SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — What is Salvadoran about El Salvador is not immediately apparent in San Benito, a leafy neighborhood in the country’s capital San Salvador, where the national art museum, El Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE), resides. On a recent afternoon, shiny Japanese cars with black tinted windows filed in and out of the nearby McDonald’s drive-thru. Wealthy locals sipped Starbucks lattes on-the-go and shopped at Zara. In my hotel room, I turned on the television to find Duck Dynasty dubbed in Spanish. Little suggested I’d left America behind, save for the giant guns that crossed the chests of security guards at every building.
On entering the country for the first time, most of what I knew about El Salvador came from ominous news headlines, Spanish-language films or art history slides. Exhibit A: the pyramids at Tozumal, first settled by the Mayas 5,000 years ago. Exhibit B: the ancient city of Cihuatán, built by the Pipils, who came later. Today, El Salvador is recognized less for its art than for its crime. Violence has devastated the country, first through a civil war that lasted from 1979 to 1992, then by the gangs it engendered, which have since spread to the rest of Central and North America.
Desiring to understand El Salvador beyond its American franchises and unnerving violence, I drove up the sunny Avenida La Revolucíon one recent afternoon to MARTE, the white geometric building that houses the country’s premiere collection of drawings, paintings, and sculptures. Designed by the architect Salvador Choussy in 1947, the museum stands on a hillside like a modernist Parthenon, surrounded by statuesque palms and potted bougainvilleas. In the outside courtyard, a monumental stone carving towers above an empty reflecting pool. Its nine figures, representing different sectors of society, commemorate the Constitution of 1950; they were hewn from a single stone in 1956 by Costa Rican artist Francisco Zúñiga, a nationalized Mexican.
Inside, the exhibition Al Compás del Tiempo (or The Compass of the Times) filled most of the museum’s two floors. Here was my opportunity to be schooled in El Salvador’s artistic heritage, which I hoped would give me an inside perspective on the country. On view until 2016, the show spans almost 150 years of Salvadoran art, highlighting 73 artists and 114 artworks. Curator Rodolfo Rafael Alas Molin was refreshingly bent on making the works accessible to a wide audience. In every room, plaques in both English and Spanish unpack the social and political environment in which the artists worked, aligning them with well-known points in Salvadoran history that serve as an entry to the art.
The show begins in 1870, when Salvadoran artists began turning their gaze from religious subjects to the everyday, such as in “La Ventana” (undated), Pascasio González’s luminous painting of a large window. The country’s coffee plantations were then flourishing, spurring the construction, in 1883, of the national museum, which embodied the prevailing desire for modernization and “the cultural emulation of advanced nations as well intending to show the presence of a Salvadoran identity,” according to the exhibition catalogue.
Yet leaders still chiefly valued the Old World, drawing from France and Italy in everything from architecture to urban planning (an Italian even wrote the national anthem).
In 1903, the government sent artist Miguel Ortiz Villacorta to study art in Rome, where he was introduced to Impressionism. Two of his paintings, hung side by side in the museum’s Grand Sala, reveal the extent of this influence: on the left, a veristic portrait of a young woman; on the right, a loosely-worked landscape depicting country life in the mountains. Despite the desire for a unique Salvadoran identity, Salvadoran art — like the larger culture — was being shaped by the outside world.
The artistic roots of the next few decades sprouted from the cruel government policies in the late 19th century toward the indigenous peoples, who were not a part of this new identity. After the government abolished their communal lands, forcing them to labor on coffee farms, bad working conditions finally triggered an uprising in 1932 that was brutally crushed. Many migrated to Honduras and Guatemala; those who remained feared flaunting their native culture, and the Pipil language died away. Wealthy Spaniards also fled in the upheaval, leaving a mixed middle behind to pick up the pieces.
It was within this milieu that artist Jose Mejia Vides won a scholarship from the Mexican government in 1922 and left San Salvador for Mexico City. There he studied with the Mexican muralists, who looked to their pre-Hispanic heritage for a renewed nationalistic zeal. Vides returned to El Salvador in 1940 and began creating drawings, paintings and woodcuts of the peasants who lived near his Panchimalco home. MARTE devotes an entire room to these works. In them, young women with long black braids wash clothes, carry water, or rest pensively in the shade, as in one portrait from 1946.
In 1945, the Society of Young Painters of El Salvador — a short-lived socialist art collective — published a manifesto, citing as its goal the continued pursuit of a “genuinely Salvadoran art.” Just five years later, Salvadorans ratified a new constitution, renewing the impetus to construct a Salvadoran nationality, as the historian Lara Martinez writes. The government was soon setting up specialized arts and culture departments. In 1958, artist Julia Diaz returned from Europe to found El Salvador’s first art gallery, Galeria Forma. The next year artist Salarrué opened the Galeria Nacional de Exposiciones.
The ground for a genuinely Salvadoran art had never been more fertile, but it was American Abstract Expressionism that began coloring Salvadoran canvases. Rosa Mena Valenzuela’s collages epitomize the melting pot that Salvadoran art had become. “Autoretrato,” or “Self-Portrait” (1961) blends Expressionist influences with what was widely considered primitive shapes along with the appropriation of ephemera first attempted by Picasso and Braque. She continued to work in this style until her death in 2013.
In 1979, a gruesome civil war erupted between El Salvador’s US-backed dictatorship and Marxist guerrillas. When I visited MARTE, the section spanning those years was inexplicably closed. In one visible corner of the gallery, mildew stains and warped wood suggested a flooding accident, but no official explanation was given, and it wasn’t clear how long it had been shuttered. It was hard not to wonder why, as at the time an election runoff was pitting the leftist FMLN party’s candidate against the right-wing ARENA party’s nominee (the FMLN was formed by former guerrillas, while ARENA sided with the dictatorship during the civil war).
Fortunately, some of those artworks created during the war can be seen on the museum’s website. Though emotionally difficult to view, they are among the show’s most arresting works. In Carlos Cañas’s painting “El Sumpul” (1984), the decomposing corpses of young and old entwine — a harrowing depiction of the 1980 massacre at Rio Sumpul. Working in a more metaphorical vein, Dagoberto Nolasco’s “Los Héroes Están Cansados” (The Heroes Are Tired, undated) captures the nation’s scarred collective subconscious.
After the signing of the Peace Agreement in 1992, migrants escaping the derelict countryside flooded the city, and many Salvadorans who had fled the war to the United States (where they formed gangs to protect themselves against American ones) were deported, bringing with them a new kind of violence fueled by deepening poverty. Promising new artists grappled with these themes of urban life, emigration and migration. Among them is Romeo Galdamez, whose triptych “Paginas Unidas: Triptico de la Memoria” (2001–2009) feels like a cultural version of connect-the-dots, challenging viewers to sort out the patchwork of influences that San Salvador has become. Its mesmerizing hodgepodge of imagery includes Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Mickey Mouse, the Statue of Liberty, and the Banana Republic logo. They point to the Salvadoran craving for the relative stability, wealth, and peace found in countries like the United States.
Reflecting on San Salvador’s modern-day violence, Danny Zavaleta’s digital print, “El Tur” (2006), maps the city in a way more faithful to the reality of life for civilians. Gang graffiti, armed figures, and drug insignia are plastered over its streets, delineated territorial lines and conjuring the turf wars that have terrorized citizens. In the top left corner, the city’s name has been crossed out and caustically replaced with Disneylandia.
Its message is all too relevant today, after the ruling FMLN party — who recently admitted to approving payoffs and other privileges for the murderous Mara Salvatrucha gang — won Sunday’s presidential election by a small margin (the right is now claiming electoral fraud). In 2012, the FMLN negotiated a truce between gangs that many believe has only given the criminals more leveraging power; despite a reduced murder rate, several mass graves containing uncounted, mutilated murder victims have been found in the past year. (It’s a sad irony that the same year, a mural installed in 1997 by artist Fernando Llort on the Metropolitan Cathedral’s facade was inexplicably taken down; it honored the everyday Salvadoran’s perseverance through the civil war.)
Zavaleta’s image underscores the violence that has dominated Salvadoran culture, stalling the country’s efforts to establish a unique national identity and, consequently, a distinctly Salvadoran art. So far, transnational gangs have been El Salvador’s chief cultural export. Still, I left MARTE feeling hopeful, knowing that each new act of creation is an act of faith in a better future. A uniquely Salvadoran art may yet be established. Could those artists working today — Galdamez, Zavaleta, and others — be the ones to do it?
Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE) is located at the Final Avenida La Revolución, Colonia San Benito, San Salvador, El Salvador.
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