I cannot separate this photographic work from my personal life in Portobelo.
Located on the Caribbean coast of Panama, this town has been the context of my experiences. Its history is marked by the arrival of enslaved Africans, who came through the Gateway of No Return in Senegal (1) and who endured the painful journey to these lands in order to be sold in Portobelo’s former negrerías ―now reduced to rubble― and to then work in the construction and upkeep of the imperial capital. Many of them, called cimarrones or Maroons, managed to escape their Spanish overlords and established settlements called palenques, where they sought their freedom.
A prevailing spirit of libertarian defiance was what attracted me to Portobelo when I came here for the first time over thirty years ago. The pictures I’ve taken form part of a personal journal of my experiences, with healers and conga dancers, with the children whom I kept in touch with, as they grew up and became adults. Some of them are outstanding artists, like Tatu and Gustavo, who painted the mural on the walls of the Centro de la Imagen. Gustavo Esquina has the following to say about the process: “I feel good in my own skin now. Memories of my ancestors have been dispersed in the waters of the Atlantic that separated us from our roots, so that we could achieve a new awareness, where the beat of the drum no longer sounds like a dirge, but like a tribute to everyone who is ready to celebrate the fact that they have achieved their freedom.”
Photographer and defender of freedom, as she describes herself, Sandra Eleta has documented the Afrodescendant and indigenous communities of Panama, portraying the women in these societies in order to render them more visible. Among her most celebrated photo essays are Guna Yala (ca. 1992), La servidumbre (1975-1979), and Portobelo (1977). It is in the port town of Portobelo that Eleta has produced most of her work, photographing its inhabitants, its traditions, and the Maroon influence in the region. Eleta is chairwoman of the Fundación Portobelo and cofounder of the Taller Portobelo, a cooperative textile workshop for visual artists in the area. In 2018, Editorial RM published Sandra Eleta: The Invisible World, the first book-length treatment of her work.
1. According to anthropological studies, most of the ancestors of the Congos and Afro-Panamanians arrived in Portobelo from Central Africa, from the region known as the Kingdom of Congo.
I have been doing anthropological photography for the past thirty-five years, and my work has focused on popular customs and folkways. In Devils of Turiamo (Corpus Christi), folklore is a contemporary expression, since it manages to update codes whose formal aspects are altered while their traditional content is essentially conserving. We could say that folklore is a dialogue between tradition and the ever-changing ways it has of expressing itself.
From the beginning, this perspective has influenced my quest for a personal language, based on mises-en-scène and certain representations of the sacred, the unclean, and the polluted. In this way, photography functions as an echo chamber for the cultural complexity and diversity that characterize manifestations of folklore, which evolve and change through time. Folkways emerge as a result of the collective practice of anonymous individuals who renew tradition and its formal means of expression. Without this dialogue, it would be impossible to understand the complexity of the contemporary ―and folkways are indeed contemporary.
Drawing on elements of violence, eroticism, and popular culture, Nelson Garrido has created a transgressive, experimental visual language that uses mises-en-scène to question and challenge socially accepted norms and beliefs. In 1991 Garrido was awarded the first edition of the Premio Nacional de Artes Plásticas in Venezuela. He has been selected to participate in the Triennial of Chile and the Mercosur and Havana Biennials. He is the author of the book Nelson Garrido (La Cueva, 2017) and the founder of ONG (Organización Nelson Garrido), a cultural space devoted to the teaching and exhibition of photography. In 2018 he presented the retrospective exhibition La ONG Santiago + de lo profano a lo sagrado in Chile, in which he reflected on the ongoing political and social crisis in Venezuela.