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It is said that the defining aspect of Ecuadorian art is the fusion of ancient indigena artistic heritage with western thought and sensibilities imported by Spanish colonists in the sixteenth century. Certainly this curious amalgam led to the well-known Quito School of religious art [Escuela Quitena], which can be seen in churches and museums throughout the country, especially in Quito and Cuenca . Already skilled at carving, painting and working with gold leaf, local artisans executed, and interpreted in their own way, the religious themes of their Spanish masters. Among the best examples of the School are found in the Museo San Francisco, the Museo Guayasamin, the Museo Nacional de Arte Colonial and amid the colonial art section of the Casa de la Cultura museum, while the best religious art in situ is found in the Iglesia de San Francisco and the Compania de Jesus. Another lovely church, as much for its setting as its atmosphere, is the Sanctuario de Guapulo, up on a hill in the east of the city.
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But Ecuadorian culture dates back much earlier than the Spanish invasion of four hundred years ago. To appreciate its depth and history, visit the extraordinary exhibits at the Casa de la Cultura museum complex, housed in the strikingly modern, circular glass building in the Parque El Ejido in Quito
|see museums||. Here you will find a well-displayed collection of artefacts that document Ecuador 's ancient coastal cultures dating back nearly 6,000 years. You cannot fail to be impressed by the elegant gold and platinum ornaments, for example, that were made using sophisticated smelting techniques unknown in Europe until hundreds of years later.

Probably the most powerful modern expression of the combination of European and indigenas sensibilities are in the paintings of the internationally known Indian artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin's harrowing images of suffering Indians, some of which are painted in a cubist style. A magnificent display of his paintings can be seen in his private Museo Guayasamin in the exclusive inner Quito suburb of Bellavista. The next-best collection of contemporary art is found at Cuenca's Museo de Arte Moderno. The shows are temporary, but usually very good.

Ecuador may not be at the forefront of the continent's performing arts scene, but Quito's theatres - among them the Teatro Charlot, El Patio de las Comedias and Humanizarte - host all sorts of shows, mainly from Thursday to Sunday.

Outside the capital there is plenty more to satisfy the appetites of culture vultures, particularly if you combine your visit with a fiesta
|see holidays & festivals||. In Cuenca, some of the colonial and religious art and architecture is considered to be the finest in the country, and their Casa de la Cultura also hosts many arts-based events. The city is renowned for its churches, particularly the imposing New Cathedral, but also the teeny Iglesia El Carmen de la Asuncion, or the gold-leaf altar of the Iglesia de las Conceptas, and the Iglesia San Francisco or the Iglesia de San Sebastian. Its museums too are worthy of note: the Museo de las Conceptas houses many beautiful, but lurid, displays of crucifixes created by local artist Gaspar Sangurima; the Museo del Banco Central showcases local archaeological finds and fine re-constructions of indigenous cultures, from Shuar huts to sierra masked dancers; and the Museo de Artes Populares has a wonderful display of popular arts and crafts from across Latin America. And within a couple of hours' drive, the ruins at Ingapirca offer the finest example of Inca architecture in the country.

Even the much-berated Guayaquil, not usually known as a city of culture, boasts some great museums. In particular the Museo del Banco del Pacifico includes an excellent, well-presented and informative archaeological collection, while the Casa de Cultura has a small collection of gold items to rival that of Quito. The city's best museum however has to be the Museo Arqueologico del Banco Central which showcases a wonderful display of gold masks and jewellery, as well as notable anthropological and archaeological displays from the ancient coastal Valdivian culture.

You will also find culture in the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous people, in their ingenious architecture, in the techniques of making blowpipes and dugout canoes, the ritual brewing of manioc beer, the use of hundreds of medicinal plants and the mystical role of the hallucinogenic vine, ayahuasca. Learning about the inhabitants of the rainforests' daily lives - whether their hunting and fishing, social structures, marriage or death ceremonies, or their relationship to nature - can be a hugely enriching experience.

On the Coast there are many sites where archaeologists are researching long-forgotten civilizations. The most compelling is the Amantes de Sumpa museum in Santa Elena, close to Salinas. There you can wonder at the lovers [
amantes], skeletons embraced for some 8,000 years before being unearthed only recently. More archaeology can be found at the Chirije [close to Bahia de Caraquez], archaeological site and small museum where many ceramic, gold and copper relics from the Bahia culture [BC 500500  AD] have been found. A world away on the northern coastline, in Esmeraldas province, black culture with its marimba music and voodoo, brought by castaway slaves from Africa, is still thriving.
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Contemporary Art

Contemporary Ecuadorian artists include Manuel Rendon, considered one of the best expressionists in the world, Enrique Tabara, first to use Pre-Columbian motifs and images and in constant search of new aesthetic emotions, and Guayasamin, creator, along with Eduardo Kingman, Guerrero, and Paredes, of the so-called indigenous expressionism, in which indigenous people are almost always present.

Nowadays, Ecuadorian painters explore different aesthetic fields such as indigenous expressionism, abstract art, constructive conceptualism, neo-figuritism, expressionism, and pre-Colombian art, projecting, in almost all these forms, vivid images of people living in the equatorial region.
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