San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

An artist’s investigation

Melvin “Kamel” González wants the beliefs and traditions of his people honored, and he has an interesting way of making that happen. He is an artist who investigates Boruca culture, then paint what he learns.

“I want people to pay more attention to indigenous communities,” said González. “There are traditions, art and so many other things that people in San José just know nothing about.”

As a member of the nearly extinct Boruca indigenous group, where approximately 80 percent of the community’s population produces art to sell, González was exposed to art at an early age. Furthering González’s education was his father, Ismael González, one of the country’s most famous indigenous artists known for his traditional Diablo masks. 

Even with so many artists in one community, González has managed to distinguish himself by taking some long-forgotten lessons from the past and putting them in a new format.

“I started doing my own investigations into the Boruca race,” said González. “The majority of children in the Boruca learn about identity, spirituality and our traditions through this art, but in reality there are so many tribal leaders, warriors, water spirits and air spirits that our youngest members do not know about.”

Melvin "Kamel" González

Photos courtesy of Galería Namu

While his inspiration lies in the ancient tales of his ancestors, González does not limit himself to the traditional mediums used by the Boruca who are known primarily for masks, jewelry and wood figurines. While still well versed in these artistic formats, González has recently made a name for himself in canvas paintings.

“A mask does not give you much room to express all of the feelings that you have inside of you,” he said. “There are many people you simply can’t represent with a mask.”

With his paintings, González is able to depict entire myths and expand upon themes that have been explored by generations of Borucas. Before beginning his most recent series of paintings, González sat down with village elders and tried to find some of the lesser-known Boruca tales and leaders to depict.

“With every conversation I have with older people, I discover something new,” he said. “I try to bring in all of these new things, but really they are old at the same time, they are just forgotten.”

While González is constantly trying to create something unique, he does not believe that the traditional art of his people should fall prey to modern influences.

“I don’t want to mix the city with our culture. I am not looking to pull in things from modern life. I want to improve at finding the undiscovered from our past,” he said.

These investigations into the past are not only conducted in the village; González’s work is almost exclusively about nature. The spirit of the jungle, he says, “is alive and real and should be respected.”

González fills his paintings with jaguars, parrots, intricate trees and forest spirits. He weaves the myths and legends from the village in with the jungle scenes of his surroundings. Whether a painting’s origin is a Boruca tale or a scene from his own imagination, the message is clear.

“Culture and nature are the same in some ways. You can lose both of them,” he said. “If you don’t practice your culture, if you don’t care for nature, you will lose it.  I want people to see this when they look at my work.”

Melvin “Kamel” González’s exhibition, “Identidad, Mito, Legado Ancestral” is touring the country. Its next stop is Turrialba, where it will be on display from Nov. 6-20 at the CATIE International Club and Nov. 21-26 at the restaurant La Feria. His work can be purchased on the Boruca reservation or at Galería Namu in San José. For information, see

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