The history of painting in Latin America has often been dominated by Mexico’s superstars of art. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are practically household names—and their fame is well deserved—but we’re here to let you know about some great modern and contemporary artists you may not have come across before, but whose work is worth acquainting yourself with. You’ll see that Central America has a powerful place in the history of painting, and while the names of these artists may not be on the tip of your tongue, their paintings have made significant contributions to the art world.
Perhaps the greatest Central American painters are ones whose names we’ll never know. The art of the ancient Mayans who first inhabited Central America is breathtaking even today, though little of it remains. Many of the Maya paintings are murals, some the size of whole rooms, using bright colors and detailed representations to tell the stories of their kings, their people, and their religion.
Nearly one thousand years later, Jose Antonio Velasquez created works in the same native land that are just as impactful as the works of his ancestors. Velasquez (1906-1985) is the best-known Honduran painter. He became internationally known in the 60s and 70s for his tender landscape paintings of the small village of San Antonio de Oriente. His themes were simple, making use of subjects like stray dogs and neighborhood priests, but on his canvases, they seem like noble subjects.
Years later, his son, Tulio Enrique Velasquez also achieved note as a painter, bringing back his father’s style, but with a contemporary outlook. Carlos Garay is also a living artist from Honduras who has made a name for himself with impressionist-style paintings that are in galleries all over the world. Roque Zelaya paints in the primitive style made famous by Velasquez, and also has works in international galleries.
El Salvador has also been the source of fine paintings to represent Central America. Noe Canjura was born in a small El Salvadoran village to a peasant family in 1922, but after studying art in France, he became one of the best-known painters of landscapes in that country. It’s a particular source of pride for Central Americans that one of their own could make such an impression among the French, who have produced some of the world’s greatest paintings. Canjura’s paintings were strongly influenced by other Latin artists, like Diego Rivera, whom he studied with after a return to his native area.
Guatemala is proud of Juan Sisay: so proud, in fact, that they have named school for him. His work is almost a modern version of the Mayan art, heavy on portraiture with strong native themes. Sisay was also a revolutionary, and some of his works made strong political statements. This proved fatal for the artist, who was ultimately assassinated. After his execution, many of his works were destroyed. Luckily, those already in private collections or non-local galleries still exist, and their significance can be recognized.
Armando Morales was born in 1927 in Nicaragua to a family deeply rooted in religion, which would have an influence on his later works. His talent for painting was discovered at a young age, so he received the benefit of a rigorous art training. In 1956 he submitted the painting, “Spook Tree” to the Central American Painting Contest and took first prize, sending him on a path to success that he would continue to follow. Morales is one of the most notable Central American artists of modern times.
The next time you see an exhibit of Mexican art, like Kahlo or Rivera, ask the gallery why they have excluded the work of its neighboring continent. Central American art may not have the mass appeal of Mexico’s most famous painters, but the anonymity is distinctly undeserved.