Detail of 2017 digital illustration No Ban, No Borders by Illustration student Alejandra Fernandez. Image courtesy of the artist.

feature / students / illustration / media-design-practices / humanities-and-sciences / designmatters
April 11, 2017
Writer: Solvej Schou
Photographer: Juan Posada


This is the first story in a three-part series on ArtCenter students tackling social issues—from ethnic, racial, religious, class, sexual and gender identity to topics including immigration, women’s rights and protecting the environment—in their art and design, both in and outside of class.

Recently nestled in her South Campus art studio, ArtCenter Illustration student Alejandra Fernandez—who was born in Mexico, and immigrated to Miami with her parents when she was 3—stared up at one of her vibrant paintings, of a masked and winged Mexican “luchador” wrestler, hung as a large cut-out on a wall.

When President Donald Trump took office in January, Fernandez digitally painted a similar luchador—with pink skin, a striped bikini and a blue and white mask, set against a bright neon yellow background—shouting “NO BAN, NO BORDERS!” and slamming a spiky heart-shaped ball-and-chain into a wall of bricks. Fernandez, who has been making and photographing herself in luchador masks inspired by yearly trips to visit family in Mexico City, opposed Trump’s executive order banning visitors from several Muslim majority countries, and his promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. With short dark hair, a ring through the middle of her nose and a focused energy, the artist describes herself as “chingona,” a colorful Spanish slang term she personally defines as being “a proud Latina woman,” she said.

“My illustration was a direct emotional response to all the positions that Trump was taking during his campaign and at the start of his presidency,” said Fernandez, who graduates this term. “I had lot of anger, sadness, raw emotions. The strongest thing I was feeling was this overwhelming desire to fully embrace my identity and proudly display it. I was trying to figure out how I could really voice how I felt in a way that would reach a lot of people. We forget that illustrations can have a lot of power if we just make them loud, bold.”

I was trying to figure out how I could voice how I felt in a way that would reach a lot of people. We forget that illustrations can have a lot of power if we just make them loud, bold.

Alejandra Fernandez
Detail from Illustrated children's book about Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology, by Alejandra Fernandez.

At the College, all students take Humanities and Sciences academic classes, which include social issue-based offerings such as Race and Racism, “Queer and Now” and Rethinking Feminism and Identity. Interdisciplinary department Designmatters—with a new undergraduate minor in social innovation—revolves around design as a catalyst for social change, and features studio-based classes confronting issues such as homelessness. Graduate program Media Design Practices (MDP) has a Lab track using design to explore science, technology and culture, and partners with Designmatters on a Field track in which students practice social impact design in global locations such as Mexico City and Uganda. Socially conscious student club WOKE, founded by Illustration student Kayla Salisbury—who wrote a Dot opinion piece about activism and the Black Lives Matter movement—is an open forum for students to express themselves.

“If you're just seeing news articles all the time, it becomes overwhelming and you feel isolated,” said Fernandez, surrounded by graphic novels, books about painters Diego Rivera and Dana Schutz, and art-activism manual The Guerilla Art Kit in her studio. “Students addressing socially relevant issues brings everyone together more, and creates a dialogue.”

When Fernandez showed her No Ban, No Borders illustration to her Spring 2017 Designmatters studio class Illustrated Journalism, taught by former New York Times Op-Ed art director Brian Rea, the response was very positive, she said. She’s in the process of turning it into a screen print. Fernandez also drew inspiration from making signs with other Illustration students for the Women’s March on Washington in Los Angeles the day after Trump’s inauguration, and being involved with magazine Nat. Brut, geared towards diversity and inclusivity.

“Students are present to the issues taking place right now, and have the ability to make change relevant. The key is how to execute whatever you’re trying to say, whether it’s through visual arts, music, dance,” said Vida L. Brown, visual arts curator and program manager at L.A.’s California African American Museum. Current exhibits there include Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle: The Evanesced, curated by Naima Keith. The exhibit focuses on missing black women in America and the African diaspora from the past to the present.

“Post-election, artists are in action by activating spaces, be it social media or physical spaces—at marches, in galleries—and I welcome their voices,” Brown added. “We’re not heard if remain silent.”

Digital 2017 illustration La Chigona, and 2017 Rigoberta Menchú Tum book cover, by Alejandra Fernandez. Images courtesy of artist.

Humanities and Sciences Chair Jane McFadden noted that gender studies, African-American studies, Latino studies and queer studies are already decades-old disciplines with deep histories. The sense of urgency among students, she said, is newer. “In this post-election reality, for me, there’s a deep concern with students' sense of instability,” she said. “This is a great time for us to help broaden visibility of long-standing issues. I want students to build a breadth and depth of material to empower themselves to ask the questions they want to ask.”

Fernandez has made it a point to build up a depth and breadth of material. For an assignment in her Illustrated Journalism studio, she created an illustrated children’s book about Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology, combining beautiful block color illustrations of 18 artifacts, including a pre-900 BC Olmec head with fleshy cheeks, with short sentences for each artifact.

For a Spring 2017 Illustration for Publishing class taught by graphic novel artist and illustrator Esther Pearl Watson (BFA 95 Illustration), she made a vivid pink, yellow and blue book cover about Nobel Peace Prize-winning Guatemalan indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who resembles Fernandez’s grandma in Mexico. After graduating, she plans to do freelance illustrations for articles, printed books and websites.

“With my work, I try to educate others on histories of people and cultures, particularly Latino cultures and women of color, who are passed over,” she said. “In my work my identity comes out easily. I have to own it and say, ‘This is me,’ and I can't push it aside.”

Next: Part II—Product Design student Lori Nishikawa—of series on students tackling social issues in their work.