The life, art, and legacy of Oswaldo Guayasamin

Oswaldo Guayasamin
Art is a tender and skillful manner of expressing your imagination with a variety of methods. It can be a sculpture or painting, which usually has a certain level of attraction and emotions. Ecuador has a lot of talented artists, even though the name Oswaldo Guayasamin is well-known in the entire world. This artist brought his unique style of expressionism and cubism to the collection of Ecuador artwork. And that is around 13 000 works of art. Needless to say, it made him an everlasting legend – a true Southern Picasso. Yet, there is always a price to be paid for being a talented person. The art of Oswaldo Guayasamin was affected by the personal tragedies, which he carried through his entire life. What makes a man become a legend?

The childhood of Oswaldo Guayasamin

The story of the talented artist begins on July 6, 1919. He was born in Quito. Being the eldest child in a large and poor family, Oswaldo Guayasamin did his best to help his family. He learned the basics of painting in early childhood and improved his skills gradually. One of his early achievements in art were detailed, comical sketches of his school teachers and friends.

Not much is known about his family. His mother, Dolores Calero, was an owner of a small store. She was the main inspiration on why Oswaldo Guayasamin started to paint and eventually achieved his brilliant career. His father, Jose Miguel, was a hard-working carpenter and did his best to support his large family. He continued his life as a taxi and truck driver.

The mother’s death was the first emotional strike in his childhood, but not the last one. He observed the society to understand the reason for the colossal inequality it had. The level of poverty, indigenous oppression, and social strife affected Guayasamin.  It was unbearable in its own way.

The death of his friend, who was shot during the demonstration, lead to two important events.

The first is one of the most known Guayasamin early paintings – Los niños muertos (Dead Children). The art illustrates a street and a gross pile of naked, dead bodies.

Los niños muertos

The second one affected his entire worldview. Oswaldo Guayasamin started to express his outrage at the injustice in his further works. That was one of the reasons why he abandoned his religion.

He was not a diligent student in school, because art was all he was ever interested in. That’s why he left his old school and entered the School of Fine Arts. This step was the most important turning point in his entire life and future artist career.

Oswaldo Guayasamin graduation and traveling

Graduation from the School of Fine Arts finally marked his path as a professional artist. He was the best student, without a doubt. Being only 21 years old, Oswaldo Guayasamin prints were highly praised and recognized among art lovers in America. Luckily, he was noticed by famous American businessman Nelson Rockefeller. He assisted the young artist in selling his works. This conjuncture provided enough funds for the Oswaldo Guayasamin to start traveling. He visited Mexico, the USA, and most large countries of South America like Argentina or Brazil. He sought inspiration for his further works and found it in the artistic talent of José Clemente Orozco, the Mexican caricaturist.

His massive inspirational project was Huacayñán which took him nearly 6 years to complete. In 1952, the Guayasamin paintings were exhibited in the Museo de Arte Colonial Quito. The Benjamin Carrion played the main role in showcasing them at this exhibition.

The sheer number of indigenous Ecuadorian artworks contained 103 examples. He depicted the Black, Mestizo, and Indian Americans. Sometimes he painted the eyes of different colors to show the mix between several nations.

The term Huacayñán original meaning is close to “the trail of tears”. Oswaldo Guayasamin tried to express the grief and realization of people, who part and never met again.

A “Prisionero” (Prisoner) Ecuadorian artwork depicts a man in a harsh condition of both starved body and soul. The pressing feeling of the narrow camera creates a certain feeling of claustrophobia. The realization that he won’t see his family again also plays a role in society, which can’t be heard by those in power.



Cubism and Age of Anger

The traveling imprinted the future style of Oswaldo Guayasamin, as he started to experiment with the cubism style. This period was also known as the “Age of Anger”. This Age of Anger is related to the times of the Cold War when the United States of America opposed the communist presence in South America. CIA and their “Operation of Condor” tried to affect the democratic elections. The main idea was to put their puppet presidents in place of socially selected presidents, like Salvador Allende. Needless to say, that these intervention actions turned Oswaldo Guayasamin against the CIA and from the USA generally. It’s safe to assume, that this was one of the reasons why he supported popular communist leaders, like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.


A lot of these cubism Guayasamin paintings represent faces and raised, elongated hands, either in pray or horror. Most of these Ecuadorian artworks reflect suffering and the nation’s biggest issues. They showcase a fractured nation, filled with racism, poverty, violence and inequality, left alone with its issues.

One of his famous works, “Lágrimas de sangre” (Tears of Blood) was dedicated to the president Salvador Allende, Víctor Jara and Pablo Neruda. These famous people were killed during the bloody coup.

Tears of Blood

Tears of Blood

Another known Ecuador artwork from his collection is “Mother and Child”. The starving child seeks comfort in his mother’s hands, while the mother’s face is raised to the sky. The hand depicts an attempt to ask for a panhandle, illustrating the poverty state of this and many other Ecuadorian families.

Oswaldo Guayasamin AMA

Oswaldo Guayasamin AMA

The Age of Tenderness

As opposed to the Age of Anger, the “Age of Tenderness” depicts drastic changes in the mood of Guayasamin prints. While the cubism style was still recognizable and unique, the depictions of mother and child became peaceful and warm.

Mother and Child

The early loss of his mother affected his style, bringing comfort to Guayasamin paintings. Being an elder person, he managed to show mixed emotions by adding a melancholic blue color to the palette. A “Madre y niño” (Mother and Child) painting is a perfect example of this transformation and dedication to his dead and beloved mother. Despite any struggles, the mother shows deep care and love to her child.

Guayasamin earned numerous rewards during his life. The first prize was awarded during the Third Hispano-American Biennial of Art in Barcelona in 1955. He became the most recognizable painter at the Fourth Biennial of São Paulo in 1957. He also visited Paris and Buenos Aires, where he inaugurated his very last exhibits in 1995.

Fundación Guayasamín: the Guayasamin museum

Until his very death, Oswaldo Guayasamin lived a luxurious life. His parents probably could not imagine such a fate for their child. Guayasamin had a large house in a beautiful, highland place of a Bellavista district in Quito. From that place, you could observe the entire capital of Ecuador. In 1976 the house became his own Guayasamin museum, called Fundación Guayasamín.

art of Guayasamin

In the Guayasamin museum, he collected paintings and sculptures of all ages. Some of them were pre-Colombian period. One could notice a collection of archaic automobiles – a dedication to his father’s job as a driver. The main point of the Fundación Guayasamín was to preserve his own collection of arts and sculptures as a shrine for further generations. According to the official statistics, there are more than 2000 Ecuadorian artworks and Spanish artifacts in the Guayasamin museum. Also, you can find here a large collection of his native artists from Tigua. The guided tours to the Fundación Guayasamín are still a popular route in Quito.

Oswaldo Guayasamin died on March 10, 1999, and became a national treasure. His final dream was to build a “Capilla del Hombre” (Chapel of Man).

La Capilla del Hombre in Quito

According to his own words, here, all people who are free from religion could meditate to realize the trajectory of humanity on this land. The square chapel with a cube on its top was finished only in 2002. This building contains the Ecuador artwork he created during his entire life. It is quite hard to stay emotionless after seeing these tragic masterpieces.

The Ecuador artwork is impossible to exist without the contribution, made by Oswaldo Guayasamin. His entire life was dedicated to showing the issues of South American society. The Guayasamin paintings became a harsh reflection of his own life, which was not easy. And still, he proved, that if you wish to bring attention to something important – you need to act in any possible manner. The Fundación Guayasamín and the Capilla del Hombre are examples of this. If you ever visit these places – you will realize how a simple man can become an everlasting legend, beloved by many.