Art serves many purposes, but it often works as a tool for examining societal and personal values. When used for criticism it can challenge cultural norms, provide an escape and even inspire revolutions. But for every Picasso, Pollack, or Van Gogh, there are lesser-known but equally as important artists whose work hits closer to home.
Rosalia Torres-Weiner is a Mexican-American muralist, painter, and activist whose work addresses socio-political power structures in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina and beyond. With her piece Madre Protectora — a portrait of an AK-47 wielding Virgen de Guadalupe — on permanent collection at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum, she has cemented herself as a voice for immigrants and the marginalized.
“This is the mural that I painted for the Anacostia Museum,” she starts by showing me a magazine that sits atop a small table inside her mobile art truck. “Then last year they [National Geographic] asked me if they could use it for the cover.”
In order to understand her journey, we need to go back 15 years to when Rosalia had a very successful mural painting business in Charlotte. She would regularly be commissioned by well-to-do homeowners to paint custom pieces on their properties. But after the economy collapsed in 2003 and business slowed, she needed to find something new to focus her energies on. So she turned to her community and started working with kids on what she called ‘The Magic Kite Project’ — she asked immigrant children to write their life stories on a piece of paper, which was then glued to a kite which the kids would fly as a symbol of letting go of their past traumas. It was at this time that she realized that her own community could benefit from having a dialogue about immigration and the effects of family separation, so she redirected from commercial art to activism.
Her murals serve as a calling card, that attention-grabbing thing that burrows into your memory, and that lead people to seek her out only to learn that her work extends far beyond colorful paintings on public walls. She’s put on puppet shows, created digital storytelling pieces and (one of my personal favorites) an interactive series for which she developed an app that allows the person viewing her paintings to hold their phone camera to the image and hear the subject’s stories told out loud in their own voice.
“I want young girls to get into politics and technology and science. And this is why I paint women mostly” she adds.
A multidisciplinary artist, Rosalia has created a number of exhibits and educational programs within her community to help children better understand the issues being faced by others and in their own personal lives.
“I explained this to the kids: even if a wall separates us, we’re still a family. Love is what keeps us together.” Her work not only focuses on immigration and social justice but also identity, “I tell the kids to be very proud of who they are — of their roots.”
While the political climate in the U.S. continues to be fraught with tension, conversations about policy and law enforcement will continue to be difficult ones to have, which is why art is one of the most effective tools for making these topics more palatable for the masses. From her mobile art studio in Charlotte, Rosalia is giving a voice to the Latino community and inspiring a future generation of young artists to speak out against injustice.