Founded on the process of personal memories and underpinned by social activism and different forms of Praxis.
Studio Lenca paintings tell an autobiographical story that navigates borders and identities. Most recently, the studio has started building momentum with the art scene and collectors in the Middle East. Having already showcased in cities such as Seoul, London, and Edinburgh.
We speak to Jose Campos of Studio Lenca ahead of his next upcoming exhibition at Foundry Gallery, Downtown Dubai.
You have lived in many places; can you tell us about your early life?
I was born in El Salvador, and like 300,000 people had to flee the country during its violent civil war in the 1980s. I traveled by land illegally to the US with my mother. When we eventually reached California, we found ourselves in a hostile environment trying to survive without the legal right to work or live there. My mum worked as a cleaner, and I was lucky enough to be admitted to a free public Arts school where I specialized in Dance. This completely opened up my world, and I could see where the arts could take me.
I moved to London in my early twenties, which was a transformative experience. I moved to study for a master’s at London Contemporary Dance School. It was incredible to be amidst such a vibrant community of artists at that time. This encouraged me to paint and work across a range of art forms. I went on to study for a second master’s at Goldsmiths and worked as an art teacher until recently.
How has this shaped you as an artist?
My last teaching role was working with teens who had escaped conflict and traveled to the UK alone from places like Syria and Afghanistan. This was a truly transformative experience. I could see myself in them. Hearing their stories and seeing the resilience and strength they possessed still motivates me. At the age of 16, they had experienced a whole lifetime of trauma. They made beautiful paintings in my studio, and we discussed our shared experiences of being from a home that wouldn’t let us stay. I want my work to challenge the discourse around migration and amplify the voices of displaced people. These young people still motivate me.
What inspires you to create and when did you realize this was an outlet you want to explore?
Making artwork is something that I need to do. Sometimes I’ll see a colour, watch a film or hear a song and it will give me an idea for a painting. I needed to rush to the studio and get started at that moment! I can’t ever remember feeling any different!
Can you tell us about your latest collection ‘The Dreamers’?
The Dreamers is a new series of work I produced for Foundry Downtown. The exhibition presents a new experimental series of paintings that explore my lived experience of displacement. ‘The Dreamers’ is a colloquial term given to a policy from the Obama administration that allowed children arriving in the US illegally the right to stay. Donald Trump then canceled this policy. I wanted to explore universal themes of displacement and a sense of surreal disorientation when you feel stateless.
What has inspired you to showcase your collection in the UAE?
I’ve spent a lot of time in UAE recently as I have many friends there. It’s such an exciting place as it feels very realistically diverse. During a recent residency, I explored the souqs of Bur Dubai and Deira. Through observations, a visual language of displacement and migration resonated with me. Suitcase stalls, visa agencies, and ticket offices jostled alongside home comfort food and barbershops. I lived in a neighborhood called ‘La Mission in San Francisco, where my mother and I would find our community. It feels similar to parts of Dubai. I find these environments very poignant- people are creating their own spaces, and there’s a sense of beauty and resilience, which I find fascinating.
Many of the materials and visual symbols within the work are collected from these environments.
How do you feel the art world differs in this region?
The UAE offers so many possibilities for artists. The art world here is really finding its feet. There’s a whole ecosystem of creatives emerging. One thing I enjoy in the UAE is the sense of criticality. People are academically engaging in my artwork here. I enjoy the difficult conversations that are being held around colonialism and identity afforded in a place with such a global outlook. Institutions such as Jameel Arts Centre and NYU Abu Dhabi have fostered this.
As a creative, what would you say the biggest challenges are you’ve had to overcome?
Every painting for me is a huge challenge. I have to grapple or fight with the canvas until I’m happy to release it to the world. I have the responsibility of my story, my heritage, and my country on my shoulders. I always want to make sure I’m communicating that in an honest way. My work is about connecting with people and telling stories. It’s important that I do that with integrity and clarity.
Which is the most memorable piece of art you have created so far?
It was incredible to visit my recent solo exhibition at Tang Contemporary in Seoul. I had never seen so many of my works displayed together in such a beautiful space.
My mother visited the show, and it was such a special moment for her to see my work in such a high-profile environment after everything we’ve been through together. It was emotional and something I will never forget.
The UAE encourages and cultivates an environment in which to thrive in business – how have you experienced this as an artist?
I love the optimism in the UAE, and everything seems possible. As an artist, it’s exciting to be in an environment where everyone strives for excellence. It’s a place that encourages everyone to be successful. It’s also impossible to feel creatively blocked here with such a heady combination of culture and energy.
What’s next for Studio Lenca?
The next few months are going to be exciting! After my solo exhibition at Foundry in Dubai, I have solo shows in London, Berlin, and Beirut. I also have a residency in Miami and will be showing as part of the Untitled Art Fair with an exciting project at Art Basel – that’s all I can say so far!
The exhibition opens 12th September at Foundry Gallery, Dubai.
For more information visit Studio Lenca
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