Steve Steuart’s glimpses of this year’s National Artisan’s Fair

Ceramics in an ancient style. This we know from grave goods of the pre-Columbian Coclean culture, and from objects unearthed in Colombia and elsewhere of the Chibchan culture from which five of Panama’s seven indigenous nations descend.

We most reliably attract visitors to Panama with shows like this

photos and video by Steve Steuart, captions by Eric Jackson

International tourism? Better we give people something interesting and fun to do, rather than subsidize redundant hotels. National tourism? People come from all over Panama to the ATLAPA convention center to celebrate the Artisans’ Fairs that celebrate the cultural expressions of who we are. Some come for utilitarian reasons, to buy a new hat or a new chacara (woven bag of a variety that Ngabe and Bugle craftspeople make. A lot of those who attend do Christmas shopping, or add to the decoration of their homes, at these fairs.

mola hats
The applique and reverse applique molas that Guna artisans make are perhaps the best known by outsiders bit of Panamanian indigenous culture. Less well known is the baseball fan aspect of the Guna nation.
sombreros pintados
WHAT?!?!?!? These aren’t what’s internationally known as Panama hats! True enough. When part of the California Gold Rush crowd was coming through here, and later when the French were working on a canal, 19th century visitors noticed the popularity here of hats made in Ecuador and brought a lot of them with them to North America and Europe. Hence the technically incorrect name. OUR main national style in hats is the sombrero pintado, like these examples here. If you are going to live in Panama, better to protect your eyes and skin by wearing a hat while outdoors.
diablito interiorano
A potter’s hands and a ceramic version of a diablito mask. This one is in the Interiorano style that prevails in Panama Oeste and the Azuero Peninsula.
congo diablito
This diablito mask looks like it’s right out of West Africa, and is typical of the congo culture found on Colon’s Costa Arriba and in the Darien. Many African slaves brought to toil in the Spanish colonial shipping industry had ideas of their own — they ran away to the jungle and set up African-style villages. These were the Cimarrones, who with some British encouragement fought a war led by Bayano against the Spaniards. The rebellion was crushed but not the culture, nor the population. Ultimately the Catholic Church added overlays of symbolism and allegory to congo dancing — don’t want to have devil worship or anything like that when missionaries can change the story.
A beautifully embroidered pollera. Panamanians will and do argue about the origins of the emblematic national dress. Back in 15th century Spain, something like these sorts of dresses were common and perhaps got their name from the practice of feeding the chickens by carrying a bit of the grain in the folds. But before the fall of Granada and expulsion of Spanish Muslims and Jews in 1492, Jews were something around one-quarter to one-third of the population of Arab Spain, and the Christian takeover meant to many Spanish minorities conversion to Catholicism rather than exile. But habits continued, like a tradition of modesty wherein women covered up, not necessarily as in the Muslim veil, but still. THEN, brought over to Panama and evolving into the intricate embroidery that only the rich could afford, WHO did all of that needle work? Mostly slaves, but you still have a lot of white Panamanians who steadfastly deny the black origins of the polleras we know, and who insist that the congo dancing polleras descended from the Cimarrones aren’t actually polleras.
So, what to wear with a pollera? To be traditional, tembleques like these.
Performance art is also a big attraction at the Artisans’ Fairs.
Hardwood and leather furniture? Also a utilitarian part of our culture on display and for sale.
Embera art
These days, people decorating their skin is more popular than it used to be. In the Panamanian tradition, it need not be in the form of permanent tattoos. Here a woman gets some traditional Embera art painted onto her arm. It’s a plant substance, usually the liquid from boiled unripe genip fruit, that eventually washes or wears off. The Embera and the Wounaan, unlike the other five indigenous nations here, speak languages of the Chocoan family rather than Chibchan tongues.
Jewelry based on some truly ancient designs. How old? We don’t precisely know, but figure that goldwork like this was being made in the village where Pedrarias The Cruel founded Panama City, and that things like this are found in graves both in Panama and in Colombia. THEN, get into metallurgy and geology. You can tell more or less, by the composition of the gold / silver / copper alloy, from whence the metal in a piece of pre-Columbian gold jewelry came. Archaeologists digging in Panama have found gold that was heirloom stuff when buried with its owner very long ago, of South American provenance. It’s probably evidence of what people brought with them on migrations more than 1,000 years ago more than it indicates pre-Colombian trade networks, which also did exist.
stained glass
The Republic of Panama emerged from Bolivar’s Gran Colombia experiment after decades of intermittent 19th century warfare, often about whether the Catholic Church would be the official religion, or on the other hand if we would have a secular state. Talking about the religious aspects of our history is still controversial. Yet there is no denying that at key moments Christianity provided the bond that kept Panama together as a society, notwithstanding our religious diversity. Thus at celebrations of Panamanian culture that the Artisans’ Fairs are, you will find Christian art, not only as in this work in stained glass.

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