It’s difficult to tell which is more unsettling, the memory Edwin Salas carries of his rape 30 years ago inside a Costa Rican museum or that the rape shaped him as an artist.
“The man closed the door in a little room with a collection of insect and began to hit me,” Salas recalled. “From there come from my first performance, in Italy, about a pedophilic relationship.”
Even more disturbing: That might not be the most traumatic episode in Salas’ life. Born in Mexico, Salas said he was just 3 years old when, as he later learned, his mother was kidnapped, tortured and murdered.
“I discovered years after because I came to make research,” he said in thickly accented English. “Nobody wanted to tell me how my mom died. I found the forensic medical exam and they tell specifically how she was murdered.”
Salas had spent decades in theater, movement and puppetry before moving to Asheville two years ago with his wife and daughter. He quickly established himself as one of a kind in local performing arts.
Salas is performing in two different programs over the coming week: August 24 with the string-and-voice duo Okapi at Black Mountain College and Art Center and then over five performances at Revolve Aug. 30-Sept. 1 in an interactive, multi-artist program called “The Happiness System.”
Whether collaborating with other artists or producing solo works, Salas portrays bedeviled characters who often disrobe—inside and out—over the course of his abstract narratives. Intense, grotesque and even scary are the descriptions many give to his personas and performances.
“A lot of persons say, ‘After knowing about your life, it’s amazing you’re not a homicidal killer or take tons of drugs or tons of alcohol,’” Salas said. “I never take drugs in my life, because I make performance with my traumas.”
Orphaned after his mother’s murder, Salas grew up in Costa Rica with a carousel of caregivers. Art was both an escape and gateway. A Taiwanese artist mentored his first visual artworks and Salas later moved to Italy, where he spent 12 years with a professional puppetry company.
Over the past decade, Salas has steered his puppetry away from children and toward an adult audience.
“I began to wake up ghosts in my life,” he said. “With the years, I became a mask of this kind of demon, but it’s not only bad; it’s a humor demon that can joke with you and all your feelings.”
Influenced by Mexican wrestling, Salas imbues his characters with menace and danger. In a rehearsal this past week with the Asheville string and voice duo Okapi behind him, Salas covered himself in a helmeted mask and robe of white and marbled gray fur, slowly peeling away layers, first to a lavender print robe and then to something resembling a diaper. He moved about a concrete floor with quiet hisses and low growls, before expanding into a duet with a puppet fashioned from an old, wooden doll with the top of its head removed.
“I know the audience knows it’s not real, but at the same time, they are terrified,” he said. “Sometimes I want the audience to be uncomfortable. If in my performance of one hour, for 30 seconds, you say this is real and not acting, that is amazing for me.”
Salas has performed throughout Europe and South and Central America and he often returns to Mexico to perform, but for the foreseeable future, Asheville and its unsuspecting audiences will continue to be his home and canvas for artistic exploration. He’s working now on the final in a three-part series inspired by his mother’s murder, this one invoking the story of Dracula.
“I think God is the best comical being in the universe,” he said. “We need to laugh about it, because if we not laugh, we don’t understand how to survive.”