Learning to See: The Art of Oswaldo Guayasamin


I’ve been inspired lately by the paintings of Oswaldo Guayasamin. Although he is well-respected in Latin America, I rarely see the type of eulogizing that over him that is so common with Frida Kahlo, whose identity as a mature and political artist has been submerged in a depoliticized portraitist school of thought that is infinitely less disturbing of the existing order. Like Kahlo, Guayasamin, born in 1919 into a feudal and neo-colonial state like Ecuador, took sides in a visceral and visible struggle against poverty, injustice and the invisibilization of suffering that was part of so much art contemporary to the time.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States, 1932
Frida Kahlo, The Wounded Table, 1940
Frida Kahlo, Marxism Will Heal the Sick, 1954

This is not an essay, but a few musings in response to the images I have been able to find online. Here, I share a few, in particular the  early Quito series which I find as interesting as some of his more well known pieces from the Age of Anger and the Age of Tenderness. Above, some of Frida Kahlo’s less popular artworks,  The Wounded Table ,  circa. 1940, Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and United States, 1932 and 1954, Marxism Heals the Sick, a reflection of her understanding of disability and the devalued lives we live under capitalism when we are incapacitated or chronically ill. 

Oswaldo Guayasamin, Self-Portrait, 1996

Born into a humble Kichwa and Mestizo family, he was one of 10 children, losing his mother, and then his closest friend at an early age. These experiences, along with searing social criticism of the sweeping inequities of race and class discrimination, shaped his approach to art both as a vehicle of personal expression, and as a tool for, and of, social change.

Oswaldo Guayasamin, Quito Negro
Oswaldo Guayasamin, Quito Azul

In particular, Guayasamin’s travels through South America, Mexico and the United States brought him into contact with Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, both ardent communists and anti-imperialists. This influenced Guayasamin greatly both as an artist and social critic. Between the 1940s and 1960s he committed himself to the path of social justice and a Pan-American vision of  suffering and liberation. He firmly joined the political left and was close to Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda and Victor Jara, poets and songwriters of the Chilean left, active until they were assassinated by the U.S. backed Pinochet regime in 1973.

Oswaldo Guayasamin, Los Niños Muertos, 1940
Oswaldo Guayasamin, Quito Verde

Guaysamin’s final piece is the posthumous Chapel of Man built on his property overlooking Quito. He was a painter, muralist and architect whose deepening vision taught him to see the ignored and the silenced.

Oswaldo Guayasamin, La Edad de Ira/The Age of Anger: Manos de Protesta/Hands of Protest
Oswaldo Guayasamin, La Edad de Ira
Oswaldo Guayasamin, La Edad de Ira: El Grito
Oswaldo Guayasamin, Ternura/Tenderness
The Chapel of Man, Guayasamin Estate, Ecuador
Chapel of Man, Guayasamin Estate, Ecuador
Chapel of Man, Guayasamin Estate, Ecuador

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