Part of the charm of Latin American visual arts for me is the absence of extreme polarities in the continuum anchored by folk art on one end and fine art on the other. A continuum often seems not to exist in “First World Countries.” The fine art that I saw in Ecuador often contained the themes and mythology of indigenous art; in addition, it had not so separated the natural, visual universe from the canvas that only the gnostics of art criticism could be a painting’s interpreters.
The “uselessness and destruction of the object” which heralded the beginnings of abstract art grew partly out of the conviction that man is truly unconstrained, and thus any constraint in art became taboo. While out walking, the Czech painter Kupka apologized to nature for having attempted to copy it and promised not to do so anymore. Born in Moscow, Kandinsky was living in Munich before World War I when he declared that “Everything is permitted.” Another painter, at least 20 years younger, was also living in Munich at this time, Adolf Hitler. Perhaps he overheard the older, more accomplished painter.
In “First World Countries,” individualism, or at least the illusion of it, is the order of the day, and communal life seems to evade our grasp. Concurrently, the process of autonomy takes over every field of endeavor, including painting, which insists on the right of independent principles, certainly principles independent of community. While ordinary citizens could, and still can, be moved by a Giotto, a Donatello, a Botticelli in their daily lives, it would be interesting to compare the number of those who have been moved, consoled, or inspired by “Composition in Bright Colors with Gray Contours,” to use a single example.
I was fortunate that my friend and aide-de-camp, Fernando Sanchez, was able to introduce me to the distinguished Ecuadorian painter Leonardo Tejada. Tejada, who is 87 years old, may be South America’s oldest living master painter. Vigorous and full of life, he took me around his rooftop apartment where some 50 or 40 paintings mostly leaned against the walls. I was not prepared for the onslaught of brilliant colors; I was bathed in color. Tejada led me to a large, vertical canvas resting on an easel and said this was his current work. Five or six Indian faces hovered dreamlike about the canvas, and mixed with these were images clearly representative of indigenous mythology.
Figures from the indigenous world filled many of the other paintings, though not all of them, A few offered somewhat cubistic scenes of Quito’s streets. Without in any way suggesting imitation, some reminded me of Chagall and occasionally of Miro. I nearly always find it difficult to speak about an art that does not work through words, even more so when the artist is at my elbow. The overall effect, however, was that Tejada’s work was a great deal more than simply showy technique—it has subject matter. It called to mind for me that aging painter-genius, Gulley Jimson, of The Horse’s Mouth. He says, “Why . . . a lot of my recent stuff is not much better, technically, than any young lady can do after six lessons at a good school. Heavyhanded, stupid-looking daubery. Only difference is that it’s about something— it’s an experience, and all this amateur stuff is like f–ting ‘Annie Laurie’ through a keyhole. It may be clever but is it worth the trouble? . . . Sit down and ask yourself what’s it all about.”
Certainly Tejada’s technique is not heavy-handed or stupid-looking daubery. One aspect of it is the surface texture—a surface laid down first by knife but then virtually carved with small tools that the Indians use for working in leather and soft wood. At one point Tejada reached out and touched various patches of different colors and said each was a musical sound for him; he touched the dark greens and blues humming deep notes, then moved up the scales with lighter colors until his highest note was on some brilliant yellows. Toward the end of my visit he took me over to a small painting of rough texture about the war with Peru. He touched several parts of this canvas and named the villages where the fighting was. He did not tell me what sounds the painting made.
From Tejada, preeminent among the older generation, we set about looking for one of the leading young painters in a left-wing, quasi-communist bar by the name of “Mayo de 1968.” I was told by Fernando that the bar’s name is the date the government outlawed the Communist Party in Ecuador, and that this was where we might find Luigi Stornaiolo. Nowadays a few painters hang out in the “Mayo de 1968” and watch other customers do the salsa. The slender, unshaven Stornaiolo always seems to have a wry, even sardonic look in his eyes, although he and his handsome wife were friendly hosts when I visited them later in the week.
If Tejada’s work often has a dreamlike quality, Stornaiolo’s frequently has a nightmarish quality. Both painters have several styles. Stornaiolo can paint with almost draughtsman-like realism, but he can shift to broad, violent brushstrokes that strike the viewer with powerful emotional impact. Again, with both painters, objects are not destroyed. At the same time, their work reflects many of the technical insights of the last century. Stornaiolo is above all a satirist, at least in the works I am familiar with. Some are only gently so, for example when he is treating old people, whether they be hashing out politics in the Cafe Madrilon near the Palace, or on a park bench. However, his satire can be ferocious when directed at other aspects of the urban scene, like “Miserable Characters on the 5th Floor,” By wav of category, some of his work might be called cartoon realism, yet there is an emotional intensity—of disgust, anxiety, or more gentle humor—that lifts it beyond any mere cartoon.
The art of weaving has a 4,000- or 5,000-year history in the Andes and remains very much alive in Ecuador. Numerous villages are engaged presently in weaving, but Otavalo is justly famous for its Saturday market and for its tapestries. Fernando and I took a bus north to Otavalo, passing a pub called “Bar Bam Bam,” meeting a truck called the “Virgin of Bario,” and during the trip I considered it dicey whether we would arrive, at least on the bus. Fernando takes it as a matter of national honor that no one should be overcharged, especially not foreigners. He had already asked other people around him what the fare was to Otavalo. The young conductor asked me for a higher price to the final destination of the bus and Fernando would not have it. The Spanish was too rapid for me to follow entirely, but the heat of the exchange was not. I distinctly heard the word for “jail.” Three women around us came to our defense and when the bus driver stopped and came back, all of them began to attack him, whereupon I thought we would surely be put off on the mountain road. AH of this was over 1,000 sucres, or about 30 cents, which I had offered, but Fernando would not permit it, and he prevailed.
The main plaza for weavings was ablaze in color, and we set about the great game of bargaining, all of which is expected. Bargaining, which is largely disappearing from life in the United States, adds so much to the vitality of commerce. We still have it on the floor of the stock exchange and best of all at livestock auctions; otherwise commerce is rather antiseptic, maybe a further example of this process of autonomy, or atomization that I mentioned earlier. Price-fixing is more difficult in such a vital market, unlike say the cartels that provide our breakfast cereals, pigs and poultry, or oil. Cracking jokes, feigning surprise at the “high” prices, Fernando had the surrounding merchants smiling admiringly at his act. I came away with several large tapestries which included some of the mythic symbols I had seen in the paintings back in Quito. One need have no fear of laking advantage of the Otavaleños; I was told they are the most successful Indian group in South America, some of them traveling the world. Fernando says he once saw one driving a Mercedes in Germany.
In Otavalo, as in the rest of Ecuador, the outdoor food stalls provide a wealth of choices: whole pig, head and all, turns on a spit, also whole roasted guinea pig; and nearby in hot pans of oil there are frying tostadas de maíz and llapingachos (mashed-potato-and-cheese pancakes). The gringo is living dangerously when he cats from food stalls (Fernando never eats “on the street”), not because something like the tostadas de maíz are contaminated, but because of the filthy water the dish may have been washed in. Parasites were some of the other souvenirs I brought back with me Stateside.
The next day I was sitting at the upscale, outdoor Cafe Amazonas, which is on one of the main drags in Quito; after enjoying some excellent small kabobs (anticuchos). I took some coffee “adjusted” with a bit of spirits. I believe Ecuador grows its own beef, and has such abundant seafood that it is an exporter. It has long been one of the principal banana exporters. I think Louisianians may be surprised, as I was, to learn that some of their famous crawfish and okra come from Ecuador (this information courtesy of the Quito office of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce). Further, American grain is so cheap that it is more economical for Ecuador to import it. Incidentally, for precious metals and gem buffs, the Cafe Amazonas is the gathering place for emerald and gold traders. Fernando knew some of them and it was a new sensation for me to have my hands on such exotic wealth.
The next day I visited those who probably will never have that sensation. I had set out to visit an orphanage in a section of Quito unfamiliar to Fernando and by mistake knocked on the door of the nunnery of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, whereupon I had the great pleasure of meeting a delightful woman, Mother Superior Rosa Haro. The interior courtyard was a bit of a shambles because the old roof tiles were being dumped from the second story roof that was being repaired. This monastery had originally been built by the Dominicans around 1600, but in 1871 it was turned over to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. The first mother superior, who had come from Canada, died 15 days after her arrival.
Today, Sister Rosa’s group primarily operates a school for poor children, 700 of them in six grades. Some of the nuns are quite old, one is 90, but they continue the struggle. In addition to teaching poor children, they also help troubled children, and minister to the prostitutes of Quito. If these women are without food or shelter, those basics are provided for a time, and the prostitutes are schooled in tailoring and as beauticians. I asked Sister Rosa for a realistic estimate of “reclamation,” and she said about five percent. The mayor of Quito is helping some with the building repairs, but naturally money, food, and clothes are scarce (those interested may write Madre Superiora del Buen Pastor, Carrera Vela #147, P.O. Box 1241, Quito). Before I left, the good sister showed me where in the monastery Gabriel Garcia Moreno, ruler of the country during part of the 19th century, had his enemies guillotined.
With Sister Rosa’s directions we found the orphanage run by the nuns of St. Vincent de Paul. They are able to take care of from 120 to 130 children, from the first day of their lives until they are 20. We happened to arrive around lunchtime and visited a small group of children in their dining room. Each nun is responsible for a group. The children were all full of cheerful vitality and of course full of giggles at the gringo taking their picture. On the wall above their tables was a mural of Jesus with a very young-looking 12 disciples over which were the words in Spanish, “Give us this day, our daily bread.” The meal was nothing fancy, but was the staple of Latin America, nourishing rice and beans. (Anyone interested in helping this group may write Sister Isabel at Hogar del Nino San Vicente de Paul, #220 San Vicente de Paul St., Quito.)
During the Fourth of July picnic at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence, a young man I had seen on my flight to Quito walked up and thrust a broadside into my hands concerning Texaco. He and his partner mingled with the crowd, quietly handing out the sheet, until the ambassador read one and asked them to stop because this was a social occasion. They were from the Rainforest Action Network and its Ecuadorian front, Accion Ecologica, and were protesting oil spills in the Amazon. Their claim was that Texaco, operating in the Ecuadorian Amazon for 26 years, had produced 1.5 billion barrels of crude and spilled 3/100 of one percent of it (about 533,000 barrels). A part of that spill was no doubt due to the tremendous earthquake of March 1987, when the pipeline, which all the many oil companies use, ruptured along a 25-mile section. In 1990, perhaps because of a new environmental awareness, the Ecuadorian Energy Ministry adopted a new environmental protection policy that all oil companies had agreed to follow. But the American-based Rainforest Action Network insists that Texaco falls “far short of what would be required in the U.S.”
Like nearly every other country, Ecuador runs on oil, but unlike many it gets 50 percent of its foreign revenue from oil and 50 percent of its government budget. Should oil revenues be cut off, the results would be traumatic. Besides needing money to pay the huge number of government employees (the number has jumped 500 percent since 1972 when oil production began), increased revenues will be needed for a population that has the third highest growth rate in South America and will double in 29 years. Unfortunately, current reserves are estimated to run out in 15 years. On top of all this, some claim that the present cost of extraction and environmental protection is more than the oil brings on the current international market.
I am of several minds about American political activity in Latin America. Part of me wants the Ecuadorians, and especially the Brazilians, to keep the rain forest intact for me in case a pharmaceutical botanist finds a cure for something I might get, or in case I just want to visit and be reminded how hard Adam and Eve had it before they were kicked out—no air-conditioning, or no television to keep up with Dick Morris and Slick. This part of me just wants it all there so some taxonomist can name everything before the Apocalypse. Another part of me wants the Ecuadorians to take care of their own house and send the American activists back to L.A. to teach all the drivers to “just say no.” Probably if folks in L.A. stayed home one week, we would not need Ecuador’s oil. Another part of me knows that with the economic and population pressure Ecuador faces, the Huaorani nomads, variously estimated to be 1,000-3,000, who live in the 2,700 square miles of what is called the Yasuni National Park and elsewhere in the rain forest, are not going to be permitted to keep it to themselves if the crunch comes.
In Part I of this adventure I mentioned that I had ended up living in a Quito residence where a number of young Americans were staying, all between 20 and 30, middle- and upper-middle-class college students from the East and West coasts. Most of them were affable and certainly energetic; I don’t think there is a virgin mountain unclimbed in Ecuador. Some remarks overheard at dinner can be attributed to their youth, but others reflect what their teachers have taught them the last three or four decades. A young mountain climber; “I only want to be free—that’s my politics. I certainly don’t want to get mixed up in politics. Just let me climb my mountains.” Another: “Pantheism, that’s for me. Its god, you know, Pan, is part animal.” A very pleasant woman from New England who was a second-year law school student: “I haven’t read anything since high school, which is terrible when you think I’m an educated person.” She was a vegetarian doing volunteer work for an environmental group. “I want to get to the jungle to be around real people.” Had she managed to get deep in the bush, which she did not, she would have met people grilling whole monkey and for whom nearly everything alive was something to eat. The one “indigenous” she met charged her $40 a day for a ride in an Amazonian boat whose outboard conked out so that she had to paddle with a tree limb to get back to town. Finally, I heard considerable contempt for their own country, ranging from soft to virulent. A Californian: “The U.S. is the enemy of every country in the world.”
Anyone who has not heard that ideas have consequences and that a culture war has been waged since World War II, might consider that two generations of young people have been taught to despise their country and its economic system, to be suspicious of their parents, to encourage its women to hate the majority of their men, and in the name of internationalism, to accept kinds of immigration that are a national suicide pact.
Surely it must be possible to appreciate another country, another culture, its art, its food, whatever is admirable, without despising one’s own. Ecuador has much to admire, certainly artistically. Scenically it is superb. Its economic and social problems do not result from a lack of natural resources. Its difficulties are, at least in part, a consequence of its ideas of itself, and maybe more importantly, those ideas result from the idea that the upper class has of itself, its lack of a sense of obligation to those below it. All this notwithstanding, one will be hard put to find an Ecuadorian who hates his country.
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