(Official of the Cofradía)
date unknown
14" x 12", oil on canvas.

Juan Sisay

Juan Sisay is the most famous of all the Tz’utuhil artists. His paintings were bought by many of the European and American people who traveled and worked in Guatemala during the 1960's and ‘70's. My friend Vicente Cumes Pop, a Tz’utuhil woodcarver and probably the most sophisticated person about art and culture in San Pedro, said of Juan Sisay " Juan Sisay’s most important aspect is that he painted the people of Santiago Atitlán in his paintings." And it’s true, many of the people in his paintings are recognizable individuals, and he did many portraits of people.

Juan Sisay, although not the first Tz’tuhil painter, that was Rafael González y González of San Pedro la Laguna, was the first painter in Santiago Atitlán. He painted his first painting in 1947 and had his first exposition of thirty oil paintings in 1956. By 1958 he had travelled through Central American, Mexico and to the United States, and in 1959 participated in the world’s fair in New York.

How I acquired this painting is an interesting story in itself. My usual manner is to buy or commission paintings directly from the artists, or to find them in the galleries in San Pedro, Santiago Atitlan or Guatemala City. I had heard a lot about Juan Sisay, his name was the first and usually only name out of everyone’s mouth when I mention working with Mayan artists of Lake Atitlan. When I was nearing the end of my visit to San Pedro la Laguna in 198_, my friend and artist Pedro Rafael Gonzalez said that the next time I came to visit he would make a point of taking me to Santiago Atitlan and introducing me to Juan Sisay, however, when I came back the next year Juan Sisay had been assassinated. I very much wanted to know what Juan Sisay’s paintings looked like so I could understand why he was so well known. With this in mind I went to Santiago Atitlán one day to visit his sons and daughters who still lived in his house to see if they had any paintings of his, to see or to buy (Rafael told me that now with his death, the price of his paintings had gone up, and all the paintings available around the lake had been snatched up). At that time they had no paintings done by their father, and no photographs of any of his paintings, and they didn’t know any collector who had any paintings. I found out that the Banco de Café in Guatemala City had a number of his paintings, so I decided to spend a few days in the City before my departure to the United States. I went to the Banco de Café asking about the paintings, and they sent me to an out of the way office where the paintings had been moved. There were about six of them, most of them quite large—picking coffee, an eclipse, and a large portrait are the ones I remember. There was probably a market scene and a painting of maximon too. The were all well done, rather more sophisticated and well drafted than the paintings by artists I dealt with. Satisfied, I thanked them. I had one more day before I left, but as usual I had bought a lot of paintings and was running out of money. Rather than search the markets for paintings and not be able to buy them, I decided rather to go to the Cinema. On the way to the theatre, I saw a small old antique shop, one which no longer exists, and decide I could browse there without being tempted, but they had a small painting in the window and when I asked about it, it turned out to be by Juan Sisay. I loved it, it was smaller than the ones I had seen in the morning, but had a wonderful vitality which was lacking in the others. I did not have anything near the amount of money they were asking, but determined to buy it. I put down a deposit saying I would be back the next day with the cash. I found out that my visa would not advance me any more money (there was a rather low limit the agency had in Guatemala, and I had used mine up), but American Express would give me the money if I gave them my bank account number in the U.S. So I got the painting. But when I got back, American Express was threatening me, because there was no money in the back account. Fortunately for me the Guatemalan agency hadn’t explained, (explained and I didn’t understand the Spanish) that I had to have the money in the account. I thought I would just be billed by them the next month. After threats and incrimination on their part managed to borrow the money to pay off American Express, but I had managed to get a good Sisay for the permanent collection.