Wolf Tracks

Wolf Tracks: Popular Art and Re-Africanization in Twentieth-Century Panama

Peter Szok
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Wolf Tracks
    Book Description:

    Popular art is a masculine and working-class genre, associated with Panama's black population. Its practitioners are self-taught, commercial painters, whose high-toned designs, vibrant portraits, and landscapes appear in cantinas, barbershops, and restaurants. The red devil buses are popular art's most visible manifestation. The old school buses are imported from the United States and provide public transportation in Colón and Panama City. Their owners hire the artists to attract customers with eye-catching depictions of singers and actors, brassy phrases, and vivid representations of both local and exotic panoramas. The red devils boast powerful stereo systems and dominate the urban environment with their blasting reggae, screeching brakes, horns, sirens, whistles, and roaring mufflers.

    Wolf Tracksanalyzes the origins of these practices, tying them to rebellious, Afro-American festival traditions, and to the rumba craze of the mid-twentieth century. During World War II, thousands of U.S. soldiers were stationed in Panama, and elaborately decorated cabarets opened to cater to their presence. These venues often featured touring Afro-Cuban musicians. Painters such as Luis "The Wolf" Evans exploited such moments of modernization to challenge the elite and its older conception of Panama as a country with little connection to Africa. While the intellectual class fled from modernization and asserted a romantic and mestizo (European-indigenous) vision of the republic, popular artists enthusiastically embraced the new influences to project a powerful sense of blackness.Wolf Tracksincludes biographies of dozens of painters, as well as detailed discussions of mestizo nationalism, soccer, reggae, and other markers of Afro-Panamanian identity.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-244-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
    (pp. ix-1)
    (pp. 3-15)

    This book examines Panamanian black proletariat culture and its contribution to the country’s sense of identity in the second half of the twentieth century. My study looks at sports, music, and politics; however, its focus is a group of mostly self-taught painters who despite their social and economic marginalization, affected the development of Panamanian nationalism. Proletariat or popular culture is an imprecise concept, and the debates surrounding its meaning have elicited a plethora of scholarship. Here, I propose to narrow the definition and will concentrate on these mostly autodidactic painters, who were largely excluded from Panama’s museums and galleries and...

  5. 1. FROM WHITENING TO MESTIZAJE The Panamanian Official Identity, 1821–1941
    (pp. 16-47)

    Panama has suffered from a long-standing reputation of being an invention of North American imperialism rather than a nation with legitimate roots in history. This idea rests largely on Panama’s independence—its controversial separation from Colombia in November 1903, which occurred with decisive U.S. assistance. The Colombian Senate had recently rejected an agreement that would have allowed the United States to build a canal through the isthmus and to connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. With the aim of securing the strategic route, Theodore Roosevelt’s government encouraged Panamanian patriots to rebel and to establish their own republic. U.S. warships supported...

    (pp. 49-73)

    “Romantic novels go hand in hand with patriotic history,” writes Doris Sommer in her seminal study of Latin American nation building.¹ Sommer, whose investigation examines literature from the nineteenth century, emphasizes the books’ emergence in the turbulent decades following the region’s independence from Spain. Political and economic instability characterized this period, and the authors of the texts were frequently participating in the conflicts, as liberals pressing for national development. The works of these writer-statesmen offered a rejection of traditional divisions and proffered the elites’ hope of a more cohesive community in which “progress” and their own hegemony would be complementary...

    (pp. 74-110)

    For the isthmus’s intellectuals, World War II marked a setback in their efforts to counter the effects of North American imperialism and to create a homogenous national culture capable of quelling the republic’s turmoil and reinforcing patriarchy and their own social position. A series of literary works expose their frustrations and chronicle the period in an overwhelmingly negative manner. These books typically depict Panama’s black urban areas, and they portray them as falling under increased U.S. influence and threatening the supposed customs and virtues of the interior. The interior with its imagined mestizo population was considered the true source of...

  8. 4. “100% PRITY” The Aesthetics of Panamanian Popular Art
    (pp. 111-137)

    Visitors to Panama City often take note of the red devils, the old but elaborately decorated school buses that investors import from the United States and that serve as the community’s basic form of public transportation. Most observers have emphasized their unruly qualities and their capacity to provoke and draw attention to themselves and even to take possession of the areas which surround them. A recent article commented on their “thunderous” mufflers, their “visual overload,” and booming “stereo systems” which, according to this essay, were able to “wake the dead.”¹ Another writer suggested that the capital’s upscale neighborhoods seemed so...

  9. 5. CHOMBALÍZATE Re-Africanization of Sports, Music, and Politics, 1990–2010
    (pp. 138-161)

    Chombalízatewas the phrase written on a showy red devil recently working the Panamanian capital and commanding onlookers to turn themselves intochombos. The term is a derogatory word for blacks in Panama and is associated particularly with Afro-Antillean culture and with connotations of stupidity, laziness, and licentiousness. In this case, however, the painter had turned it into something positive, much as African Americans in the United States have occasionally converted the n-word into an expression of empowerment by throwing it “right back in their oppressors’ faces.”¹ The implication ofchombalízatewas that it had now become acceptable or even...

  10. APPENDIX The Wolf Pack
    (pp. 162-197)
  11. NOTES
    (pp. 198-234)
    (pp. 235-256)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 257-268)
  14. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)