Panama has a number of notable artists. An important early figure is the painter and sculptor Roberto Lewis (1874–1949), known for his paintings of Isla Taboga and his sweeping murals, which depict romantic scenes drawn from history and mythology. The latter still adorn the Teatro Nacional, the presidential palace, and the Escuela Normal Juan Demóstenes Arosemena in the provincial city of Santiago.
Alfredo Sinclair (b. 1915) and Guillermo Trujillo (b. 1927) are widely considered to be two of Panama’s great master painters. Their work has been displayed around the world. Other major figures include Manuel Chong Neto (b. 1927), whose paintings often feature fleshy women with birds, and Juan Manuel Cedeño (1914–1997), a disciple of Lewis. Important younger artists include Isabel de Obaldía (b. 1957), noted for her paintings as well as her glass art, and Brooke Alfaro (b. 1949), whose subjects include the marginalized of Panamanian society and who now works mainly in video.
Making generalizations about any diverse group of artists is difficult, but it’s striking how many of Panama’s best-known painters make use of warm, vivid colors and dreamlike or primitive elements in their work.
Other popular and widely collected artists include Sheila Lichacz (b. 1942), whose main subjects are the tinajas (clay pots) that date from pre-Colombian days and are folkloric icons throughout Panama. She is relatively well known outside of Panama, but some art aficionados in her home country were surprised in 2003 when her work was exhibited at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Al Sprague (b. 1938), a Panama-born American who was an art teacher at Balboa High School in the former Canal Zone, is popular locally and among former zone residents for his paintings, drawings, and prints of the Panama Canal, the Canal Zone, and daily life in Panama.
Some of Panama’s finest art is made by its indigenous people, though these works are usually made anonymously and sold as souvenirs. The carved tagua nuts, cocobolo statues, and woven baskets of the Emberá-Wounaan have begun to receive the international fame long accorded the molas of the Kuna people. A few Emberá, Wounaan, and Kuna artists now sign their work.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition