60th Venice Biennale

Cisco Merel: Art, Afro-Antillean Architecture and Migration

Traces: On the Body and on the Land is the title of the Panama Pavilion whose artists will focus on reflecting the country’s migratory boom through drawings, collages, paintings, glass sculptures and installations. We spoke with artist Cisco Merel about his transition into the art world, Afro-Antillean architecture, and the Darién Gap.

C&AL: Your work makes references to geometry, architecture, and typography. Who are your influences? And how do you usually begin your creative process?

CM: My creative process begins by defragmenting letters to create a vocabulary of shapes; for me, it’s like a game with multiple variations and possibilities. I find inspiration in references to architecture, photography, and my environment, all of which are intimately connected to my work. I spent a significant amount of time in Europe, especially in Paris and in Germany, where I participated in several artistic residencies. Those experiences were crucial to my artistic practice. When I returned to Panama, I had the privilege of working with Maestro Carlos Cruz Diez, and that period of my life had a significant impact on my growth as an artist and as a person.

Over time, I came to understand that my exploration of form is more than a means of creative expression for me. It’s a way of communicating the issues that interest me, which I explore in my work, such as social contrasts, migration and the urban landscape and its symbolic significance.

C&AL: How does Panama, its culture, and your relationship to it influence the art you make?

CM: Panama is unique in that it is a place at once full of contrasts and enriched by influences from all over the world because of its migration history connected to the canal. On a personal level, I am Chinese-Afro-Panamanian: a mixture, a product of all the rich cultural diversity that comes out of that reality, and that directly shapes my work. My main sources of inspiration come from popular art, Afro-Antillean architecture, migration, and street life, as well as experiences with the sun and the rain. Color, treated as a source of empowerment and a sense of belonging, plays an essential role in my work.

I observe how architecture and customs have become interconnected and fused together over time, generating a unique mix. Color in particular becomes a crucial tool for us to reappropriate structures we have inherited, giving them their own identity and meaning.

C&AL: And what role do color and other materials such as soil play?

CM: I have a deep personal connection to mud. I grew up spending the summers with grandmother in her house, which was built with adobe 106 ago. That is where it all began, where I’d been experimenting with total freedom since my childhood. Many years later, when I was already immersed in my artistic work and construction methods started becoming more complex with the introduction of technology and new concepts, I got scared that I could lose everything, and I wondered: “If they took everything away from me, could I still make my art?” That feeling was like a premonition, and then the pandemic came along. That was when I realized that that sense of vulnerability had managed to open a path to new possibilities.

It stimulated a sort of self-reflection, a need to explore and reconnect with my roots. I wanted to return to the methods my ancestors used for construction, discover rituals and take back the cultural wealth I was seeking to reconnect with. That resulted in a whole series of clay works, a journey I began eight years ago.

C&AL: This will be the first year that Panama has a pavilion in Venice, featuring four artists who will focus on reflecting Panama’s immigration boom. What does this mean for you? What can you tell us about your participation?

CM: For me, it is an honor to participate in this edition of the Venice Biennale along with colleagues and masters whose work I deeply appreciate: Isabel de Obaldia, Brooke Alfaro, and Giana de Dier. My work specifically addresses the Darién Gap and everything that happens on the border between Panama and Colombia. It focuses on the illusion of crossing and the complexity involved in crossing one of the most dangerous jungles in the world.

Espejismos del Tapón (Illusions of the Gap) for the Venice Biennale is presented as a powerful artistic manifestation aimed at making visible and expressing the intricate social and migratory issues that characterize Darién Gap. Linear in form, similar to a path, the painting evokes the harshness of the journey, symbolizing the resistance that is needed to overcome the obstacles faced by those who venture in search of a better future.

The 60th Venice Biennale will open on April 20, 2024, in Venice, Italy.

Cisco Merel (1981) lives and works in Panama City, Panama. Cisco Merel’s artistic production is based on a rigorous formal and spatial research where geometry, color, space, abstraction and abstraction and the visual and sensorial phenomena.

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh