Often referred to as the Switzerland of Central America, Costa Rica (pictured here is Parque España in the capital, San José) prides itself on having no army and—unlike its Central American neighbors—has managed to avoid civil war and other military conflict. Costa Rica has a reputation for biodiversity and environmental protectionism; its jungles and beaches are favorite spots for eco-tourists (who generally favor them over San José), and the country is ranked as the happiest on earth by the Happy Planet Index. However, Costa Ricans do tend to think of themselves as “whiter” than their more indigenous Central American neighbors, an attitude that has given rise to racist prejudice against those perceived as darker, especially immigrants from bordering countries.
Pictured here is the Edificio Metalico in central San José, which still functions as a school. The building was designed in Belgium in 1888 and assembled in San José, reflecting Costa Rican society’s aspirations to European modernization.
This is Costa Rica’s National Library, a modern building built between 1969 and 1971. Outside is a mosaic reproduction of a painting by local modern abstract master Manuel de la Cruz González (1909–86). Something of a local hero, the artist remains relatively obscure beyond his country of birth, where his legacy is currently the subject of a thoroughgoing reevaluation.
Another reproduction; I wonder what de la Cruz González would make of this postmortem homage?
The Ministerio de Hacienda in the center of San José.
On the building’s exterior is a neglected de la Cruz González mural.
Federico Herrero’s studio on the outskirts of San José.
Herrero (b. 1978) is probably Costa Rica’s best-known artist. His colourful canvases abstract from the country’s natural and urban landscapes. He achieved international recognition aged just 22 in the 2001 Venice Biennale, in which he was invited to participate by curator Harald Szeemann, and at which he was awarded the Golden Lion for best young artist.
Founded by Federico Herrero, Des.pacio is an exhibition space that functions as a platform for Costa Rican artists. (Photos: Courtesy Des.pacio)
This house is home to TEOR/éTica. Founded in 1999 by artist and curator Virginia Perez Ratton (1950–2010), TEOR/éTica is an independent center in Costa Rica dedicated to artistic research and exhibitions, and to the articulation of creative networks throughout Central America and the Caribbean. The shows and seminars held here have made the region’s art production more visible both within and beyond its borders.
An installation view of an exhibition I curated at TEOR/éTica at the invitation of artistic director Inti Guerrero. Novo Museo Tropical presents Museo Banana included work derived from research into the involvement of banana companies in regional politics, and incorporated a history of artists working with bananas, examining the fruit’s sensual, even erotic relationship with art practice.
A work in the exhibition by Puerto Rican artist Karlo Andrei Ibarra. Ibarra has tattooed bananas’ skins with facts about the economic transformation of Central American countries following the implementation of Free Trade agreements with the U.S.
TEOR/éTica also housed Museo Banana’s tropical cinema and information center.
Federico Herrrero, Dominique Ratton, and artistic director Inti Guerrero outside TEOR/éTica.
The exterior of TEOR/éTica’s Lado V – Virginia Perez Ratton Research Centre and Collection.
Lado V’s art research library, free and open to the public, is used most extensively by artists and students. Its collection focuses on Central American and Caribbean contemporary art, and includes more than two thousand titles on art history, theory, and criticism, and on popular culture.
Close to TEOR/éTica is Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo (MADC). Founded in 1994, the museum is housed in the old building of San Jose’s National Liquor Factory, which was formerly used to mature rum in oak barrels.
MADC’s director Fiorella Resenterra with Honduras artist Adan Vallecillo, pictured during my previous visit in Summer 2012, when Vallecillo was the subject of a solo exhibition at MADC. Resenterra has, with curator Maria Jose Chavarria, been responsible for making MADC an examplar of what a Central American museum might be. Recently, it has given space to young artists from the region for solo exhibitions; these have included Fabricio Arrieta and Oscar Figureoa from Costa Rica, Adan Vallecillo from Honduras, and Waltercio Iraheta from El Salvador. It has also staged retrospectives of mature artists from the region such as Victoria Cabezas, and presented new installations of works in MADC’s collection.
Proyectos Ultravioleta presenta un espacio para encontrarse con el arte, pasar un rato entre naturaleza y cultura, ver, escuchar, sentir y pensar . . . (Proyectos Ultravioleta presents a space where you can meet with art, spend some time within nature and culture, where to see, listen, feel and think . . . ) was an exhibition curated at MADC by Guatemala’s Proyectos Ultravioleta. In the foreground, Wait till it grows (hammock) (2011) by Puerto Rican artist Michael Linares.
Installation views of Proyectos Ultravioleta’s exhibition at MADC. In the foreground are Puerto Rican artist Radamés “Juni” Figueroa’s “tropical readymades,” plants inside indigenous Guatemalan backpacks. In the background is a painting by Federico Herrero, and to the left an environment and wall painting by Bhakti Baxter.
At left is a 1964 abstract painting by Manuel de la Cruz González from MADC’s collection; to the right are a video by Cinthya Soto and two silkscreen prints by Felipe Mujica.
Jungla de Hamacas (Hammock Jungle) was an intervention by Bureau de Intervenciones Publicas (BIP), part of Proyectos Ultravioleta’s exhibition in MADC’s Pila de Melaza (Molasses Fermenting Tank), a space now used for large-scale installations and performances.
Finally, the toilets at MADC, which in 2000 were refurbished and had their ceiling painted by Federico Herrero. They have since become the Costa Rican equivalent of the Sistine Chapel.
All photos, except where noted: Pablo León de la Barra
Additional research undertaken in Summer 2012 thanks to the support of TEOR/éTica, and to the Fundacion Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and Independent Curators International Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean.