First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 34

above Adán Smith (Guna, b. 1957), Leonidas Kantule Valdés, 1998, graphite on paper, collection of the artist. Smith has drawn portraits of Guna leaders, including this drawing of Leonidas Kantule Valdés, longtime cacique general of the comarca. opposite Ologwagdi (Guna, b. 1953), in 2016, preparing a mural to honor victims of the 1964 confrontation between Panamanian nationalists and US security forces. During the military period, the commemoration of Martyrs’ Day (January 9) became central to Panamanian nationalism. Neocolonialism, however, is complex phenomenon. Ironically, as the Zonians and other foreigners admired Méndez’s canvases at places like the Sheraton’s Mary Palma Gallery, these paintings also found their way into less touristy and more nation- alistic contexts. Méndez’s work appealed to a broad array of sectors, including elements of the Panamanian military, who were determined to set the nation on a new path and to end the long- term US presence. In a regular series of government and related corporate events, Méndez found multiple outlets for his creativity in what many have described as an important period for the development of Panamanian art. 32 | WWW.FIRSTAMERICANARTMAGAZINE.COM As part of an effort to legitimize its position, Panama’s National Guard demanded the return of the US Canal Zone, established in 1903, which the regime would finally succeed in dismantling through negotiation of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties (1977). Simultaneously, Panama’s military took up a populist political and economic program that was inspired, to some extent, by the Cuban Revolution and carried out in collaboration with Panama’s Communist Party. Part of this fundamentally modest effort included what historian Miriam Villanueva has described as increased state investment in educational and cultural institutions and a redefinition of Panamanian iden- tity. What the government proposed was a reconceptualization of Panamanian nationalism, highlighting the patrio- tism of working-class people in the long struggle against US imperialism. State intellectuals pitted the “masses” against the “elite,” tying the latter to the foreign US presence. Working-class identity took precedence over any sense of ethnicity, but the reconfigurations opened spaces for Native American intellectuals, as part of an imagined coalition of patriots. Paradoxically the 1972 Constitution even committed the government to protecting Native American languages and cultures, just as officials embraced a developmentalist agenda and pursued mining and hydroelectric projects on Indigenous lands. In such a context, Méndez provided acceptable images, presenting the Guna as premodern people who conformed to longstanding notions about “primitive” societies and offered little threat to the goal of national unity. As seemed implicit in the paintings, the Guna were likely to disappear in the future, in what the military and other officials perceived as Panama’s linear path of develop- ment. Yet, if Méndez’s art adhered to such colonial conceptions, it remained very Guna in its aesthetics. His lively paintings exhibited characteristics that anthropologist Mari Lyn Salvador and others associated with the mola and have described as portraying common traits of Guna expression. These quali- ties included a love of detail and filled spaces, bold colors with sharp tonal