As we travel around Latin America, it is both interesting and a challenge to discern the person that singularly embodies each country. When you think about a particular country, who comes to your mind? In looking across Latin America, there always seems to be a person that serves in this role: José Martí and Che Guevara in Cuba, Pablo Neruda in Chile, Rubén Darío in Nicaragua, Diego Rivera and Frido Kahlo in Mexico, Bob Marley in Jamaica, Mario Vargas Llosa in Peru, Gabrielle García Marquéz in Colombia, Pelé in Brazil, and Eva Peron in Argentina, to name a few.
After spending some time in Ecuador, we have come to the conclusion that Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín joins this special company. Messr. Guayasamín, through his unique, vivid and inspiring art, has captured the essence of Ecuador. There is a special emotion in his paintings that convey the indigenous spirit that appears to dominate Ecuadorian culture and politics. His work as an expressionist reflects pain and misery and denounces violence that has been pervasive in Latin America. His art portrays and challenges us to remember our world wars, numerous civil wars, genocide, concentration camps, dictatorships, and torture, so as never to repeat these unfortunate events.
Once you see his paintings, they have a certain character that you will never forget. He was strongly influenced by Mexicans Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, yet, in our view, his art has a deeper, more-biting, quality than the great Mexican muralists. We have seen evidence of his pervasive influence throughout Ecuador, including a large painting displayed in a prominent stairway in the Presidential Palace; labels on bottles of wine; peddlers selling copies of his paintings on the street in various pueblos; and many Ecuadorian artists mimicking his art on the streets and in murals throughout the country.
Guayasamín grew up in Quito to indigenous parents and seemed to have a propensity for art from an early age. His work seems to have emerged in three stages of his life: the first focusing on capturing his indigenous heritage; the second on war and violence among people in Ecuador; and finally what he called the age of tenderness, where he shows the important relationship of mothers and their children.
His gallery “La Capilla del Hombre” (or Chapel on the Hill) sits on a hill overlooking Quito and showcases his work and life, which is displayed in a very spectacular and moving fashion. It is a large two-story building that is a work in progress with a bronze cone, inspired by the “Temple of the Sun,” built by the Incas 3,000 years ago. The buildings evoke American history from Mexico to Patagonia, and from pre-Columbian times, represented primarily by the Maya-Quiche, Aztec and Inca Aymara. A well-done virtual tour can be seen at Guayasamin. He has a store in the Quito airport and he has galleries in Havana and Spain.
In thinking about these singular figures in Ecuador and Latin America, they are generally not the political, military, or religious leaders–who are all jostling among themselves for power and a larger stage. Instead, these figures, through various mediums and their different art forms, transcend political and religious life and they seem to connect with a larger audience in a lasting manner. Interestingly, the political and religious leaders in the region often refer to these leading figures in speeches and other pronouncements to gain support for their initiatives.