To fully appreciate and acknowledge the cultural significance and importance of the body of work contained within the home museum (casea museo) and adjacent Capilla de Hombre or Chapel Of Man of Ecuador’s favorite son – the incredible painter, sculptor and poet, Oswaldo Guayasamin (Born July 6, 1919, Quito, Ecuador. Died March 10, 1999), I was inspired to revisit everything I’ve learned thus far in my lifetime through my travels.
As my wife and I walked through Guayasamin’s home and adjacent museum, I felt the rich history and culture of Ecuadorian life. Through his works of art, I was captivated by his view of the pain and suffering of the indigenous Aztec, Mayan and Inca societies, African slaves and those in the Czech Republic during the time of Hitler who were murdered in cold blood.
I learned Guayasamin was not a religious man. He preferred to call his personal museum, which was built by his foundation with pledges from other countries, corporate donations and gifts from friends ranging from the now deceased Venezuelan Presidnet, Hugo Chavez and French President, Francois Mitterand, the Capilla de Hombre or Chapel of Man, because he wanted it to reflect the nature of man and not the mysticism of a deity. The works I viewed in the the collection of art on display were moving portrayals of the suffering of indigenous peoples he encountered through his travels around the world. His art tells the story of the both the beauty and cruel brutality of our society.
May of his works, like the one below, show the enduring pain and suffering of indigenous mothers who have lost children to war, famine, slavery and other cruelties. His focus on mothers reflected his love for his own mother and for the importance of family.
I am not an art critic or an art historian. I’m just a guy from Boston transplanted to New York City and now North Carolina, that has had the privilege of seeing important artifacts and places up close. My wife likes to describe me as a very linear person. That being said, my linear observations of this man’s life and work focus on the architecture of his home, which contains his impressive studio (double the size of the average two-bedroom condo in New York City) and the adjacent building constructed to display his most important works.
Spanning over 1,000 meters or 3,280 sq. ft., his magnificent home serves as a museum on its own, with works given to him by Picasso and other legendary artists on display. Guayasamin also collected religious symbols, including many wood sculptures by indigenous artists of Jesus on the cross. One statue of Jesus we saw includes a technique of creating glass eyes to give the subject a realistic look.
In my lifetime, I have visited many famous historic structures, buildings and homes built by those who took great risks or worked tirelessly to shape the United States of America, as well as the places of those who have experienced great poverty of were victims of grave injustice. I’ve walked the hallowed grounds of our nation’s famous battlefields and through the homes – from revolutionaries to Presidents – of influential figures in American history. My feet have taken me to see our nation’s greatest monuments and war vessels and I was fortunate enough to have stood on the outdoor observation deck at the World Trade Center. I also had the misfortune of watching them burn until they collapsed. I have, at times, strolled, walked or run through grand rail stations and airports in the United States, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, Italy, England and Ecuador.
Through these travels I have observed the differences in our cultures through architecture, art, music and commerce and its given me the opportunity to reflect both on our nation’s ingenuity and its inglorious past. Visits to the Tenement Museum in New York, the Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington, N.C. and Stagville Plantation in Durham, NC (which kept over 900 slaves on the property) have shaped a deeper understanding of the harsh realities of those who were enslaved or those who came the United States for a better life, only to exist in ghettos teaming with people on the same mission: to make it – at any cost – in America.
I have seen the greatness of our people who have worked to make our society better or sparked innovation in or advanced the fields of science, technology, education, art, fashion, music and more. I have also seen the injustice and violence that threatens what we as a nation proudly stand for. There are times when one consumes art and its hard to comprehend the message, especially if you’re not aware of the context or understand the message. That is why it’s important to understand and acknowledge what art tells us about ourselves. How it keeps us honest. How it makes us see what we may not want to see or teaches us what we might not know. And, how its messages show us where we’ve been and urge us to think critically about how what we do has a lasting impact on the world around us.
Great artists remind us of our achievements as well as our sordid past. They either quietly or loudly (and somewhere in between) demand justice for those who are left behind and those who are disenfranchised. Or, those who may never know another way, because they are held in captivity either against their will or prevented from getting information that will teach them how to overcome their circumstances.
My visit to the Casa Museo de Guayasamin brought me deep into the mind of a master storyteller through words, sculpture, painting and indigenous artifacts. It gave me a concept of history and the lives of people seen from the view of someone who deeply believed that he had a responsibility to show the world through his body of work where we have been, so that we can remember the horrors those who came before us endured. And through this work comes a strong cry for peace and justice where there is none and humanity where it needs to be.
While I had previously seen reproductions on small posters of Guyasamin’s work, it was not until I walked the streets of Quito, observed the various indigenous people’s in their native clothing and then visited and toured both the house and museum, that I could fully appreciate the work of a legendary figure in art history. Sometimes, you just have to go there to feel it. And, when you do – you’ll never be the same.