QUITO, Ecuador — Before the Museo Camilo Egas became a museum, it was a Spanish colonial-style home, complete with a courtyard and white stucco walls to mitigate the summer heat. If you look at the ground, you’ll see bits of animal bones poking out of the stone floor. These were believed to ward off evil spirits — a local custom the colonizers adopted from the colonized.

The history of the museum itself provides a fitting introduction to the artwork stored inside. Camilo Egas, born only a few blocks away in 1889, is an important but increasingly controversial painter who has been equal parts praised and scorned for his attempt to turn the struggles of Indigenous peoples — ignored and underserved — into works of art. 

Egas is considered an early champion of Indigenismo, an art movement that emerged in Latin America in the 1920s when artists turned to their pre-Columbian heritage for inspiration. Coinciding with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the spread of revolutionary parties on the South American continent, Indigenismo promoted socialism and condemned imperialism. Indigenist painters seldom painted for the sake of painting; their work reframed national identity and exposed the reality of European colonization.

Painting by Egas
Painting by Egas

Indigenous minorities were their subject of choice, and images of Native Ecuadorians — their bodies, lifestyles, and place in society — can be found all throughout the Museo Camilo Egas. Many, especially those dealing with backbreaking labor, exert an oppressive aura. Having studied Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism in France and later in Italy, Egas was able to communicate the poverty and despair he encountered on the streets of his home country in a visual language Western elite could understand and appreciate. 

Ecuador’s government, fearing this unflattering representation of Indigenous life would earn the country a bad reputation overseas, 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,” reads a review from the magazine Mar Pacífico published in 1941. “But, unfortunately, they are the real Indians, the ones we know around here.”

Not that Egas’ oeuvre is completely devoid of beauty or delicacy. His paintings of rituals and celebrations — including “El san juanito” (1917), of a traditional dance performed during the festival of Saint John, and “Grupo de Indios: danza ceremonial” (1922) — are bright and vibrant, even if they are slightly melancholic. 

“Ecuador,” Egas once said, “is eternally serious with its mountains and its politics. Only the colors are gay.” 

Retrospectives on Camilo Egas have cast his contributions to Indigenismo in a different light. Juan Cabrera of the University of Pennsylvania argues the artist depicted Indigenous people in “a colonizing way,” treating them as objects of curiosity rather than thinking, feeling human beings. Unlike Indigenist artists Martín Chambi or Graciela Iturbide, who always strove to capture the uniqueness of their subjects, Egas specialized in the production of nameless, faceless symbols of an exploited nation. 

Inspired by the different meanings of the word “we” in the Andean language family of Quechua, Cabrera makes a distinction between Indigenist artists who represented Indigenous communities from within and those who observed them from the outside. Martín Chambi and Graciela Iturbide are placed in the first category. Egas, a member of Ecuador’s upper class who would also serve as the director of the art department at the New School in New York, in the latter. Adopting the “Western gaze” of his colleagues, Egas painted Native Ecuadorians not as they were, but as they existed in his own imagination, namely “downtrodden but brave,” to quote Cabrera.

Camilo Egas, “Autorretrato” (1955), oil on canvas

By emphasizing the stoicism and resilience of Native Ecuadorians in the face of adversity over the material conditions of their impoverishment, Egas mystifies more than he humanizes. The result is art that poses as anticolonial without actually being anticolonial, which inspires respect for a marginalized group without also campaigning for their rights and restitution. 

The complicated legacy of Egas and his particular brand of Indigenismo poses an interesting question about the ethics of art criticism. When his paintings were first unveiled, they were recognized as high art — and for a good reason. From a purely technical standpoint, it is difficult to call them anything but. His striking use of form and color — as iconic as that of fellow Indigenist artist Diego Rivera — is the first thing you notice when you set foot inside the Museo in Quito. 

However, just as the floors of an otherwise charming villa are littered with bones, so too do the aesthetically pleasing paintings of Egas tell an unpleasant story about the corroding influence of colonialism.

Tim Brinkhof is a journalist and film critic based in Amsterdam. He studied early Netherlandish painting at NYU and has written for Esquire, High Times and History Today.

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