Lorena Molina Casts a Critical Eye on the Turbulent History of El Salvador’s Coffee Industry [Interview]
Salvadoran-American artist and educator Lorena Molina is asking you to make a cup of coffee, watch a video, and then meditate while surrounded by plants. Who would say no to that?
What comes next may inspire you to look deeper into your morning ritual of downing a steaming cup of coffee. Molina’s recent installation Reconciliation Garden—part of a traveling museum exhibition—casts a critical eye on the turbulent history of the coffee industry in El Salvador. “At the height of the coffee production in El Salvador, 95 percent of the country’s income came from coffee crops, yet the land was owned by less than 1 percent of the population,” Molina writes in her artist statement for Reconciliation Garden. “This resulted in vast land ownership and economic inequalities, especially for those working the coffee fields. Any protest by coffee farmers was met with harsh and deadly force from the government and coffee farm owners.”
The suppression of protests led to a bloody civil war, beginning in 1979. For the Reagan administration, El Salvador was the place to draw the line in the sand against communism—funds from the US kept the civil war going for 12 long years. It’s an uncomfortable story, one Molina won’t let us forget: The inquiry, “How do we make amends for the actions of this country?” appears on the walls of Reconciliation Garden in bold black text.
“The truth is that art may not heal generations of trauma, nor may provide security and safety, but it can provide the vocabulary and language to speak our truths, [ … ] and it can be the vehicle to learn about others,” Molina writes.
Molina, who grew up in El Salvador, admits her new home in the Midwest is “not an easy place to be a brown woman,” noting how the change nurtured her appetite for rebellion and resistance. “The ground feels active and hungry for change,” she tells NOT REAL ART. “And I do think this is where my presence and work can have the most impact right now, especially when I am part of a community that supports and roots for each other.”
Molina’s work outside of Reconciliation Garden, seen below, details her childhood in El Salvador during the civil war (Questions on Safety and Freedom), the resulting massacre in El Mozote (Tu Nombres Entre Nuestras Lenguas), and her reconciliation with existing in the margins of US culture (Something That it’s Not Nothing).
Reconciliation Garden is on view at The Contemporary Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, through March 20, 2022. If you would like to donate to the Reconciliation Coffee Fund—which will help fund coffee plantation recovery, aid in the restoration of 5,000 timber trees, improve drinking water, and provide scholarships for coffee farmers in El Salvador—please go here.
Editor’s note: the above link leads to the PayPal account of Oscar Recinos Morales, who is the president of FECORACEN, an organization that contributes to the sustainable social and economic well-being of coffee cooperatives in El Salvador. Molina’s Reconciliation Garden was created in collaboration with the activist organization. Visit their Facebook page here.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Lorena Molina discusses the role of imperialism and colonialism in her work, building a strong community around difficult conversations, and her new BIPOC gallery and community space in Cincinnati, OH.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
Lorena Molina: Imperialism, colonization, and displacement.
Also questions of belonging and safety, especially of how marginalized groups create a sense of belonging. I’m particularly interested in the concept of “home” as a complex physical, emotional and psychological place. Home is where we learn to understand ourselves. It is the place where we learn to love and be loved. The concept of home is especially complicated for someone who has experienced displacement because of war. Home is where we are taught to fear and where we learn about pain.
Visibility, representation, and a long history of exclusion are a huge motivation in my practice. The truth is that art may not heal generations of trauma, nor may provide security and safety, but it can provide the vocabulary and language to speak our truths, it can create the space for reckoning and acknowledging difficult presents and histories, and it can be the vehicle to learn about others as speaking and acting subjects. When society does not value everybody’s voices, I believe that art can be a venue for mending the wounds of silencing. Art can be radical that way.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
LM: Ana Mendieta. Always.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
LM: Professional practices and how to be a working artist outside of the studio. Part of being a working artist is applying to art opportunities, applying to grants, book-keeping your expenses, and keeping a budget for projects. This wasn’t something that I was taught during undergrad or grad school and I had to learn all of this on my own after graduate school. Because of this experience, I make sure I give presentations and lessons on applying to art opportunities to my undergraduate and grad students, so they can have a jump start in their art careers. I always tell them that applying to art opportunities should be part of their art practice, and I guide them during their application process.
What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?
LM: Time. Being a practicing artist and full-time art professor is a juggling act. I am very lucky to have a job that I feel fulfilled by and that I love. I have also received many art opportunities in the last few years. When you care about what you do, many things seem important, and you want to invest your time and care in all of it. This is a wonderful problem to have because I get to invest my time in things that I deeply love and feel passionate about. But also this doesn’t allow much time for rest, play, and time for just being a human outside of art and my teaching responsibilities. Learning to say no and giving myself time to rest has been a big learning curve, and TBH, one that I’m still learning.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
LM: Success as an artist to me means building a strong community that supports and cares for each other. It means continuing to make work that creates difficult conversations, while still allowing myself room to make work that brings pleasure, and explores decadence, tenderness, and beauty. To me, it means that I continue to make art that challenges me, and fulfills me.
What role does the artist have in society?
LM: To be critical members of society. To point at wrongs and create new ways of seeing. To ask difficult questions that hopefully lead to substantial conversations. Some artists create art to imagine better futures and build community. Artists make life more beautiful and joyous. Yet we also make art to collectively grieve or acknowledge difficult pasts and presents.
Have you ever turned down an opportunity? Why?
LM: Yes, I feel fortunate that I am in a place in my career where I can say no more often if I feel that the opportunity doesn’t serve me or if it doesn’t align to my values and loyalties in the world, or If I just don’t have the time for it now. I would rather turn down an opportunity, than not give it my best.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
LM: I’m excited about so many things. I’m really excited about my piece, Reconciliation Garden, traveling from the Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati, to the Kemper Art Museum, and the conversations that the work is creating. I’m especially excited about the Reconciliation Coffee fund that was created in collaboration with coffee farmers in El Salvador. It will hopefully help fund coffee plantation recovery, restoration of 5,000 timber trees, improvement of drinking water supply, plantation of fruit trees, improvement of marketing of coffee, scholarships for coffee farmers to study at Renacer and other things. If you want to donate directly to the coffee farmers, you can go here.
I’m also opening a BIPOC gallery and community space in Cincinnati. I’m really looking forward to creating a space by our own rules, to build community and support BIPOC artists with stipends to make and show the work they want to make.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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