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Art's thresholds and borders in Ecuador

From the Guayaquil Museum of Anthropology and Contemporary Art

by Joanna Kenyon

¿Por qué el Arte se ha preocupado sólo de la Belleza?
¿Acaso el dolor, lo repulsivo, lo que no halaga a nuestros sentidos, no merecen igual importancia?
¿No vivimos más cerca de éstos que de la primera?

—César Andrade Faini

Why is Art only preoccupied with Beauty?
Doesn’t the pain, the repulsive, that which does not flatter our senses deserve equal importance?
Do we not live closer to these from the first?

—César Andrade Faini

Guayaquil, Ecuador’s main port—a city spread along a series of river tributaries that flow down into some of Ecuador’s only remaining mangrove forests—is lively and busy, brimming with commerce, traffic, constant noise, and also great poverty. It is a city where you can walk along the relatively new Malecón 2000, a bricked strip of parkland, malls, and restaurants tilled out of the crime-laden downtown in an effort to modernize and attract new affluence to a city that was being bankrupted by a series of corrupt mayors and city officials. If you walk a little further north of Malecón, you hit a hill called Las Peñas that sits as one of the two frog-eyed knobs separating the city center from the northern districts. Las Peñas has also seen recent city cleaning efforts; it sparkles with a Mediterranean freshness and pastel coloring. At the top of this hill is a lighthouse from which you can view the entire city, flat and sprawling like a great white possibility.

But if you focus on the land that sits a little closer at hand, on the second city-center knob, you will see shanties with falling metal roofs, children holding babies, sitting under their eaves and clutching scarves to wrap themselves in come nightfall. If you drive along the kamikaze streets, you will see children, primarily black children from the northern region of Esmereldas, with bodies painted silver and gold, their ragged jeans painted too, holding their hands out in the middle of busy intersections. Their mothers wait, watching them from the medians. Two blocks up from the Malecón, on the street of Rocafuerte, you can walk, in under ten blocks, from immense steel skyscraping banks to street corners that reek of urine and hold cardboarded men resting in the shade.

Honestly, there is nothing surprising in this. Ecuador is still a country that faces immense economic challenges, even as it has much natural and commercial wealth. It follows the patterns of “third-world” countries, supporting a small minority of the incredibly wealthy, and a much larger population of the poor, many of whom cannot afford to send their children to public school, either due to uniform requirements or to the family’s dependence on every small piece of income, even if it comes from their illiterate children. Ecuador is the second third-world country I’ve lived in for a period of time, and yet I am still shocked by how close together the poor and the wealthy sit. I am startled to turn a corner from the polished Malecón and find inhabited warehouses with people clustered around the broken windows. For me, it is as if unseen thresholds rest in the streets, waiting for the foreign blind to walk through them and find themselves suddenly in an unexpected, maybe even undesired, world.

Which makes it all the more appropriate that the primary exhibit of Guayaquil’s Museum of Anthropology and Contemporary Art (MAAC) is titled “umbrales,” or thresholds. This museum is un-ironically located on the northern end of the Malecón, right at the base of Las Peñas, and is surrounded by areas shaded by stylized coverings reminiscent of the sails that motivate the little fishing dugouts along the dark, sludging Guayas River. I have come to visit this museum twice on my trip to Ecuador, and both times the museum was almost completely vacant. The first time, I watched a disinterested museum guard lean up against the doorway to “Imagining a World of our Own,” and play a pocket video game. The second time, I came on cheapy-Sunday, and expected a slightly larger crowd than last time. Instead, as I passed from “Poetic Art of the Border-line” to “Searchings & Openings” to “Creating a Space for Modern Art,” I did not run into a single, solitary patron. Based on attendance, one might think this exhibit completely irrelevant.

I did not find it so. In fact, it is an intriguing and well-constructed new exhibit that interrogates the multiple divisions and borders that have been placed (or have grown) between different peoples, and different forms of art, in Ecuador. It is an exhibit that is extremely conscious of the economic and social situation of Latino America, and offers art that, often bitingly, critiques both colonial mentality and idealization of the native (“noble savage” theory and extreme nationalism), and both poverty and the alienation/isolation of the technologized. Most of the art present is politically sensitive and often reflects the tension between a frequently corrupt government and its wary citizens, and also the recurrent tension between the different national regions and races.
In discussion of the museum’s approach towards creating the exhibit, Lupe Álavarez writes that “the exhibit favors an epistemologic orientation by taking the museal material and the artwork as signs of a social and cultural emergency and demand, and as a practice that opens wider dynamics. This approach inhibits fetishist consumption and contributes to convert the museum’s role by repositioning it as a knowledge-producing entity, an organ that initiates reflection about cultural processes rather than an institution that endorses the indisputable value of cultural possessions.”

Indeed, this effort to erode the distinction between canonical recognition of art and art’s potential to create a thoughtful, emotional, or social interaction between culturally-created entities is what I find so exciting about this artwork. From top to bottom, this empty, echoing exhibit invites the foreigner through Ecuador’s thresholds, and offers a means not to walk completely blind as she goes. It asks one to think about the creation of a national spirit and culture, and even helps a little in the understanding of why Guayaquil’s plush Malecón mall and its Bajia—a marketplace of copyright infringement and “fell off the truck” goods—can coexist one block away from each other.

In particular, I noticed the high importance and degree of caricature– beginning in the early 1900s in such forms as magazine cartoons. From the early 1920s social realist paintings to the modern collages of the 1990s (which are highly urban-oriented and particularly seem to focus on the isolating tendency of the city), you can see traces of the human grotesque in the overemphasized and drooling maws of church officials, suited men, and lazy-lidded women. For me, this highlights Ecuador’s continuous battle against colonial divisions of wealth, which so often has found its way into the hands of those who misappropriate it. Many of my Ecuadorian students have explained that this is the result of both a feeling of personal powerlessness and the low level of literacy, which combined create the cyclical tendency to want a Hero, the naïve belief that the next poorly-elected official will be one, and then the crush that comes from needing rescue from that very poorly-elected official.
Also, as the artwork became increasingly abstract in the 1940s-’60s, one can see a reliance on, perhaps a return to, the forms and designs of the indios and an adopted concern with nature. Indeed, one of the most abstract of the artists, Tábara, who traveled away from Ecuador for years and then returned under the influence of Ancestralism, seems to have created a lifetime circumnavigation of la selva and el urbanismo: trees, dragonflies, and insects intersect with high heels and dismembered clock artifacts. Just as Ecuador is a land of extremely different regions and cities, so too does much of the artwork reflect on the border between different landscapes such as the campo and the cuidad.

Even in the short amount of time that I have to look over these modern and purposefully diverse pieces, I can see the cultural satire, irony, and purpose they offer. Yes, so highly relevant that I can’t describe how depressing the MAAC exhibit’s emptiness is. It is ironic that the piece “Quien nos representa y maquinas de Guerra” (“Who represents us and machines of war”) by Tomás Ochoa, set against a painted backdrop of colonizing figures and tribal men, churns the phrase quoted from Zevallos—“Yo soy la voz de los que no tienen voz” (“I am the voice of those who don’t have one”)—into different considerations of proxy-representation—“De los que tienen voz, yo soy la voz” (Of those who have a voice, I am the voice”)—and yet goes completely unheard: a pure sign of this technological, science-driven, and economy-obsessed world’s choice not to understand the very doors they are opening, or more frequently, already walking through. Create a museum to speak to a contemporary society, and who is there to interact with it? A silly foreigner who is leaving in a week.

As I step out of the building and back into the hot fusty sun, I note all the Sunday Malecón-walkers pressed up against a wooden fence, watching imported koi fish swim through the few mangrove trees that have somehow made it through Guayaquil’s transition into the next century. Along the street, trucks of men on roof-racks sit above the piles of fruit they are bringing in from the country. I watch them pass through the tunnel to the northern districts, a tunnel that has been drilled through the west frog-eye hill below the shanty shacks. Above the trucks, tall modern buildings, almost a Potemkin village, but just a step more real than that– for Ecuador, they are the potential threshold into the country they are now trying to imagine for themselves.

September 2005

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