Artist John Rivas paints work inspired by ancestral memories of El Salvador

In a new film by Matt Jones and Joe Cohen for i-D, the artist tells us how he pays tribute to his family and heritage through his work.

by Jack Sunnucks; photos by Matt Jones
02 December 2020, 4:54pm

“This is my voice, this is my voice, this is me,” says artist John Rivas of his paintings, incorporating both ancestral memories of El Salvador and the America of now. “It’s a privilege because at the end of the day I come from a family of construction workers, factory workers, farm workers… for me to tell them I’m living off art, it’s like ‘What the Fuck?’ But it’s more than that. The stories they tell me, I transform into something pictorial, or visual.” 

John was a soccer player before he became an artist, he explains, in a new film directed by Matt Jones and Joe Cohen . His family came to the US before he was even born. Now, he often uses found objects that recall his heritage in his paintings, like beans, which give the works a sculptural quality. “When I’m working I don’t think about that,” he replies, when asked about what the beans might mean. “My father, he told me when he first came to the States he was stuck in Mexico and all he ate was bananas. And when my grandmother, my Dad’s mom came, he said it was two weeks straight just eating beans — every meal was a different way with beans. People ask why it’s so important; beans and corn are the central foods back home. You can be the poorest person ever or the richest person ever, and you’ll have beans. It’s a tribute to my family, my heritage.”

It’s not just the beans, obviously — his paintings of his family, cobbled together from wood, paper and card, reflect the ephemeral nature of life. Watch Matt’s film, below, and see John’s show, Las Voces Inside of Me, online at Untitled Art Miami from December 2 to 19. 

John on the stoop of his parents' home in Newark with his family.