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.
ASR: Dignidad Rebelde is everywhere! In the office of the grassroots organization I volunteer with is the Young Mothers’ Bill of Rights and Brown and Proud Todos Somos Arizona, in the hallway of my house is the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike Solidarity poster. Can you talk about your decisions about how to disseminate the work?
MC: We are committed to putting our work out through creative commons. We offer PDF downloads of our pieces. This frees the work up; we are not the only ones determining how it is going to be used. For all we know, the image could become a flyer a week later! We know we’ve made something meaningful if people start bootlegging images, making T-shirts, maybe they’ve changed the text to say something else, or they’ve made buttons. Sometimes we get phone calls or text photos of our work replicated in different forms, including a piece of ours that was painted into a mural in Chiapas. For us, it isn’t about trying to control the image. We talk about our purpose of creating work that reflects the struggles, the dreams, the visions of communities and putting the image back in their hands, so they can determine how it should live in the world. How is it useful? How is it inspiring? How does it make sense?
ASR: Putting the image back into the hands of those communities whose struggles are reflected in the image itself is then part of how you define “people’s art”?
MC: Absolutely. It is up to the people we see as the inspiration for that work to determine how it should live. It breaks the original form. My hope is that it gets used functionally. The images should outlive any idea that I could have.
Creating the work itself is a collaboration; there is so much that I get exposed to, that I see and experience, the ideas are not just mine. I didn’t pop out of a hole in the ground … I learned some skills and have some things to say. I get exposed to a lot of really smart people, and I listen. Within that continuum of experience — and the artists that have existed before me — I insert myself and make something that is hopefully useful.
Recently, a big icon for printmaking, Elizabeth Catlett, died. She was 96. She was African American, and in the 1940s she moved to Mexico and joined the Taller de Gráfica Popular and became a bi-national treasure. When she died people were posting her obituary to Facebook, and there was this moment when I was reading the comments that I realized that in one thread there were six generations of printmakers going back to the turn of the century — one person who was taught by this person who was taught by the person who learned from them and so on. There is a multiracial lineage of artists who are connected across nations. So, I can’t create a piece without thinking about the generations of people who created this medium.
ASR: What keeps people from believing that “people’s art” is quality art? As someone who exists both in art contexts and political organizing, I am constantly trying to figure this out. A lot of what you are saying is (refreshingly) in opposition to the “art world,” a Western grip on success, value, the individual artist, the marketplace, etc. Can you say more about this?
MC: Neither Jesus or myself went to art school. We weren’t trained in our universities in art. Jesus studied Raza Studies, and I studied Ethnic Studies — this already positions us with a world-view about things that is different. In a lot of art schools value is put only on a certain kind of art practice. I don’t think this is universal, but there is a dominant way of looking at the world and then looking at art in the context of that world. I talk to artists who are going through art school now, and they are getting torn apart for making work that is considered political or doing anything that has a perspective on something that is happening in the world and impacting them! We haven’t had to deal with that. The art we practice, “people’s art,” is valuable because those particular wounds haven’t traumatized us!
There is also the question of where we are exhibiting work. A poster that we give out for free by the hundreds in the street at a protest is the same poster that we frame and exhibit in a museum or gets hung on a wall in a high school classroom. In some ways, it is more important to me to have it in that classroom because of the impact it might have. We have chosen the medium we’ve chosen because we believe we have to get the ideas out to as many people as possible and in the same way that the form serves that function, we also try to use venues that will serve that purpose, as well.
ASR: I love knowing that it is the same image that is stapled to a stick and held at a demonstration that is also framed and viewed inside a gallery. I know that the image you made in response to Oscar Grant’s murder was approached differently. Can you describe this process and ex