Curação: The Island That Heals Through Art
Updated: May 15
"we saw older residents just sitting out in the streets in their garden chairs admiring the works in their own personal art galleries..."
“DUSHI,” we were greeted in huge red letters, twice the height of a person as we stepped out of our hire car in Wilhelmina Park in the centre of Willemstad, Curação’s paint-splashed capital.
“Dushi” means ‘sweet’ or ‘cute’ in the Portuguese creole, papiamento, that is one of Curação’s four languages. They also speak Dutch, English and Spanish. It most likely originates from the Spanish ‘dulce’ or Portuguese ‘doce,’ which means sweet. But here it is a commonly used word that is applied to everything - people, food, a state of being. Even Curação itself. They even introduced an awareness campaign back in 2017 called Kòrsou Ta Dushi to increase civic pride. Kòrsou is Papiamento for ‘Curação’. It basically means all the great things about being from Curação.
And to be honest, I can’t really argue with them. Willemstad is certainly the most colourful city I’ve ever been to. I’d heard about the Handelskade, the row of tall waterfront buildings so quintessentially Dutch in style. They overlook Sint Anna Bay with the swinging Queen Emma Bridge uniting the two sides of the city.
To our surprise the bridge swings outwards over the water to let boats pass through, rather than being raised upwards like most we have seen. Even more unexpected is that people are allowed to stay on the bridge while this is happening! The bridge is known as ‘the Swinging Old Lady.’
But what I didn’t realise, was that the picturesque Handelskade is just the tip of the iceberg. They are paint crazy here! You can walk far into the backstreets and every house is immaculately painted in a pastel or bright hue. Even abandoned buildings somehow have every last shred of stucco painted. The rest of the building might be in the sea, or collapsed in a pile of rubble, but the stucco is brightly painted.
How is this? Lots of the buildings across the Caribbean are brightly coloured, but it has to be said that due to the harsh sun and salt air, they tend to fade and peel pretty quickly.
The legend goes that the colours started in 1817 when a governor complained of headaches from the gleaming white limewashed buildings. Ever since then it’s become tradition. We were so impressed that we asked around if it’s actually a law for people to paint their houses like this and were told no, it’s just custom.
Presumably social pressure plays a role, it becomes antisocial not to do it - a bit like not having a messy garden. We also learned that they have parties every few months called Kayakaya where they clean up their streets, paint them and celebrate their cultural diversity through music, street art, food and dancing. What an incredible example of community cohesion that is.
Because it’s not just house painting, the street art is unreal - and everywhere; back streets, steps, historic buildings, constructed above your head. Murals, sculptures and innovative upcycling of rubbish.
As we wandered about in awe, we saw older residents just sitting out in the streets in their garden chairs admiring the works in their own personal art galleries. We’ve never been anywhere like it.
The word Curação may come from the Portuguese verb curar, meaning ‘to heal.’ Legend has it that the Portuguese brought their sailors here to recover from scurvy. Thus Curação effectively came to mean ‘healing island’. Nowadays the island restores our spirits through colour therapy.
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