La Riera

La Playa I

Argeles, 1939

In November 2009, my family and I walked down a lonely beach in the South of France. It’s called “Argelers sur mer” and to most people it’s a quaint, out-of-the-way shoreline. To my family and hundreds of thousands of Spaniards, it means tears, death and sorrow.

It was on this wind-whipped stretch of sand that my grandfather was held in a concentration camp in 1939 at the end of the Spanish Civil War. He and a half million Spanish patriots fled the murder and tyranny of Francisco Franco’s fascism after the defeat of the Republican forces. Hoping for a new life in neighboring France, they found themselves herded into squalid camps where they suffered from exposure, malnutrition and loss of hope. The Spanish had not only lost the war against fascism but they were forced to leave behind their families, their homes and their lives, with no sense of when they might ever return.

There were several of these camps, called “acollides,” on the French side of the border. It is a story lost, mostly, to history. Survivors remember the cold of winter and the stench of death. Bodies were piled high inside the camps.

The French urged the Spanish to return to Spain, where many faced execution or prison. They allowed some to stay in France. My grandfather was one of them. He eventually made a home in Marseille.  We never saw him again. Our family was torn apart, one more victim of Franco’s terrifying grip on power in my land. It’s a story universal to people around the world.

The Civil War is part of the fabric of Spanish culture and society. We still haven’t gotten over it. But even I was shocked when my father suggested a trip to Argelers to see where his father was held.

As we walked down the beach, the past came flooding into our senses. You could feel it on the breeze: the sadness of a thousand broken people, suffering physically and mentally. They had nothing. No home and no nation. No future.

In my father’s face, I saw the intensity of his memories. The memory of a seven-year-old boy watching his Daddy marching away and the doom that hung in the air. Seeing the tears in his eyes, I felt the need to express myself. I wanted to tell the world about the heavy price paid by people on behalf of freedom and democracy. It was impossible to be the same once I left that beach.

Like my father before me, I am an artist. I know only one way to express my feelings: with paint and a brush on canvas. I set about creating a collection of paintings to show the emotion, the fear, the anger and the hunger that swept through Argelers in 1939.

In my work, I use rope, burlap, sand, lace and sawdust to reach the emotion and feeling I wanted to express for this project.

ROPE becomes more than a mere thing, a resource to use. Over time it becomes associated with the things you do too. Feelings you project on to a rope are no less real feelings for that. Natural rope is flawed and in its flaws I find its charm. For me yet its imperfections make it better. Natural rope ages, wears, changes over time and you are part of that change. It has an emotional feeling about it.

LACE has a particularly striking allure from a distance. Intriguing close up, lace has an air of fragility which creates an illusion of delicacy.

SACKCLOTH is often mentioned in the Bible as a symbol of mourning and penance, and was probably a form of a hair shirt.

BURLAP is a durable fabric, perfect for the rigors that it must endure.

SAND is used in the creation of Mandalas, a Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Different grains of brightly colored sands are poured into a wooden circle to make an elaborated design. The sand of the Mandalas represents the Buddhist idea of impermanence and that nothing is ever constant.

Some of these materials, if not all, could probably have been found at that very same beach of Argelers. The materials, blended with the paint and my own vision, created a body of work that I hope evokes the deep emotion of human suffering and its final catharsis: redemption.