by Michael Miller
Galería Namu, One of the Great Treasures of Downtown San José
“I opened this gallery in 1998 because I loved folk art.” said Aisling French, the owner of Galería Namu, a Downtown San José landmark. “I knew next to nothing about Costa Rica’s indigenous tribes or indigenous art.”
Standing in the middle of Galería Namu, surrounded by hundreds of amazing pieces of art, and listening to Aisling talk to visitors today, it is obvious that she has learned volumes in the last 18 years. And it is also obvious that she loves what she does.
Within a few minutes, Aisling gives visitors an overview of the 8 indigenous tribes of Costa Rica, and a couple of tribes from neighboring Central American countries. All those tribes have unique artistic traditions, and all of them are represented at Galería Namu.
Galería Namu is quite simply, one of the great treasures of Downtown San José. (The name “Namu” comes from the Bribri word for the jaguar, a sacred animal to many of the tribes.) The Galería is located immediately behind the Holiday Inn tower, in historic Barrio Amon. This small, and bursting-at-the-seams, shop is the premier destination for anyone looking for Costa Rican tribal or folk art.
Aisling points out that this is the only shop in all of Costa Rica where art work from all the indigenous tribes, as well as folk art, is available under one roof.
Aisling French, the gregarious founder and owner of the gallery, is a long-time resident of Costa Rica, originally from Ireland by way of Canada and the U. S. She tells us that many people come into the gallery “just to look,” and that is fine with her. “I love to talk about the art here, and quite honestly, I love to teach.”
Aisling’s second-in-command is Conall French, her son. Conall has studied anthropology and has lived with the Wounaans and other indigenous tribes. He has a background in fine arts and museum studies, and has been instrumental in directing the Galeria’s focus to include art from the region’s native tribes.
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 birds, frogs and flowers that the Brunca tribesmen find in the tropical forests.
In addition, you will also see more ferocious ceremonial masks, designed to scare the daylights out of you, that might include images of snakes and demons. Some of these ceremonial masks have actually been used in the tribe’s annual Dance of the Little Devils, and are prized by collectors.
Another popular display are the woven plates and baskets from the Wounaan Tribe of Panama. These fine pieces are the results of an ancient weaving tradition, passed down through the generations of 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.
Perhaps the most exquisite collection in the Galería are the carved “tagua nuts.” These nuts, sometimes as big as softballs, 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.”)
Once hardened, the tagua nuts can be sculpted and painted with natural dyes. In the hands of the talented Wounaan artists, they create an astonishing variety of finished pieces depicting the birds, the flowers, the butterflies, the monkeys, the frogs and other plants and animals of the jungle.
Visitors to Costa Rica, and expats who live here, often look for gifts or souvenirs that represent a bit of the beauty of the country. You can wander into a souvenir shop and find everything from beach towels to coffee mugs to shot glasses. Many of these items are mass-produced in the Far East.
There is nothing wrong with getting a coffee mug or other tourist items, but if you want something that is actually from Costa Rica, and truly representative of the history, the culture and the beauty of Costa Rica, you should visit Galería Namu.
And Aisling is quick to point out two facts that she considers very important: First, when you buy something from Galería Namu, you can be assured that it is authentic. Aisling and Conall buy each of these pieces directly from the artists of each of the indigenous tribes, and they provide buyers with written (and often photographic) documentation of the authenticity of each piece.
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 it up front. “We don’t take things on consignment,” says Aisling. “We buy them. We pay the artist when we pick 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, that they will not be cheated, and they reserve their best work for Galería Namu.
Perhaps the best reason to visit Galería Namu is that you will learn a great deal about this beautiful country. Both Aisling and Conall are always pleased to show off their Galería. They have both developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the tribes and their art, and the traditions behind each of the pieces.
You can start by visiting their website. Click here: galerianamu.com
To visit Galería Namu in person, you will find it on Avenida 7 and Calle 5. That puts it directly behind the Holiday Inn tower in Downtown San José. The Galería is open Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and on Sundays during the high season.
No compensation was asked for, nor was any received, in exchange for writing this article.
Michael Miller is the author of the first and only guide book that focuses on Downtown San José, Costa Rica, titled The Real San José. Paperback copies are available for sale at selected retail outlets in San José. An electronic version of The Real San José is available at Amazon/Kindle. To access it, click here.