Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2016. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Armed with stencils and a spray can, graffiti artist Jessica Sabogal creates larger-than-life murals that serve as tribute to women and womanhood in all shapes and forms. Sabogal's most recent project "Women are Perfect! (If You Let Them)" celebrates groups not typically considered perfect - queer women, women of color, indigenous women - and empowers them to embrace their individual identities.
Where do you live?
Describe yourself in one word?
Berraca: Colombian slang for bad ass mf.
What did you do last night?
Watched too much House of Cards.
What can’t you live without?
More like, who: Denise Benavides. Diego Gabriel Sabogal. Ok, what: Donuts.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Inside my father’s brain.
Who is your personal hero? Why?
My mother and my father. I grew up not being close to my parents. Be it teenage angst, be it being first generation and all the woes of culture clash. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that none of us are invincible, that we’re all just trying our best to figure it all out—that they too have flaws, they too feel sad and they too just want to be loved.
In my journey as a storyteller I’ve been doing a lot of research on my parent’s migration story. I called them on the phone and said, was it worth it? Given the lives my brother and I live, given everything you’ve had to endure in America, the discrimination, language barriers, and constant shortage of money, would you do it all over again?
Two months ago I finished a mural of the two of them titled “Los Gordos.” I used a photo of them when they first migrated to the United States from Colombia in 1985. On there, I incorporated a quote from their research regarding how we, as Latinos, receive health care. How we are different from white people. How our sense of family values and family dependency are exponentially higher than theirs no matter how long we've lived in the US. Therefore, in order to receive appropriate care, health care providers (like Kaiser and Highland Hospital) must cater to the needs of our values. Otherwise, who do you think is getting the best care? Who do you think is staying alive longer? Not us.
Their research is now the number 1 cited article regarding this topic and I’m grateful to be showcasing their legacy. It has made me the fearless woman I am today.
How did you find your creative voice/outlet?
Growing up I wanted to be the president of the United States, which led me to studying political science in college. I wanted the job that would bring the most social change, and I thought the president could do a good job at that. I wanted to learn all about how our government worked, and about what laws are in place, so that I could change them. Once I graduated, I wanted nothing more than to bring political change to an ever broken system, but I didn’t want to be a politician to have to do it. I knew I had to go big. I knew I had to create something large scale that could grab the attention of a mass audience. Muralism does that—it’s not tied down to a canvas; it’s upfront and public.
What is something most people don't know about you?
I struggle communicating with others. I navigate through feelings, not words.
What do you do when you feel uninspired/blocked/etc?
I don’t think I have the luxury of being uninspired. The struggles from living as a lesbian and a woman of color are omnipresent. They never leave. They make a bed in your home. Feeling uninspired is a privilege I do not have. It means the war against my body and what I represent is over. It means there is no anger or fear or hope with which to draw from. So, so long as I am alive and living in a world that is trying to eradicate me, there is work to be done.
What's your biggest 'learning moment', and what did you you take from that experience?
I was recently flown out to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago to paint a mural for the “House On Mango Street” exhibition and had the honor of meeting Sandra Cisneros, who talked about ‘the artist.’ She said the only real impact we will have on the world is if you write/paint/talk about something only you know. Everything else is out there. What makes you/your story different? This moment with Sandra defined what and for whom I would be depicting in murals for the remainder of my career.
Immediately after Chicago I flew to Montreal and unappologetically painted a 30ft mural showcasing two lesbian women of color. The mural read “Our existence will no longer be silenced. We require no explanations, apologies, or approval.”
Sandra was right: if I wanted to impact the world as an artist, I would have to tell my story over and over again.
What’s your greatest achievement and how has it shaped you?
My greatest achievement was back in 2013 when I traveled to my parent’s homeland, Colombia, to paint my first outdoor mural. I had only done small canvases up until then, but I knew murals had to be next. So I did, and haven’t looked back since.
Coffee or Tea? What kind?
Coffee. Colombian. Always.
What does a perfect day look like for you?
All the people I love in the same place. Beach. Sun. Day fade.
Who are your local inspirations?
Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza of Dignidad Rebelde, Joshua Mays, Lexx Valdez, Favianna Rodriguez, Yolanda Lopez, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, and Ani Rivera—all of who have been and continue to be my greatest mentors, colleagues, collaborators, and friends.
Dim sum! I’d tell you where to go but then I’d have to keel you.
What upcoming show are you excited about?
I'm looking forward to "The Black Woman is God: Reprogramming That God Code" at SOMArts, which celebrates the Black female presence as the highest spiritual form. Given the ongoing mass genocide of black and brown bodies, we need to honor and support the spaces that bring us together for healing. Plus, any artwork that seeks to exalt rather than conquer the female form is fine by me. #womenareperfect.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
My partner and I actually sat down two days ago to try and plan out the next five years of our lives. It’s nearly impossible. New opportunities show up in our inboxes that take us to new places everyday. All we know is that we want to have some sort of dwelling to call home (in this ever changing Bay Area), we want to make art with and for women like us, and we want to continue growing in love. The rest is up to fate.
If you could live in a book, TV show, movie, play or painting what would it be?
Everyone knows I already live inside Grey’s Anatomy. Shonda Rhimes is practically my best friend.
Where can people see you and your art in action:
I’ve said no to all commissions for the rest of the year so I can sit and think about the grander picture. Hopefully you’ll be seeing a lot more illegal activity. Please stay tuned on instagram: @jessicasabogal and at jessicasabogal.com