In Panama the most popular form of transport is, by far, the bus. Newer model, air conditioned coaches are available for longer hauls, but the most ubiquitous means of public transport comprises of a vast fleet of decades old, rankled, former school buses imported from the US. I rode many such motor-coaches, seated on the cracked and torn upholstery from yesteryear, jammed with locals, merchandise and chattel. Still, with the mixed degrees of comfort on any given trip, everyone gets around quite reliably. The adventure over the bumpy roads comes complete with elaborate painting and decorations that individualize each bus, resembling a traveling circus or an art gallery on wheels.
These buses, locally called chivas, are bastions of personality and flavor. I can’t help but imagine the competition amongst drivers as to which can outdo the other with feathered boas, colored tassels, sparkle tape and various dangling ornaments around the driver. Even road visibility is considered secondary as stickers cover much of the windshield. Exterior decoration includes airbrushed bible verses, fantasy landscapes, and photo-sticker montages of female family members. Further ornamentation includes customized fins, illuminated orbs and flashing light strips (the full effect only being noticed after sunset). Chiva decorations appear as flamboyant public reinforcements of Latin America’s typically sacred notions family and religion. Painterly quality of script, design, and color between buses vary greatly. I found myself looking forward to the next dazzling example, and quickly became a self-appointed chiva judge.
In Portobello, Panama, I was photographing chivas en route to Caribbean coastal hamlets. One man noticed my interest and summoned his son, who showed me a handmade model built with the loving attention and natural dedication of an artist. Without an elaborate network of art schools or galleries and little more than the most basic of supplies, the object embodied the tender scrutiny of everyday surroundings and the weirdness that is so special about much art.
There is an unsolved equation before the spectator embedded within an artwork, like an incomplete puzzle waiting for points to be connected by the spectator. John Berger wrote “art mediates between what is given and what is desired”. Such an idea in this Latin American context suggests Panamanian chivas take on a form of folk art that simultaneously kindles alternate representations in a kind of local, competitive dialogue. The bus is like Berger’s given, and the art points to what is desired. The achievement is a transformation of one industry’s decommissioned equipment into another society’s vehicles of local dreams and inspiration.
Juozas Cernius is a Canadian fine art and documentary photographer currently traveling in South America. His recent book of photographs from Africa, with writing by Anita Vizsy, is available at www.forwardfactory.net