QUITO, Ecuador – Before becoming a museum, the Museo Camilo Egas was a Spanish Colonial house, complete with a courtyard and white stucco walls to temper the summer heat. If you look down, you will see animal bones sticking out of the stone floor. These were believed to ward off evil spirits – a local custom that the colonizers inherited from the colonized.
The history of the museum itself provides a fitting introduction to the artworks housed within. Born just blocks away in 1889, Camilo Egas is an important but increasingly controversial painter who has been praised and despised in equal measure for his attempt to transform the struggles of indigenous peoples – ignored and underserved – into works of art.
Egas is considered an early proponent of Indigenism, an art movement that emerged in Latin America in the 1920s when artists drew inspiration from their pre-Columbian heritage. Simultaneously with the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the spread of revolutionary parties on the South American continent, indigenousism promoted socialism and condemned imperialism. Indigenous painters rarely painted for the sake of painting; Her work reformulated national identity and revealed the reality of European colonization.
Indigenous minorities were her subject of choice, and images of native Ecuadorians—their bodies, lifestyle, and place in society—are found throughout the Museo Camilo Egas. Many, especially those involved in backbreaking work, exert an oppressive aura. After studying Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism in France and later Italy, Egas was able to convey the poverty and despair he experienced on the streets of his native country in a visual language that the Western elite could understand and appreciate .
The Ecuadorian government, concerned that this unflattering portrayal of indigenous life would give the country a bad reputation abroad, was less enthusiastic. “The Indians painted by Egas, in all their dramatic expression, are not the delicate and beautiful Indians necessary for national propaganda [designed to] Attract tourism,” they say a review from the magazine Mar Pacifico published in 1941. “But unfortunately it’s the real Indians that we know here.”
Not that Egas’s oeuvre is entirely devoid of beauty or delicacy. His paintings of rituals and celebrations — including “El san juanito” (1917), a traditional dance performed during the feast of Saint John, and “Grupo de Indios: danza ceremonial” (1922) — are bright and vibrant, too if you are slightly melancholic.
“Ecuador,” Egas once said, “is eternally serious about its mountains and its politics. Only the colors are gay.”
Retrospectives on Camilo Egas have shed a different light on his contributions to Indigenism. Juan Cabrera from the University of Pennsylvania argued The artist depicted tribal peoples in a “colonizing manner,” treating them as objects of curiosity rather than thinking, feeling human beings. Unlike the indigenous artists Martín Chambi or Graciela Iturbide, who always strived to capture the uniqueness of their subjects, Egas specialized in producing nameless, faceless symbols of an exploited nation.
Inspired by the different meanings of the word “we” in the Andean language family Quechua, Cabrera distinguishes between indigenous artists who represented indigenous communities from the inside and those who observed them from the outside. Martin Chambi and Graciela Iturbide are placed in the first category. Egas, a member of the Ecuadorian upper class who would also serve as the Director of the Art Department at the New School in New York, in the latter. Egas adopted the “Western gaze” of his colleagues and painted the indigenous people of Ecuador not as they were but as they existed in his own imagination, namely “downtrodden but brave” to quote Cabrera.
Emphasizing the stoicism and resilience of native Ecuadorians in the face of adversity over the material conditions of their impoverishment, Egas mystifies more than humanizes. The result is an art that masquerades as anti-colonial without actually being anti-colonial, that inspires respect for a marginalized group without at the same time advocating for their rights and restitution.
The complicated legacy of Egas and his particular brand of indigenousism raises an interesting question about the ethics of art criticism. When his paintings were first unveiled, they were recognized as fine art – and with good reason. From a purely technical point of view, it is difficult to call them anything else. His striking use of form and color — as iconic as that of his fellow Indigenous artist Diego Rivera — is the first thing that strikes you as you enter the Museo in Quito.
But just as the floors of an otherwise charming mansion are strewn with bones, so too Egas’ aesthetically pleasing paintings tell an uncomfortable tale of the corrosive influence of colonialism.