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Historically, Costa Rica has been relatively impoverished in the area of native arts and crafts. The country, with its relatively small and heterogeneous pre-Columbian population, had no unique cultural legacy that could spark a creative synthesis where the modern and the traditional might merge. And social tensions (often catalysts to artistic expression) felt elsewhere in the isthmus were lacking.
In recent years, however, artists across the spectrum have found a new confidence. The performing arts are flourishing, amply demonstrated by the introduction of an International Art and Music Festival in 1992.
Costa Rica has a strong peña tradition, introduced by Chilean and Argentinian exiles. Literally “circle of friends,” peñas are bohemian gatherings where moving songs are shared and wine and tears flow.
Santa Ana and neighboring Escazú, immediately southwest of San José, have long been magnets for artists. Escazú in particular is home to many contemporary artists: Christina Fournier; the brothers Jorge, Manuel, Javier, and Carlos Mena; and Dinorah Bolandi, who was awarded the nation’s top cultural prize. Here, in the late 1920s, Teodorico Quirós and a group of contemporaries provided the nation with its own identifiable art style—the Costa Rican “Landscape” movement—which expressed in stylized forms the personality of little mountain towns with their cobblestone streets and adobe houses backdropped by volcanoes.
Quirós had been influenced by the French Impressionists. The group also included Luisa Gonzales de Saenz, whose paintings evoke the style of Magritte; the expressionist Manuel de la Cruz, the “Costa Rican Picasso”; as well as Enrique Echandi, who expressed a Teutonic sensibility following studies in Germany. One of the finest examples of sculpture from this period, the chiseled stone image of a child suckling his mother’s breast, can be seen outside the Maternidad Carit maternity clinic in southern San José. Its creator, Francisco Zuñigo (Costa Rica’s most acclaimed sculptor), left for Mexico in a fit of artistic pique in 1936 when the sculpture, titled Maternity, was lampooned by local critics.
By the late 1950s, many local artists looked down on the work of the prior generation as the art of casitas (little houses) and were indulging in more abstract styles. Today, Costa Rica’s homegrown art is world-class.
Isidro Con Wong (tel. 506/8722-9988, www.isidroconwong.com), a once-poor farmer from Puntarenas, is known for a style redolent of magic realism and has works in permanent collections in several U.S. and French museums. Roberto Lizano collides Delacroix with Picasso and likes to train his eye on the pomposity of ecclesiastics. Alajuelan artist Gwen Barry is acclaimed for her “Movable Murals”—painted screens populated by characters from Shakespeare and the Renaissance. The works of Rodolfo Stanley (www.artestanley.com/english.htm) seemingly combine those of Toulouse-Lautrec with Gauguin. Rolando Castellón, who was a director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York before returning to Costa Rica in 1993, translates elements of indigenous life into three-dimensional art. Escazú artist Katya de Luisa is known for stunning photo collages. And a Cuban aesthetic finds its way into the works of Limonense artist Edgar León, who was influenced by travels in Cuba and Mexico.
Costa Rica Art Tours (www.costaricaart tour.com) offers daylong visits to various leading artists’ studios, including that of Rodolfo Stanley.
The tourist dollar has spawned a renaissance in crafts. The Boruca peoples are known for their devil masks, and balsa ornamental masks featuring colorful wildlife and Indian faces. At Guaitíl, in Nicoya, the Chorotega tradition of pottery is booming, flooding souvenir stores nationwide with quintessential Costa Rica pieces. Santa Ana, in the Highlands, is also famous for its ceramics. In Escazú, master craftsman Barry Biesanz crafts subtle, delicate bowls and decorative boxes with tight dovetailed corners from carefully chosen blocks of lignum vitae (ironwood), narareno (purple heart), rosewood, and other tropical hardwoods.
Many of the best crafts in Costa Rica come from Sarchí, known most notably for its carretas (oxcarts) and rockers. Although full-size oxcarts are still made, today most of the carretas are folding miniature trolleys that serve as liquor bars or indoor tables, and half-size carts used as garden ornaments or simply to accent a corner of a home. The carts are decorated with geometric mandala designs and floral patterns that have found their way, too, onto wall plaques, kitchen trays, and other craft items.
In literature, Costa Rica has never fielded figures of the stature of Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, Pablo Neruda, or Jorge interest in literature. Only a handful of writers make a living from writing, and Costa Rican literature is often belittled as the most prosaic and anemic in Latin America. Lacking great goals and struggles, Costa Rica was never a breeding ground for the passions and dialectics that spawned the literary geniuses of Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Cuba, and Chile.
Costa Rica’s early literary figures were mostly essayists and poets: Roberto Brenes Mesen and Joaquín García Monge are the most noteworthy. Even the writing of the 1930s and 1940s, whose universal theme was a plea for social progress, lacked the verisimilitude and rich literary delights of other Latin American authors. Carlos Luis Fallas’s Mamita Yunai, which depicts the plight of banana workers, is the best and best-known example of this genre. Modern literature still draws largely from the local setting, and though the theme of class struggle has given way to a lighter, more novelistic approach, it still largely lacks the depth and subtlety of the best of Brazilian, Argentinian, and Colombian literature. An outstanding exception is Julieta Pinto’s El Eco de los Pasos, a striking novel about the 1948 civil war.
Music and Dance
The country is one of the southernmost of the “marimba culture” countries using the African-derived marimba (xylophone). The guitar, too, is a popular instrument, especially as an accompaniment to folk dances such as the punto guanacasteco, a heel-and-toe stomping dance for couples, officially decreed the national dance.
Says National Geographic: “To watch the viselike clutching of Ticos and Ticas dancing, whether at a San José discotheque or a crossroads cantina, is to marvel that the birthrate in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation is among Central America’s lowest.” When it comes to dancing, Ticos prefer the hypnotic Latin and rhythmic Caribbean beat and bewildering cadences of cumbia, lambada, merengue, salsa, and soca, danced with sure-footed erotic grace. The Caribbean coast is the domain of calypso and reggae.
Costa Rica’s most famous contemporary band is Editus, winner of two Grammy Awards for its edgy mix of Latin and New Age sounds. Everywhere in Costa Rica, you’ll hear the beautiful classical music of Manuel Obregón’s Sinbiosis playing; he’s now the minister of culture!
Folkloric Dancing: Guanacaste is the heartland of Costa Rican folkloric music and dancing. Here, even such pre-Columbian instruments as the chirimia (oboe) and quijongo (a single-string bow with gourd resonator) popularized by the Chorotega are still used. Dances usually deal with the issues of enchanted lovers (usually legendary coffee pickers) and are based on the Spanish paseo, with pretty maidens in frilly satin skirts and white bodices circled by men in white suits and cowboy hats, accompanied by tossing of scarves, a fanning of hats, and loud lusty yelps from the men.
Vestiges of the indigenous folk dancing tradition linger (barely) elsewhere in the nation. The Borucas still perform their Danza de los Diablitos, and the Talamancas their Danza de los Huelos. But the drums and flutes, including the curious dru mugata, an ocarina (a small potato-shaped instrument with a mouthpiece and finger holes which yields soft, sonorous notes), are being replaced by guitars and accordions.
On the Caribbean, the cuadrille is a maypole dance in which each dancer holds one of many ribbons tied to the top of a pole: As they dance they braid their brightly colored ribbons.
Classical Music: Costa Rica stepped onto the world stage in classical music with the formation in 1970 of the National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of an American, Gerald Brown. The orchestra, which performs in the Teatro Nacional, often features world-renowned guest soloists and conductors, such as violinist José Castillo and classical guitarist Pablo Ortíz, who often play together. Its season is April–November. Costa Rica also claims a state-subsidized youth orchestra.
A nation of avid theater lovers, Costa Rica supports a thriving acting community. In fact, Costa Rica supposedly has more theater companies per capita than any other country in the world. The streets of San José are lined with tiny theaters—everything from comedy to drama, avant-garde, theater-in-the-round, mime, and even puppet theater. Crowds flock every night Tuesday–Sunday. Performances are predominantly in Spanish. The English-speaking Little Theater Group is Costa Rica’s oldest theatrical troupe; it performs in its own theater in Escazú.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition