Skip to content.
Cordry Internship 2004-2005

Cordry Internship 2004-2005

The Chorotega Revival Folk Art Movement Contemporary Costa Rican Ceramics

Photo Gallery


San Vicente de Nicoya, Costa Rica (Map based on Weil, 1995. "Changing Sources of Livelihood From the Earth and Sea in Northwestern Costa Rica.")

The earthenware artisans of San Vicente de Nicoya, a rural village in the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica, sustain a pottery industry that is partially inherited from local traditions but which has greatly developed over the past three decades, hand-in-hand with a rise in tourism. The contemporary folk art ceramics are produced with locally extracted raw materials, techniques passed down and polished through generations, and a style and motifs influenced by the pre-Columbian art of the region, commonly known as "Chorotega." The term "Chorotega" is employed in archaeological accounts to refer to a society that emigrated from Mexico to northwestern Costa Rica after 800 CE, and which imbued local art with Mesoamerican symbolism. Although the term is not used so broadly in scientific discourse, the men and women of San Vicente commonly describe their work as "Chorotega folk art." The contemporary Chorotega ceramics have evolved aesthetically over the past three decades as individual artisans instill their own sense of beauty in their work, learn from the innovations of others, and discern the preferences of tourists, middlemen and collectors. "Chorotega Revival" describes the contemporary ceramics as an art form that is based on an ancient tradition, but that is renewed according to current individual, communal and market aesthetics.

Genres and Folk Terms

"Chorotega Revival" is an umbrella term for a wide array of compositions and decorations that the artisans utilize according to personal and market tastes, and influences from the past and present. The San Vicente potters recognize four discrete ceramic types that fit within the general Chorotega Revival Folk Art Movement. Those are: Replicas, Chorotega Motifs, Ecological Motifs, and Traditional Ceramics. To an art historian, these are the genres that constitute the art movement. To many ethnographers, they are the folk terms (a term used within a specific culture and understood by everyone within that culture) that fit into the cultural theme of Chorotega folk art.

"Replicas" refer to ceramic vessels and figurines that are based—to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy—on a pre-Columbian model, usually with Mesoamerican iconography. In the photo to the right, Mauricio Grijalba Villarreal works on a replica of a Pataky Polychrome style vase (an archeological classification). The replica depicts abstract monkeys and rope-like patterns on horizontal bands around the width of the vessel. The intertwining rope bands are highly stylized plumed serpents, a decisively Mesoamerican deity that is also known as 'Quetzalcoatl.'

"Chorotega Motifs" refer to ceramics and their designs that mix-and-match different archeological vessel types or use ancient iconography on ceramic shapes of the artisans' own invention. At left, Luis Fernando Sánchez Grijalba shapes the rim of a Santiago Appliqué style vessel (originally produced in the Guanacaste area between 800 BCE and 800 CE), while his mother, Maribel Sánchez Grijalba, shapes monkeys drawn from her own imagination on the vessel's legs. After the clay hardens, another artisan will paint and engrave designs around the neck in a style that derives from the decoration found on yet another pre-Hispanic vessel type.

"Traditional Ceramics" were the norm when pottery was mostly produced for household use, but they continue to be manufactured today for a smaller market of collectors interested in simpler designs and a rustic or rural aesthetic. Like Zoraida Grijalba Villafuerte, seen at left, traditional potters tend to be older and usually women, having learned their craft before the rise of tourism and when it was taboo for men to manufacture ceramics. But even traditional ceramics have been modified by market demands; for example, tourists often cannot transport a full-sized tinaja, and because the purchased ceramics are not intended for practical usage, they often buy a miniature version instead. In other cases, super-sized tinajas serve as architectural decorations in hotels, resorts and restaurants.

Aaron Johnson-Ortiz, Cordry Intern 2004-2005

The 2004-2005 Cordry Internship was granted to Aaron Johnson-Ortiz, a junior at Macalester College and a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow. As the 2004-2005 Cordry Intern, Aaron undertook a three-month ethnographic fieldwork project in San Vicente de Nicoya, beginning in late December of 2004. Aaron collected ceramics, interviewed artisans, participated in village work and activities, and carried out an extensive photographic documentation project. He photographed the extraction of raw materials, the processes of pottery manufacture, and the ceramic styles and influences. Above, Aaron was caught on film while photographing Maribel Sánchez Grijalba at work.