Pedro MeyerMa. Angela CifuentesDiego CifuentesHugo Cifuentes

The Memory

María Angela Cifuentes

The Horn Dance. Hugo Cifuentes

I have mixed feelings as I write about dad. I have often asked myself how to begin this recollection in order to describe him through the memories of our shared experiences and his explorations through art.

As I think about him, sensations I had while growing up next to him drift inside me. I see myself through the memories of times when love and admiration, as well as fear and anger, came together under the imprint of his strength and complexity.

Dad had an extremely critical spirit within the medium and the time. He was honest and upright in work, creation and life in order to be loyal to his ethical principles. He was severe in his judgments, arousing provocation as well as fear or even hatred against the medium's inability to transform itself and overcome its conformity to regional limits.

I also have the memory of a distant and withdrawn father who passed harsh judgment on our lives, who wanted his children to have a critical outlook, even though his own words deeply marked our sensibilities.

I am the youngest of his children. I lived through an important period of his life as an artist, particularly when he was a photographer; I was still very young at other key moments when as a painter he played a leading role in subversive artistic movements in Ecuador.

I can talk about Dad through my memories. I can talk about his explorations through photography, many of which I have learned to understand with time, as I have wanted to know more about his passion for artistic creation.

My father thought that without ethics there could be no aesthetics. This was why his commitment to art had an ethical grounding that made him search for new forms and contents in painting, drawing, collage and photography. The nationalist discourse inherited from the social and indigenista art of the thirties, vindicated our culture as a lost cause.

The representation of the human figure in art portrayed natives as conquered and defeated beings, enclosed by feelings of pain and grief. For Dad, reality was a living and changing entity, and therefore creation was in constant movement.

The cultural wealth of the country is found in its historical conscience, which the artist must grasp in order to extract the elements with which to create meanings of his or her own. Through the study of ancestral symbolism, Dad worked with painting and collage within a conceptual framework.

Later, through documentary photography, his aim was to show the country's cultural reality, rich in the diverse traditions and experiences that are expressed in every human manifestation. That is why the beauty of Dad’s photographic work lies in the way he approached the country's inner life to capture the experiences and emotions present in rites and in everyday life.

Common man is the protagonist of his time, charged with historical memory and expression in each of his acts, from the inner space where he lives and works –as in El peluquero de La Esperanza (The Barber of "La Esperanza") (1983) or in Petra y la Claraboya (Petra and the Skylight) (1984)- to feasts and religion.

Feasts and religion are of great importance in the lives of the people and communities of the country, particularly in the Sierra, where Dad took a great number of his photographs. The feast preserves the tradition of community life in Andean cultures, where dance and music are elements of collective participation. Many feasts are related to dates in the Catholic calendar that celebrate a patron saint, or to the religious fervor of the processions during Easter.

Dad was aware of the great significance that feasts and religion have in popular culture. Thus his photographs reveal moments of splendor and emotion during celebration and devotion, such as in Danza de la bocina (1978) or in Procesión (1980).

I see musicians in his images and I rapidly become aware of a very personal connection to his life. He devoted part of his life to musical composition; therefore musicians and dancers are characters who frequently appear in his photographs and drawings.

Dad thought that an image's originality was found in the way it makes us see beyond the visible, in the way in which the absurdity and banality of an everyday moment can become astonishing, unforeseeable. What makes many of his compositions wonderful is also the measure of humor, or even mischief, he applied to them by using suggestive titles that invite the viewer to look at things differently. This is why I have always been fascinated by Pudor (Modesty) (1984).

Dad worked with photography most of his life. At first, he made portraits in the studio he opened in Quito as a very young man, and he later produced documentary works, mainly during the seventies and eighties after he abandoned painting. I remember however that it was during the eighties that the documentary aspect became more pronounced.

This was precisely the time when he discussed with other Latin American photographers the outlook and breadth of creative photography in Latin America. He shared experiences and ideals with other colleagues, among them Pedro Meyer, Graciela Iturbide, Mario García Joya (Mayito), María Eugenia Haya Jiménez (Marucha). He also shared with Ecuadorian photographers the desire to promote a new conception and treatment of photography in the country.

This was truly remarkable because of previous key moments in his artistic life. For quite a while, Dad had kept himself from attending gatherings in Quito with other artists and intellectuals. This was after a period of intense activity when, as a painter, he played a leading role in several important events in the history of Ecuadorian art.

He promoted the creation of Grupo VAN (Vanguard of National Artists) and the creation in 1968 of the Manifesto as a vanguard movement. He also promoted the Art Anti-Biennial in reaction to the Art Biennial as a way of countering the mainstream of established art forms in the country. The breakup of the group led to a period of complete isolation as he took the decision of working on his own.

As a critic, Dad was absolutely radical. Just as he could devote himself completely to changes in criteria within art, he could also withdraw from the press and critics. I witnessed on many occasions how he categorically refused to give interviews or make public statements. His withdrawal was itself a form of critique against the mediocrity of the country's cultural institutions, which blocked any desire to transform prevailing artistic criteria, as well as being critical of the lack of conviction of his colleagues and intellectuals to produce concrete transformations.

He was uncompromising when judging the criteria of artistic work. While recognizing the strength of the work of certain artists, he did not hesitate to take distance from those he judged had fallen into the hands of dogmatism, or he would simply let his indifference be more eloquent than his words.

The Barber of "La Esperanza".
Hugo Cifuentes


Petra and the Skylight.
Hugo Cifuentes


Hugo Cifuentes


Hugo Cifuentes

Towards the beginning of the eighties, sharing expectations and needs with other photographers meant for him the possibility of changing the way photography was being produced in the country. In 1982, Dad created the Sección Académica de Fotografía de la Casa de la Cultura in Quito along with other Ecuadorian colleagues, whose goal was precisely to stimulate creative work in the country and to further dialogue and exchange with foreign photographers.

That same year, together with my brother Francisco, Dad produced Huañurca, an essay that obtained the Casa de las Americas award the following year in Cuba. Huañurca, a Quechuan word meaning "He has died", deals poetically with death by following every step in the burial of a small Indian boy from the community of Otavalo. The photograph, with the same title as the essay, captures this feeling delicately by giving this child his last farewell.

This award, as well as the publication of the book Sendas del Ecuador in Mexico in 1988 by the Fondo de Cultura Económica, closes an important period in Dad's work in documentary photography. His documentary work became widely known for the first time through this book. Since Dad decided to abandon photography a few years after the book was published, it is also an anthology of his work.

I have always thought that his artistic life was cyclical in nature: he left photography to return to painting and drawing, which he had left to devote himself to documentary photography. I believe, however, that it was through photography that he achieved an aspiration he had always had: the transformation of art in Ecuador. Through his work and inspiration, he certainly gave birth to a new era in Ecuadorian photography by turning it into a creative discipline.

When I recall my life with Dad in the privacy of our home, emotions become stronger than reason. I lose myself in memories that make me feel a longing for closeness and affection, and when I try to describe them I become dazzled. The last years with him were a jumble of emotions: watching him grow old and tired after he left photography and went back home; seeing him secluded in his room, which had always been his small universe; observing him paint and draw even as he was starting to lose his pulse, and watching how disease gradually took over his body and mind.

The strength of his personality intimidated me for a long time throughout my life. It took just a glance or a word to confirm that any further comment would be a mistake or an absurdity. I could never pierce through the shell that surrounded him and made him appear distant and withdrawn. How many times would I have liked to talk to him about my misfortunes and achievements, or feel his presence and share whatever grief I was afflicted with, free to express myself without fear of being in error, or feel his proximity during his illness or in any circumstance of emotional need. His voice became alive when he demanded we form our own criteria and not fall into the medium's mediocrity, even though he could overshadow us on many occasions with the weight of his own words.

Many of his words still spring abruptly to my mind. I feel warmth and I shiver when I remember him telling us: "I don't want my children to be geniuses, I want them to be human". His voice could also trample any castle and turn it into sand, or cast doubt on our ability to achieve concrete results.

Dad was the force and defiance needed to face the adversity of the medium, the force and sensibility to create, but also the strength and emotional distance that marked our life at home. I felt overwhelmed when the disease gradually consumed his strength and I saw how his memory was silenced with each passing day, and when I felt the frailty of his body as we embraced to say goodbye in Quito before I left for Germany. I was crushed when I saw the void in his eyes.

Dad was 76 years old and I was 32 when he left us forever. Two years have passed since his death. It has not been easy to realize that there is still fear inside me; and that even if time seems to lessen grief, memories can awaken emotions that can take me over the edge. Dad is present in everything, in who he was, in his creations, in the emotions I carry with me, in the memories that bring him close, in that place where memory leads me back to them.

María Angela Cifuentes
March 2002


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