Panama: Echoes of Marronage in Contemporary ArtFriday, May 8, 2020
The emancipatory movement known as Marronage constitutes one of the longest, most enduring and most profound revolutions in the history of the Americas. As one of the first impulses toward freedom to rise up against the oppressive colonial regime, it laid the foundation for the precedent of emancipating people of African origin who had been captured and enslaved upon arrival to Abya Yala (the name given to the continent that we now call “America” by the Kuna people of the Colombia-Panama region, whose meaning refers to the earth in full bloom or the living, breathing earth). The historical accumulation of this impulse has brought about a contemporary visual practice, further examined below, in particular the practices of the Congo culture on the Panamanian coast, which display politico-spiritual paradigms that are strongly linked to the vital forces of life (or the forces that come from all bodies that constitute the living: the human-animal body, the non-human animal body and living nature).
Marronage, or Cimarronaje in Spanish, is a term used by the colonial structure to refer to those who fled to the jungle or to less-populated areas in order to evade capture, derived from “cimarrón” or “maroon,” a term used to designate non-human animals raised domestically who had escaped their owners. It was integrated by the various communities of maroons from the start, as they assigned their leaders the status of Maroon King (as in the case of the famed King Bayano or Benkos Biohó, King of Arcabuco). Contemporary Congo artists continue to use the term as a source of identity, such as Gustavo Esquina, who defines himself as a “Modern Congo Maroon King. Son of Portobelo. Land with vestiges of Africa, jungle, salt and sun.”
This revolution would extend to all corners of the continent where slavery reached, even while its power was systematically denied by colonial authorities seeking to erase this endless and inexorable revolution from reality. Leaders began to emerge throughout the Americas—with significant cases of permanent resistance in Panama, Brazil and Colombia—like King Bayano, the maroon who made authorities sign the first charter of freedom for his community in 1579 in the Panamanian city of Portobelo.
Faced with colonial brutality throughout the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, all those who could escape enslavement set themselves up as maroons or quilombolas, as people freed from the chains of colonialism but nonetheless in constant struggle. They developed a broad worldview based on their strengths and dialogs with the living-body or nature, through the legacies of African spirituality derived from diverse ethnicities for whom the body, their bodies, could use color and the pulsating motion of their movements to expel accumulated pain and rage, as a means of combat as well as a purge.
Marronage took place in very distinct ways throughout the Americas, or Abya Yala. Today there are artistic practices rooted in geo-genealogical traditions that may be temporally and spatially distant, but continue to be imbued with the struggles of this emancipatory movement. This can be seen in the performance piece Something to Goes Gain (2017) by Brazilian artist Camilla Rocha Campos, in which she deliberately avoids reflecting on the Maroon revolution, but nevertheless reminds us of the socio-historical weight that falls on the shoulders of women of African descent. Rocha connects to one of the great powers of the Maroon woman, her disproportionate capacity for work (on both productive and reproductive levels) as an axis that can support the entire community, unveiling all the invisible and undervalued work that constitutes the true corporeal-symbolic capital of all revolutions.
In a direct way, as we can see in the performance Panamá Caribe (2015) by Ela Spalding (Panama, b. 1982), planned as part of the online project Fluid States – Performances of Unknowing commissioned by Performance Studies International (PSI), in which she created a space in the city of Colón, the historical bastion of the maroons, to dignify and ritualize the complex identity of the inhabitants of this Panamanian Caribbean coastline, also known as the Caribe Negro or Black Caribbean.
With this performance, Spalding revisits the title of an exhibition that took place in the Panamanian city of San Francisco in 1915, Panama Pacific, celebrating the newly inaugurated Canal and the economic implications that this event would have for both countries. Panamá Caribe (2015) bestows the same level of identitary legitimation upon the culture generated by the maroon heritage of the Panamanian coast: the Congo culture.
The Congo culture, situated on Panama’s Caribbean coast mainly in the province of Colón, or the Black Caribbean, is one of the ways in which Marronage responds to the historical wounds produced by the enslavement and later exclusion of people who were devalued by the hierarchical social system based on race that had been instituted in the colonies throughout the Americas, marking the beginning of the colonial-capitalist unconscious.
This is a community that stages its trauma over and over again, in order to produce healing at a systemic level. A community where bodies move in a combative manner through dances that are frequently violent and display utter insolence in public space as a strategy for healing genealogical wounds. A community where visual language narrates the oral history that accumulates those memories—recollections of resistance and memories of struggle produced out of an acerbic empowerment.
Evidence of these practices can be found in what was one of the most revealing expository exercises of the past several years, the exhibition and program of public activities titled Women Rebels: The In(di)visible Tradition (2018), under the curatorship of Adrienne Samos and Humberto Vélez for the MAC (Museum of Contemporary Art of Panama) as part of the Africa in the Americas festival. It was a proposal for introducing, validating and inserting into official discourse one of the foundational historical experiences of the contemporary matter in Panama: the legacy of the Afro-Caribbean tradition, rooted in the emancipatory movement of Marronage (since it was in Panama that the first community of freed slaves in all of the Americas was established).
This Congo Art, as its makers refer to it, constructs diverse readings of the Congo imaginary / worldview, which it introduces on a symbolic level through its archetypical imagery: the queen, the king, the ladies-in-waiting, the hunter, the Pajarito or prince, the Matuanga or captain, the Cucamba, the Horasquín, the slave, the jailor, the filibuster, the Barrecontó or courier, the learned one, the dark race, the Dutchman, the father or priest, the archangel and the devil. Ariel Jiménez Corpas (Pajarito), Gustavo Esquina de la Espada, Virgilio (Tito) Espada and Manuel Esteban Golden (Tatu), among others, work together in the Taller Portobelo, or Portobelo Workshop—a cornerstone for this movement—developing methods and visual practices that display their pride as descendants or heirs to the revolution of Marronage, as a bastion of resistance in the face of the colonial system’s oppression. Their works, primarily paintings, show us how these communities were nourished by their corporeal-spiritual links to their natural surroundings or living-body nature, through their connection to the vital forces that drive all living beings, emboldening their powers to struggle against the ignominy of slavery.
The artist Sandra Eleta, who settled in Portobelo in the 1970s, has been a key individual in the construction of this movement as a form of professional practice, working within the logics of legitimation typical of white / Western culture. Eleta used her privilege as part of the white artistic intelligentsia of Panama as a means of driving forward a process of self-dignification or self-recognition on the part of the Congo artistic community, out of a profound respect, admiration and meticulousness. Eleta has been a valuable ally in the afrogenic process, a term coined by African American activist Sheila Walker in Knowledge from the Inside: Afro-South Americans Speak of their People and their Histories (2012) to highlight the significance of the Spanish-speaking African diaspora in the territory of the Americas or Abya Yala; the manners in which wisdom and new technologies from Africa were transmitted; and the strategies elaborated for the construction of community politics, resistance, etc., by afro-descendent intellectuals from Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, the United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Eleta concentrated her work on two trajectories: on one hand, delving into the psychic territories of this community of the Black Caribbean with her iconic photographic records, such as Palanca, Blue Cat of the Congo (1981), and on the other hand, working to facilitate all of the legwork needed to build institutions and foundations that would be capable of supporting those practices.
We cannot conclude this preliminary approach to the art of the Congo culture without delving more deeply into one essential symbolic figure: the Queen and her foundational role in the Palenques, or runaway slave communities. Virgilio “Tito” Esquina, in Congo Elephant Queen (2017), places us before the imposing power of this archetype, bringing us into an anti-speciesist tale, very much tied to Haraway’s proposal of “making kin in the Chthulucene,” where kinship transcends North-North anthropocentrism.
The Palenque is an indispensable geo-spiritual structure for understanding how communities of escaped slaves achieved autonomous political organization through community dynamics while in the wilderness, after they were able to escape their misogynist and colonial oppressors.
As Miroslava Herrera, the afro-descendent writer, feminist and activist for the recognition of Afro-Panamanian culture and for the creation of genuine conditions of justice for afro-descendants, has explained in an interview for the Maternal Futurities platform: “Palenques are community enclaves that, in spite of speaking different languages and having extremely diverse backgrounds, survived through unity. Women would save seeds in their hair, using their braids as a way of plotting their escape. With time and the brutal effects of slavery, these communities would become matriarchal, further confirmation of the Congo culture. In this culture, which has recently been declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the central (and ritual) figure is the queen, who is a kind of guardian, advisor, judge of peace, teacher, cantalante (a musical genre and dance native to Panama) and spiritual guide for the Palenque. There are several essentials of this movement that we must preserve: a sense of community, the diversity that sustains it and the courageousness of assuming that freedom is your destiny.”
These practices are profoundly rooted in unconscious impulses toward life, toward a capacity for freeing the body from any captivity. Or as critic Suely Rolnik notes: “The unconscious is a factory of worlds that produces the impulse to transform the reality that impacts the subject. A place for manufacturing our desire to break free from all oppression, to such an extent that ignoring it would be equivalent to failing to rise to the level of life’s demands (endeavoring to preserve it).”
*This text has been made possible by the generosity of the curator and director of the ARPA (Panama Art) Foundation, Adrienne Samos, and the director of the Casa Santa Ana Foundation, Carolina Huasman.
Translated from the Spanish by Phillip Penix-Tadsen
 Millions of people suffered one of history’s most brutally ignominious cases of bio-control, which we can also recognize in our own recent history, simultaneously instituted as the basis for the psychic mistreatment of modernity (through the use of attitudes of paternalism / terror), and as the starting point for the psychopathology of colonialism and all the accumulation of the extractivist capital of the Americas.
 Trailer for Panamá Caribe by Ela Spalding with the collaboration of the African Pastoral Choir, the Congo Group, the Professional Technical Institute, the Salomar Colonense Group, the Choir of the Black Ethnicity Foundation, Break Flip Club and C3 String Quintet. Performed 8 January 2015 in the city of Colón, Panama as part of Fluid States: Performances of Unknowing.
 The “Mininas” in the Congo ritual are the ladies-in-waiting who accompany the queen. The term is derived from “Meninas,” used in European courtesan contexts to refer to the queen’s assistants.
 Taller Portobelo was founded in 1995 by artist Sandra Eleta along with scholar Arturo Lindsay and painter Virgilio “Yaneca” Esquina, in collaboration with the Portobelo Bay Foundation and the House of Congo Culture.
 Donna Haraway, in her recently-published feminist essay Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Consonni, 2019) proposes the creation of kinship between human animals and non-human animals as a strategy for curbing ecological devastation and a new way of relating to the Earth, which she refers to as the Chthulucene in place of the well-known term Anthropocene.
 Suely Rolnik, in her vibrant essay The Spheres of Insurrection: Suggestions for Combating the Pimping of Life (Traficantes de Sueños, 2019), reminds us that we must appropriate the impulse that corresponds to the forces of life emanating from the depths of the unconscious in order to direct it toward “its ethical destiny with a view to abandoning the formations of the colonial-capitalist unconscious in the social field, which depends on the abandonment of our characters in their everyday scenes, performing new characters that, inevitably, bring their relative territories along with them.”