The Panamanian artist Jhafis Quintero Gonzales, born in La Chorrera in 1973, lives and works in Amsterdam. There, he dedicates his time to the creation of contemporary art. His artistic artworks are of different kinds: video installation, performance, painting, and writing. In his artworks, the creative and representative motives clarify the individuality of his interior world. The artist offers to transfer actions and situations experienced in the first person to another level, to an “artistic” and “more real” level, in order to give sense to his actions, as if to make them more readable and accessible.

Your work as an artist is born out of your experience of prison. Imprisonment was a source of creativity and inspiration in your work… How did it begin?

In the mid-1990s, I met Haru Wells, a woman with enough courage to overcome the systems. She created a project in prison, she was very determined to prove that art is an efficient substitute to crime.

She taught us art in an unusual way in an unconventional place. She taught us to organize ideas and to communicate in a different way than what we had known until that point. We – I am convinced of that – found the natural way to feed this appetite of transgressions that some of us carried inside, anchored to their chest and guts; and that, in numerous cases, had been satisfied by criminality- the most accessible and easy way to do it.

From my experience and because I took part in both, I think art and criminality are two twin brothers which share the same necessity to transgress the rules. In my life, I have known a lot of criminals who could be great artists and I have known artists who could be great criminals: I like art because I can be myself without damaging others.

Is art a strategy of rebellion and transfiguration against violence, control, constant watch, imprisonment (wherever it happens) and the system, whether it is the prison or the political system?

The prison system is the total maximization of all systems whether political or repressive etc. I grew up watching the elders use their creativity to go around and elude repressive systems and their methods.

Creativity in this kind of place is a matter of life or death. I am convinced that it is the manifestation of an honest art because creativity is based on urgency, because in the end, it is a tool or a weapon with which you communicate in a world you did not create but where you must live in. And I am not only referring to prison but to the world in general. I give a context to this “language” and include it in the daily life and in the official art sphere – even though the “artistic” institution suffers from the same defects as any other institution.

Could you give us a comment on your exhibited pieces in Who More Sci-Fi than Us?

Cambalache. This piece is part of a series of drawings on wood panels covered by a particular kind of concrete, using basic tools such as pencils, markers and pointed objects. It aims at exorcising my daily anxieties by transferring them on concrete.

Jhafis Quintero Gonzales, Cambalache, 2012 © Uprising Art
Jhafis Quintero Gonzales, Cambalache, 2012 © Uprising Art

This kind of graffiti is crucial in prison since it is the only way to establish a contact with oneself, to materialize oneself out of the body – which in these circumstances stops being ours to only become the object of the judicial sentence and as a result we become the property of the judiciary system for the time of the sentence.

These drawings have the merit to keep the essence of who we are and to allow us not to forget who we are outside of that place. It is a way to transfer ourselves and to perpetuate these memories like an unsolvable tattoo on the prison walls, these walls that became like a second skin that we inhabit.

This particular piece talks about repetition- which is one of the biggest fears of the prisoners since in the repetition time does not exist anymore. It is almost like living a bad instant forever. Repetition no matter where it happens can sometimes extirpate the desire to live to anybody. I got rid of, and exorcised, all this repetition by drawing them out in this artwork Cambalache. As an artist, I analyze in the present what I experienced in the past and transfer it to my artwork – not as a final achievement but as an extra point of view. 

La Maquina. For this artwork I drew inspiration from Kafka’s novel, The colony, but also from the dynamics existing in prison.

Jhafis Quintero Gonzales, La Maquina, 2011 © Jhafis Quintero Gonzales
Jhafis Quintero Gonzales, La Maquina, 2011 © Jhafis Quintero Gonzales

Inmates fight against the repetition of dawn. But sometimes we are faced with this feeling of having to see the same people, the same dynamics, or having to eat the same food etc., we thus look for desperate methods to break this routine, thanks to ingenious “performances”. We pretend to be sick; sometimes by keeping the white of an egg in the mouth to which we add red powder – often used as sodas – and we pretend to throw up in front of a police officer. The reward? To see the street through the holes from inside the prison car on the way to the hospital, to see a partial and fugitive instant of life which is always different from one time to the other.  

 Are your pieces linked to your personal imagination or the collective one of the prison imaginary?

This personal experience deeply determined my life and work. Through art I try to communicate the things that I want, using images from where the human behavior and its needs are brutally honest. There is no need for social masks in prison so we do not use them, we do not have anything more to lose in these conditions. I would say that I studied anthropology at the best cutting-edge university there is and that I was lucky to graduate!

You participate to a residence in Amsterdam, what does this experience bring you? Did it allow you to develop new themes in your work?

Being in Amsterdam helped me to look sideways of myself – something I did not do before.

Where I come from, chaos is the usual form of segregation, here the perfection is the best way of segregation. From this new vision of myself in this context, I could globalize my work; see it in a more critical way – always from the viewpoint of my experience but with much more distance.

 Despite the hard and existential subjects which your art talks about, your creations are pared-down and filled with poetry. How do you solve this contradiction?

Here, I have to quote Eduardo Galeano: “we are what we do to change who we are”.


By Clelia Coussonnet

July 2012

Headline picture’s credits : Jhafis Quintero Gonzales, You-You © Jhafis Quintero Gonzales