February 14, 2017
As part of their class exercises, students enrolled in Dr. Peter Szok’s “Cultural Contact Zones: Native American Art and Politics” course are organizing an exhibition of works by the Panamanian painter Alejo Deleon (1955-). The exhibition opens at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center on March 3 and runs through March 29. Community members are invited to join students from the organizing class on Gallery Night, March 25, to view the exhibition. All are welcome.
Deleon belongs to the Guna (formerly Kuna) community, one of Panama’s eight Native American ethnicities, and a group widely known for a 1925 rebellion which stemmed from the abuses of national authorities and which led to the establishment of one of Latin America’s most successful autonomous indigenous regions (Guna Yala). Guna Yala comprises a 232-mile land strip, along the eastern Caribbean coast, where the majority of the population lives on offshore islands and uses the mainland for hunting and agriculture. The Guna are also city people. Today roughly half of their 80,000 members find themselves in other parts of the republic, primarily in Colón and Panama City.
Deleon was born and raised in Usdup, located in the central-eastern part of the comarca and one of the largest Guna settlements. Usdup was a flashpoint of the Dule Revolution (1925) and boasts a proud lineage of poets, musicians, filmmakers, and photographers. It is also the home of Nele Kantule (1868-1944), a towering figure in Guna history, who collaborated with Swedish anthropologist Erland Nordenskiöld (1877-1932) in the writing of several path-breaking ethnographies. Deleon continues to live in Usdup and sells his canvases from his thatched-roof studio to the occasional visitors passing in sailboats on their way to Colombia. Deleon is also the village painter and decorates its walls for important celebrations. His creations draw heavily on Guna aesthetics, evident in the reverse applique panels (molas) which women design and sew onto their blouses. Weddings, puberty ceremonies, daily activities, and funerals are some of Alejo’s favorite topics, as are the heroic narrations of Ibeler, a central figure in the Guna foundational story. Through the organization of the exhibition, students gain a greater understanding of the Guna, including their interactions with the outside world.