Not only to stay alive, but to stay human: An interview with Pavel Égüez

Designer Tings Chak spoke at length with Ecuadorian artist Pavel Égüez about revolutionary art, the crisis of capitalism and his series ‘Cuarentena’ which seeks to address the human suffering provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic

June 22, 2020 by Tings Chak
Pavel Égüez, Cuarantena / ‘Quarantine’, 2020. (cropped version)

Leaning against a friend’s living room wall is a reproduction of a painting of the Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro. My eyes keep drifting towards it during yet another video conference call. Scratched into the black paint in the bottom right corner are the words:

A Fidel en sus 70 años

con la admiracion de

siempre.

Guayasamín

To Fidel on your 70th year

with the same admiration as always.

Guayasamín

Oswaldo Guayasamín, Fidel Castro, 1996.

This would be the fourth and final portrait that the indigenous Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999) * would paint of Fidel during their decades-long friendship. Rather than Fidel’s signature beard and brows, the painting draws attention to his two cupped hands, reaching towards the sky. It is a broad and slightly fragile offering, as if to say, yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón. I come to offer my heart.

These hands are strikingly similar to the ones that hold up the sun and moon in the central mural of the Ecuadorian National Assembly building. Mural de la Patria (‘Mural of the homeland’), inaugurated in 1988, highlights the country’s long struggle towards national liberation, in which indigenous people, women, peasants, and proletariat leaders led the fight against the evils of colonialism, the military dictatorship, and imperialist intervention. If you look closely, on a panel on the left, ‘CIA’ is printed in clear block letters on a helmet of a Nazi soldier. Above it, patria (‘homeland’) is written. To its left are three women, including indigenous leader Dolores Cacuango and revolutionary Manuela Sáenz, who gained the name ‘the liberator of the liberator’ after saving Simon Bolívar’s life. Painted on fiberglass panels with a mixture of acrylic paint and marble dust, “it is a painting made to last a thousand years,” Guayasamín said.

Oswaldo Guayasamín, Mural de la Patria / ‘Mural of the homeland’, National Assembly of Ecuador, 1988.

Working alongside Guayasamín on the mural was Pavel Égüez, then a teenage art school student. Égüez knocked on the door of the great Latin American muralist; soon after, they would begin collaborating together on projects. Last year, on the centenary of Guayasamín’s birth, Égüez wrote “I knew him, I worked with him on various occasions. He left us a great legacy: his passion for painting, a life dedicated to art, and his commitment to just causes for humanity.” This commitment to the “just causes of humanity” is what Égüez himself has championed in the three decades since Mural de la Patria was completed.

Égüez is a Latin American painter, muralist, and humanist whose work carries the cries and aspirations of the people of the Americas. Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research sat down with Égüez in his second month in quarantine to talk about the situation in Ecuador and his new series of paintings, Cuarantena (‘Quarantine’). He calls on artists to reflect and participate in the struggles of the people, and he talks about what it means to not only stay alive, but to stay human.

Luncheon on the Grass 

Pavel Égüez, Cuarantena / ‘Quarantine’, 2020.

Égüez began talking about the dual health and economic crises in Ecuador, a small country which has become one of the hardest hit by COVID-19 in Latin America. As of early June, there have been over 44,000 confirmed cases and 3,700 deaths (adding onto the thousands of ‘probable deaths’ that have not received forensic analysis). In mid-May, the first case was confirmed in one of Ecuador’s remote Amazonian indigenous communities of the Waorani people, adding to the 20,000 indigenous people infected across the Amazon region, which spans eight countries. Nearly 60% of Ecuador’s cases are centered in the major port city of Guayaquil, once brandished by its local government as a ‘model city’. But Égüez knows deeply that the ills revealed by the global pandemic are not a cause but a symptom of what he calls a “civilizational crisis”, a “tragedy in the political order of globalization and capitalism.”

“This crisis also shows that the thirty-year model of a right-wing government in Guayaquil is a total failure – it has created a highly unequal society,” he commented. The densely populated city is one of the most unequal in a country that has a poverty rate of 25%. Many of its residents are precariously employed or unemployed and many live hand-to-mouth, meaning that stay-at-home orders cannot be adhered to. The government is mired in corruption scandals, leading to skyrocketing prices of food, medical supplies, and other essential goods (masks are US $12 and body bags US $148). “Maybe the government will take advantage of the situation and implement a series of neoliberal policies,” he says, referring to the Organic Law on Humanitarian Support and Organic Law on Regulation of Public Finances pushed through by President Lenín Moreno’s government. Ostensibly passed in response to the pandemic, these laws have pushed austerity measures, further scaling back social security and labor rights in the midst of the crisis.

In the face of this calamity, Égüez is watching. He is witnessing. When we spoke in early May in Égüez’s sixth week of quarantine, he had created forty oil paintings, part of the Cuarantena series. They are haunting portraits on cardboard in black, white, and greys – a stark contrast to the vivid palettes of his more well-known work. “All of them are in the shadows to portray the feeling that even if we are protected in our houses, we cannot stop watching the people’s suffering. They have nothing to eat, and the conditions in which they live do not allow for quarantine. You must look through the eyes that [Cuban revolutionary José] Martí had towards the world, towards those who need the most, towards the poor,” he explains. In a consoling tone, he adds, “With this series, somehow I suffer a little less.”

Pavel Égüez, Almuerzo sobre la hierba / ‘Luncheon on the Grass’, 2020.

Cuarantena finds its balance with another more private series of Égüez’s artwork in full color – his interpretations of Édouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1863). The original French pre-Impressionist painting features two fully clothed men picnicking with a naked woman, modeled by fellow painter, Victorine Meurent. Luncheon on the Grass shocked viewers of the time for its bold content and style, was rejected by the Salon exhibition, and has been since subject to countless feminist interpretations. Why was she naked and what did her frank stare mean? Like many women and working-class artists, Meurent has barely made it into the footnotes of art history. Through this now canonical painting, however, she continues to exist. In her glowing bareness and her defiant stare, she is being watched, but she is staring back at us. For Égüez it is a metaphor, and a cry for hope, “When you are in lockdown, the only thing that is left is to think about is that luncheon on the grass.”

Édouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe / ‘Luncheon on the Grass’, 1863.

Artists Conquer Our Gaze Through Creation 

Pavel Égüez, Grito de la Memoria / ‘Scream of the excluded’, Quito, 2014.

“This is a time for more intimate work. It is a time for thinking about this historical moment,” Égüez comments on his paintings made in quarantine. They stand in contrast to his work as a muralist, which is normally housed on the streets and is architectural in scale. One of his major murals is the 340-metre-wide Grito de la Memoria (‘Scream of the Excluded’) (2014) in Quito, a ceramic-tiled homage to the importance of the public sphere. His murals privilege public spaces over commercial or private ones. He defends access to public art in the same breath that he defends the public sector, which he believes is vital in combating this global health crisis.

Grito de la Memoria carries with it the great Latin American muralist tradition – Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, Guayasamín, Portinari – that began with the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Birthed from the struggle for land and liberty, Mexican muralism inspired a movement for the decolonization of art and culture. Under Latin America’s colonial history, Égüez says, “not only were social and political subjects excluded – even the landscape was excluded from art. Everything was kidnapped. If we don’t decolonize culture, we won’t have another way of seeing. We have to conquer our own gaze, and artists conquer our own gaze through creation.”

People in the Struggle Show the Artists the Way

Pavel Égüez, La Patria Naciendo de la Ternura / ‘The Nation Being Born of Tenderness’, Caracas, Venzuela, 2006.

In the pursuit of a new way of seeing – a people’s aesthetic – Égüez highlights the protagonism of social movements: “You cannot speak about ‘the popular’ without raising the flags of the people, the key ideas being the struggle for land and for identity, and the recovery of history and of indigenous cultures that were erased.” In Égüez’s murals, this is exactly what you find – the excluded become the protagonists and those who labor become the owners of their capacities. In Égüez’s words, “people in the struggle show the artists the way; the artists follow their path when the people open the borders.”

“Cuba opened up a new path for us, so did the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST),” Égüez says of the Brazilian social movement that connected us. Under the banner for the struggle for land, agrarian reform, and social transformation, “The MST emerged as one of the first movements that has been concerned about key issues such as food sovereignty, defending the land, and fighting against big capital, agribusiness, and the uneven distribution of land,” he explained.

Égüez has a lesson for artists around the world: join social movements. After all, he adds, “social movements build a thesis for the future,” and the ideas and demands that emerge from movements are what can “potentialize art”. Égüez puts this theory into practice, as demonstrated by the art that he makes available online: Migrantes (‘Migrants’), Dictadura nunca mais (‘Dictatorship Never Again’), Ele não (‘Not Him’), Ayotizinapa, Xenophobia, Free Assange, 8 de Marzo (‘March 8’), Venezuela. These are just some of the people’s struggles that make up his body of work of more than 10,000 pieces that has been created in the service of social movements.

To Not Only Stay Alive, but to Stay Human

In Pavel Égüez’s Cuarentena series, he includes a quote from George Orwell’s dystopic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, first published in 1949: “The object was not to stay alive, but to stay human.” Égüez elaborates on this quote: “What capitalism has shown us in this crisis is its inhuman way of facing the crisis… To be human is to live together, to take care of each other, for the state to take care of the people and our culture – what neoliberalism has failed to do. We need a different model, one where we can be human.” We need a people’s culture that might be able to usher us through this historic global moment and open a new path for life.

At Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, we have been building a network of movement-aligned artists jointly with the international political platform of the International People’s Assembly. We launched the first call for submissions for the Anti-Imperialist Poster Exhibitions. This series of four online exhibitions over the coming months will serve as cultural instruments to enliven and deepen the political process of the International Week of Anti-Imperialist Struggle, a political platform that has emerged from hundreds of people’s movements, political organizations, and networks from across the globe. The next call for submissions is on the theme: neoliberalism.

We invite you to contribute art to this process.

We hope you can join us.

We hope to meet again, in the struggle, where we can once again have luncheons on the grass, as human beings.

<Opening of ‘I Anti-Imperialist Poster Exhibition: Capitalism’>

Tings Chak leads the Art Department of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

Pavel Égüez is a well-known Latin American artist, painter, illustrator, and muralist. He was the Cultural Counselor of Ecuador of the Ecuadorian Embassy in Brazil and in Venezuela. His broad artistic trajectory can be summed up by dozens of murals and exhibitions in countries throughout Latin America and Europe.

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