Ecuadorian culture is the result of a variety of influences, including indigenous groups, Spanish colonialism, and Catholicism. These influences show up in the country’s past and present artistic endeavors, including music, literature, architecture, and the visual arts.
Current artists create a range of products — paintings, ceramics, weavings, textiles, and sculptures. Indigenous artwork mostly consists of tapestries and clothing and can be found in markets throughout Ecuador. At these markets you’ll also be able to find baskets, jewelry, woodcarvings, and leatherwork. Somewhat surprisingly, the most notable indigenous handicraft in Ecuador is the Panama hat. Indigenous groups began making these hats in the 16th century using native plants. After the Spanish arrived, the hats were cemented into Ecuadorian culture and used by people across the country.
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, indigenous groups produced a range of ceramics, sculptures, and paintings. In fact, pottery dating from 3,000 B.C. was found in the Ecuadorian village of Valdivia. Once the Spanish arrived, the focus shifted towards religious subjects. The Virgin Mary and Catholic saints were frequent subjects, although indigenous influences still made their way into the work of some artists, including Manuel Chili (better known as Caspicara) and Gaspar Sangurima. Colonial paintings are on display in many museums around Ecuador.
The Quito School became well known during the 17th and 18th centuries thanks to an artistic style that favored extreme representations of Catholic motifs. However, following Ecuadorian independence, a more secular approach dominated, with paintings focusing on natural landscapes, social elite, commoners, and heroes from the revolution.
Ecuador’s indigenous population is a prominent theme in the work of many modern artists. This includes Ecuador’s most famous modern artist, Oswaldo Guayasamín, whose paintings often focus on distorted, suffering indigenous figures. Guayasamín’s Cubism influence has led some to label him the “Americanista Picasso.”
Indigenous hardships also make their way into 19th and 20th century Ecuadorian literature. For example, Jorge Icaza’s 1934 novel Huasipungo (The Villagers) describes the struggles of everyday life in an indigenous village. Other popular books written during this time period include Juan León Mera’s Cumandá, Alberto Ortiz’s Juyungo, and José Joaquín Olmedo’s Song for Bolívar. Jorge Carrera Andrade is one of Ecuador’s most well known poets — hailing from Cuenca, Andrade became widely popular after publishing his Place of Origin. Current writers include Gabriela Alemán, who was dubbed one of “Latin America’s 40 most promising writers under 40.” Abdon Ubidia is another popular current writer — be on the lookout for his book Wolf Dream while browsing bookstores in Ecuador.
The Inca were monumental in Ecuador’s original music, and they provided instruments and melodies that are still used in Andean music today. Flutes – which were considered holy – are one of the most important instruments. Panpipes like the zampoña and a vertical flute called the quena typically play melodies, while beats are kept steady using bass drums made from clay or hollow logs.
Once the Spanish arrived, their instruments were added to the musical pot—including mandolins, clarinets, violins, and brass instruments. A particularly interesting instrument is the charango, a 10-stringed relative of the lute. Other stringed instruments include the six-string guitarra and 15-string bandolina. Many of these instruments are still in use today, especially in the Andes, where you may come across solo singers or brass bands in one of Quito’s bars. Modern influence has also sneaked into Ecuadorian music in the form of electronic instruments.
The Ecuadorian coast has a different style of music, one that is influenced by African rhythms and traditions. This is especially true along the northern coast near the valley of Río Chota. Here, you’re likely to find cumbia music (which hails from Colombia) and see marimbas being used for percussion and melody. If you do come across some of this music, don’t be afraid to dance! Holidays and festivals are another opportunity to give into the rhythm and get swept up in the joy of the crowd.
When it comes to Ecuadorian architecture, there are two cities that take the cake: Quito and Cuenca. Quito has done a fabulous job preserving Spanish colonial structures, most notably its churches, which were built in the baroque style. This includes churches like Iglesia de Santo Domingo and La Compañía de Jesús.
Cuenca’s main cathedral, La Inmaculada (aka Catedral Nueva), was finished in 1885 and is best known for its stained glass and painting of the Virgin Mary. Cuenca’s older cathedral, El Sagrario (aka Catedral Antigua), was built in the mid-16th century using stones from an Inca palace.
The Spanish destroyed many of Ecuador’s Inca ruins, but there are still a few ruins left today. The country’s best Inca site is at Ingapirca, which is north of Cuenca. The site is small but is still a fabulous example of Inca masonry.
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