San Salvador: Silent SpringAugust 31, 2015
“The Tom Thumb of the Americas,” a phrase originally attributed to Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, is an appellation used to describe El Salvador. It was later popularized by the great revolutionary poet Roque Dalton in his iconic 1974 book The Forbidden Tales of Tom Thumb. That same year, fed up with being scorned by other communities, a group of migrant Salvadoran heavy metal fans called the “stoners” would form the gang Mara Salvatrucha in the streets of Los Angeles. Thirty-five years later, in 2009, it was discovered that “The Tom Thumb of the Americas” was actually an expression coined by Salvadoran writer Julio Enrique Ávila, and not Mistral. The construction of contemporary Salvadoran identity thus begins with its own decolonization process, with abiding love for those qualities that make this identity so resilient. In Dalton’s own words: “Is there anyone who isn’t fed up with your smallness?”
Thirty-five years have also passed since the assassination of Monsignor Romero, a fierce defender of the Salvadoran poor, and whose work has been linked to the liberation theology, and since Ronald Reagan made this type of theology a combat objective in a packet of strategies conceived to eliminate the revolutionary national liberation movements of Central America.
In the interim, El Salvador has borne witness to a Civil War (1980-1992); an Amnesty Law within the framework of the Peace Accords (1992) that brought about marked ideological polarization, blurring any possible horizon of reconciliation; and a devastating level of social destitution that, along with increasing economic precariousness, was met with the brutal rise of the Maras. The continuously present systemic violence and diaspora are realities that have become completely internalized within Salvadoran DNA.
In this context of war, post-war and open conflict with the Maras, the Salvadoran art scene works silently to construct ways of exercising practices that transcend the particularity of violence as a totalizing entity, with an increasing concern for “public issues.”
Through support networks, a philosophy of proximity and consciousness-raising on how social interactions determine other possible categorical structures of reality, the following itinerary demonstrates the setting-in-motion of processes that appropriate the city’s public space through festivals, experimentation with online platforms, self-run programs by action art collectives, and institutional policies of professionalization and internalization.
In San Salvador, a segment of artistic production focuses on the development of tools to prevent the erosion of memory, evidence the bio-political control of the social body, and through systemic disobedience, exercise a critical revision and construction of their own historical and artistic discourse. A silent spring that, like democratic springs, negate negation in order to design new models of coexistence.
Laberinto Projects is a digital archive for reviewing, recovering and disseminating the work developed by gallery director Janine Janowski in El Laberinto during the civil war and post-war period (1977-2001). It was launched recently with the support of a Howard Chapnick Grant (2014) by Salvadoran photographer Muriel Hasbun, who resides in Washington, D.C. Janowski was a key part of the process of internationalization and professionalization of the contemporary Salvadoran art scene, through her support of local and Central American creative production. The El Laberinto Gallery provided a platform for experimentation and critique, eventually becoming an epicenter for artists like Julio Sequeira, Mauricio Aguilar, Miguel Antonio Bonilla, Carlos Cañas, Dagoberto Nolasco, Chubasco, Rosa Mena Valenzuela, Luis Lazo, Beatriz Deleón, Luis González Palma, Moisés Barrios, Martorell and poet David Escobar Galindo.
Janowski was able to put together a collection that is indispensable for understanding the evolution of contemporary languages in the decades of the 80s and 90s and the consequences of the armed conflict. “The signing of the peace treaty has transported us from a time of parenthesis to a time in suspense,” Janowski commented in the 1º Simposio sobre prácticas artísticas y posibilidades curatoriales [1st Symposium on Artistic Practices and Curatorial Possibilites] held at TEOR/ética in 2000.
In 2015, Laberinto Projects presented its first dissemination effort in the Spanish Cultural Center of El Salvador, with the exhibition Legado y memoria: trazando el laberinto [Legacy and Memory: Charting the Labyrinth], which included a timeline of the gallery’s trajectory, a discussion on Radio Tomada and a workshop for reflections on Janowski’s private collection in which students from the University of San Salvador and the Corcoran School participated.
Crack Rodríguez is a young artist, an ex-member of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and a critic of this sector of the Salvadoran left, who started his relationship with action art by way of social activism, by establishing a variant of the left that Rodríguez denominates the new guerrilla. Supported by the Paul Klee Foundation, he recently performed two actions in the department of La Libertad to denounce the lack of informational transparency, political instrumentalization and the historical amnesia that the country is suffering: La inclinación [The Inclination] (2015), which questions the relationship between spirit and sacrifice, and Work (2015), performed this past May 1—Labor Day—at the controversial monument to Roberto d’Aubuisson, the highest leader of the Salvadoran right and the one primarily responsible for the assassination of Monsignor Romero. Work also coincided with a takeover by mayors and congressional representatives.
THE FIRE THEORY is a platform for online experimentation and circulation of thought produced by Crack Rodríguez along with Salvadoran artists Mauricio Kabistán, Ernesto Bautista and Melisa Guevara. They came together in 2009 with the objective of generating a mutual support network for the conceptualization, production and exposition of individual and collective projects, opening up interesting debates about processes emerging out of El Salvador’s social fabric. Luciana Sex Tape, an experimental new media project, is an example of this, exhibited within the program of the ESFOTO 2012 festival, as an exhibition of animated GIFs that uses viral language as a legitimate form for content distribution online. Es la cumbia la que manda en mi país [Cumbia is what Rules my Country] by Javier Ramírez-Nadie**, one of the pieces in this project, shows different locations in San Salvador, typically used to shoot Salvadoran cumbia music videos—Marito Rivera and his Grupo Bravo, Grupo Bongo or Grupo Conga—like the Sheraton hotel, the monument to the Divine Savior of the World or the University of El Salvador. Significant historical events also took place at these locales, such as the liberation of the group of international journalists and U.S. military officers, and the 5J student protests in 2006. Ramírez-Nadie’s production has been prolific in projects such as el.plano.airo and the eclectic arts festival FEA, which he codirects along with Elena Salamanca.
La Palabra [The Word] (2013—in progress) and New Promises (2012—in progress), both by Ernesto Bautista, are ongoing investigations about the relationship between language and the diaspora. Both explore the perversions of capitalism surrounding petroleum distribution, and their similarity with new churches’ strategies of evangelization. Bautista emphasizes the use of language as “fuel” that makes change possible through protest, unity and critical debate.
Mauricio Kabistan, a former member of the Artificio collective and one of the ideologues behind the platform for THE FIRE THEORY, presented Sin título [Untitled] in the IILA Latin American Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennial (2015), a work that is part of a series called 1932 (in progress) where he explores the fate of the Nawat language following the indigenous genocide of 1932. In Réquiem [Requiem] (2014), from the series Ensayo sobre el silencio [Essay on Silence] (2012-in progress), he revises and resignifies one of the most important symbols of the process of moral reparation to the victims of the armed conflict (the Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad [Monument to Memory and Truth], which contains the names of 25,000 victims of the Salvadoran Civil War along a wall stretching 85 meters), erected following the report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador in 1993. In Kabistan’s words: “In a way Requiem is an homage to the work started by the CO-MADRES collective in 1977 and all the other platforms that arose after them and that have worked on the issue of the disappearance and torture of individuals during the Civil War.”
Works on Paper, on Freedom of Expression, Repression and Resistance, a Bottle of Notes and Some Voyages (2015) is a residency program inspired by Salvadoran artist and art supporter Camila Sol, developed through hybridartprojects and La Tunca Foundation, platforms for nomadic experimentation. With the aim of using drawing as a tool for cultivating collective reflection on freedom in any of its forms, with the understanding that repression and censorship are not components of any ideology but rather part of the corruption of authoritarian political systems, Sol proposed to the artists-in-residence that they traverse the eastern sector of El Salvador (a bastion for guerrillas) and delve into the testimonies and objects accumulated by the Museum of the Revolution. These include the history of Radio Venceremos, a fundamental part of the Salvadoran Civil War. In the words of one of its announcers, known as “Maravilla” or “Wonder”: “An unconventional and powerful weapon: words that broadcast clandestine life.” This residency concluded with the exhibition Manual de operaciones [Operations Manual], which followed the precepts proposed by curator Pablo León de la Barra in his “Manual para realizar exposiciones en el trópico [Manual for Holding Exhibitions in the Tropics],” published in the catalog of the exhibition Sucursal: La Ene in MALBA, 2014.
Claire Breukel, chief curator of MARTE Contemporáneo, the contemporary art program of the El Salvador Museum of Art, put together a series of conversations with artist Simón Vega, and thanks to the support of Mario Cader-Frech, identified the need to narrate the consequences of the great diaspora on Salvadoran artistic practice and the ways in which it had transcended its geo-political boundaries. As a result of this process, in 2014 they presented Y.ES Collect Contemporary El Salvador, published by the Robert S. Wennett Foundation and Mario Cader-Frech, contextualizing the creative production of El Salvador with a series of 28 interviews with different leaders from the world of Salvadoran art.
MARTE Contemporáneo,  the program Breukel directs with the support of curator Lucas Arévalo, aims to serve as a platform for experimentation along with a very necessary program of internationalization that seeks to connect local Salvadoran artistic producers with international agents. A good example of this was a visit by the curator of the Museo del Barrio, Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, described in Art Adventures with El Museo del Barrio: El Salvador, or the recently inaugurated exhibition RELOCATING SAL in Vienna’s Hilger BrotKunsthalle gallery, which included the participation of more than 15 artists from El Salvador and others, like Irvin Morazán, who resides in New York but has roots in “The Tom Thumb of the Americas.”
La Libertad, a beach in the Xanadú area, is the location of artist Simón Vega’s home studio. Since participating in the Pavilion of the Italo-Latin American Institute (IILA) at the 55th Venice Biennial, Vega spends more time outside of El Salvador than within the country. In spite of his international activity on projects like Sub-Tropical Social Sculptures (2014) at Locustprojects (Miami), he supports local initiatives that seek to open new spaces for experimentation, such as the eclectic art festival FEA, Contemporary Art Workshops (TACON) promoted by Espira La Espora, etc. In collaboration with Walterio Iraheta, he has also set up a project of ephemeral interventions based on the premise of the anti-monument in areas of San Salvador with archaeological, social or political significance. Vega’s investigations focus on the consequences of the Cold War in Central America together with an analysis of the asymmetries resulting from the processes of so-called social modernization. In the series of drawings Arquitecturas híbridas y construcciones mentales [Hybrid Architectures and Mental Constructions] (2013-15), Mesoamerican temples, colonial churches and modernist constructions are juxtaposed in order to demonstrate the complexity of articulating El Salvador’s particular history and identity.
The Loma Linda neighborhood of the La Libertad department, 90 minutes from downtown San Salvador, is home to La Fabri-K, a workspace founded in 2007 by the collective of the same name in order to share dynamics and develop a program of public activities involving the local community. It disintegrated a few years later, but a group of artists—Danny Zavaleta, Kevin Baltazar, Romeo Gáldamez, Antonio Romero and Ronald Morán—took over the space and converted it into a platform for the exhibition and circulation of contemporary practices. In 2014, in coordination with a visit from Inti Guerrero, who was at that time curator of TEOR/ética, the group organized FABRIKACIÓN #1, which exhibited the work of a score of Salvadoran artists without a specific curatorial premise, but rather as a “motivational meeting” and in order to “share present work,” in the words of Morán.
Ronald Morán, an artist who is indispensable for understanding the present-day Salvadoran scene and also a former member of the mythical ADOBE collective (2002-2006), proposed an independent project on urban space to two of the artists who share space with him in La Fabri-K, Póker and Kevin Baltazar, in order to stimulate interventions by local and international artists in different locations of San Salvador and other peripheral cities. The result was ADAPTE, a gradual program of public interventions developed over the course of two months. Among the artists who participated were Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker, Póker, Víctor Crack Rodríguez, Regina Galindo, Natalia Domínguez, Carmen Elena Trigueros, José David Herrera, Ronald Morán and Danny Zavaleta.
The impulse to “dignify” public space as an inclusive place is something ADAPTE shares with the project Ruta 06: Intervenciones de la ciudad [Ruta 06: Interventions in the City], set in motion by Ronald Morán, Mayra Barraza, Alexia Miranda, Eduardo Chang, Rosario Moore and Sandro Stivella in 2006, with the support of the prior director of the Spanish Cultural Center, Juan Sánchez.
In both projects, Liberty Plaza is transformed into an incisive critical platform for reporting a growing sentiment of social helplessness with regard to public power. The performances Free down. La continuación del híbrid [Free Down: Continuation of the Hybrid] (2014) by Crack Rodríguez and Un saludo desde la hermana República de El Salvador [Greetings from the Sister Republic of El Salvador ](2006) by Mayra Barraza testify to this.
De cómo los efectos son las causas [On How Effects are Causes], popularly referred to as Laberinto de hilo [The String Labyrinth], is an investigation set into motion by Ronald Morán about the fragility and bewilderment of living in a continual projection, inhabiting the spaces that gravitate within the identity of the immigrant. Like all of his projects, the work is unfinished. Problematics explored by the Salvadoran artist include dematerialization, the relationship between public and private space, and the weight of guilt or virtual memory. His drawings, as a preliminary step in the installation about space On How Effects Are Causes, make reference to mystical archetypes or elements of inexhaustible symbolism: the staircase, the wall and the labyrinth.
Alexia Miranda is one of the most active Salvadoran artist-performers and one of the leading voices defending the use of public space as a device for democratic empowerment through action art. She founded the Catapulta platform along with Rodrigo Dada, and just over a year ago she founded Boceto Creative Lab, a space for training and experimentation for all types of audiences. Miranda was also the promoter of the first Convocatoria Nacional de Arte Acción [National Convention of Action Art] (2007-2009).
Catapulta was the result of investigations like Espacio ordinario-Espacio extra ordinario [Ordinary Space-Extraordinary Space], in which Miranda proposed a reconsideration of the use of public space in the historic center of San Salvador. This platform has offered workshops such as Collective Textile, a part of the international program Redes en permanente construcción [Networks in Permanent Construction], directed by Jorge Restrepo and Gabriela Alonso. The workshop revived the premise proposed by Lygia Pape in her performance Divisor [Divider] (1968): social reconnection through participation as an unquestionable tool for transformation, or Dibujar sin ver [Drawing without Seeing] (2011), which aimed to reach all audiences with new contemporary languages and took place in the MARTE (El Salvador Museum of Contemporary Art), with the participation of musician Joel Barraza.
El legado de la palabra [Legacy of the Word] (2012) was a project by artist Guillermo Araujo that took notable phrases—“the height of happiness” or “words are power”—from the homilies of Monsignor Romero. Araujo, from a secular standpoint, takes on a manner of practice through which he internalizes his responsibilities to the community. With projects like La Casa alegre [Happy Home], in collaboration with his partner Paola Lorenzana, Araujo has been working in support of violence prevention through workshops and timely actions in the peripheral areas of San Salvador known as “high risk areas” for several years. For Araujo, El Salvador’s own history resembles that which occurred recently regarding the beatification of Monsignor Romero: “The city has succumbed to a posthumous and almost desperate happiness. I have been infected completely. I both love, and am frightened by, this reflection on our history.” Like the performance Sueños de victoria [Dreams of Victory] (2013), which took place in Cabañas department a short 70 km from San Salvador, Historias grabadas [Recorded Histories] (2013–in progress) reflects this dual aspect of the artist: social responsibility and articulation of a unique discourse on Salvadoran history. For this project—part of the Promérica Selection for the IX Biennial of Visual Arts of the Central American Isthmus, curated by Ernesto Calvo—Araujo toured the different departments of El Salvador offering documentation workshops that collected 304 personal histories along with the subaltern history of El Salvador.
IN SITU is a platform created by artists and educators Mauricio Esquivel and Jaime Izaguirre to advise emergent Salvadoran artists and as a platform to publicize the work of Esquivel and Izaguirre, along with artists like Rodrigo Dada. Last year, they were invited by TEOR/ética to speak about Salvadoran artistic practice, presenting the controversial exhibition La generación del encierro. Arte salvadoreño [The Generation of Isolation: Salvadoran Art]. IN SITU, located in La Casa Tomada—a space that collaborates with the Spanish Cultural Center in El Salvador to focus on the professionalization of the local artistic scene—has opened up interesting lines of investigation with projects like Geografías del escape [Geographies of Escape] (2014), which delves into the idea of isolation and escape, or Catálisis [Catalysis] (2014), in which a series of students from the School of Art of the National University presented works such as Bolsa de colores para basura [Colored Trash Bag] (2014) by Denise Reyes and the performance Huellas [Traces] by Mauricio Morales, a self-reflection on his identity as the son of one of the elder indigenous leaders of El Salvador.
We cannot conclude this itinerary without mentioning one of El Salvador’s most internationally recognized artists, Walterio Iraheta. In addition to his artistic production, he takes an active part in the local scene by giving talks and workshops in the Spanish Cultural Center, La Casa Tomada and the MARTE, and he is director of the contemporary Central American photography festival ESFOTO, which since 2005 has stimulated and promoted photographic production in El Salvador, and will soon be renamed the 1º Bienal de Fotografía Salvadoreña [1st Biennial of Salvadoran Photography].
 Rafael Lara Martínez, “El Salvador, Pulgarcito de América (1946) de Julio Enrique Ávila. Crónica de un hallazgo” (“El Salvador, the Tom Thumb of the Americas (1946) by Julio Enrique Ávila: Chronicle of a Discovery”) AFCH, boletín № 42, 2009.
 “Negating negation” is the premise for the construction of the “anti-dialectic” methodology proposed by philosopher Enrique Dussel as part of the epistemological process of the “decolonial turn.”
 MARTE Contemporáneo is sponsored by Mario Cader-Frech and Marquis Lewis, also known as RETNA.
 RELOCATING SAL exhibited the work of Crack Rodríguez, Mayra Barraza, Ronald Morán, Simón Vega, Melissa Guevara, Mauricio Kabistán, Rodrigo Dada, Jaime Izaguirre, Ernesto Bautista, Natalia Domínguez, Luis Paredes, Danny Zavaleta, Mauricio Esquivel, Victor Hugo, Karlos Cárcamo, Walterio Iraheta and Irvin Morazán.
 The ADOBE collective (2002-2009), consisting of Walterio Iraheta, Ronald Morán, Verónica Vides, Simón Vega, José David Herrera and Carmen Elena Trigueros, focused their production on topics related to migration, urban space and social imbalance.
* © Personal archive of Janine Janowski, courtesy of Muriel Hasbun and Laberinto Projects
Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen