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Black Heritage

Panama’s history has deep black roots and Panamanians manifest their blackness in various and not-always-conscious ways. The exhibition “The Rebels: (In)divisible Tradition” at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Panama, which runs through June 17, highlights, in a single space, the influence of black culture on literature, music, design, visual arts, festivals, rituals, and countless other cultural practices. It is also an opportunity to walk the streets of the city in search of these roots.

By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Javier Pinzón, Cortesía Gabriel Guandique, MAC Panamá

The journey of Panamanian curator, journalist, and art critic Adrienne Samos, which culminated in the exhibition “Los Rebeldes: la tradición in(di)visible,” began when the great painter Julio Zachrisson, also Panamanian, pointed out that her most recent book, Divorcio a la panameña, had neglected one important Panamanian artistic tradition: black art.

Divorcio a la panameña, published in January 2017, represents a decade (1993-2002) of essays Samos wrote for Talingo, a supplement of the Panamanian daily La Prensa. In these essays, she honed her skills as a critic by exploring different artistic manifestations from around the world. The anthology narrates Panamanian art’s departure, from 1990 to 2000, from what Samos defines as “a kind of escapism” and its shift toward art more closely linked to local realities.

This change is rooted in two fundamental historical facts: the U.S. invasion of Panama in December 1989 and the return of Canal territory and administration to the Panamanian State in 1999.

“The arts tend to reflect reality. Panama’s formerly escapist, academic pictorial art shifted toward contemporary art, with manifestations closely linked to events in other parts of the world and in Panama,” explains the critic. There were exceptions, she adds, but the shift is noticeable: “Young artists emerged and began to observe the city, the chaos, the difficulties…”

It was then that Zachrisson, ninety years old and having lived in Madrid for decades, told her she needed to analyze Panamanian art from the popular perspective, specifically from the perspective of its African heritage. “There’s this very elitist way of seeing art,” says Samos, “and deciding who should be in museums. We’ve turned our backs on all other creative manifestations, which Zachrisson labeled the ‘rebellious tradition’.”

“The Rebels: (In)divisible Tradition” aims to show the richness of both “cultured” (sculpture, painting, literature) and “popular” Afro-Panamanian art, which influences artistic “geniuses” but is best manifested on the streets, in neighborhoods, and in the city, although we rarely stop to think about it. As established in the exhibition’s premise, collective or community creation “is often labeled as craft, folklore, or mere entertainment,” thus creating a division –basically discrimination– between the art of the people and the “masterpieces” recognized by Western art.

Banda Internacional El Hogar inaugurated the “Los Rebeldes” exhibition with a concert featuring the music of this group which, for more than 65 years, has embodied Panamanians’ special relationship with their “patriotic celebrations” held every November. La Banda is recognized for its rhythms, the way the group moves, and its uniforms –created by a tailor and a dressmaker– but also because the band’s members are part of Panama’s popular social fabric.

And, just as the opening ceremony featured La Banda in an example of the popular conquering the Museum of Contemporary Art, a space traditionally used to exhibit “cultured” art, the exhibition dedicates an entire room to music with notably black roots. It highlights calypso, closely linked to the Caribbean provinces of Bocas del Toro and Colón and also found in neighborhoods in Panama City such as Río Abajo and El Chorrillo, which were heavily populated by Afro-Caribbean immigrants during construction of the Transístmico (mid-nineteenth century) and the Canal (early of the twentieth century). There is also bullerengue music from Darien and congo music from Colón, rooted in Panama’s colonial history and the thousands of Africans torn from their native land and enslaved in America and reggae, plena, cumbia, and the music of the national combos, all more recent musical manifestations that continue to tell stories of community experiences.

“An important part of the exhibition is dedicated to Colón,” says Samos, given the fiction, poetry, and music, in both English and Spanish, that came out of this city located just an hour from Panama City. These works narrate the stories of the Afro-Antilleans who arrived in the territory that was baptized Colón and reserved for the Atlantic terminal of the Panama Railroad, which still operates along the route established in 1850. “Colón is one of the exhibition’s important protagonists because it’s a kind of ‘cursed’ city,” says Samos. Given the city’s economic and social particularities, and its black population, “the city has experienced booms and excesses throughout its history,” only to end up in the profound, palpable crises it currently faces.

“Los Rebeldes: la tradición in(di)visible” opened on May 3 and continues through June 17, 2018. Activities planned for this month include a discussion of Panama’s mobile discos, renowned during the 80s; screenings of two documentaries, Los fabulosos Crooners (about a black vocal group from the former Canal Zone) and Megabanda (an exploration of Panama’s drum, bugle, and lyre band culture); a performance by Los Indios de Pueblo Nuevo, a carnival group from neighborhoods inside Panama City and Colón that formed after the government banned the traditional “resbaloso” carnival figure; and a roundtable discussion of the role of carnival face paint as a manifestation of the cultural heritage of the “cimarrones” (escaped black slaves) and therefore censored by those in power.

The ultimate goal is to recognize the Afro-descendant art and heritage present in everyday life throughout this territory called Panama. As Samos emphasizes, “Panamanian culture needs to re-evaluate itself and consciously re-Africanize” in order to finish constructing an identity that is, indivisibly, linked to blackness.