Popular art in Panama is a masculine and working-class genre, associated with the country’s black population. Its practitioners are self-taught, commercial artists, whose high-toned designs, vibrant portraits, and landscapes appear in cantinas, barbershops, and restaurants.
The red devil buses are the tradition’s most visible manifestation. The old school buses are imported from the United States and provide public transportation in Colon and Panama City. Their owners hire the painters to attract customers with eye-catching depictions of singers and actors, boastful phrases, and vivid representations of both local and exotic panoramas. The red devils feature powerful stereo systems and dominate the urban environment with their blasting reggae, screeching brakes, horns, sirens, whistles, and roaring mufflers.
Wolf Tracks: Popular Art and Re-Africanization in Twentieth-Century Panama analyzes the origins of these practices. Author Peter Szok suggests that re-Africanization took place earlier than most scholars, asserting it arose in the 1940s, in the heart of the populist period. Szok relates the art Afro-American festival aesthetics and to the rumba craze of the mid-twentieth century, provoked partly by the Second World War and the thousands of U.S. soldiers who arrived to protect the canal and fuel a raucous nightlife.
Artists such as Luis “The Wolf” Evans exploited such moments of modernization to challenge the older conception of Panama as an exclusively Hispanic and mestizo (European-indigenous) country. While middle and upper-class intellectuals fled from modernization and asserted a romantic and mestizo vision of the republic, popular artists enthusiastically embraced the new influences to project a powerful sense of blackness.
Based on over ten years of research, Wolf Tracks includes biographies of dozens of painters, as well as detailed discussions of mestizo nationalism, soccer, reggae, and other markers of Afro-Panamanian identity. The book also features 24 color images of Panamian folk art.