Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Arturo Lindsay, North Coast Congos and el Taller Portobello

Last Friday, artist, scholar and social activist Arturo Lindsay (pictured below) delivered a lecture at the university on his artwork and research interests in ethnography, and how this scholarship intersected with his work at the Taller Portobello (Portobello Workshop), established in 1970 by Panamanian artist Sandra Eleta in the Caribbean coastal town of the same name in Panama. Lindsay, a Panamanian native who teaches at Spelman College, focused his remarks on the Congo "living art traditions" of Portobello, which were for a long time, he noted, perceived as a "marginal" aspect of the Panamian population. "Who are these Congos?": this was the question he asked himself when he first began exploring their traditions, and the key one that opened his talk.

LindsayHe proceeded to discuss his particular methodology as an art historian and ethnographer by pointing out his emphasis on "culturalism," rather than the other common approaches of formalism, Marxism or feminism; his use of experimental phenomenological methods, by which I took him to mean proceeding from essential qualities and attempting to describe them first, before defining , interpreting and judging; and the Ecker-Kaelin system of aesthetic inquiry, which privileges experience of the object or event first, after which analysis and meta-analysis, and then theorization and meta-theorization, follow. This direct experience of and engagement with the artwork, provides the chief route towards deeper knowledge and understanding. Doing so has been especially important for the kind of ethnography Lindsay has explored with the Congo traditions of Portobello--rather than simply popping in and expounding, he felt it was important to live among the people, experience their traditions firsthand and in particular their performance of Carnival and other rituals, and then base his knowledge on these experiences as well as related research.

Some of the more fascinating aspects of his lecture, I thought, were the historical, symbolic and metaphysical-spiritual registers embodied and performed through the various Congo figures and the living rituals of the celebration and performances. Underlying the Congo version of the tradition and its performances is the basic fact of the Congos' status as the spiritual and cultural inheritors of the cimarrones (maroons) and the palenques (fortified villages) they established, which have parallels across the African Diaspora in the Americas. Related to this is are numerous trans-Diasporic cultural and performative matrices, including that of Carnival/Carnaval; the Congos had been viewed in the past as enacting a kind of buffoonery, but Lindsay explained how this was, as in other Diasporic contexts of masquerade, spiritual play and celebration, a means of subterfuge and resistance; in fact, I immediately thought, clowning, legerdemain, acting (out) and other kinds of ironic play were forms and methods of self-determination and self-empowerment across the Diaspora.

The Congo performance begins on January 20th, with the raising of a black-and-white flag, and ends on Ash Wednesday. Among the chief Congo performative figures he enumerated through slides and his discussion were:
  • the Pajarito (Little Bird), a messenger between the spirits and the participants, and a trickster figure (Eleggua);
  • the Árcangel (Arch Angel), clad in white frocks based on the Spanish colonial imagery and literally tied, by string to male figures representing the ánimas (spirits)--I think he said there are 7 spirits but I may have this wrong;
  • the Diablo Maior (Chief Devil), who is masked, wears red and is the chief embodiment of evil (Satan obviously, but also the Spaniard).

He then showed photos of the other diablos, some played by children and younger people and representing evil spirits, who come out in public on Ash Wednesday and are whipped, then "baptized," a form of ritual public expiation for the coming Easter holiday but obviously also a mimetic recreation of the enslaved ancestors' experiences. Lindsay pointed out that the diablos too represented the embodiment of the material and spiritual evil of the Spaniards during the colonial period, and so I read their whippings also a particularly powerful, ritualized transhistorical response. He went on to say that the Diablo Maior every year is captured, blessed and sold, after which he is unmasked, revealing his true face and freeing him of evil; but the process obviously also represents the experience of the enslaved ancestors. In fact, the space where much of this takes place becomes known during Carnival as the Tierra de Guiné (Guinea Land), a ritualized space invoking another historical and transtemporal, ancestral memory and matrix.

All of these Carnival performers, he stated, are male, because the Congos lived in a very gender-specific community, and yet he also said that community in general was women-centric. The Congada musical celebration comprised male drummers and female singers, led by a cantalante who initiated an antiphonal/call and response performance. Though I did not get the opportunity, I wanted to ask him more about the gendering of the figures and performances, and also about his brief mention of the transgender aspects of various ritual performances and experiences, particularly given the parallels in other syncretic religious traditions (Santería, about which Lindsay has written, and Candomblé, for example), particular Congo-descended and derived historical figures (in colonial Brazil, for example), and the real-world, contemporary embodiers of this form of spiritual practice in southern, south-western and south-central Africa (the source, of course, of enslaved Congo peoples throughout the Diaspora) that have been discussed in works like Murray and Roscoe's Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities.

Lindsay concluded his talk with a focus on the Taller Portobello and his own work. One of the points he concentrated on was the community-based, collaborative nature of the artistic practice that occurs at the Taller, which sits right near the port and which, he said, was in part a tribute to those who didn't get off or make it off the boats. He showed slides of the work by affiliated local painters (all of them male), and of his Spelman and other female students who were in residence at the Spelman Summer College Art Colony he established at the Taller. A number of the paintings featured mythic-spiritual Carnivalesque figures (including the Pajarito) and historical heroic cimarrón images, in portrait (or really quasi-iconic) form. (I wanted to ask about this particular mixed formal approach, particularly the iconic depictions, which Lindsay himself has engaged in, but didn't have the chance to). One effect of the exchange for the residents of Portobello, he noted, was the recuperation and recirculation of historical antecedents and cultural fragments that the Spaniards and scholars outside the community had recorded or noted, but which were to some extent lost by the residents; this was an interesting point, and reminded me of Lorand Matory's discussion of the dynamic exchange between the Yoruba in Brazil and Nigeria, and how circulation created new traditions while reshaping, reinforcing or transforming old ones.

Rey BayanoI was very familiar with Lindsay's work from a tiny show he'd been part of that I helped organize (with artist and scholar Adrienne Klein), years before, through New York University's Faculty Resource Network, at the Cinqué Gallery in SoHo, but I enjoyed seeing it again and hearing him talk about it. He showed a number of the ritual artifacts (such as cajas de ánimas [spirit boxes], thrones, ships, and tent-like structures) and the related spaces he created. For some of the boxes he asked that people select the name of a child or adult who might have been lost during the Middle Passage or later, and that child's native home. (Adewale/Ifé, for example, or Kwesi/Accra). Other slides featured his performance as an emissary (and trickster), returning and bringing the ancestral spirits back home through the Door of No Return on Gorée Island, Senegal, and pictures of the canvases invoking some of the chief cimarrón leaders (such as el Negro Madagascar, Luis de Mozambique, Rey Bayano (at right), and Juan de Díos--I would love to spend time just exploring the sources and meanings of each of these names), with the concomitant spiritual reliquaries and artifacts (including offerings of food, beads, and so on). Some fruitful questions and answers followed his talk, and I left with the strong desire to visit the Taller and his own Taller Arturo Lindsay, now under development as well as Panama in general (which Reggie H. and others have recommended). I also wanted to view more of Arturo's artwork and vowed to read more of his criticism (including his edited volume Santería Aesthetics). And I wanted to think more deeply about what he'd said and produce artwork born of that process.

I also appreciated hearing him underline a practice I try to emphasize periodically in these entries--our ancestors and loved ones live in part because, he pointed out, we call their names....

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