Travel log Central America, October/November 2005, part II

Honduras

Next came Tegucigalpa, where I was initially slightly frustrated because of the iris recognition and fingerprinting I had to undergo. Bayardo Blandino picked me up. He is a very professional, very friendly colleague in his mid-thirties and heads the Centro de Artes Visuales Contemporáneo de Mujeres en las Artes in Tegucigalpa.

The space and activity correspond pretty much to that of Virgina Pérez-Ratton in San José de Costa Rica —with the exception that no one goes to Tegucigalpa in order to see it. Leticia de Oyuela, an intellectual Grande Dame of Society, initiated it ten years ago. The women starting with her, Wanny, Catalina and Josefina Álvarez, have gone elsewhere. Only América Mejía stays as executive head of the centre. What remains is the name of a cultural location that is now being filled with art by Mejía and Blandino, who originally comes from Nicaragua.

Bayardo Blandino, Toulouse 2005, Photography: Serge Vizzini

We went to Bonnie de Garcia’s gallery together. Bonnie is sixtyish and part of high society. She is the central figure. For many years, she selected the artists from Honduras for the Central American Biennale. She had a gallery that still exists, although no longer officially under her management. She has done a lot for her country. There were works by the 26-year-old artist Adán Vallecillo installed in her gallery. I liked them a lot, so I met Adán the next day and told him that I wanted to buy two of his small objects. He was very happy about the appreciation. This will propel him forward.

Because Bonnie thought it was something I should see, we went to the property of the ex-president Flores, who gave us a tour of his ugly, gigantic house. I do not know how many living rooms he has, at least ten of them, and all of them in absolutely bad taste. He showed us his huge daubs in Petersburg hanging style. It dragged on and on; we had to look at absolutely everything. There is utterly no escape from situations such as these. My local escorts were curious to see his estate and I served as the Trojan horse that granted them admission.

The significance of painting

Painting is of great importance in the countries of Central America, including México, as I noticed in Honduras. Every country has an academic tradition of painting, reaching back to the beginning of the 20thcentury, with decent, professional painters. Tediously uninteresting as this may seem against the European background, it is an important frame of reference in Central America. Over the years, the painters have acquired enormous social appreciation; they are true maestroswho circulate in high society. They prevent access for artists with new ideas, such as Vallecillo with his objects. At the same time, the people who can afford to buy art—I would not call them collectors; they simply fill the walls of their houses—cannot imagine that any art beyond this type of painting exists. People will ask: “Who is the painter?” when what they actually want to know is: “Who is the artist?” The same holds true elsewhere in the world, only it is more striking in Central America. If it weren’t for such initiatives as that of Bayardo and the others, contemporary art would simply not be seen. It belongs to the merits of people like Bonnie, who have unrelentingly and valiantly, if in their limited ways, propagated new ideas in their social circles over the past decades, that contemporary artistic approaches are perceived at all.

In the end Bayardo Blandino and I were with Bonnie, where the evening dragged on, although I escaped a further guided tour of the house. On the next day Bayardo and I went to the historical museum in Tegucigalpa. Street kids approached me twice for money that day, the atmosphere was not good there. I spent the afternoon at Bayardo`s space.

Belize

I left for Belize very early on the following day, where Joan Duran and his girlfriend Eugenia, who live in Meridá in Yucatán, México, met me. Joan is originally from Catalonia, but he has been living in Latin America for ages. He is the man who gets things going. He is the initiator of the “Landings” exhibitions. He is also mentor to Yasser Musa, the son of Belize’s president and manager of the Image Factory in Belize City. The office and three small exhibition spaces constitute the only art center in the city. With a population of only 250,000 in the entire country, things are a bit different in Belize. Yasser is not a good artist, but he represents the presidency. 

Joan Durán with Michael Gordon, Belize, 2015

When we were driving to the jungle, or rather to the dense bushland, in Yasser’s car the next day, I was able to gain illuminating insight into state affairs. Based on one of Joan Duran’s ideas, they had established an insitu parcours in Pousinier, in the middle of the bush near the border to Guatemala. Artists can work and even live there. International artists are involved, too. The artists cut a clearing somewhere and erect their works there. One idea is also for the jungle to take over, to swallow and dissolve everything. 

I liked very much the work “Greenhouse”: In the middle of the jungle, there is this small greenhouse brimming with growth up to the point of the plants breaking and lifting the glass. What I liked best was this small trail, ten or twelve meters long, four meters wide, made of mahogany parquet. The British used to import their mahogany from Belize (formerly British Honduras!), destroying entire forests in the process. The parquet boards of the small trail come from a Scottish castle that was sold. Walking on the parquet floor in the jungle creates a sense for the times and places it spans—originally a tree; United Kingdom: all the people in Scotland who strolled across these boards. And now, this British-Belizean, rotting and moldering parquet is returned to the jungle. What a beautiful idea! We had a very exhilarating and inspiring, if slightly exhausting day.

Then I met a nude and fashion photographer who finds his models on the street, and who makes very interesting black-and-white photos of Belizean bars and street scenes. He will send a few of his works. I was glad to leave Belize in the end; the country is on the dirty side. There is not even a proper waste disposal plant in the country, while a not-so-new bridge spanning the estuary of the Belize River into the sea seems to be the height of progress; everyone talks about “the bridge”. 

On the other hand, the museum has beautiful old glass bottles from the 18thor 19thcentury in brilliant colors, their main attraction. Paul, the director of the museum, showed me the theater, too, and the Former Governor’s Palace, where we met the brusque manager. The former jailhouse has a small but enticingly beautiful collection of Mayan vessels. From the many settlements so far discovered we know that in Mayan times at least one million people lived here, a prosperous, developed community. The condition the country is in now seems like the result of a terrible banana republic farce.

Panamá

I arrived in Panamá on November 2, late in the evening. On November 3rd, the national holiday, there were grand parades with bandas playing brass music. I met Mónica Kupfer, originally from Hamburg, Germany, an art historian and critic who is widely traveled and knows her way around, just a bit conservative. Since there was nothing else to do on that day, we drove to a popular destination at the Panama Canal, a restaurant above a lock, where it was wonderful to sit outside and watch the ships.

The Canal Zone, constructed from 1907 to 1914 by the USA, stands out from the history of 20thcentury architecture as an interesting, massive, modernist project. Its uniform architectural style looks a little like Chinese chalets. The project involved the utopian idea to build an ideal city for US citizens in a tropical landscape considered to be an ideal location. An absurd venture, the Zone also remains a very sore spot in Panama’s history. 

People in Panama, on the whole, are much cooler, somehow more real than the people from the other Central American states. The social structure and attitudes are not as terribly outdated and antiquated as they are elsewhere. Panamanians are pleasantly casual and highly professional.

Panama differs greatly from the other countries. Perhaps it has something to do with the Canal, with people and ideas just sort of drifting in and sticking around for a while, making their stance. With its touch of anglophilia, Panama City is quite international. There may be tall buildings in other Central American cities, but none has 80-storey skyscrapers or a skyline like Panama. The lifestyle in boomtown Panama City is radically different from the rest of Central America. The city is relatively compact, easily accessible, and definitely has a charm to it.

We visited the 7th Panamá Biennale at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo on the following day. The curator Rosina Cazali from Guatemala had juried it, backed up by Mónica Kupfer and Walo Araújo, the directors of the Biennale. Thirteen artists aged 25 to 40 participated. Walo Araújo rallied all who showed up so we could talk to them and see more of their works. Humberto Velez’s audio is very good as is a video by Donna Conlon. 

Unfortunately Brooke Alfaro, an important artist in Panama who is also involved in social and charity work, was not there. I will meet him another time. I would also like to visit Humberto Velez in his studio. I heard many people from different contexts mention him as an artist of good, intelligent works. Dinner with the artists and with a lady who is involved in the Biennale, a friend of the former initiator from Nicaragua. She runs as well a boring gallery.

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