As we drive into San Nicholaas, the second town of Aruba, the morning’s already hot but nothing much is stirring. The building by which we park, with shutters pulled down against the sun, looks just like any other. Just like any other, that is, except for the striking eyes and Amerindian face staring out from above the entrance with swirling peacock feathers for hair.
We’ve arrived at the Artisa gallery and headquarters of Aruba Art Fair where we’ve come for a painting workshop with local artist Vanessa Paulina. We find Vanessa busy painting a mural on the walls of a local shop, which is yet to be finished. A string of Indian beads like those that would have been traded by the first inhabitants of Aruba, is ornamented with African masks, Indian faces and the head of the Spanish queen who funded Christopher Columbus to adventure here. Vanessa tells me how the beads represent a circle of life that connects us all, from the native Indians, the colonists and traders, to the artists of today.
She’s a well known artist on Aruba, with paintings on exhibition in the Historical Museum at Fort Zoutman and plenty of experience of community street-art projects, from her time studying and living in the Netherlands. The mural has been commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and as we walk around we realise that it’s only the latest in a street-art gallery that covers the buildings of San Nicholaas. This may be the Caribbean, but it’s an unexpected contrast to the white sand beaches and palm leaf beach umbrellas that you’ll find elsewhere on the island.
By comparison with the bustling shopping malls of Oranjestad, packed with cruise visitors, San Nicholaas feels sleepy and somewhat down-at heel. When the oil refinary closed in 2009, people and jobs moved away from the town and there was little to bring tourists here unless they were driving to the popular Baby Beach nearby. But since the Aruba Art Fair took place in September 2016, there’s a new reason to visit this quiet corner of Aruba, and that’s the Street Art.
Art Fair organiser, Tito Bolivar, told me how he’d come up with the idea after a trip to Colombia when he’d seen so much amazing art on the streets of Bogota. “I came back to the island and thought – why not here?” he told me, and in less than a year the project took shape, with the first Aruba Art Fair being held in September 2016.
One of the first international street-artists that Tito invited to be part of the project was Bordalo II from Portugal, who is known for recycling rubbish to create his large scale “Trash Animal” pieces. To create the iguana that we saw clinging to the side of the building in San Nicholaas, the team drove around the island, picking over car wrecks, scrap metal and rubbish washed up on the beach.
Next on board with the project was Leon Keer of the Netherlands who is known for his surrealist pieces. In a disused building next to the old customs house, he painted the 3D cardboard ‘Pan’ box, which would normally contain a well known brand of corn meal from nearby Venezuela. The custom house doorways on either side of it are a reference to the large numbers of Venezuelans who arrive on Aruba for economic reasons, since the mainland is only 500 miles away – watch the video here.
As we circled the side streets around the gallery we found striking murals covering the buildings wherever we looked. In the parking lot, was a piece by Bond Truluv of Germany, which he painted when he arrived as a ‘tryout’ piece, and then went on to create a large dolphin, next to the “Daddy Cool” mural by Amsterdam Streetart. My favourite murals were the colourful carnival-like faces of a man and woman by Guache from Colombia which covered the entire height of a building.
As Tito gave me an impromptu tour, he told me how his initial idea for an art fair expanded to eventually include seven different art related projects. Before the main art fair there was a culinary competition with a twist, in which six teams from Aruba’s cookery schools, each headed by an executive chef, were tasked to create a new desert inspired by canvases from local artists. There was an auction dinner and a fashion show to showcase the work of local and international designers, as well as video interviews of local artists filmed by Conocemi, an Aruban TV show.
During the art fair itself, Tito was able to enlist the support of Aruba’s Ministries of Culture and Tourism as well as sponsorship from Aruba’s banks and business community, so that the artists themselves could sell their artwork in outdoor galleries without any charge. Several empty buildings were loaned so that Aruban art organisations could hold their own exhibitions as part of the show and provide a space for more established contemporary artists.
Tito’s mother and co-organiser Diana Croe showed me the mosaic benches around the town that had been created as part of a community project with different groups contributing the designs. The work is planned to continue with more benches and canvas sun shades which will be painted in bright colours.
Despite the success of the Aruba Art Fair, which is now established as a regular event, Tito has plenty more plans in the pipeline. His hope is to use the Art Fair and other projects to infuse art into the local community on Aruba, and he told me “I’m not an artist myself, but I feel it’s important to make a change. I see a lot of talent, and beautiful art, I want to start tapping into that talent and pushing those artists forward.” Next on the agenda is to establish a website and mobile app for the Artisa (standing for Art Is Aruba) organisation which will give information about the artists and artisans on Aruba, so that they can be more easily found.
With so much creative energy on Aruba it seems sure that this year’s Aruba Art Fair will be even bigger and better. Last year the Aruba Art Fair was held in mid September 2016, so look out for announcements of the next date on the Aruba Art Fair website and social channels: Twitter| Instagram | Facebook. For an alternative taste of the Caribbean on Aruba, head to San Nicholaas for a walk around the streets to see all the murals and call in at the Artisa HQ and gallery at Theaterstraat 20, San Nicolaas, Aruba.
San Nicholaas is around 30 mins drive from Oranjestad at the south-east end of the island and buses run several times an hour. A morning seeing the street-art could happily be combined with lunch at the quirky Charlie’s Bar, and a relaxing afternoon on nearby Baby Beach.
Where to Stay on Aruba
During my week in Aruba, I stayed at the Amsterdam Manor Beach Resort, a delightful hotel that’s just across the road from Eagle Beach. The hotel is family owned and was built 25 years ago in traditional style with Dutch gables, painted in the warm yellow that you see everywhere on Aruban buildings. I was extremely comfortable, sharing a suite with two bedrooms and a first floor balcony looking towards the sea, furnished in traditional Caribbean style with dark wood furniture, brightly coloured walls and citrus shades of lime, lemon and tangerine.
The outside areas of the hotel were beautifully maintained with paved areas, trees and immaculate planting, with a welcoming pool area and the shady Mango restaurant, where we had breakfast. The hotel is ideal for couples who want to relax by the pool or on the beach, while having a well located base for exploring Oranjestad and all the other sights of Aruba.
The staff could not have been more friendly and helpful and they even have a dedicated Romance Co-ordinator to help you organise your beach wedding or celebration event. The Fofoti trees opposite the hotel are a favourite for wedding photos and the Passions on the Beach restaurant where we ate one evening is an incredibly romantic setting to have a cocktail and dinner as the sun sets over the ocean.
Visitor Information for Aruba
Thanks to Aruba Tourism for hosting my week’s stay in Aruba to discover the island.
More articles from Aruba
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