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What do “Full House” and “Saved by the Bell” have to do with handmade toys? A lot, for San Diego-born artist Rizzhel Javier. Since developing her People and Places project at the New Children’s Museum last year, Javier has been inviting families to talk about identity, race and origins. That invitation is something she didn’t have as a child.
“I had this constant question watching these shows,” she said, of the TV of her youth. “Why is my family not like this family? And how do I make my family more like that family so I seem more normal?”
Javier is prolific and steadfast in her work as an educator, building storytelling and archival art projects. Last year, the New Children’s Museum held a series of eight workshops with Javier and a crew of educators, taking their self-portrait doll-making workshops on the road, from San Ysidro to Vista. Children were invited to draw themselves and record a short message about their identity or their origin. They stitched their drawings into dolls; the voice is encapsulated in a tiny audio module activated by squeezing the doll.
Javier’s work has revolved around race, identity, migration, home and origins for years, with a major goal being sharing stories and opening dialogues. When approached by the New Children’s Museum to kick off a residency and subsequent exhibition about those very topics, Javier was excited. But as a project for very young children, the museum and Javier knew the project had even more layers. “We’re talking about topics of race, migration and family origin,” she said. “Those words are loaded in some way. So that was my goal, actually, as part of the project. My question was, ‘When did race become a bad word?’ How we change our language to talk to kids is really important.”
The exhibition, now extended through April, features examples of self-portrait dolls (no audio speakers inside, though, for durability) which children can include in their imaginative play, a space to record video messages of children’s and family stories (Javier noted there are over 2,000 videos recorded so far), as well as a photobooth with a participatory element. The toy-making workshops are finished, however.
Javier has taught and directed many community projects in San Diego, including Little Saigon Stories with AjA Project and Media Arts Center, plus Move(meant), frame-by-frame flip book-style library card catalogues of 15 Southern California and Tijuana women and their stories, which exhibited at The Athenaeum. “The stories just inherently became about race, gender, inequality, gentrification, migration: all these topics that, you know, I didn’t say those words,” she recalled.
She’s currently turning to her own origins, working with the Filipino-American community, expanding on the balikbayan box project she started with last year’s Fil-Am Fest. Balikbayan boxes are part care package to home, part time capsule. She is pursuing funding to bring the story projects into libraries and ultimately produce books of their stories.
Javier’s work is prolific, but her hope is largely singular: That social practice projects will uncover not just something meaningful about a participant’s own identity and their origins, but open up dialogue and honor the stories and conversations of others in the community.
“I have a new project called ‘Gentrification Has A Name,’” Javier said, excited and ready to test the prompt out on anyone who will listen, and this Thursday she’ll have a big audience. At a talk at UCSD on art, race, gentrification and affordable housing issues, Javier will join San Diego City Council President Georgette Gomez, UCLA Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies chair Eric Avila and Carolina Martinez, the Environmental Health Coalition’s associate director of policy to discuss and engage the community.
At the talk, Javier will invite the public to reflect on a place they used to go, but is no longer there. Name it, identify it and remember how it felt to notice the place gone, but also to pay attention to the ways in which other individuals from the community are also experiencing gentrification. There’s a phone number where participants can record their memories and send in pictures. “I just want them to see that a social practice project doesn’t take a lot of time or energy.” And, she said, “I feel like having that kind of hard evidence is what’s going to make the people with the power and the money more liable for either the problem that they’re creating or the problem that they’re trying to solve.”