Veronica Vides installation and TM Sisters performance at MARTE Museum

El Salvador is a country that has, for a number of years, had the highest death rate due to armed violence in the world. The country has however experienced a recent major decline in crime as the New York Times reported last Sunday, this may be due to “a secret deal between government and gang leaders to halt killings in exchange for better prison conditions.” A mind-boggling ethically strange maneuver on behalf of officials but then again if this method works to save lives and is sustainability, I’m all for it! Yet despite a history of looming violence, the capital of San Salvador offers an exquisite landscape and a disparate, yet thriving contemporary art scene.

Mario Cader-Frech San Salvadorian-born collector spearheading MARTE Contemporary program. Photo courtesy Simon Hare.

It is fair to generalize that the artists I met in San Salvador are industrious and a generous group of individuals. This cooperative spirit has stemmed partially from necessity, as historically contemporary art practice has not been widely communicated, in favor of traditional and modern art practices, and therefore remained insufficiently supported. However the climate is changing.

Much of visibility has come from a contemporary art program initiated at the MARTE museum by a young collector group spearheaded by a maverick San Salvadorian-born and Miami-based collector, Mario Cader-Frech. MARTE Contemporaneo (MARTE Contemporary) focuses on Intervenciones (Interventions) challenging artists to interface with the museum and its’ grounds.

Cader-Frech describes the motivation behind starting this program:

There had never been a congruent effort to create a structure for Conceptual or Contemporary Arts. San Salvador needed a platform to develop artists, critics, curators, collectors and promoters including galleries and exhibit spaces.

The MARTE museum had been exclusively focused on modern works by primarily El Salvadoran artists. Motivated that contemporary art required the full spectrum of arts support MARTE Contemporary became the stomping ground for performances and interventions by visiting artists and curators, as well as local artists alike. Next year will mark the 10th year of this program and Cader-Frech is extremely positive:

With a shoe string budget, no support from neither the private sector nor the government, except for two or three patrons, after many bumps in the road, ups and downs, struggles and all, the results have been beyond our expectations. We have a new chapter in the arts, more than a handful success stories of artists that have crossed the international boundaries and are players in the art market, educated thousands of students, and created a contemporary arts community.

Ronald Moran’s “Children’s Room” installation at MARTE Museum in 2005. (photo courtesy MARTE Contemporary)

Artists are breaking through to international platforms more and more easily joining the likes of already established artist Ronald Moran, who is renowned for his white cotton-covered installation. His Home Sweet Home series depicts cotton covered domestic spaces as a commentary of violence, and it has been shown across Europe, the USA as well as Latin America. Following closely in his steps Simon Vega exhibited a found object installation at Socrates Sculpture Park in New York, enjoyed a month residency at Arlington Arts Center (AAC) in Washington, DC last year and is exhibiting at Vienna’s Galerie Hilger in September. Walterio Iraheta, primarily a photographer, also exhibits images of his performances staged around the auspices of social awareness. He was invited to show his Faraway Brother Style series at the Latin American pavilion during last year’s Venice Biennale and it garnered a positive response. And there are many more artists branching out.

Luis Ibarra artist and curator sees contemporary artists investing in the arts scene ‘at home’. (photo courtesy the author for Hyperallergic)

However, international recognition is not the sole focus. A major part of this push by private individuals and artists is for contemporary art to also gain acknowledgement and appreciation locally. Luis Ibarra is an artist (as well as DJ) who has worked on exhibitions locally and explains a generation of contemporary artists who want to exhibit ‘at home’:

In addition to emerging artists, there is a solid well-established and strong tight circle of more experienced players that are able to maneuver through residencies and institutions in order to continue producing projects. However, a cluster of contemporary artists that migrated during childhood around late 1970s early 80s have found inspiration in the identity search (or affirmation) caused by a newfound bond with the country and its community after getting the chance to develop some key shows in El Salvador in the past four years.

Driving through San Salvador to find artists you need a trusty guide and a good map, as art spaces are often hard to find and informal. As a case in point, Luis recounted a story of working in a friend’s house because it was reputedly haunted house and his friend was afraid to work alone in the space. Artists certainly have a natural propensity to work in collectives as it allows them to share resources and provide mutual support, and San Salvador is no different. One of those collectives is La Fabrik (The Factory), up a hill and down a number of winding roads, the artist-initiated and artist-run studio space coordinates collective events and openings. The large barn-like building is home to about 25 artists working in a eclectic array of media and styles. Chatting to them it becomes clear that working together has afforded many more opportunities than if they worked solo. Curators occasionally visit and invite some of the artists to exhibit as part of shows and biennials in other Central and Latin American countries. A number of opportunities in North America and on other continents are also starting to appear for the city’s artists.

With a momentary decrease in crime and local contemporary art programs reaping the benefits of over a decade of sustained programming, it appears that artists working in San Salvador are poised to branch out of their local scene though they’re also welcoming people from elsewhere to discover what they’ve been building at home. And be assured, it is all worth the trip.

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Claire Breukel

Claire Breukel is a South Africa-born contemporary art curator and writer. Her interest is in contemporary art that falls outside of conventional modes of exhibition, and often affiliated with “developing”...