Rough guide to Guatemalan art and culture

Jurg Widmer Guatemala - Art

It is no surprise that Guatemala has inspired countless generations of artists, from musicians and painters to great architects and writers. It is a country whose cultural mix is a vibrant concoction of Spanish influences colliding with ancient indigenous art forms as well American, African and even Caribbean flavours. So, with that in mind, here is our rough guide to the best of Guatemalan art and culture.

Spend quality time with a Nobel Prize winner

No trip away is complete without a good book to wile away the hours sat in a cafe sipping some quality Guatemalan coffee (or even if you are just trying to get through another endless bus journey). Picking just one of the many great Guatemala authors wasn’t easy, but you can’t go far wrong with one of Miguel Ángel Asturias novels. He is one of the country’s best known and most celebrated authors (he picked up the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature in 1967) – and his stories give a remarkable insight into the political and cultural life of this country. His characters include dictators and guerrilla fighters – and his non fiction includes ‘Weekend en Guatemala‘, about the country’s 1954 coup.

Meet the ‘Guatemalan Picasso’

One Guatemalan artist you will almost certainly come across on your travels is Efraín Recinos – though you may walk past some of his work without even realising it. The man known by some as the ‘Guatemalan Picasso’ was a sculptor and engineer who created art works that now cover both the interiors and exteriors of some of the country’s most famous buildings. You will actually see one of Recinios’ sculptures almost immediately on arrival in Guatemala City if you fly into the city’s La Aurora International Airport, but it is also worth keeping an eye out for his work as you travel around the country. He was often inspired by Guatemala’s ancient Mayan heritage, and much of his work, from murals to public sculptures, is often hidden in plain sight.

It is also well worth mentioning Guatemala’s most well-known artist, Carlos Mérida. Mérida has an even more powerful connection with Picasso, having known him in his youth in Paris. It may have been this influence that encouraged him to try and bring together the two artistic traditions of European painting and indigenous Guatemalan themes. Over the years he produced a huge body of work, including a period in the thirties and forties that reflected his interest in surrealism. Today his works are displayed around the world, but it is also possible to see many of them in the Museum of Modern Art in Guatemala City.

A musical melting pot

Of course, the music you hear as you travel around Guatemala will depend on where you are. Turn on the radio and you are often as likely to hear Bon Jovi as anything more home-grown, but don’t be deceived – this is very much a country with a rich musical life of its own. The pre-colonial Mayan culture used wooden instruments to make their music, usually based around wooden flutes, drums, and even bone rasps, and their influence can still be heard today. But there is also a powerful Mexican influence and if you’re heading out for a drink or a meal then it is more than likely that you’ll hear ranchera, Tejano or even mariachi music playing. Unsurprisingly, given the Afro-Caribbean heritage of the local Garifuna people, there is also much more of a reggae influence on the music of the country’s Caribbean coast.

Scale the highs (and lows) of Guatemalan architecture

The country is fascinating from an architectural point of view because of three very powerful influences: the Mayans, the Spanish, and earthquakes. The third of these has in many ways proven even more influential than the other three, and there is a tough, utilitarian aspect to a lot of modern Guatemalan architecture that is a clear response to dangers posed by earthquakes. So, don’t get us wrong – Guatemalan cities (in particular the capital), have plenty of ugly modern buildings.

But the Mayans and the Spanish have also more than left their mark. The old colonial capital of Antigua is a breathtaking and colourful example of Spanish baroque influenced architecture (much of it rebuilt after a devastating earthquake). And while more modern, Spanish and colonial influences now dominate most building styles in Guatemala, the Mayans left behind architectural wonders such as the vast complex at Tikal, which should be on anyone’s list of cultural sites to visit.

Jürg Widmer 

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