Meanwhile, in another world…

Central American naïve art comes to GINA Gallery in Tel Aviv.

‘A Day at the Market’ painting by Lorenzo Cruz, 2013. (photo credit: COURTESY GINA GALLERY)
‘A Day at the Market’ painting by Lorenzo Cruz, 2013.
Somewhere, far away, there is a world more beautiful than ours. It is an enchanted place, without poverty, illness, anger or violence. A place where smiling people promenade hand-in-hand, dance, play musical instruments, picnic in fields of soft grass and bright flowers, work in their gardens and sing happily while performing their household chores.
It is a world where beautiful grinning girls carrying baskets of sliced watermelon on their heads stroll languidly by people hanging clothes, trimming hedges, watering flowers, drinking coffee, playing fetch with little pet dogs and feeding chickens. And everyone – without exception – is smiling, including the dogs and chickens. Above all, it is a world almost bursting with vivid colors, where exquisitely quaint rural villages sit nestled among verdant turquoise- colored hills, shaded by the emerald green leaves of enormous palm and banana trees, refreshed by streams that sparkle in the morning sunlight, all under a brilliant blue sky with a few fluffy, cotton candy-white clouds.
This world exists, not in physical reality, but in the wondrously alluring paintings of a genre known as naïve art. Once called “primitive art,” naïvism is a genre that has certain basic characteristics. According to Dan Chill, owner and chief curator of GINA, the Gallery of International Naïve Art in Tel Aviv, these include a charming, almost childlike innocence; artists who usually have not studied art and are instead self-taught; and an almost obsessive attention to detail.
There is nothing abstract or impressionistic about these paintings, says Chill.
“We sometimes ask the naïve artist, ‘Why was it important for you to paint all the 1,350 leaves on that tree? Wouldn’t it have been enough to paint 100 leaves? We would have gotten the idea that this is a tree.’ And they answer in a very naïve way, ‘If I don’t paint all 1,350 leaves, to me that is not a tree.’” Naïve art shines in all of its startling colors at GINA’s current exhibition, Land of Our Love: The Naïves of Central America. Displaying 121 paintings by 35 artists from seven countries in Central America, the exhibition is being conducted under the auspices of the Embassy of the Republic of El Salvador and its ambassador to Israel, Suzana Hasenson – with the special participation of San Salvador-born Fausto Perez, acclaimed as the leading naïve artist of Central America.
“This exhibition is the largest we have ever had,” Chill says. “We call it Land of Our Love. If you remember the song verses ‘God bless America, Land that I love,’ this is basically a reflection of that in Central America, the land that the artists love. Their paintings reflect something we use to describe the naïve art world in a figurative way: The artists dip their brushes in their hearts when they paint. And we can feel their love expressed in their paintings. We see the love of their land, of the common folk and the everyday life of the people in the countryside.
“Most of the artists in this exhibition are the leading naïve artists in their respective countries. We are showing artists from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and Mexico. Although some people do not regard Mexico as a Central American country – some say it is North American – most of the important naïve artists there are from southern Mexico and are influenced a lot by Aztec culture and traditions. Indeed, the entire region is impacted by the indigenous Native American cultures of each country – Aztec, Mayan and local Indian tribal cultures. So I thought it was appropriate to include Mexico because they just seemed to fit,” he says.
Asked whether there are any distinctive features about Central American naïve art, Chill thinks for a moment and replies, “I would say the distinction is in the local cultures reflected in their paintings. The naïve artist celebrates the human narrative. And that is different in each region and in each country. We see individual folkloristic traditions, coupled with individual country styles.”
Directing my attention to several paintings by Guatemalan Lorenzo Cruz of market scenes depicted at bird’seye view, and rear-view paintings of women weaving or carrying flowers to market, Chill says, “This is definitely Guatemalan naïve art. If you see paintings like these, you can always know they’re from Guatemala. It is simply impossible to be from any other country. There is a Central American culture, but within the region there are specific country cultures you can easily identify.”
There are, however, certain features that all of the paintings in the exhibition have in common. One is the obvious impact of Spanish culture that all of these countries share, overlaying the native Indian local traditions.
Says Chill, “Spanish conquistadors came and were followed by Spanish Catholic missionaries, who in turn were followed by Spanish settlers. They came to these places hundreds of years ago, and their stamp deeply impacted the local cultures as well. And we see these influences reflected in the work of the local naïve artists.”
AND, LIKE naïve art in general, the paintings in this show almost seem to explode off the walls with vivid plays of color, and with evident happiness. The 35 artists whose works appear here paint their world not as it actually is, but rather in ways they would like it to be.
The images are idealized and always positive, with no attempt to depict these villages as they actually are.
“No one is smoking a cigarette. No one is fighting in the streets. No drugs are being bought, sold or used. Everything is very nice,” says Chill.
There is no hint of the oppressive poverty, violence or political unrest that are driving so many citizens of these countries to seek refuge in the United States. And finally, there is a refreshing lack of either irony or condescension.
The naïve artists are themselves naïve, and are thus not sharing some sort of joke with the viewer about the people in their paintings. Each of the 121 paintings in Land of Our Love depicts a place that most of us would like to live in, inhabited by joyful people we would love to live with.
The exhibition opened on October 22 with a short gallery talk by Salvadoran naïve artist Fausto Perez.
Aged 52, he came with his mother, who was eager to visit “The Holy Land.”
Chill explains, “The reason that Fausto was chosen to give the gallery talk is that in addition to being GINA Gallery’s star artist – his paintings have been the most popular among Central American artists throughout the 11 years of our existence – he is also considered by most people who know naïve art to be the leading naïve artist of Central America.”
Following a brief overview of his life and oeuvre, Perez set a canvas on an easel, arranged his oil paints and brushes, and proceeded to demonstrate how he paints. And as he painted, I asked Perez when did he know that he wanted to be an artist. He answered by showing me drawings in pencil and crayons from when he was six years old.
Asked what he would do if for some reason he could no longer be an artist, he replied, “That’s very hard to answer, because I have never found any other profession that could satisfy me as much as being an artist. I have no idea what else I would do.”
Aware that he had studied a bit of art as well as having inspired a few protégés in the past, I asked whether naïve art can in any way be taught.
“That’s a good question,” he replies, with a smile.
“Yes, one can learn to do this, by being around a naïve artist, watching how he works, by being around a lot of naïve art and getting inspiration from what one sees. I can teach someone about the theory I can give him inspiration.
But everyone finds his own technique. That part can’t really be taught.”
As Perez begins to put the finishing touches on his new painting, I stand a short distance away, contemplating one of his other works in the exhibition, entitled Off to Market, in which a little green bus that looks almost like a toy rolls through a tiny, charming village surrounded by very green trees, very colorful flowers, under a very blue sky.
I am joined by El Salvador Ambassador Suzana Hasenson, who studies the painting and says, “You know, El Salvador really doesn’t look like this.”
She then smiles and after a pause adds, “But it does sort of feel like this.”
Land of Our Love: The Naïves of Central America is showing until December 26 at GINA Gallery, 255 Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv.
For further information, call (03) 544-4150 or visit