If the Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín has a trademark, it might be human figures with hauntingly large eyes and long fingers. These phantom-like images hang on walls and stare back with silkscreened pupils from T-shirts all over Quito, where I spent the past fourteen months living and working as an English teacher. I’ve always found these hollow-cheeked painted people to be a bit unsettling; their originality and visual impact are undeniable, but I would rather avoid seeing them stare back at me from my bedroom wall when I wake up in the middle of the night.
That may be the reason why I didn’t buy a Guayasamín painting until I came across Quito rojo while shopping for a birthday present for a friend. I had spent the past couple hours zigzagging through the cobblestone streets of Quito’s colonial downtown searching for historical photos of the city, which I thought my friend—a diehard quiteño able to produce an anecdote or legend about practically every building, statue and gargoyle in the Centro—would appreciate. Having accomplished nothing more than a nasty sunburn, I had resigned myself to settling for a pastry and a card when I came across this painting in a shop in the renovated Archbishop’s Palace in the Plaza Grande. I immediately knew that I had found both my gift and my newest apartment decoration. Minutes later, I plunged back into Quito’s particularly singeing variety of midday sun toting two prints in a cardboard roll.
During the three months it spent Scotch-taped to my wall, the painting became an increasingly central component of my perception of Quito. Despite the fact that Ecuador’s capital city is hours from the ocean and surrounded by towering volcanoes, I had always associated the city with water rather than fire. The astounding downpours, thunder and hailstorms that sweep down the hills nearly every afternoon during Quito’s wet season undoubtedly had something to do with this; nonetheless, I suspect that my vision of Quito as an essentially aquatic city owed more to its physical layout than its climate. Not only do the houses that stumble haphazardly up the hills evoke coastal cities like Valparaíso, but the city itself—stretched out between and over innumerable slopes and overwhelmingly white when seen from above—resembles foam on top of rolling waves.
Passing Quito rojo in my hallway multiple times each day, however, made me ponder the idea of Quito as a city on fire. I suppose the painting could be received as a simple sunset landscape, but I’ve always though of it as depicting actual flames, either a volcanic eruption or an out-of-control fire. This interpretation represents the way I came to view Quito during the time I spent there: as a city ablaze with conflict and passion. The past several hundred years have witnessed very little tranquility in Ecuador, and the current reality of the capital is a dynamic testament to this. Children in tattered T-shirts offer to shine the shoes of passerby in front of the city’s pristine malls and breathtaking colonial buildings. On nearly every street, graffiti expresses discontent and a variety of political sentiments; it’s not unusual to see a message crossed out and replaced with an opposing view. Shards of broken glass top the walls that surround homes like fortresses. Tension is burning everywhere, sometimes literally; it wasn’t uncommon for me to glance out my window and see smoke rising from the vicinity of the politically charged Universidad Central. Quito, however, is ignited with much more than strife: Much of the city’s graffiti is poetry.
On his rooftop in the Centro, a friend took this picture of Quito and me on one of my last nights in Ecuador. In this case, a technological mishap produced a strikingly appropriate result: Quito appears to be on fire. Coincidentally enough, shortly after the photo was taken, I glanced northward toward my neighborhood and saw flames erupt from what I knew to be a park. My stomach began to knot as we watched the fire descend the hill toward the neighbor’s house where nearly everything I own was spilling over the tops of bulging suitcases. Nevertheless, the fire—if that’s indeed what it was—disappeared quickly; we never learned what had started it.