Pintores de Tigua: Indigenous Artists of Ecuador

Jean G. Colvin
South American Explorer

Tigua artists high in the Ecuadorian Andes are renowned for their colorful paintings of rural life. Their delightful folk art, painted with chicken feather brushes on sheep hide, celebrates their mountain life with its festivals, legends, and traditions dating back centuries.

Tigua is a collection of small communities southwest of Quito. Most of the people here farm the mountain slopes and valleys, herding sheep and llamas and growing their crops on the patchwork of steep, windswept fields. Tigua artists are deeply bound to the land. Even the most successful painters still plant and harvest their own fields of potatoes, beans, and grains.

For centuries, Quichua artists decorated the drums and masks seen in the colorful Andean festivals, but the paintings that have gained popularity in recent years were unknown until the early 1970's. It was then that a Quito art dealer persuaded Julio Toaquiza to paint on a flat surface—a sheepskin stretched over a wood frame. It changed Tigua art dramatically. Since then, Julio’s children and other villagers have developed and expanded this art form. Though lacking formal training, Tigua artists following Julio Toaquiza’s lead have seen their creations spread throughout Ecuador and beyond. Tigua paintings are now widely collected, prized for their vibrancy and detail.

Today, Tigua artists paint almost exclusively on sheep hide. Tigua paintings are invariably small, their dimensions limited by the sheepskin. Many artists also paint and decorate the frames of the paintings as well. And there have been other changes. Not long ago, all Tigua artists painted with the cheap enamel paints available everywhere in Ecuador. But since these lead-based paints were found to be toxic, many have switched to oils or acrylics.

Tigua artists generally paint scenes of communal life: villagers herding livestock,spinning and weaving wool, harvesting crops and going to market, enjoying a bullfight. Other favorite subjects are Cotopaxi, the sacred, snow-covered volcano, Quilatoa with its rugged slopes, and the condor, the legendary bird of the Andes. Faces on rocks and mountains reflect the Tigua view that all nature is alive.

For the most part, Tigua painting shies away from portraiture or abstract composition in favor of the broad perspective—village or rural scenes of multiple figures, themes of community and nature.

Popular with Tigua artists is the festival. Although predominately Christian, Tigua religion still clings to its ancient rituals and festivals of pre-conquest origin. Festivals portrayed most frequently in Tigua paintings are Corpus Christi (celebrated in June, a fiesta uniting Inca harvest festivals with medieval Christianity), Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), and Tres Reyes (Three Kings). And since music is inseparable from the festival, Tigua paintings typically pay homage to musicians and their instruments—guitar, flute, panpipe, drum, trumpet, and bocina, the long wooden horns blown on special occasions. Dancers, too, are a favorite. Swaying and weaving to the hauntingly beautiful music, brightly costumed performers in ornately carved masks of tigers, monkeys, and dogs dance through the narrow streets. In trouble or ill health, highland Indians turn to their shaman to perform the cleaning and healing rituals. The skulls, candles, smoke, and medicinal plants that shamans use in their ceremonies figure prominently in Tigua art. This genre tends to be somewhat somber and dark, as shamans practice their rites at night.

Historical and political themes are less common in Tigua paintings. Although the Incas did not spend much time in Ecuador, the rulers and Inca deities do figure in paintings. Another historical subject is the hacienda period. In these paintings, Indian serfs work on the large estates. Today, sophisticated Tigua artists are more politically active. It’s not uncommon to find paintings of Quichuas celebrating the election of Ecuador’s first Indian representative to the national congress, marchers demonstrating for indigenous rights, and scenes of environmental destruction wrought by international oil companies operating in the Amazon basin. Pachacama, protector of the earth and the principle Inca deity, is often portrayed as a disembodied visage in the background of the painting, a symbol of Indian ethnic and cultural pride.

The growing popularity of Tigua-style art has spawned a whole new host of painters, some native Tiguans, but many from other parts of Ecuador. Quality varies dramatically. Better painters sell their work through tourist stores or galleries. Less-well-known artists hawk their paintings themselves. You’ll find them at the weekend fairs and on the streets of Quito and other towns where tourists gather. Not a few Tigua artists have turned their backs on the country, forsaking the rural hardships for the advantages of urban life with its abundance of tourists and art dealers. Tigua artists who severed their roots and still paint bucolic scenes of village life are frowned upon by those artists still living with their families in rural areas. They feel theirs is the true Tigua art, an art that expresses their ties to the land. They prefer to sell their art, not through galleries or dealers, but directly to the art aficionado.

Tigua painters have heard the respect of Ecuadorian art dealers who once viewed them as mere artisans and their work handicrafts. In recent years, Tigua art has been exhibited at the Organization of American States in Washington DC, the University of California Hearst Museum, the Museum of Man in San Diego, California, and the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

With each exhibit, the appreciation of Tigua paintings grows, and the artist who create these delightful works are at last receiving the recognition they deserve.

Tigua Art: Where to Go

Though quality varies widely, you’ll find Tigua paintings in tourist stores throughout Quito, at the weekend fair in Parque Elejido opposite the Colon Hotel, on the streets of Quito, and at markets in Otavalo (Wednesday and Saturday), Saquisili(Thursday), and Pujili (Sunday).

The highest quality paintings are found in Chimbacucho, the birthplace of Tigua art. Here, artists have formed a cooperative with a gallery to sell their paintings, masks, and other creations. You can visit their community 54 km west of Latacunga on the Latacunga-Quevedo road (about 10 km before the town of Zumbahua). Look for a large sign in Spanish and English on the right side of the road. The gallery—a white building with red-framed windows—is 50 yards or so up the hill on the left. Ask for Alfredo Toaquiza, the president of the cooperative.

You can also buy Tigua paintings near Lake Quilatoa (about 30 minutes by car from the town of Zumbahua) and in other small communities along the Latacunga-Quevedo road.

Traveling by bus? You can reach Tigua from Latacunga. Ask the driver to let you off at Tigua-Chimbacucho. Safari Tours, a company based in Quito, will take small groups to the region. Safari can arrange day tours, or you can include Tigua as part of a longer tour.

If you’re planning to stay overnight, be advised that lodging around Tigua is sparse. There are several modest hostals in Zumbahua. Humberto Latacunga operates a very basic “lodge” near the Quilatoa crater. For $5 a night, you get a room and simple local fare. The popular Black Sheep Inn, about one to two hours by rough road beyond Zumbahua, is a small, pleasant lodge. It is operated by an American couple. The rooms are small but comfortable, the food American-style.

Jean Colvin leads small groups to Ecuador each year to visit Tigua and Capirona, a community in Ecuador’s rainforest that runs an ecotourist program. Contact: The University of California Research Expeditions Program (UREP) at 530-752-0692; email: urep@ucdavis.edu; web site: http://urep.ucdavis.edu.

Bio: Jean Colvin is the director of the University of California Research Expeditions Program (UREP). She has worked with the Tigua Artist Cooperative since 1993, organizing exhibitions and promoting their work.