PRINT April 2015


art in Costa Rica

Mimian Hsu, Retrato familiar en Helvética (Family Portrait in Helvetica), 2014, adhesive vinyl. Installation view, TEOR/éTica, San José, Costa Rica. Photo: Daniela Morales Lisac.

DESPITE THE EVER-EXPANDING BORDERS of the art world, Central America rarely features on the itineraries of its jet-setters. Its seven countries have long been dismissed through the clichés of the banana republic, plagued by civil war, violent crime, and drug trafficking. Yet similar problems afflicting nearby Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia have not prevented major institutional funding for contemporary art there. The difference—somewhat ironically for an isthmus linking two continents—seems to be one of connectivity. The historical lack of a proper network in Central America for curators and artists resulted in invisibility—not simply internationally but also much closer to home. Throughout the twentieth century, regional countries were so isolated that information about a local exhibition would often only reach a neighboring country via news stories from Europe or the United States.

This compartmentalization gradually began to break down in the most politically stable and economically advanced of Central America’s countries, Costa Rica, with the opening, in 1999, of the small but highly influential art center TEOR/éTica in the capital city of San José. Established in founding curator Virginia Pérez-Ratton’s grandmother’s downtown house, TEOR/éTica is equally community hub, artist residency, exhibition space, library, archive, and cultural nerve center. From the beginning, Pérez-Ratton aimed to activate the local public both as a source of and an audience for creativity; this ambition is literalized on one of TEOR/éTica’s exterior walls, which is regularly used as an extension of the exhibition galleries, with colorful murals spilling into the street. While the institution’s archival arm seeks to research historic events and document current practices otherwise under the radar in San José and the provinces, the space has, in the process, gained an international following. After visiting in 2000, none other than art-world luminary Harald Szeemann invited six artists from the region to participate in his 2001 Venice Biennale, a first for all of them.

But perhaps the most significant touchstone for the development of San José as a thriving Ibero-American art capital was the large-scale exhibition “Travesía por un estrecho dudoso” (Transit Through a Doubtful Strait), 2006–2007, organized by Pérez-Ratton and curator and critic Tamara Díaz and mounted in several venues and public spaces across Costa Rica’s central valley. The show’s title refers to the Spanish conquistadors’ term for the land encountered in their search for a channel to the Pacific; the curators used this ambiguity in their own exploration of intersecting Pan-American and European cultural practices. “Estrecho dudoso” brought together more than seventy international and local artists, a scale unprecedented for the region; the show established a localized artistic network.

This event invigorated other institutions around San José and encouraged a profusion of art programming: At the Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo, founded in 1994, a focused series of exhibitions and public programs organized by curator María José Chavarría consistently introduces prominent figures from the international art world to the city where they present their work and take part in residencies and symposia. Another important conduit is the alternative space Des Pacio, set up by the artist Federico Herrero in 2008, which has established strong collaborations with related artist-run spaces, including Proyectos Ultravioleta in Guatemala and Diablo Rosso in Panama. Over the past seven years, Des Pacio has presented more than forty exhibitions, often accompanied by performances, artist residencies, workshops, and talks with curators from around the globe. Recent participants include Lucía Madriz, whose 2014 installation melded mathematical sequencing with biological imagery, and Óscar Figueroa, whose minimalist materials contrast with his project’s focus on the convoluted history of the United Fruit Company’s presence in Central America.

Alongside and within these spaces, artists have taken up the challenge of the dearth of institutional structures, becoming curators, organizers, teachers, and administrators themselves—key agents in the development and upkeep of the region’s art scene. Their versatile adaptability helped foster a newfound connectivity—spurred in part by that other network, the Internet. This palpable energy is demonstrated by the diverse efforts of figures such as Emiliano Valdés, an architect, curator, and editor based in Guatemala, Colombia, and abroad, and the painter Joaquín Rodríguez del Paso, who for many years organized an alternative art school out of his home in San José.

As its artists push to broaden the artistic reach of Central America, they are also deepening its existing roots in a vernacular practice. Talking to artists and curators in the region today, one quickly realizes that the prevailing attitude of only a decade ago—a powerful desire for recognition from and in the US and Europe—is no longer a priority. This is the case even as curatorial endeavors have made remarkable inroads in securing institutional support on a global scale, among them “A Chronicle of Intervention,” for which TEOR/éTica worked with Tate Modern on a concurrent exhibition in London and San José in 2014. Indeed, such collaborations emphasize the ways in which ideas and influence now run in multiple latitudinal and longitudinal directions. International interest in Central American art, it would seem, will grow on the region’s own terms.

Jens Hoffmann is deputy director of the Jewish Museum in New York and the author, most recently, of Theater of Exhibitions (Sternberg, 2015).