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¡El Arte no Calla! - Episode 14: Authoritarianism and Emerging Threats to Artistic Expression in El Salvador

Sinficcion (Autorretrato levemente odioso) / Without fiction (slightly hateful self portrait)

"¡El Arte no Calla!,” a monthly Spanish-language podcast of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), explores art, freedom of expression, and human rights in Latin America. In each episode, ARC's Latin America Representative Alessandro Zagato will invite a different guest to help analyze the varying states of artistic freedom in Latin America and the violations that artists and activists are suffering in the region.

¡El Arte no Calla! - Episode 14: Authoritarianism and emerging threats to artistic expression in El Salavador - with Renacho Melgar and Las Amorales

In this episode of ¡El Arte no Calla!, we sat down with representatives of the contemporary artistic scene in El Salvador to discuss the current political scenario, shaped by authoritarian and populistic tendencies, and its consequences for freedom of artistic expression in the country. Renacho Melgar is an internationally recognized painter whose work was recently censored for representing a critical point of view on the country which the current government rejects. Las Amorales is a feminist collective that generates political action starting from resistant forms of art. Las Amorales highlights and fights against gender violence and discrimination in a country where machismo is currently on the rise and reinforced by government policies. 

Part I: Renacho Melgar

Alessandro Zagato: Can you tell us about you and your artistic trajectory?

Renacho Melgar: I define myself as a painter. I am a bit divorced from the notion of “artist,” because I believe that the ideas of freedom that are usually associated with this word tend to misrepresent what artistic work really is. It’s been almost 17 years since I started painting, drawing, making murals, and so on, and I do this with my heart and as a profession. For example, I am not ashamed to be contracted to paint a house, because this is part of my work as painter, and thanks to this passion, I was able to have a mural in the Contemporary Art Museum of Ecuador. I could expose my work in different Latin American countries, as well as in Australia, Cuba, Austria, France, etc. but I do not think that exposing one’s work in a particular place makes you a better artist - any wall is good! I see art as a communication tool. Therefore, it needs to be playful and participatory for both creator and spectator. Moreover, here we experience a constant fight against organized crime, gangs, forced disappearance, femicides, and this is all part of my artistic approach – the way human beings can make a life in such contexts.   

A.Z.: Could you describe the experience of being an artist today in El Salvador, particularly in light of current governmental politics and the authoritarian approach that the president is promoting.

R.M.: The entire Latin American region converges in a situation of structural violence that affects us as creators and human beings. In El Salvador, there are not too many artists addressing the socio-political reality in their work. However, people from my generation are those who have a more political posture. Here, the lack of governmental support for art has been a historical issue. And today, paradoxically, we are victims of what I would describe as an “image cult,” where artists are turning into a sort of ancient court painters – they are all producing portraits of the president and of members of his family. And this sends a message to the new generations, who see this situation as an opportunity. Artists developing other types of projects in fields like theater, video production, visual arts, and so on, are deeply affected by this situation because they turn into a sort of enemies of the state, because in this binary construction of politics as “yes and no”, we become the opposition – and the state exercises a full control of the content that official art displays.

A.Z.: You are arguing that in El Salvador there is a crisis of art support, whose roots are prior to this government. However, today this situation has changed and a sort of mercenary approach to art as governmental propaganda is being strongly implemented – and the field of independent art is being deeply affected, is this right?

R.M.: For me, the most paradoxical aspect of this situation, where there are just two possible paths, with or against the government, is that there were never before so many artists working for the government. There are a lot of poets, dancers (including the Minister of Culture herself!), and painters who are being supported, but they are forced to keep silent about the current situation. Because if we think of what predominates in El Salvador is a gang aesthetics, a cruel reality that the state does not want revealed and represented through art. It is more convenient for them to promote a detached and empty artistic approach on all the platforms they control – enabling the feeling that everything is fine. Whereas independent artists are rejected and excluded from the artistic economy of the state.

A.Z.: From your stance of being independent and resistant, you have been producing works representing this national reality that, as you argue, the government does not want to reveal. For this reason you have suffered an episode of censorship, which has become quite known at national and international level. Can you tell us about this incident?

R.M.: They invited me to a contemporary drawing exhibition and, as it usually happens with governmental initiatives, participants are directly appointed from the top. One of the organizers invited me and at that point I was working on a series of somehow “disruptive” works, highly critical of the situation that we experience as a country (not towards the government specifically), including issues such as poverty, emigration, femicides, generalized violence, child abuse, and so on. I was representing the way our history has been written from violence and blood, and the piece that I presented had a very strong political connotation. When I submitted it, they told me that the work did not represent the perspective that the government wanted to display. But I was representing who we are as a nation, not the government. However, they took it as if it was directed at them, because the main character is a clown (the famous “Cepillin,” a well-known clown character in Latin America) who always wears a beard and a hat, like our president does - but this parallel is just their interpretation. Moreover, our country is called El Salvador (the savior), and I represented this savior as a clown, which was basically the reason why my work was rejected. When I asked them why they were censoring my work, I did not receive an intelligent answer whatsoever.

Tropical Policroma

“I never received support from the state, and this is not something that I am asking for, because the fact of being autonomous as a creator allows me to develop my own discourse, and if I was helped by the state, I would be forced to give them something back. ”

A.Z.: Moreover, this is a very big piece of drawing. After it was censored, the work has generated a lot of curiosity and it has become viral, giving it international fame

R.M.: Yes! And now we have done reproductions of sections of my work, which are traveling around the world.

A.Z.: Do you think that this episode of censorship will affect your work in the future, in terms of invitations and funding opportunities?

R.M.: The government did not give visibility to this event - they preferred to keep it covered. For me, my painting is a love letter to my country. This was one of the first episodes of censorship in the field of art, but my feeling is that the number of such attacks is going to grow. My work has become a reference for young creators who are now adopting a critical, and ironic, approach. I have been working independently from the state for the last three presidential terms, so this is nothing new. I never received support from the state, and this is not something that I am asking for, because the fact of being autonomous as a creator allows me to develop my own discourse, and if I was helped by the state, I would be forced to give them something back. 

A.Z.: So maybe, more than censorship, one should worry about self-censorship, because from what you say, this is the result of a structural situation that pushes artists towards controlling the content of their work to please the government. A last question has to do with organization – are artists connected to each other or with human rights organizations willing to support them?

R.M.: The artistic world in El Salvador is quite fragmented and there are even clashes between groups and factions. During the pandemic, the state provided some help to artists – from 300 to 3000 dollars – but there were no effective criteria for the allocation of this money. Help was distributed randomly and this has generated a storm of envy, resentment and fights among artists, amplifying tensions and fragmentations that already existed. Moreover, this help was a paternalistic way of silencing critiques and controlling artistic production through the provision of emergency funds.

Las fiestas de mi pueblo (Autorretrato Folclórico) / The parties of my town (folk self-portrait)

Part II: Las Amorales

A.Z.: Please tell us about the work of your collective, what you do, how you operate, how you conjugate art and activism.

Las Amorales: We do a lot of things, but basically what we mainly do is to produce art and to work at the same time to support women’s human rights. Our collective was founded by women working in the field of theater production and they were interested in continuing to do so from a gender perspective. We were very young but with time, the collective has evolved, even because of our studies and careers – we come from different backgrounds and interests. What brings us together is also our will to develop as artists in a country where there is no specific path to become such, and there are no opportunities for women, even more since we are feminists. We relate with a resistant art which we find very effective for political action – we communicate through performances, murals, exhibitions and so on. We also provide initial legal support to women who are victims of abuse and violence. We constantly experiment with new methodologies and strategies. We have been operating on the streets, observing that access to official institutions – like the National Theater for example – is foreclosed. Indeed, they demand a behavior and an approach which are contrary to our values, and our necessity to constantly craft our spaces and methods of creation.

A.Z.: How has the human rights and women’s rights situation evolved in El Salvador during these years?

L.A.: We live in a very complex situation. In 2012, the Integral Special Law for a Life Free of Violence for Women was approved – it is a relatively new law and despite institutional and governmental efforts to improve the defense of women, we feel that there were not so many advances in women’s rights, because one thing is written law and another thing is the concrete implementation of such laws. Laws do not always guarantee our rights – they can even play against us eventually. For example, two of us are experiencing a process of criminalization, where we were condemned for our support of other women in an allegation of sexual harassment perpetrated by a theater teacher from the University of El Salvador. We were criminalized and judged, and despite the fact that three different women testified that they were harassed by this individual, our work as human rights defenders was not recognized, since in this country there is no law that recognizes this activity – and this demand for recognition is part of our fight too. With the rise to power of the current government, non-completely functional institutions are being refunded. At the national level, there are just five tribunals that are specialized in violence against women. And under the new government, the budget is redirected towards the army and militarization in general – a plan of territorial control is the paradigm for public security. What the government is doing is to dismantle many institutions that have been working cases of violence against women. Another thing is that there is a denial of violence against women, to the point that during the pandemic they argued that we were 62% more safe. They are denying assassinations, forced disappearance, and femicides through the propaganda apparatus. The feeling is that we are moving backward, towards a fundamentalist, religious, and conservative ideology. Our reality is quite dark at the moment and we feel that the situation is getting worse and worse. We were already criminalized because of the performative action that we did and which was aimed at denouncing abuse by that teacher. What we observe is an intensification of repression and silencing of human rights defenders, feminists, and environmentalists.

“And this is the beauty of art, maybe you do not fully understand a situation or your rights, but you are still experiencing oppression - and through art, we can promote awareness.”

A.Z.: How do human rights organizations in El Salvador connect with, and eventually support, artistic collectives such as Las Amorales?

L.A.: There is not much recognition of our work as artists and human rights defenders. Moreover, many artists prefer not to deal with political and critical topics. Institutions and other collectives understand our work superficially. They seem not to grasp the background work of a performance, for example. And this is because I think that we are used to conceiving organization in one way – as shaped by a sort of “political party” culture – which is quite common in Central and South America. But art can propagate that sort of uncertainty, it can pose questions, like “what did Las Amorales want to tell us through their performance?” And this is the beauty of art, maybe you do not fully understand a situation or your rights, but you are still experiencing oppression - and through art, we can promote awareness. So, we need to start a serious debate on our struggles and construct more sustained political proposals, aimed not just at calling the attention on a specific issue. It is our challenge and task to build tools from our experiences and what we have learned so far. As a collective, we are also very proud to be able to share our research processes.

A.Z.: What is the most important thing that you have learned during these 10 years of activity, and which you would like to share with people listening to this podcast from other Latin American countries?

L.A.: One is for me that diversity is of value for organizations. Many times, we are pushed to think that within a collective there must always be agreement, and that people need to think the same way, and so on. For example, the work of each member of our collective is unique. The other thing is that we need to always build and reinforce our networks because mutual support is fundamental to facing the coming challenges.

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