Justin Favela’s larger-than-life sculptures of Tex-Mex food certainly make perfect backdrops for Instagram selfies. But Favela’s work at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft is also multi-layered, addressing issues of cultural appropriation, the politics of food, and the American Latinx experience.
In All You Can Eat, Favela uses the medium of piñata to bring to life nachos, puffy tacos, and even a giant margarita machine. It’s an extension of his previous museum work using piñata-style papier-mâché to pay homage to the epic murals of the Chicano Art Movement.
“I've always been drawn to those materials because of how accessible they are,” Favela says. “People understand what paper and cardboard is and the limitations of that material. So, when I first started making work about Latinx identity, it was something that was a shorthand way of tying it to my culture.”
By working in common materials, and depicting everyday objects, Favela is also carrying on the tradition of artists like Marcel DuChamp and Claes Oldenburg.
“The fact that it’s in the Contemporary Craft Center, I’m really proud of that," he explains. "There’s a lot of discussion around my work—is it craft, is it fine art, is it contemporary art, is it folk art? I like when my work pushes those boundaries or is considered under all those different categories. Because who gets to decide what is fine art?”
Favela, who was born and still works in Las Vegas, explains that his own background skirts many identities.
“My mother is Guatemalan and my father is Mexican,” he says. “Growing up I didn't always feel like I was 100 percent part of a community. So I think I've always been aware of these labels within the Latinx community—not really being Chicano because I'm first-generation. And I'm also Central American and Mexican, so not really relating to Mexican culture growing up, but everybody assuming that I was Mexican. There's all these assumptions, and that carries on through food. A lot of people assume that Tex-Mex is Mexican food when it's a very specific cuisine, and the dishes have a very specific regional history.”
His work asks questions about what aspects of Latinx culture other Americans are willing to adopt, and what aspects they reject—and there’s a reason why the sculptures are so large.
“The scale of the work is all about taking up space and being seen,” he says. “They're massively big, all those pieces, and that's because I like to make work that’s fun and funny, but at the same time, it's kind of a comment on the ridiculousness of the food. This show is celebrating that, and that's where something as silly as making a giant pile of nachos comes in—it's a celebration of a very unique identity, celebrating the border, celebrating people with multiple identities. The more we express those nuances within our identity, the more common we are to people."
"Maybe if we're more human in more people's eyes," he adds, "we won't be put in cages.”
Thru Sept. 1. Free. Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, 4848 Main St. 713-529-4848. More info at crafthouston.org.