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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 13, No. 1, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

the art and interview of



Salvadoran born artist Victor Cartagena has been living and making art in San Francisco, CA since the late 1980s. His installations, well known in America as well as internationally, concern themselves with issues such as immigration, bureaucracy and violence. Victor's award-winning art is both shocking and truthful, and has been the subject of several television reports and commentaries.


ELENA MARIAKHINA: You came to America as a refugee from El Salvador. How does your Salvadoran heritage and subsequent immigration influence your art?

VICTOR CARTAGENA: I came to America in the late 80s by necessity. The Salvadoran Civil War meant that young people had a choice of either joining the guerrillas or the army. I am against violence so I left El Salvador with thousands of others. We thought we would stay away for no longer than two years but the situation in El Salvador hasn't changed. So now, 27 years later, I'm still in America.

What I, and my whole generation, witnessed in El Salvador had a profound influence on my way of thinking. The violence and injustice marked my life, and it will take time, perhaps a lifetime, to process. Now, whenever I see examples of injustice anywhere in the world, I'm reminded of El Salvador and I can't help but respond with my art.

EM: How did your passion for art develop?

VICTOR CARTAGENA: Honestly, I never dreamt I'd be an artist. I thought I would be a musician, and I used to play in a band, but I've always been surrounded by art. My father was a wonderful draftsman. He worked in a medical school doing anatomical drawings. His images sparked my first interest in art. My father died when I was five but I still have powerful memories of him: one of those memories is of his teaching me to draw. My relatives ran a framing shop, so I was exposed to many art images. When I was sixteen the events in my country forced young people to learn practical skills to survive. After school young people were learning to be carpenters or electricians but that didn't appeal to me so I found a job in a small printing shop. There, during lunch time, I used to draw but hid my drawings until someone saw my work and encouraged me to continue my art. I then moved to the U.S. and needed to survive and I found a job in a framing shop which was another contact with art. When I wasn't working I spent my time writing letters to my family and drawing since I didn't have friends or family here. Two or three years after that I began to do some painting and found it was a great way to express myself.


EM: Which artists influenced your early work?

VICTOR CARTAGENA: I was very influenced by Mexican muralists. Everyone in California, at that time, was talking about the Mexican art movement: artists like Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo. While I worked at the framing shop many people brought Rivera and Kahlo posters to be framed. Their work influenced me because it was so connected to my own country and culture.

EM: What was the fortuitous event or, as they say, the lucky break that launched your art career?

VICTOR CARTAGENA: In 1992, around Christmas, I was painting canvases on a California street when a man stopped and proposed, "I can give you a show." I couldn't believe it and said, "are you kidding me, I'm just doing this for my own entertainment." But he asked me how many pieces I had and I told him I only had about five works. He connected me with people from an exhibition. I haven't stopped working on my art since! Life is so amazing for me because I have the opportunity to express myself, to say what I want to say and how I want to say it.

EM: What led you to installation art?

VICTOR CARTAGENA: A friend who works as a theatre actor and I joked about doing the set for his next play. A week later he called me to say that the theatre directors wanted a set from me. I read the play and created a very unconventional set. Amazingly, critics were talking about it and I began to receive invitations from galleries and museums, such as The Oakland Museum of California, to create other installations. It's a good fit for me --combining different elements -- as a great way to express my ideas.

EM: How and why did you start working on your, now famous installation, Culture of Violence?


VICTOR CARTAGENA: The idea for the piece came about because the newspapers were full of stories about gun violence. Students can kill students, teachers and even their parents for seemingly ridiculous and petty reasons. I collected all these newspaper articles and couldn't believe that people still wanted to protect gun ownership. I don't understand that parents are still buying toy guns for their children. When I was a child, I remember fighting with another boy, with our hands, and we were both crying and upset but when the fight was over we went back to playing. We didn't think about killing each other.

EM: Are you saying that government is responsible for increased violence?

VICTOR CARTAGENA: The weapons industry is responsible for that, and most politicians work for their own interests. Could you imagine a philosopher as a prime-minister or a poet as a vice-president (smiling)?

EM: Why does your installation depict politicians as having red noses?

VICTOR CARTAGENA: That's an allusion to Pinocchio and lying. The more you lie the longer and redder your nose grows. This is my scream, "I don't believe you, and I know that you're lying to me."

EM: Your installation, Invisible Nation, is about immigration. How did you develop your idea of putting thousands of tiny photos into jars and into tea bags and pills?

VICTOR CARTAGENA: I accompanied a student from SF State University on a project in El Salvador. I hadn't been back there since moving to the US. I visited an old photo studio that had gone out of business due to digital technology, but had kept all the negative files. I collected thousands of photos of people who had, like me, left the country. When the Oakland museum asked me to present an installation I decided to use the photos to talk about immigration. I put each photo into a tea bag, pill or jar to symbolize the place of immigrants in our culture. Wealthy people use immigrants to feed their need for gardeners, babysitters and other menial labour. Immigrants are considered lower class people. They pay taxes but often can't get health care. Immigrants are a vital part of the economy but are the first to suffer in an economic downturn. I'm using my art to show that immigrants should be seen as valuable human beings, not a commodity.

EM: So you have a political agenda?

VICTOR CARTAGENA: Everything is political, everything. I respond to what is going on around me. I like to think and analyze. I care about what is going on in my home town, in Pakistan, Iraq and Palestine etc. That's not about being political -- that's just being human.

EM: What would you compare art with?

VICTOR CARTAGENA: With music. Good music can touch people's hearts. Like music, art can make you feel different. It may remind you of what's important, and if people feel it, they may change the world around them.

EM: Do you believe that art can change the world?

VICTOR CARTAGENA: Change the world? . . . I don't know, it's hard to say that art really changes the world. Pablo Picasso painted the large and beautiful "Guernica" as an antiwar statement, but wars continue. People stop one war and start another and artists keep trying to change something. At least we make people think. We don't give up. I believe that art educates. If children are exposed to art, poetry, music and theatre we might create a society with a different mentality. There is nothing more important than art and education. Kids exposed and influenced by art will stay away from violence.

EM: Thank you.


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