In the late 1990s, I ran a business with my wife, Loly, selling and distributing Ecuadorean fair trade handicrafts in the UK. Late in 1998, while on a trip to Otavalo Market to meet some of our suppliers, I noticed some indigenous paintings being sold by a young man who introduced himself as Javier Contreras. Some of the paintings he was selling were in the style of the famous Ecuadorean artist Guayasamin, and while they were interesting, they looked very similar to what was being sold on many of the other market stalls. A few of the paintings on display however, really caught my attention.
I had never seen paintings like them – the colours were bold and vibrant, and the images within them seemed to leap out of the canvas at me. The paintings were in acrylic and the paint was built up in thick layers with sticks, bandages, and other things I could not recognise stuck onto the canvas and painted over, to create a three-dimensional effect.
The art was painted in a fusion of abstract, cubist and indigenous styles with strange symbols and mysterious figures represented within each piece. I congratulated Javier on his work and asked if he had any more like these that he could show me. He was clearly disappointed and explained that the artwork that I liked had been painted by a friend of his, and he was selling them on his friend’s behalf.
I asked to meet his friend, but he was very reluctant to introduce us until we had bought a set of three paintings that Contreras had produced himself. Happy with our purchase, he gave Loly a thin business card with a telephone number and the words:
‘Edison Criollo – Pintura’.
That evening, Loly made the call to arrange a meeting with the mysterious Edison Criollo. It was very frustrating for me, I was very excited to meet this man and discover more about him and his art, but as I didn’t speak Spanish, I had to listen without understanding as she spoke with him on the phone for several minutes and scribbled down an address.
“What did he say? Can we meet him?” I asked, the moment she had finished the call.
“Yes,” she replied, “tomorrow at 7pm at his home in Ibarra.”
We took a taxi from Otavalo to Ibarra the next evening to meet Criollo, but the driver was uneasy and spoke rapidly and excitedly to Loly as we drove through the city centre up into the densely packed shanty town that covered the hillside above.
It was a crisp, clear night, and a full moon shone down on the corrugated tin roofs and concrete block walls, washing everything with shades of grey. Suddenly, the taxi stopped, and the driver pointed ahead. He would go no further with us, he said, as the area was dangerous. He wouldn’t wait either but would return later to pick us up. Loly refused to pay him until later, afraid that he wouldn’t come back, and after a short debate he agreed to return an hour and a half later.
We walked a little further up the hill and turned down a narrow alleyway between the tightly packed houses where the driver had indicated. Narrow passageways led away from the alleyway on either side, and makeshift wooden doors, cobbled together from different sized pieces of timber formed entrances to small yards in front of the modest houses.
Suddenly, a figure moved in the gloom on our left, beckoning us through an open doorway. We didn’t know if this was Criollo, but against our better judgement, we followed anyway, filled with trepidation. The figure found a switch, and a dull lightbulb hanging from a cable just above our heads cast a pale light around the small yard.
Criollo was smaller than I expected, perhaps 5 feet 2 inches tall, thick set with the indigenous features of the Andean people. His smile was warm as he shook our hands, and our fears began to evaporate. He led us to a low door but didn’t open it, turning first to tell us his story.
Edison Criollo had shown no interest in art as a young man, had never even picked up a paintbrush before his fifteenth birthday, but all that would change following a terrible accident. Walking through the streets of Ibarra one day, he’d turned a corner to walk straight into an argument between two rival gangs. Before he could get away, the gangs began shooting wildly, and a stray bullet struck his skull, almost killing him. He awoke to find that he had been in a coma for three months and it was several months more before he was truly well again.
The bullet, which had penetrated his skull and lodged in his brain, had changed him for ever, and he became plagued by nightmares and strange visions. He grew restless and left home as soon as he was strong enough, travelling the country, doing whatever he could to raise enough money to feed himself. He spent several months with Ecuadorean Shaman in the Amazon called the Brujos Cachemanos, meditating and communing with the spirits before the compulsion to travel took him once more and he left Ecuador for Peru, and then afterwards Bolivia.
After two years, Criollo returned to Ibarra and began to paint his visions as a form of therapy. He quickly discovered that he had a talent for painting and was able to make a modest living selling his work in local markets. He married a Columbian girl and she made clothing to supplement their income while he established himself as an artist.
As he talked, Loly translated his fascinating story for me, and I was intrigued and a little impatient to see his studio. At last, with a nod he turned the handle and opened the door, reaching in to switch on the light. The effect was stunning.
Almost every inch of the walls was covered with canvases stretched over wooden frames, awash with spectacular colours. After the grey light of the city by night, the wonder of Criollo’s studio was like a sensory explosion, and we gazed in awe at the many incredible paintings, filled with quasi-religious imagery and pre-columbian symbolism hanging in front of us.
We purchased twelve paintings together with the image rights from Criollo and returned to England a few days after, where we had the artwork professionally photographed for reproduction, then framed for exhibiting. We displayed his art at a national trade fair where it received a lot of interest, and a full-scale exhibition followed in partnership with Greenwich Village Studio in London.
One of the paintings subsequently sold for over two thousand pounds, which was a record for the gallery for a previously unknown artist. Criollo’s artwork was reproduced on a series of gift cards, each with a short biography of the artists life printed on the back, and these were sold at gift shops throughout the UK. Sadly, our business didn’t survive the dollarization of Ecuador, and we lost touch with Criollo. We have never returned to Ibarra, But we kept six of Criollo’s paintings for ourselves, and they hang on the plain white walls of our home, a beautiful reminder of a unique and talented individual.