Arturo Lindsay Photo: Evelyn Quiñones
with Opal Moore
Arturo Lindsay, Kalami from the DRC, 2018, 48 x 36 inches
In his seminal collection of essays, Santeria Aesthetics In Contemporary Latin American Art (1996), Dr. Arturo Lindsay showcased an array of critical art voices that together presented a crossroad community of artists of African and Latino roots and influence. Santeria, a religion forged within the crucible of the African diaspora, sat at the intersection of philosophy, spiritual and aesthetic practice for these artist practitioners. Santeria Aesthetics is seminal not only in the study of world art; it is also a key to the art- making and career of this artist.
Over the years, Arturo Lindsay’s aesthetic practices and pursuits have variously asserted and explored the four points of the Congo “cosmogram”: water (womb, beginnings); earth (material being, the body); fire (death, transition); breath (spirit, afterlife). His spiritual and aesthetic foundations are evident in the evolution of his art practice, which includes painting, photography, art installations, performance art and collaboration, research, teaching and his longtime commitment to scholarly and creative appreciation of Congo art, its history and production.
Lindsay was born in Colon, Panama, a seaport city on the Caribbean coast. Throughout his career he has maintained his connections to the Panamanian artist/scholar community. His work with Taller Portobelo, an artists’ workshop in Panama, is an extension of his combined research, teaching, practice and community-building activities. His latest project is a documentary film in progress, “Artists' Journey on the Congo Coast of Panama.”
I met Arturo at Spelman College. Over the years we have worked on poetic collaborations and performances. The most extensive is a project titled “Children of Middle Passage,” in which we pursued the elements of water, earth and spirit in a contemplation of the lives and transitions of child captives of the infamous middle passage between Africa, the Caribbean and Europe. I recently learned that Arturo had also enjoyed an extended conversation with well-known poet, playwright and novelist, Ntozake Shange. Shange was developing poems in connection with a series of Lindsay’s “spirit” paintings. Their project, Smoke Voices: interviews with the spirits in the art of Arturo Lindsay was not yet completed when Shange passed away in October of 2018.
I composed questions for Dr. Lindsay that I hoped would offer a framework for a conversation about his creative vision and his cross-cultural collaborations.
Portraits of Yemaya by Arturo Lindsay
Opal Moore: Arturo, first of all, it’s great to talk with you in this way, as we have known each other for such a long time. Thank you for engaging with me, and The Art Section.
My first question is connected to unfinished work—your documentary film “Artists’ Journey On the Congo Coast of Panama.” Your video description (and pitch) is linked here as part of this dialogue because I wanted to honor the way that scholarship is so intrinsic to the way that you do your work, and the way that you present it to viewers. The art works coming out of the Taller are distinctive. Talk a bit about the aesthetics of the works being produced there. What are the aesthetic links between the [African] Congo and Portobelo, part of the African diaspora?
Arturo Lindsay: The documentary will reveal a lot about the people of Panama, and how Congo art tells their stories. Anthropologist Fernando Ortiz refers to the merging and converging of cultures as transculturation. Congo art is transcultural. Congo art and aesthetics at Taller Portobelo are rooted in African retentions, rediscoveries and aesthetic fusions. The slave trade delivered Africans to the Americas, to Portobelo, with talents in music, art, dance, poetry, and with skills in carpentry, construction and gastronomy. They also came with centuries of sophisticated religious belief systems, philosophies and aesthetic preferences. They came with traditions to honor and ancestors to memorialize. They came whole. They shared their traditions and beliefs with each other resulting in a mestizaje Africana – an African mixture, a virtual fusion of the aesthetic tastes of various African ethnic groups that were enslaved in Panama.
Panama’s unique tradition at carnival called el juego de Congo – Congo ritual play—is an example of a fusion of qualities. This improvisational street performance involves music, dance, costuming, a special language, architecture and food. It lasts several days during the carnival season. The dancers role-play what you might call an existential conflict. The players, in masquerade costumes representing good and evil, perform the ritual. The African ancestors are the “good” spirits who have returned to wrestle the devils—diablos— the evil Spaniards who enslaved them. This African-inspired performance ends on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, with “good” overcoming “evil.”
In Congo painting, the subject matter falls into two general categories – narrative and portraiture. Congo artists retell, in their paintings, the stories they’ve heard from elders in their community, or paint from their lived experiences including the different roles they have played in el juego de Congo. In most of their portrait paintings, Congo artists revere the beauty of the women of Portobelo. I once asked Titto, one of the artists of the Taller, why he painted so many Congo women. He looked at me as if astounded by the absurdity of my question and replied, “Because they are beautiful!”
In a rather Marquezian “magically real” move, the artists of Taller Portobelo break the time barrier allowing their cimarrón – maroon – ancestors to inhabit the same space and time on a canvas with their Congo descendants. I am fond of saying that in order to reconstruct or to construct anew the cultural memory of the African Diaspora, artists must first erase erasure using other ways of seeing. Congo art and aesthetics is completely engaged in this work.
Viaje de artistas en la costa Congo de Panamá by Arturo Lindsay
Santeria Aesthetics In Contemporary Latin American Art (1996),
edited by Dr. Arturo Lindsay
OM: How did the Taller get its start?
AL: Along with Sandra Eleta a brilliant photographer and Yaneca Esquina, a leading member of the Congo community in Portobelo we co-founded the Painting Workshop of Taller Portobelo in the mid-1990s as a joint art training effort in collaboration with my students from the Spelman College Summer Art Colony.
OM: Some of your former students are now highly recognized artists. Would you like to shout them out?
AL: Love to. At various times, those students included Amy Sherald, Fahamu Pecou, Torkwase Dyson and Calida Garcia Rawles. I will also mention Renee Alexander Craft and Oronike Odeleye who were young scholar/artists at that time. Renée’s interaction with the Congos— Yaneca Esquina, Ariel Jimenez, Titto Esquina, Gustavo Esquina and Tatú Golden became the basis of her dissertation and later book, When the Devil Knocks. She created Digital Portobelo: Art + Scholarship + Cultural Preservation, which is an interactive on-line collection of ethnographic interviews and other materials. Oronike, an Atlanta art activist, and Renée developed Creative Currents, a non-profit organization that sponsored annual artist retreats in Portobelo and Dakar, Senegal.
Arturo Lindsay, Dear Lord…Why…[Did] Latasha Have to Die, 2019, Acrylic on Canvas with Gold Leaf, 53.25 x 31.5 inches
OM: This is life’s work that you are describing.
AL: You could say that. The mission of the Taller is to preserve Congo culture without exploiting the people. We want to establish an income stream for artists in this culturally and historically rich yet, economically disenfranchised community.
Arturo Lindsay, Dear Lord…why…[did] Qa’id have to Die., 2019
Acrylic on Canvas with Red feathers and feathered ju-ju pack, 53.25 x 31.5 inches
OM: Have you always had an affinity for poetry and poetics in connection to your visual art? You were a young artist in New York during the rise of the Black Arts movement, which linked all of the arts—poetry, drama, dance, painting, sculpture, etc. And we are still in mourning for the passing of Miguel Algarín, one of the founders of the powerful Nuyorican Poet’s Café. How did poetry become so important to the way that you thought about visual art?
AL: Wow! That is a lot. Let me answer your last question first. You are right, I am still mourning losing Miguel. He was not only a fellow art collaborator, he was a dear friend with a brilliant mind. Miguel was an intellectual. He could speak with authority on various subjects. He loved showing just how smart he was to bigots that had low expectations for a “lowly” Puerto Rican. The Café did a Zoom Memorial last week. It’s on their website.
Miguel and I met as collaborators in a Plexus International event. Plexus is a loosely organized group of artists from various countries founded by Sandro Dernini who was in a doctoral program with me at NYU. Miguel and I did art performances in NYC, Rome and Sardinia. Generally, I would set up an installation in which we performed. Our best work was Homenaje a Miky Piñero, a memorial for a co-founder of the Nuyorican Poet’s Café.
Prior to engaging with ‘Zake [Ntozake Shange] in an art and poetry collaboration, I tried writing poetry influenced by The Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron and the Nuyorican poets. I chose the name Salongo as my nom de plume. According to Wikipedia , “People with the name Salongo tend to be idealistic, highly imaginative, intuitive, and spiritual. They seek after spiritual truth and often find it. They tend to be visionary and may inspire others. If they fail to develop their potential, they may become dreamers, or misuse power.” Does that sound like me?
Arturo Lindsay, Celestial Map 7.22.18, 2018, Acrylic on Canvas, 20 x 18 inches
OM: I didn’t know about your work with Ntozake until recently—that your history of collaborating with poets did not begin with our Children of Middle Passage project in 2001?
AL: That’s right. But my collaborations with you are the most significant—[the Delfina Project] performance art ritual at Spelman College for the children who perished during middle passage. And the performance ritual for the Arab Spring uprisings taking place in Cairo, [Artist Contemplating the Fate of Those Who Speak of Freedom].
OM: You had just returned from Cairo for a project there.
AL: And of course, the summer that you added a bi-lingual poetry component to the Spelman College Summer Art Colony that I directed each year in Portobelo [Panama]. So far, we’ve worked together in the US, Italy, Panama, and Africa. You’ve been a great art partner.
OM: Don’t forget Germany!
AL: That’s right. How could I forget? About my collaborations in art, I should say that I grew up in a culture in which all of the art forms were represented in art events. This is probably most evident during carnival in my hometown of Colon, Panama. I guess carnival became my art norm. The blending of art forms during the Black Arts Movement was simply a continuation of what I thought was normal for art.
Arturo Lindsay, Chrysalis 10, 2017, Acrylic on paper, 30 x 22 inches
OM: In your artist’s statement for “Celestial Dreaming,” one of the exhibitions of paintings documented on your site, you offer a cosmic question: where does the soul of a murdered black child go? You connect this musing to the murder of Kamau, the son of your godson, Cheo Chandler, in 2013. Kamau was 17? Talk about the longer history of this question of black death in your scholarship and your art.
AL: There really isn’t much of a longer story. I simply did not want Kamau’s life’s story to end as a “victim” on Fulton Street in Brooklyn.” This was very personal. As I sit here writing in my study, on my printer next to me, there is a photo of Cheo holding Kamau who was barely a month old. I was part of the village that was raising this child. In return, this brilliant, bright light of a child, by just being Kamau, assured us that there was a bright future on the horizon. The future will be safe for future generations.
And by extension, I did not want the life stories of any more black children to end as victims, dead on the streets of this or any nation, or incarcerated for murdering a black child. They too are our future. So, I turned to entomology to examine the life cycle of a caterpillar transforming from a chrysalis to a beautiful butterfly. And I turned to the “four moments of the sun”: birth, adulthood, end of life and a beautiful rebirth, that is exemplified in the Kongo cosmogram.
After six years of work in this series I stopped last year. It was becoming too painful. Even today, every time I hear of another murder of a young black person, regardless of gender I cringe. Making art did not make the pain go away, it only eased it momentarily. That pain will only leave when our children are guaranteed their inalienable rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Arturo Lindsay, Ameem Of the Sudan Returns, 2018. Acrylic on canvas,48 x 36 inches
OM: I try to keep to three questions in the dialogue. For you, Arturo, is there a question that you wish I had asked as part of this interview? If so, what is the question and what would you tell me?
AL: Your questions are excellent—provocative and disarming—challenging me to dig deeper into the preconscious soil of my mind where the seeds of art dwell.
I guess good questions might be: “You seem to be transitioning away from painting. Are you? Or, What’s next, after you complete Artists’ Journey, the documentary?”
To that, I would say that I love to paint. I love the idea of facing a blank canvas and seeing it transform. It is like the chrysalis story. I have, however, felt weary. Just after the pandemic lockdown earlier this year there was a fire in the studio next to mine. Given the lockdown policies, it was difficult for me to get to the studio to truly assess the damage. While no sentient beings were harmed and no work was consumed by the fire, I suffered serious water and soot damage. The fire made me confront the fact that I had a large inventory of unsold paintings, and that I am a poor custodian of my art. Abysmal is a more accurate word. I decided to burn the surviving paintings in a performance art ritual.
OM: I’m glad you didn’t do it.
AL: When I made that decision I did not realize, nor did I care to admit that I was suffering from a mild form of depression. This burning of art works, by the way, is not as crazy as it sounds. Over the last four decades I have produced a series entitled The De-Materialization of Art in which I either burned or buried works of art. The first project in this series is Homenaje a Miky Piñero. This project was done in collaboration with Miguel Algarín as an homage to Miky Piñero. Miguel and Miky co-founded the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City’s Lower East Side. Other projects were done in Portobelo, Panama, as well as in Rome and Sardinia, Italy.
I am still planning the ritual. I have given up my studio and asked rEN Dillard, a very fine painter and an equally fine curator, to help me move my work into storage until after the pandemic when we would de-materialize the work. rEN convinced me to mount one last exhibition at the South Fulton Arts Center to allow folks a chance to experience as well as collect some of the work before the performance. I agreed, and titled the exhibition, the Fire this Time – a tongue in cheek reference to the studio fire, James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time, as well as a reference to the fires sparked by the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd. I also decided to sell the works at bargain basement prices – a “fire sale.” I am pleased to say that in spite of the pandemic I did sell many works, but not all. We have yet to set a new date for the final fire but at least the work is in storage and with a better art custodian.
Arturo Lindsay, Portal 4, 2017, Acrylic on Canvas, 48 x 36 inches
Arturo Lindsay is a native of Colon, a seaport city on the Caribbean coast of the Republic of Panama.
At age 12 his family migrated to the United States and settled in Brooklyn, New York. Lindsay is an artist/scholar/educator. His art and scholarly practices are informed by the research he conducts in the African Diaspora. His research interests are the presence of African spiritual and aesthetic retentions, rediscoveries and reinventions grounded in the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz’ concept of transculturation. www.arturolindsay.com
Opal Moore, a native Chicagoan, is a veteran teacher of creative writing and African American women’s literature. She is the author of Lot’s Daughters, a poetry collection that one reviewer described as “passionate slices of African American womanhood.” Her fiction and poetry have appeared in anthologies and journals, including the Boston Review; Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry, the Notre Dame Review, Connecticut Review, Honey, Hush! An Anthology of African American Women’s Humor, and Homeplaces: Stories of the South by Women Writers.