First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 32

above, top José Pascual Obaldía (Guna, b. 1961), The Suffering Woman, 2007, acrylic on canvas, collection of Fundación Nuestra Señora del Camino, San Félix, Chiriquí, Panama. above, below José Pascual Obaldía (Guna, b. 1961), Ngäbe Angel, 2008, acrylic on canvas, collection of Iglesia de San Félix de Nola, San Félix, Chiriquí, Panama. Obaldía has devoted much of his career to the Roman Catholic Church’s inculturation efforts, not in Guna Yala but in the Ngäbe- Buglé regions of western Panama. 30 | WWW.FIRSTAMERICANARTMAGAZINE.COM Presumably Méndez moved through a series of these low-paying and ethnically determined positions, while studying construction at the national trade school (Escuela de Artes y Oficios) and searching for better and more lucrative opportunities. Eventually, he landed a job as an X-ray technician in an ophthalmology clinic. By most accounts, Méndez was a good-natured individual, who is remembered for peddling his paintings amiably in the capital’s law and medical offices. Méndez adjusted readily to the urban environ- ment, competing in the Guna basketball leagues and playing his harmonica in jazz and other musical groups. His longtime employer, Dr. Benjamin F. Boyd, was a promi- nent physician and the editor of the international journal Highlights of Ophthalmology. Méndez’s ceaseless doodling caught the doctor’s attention and encouraged Boyd to use him as an illustrator. Seemingly Boyd hoped to improve Méndez’s artistic abilities, and he sent him to study illustration at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine. Méndez became an accomplished commercial artist, whose intricate representations of ocular maladies became a central part of Boyd’s publi- cations. By the mid-1970s, Méndez was surpassing these endeavors and becoming a more important artistic figure. The timing of his emergence was no accident but coincided with a number of favorable circumstances. At that time, Indigenous political mobili- zation was sweeping the Americas and deepening the ongoing fascination with non-Western cultures. Domestically, a military government that had taken power in 1968 had begun to implement a series of populist measures, designed to establish its legitimacy. Exploiting the increase in funding for arts and education, Méndez became his country’s first Native American studio painter, whose busy canvases helped to set the trajectory of Guna visual production over the following decades.