First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 35

differences, and a tendency for subtle asymmetries that spin the viewer about the canvas, much like dancers in a Guna festival. One also senses what linguistic anthropologist Joel Sherzer has described as the richly depicted landscapes of Guna foundational stories. Méndez himself interpreted his creations as an attempt to record Guna culture and to emphasize its deep communal qualities. A collectivist spirit is apparent in his depictions of daily life, hunting, fishing, and agricultural activities. Responding perhaps to the Cuban Revolution and its strong influence in governmental circles, Méndez suggested that these practices could serve as an example to a society fractured by individual interests. The Guna are rarely alone Méndez’s repre- sentations, and neither was he in his endeavors. THE SECOND GENERATION FROM THE MID- 1970 S through the early 1980s a second generation of Guna painters arose, who began largely by following Luis Méndez’s example and adorning canvases in a naïve-style fashion. Their aesthetic approach was probably pragmatic, having much to do with its relative accessibility, the proximity of clients in the resident US community, and with the economic circumstances of these young and emerging artists. Most of them were Panama City newcomers, who had arrived in search of secondary and higher educations but had few resources to support themselves in the capital. To get by, they took low-paying jobs at hotels and restaurants and cranked out paintings to hawk on street corners. These artists sold their works in Stevens Circle and other points around the city, including the plaza next to the national lottery building where large crowds gathered on Sunday afternoons to hear the weekly drawing results. In the early 1980s, the lottery provided a point of Indigenous nucleation—a place to assert Guna identity through mola sales, dances, and exhibitions of bright paint- ings depicting Guna villages. Even today the naïve style continues to be visible, defining the production of a handful of individuals, the most productive of whom is Alejo Deleon (b. 1955). A member of this second genera- tion, Deleon traveled to Panama City in the mid-1970s to complete his secondary studies and to enroll at the National School of Arts. Deleon benefited from the government’s populist program with its increased funding for cultural activities. He studied with leading painters of the period, including Adriano Herrerabarría and Luis Aguilar Ponce, and, like a number of his classmates, he became fascinated by their explorations of nonfigurative representations. But Deleon also became intrigued by Luis Méndez and Uriel Díaz (Guna, b. 1944). A lesser-known artistic figure and a member of Deleon’s community, Díaz had begun to produce naïve paintings during a long period of employment in the US Canal Zone. The spring 1973 edition of Panama Canal Review features a photo of Díaz participating in a community art show in Stevens Circle. Deleon embraced Méndez and Díaz’s example after his return to Guna Yala when, in his island-village of Usdup, he fell under the influence of the town’s sailas (chiefs) and their daily urgings to preserve the Guna way of life. Economics were likely another consideration in his turn toward this approach to painting. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Guna Yala’s economy was becoming increas- ingly monetized, and Deleon became aware of opportunities to earn money in the region’s growing tourist business. A prolific artist, Deleon’s renderings decorate many Panamanian homes and SPRING 2019 | 33