There is no feeling like chancing on something you never knew existed, and that upon first contact, moves you so viscerally. In a time when information is so omnipresent, surprises like this are hard to come by. However, one of the beauties of studying abroad is that, being deprived of so much cultural knowledge, you are pushed face-first into a lake of serendipity. The water is cold—shockingly so—but when you get out and dry off you are warm and blissful, as if someone hit a reset switch for your nervous system.
“Serendipitous homeostasis” hit me as I stared at the painting of a woman with her hands held up, one of them curled and the other strained open. Her face, emaciated, was resolutely split down the middle into two tones, a melancholy yellow and a mournful blue. The rest of her body was less segregated, with blue wrapping around yellow in uncertain union. I looked over at the title on a little golden plate: El Mestizaje.
“Guayasamín was very sensitive to the question of identity being a mestizo himself,” the museum’s tour guide said with a healthy dose of boredom. To a certain degree, I understood her disengagement: she had probably presented the work with the same exact wording hundreds of times. But I could not relate. I stood there marveling at how the painting arrested the feeling of implacable sadness so perfectly, so transfixed that the tour had moved on to the next room when I came back to my senses. “Came back to my senses” is somewhat disingenuous, though; I think I was only fully in my senses when looking at the painting. It was that powerful.
If you had not heard of Oswaldo Guayasamín until now, I recommend that you look up his work. And if you are feeling slightly bold, buy a plane ticket to Quito and go visit La Capilla del Hombre, one of his parting gifts to Ecuador. Located beneath his house (a beautifully preserved manor), la Capilla is a rectangular structure made of multi-colored bricks with a conical dome protruding from the center. In a way, it almost gives the impression of mimicking an ancient Mesoamerican structure (it is probably not a coincidence that a large Mayan statue stands nearby). The museum, with two floors, is not only full of paintings but also sculptures. At the center of the bottom floor is an “eternal flame” meant to immortalize his presence, although I would argue that it was not ultimately necessary—his paintings have done more than enough to cement his legacy within the Ecuadorian imaginary.
Guayasamín is a veritable master, and that is why I am shocked I had not heard of him before. Exploring themes such as oppression, social inequality, as well as racism in Latin America and around the world, he attempted to capture the absolute essence of his subjects. This is why you will never see one of them smiling: to him, expressions of joy were temporary, while melancholy and sadness manifested permanence. At times, the constant anguish of his paintings became a little hard to stomach. But when I exited the building, I felt once more the warmness that you feel after diving into cold water, a little reminder I was living and feeling.