First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 30

THE ARC OF GUNA PAINTING From Luis Méndez to the Cosmos Guna artists in Panama have long captured their heroes, kin, surroundings, interior worlds, and the unexplored universe through paint. Over decades, their painting styles have shifted and expanded to reflect the changing zeitgeist, creating a rich art history. By Peter Szok, PhD P UPILS, EYELIDS, CORNEAS, and optic nerves were the subjects in detailed drawings that Luis Méndez (1934–2008) produced during his long career as a medical illus- trator. Méndez belonged to the Guna community, Panama’s second largest and most prominent Indigenous ethnicity with over 80,000 individuals, including a small but visible professional class. The Guna people are famous throughout the Americas for their vibrant visual creations, and for a long history of resisting colonization. Guna women produce the colorful mola, a multilayered cotton panel that depicts aspects of daily life in an abstract and geometric fashion. Women proudly display the molas on their blouses and hawk them to tourists and other curious outsiders. Like many elements of Native American culture, the mola has become a bitter point of contention between the Gunas and non-Indigenous investors who exploit the molas’ eye-catching patterns for their commercial benefit. Mola-themed clothing, accessories, and other bric-a-brac are common items in Panama’s shops, often originating from foreign sources with no links to the Guna female artists or the omeggid 28 | WWW.FIRSTAMERICANARTMAGAZINE.COM above Alejo Deleon (Guna, b. 1955), Guna Revolution, 2017, acrylic on canvas, private collection. Unless otherwise noted, all images are courtesy of the author. This depiction of the Guna Revolution includes portraits of principal leaders Nele Kantule and Cimral Colman. opposite, top Luis Méndez (Guna, 1934–2008), Untitled, 2004, acrylic on canvas, private collection. opposite, below Luis Méndez (Guna, 1934–2008), Untitled, 2008, acrylic on canvas, collection of Angélica María Guadamuz Núñez.