Romeo Gilberto Osorio stands amid Winnie the Pooh, Spiderman and George W. Bush.
They hang from the ceiling of his Piñata Art Studio Gallery ready to be whacked at a future party.
Osorio, a long time Mission District art figure, will have his own celebration today when TERRITORIOS: New Visual Currents from El Salvador and the Diaspora, opens in the main gallery of SOMArts.
It’s a collaboration with Salvadoran artists that seeks “to establish a visual dialogue with the public and among the artists themselves.” The Diaspora now includes more than a million Salvadorans who live in the United Sates.
In a way, Osorio added as he twisted a piece of wire to form the skeleton of a future piñata, “It’s all an experiment.” It is one his own story has shaped and includes serving in the U.S. Air Force as an 18-year-old and later joining the rebels in El Salvador as a 30-something to fight against a U.S-backed Salvadoran military.
Osorio’s life began here in San Francisco in 1947 as the son of an American father and a Salvadoran mother. Six months later, his parents divorced and Osorio ended up with his mother in Ilobasco, a town about 31 miles north east of San Salvador that is known for its ceramics.
Osorio found the clay work “a kind of messy” art form and pursued other mediums, but his development stalled when he returned to the United States in 1966. He was 18 and the U.S. build up in Vietnam was underway. Instead of waiting to be drafted, Osorio enlisted in the Air Force.
“I learned to speak English during basic training,” he said. Even though he didn’t like mechanics he rose in rank because of his problem-solving skills. It’s an experience that would become important nearly a decade later. More immmediately, Osorio finished his tour of duty in the early 1970s, and returned to San Francisco to become part of the Mission District’s growing cultural scene.
“He wrote one the first essays in English about contemporary poetry from El Salvador,” said Professor Alejandro Murgía, a long time Mission District resident and one of the founders of Tin-Tin Magazine where the essays on poets such as the Salvadoran Roque Dalton were published. Osorio was also one of the founders of the Mission Cultural Center for Latin American Arts.
At the end of the 1970s, Osorio traveled to El Salvador to open a gallery of fine art but his timing was bad. After a year the government closed his place, Arte Foro, and his friends started to vanish, he said.
Once again, Osorio joined the military. This time it was one of he five rebel groups that made up the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front or FMLN. “I had to live in a clandestine way during 12 years” he said.
There too, he did well, rising to become a rebel commander. After the war ended in 1992, Osorio became part of a controversy over the American advisers stationed in El Salvador. In a 1995 segment of 60 minutes, Osorio agreed with other U.S. advisers and said the American servicemen stationed in El Salvador during the more then decade long civil war were critical to the government’s war effort. The segment focused on the disagreement over giving the servicemen combat medals.
In fact, Osorio told the co-host Ed Bradley, the rebels wanted to highlight the combat role U.S. advisors played. He later denied having any direct role in targeting American military advisors and U.S. investigators agreed.
After the war, Osorio lived in San Francisco and pursued his art, experimenting with resin and plastic, but always maintaining his connections in El Salvador’s cultural community.
TERRITORIOS is a coming together of his two lives and a collaboration with Francisco Zayas the director of a two-year-old art collective from El Salvador, La Fabri-K. Zayas, who received a fine arts degree from the California College of the Arts and Crafts and lives in El Salvador, coordinated the group of artists visiting from El Salvador.
Colectivo Tripode Audiovisual, a formed by three younger multimedia artists, will also be represented in the show. It will run from July 9 to the 29th.
So why piñatas? It’s how an artist manages to put food on the table, Osorio said. When the previous owner, who Osorio assisted, decided to close in 2000, Osorio opened his own shop and gallery. “It helped me to have a stable income,” he said.
SOMArts is located on 934 Brannan Street @ 8th Street.