Rodolfo Arelllano sings as he paints. He positions his wheelchair beside a window in the corner where the breeze from Nicaragua’s great Lake Cocibolca refreshes the heat and humidity of this torrid morning in the Solentiname archipelago.
The canvas that Arellano is filling with colors rests on an easel improvised from three dry branches. At 77, he’s one of the first primitivist painters discovered by poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal who arrived at the Solentiname archipelago in the middle of the 1960s, searching for himself and armed with a drive to renew the Catholic faith.
What Cardenal found was a community of farmers and fishermen with a great talent for painting and folk art. Cardenal’s initiative ultimately put the archipelago and its inhabitants on the world map as a community that embodied, in its moment, a religious, artistic and revolutionary utopia.
The Solentiname archipelago is located towards the southern end of Lake Nicaragua, also known as Lake Cocibolca. It’s formed by four islands: Mancarrón, Mancarroncito, San Fernando and La Venada.
Maestro Arrelano’s home is a small wooden structure atop a low hill on the island called La Venada, or, alternately, the painters’ island. Some fifteen painters live on this island, capturing the wild landscapes of this green milieu.
Paying close attention out his window this morning, Arellano is painting a primitivist landscape full of greens and blues. It depicts a small wooden house, in the window of which we can just make out a long-haired woman, while below, amid intensely colored flowers, a man with a guitar is singing his passion. The elderly painter’s hand is still firm as it carefully retraces the lines, while he himself sings, as if celebrating his own creation. “When I paint, I forget about my illness, I forget everything,” says Arellano who has diabetes and was recently operated on for cataracts.
His paintings have been exhibited in a number of European countries and form part of private collections there, as well as in Nicaragua and other countries of Latin America. Artists, political figures and diplomats make pilgrimages to this remote island to see him and buy his work.
Arellano, like the other primitivist painters of these islands, came to the realization forty years ago that his paintings had value and were prized outside the country. He retired from fishing and farming to dedicate himself to portraying life in Solentiname.
The arrival of Ernesto Cardenal
Prior to 1975, Arellano was a farmer, surviving with his family in a hostile environment. The islands were a forgotten territory, exposed to hurricanes, with no clinics or schools and the only possible jobs working the earth or fishing in the lake. Until one fine day, word spread that a priest had arrived. A handsome man, young and strong, with a beard and a pristine cassock. A priest who smoked, who sat down and ate at the table with them; who read the scriptures with them and talked about the gospel; who didn’t charge a cent for baptisms or weddings; who looked them in the eye when he celebrated mass. A priest who one fine morning understood that these were magical islands whose inhabitants had been blessed with a very special talent.
Elba Jiménez, Arellano’s wife, is a short and slender old woman, so fragile looking that you worry she might break. Elba was one of the first painters that Father Cardenal “discovered” when he saw the designs that she carved on jícaro gourds. It was she who encouraged her husband to become a painter too. In a tiny, shy voice worn by time, she recalls those far-off days when a young man in a pristine white cassock arrived to change her life.
“Before, I used to bake bread to raise my children. When the possibility of supporting us through art arose, I abandoned everything else,” the elderly woman recalls. She tells her story while seated in the middle of her little room with only the barest of furnishings – a few chairs, one long table which serves to exhibit the finished paintings, and workbenches in the corners by the windows, where she and her husband paint.
“I visited Padre Ernesto in the little house where he lived and I took him some drawings I’d made. He told me that they were good and said, ‘Paint me a little picture and bring it to me.’ That’s how I made my first painting. I felt very bashful around the padre, but I was comforted when he took the painting. I felt even happier later, when my little picture got sold, even though I hadn’t done it for money but because I liked to paint. From there on, I began to put my love into painting, and I’m still working to improve my skills,” Elba tells us.
“Copying nature”: Perez de la Rocha
Those first intuitive artistic expressions later became a world famous technique, when the painter Roger Perez de la Rocha arrived on these isles. It was a fortuitous encounter for the young Perez de la Rocha. He tells us about it in his Managua studio, amid paintings in progress.
“I arrived at Solentiname during a youthful emotional crisis. I’d made a suicide attempt and was dogged by fears of persecution. Thankfully, God and Pablo Antonio Cuadra the poet connected me with Ernesto Cardenal, who in those days was still in Managua. My life was really in danger, and Ernesto gave me sanctuary and hospitality. He was my guide in those youthful years and a determining factor in my growth as an artist,” Pérez de la Rocha asserts.
In the islands, Perez de la Rocha found a reason to go on living. At the same time, the farmers and painters found a teacher who taught them to love their art, to improve their technique, and to understand the importance of painting.
“Ernesto taught a sense of discipline and work. There was a lot of work to be done, from wielding a machete to teaching people to read, and in the afternoons I dedicated myself to my painting. During those afternoons that I created, some of the farmers would come in to watch and especially one, Eduardo Arana. Later, Eduardo brought me a gourd that he had carved by hand with a jackknife. I gave him colored pencils, and he brought me some sketches. These would later become the first primitivist canvases of Solentiname,” the painter recalls.
Rodolfo in turn recalls: “Father Ernesto noticed that there was a talent on Solentiname. He brought the painter Roger Pérez de la Rocha, who began to hold workshops. I wanted to join the first group he taught because it was different from the life of swinging a machete, but I told Elba that she should go first, because I couldn’t neglect the fields. A week later, I asked her to show me what they were doing. She showed me a little canvas and I thought it was pretty. So I too began to paint my first scribbles. Roger Perez de la Rocha would tell us, ‘You live in a paradise and all you have to do is copy the nature you’re seeing.’”
That’s how these isles became a huge painting workshop. “We set ourselves up in the church for my first workshop,” Roger Pérez de la Rocha remembers. “I wanted them to conserve their innocence, not to distort it with academic classes or anything that would destroy the magic; the result had to be naïve, preserving the purity and ingenuousness of their vision. The classes were exercises in observation; I taught them to see the life around them.”
Primitivist art gainied worldwide fame, with recognized names like painter Julio Sequeira, who passed away in 1992, Silvio Guillén, Adela Vargas, Luis Alvarado, Álvaro Gaitán, Olga Maradiaga and Mario Marín.
Luz Marina Acosta has been Ernesto Cardenal’s assistant for decades. She knows first-hand how the primitivist school of art developed, from the time it was discovered by Cardenal and Perez de la Rocha. She notes that after the Sandinista Revolution triumphed the poet was appointed Minister of Culture. In this role, he was able to offer State support in promoting the primitivist art.
“The Ministry of Culture established workshops in Matagalpa, Boaco, Masaya… an entire movement of primitivist painting was created here. Their greatest legacy is that they paint our surroundings, our Nicaragua, our colors, our life, that green nature, of lakes and volcanoes. In the end, they’re creating a history of Nicaragua,” Acosta explains.
Three generations of primitivists
The technique has remained alive, improving itself and passing on to new generations. The third generation of primitivist artists are working now in La Venada with the same success that the original painters achieved.
Jeysell Madrigal Arellano forms part of that new generation. At 32, she’s already been painting for 14 years. She works from her home, a few meters distant from the house of Rodolfo and Elba, and is able to support her children through her painting.
These days, Jeysell works putting the finishing touches on a painting that shows the wildlife in La Venada with its tapirs, herons, wildcats, armadillos and iguanas living freely in an environment full of greenery and surrounded by water. The painting, the young woman explains, will be ready in April, when she expects to offer it for sale at a purchase price of $1,500. But yes, she agrees smiling, the final price is negotiable.
“From the time I was little, maybe 9 years old, I would watch my mother paint. I told her that I wanted to paint too, but it was very difficult. When I was 15, I left to go to high school in Granada, but my mother got sick, so I had to leave my studies and return to Solentiname. I said, ‘Mama, I want to begin painting’. She taught me, and I continued learning with my grandparents. I think this is something that’s born in you,” Jeysell explains.
Although she hasn’t had a direct relationship with Father Cardenal, Jeysell recognizes the importance that he’s had in the development of this community of painters. “Everyone knows that it’s through him that art was founded here in Solentiname. That tradition won’t end because now our children are carrying it on. My five-year-old daughter likes to paint,” she says.
The Mancarrón folk artists
If La Venada is the island of painters, Mancarrón is that of the folk artists. Here, there are small workshops where they work on small wooden pieces which are later decorated with primitivist designs. These handicrafts are sold in Managua, Granada and León in Nicaragua, and also in other countries.
Jaime Ortega is one of the exponents of this art form. In his workshop in the El Refugio neighborhood, he talks to us about the beginning of these primitivist crafts.
“Thanks to Ernesto Cardenal, we’re now artisans. There was a young boy here named Alfredo Argüello who was very curious. He noticed some little trees at the shore that were as soft as polystyrene, and he began to make things from the wood. During a visit that some nuns made to Ernesto Cardenal here in Solentiname, they saw some items the boy had made and they liked them and bought them from him. From Solentiname, the nuns headed for San Carlos, but on the way the nuns dropped the handicrafts. Ernesto saw them, he asked them where they had gotten them and they told him all about the child. That’s where Ernesto got the idea that the people in Solentiname could create handicrafts,” Ortega recalls.
These artists now work full time on their craft. At times they have so many orders that they have to get together a group to finish them. They make toucans, herons, fish, peacocks, and other representations of the wildlife in this paradise, all in bright colors.
Mancarrón is also the seat of the utopian community founded by Father Cardenal. In this part of the island the remains of that community can still be seen, although now it’s aimed at the tourists. Wooden cabins facing the beach serve to house the travelers, attracted not only by the beauty of the place and the possibility of disconnecting from everyday life, but also from the mythology surrounding Ernesto Cardenal.
The visitors eat in a common dining room, share the food prepared in the community, all in a communion where the day’s experiences are shared, far away from the controversy currently surrounding Ernesto Cardenal and his legacy.
The dispute over Hotel Mancarron
Over the past few months, Ernesto Cardenal has complained of political persecution unleashed against him by the Ortega government. The arena has been a judicial dispute for the administration of a Solentiname hotel.
During the 80’s, a school for the formation of peasant leaders was constructed on Mancarron with money from Germany. However, a decade later, an organization known as the Association for the Development of Solentiname decided to convert the school’s installations into a hotel. Alejandro Guevara, a local youth whom Cardenal considered like a son, was named to administer the new enterprise. Guevara was a hero of the Sandinista struggle against the Somoza dictatorship and later had served as a leader of the revolutionary government in this region. Unfortunately, a traffic accident took his life in the 90s.
When Guevara died, the Association decided to donate parcels of land to his children and his widow, Nubia del Socorro Arcia Mayorga. The latter was also named administrator of the hotel. Years later, she claimed that the hotel had been given to her as an inheritance and demanded that it be legally inscribed in her name. In 2002 she opted to sue the poet.
The property was left in legal limbo, but Arcia Mayorga continued administering it. Years later, she once again sued Cardenal for damages, and a judge ruled in her favor. The lawyer representing Arcia Mayorga was José Ramón Rojas Méndez, the same attorney who represented Daniel Ortega when accused of rape by his stepdaughter Zoilamerica Narvaez in 1998.
In a judicial edict published in the official periodical La Gaceta,in February. The judge ordered Cardenal to pay a fine of US $800,000 in compensation for “harm and damages”. Cardenal, in turn, accused President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, of political persecution against him. The ruling has inspired a wave of solidarity among Nicaraguan and foreign writers and the resulting pressure caused a Managua judge to declare null and void the original judicial order to pay the fine. “I’m happy that the whole world is finding out that I’m the victim of political persecution in Nicaragua…by the government of Daniel Ortega and his wife who are owners of the entire country, up to and including the courts, the police and the army,” Cardenal stated.
In Solentiname, Nubia Arcia prefers not to talk about this case. We encountered her in the Hotel Mancarron, an attractive structure divided into several concrete cabins with a private dock on the lake where she receives the hotel guests. She doesn’t want to give interviews, and refers journalists to the court records: “Ernesto Cardenal staged a drama. I don’t feel that I have anything to clarify, everything’s there in the courts, so that I prefer not to discuss the topic,” Arcía states.
The successors to the community created by the poet accuse Arcia of wanting to take over not just the Hotel but the entire project begun by Cardenal, destroy his legacy and exploit the tourist potential of these islands for her own benefit.
The controversy has divided the island, and some residents prefer not to offer their opinions on it. They continue with their routine: the Sunday baseball games, the work in crafts or painting, the motorboat trips to show tourists the attractions of Solentiname.
Jeysell, Rodolfo and Elba, the primitivist painters of La Venada, also continue with their lives as painters, but they recognize that without Cardenal’s initial support the success they’ve achieved would have been impossible.
“It’s because of him that we live with this art of painting here in Solentiname. We had nothing, no hope. He was the one who brought the art of painting here,” assures Elba, standing close to the window, looking out at the landscapes that have inspired her art.