Conversation with Ologwagdi

March 25, 2015

Translator, Professor Peter Szok, Department of History, Texas Christian University

Transcribed by Matthew Horton


Janeil Engelstad (JE): Reflecting on the history of your work as an artist, can you pinpoint a specific point when you began to see that your work could have an impact beyond an exhibition? A political and social impact?


Ologwagdi (O): I am dividing this into two phases; the first is with my own family, my grandfather and my culture. In the Guna culture1, there’s a sense that each individual has a destiny and at a certain age, it was clear to me, my family, and my community that he I was meant to be an artist. But an artist that not only produces art for himself, but also for the community, which is typical of the Guna perspective where individuals play an active role in the community. Activities are not simply for yourself and what you produce is not only for you, but also for everyone. That’s the first phase.


The second phase began in the mid 1970’s, in Panama City, when I was connected to Trópico de Cáncer, a collective of artists who create work connected to social and political things that are going on throughout Latin America. Our objective was to utilize the city as a gallery and connecting art very clearly to politics from an ideological perspective.


JE: What was the process for this?


O: Well, we realized that the words and speeches were not enough. In order for people to understand our message and to be integrated into our efforts there had to be a visual component. It couldn’t just be words or speeches, there had to be some visual aspect to the event to integrate the public. We began to paint, for example, all of the martyrs of the First of May, the Haymarket affair.2


The public was almost waiting to see something; something with colors and images, it was the perfect marriage between visual art and the public. It goes with the idea that in order to organize people, the struggle must be done with a smile. That’s the perspective that has to be taken.


Accompanying visual art were dances, theater - it became broader.


JE: Did this work actually help grow the movement for political change?


O:  It served as a kind of bridge. The collective would be approached by all sorts of groups with different perspectives, from the ultra-left to the more moderate left. They could participate in these groups and help them recognize and realize their common cause too.


JE: did groups that you didn’t want to make a message for approach you?


O: Generally groups that weren't in basic ideological agreement with me wouldn’t approach.


JE: I noticed in reading an article by Peter Szok that you have had quite a bit of work, illustrating textbooks for example, with the Panama Department of Education. Do you have a perspective on the role of the state in arts education or the value of arts education in general?


O: In Panama, there is a deficit in the sense that artistic education has been traditionally formulated or conceived as a European arts education. Indigenous artists and indigenous art is left out of the conception of arts education. Despite the fact that I have illustrated dozens and dozens of books - not only for the Ministry of Education but for poets, writers, and historians – I’ve never asked to participate in those events or programs organized by the State.


It’s necessary for Panamanians to hug their roots; they tend to go to the branches first and they miss what’s more fundamental. The Western orientation leaves this concept or action outside of any consideration, such the development of arts education.


JE: What inspired you to create El Kolectivo[2]?


O: After the Brigada Feliz de Santiso, I continued to work in public art projects but largely by myself, connecting with other groups.[3] For example, I went to Bolivia and worked with indigenous communities there. El Kolectivo was active before I joined. It was founded and shaped by younger people, who then invited me to participate. The first activity that I was involved in was an issue connected to the US Embassy. The Panamanian government proposed to tear down the old, historic embassy building, which was located on the coast of Panama City to build this Torre Financiera.[4] I was invited to participate in an action and I immediately felt like a fish in the water.


Peter Szok (PE): From my interviews with some of the other people organizing El Kolectivo, such as like Manuel Quintero, the collective emerged out of activities to mark and remember the US invasion of Panama. The issue of the invasion is so problematic and there are many people in Panama that prefer to just forget about it. The people from El Kolectivo, before they were really El Kolectivo, were participating in marches to commemorate the invasion. So that people do not forget that history.


JE: Right, so we need to look at this history and how it has shaped contemporary politics and culture.


O: Yes. It started around 2008 and then you have this issue with the embassy and it was kind of an organic development.


JE: So was the plan for the embassy in response to 9/11? After 9/11 there was an effort by the US government to secure our embassies around the world. In many places we moved from a central location in a capital city to less active sites outside of city centers. Or converted embassies into fortresses, often imposing on the social, architectural fabric of the place, such as city squares. Was this part of that movement?


O: No, the US Embassy was moved before 9/11, although the new embassy is a bit of a fortress, it’s on the land of the old military base, Fort Clayton. It’s off from the street on a much bigger piece of property. The issue became what to do with the old embassy, an elegant, historic building. The Martinelli government decided to knock it down. 


JE: So did they tear it down in the end?


O: Yes to construct the Torre Financiera construction, which not was not only on the site of the old embassy, but also touched lands operated by the old Santa Tomas hospital, as well as the children’s hospital. So doctors and medical professionals were angry as well. They utilized the situation to find other allies and build and broader coalition of the Torre Financiera


JE: So this is the official government building for finance?


O: It was going to have the financial ministry and other private financial organizations as well.

El Kolectivo’s position was that this was an historic building that was an important element of Panama’s history and as such that it should be a cultural center. It was a duel. It was going to be the biggest building, a giant phallic symbol. The president’s ego was tied into it.


JE: So what’s there now? What happened?


O: They extended the children’s hospital, not quite a cultural center, but better than the proposed building.


JE: You’ve said that El Kolectivo’s work to use art as a part of larger activism around a particular issue or event has been a catalyst for real, social change. Can you give an example of this?


O: The Martinelli government tried to implement a series of educational reforms aimed at eliminating the instruction of US and Panama’s historical relationship an interactions. Teaching the subject revealed Panama’s difficult and complicated relationship with the United States, which was why the Martinelli’s administration wanted to end that instruction. They were sympathetic to the US position. El Kolectivo, through a series of murals that illustrated that history as well as public events, such as rallies, helped draw attention to these proposed reforms, which then organized the broader elements of the society to oppose it. The perception of the people from El Kolectivo was that they were trying to white wash history, you know, “we’re going to construct the Financial Tower and make Panama into a new Dubai and forget the invasion and the colonial history”. So the collective was very involved in this and helped to galvanize attention to this issue. As a result, the new government, the Varela government reestablished the teaching of US/Panama relations.


JE: So the current government is more left?


O: Varela is not left win. He is a businessman. He is cautious and knows this history is a hot issue. In Latin America, when people take to the street, close down some highways and cause havoc the government has to respond.


PS: It’s important to [Ologwadi] that history is a part of a country. When you take away a country’s history, you almost sort of take the country away. You eliminate its sense of community. One of the things that El Kolectivo did was to paint murals about January of 1964, when there was a violent confrontation between Zonian police, security forces and protestors and nearly two dozen Panamanians died.[5] They painted all the faces of the victims, it was a powerful statement: this is part of history and we need to remember.


[1]. The Guna - or Kuna - are an indigenous group populating politically autonomous regions in parts of Panama and Colombia. While initially under rule of a Panamanian government that attempted to restrict Guna customs, a level of independence was achieved through the Tule Revolution of 1925, leading to the establishment of a self-ruled region in an northeastern area of Panama known as Guna Yula. Guna culture is known for their art form called molas - meaning “clothing” or “shirt” in Dulegaya, Guna’s native language - colorful textile panels made through techniques of appliqué and reverse appliqué and are used to make the national dress for Guna women.


2. The Haymarket affair took place in Chicago on May 4, 1883 and led to the establishment of an International Workers Day - known as  Día del Trabajo in Panama - occurring every year globally on May 1. Beginning as a peaceful labor rally in support of an eight-hour work day, as well as a reaction to numerous worker deaths at the hands of the police, the affair culminated in a bombing by labor activists that left several officers and civilians dead, as well as the eventual hanging of four of the conspirators. While the affair was initially seen as a blow to the labor movement, it ultimately served as a galvanizing moment for the workers efforts, with those accused of the bombing seen as martyrs of the international labor cause.

3. El Kolectivo is an artist collective formed in Panama City. A reaction against the financial and political policies of the Martinelli administration, the group uses artistic expression to address a variety of socio-political, economical, and environmental concerns. Formed in 2010, El Kolectivo utilizes mediums ranging from murals, concerts and performances, among others, to explore important issues in Panama.

[4]. The Torre Financiera in Panama City was planned to be the largest building in Latin America. Proposed by then President Ricardo Martinelli, the construction of the building would have required the demolition of the former US Embassy, which was of important historical value to United States/Panama relations. The exorbitant financial cost and historical impact of the project  led to widespread condemnation in Panama and the eventual suspension of the plan.

[5]. In 1903, Panama achieved independence from Columbia, with help from the United States in exchange for control of the Panama Canal Zone. Operating as a U.S. territory, the Panamanian flag was barred from flying in the Canal Zone, leading to heightened tensions between Panamanians and Zonians, who supported continued American control. On January 9, 1964, a confrontation broke out in the Panama Canal Zone between high school students and Zonians after the tearing of a Panamanian flag. Following the incident, riots around the Canal Zone broke out leading to U.S. military involvement resulting in numerous Panamanian fatalities, as well as the death of four U.S. soldiers. The flag incident is commemorated in Panama as Martyrs’ Day, observed every January 9th, and played a crucial role in the eventual transfer of the Canal Zone to Panama in 1999.