An Incomplete Timeline of Isthmian Identit(y/ies)


Contact. Conquest. Discovery. Accident. Exchange. Decimation.

Feet landing upon the shores of what would eventually be known as the Bahamas began the biggest exchange of biology and culture known to history. Christopher Columbus’ first contact with the so-called New World would soon change biological landscapes throughout the world in irrevocable ways and, most pertinent to us, allow the opening up of dialogues between continents – an often aggressive, often brutal interchange. The world we live in is the illusory ‘end’ to a timeline made from many millions of exchanges that happened and are still happening today, all branching out from that one grand, horrible moment when an intersection was created.

Narratives define history, identity, self. Recent world events are showing us something historians have known for ages: ‘truth’ is relative. Whichever narrative is decided, sold, packaged, retold and consumed is the one accepted, and possibly becoming the basis for a whole group’s identity. What, then, becomes of those people groups who cannot tell their stories? What becomes of them when their stories are not only unheard, but subsumed by those of more powerful hegemonic identities?

Presented as a visual dialogue between Spanish medieval tapestries such as Devoción de Nuestra Señora and pottery designs found on archaeological artefacts of the Gran Coclé cultural region of the Panamanian Isthmus, An Incomplete Timeline of Isthmian Identit(y/ies) attempts and fails to tell a story of the many ethnicities of the Isthmo-Colombian cultural region that takes up most of Central America and the North of Colombia, both past and present. This timeline fails on principles of definition: when do you start the timeline? When humans first migrated into the continent? The years before Contact with Europeans? Post-contact? And how exactly can you show a timeline when the present is ever passing us by and the future is imagined? As such, this work exists as a metaphorical meeting point, and one crafted in bias. There are five ‘scenes’ in this work, selected to tell a very particular narrative born from ethnoarchaeological evidence, deliberate gaps left in between history lessons in public schools, the realities of oppression remembered and occurring, and a knowing abandonment of positivity – there is a reason the Spanish called it Conquista, after all; and to ignore that such an imperialistic mentality survives to this day is irresponsible and simply plays into the hands of those charlatans who create a singular truth.

An Incomplete Timeline of Isthmian Identit(y/ies)

Decimation of Population

The first scene is not the beginning of human habitation of the Isthmo-Colombian region, but it is a beginning to this story in particular; a representation of the time immediately preceding the violent conquest of the region, peppered with some historical-botanical inaccuracies.  The second scene is a representation of the Conquista, in which a ‘technologically superior’ Spanish kingdom sought to crusade rather than dialogue, to enslave rather than share, to contaminate. The third scene is the colonial period, when kingdom becomes an empire which can barely protect its territories from enemies, the descendants of those who survived and hid in the mountains to fight, disrupt and protect their cultures. The fourth scene is of modernity, an opposition to narratives peddles by Nation States who sell an image of many peoples, many cultures working under one flag when the reality is one of systematic oppression, disrespect for tradition, hegemonic assimilation, theft of land and resources, and socio-economic slavery. The fifth scene doesn’t yet exist, for this is a window into a future, both bright and dark, which I felt woefully unprepared to open on my own. This latter space is left bare as I am not the person to fill it; as a simple communicator of themes and histories who hasn’t directly lived these conditions, to attempt to present a future is socially irresponsible. As such I leave this space blank and invite those who know more than I do, those who have lived the good and the bad of the Columbian Exchange, to help me envision a future.

These scene take inspiration from medieval Spanish tapestries in obvious ways: its final presentation, the visual narratives presented through composition-based metaphors of power and relationship between objects and the hidden details that tell a story to their own. Obvious is the use of Pre-Columbian patterns to give shape to the indigenous animal population and the hominids whose culture was in relationship to environment and animals. Also employed is the use of recurring patterns and symbols as decorative elements, similar to those found on decorative plates and vases of the Conte ceramic style. The process of making this Timeline created its own dialogue, in which both styles tried to subsume each other: how much Pre-Columbian and how much Spanish Tapestry should be involved? By representing elements of the past in a modern, Western style am I not betraying the past to the hegemonic homogenization its suffered from in the last six centuries? Shouldn’t I have shown every single element in the style of the people I attempt to narrate about? But at the same time, those whose style I take inspiration from no longer live and any form of art made by the modern indigenous people groups of the Isthmus are very different to their pre-Contact ancestors. Am I insulting one side or the other by presenting the political leader of the Ngöbe and Bugle peoples in the same style as that of the political representative of the Nation Estate that abuses and ignores them while selling their image as a touristic marketing strategy? The combination of these two styles brings a wealth of metaphors and historical baggage and many a subject to talk about; at the very minimum, I aim, through creating an intersection of artistic styles, to give shape to a metaphor and reality of the 21st century Isthmo-Colombian Nation Estate: one of many nationalities, many identities, many senses of self; some have completely polymerized into new, different and vibrant communities with their own identities; others have rejected this and remain as pure to their roots as they can be in this century; and others define themselves in opposition to the other. This Timeline is incomplete also because I fail to show that there are more than just two sides to this conversation, not simply indigenous, whatever that word means nowadays. The culture that exists today is the result of an ongoing amalgamation process that began when a Genovese sailor first reached the longest north-to-south continental mass on the planet.

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