Caribbean Art Bridged My African-American and Afro-Panamanian Identities

A portion of the mural at the Afro Antillano Museum in Calidonia, Panama City, Panama

Growing up, I was either “Black” Anthony or “Panamanian” Anthony. Except for at home, in terms of my interests, activities, and relationships my two identities rarely mixed. I associated fútbol (soccer) with Panama, but the music I listened to was considered “Black”. People usually didn’t think of me as Latino. Thus, my “Black” identity became the first layer of Anthony and my “Panamanian” identity became the second more inner layer — if you really got to know me. However, throughout the past year, I’ve been able to connect both identities through (my exposure to) Caribbean Art. I can be myself, my whole self, at all times. This has happened by realizing the shared black and migratory experiences of African-Americans and Afro-Latinos. Caribbean art has been a visual representation of my past, present, and future. It’s served as an introduction to thinking about the African Diaspora as a whole.

The Black Experience through Caribbean Art

The first aspect of Caribbean Art that I connect with is its depiction of the African Diaspora. For me, these pieces represent the struggles that blacks have overcome all around the world. In Campos Pons’ The Seven Powers Come by the Sea I believe she is commenting on death and the attempt to strip away identity, but also the survival of African culture. I think she is trying to draw a connection between the treacherous middle passage and the many lives that were lost. The Yoruba names at the bottom of the shapes (from left to right) Oya, Obatala, Ochosi, Oshun, Oggun, Yemaya, and Chango directly reference cultural retention in the Diaspora.

Seven Powers Come by the Sea, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

In the piece UK School Report, Tam Joseph is commenting on how blacks in the United Kingdom were viewed. Unfortunately, I find these same attitudes and narratives are held in the United States and Panama.

UK School Report, Tam Joseph, 1984

Caribbean Art also shows the great and numerous contributions the African Diaspora has made globally. The mural at the Afro Antillano museum in Panama City, Panama shows the contributions Afro-Panamanians have made in all levels of society. It also reminds me of the numerous Afro-Panamanians that have contributed to American society. Tatyana Ali, Tessa Thompson, and Pop Smoke are all of Afro-Panamanian descent. Personally, Caribbean Art has connected the black experience in Panama and the United States. This was the first step in bridging my African-American and Afro-Panamanian identities.

The Migration Experience through Caribbean Art

The second aspect of Caribbean Art that I connect with are its themes surrounding the Black migration experiences. My abuela’s (grandmother’s) grandparents immigrated from Jamaica to Panama to work on the Panama Canal. They were looking for a better economic opportunity just as African-Americans who migrated out of the South during the Great Migration were. In the future, I see myself living and working in different regions, so I feel that I’m able to draw strength from visual representations of similar stories.

A Caribbean artist that incorporated their experience living in different places is Wifred Lam. Mixed with Afro-European and Chinese ancestry, Lam was born in Cuba, but he spent time in Spain, France, and Italy to develop his practice. He is considered both a Caribbean artist and an international artist. Part of what inspires me about Lam is how proud he was of his racial identity, despite living in a world which contained a racial hierarchy. At the time, it was popular for people to depict themselves with lighter skin, however as we can see from his self-portrait in 1926, he chose not to follow the trends of his time. He embraced his black skin tones and African ancestry.

Autorretrato, Wifredo Lam, 1926

As Lam traveled, he was impacted by various art movements. Below, we see another self-portrait of Lam. It’s very different than his self-portrait 12 years earlier, but he still depicts himself as a person of color. The style of the piece itself is influenced by African art.

Autorretrato, Wifredo Lam, 1938

Lam’s self-portraits spur me to reflect on my experiences traveling between Texas, Georgia, and Panama. Each environment helps shape who I am and who I am becoming.

I feel as though Caribbean Art has been a visual representation of many of my experiences and has encouraged me to learn more about myself. It has also motivated me to continue contributing to spaces here in the United States and in Panama.

Interested in entrepreneurship, Latin America, and Sub Saharan Africa. Aerospace engineering student at The University of Texas at Austin.

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