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Jose Campos’ Studio Lenca: Creating Salvadoreño Visibility in the UK



Spotlight: Studio Lenca / José Campos



Photo Fringe OPEN20 SOLO winner selected: Studio Lenca 

This is "Open20 Solo Award Winner Studio Lenca, in conversation with Patricio Majano"



Texts by Patricio Majano

Los Historiantes are groups of traditional dancers from Latin America. In El Salvador, many small cities have their own group of Historiantes. The dances are presented usually during the cities' religious festivities. Each group from each city has their own specific dances, through which they narrate stories. These stories are transmitted from the elders to the younger generations of dancers. The groups utilize local materials to construct their garments. Therefore, locality is important for Los Historiantes. The artist Jose Campos (Studio Lenca) overturns this practice in his photograph series Los Historiantes, by portraying characters as Historiantes in the city where he lives, London, and establishing a group of Salvadoran Historiantes outside El Salvador. Moreover, he constructs the garments from local materials, different from the ones available in El Salvador. Through this practice, he challenges the colonial origins of the tradition, which came from Europe to El Salvador serving as a colonizing tool commemorating the battles between Moors and Christians. This series also questions the notions of locality, identity and nationality. According to the last census, approximately one of four Salvadorans is an immigrant. This means that what could be considered as Salvadoran culture and its traditions are in constant exchange with other cultures. Hence, Salvadoran identity (or any other identity) must be considered as something malleable and unfixed. Campo’s work is especially relevant in today’s context, as it enters the global conversations about identity, migration, and colonialism from the perspective of a Salvadoran, a community with one of the largest diasporas from Central America

Exhibition Review

Unknown Learning

José Campos & Oliver Herbert.

The online exhibition “Unknown Learning” features works that reflect on the current labor of the artist/teacher and the changed processes of learning and teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic. The exhibition is a collaboration between Salvadoran British artist, Jose Campos (Studio Lenca) and artist Oliver Herbert, along with their students.

In his recent photographs Campos takes inspiration from the garments of Los Historiantes, folkloric Salvadoran characters influenced by Hispanic and pre-columbian traditions. Being away from El Salvador has forced him to explore alternative materials, different to the ones used by traditional Historiante dancers. This has become an integral part of his creative process, intensified since the beginning of the quarantine as he has been utilizing primarily the materials available in his home.

One piece “School Kills Artists” consists of a blanket suspended in the air, which reads “School makes artists” on one side and “School kills artists” on the other. These statements allow the spectator to circle around from one point of view to the other and back. The use of the material here is relevant as it presents the blanket as an object of shelter independent of the oppositional claims. The idea of shelter implies care in the acts of teaching, learning and creating. It establishes an affective bond between teacher and student which precedes all conflicting ideas about educational structures.

The presence of this affective bond in educational processes is highly valuable, especially considering that traditional education in arts often imposes canons, is restrictive, hierarchical, and promotes competition between students. This bond is important as it challenges this and provides a space to create beyond hierarchy and normativity.

The most important aspect that comes out of this exhibition is the act of reflecting on educational processes and adapting them if necessary. Even though the project is framed by the pandemic and quarantine, this reflection is healthy and necessary at any moment.


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La exhibición online “Unknown Learning” recoge obras que reflexionan sobre la labor de artista/profesor de artes en el momento actual donde la pandemia del Covid-19 ha cambiado los procesos de enseñanza en general. El proyecto es una colaboración del artista salvadoreño británico José Campos (Studio Lenca) y el artista  Oliver Herbert, junto con sus respectivos estudiantes.

En sus fotografías recientes, Campos se inspira en los trajes de Los Historiantes (personajes del Folklore Salvadoreño con influencias de tradiciones españolas y precolombinas). El estar lejos de El Salvador lo ha llevado a explorar la utilización de materiales alternativos, diferentes a los utilizados por los Historiantes tradicionales. Esto se ha convertido en una parte integral de su proceso creativo, que se ha acentuado desde el inicio de la cuarentena, ya que desde entonces ha utilizado principalmente los materiales disponibles en su hogar.

Una de las piezas “School Kills Artists” consiste en un edredón suspendido en el aire, donde están escritas las frases “School makes artists” por un lado, y por el otro “School kills artists”. Estos enunciados están colocados por ambos lados del edredón, de manera que permiten al espectador fluir o circular entre ambas posturas. El uso del material es también muy relevante acá, al relacionar el edredón como objeto que cobija y protege, independientemente de la posición opuesta. La idea del refugio implica que existe protección y cuido en los actos de enseñar, aprender y crear. Esto establece un vínculo afectivo entre el profesor y el estudiante, que precede todo conflicto entre ideas sobre estructuras educativas.

La presencia de este vínculo afectivo en los procesos educativos es altamente valiosa. Especialmente considerando que la educación artística tradicional usualmente impone cánones, es restrictiva, jerárquica, y promueve la competencia entre estudiantes. Este vínculo es importante ya que cuestiona todo esto y proporciona un espacio para crear más allá de jerarquías y la normatividad.

El aspecto más importante que surge de este proyecto expositivo es la acción de reflexionar sobre los procesos educativos y adaptarlos según sea necesario. Si bien este proyecto surge a partir de la pandemia y la cuarentena, esta reflexión es saludable y necesaria en cualquier momento.





Installation view of Unknown Leanring exhibition , ‘School Kills Artists” 2020



Los Historiantes by Studio Lenca

Text by Raquel Villar-Pérez




‘… Bajó cabalgando en las grupas de los caballos que los

guerreros

llevaban de Francia a España, y se montó en las

carabelas cuando

los marinos más locos del planeta partieron rumbo a

América.’


In the second half of the twentieth century, the Salvadoran historian and writer Ricardo Lindo wrote his poem ‘Historiantes’, in which he tells his mother of certain men who divulge a history from another time, another land. Lindo calls them witnesses of eternity, responsible for seeing that this history survives the passage of time. Studio Lenca’s Los Historiantes interrogates whose history is being told in a multi-layered photographic project.

The Historiantes is a folkloric theatrical dance that dates back to the colonial era in El Salvador. Historiantes, the Spanish word for storytellers, are the witnesses of history. The stories they re-enact through their dances are, on one hand, events from the Bible, principally the birth of Jesus and the adoration of the Three Wise Men; and on the other, the battles that led to the Spanish Reconquest and the expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. Originally taught by Catholic missionaries, these stories served as a way to evangelise and subjugate the indigenous peoples of El Salvador. Today, historiantes have become living archives of this long-gone time. Artefacts pertaining to the material culture of the indigenous peoples animate the performances, as the dancers carry pre-Columbian masks, headpieces and basic agricultural tools. If the Historiantes dance represents the Salvadoran peoples celebrating the triumphs of their colonisers, it also has served, paradoxically, to preserve elements of indigenous cultural practices, making of this traditional performance a mismatched melting pot.

El Salvador’s recent history is shaped by the legacy of a vicious, almost 13-year civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans were forced to flee the country. Whereas large numbers initially moved northward searching for shelter in the United States, the Salvadoran diaspora is now scattered all over the world, and the Salvadoran identity is far from being singular and constant. Studio Lenca’s Los Historiantes confronts history as a disembodied and stagnant field in a gesture to expand the breadth of stories told about what it is to be Salvadoran today.

Studio Lenca started Los Historiantes in 2019 with a series of self-portraits in a quest to learn his own heritage, but soon started inviting others to take up the role of modern historiantes. Having done so to take formal control of the image-making process, this subconscious gesture also suggests the multiplicity of stories missing from the social Salvadoran imaginary that ought to be included in order to piece together a comprehensive historical narrative. The resulting images are an intricate play of composition and resignification.

The artist finds inspiration in the portraits of royals and important people found in big museums. He invites his models to emulate their poses, at the same time dressing them up with gadgets and replica items that reference regalia, luxury and the upper classes, combined with tools used by the historiantes of El Salvador in their daily jobs, such as machetes and other agricultural implements. This visual strategy is an intersectional commentary on the extractivist policies of colonial settlers in the Central American country at the same time as on the social status of the original peoples. By appropriating the European canon to portray a tradition that has barely been documented, the artist symbolically elevates folkloric dances to the standards of high European art and inserts the stories they tell as part of a universal history.

The images are crowded with cultural references other than Salvadoran owing to the artist’s lack of access to traditional objects or their total absence in the global market. To construct his photographs, he has to borrow commodities from cultures that share a common history of colonisation, using wax prints from West African traditions, for example, or the Palestinian keffiyeh; but he also uses English nationalist symbols. Studio Lenca recognises this laborious and disappointing process of searching and not finding authentic cultural signifiers from El Salvador in his work by dubbing the images ‘photographic performances’.

The absence of a Salvadoran identity from the global collective imagination not only underscores the invisibility of a community that is heir to the trauma of colonisation and acculturation experienced by their ancestors, but it also facilitates the uprootedness enforced on so many Salvadorans as the legacy of a recent grinding civil war, destabilising the individuals’ sense of belonging and connection with their homeland.

In this series, Studio Lenca reconstructs the figure of the historiante in a Heideggerian sense; that is, by inhabiting it. By doing so, the artist observes the tradition not only to problematise it, but to decolonise a visual language by participating in it from within, as in Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui’s Sociology of the Image. This allows the artist to be in a position of learning from and embodying an ever-expanding archive of Salvadoran stories.