Studio Lenca is an artist whose work transcends borders. Through his vibrant and expansive multimedia work, the artist builds his imagined community, challenging the traditional notions of identity and belonging. 
Leave To Remain, 2024. Image courtesy of Carl Freedman Gallery.
At a young age, José Campos (aka Studio Lenca) was forced to flee his native El Salvador with his mother due to the violent civil war. He spent the rest of his youth moving around the USA as an “illegal alien”, as he puts it, helping his mother clean houses for the American elite. Now based in Margate, Kent, the artist can be found in Tracy Emin's TKE Studios, creating his work, which deals primarily with decentralising the Salvadorian identity and finding joy through the built community. 
His latest project, Dreamland, embodies this ideology. It showcases a flux landscape consisting of three monstrous, vibrant, movable volcanoes he built with the young refugees from the Kent Refugee Action Network. For Lenca, the Volcanoes act as a metaphor for the journey of young migrants: "They bring with them everything that they are, and they grow up to contribute to our society, like a volcano, where the lava flows, forms fertile grounds, and then you have new things growing.”
I'd like to ask about your artist's name, Studio Lenca. Not only is it your artist's name, but it is also a prominent feature of many of your paintings, acting as an anchor for the composition. What does Studio Lenca mean to you, and why do you feature it so heavily visually throughout your work? 
I have always had an artistic practice and might not have known it. So, it's questioning what a studio practice is. It doesn't just have to be a white space where you work. For me, it was also working with my mother, making recuerdos for parties on the kitchen table. I wanted to position myself as a studio because the studio is a place for experimentation. Lenka refers to the indigenous people of Eastern El Salvador, where I'm from. Including it in the paintings is engraving their names into space and making them visible. It feels like a little act of solidarity. 
I found it impactful because you often see the old masters or the stereotypical white famous man boldly putting their name on their work. It's powerful to put your name and the concept of your project on your work. I found it created an expansive version of your work. 
Yeah, it's using those systems. A studio that sounds important and, also, Lenka, what is Lenka? I've had the word Lenka in different spaces many times, bringing that word to the forefront. 
Can you tell me about your journey from El Salvador to the USA and how the experience shaped your artistic practice and identity? 
I was born in El Salvador, and during the Civil War, my mother took me [to the US]. I was four years old, and we walked to the United States. We took buses, and we worked with people smugglers. At one point, we stopped in Mexico for a few months because we ran out of money, so we were homeless in Mexico. Eventually, we crossed the U.S. border after trying twice through Tijuana. I grew up in San Francisco as an undocumented person with my mother, and the only work that she could do was cash in hand, cleaning houses. On weekends, I helped her clean houses. I always tell that story because it's a universal story from where I come from, and many people share that. 
That whole experience was about hiding and being invisible, and that's where my practice comes from: this idea of being seen. I am asserting my power with my paintings, which I didn't have when I was growing up. My paintings are colourful and big. The figures are staring at you, and they're being themselves. They're resting in domestic spaces, they're sitting in gardens, and they're beautiful. 
I found how your figures are planted within this space interesting. They're concrete, and they're also taking up this space with their physicality. 
Yeah, I always think of this quote that Donald Trump said about teenagers in high schools, and he described their calves as cantaloupes, the size of cantaloupes. I felt I had really big legs, and I thought that it was so jarring that he was commenting on these young people's bodies but also that he was trying to put them down at the same time. But, I thought, well, that's beautiful, linking us to this amazing fruit. Now, that has impacted how I paint the legs of my figures as they have these beautiful curved legs. 
That’s great you are making a positive spin on a statement from someone who has expressed so much hate towards immigrants. Along with this, would you label your approach to politics in your artwork? 
My practice takes an approach to politics that centres on the representation and celebration of marginalised communities, particularly Latin American migrants. I use vibrant, colourful figures and materials to depict my community, focusing on their humanity, resilience, and cultural identity. My work aims to challenge stereotypes and address themes such as migration, identity, and the politics of visibility and invisibility. By highlighting the lived experiences and stories of migrants, my approach is both a form of political resistance and an affirmation of the dignity and complexity of marginalised groups.
There is a transient nature to your work. You use a lot of different mediums, and your painting is fluid. Where do you think this movement comes from? 
I trained as a dancer when I was younger and learned ballet and contemporary. I was working with this fantastic choreographer called Alonzo King in San Francisco. He changed my world. My high school was the San Francisco School of the Arts, and the studios were in the same building as the company Lines Ballet. While waiting for my classes, I looked into their rehearsals, and they'd have Zakir Hussain playing music or jazz, which flipped my world upside down. 
Eventually, I could train with him and even perform with the company. He taught us skills like the ballet dance steps and made us critical thinkers. He was like, well, why is a plié like this? Or, why are you doing this? We were constantly questioning, and I was picking up on what this dance form was. I still use that part of me in my painting practice. For example, approaching a blank surface is like dancing with it. It responds to colour. If I make a pink mark, I must improvise, feel it, and be very present, just like dancing. I think the fluidity comes from that. I'm approaching it not because I went to art school but because I went to dance school. 
Raíces, 2024.
With art, I often think about how the unconscious and conscious mix. You mentioned earlier that making a pink mark can drive the direction of your painting. There's so much movement, progression, and vibrancy in your work, reflecting these two sides. How do you balance the conscious and the unconscious in your creative process?
Colour has agency and power, which I'm trying to assert in these paintings. This story of immigration, I know it from my own experience and my family's experience that it can be heavy and create a cycle of sadness. The paintings try to break that apart. I'm tired of being sad, and colour helps. People in my community write to me and say it's great to see something positive coming out of this situation or in relation to El Salvador, which has a very tough history with gang violence and immigration. 
I made a piece last year called Border Vessel. I went to the U.S. border to create a ceramic using the clay from the Rio Grande, the river that divides Mexico and the U.S. That piece came to me in a dream and wouldn't leave me until I made it. I was trying to paint, but I kept thinking about the border vessel, and then it wasn't until I completed it that it allowed me to carry on painting or doing other things. That's important because, talking about the unconscious, I feel like something greater than me instructed me to make that work. 
Could you share the concept behind your solo exhibition Leave to Remain at the Carl Freedman Gallery? Where does the title Leave to Remain come from? 
Leave to Remain is a stage in becoming a British citizen in the U.K. It's something that I had to do when I left the U.S. and came here. Leave to remain gives you a limited amount of time to stay, and then there's the next step, indefinite leave to remain, where you have the right just to be here. I was thinking about the things we leave behind when we go through this process and move to a different place. The things we leave behind are unofficial, like missing birthdays with our families. For instance, I recently returned to El Salvador, and people have a different connection to the earth that they don't have here in the U.K. That's where I come from, and my sensibility is my roots. I'm leaving all those things behind and a connection to the earth. 
I was also thinking about Margate, a town on the coast just outside London. It's in Kent, and [where] people cross into England, the channel, so we're a border town. I was thinking about the gallery and where the show will be in a border town. Usually, I think about another border, the U.S.-Mexican border, but I live on this border, and my interest in these issues hasn't disappeared. It makes me feel more Latino, thinking about this as a border town. With this exhibition, I wanted to tackle that and say, listen up, you might not be thinking about this, but this is happening on our doorstep. 
How did the idea for Dreamland come about, and what was the process like working with the asylum-seeking teenage refugees from the Kent Refugee Action Network?
I taught in secondary schools for around ten years, and education and participation have always been part of my practice. I did an M.A. in Arts and Learning at Goldsmiths, which focused on pedagogy. Two years ago, I was leading this group from the Kent Refugee Action Network; we were learning English, eating together, and making work. Eventually, the group came to my studio, and I gave them these huge canvases where they could make work, which was amazing. When I was asked to do this show, I wanted to work with them again. We spent about two to three months making work together. I went to their space and delivered workshops. One of the workshops, for example, was about the word roots, like the roots of a tree, but also routes as in journeys. We used images of plants and old maps to combine the two words. It was a process of workshops. 
One of the things that emerged was that we didn't share language. Materials became necessary, and making became very important because materials are borderless. I created a shared space, and the young people eventually visited the gallery. We shifted the purpose of this space, which tends to be a commercial white cube space. We ate there, and the reception area became a prayer room. The first thing we did was I asked the students, the participants, to draw on the walls to break up the space. We created the papier-mâché volcanoes you see now with the idea that they act as a metaphor for when these young people come to the U.K. They bring with them everything that they are, and they grow up to contribute to our society, like a volcano, where the lava flows, forms fertile grounds, and then you have new things growing. 
Quinceañera, 2024.
Benedict Anderson's political theory of imagined communities suggests that nations are not naturally occurring entities but socially constructed and imagined by their members, often through shared symbols. Your biography states that you are an artist who doesn't belong anywhere apart from the world you create. How do you use your art practice to build your imagined community? 
Imagined communities make me think of when I was younger, somebody in my house and my mum explaining that they'd just arrived in the country and needed a bedroom. That sense of community is there, not because it's learned, but because it's grown out of being a human. I also think about nature and how we use these volcanoes that go against artificial borders. When lava flows, it doesn't care where the border is; it transgresses that. 
Your work and creation process with the young refugees of Kent have been described as borderless. How do you see your work challenging traditional notions of nationhood and identity?
One crucial thing is that people can touch these sculptures, and they have ropes on them so that you can pull them. Those sculptures aren't static; they're constantly shifting, and they're shifting according to who's pulling them, and they're also collectively shifting. That's the same with this idea of nationhood. When young people come to this country, they shift our lives and how we see the U.K. Take, for instance, this notion of Britishness; what is Britishness? The work questions that with this constant movement of the sculptures. 
You've been living in the U.K. for quite some time now. How has your identity changed and reacted to living within British culture? 
I feel privileged to be in the U.K. When I first moved here, I started visiting galleries and museums and looking at art. I credit the system here, which makes these institutions accessible. That's my most significant gift and a big part of my identity. In the U.S., I felt like those spaces were not for me. When I'm in the U.S., I'm put into this Latino box, and I have to behave accordingly, or I can [only] go to certain spaces. When I go into other white spaces, I feel that history of mine of being undocumented; there's a weight. But here, people can't put me in a position [like that]. It's freeing; I'm not in this box. At the same time, I feel I'm not from here, nor from there — ni de allí, ni de acá. The only place that I have is my paintings and my work. I've had to feel comfortable outside in this liminal space. 
How has Dreamland impacted the young people you were working with, and have you seen an impact on the broader community? 
It's amazing because I go to Canterbury, where these kids are based, and I'll hear them calling me from across the street. They were so excited to participate, and it was all about treating them with respect. Working with these materials and saying this space is for you empowered them. When they come to Margate, I hope they feel free to go into the gallery and think of that as a space for them. They drew all over the walls, ate, and prayed in that space. 
It's had a wider impact on the community because these children are rightfully protected, and [there are] many safeguarding concerns surround them, sometimes creating a cloak of invisibility. The general public hears these things on the news but doesn't get to encounter them. The work is very much about that. These sculptures are massive, and you can see the marks they've been making in that space. I wanted to create proximity and a relationship. Even if they're not there, the public will still think about them and what they're going through with these materials. 
Activism and storytelling are both central to your work. What role do you see activism within your art, and how do you play with storytelling to convey these aspects of activism? 
Everything I do is naturally trying to do that; it's like finding a knot and then undoing it. For example, I just went to Mexico City and New York to do a project called Rutas, where I asked people who had been on or [are] going through undocumented journeys to paint their routes in the U.S. I know that those conversations are really difficult to have even within families and painting softens that. It's making the invisible visible in spaces where it's normally not. Also, with my paintings, I'm in spaces I never dreamt of, such as being at Tracy Emin’s Foundation and having representation. 
Leave To Remain, 2024. Image courtesy of Carl Freedman Gallery.