ARTS AND POLITICS: THE ODD COUPLE
With the UK holding an election in December that, even if the parties each try to address social issues, will inevitably be about Brexit and November 10th the date of a general election being held in Spain and across The Canary Islands after a spate of ´hung´ results recently, I fear the arts might be ignored by those who seek our votes.
Personally speaking I don´t like seeing art being misappropriated, commodified, commercialised, agendised or politicised, so being ignored and left alone by the politicians might be no bad thing for arts and culture, especially over here on Lanzarote.
Just about everything on the island is splashed onto an artist´s pallet as colours and customs all run together to maintain the old and create the new. Even on such a lush and vibrant artistic landscape, though, the paths that brought us here are never erased. People on the island do not overlook significant landmarks passed along the way, such as the incorporation of the islands in the Castilian Crown by the end of the 15th Century. From that time on, Hispanic culture and tradition spread across all the islands of the archipelago.
Visual artists of the 17th, 18th and 19th Century restricted their work to religious themes and many paintings and sculptures from that period still adorn churches all over the island. One of the most prolific, profound and popular religious sculptors was José Luján Pérez (1756-1815), whose work can be admired in many churches and cathedrals throughout the Canary Islands. Later, in the early part of the twentieth century, Néstor Martin Fernández de la Torre specialised in murals and fought fiercely to revive and preserve Canarian folk art and architecture.
Literature, too, has a long history in the Canaries, though many poets and novelists from the islands have been compelled to move to mainland Spain in order to find wider markets and appreciation of their work.
The island traditions of folklore music and dance are frequently observed at fiestas that remain far more significant than being mere tourist attraction. Andalusian dances and Latin American rhythms, especially of Salsa music introduced by immigrants, also prevail.
A Classical Music Festival runs annually from January to March with almost all islands of the archipelago participating.
So much of Lanzarote´s arts and culture seems to have emanated from its former capital of Teguise. Wandering around this quiet, dignified area on a lazy weekday afternoon it is difficult to imagine Teguise as once being the most important and musical town on the archipelago. Teguise is the home of the timple, a unique five-string guitar that accompanies many traditional dances, as well as the castanets. A slightly smaller town just down the road, San Bartolome, is also well known for its folklore music and dance traditions.
Musical events, such as the famous and annually held Visual Music Festival, often take place in the awe-inspiring volcanic caves Jameos Del Agua and Cueva de los Verdes. These natural cathedrals are surely among the most impressive concert arenas in the world, with their subdued lighting and incredible acoustics.
The island is certainly not short of museums or art galleries either, overflowing, almost, with examples of the island´s rich culture. Among the very best of these venues is the Cesar Manrique Foundation, one of scores of locations that this year are celebrating and commemorating the life of a visionary artist. The foundation even contains exhibits of work by Picasso, too.
I love Manrique´s work and how the island remains in thrall to his artistic vision and compassion, but it is the island´s relationship with him that causes me slight concern at the moment. Since the last local elections, and in the loose hands of a multi-coalition national government, Manrique´s work and the status of the foundation in his name seems to have become the emblem fluttering in the middle of a tug of war rope. Even in the midst of a wonderful, and free, fortnight´s series of concerts to celebrate the centenary of Manrique´s birth there were claims and counter-claims over the legitimate ownership of his works; is the foundation its sole executive or is the government a participating agent, too? A dispute over who had the right to reproduce an important literary work about the artist erupted during the festival but some felt that the only ones who would have suffered by its suppression were the people of the island that was so loved by the artist
There seems to be some conciliatory conversations taking place now between the foundation and the government but the general public are not, perhaps, being made aware of the agenda of those discussions.
In fact, The President of the Cabildo de Lanzarote, Maria Dolores Corujo, recently met with the César Manrique Foundation (FCM.) Dolores Corujo spoke with the President of the FCM, José Juan Ramírez, and Fernando Gómez Aguilera, the director who has worked at the headquarters of the cultural entity in the Taro de Tahíche.
The President of the Cabildo declared that, ´the main objective of this visit (was about nothing other) than trying to restore the necessary and essential institutional relationships that keep the Cabildo of Lanzarote and the FCM looking after the legacy of our most universal artist. Lanzarote owes a lot to César Manrique.´
“I firmly believe,” she added “that it is necessary that the first public institution of Lanzarote will again be able to return to fruitful communication with the Foundation.´
Maria Dolores Corujo finished by reassuring her audience that the meeting had been fruitful.
Such comments are being made, however, against disturbing rumours that her Lanzarote Cabildo (parliament) are considering moving displays and exhibitions by much admired contemporary artists out of environments where they might ´detract´ or distract from the quality of Manrique´s work and his importance. It is feared that sculptures at the shoreline beneath the Museum Of Contemporary Art, that seem to have proved hugely popular amongst indigents and tourists alike, might be moved to another location.
The Rising Tide, sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor, a British-born sculptor who participated in the Totally Thames Festival 2015, was temporarily installed on the inter-tidal zone at the foot of the building of the International Museum of Contemporary Art, at the Castillo de San José, Arrecife. It had previously been installed by the artist on the River Thames foreshore at Vauxhall in London.
”The Rising Tide is a sculpture depicting four riders on their saddles, horses whose heads are oil drilling pumps , reflecting the great threat that hangs over the planet and especially on the seas and oceans”, explains the Centre for Arts, Culture and Tourism (CACT) in its statement. With this initiative, the CACT aspire to ´make the works of Jason deCaires Taylor more widely known.´
The same sculptor developed the Museo Atlántico, thought to be the world´s first underwater museum of sculptures, to the south of the island. At the same time, The Rising Tide is a promotional vehicle for the island. Set in a stunning location, the scene welcomes tourists and visitors who arrive in the capital by boat or ferry. The Rising Tide is currently installed on the Bay of Naos, with the CACT having been granted permission by the relevant Port Authority of Las Palmas. The work ´is placed as a sustainable work by the artist, since the process does not use harmful materials to the ecosystem, or to anchors on the seabed.´
At the moment, the figures of The Rising Tide are particularly impressive when silhouetted at low tides and in the sun rise and sun set shades that settle on the water´s edge. It would seem that many people love the installation, and as I write this a petition has already 1,000 signatures calling on the Cabildo to leave the horses where they are. Nevertheless we at all across the arts have heard that a removal firm has already been commissioned and work on the unearthing of these wonderful statues is due to start over the next ten days. There is a loose assurance that they will be relocated in some place the Cabildo deem to be ´more appropriate´ but there is no indication that they have yet decided where, or when, that might be.
I fear that we might lengthen Manrique´s shadow so that it darkens the aspirations and ambitions of the generations of artists following in his footsteps. His should surely be the positive inspiration that frees them to pour new wine from old bottles, not the foreboding ruler by which they might feel they are being measured.
I feel churlish in mentioning these fears, though, when arts and culture still seem in robust health, with the ´artsy´ village of Yaiza constantly showing a changing and diverse array of work by a number of artists. Visitors can often meet and talk to the artists of many exhibitions and sometimes professional freelance curators like Estefamia Comejo are there to offer their expert guidance.
There are award winning museums of farming and agriculture and even an interesting International Miniatures Museum in Haria in the north of the island and the incredible history (and future) of the island´s volcanoes are widely demonstrated in the wonderful technical centre on the Timanfaya volcano range.
In fact, rather than consider how many artists, art galleries and museums there might be on Lanzarote we should rather consider Lanzarote as one, huge art gallery. Like Manrique, we should explore it to inspire our creativity, and to increase our awareness, understanding and tolerance of others.
We could then all share an appreciation of the contribution made to this world by sculptors, painters, architects and designers, singers, musicians, poets and writers and, in fact, all artists and artisans alike
Those of us who care about the arts should make our voices heard and make our votes count. I am not one who feels the arts need to go cap in hand for government support, nor do I demand greater largesse from governments. I hope, nay I expect, only that governments help foster and create a social climate in which the arts and artists can survive and flourish when deserving to.
Nor do I think the arts need be loud and radical. Protest made through reason is more often effective than protest made through rant. A sentence that opens with a small p can be as meaningful as any political shout that begins with a capital P. That is not to say that art should never be a voice of Protest, but not every sledgehammer cracks a nut.
Nevertheless, the arts, in any of their various guises and disciplines can, and often seeks to, serve as an ´agent of change´ as anyone who has seen the current Ken Loach film, Sorry We Missed You, can testify. The film shows Ricky, Abby and their two children living in Newcastle. They form a close-knit family. Ricky has gone from one job to another; Abby takes care of elderly people and enjoys her work. Despite working harder and harder, they are aware that they will never own their own home of enjoy financial security. The couple decide to risk everything, and Abby sells her car so Ricky can purchase a van and become a delivery man on his own: he’ll finally be his own boss. The modern world sneaks into the family kitchen, offering them a different future. Loach, writer of Kes, places contemporary society in the UK in front of a mirror and asks if we like what we see, and this new film will be showing here on Lanzarote, too, in late December and early January.
Over here on Lanzarote the arts generally sit comfortably, as part of the island´s sunny disposition and blue-sky thinking.
Having worked in the UK for more than thirty years as a publicist for the arts at national and local level, I have been so impressed by the support the Cabildo, of whatever colour and party, seem to have given the arts in my four years over here.
Arts events are usually at affordable prices at accessible venues and conducted in an atmosphere conducive to cultural identity and pride whilst also promoting cultural cohesion. However, I feel the publicity outreach to new residents from abroad could be improved, so that they become as aware as are local people of forthcoming events. Nevertheless, I also wish that more of those new residents who are aware of and have access to so many arts events all over the island would take wider advantage of them. My experience here has always been one of being made to feel welcome at concerts and exhibitions etc. and even my lack of a Spanish vocabulary extending beyond football does not detract from my enjoyment of events. Sometimes trying to work out what the heck is going on actually lends added value to my fun. I have certainly never experienced anything to frighten the horses.
And here we are back talking about horses. I remain somewhat puzzled about the reasons for the proposed re-location of the ´horse statues´ on the shore-line at Castillo de San Jose. They have become a constant and evocative presence there, and there must be hundreds of people like me, who having caught a glimpse of them at low tide, as dawn breaks or in shadow as the sun sets, have then pulled into the castle car park and wandered along to catch a closer look and take a photograph. These creatures, whilst so obviously man-made are, nevertheless, realistic and timeless. There is much to be grateful for on the Lanzarote arts scene, as established artists and aspirant artists alike are given a platform to demonstrate their abilities. Visual arts, song and dance, and even stone horses, all serve as our finest ambassadors. My plea to any politicians, though, who might want to limit the power of the arts, or to harness its power for their own ends echoes WB Yeats: ´Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.´