Transforming a Gallery into a Sanctuary

Justin Favela and Geralda

Justin Favela is always thinking about space. And as a queer, Latino, he’s looking for a safe space.

“I think about it a lot in my work,” he said during a recent interview over coffee and croissant at Homage Bakery, which is one of my favorites.

Favela is an emerging artist from Las Vegas who draws his influences from pop culture and his Guatemalan/Mexican heritage.

When Eric Brooks, curator at Sierra Arts Gallery, told Justin he could do whatever he wanted, Justin decided to construct a space — a sanctuary for those in the LGBTQ community and for people of color. Using a popular queer icon, he built one of the most perceived safe places he could — a convent.

Using reams of tissue and toilet paper, aluminum foil, and cellophane, he built a colorful installation that’s based on scenes from the films “Sister Act,”The Sound of Music,” and “Dark Habits.” He said these movies are part of the queer canon and feature the convent as a sanctuary. What about “Two Mules for Sister Sara?”

Covering every inch of the gallery with tissue flowers and piñata-like decoration, Justin was successful in making a space that provides a sense of security, even if it’s false. (Yes, I’m a former Roman Catholic who was taught by nuns — and spent a lot of time in detention.)

“After seeing Justin’s installation and meeting him during Tilting the Basin exhibition at the NMA in 2016, I knew he would be a perfect fit for the Sierra Arts Gallery,” Brooks said. “We are delighted to host such an unconventional and far-reaching installation from May 5 to 27.”

The gallery is fun and reminded me of one of my birthday parties where I had tissue paper decoration and smashed a piñata. I’ve seen “Sister Act” and “The Sound of Music,” but would not have connected the installation to the movies or as a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community and people of color.   

Brooks suggested I find out what a gay person thought of the exhibit, which I did.

“As a black queer, I believe the exhibition definitely exudes a sense of liberation, maybe not especially to the LGBTQ or POC communities, but most certainly to women of color, which I feel is extremely underrepresented, if not more than other communities,” said artist DePaul Vera. “An overall appreciation of femininity was present (besides literal images of women of color on display) the show used a lot of floral components and festive materials that created an accepting environment.”

A graduate of the University of Reno, Las Vegas with a bachelor of fine arts degree, Justin said some in the academic arena question whether his work should be labeled craft or folk art, based on materials, aesthetics or the artist’s education.

“I just love fucking with the system like that,” he said. “I like to blur the lines and mess with those notions. It’s about representation. It’s about visibility.”

Justin spent two weeks in Reno, installing the exhibit. It wasn’t his first time in Reno, but he said it was his first time to really pay attention to the city and its racial makeup.

“It’s very white here,” he said. “I’m experiencing Reno with a different lens this time. As artists, we can’t ignore it anymore.”

I definitely want to go back and experience this exhibit without it being as packed as it was last week during the opening night reception. I’ll be bi-curious to see if this quiet visit will bring me the sense of security that was Justin’s intent for minorities.


Geralda Miller, Curator