This Q+A was originally published on April 24 on Couch in the Desert (formerly know as Settlers and Nomads), the Southern Nevada art blog.
f we accommodate European historians, then the existence of the piñata in the Americas is a hand-me-down from Spanish culture, one they took from the Chinese—decorated clay pots full of treats are used to demarcate important social occasions. But if you trust Indigenous sources (and you always fucking should) the piñata holds far deeper connections to the region known as Turtle Island. It is noted that during the winter solstice celebrations in honor of the sun god Huitzilopochtli, clay pots would be filled with seeds to be broken in a fruitless season, a promise of coming fecundity, and the return of abundant sun.
Whatever the season, Justin Favela has shed a certain light on art in Las Vegas. A decade into his professional career, he’s proven one of the city’s most prominent creative exports. Whether it be his own exhibited works, curation, or podcasts, Favela has maintained his connection to our Dionysian metropolis. His exhibition Fantasía/Fantasy is on display at Nuwu Art Gallery and it’s safe to say Las Vegas’ Native son has made a radiant return.
Earlier this year, Justin (Favy) and I had the opportunity to meet at the gallery to converse about his work, career and coming monograph launch for Couch in the Desert.
Let’s talk about you. And this exhibition. So from my recollection, this is the first exhibition you’ve done in Las Vegas in a couple of years.
Yeah. Well, I did do an installation at the Fifth Street School for [the City of] Las Vegas in conjunction with the Las Vegas Book Festival. But this is a much larger scale. And of course, it’s here at Nuwu, which is really important. So I’m really happy to be here.
Yeah. Can you talk to me about what you think the importance of that is?
I mean, what Fawn [Douglas] has done here, what the community has done here to band together and help to make a space that is for us (people of color), without having to jump through hoops of fire to feel like you’re part of a community.
I mean, I think it’s of incredible merit. I don’t know of any, certainly not in Nevada, but even on the West Coast, any Indigenous-owned and operated artist spaces. It’s so important. And it’s an honor for me to be part of it.
And the fact that it’s also downtown Vegas, the East Side. I grew up on these streets, you know, this is important to me.
So, this exhibition is a homecoming.
That’s exactly how I was going to frame it. This is, to me, a very celebratory show for Vegas, even though I’m living in Arkansas part-time right now.
Do you want to talk about Arkansas?
Well, honestly, yeah, sure. I think I got a great opportunity to move to Arkansas to start a residency program [LIA Springdale Artist Residency] and to kind of be a mover and a shaker over there because there’s funding, and that’s my biggest struggle as a contemporary artist in Vegas is funding here. Unfortunately, a lot of places in Vegas do not really value artists as they should. So, this is my full-time job. I need to go where the funding is sometimes. And that’s what’s happening right now with me going to Arkansas.
Also, there’s a vibrant Latinx, POC community in Springdale, Arkansas, which is next to Bentonville, a bit of Walmartlland. And so Springdale is different in the sense of it feels more like Vegas to me. There’s Salvadorians everywhere, there’s Mexican restaurants everywhere, it’s like it’s Vegas without, you know, casinos, and [with] trees and actually there’s less zoning over there, but there’s also art funding. That’s how it’s different. Yeah.
That sounds pleasant.
But also, I thought I could go there and easily just set up shop and and kind of stay in the same motion that I’ve been going on for years. And it made me realize — oh, wait, the reason why I’ve been able to move in the art world the way that I do is because of my Las Vegas community. I took for granted how easy it is for me to call up my friends and be like, “Hey, y’all I have to make a lowrider by next week,” and then five people show up at my studio and spend all week working with me.
I’m there [in Arkansas] for two or three weeks, and then I come back for a week and that’s how I’ve been going back and forth. And, it just made me realize my inspiration and my art is my people — not only my family, specifically, which I really, really miss all the time. But also my friends, and my chosen art family in Vegas. Yeah. And so, sure, financially, I’m being supported in Arkansas. But here, spiritually, emotionally, and materially, I have the ideal setup for an artist here, you know. And I’m also a self-proclaimed Ambassador for Las Vegas.
Yeah I know, you are!
I love this place. And so, I’m grateful for the opportunity to start something in Arkansas and get the experience, but it made me realize, this is always gonna be home, and I’m always gonna come back here.
That’s an important note in your career. I mean you are Vegas born and raised, the real deal. And, that you have become an international voice for our city, I think is exquisitely appropriate. Because I couldn’t, if I looked around the room and tried to pick one out, there may be two other people that come to mind that I would say “Oh, they could speak on behalf of Las Vegas.” And I would not be irked in any way by it. So that’s where you are in regards to life and presence and home, but let’s talk about the work briefly.
Should this be considered a retrospective?
The show came about because I’m coming out with a new book in a couple of months. It’s supposed to be out this summer for real this time.
Okay, blaming it on the supply chain.
So, that’s coming out in the summer. And so I started talking to Nuwu about maybe doing a book launch event here. Because when I thought of my community, I thought of Nuwu, and I thought of The Writer’s Block. You know, I thought of Lindo Michoacan. Those were the three places where I would do something like a book event. [Stay tuned — at the time of publication, the Las Vegas monograph launch date and location are TBA.]
Wait, are you doing a book event at Lindo???
It’s in the works, okay? Okay. I mean, I hope they’ll sponsor some food, maybe. I would love that. Because the book is a monograph, it’s a documentation of my work from 2011 to 2021 — ten years of practice. I thought it would be cool to install work from the past that I’ve never shown in Las Vegas before. Because a lot of my family, for example, are like, “Oh, we wish we saw the “Gypsy Rose” in person,” you know, and I’m like, “Well, it was at the library for a long time, but, but I made a second version of it for the Phoenix Art Museum last year.” And so that is now here at Nuwu. Sometimes these have to be destroyed because of storage or sold off to random casinos. In Paradise, the old “Gypsy Rose” is [now in] the Virgin casino.
Installed in one of those cases, kind of like Cadillac Ranch. Last time I made it new for them, so I thought this would be a cool way to have this work in a space and in a different context because a lot of my work is sometimes in a Latinx group show with a more political agenda, I should say, you know, to appease the masses. Or sometimes it’s part of an institution that my family wouldn’t even think about setting foot in because just the architecture of a building is scary.
Having an open place like this makes my work more accessible. And that’s what I preach. So I thought it was a great way to show my work. I’m also really proud of a lot of this work that nobody got to see like my big solo show at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, Justin Favela’s All You Can Eat (2019). That’s one of my proudest shows, and not a lot of my Vegas peeps saw it. I’m gonna have a couple of little piñata paintings that I’ve never shown before, those are new, so there’s a couple of new works. And then some classics that are going to be in the show.
That’s really exciting and interesting that it’s a homecoming in both of those ways — that it’s a homecoming for you, but you’re also bringing a lot of work to Las Vegas that people here at home didn’t have the opportunity to see.
So here’s a great, nice, long run. Yeah, you can come in, you can definitely see it. And if you tell me you didn’t make it this time, right? It’s cool. It’s fine…
Ha! Okay. So you’re doing the book launch? Yeah.
F: Yes. As I said, I wasn’t going to schedule it until I saw a physical copy in front of me. Because I’ve had to postpone book launches all over the place already. Because yeah, I want to do one in every city that’s important to me. Of course, in Vegas, I have multiple events here. But then, you know, Texas has been good to me. So probably do some in Dallas or Austin. That’s just weird. It’s so weird for me now to be like, “Oh, okay. It’s like that!” It’s kind of a reclamation and reappraisal of a very lengthy history of work at this point.
B: I mean, you are by all marks, all indicators, Las Vegas’ most prolific and outspoken artists. Can you tell me? Where do you think that started for you? And how? Like, how does that work?
F: Oh, man I think what drives me is proving people wrong. From the very beginning, everybody said, You need to stop using cardboard, this is not going to take you anywhere. Nobody’s going to collect this work, you’re not going to be able to make any money as an artist using cardboard and paper. And so I was like, “Okay… bet.”
I love a challenge. And to me growing up on the East Side, we were always scraping by paycheck to paycheck – my family worked in casinos, from apartment to apartment until we finally settled on Christy and Charleston on the East Side when I was in high school. We had to make do with minimal resources. And so when it came to making art, for me, it was a no-brainer. Oh, I want to make a replica of the Stardust sign, and I have a wall at home that is only 10 feet long. So it’s gonna have to be this big. And what do I have on hand? – so I just kind of figured it out. So that’s when I realized, oh, sometimes limitations can be guiding. And so once I kind of established an aesthetic, I just kept pushing it and pushing it. I’m still pushing it today: how can I manipulate paper and cardboard to make different paintings, sculptures, installations, video work, sound? I’m thinking beyond sculpture now with this medium, and it’s exciting. It’s just that I was just always taught to problem solve and keep moving on.
B: Do you think it has some relationship with your upbringing and the kind of working-class notions around growing up Latinx on the East Side of Las Vegas?
F: My values are about being Latinx. And what is important to my family and my culture has shifted over the years as a visual artist, as a Latinx visual artist in the art world, because I think in 2018-19, my body started to tell me that I needed to slow down. And I didn’t realize how much I was putting my body through to do these big installations. One of my shoulders is fucked from repetitive motion, and I started to analyze things a little bit differently. And when I would go to museums, and people were watching me work, it all kind of clicked one day. I thought. Oh, sure they’re buying a commissioned mural, but they’re also buying the experience of watching this Latinx artist work, right? And so then labor becomes part of the value of the work. And then I started to spiral. And I was thinking, Okay, so is it that I value labor so much because that’s what’s been ingrained in my head? and the only way that my work is even worth anything is if I’m in physical pain while I’m doing it. And, that was the truth! That’s what I thought!
But that’s… that’s America, that’s Las Vegas. And that’s certainly the performance of labor. And that’s when I started wearing a skeleton shirt all the time; I’m letting you know when I’m wearing this that I’m working, and I’m always fucking wearing this. I’m always fucking working. And so then, and this has been in the last two or three years, I started to charge more for things, and I’ve started to prefabricate things in a healthier way. I have asked museums to please not put me on display. My voice has gotten stronger. Just from getting the perspective that I have re-evaluated what I thought was important about my work, and it’s true. When people see the big piñata installations, the first thing they say is, wow, this must have taken a lot of work. I get a sense of pride, you know, being a Latino hearing that of course, but then, now I’m like, wait a minute!?
All right. I met people who said I’m in my mid-career. The next phase of my career is going to be me lounging- okay? Rest as resistance. Unfortunately, this year is fully booked. So that’s going to be my 2024.
B: Jesus, yeah. That makes sense. There’s always a kind of work-based validation artists have to seek because our work is seen as leisure to most people.
F: I mean, there’s value in being an intellectual artist that has time to read which I’m not. I mean, I am in the middle of this juicy book about Selena right now, and her body as a political symbol and the art world – it’s just so good. And I can’t finish it because I have too much shit to do. Right? And that’s like, wow, that’s white supremacy at work. I can’t even fucking read a book because I have so much to do because that’s what I think I need to do to survive. So I want to get to a point where, hey, I’m gonna take a couple of weeks off and research. Yeah, like a white artist, right?
B: No Lies Detected. Anything else you want to say about this exhibition in particular?
F: Yeah, I’m excited to be on the East Side! Because of my wild schedule, we are planning on doing some pop-up events. So just, you know, keep your ear to the ground for whenever I’m back in Vegas!
Justin Favela’s solo exhibition Fantasía/Fantasy is on view at Nuwu Art Gallery + Community Center through May 12. There will be a closing reception and artist talk Saturday, May 6, from 12-4 pm.
You can now preorder the book Justin Favela: Fantasía/Fantasy, A Decade of Practice 2011-2021.
Learn more about Nuwu Art Gallery + Community Center here.
Follow Justin Favela here.
Follow Nuwu Art Gallery + Community Center here.
Follow Couch in the Desert here.
Photos: Mikayla Whitmore