By Ernesto Cardenal
Photos by the youth of Solentiname under the guidance of Tiago Genoveze
I became a priest in order to found a small contemplative community on an island in the archipelago of Solentiname in Lake Nicaragua. In the twelve and a half years that we maintained our small community in Solentiname we received a great many visitors, from Nicaragua and abroad. Sometimes there were so many that we regretted not to be able to host ; then, in the distance, we would see others arriving at our small dock with their luggage and backpacks. There were even times when they arrived in Solentiname without even passing through the capital of Managua: traveling to Costa Rica and entering Lake Nicaragua via the Rio San Juan.
There are also a great number of people (besides myself) who have written about Solentiname. And as I have said many times: Solentiname has been made into a sort of myth. Our accomplishments there and the experiences that took place there were not as important as they have often been portrayed. It was all actually quite modest.
The book The Gospel According to Solentiname –-composed of commentaries on the Gospel made by campesinos together with me, and also with many visitors’ participation–-is what has most contributed to Solentiname’s recognition throughout the world. Some of the commentaries were so good that I decided to capture them on a tape recorder and publish them later in a book. The book has gone through a great many editions and has been translated into many languages, including Japanese, Filipino and Korean. Commenting on the Gospel collectively, the way it was done in Solentiname, was later replicated in other places, especially in Protestant parishes in the United States (where once I was invited to teach this practice to a community). It was a Spanish priest who visited us in Solentiname who taught me how he did it in a poor neighborhood in Managua, and he had learned it from a Panamanian priest who had learned the practice from a priest from Chicago.
One cannot deny the importance of some of Solentiname’s other successes, but they were mostly consequences of others’ efforts rather than my own. The primitivist paintings of Solentiname’s campesinos began when the painter Pérez de la Rocha and I gave paper and colored pencils to a peasant, then canvas, paintbrushes and oil paint, and he created the first paintings. That is the origin of the great quantity of Solentiname’s painters, whose works have become famous and influential throughout all of Nicaragua.
The handicrafts made from balsa wood, which have also contributed to Solentiname’s fame, began with a 13-year-old campesino boy named , a son of a day laborer who occasionally worked alongside his father as a day laborer himself. began carving miniature figures into the soft and light balsa wood using a razor blade, after having seen some of my wooden sculptures. The figures he made were influenced by mine, which are modern stylistically, though his were naïve, primitive and very charming. I offered him money for each sculpture he made; seeing this, other campesinos began bringing me their own balsa wood figures (fish, herons, armadillos, squirrels, turtles), which I paid for as well. That’s how the famed handicraft that has become so abundant in Solentiname began; and it too has borne its influence in other parts of Nicaragua.
Solentiname has also produced great campesino poetry, which has been published in several places and translated to other languages. The emergence of this poetry was purely coincidental. Upon visiting Solentiname, the Costa Rican writer Mayra Jiménez realized that the campesinos were not familiar with my poetry. I had never presented it to them because I thought they would not understand it, and most of them were not even aware that I was a poet (and even the word “poet” would not mean very much to them). Mayra Jiménez had already taught poetry workshops to children and decided to organize a workshop for the local campesinos with the objective of presenting some of my poetry, as well as poetry written by some other Nicaraguan authors, and even of stimulating them to create their own poems. She fulfilled the objectives of her workshop and, most importantly, ignited the production of Solentiname’s own campesino poetry.
I have often referred to these four achievements as “miracles” because they happened unexpectedly, without my ever having planned them at all. Now we may talk about a fifth miracle: the photography made by the children of Solentiname; which is also something I have had no participation in. “Solentiname Reflected” has a very singular story: a 23-year-old Brazilian studying in the United States decided to go to Solentiname and distribute cameras to the campesino children so that they could make their own pictures.
He knew practically nothing about Solentiname before his journey. Dissatisfied with his overly comfortable life at Boston University, he yearned for an adventure, something that could give his life more meaning. It was at this moment that he was moved by a documentary he had seen called Born into Brothels, which related the story of a photographer who moved to Calcutta to document the prostitutes of the red-light district; as she worked, she built friendships among the prostitutes’ children and began teaching them photography. The children’s pictures were exhibited and well received. Upon watching the film, Tiago, the young photographer, felt as though he had found the direction he had so eagerly been seeking: teach photography workshops to children who had never before touched a camera.
It was also during this time that he recalled an essay he had written in one of his literature classes in which he analyzed my poem “Apocalypse” as well as Julio short story “Apocalypse at Solentiname”. short story caught his attention because of its connection with photography and with Solentiname, and that’s when he discovered that I was one of the story’s characters. Before that moment, however, he had never read about me; and he had never heard of Solentiname. He also did not know a thing about Nicaragua, though, over time, he began to learn about the revolution, liberation theology and Solentiname. According to him, he had never imagined that my poem and that short story would take him to Solentiname. Later, however, as he learned more about the islands, he decided that was where he wanted to initiate his project. He made some contacts on the Internet and, three months later, arrived on our dock with his cameras.
The cameras, donated by friends and acquaintances, were used and a bit outdated, but in perfect working order. A $1,000 donation made by a friend from New York allowed for the purchase of several new cameras as well. Tiago agrees with me that this experiment was about democratizing art and technology. “Besides teaching some basic concepts and principles,” he says, “all I had to do was put the cameras in their hands.”
The children reacted with great enthusiasm and curiosity. For the vast majority of them, it was the first time they had touched a camera. Up until then, cameras had been something only foreigners and tourists used.
To Tiago’s surprise, despite the islands’ excessive humidity and tropical climate, despite the daily use of the cameras and the children’s manner of handling them—running, jumping and playing everywhere they went—, only one camera was damaged over the year-long experiment, and it was not due to the operator’s carelessness. When Tiago arrived, several people predicted that the cameras would not last long because the kids would either break them or steal them. Neither thing happened. In spite of their boisterous nature, the kids took care of the cameras as if they actually belonged to them.
Tiago taught them how to use the cameras’ basic functions and gave them 45 minutes to take pictures. He observed that upon receiving the cameras everyone did the same thing: they stepped outside and began inspecting the world around them as though they had never seen it before--and all because they now had a camera in their hands. “I was deeply impressed by this,” he says, “and I took it as proof that despite our familiarity with our environment, we must study it in order to photograph it, which can lead us to an elevated state of observation that allows us to see things that were invisible to us before the camera was in our grasp.”
These pictures have, according to Tiago, a singular documentary and artistic value. They compose a collective panorama of the archipelago as seen from within. The children with cameras in hand were like mirrors of their own reality, in which reality there are surely few mirrors, often small and stowed away, within the poor houses. The kids were itinerant mirrors, says Tiago. They took pictures everywhere they went and showed them to everyone who happened to be nearby.
Another value of these pictures—also according to Tiago—is the sheer multiplicity of perspectives and representation of diverse realities of local life, resulting in a demystification of Solentiname. “These pictures,” he tells me, “reveal the everyday Solentiname as it is now, which is very different from what can be read about it in books and from the Solentiname that you founded. For the first time we are able to see Solentiname’s real protagonists as portrayed by themselves.”
Tiago would organize photographic critique sessions once a month or every two months. The purpose was to look through a selection of recent pictures and talk about them in order to sharpen the participants’ senses. At first, the children had difficulty in expressing themselves. Ultimately, after prolonged silences, somebody would dare say that a picture was pretty or ugly, but they couldn’t say why.
The children were also receiving reading classes where books were not only read but also discussed in groups; writing exercises were assigned as well. Tiago taught the photography workshops as a follow-up activity, and one could only participate if one had attended the preceding reading workshop, which motivated the children to attend both.
The kids’ enthusiasm and participation in the project revealed their love for photography. They walked about happily with their cameras, taking pictures of everything in their paths, reviewing them on the screens, and then showing the images to their parents, grandparents, cousins, neighbors and friends.
On certain workshops he would say that he only wanted to see portraits, or landscapes, or that the kids should try to get as close to their subjects as possible; but most of the time he would give them the liberty to photograph whatever they wanted. And that is how some of the most interesting pictures were made. The children had to return the cameras as soon as sessions were over, though sometimes they kept their cameras for a whole day in order to experiment with night photography.
This was not about training the kids to be professional photographers. What Tiago wanted was for the children to have fun with a new manner of self-expression. He says that the children’s pictures changed his relationship with photography. Their images made him look at his own work in a different light. While the kids shot in a completely spontaneous manner, Tiago photographed according to the instructions received throughout his formal education. By immersing himself in his studies he had forgotten about the beauty of photographing spontaneously, without rules or esthetic principles.
Tiago—whom I met just as he was finishing his project—also reflects upon how a few works of art led him to a practically forgotten corner of the planet, completely changing his life as well as influencing the lives of the residents of Solentiname. There’s an important lesson for him here: we must keep ourselves sensitive to the changes that any artistic medium can instigate within us. Art should not only be appreciated esthetically or intellectually; it should lead us to action, to work for the benefit of others.
This is what has led him to share his project with others in the book, “Solentiname Reflected.” Who knows, he says, if the book will also help to determine a future reader’s path.
For me, this has been the fifth miracle of Solentiname.
Ernesto Cardenal (1925) is a Nicaraguan priest, poet, and sculptor who founded his contemplative community in Solentiname in 1966. His work has been translated to more than 20 languages. He was Culture Minister of Nicaragua from 1979-1987. This article was translated by Tiago , revised by Dennis Costa, and adapted by June Carolyn .