Fine Art

Justin Favela makes art, podcasts, good friends and stronger communities

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Favela in his Las Vegas studio.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

Justin Favela has 15 days to finish a 1964 Chevrolet Impala. Standing in front of the life-size foam replica of a classic lowrider, he slathers glue onto a bare spot, slaps a piece of newspaper onto the surface and smooths out the edges. Over the next few days, with the help of his assistant, Karla, he’ll paper-mache the entire car before moving on to the seriously tedious part: covering the entire structure with thousands of pieces of pink-and-white tissue paper. “I don’t know anything about cars,” the native Las Vegan admits. “But because I am a Latino artist making work about identity and I’m Mexican, I’m supposed to know about this stuff. My artwork has informed my knowledge about my culture, which I find really awesome.”

Now, Favela is something of a lowrider expert. And on June 29, he’ll unveil the finished product, a piñata rendering of the Gypsy Rose (arguably the most famous lowrider in history) at LA’s Petersen Automotive Museum. But before that, the artist colloquially known as “FavyFav” has a lot more to do. He’ll fly to Colorado to host a performance of his Family Fiesta series at the Denver Art Museum, where his massive Fridalandia installation is on display as part of the group exhibition Mi Tierra: Contemporary Artists Explore Place. He’ll continue work on another project, a replica of Frank Stella’s Damascus Gate Variation I (the original currently up at Vdara) for the City Hall Grand Gallery.

By November, he’ll have finished six artist residencies—one here at Juhl, and also in Miami, Austin, New Mexico, Southern California and Ireland. And he’ll still find time to record episodes of the immensely popular weekly podcast he co-hosts with Emmanuel “Babelito” Ortega, Latinos Who Lunch (latinoswholunch.com), now celebrating its first completed year.

Favela’s schedule requires a steadfast personality, and after nearly a decade of working as an artist, the 30-year-old makes it look effortless. While his celebrity is growing—he was recently asked to moderate a panel on “The Art of Resistance” at RuPaul’s DragCon—he’s humble about his accomplishments. Whether he’s discussing the importance of Latino and Mexican identity or the cultural and personal significance of food, family and place, Favela is disarming and hilarious, confident yet relatable—qualities that make him not just a highly regarded emerging artist, but an important voice representing Latin Americans and Las Vegans today.

“He’s fabulous in making community,” says Rebecca Hart, a curator for Denver Art Museum and Mi Tierra. “I found him to be one of the most serious, theoretical artists around … He’s the sort of guy who meets people and understands different ways they connect and how important that is.”

Episode 22 of Latinos Who Lunch: Salud y un Paño. FavyFav and Babelito are talking about their connection to health and food. My ears perk up, not just because I love food, but because I relate so strongly to what they’re saying. I turn up the volume as the two talk about insurance, their families, fast food and doctors.

“My relationship with food is complicated, and that stems from childhood,” Favela says. “You’re never conditioned to love yourself.” It’s exactly that kind of honesty that makes Latinos Who Lunch resonate with its listeners. Later, in his studio, Favela and I talk about the importance of that openness, which he tackles in both his podcast and his artwork.

“You create your own opportunity and you take control of that,” Favela says. “That’s what my work has been about. I’ve always had issues with being overweight and being tied to food in a very negative way. Well, you know what? My podcast is Latinos Who Lunch … so it’s like, f*ck you, you know what I mean?”

As a Mexican and Guatemalan-American, Favela has frequently used his art and podcast to challenge societal norms, share stories about growing up on Las Vegas’ east side or to re-create culturally significant symbols. His vivid and colorful piñatas straddle the line between craft and fine art, legitimizing and elevating a style of work that often goes unnoticed.

“As soon as you see a piñata, Mexican-Americans come to mind,” Favela says. “I love the idea of covering something up, but by covering it up, actually making it more visible,” Favela says, his studio at the Juhl filled with piñatas from previous exhibits like a donkey from a 2010 Contemporary Arts Center juried show and his Big Bird sculpture from 2014. “The act of making a piñata encompasses all of that.”

Similarly, his Family Fiesta performance addresses what it means to be Mexican-American in the Southwest, dealing with stereotypes and reclaiming cultural traditions that have long been misunderstood, appropriated and parodied by non-Mexicans. The idea for Family Fiesta came to him, he says, after he attended a “Mexican-themed” party where he was the only Latino present.

“I was confused,” Favela says. “I was like, is this a party for me? I didn’t realize that Mexican-themed parties existed. It was all white people, but they had chips and guacamole.” He pauses. “Mexican music,” he continues, making air quotes around the words, emphasizing the outrageousness. “They had a piñata, Pin the Tail on the Donkey and a margarita machine. And that was their Mexican themed party. The way that we celebrate, to them, is this. I could have been really offended ... I was offended. But at the same time I thought, ‘This is interesting.’”

Favela hosts Family Fiesta—now in its fourth installment—with friends and family and uses it as a live commentary on the far-reaching impacts of cultural appropriation, while dismantling pervasive attitudes rooted in white supremacy. By documenting the performance, Favela expands the discussion on the relevance of Latino traditions while challenging white attitudes about what it means to be a Mexican American.

“I love this idea of I’m reclaiming that,” says Favela, who will next host Family Fiesta at the Denver Art Museum on June 3. “Another theme is me facing my fears. When I was a kid I hated parties; it was just overwhelming for me. To have to do piñata time and display your masculinity in front of everybody? I f*cking hated it. So Family Fiesta is a way of me controlling the party. It’s my performance. The rest is up for interpretation.”

That performance, combined with his sweeping Fridalandia exhibition—a re-creation of José María Velasco’s giant landscape paintings and Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul garden from the 2002 film Frida—is as much a political statement as a personal one. Even his lowrider, his paper-mache Gypsy Rose, is an extension of that: critiquing ethnocentric viewpoints while highlighting the various symbols of history and place—of Latinidad.

“Existing is a form of resistance. Me just being unapologetically myself in this time, right now, is very important,” Favela says. “Now that we have the podcast, and there’s all these listeners that reach out and tell us how important it is to them, it just adds fuel to the fire.”

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Leslie Ventura is a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly and Industry Weekly. She’s picked the brains of rock stars ...

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