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Art in San José

Sam West
Alayna Clay

Many of Costa Rica’s contemporary and modern art galleries are located in Barrio Amon, a hilly neighborhood full of old buildings and green gardens. It is not slick, hip or shiny, but it is beautiful. Aging brick walls are decorated with graffiti: Flapjack the pirate, a Hindu elephant God, feminist political slogans, and the good old Anarchy-A.


Up a steep hike is the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, the centerpiece of San Jose’s burgeoning creative scene. It’s located in the oldest building in the city, a 19th-century rum and guaro factory that’s now part of the National Center for Culture, alongside two theatres and an outdoor auditorium. A new generation of Costa Ricans is reconsidering what it means to be an artist, and much of it is happening in spaces like this.


“In Costa Rica and San Jose, we actually have a big, bubbling contemporary art scene,” said Eunice Baez, who does public relations for the museum. “It’s small, but everything in Costa Rica is pretty small. There’s a lot of things that are happening. Small galleries that are popping up, or pop-up galleries that just happen in the night.”


The Museum of Contemporary Art and Design has been around for 24 years. It’s the only contemporary art museum in Costa Rica, and it’s one of the most important artistic spaces in Central America. The museum has no permanent exhibitions, so the work on display is constantly changing.


A recent exhibit was a collection of fake news stories, images and posters of a historical event in San Jose that never actually happened, a study on how we process memory. The exhibit also had a video component, a parody educational cartoon about the invented past. The museum frequently does open calls for art and has one gallery specifically for young, upcoming artists.


Back in Barrio Amon, in a converted, old house, is a space where these artists can learn more about their craft. The TEOR/éTica is not a gallery, but a non-profit foundation whose mission is to create a theoretical and educational superstructure for Costa Rican art. It was founded by Virginia Perez-Ratton, an influential Costa Rican artist and curator who was the first director of the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design.


“She decided to found TEOR/éTica based on how to generate not just visibility but also thought and research within the region, not just an outsider’s perspective of what local production was about,” said Maria Paola “Lola” Malavasi, an art educator at the foundation.


The center has a small exhibition area but also features a library, a workspace and an indoor garden. It’s a place for researching and thinking about art, as well as a place to see it. Workshops, talks, events and activist meetings use the TEOR/éTica’s collective space.


Malavasi refused to characterize the modern art scene in Costa Rica, saying it was impossible to summarize the region in a single word or phrase. There are wide variations in art because of political, socioeconomic and geographical situations, even just among artists in San Jose.

There is not much of an art market in Costa Rica, which she said was both freeing and “There is right now a very strong generation of artists creating on a lot of themes and topics,” Malavasi said. Interest in art theory and experimental projects is only increasing, and TEOR/éTica is a space that can aid in that growth.


Malavasi studied fashion at the Savannah College of Art and Design and later got a degree in art history. She spends most of her time teaching young artists from a curatorial and research perspective. Universities in Costa Rica tend to instruct art in a formal, conservative and staid manner, so Malavasi and the TEOR/éTica help young artists think about their own work in new ways. She described the institution as a little rebellious.


“[TEOR/éTica] is definitely one of the few spaces where you could try to work from a different angle than what’s traditionally thought of as art,” she said. “We go beyond art, even. We work with architecture and dance and activism, just projects that stem from society’s issues but we can see them or work with them from the arts because of the possibilities that art can open.”


The Talentum is another art space in Barrio Amon that combines a gallery with a restaurant serving tasty traditional Costa Rican “typical food.” This is meant as a way to get people interested in viewing contemporary work. It’s located in a historic house that Costa Rica’s first female vice president once owned. The space also has a beautiful back garden and art studio.


Greivin Ureña is the curator and art director of the gallery. He works extensively with origami, creating massive sculptures of fruit, animals and mythical beasts. Speaking with his wife Angerie Mora acting as a translator, he also described a lot of potential in Costa Rica’s art scene.


“Costa Rica, in Central America, is one of the places where this movement has more… it’s the strongest country in Central America,” she said.


Urena described himself as a guide for new artists as well as a curator. He said he takes an active role in curation, in which he works alongside creators to help them understand the themes of their own work better. This involves getting to know young artists personally, seeing their workspaces and learning about the history of their art.


The cutting edge of Costa Rican art is perhaps digital video art. The TEOR/éTica has an entire room dedicated to it. Because video is simple and inexpensive to make and does not need to be physically transported from gallery to gallery, many Central American artists use the medium. Baez said the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design helped facilitate this growth, as they have a long-standing yearly video exhibition.


Malavasi said there’s a new generation of artists hungry for a different approach to their work, alongside a public that could use more education about the art.


“It’s a very difficult population to work with in terms of contemporary art,” she said. “A lot of people don’t really understand it, or they don’t even want to come close to it, they don’t know how to approach it. Some people don’t even know it exists. There is still a very traditional idea, ‘artist paint, artist sculpt, artists don’t necessarily think.’ We’re very much trying to change that.”

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