‘Know who you are before someone tells you’ is a popular adage among the Wolof people of the Senegambia region of West Africa from whom the Congos of Portobelo, Panama, are descended. It is also the inspiration for the paintings by the members of Taller Portobelo. In 1995, Virgilio ‘Yaneca’ Esquina, a leading member of the community, together with photographer Sandra Eleta and artist, cultural investigator, and educator Arturo Lindsay, formed the painting workshop where Arte Congo, a new and unique Afro-Panamanian visual arts movement was born. Congos trace their lineage to cimarrones (maroons), self-liberated Africans in Panama. Pushing against the erasure through enslavement of African identity, memories, and culture, they continue their forebears’ resistance through art, music, dance, language, fashion, food, street performances, fortified villages or palenques, and Carnival. Taller Portobelo’s contribution to O Quilombismo manifests in the plentitude of the depictions of their indelible identity, including the sovereign ruler of their matriarchal society queen María Merced (María Merced); an herbal healer (Hiervatero); a king who blends with the tropical landscape (Rey Guacamayo); and the resilience of women of colour (as proclaimed in Judimingue nunko modidá). Through their practice, Taller Portobelo honour and celebrate this lineage and the ethos of egalitarianism, communitarianism, and a bond with ancestrality and the environment which are at the heart of quilombismo.

Works in the exhibition: Know who you are before someone tells you (2023), paintings of various artists: Gustavo Esquina de la Espada, María Merced (2022), painting, acrylic, pieces of broken mirrors on canvas, 70 × 60 cm; Virgilio ‘Yaneca’ Esquina, Hiervatero (2013), painting, acrylic, pieces of broken mirrors on canvas, 78 × 83 cm; Ariel ‘Pajarito’ Jiménez, King Guacamayo (2009), acrylic with pieces of broken mirrors on canvas, 112 × 100 cm; Manuel Tatu Golden, Judimingue nunko modidá [Cimarrones never die] (2019), painting, acrylic paint, feathers, shells, seeds, pieces of broken mirrors on canvas, 70 × 60 cm. Courtesy of the artists