Rivka Valérie Louissaint (she/they) a first year MFA student at UC Berkeley, makes art which is informed by their experiences as a Black, working class, immigrant, and queer woman. They are also inspired by liberation movements, such as the Black, Native American, and Puerto Rican national liberation movements, and student movements all over the world.
A creator of paintings, ceramics, installations, costumes, and performances, Louissaint calls themselves a multivisual, mixed-media artist.
“Our world is so interconnected and interdisciplinary, I want that to reflect within my work” says Louissaint, “So, I’m very open to any type of medium, as long as it will help me get across the message I’m trying to communicate.”
Their message is very often one that pushes viewers of their artwork to interrogate their own positionality when it comes to oppression, exploitation, and class in U.S. society and the world.
“A lot of my pieces go vertically upward. There’s always people on the bottom, and then you have the systemic structures on top,” said Louissaint. “You have to look up at the structures to understand the crushing weight of them…and ask, where do I fit into that hierarchy? Why do I relate to certain people and for what reason?
Understanding gallery spaces as often elitist and exclusionary, Louissaint strives to always include working people in their pieces as much as possible. Often, Louissaint portrays workers marching for basic human rights such as housing, food, education—and puts the workers at eye level with the gallery viewer.
“My work forces people to have certain dialogues,” shared Louissaint. “Why do they relate to certain people and for what reasons? When I put them at the level of the masses, does that make them uncomfortable? Do they want to be in a position of power, and for what?
Once, Louissaint made a painting in which a figure of a well known politician stood on top of a pyramid made up of bodies of color—and a professor remarked “Ah yes—this was the victory of Hillary Clinton!”
“I was like, you don’t get it at all!” laughs Louissaint, “Why is it you identify with the person on top, and don’t see the struggle of the people on the bottom—does success mean that you have to step on others to get on top? Why is the pathway to success not horizontal?”
Throughout their childhood in Haiti, Louissaint always found ways to keep creating. Their biggest supporter is their mother—who loves dancing, especially traditional Haitian folk dancing. Louissaint remembers their mother waking them up in the middle of the night—or whenever the electricity came on, amidst what were frequently occurring power outages— to show Louissaint music videos and learn dance moves with them.
“She always allowed me to create,” said Louissaint. “When we moved to the United States, my mom was a single parent of three, and she would be struggling to pay bills or buy us food. But when I started community college, and realized I wanted to study art, she used her credit card to buy me art supplies.”
Louissaint attended Broward Community College for five years, then worked in early childhood education for three more—and found creating enough space and time to make a portfolio to apply to art school very difficult.
“But then, I met some friends while organizing in the community, who would tell me to come over to their place when they were out of town—and paint” says Louissaint. “That allowed me the stability to make art. I remember, after (doing this for a while), going to a portfolio day in Miami and being so nervous—but recruiters were like ‘This is amazing!’”
Louissaint ended up getting admitted to all of their top choice art schools, The School of Art Institute of Chicago, Maryland Institute College of Art, and the California College of Arts. They chose CCA because it offered them the most financial support, reducing the looming threat of exorbitant debt after graduation.
“Even so, though, being a working class student was hard at CCA,” Louissaint reflects. “[CCA] gave me enough funding to pay the tuition, but the living expenses were up to me. At times, I was working three jobs on top of being a full time student to make ends meet.”
Busy with school and work during their time at art school, Louissaint took a year off after graduating from CCA to work three jobs and apply to grad school—and on February 14, 2020, UC Berkeley called with their acceptance.
Louissaint has already accomplished so much, and their journey is just getting started. Most recently they have contributed to a mural honoring Black History Month at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, titled Monument as Living Memory.
Louissaint painted the two monarch butterflies (pictured right) noting many people aren’t aware that fifty percent of people detained at detention centers are Black immigrants. The non-binary child painted in the mural is an expression of solidarity with other immigrant communities, as well as an stance of recognition for Black immigrants detained at the border.
You can (and should!) view more of their work on the Worth Ryder Gallery website.
Also, you can check out some of Loussaint’s most current sources of inspiration below:
Ultimately, Louissaint could send a message to this reader, it would be this:
“We, the workers of the world, are the one who create wealth, meaning, and culture, and we have the potential to create a new world. We should organize ourselves to create a new world for our future, and our futures’ future free of oppression and exploitation.