Interview with Adrienne Samos

Panama City, 16 November 2016

Let’s start by talking about some of the numerous initiatives that have dealt with the collection, research, and exhibition of contemporary art from Latin America. Initiatives that began around the year 2000. From your perspective as a Panamanian curator, do you consider that its achievements are still relevant today?

Latin American art is one thing seen from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile or even Cuba: countries that offer strong public support for innovative practices and whose historical connection with the European avant-gardes has been tight-knit and fertile. It is quite a different thing to view it from a Central American perspective. We have always suffered from a much weaker academic, institutional, and artistic infrastructure. Here, the changes and developments have occurred much later. The decline of the reign of painting, for example, only began in the late 1990s.

How did Panama and the Central American countries enter the international scene?

In Panama, the so-called contemporaneity suddenly fell on us—BAM!— right after the fall of the military dictatorship that kept our backs to the world. Artforms such as assemblages, installations, performance and video art, or conceptualism were almost non-existent at the beginning of the 1990s. Young artists began to pay attention not only to what was happening elsewhere, but also to their own reality in less lyrical or escapist ways.

In 1998, Costa Rican curator Virginia Perez-Ratton arrived in Panama as a member of the jury for the local biennial and unleashed a mini revolution. Virginia and the other two members of the jury, Ivonne Pini and Edward Sullivan, awarded the newly created sculpture prize to a work by Iraida Icaza, which caused much controversy because it was an assembled object, and not carved or cast like most traditional sculptures. But the real watershed brought on by this award was its use of photography as a central element. Until then, photography, the most “mundane” artistic medium there is, had entered our exhibition spaces on very few occasions. As a result of this award, no painting ever won first place again at the biennial. Also since then, Virginia decided to include Panama in what became her most rewarding life project: to unite the region around artistic thought and action.

How did this unification take place?

Geographically, Panama is part of the American continent’s central isthmus, but our country’s cultural history is much more linked to the Antilles than to the mainland. Although we were a province of Colombia for most of the 19th century, relations with Bogotá were very distant. When she came to Panama, Virginia motivated us to collaborate in giving more visibility to the region. Central America simply did not exist on the international art map. But, aside from being a pragmatic strategy (unity is strength), the underlying idea was that together we should be generating art and critical thinking from our own perspectives and realities, without hang-ups or external impositions.

At that time, Virginia was directing the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MADC) in San José and I was in charge of the cultural magazine Talingo, which was published every Sunday in the largest Panamanian newspaper. Our budding collaboration became gradually stronger and stronger.

And how did the bonding with the rest of Central America come about?

In 2000, Virginia had already left the MADC and was just launching her new foundation, TEOR/éTica. That year she organized a large symposium to analyze the situation and the challenges we were facing in the Central American isthmus. Panama had not yet established a deep relationship with the players of the art scene in Central America. This encounter, to which Virginia gave the ingenious title of “Central Themes,” represented a true breakpoint and the beginning of a strong complicity between different generations of artists, curators, and intellectuals. The Central American Biennial, inaugurated in 1998, was also very instrumental in propelling this burgeoning regional exchange.

Meanwhile, what was happening in Panama?

The United States reverted the canal to Panama on the last day of 1999, after a long and convoluted political, diplomatic, and technical transferring process, which finally ended the centennial enclave and all its military bases. This new reality unquestionably had a great impact on our collective psyche. Since the middle of the previous decade, the buoyant art scene that began to emerge had little or nothing to do with the art of the so-called “masters,” except for those—such as Sandra Eleta, Julio Zachrisson, or Brooke Alfaro—who were already working with urban poetics. These emerging creators devoted themselves to exploring the chaotic capital city and also to what was happening outside the country, including the sophisticated but previously ignored work of Panamanian artists abroad, such as Eric Fajardo and Iraida Icaza, for example.

In the first decade of this century, much critical reflection and debate sprung around contemporary culture and local realities. These young artists edited their own magazines, exhibited outside and inside institutional art spaces, and were very supportive of each other. Another important factor is that many of them did not come from the visual arts or from architecture, as it used to happen in the past. Humberto Vélez is a lawyer and filmmaker, Donna Conlon is a biologist… Others studied graphic design, advertising photography, sociology, philosophy, engineering, even medicine. They did not have to break with the artistic tradition because they never belonged to it. 

All of this critical and creative effervescence is no longer as alive today. Or am I wrong?

Not wrong at all. Due to the characteristic lack or eventual erosion of funds for critical practices, the best magazines closed down and the local biennial was discontinued. As a result, the strength of the art scene has waned. In spite of this, some artists continue to make very significant work and promising young creators are also emerging. But a true revival remains to be seen. Non-complacent art is still rarely supported here, including the Museum of Contemporary Art. Notable exceptions are Diablo Rosso art gallery; Casa Santa Ana, a new nonprofit foundation that organizes extraordinary art-and-education projects; and the Spanish Cultural Center.  

Is it possible to establish connections between what happened in Panama and what happened in the rest of Central America?

Certainly. All the countries used to have their own local biennial and they all had repercussions similar to what happened in Panama. Today only the Bienal Paiz in Guatemala is still standing and has become a highly renowned exhibition, with several venues, an international curatorship, and a great public program that extends throughout the year. As for the Central American Biennial, it was invented by a Guatemalan businessman and a Nicaraguan banker, and it operated with works by six artists per country. (By the way, Belize has never been included in this equation; who’s to blame, I really can’t say.) Each time it is held in a different country on a rotating basis. The best thing about this biennial is that the artists selected to represent Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama are invited to the inauguration with all expenses paid. This has allowed them to forge great friendships and opportunities for new shows and collective projects. And also, to get to know each other more and more. This year it was San José’ s turn to be the host. For the first time, the Central American Biennial changed its model to one based on a regional curatorship. Tamara Díaz Bringas and her team of curators decided to choose works by a much larger number than the usual 36 artists, and under a beautiful title: “All the Lives.”

In short, certain events that took place in all of these biennials broke with traditional practices. Those responsible were not only the artists, but also the judges invited to select the works. They made decisions that often went against the grain of the rules established by each biennial, because they considered them to be anachronistic. Mind you, the founders of these biennials were quite conservative art collectors, but felt obliged to hand over the control to experts of considerable international prestige, who in turn radically changed the rules of the game.

It is interesting to see how these changes differ from what happened in other parts of Latin America around the year 2000. But the similarities are even more interesting to me. Not long ago, people weren’t the least bit interested in what their colleagues were doing in the neighboring countries. I remember that when I first visited Central America, in each country I was advised to eat this or that because it was supposedly unique to that country. However, what I ate in the rest of the region was pretty much the same [laughs].

I think the situation changed thanks to the possibility of traveling. Even young artists who do not belong to the bourgeoisie have taken advantage of new opportunities to travel and acquire knowledge of others.

Exactly. In part, thanks to events such as these local and regional biennials. As for Central America, I must mention the fundamental role that TEOR/éTica continues to play in the production of innovative and rigorous thinking in the region, despite Virginia’s death in 2010. She made sure that this would happen. The Spanish cultural centers also offer valuable support for the training of new artists and the dissemination of their work, as well as for cultural exchanges between the different countries.

As for your own project, Daros Latinamerica, one of its axes was precisely to bring the Latin American nations closer together, inviting artists to generate dialogues and get to know each other. The goal was to create connections and meaningful exchanges, just like what Virginia strived for. I remember that Daros also included several Central American artists and intellectuals in these encounters.

Yes. I also invited Virginia, of course. Do you really think that Daros’s goal made any sense and that it yielded some results? A very disillusioned Simón Bolívar argued that a true union of Latin American countries was an impossible feat.

It made every sense! Your project possessed a great guiding force with a comprehensive structure that included works, exhibitions, creative workshops, spaces, active thinking and dialogues with artists, historians, curators, educators… All of this was programmed with an open and attentive frame of mind. For those of us who had the privilege of collaborating in one way or another with Daros, the experience was memorable. I’m sure I’m speaking for most of us. How far would Daros have gone in achieving the purpose it set for itself? Who knows? It is unforgivable that everything was cancelled practically overnight.

Thank you for your words. In the Daros encounters and beyond, a recurring debate centered on identity. How do you view this phenomenon today in Panama?

In that arena, Panamanians have calmed down after the canal handover. The obsession with identity, still prevalent in so many Latin American circles, must be linked to a certain self-loathing inherent to the colonized mentality, don’t you think?

There is this need to measure up to Europe. So many intelligent and sophisticated people still have this complex and all sorts of other prejudices and exoticizing clichés about Europe. It’s very disconcerting. 

Changing the subject, how do you perceive the evolution of art criticism in the press and specialized magazines during the last twenty years?

Gone are the supposedly brilliant critics who passed judgement from their ivory towers. Their admirers nodded, overawed and fascinated, although there was also some room for disagreement and sharp debate. That kind of sustained criticism, by highly respected experts, hardly exists anymore in our part of the world. At least not in the periodic media, as far as I know. 

But the old critics at The New York Times or The New Yorker, for example, are still writing and people still read them.

True. The critical tradition, in all areas of creative endeavors, is much more ingrained in the Anglo-Saxon world. 

What influence do you think social networks have had in this matter?

The networks have democratized, multiplied, and atomized the spaces of opinion and information. They have also banalized them. 

And lastly, Adrienne, how can you tell if an artwork is good?

When I have no doubts. And when, for that very reason, I’m at a loss for words to explain precisely why.

Adrienne Samos, Photography: Milton J. Villegas

Panamanian editor, curator, art critic, and translator, Adrienne Samos holds a Bachelor of Arts from Sarah Lawrence College in New York and studied Hispanic Philology at the Universidad Autónoma in Madrid. Cofounder (with Alberto Gualde) and editor of the magazine Talingo (1993–2006), which was awarded the Prince Claus Award in 2002, Samos directs Arpa, a non-profit entity that promotes culture and contemporary art, and Sarigua publishing house. She has written essays on art, culture and literature, as well as numerous learning guides, and is the author of Divorce, Panamanian Style. Jumps and Shifts in Art from Panama: 1990-2015 (TEOR/Ética, San José, 2016), editor of Radical Pedagogy: Art as Education (Sarigua, Panama, 2013), and coeditor (with Gerardo Mosquera) of ciudadMULTIPLEcity. Urban Art and Global Cities: An Experience in Context (Hivos, Amsterdam, 2004), among others. She has organized symposiums, workshops, educational programs, and exhibitions in Latin America and Spain. Recent curatorships at MAC Panama include «The Rebels: The In(di)visible Tradition» (with Humberto Vélez in 2018) and «An Invasion in 4 Tenses» (with Mónica Kupfer and Gladys Turner in 2019-2020). 

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