San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Exhibits Explore Animals and Medicinal Plants

You know the story: Costa Rica’s lush, tropical clime makes the country that proverbial biodiverse treasure trove of plant and animal life, with 0.3 percent of the world’s land mass housing four percent of the world’s species of flora and fauna.

But going way beyond the math, animals and plants are each the subject of their own exhibition – one large, one small – now under way at the Central Bank Museums complex under San José’s Plaza de la Cultura.

In “La Animalística en el Arte Costarricense” (“Animal Images in Costa Rican Art”), the more prominent of the two exhibits that opened last month, curators Ileana Alvarado and Efraín Hernández have compiled a collection of 95 works in all manner of mediums, illustrating the different ways in which animals have been represented in Costa Rican art.

Two general themes run through the exhibition, more than a year in the making.

Although the works are not laid out in chronological order, the history of animals  in Costa Rican art is one of prominence, which became relegated to a supportive role, which was bumped back to prominence again.

“The gods were beasts,” Alvarado explained of the art on display from the pre- Columbian era. “Animals represented everything in daily life.”

As Christianity took hold in the colonial era, animals lost their importance. They were still portrayed, but took on the role of allegorical characters in religion’s struggle between good and evil. The serpent tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. Winged doves fluttered around the Virgin Mary and the Christ child. The beasts of nature flocked to St. Francis of Assisi, one of history’s great animal lovers.

After independence, artists showed little interest in portraying animals, Alvarado said. At best, artist-rendered horses were there to transport artist-rendered early Costa Rican heroes.

“Any academic artist of the time would never lower himself to painting animals and nature,” Alvarado explained.

That all changed in the 1920s with the birth of the pan-Latin American americanismo movement, a back-to-roots effort to rediscover and incorporate indigenous themes into art.

Costa Rican-born sculptor Francisco Zúñiga exemplified the new trend, and indeed, his fierce “Zopilote” (“Vulture”) occupies a prominent place in the exhibit.

A second theme is well delineated in the layout of the exhibition’s works.

“Animals as animals, versus the human attributes we have incorporated into our portrayal of animals,” Alvarado described it.

The pre-Columbian pieces, most of them taken from the museum’s own impressive collection, fall into the first category, as do many of the late-20th-century works. But in the latter grouping, bulls represent old-fashioned Latin American machismo, buzzards personify unscrupulous politicians, and doves represent peace, including in a political cartoon by former TT cartoonist Arcadio Esquivel.

“Animal Images” provides an interesting look at a theme rarely discussed in artistic circles. (Little has been published, according to Alvarado.) The animals-for-their-ownsake trend continues today with Costa Rica’s marketing of itself as an ecotourism destination. Animals are hot once again.

The second, much smaller exhibit installed in the museum last month, “Plantas Medicinales: Saberes ancestrales de la medicina autóctona” (“Medicinal Plants: Ancestral Wisdom of Indigenous Medicine”), carries a self-explanatory title. It brings together in one room in the GoldMuseum sector of the complex an interesting look at native medicinal plants and how they have been used –how they are still used, for that matter – by indigenous peoples of Costa Rica.

The display takes you from pre-Columbian times to the present, with particular focus on medicinal-plant use by the Bribrí, Cabécar and Huétar peoples, three of Costa Rica’s major indigenous groups.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a continuously playing, nine-minute, black-andwhite video titled “Suobla: The One that Tells the Stories,” in Bribrí and English, illustrating the work of an awá, a traditional indigenous therapist.

General descriptions of themes for both the animal and plant exhibitions are posted in Spanish and English; individual works or pieces are labeled in Spanish only, but need not detract from getting an overall picture of the presentation if your Spanish is limited.

“Animal Images” is set to run through Jan. 31, and “Medicinal Plants” through Oct. 31, 2008. The Central Bank Museums are under the Plaza de la Cultura (Ca. 5, Ave. Ctrl./2) and are open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (This is one of the few institutions of its kind that remain open over the year-end holidays, closing only Dec. 24-25 and Dec. 31-Jan. 1.) Admission is ¢3,500 ($7) for foreigners, ¢2,000 ($4) for students, and ¢1,000 ($2) for Costa Rican citizens and residents. Entrance is free to citizens and residents every Wednesday and the first Sunday of the month. For information, call 243-4202.


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