Emissaries from the Primordial Realms:

Posted in Essays

The presence of Pre-Columbian and Indigenous Art in the work of Isabel De Obaldía

Susan L. Aberth

“Primordial,” is a particularly apt title for this mid-career retrospective of the Panamanian artist Isabel De Obaldía. By bringing together her works on canvas with her cast-glass sculpture we are not only better able to assess their relationship to each other, but also determine their shared set of influences. That the exhibition intersperses works of Pre-Columbian art within its display, one of her primary and most long-standing sources of inspiration, allows us to appreciate the ways in which she has visually and spiritually incorporated it into her artistic vision. The end result of these complex series of juxtapositions is to demonstrate how her entire oeuvre stands unified, transcending disparate histories and media. De Obaldía’s work instead harnesses primordial forces, collapsing time in order to create a sense of an eternal present.

Nucho-PanamaRecent scholarship has rightfully restored Pre-Columbian art’s place within the primitivism that guided the historic trajectory of modern art. Previously African art had been consistently privileged, with Pre-Columbian influences either ignored or demoted to lesser standing. In books such as Barbara Braun’s Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World: Ancient American Sources of Modern Art (Abrams, 1993) art history has been updated to reveal the impact ancient American cultures had on artists such as Paul Gauguin, Henry Moore, Paul Klee and Frank Lloyd Wright. For early twentieth century Latin American artists, including Joaquín Torres-García, Diego Rivera, Xul Solar, Rufino Tamayo and a host of others, the incorporation of Pre-Columbian motifs and styles facilitated an exploration and expression of national identity, as well as wide variety of other meanings. Therefore, when De Obaldía situates herself within modernist primitivism, she takes her place in a venerable line of artists, both European and Latin American, whose work drew upon Pre-Columbian sources.

De Obaldía grew up surrounded by Panama’s ancient and indigenous art forms and frequently visits archaeological sites and Indian markets, in addition to the various parks in the rain forest which fostered her intense appreciation of her country’s rich spectrum of flora and fauna. But her connection to Panama not only stems from proximity; members of her family had significant personal and cultural ties that drew the artist into a deeper understanding of her heritage. The paternal side of her family has roots in the Chiriquí region of Panama, specifically to the Dorace peoples. Her great aunt Beatriz Miranda de Cabal wrote Un Pueblo visto a través de su lenguaje (1974), a book that translates the Dorace Indian language into Spanish (which the artist still consults when naming her pieces). Her sister, María Olimpia De Obaldía, the artist’s grandmother, was a Panamanian poet of some renown whose most famous poem, Ñatore May, expresses the suffering of the women of the Ngöbe Buglé, an indigenous group bordering Chiriquí.

TrujilloIt was her stepfather, the artist Guillermo Trujillo, who exerted the greatest influence on her work and contact with his art and art collection left a deep impression on the formation of her artistic career. Trujillo also grew up in the remote Chiriquí region and his work pays homage to its indigenous ritual practices and the objects associated with them. As a child De Obaldía spent much time in his studio surrounded by Pre-Columbian ceramics and stonework from Central America, as well as the carved wooden Chiriquí shamanic staffs known as nuchos. The lively and totemic figures in Trujillo’s paintings serve to magically keep alive almost extinct Indian traditions and it was this lesson, that the past can live on in modern form, which perhaps infiltrated the imagination of the young De Obaldía to later become a pivotal artistic strategy. Traces of other Panamanian indigenous art forms have made their way into her work in a surreptitious manner, such as the animal head basketry masks of the Embera Indians and the colorful molas made by Kuna Indian women, elaborate constructed panels of cut-cloth and embroidery.

2001-Nocturnal-BeastThe work with the most direct visual links to Panama’s archaeological past are De Obaldía’s series of cast-glass metates, based on the Pre-Columbian stone ceremonial “thrones” found in Panama and Costa Rica. Stone metates, used to grind maize and other foodstuffs, were probably incorporated into ancient rituals and the decorative quality of some Central American examples certainly suggest a ceremonial function. Carved from porous volcanic stone, they often have protruding animal heads and tails and are covered in geometric relief carving. Linked to rites of fertility, it has also been suggested that some of the larger and more ornate examples may have served as thrones for rulers. Belying their fragile medium of glass, De Obaldía’s massive metates, such as Klbil (1996) or Two-Headed Beast (1997), evoke ancient examples, even in their carved surface markings. The artist has whimsically deviated from the archaeological prototypes in Bestia Nocturna (2001) through the addition of a wagging tail and a human head thrown back in abandon, barking with a protruding tongue. A band of silvery spikes around its circumference, set dramatically against the turquoise-colored body, suggests that there is a bite to that bark. The first manifestation of these monumental metates, however, appears to be in two-dimensions. In the 1994 painting La Bestia, a blood-red (like molten glass), human-headed metate appears to come alive, its head bathed in a yellow nimbus as it spews a golden substance up towards the sky. We are in a forest at night, the foliage on the trees sways in the wind, a tree-trunk metamorphoses into a praying man, and the fiery metate, with roots dangling as if freshly yanked from the ground, serves as a bridge between a pale human who grasps it on the left and a black totemic figure who grasps it from the right. Nature is full of powerful forces and the past can rise from the dead of history if the living evokes it properly. This painting lends substance to the ceremonial nature of her metates and to their Pre-Columbian precursors as well.

2009-sketch-for-crocodile-metateLess obvious, but still clearly linked to archaeological sources, are De Obaldía’s warrior figures. Nude male figures – lyrical, heroic, and often mutilated – abound in her work in whole or truncated form. One group of glass sculptures from 1997-98 are headless and yet hold heads that are either their own or those of their victims. Irga Tará, has a luminous white torso, spotted with blood-like red on the neck, hands and body, and holds a black head impaled on a stick. A white figure with yellow striations, Tiger, holds a large golden head in front of its chest. Hunter stands (minus the head) grasping a pole in each hand surmounted by a head while a large hole in his chest marks where his heart once was. In Haunted a headless black figure holds a red stick in one hand and a red feline head in the other (resembling the Costa Rican stone jaguar ceremonial mace-head on view from the Lowe Museum). Frontal male effigy figures holding staffs or trophy heads are a motif running through Central American Pre-Columbian artifacts in gold, stone and on painted ceramic vessels. Although they appear to be the inspiration behind De Obaldía’s figures they differ in one important aspect, they are not headless. Perhaps hers bear witness to the political turmoil of Panamanian politics since they bear a resemblance to some of De Obaldía’s paintings from the 1980s (a time of great social unrest in Panama), such as the headless torsos in Aguas Turbias (1989) and the decapitated figure holding its own head in Desterrado (1989).

Some of the glass figures hint at certain Pre-Columbian sacrificial practices, such as the ritual removal of the heart by the Aztecs as in the previously discussed Hunter or in Juan Caliente (1997) where from a gaping empty cavity where the heart should be flower pedals spring to luxuriant life in a radiating circle that mirrors the sun. In Ab Cuaraquil (1998) a translucent figure clutches his headless neck and genitals, both stained red like blood. An example from what De Obaldía calls her “composed figures” (glass sculptures that resemble articulated dolls), Lenguas Rojas (2003) is a red glass figure covered with spiky protrusions that resemble depictions of the Aztec deity Xipe Totec whose devotees wore the flayed skin of sacrificial victims. Or do they point to the self-destructive nature of man, tormented by his own violent nature, as implied in her painting Saturno (1994) where a hand holds a sacrificial figure in front of an enormous red head to be devoured in an orgy of jealousy, fear and greed.

These figures logically lead us to De Obaldía’s glass heads from 2008 with their mask-like visage and iconic intensity, further amplified by the brilliant blues, greens and golds found in nature. Glowing as if lit from within, some have polished sheets of copper embedded in their foreheads like armor. In their frontality and schematically depicted facial features they resemble the stone Costa Rican trophy head from the Lowe Museum included in the exhibition. Silent and imbued with a sense of life that is vaguely disturbing, they stand sentinel as emissaries from another world. Or perhaps they are inspired by the carved finials of nuchos, mostly plain wood but sometimes painted, as well as other indigenous figurative wood sculpture, that De Obaldía saw in Trujillo’s studio?

2010-drawing-FieraMany of De Obaldía’s paintings and glass sculptures hint at indigenous shamanic practices that stress mystical links to the natural and supernatural worlds. In La Puerta (1996) a radiant gold man stands, with arms raised in salutation or alarm, at a portal to the unknown. A smaller green head is mysteriously placed within his, facing in the opposite direction, its eyes bound to indicate that normal sight is now unnecessary. Búsqueda (1994) shows a verdant green figure with empty eye sockets but eyes on his hands from which stream beams of light illuminating the darkness. The series of torsos and composed figures from 2004 often wear bestial elements on their surfaces such as snakes, sharks, spider webs and teeth, perhaps to remind us that man too is possessed of an animal nature. But the natural world is an amoral arena where one eats or is eaten and so in her painting Hormiguero (1997) an anteater feasts on miniscule humans crawling along the tree it is comfortably perched on. If we have forgotten our perilous place in the natural food chain, De Obaldía is there to remind us.

2010-FieraJaguars, that most sacred of animals for both Pre-Columbian and indigenous peoples are given a staring role on such totemesque upright glass pieces as Panther (2010), reminiscent of ancient stele and ceremonial Indian staffs. Whether emitting a mighty roar as in Fiera (2010) or springing to attack a hapless victim as in the painting Jaguar in Jungle (2010), it is clear who is spiritually and physically king of the jungle. In other works monkeys howl, crocodiles lie in wait, and hammerhead sharks float menacingly by. We are in thrall to the animal inhabitants of the Panamanian jungle who remain dangerous and are not sweetly anthropomorphized as in a Disney movie. That is why another of De Obaldía’s favorite emblems is a human skull, sign of the beauty of sacrifice and the goal of battle in the Pre-Columbian world, and an emblem of the spirit world to indigenous peoples. In the glass “column Duel (2006) a grinning skull triumphantly surmounts a row of trophy heads in red. Savage and yet also tender, De Obaldía’s work does not simply draw from the past, it is a numinous reminder that it never left us.


Susan l. Aberth is Associate Professor and Chair at the Art History Department at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York

1 Tina Oldknow, New Glass Review 31, Corning Museum of Glass 2010. “The 2009 Rakow Commission: Isabel De Obaldia” p.95