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The Painter and the Yanquis : Art: Oswaldo Guayasamin has become a bemused symbol of U.S.-Latin American tensions as his latest historical mural provokes sharp debate in the United States.

November 29, 1989|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuadorean artist Oswaldo Guayasamin began his ascent toward world renown thanks to Nelson Rockefeller and the State Department, but he has no friends these days in the U.S. Embassy.

Although French President Francois Mitterrand visited his home last month, and Mitterrand's wife is a regular house guest, some Americans denounce him as a leftist ingrate guilty of a perfidious insult to the United States.

Guayasamin, 70, has thus become a bemused symbol of the tensions that have periodically surfaced since World War II between small Latin countries and the United States.

On the way to winning acclaim as one of Latin America's finest artists, Guayasamin has been causing controversy with his paint brush for nearly 50 years. While he doesn't say so, his smile suggests his delight in the debate that his latest major work has provoked.

The trouble began in August, 1988, when one of his murals was unveiled in the Ecuadorean Congress. Covering about 1,600 square feet of the main wall facing the hall, the mural's 23 panels tell Ecuador's history through portraits of heroes, dictators, tortured images of suffering and a hopeful pair of delicate hands reaching toward a pre-Columbian sun.

In a panel off to the left lies the source of the polemics. Above a Nazi-style helmet enclosing a skeletal face, Guayasamin inscribed three letters: CIA.

The reference to the Central Intelligence Agency passed almost unnoticed at first in Ecuador where, as elsewhere in the region, the CIA has often symbolized American meddling. Furthermore, the CIA was just one of four literally negative, black-and-white images in the otherwise warm-colored mural, along with Ecuador's former military dictators, its oligarchical civilian tyrants and the first president who enslaved the native Indians.

But Americans reacted fast and loudly:

Then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz, visiting Quito for the inauguration of President Rodrigo Borja in the Congress hall last year, called the painting an insult to the United States.

According to Guayasamin, the U.S. Ambassador told the president of the Congress, Wilfrido Lucero, that he should climb a ladder and paint out the offending letters. In January, the Congress president was given only a limited visa to the United States in what Ecuador's No. 2 public official calls a reprisal measure.

Two outraged U.S. congressmen threatened in May to seek a cut-off of the $37-million American aid program to Ecuador unless the offending panel is changed.

For some Ecuadoreans, such demands confirm that the United States touts free expression at home, but not beyond its borders. Others began to examine the panel more closely, and agreed that it was offensive.

But no one has entertained the notion of changing it.

Borja, the newly elected president of the Democratic Left Party, fled from this no-win problem, saying it was a congressional matter. Congress sought to downplay it, noting that Ecuador had signed a convention protecting free artistic expression, pressure or no.

Guayasamin had already toned down his mural. Originally, he planned to place a U.S. flag and a swastika above the Nazi helmet, implicating the entire United States. Then he replaced the flag with the CIA.

Shortly before the work was completed, he said in an interview, he read of an attempt by private American citizens to send 10 to 15 truckloads of donated food and clothing to Nicaragua as a counterweight to the official support for the CIA-backed Contra rebels.

"This opened my eyes and I said, 'It is not all the American people.' I think it is the U.S. government, not the U.S. people. Inside the United States, there is a very strong opposition to the CIA, there are progressives. But the attitude of the government--of the U.S. governments--has been quite tragic for Latin America. There are repeated examples: Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico.

"We have all been more or less victims, in one form or another, of the U.S. government," he said.

A friend and admirer of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and a committed leftist since his youth, Guayasamin calls himself a humanist, incapable of violence.

"This is my form of fighting," he said, showing his works-in-progress in his studio. "I cannot take up a rifle but, damn it, I fight this way."

In some ways, the controversy has overshadowed the artistic achievements of a prized artist, whose work has just completed a three-year tour of museums, including the Hermitage in Leningrad. A vast retrospective exhibition is scheduled for Paris next October.

The son of an Indian father and a mixed-race mother, Guayasamin grew up in poverty as the eldest of 10 children, and recalls bitterly how he discovered Latin American racism.

"The children in primary school didn't play with me because I was named Guayasamin," he said, referring to his Indian last name. "I never learned to play marbles, or spin a top. Those games I learned with my own children."

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