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.


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.”

Yet, studying at Ecuador’s fine-arts school, he resisted the temptation to fall into the trap of becoming “an indigenous painter.” He scoffs at those who paint cheerful Indians and more so at those who portray downtrodden natives, which he dismisses as “folklore in reverse.”

His sights were higher: a style that would convey more subtly the sufferings of the century without caricature. He evolved a wrenching figurative style that reflects what he calls his “inside skin,” his personality and experiences, and his “outside skin,” the era in which he lives--"the most monstrous century that humanity has ever endured.”

Traveling through Latin America in the 1940s, he gathered material for his first major series, Huaycaynan , or “The Road of Lamentation,” in which his figurative, angular faces began to emerge through the 1950s. Self-portraits from those years show a brooding face with searing eyes and a short, slender frame, now thickened a bit with age but still hardy.

After more worldly travels, he produced perhaps his greatest, and most anguished work, in a series called “The Age of Wrath.” Outsized hands cupping, pleading, protecting or beseeching are a constant and haunting feature. Distorted faces are often reduced to eyes, bodies to bones.

Spanish writer Jose Camon Aznar said in a study of Guayasamin: “Truly he is the Michelangelo of the defeated race.”

Later, he produced a gentler series called “The Age of Tenderness,” focusing on his mother and other women. (He has married three times, has seven children and is again unmarried. But he says he wants to marry once more “because I want to have two more children.”)

Throughout, he has taken up leftist causes, though he has never belonged to a political party. He was expelled twice from art school, once for supporting a strike and then for his rebellious artwork itself.

Yet Nelson Rockefeller, named by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 to coordinate inter-American affairs, found Guayasamin’s work compelling during a 1942 visit to Quito. The future New York governor, presidential candidate and vice president took home six paintings, and included with his payment an extra “incredible” gift that made the artist instantly prosperous.

He also extended a State Department invitation to the United States. Guayasamin spent several years there, living for a while in Bayside, Queens, with his family, and exhibiting around the country.

A six-month visit to China at Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’s invitation in 1960, however, ended his ties with the United States. When he sought to return to New York, the U.S. Embassy in Paris “nearly destroyed my passport,” and he says he was openly followed and harassed in New York. So he packed up, sold out and went home to Quito. “And now I know that I cannot enter the U.S.,” he said.

While he assiduously avoided overt political images in his work, he has never escaped trouble. A mosaic mural by him at the Central University in Quito was criticized and once sprayed with machine gun fire. Yet now, he said, “it is part of the city, it is part of the consciousness of the people.”

That will happen as well with the mural in Congress, Guayasamin predicts, as emotions die down.

The last thing that Congress President Lucero wants is to see the matter resurrected. He inherited the problem--the work was commissioned by the previous Congress--and expresses surprise at the depth of the anger.

“If it were the State Department, that would be different, it would be understandable that they make demands,” Lucero said. “But the CIA is an institution charged with certain tasks that are not so clean, and we know of its interventions in other countries, not just in Latin America.”

“For the U.S. people, and their government, we have the most profound respect,” Lucero said. “It seems exaggerated on the part of the United States to consider that having CIA painted there represents officially the image of the whole United States. That is not the case.”

The artist’s Guayasamin Foundation has printed posters of the mural, with accompanying explanations, to be sent to schools around the country.

The foundation is clearly a major business, with a splendid museum showing not only the artists’s own works but his collection of pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial art, all bequeathed to the nation. Signed lithographs are on sale, as is designer jewelry and copper work produced in the Guayasamin workshop.

Some Ecuadoreans grouse that Guayasamin has cashed in on foreign sales, often to Americans like Rockefeller, while railing against imperialism. He is certainly a wealthy man, living in a magnificent home on a 5-acre spread on a wooded hillside overlooking Quito.

Rep. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who saw the mural during a visit this year, complained to the House that Ecuador received $33 million in foreign aid last year while it “openly, willfully insults us every day of the year.” Joining Inhofe in supporting a cut-off of aid unless the mural is changed, Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon (R-N.Y.) noted that the United States has accepted 76,000 Ecuadorean immigrants and has given a total of more than $800 million in aid.

Guayasamin professes not to understand the fuss.

He is furiously prolific, working 12 to 14 hours a day in the vast studio that forms part of his rambling white mansion, styled in part after a pre-Columbian house in Peru. Smoking unfiltered Chesterfields, he rifles through an envelope of his drawings with hands trembling with excitement and energy. A Schubert symphony fills the room as he displays a new work, a child suckling at a skeleton mother, meant to express his feelings about the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Lebanon.

More controversy is ahead, Guayasamin promises, that will dwarf that of the CIA mural. Perhaps he means the mural to be placed at the United Nations cultural center in Paris next October, to coincide with a new book and film on his life.

He is proud of his small Ecuador, font of ancient cultures and one of the continent’s more tranquil places these days.

“All the painting I do is born 8,000 years ago. I don’t believe myself the author of these works. I am the most surprised of anyone when I finish painting something. From where do so many things come? When I am painting, I am completely outside myself, things are surging from inside me that I don’t even know myself.”

He cannot be accused of inconsistency. In 1938, he wrote a poem vowing:

And with fire and pain and anguish,

I will paint man, I will paint the sky . . .

I will paint with the shout of a gun,

and with the power of the sun’s rays,

and with the fury of battle.”