Sunday, October 6, 2013

Oswaldo Guayasamín

Autoretrato -- Self Portrait

     Oswaldo Guayasamín is an Ecuadorian artist and sculptor who is known for his lifelong dedication to the plight of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples and the politically oppressed. He was born in Quito on July 6th, 1919 to his indigenous, Kichwa father and his mestiza, Kichwa mother. He grew up in poverty, his father working as a taxi driver, while his mother died early in Guayasamín’s life. His childhood had profound effects on his outlook on life, and sparked many of the hard questions his work tackled through the rest of his life. While he was studying art formally in Quito’s School of Fine Arts, one of his best friends was killed in a demonstration during a worker’s uprising. This incident also inspired Guayasamín to further consider how he would define his views of people and society.

     What Guayasamín is most heralded for throughout his life and artistic career is his portrayal of human suffering, most notably among the indigenous populations of his country. Throughout his life, he surrounded himself with revolutionaries and artists of the period. One of his best friends, Pablo Neruda, was a poet who wrote about much of the same content that Guayasamín painted. Their friendship was sparked by mutual admiration, as well as a fervent support of communism, made particularly apparent during the Cuban Revolution. One book, America, My Brother, My Blood, is a compilation of Guayasamín’s paintings alongside Neruda’s poetry, and flows seamlessly between both mediums.

     There are several aspects of Guayasamín’s work that I find particularly compelling. The first is the sheer span of material that his paintings cover. His work, though beautiful and often sad, is almost entirely political. However, Guayasamín didn’t limit himself to only one piece of subject matter in his vision of society. His work traces the inequalities and poverty he witnessed up the social ladder, painting portraits of suffering, revolutionaries who sought to end that suffering, and even those in power who make decisions as can be seen below in his portrait of Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan indigenous Nobel Peace Prize winner, and his portrayal of the Pentagon.  

Rigoberta Menchu

Reunión en el Pentágono V -- Meeting in the Pentagon V

     The second aspect of his work that I appreciate is the way that he portrays emotion so vividly, despite his more abstract style and how he uses the negative space to accomplish it.  As can be seen below in the two paintings “La edad de la ira”, the spaces that he highlights between the fingers of the figure help to illustrate the desperation in the face.

La edad de la ira -- The Age of Wrath
Manos de la protesta -- Hands of Protest

Manos de la esperanza -- Hands of Hope

     His drawings also demonstrate his interesting use of shapes and shading to define his figures. It often appears as though he is using individual shapes to piece together a face or a hand, but when all combined, create the image in a way that evokes exactly the emotion he mean to.

Madre y niño -- Mother and Child

Madre y niño -- Mother and Child
     I have spent the better part of the last year studying abroad and working in Quito, mostly on indigenous civil rights issues. While there in the fall, Guayasamín’s final work, the Capilla del Hombre (Chapel of Man), became one of my favorite places in the city.  Guayasamín designed the building as a physical representation of hope for all of the cruelty he had witnessed in human beings. The chapel houses incredible, large-scale murals displaying incredible snapshots of human suffering, and overlooks a mountainous view of the valley outside the city. During my time in Ecuador, working with indigenous individuals and learning the history of indigenous rights, or lack of them, in the country, Guayasamín’s chapel completely resonated with the experiences I had in Ecuador.

     For me, Guayasamín’s paintings portray even more than the experience of the disadvantaged. They each highlight a part of the greater human condition that affects each one of us. The emotion he conveys in his work is emotion that can be found in every human being. Tenderness, suffering, fear, and hope are not reserved only for some people and not others and in that way Guayasamín paints a powerful portrait of the state of the human being.


"Biografía." Guayasamín. Fundación Guayasamín, n.d. Web. 07 Oct. 2013. <>.

Capilla Del Hombre. Fundación Guayasamín, n.d. Web. 07 Oct. 2013. <>.

El Vuelo De Un Ave Blanca: Guayasamín. Quito: Universidad Católica Del Ecuador, 1999. Print.

Guayasamín, Oswaldo, and Pablo Neruda. America, My Brother, My Blood: A Latin American Song of Suffering and Resistance. 1st ed. New York: Ocean, 2006. Print.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your lovely post.

    Can you possible share the quote by Guayasamin that begins approximately "Hands have a life of their own"?