Reading time: 13 minutes
In an exercise in which criticism and imagination are inextricably linked, Panamanian artists Milko Delgado, Risseth Yangüez Singh, and José Braithwaite exchange opinions, expectations, and memories about the conflicted and problematic mestizo identity in Panama to consider the possibility of a world where Afro-descendant and Black memory of the land is not ignored.
In this fiction called “Panama”, we have been taught since we were little that the country’s name comes from a word meaning “an abundance of fish and butterflies.” We were taught that despite its small size, our country is among the 25 most biodiverse countries in the world. That thanks to our advantageous geographical position, we were selected to have a canal constructed through us. We were also taught to see Panamanianess as a perfect “melting pot of races” of Spanish-speakers, in which white, Indigenous, and Black people blend together seamlessly in a single nation.
Our reality is different, and regarding that marvelous work of modern engineering that this nation holds up as an emblem—its construction was marked by events that threatened human life. A debt of truth and recognition exists, which we have not been able to acknowledge as a society. We deny any other version of the story because, like in many other Latin American countries, Panama’s racism denies the very existence of racism.
Milko Delgado (MD): Jumping off from this introduction, which isn’t very positive but which is true to the context of many who live on our little isthmus called Panama, I’d like to ask, have our country’s elites succeeded in erasing our memories? Where are they [our memories]?
Risseth Yangüez Singh (RYS): They haven’t succeeded because we are not only the product of all this violence and oppression. We are also the result of the strength and endurance of our ancestors. We are daughters of chieftains, maroons, rebels, and the people who gave their lives trying to reimagine other worlds in our lands. Of collective struggles and complicities. To recognize the power of our bodies and resistance in the processes of our history is to recognize our strength. It is knowing that we are capable of building and generating proposals to reinvent our land and the dynamics that we exert over it. These memories of our history exist, but they are scattered. It is difficult to access them, but they are linked to our being. Why do we speak and celebrate Spaniards but don’t speak about Black, racialized, or Indigenous figures who have built or thought of new forms of “nation”?
Jose Braithwaite (JB): I recognize that the memory of our ancestors, our resistance, and our struggles has dissipated as a result of systematic violence and the controlled narrative of history. Our bodies were too busy trying to survive to take steps to record themselves and their memories. They still are. Those rebellious ancestors fought against the things that subjugated them even knowing that it might cost them their lives. The processes of struggle and resistance in the nation we share called “Panama” have always existed, but as in any territory that bases its society on established models of exploitation, this memory has been erased so that we are no longer aware of our ability to transform our environment. They confuse us with a false idea of Panamanianism and patriotism. They also confuse us with the idea of a “nation,” when in reality they manage our land like a corporation. “Nations” is a term we use to describe communities of Indigenous peoples, and they have existed here since before we called ourselves “Panama.” It has been 118 years since Panama’s founding as a nation-state, years characterized by multiple interventions, especially those of the United States, but before that, what? What existed? Before Spain, or rather, in spite of Spain, what? Behind this are the true nations that still continue to operate according to ancestral knowledge and with healthier links to the earth, but it is all foreign, or at least that is what we have been led to believe.
(MD): Thinking about this idea of resistance throughout history and understanding that part of our memory has been erased and conditioned according to a notion of the nation fostered in values that perpetuate violence, I believe that the exercise of reinventing and rebuilding this memory is important. Society and its problems, specifically in relation to the policies of non-normative bodies, are central themes in my work. What ideas of resistance prevail in your lives and run through your cultural and artistic practices?
My corporeality in the present is such that I am abused every day by the system I live in for being a Black woman. I want that to stop happening. I want them to lead in ways that are pro-life. I am always on the side of life: the land and its resources, the community, love. My idea of resistance is seeking tranquility in my body and in my environment, away from those impositions that presume to tell me what I have to be or how to live.
They have made me believe that I am something I am not, and the exercise of questioning everything and rebuilding (myself) has been my resistance. I translate this exercise in resistance into my artistic practice by delving into my personal memory and understanding that it is imbued with collective memory. The reappropriation of images through art is important. Images of Black, Indigenous, and racialized people have been used to strip them of their humanity. A reification. Any exercise in reinvention and imagination by a Black person is a slap in the face of that system and the art system. Despite this, we know that art remains a tricky structure.
(JB): The point of erasing history, the struggles and resistance of our ancestors, who we were and where we came from, is to deprive us of a sense of belonging, and that is something that we must recognize through our artistic practices in order to enact an exercise of reinvention. It is through life and art that I have found a sense of resistance. In my work, I research my familiar and ancestral memory, a process that has led me to work with various Afro afro and Indigenous groups to investigate issues related to the relationship between genocide and gentrification. This personal search has transformed into a kind of self-ethnography that has allowed me to preserve a memory and reimagine a new history.
Burning down the houses of Black and poor people has been an ever present constant in the gentrification of Panama. So, I thought about works that question the structure of consumption that underpins the contemporary art world and the way problems are represented; how it can be done without falling into the misery-porn which people who have little or no experience with these realities often produce. Using fragments of houses burned during the gentrification of popular neighborhoods, including my own, I began a process-series of sculptural, photographic, or installation pieces grounded in abstraction and symbolism to subtly portray this problem in tension with a constant revindication of Blackness. In the end, the ones who are most able to consume these works in a traditional art circuit are the oligarchic groups that are also partly responsible for the problem of gentrification. The pieces will inhabit their houses like the trophies of the soulless big-game hunters in Africa, reminding them of what they have caused.
With this piece, I hope to push cultural institutions to question these hegemonic systems and their complicity in them, and encourage them to stand up for new kinds of representations and imaginaries that vindicate the historical events that have been so manipulated. On the other hand, these works brought up a question about the need to create our own spaces for circulating, thinking about, and reflecting on art, as well as our own systems of exchange with healthier logics of profit, beyond the traditional systems. Generating autonomy from knowledge. It is through the autonomy of thought that we can banish these vampiric systems.
(RYS): Hegemony and control over the image and discourse prevail in art. The spaces we work in are, at the very least, white, racist, sexist, and transphobic. Despite this, little by little we have managed to infiltrate and change this reality. We also continue to create our own spaces according to our ideals of resistance and those of our communities which have helped us to think up and create collective strategies alongside other struggles.
Part of the work for my latest documentary feature film project, called Cuscú (a derogatory term used in Panama for Afro hair), has been reimagining the future and rethinking new forms of coexistence with our bodies as Black women. This implies rescuing the history that has been denied us, the same history that is necessary for the exercise of self-recognition. In the documentary, the Black history of Panama and its multiple processes are reconstructed to offer more clarity about the denial of our Black identity in this country. To do so, I began with a personal project: confronting the fact that I was denying myself by not recognizing something as basic as my hair; without the self-awareness to accept it, I had been instead submitting myself to chemical processes to straighten it. Why do I want to straighten my hair? Why have they made me believe that we should straighten our hair? These simple questions sparked a research that is now a counter-memory to the Panamanian history that has gone unquestioned for so long. This counter-memory was built by the hands of multiple Black women, friends who have found themselves in a similar situation. Recognizing ourselves and creating out of awareness is also an act of resistance.
(MD): In this exercise of resistance and transformation, how do you imagine futures with these new representations and imaginaries?
(RYS): These “new representations” aren’t that new; they are part of a project of resistance that has existed for a long time. Despite this, sometimes it is difficult for me to believe in the idea of a different world from the one we currently live in. Maybe the chaos of its dismantling is necessary for our own transformation. I think the only way to end this system is to burn down all of its structures. Despite my nihilism, resistance never ceases because there is an immediate world that needs to be resolved, where mutual aid is the hope and latent complicity that keeps us alive.
There are efforts being made in art to dismantle these structures by offering new paradigms. However, this effort is minimal compared to the work that communities and groups at the front lines, whose daily life depends on it, do. It is vitally important that we challenge the political imagination of the art world and pay attention to the demands of said communities and groups. What does the privilege of thinking about art as a tool for change in this climate imply?
I remember having to fight over and over again not to let myself become paralyzed or disempowered by fear since that is how the system wins. In the face of fear, one has to detach for five seconds, minutes, hours, days, months; feel our bodies, give ourselves time for all of our emotions so that we can find tranquility. Then, keep working for what we want to change—for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, for our communities, and for our land.
(JB): The laws imposed by states to regulate societies sustain an illusion that prevents us from recognizing the chaos in which we live. The Panamanian state’s principal tool of manipulation has been to distort the being of the people by controlling all of our society’s mechanisms of perception: movies, television, and all forms of communication and art. I imagine the dismantling of these structures, one through which we are transformed into facilitators, teachers, comrades, resisting the tools of manipulation and facilitating cooperation through imagination to create higher levels of empathy and love.
Through this exercise in reflection and thought with José and Risseth, I would like to emphasize the importance of creating our own forms, images, and histories. We must resist and recognize ourselves as powerful. Feminist, Indigenous, trans, poor, peasant, and gender-dissident memory must recognize Black and Afro-descendant memory in Panama in order for us to be able to collectively reimagine our futures out of the power of our own subjects and create new worlds. Resistance involves processes of individual reflection about our bodies/lands that lead us to identify the struggles or causes that are closest to us; it involves an intersectionality that must permeate collective thought in order to renew the ways in which we inhabit (ourselves) and recreate our dynamics with the environment.