artist Ghada Amer
One night of March 2003, Ghada Amer was getting ready for one of her most daring feats during her stay in Panama City: to cross Balboa Avenue. ciudadMULTIPLEcity’s opening was a few days away. The artist was going through town in search of the perfect spots to install her pieces. From the sidewalk near the Comptroller’s Office Building a network of six solid lanes of cars zipping past at 80kph made the other side of the street seem an unreachable goal. She smiled nervously until, suddenly, taking advantage of a letup in traffic, she started her precipitous run. Once on the other side—after dodging a bus with an image of Osama Bin Laden, a Lexus with decals representing each member of a family, and a Toyota with a “God is Invincible” bumper sticker—she thought about how insensitively Panama behaves towards pedestrians. While catching her breath she added this fact to the list of peculiar features she was discovering from Panama City; facts that were the main element in the conception of her work.
As a result, Amer conceived a project for a city where humble wooden houses lay beneath ostentatious skyscrapers that imitate the very best of Las Vegas architecture; where inhabitants are assailed by thousands of signs that advertise all sorts of products; where political scandals are so commonplace they scandalize nobody.
Her plan was to install billboards with Chinese proverbs in strategic places in the city: an effective way to catch people’s attention and make the population think about the urban realities they pass by inattentively everyday. The simplicity of the proverbs allowed multiple readings, depending on the spectator and the context. In order to bond the Oriental phrases to the local context, Amer worked with the painters responsible for the diablos rojos (“red devils”), the famous colorful public buses that travel the city. Each painter illustrated a proverb according to his own interpretation and style.
So on March 20, a billboard that said Occupy the Higher Ground to Exercise Control appeared at the foot of the hill where the Canal Administration Building stands. If One Eats Less, One Will Taste More was placed near a McDonald's and a Wendy's. In front of the Comptroller’s Office of the Republic a sign read For the Love of Money, Truth Will Fall Silent. The skyline of the city seen from Balboa Avenue was the setting for What You See Is Real; What You Hear May Not Be. On the way to the National University, next to Our Lady of Carmen Church, another message read Peace Only Comes When Reason Rules. And the impressive view of the skyscrapers of Punta Paitilla, behind the humble dwellings of Boca La Caja, encased Poverty without Complaint Is Hard, Just as Wealth with Arrogance.
Although Amer's intentions were focused on the personal interpretations of each viewer, the project set off a much stronger reaction. A few hours after the sign in front of the Comptroller’s Office was installed, it was removed by employees from the Mayor's office, who were complying with the Comptroller’s demands. Two other signs disappeared a few days later, this time with no explanation from the Mayor.
Despite the time that has passed, these repressive measures reveal that Panama has not yet healed the wounds caused by decades of dictatorship. The oppression under which the country lived for more than 20 years shaped a conformist people with little desire to express themselves and, as a consequence, a governmental class with scant tolerance for criticism and discrepancies. When we publicly complained about the mysterious disappearances of Amer's billboards, the authorities (without accepting blame for the offenses) claimed that although every sign had a permit, a number of those sites were not meant for the installation of billboards. However, these days—after ciudadMULTIPLEcity concluded, and a few months before the elections—all areas where signs are supposedly prohibited are filled with billboards painted in gaudy colors showing appalling faces with false smiles asking the public for votes.