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Digging deeper

Guatemalan artist Marlón García Arriaga looks at mining and a small town in Panzós: 25 Years Later. Angela Day reports.

Tunnelling vision A selection from Panzós: 25 Years Later by Marlón García Arriaga.

We don't usually see the consequences of Canadian mining companies operating abroad—especially not in intimate portraits.

Marlón García Arriaga, a multimedia artist from Guatemala, shares the story of the small Guatemalan town of Panzós, the Q'eqchi' people and Inco, a large Canadian mining corporation, through his poignant exhibit, Panzós: 25 Years Later, opening July 12 at the Khyber Centre for the Arts.

Arriaga's down-to-earth amiability contrasts his larger-than-life portraits, but his solid analysis of modern-day colonialism is a mainstay. Over the phone from rural Nova Scotia, he talks about how transnational companies have become imperial powers in Guatemala. "They have two methods," he says. "One is by appropriating cultural traditions to dupe people; the second is by finding partners at all levels—politicians, rich people, whoever—to help further their own agenda."

Panzós: 25 Years Later visually documents a massacre in Panzós that ravaged Guatemala and tarnished the reputation of Canadian mining companies in Central America. On the morning of May 29, 1978, residents of Panzós, located in the central eastern region of Guatemala, awoke to indigenous farmers flooding the town's central square for a demonstration. They were protesting the perpetual land crisis across the country, exacerbated by the sale of prime agriculture land to Exmibal (the Guatemalan subsidiary of Inco) by Guatemala's military government. Hundreds of farmers were out in the dusty streets, but they were overwhelmed by armed soldiers. At 9am, the mayor of Panzós allegedly signalled the army to open fire—53 people died, 47 were seriously wounded.

Arriaga's visceral reaction to this injustice has served as an artistic muse. His deep, intricate relationship with victims of the Panzós massacre began in October 1997 while he was employed as a forensic photographer. But as he began to unravel the story, he wondered how best to document it.

"Art has power," Arriaga explains. "I wanted to show the strength, the testimonies of survival." Beyond the rows of forensic photographs, large, chromatic portraits depict Q'eqchi' women, the living voices of the Panzós tragedy. The majority of those killed were men, but elements of matriarchal resilience are woven throughout the exhibit.

Although the Guatemalan peace accords were signed in 1996, ostensibly ending the country's 36-year civil war, Arriaga says "the past is a prologue of problems to come."

In December 2004, Inco sold its Guatemalan assets to Vancouver-based Skye Resources. Canadian corporations, including Skye Resources and Goldcorp, still mine in Guatemala despite a history of rampant human rights abuses and, at times, rejection of the mining initiatives by local residents.

This past January in El Estor, a town near Panzós, indigenous residents were forcibly removed from their land for mineral exploration, their homes destroyed by the Guatemalan army, Arriaga explains.

Today, an estimated 80 percent of mining concessions in Guatemala, blanketing the country's most significant gold, silver, nickel and cobalt deposits, belong to Canadian mining companies, and current legal requirements for Canadian extractive industries operating abroad are minimal.

Contentious mining issues are not just problems for developing countries. Arriaga says he feels connected to the citizens he has met in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, because of similar patterns of environmental and social exploitation for profit. Mining projects seem to slide in before residents even realize they are happening, whether in Panzós, Moose River or Cape Breton.

With Panzós: 25 Years Later, Arriaga makes his concerns clear. "Today, there is a battle of humanity," he says. "It's between those looking for the opportunity to live with dignity, and the inhuman mining companies."

Marlón García Arriaga , Panzós: 25 Years Later, July 12 to August 2, Khyber Centre for the Arts, 1588 Barrington. Opening reception July 12, 7 to 9pm.

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