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Ecuador's example for Australia's neglected arts

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La Capillla del HombreHigh on a hill overlooking the Ecuadorian capital of Quito sits the home of the late, much-loved artist and sculptor, Oswaldo Guayasamin.

The expansive, hacienda-style house is built on one of Quito's volcanic, hard-to-come-by flat blocks of land; it is crammed with the artist's private collection of pre-Colombian and Colonial art, the works of other famous artists — Picasso, Chagall — and his own prolific and magnificent output: oils, watercolours, sculptures.

But set on a terrace just below the house is Guayasamin's masterpiece, La Capillla del Hombre (The Chapel of Man), a domed cathedral in whose centre a flame is kept burning. A collection of his imposing artworks fills the space, works that ask the unanswerable question: why is man equally capable of such cruelty, and such compassion?

It is surely a question that all good art should pose — a point that Senator Mitch Fifield, Australia's newly appointed Minister for Communications and the Arts, would do well to remember.

Art — writing, poetry, music, photography, film, dance, the visual arts — holds a mirror to society in a way no other medium can. It prompts us to look critically at what we're doing, the impact our choices will have on our communities, the vision we are creating for ourselves. At its very best, art assists in the development of a humane society.

And so it is a brave thing for governments to fund the very people who might well set out to criticise them through their work. The Ecuadorian government did this when it commissioned Guayasamin to paint a mural depicting Ecuador's history. To the mortification of many, the country's relations with the US were referenced in the image of a man wearing a Nazi hat with the letters 'CIA' emblazoned on it.

In Australia, those artists wishing to dissect and debate contemporary issues or critique those in power have found it ever harder to do so — not because they are deliberately prevented from self-expression, but because funding for their poorly-paid art forms has been deeply eroded over the years.

In this year's budget alone, the outgoing Minister for Arts, George Brandis, displayed his contempt for the field he was charged to care for by cutting more than $104 million over four years from the functionally independent Australia Council. The money was funnelled instead to an arts body established by him and to be overseen by him, thus eroding any sense of objectivity.

Now that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has reshuffled his cabinet and appointed Fifield to the position vacated by Brandis, arts bodies are hopeful the money will be returned to the Australia Council so that artists can be assisted in the creation of material that will help mould a cultured, self-critical society.

Guayasamin was the first of ten children born to a poor Ecuadorian family. His art was propelled to world fame and society's conscience by the many grants, awards and opportunities that would have otherwise been denied their maker.

In his house hangs the confronting painting Los Ninos Meurtos (The Dead Children), painted after his friend was shot dead during a demonstration they were both attending, and the murals of labouring, exploited men that inspired in him a lifelong respect for Cuba's revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro.

Inside La Capilla del Hombre hang the numerous, sorrow-filled portraits and twisted, skeletal frames from his Anger period, anguish and inequality splashed large across the canvas. In all of these works, Guayasamin documents the history of his country, and of South America: its poverty; its class and race division; the brutal, often dictatorial politics that have shaped it.

On a board outside the capilla is a quote from Guayasamin that could well serve as a mantra for all artists — and which should be heeded by arts ministers wishing to faithfully fulfil their duty: 'For the children that death took while playing, for the men that dimmed while working, for the poor that failed while loving, I will paint with the scream of a shotgun, with the power of thunder and the fury of battle.'

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney based freelance journalist and travel writer.

Image: La Capillla del Hombre, Helder Ribeiro, Flickr CC

Topic tags: catherine marshall, Malcolm Turnbull, Ecuador, Oswaldo Guayasamin



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Existing comments

Thank you Catherine, for this reminder of art- expression of life ,of all that we live for and all expression of social values. The deep mysteries, sometimes veiled,and unfathomable, sometimes blatant and confronting, a quest for meaning and provocation; questions about life. Artistic endeavour is so important, it offers personal and public perspectives, cultural knowledge, portals to the other, and space to the sacred. Art elevates, opens dialogue, traversing political and economic boundaries. We do not simply exist, and art today, with unprecedented global reach, is the way forward to new ways of emancipation, truly being alive -engaged.

Catherine | 25 September 2015  

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