Lorena Molina: Life, Changing Art Leads To Life-Changing Art

Lorena Molina may not be from the Midwest, but the Midwest has had a profound impact on her art.

Lorena Molina by Tina Gutierrez for Movers and Makers Dec-2021 cover
Lorena Molina by Tina Gutierrez

Fitting, then, that the University of Cincinnati assistant professor of art is one of 23 artists whose work will be on display in “The Regional,” billed as “the first major multi-museum survey dedicated to contemporary artists based in the Midwest.” Organized by the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, it will be on display at CAC from Dec. 10 to March 20.

“The exhibition is kind of a snapshot of artists living and working in the Midwest,” said Amara Antilla, senior curator at the CAC and a Minnesota native. She co-curated the exhibition with Jade Powers at the Kemper, focusing on emerging artists.

The featured artists have distinctive practices and diverse voices, Antilla said. 

“It’s not making any claims about what art in the Midwest necessarily is from a comprehensive perspective,” she said of the exhibition. 

Molina, whose work uses photography, video, performance and installation, is one of those voices. “Reconciliation Garden,” her immersive installation in “The Regional,” will be her second piece at the CAC. Her first, “Tu nombre entre nuestras lenguas,” was a performance, video and installation about a massacre in El Salvador. 

“Home” for Molina is complicated. She spent her childhood in El Salvador and found her passion for art in California. But a difficult graduate school experience in the Midwest shaped her into the artist she is today. 

Move to the Midwest feeds a passion

Molina was 14 when she and her mother moved to Long Beach, Calif. Most of her family had already moved to the U.S. during El Salvador’s civil war. 

At 22, she took a photography class at her Southern California community college. 

“This class was life-changing,” she said. “I became obsessed … I don’t think I had experienced anything like that before. It was a little scary.”

Molina went on to earn degrees in fine arts – a bachelor’s at Cal State Fullerton in 2012, then a master’s at the University of Minnesota in 2015. She came to Cincinnati in 2018 as a visiting assistant professor at UC’s DAAP and was later hired as an assistant professor.

“To me, it feels kind of wild that I’m a college professor, thinking how … not even high school counselors thought they needed to talk to me about college,” she said.

Molina felt welcomed by Cincinnati’s art community. “It feels like the least elitist art space or art community I’ve been a part of,” she said. “A lot of artists here in Cincinnati are my friends; we’re constantly supporting each other.”

Her first experience living in the Midwest, for graduate school in Minnesota, was different.

Before that, her art was “really tender and gentle,” dealing with subjects like community. 

“Minnesota was the first place I really felt aware of my body, and specifically, my brown body … being the only person of color in these spaces a lot of the time,” she said.

Molina was in graduate school when Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri.

In classrooms, “We talked a lot about oppression … but it just felt so academic,” she said. “It made me really upset to talk about these experiences in this way, like something that needed to be theorized, when a lot of the experiences were happening to the people I love and myself.”

The experience radicalized her art: She channeled the sense that she didn’t belong into creating violent performances.

“The work was asking (viewers) to really question their roles as accomplice in the suffering of others,” she said.

Following a year-long hiatus from making art after graduate school, Molina started creating pieces about making a home in the margins.

She also started experimenting with different techniques, connecting photography, video and objects in her work rather than seeing them as separate. 

When the CAC approached Molina about “The Regional,” she had a grant from ArtsWave and was already working on “Reconciliation Garden.” (It was on display at Wave Pool’s The Welcome Project from July 10 to Oct. 30. An iteration will move to “The Regional.”)

It asks viewers to tap into their memories of coffee and explores how those personal memories are tied to coffee’s global history. At the height of coffee production in El Salvador, Molina said, 95 percent of the country’s income was tied to the crop, but a few families owned the land. Protests over the inequality were suppressed, sometimes through deadly force.

Lorena Molina by Tina Gutierrez for Movers and Makers
Lorena Molina by Tina Gutierrez

War in the neighborhood

“(That) led civilians to form a guerrilla, which led to the civil war,” she said. The civil war lasted from 1979 to 1992. 

In “Reconciliation Garden,” Molina said, coffee becomes a symbol for imperialism, a way to talk about issues including genocide and exploitation. 

“Part of the exhibition is to get (viewers) to think about how daily actions, like a coffee, are loaded with very problematic and violent histories, but also to educate them and get them to understand the history of the U.S. and El Salvador,” she said.

Molina experienced the civil war firsthand as a child. A recent piece, “Questions on Safety and Freedom,” explored a memory of when the fighting came out of the forests and mountains and into her neighborhood in San Salvador.

“My mom put the two beds together, and we hid under the bed for a whole day,” she recalled.

“I make a lot of work that is about really difficult subjects,” Molina said. “I really see it as my role as an artist to do that.

“I see these spaces for really creating a dialog and sometimes a confrontation with the viewer,” she added. “I don’t want the viewer to be passive in these spaces. By asking them to respond to a prompt or to listen to something or to look at a video, I am asking them to be active in the spaces and to really question their role in society.”

With “Reconciliation Garden,” viewers can take immediate action by contributing to the Reconciliation Coffee Fund, which supports activities such as coffee plantation recovery, restoring trees and improvements to the drinking water supply in El Salvador. Attendees can also buy coffee at a fair price. (www.wavepoolgallery.org/reconciliation-garden)

Changing the spaces she belongs to is one of Molina’s biggest priorities. That extends to her teaching. “(I want) to make sure my BIPOC students have a better experience than I had,” she said. 

“I love working with students,” she added. “I get really excited to help them develop their ideas and their work.”

Enduring exhibition

Curator Antilla is excited that “The Regional” will continue after it closes in March. It’s set to open at the Kemper in June 2022, and they’re working on other possible placements, she said. 

Further ahead, she sees the possibility of a recurring platform spotlighting Midwestern artists every few years.

“The show has really emphasized for me the plurality in perspectives and approaches to artmaking that we have here,” she added. “It’s impossible to categorize something as Midwestern art.”

Molina expressed a similar view.

“I don’t think there’s a Midwest aesthetic,” she said. “We are all influenced by the art we look at, the things we see, the causes that we care about.”

‘The Regional’ at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati

Friday, Dec. 10 through Sunday, March 20.
Opening public reception: Dec. 10, 8 p.m.


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