Panamanian artist Rodney Zelenka’s New York exhibit shows striking work about power and poverty

By Lucy Komisar

Rodney Zelenka is an artist from Panama whose exhibit now in New York shows stunning colorful realistic/fantastic paintings that comment on how abusive power by major governments has caused suffering among peoples worldwide.

Rodney Zelenka in front of his “Waiting Has a Price,” 2021. Photo Lucy Komisar.

Here he stands in front of “Waiting Has a Price.” The key series in this show is of people with suitcases. I asked, “Tell me about your work and the significance, what you mean by these paintings. What are you trying to say?”

RZ: I like to use the word ‘denounce’ lately. I’m not trying to change anybody’s mind. I just feel very uncomfortable with abusive power. Abusive power in position of force obligating us to think one way or another.

LK: You’re from Panama. And Panama has an experience with American colonialism.

“Colors and Black and White,” 2021. Photo Lucy Komisar.

RZ: Yes, for me totally. This is nothing new. We’ve been conquered, a migration exists in the last 300,000 years. People have been pushed out of their homes. Kings all over the world, empires all over the world and multinationals abusing continents, extracting their oils, their wood, their produce, their intellectuals and moving from one place to another. Money being moved from one place to another.

LK: So the message of your work — those objects? Those are things that belong to people who had things, and then the others in black and white are people who have nothing.  

RZ: Yes. For me objects became a symbol of possessions. We’re all about producing and we’re all about owning. So, for me objects became a sign of ownership. And then suddenly I noticed all the migrants were carrying suitcases.

“Web Masters,” 2021. Photo Lucy Komisar.

LK: There is one where you have Queen Elizabeth and some other people, what is that?

RZ: They are the powerful powers in the world. That’s Obama. That’s the Queen. That’s a Chinese president. That’s Putin. Above is a hurricane, a whirlwind. It’s pulling them out and they’re victims, and that’s called webmasters because you’re trapped by a spider web, Machiavellian manipulation. They’re being trapped by their own Machiavellian moves.

LK: Your work is very political but it’s also in some ways abstract, because everything means things not necessarily what you see but they signify something else.

RZ: Exactly The suitcase talks back and a handbag talks back and the shoe talks back. You know all I have to do is put an eye on the suitcase, a mouse in the shoe and it becomes a person. That’s what happens in these things. They have personalities. Look at this. Called “Hard Labor.”

“Hard Labor,” 2021. Photo from Zelenka website gallery.

It shows Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, Peggy Walton, Zuckerberg.  They’re slaves, because the spider is dominating them. It came out of a painting of the 17th century which is called “Slaves of the Vulgar.”

Yes, everything is very complex. Look at the people standing in line [in “Waiting Has a Price”]. Like to go into into the gas chamber, like to get your airplane ticket. And they all have barcodes on their chests.

“Rodney Zelenka: Dominion and Frailty.” Co-curated by Thalia Vrachopoulos and Elga Wimmer. Tenri Cultural Institute. 43A West 13th Street, NYC. Gallery Hours: Mon-Thurs 12 ~ 6 pm. Sat 12 ~ 3 pm. Opened Nov 17, closes Dec 22, 2022. Rodney Zelenka’s Art.

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One Response to "Panamanian artist Rodney Zelenka’s New York exhibit shows striking work about power and poverty"

  1. Elga Wimmer   Dec 12, 2022 at 1:04 pm

    A great new look on this show, incorporating observations by the artist.


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