In “Cristo Negro | Diablo Blanco” artist Pierce Freelon built a collaboration between artists at Chapel Hill's Teen Center and artists from Portobelo, Panama to create an experiential, interdisciplinary, and transnational bridge between two African/Black Diaspora communities engaged in cultural expression, activism, and community building through art and music. The primary goal of the residencies, workshops, and performances was to use art-making to foster cross cultural connections and critical dialogues and to illuminate discussions of process, points of fusion, and points of productive friction.
To this end, Freelon and his Panamanian colleagues engaged the Chapel Hill community in multi-medium creative workshops in Beat Making, Hip Hop/Latin Dance and Mural Painting. They also held open community “teach-ins” on Pan African Art and Activism, and Hip Hop as a Universal Language. Their music studio doubled as an open gallery space featuring photojournalism of images from Portobelo by artist Saul Flores. Two public performances were held on UNC’s campus and events culminated in a final book talk and open mic performance at Flyleaf Bookstore featuring guest artists-in-residence from Panama and their collaborations with local youth, as well as members of the Chapel Hill and University community.
This creative work originally started in February 2015, in Portobelo, Panama where artists Pierce Freelon, Saul Flores and Herrison Chicas engaged in a creative exchange with brothers Gustavo and Jairo Esquina De La Espada. The quintet engaged the carnival festival and started producing photography, poetry and hip hop music, which laid the foundation for the community work that would take place in Chapel Hill, one month later. Watch this video for a project overview.
When Gustavo and Jairo arrived in Chapel Hill for the residency, community members were excited to receive them. Freelon had spent the previous week in the studio exposing Durham and Chapel Hill youth to the arts and culture of Panama, and several community members had signed up for beat making, dance and mural painting workshops. Though the Spanish-speaking artists-in-residence were not proficient in English, there were many Spanish-speaking youth participants that were more than happy to translate. Once the creative workshops began, artists communicated fluently through their respective mediums.
The workshops, lectures and master classes were dynamic and invigorating. Many youth of African and AfroLatin descent learned about their own history through the stories and creative art of Portobelo. One example of this is the mural that Gustavo painted with the help a dozen students. The mural was a likeness of “Cristo Negro”, or Black Christ a prominent cultural and spiritual figure in Portobelo, Panama. Decades ago, a large statue of Cristo Negro suddenly appeared on the shores of Portobelo (historians theorize that it may have been jettisoned from sinking a Spanish boat). Each year, tens of thousands of Black people from throughout South and Central America and the Caribbean make pilgrimages to Portobelo to see the famous “Cristo Negro”. It is part of a tradition of cultural events that represent the resistance and resiliency of Black and Indigenous people to colonization and the erasure of Black faces from history. The painting of this mural was accompanied by several spirited discussions about slavery, colonialism, race and spirituality. This small example epitomizes the spirit of the weeklong residency.
One unexpected outcome was the inclusion of two young bilingual students from Chapel Hill High School. At the beginning of the workshop, they were interested in learning how to improve their rapping skills in English. Jairo encouraged the young men to develop “las letras” (the lyrics) in Spanish, instead of English. He explained to them the importance of mastering the art in the mother-tongue before attempting to develop the skills in their second language. While a rapping/emceeing workshop was not originally planned, one naturally developed in Jairo’s mentorship of these two young men.