The Importance of Representation
by Vivian Rosas
Growing up as a brown girl in a predominantly white community, I inevitably became quite whitewashed. I didn’t really have many role models in pop culture or art that looked like me, so I gravitated towards white role models. When I started making art, these influences filtered into what I created. I remember at first the ‘people’ I drew were genderless characters, nondescript kind of creatures. Eventually, I progressed into drawing girls, but then I mostly drew girls who looked white. I remember my sister once called me out, asking why I drew only white skinny girls. I recall feeling shocked and defensive. I justified my work by explaining that my drawings were just black and white, no colour, so the girls were of no particular race or ethnicity. I see now that I was in complete denial. In my mind I thought I was drawing my representation, but in reality, I was drawing what I thought I was supposed to look like. Because of this, I came to the conclusion that I needed to start portraying more realistic femmes and non-binary folks of all walks/races/sizes because those are the people who make up the world I live in and want to see more of. Through this realisation I learned to love and accept what I look like and who I was deep down. I wanted to show that womyn could be soft, hard, strong, sexy, big, small, independent, and vulnerable. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a family that valued the independence and strength of a woman, so it was important for me to show all the facets of what we could embody as people. And with that, representation became an important theme in my work.
The goal of my work is to create imagery that expresses a sense of inclusiveness, and diversity. I’m inspired by femininity, strength, nature and the whimsical. As a Latinx artist, I try to put forward imagery that allows underrepresented communities to see themselves in my work. In working with many different methods, from painting to screen-printing, I can communicate positive images full of love and happiness, while also empowering a much broader audience. I usually start my process by sketching out ideas which often turn into digital compositions and illustrations. As of late these works have transcended to the public realm as I’ve had the opportunity to paint and design more murals.
I illustrated this piece for two dear friends who created a Facebook group called ‘Femininjas’. The group was created as a positive, safe, inclusive, intersectional, anti-oppressive space for feminists to support one another, share information, and have friendly discussions. Early on, they approached me about making an image that could be used as a landing image, or logo. The idea was for me to print them on tote bags to sell to the group to raise money for different local organisations that support women, which we did successfully. We raised a couple hundred off a small print run. From the beginning, they were open to whatever I wanted to draw, and the idea of having a powerful image of a bunch of rad strong women and trans women kept coming up. We wanted them to look strong yet flirty, like they wouldn’t take any bull from no one, and still look hella cute. I feel like this piece was a true shifting point for me as an artist, in which I really started to hone in on the type of work I wanted to put out into the world. I’d already been drawing girls for so long, but I hadn’t fully realised the power my drawings could have. I remember the night we sold most of the tote bags, everyone was talking about which femininja they thought was most like them from the image. It was exciting to hear how they related to my design and really helped me see the importance of representation moving forward.
This piece was the next step in the evolution of my work within representation. My sister has always been a huge inspiration in the work I do. She exposed me to art at a young age and always pushed me in finding a unique voice as an artist of colour. Because of her, I grew up with a connection to different traditional religious and spiritual concepts and practices, such as Candomble and Santeria. This piece was created in honour of Women’s Month for Illustrated Impact. I wanted to create a piece about the reclaiming of bruja culture nowadays as a means of empowerment for women of Afro or Latin backgrounds to represent their diverse background with a history of strong female spiritual healers. It was important to me as there is a strong lineage of spiritual women in my family. The amount of positive response I got from the brujx community was astounding and truly inspired me to continue making this kind of work.
As a true sign that I was on the right path, I was serendipitously contacted by the creative director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance after she had seen my Femininjas illustration on a tote bag in New York. I was asked to create illustrations for their ten-year anniversary gala. During the preliminary design process we discovered the best approach was to provide vibrant, engaging images that portrayed domestic workers in a positive and empowering light. They were super pleased with the final illustrations I delivered. Many of the workers were excited to see themselves reflected in imagery that made them feel proud of who they are.
Over the last few years I’ve had the chance to delve into the street art world from time to time. The city of Toronto has an initiative called StART Street Art Toronto, which I was lucky to be a part of last year. They provide an opportunity for local artists to create works of art on traffic signal boxes across the city. I proposed and ended up painting this design which was inspired by the young vibrant community of people I see in my everyday life in the city. It was such a fun experience working on the street to paint this one. Since it’s on a main street corner, I had people coming up to me the whole time congratulating me on such a nice piece and thanking me for beautifying their city. A lot of people said how nice it was to have a piece that was so emblematic of the thriving community in that neighbourhood. It meant so much to me to know that the public really felt so positively about my work. I could see how happy it made people, and that really made me feel like I had done my job of creating something that they could relate to and feel happy seeing in their everyday lives. Now, I smile every time I bike past it, thinking how lucky I am to have left a lasting mark on the city that has made me who I am today.
This is one of favourite recent pieces. It was created for the book Becoming Dangerous about feminism, witchcraft, and resistance. I was contacted by Fiction & Feeling about creating an illustration inspired by one of the essays that was to be in the book. It would be part of the special edition of the book. I ended up choosing astrologer/writer and artist Jaliessa Sipress. She stood out to me from the other writers as she described herself as mixed race, and her essay sounded like it was going to touch on themes of generational influence and identity, both of which have become quite important to me as of late. I instantly felt a connection and wanted to portray her as the amazingly powerful woman she seemed to be. With this piece I once again had the opportunity to circle back to the theme of reclaiming power through brujeria. I loved getting to work on this one and used it as an opportunity to try and push my work in a different direction by adding textures and shadows to add depth and dimension. What I have found by working on all these pieces is that it has slowly shown my own growth and transformation within my own personal practice of reclamation as a woman of colour. I create what I want to see in the world, and it feels like it’s finally becoming reality.