In a misunderstanding straight out of a sitcom about traveling in foreign lands, I almost didn’t visit Guayasamín’s Capilla del Hombre when my language school offered an excursion there. The school sign simply read “Capilla del Hombre,” which my friends and I correctly translated as “Chapel of Man.” I didn’t connect this to the much-lauded museum mentioned in my guidebook, and I dithered about whether we wanted to go to yet another church; it seemed like I’d been to a lot of churches lately. Happily, I did decide to go, and once our taxi shuddered to a stop at the top of the steep hill the building’s located atop, I made the connection. Oh, this is the museum and house of the famous Ecuadorian artist, Oswaldo Guayasamín.
The Chapel of Man, designed by Guayasamín himself, is pitched as a tribute to the oppressed peoples of the world, especially the indigenous of South America, and in fact is a museum for many of Guayasamín’s works. There’s nothing wrong with that, and his commitment to social justice is apparent, but I do take some issue with using exclusively your own art in a building dedicated to all of humanity.
Still, his art is amazing. He was a Cubist and Expressionist, and he painted huge canvases of elongated figures, huge eyes, bold colors. He had three major periods, which have been dubbed tears, suffering, and tenderness. Darker colors in the first, brighter in the second, warmer in the third. One painting was called “The Mutilated,” and it showed pieces of bodies torn apart by war. He painted them on six panels, and those panels can be moved around in different configurations, to show the random cruelty of war, the way we’re all reduced to body parts when violence takes us. The panels themselves are fixed in place by the museum, but there’s a computer nearby that lets you move them around on the screen, in a sort of gruesome game.
One of my favorites was a reworking of a 14th century Pieta, which removed the halos, stigmata, priest, and Christ’s clothes of the original and put in a blood-red background and Mary’s hands held up to heaven in grief rather than pressed together in prayer. It stripped away the religiosity and presented a mother’s grief, a man’s death. It was striking and beautiful.
Many pieces were dedicated to the enslaved indigenous peoples (Mayans, Quechuans, Incas, Aztecs—not much seemed to be made of the fact that many of these were conquerors themselves, that was not his focus), and enslaved Africans. The walls boasted several quotes about helping each other, being the light in the world. One said “I cried because I did not have shoes until I saw a child that did not have feet.” The center of the museum contains a giant bowl with an eternal flame inside, because when he was dying, Guayasamín said, “Keep the light on, I will be back.”
Unfortunately, the museum guide knew about as much English as I know Spanish, and our school guide had much more interesting asides, so I wish our group had just gone around alone with the school guide. Also, the museum guide would ask for interpretations of the paintings and then tell us we were wrong! As in, “What do you see here?” “I see despair.” “No, not despair. Anyone else?” A different approach to appreciating art, for sure!
The ticket price includes admission to Guayasamín’s house and studio, which are on the same grounds. We caught up with a tour midway through, but I zoned out for most of it and just stared at the amazing number of beautiful things Guayasamín amassed during his life. A handmade guitar inlaid with mother-of-pearl, erotic statues from various parts of the world, Catholic icons, traditional paintings, etc., etc. It would be a privilege to wake up in this house every day, never mind then going to work in your own cavernous studio next door.
I’m glad I didn’t let my own ignorance get in the way, and I decided to go to the Capilla del Hombre. It was my first introduction to Guayasamín, and an impressive one at that. I saw his art in all sorts of places after that, seeing his style and influence through Ecuador (including in the governmental palace in the center of Quito).
Guayasamín died before construction was quite complete, but he got to see the beginning of the realization of his vision. He’s buried under a tree in the corner of the yard. Flowers dot the ground and wind chimes sing in the breeze over his final resting place, with his chapel just behind and his city in the distance.