The naive paintings of Nicaragua’s Solentiname Islands

Drawaings on the church on Mancarron Island, part of the Solentiname Islands; photo by David W. Smith

Drawings in the church on Mancarron Island, one of the Solentiname island; photo by David W. Smith

In 1976 Sandinista poet-priest Ernesto Cardinal came to the remote Solentiname islands in southern Nicaragua. He found a naturally artistic people who weren’t  expressing their creativity, and a devout people who’d never thought Catholicism could speak directly to the conditions of their daily lives.

“Before he came,” said Esparanza Guevara, who showed me around the church on Mancarron Island, “we were Catholic, but we knew nothing of justice and injustice.” Cardinal preached a Sandinista-inflected Catholicism of the poor, and in fact many of Solentiname’s young people caught the fever and left their island sanctuary to flight (and die) in Nicaragua’s Sandinista uprising.

SolentinameArt4Being an artist himself, Cardinal also encouraged in the islands’ inhabitants a sort of populist creativity that took many forms: the childlike primary-color drawings in the island’s dirt floor church, wood carvings of birds and fish and caimans, and naive paintings of the beautiful islands themselves.

They remind me both of Haitian naive art and the paintings I saw in the Ecuadorian Andes in the 1980s, that the Indians there were making with cheap enamel on stretched sheepskins. The paintings of Solentiname are oil on canvas.

I’d been hearing good things about Solentiname for years, and when we got there I wasn’t disappointed. I don’t often use the word magical, but this little-visited chain of islands in Lake Nicaragua felt that way to me. I’ll post here some of the painting we saw in the islands’ artists cooperative. Many of the artists are women who have few options when it comes to earning a living. The painting were selling for about $100 for small ones to $800 for the larger (36 x 30 inches) ones. All photos are by David Webster Smith.

Nidos de Orupendula (Orupendula Nests), 2009 Solignia Arellana, 34 x 25

Nidos de Orupendula (Orupendula Nests), 2009 Solignia Arellana, 34 x 25 inches

Islas de Solentiname (Solentiname Islands), Carmen Madrigal, 36 x 30 inches

Islas de Solentiname (Solentiname Islands), Carmen Madrigal, 36 x 30 inches

El Castillo (The Castle), Miriam Madrigal, 36 x 30 inches

El Castillo (The Castle), Miriam Madrigal, 36 x 30 inches

La isla de amor (The Island of Love), Sylvia Arellano

La isla de amor (The Island of Love), Sylvia Arellano

El Rancho, Carmen Madrigal

El Rancho, Carmen Madrigal

La Isla (The Island), Fernando Altamirano

La Isla (The Island), Fernando Altamirano

Los Cocos 2 (The Coconut Trees 2), Teresa Madrigal

Los Cocos 2 (The Coconut Trees 2), Teresa Madrigal

Flora y Fauna, Solgnia Arellano

Flora y Fauna, Solignia Arellano

Noche de Armadillos (Night of the Armadillos), Francisco Altamirano

Noche de Armadillos (Night of the Armadillos), Francisco Altamirano

7 Comments

  • By Stephen, December 10, 2009 @ 7:06 am

    Did you buy Isla de amor? I would love to use that image in Neotropica.

  • By judy dunworth, December 10, 2009 @ 8:20 am

    beautiful paintings. I too hope you purchased one. these artists could use etsy to reach a lucrative and appreciative market if they are computer users. happy holidays.j

  • By Erin Van Rheenen, December 11, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    I only bought the wooden agouti–though many of the paintings were very tempting.

  • By Kathy, December 17, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

    I would love one of these paintings. Probably just as well that I’m reading this after the fact. I would have been tempted to ask you to buy them out.

  • By robbie roberts, February 26, 2010 @ 9:28 am

    amazing art! i’m headed there for a couple of weeks after next week in cr with a friend. can you get there after crossing the border at los chilles?

  • By Erin Van Rheenen, February 26, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    Hey Robbie,
    Yes, you can take the boat from Los Chiles to San Carlos, then get a boat from San Carlos to the Solentiname islands. But that latter boat doesn’t run every day–when I was there it ran Tuesdays and Fridays, at 1 pm I think, leaving from the new San Carlos pier. You can also hire a private boat (which will go whenever you want, and maybe take you to a few islands) for about $100. The public boat costs just a couple of dollars. Have fun and be sure to report back on what you found!

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