The painter Julio Toaquiza was forced to work on a cacao plantation as a young boy. If he wasn’t in the fields by 6:00 a.m., the boss would come to his house with a whip. There was no local school for Julio to attend back then. He was married at 14 and had 12 children. He learned to paint, he says, in a dream.
Julio’s was the last generation of Tigua to work under a whip. His children went to school. They helped with the family’s livestock and crops, rather than laboring at a plantation. And they learned to paint from their father.
Julio’s oldest son, Alfredo, believes the style of painting his father developed is part of a resurgence of ancient indigenous art forms that were interrupted when Europeans arrived in the Andes. “The trunk was cut, but the roots have sprung up in different places among different people,” he says. “Here in Cotopaxi, in Tigua, it sprung up on its own. It’s a new school of indigenous art, where we express the feeling, the thinking, the way of life of our people.”
Julio’s third son, Alfonso, sees his art as a way of preserving culture, and of sharing that culture with the larger world. “Pachamama, the earth spirit, has pushed us to show our way of life to different parts of the world. Our paintings reveal the hidden parts of the community.”
For Alfonso, the paintings also tell a more urgent story. “Many people are destroying the forest and we say, ‘Please, don’t destroy that.’ Pachamama is crying. She doesn’t want more destruction. We need people to begin to talk about this so that this land that was once a paradise can return to being a paradise. That’s the idea we are always dreaming of.”
After thirty years of painting scenes from the daily lives of his people as they live today – their work on the land, their ceremonies and celebrations – Julio has begun to paint about the past. “This is the slavery of the Tigua plantations,” he says, gesturing to a painting in progress. Instead of family plots of potatoes and small herds of llamas, the landscape is dotted with soldiers on horseback. The painting tells the story of a Tigua uprising against forced labor, and its violent suppression. It also tells the story of how much has changed in one man’s lifetime.
“Our children are educated now. They know what laws are. They know about rights,” Julio says. “This painting is so that my history, the history of Tigua and of our ancestors who lived in this place, can go out from here. I like to paint stories and send them out to the world.”
– Nancy Hand