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Arts & Life

'Central American:' New Art Exhibit Highlights Latino Culture

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Artist Justin Favela throws papier-mâché tomatoes on to the giant pizza that is part of his art exhibit "Central American." The exhibit will stay open through Oct. 24. "It's a celebration of the culture, but also kind of like an investigation into like, the, like the Latinx representation that I kind of have to make up within the museum's collection," Favela said.

Every day for more than a month, Justin Favela worked on his art onsite at the Des Moines Art Center. He cut and glued small sheets of tissue paper, reminiscent of traditional piñatas, which ultimately reveal his wall-to-wall creation called Central American.

He initially got the idea of piñata style at school. He said as a brown student, his professors urged him to make art that reflects his identity.

"I said, 'You know what? If I'm going to do a piece about my identity, I'm going to make it with, like, the corniest cheesiest symbol," Favela said.

The 35-year-old is half-Guatemalan, half-Mexican and said he often feels like the Central American side of himself (the Guatemalan side) is erased, so he wanted to take the moment to recognize that.

He also wanted Iowans to acknowledge the strong ties many Central Americans have in the state.

“I hope it empowers people, especially younger folks that want to be an artist and say, 'Hey, if this guy can do it, I can do it too,' you know? Which I think is just, like, so powerful," Favela said.

The Las Vegas-born artist explained the title is partly based on a joke he once heard. Since the United States is often referred to as simply "America," the term "Central America" can actually refer to the Midwest.

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Favela created all the art onsite at the Des Moines Art Center. He also made a re-creation of a Grant Wood painting from the Art Center’s collection, completely made out of tissue paper.

Many of the images he displays in the exhibit are recreations of other works found in the Des Moines Art Center. To help out visitors, the center taped small scraps of tissue paper on the original works throughout the building, kind of like a scavenger hunt.

Other images are purely reflective of different aspects of Latino and Iowa culture, including a giant taco pizza. But also, including the aspects that are unseen.

“When I go somewhere, I know that my people are there. I know that they're in the restaurants, I know that they're working at the hotels," Favela said. "There [are] little communities everywhere that I go of Latinx folks, and especially in an agricultural economy, like Iowa...Just because you don't see the people, you know, every day doesn't mean they're not there."

And Favela wanted double meaning for his art when it comes to "unseen labor," as well. Plenty of assistants, volunteers and even Art Center employees helped him finish his creation.

"I think we've had 60 to 70 percent of the Art Center staff, at some point sneak up from their office and decide to crumple paper or paper or cut paper, or put glue all over paper or do whatever weird thing we happen to be doing that day," Laura Burkhalter, the curatorial manager at the Des Moines Art Center, said.

The day before the exhibition opening, Burkhalter, along with Director of External Affairs Jordan Powers, helped crumple up and place paper "sausage chunks," on the pizza. A slice of the paper pizza will hang from the ceiling.

Burkhalter also helped make some tomatoes.

"It is definitely a nice break from setting the computer and, and you know, doing research doing sort of my usual thing. I love working with the artists, but this is like really working with the artist. And I'm thrilled I couldn't I love it. I'm excited to have those tomatoes out in the world," she said.

She joked her paper ones are better than her real, homegrown ones.

"In a way, the show is also about that. It's about that that process and it's just the process of building the show. It's also being documented. And ends up being part of the exhibition," Favela added.

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Favela throws papier-mâché tomatoes on the taco pizza a day before the exhibition opens. "When I'm doing installations. I always wear a skeleton shirt. And that's to symbolize kind of the ridiculousness of me being expected to like be a representative for people that celebrate Day of the Dead," he said.

Favela’s exhibit will run from July 17 through Oct. 24. Even though it's open through Hispanic Heritage Month, that was not the intended timeline.

Originally, Burkhalter said she wanted Favela to put up his art in the summer of 2020. That was postponed due to COVID-19. Before 2020, the two had been talking about the possibility of an exhibit for almost three and a half years.

"And the show is, I think better for it. It gave him more time to to do research," Burkhalter said. (Favela's research included food, culture and COVID-19 cases among agriculture and food workers.) "But I love that this is a show that's just so rich."

Favela actually wears a black T-shirt with a white skeleton on it in protest. He said he usually refuses to produce art purely for days like Dia de los Muertos and Cinco de Mayo. He doesn't celebrate either.

"That is something that we strive very much to not do. I mean, we acknowledge those months and we call attention to the works in our collection, but I don't want to only show Black artists in February. I don't only want to show artists of color over Day of the Dead or Cinco de Mayo," Burkhalter said. "At the end of the day, what I want is to show the best artists for our museum and when they are available."

"I actually made a conscious decision to not work during Hispanic Heritage Month as a protest, because we [Hispanic and/or Latino people] exist all year around," Favela added.

In August, Favela will be active in Des Moines again to do a fiesta performance with his family.