Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast represents the dark side of our identity, little known and mysterious as it is. This great sanctuary shelters a different, exuberant culture, which is marginalized and forgotten, and yet the region is also coveted, threatened by plans and projects that have nonetheless failed to materialize: damaged by man, subjected to the fury of nature, affected by poverty, and stranded in a timeless torpor.
Claudia Gordillo and María José Álvarez painstakingly selected over one hundred photographs that document the landscape, but also, and more importantly, the inhabitants of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. The depth and elegance of the images reveal the photographers’ personal relationship with this region and its culture, their understanding of and empathy for it. Indeed, the area still conserves an age-old Afro-Anglo-Caribbean cultural tradition, influenced over time by several indigenous ethnic groups and the mestizo (indigenous and Spanish) culture of the Nicaraguan Pacific.
In spite of the fact that Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast has long suffered from extreme poverty, marginalization, and various forms of aggression, these photographs still capture the local inhabitants’ muted yet persistent optimism, based on an inner strength and dignity. The basic, untainted honesty of people who have remained unexposed to chronic, systemic corruption. Their cultural traditions persist, and so do their customs and sense of civility, though they have obviously seen better days.
Excerpted from a text by Alejandro Aróstegui in Estampas del Caribe nicaragüense (Universidad Centroamericana, 2000).
An eyewitness to the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, Claudia Gordillo documented the conflicts and combats of the Ejército Popular Sandinista. She worked as a war correspondent for the newspaper Barricada and belonged to the documentary photography movement of the 1980s. Gordillo received an honorable mention at the 3rd edition of the Bienal de Artes Visuales Nicaragüense in 2001 and the photography award of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1994. In collaboration with María José Álvarez, she has documented the Afro-mestizo culture of the Nicaraguan coastal region, which resulted in an exhibition and a book of the same name, Estampas del Caribe Nicaragüense, in the year 2000. Gordillo was granted the Orden de la Independencia Cultural Rubén Darío in 2008. She currently works at the Instituto de Historia de Nicaragua y Centroamérica, where she has curated several exhibitions.
An independent filmmaker and photographer, María José Álvarez has produced a body of images connected with the world of women, the Sandinista uprising, and migration. She is a cofounder of the Instituto de Cine Nicaragüense and a member of the Asociación Nicaragüense de Cinematografía. As cofounder of Luna Films —an independent film and video production company— she has directed numerous documentaries, including Blanco Organdí (2000), No todos los sueños han sido soñados (1995), and Lady Marshall (1994). In collaboration with Claudia Gordillo she undertook the project Estampas del Caribe Nicaragüense (2000). In 2016, she presented the film Lubaraun (Al encuentro de…) at the 5th edition of the Festival de Cine Internacional Indígena Garífuna. She is currently the coordinator of Ícaro, Festival Internacional de Cine en Centroamérica.
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.