An artist in connecting his Mayan roots with Seattle.

by Jacqueline McCrief
October 10, 2018

Puente de Sangre. Photo courtesy of Ovidio Cartagena.

I waited for Ovidio Cartagena at the entrance of Pike Place Market. Like most Sundays, tourists filled the nearby streets, snapping selfies and perusing the market stalls. Ovidio arrived wearing a dark sweater, blue slacks, and dress shoes. A white collar peeped out around his neck, his hair short and groomed. He came up to me, confidently extending a hand. Slung over one shoulder was a woven bag containing his paintings.

We decided to grab a seat inside Seattle Coffee Works, a short distance away but far enough from the bustling crowd. After I doctor my espresso and he his cappuccino, we sat down at a windowside table and Ovidio began telling me about his childhood in Guatemala City. It started with the military ransacking his house looking for documents and his father being kidnapped when he was just two years old.

After being kicked out of their home, an uncle lent them a place to stay. His mother and grandmother were determined to keep him off the streets and he remembers drawing for hours, using art as an escape.

“When you’re a kid,” he recalls wistfully, “a lot of stuff comes out when you are drawing.”

And so he continued and eventually obtained a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design. After a visit to Italy that exposed him to an art style he thought was dead, he moved to Seattle for the Aristides Atelier at Gage Academy of Art. This apprentice style program trains artists to develop “fluency with tools and technical training” in the classical realm. He works mainly with oil and ink. As an artist, he is interested in the consequences of history on people and how art can speak directly to those people.

Flores Sagradas. Photo courtesy of Ovidio Cartagena.

“I work a lot with Guatemalan traditions of course, because it’s the one I understand. Guatemalan imagery and what happened there, during the civil war and during 500 years of [Spanish] colonialism,” which he says has not ended but only continued as American imperialism.

Guatemala, the most populated country in Central America, is a land of rainforests, volcanoes and ancient Mayan sites. The country has a conflicted past, with the most recent a U.S.-backed military coup in 1954 which installed a dictatorship. Six years later, a violent civil war began that would last over three decades.

Before taking out his paintings, Ovidio walks up to the counter to ask the baristas to turn down the music so we can hear one another better.

Ovidio’s work presents Mayan symbolism entertwined with Guatemala’s bloody history, all in classical oil style of painting, with deep shadows streaked with cochineal blue and snail purple. In one work entitled Banana Republic, bananas, one of the country’s main exports, rest on top of a table covered with a cloth made by Mayan women. In background is a skull, representing the more than 200,000 people who died in the civil war, most of them Mayan.

Study in Oils. Photo by Ovidio Cartagena.

Ovidio’s face lights up when he talks the history behind the images. “The bananas are the commodity that my people paid for in blood. Having a Wal-Mart next to an ancient Mayan pyramid when you are driving to work…this is just absurd. This is what inspired it.”

Another piece showcases maize, which is considered a sacred crop. “The best people were made of maize because we had enough heart. According to Mayan culture, we are approaching the age of artificiality when we are losing our connection to the universe, willingly losing it. It wouldn’t surprise me if nature just drops us off the map altogether.”

Selling artworks and aesthetic pleasure are not his primary motivation; connection is. The most poignant example came recently when he showed his work to a Mayan man who “understood every single bit of it.” The man told Ovidio that “it reminds me of the land we lost.”

“It just broke my heart,” Ovidio said.

Living in Seattle has posed unique challenges for the artist, including one client who thought that Ovidio was Venezuelan up until the artwork was delivered. “This was a Democrat, who thinks of themselves as not racist, nice person, who works in tech, of course. They want to pretend they understand, they want to pretend they get it, but they don’t. And instead of telling you they get it, they should listen. That’s a challenge.”

The flipside is that his confidence and his pride in his heritage has grown. Being an immigrant has given him the unexpected chance to connect with his roots and ancestors. “It’s connecting to the other memory; to all the ancestors that came before you.” He used to see himself as a victim but now proclaims “I am not a victim anymore. I am a maker.”

In case you missed the exhibit at Ghost Gallery or the one at the Mary Hill Museum in Goldendale, W.A., you can see more of Ovidio’s work on his Instagram page @ovidiocartagena or his website,