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Prayer and a Shout

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Rage and Redemption' Does Justice to Ecuadorian Icon

Oswaldo Guayasamín, the renowned Ecuadorian painter, once wrote that painting “is a form of prayer at the same time as a shout.”

For viewers not familiar with Guayasamín — and it’s fair to say he’s not exactly a household name in the United States — that quote provides a clear key to the enig-matic works on the walls at the Art Museum of the Americas in the Organization of American States.

In the perfectly titled exhibition “Of Rage and Redemption: The Art of Oswaldo Guayasamín,” there’s an ocean-like sway of emotion among this array of some 40 paintings stretching over two floors of the museum — a sway that pitches back and forth between tenderness and outrage, or, in more tonal terms, a “prayer and a shout.”

This marks the first major exhibition of the artist’s work put together in the United States in 60 years — the last display having appeared in the 1940s, when Guayasamín was a young Latin American newcomer on the international art scene. But Guayasamín (1919-99) evolved from that young, sensitive soul to an older, wiser Latin American sage — often pictured with his cigarettes, wavy gray hair and workman’s shirt in the studio.

Guayasamín paintings are universal in their potency, drawing blood from the vein that pumps out the music of the human condition. Nothing about them would specifically say he was an artist from Ecuador, although he remains an artist of legendary proportions in that country. Guayasamín’s Pan-American portraits of human suffering and social inequality attracted a wide audience around the world with their universal message, yet at the same time his paintings reflect the distinct political, ethnic and social identities unique to Latin America, and its relation to the European world.

Born in Quito, Guayasamín was the son of a native Ecuadorian father and a Mestiza mother, to whom he was tenderly attached. A person’s family blood and heritage in Latin America often directly impacted how one felt about such matters as land ownership, revolution, suffering, class differences (or indifferences), society, war and peace, violence and torture. It’s clear in almost all of his work that Guayasamín felt overwhelmingly passionate about all of these matters, but his feelings — often staunchly political — were leavened by a kind of devotion to themes of love and humanity.

Thus, there is something of the preacher in Guayasamín’s paintings, which brim with hell and damnation, as well as rock-solid love and tenderness. He cared deeply about inequities, the great chasm between the haves and have-nots, and the violence unleashed by that chasm, yet he also tempered his work with a spirit of hope and resilience.

But Guayasamín’s anger is undeniable and tangible, from his early works responding to Ecuador’s four-day civil war in 1932 to his increasingly political depictions during his “Age of Wrath” period in the 1960s and 1970s. He captured the sufferings of indigenous peoples, of mothers and children, as well as the sources of much of that suffering — the oppressors, warmongers and torturers if you will— variously depicting sharply etched, huge explosions of anguished faces, sharp, menacing teeth, and eyes bulging with pleading or anger.

It’s small wonder he was popular with the populists, especially in Cuba, where he was a revered figure. But there is more to Guayasamín than populist hero — he was an artist who went beyond borders, or movements for that matter.

In fact, you can see all sorts of influences in his work, everyone from Pablo Picasso to José Clemente Orozco to Francisco Goya. But the greatest influence was probably his own life — just witness the preconscious beauty in “Mother and Child” versus the later unsettling “Dead Children.”

Early on, Guayasamín aspired to become an architect but soon returned to painting, holding his first major exhibit in Guayaquil, Ecuador, followed by a major tour of the Untied States alongside other Latin American artists, including Orozco and Diego Rivera.

As time (and revolutions and upheavals) went on, Guayasamín became more political in his work, producing such important paintings as “Meeting at the Pentagon” and “Napalm,” executed in the 1970s. That’s also around the time when he created “The Tortured Hill,” a large triptych and tribute to Chilean folk singer and activist Victor Jara, who was imprisoned, tortured and murdered during the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973. Today, the work could very well be depicting abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

In the latter years of his life, Guayasamín seemed to come full circle, returning to the themes of mothers and children, spirit and hope. In 2002, three years after his death, Guayasamín’s masterwork, “La Capilla del Hombre (The Chapel of Man),” was completed and opened to the public near his home in the hills overlooking Quito. “The Chapel” is meant to document man’s cruelty toward man yet at the same time the potential for greatness within humanity.

In the words of the great Ecuadorian artist, Guayasamín also once wrote, “I will always return. Keep the light on.” And so he has.

Of Rage and Redemption: The Art of Oswaldo Guayasamín through May 29 Organization of American States Art Museum of the Americas 201 18th St., NW For more information, please call (202) 458-6016 or visit www.museum.oas.org/exhibitions.html.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999