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Ecuadorian artist Camilo Egas came to The New School for Social Research as an art professor in 1929 and soon after became director of the Art Workshops, “a series of interdisciplinary studio courses in the visual arts.” He would direct the Art Workshops until his death in 1962, hiring numerous talented teachers (Berenice Abbott, Stuart Davis, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Lisette Model, amongst others) and establishing The New School’s reputation as a center for international modernism. Egas received his education at the School of Fine Arts in Quito. He traveled to Rome, Madrid and Paris where he first came in contact with the European avant-garde movement, before arriving in New York in the mid-twenties. Egas was considered to have played a pivotal role in shaping the art movement called pictorial indigenism. It was at The New School where Egas’ practice, both as an artist and as an educator, flourished.
In 1931, Alvin Johnson, the director of The New School, asked Camilo Egas to paint a mural to hang in the anteroom of the dance studio (lower level) where contemporary dancers Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey would later collaborate. The commission was part of Johnson’s initiative to integrate contemporary art into the school’s new modern building designed by Joseph Urban. Egas’ mural would complement works already completed by José Clemente Orozco and Thomas Hart Benton. In accordance with the theme of dance, Egas created Ecuadorian Festival, a multi-figural composition depicting ceremonial dancers. Egas’ palette consisted primarily of earth tones, which he claimed evoked ancient Incan art. Rather than attempt to document a specific indigenous festival, the work depicts a generic celebration that integrates dancers in native costumes from various regions of the country - a kind of cultural “sampler,” thereby privileging national unity over regional specificity. The mural is a flurry of movement, with figures swirling around three open central areas, as if expelled from the center by an invisible force. Egas further divides the composition with two extraordinarily tall ceremonial hats, or cucuruchos, balanced with forked sticks on the heads of masked dancers known as almas santas (holy souls). In indigenous Ecuadorian culture, these hats, derived from the cone-shaped hats worn in Spanish Holy Week processions, often took on a form of their own.
To a North American audience the scene would have been breathtakingly exotic. Ecuadorian Festivalwas favorably reviewed in the American Magazine of Art, Art News, the New York Times, the New York Sun, and the New York Evening Post. Perhaps because of The New School’s progressive orientation, Alvin Johnson, in his discussion of Egas in Notes on The New School Murals, made cultural identity a specifically political issue, identifying the hand in the lower left corner of the image as “the hand of Spain suppressing the Indo-American spirit.” Johnson’s interpretation seems a bit implausible, given Egas’ own description of the scene as “something that reflects the moments of happiness into which the natives of Ecuador immerse themselves, so colorful and simultaneously so solid; strong in body yet anxious to enjoy their festivals.” This description indicates that his work was not intended as a form of social protest, but rather as a celebration or a moment of escape and enjoyment. Johnson’s interpretation of Ecuadorian Festival reveals more about the then-current trend toward political content and social commentary in works of art.
- Michele Greet, 2011
Author of Beyond National Identity: Pictorial Indigenism as a Modernist Strategy in Andean Art, 1920–1960