By Michael Miller
An exquisite selection of rainforest images carved from the tagua nut, also known as “vegetable ivory,” or "palm ivory."
Galería Namu, 2024 Update of a Costa Rican Treasure
by Michael Miller
I am often asked by visitors and by North American expats, “Where can I get something beautiful for my home that truly represents Costa Rica?” This question comes from people who are definitely NOT interested in the run-of-the-mill tourist items that can be found in souvenir shops all over San José.
Not that there is anything wrong with Costa Rican beach towels, Costa Rican coffee mugs, and Costa Rican baseball caps, most of which are mass-produced in the Far East. However, if you want something that is really from Costa Rica, something that is truly representative of the history, the culture and the beauty of Costa Rica, you should visit Galería Namu.
Galería Namu is quite simply, one of the great treasures of Downtown San José. It is an art gallery and an art shop that specializes in works of art from the indigenous tribes of the region, as well as Afro-Caribbean folk art. It is the only shop in all of Costa Rica that features pieces of art from each of the 8 indigenous tribes that have survived in Costa Rica.
Founder of Galería Namu, Aisling French, and her son, Conall French. Aisling has recently retired.
Galería Namu was founded in 1998 by Aisling French. Originally from Ireland, by way of Canada and the U.S., Aisling told us, “When I opened this gallery, I knew next to nothing about Costa Rica's indigenous tribes or tribal art.”
That soon changed. Aisling, along with her son and co-founder, Conall French, quickly became San José's foremost experts of indigenous art. Galería Namu was soon recognized as the place to go to find authentic works of art from Central American tribal artists, as well as serious folk art.
After 20 years, Aisling has retired and she now spends most of her time in her native Ireland. She left The Galería in the very capable hands of her son, Conall.
Conall French, a naturalized citizen of Costa Rica, was born in Quebec. He has studied anthropology, and has lived and worked with several of the region's indigenous tribes. He has studied at the prestigious Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has a background in fine arts and museum studies.
Balsa Wood masks are the signature work of the Brunca Tribe from the highlands of southern Costa Rica. These ceremonial masks. prized by collectors, are created to look frightening.
As you enter Galería Namu, you will be overwhelmed by the tremendous variety of art objects available. The first things that will capture your attention are the brilliantly colored balsa-wood masks that are the signature art pieces of the Brunca tribe from the highlands of southern Costa Rica. Some of these balsa-wood masks are gentle-looking decorative pieces featuring the birds, frogs and flowers that the Brunca tribesmen find in the tropical forests.
However, you will also see Brunca ceremonial masks that are very intense, powerful pieces that might include images of snakes and demons. These ceremonial masks are designed to scare the daylights out of you. Some of these masks have actually been used in the tribe's annual Dance of the Little Devils, and are prized by collectors.
Woven plates, bowls and baskets, some of them collector's items, are from the Emberá and Wounaan Tribes of Panama. They are representative of a highly skilled weaving tradition that has been passed down for generations.
Another popular collection are the woven plates, bowls and baskets from the Emberá and Wounaan Tribes of Panama. These fine pieces are the results of an ancient weaving tradition, passed down through the generations among this remote rainforest people. The artists use split palm fronds, some of which are dyed with the colors derived from native fruits. The gifted weavers incorporate geometric designs and images of local flora and fauna.
For my tastes, I believe that the most exquisite collection in the Galería are the carved “tagua nuts.” These nuts, sometimes as big as baseballs, come from a palm tree that grows from Central America to the Amazon basin. The tagua nut is dried and polished and becomes as hard and white as elephant ivory. (Sometimes these nuts are referred to as “vegetable ivory” or “palm ivory.”)
Once hardened, the tagua nuts can be sculpted and inked with natural dyes by the men of the Emberá and Wounaan tribes. In the hands of the talented native artists, they create an astonishing variety of finished pieces that delicately depict the birds, the flowers, the butterflies, the monkeys, the frogs and other plants and animals of the rainforest.
These shelves exhibit traditional women's pottery from the Lenca tribe from Honduras.
Perhaps the best reason to visit Galería Namu is that you will learn a great deal about this beautiful part of the world. Even if you only want to look, you will always be welcomed. Conall is always pleased to show off the Galería. He has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the tribes and their art, and the traditions behind each of the pieces.
Conall is quick to point out two facts about The Galería that he considers very important: First, when you buy something from Galería Namu, you can be assured that it is authentic. He buys each piece of art directly from the artists of each of the indigenous tribes. He then provides buyers with written (and often photographic) documentation of the authenticity of each piece.
This exceptional looking pottery is from the Chorotega native group from the Guanacasta region of Costa Rica. The pieces are kiln-fired and polished to give it a glossy finish.
Second, the Galería practices “Fair Trade” with the artists. That means that the Galería pays the native artists directly for each work of art, and they pay for them up front. “We don't take things on consignment. We don't cheat these people.” says Conall. “We buy each work at the price fixed by the artists. We pay the artist when we pick up the pieces.”
Fair Trade is obviously a good deal for the artists. And many will point out that it is “the right thing to do.” But it also provides a big advantage for the Galería: The best artists know that they will be treated fairly and that they will not be cheated, so they reserve their best works for Galería Namu.
Splendid examples of Afro-Caribbean folk art are a growing part of the offerings at Galería Namu.
Galería Namu is truly a treasure in Dowtown San José and is well worth a visit. You can start learning about it by visiting their website: http://galerianamu.com
To visit Galería Namu in person, you will find it on Avenida 7 and Calle 5 in the historic district called Barrio Amon. That puts it directly behind the Holiday Inn tower in Downtown San José.
Conall French stands amid the rich collection of art pieces at Galería Namu. Conall is one of Costa Rica's foremost experts of the artistic traditions of the native tribes of the region.
Like so many businesses that rely on visitors for much of their income, Galería Namu was devastated by the covid virus and by the Costa Rican governement's over-reaction to it. Conall tells us that it was only because of the generosity of his landlord that The Galería was able to survive. (I would add, that it was also due to Conall's perseverence and his strength of will.)
As I write this, Galería Namu's hours of operation are:
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday: 12 noon to 6 p.m.
Saturday: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Everywhere you look in The Galería, you will find fascinating examples of tribal art and folk art.
With a little pre-planning, you can also visit The Galería at other times. Conall tells us that groups can contact him directly and arrange for an appointment to visit. You can reach Conall by email (email@example.com) or via his WhatsApp number: (506) 8800-9252.
Michael Miller is the author of the unique first-person guidebook that focuses on Downtown San José, titled: San José Costa Rica, A stroll through the “heart and soul” of Costa Rica's capital city. Copies are available at Amazon (both Kindle and paperback). In addition, paperback copies are also available at Galería Namu. To link to Michael Miller's Amazon Author Page, click here: tinyurl.com/8s8smmsy