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A family legacy in art.


It is the birthright of every quiteno to reach out and touch a mountain. In the Ecuadorean city of Quito, squeezed 17 kilometers along a narrow valley high in the Sierra between two parallel ranges of the Andes, a mountain vista is never far away. But some views are better than others and halfway up a mountain in an exclusive area of Quito appropriately called Bellavista, lies land with a view that vies with some of the most expensive real estate in the world. This is the place Oswaldo Guayasamin, the world-famous painter, muralist and sculptor whose name is inseparable from modern art in Ecuador, has chosen to live and work. But this 5600-meter estate is not the private retreat of a hugely successful artist whose work can command as much as a million dollars. It is, instead, the home of Fundacion Guayasamin and its sister organization Taller Guayasamin S.A. It includes a museum containing Guayasamin's lifetime collection of pre-Columbian archaeological artifacts and Spanish colonial religious art, a gallery exhibiting works by Guayasamin and other contemporary artists, a jewelry shop specializing in pre-Columbian and folk-art designs, an art library, and a collection of workshops and ateliers with a staff of 70-plus carpenters, artisans, art restorers, artists and support staff working together to preserve and extend South American traditional and contemporary art forms.

Everything - the land, the buildings, the art collections and, indeed, Guayasamin's family home and studio - belong to the people of Ecuador. But the day-to-day operations of the Foundation are shouldered almost entirely by the gregarious artist's extended family, a sprawling, diverse and energetic group of individuals similar in character to the city of Quito, Ecuador's capital and the Guayasamin family's hometown.

Sixteen years ago, Oswaldo Guayasamin, then in his late fifties, called a family conference. Some important decisions were pending. At the top of the agenda were his personal collections of pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial art which he had accumulated over almost half a century. His interest in his indigenous ancestors had been sparked at the age of 10 when his father, a carpenter, brought home some pre-Hispanic vases he had unearthed while working on a construction project in the provincial town of Latacunga. By the time Guayasamin was in his twenties and his career as an artist was beginning to take off, he had developed a serious interest in the symbols and motifs used by the pre-Columbian peoples of South America. He travelled restlessly around South America, sketching the hard lives of the Indians, blacks and poor as he went, and adding to his personal collection of pre-Hispanic artifacts. By the mid-seventies when this family conference was held, Guayasamin had collected more than 3000 archaeological pieces.

Guayasamin's interest in colonial religious art developed as a natural corollary of this passion for pre-Columbian artifacts. He had grown up in the heart of Old Quito surrounded by a rich concentration of colonial churches and religious art treasures. Although he had rejected formal Catholicism at an early age, Guayasamin remained fascinated with the Spanish colonials' graphic depictions of human suffering in their religious art. He was sensitive, too, to the fact that this so-called Spanish colonial art was in fact the handiwork of Indian and mestizo artisans, working under the direction of the Catholic Church heirarchy. He believed that their work, much of it anonymous, together with the Incan and pre-Incan artifacts dating back to the centuries before the Spaniards arrived in the early 1500s, represented Ecuador's true patrimony. Ecuador's population is predominately indigenous or mixed blood (40 percent Indian, 40 percent mestizo) and Guayasamin's background is typical. He was the eldest from a poor family of 10 children with a mestizo mother and Indian father (Guayasamin means white bird in Quechua, the language Ecuador's Indians inherited from the Incas).

Over the years Guayasamin had collected 800 pieces of Spanish colonial religious art. Many of them focussed on the bloody agonies of the crucifixion and sufferings of the saints, a theme Guayasamin transferred to his first body of work called Huacaynan, Quechua for "The Path of Tears." The 103 paintings of Huacaynan, which depicted with moving empathy the sufferings of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador and Latin America, caused a sensation when they were exhibited for the first time in 1952 in Quito's Museum of Colonial Art. (Huacaynan subsequently was exhibited internationally, including a show at the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C. It won several awards, among them the grand prize at the Second Hispano-American Biennial in Barcelona in 1956.)

A second reason for the urgency of this family meeting was Guayasamin's concern about a collection of his own work from the second stage of his career (1952-1966) when he concentrated on the universal theme of human suffering. Entitled "The Age of Anger," the collection had been exhibited in major galleries in Europe and South America. Guayasamin, however, had resisted selling individual pieces from the 250 paintings in the oeuvre, preferring to maintain its integrity as a single body of work. Now that he was about to embark on a new artistic theme - peace and maternal love, in honor of his mother who died at the age of 35 - he was concerned that "The Age of Anger" find an appropriate home.

At this historic family gathering, the Guayasamins decided that the family patriarch would donate his entire personal art collection - which included 100 contemporary artworks from all over the world and 300 more from various past epochs and much of his own work, including all of "The Age of Anger" - to the people of Ecuador. The home for this national patrimony would be a nonprofit organization called Fundacion Guayasamin. And his family would be the keepers of the flame.

A first-time visitor to Fundacion Guayasamin is immediately impressed by its ambience of calm, personal harmony and efficiency. From the moment you step inside the Foundation's green and spacious grounds, you feel you are in competent hands. A uniformed attendant politely asks for the 1,000-sucre admission charge (US$0.85) and invites you to proceed to a low white building trimmed with Spanish tiles and wrought iron. Here a second attendant wearing an understated Foundation uniform - classic earth-toned vest and skirt with tailored blouse - greets you and offers guide services. The exhibits in this building are divided between pre-Columbian artifacts and colonial religious art, both collections intelligently labelled and amply displayed. You are drawn to a large painting of the crucifixion in which the Christ figure is discreetly covered waist to knee by a skirt. Not just any skirt but a distinctly feminine one, filmy and bell-shaped like something the corps de ballet would wear in Swan Lake. "Oh that," the attendant says, appreciating the humor in the juxtaposition, "It's just one colonial artist's version of the fig leaf."

Wherever you go, help is always nearby but never intrusive. Staff members demonstrate range of knowledge as they take you through the garden embellished by Guayasamin's sculptures on low white plinths; the art gallery exhibiting contemporary artists as well as the permanent Guayasamin collection; or the studio displaying folk art and finely crafted jewelry.

Four of Guayasamin's seven children run the Foundation. Pablo, his eldest son, is the director; Saskia, his eldest daughter, is in charge of communications. Cristobal, third-born, heads the printmaking studio where he and a small staff make lithographs, serigraphs and etchings of his father's work. Verenice, youngest from Guayasamin's first marriage (he has married three times), directs the jewelry studio. Most of the 70-odd staffers working under the four siblings are relatives, inlaws, or relatives of relatives. The Guayasamin definition of family is comfortably fluid.

Fundacion Guayasamin costs 300 million sucres (US$255.000) a year to run, according to Foundation director Pablo Guayasamin. The proceeds from admission charges plus revenues from sales of reproductions, jewelry, sculpture and folk art do not cover costs, he says. His father personally kicks in whatever is needed to balance the books at the end of each year and "not one sucre comes from government or from private donations."

Guayasamin himself (Oswaldo Guayasamin signs and refers to himself only by his last name) is removed from the day-to-day operations of the Foundation. His home-cum-studio is physically separate and, although legally part of the Foundation, is not open to the public. But the familial affection, business efficiency and public-spirited pride with which the Foundation is run clearly flows from the person of Guayasamin, who emanates an easy mix of authority and warmth that inspires both loyalty and professionalism. Speaking of his patron, one Foundation employee remarks, "He is very warm, very human, very gentle."

The expansive personality of Guayasamin encompasses more than a rare and marvellous integration of family and professional life. In this mountain-isolated Andean republic bound together by Catholicism and traditional family ties, Guayasamin shares his elegant home/studio overlooking the Foundation museums, galleries and workshops with a young and beautiful Spanish companera. And, right next door, also on Foundation property, lives daughter Verenice with her mother (Guayasamin's first wife), Verenice's son and his companera (both students) and their small child, who is looked after by the Foundation's day-care staff. Every Sunday, the entire Guayasamin connection gathers en famille to relax around the swimming pool. Verenice, who delights in telling this tale of extended-family bliss, adds: "We all go on long trips together, to Thailand, for example, for two, three months at a time - yes, all of us, including mi madre, pappy and his companera. You can see why people call us Clan Guayasamin!"

Verenice began working with her father 25 years ago when he started selling his personal line of jewelry to tourists visiting his home/workshop, then in the modest storey-and-a-half building that now houses the pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial art collection. When the Foundation was formed in 1976 and the jewelry shop became a separate operation, Verenice continued as an assistant, producing designs which are inspired by pre-Columbian motifs and symbols and have become models for jewelry design throughout Ecuador.

Several years ago, while helping to put together an exhibit of necklaces for display in the museum, Verenice collected a large assortment of pre-Columbian stones. She became immersed in the work, producing one necklace for the museum display using purely indigenous designs and fashioning another with her own personal stamp. Before long she had a substantial pile of work. "Why don't you exhibit your own designs separately?" her father suggested. Verenice was reluctant but Guayasamin continued to gently encourage her. Five years ago, she put together an exhibit of her own designs in the Ecuadorean port city of Guayaquil. To her surprise, the entire exhibit sold out. Now after putting in long hours at the Foundation, Verenice retreats in the evenings to her private studio, a few blocks away. She puts together what she calls "collections" of her work, arranged in patterns and color combinations, and exhibits them "as if they were paintings." To date, she has had exhibitions in Peru, Bolivia, Panama, Brazil, Venezuela, Switzerland, Germany and Canada.

Verenice is transformed by the joy of finding her creative voice. As the daughter of the renowned Guayasamin this was not easy, she says. Her pappy, as she calls him with enormous affection, "shines so brilliantly it is difficult [for us children] to take a small light for ourselves." She points to her brother Cristobal who spent five years studying graphic design in Mexico and is a talented artist in his own right. But his father's personality and talent is such that Cristobal is content to work in his shadow, reproducing his father's work instead of exhibiting his own. Cristobal has made his peace with this role, Verenice says, "but for me it is not enough."

Verenice sums up the secret of the success of the Guayasamin Clan - "We are united by the ideal of the Foundation." And the people of Ecuador are fortunate to be the beneficiaries of this extraordinary family's unifying goal.


In one of several small workshops below Guayasamin's home and studio, three artisans paint the colorful balsa wood carvings for display in the Foundation jewelry shop. These carvings are styled after the famous bread-dough figurines and Christmas tree ornaments made for centuries in the tiny village of Calderon, 10 kilometers north of Quito. The use of balsa wood instead of bread dough began with Guayasamin's father, a carpenter by trade, who carved balsa-wood shapes based on the Calderon guaguas de pan but used his son's innovative designs. The workshop today is a personal remembrance of Guayasamin's father as well as a means of preserving the traditional Calderon folk art. Guayasamin designs the shapes, a carpenter in an adjacent workshop cuts them, and artisans paint them, changing colors and shapes after a dozen of each to prevent monotony and to retain a sense of creativity in the work. Seventy-three-year-old balsa painter Juan Alvaredo attended art school with Guayasamin in Quito in the 1930s. He has worked with Guayasamin for 38 years.

Loral Dean is a freelance writer living in Toronto.
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Title Annotation:Ecuadorean artist Oswaldo Guayasamin and the Guayasamin Foundation
Author:Dean, Loral
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:May 1, 1992
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