Solentiname: The Tropical Island Commune Where Everybody Was An Artist

They went from a forgotten farming community, to a world-renowned island full of painters.

When Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles, South France, in the late 1800s, he rented part of a yellow house in Place Lamartine where he made many famous works, including The Yellow House and Bedroom in Arles. Van Gogh wanted to turn this rustic house into an art colony, where colleagues and artists could live together and support each other by sharing art techniques and feedback. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to accomplish his dream commune due to mental health problems. However, less than a century later, a bearded poet and priest in Nicaragua stumbled across the perfect location to create van Gogh’s artistic utopia. This priest was Ernesto Cardenal Martínez, and he founded the primitivist art community of the Solentiname islands.

Photo by: @80wse

Solentiname is an archipelago made up of 36 islands located on the Lake of Nicaragua. Its most important islands are Mancarron, Mancarroncito, San Fernando, and La Venada. Before the arrival of Cardenal, the now world-famous islands of never-ending art production were nothing but forgotten chunks of land on water – or that’s what people thought. They were in very poor economic conditions and were neglected by their own government. There were no hospitals, schools, or any state institutions to govern them. The people from the islands lived from farming and fishing. Who would have thought that they were to become part of the next artistic revolution in the country? It was all thanks to the poet Cardenal, who got the farmers to start painting as a way of healing and processing trauma. For example, prominent artist Roger Pérez de la Rocha, who attempted to end his own life at the age of 18, was rescued by Cardenal and found help in the commune of artists in the islands.

Photo by: @pablodelabarra

Photo by: @pablodelabarra

Photo by: julietabanana

At his young age, Pérez taught art techniques to the farmers, as he learned about their culture and way of life. He organized workshops, and one person in particular, Eduardo Arana, showed talent after Pérez gave him pencils to draw. Arana then became Perez’s protégé, and he also became the very first painter of the islands. The farmers were already engaged in artisanal projects, like sculpting, but it was thanks to Pérez’s guidance that they were able to fully exploit their potential. Today, the art of the island varies from sculpture to oil on canvas, and it attracts tourists and art lovers from all over the world. Yet, Solentiname’s most distinctive style is primitivist art. This style recreates normal scenes in primitive or rustic illustrations. Given the beautiful landscapes of the region and abundant wildlife, painters usually create canvases that celebrate nature. Their artworks are sold for less than $1,000 USD (usually $500) –a relatively cheap price compared to other regions– yet Cardenal’s intentions were only to provide the farmers with a means to escape poverty, not to turn anyone into a Picasso.

Photo by: @pablodelabarra

Cardenal was an unusual Catholic priest. For instance, he didn’t wear a traditional priest’s robe, rosaries, or carried around a copy of the Bible all the time. Instead, he used a beret, let his long, white beard grow, and casually smoked cigars with the farmers. He didn't charge the people of the Solentiname Islands for communion, and his interest was merely to end poverty in the region. It is believed that the poet found the islands after seeking a place to find inspiration and to restore his faith and himself along the way. He was involved in politics, as well as literature (he received many awards). He also wrote The Gospel of Solentiname while living in the islands. Forty years after founding the artistic community, the first generation of painters is still painting and teaching others.


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