Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri

Oswaldo Viteri

Conversation between
Ileana Viteri and Natalia Torija Nieto
Photography by Ana Cuba

Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri

Set atop a hill in what used to be the northern outskirts of Quito, Ecuador, a haven of devotional Spanish colonial art, indigenous Andean treasures, and bullfighting instruments and paraphernalia greets me. Overlooking the Pichincha volcano, the casa-museo of octogenarian artist Oswaldo Viteri is home to a jaw-dropping collection from all periods of Ecuadorian art, including his own paintings, drawings, and sculptural work. The house was built by Viteri himself, a trained architect, in the early ‘70s. The polished clay tiled floors and wood-beamed ceilings recall early vernacular constructions. Inside Viteri’s workshop, where he, at 88 years old, reads and works every day, white-washed brick walls contrast with red velvet curtains puddling onto the wooden floor, reminiscent of a bullfighter’s cape. My father was an architect. But, if you’d have asked him what he’d like to be instead, he would have said torero. Viteri would agree and, given the opportunity, he would have chosen bullfighting over painting. I’ve often witnessed how bullfighting lures the minds of art and architecture enthusiasts—a fellow college classmate of mine dropped out to become a matador—however, the art of tauromachy is but one of Viteri’s passions.
Viteri grew up in the early ‘30s in the Andean town of Ambato, where he spent time in his grandmother Lucía’s hacienda roaming around with local kids of families that worked the corn fields. He attended corridas at the Plaza La Macarena from a very young age, he visited the Cotocollao food market, and he wandered into escapades with his grandfather Julio’s cockfighting roosters. His training as an architect gave him expertise as a draftsman, while his upbringing provided empathy towards cultural identity. Since very early on, Viteri’s practice has been informed by an interest in anthropology, folklore, and genealogy. I spoke with Viteri’s daughter Ileana—an architect, professor, and gallery owner—about growing up in Viteri’s extraordinary world.

Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri

Your father trained as an architect, but did he ever practise the profession?

Just after graduating he worked in an architect’s studio drawing perspectives. He did take part in a few public projects, and he even helped design the Legislative Palace during the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. So he did have a bit of experience in architecture, which I think was very interesting for him. As a student, he was amazing at drawing, and on the teaching side he also had a relationship with architecture from a young age. He was sub-dean of the Faculty of Architecture at the Central University of Ecuador, where he also taught art for 30 years before retiring. He never really fully committed himself to architecture because his true passion has always been art.

Did he grow up in Quito?

Yes, but he came from a provincial city called Ambato. He was the son of a well-known obstetrician who also dabbled in politics, serving as a mayor and legislator, among other things. They sent my father away to the Colegio San Gabriel, a Jesuit boarding school—the most important one at the time. He was there from the age of 12 until 18, but after finishing he stayed in Quito to go to university. At the same time, he was taking private lessons from two masters, Jan Schreuder and Lloyd Wulf, a Dutchman and an American, who both moved to Ecuador in the ‘50s for very different reasons, but who opened up their homes, turning them into art studios where they gave private classes. Of the two, Wulf had a particularly profound impact on my father’s education, even though he’d been painting and drawing from a very young age. It’s not just because he was my father, but he was objectively a virtuoso. You see the drawings he did when he was 15 or 16 and you can’t believe it.

Where did he get such discipline from?

He had a very strong emotional connection with his father, who was a very strict and reserved man, and my father admired him greatly. But I think his education at San Gabriel, in a Jesuit boarding school, was naturally very important. Imagine! It gave him a sense of discipline and order that stayed with him throughout his life.
His true passion was always art, and he knew that he wanted to dedicate himself to it. He taught classes part time at the university, which gave him a little extra income and a sense of stability, but the rest of the time he spent working in his workshop. From early on he participated in shows, or salones as they’re called here, where they gave out awards. They began conferring these prizes at the start of the 20th century, and to this day it’s still the major reference for new values in Ecuadorian art, even though I think they’ve lost their prestige a little over the years. And my father won a few awards—at the Salón de Julio and the Mariano Aguilera award in 1960, for example. All of this helped him to solidify his fate and his purpose.

Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri

How did your father’s art collection begin?

He was the only grandchild to receive an inheritance from his grandfather, who left my father some money and some colonial pieces, two angels, which were the start of his collection and which occupy a very symbolic place in his house. He began building the house in 1973–74, and we moved in around 1975–76, when I was 14 or 15 years old. In the meantime, we’d moved house quite a few times. We were kind of like gypsies, carrying our saints, paintings, and doors. It was wonderful, because it was a constant adventure!

Anthropological study played an important role in your father’s life as well, didn’t it?

Definitely. From a young age, my father was very involved in anthropology, mainly folklore. Just like Schreuder and Wulf, who both had an immense impact on the cultural scene here in Ecuador, there was another man who came later; to me, he was the greatest folklorist in the Americas at the time. Paulo de Carvalho Neto was from Brazil, and he ended up creating a group of anthropologists—not professionals, because it didn’t really exist as such at the time in Ecuador, and it certainly wasn’t applied to popular art or folklore. But he did gather a group of people from the world of art and culture, such as Oswaldo Guayasamín and Olga Fisch, who were without a doubt some of the most important people in Ecuadorian culture and art history. On the one hand, Carvalho Neto helped provide them with a set of tools, from an anthropological point of view, to carry out research and fieldwork. And, on the other hand, he also helped them to make the most of their own strengths and skills, including the possibility of drawing. Sometimes they also used photography or they recorded people, as they gathered all of this oral tradition for the very first time, everything that had been passed down from generation to generation among the country’s indigenous population. This work mostly took place in the interior of the country, in the mountainous regions.

After being a member of these groups, how did Oswaldo incorporate this research into his art?

I think that this resulted in my father’s most important work, his ensamblajes, or assemblages, which are his most highly valued pieces, shown in museums and major exhibitions. But I also think it helped to generate a series of doubts. His work became much closer to gestural abstraction in the ‘60s, very much in line with the avant-garde and North American movements that were linked to action painting and abstract expressionism and were dominating the New York art scene, with Jackson Pollock at the forefront.
But there was a point around 1968 when a conflict began to surface within him—at least, this is what he told me. He soon started to ask himself, ‘What does cultural identity really mean?’ This happened after years of work and research at the Ecuadorian Institute of Folklore, which was founded in 1961, where he’d been director as they were publishing magnificent books on popular art and folklore. This was something that didn’t exist before, and I’m not just talking about the records or a conceptual approach; there wasn’t the awareness that this could be of fundamental cultural importance.

Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri

So how did this interest in both colonial and popular art continue to spread?

In the ‘60s, a certain phenomenon began to occur, and that’s when many renowned artists, such as Eduardo Kingman and Guayasamín, started their own private collections, mainly featuring colonial art. Guayamasín had a fantastic museum. They played a vital role in purchasing works and safeguarding cultural heritage. What started to happen is that nothing left the convents and big churches here in the cities, although in the provinces and small towns it still happened. Many priests would dismantle their churches thinking that they were full of old junk. My father has some pieces that had been cut up; they’d literally been chopped up for firewood! They had to create new images, and so they’d alter these things, but they’d end up looking terrible. And then they started selling and selling, but there wasn’t any meaning to it—certainly not religious or ceremonial, but mainly aesthetic. That’s when the artists took centre stage, along with other collectors, of course, because until that point colonial art—and especially art from Quito—had always been associated with the church, both in the big cities and in the provinces. And so my father would go to the provinces and come back with some amazing items that were basically resigned to being used as firewood.

Did you ever go with him?

We used to go and do research together as a family, along with my sister Carmen. We’re the closest in terms of age; we have another sister, but there are 12 years between us, so she missed out on a lot of these wonderful experiences. We got to know some incredible people, and I even met Julio Cortázar, Marta Traba, and Eduardo Galeano, and a great deal of artists and art critics. It really was amazing, and always with this permanent curiosity of trying to figure out, ‘What are you? Where are you from?’ And putting value on something in a society as racist, in some senses, as ours—especially at that time. Of course, there were some wonderful exceptions, but, beyond the landscape, there was often an unappreciative gaze on our own reality.
The house gathered all of this together, because it’s kind of the story of my father’s life, travels, concerns, interests, and curiosities. It’s also a place where colonial art shares the same space as European art and modern art. There’s lots of colonial and pre-Columbian art, but there’s also work by José Luis Cuevas. He has to be there, of course.

Was your father very active in politics?

My father was an avid reader. He never joined any political party like lots of his contemporaries, including Guayasamín, who were militants and also very privileged. They were privileged precisely because of their political connections. That wasn’t the case for my father. He never believed in any of that. He always believed that art had to be free from all extra-artistic influences. His only stance was, ‘I hate dictators, I’m not interested in the left or the right, I believe in freedom’. He loves reading philosophy, theory, about the history of art. He’s still a big reader to this day. It’s impressive how he still manages to read so much!
There was a point when he almost gave up painting to fully dedicate himself to anthropology. He felt that he couldn’t express in his paintings the need to single out his own understanding of what it means to be Latin American and to come from the Andes. That’s how he ended up doing assemblage, although it actually happened by chance, one of those things that are almost related to Zen and coincidence. After reaching a point almost of desperation, he had a painted surface and started adding objects in juxtaposition to one another, things that he’d been gathering and that were lying around in his collection. These objects had a symbolic element because they came from a world outside of art. He used rag dolls or marvellous chasubles from the colonial world that were full of European Christian traditions.

Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri
Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri
Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri
Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri

Has your father ever been a religious man?

He comes from a family where my grandmother was naturally religious. She used to go to mass every Sunday, and my father went to a Jesuit school as well. But my sister and I weren’t brought up with the perspective of a typically Christian or bourgeois environment. Quite the opposite, in fact. My mother is from a family of intellectuals, and, moreover, they’re all atheists. So, forget it! When I was a child, I was the only one that said I was a Christian and that I wanted to go to mass, because of my grandmother. They really made it difficult for me to receive my first communion, which says it all, really.

I’m asking mainly because of the wall covered in figures of Jesus!

The devotional aspect of a piece is one thing, and its artistic aspect and transformational significance is another. My father was brought up in an environment where my grandfather was liberal, bearing in mind that in Ecuador, being liberal meant the opposite of being conservative, but he also had a sense of the spiritual and the transcendent and respect for a superior order. And that’s always been present in my father, even to this day. I think that nowadays he can talk more openly about God, but only in the sense of an extraordinary respect for that which overwhelms you—of an order that is invisible but that you make visible through art, or that you make audible through music, or identifiable through word. At the end of the day, that is the purpose of art. I’m a university professor, so that’s why I speak like this!
And that’s what the house is; to me, it’s an expression of his life, his curiosities, this extraordinary appreciation of colonial pieces, like a wooden spoon made in some remote village in the Andes, but also the folkloric dance costume, as a chasuble could also be, and an appreciation of porcelain as much as clay.

Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri

However, your father never chose to pursue an academic education.

Back then, we had the School of Fine Arts, which wasn’t a part of the university. It was an academy where students could go when they were 14 years old. It was actually set up in the 19th century, but then it closed and was reopened again in the 20th century. All of the most important artists from the first half of the 20th century studied there. But now we’re talking about the ‘50s and ‘60s, and in a way the school had become stuck, focusing only on indigenism, on expressionism, which had a great influence on Mexican muralism, and it couldn’t free itself from this paradigm. It wasn’t exactly stuck in the 19th century, but it was stuck on the idea that if you’re an artist, you have to follow these premises, the ones used by Guayasamín, Kingman, and the other great artists of that time. But for the new generation, like my father, Enrique Tábara, Estuardo Maldonado, and their contemporaries, who were 15–20 years younger, this was obsolete. The truth is that lots of them studied there, but they all travelled and left—except for my father, because he never studied art; he’s basically self-taught, from an academic point of view. What he did do was take painting and drawing classes from these mentors.

In his memoirs, which were published by Trama Ediciones in 2007, Oswaldo writes that Lloyd Wulf got him into Zen Buddhism.

My father never converted, but Lloyd did introduce him to Zen Buddhism—which was undoubtedly behind the work of Jackson Pollock—and the way it relates to the idea of chance and flow and time. It’s the idea of the artist as a kind of vehicle for taking something that’s found in some far-away corner of the universe and communicating it to the world that we’re living in. Or something along those lines. He was never a Zen Buddhist, but he did adopt this attitude, which is plain to see in the influence it had on his drawings. The pieces in his ink collections are very, very Zen.
Lloyd also introduced him to the history of modern art and to certain figures of the vanguard, such as Herbert Read. He had to look up Herbert Read. And then he had to read Martin Heidegger and Wassily Kandinsky. In this sense, Lloyd had a very important influence on him from an intellectual and theoretical point of view. He had several philosophical and theoretical concerns, but he’s never been a militant artist in the conceptual domain. In reality, he rejected the intellectuals, and that ended up causing him a lot of problems. He was always very free and never wanted to be a part of any group. ‘Just me and my path. I want a full life, I don’t want anyone to help me’. But this has also had a great cost.

Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri
Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri

In an interview, your father said that if he wasn’t an artist, he would’ve been a bullfighter.

Definitely. We’re all big bullfighting enthusiasts. Let me tell you something: if I were a man, I would’ve loved to have been a bullfighter! The truth is that my father has been around bulls his whole life, because my grandfather used to take him to bullfights when he was younger, and he even used to listen to them on the radio when he was in school. So he’s a bit of an aficionado, thanks in part to this family tradition, and he has an incredible amount of knowledge on the subject, something that he’s dedicated a lot of his work to as well. He got to meet a lot of bullfighters. When the Feria de Jesús del Gran Poder bullfighting festival came to town each December, all the bullfighters who came from Spain used to come by my house. So, as a child, I was surrounded by Paco Camino, Palomo Linares, Ortega Cano, Javier Conde.

And they’re all handsome.

All of them are so handsome! But of course, I was a little girl and they would all come and spend time at my house. There would be lots of these parties; it was really great. My father’s done so many portraits of bullfighters.

Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri

What’s the story behind the place where the house was built?

It’s a shame, because sadly it’s become rundown. When my father bought it, the land must have been dirt cheap. It was on the outskirts of Quito, a part that used to be full of big haciendas, but where they’d started dividing them up. Quito basically used to end at the airport, and this place was beyond the airport. He bought the land when I was very young and we planted a forest of pine trees, which was there for quite a few years. These plots of land were usually used for family gardens. My father was interested in this idea, and it was very much a possibility at the time, so he bought 5,000 square metres. That’s where he lives now. But because it was a little far from everything, except the Pan-American Highway, there was no type of access, not even streets. There was a chakiñanka, which in the Kichwa language basically means a trail you can walk along. So my father had to build the road himself. There wasn’t any piping either; back then we used septic tanks. He finally finished building it, and the house had breathtaking views over the Pichincha volcano. The house is on a hill, and when we moved in we were completely alone. Except for the cows!
Unfortunately, because we didn’t have any piping for many years, the other plots of land started being used for industrial storage warehouses. That drastically changed the landscape, as well as the family gardens. Today, my father’s house is the only one left. So, that’s what happened to it. Our idea is that the collection can move to a museum or a foundation. The real problem is the house itself, because it doesn’t have any utilities and it’s not in a good location. It’s a shame because the house is amazing and it has its own history, spirit, and life.

Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri
Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri
Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri

Was your mother an artist too?

My mother dedicated her life to accompanying my father. It’s true that her parents were both intellectuals, and when she was young she lived in the US and Switzerland, because my grandfather was a diplomat. She’s a very interesting woman, and back then she was one of a kind in Quito. That’s exactly how she met my father and how they fell in love. They met in a bookshop while looking at artbooks. Obviously, my father already knew her; what’s more, my mother was very beautiful and my father had singled her out long before. So he went up to her and started talking; he offered to do a portrait of her, and the rest is history.

And she’s accompanied him ever since.

She’s always been by his side, yes. My father’s a wonderful person, but he’s also very complex. My mother, too. Let’s say the marriage obviously had its difficulties. Between the bohemian lifestyle and the women who approach you and search you out, and whatever else may have happened, it definitely wasn’t easy. But they always kept going. A little distant at times, and full of happiness and pride at others. It was always a mixture, but I guess that’s life.

Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri
Apartamento Magazine - Oswaldo Viteri
art, interview
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