My most popular posts of 2013, plus a mini-review

Colourful Spanish wear words are fascinatingly anatomical and religious.

Spanish swear words are fascinatingly anatomical and religious.

You lot seem to think I’m quite amusing. What am I, funny like a clown?

En serio – my most popular new posts, published last year, are mostly silly ones. Well, not silly – highly intelligent, witty and astute, of course.

Plus a bit of culture – phew! I wouldn’t like to think you come to my refined blog just for some light entertainment. Por favor!

So what can’t you get enough of? Let’s find out.

The top five most-viewed Scribbler in Seville blog posts of 2013 are (drum roll):

1) Five Things Spanish People Say (And What they Really Mean) 

This is also my all-time most popular post. A controversial look (see comments) at how to know when someone means something totally different from what you think they’re saying. OK, so it’s actually about swearing, exaggeration/fibbing – and jamón. The stuff of real-conversations life here in Spain.

Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers' interpretations of Zurbaran's saints.

Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers do Zurbaran’s saints.

2) Art+fashion+religion=a richly-textured show in Seville

Frocks by contemporary designers reinterpreting famous paintings of saints by 17th-century Sevillano artist Zurbaran. Dead clever. This one was “Freshly Pressed” (as in the badge, top right), which means it’s one of only eight posts chosen by the kind folks at WordPress to feature each day from the tens of thousands posted daily. Which was nice. So if you found my blog through Freshly Pressed, a special hello – it’s good to have you.

3) False Friends and other Fine Messes

We’ve all made an arse of ourselves by mixing up two similar-sounding words in a foriegn language – one innocuous, the other devastatingly embarrassing or offensive. If you haven’t let us in on your experience yet (the comments are much more entertaining than the post, believe me; careful you don’t spill your tea on your PC or tablet as you chortle), then come on over and join the group therapy session – it’s time to spill.

Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.

Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.

4) Celebrating Seville’s azulejo heritage: a sneak preview of Centro Ceramica Triana

Ah, some more history and culture *breathes a sigh of relief*. This museum of tiles, with a winning mix of groovy contemporary architecture, original Moorish brick kilns and some exquisite antique azulejos, was scheduled to open in September 2013, then October, then November, then December, and it’s still not open in January 2014… you get the picture. Well, what do you expect? We’re in Spain, people! Which makes this post even more valuable, as it’s all you can see of it for now.

cadiz, carnaval

The Queen with her Beefeaters. Sort of.

5) Carnaval de Cadiz, family style

Where can you find sea urchins, sand architecture, man-sized bumble bees, and the Queen in drag? At Spain’s craziest carnival, of course. Probably our best daytrip of the year, out of many. And we even dressed up, sort of.

I know I’m also supposed to say Where I Went and What I Did last year in the round-up, so here goes with my new discoveries: Doñana National Park; Ubeda, Baeza, and picual olive oil; Paul Read; Latin-American belenes; the Feria de Jerez; Mr Henderson’s Railway; Costa Ballena, and a cooking class. As you can see, an international jetsetter I am not (used to be, many years ago). National neither; daytrips in Andalucia, often with the family, is more my thing.

I hope you enjoy reading these posts. As long as at least one of them raises a smile, I’m doing my job.

Celebrating Seville’s azulejo heritage: a sneak preview of Centro Ceramica Triana

triana, ceramics, tiles, centro ceramica triana

The new Centro Ceramica Triana – you can see one of the ovens with its little chimneys.

Plaza de España was designed for Expo 1929 as a showcase for Seville's tile industry.

Plaza de España was designed for Expo 1929 as a showcase for Seville’s ceramics industry.

Seville is known for many things – the old cliches of tapas, flamenco and bullfighting, orange trees and the Giralda, but also a ubiquitous feature of the city which you’ll see inside every house, on the walls of every patio, on most streets and plazas and benches, and even many churches and shops. In Plaza de España they take you to every province in Spain. In an old building – and we’re talking medieval, or even Moorish – look down, and you’ll see them under your feet.

Can you guess what they are? Ceramic tiles, or azulejos. Pottery has been made in the riverside barrio of Triana since Roman times, though it was the Moors who invented the exquisite azulejo coloured tiles, painting each one individually with a geometric pattern, to add a sense of space and colour to the interiors of their palaces. The barro (clay) from the river was ideal for making earthenware tiles and vessels, which were then painted and fired in kilns.

A potter is called an alfarero, and a pottery workshop or studio is an alfareria. Sadly, the part of Triana, near the market, which used to have wall-to-wall studios and shops (and, just decades ago, small factories), now has only a handful of artesans working. Triana’s tile industry flourished until the Moors left Spain and Dutch factories triumphed; it boomed again in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, collapsed during the Civil War, and then experienced a mini-upsurge in the 1950s. However failure to modernize - many were still using ovens from Moorish times - led to the closure of nearly all the tile factories; the number plummeted from 40 in the early 1960s to less than five in the 1970s.

One of Seville's best-known facades: Ceramica Santa Ana - its workshops and kilns now make up the Centro Ceramica Triana.

One of Seville’s best-known facades: Ceramica Santa Ana – its old workshops and kilns form the ground floor of the Centro Ceramica Triana.

The best-known ceramic shop, Ceramica Santa Ana, a landmark building whose facade is covered in its trademark tiles, closed its shutters a few months ago, to great sadness. Though the tiles were no longer as sought-after in Seville as they once had been, it was still the end of an era. But behind the famous facade covered with brightly-coloured azulejos, informing us that the company has been here since 1870, work has been underway to create a new centre celebrating the alfareria tradition of Seville.

I was fortunate to be offered a sneak preview of the Centro Ceramica Triana last week, having expressed interest in finding out more about this hotly-anticipated project. The alfarero heritage, of which azulejos are such a major part, will be explained and dissected in this new museum, which covers 2500m2. Although the information panels and many of the tiles weren’t yet up on the walls and panels when I visited, I got a good idea of how the centre will look when it opens in early October. You can also see models and plans here.

triana, kiln, centro ceramica triana

An oven showing the two entrances: for the furnace, below; and the tiles, above up the steps.

The centre is divided between two floors: on the ground-floor space, you can see the seven kilns where the tiles were fired, with their pretty chimney pots – made of clay, naturally – as well as the stone basins and mills where the pigment dyes were ground and mixed, and barreros where the barro was kept damp. The upstairs part of the centre traces the development of azulejo techniques, with new artistic styles being introduced by artesans from outside Spain. There’s also a room devoted to Triana, the historically extramuros (outside the walls) barrio so intimately connected with the tradition and skill of alfareria.

Entrance to one of the seven kilns. where the ceramic tiles and other products were fired.

Entrance to one of the seven kilns where the ceramic tiles and other products were fired.

triana, pottery, tiles, ceramics, Santa Ana

One of the larger kilns – you can see the supports where the floor was.

An oven with shelves inside, so that each tile is fired without touching another.

An oven with shelves inside, so that each tile is fired without touching another. The holes in the floor allow the heat to rise into the top part of the kiln.

Tiles as they would have been fired in the kiln.

Tiles as they would have been fired in the kiln.

I never though I’d be excited to see inside a brick-built oven, but it is bizarrely thrilling to walk into one of these circular kilns, which have holes in the floor to allow the heat to come up from the furnace below. You can see various sizes, from small ones without room to swing a cat, to ones big enough to hold an intimate party. There is even one kiln dating from Almohad times – around 1100AD; this is the Moorish dynasty which built the Giralda and Torre del Oro. When a kiln collapsed, as tended to happen, another was built on top.

You can see some kilns from above and some from below; some still have their floors while others are now vast, cavernous spaces. The smallest one is the first you see as you enter the courtyard at the start of your visit, and it’s also visible from the street, to offer passers-by a glimpse of what lies inside this well-known building – a great introduction to the theme of pottery.

A sample of Santa Ana’s ceramic tiles from the 1960s and 1970s – these were part of their “catalogue” on the wall for customers to see.

A sample of Santa Ana’s ceramic tiles from the 1960s and 1970s – these were part of their “catalogue” on the wall for customers to see.

triana, ceramica, tiles, seville

Grammar fanatics (like me) won’t like this. Trips sound pretty good, though.

Love this sign – and they even got the punctuation right!

Love this sign – and they even got the punctuation right!

triana, tiles, azulejas, centro ceramica triana

Counting time while in the loo.

Back at the start of the visit, after the first, small kiln you see samples of tiles from the 20th century – bold, bright lettering extolling the virtues of trips to Cordoba and Granada in three languages (English, French and Spanish), while Katie welcomes you to her “warm and friendly house”. Even the loo is covered in tiles – blue and white numbers to thrill everyone from small children just learning their sums, to mathematicians.

These piles of ceramic tubes create a celosia - a Moorish  lattice which provides shade as well as being decorative and, in this case, pottery-themed.

These piles of ceramic tubes create a celosia – a Moorish lattice which provides shade, as well as being decorative and, in this case, pottery-themed.

When you enter the large main courtyard, as well as the ovens, what strikes you are the bubble-likes clumps of ceramic circles: the new, upper part of the centre has a design motif which brings to mind 1970s buildings (in a hip, Wallpaper-ish sort of way) – concrete blocks whose sharp, austere angles are relieved by softer, rounder details. In this case, short ceramic tubes of varying widths are placed horizontally on top of each other, arranged in no set order, within randomly-sized niches placed against the windows.

These bizcocho (fired, unpainted earthenware)-coloured pieces, made in Andalucia, though sadly not in Sevilla, change subtly in tone according to the light. They are designed to create a celosia, a Moorish screen which covers a building’s facade decoratively, providing shade while at the same time letting light penetrate. The overall effect – for the combination of repeated shape and shifting colour provide the visual wow factor – is quite stunning. Moorish crossed with early Habitat; Terence Conran in the 70s.

The celosia makes abstract shadows on the passageway.

The celosia makes abstract shadows on the passageway.

You can’t see any of it from the street, so it’s a total surprise when you come in (unless you’ve already seen photos – oops, sorry!). Most windows in the building look out onto this communal space, while for visitors it’s the central focus around which their visit moves. The ovens – their rooves, chimneys, entrance arches – are also visible from many points, so the previous life of this working area is never eclipsed; you’re looking through the newly fired earthenware to where ceramics have been made for nearly 1000 years. The sense of continuity is palpable.

Model of the new centre by architects AF6.

Model of the new centre by architects AF6; the entrance is on the right, on the corner of Calles Jorge and Callao.

The architects, Miguel Hernández Valencia and Esther López Martín of Seville practice AF6, have done a superb job of designing a structure which preserves the original features, so key to the centre, while adding the second storey which wraps around the central patio, always allowing visitors to see down onto the kilns with their hotpotch of different-shaped chimneys. Their inspiration for the short tubes which make up the celosia, which are in vogue now, came from a range of sources, as Miguel explained to me.

The first time he and his colleagues visited the site, they were struck by the idea of kilns being built on top of each other, and also by the sight of many unfired pieces of pottery which they found stacked in cupboards. The idea of accumulation led them to the idea of using pieces of pottery piled up as the design motif.

16th-century floor from Convento Santa Clara, being reassembled.

Cuenca (printed) tiles from 16th-century floor in Convento Santa Clara, being reassembled for display.

triana, ceramics, tiles, santa ana, santa clara, centro ceramica triana

Star-shaped pieces which make up another floor of Santa Clara, from the 15th century.

Back to the tiles – I was shown some sections of original floors from the Santa Clara convent, recently converted into a cultural space, which date from the 15th century, being put together like a jigsaw puzzle with ceramic stars. Other sections dated from the 14th century, reminding me of the floor of a medieval church found in the crypt of El Salvador, as mentioned in my last blog post.

Other treasures being examined included boxes of old estarcidos (stencils) – designs marked out with pinholes through which carbonilla (charcoal) dust was passed. The tiles I saw being painstakingly restored and reassembled were from the 14th-16th centuries, along with pieces from La Cartuja, where the Pickman factory was located until 1982, although many more are due to arrive shortly from various museums in Seville: the Museo Arqueologico, the Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares, and the Museo Bellas Artes. Sources for the modern era pieces, along with Ceramica Santa Ana itself, also include the Colleccion Carranza.

As tiles are such a key part of Triana’s history – they’ve been made here for centuries, and Ceramica Santa Ana was an important local employer – a room is dedicated to this fiercely independent part of the city. Its flamenco, bullfighting and Semana Santa, corrales (shared courtyards), sailors and personalities are celebrate. Santa Justa and Santa Rufina, the patron saints of Seville, were pottery workers from Triana.

triana, azulejos, Centro Ceramica Triana

Pisano introduced a new tile-painting technique.

This Triana space is upstairs, along with rooms dedicated to Medieval (12th-15th century), Renaissance (16th century), Baroque (17th and 18th century) and Industrial tiles (19th and 20th century) – the ones I saw on this visit were largely from the medieval and industrial periods. I saw some large panels in the style of Pisano (named after the 15th-century Florentine artist Niculoso Pisano, who introduced the technique when he lived in Seville), where a design is painted directly over the tiles, creating a large picture made up of many tiles. One of Pisano’s most famous works is a retablo of the Virgin in the Alcazar.

ceramic tiles, triana, seville

Olambrilla tiles, used for flooring – these date from the Renaissance.

But my favourites were some simple white stars on a blue background, dating from the 16th/17th centuries. They’re called olambrillas and are used alternately with plain terracotta tiles on the floor to make a pattern, as seen in the earlier tiles from Santa Clara which are being restored.

The centre, which has has successfully blended original existing features such as the the iconic brick ovens with the new structure, cost around 3.3 million euros, of which 60% was funded by the Junta de Andalucia, and 40% by the Ayuntamiento de Sevilla. This centre is an important addition to the cultural offering both of Triana – which also has Castillo San Jorge, the Inquisition Museum – just the other side of the market – but also of Seville.

There are plans to offer talleres (workshops) and courses, for adults and children, so visitors can get some hands-on experience of alfareria. When I asked if people who live in Seville would be allowed in free, as with other city monuments such as the Alcazar and the Setas, I was told that would depend on the company which manages the centre, although it is likely that locals would get free entry to the Triana section.

Antonio Campos, a an all-too-rare real-life potter, in his workshop near the centre.

Antonio Campos, an all-too-rare real-life potter, in his workshop near the centre.

After my visit to the centre, I dropped in to see a potter, Antonio Campos, whose workshop is just round the corner – one of the very few left in Triana, appropriately enough on Calle Alfareria. We talked about the importance of visitors to the centre having the opportunity to observe the skill of a potter in action.”Tiene que ser un sitio vivo, no un museo“, Antonio told me. It should be a living place, not a museum. “La gente quiere ver, aprender y participar.” People want to see, learn and join in. Antonio has put in his own proposal and is waiting for a response – as an experienced artesan who’s been doing it for 30-odd years, he seems ideal for the job.

Centro Ceramica Triana is on the corner of Calle San Jorge and Calle Callao, next to Ceramica Santa Ana. The centre opens in early October.

Art+fashion+religion=a richly textured show in Seville

The modern interpretations of Zurbaran's saints.

Contemporary Spanish fashion designers’ interpretations of Zurbaran’s saints.

Zurbaran, Seville, SEvilla, Santa Clara, Santas de Zurbaran, Elio Berhanyer

Santa Casilda and a sketch of her modern-day modish equivalent by octogenarian Spanish fashion legend Elio Berhanyer.

I’ve never been a big one for religious art – all those side-lit, mournful, downright spooky figures gazing heavenwards leave me cold. No emotional or spiritual connection. Probably not surprising, given that I’m an atheist.

I can appreciate a good, solid, stone Gothic archway in a church, and maybe a lofty domed ceiling or some jewel-coloured stained-glass windows – the rooftop tour of the Cathedral was amazing – but paintings of angels, saints, Our Lord and His Mother? No, gracias. Give me a Picasso, Klimt or Bridget Riley any day.

However when holy images are combined with something more to my taste, like frocks – well, that’s another matter altogether. Some genius had the idea of reinterpreting a series of works by Zurbaran, the 17th-century Spanish religious painter, as contemporary fashion, thereby opening up the paintings’ appeal to a much wider audience (for example, me). Santas de Zurbaran: Devocion y Persuasion, at a newly-opened art space in a restored convent near the Alameda, is proving popular, with queues round the block at weekends (I went on a Friday; one of the advantages of being freelance).

The finished version of Santa Casilda V21 - the flowers on the net underskirt relate to a miraculous story about her life.

The finished version of Santa Casilda V21 – get that glorious silk cape. The flowers on the net underskirt relate to a miraculous story about her life.

At the time, the painter was fiercely criticised for depicting these 17 holy women – including a pair of Isabels, Casilda, Eufemia; martyrs, princesses and other unfortunates who met sticky ends, often involving swords and fire – as wordly señoras. In his paintings, the santas virgenes wear rich, extravagant fabrics with gold decoration and exquisite jewellery; they were condemned as “profane”. Many were commissions for the New World, some painted by his apprentices, and were sent to convents in Lima and Buenos Aires.

Zurbaran’s father was a haberdasher, so the painter knew all about how to make the finest, most sumptuous fabrics come alive on canvas: silk, velvet, brocade, the folds, the tones, the drapes. He would have made a fabulous costumer designer. No bland, amorphous, classical shifts for his saints. These are in shades of gold, turquoise and vivid olive green, with voluminous cloaks of shot silk, ruched into bows on their backs. Some said he was immortalizing the nobles of the day in “divine portraits”. Flattery is not ill-advised for a court painter.

This is how Vittorio y Lucchino interpreted Santa Isabel de Hungria.

This is how Victorio y Lucchino interpreted Santa Isabel de Hungria – dig the ruched leggings.

Contemporary fashion designers, including Seville’s own Vittorio & Luccino, who designed the Duquesa de Alba’s wedding dress; Cordoban master Elio Berhanyer, who dressed the likes of Ava Gardner and Cyd Charisse; and doyenne of bright colours and hearts, Agatha Ruiz de la Prada (met her once, extremely nice lady), have come up with their own modern-day versions of the saints’ apparel. They’ve used every fabric from heavy brocade (think stately-home curtains) to shiny pink plastic (Barbie doll). The range of tastes is part of the appeal – everyone will love and hate some, but most will emerge with a favourite or two from the 21 creations (which are shown on mannequins, not real models as seen here – in case you were wondering). Before you go upstairs, look at the 1960s pink flower-print silk Balenciaga evening gown: it sports the same cape/train seen on many of Zurbaran’s lady saints. His influence on the worlds of theatre, design and art is undeniable.

The exhibition is being held in Espacio Santa Clara (not to be confused with another nearby previously-religious-now-cultural building, Santa Ana), a historic building which began as an Almohad palace; was then inhabited by Don Fadrique, whose famous tower – built as a lookout/love-nest to canoodle with his stepmother – is in the patio; and latterly was used as a convent until 1998. The space has two long galleries, ideal for hanging paintings (described in the audioguide as “bedrooms”, which leads to the interesting translation: “the Holy Virgins that are exposed in the bedroom” – *adolescent snigger*); the patio is used for flamenco performances and concerts. The ground floor gallery has very dark lighting for this show, with only the works and their accompanying text illuminated, giving a dramatic effect; upstairs, where the gowns are displayed, is lighter.

Zurbaran, Espacio Santa Clara

The upstairs gallery has the frocks – fashion heaven. On the left are two angel outfits, in celestial yellowy-orangey-gold.

The stars of the show, for me, were Santa Casilda, with her theatrical, uber-glamorous gunmetal-silver cape – her roses refer to a miracle when the bread she was taking to Christian prisoners, an act of mercy forbidden by her father, turned into flowers; Santa Isabel of Hungary; Pedro Moreno’s angels; and Santa Dorothea (mustard-yellow velvet with little applique flowers on the edges of the jacket’s sleeves and hem), one of a group of creations by Berhanyer’s students at the near end of the fashion gallery. A nice idea, to give the next generation of designers a platform such as this, but most don’t work, a few are downright cheesy, and some of the workmanship is frankly shoddy, with uneven pleats and folds, puckered fabric, and stitching coming undone. I just hope they’re not final year students. Similarly, some portraits by apprentice painters from the school of Zurbaran serve to show just how far they were from their master’s genius, with flat colours, dull textures and unattractive faces.

The audioguide (see below) is well worth it, explaining clearly the background to the exhibition, Zurbaran’s life, and the story behind each saint, what fate befell her and the motive for her “attributes” – the objects she holds which refers to some key event in her life (often her fate): flowers, fruit, a book, a spear, a saw (yes, really. Grisly lot, these 17th-century Spanish Catholics.)

I also recommend the brochure, 3 euros (never can resist a glossy brochure; there’s also a much pricier hardback catalogue), which features colour photos of selected paintings and dresses, and a list of the saints with fascinatingly bizarre information about who/what/where they’re patrons of: Agueda/Agata – wetnurses, breastfed babies and Catania; Isabel de Portugal – the jealous, victims of adultery and false accusations, and social workers; Matilda – lost children, women deceived by their children, queens, women on their second marriage, and widows. Between them, they seems to have all female bases covered, don’t they?

If you stop at the brochure stand, be sure to look out for the shoes – each pair, designed for their outfits, is displayed on a shelf. The lady who sold me my brochure didn’t know why they weren’t with their corresponding clothes, especially since many are mentioned on the audioguide.

Santas de Zurbaran: Devocion y Persuasion is on at Espacio Santa Clara (calle Becas, near the Alameda) until 20 July. Monday to Saturday 10am-3pm and 6-9pm; Sunday 10am-3pm. Expect long queues at the weekend. Free for Seville residents, 6 euros for others. Audioguide 1.20 euros (included in 6 euro ticket).

Watch the video of Eva Yierbabuena dancing in the Santa Casilda dress, in the patio of Espacio Santa Clara.

All photos courtesy of Fernando Ruso/Ayuntamiento de Sevilla

The Andalucia Show: from Almeria to Seville

Flag, fan and pennant in the regional green and white to celebrate Dia de Andalucia, 28 February.

My children with their flag, fan and pennant in the regional verde y blanco to celebrate Dia de Andalucia, 28 February. My daughter is proudly showing off her mixed heritage.

Children here in Andalucia are inculcated with a strong sense of regional pride right from the word go – they are Andaluces first, Spanish second (which leads to a sense of confusion about their identity, in the case of my Anglo-Andalusi children). They learn all about the culture, history, fiestas, famous figures, cuisine and geography of their region, which varies from desert to snow-covered mountains, from cork-oak forests to olive groves, from tidal marshes to sandy beaches, via Moorish cities and ancient sea ports.

This year, to celebrate Dia de Andalucia (28 February), my children’s school put on an exhibition about the entire region, province by province. Sections of corridors were magically transformed into colourful casetas in the Feria de Abril, patios in Cordoba, Cadiz beaches and Almerian hothouses.

Here, in alphabetical order, are the eight provinces of Andalucia as represented by three to 12-year-old Andaluzes, in products and pictures.

I haven’t captioned each photo – partly through sheer laziness and Alt Tag burnout; but also it means that you can try to guess each one’s contents (or, if you live here, ask your kids to) before reading the text for that province, which comes below its corresponding set of pictures. First up: Almeria.

Almeria invernadero

Almeria veg

Almeria skeletons kids

ALMERIA: Polytunnels, vegetables, spaghetti westerns and one of Spain’s most important archaeological sites.

Cadiz - atun de almadraba

Cadiz carnaval

CAdiz carnaval table

Cadiz entrance

Cadiz food 2

Cadiz piconeras

Cadiz playa

CADIZ: blue-fin tuna caught in the Atlantic and Mediterranean using the traditional almadraba system of nets and boats; the Teatro de Falla and the Carnaval in Cadiz city (a masks and two kazoo: the one on the left is my son’s, from our recent trip); sherry, seafood and cheese; fishing nets; piconero/as (coalmen and women – new to me, that one) and, of course, La Playa (yes, that’s real sand)!

Cordoba -cruces, patio ,feria

CORDOBA: Las Cruces de Mayo (the cross of red flowers) and the Patios Festival (the little pots with their blooms on the wall).

Malaga food


Granada  Lorca

Granada Arabic stuff

Granada food

GRANADA: The Patio de los Leones in the Alhambra; bit foxed myself as to the second picture – possibly Conquest Day, commemorating when the Reyes Catolicos recaptured the city from the Moors, and the royal banner of Castille is carried through the city; Federico Garcia Lorca, with some books by the poet and playwright; Arabic clothes and objects; Granadan pastries.


zHuelva- El Rocio

HUELVA: A jamon (don’t miss the piggies on the front of the table); fish, prawns and other shellfish; El Rocio: dress, tambor (drum), mini-carreta, leather chaps, and the all-important leather riding boots to protect from mud, dust and wading through river fords.


JAEN: Land of liquid gold – olives, olives, and more olives.

Malaga food (2)


Malaga people  Banderas

Malaga sardinas

MALAGA: Pastries, olive oil and sweet wine; famous people, including Picasso and, the “Father of Andalucia”, Blas Infante, bottom left (but not Antonio Banderas, strangely); sardines on sticks.

Cordoba Sevilla

Sevilla Feria

Sev Feria table

Sev Betis baby

Sev cathedral model

Sev incense


Sev paso

Sev tapas list

SEVILLA: Inevitably, our provincial capital takes a starring role, both in the exhibition itself, and in this blog post. First we have the Feria caseta, complete with entrance (each one has its own name, number and design); the traditional painted table and chairs, plus jewellery, castanets and dress; a creepy-looking Betis baby, for the youngest football supporters; the cathedral; then we’re into Semana Santa, coming up in a few weeks: incense (smells very strong; my daughter hated it), nazarenos with a small cardboard DIY model of the Setas in front of them: more nazarenos, with their paso (float with statue of Jesus); and finally a list of tapas on a blackboard.

I never fail to be astonished and humbled by the huge amount of work which goes into these school shows, projects and exhibitions. The teachers and children obviously spent many hours preparing, assembling and presenting it (we had been asked to provide items from Seville and Cadiz provinces, hence the kazoo) and the finished effect looked quite spectacular.

Happy Andalucia Day, and congratulation to the staff and students!

Ai WeiWei in Seville: Resistance and Tradition in a 14th-century monastery

Ai Weiwei, CAAC, Sevilla, China, Chinese

The Chinese artist-activist has a strong Social Media presence, despite his government’s attempts to silence him. WeiWei won’t be at his exhibition; he’s not allowed to travel outside China.

Seville is a city which basks in its past glories. Mudejar architectural gems, endless churches built with the riches from the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries, religious paintings and portraits by the likes of Murillo, Zurbaran, Valdes Leal…  classical art from yesteryear is far more highly prized than today’s – in my opinion.

After living for ten years before I came here in London, home to some of the world’s greatest museums and galleries (I’m not being biased, it’s true), I’ve missed the opportunity to see world-class contemporary art here in Seville. Not that I was at Tate Modern every weekend while I lived in the city; you never appreciate what’s on your doorstep. (Excuses, excuses – too tired, the schlep, the tube, the cost, the weather…)

La Cartuija, CAAC, Ai Weiwei, monastery, Seville, Sevilla, Carthusian, Columbus

The Cartuja monastery in Seville, where the Ai WeiWei exhibition is being held. It used to be a ceramic factory, which segues perfectly with WeiWei’s passion for porcelain.

So it was with considerable excitement that I read about Ai WeiWei’s exhibition at the CAAC, the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo, which happens to be 10 minutes from my house. This is WeiWei’s first ever museum exhibition in Spain, so it’s quite a coup for provincial Seville, winning out over cosmopolitan Madrid.

The CAAC is housed in a 14th-century Carthusian monastery, restored as headquarters for the 92 Expo. Its changing fortunes have seen the complex of buildings play host to Christopher Columbus as he planned his voyages; later, to the explorer’s remains; to Napoleon’s troops; and then to a ceramic factory founded by an Englishman called Charles Pickman.

Although the CAAC holds several exhibitions every year (the site is large enough to fit in three or four at once), I have to confess to acute laziness about visiting art shows unless I’ve already heard of the artist (I like to think my knowledge is about the same as any 40-something ex-Londoner media bod’s – reasonable).

Ai WeiWei, however, is in another league from the names normally appearing at this Andalucian contemporary art centre. He is hugely famous throughout the world, thanks to his insistence on standing up to the repressive Chinese government. A physically imposing man, broad and bearded, WeiWei has been imprisoned, placed under house arrest, beaten by police, accused of tax evasion, banned from the internet, and his studio has been demolished. His means of protest are digital, as well as tangible – he used to be a prolific blogger, and still uses Twitter (85,000+ tweets, in Chinese, nearly 200,000 followers).

After the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, which saw thousands of children die in collapsed school buildings constructed from sub-standard materials, WeiWei compiled a list of the dead students, with their names and ages – the government had refused to put a number on the total killed in the disaster – and was photographed standing in front of it. The artist brandishes the hidden, shameful truth in their face, taunting them. Another of his works is a video featuring people saying in various languages, “Fuck the Motherland”. Weiwei is a sharp and insistent thorn in the authorities’ side – more a ceremonial dagger, in fact. He loves to poke his captors (he’s not allowed out of China), tormenting them, jabbing them. Supremely provocative.

WeiWei’s defiance and stubbornness come across in much of his work, as does his respect for Chinese artisan techniques, and his ardent desire that they should not be lost. He wants to emphasise their social importance and aesthetic beauty compared to the mass-production of cheap plastic goods which flood out of China. The artist has his own kiln for creating ceramic pieces. But he’s also intrigued by the relationship between real and fake – how do we know which is which? Does it matter? Should art be about commercial value?

All these strands come together in this exhibition, from his love of porcelain, to his refusal to be gagged by the Chinese authorities.

sunflower seeds, Ai WeiWei, Chinese, China, porcelain, Tate Modern

The famous Sunflower Seeds – each one of the 3,300,000-odd is handpainted.

Most famous are the Sunflower Seeds, housed in the chapel just inside the church. These are raked into a perfect rectangle, protected behind a glass screen, with a line on the ground which you can’t cross to get a closer look. Result? You can’t see them – as each seed is hand-painted (saying each Chinese person is an individual, not part of a vast collective), all three million-odd of them, this is a shame. There’s a video made by Tate Modern - where they were first installed in the Turbine Hall (100 million) and could be walked, sat and lain on – showing how they’re made by thousands of people in a town in eastern China, each striped painted by hand. But not being able to look at them close-up, even a small sample in a glass box on the wall, is a shame. So here’s a sneak peek.

Ai WeiWei, sunflower seeds, contemporary art, CAAC, La Cartuja, Sevilla

A close-up of those tiny works of art – it took 1,600 people two and half years to paint them.

Descending Light, Ai WeiWei, China, Chinese, CAAC, La Cartuja, Sevilla

Descending Light looks like a Chinese dragon; its distorted shape reflects the grotesqueness of the Communist regime.

Although these “seeds” are the most famous part of the show, the most captivating, for me, was Descending Light. This is huge coiled lamp, like a collapsed snail, made from red glass beads strung onto a metal frame, with light bulbs inside. It took 12 people two weeks to assemble it, and how grateful we should be, as it is a stunning piece, perfectly positioned in the high-walled chapel with its soaring ceiling, and a shiny marble floor to reflect the lines of red light.

Ai WeiWei

Photos from the artist’s blog, before it was shut down by the Chinese government in 2009.

Continuing past this, on the left in the Sacristy, is a room with 12 screens, showing over 7,000 photos from WeiWei’s blog posts. These may seem random, but they give a good overview of WeiWei’s day-to-day life and interests – food, architecture, design, his own body (belly shots), his art, and his friends, fans and family. My favourite was a group of naked men, including the artist, jumping in the air, grinning like idiots, each with a Chinese zodiac animal’s head on the floor in front of him. The collection of animals, Zodiac Heads, is currently on a world tour.

Ai WeiWei, La Cartuja, CAAC, Sevilla

These vases (pre-paint) may or may not be 7,000 years old – you decide.

Two other works really stood out, for me. The first is the Colored Vases, which may or may not be neolithic, as they’re described – appropriately, they are displayed in the oldest part of the monastery, the Capilla de Magdalena. The old/new jars are dipped in industrial paint, each in different colours. Has he taken priceless antiquities and desecrated them? Or has he put his own mark on a piece of pottery, whatever its age, thereby creating another type of value? It’s an interesting conundrum, and makes the viewer think.

Ai Weiwei, Ghost Gu Coming Down the Mountain

The porcelain jars are painted so that they look different from every angle. Now you see Ghost Gu Coming Down The Mountain…

The last piece I’ll mention (there are further, less striking ceramic works, and videos – plenty more to enjoy than I can fit in here) is the room of painted jars, laid out nearly in rows; a collaboration with Romanian artist Serge Spitzer. The design is based on the popular story of a legendary warrior, Gu, who was sent on a mission to rescue another fighter.

It’s not until you walk all the way around them (“I tell people to read the panel, otherwise they just look and then walk out again,” said the lady guard, frustrated, although even the text doesn’t explain the trick clearly) that you see the artists’ ruse. The jars are painted with a progressively wider vertical band of design as you walk along the rows, so that from one corner they seem entirely painted, while from another they are perfectly, plainly white, and between there are degrees.

Ai WeiWei, Ghost Gu Coming Down the Mountain

…now you don’t.

Chinese artesan production is also disappearing, little by little, he seems to be telling us, bringing the impending loss of centuries of tradition to our attention. It’s very clever, and I’d love to take my kids to see these jars, although I’d be terrified they’d break one. We can’t look at the seeds close-up, but we can risk kicking a china vase. Hmm.

WeiWei is a dissident for the digital age, who hasn’t lost sight of his country’s history – he’s looking back as well as forwards. If you’re as intrigued as I was by this extraordinarily brave, headstrong man, then don’t miss the award-winning 2012 documentary about him, Never Sorry, now showing at Seville’s only VO cinema, but also available on DVD. His personal life is unconventional, and the footage (only audio, but still shocking) of him being attacked in his hotel room in the middle of the night by police, is undeniably powerful. Go see.

Ai WeiWei: Resistance and Tradition is at the CAAC, La Cartuja, Sevilla, until 23 June. It is open Tuesday to Saturday 11am to 9pm, Sunday 11am-3pm (closed Monday), and costs 1.80 euro. Entry is free Tuesday to Friday 7pm-9pm, and all day Saturday.