Perspective from Panama

Imagine a picture-postcard expanse of blue ocean hugging a lagoon bursting with greenery, a tropical paradise populated by women in dresses shot through with color, and men who walk with the noble bearing of kings.

It's a scene out of time that might have been painted by Gauguin, whose passionate embrace of Tahiti and its people more than a century ago helped launch the revolution that led to the birth of modern art.


But Gauguin was an outsider to the idyllic society he portrayed -- a culture that, as it turned out, already had begun to fray under the pressure of advancing modernity.

By contrast, the paintings in PANAMA, an exhibition on view at Sub-Basement Artist Studios, were created by the people who live there, descendants of African slaves and indigenous peoples who sought refuge and a precarious freedom through centuries-long isolation.


The artworks were all created by self-taught painters intimately acquainted with their small patch of earth in the Caribbean coastal village of Portobelo (Spanish for "beautiful port"). Their luxuriantly colorful works document the history, culture and aesthetic sensibility of a unique community.

The radical pluralism of today's art world has afforded many folks and "outsider" artists -- such as the African-American quilters of Gee's Bend, Ala., whose works will be on view at the Walters Art Museum later this year -- new visibility among museum and gallery audiences.

Even so, the artists of Portobelo are not nearly as well-known as those from the island cultures of Haiti, Jamaica and St. Martin's, for example.

In fact, the Portobelo artists had virtually no public exposure before 1997, when a group of young art students led by Arturo Lindsay, a professor of painting at Spelman College in Atlanta and a native of the region, established a workshop there to nurture cultural exchanges between artists in the U.S. and Panama.

As a result, a number of local young men began producing paintings and elaborately carved wooden canes that re-created the oral histories passed down by their African ancestors.

The paintings are executed in a style that juxtaposes flat, brightly colored figures of people against lush, expressionistically rendered landscapes celebrating the natural beauty of earth, sea and sky.

Many of the paintings refer to various events that took place during a successful 18th-century rebellion by slaves who had been brought to the New World from Congo by their Spanish masters. Other works document the religious festivals that blend Christian and African deities, magical events in the village's history, and stylized male and female portraits that represent ideals of morality and beauty.

Painter Amy Sherald, who curated the Sub-Basement show, was among the first group of Spelman students to visit Portobello in the late 1990s.


She recalls the sense of physical isolation in the village -- the nearest large city is two hours away by car over rutted country roads -- but also a surprising awareness among its inhabitants of the wider world and its global pop culture.

"Having had some opportunities for travel over the years, they were familiar with hip-hop, with Tupac and other high-profile rappers," says Sherald, who has since made several more trips to the village. "The kids wear Mickey Mouse shirts. So they're adaptive even though they remain physically isolated. The show is a way for them to make themselves known to the world beyond Portobelo."

"PANAMA: Paintings created in the Congo aesthetic traditions, today, developed and practiced at Taller Portobelo in Portobelo" runs through April 21 at Sub-Basement Artist Studios, 118 N. Howard St. in the Atrium at Market Center. Call 410-659-6950 or