29 May Matías Costa, “Zonians”
In this exhibition, Matias Costa returns to an interest in territory, identity and memory, all of which are recurring themes in his photographic work. This body of work is akin to anthropological research into a community on the point of extinction.
For almost a hundred years, thousands of Americans lived comfortably in tranquil, tropical communities on the banks of the Panama Canal. They were known as Zonians, and they were responsible for the maintenance of one of the greatest feats of engineering in the world, until its return to Panama in 1999. Since then, they have met annually in Florida to remember their lost paradise, and they know that when they disappear their community will be extinguished forever.
In the middle of the Panamanian jungle, a handful of Americans thought they had found the promised land. The Zonians were stripped of their privileges in 1999, when the Panama Canal ceased to be US territory. And thus ended nearly a century of colonial life in a territory where the Zonians lived in a bubble of self-sufficiency, under a kind of socialism sustained by the world´s greatest capitalist government.
After helping Panama to gain independence from Colombia early in the twentieth century, the US government assured the rights in perpetuity to a strip of land 16 km wide, called the Panama Canal Zone. Thus began the construction of one of the most ambitious engineering projects in history, turning the region into a strategic area for US interventionist policy in Latin America.
Since their departure, the Panama Canal Society organises an annual convention in Florida for the former inhabitants of the area so that they may recall the nostalgia of their lost paradise.
Today some young Zonians are returning to their childhood home in Panama, a century after the construction of the artery linking two oceans.
This series was made between 2011 and 2013 at the Panama Canal and in Orlando, and follows the footsteps of the Zonians and the last moments of their existence as a community.
Matias Costa has undertaken a creative work that is not intended to define, but to evoke, investigating doubts and uncertainties, concerns on issues which, intentionally or not, always recur: the uprooting, cultural transhumance, migration, the impossibility of a final destination or unmistakeable belonging, identity built on the fragmentary and the dispersed, re-adaptation and strangeness are issues that make Costa´s work a kind of archaeology of the memory.
He is a member of the British agency Panos Pictures and is represented by the Freijo gallery. He collaborates with media publications including The New Yorker and El País Semanal. He is a lecturer in Art Documentary Photography at the EFTI, TAI and LENS schools Madrid.