Category: Indigenous

Let Me Tell You About MusicaLatitudes

The bombo, an indigenous drum of the Andean region, sits onstage ready to be played in the Los Angeles performance by the MusicaLatitudes Ensemble. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The bombo, an indigenous drum of the Andean region, sits onstage ready to be played in the Los Angeles performance by the MusicaLatitudes Ensemble. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

A glorious noise emanated from the main cathedral sanctuary of the historic Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles on the night of July 31, 2010, but it was not the sacred music one usually associates with a church. The concert was distinctly Latin American, with no small influence from the indigenous roots of Latinoamérica. More to the point, all of the songs being performed were from the socially conscious, Nueva Canción (New Song) or Nueva Trova (New Troubadour) traditions. As a follower of the New Song movement since the early 1970s, I want to share with readers of this web log my experience of the Immanuel concert, as Nueva Canción has had an abiding impact on my work as a visual artist.

The church’s 80-foot-high vaulted ceilings provided concert hall acoustics for an unusual multi-media presentation by the MusicaLatitudes Ensemble. Hailing from Ventura county where they run a performing arts center, the troupe performed America, Let Me Tell You About Ernesto, their musical homage to the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The performance combined live music, spoken word poetry, and a bi-lingual powerpoint slide show to great effect; but it was the content of the production that truly provided a jolt to the senses. By performing songs and poems written by some of the greatest artists - both living and deceased - from all over Latin America, MusicaLatitudes opened a window into the very heart and soul of the region.

As the ensemble played their cover songs in the original Spanish, the song composer’s name and country of origin were projected on the stage backdrop, followed by the lyrics in English. Much of the time the projected song lyrics were punctuated with stunning artworks or photographs that further conveyed the song’s message. In between songs, Venezuelan born Enoc Cortez Barbera and Chilean born Elizabeth Rosello read poems from legendary poets such as Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) of Chile and Otto René Castillo (1934-1967) of Guatemala, the poetry text also being projected onto the stage backdrop in English. The compelling stage readings drove home all of the despair, rage, hope, and revolutionary zeal inherent in the written words of Latin American poets from down the ages.

The entire MusicaLatitudes Ensemble onstage. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The entire MusicaLatitudes Ensemble onstage. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

The life of and death of Otto René Castillo is indicative of the grim and painful realities Latin Americans have had to suffer through over the decades - actualities that have been consistently dealt with in Nueva Canción. In 1954, when Guatemala’s democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in a U.S. backed military coup orchestrated by the C.I.A., Castillo fled into exile. Longing for a free and independent Guatemala, he clandestinely returned to his homeland in 1966 to take up arms against the military regime. He joined the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR: Rebel Armed Forces), heading that guerilla organization’s education and propaganda unit.

In 1967 Castillo was captured by the military and taken to an army barracks where he was viciously tortured along with his girlfriend Nora Paíz Cárcamo. The military killed the two by splashing them with gasoline and setting them on fire. While most people in the U.S. have never heard of Castillo, Guatemalans still remember him as their greatest poet - and they have not forgotten how he met his end. So goes the history of U.S.-Latin American relations. Knowing that troubled history, as well as the story of Castillo, when his poetry was read from the stage I openly wept - it would not be the only time tears came to my eyes that evening.

Ecuadoran-American bass player Juan Carlos Rosales. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Bass player Juan Carlos Rosales. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The talented MusicaLatitudes ensemble is led by a core group; Greek-Venezuelan-American composer, vocalist, and keyboardist Pantelis Palamidis (who is also the musical director of the troupe), Ecuadoran-American bassist Juan Carlos Rosales, and American drummer-percussionist, Bill Davis.

The Mexican born Jose Cruz Gamez Baroza played led acoustic guitar, and proved to be more than a competent vocalist as well. Puerto Rican born Mayra Bermudez and Guatemalan born Andrea Zúñiga provided commanding backup vocals - sometimes being showcased as lead singers; I was completely enthralled by Zúñiga, who stole the show with her impassioned delivery and powerful vocal range.

The Venezuelan born Clara Alvear played the cuatro (a small four-stringed guitar-like instrument commonly found in South America) along with Latin American percussion instruments; “Guiro” (a scraper made from a dried and notched gourd), large-sized “Tumba” conga drums as well as the smaller “Quinto” congas, and the “Bombo” - the indigenous drum of the Andean region that is played with a stick and mallet.

Clara Alvear playing her bombo drum. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Clara Alvear playing her bombo drum. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

The Spanish poet León Felipe (1884-1968) was the only non-Latin American whose works were included in the program, but for very good reason. Having fought in the Spanish Civil War against General Franco and his fascist army, Felipe was forced into exile once the fascists won the war. Like many other anti-fascist Spaniards, he went into exile in Mexico, where he lived and worked until his death in 68.

Interestingly enough, when Che Guevara was captured and executed by the C.I.A. and the Bolivian army in 1967 (more on that later), the executioners found a green notebook in the guerrilla leader’s backpack.  It was filled with poems El Che had written in his own hand - poems by León Felipe, Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo of Peru (1892-1938), and Nicolas Guillen of Cuba (1902-1989). According to ensemble director Palamidis, the publication of Guevara’s notebook in 2008 served as the basis for the troupe’s presentation of songs “from the decades of struggle and oppression that several Latin American countries went through in the 70s and 80s.”

Mr. Palamidis further stated that the music and poems performed by MusicaLatitudes were a tribute “to the new awakening of Latin America in its search for its definitive socio-political and cultural independence, just as Simon Bolivar, Che Guevara, and many Latin American revolutionary leaders dreamt for centuries. Let these poems and songs become the antidote that will relieve our souls from the unjustified wars, the killing of innocents, the devastation of families, the financial corruption, the manipulative mainstream media, the increase in discrimination, the deterioration of our environment, and the amazing paralysis of a big majority of our society, which we unfortunately witness day after day.”

Mayra Bermudez listens to fellow ensemble member Clara Alvear play the cuatro. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Mayra Bermudez listens to fellow ensemble member Clara Alvear play the guitar. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The pan-Latin American phenomenon of Nueva Canción and Nueva Trova continue to have deep resonance in América Latina, but most people in the United States are still blissfully unaware of the genre.

The only equivalent musical movement in the U.S. would be the early Folk scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Singer-songwriters like Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan sang topical “protest” songs, but Nueva Canción largely turned its back on Western influences and instead embraced indigenous instruments and rhythms for inspiration. Moreover, the form has a decidedly left-wing political orientation that focuses on the critical problems of the region, Yankee imperialism, poverty and its causes, social inequality, the legacy of colonialism, and racial oppression.

Nueva Canción went hand-in-hand with, and was an outgrowth of, the various political movements for radical social change in América Latina. It should also go without saying that it has commonalities with the socially conscious literature of the region; it is probably a safe thing to say that nowhere else in the world is poetry so closely linked with popular song. But there is also an obvious tie to the social realist visual arts of Latin America - here the Ecuadoran master painter Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999), or the Mexican Muralists come to mind.

The New Song movement has been so closely intertwined with left political movements that it has been impossible to separate the two. For instance, in 1973 the Chilean Nueva Canción singer Victor Jara wrote the song ¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido! as an anthem for the democratically elected Popular Unity government of Chile’s socialist President Salvador Allende. The song was further popularized when it was sung at marches and rallies in Chile by the Nueva Canción group - Quilapayún (this video shows the group performing the song in front of Chile’s Presidential Palace just days before the country’s military coup).

Allende was overthrown and murdered in 1973 during a U.S. backed military coup, along with at least 3,000 other Chileans - including Victor Jara. His song has since been transformed into an iconic international anthem of the left, and the chant of ¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido! (The people united will never be defeated!), is today heard at demonstrations around the globe. Two songs by Jara were featured in MusicaLatitudes’ program, his timeless numbers El arado (The plow), and Juan sin tierra (John without land: sung as a Mexican style corrido), but Jara’s influence on music warrants an entire concert in his tribute. Of course, the Clash made mention of Jara in their 1980 song Washington Bullets - but a contemporary Spanish rock band has also immortalized him.

Juan sin tierra is in the repetoire of the Spanish Ska-Punk band, Ska-P. Currently one the most popular Ska-Punk groups in Europe, the group’s name pronounced in Spanish (es’kape) is a clever pun involving the Spanish word for “escape,” with a reference to Ska and P(unk). Their name and music more than suggests “escaping” the stranglehold of contemporary society, and their songs attack war, fascism, capitalism, and the abusive power of the state. By performing Victor Jara’s work, Ska-P shows just how relevant - and popular - Jara’s songs continue to be. Hopefully other artists, working in a multiplicity of musical genres, will embrace Jara’s compassionate songs as their own.

Acoustic guitar player Miguel Heredia in contemplation between sets. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Acoustic guitar player Miguel Heredia in contemplation between sets. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The name of the evening’s program came from a song with the same title by the Cuban Nueva Trova singer, Silvio Rodriguez.

Possessing an extraordinary voice, and highly skilled at writing political songs in the most flowery poetic language, Rodriguez is today’s prime exponent of Nueva Canción.

The MusicaLatitudes Ensemble performed moving covers of his América, te hablo de Ernesto (America, I tell you about Ernesto), La Maza (The flail), and Cita Con Ángeles (Appointment with Angels). Released in 2003, Cita Con Ángeles tells the story of the angels in heaven being horrified and helpless before the great horrors committed on earth by the unjust - with political assassinations amongst these crimes. In the song Rodriguez recounts the dismay with which the angels met the killings of Giordano Bruno, José Martí, Federico García Lorca, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lennon.

The angels, Rodriguez tells us, were also disconcerted over the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, but when Rodriguez tells of how the angels became inconsolable over the carnage of September 11th - the heart breaks. At that point during the MusicaLatitudes’ performance, a photograph of the Twin Towers exploding into a massive fireball flashed upon the stage backdrop, and one could almost feel the collective sadness rippling through the audience. But in the very next stanza, Rodriguez reminds us that 9-11 also stands for another catastrophe; on September 11, 1973, the U.S. engineered a coup d’état against the elected government of Chile, a coup that not only took the life of President Allende and some 3,000 Chilean civilians, but turned the country into a torture camp where democracy was extinguished.

MusicaLatitudes performed a single song by the celebrated Argentine singer, Atahualpa Yupanqui - his poignant homage to Che Guevara, Nada Más (Nothing More). An artist of great consequence, Yupanqui (1908-1992) is considered one of Argentina’s most important singers, and is known to have written more than 12,000 musical compositions. He became an ethnomusicologist of sorts, traversing his native Argentina in order to study the songs and musical traditions of the country’s indigenous people.

In the 1960s Yupanqui was rediscovered by a younger generation of artists who were to comprise the Nueva Canción movement. A youthful fellow Argentine, Mercedes Sosa (1935-2009) was one such person, and although her music was not performed in the MusicaLatitudes program of July 31, it could be said that Sosa took up Yupanqui’s banner to become a leading Argentine exponent of Nueva Canción (here Sosa performs the Violeta Parra song Gracias a la Vida with Joan Baez. It was Parra who set the foundations for Chilean Nueva Canción). In addition, Victor Jara was another deeply influenced by Yupanqui and Parra.

Towards the end of their program, the MusicaLatitudes Ensemble performed what is widely hailed as the anthem of Latin America, Canción con todos (Song with all), composed in 1969 by Argentine singer César Isella, with lyrics by Argentine poet Armando Tejada Gómez. In 1976 the Argentine military staged a coup that shut down all democratic institutions; the military’s “dirty war” against the civilian population began. Upwards of 30,000 civilians are thought to have been killed by the authorities during the repression - with left activists taking the brunt of the army’s ferocity. Canción con todos was banned by the military authorities, who eliminated all things perceived to be in opposition to their rule; the fascists ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

I first heard Canción con todos in the early 1970s, and I still consider it to be one of the most beautiful songs ever written; it speaks of pan-American solidarity, and how all the people of the hemisphere are one. The song carries a gorgeous melody, its lyrics conveying an unquenchable thirst for liberty and independence. One particular line from the song’s ending, “toda la sangre puede ser canción en el viento” (all the blood will be songs on the wind), sums up the implacable human spirit intrinsic to Nueva Canción - all of our collective tragedies will be transformed into victories, provided we never forget what is true and beautiful (here Isella performs a remarkable version of Canción con todos before a Chilean audience in 2003).

Ensemble members Jose Cruz Gamez Baroza, Mayra Bermudez, and Clara Alvear. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Ensemble members Jose Cruz Gamez Baroza, Mayra Bermudez, and Clara Alvear. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

At the close of the evening the ensemble  performed the most famous of all songs written about Che, Hasta Siempre Comandante (Forever Commander), penned by the Cuban Nueva Trova singer, Carlos Puebla (1917-1989).

Puebla wrote the song in 1965 upon hearing that Guevara had renounced his Cuban citizenship and resigned from his positions in the Cuban government in order to make revolution throughout the world. Che’s decision ultimately took him to Bolivia where he attempted to initiate an insurrection against the U.S. backed military regime of General René Barrientos. After 11 months in Bolivia, Che was captured with the help of the C.I.A. and immediately executed without benefit of a trial. Performed by innumerable artists over the decades, including the notable Buena Vista Social Club, the MusicaLatitudes Ensemble became the latest group to cover Puebla’s iconic song.

Interestingly enough, it has been the French actress and pop songbird Nathalie Cardone, who has done more to immortalize Puebla’s song in recent times than any other performer. Her 1997 version of Hasta Siempre was a runaway international hit, selling well over 800,000 copies in France alone. Her accompanying video to the song is an astonishing melding of commercial pop and faux “agit-prop” sensibilities. While not a Nueva Canción singer, Cardone has certainly brought new interest to the genre.

The MusicaLatitudes Ensemble delivered one of the most ambitious left cultural events to have been presented in Los Angeles in many years, and their opening the door to the world of Nueva Canción was in many respects a wonderful gift to the people of my city. In the past the ensemble has offered concert performances in tribute to the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, and the Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa. The ensemble will offer a tribute to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda at their performing arts center in Ventura in the months to come, watch for it - no doubt it will be a production not to be missed.

Guatemala: Voices of Justice

"Voices of Justice." Mark Vallen 1989. Offset poster. 11" x 15." Commissioned by the Guatemalan Information Center (GIC). The poster was based upon a 3 x 5 foot chalk pastel drawing on paper.

"Voices of Justice." Mark Vallen 1989. Offset poster. 11" x 15." Commissioned by the Guatemalan Information Center (GIC). The poster was based upon a 3 x 5 foot chalk pastel drawing on paper.

In 1989 the Guatemalan Information Center (GIC), a human rights organization founded by a group of Guatemalan exiles living in Los Angeles, commissioned me to create a poster.

Its purpose was to announce the Guatemalan Human Rights Tribunal, a public forum the GIC was planning to hold in the Council Chambers of Los Angeles City Hall on the subject of the war then raging in Guatemala. I had been closely following the unfolding tragedy in that Central American nation since the late 1970s, and my concerns were reflected in the art I was making in those days.

I created the poster for the GIC free of charge, and the widely distributed artwork brought hundreds of people to the group’s City Hall event. At the tribunal, eyewitness accounts of the war were provided in testimonies from Guatemalan labor union activists, clergy, representatives of indigenous peoples, students, human rights workers, and others. My collaboration with the GIC was motivated by the reports I had been reading about the plight of Guatemalans – like the following story involving the Mayan village of Las Dos Erres in the north of Guatemala.

"Voices of Justice." Mark Vallen 1989. Detail. "Pro-democracy demonstrators carrying a wounded compañero just shot by security forces."

"Voices of Justice." Mark Vallen 1989. Detail. Carrying a wounded compañero just shot by security forces.

On December 5, 1982, the hamlet of Las Dos Erres was visited by unspeakable horror when Special Forces commandos of the U.S.-backed Guatemalan army attacked the sleepy village – which the Guatemalan military government suspected was sympathetic to the country’s left-wing guerrilla movement.

Beginning on that fateful December day the commandos of the “Kaibil” Special Forces commenced the systematic butchering of some 350 men, women, and children – nearly the entire population of the Mayan settlement. The massacre would continue for three days, and only two five-year-old boys would survive the bloodbath.

I am writing about this now because on May 5, 2010, officers from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency arrested a former member of the Kaibil Special Forces who had been living in Palm Beach, Florida as a naturalized U.S. citizen. Gilberto Jordan was charged with lying about his role in the Las Dos Erres massacre in order to obtain U.S. citizenship. According to ICE, Jordan admitted “that he participated in the killings,” and that he stated “the first person he killed was a baby, whom he murdered by throwing into the village well.” The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Wifredo A. Ferrer, said, “The acts alleged in this complaint are horrific” and that “we will not provide shelter and cover to those who lie about their criminal past, especially human rights abuses, to gain U.S. citizenship.”

This past February, immigration agents also arrested former Kaibil soldier Santos Lopez Alonzo in Houston, Texas. Picked up as an undocumented day laborer, Alonzo is alleged to have held women and children at gunpoint as they were being murdered and thrown into the village well at Las Dos Erres. Immigration authorities are also seeking two other former Kaibil soldiers known to be hiding in the United States who were present at the Las Dos Erres massacre – Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, a second lieutenant in the Kaibiles who is alleged to have murdered civilians by smashing in their heads with a sledge hammer, and Pedro Pimentel Rios, a Kaibil commando alleged to have raped a number of girls and women before they were slaughtered.

"Voices of Justice." Mark Vallen 1989. Detail.

"Voices of Justice." Mark Vallen 1989. Detail.

Writing for the Global Post on May 5, 2010, reporter Matt McAllester summed up the history of the massacre at Las Dos Erres – in all its grisly detail – in his article, “U.S. rounds up Guatemalans accused of war crimes.” But McAllester’s piece also raises a number of important questions regarding the mass executions, not the least of which is the fact that the U.S. government trained and armed the Guatemalan army responsible for such mass killings.

In his article, McAllester notes that de-classified cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala to the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. during the years 1982 and 1983, confirm that the U.S. government knew the Guatemalan army had carried out the massacre at Las Dos Erres, “yet the School of the Americas began to welcome new instructors and students from the army only days after the killings.”

McAllester’s report stated that just a month after the atrocity, the Kaibil commando Pedro Pimentel Rios – the one who allegedly committed mass rape – became an instructor at the Pentagon’s School of the Americas in Panama. Not only that, McAllester wrote, “He was given an Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service by the then-U.S. Secretary of the Army John Otho Marsh in 1985.”

The massacre at Las Dos Erres was not an aberration. When the 36-year war between leftist guerrillas and the U.S.-supported Guatemalan army ended with a peace accord in 1996, over 200,000 Guatemalans had perished. In 1999 Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission, a UN-sponsored truth and reconciliation commission, released a report titled “Memory of Silence” that found indigenous Maya accounted for 83% of the dead, and that 93% of the victims had been murdered by government armed forces. The commission’s report concluded that the U.S.-backed Guatemalan army had identified “the Mayan population as the internal enemy,” and that the army’s relentless assaults upon indigenous communities comprised “acts of genocide.”

There are those Americans who were long aware of the U.S. government’s role in the Guatemalan civil war of the 1980s, and I count myself amongst those who not only attempted to bring attention to America’s responsibility for the violence, but actively sought to end U.S. military aid to the homicidal maniacs that ruled the Central American nation at the time.

I worked closely with the Guatemalan Information Center in developing the poster announcing their Human Rights Tribunal. GIC members provided me with background information and materials needed to create my artwork. However, it was the compelling personal testimonies from GIC members that I found most valuable. Many had taken flight from their homeland out of fear they would be murdered by government sponsored death squads. Each had an anguished story to tell; soldiers stopping people at checkpoints and arbitrarily arresting individuals who would never be seen again; people who would disappear, only to be found dumped in a public place, their bodies displaying telltale signs of torture, mutilation, and execution by death squads.

After hearing the personal stories of Guatemalan Information Center members, I decided upon creating a 3 x 5 foot chalk pastel drawing depicting campesinos carrying a wounded man shot by government troops. Upon completion, the chalk drawing titled “Voices of Justice” was printed as the full-color, 11 x 15 inch offset poster that announced the Human Rights Tribunal. During the event at L.A.’s City Hall, the original chalk drawing was displayed in the City Hall Council Chambers.

"Prisionero" (Prisoner). Mark Vallen 1991. Pen and ink on paper. 10" x 15." Created five years before the end of the war in Guatemala, my drawing depicts one of the "desaparecidos" (the disappeared), those civilians who were kidnapped by military death squads and never seen again. There were 45,000 desaparecidos in Guatemala by wars end – and no one has ever been charged or convicted for these kidnappings and murders. My drawing was used by the Guatemalan Information Center to promote a 1991 benefit concert in Hollywood that raised money for families of the disappeared.

"Prisionero" (Prisoner). Mark Vallen 1991. Pen and ink on paper. 10" x 15." Created five years before the end of the war in Guatemala, my drawing depicts one of the "desaparecidos" (the disappeared), those civilians who were kidnapped by military death squads and never seen again. There were 45,000 desaparecidos in Guatemala by wars end – and no one has ever been charged or convicted for these kidnappings and murders. My drawing was used by the Guatemalan Information Center to promote a 1991 benefit concert in Hollywood that raised money for families of the disappeared.

Due to the fearsome level of repression and wholesale murder of political opponents practiced by the regime of President Lucas Garcia in the late 1970s, U.S. President Jimmy Carter cut overt military aid to Guatemala in 1977. Garcia was deposed in a 1982 coup d’état led by General Efrain Ríos Montt, who was a graduate of the U.S. School of the Americas.

In 1983 the Reagan administration lifted Carter’s arms embargo to arm the fanatically anticommunist military junta led by Montt. An unprecedented level of barbarity was unleashed upon Guatemala by Montt, who let loose a wave of political kidnappings, assassinations, torture, and a scorched earth policy that totally annihilated some 600 Mayan Indian villages.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the Reagan administration supported the savagery by funding, training, and equipping the Guatemalan army, as well as giving the military dictatorship full political support. In the midst of the Guatemalan army’s campaign of mass extermination against the indigenous population, President Reagan visited General Montt in Honduras. On December 4, 1982 – just a day prior to the massacre at Las Dos Erres – Reagan acclaimed Montt as a leader who was “totally dedicated to democracy,” further proclaiming that the junta leader had falsely been given “a bum rap” by human rights activists.

In today’s Guatemala there are purportedly over 100 secret graveyards where government soldiers and their death squad allies buried the many thousands of non-combatant civilians they murdered in a killing spree meant to rid the country of “communist subversives.” But those dead do not rest easy, and their tales are now just beginning to come to light in the present. Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974), Guatemala’s Nobel Laureate for Literature, was quoted in the prologue of Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission report for saying the following: “The eyes of the buried will close together on the day of justice, or they will never close.”

I am frankly stunned at how quickly the war in Guatemalan has been forgotten – at least by those who were not direct victims of the mayhem. What was once an international cause célèbre has been quietly put out of mind; we have moved on to Iraq and Afghanistan. But reality has an unpleasant way of stabbing through our most formidable walls of denial. The poster I created for the Guatemalan Information Center in 1989 continues to reverberate in the present – the arrests of murderous Kaibil Special Forces in the U.S. are reminder enough of that.

View a large version of the poster, Voices of Justice.
View a large version of the drawing, Prisionero.

Guayasamín: Rage & Redemption

La Madre y el Nino (Mother and Child) – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1941.

"La Madre y el Nino" (Mother and Child) – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1941. The wretched of the earth.

Of Rage and Redemption: The Art of Oswaldo Guayasamín was an important two-year long traveling retrospective of artworks by Latin American master, Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999). The exhibit recently ended its scheduled tour last August 16, 2009 at the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) in Long Beach, California. Guayasamín, hailed in his home country of Ecuador as a national hero and widely acclaimed throughout Latin America and indeed the world – is scarcely known in the United States. What accounts for this near total lack of recognition? Emphasizing the magnitude of his omission from public awareness in the U.S., I overheard someone say while viewing the show, “I’ve never heard of Guayasamín before. I don’t mean to sound sacrilegious, but I think he’s better than Picasso.”

Expertly curated by Joseph Mella, Director of the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery in Nashville, Tennessee, Of Rage and Redemption first premiered in February of 2008 at the Vanderbilt before moving on to four other national venues, including a run at the Organization of American States’ Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, D.C. The exhibit was laid out as a timeline, starting with the artist’s early figurative works from the 1940s, and culminating with his late period minimalist paintings from the 1980s and 1990s. Walking through the exhibit not only gave insight into Guayasamín’s artistic development over the decades, it presented an overview of history as it occurred in Latin America and throughout the world, since the artist was deeply concerned with real world events. In his own words:

“I have used a powerful weapon, the plastic, to denounce and protest the bad behavior of ‘man against man.’ I speak the truth of my time, without the picturesque or the anecdotal. I don’t look for beauty - but for truth. I use the body of humanity to show the present and historical reality, without academic euphemisms; this humanity – tortured by injustice, misery and horror, is present in The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon.”

La Cantera (The Accident) – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1941. The artist’s depiction of an industrial mining catastrophe. Rich in minerals and metals, Ecuador’s miners were subjected to exploitation and poor working conditions for much of the 20th century.

"La Cantera" (The Accident) – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1941. The artist’s depiction of an industrial mining catastrophe. Rich in minerals and metals, Ecuador’s miners were subjected to exploitation and poor working conditions for much of the 20th century.

While Guayasamín was undoubtedly influenced by modernist aesthetics, he wanted to move away from European traditions in art. One might see the German Expressionists in his agitated brushstrokes and figurative exaggeration, but Guayasamín’s unique late style was inspired by the ancient civilizations of pre-Hispanic America; it was Inca, Maya, and Aztec aesthetics that fired his imagination and guided his vision.

The Maya murals of Bonampak, Mexico painted in 790 AD and the Inkapirqa (Inca wall), built in Ecuador by the Inca in the late 15th century before the Spanish conquest – had more to do with Guayasamín’s artistic vision than anything offered by the European avant-garde of the late 20th century. In part it was this “indigenismo”, the utilization and further development of deep-rooted indigenous aesthetics that made Guayasamín’s art so greatly admired throughout Latin America.

Napalm – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1976

"Napalm" – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1976

I would like to remark on a number of paintings presented in the exhibit, for example, the oil painting titled Napalm. It condemned the incendiary weapon made infamous by its massive use in Vietnam by the U.S. military. Guayasamín’s terrifying canvas looks as if it were made from scorched flesh and coagulated blood. Painted in 1976, the canvas surely alluded to Kim Phúc, the little Vietnamese girl who was severely burned in a napalm attack that took place in 1972.

Photos and motion picture film of Phúc running down a village road, her clothes burned off and her seared flesh hanging in strips, became some of the most unforgettable imagery from the Vietnam War. But Guayasamín was also undoubtedly thinking of how napalm had been used in Latin America as well. In 1965 the Peruvian army bombed guerrilla fighters at Mesa Pelada with U.S. supplied napalm, and in 1968 the Mexican government used the U.S. furnished jellied gasoline against guerrilla groups operating in the southern coastal state of Guerrero.

Los Torturados (The Tortured) – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Triptych. Oil on canvas. 1976-77. Painted in commemoration of Victor Jara, the Chilean folk singer.

"Los Torturados" (The Tortured) – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Triptych. Oil on canvas. 1976-77. Painted in commemoration of Victor Jara, the slain Chilean folk singer.

The canvas Los Torturados (The Tortured) alludes to another tragic moment in history. Painted in the years 1976-77, Guayasamín’s canvas at first glance seems a commentary on the torture of civilians at the hands of military regimes, which indeed it is - but the artist had something more specific in mind. Chile’s democratically elected government of Salvador Allende was overthrown on September 11, 1973, in a brutal military coup backed by the United States. Some 3,000 civilians were killed and thousands more were detained by the military junta.

One of those arrested was Victor Jara, the famous Chilean folk singer and supporter of the deposed socialist government. He was taken by the army to Chile Stadium in Santiago, then being used as a torture and detention camp for thousands of prisoners. Once they realized the celebrated singer was in their custody, soldiers began to savagely torture Jara. Troops broke both of his wrists and crushed the bones in both of his hands with rifle butts before machine-gunning him.

Los Torturados (Detail) – Oswaldo Guayasamín.

"Los Torturados" (Detail) – Oswaldo Guayasamín.

Three years later Guayasamín would dedicate Los Torturados to the spirit of Victor Jara. In 2004 a new democratically elected government honored the memory of the slain singer by renaming Chile Stadium, The Victor Jara Stadium. In 2008 a Chilean government investigation and autopsy confirmed that Jara had been tortured and shot 44 times. Finally, in May 2009, a former low ranking army conscript was charged with the murder of Jara.

Another impressive oil painting in the exhibit was the monolithic, Reunión en el Pentágono I-V (Meeting at the Pentagon I-V). The five panels created in 1970 offer psychological portraits of fictitious U.S. military chiefs conspiring behind closed doors.

Reunión en el Pentágono I-V (Meeting at the Pentagon I-V) - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1970.

"Reunión en el Pentágono I-V" (Meeting at the Pentagon I-V) - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1970.

While viewing the panel portraits it is difficult not to think of director Stanley Kubrick’s doomsday film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, not for any intentional connection Guayasamín made to Kubrick’s cinematic masterwork, but simply because the paintings so brilliantly depict men whose minds have become unhinged by militarism.

While Kubrick drove home his point with dark humor, there is little of a comedic nature to be found in Guayasamín’s rough semi-abstract caricatures of the militarists. His military chiefs are Machiavellian ideologues practiced at placing lives in the balance for the sake of political expediency and bellicose Cold War objectives.

Reunión en el Pentágono I-V (Detail) - Oswaldo Guayasamín.

"Reunión en el Pentágono I-V" (Detail) - Oswaldo Guayasamín.

One is almost tempted to chuckle at the men in the portraits for all of their pomposity and ridiculous jingoism, but quiet laughter seems inappropriate. Guayasamín and his compatriots had seen too many hearts and souls crushed by real jackbooted tin horn dictators to find anything funny about them or their shadowy benefactors.

The technique employed by Guayasamín in creating the panels added to the work’s powerful narrative. He literally troweled oil paint onto the panels, spreading and smoothing it in places, scoring and scraping it off in other areas. Repeated applications of paint applied in this manner resulted in a textured surface over which he applied glazes of color. His figures were painted on a black underpainting, and his finishing brush strokes of black were painted into wet color. The painting is a tour de force, full of lustrous transparencies, aggressive brush strokes, and remarkable textures.

Reunión en el Pentágono I-V (Detail) - Oswaldo Guayasamín.

"Reunión en el Pentágono I-V" (Detail) - Oswaldo Guayasamín.

Guayasamín’s masterful handling of paint bestowed upon his subjects a surprising if distorted humanity. One appears as a fleshy bureaucrat and another as a rhinoceros-skinned brute. One blue-eyed fellow hunched over at his desk with a look of consternation etched upon his face displays an unexpected vulnerability. The shred of morality he still possessed had been stirred; his eyes convey self-loathing – or is it extreme doubt – over something he has done or is about to set into motion.

The history of U.S. military intervention in Latin America is so extensive that one could devote an entire lifetime to its study. U.S. military invasions and occupations in the hemisphere pre-dated the existence and influence of the Soviet Union, often cited as the reason for the U.S. engineered coups and assassinations that took place in the 20th century.

Tears of Blood: Homage to Salvador Allende, Victor Jara, and Pablo Neruda - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1973. Not displayed at the MoLAA exhibit.

"Tears of Blood: Homage to Salvador Allende, Victor Jara, and Pablo Neruda" - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1973. Not displayed at the MoLAA exhibit.

Prior to the founding of the Soviet Union there were at least 25 major U.S. military interventions in Latin America, from the 1848 war of the United States against Mexico – one of the most shameless land grabs in world history – to several thousand U.S. Marines occupying the Dominican Republic in 1916.

Guayasamín’s Meeting at the Pentagon portraits adhere to the profile of military leaders from “El Norte” that Latin Americans have long held, and there has been little recent evidence given to make them change their minds. Despite President Obama’s assurances that there will be “no senior partner and junior partner” in U.S.-Latin American diplomatic relations, his actions speak otherwise. His near passivity regarding the June 28, 2009 coup d’état in Honduras have left many wondering if Obama tacitly approves of the military coup.

Every Latin American nation has withdrawn its ambassador from Honduras in protest of the coup, and member states of the European Union have done the same – it is only the U.S. that has failed to do so.

UPDATE 9/22/2016: Since the 2009 coup in Honduras, overwhelming evidence has emerged that shows former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played a major role in supporting the military overthrow of the democratically elected government.

Worse yet, Obama has struck a deal with the right-wing government of Colombia, giving U.S. military forces long-term access to seven military bases across that country and allowing for an expanded U.S. military presence in Colombia. At an Aug. 28, 2009 emergency meeting of the South American Union of Nations (Unasur) held in Argentina, South American heads of state blasted the Obama plan as a threat to regional peace and stability.

Rigoberta Menchú - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1996. Portrait of the Guatemalan Maya human rights activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Price.

"Rigoberta Menchú" - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1996. Portrait of the Guatemalan Maya human rights activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Price.

It was Simón Bolívar who once intoned, “Nuestra Patria se llama América” (The name of our country is América); an axiom that gave expression to a vision of hemispheric unity so deeply instilled in Latin Americans that many still take umbrage when citizens of the United States use the name “America” to mean U.S. national exclusivity and pre-eminence.

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Bolívar (1783-1830) came to be known as “The Liberator” for his leading role in the independence movement against the Spanish. Revered throughout Latin America for having smashed Spanish colonial rule in Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela, it was Bolívar’s pan-American vision that inspired and inflamed Latin American patriots ever since his death.

That same pan-national fervor permeates Guayasamín’s art, yet it would be a mistake to view him as an artist who was devoted only to the people of the Americas; the core of his art was a passionate universal humanism.

La Cantera (The Dead Children) – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1941. A territorial dispute between Ecuador and Peru erupted into war in 1941. In this painting the artist depicted children who had been massacred by unidentified military forces.

"Los Niños Muertos" (The Dead Children) – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1941. A territorial dispute between Ecuador and Peru erupted into war in 1941. In this painting the artist depicted children who had been massacred by unidentified military forces.

Strolling through the exhibit was akin to reading the works of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, in that Guayasamín presented the region’s anguished history in a visual language similar to the hallucinatory verse of Galeano. I first read Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America, an authoritative history of the Americas from 1492 to the late 20th century, in the late 1970s; I have followed his writings ever since. However, it was his magnificent 1985 trilogy, Memoria del Fuego (Memory of Fire) that remains a favorite work of mine. A non-prosaic chronicle of the continent’s history, Memory reads like an epic poem that begins with the creation myths of indigenous people before there was written history, and ends in 1984 with a peasant fiesta in Bluefields, Nicaragua, where; “however much death may come, however much blood may flow, the music will dance men and women as long as the air breathes them and the land plows and loves them.” Galeano’s trilogy is a remarkably powerful and insightful work, and Guayasamín’s art is the closest visual equivalent I can think of.

Portrait of Leonor Estrada - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on panel. 1952. Not on view at the MoLAA exhibit.

"Portrait of Leonor Estrada" - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on panel. 1952. Not displayed at the MoLAA exhibit.

Despite its profundity, the Of Rage & Redemption exhibition had its flaws, the greatest of which was overlooking Guayasamín’s extraordinary power as a modernist portraitist. Save for a few realistic early works, the exhibition focused mostly on the artist’s mid to late period minimalist style, where he reduced the human figure to near abstraction. On the whole, the viewer was left with a rather narrow view of Guayasamín.

To fully appreciate the weight of Guayasamín’s art one must begin with his portraits, of which he created hundreds over the expanse of his career. Without sentimentalism or showiness, Guayasamín painted the likenesses of friends, relatives, associates, workers, and fellow artists.

As time went on he would also paint celebrities and presidents, but of those who sat to have their portrait painted - whether campesino or luminary – all were painted as equals. There were no “natural rulers” in Guayasamín’s universe; the only sovereigns were those who struggled against cruelty and injustice. The list of those who had their portraits painted reads like a directory of Latin American notables; Atahualpa Yupanqui, Mercedes Sosa, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez, Fidel Castro, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Francois and Danielle Mitterrand, and many others.

"Rosa Zárate, Flor Decapitada" (Rosa Zárate, Decapitated Flower) - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1987. Latin America’s first call for independence from Spain was made in Quito, Ecuador, on August 10, 1809. Rosa Zárate and her husband Nicolás de la Peña were fighters in the independence movement, and when it was repressed in 1812 the two fled to Colombia. The Spanish eventually captured and executed them in 1813, cutting off their heads and sending them back to Quito where they were displayed to intimidate the population. Ecuador won its independence in 1822, and Zárate was remembered as a national hero. While not displayed at the MoLAA exhibit, this painting is part of the huge Image of the Mother Country mural that hangs in the Ecuadoran Congress.

"Rosa Zárate, Flor Decapitada" (Rosa Zárate, Decapitated Flower) - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1987. Latin America’s first call for independence from Spain was made in Quito, Ecuador, on August 10, 1809. Rosa Zárate and her husband Nicolás de la Peña were fighters in the independence movement, and when it was repressed in 1812 the two fled to Colombia. The Spanish eventually captured and executed them in 1813, cutting off their heads and sending them back to Quito where they were displayed to intimidate the population. Ecuador won its independence in 1822, and Zárate was remembered as a national hero. While not displayed at the MoLAA exhibit, this painting is part of the "Image of the Mother Country" mural that hangs in the Ecuadoran Congress.

Guayasamín’s style of portraiture was largely based upon exaggerated caricature, yet his portraits were never cartoonish. Portraits from the 1940s and 1950s were generally more realistic, but his later period primitivist approach in no way bordered on kitsch, and while he stripped away superfluous details he always succeeded in capturing the unique spirit of his individual sitters. In its totality the body of Guayasamín’s portraiture can be viewed as the collective face of Latin America’s people.

It is a shame that more people in the United States are not familiar with the works of Oswaldo Guayasamín, but his not being well-known in the U.S. is an issue of some complexity. The fashionable art world of today, transfixed as it is with the strictures of postmodernism, essentially does not know what to make of such an artist. Irony, cynicism, and lack of introspection, are the hallmarks of today’s trendy art – all notions antithetical to Guayasamín’s work.

One can imagine the nauseating kitsch of Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles on display at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – but it is impossible to imagine Guayasamín’s memorial to the spirit of Victor Jara hanging in the same institution. Despite my differences with the Museum of Latin American Art, it deserves credit for mounting the Guayasamín retrospective.

For more information on the work of Oswaldo Guayasamín, visit the official website of the Guayasamín Foundation. MoLAA offers a small illustrated catalog of the exhibit, which is available at the museum’s gift shop. However, a splendid and much superior collaborative book by Guayasamín and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda can be purchased through Amazon. Titled America, My Brother, My Blood, the book combines words and poetry by Neruda with paintings and drawings by Guayasamín.

Image of the Mother Country, a colossal mural commissioned by the government of Ecuador, hangs in that country’s Legislative Palace (Congress) in the capital of Quito. The National Assembly of the Republic of Ecuador maintains an illustrated Spanish language .pdf file that explains the history and narrative of the mural – which was installed and officially unveiled in 1988.

"Imagen de la Patria" (Image of the Mother Country) - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Mural. 1987-1988. Mounted in the Republic of Ecuador Legislative Palace (Congress). The multi-panel acrylic mural is supported by an aluminum superstructure and offers a pictorial history of the Republic.

"Imagen de la Patria" (Image of the Mother Country) - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Mural. 1987-1988. Mounted in the Republic of Ecuador Legislative Palace (Congress). The multi-panel acrylic mural is supported by an aluminum superstructure and offers a pictorial history of the Republic.

Close Museums, Fund the War

The federal government has decided to eliminate funding for the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, Montana. Opened to the public in 1941, the museum not only houses a major collection of historic artifacts from America’s plains tribes, it hosts frequent exhibitions by contemporary American Indian artists. The Daily Inter Lake of Montana reports that the museum’s annual budget of $150,000 will be eliminated by October 2007, so that the funding may be diverted to “law enforcement.” The U.S. government in its infinite wisdom, also plans to severely cut the budgets for the American Indian museums in Anadarko, Oklahoma and in Rapid City, South Dakota.

While the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning has a premiere collection of historic arts by tribal peoples from the Crow, Sioux, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Nez Perce, Cree and Shoshone nations, it is located on the tribal lands of the Blackfeet. Since the museum is a major tourist attraction and a site for many annual festivals and exhibitions, the institution’s closing will represent a significant blow to the local economy. But it also represents a critical setback for established and emerging American Indian artists, who have come to rely upon the museum as a primary venue for exhibiting and selling their works. In addition, the closing of this institution demonstrates a callous disregard for American heritage. That the cuts have been enacted by an administration proclaiming itself to be above all others when it comes to “patriotism,” only makes the story that much more of an unacceptable outrage.

The Indian Arts and Crafts Board within the U.S. Department of the Interior is responsible for axing the museum’s funding. Adding insult to injury, the U.S. government has stated it “hopes” that the Blackfeet Tribe will find a way to keep museum doors open, but quite obviously the bureaucrats have nothing but contempt for indigenous peoples - not to mention the arts. That the U.S. government could so easily appropriate $251 BILLION dollars to wage war in Iraq - but can’t find $150,000 to keep an American museum open - only illustrates the depravity to which my homeland has sunk.