Panama Protests: Ologwagdi and El KolectivoWednesday, March 11th, 2015 Categories: Culture, Features, Updates
Peter Szok writes for ARC Magazine about the Panamanian protest art group El Kolectivo, headed by portrait artist Ologwagdi. Using a mixture of satire, visually impressive murals and social activism, the collective convenes on weekends to make artistic interventions into public spaces, tackling issues such as culture, politics, equality, indigeneity and the environment. Learn more about Ologwagdi’s practice and the work of the group below:
Spontaneous, progressive yet iconoclastic are a few terms to describe Panama’s El Kolectivo, an assorted group of hipsters and older activists who gather regularly on Saturdays and Sundays to paint murals on banners and neglected buildings, and disrupt pedestrian areas with mesmerizing portraits. Drawing on Latin America’s performance art traditions, including the use of iconic imagery (heroes, villains, martyr figures and saints), El Kolectivo commandeers the walls outside the National Assembly to denounce racism and the abuse of women, and to uphold sovereignty, indigenous rights and the environment. For the 2014 presidential election, El Kolectivo presented Alfredo Belda as its candidate. With his foppish wardrobe and schmaltzy expressions, Belda parodied the leading parties’ representatives, and promised always to tell “la beldad” (la verdad – the truth).
If El Kolectivo’s agenda is satirical and loosely leftist, members differ on many questions, including the merits of Panama’s military period (1968-1989), perhaps the most divisive issue in national politics. They debate whether the regime was inclusive or repressive and whether its social-economic reforms were truly meaningful; however, they all agree on culture’s importance. Amidst a galloping but highly inequitable economy, soaring skyscrapers, scandals and urban disruptions, they insist that literature, music and painting offer a means for reflection and for possible national redemption. Leading this movement is Armando Díaz Rivera (Ologwagdi), whose own trajectory mirrors the circuitous path of counterculture in Latin America and the rise of this provocative and doctrinally fluid movement.
Ologwagdi is a member of the Guna (formerly Kuna) community, one of the most successful indigenous groups in America in resisting Western colonization. The Guna, who number roughly 80,000, are known for their 1925 rebellion, which stemmed the incursions of Panamanian authorities and led to the recognition of an autonomous comarca. Guna Yala is a legally sanctioned and self-ruling region, located on Panama’s eastern Caribbean coast, where the majority of the population lives on littoral islands and uses the mainland primarily for agriculture. The Guna are also an urban people, with roughly half of them today residing outside the comarca, mainly in Colón and Panama City. Known for their hard-fought independence, they have also become famous for their colourful molas, reverse applique panels, which women stitch onto their blouses and which have become an archetypal indigenous art form. Indeed, the molas have become hugely popular, even suffering from exploitative commercialization and appearing on many foreign-produced items, from t-shirts and sandals, to pot holders and shower curtains.
Ologwagdi began painting partly in reaction to this situation, to the shameless expropriation of Native American symbols and to fossilized conceptions of what it meant to be indigenous. He emerged in the mid-1970s as part of an imaginative and ongoing tendency for some young and urban-based Guna to specialize less in traditional artistic disciplines and to tackle new fields such as jazz, rock n roll, academia and modern dance. Mural and canvas painting were two early areas of interest, with other figures frequently collaborating with Ologwagdi. Key pioneers in this Guna innovation include Olognidi Pelusio Chiari, brothers Julián and Bredio Velásquez, Alejo Deleón, Adan Smith, Olonuili Martínez, Uriel Díaz, and Luis Méndez.
Ologwagdi was born in 1953 in Colón and spent seven years there, before his family moved to one of Guna Yala’s least traditional communities. Reflecting on his “first childhood” in the Atlantic port city, whose inhabitants are predominantly Afro-Panamanian, he sees it as critical to the ties he later established with non-indigenous colleagues in Panama’s labour and artistic circles. In Narganá/Corazón de Jesús (Yandub/Aggwanusadub), where his family settled, he developed an appreciation for visual culture based primarily on the work of his father, who had learned to draw through correspondence courses and who decorated the family’s shop and other small businesses with landscapes, lettering and other advertisements. Ologwagdi’s grandfather also encouraged creativity with his carpentry and construction projects, including some of Guna Yala’s first French-style buildings. Painted boats and canoes were another source of inspiration and heightened an impulse to mark up lesson books and to ignore the directions of his exasperated teachers. Ologwagdi was never a disciplined pupil and ruined his early plans to enter the seminary by naively showing a priest his erotic drawings.
At school, Ologwagdi came into contact with Panama’s progressive student movement which had mobilized in response to the 1964 Flag Riots and to the death of nearly two dozen Panamanians in a short, but bitter confrontation with U.S. forces. Anti-imperialism became central to Ologwagdi’s thinking as he became further involved in left-wing politics, with the inevitable connections to the Communist Party (Partido del Pueblo). In Panama, the Communists had always been a small but disciplined party. After the 1968 coup and a period of military repression, they developed an alliance with Torrijos and his fellow officers. The pack was based on sympathy for the regime’s populist measures and on a shared desire to eliminate the U.S. Canal Zone, which was achieved in 1979 via the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. In the intervening years, Ologwagdi’s artistic production blossomed, intertwining with the sometimes competing agendas of the government and the Communist Party, as well as with the goals of a rising indigenous movement whose concerns stretched beyond the struggles of class and national sovereignty. Long before El Kolectivo, Ologwagdi’s proclivities were eclectic, defying any orthodox perspectives, even as he honed his talents as a creator of stunning portraits.
In the early 1970s, as the National Guard was consolidating its position, Ologwagdi enrolled at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas and landed a job with Eduardo “Malanga” Meneses, who produced placards of General Omar Torrijos and other pieces for official gatherings. The representations of Torrijos were detailed close-ups and were intended to engross and stir potential supporters. Ologwadi calculates that over the next years, he fashioned dozens of depictions of the populist leader, along with countless signs for Panamanian restaurants, hotels, bars and similar establishments. Malanga ran the capital’s busiest commercial art business and erected a massive billboard for the pope’s 1983 visit. In addition, Ologwadi became linked to Virgilio and Ignacio “Cáncer” Ortega who, inspired by Chile’s Ramona Parra Brigade, had formed a similar organization in honour of their grandfather’s sister who had been an important leftist activist. The Felicia Santizo Brigade, sometimes referred to as the “Trópico de Cáncer,” combined visual art with music and theater, and fashioned murals across the country, often with the support of Torrijos officials. The murals were nationalist and anti-imperialist in nature and embraced pro-Palestinian, Marxist and pro-Sandinista positions. Many of them featured the striking head shots that would later appear in Ologwagdi’s work with El Kolectivo.
The brigade ventured several times through Guna Yala, where Ologwadi had also become a founding member of the Movement of Kuna Youth and had begun to make paintings of community leaders for the islands’ casas de congreso. Many of these beautiful canvases still hang from the rafters of the thatched meeting houses and again entangle their viewers with expressive power. A portrait of Nele Kantule is especially potent and adds solemnity to the communal building in Gardi Sugdup. Although Ologwadi did not go on the trip, the Santizo Brigade later traveled to Nicaragua, following the fall of Somoza, and contributed to the country’s revolutionary mural tradition. By this point, Ologwadi had taken up a long-term position with the Ministry of Education where he helped to illustrate educational books and involved himself in the development of a bilingual curriculum. Ologwadi has produced drawings for dozens of publications on topics ranging from indigenous and Panamanian history to poetry, plant life, animals and architecture.
Given such a background, it comes as no surprise that Ologwagdi decided to participate in El Kolectivo, whose agenda, while leftist, is also flexible and open to youthful and hipster eccentricities. If El Kolectivo has protested on behalf of indigenous communities and their right to control their natural resources, it has also celebrated the lives of salsa singers, and has teased pedestrians on the capital’s Vía Peatonal with a videotaped campaign advocating the use of the “can cruusher” (can crusher). In his efforts to win the presidency, candidate Belda promised can crushers for the entire population as a way to promote recycling, although the idea was not always greeted with sympathy. Indeed, one voter objected vehemently to the proposal and expressed her preference for a blender. El Kolectivo can be lighthearted and quirky, even as it focuses on serious topics.
The group arose during the government of Ricardo Martinelli (2009-14), as a reaction to the president’s sometimes autocratic behavior and to the urban disorder and unequitable economic growth, fostered by a series of massive infrastructure projects. Most disruptive were the building of an urban metro system and the expansion of the Panama Canal, through the construction of a third set of locks. As Panama experienced a wave of immigration, as well as upticks in inflation, crime and public scandals, El Kolectivo coalesced in 2011, after the government announced its intention to level the former home of the U.S. embassy and to erect, in its place, a “pharaonic” monument to business. Designed to be the tallest high-rise in Latin America, the Torre Financiera (Financial Tower) would commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of Balbao’s march to the Pacific Ocean, and would house government and private offices. For Ologwagdi and many other Panamanians, the grandiose venture seemed scandalously wasteful and personified the hubris of the Martinelli government which also proposed to honour Balboa’s feat with a gigantic figure of the Virgin Mary, surpassing the Statue of Liberty by seven meters.
Members of El Kolectivo mobilized against both initiatives, bombing the former delegation with murals and slogans, suggesting that it was part of Panama’s patrimony and that it be converted into a cultural center. Ologwagdi contributed an absorbing image of workers and campesinos marching for Panamanian sovereignty. Although the painting and old building were promptly demolished, there was such public outcry regarding the Financial Tower that officials dropped the plan in favor of a new children’s hospital. Similarly, church and state leaders suspended the Virgin Mary project.
Since these events, Ologwagdi and El Kolectivo have remained active in a host of other activities, ranging from protests against homophobia, femicide and the destruction of mangroves to acts commemorating the lives of Nelson Mandela, Gabriel García Marquez, Salvador Allende and Cheo Feliciano. The organization has taken a visible role in contesting mining and hydroelectric projects in the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca, and it has become particularly in active in the debates surrounding Panama’s historical memory. While the Martinelli administration undertook measures to deemphasize the difficult relationship with the United States, El Kolectivo fashioned murals marking the 1989 U.S. invasion of the country and the 1964 Flag Riots. The latter piece, which stretched along the Avenue of the Martyrs, featured the penetrating gazes of the victims, as if demanding respect for their example. In such endeavors, Ologwagdi has played a crucial role. Using skills developed in another era, especially a talent for breathtaking portraits, he has assured that Panama continues to protest, sometimes with greater humour and youthful impulse, but with the same remarkable beauty.