Like no other Panamanian before him, Humberto Vélez began to produce a body of work that could aptly be termed conceptual. Rather than merely fabricate objects, he transformed them through language and ideas. Aware of the ways in which people invest things and places with meaning and identity, he maintained that a valid artistic product is one that “projects itself over and beyond any individual attribute”, by suggesting to each spectator an array of connotations and perspectives that dislodge its specificity.

“Installations”, his solo exhibition, which occupied the entire Museum of Contemporary Art in Panama City, on March 2000, made a decisive impact on an emerging generation of Panamanian artists. Velez’s show and generous advice and coaching were very influential to a group of young sculptors, filmmakers and photographers who consequently began to share certain traits: they rejected the pervasive commercial easel painting, as well as the traditional idea of the artist as someone who only finds inspiration in the solitude of his studio. They sometimes chose to work together (an unusual practice in Panama at the time) and took the local urban and popular culture as the basis for their art, while keeping a close watch of innovations in the international scene.

For his installations, sculptures, digital art work and readymades, Vélez made use of very diverse materials and techniques appropriated from both the popular and the high-tech, the traditional and the contemporary realms. Some examples are Barcelona, a vinyl curtain showing an idyllic seashore photographed in Havana, posing the question of who dreams about whom and where; The Big Wheel, a quilt sewn by Colonense women, in traditional techniques but with a digital pattern provided by the artist, along with the words of a British pop song; Love (illuminated), a neon phrase reproducing a small note found in an attic of an old building; Merry Britannia, the famous ex-royal yacht reproduced as a piñata “floating” in a sea of candies; Poquito a poquito nace un amor bonito, golden, translucent and amorphous sculptures made with clusters of the little plastic bags of cooking oil that are consumed by the urban poor in Panama.

His long sojourns in La Habana, Barcelona, Vienna and Manchester prompted him to go beyond his early interest in recreating, ritualizing and parodying contemporary social habits and mores, in order to explore the ways in which people relate emotionally and verbally to their corporal, psychic and geographical territories. Along these lines, in Dreamland —a performance and video-installation presented in Vienna’s legendary Cafe Savoy in 1998, and reconceived a year later as a Cd-Rom for “Installations” —, 17 persons (including the artist) of different nationalities draw, write and recount, in their mother tongue, the primordial scene of their childhood dreams. The Cd-Rom’s central page simulates an electrical circuit whereby the spectator can access the spaces inhabited by each “dreamer”, filled with sounds, images and words that define aspects of his or her psyche.

Seeking to work only with fundamentals, his pieces underwent a reductive conversion in “Installations” vis-à-vis earlier works.

Adrienne Samos