with my community through a visual language that predates written communication. The process helps create a space to build community and share ideas and visions with the world.
TWPC: That’s so beautiful and inspiring, Melanie. Celia helped curate the art for the third edition of This Bridge, published by Third Woman in 2002. What’s your favorite medium or material to work with?
MC: For years I wished I could learn how to screenprint. Even before I felt like I had the inclination to express myself as an artist. I was such a big fan of works by Chicana artists like Ester Hernández and Yreina Cervantez and Chicano artists like Rupert García and Malaquias Montoya. Their works entranced me technically and thematically. I started to learn about Third World Internationalism and the Chicano Movement visually before I ever read any of the histories. I first picked up Carlos Muñoz’s book Youth, Identity, Power because of Rupert Garcia’s artwork on the cover.
And it wasn’t until 2006, that I was finally able to learn the screenprinting medium at a local Oakland community college, and the medium was everything I imagined it to be. The bold, matte colors that were achievable were like candy to me. The ability to produce multiples so I could share the work I made with my friends, family and community make it my favorite medium.
TWPC: We know (first-hand) that you are very generous with your work. You truly do epitomize “community artist” for us. You donated a handmade screenprint titled, Tumbling Down the Steps of the Temple, for our online art auction last December. The piece was hot with bids, especially since it 1) was created by you and 2) featured two Xicana feminist icons: Gloria Anzaldúa and Coatlicue. What influenced your decision to help fundraise for Third Woman Press?
MC: Norma Alarcón, founder of Third Woman Press, was one of my professors at UC Berkeley. I remember researching schools online and reading about the Press and being enchanted by the idea of women of color coming together to create a mode of producing and distributing their works. It felt empowering. Growing up, I was limited to big box bookstores which rarely carried the kind of books I was really hungry for. When I learned about the efforts to revive the Press, I felt like Iwas in the position to help. I have benefited from so much of the thinking and work of muxeres who have published their work with the Press that it felt like a small gesture to help.
TWPC: Yes, Alarcón’s impact in the field of publishing by, for, and about women of color has been fantastically influential and empowering for many of us. We look to you and your art activism in much the same way. In what ways do you think art can help feminism and vice versa?
MC: Both feminism and art can serve a process of transformation and healing. I am most informed and interested in zero wave feminism (decentering White women’s feminism) and the world of artists working in community and collectively. I think these practices can help produce a set of works and tools that are effective for use in our liberatory, decolonial processes.
TWPC: Since you’ve helped us as we raise for money for the Press’s revitalization, what’s one thing you’d like to see us do?
MC: It would be wonderful to see an exchange or dialogue between different generations and communities produced. I feel like we have so much to learn from each other and it is only when we are deeply engaged in dialogue that we can grow our ideas and our movements.
TWPC: Absolutely. That intergenerational dialogue is happening now. One of the reasons we came together to work on the revitalization project is because we knew we had the opportunity to ask for guidance from our elders. We’re sure you’re often asked to give advice to young, emerging feminist artists. What do you usually tell them?
MC: I give them the best advice I was given myself, which was to keep working. Make art when you are inspired and have a lot of energy and ideas to share. But also make art when you are tired, or afraid or sick and tired of making art. Be disciplined in your practice because that art is a repeated exercise that evolves as we carry it out.
TWPC: Practicing art—and the overall act of creation—can certainly be healing for our selves and our communities. And we have to remember to take care of ourselves in this way in conjunction with other modes of self-care. We tremendously appreciate you and your commitment to making art and to decolonial activism. Thank you so much, Melanie.
Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza of Dignidad Rebelde are currently offering free downloads of Palestine solidarity posters in light of the ongoing massacre of Palestinians in Gaza. For more on Melanie Cervantes’s art and activism through Dignidad Rebelde, click here. Visit our blog again next week for our interview with Jessica Lopez Lyman!