Last July, I participated in a two-week artist residency at the Taller Portobelo Norte Art Colony in Portobelo, Panama, which was made possible by an Artistic Assistance grant from Alternate ROOTS. Taller Portobelo Norte (Portobelo Workshop North) is “a collective of emerging and established artists and scholars that seeks to expose the world to the beauty and vibrancy of the African Diaspora; it’s arts, culture, traditions and peoples.”
I chose to go to Portobelo to develop my work as a visual artist and to continue my research on the African-Indigenous Diaspora. The people of Portobelo are descendants of the Cimarrones, enslaved Africans who escaped from their Spanish masters and lived together as outlaws in the jungle. One of the first parts of the “New World” to be pillaged, Christopher Columbus originally named the port “Puerto Bello,” meaning “Beautiful Port,” in 1502.
“Today Portobelo is an economically depressed town, and the majority of its inhabitants make their living from either fishing, tending crops or raising livestock. …Homes are situated among the ruins of the colonial fortifications, half of which retain some of their original form, half of which are meager piles of cut stone and coral.” The very same month of my visit, “the UNESCO World Heritage Committee placed Portobelo and nearby Fort San Lorenzo on the List of World Heritage in Danger, citing environmental factors, lack of maintenance and uncontrollable urban developments.”
While staying in the nicest house in town, being conscious of the fact that I was in a position of great privilege as an American, and upon hearing some of the stories of past artist residents’ projects, I at first felt very limited in what work I thought I could conscionably do in Portobelo. It seemed ironic that I would come to a place to learn from and interact with other survivors of colonialism and historical trauma, only to fear that I, myself, could perpetuate the problem. Though Portobelo is a very beautiful place, I didn’t feel that I had the right to go off and paint watercolor landscapes. Though I was inspired by the beauty of the people of Portobelo, I did not feel good about documenting them just for the sake of making a drawing or painting. I didn’t know them. They didn’t know me.
Adjoining the house is the actual, physical “Taller Portobelo Norte,” the small artist studio space used by all of the artists in the collective. I was welcomed into the studio by Gustavo, one of the first people I met in Panama. Gustavo and several artists of the colony paint or work on other projects in the taller every day. Many people of the town often stop by to visit. I just sat in and talked with them for the first few days. We became fast friends. After that time, I started to feel like it would be alright with me to honor my new friends with portraits if it was alright with them, but I didn’t want to impose on them by disrupting their work time to ask them to sit for me.
In Portobelo, there is a style of painting that is done on canvas with wide stretchers. As a final step, the sides of the canvas and often the painted image itself are embellished with broken shards of mirror. I asked Gustavo if they happened to have a mirror lying around. He produced a large piece of mirror, which I used to do a self-portrait in pencil. Everyone in the Taller ooh-ed and ah-ed over my portrait. Everyone who stopped by the Taller that evening did the same thing.
Almost at once, there was a long list of requests for portraits, on which I was happy to get started. I had an audience while I was working every day. People would come to the taller just to see my progress. They came to take pictures of my drawings, which made me feel very good.
I made friends with some of young people of Portobelo soon after I arrived. Before long, I had an entire group spending time with me. I gave them a set of watercolors and set them up with space to create their own drawings and paintings in the taller, which were very beautiful. One teenager in particular came to sit with me almost every day. He said that he wished he could draw like me. When I answered that he can draw like me, he asked how and if he would have to go to school to do it. I said that school helps, but you can learn on your own and anyone can learn to do it.
One of the most renowned painters of Portobelo, who is also a leader of the Congo community and Gustavo’s Dad, requested that I draw his portrait. This was a great honor for me. He promised to bring me a bottle of Colombian liquor in exchange. Although I told him that this wasn’t necessary, he soon brought the bottle and I thought to myself that this was smart of him to make sure that I held up my end of the trade before I had to fly home. I did.
The most “finished” piece produced while I was in Portobelo was a portrait of Gustavo as a “Moderno Rey Cimarron Congo” or “Modern Cimarron Congo King.” The piece was collaboration between Gustavo and I. We first discussed the content and concept of the portrait, in which Gustavo appears dressed in his contemporary soccer shirt as well as a traditional Cimarron crown, to the point that he is the living legacy of his ancestors. Gustavo helped with the drawing of the Cimarron crown. He is also the author and painter of the text in the piece, “Moderno Rey Cimarron Congo Hijo de Portobelo. Tierra con vestigios de Africa, selva, salitre y sol; Modern Cimarron Congo King Son of Portobelo. Land with vestiges of Africa, jungle, sea salt and sun.”
In exchange for this portrait, Gustavo gifted me one of his paintings. Knowing that he sells his paintings to make a living, I asked him if he was sure and how much money he was losing by giving me that painting. His answer about the price surprised me, as I don’t have much experience in pricing my own work. I then asked him for how much he would sell the portrait that we created together and his answer was even higher based on dimensions and detail. This conversation truly caused me to reexamine my practice of giving most of my art away. My last few projects have all included portraits of people whom I know and love. I have felt that it is my privilege to document them and that the appropriate way to recompense for the gift of that privilege is to give them the finished piece. However, this does not help my economic situation or my ability to further my career. Gustavo helped me to understand this.
I’m now back in Baltimore, working on rearranging my life to include more time to create my art. My friends from Portobelo and I stay in touch; I generally hear from someone every day. We are planning my next visit. In the meantime, my self-portrait is hanging in the taller.