Oswaldo Guayasamín is an Ecuadorian painter and sculptor whose work tells the story of prejudice, abuse and the suffering of indigenous peoples all across Latin America. His personal observations of institutionalized poverty, the horrors of war and violent revolutions during the 20th century all had a profound influence on his work.
Guayasamín was the first of ten children born to an indigenous (Quechua-speaking) father and mestiza (mixed race) mother in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, on July 6, 1919. Being the eldest child of a poor family brought hardships and meant he had to assume a great deal of responsibility at a young age. Even so, he found time to draw and paint and his artistic talents were recognized at an early age.
When he was old enough, he worked as both a taxi and a truck driver to help support himself and his family while he also attended Quito School of Art, where he studied painting, sculpting and architecture. During this time, his best friend was killed in a political demonstration in Quito. This tragic incident, along with his indigenous heritage and family poverty, would stay with him for the rest of his life and deeply impact his world view and the imagery he painted.
“Guayasamín is one of the last crusaders of imaginismo [imagism]. He is a creator of humanity in its broadest sense, of the living and historical imagination. His universe is sustaining although it threatens us like a cosmic disaster. Think before approaching his painting because it will not be easy to withdraw.”
-Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner for Literature
In 1940, Guayasamín had his first solo gallery show which was well-received due to his expressionist style that distinguished him from other Ecuadorian artists. Quite by chance, New York philanthropist and art collector Nelson Rockefeller saw one of his early exhibitions, purchased multiple paintings and further rewarded him with a fellowship to work and study in the USA. From this point forward, Guayasamín’s career took flight. During his lifetime, he had 181 individual exhibits in Latin America, the USA and Europe.
His talents were recognized by both his peers and the artistic establishment. He won the first prize at the Third Hispano-American Biennial of Art in Barcelona, Spain in 1955. In 1957, he was named the best South American painter at the Fourth Biennial of São Paulo, Brazil. He was given an award for “an entire life of work for peace” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Guayasamín was a friend of the great Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco and they traveled Latin America together, studying the lives and art of indigenous communities all around the continent. Guayasamín had a great respect for indigenous traditions and the history and craftsmanship that he recognized in art produced in the region. When he became financially successful, he began collecting pre-Columbian art and artifacts and amassed an impressive collection which can now be seen in his house museum in Quito.
Not as well-known outside his home country as Latin American artists Diego Rivera and his friend Orozco, Guayasmín was nevertheless revered by other Latin American artists of his time for his humanitarian ideals and work.
“He was a man of Latin American conviction and a fighter for democracy. His work reflects his deep commitment to social progress and to people who have been ignored and exploited…His memory will stay with us and will be a permanent encouragement for those who seek a better future for humanity.”
-Rigoberta Menchú, Nobel Peace Prize Winner
I was mesmerized the first time I saw a Guayasamín print adorning the wall of my room at a guesthouse in northern Ecuador. Since then, I’ve become a huge fan of the work of one of South America’s most important 20th century artists. If you find yourself in Quito, I highly recommend a visit to the Guayasamín House Muesum as well as the La Capilla del Hombre, both of which are included in the price of an entrance ticket. You won’t regret it!