Feathers, mirrored mosaics and a range of bright colors tell the story of Africans who escaped slavery and formed villages in the jungles of Panama, in Como se Cuenta el Cuento (How to Tell the Story), the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History's current exhibit.
Currently on view in the Robert and Sallie Brown Gallery and Museum, the show contains folk art, photography and mixed media altars by nine African-descended Panamanians.
Religious narratives that span the continents include angels, devils, wide-eyed mystics and the colors of the Panamanian jungle: vibrant bright greens, reds and blues. At first glance, it's not apparent which part of the art comes from Africa, which was influenced by the Spanish invaders of Panama or which came from the native Panamanians that the African newcomers encountered in the jungle. The straightforward painting of faces seems African, the attached shells could be part of the indigenous culture, and the photographs of Carnivale certainly must grow out of the Catholic celebrations that mark the beginning of Lent.
In the midst of the resonant paintings, the photography of Sandra Eleta, founder of Taller Portobelo (Spanish for "Studio Portobelo"), serves to place the art in the present. Her lens proves that the colorful garb depicted in the paintings is still in use today. Scenes from Carnivale and shots of artists at work are taken from perspectives that give the subjects the freedom to be themselves.
In the 1970s, Eleta opened her home in Portobelo to local artists, eventually forming a women's cooperative that exported fabric designs all over the world. Arturo Lindsay, an artist who has returned to his native Panama to help inspire current artists, strives to continue the tradition of spreading the word about the stories this art tells.
Lindsay's artwork tells a broader story via modern art. His mixed media wall sculptures are altars to both the African indigenous spirituality and the prisons that Africans have been trapped in.
In one of Lindsay's works, "Dr. Anderson, from the Wanted Series--Charleston," a fresh candle sits on a ledge in front of a shattered mirror and "Dr. Anderson" is jailed behind a tight row of bamboo. The temptation is to light the candle to better view his painted face, but this inclination is quickly dashed by the feeling that you might ruin the art--or unleash a room full of ancient spirits. Though Lindsay, an artist in residence at Davidson College, probably does not mean to scare viewers from the room, the voodoo imagery and psychic effect his geopolitical and social justice works illicit are chilling.
Lindsay--who remains one of the core artists at Taller Portobelo, in addition to teaching at Spelman College, maintaining a studio in Atlanta and exhibiting work internationally--draws his knowledge of modern art, in part, from his childhood spent in New York City. "Arturo Lindsay moved from Panama to New York City with his family at age 10," says exhibit coordinator Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum. "He remained connected to his roots and has become a leading art scholar and teacher of Congolese artists in Portobelo, Panama."
Joining Lindsay in Como se Cuenta is Ariel "Pajarito" Jimenez, whose emotional, less-schooled work may find a wider audience in North Carolina, where many art lovers are already versed in African-American folk art. Jimenez meticulously fills in his canvases with pointillist circles, while disregarding perspective, as so many narrative folks artists do. In "Congo Biajedo," he portrays a festive man in ceremonial headgear covered with the same type of broken mirrors that are mimicked in many of the paintings in the exhibit.
"Mirrors had both an armor and aesthetic function in the clothing of the Congo male warriors," explains Sunstrum. "On the men's hats, the mirrors are said to bring good luck and attract positive Gods. As armor, the mirrors could be used to throw off enemies and let fellow warriors know you were on their side from a long ways away.
"Arturo Lindsay uses the mirrors as a symbol of the African story. Once the story was whole, but now we only get fragments of the story. You can piece the bits together, but the mirror never becomes whole again."
Fahamu Pecou, the newest member of Taller, uses these mirrors as a delicate yet eerie replacement for eyes. His varied brushwork, expressionist backgrounds and use of bamboo are a direct link to Lindsay, but his subtle style may one day surpass Lindsay's frontal attacks if he applies his talents on a wide variety of subject matters.
Como se Cuenta el Cuento is worth your time for many reasons, from the gallery itself--which provides plenty of space to see the art--to the majestic Stone Center, an excellent addition to the architectural landscape of UNC-Chapel Hill. But most importantly may be that viewers will be a part of an exceptional event: an opportunity to experience a living, breathing culture with a proud and visual history.
Como se Cuenta el Cuento (How to Tell the Story): Tradition of Change on the Congo Coast of Panama: An exhibition of the Congo art of Taller Portobelo is free and on view at the Stone Center's Robert and Sallie Brown Gallery and Museum through April 30. Call 962-9001 or visit www.unc.edu/depts/stonecenter.