Cover image for Beyond National Identity: Pictorial Indigenism as a Modernist Strategy in Andean Art, 1920–1960 By Michele Greet

Beyond National Identity

Pictorial Indigenism as a Modernist Strategy in Andean Art, 1920–1960

Michele Greet


$67.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03470-6

312 pages
9" × 9.5"
44 color/49 b&w illustrations

Refiguring Modernism

Beyond National Identity

Pictorial Indigenism as a Modernist Strategy in Andean Art, 1920–1960

Michele Greet

“This book makes an excellent contribution to the literature on Latin American art and culture. On the basis of providing new insights into understudied but significant figures alone, this book is invaluable.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Indigenism is not folk art. It is a vanguard movement conceived of by intellectuals and artists conversant in international modernist idioms and defined in response to global trends. Beyond National Identity traces changes in Andean artists’ vision of indigenous peoples as well as shifts in the critical discourse surrounding their work between 1920 and 1960. By challenging the notion of pictorial indigenism as a direct expression of national identity, Greet demonstrates the complexity of the indigenists’ critical engagement with European and pan-American cultural developments and presents the trend in its global context. Through case studies of works by three internationally renowned Ecuadoran artists, Camilo Egas, Eduardo Kingman Riofrío, and Oswaldo Guayasamín Calero, Beyond National Identity pushes the idea of modernism in new directions—both geographically and conceptually—to challenge the definitions and boundaries of modern art.

“This book makes an excellent contribution to the literature on Latin American art and culture. On the basis of providing new insights into understudied but significant figures alone, this book is invaluable.”
“Michele Greet’s study is purposeful, careful, and thoughtful, a nuanced analysis of indigenism in twentieth-century Andean art. It is an ambitious project chronicling forty years of complex historical, artistic, and geographic terrain.”
“With great skill and insight, Greet weaves the history of pictorial indigenism in Latin America into the larger narrative of twentieth-century art and politics in the Americas.”

Michele Greet is Assistant Professor of Art History at George Mason University.


List of Illustrations



1. Foundations

2. Departure: Camilo Egas’s European Formation

3. Returns: Andean Journals in the 1920s

4. Diverted Gaze: From Paris to North America

5. To New York and Back Again

6. U.S. Interventions


Appendix: Exhibitions of Latin American Art at the San Francisco Museum of Art, 1935–1957





Painting is finally serving the great Indigenist cause. Painting that is matter-of-fact, pure, direct, and suggestive, which such a cause demands.

—Armando Solano regarding Eduardo Kingman, 1939

I have never been an Indigenist painter. Indigenism is a pictorial trend that is equivalent to painting Indian ponchos, sashes, and hats, sometimes beautiful, other times dirty and ugly, leaving human character behind or using it as a pretext for the decorative.

—Oswaldo Guayasam

ín, 1974

These quotations both address pictorial Indigenism in the works of early-twentieth-century Ecuadorian painters, yet their appraisal of the trend could not be more opposed. From Impressionism to Cubism, the relationship between artists and the labels used to describe their work was often fraught with tension. Some artists embraced these labels, taking their insulting connotations as a sign that they had indeed disrupted bourgeois tastes, while others rejected the labels, inventing new descriptive terminology or modifying their work to challenge the reductive nature of such categorization. Whatever their initial response to the classification of their work, artists frequently changed their relationship to these labels over time. This tension between the labels used to describe art and the art itself was particularly characteristic of modernism. And Indigenism was indelibly marked by such conflicts.

Broadly defined, Indigenism is a Pan–Latin American intellectual trend that denounced the political and economic exploitation of Native American populations. While directed at Native Americans, Indigenism was the brainchild of the urban mestizo and creole elite who expressed their indignation at the plight of the indigenous masses through literary, artistic, and social projects. Although many artists embraced Indigenist ideologies, the term “Indigenism” was most often employed by critics rather than by artists to refer to themselves. Consequently, numerous conflicts arose regarding the parameters and exact connotations of the term. Whose work should or should not be labeled Indigenist? Was the label flattering or not? Why did this trend inspire such strong support from some and contempt from others? What caused opposition to the trend to increase over time? This book seeks to unravel the complex social, political, and cultural issues that contributed to the opposing discourses on pictorial Indigenism.

My initial interest in Indigenism developed because I sought to understand why the Argentine critic Marta Traba disdained the trend, how her writings contributed to misconceptions about Indigenism after the 1960s, and why the topic had fallen out of favor in art-historical writings. I therefore began to explore the impact of Traba’s agenda for the “universalization” of Latin American art on the evaluation of more naturalistic and politically aligned trends. Traba maintained that Indigenism took hold primarily in what she calls “closed nations.” Her use of the term “closed” implies that in countries such as Ecuador and Peru, where Indigenism dominated the visual arts during the first half of the twentieth century, the trend evolved in isolation from external influences. Consequently, her critical writings established a conceptual boundary between Indigenism and internationalism, which led to an incomplete understanding of Andean art that subsequent scholars have not yet transcended. What I seek to do here, therefore, is to counter Traba’s assessment of Indigenism as an isolated or purely nationalist phenomenon by considering its relationship to international modernist movements and its response to the global interchange of visual and textual sources. Although studies of nationalism and identity have virtually become an academic industry, I argue in the following chapters that Indigenism evolved within the context of an international debate.

Since Traba asserted that Indigenism was not linked with international movements, the countries where it thrived have been, for the most part, left out of the discussion of the emergence of modernism in Latin America. While numerous studies have been conducted on Indigenist literature and Indigenism as a sociopolitical ideology, few scholarly analyses of Indigenism in the visual arts exist. No comprehensive texts on pictorial Indigenism as a Pan–Latin American phenomenon have been written, although most recent surveys of Latin American art do address the subject. Moreover, Indigenist art has only rarely been exhibited. Although there have been numerous solo shows by Indigenist artists, only one has dealt with Indigenism as a Pan–Latin American phenomenon, while several other exhibitions have surveyed national Indigenist groups. Substantial gaps thus exist in the analysis of pictorial Indigenism. This study will therefore elaborate on this much neglected, yet extremely rich and multifaceted area of modern Latin American art.

Rather than view Indigenism as a movement or style, I approach it as a constantly evolving means for Latin American artists from countries with large Native American populations to negotiate a distinct, yet modern, identity in an increasingly international cultural sphere. Since independence, Latin American artists have endeavored to create art that originated from local culture yet was internationally relevant. Persistently plagued by criticisms that their work was either derivative of European aesthetic models or, in the case of self-consciously political or national art, lacking in international relevance, Latin American artists developed diverse strategies to negotiate this paradox. I therefore approach pictorial Indigenism’s integration of regional content and so-called universal form as a deliberate strategy that developed in response to the specific historical circumstances between the two World Wars. Perceived as an innovative move toward cultural autonomy in the 1920s and 1930s, Indigenism became an official discourse of the state (in both Mexico and the Andes) in the 1940s, thereby saturating the artistic environment and inspiring a backlash against the trend. By the 1950s, artists and critics began to call for the creation of unique Latin American styles based on motifs found in pre-Columbian and popular art to replace Indigenism’s emphasis on local subject matter. Negotiating the regional/universal dilemma remained a constant goal, however.

Through case studies of three internationally renowned Ecuadorian artists, Camilo Egas (1889–1962), Eduardo Kingman Riofrío (1913–98), and Oswaldo Guayasamín Calero (1919–99), I will examine how global interchange led these artists to develop distinct approaches to the depiction of Native American subjects as well as how attitudes toward Indigenism shifted over four decades. I have chosen these artists because of their participation in the international art scene through extended international sojourns, interaction with visiting artists or intellectuals, and exposure to nonnational art collections. Moreover, these artists’ adaptation and interpretation of international trends in local journals and galleries served to foster intellectual dialogue regarding the very nature of Latin American modernism. For them, Indigenism served as a unique way of differentiating Latin American modernism from European prototypes. Ironically, without an intense intellectual engagement with these very prototypes, Indigenism would not have emerged in the first place. Interrogating this paradox lies at the heart of this project.

I have chosen to concentrate my research on manifestations of pictorial Indigenism that emerged in Ecuador, because Ecuador, which did not experience an agrarian revolution, provides a particularly interesting case study in its own right as well as a counterpoint to the specifically political exploration of indigenous motifs that emerged in Mexico. Although scholars have conducted nuanced studies of canonical movements such as Mexican muralism, accounts of alternative voices in Latin American art have yet to be written. By shifting my emphasis to the Andes, a traditionally neglected area, I hope to reveal previously uncharted flows of information and influence in modern Latin America art.

Traditionally, Mexico and Peru, the locations of the former capital cities of the Aztec and Incan empires, have been identified as the primary regions where Indigenism flourished. Ecuador’s contribution to the international discourse on Indigenism rivals that of Peru and Mexico, however. Just before Spanish occupation, the Incan emperor, Huayna Cápac, divided his realm into two regions, naming Quito as the second Incan capital, to be ruled by his son Atahualpa. He left another son, Huáscar, to reign over Cuzco and the lands to the south, which led to a devastating civil war and facilitated the Spanish conquest. Although short-lived, Quito’s legacy as an Incan capital city figured prominently in the creation of its Indigenist ideology in the twentieth century.

The location of Ecuador’s capital—high in the Andes—also contributed to the formation of an Indigenist ideology. Political leaders, intellectuals, and artists living in Quito frequently came in direct contact with Native Americans, who inhabited the city in large numbers. This proximity obliged them to confront the exploitation and abysmal living conditions the indigenous population endured. The demographics in Quito thus inspired a sense of immediacy greater than that in the coastal city of Lima, Peru, where much of the theoretical literature on Indigenism was written. In Peru, constructing a national identity rooted in indigenous culture required intellectuals residing in Lima to travel to remote regions of the country or, as many did, simply to imagine Native American life to suit their purposes. Thus, whereas intellectuals living in Lima frequently encountered intense criticism if they embraced Indigenism, in places like Quito or Cuzco even opponents viewed Indigenism as a valid ideological stance. Oddly, it was in Lima, not Quito, where an official group of artists who practiced pictorial Indigenism emerged. Rather than engender creativity, however, physical distance from their subjects may have created a heightened need to validate their approach. In Lima, the work of the Indigenists quickly turned to dogma, whereas artists in Quito were able to approach indigenous themes with a greater degree of formal and ideological freedom. This difference inspired my decision to focus on Ecuadorian manifestations of Indigenism rather than the more recognizable examples in Peru.

I have opted not to include Bolivia in this study because Indigenism did not emerge there until the 1940s, as a result of contact with Peruvian artists, and therefore did not acquire the same level of complexity as it did in other countries. Some scholars have argued that economic concerns eclipsed debates about the exploitation of indigenous groups in the region, while others simply note that there was little vanguard thought in Bolivia. Moreover, Cecilio Guzmán de Rojas, one of the few Bolivian artists active in the first half of the twentieth century who has sometimes been classified as an Indigenist, never moved beyond painting idealized representations of indigenous peoples with little or no critical content. Whatever the reason for this difference, Bolivia did not contribute to the construction of Indigenist ideologies in the Andes to the same extent as Peru and Ecuador.

The book is organized around the theme of departures and returns. I trace the artists’ separate journeys, first to Europe and later to the United States, when the rise of Fascism in the 1930s caused many Latin American artists to circumvent Europe and look north for exhibition opportunities and artistic prototypes. Through travel and the acquisition of international art journals, Egas, Kingman, and Guayasamín were exposed to European modernist vocabularies, which each reinterpreted in his own unique way, modifying and merging them with indigenous subject matter. By examining these artists’ engagement with the international avant-garde and subsequent rearticulation of these ideas in their native country, I hope to demonstrate the complexity and sophistication of the Indigenists’ manipulation of imagery to establish a uniquely Latin American version of modernism.

Chapter 1 establishes a theoretical and contextual framework for the rest of book. I begin with a discussion of methodology, then delineate the historical circumstances that triggered the rise and spread of Indigenism in the mid-1920s and 1930s. By examining intellectual debates on national and Pan–Latin American identity that emerged in the Andes and Mexico, I hope to establish a better understanding of the interdisciplinary context in which pictorial Indigenism developed. I continue my analysis of Indigenism with a look at the emergence of a new classificatory terminology in the 1920s. This discussion establishes the groundwork for tracing artists’ self-conscious identification with, or rejection of, the label “Indigenist” chronologically throughout the rest of the book to determine Indigenism’s changing relationship to international artistic developments.

Because of new opportunities for travel and wider circulation of information and images in the press, artists gained greater access to European avant-garde tendencies in the 1910s and 1920s. Chapter 2 locates the origins of pictorial Indigenism in this moment of expanded global interchange, which inspired Latin American artists to reevaluate their own artistic milieu. After presenting an overview of Ecuadorian art in the early years of the twentieth century, this chapter then focuses on the career of Egas, following his travels to Italy, Spain, and France and examining the changes that occurred in his work as the result of his exposure to foreign ideas.

In chapter 3, I discuss the impact of Egas’s return to Ecuador, his decision to open an independent art gallery, the Galería Egas, and his founding of Ecuador’s first art journal, <em>Hélice</em>. Through a juxtaposition of national themes and the most current European styles, the exhibitions at the gallery and the images and essays published in the journal facilitated a cognitive connection between Indigenist concerns and the international avant-garde. To demonstrate the transnational emergence of Indigenist ideologies in alternative journals, I then compare Egas’s magazine to the Peruvian journal <em>Amauta</em>, an essential source of information and imagery for Andean artists.

Chapter 4 examines the period from 1927, marked by Egas’s departure from Ecuador for the United States, to 1938, the year Kingman held his first solo exhibition of Indigenist paintings. In this chapter I trace the establishment of Egas’s career in New York, his relationship to the New School for Social Research, and the impact of social realism on his work. Then I consider the cultural environment in Ecuador after Egas’s departure, discussing the impact of literary movements on the rise of Indigenism. Finally, I examine Kingman’s early career and his emergence as a leading pictorial Indigenist.

In chapter 5, I begin with a discussion of the New York World’s Fair to demonstrate the changing role Indigenism played in Pan-American identity politics. I then examine the impact of Kingman’s return to Ecuador, where he, like Egas, in advocating renovation of the cultural environment in Quito, established an art gallery, the Galería Caspicara, and participated in the formation of a journal, the <em>Revista mensual del Sindicato de Escritores y Artistas del Ecuador</em>. The shift in artists’ focus from European to American sources, which contributed to the construction of a more unified Pan-American identity, is a primary theme in chapter 5.

Chapter 6 follows the surge of political Pan-Americanism into the 1940s and 1950s, examining how the marketability and appeal of indigenous imagery in the United States sustained a politically mute Indigenism even after its demise in Latin America. Since Guayasamín, one of the most renowned and controversial twentieth-century Ecuadorian artists, produced his greatest body of work after the height of Indigenism, his negotiation of different artistic strategies to facilitate participation in the international art scene is a primary topic of this chapter. The chapter’s last section focuses on influential critics such as Marta Traba and José Gómez Sicre and their impact on Indigenism’s fall from popularity both in theory and in practice.

This book traces the perceptions of pictorial Indigenism in art-critical discourse as they fluctuated in response to social, political, and cultural influences. Through an examination of Indigenist artists’ changing objectives, this study evaluates the trend as a modernist strategy, revealing Ecuadorian artists’ ongoing dialogue with international cultural trends. Moreover, it explores how their projects facilitated the construction of imagined regional, national, and transnational cultural alliances that fostered a sense of identity other than that of “former Spanish colony.” My hope is that this work may serve as a prototype for studies of other controversial or marginalized movements and their negotiation of a place in the international art world.