A state of the art cemetery with no bodies, a body of art that is augmented annually at no cost and a view to die for are just three of the things that distinguish the Spanish village of Genalguacil. It’s not easy to get to, which perhaps accounts for its lack of tourists, but for the first two weeks of August, in alternate years, it becomes an artists’
paradise and ‘living’ exhibition. Participants are welcome from all over the world and carefully sifted for selection.
The successful applicants are offered free accommodation and workspace – on condition that they leave some of their artwork behind. TWO hours drive from Malaga, deep in the hinterland of Andalusia, a dazzling white walled village perches among the pines at an altitude of 1,782ft. Its population of around 540 go about their daily business surrounded by breath-taking vistas and eclectic art. Pure air, the haunting scents of olive, lemon and wild woodland tease the senses.
There is no (unofficial) graffiti, no litter and virtually no traffic. The winding white streets are narrow and lead to unexpected oases of colour provided by bougainvillea and other impromptu plantings of flowers and shrubs.
A visitor, bewitched by stillness, silence and heat, could be forgiven for thinking that this perfect pueblo is uninhabited at certain times of day. Indeed the only watchers seem to be the carved faces that look down from totems, murals and the viewing platform of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Genalguacil’s Mayor (‘Alcalde’) Miguel Angel Herrara Gutierrez is 36, a small, energetic man with big ambitions for the village he is so clearly proud of. He was born in nearby Ronda but Genalguacil is his spiritual home and, despite spending time between the ages of 13 and 21 studying in Estepona he is a native (‘Genalguacileño’) to the core.
We chat in his office, on the ground floor of the pristine Municipal Building, although open windows present a
distracting view of the panoramic Genal Valley where white hillside fincas dot the horizon.
Miguel is a full-time, hands-on mayor although he owns a general store ( established when he was a 21-year-old
entrepreneur ) and restaurant that is due to re-open in October. “I’m not a ‘politician’, “ he insists after explaining that after gaining his first seat on the council and waiting long enough to gain experience, he ‘crossed the floor’ to the opposition party because he felt it would enable him to get more done. “Like Winston Churchill” he adds with a
twinkle in his eye. “I greatly admire him”.
His humour, common sense and pragmatism are refreshing and transparent. We touch on the now overgrown ‘new’
cemetery on the outskirts of the village that was built with an unsolicited – and ring-fenced – grant several years ago.
“The thing is, no-one asked the people whether they wanted it” he shrugs. A forlorn white elephant, downwind of the site where refuse is now burned, nature has slowly reclaimed what the community has shunned.
Two minute’s walk from the Town Hall the beautiful ‘old’ cemetery that hugs the walls of Genalguacil’s historic church is filled with sunlight, flowers and lovingly crafted tributes to generations past. A plaque honours those who lost their lives in combat – from the Civil War to the present day; it is easily accessible and at the heart of the community.
This would not have happened on ‘Miguel’s Watch’. Nor would construction of the empty hotel, advertised by a
roadside sign, but as bereft of occupants as the new cemetery. Too far out-of-town to accommodate tourists flocking
to Los Encuentros de Arte it, too, remains unoccupied. Perfect for anyone wanting peace, a natural woodland
environment and a panoramic view of the Andalusian hills, it waits patiently for occupants to breath life into it.
‘Alcalde’ is keen to find a buyer however and clearly frustrated by evidence of the misguided largesse that has been
dispensed without reference to the wishes of the village’s inhabitants.
“It is a fantastic site, but it should not have been built there. If a company comes along and they are interested we will help them. A company from Seville are looking at it. We may grant free use of the land to someone who takes it on but there has to be something in it for the village, employment for example. I want people to come here who are romantic – that’s more important than money!”
Bureaucratic bungle’s aside – and frankly, what village, town or city in the world can’t point to some of its own! –
Genalguacil is a pretty amazing place! I suspect that the mayor knows most, if not all, of its population by sight if not by name. His keen sense of humour, which loses nothing in translation to fluent English, belies passion and
determination. He didn’t instigate Los Encuentros de Arte, but his dedication to building on its legacy is one of his
three goals while in office.
“I never wanted to get involved in politics I never expected to become mayor of the village, but what I do want is to change things here. The village has always supported me – in business and with everything, all my life, and being Mayor is a way of giving something back.
“ There is so much in this village; it has so much potential and there is so much more to be done. I feel it’s like starting from zero in some ways, but we have all the tools to create a perfect place, as you see we have a unique natural environment, I think one of the best in Europe, and the climate which is also important. In fact we have the most fantastic village in Andalucía in Spain, a place that everyone feels very proud of. Everyone supports the art projects, and this sense of community is what makes it such a great success.”
Ask Miguel what he stands for and his reply is instant. “Basically there are four parts to my vision. One is an ecological one because we want to develop the natural side of this area; it’s a real treasure for people who love nature. We also need to do things with renewable energy and one of my dreams is for Genalguacil to be completely self-sufficient.
“It can be done. But politicians – regional and in central government – are not interested in us being self-sufficient. They are only interested in big companies having the power and us being dependent on them. I believe we should develop and help small communities – we have all this biomass; we have hydroelectric resources; we have so much sun! Can you tax the sun?! We could use a combined system. There are lots of possibilities.
“People say it’s not cheap, but part of the high cost of energy is in taking it from ‘A to B’. If we created the energy here for the community it would be very cheap and it would create jobs. We have researched this – many years of thought have gone into it. It’s commons sense.”
It only takes a short exposure to this very special place to realise how inter-connected everything is. The school bus also provides pubic transport. Ex-pats and locals are clearly integrated and supportive of one another. In the narrow white streets every meeting prompts a greeting, from a casual nod or smile to an embrace and conversation.
The art is part of the landscape; some of the carved faces are those of villagers, past and present; immortalised in wood, stone, fibre-glass, paint or fading photographs, they sit on walls, peer round corners or simply gaze out towards the distant hilltops. A discarded beer bottle shares a plinth with two large heads, metal horses heads disgorge water into a trough and proud, stylised cats perch on a rooftop. Below them a film crew are setting up, to record oral histories with elderly villagers.
“The festival started in 1994,” explains Miguel, warming to the second element of his ‘vision’. “Many people come
here just for the art and I want to keep developing it. It’s part of my dream to attract top Spanish artists but it’s open to anyone.”
“This year none of the international applicants got past the selection. When the committee got past 40 they said ‘Oh my goodness, they are all of such high quality; this is really complicated!” In 2016 the applications will open in January until June, but Encuentros de Arte is not all there is. It’s like having a wedding; it’s only the big celebration.
In Genalguacil we are ‘open for business’ to artists all round. If you want a workshop or an exhibition space just let us know. Recently an artist from Valencia rented a house because she likes it here so much she wants to come and live here!”
Can this tiny village support growing numbers of visitors I wonder, thinking back to the empty hotel so far from the
village centre? Apparently yes, because during the Art Festival rooms are made available to rent, the ‘B&B’ is booked up and many visitors drive up daily from the coast – from Estepona or Marbella – or the town of Ronda.3
For overseas visitors Malaga is the nearest airport. “There is a bus from Ronda and when the road is completed we hope to get run a little bus service between here and Estepona.” A further 3 km of surface needs to be tarmacked before that can be done but the ever-optimistic Miguel says, “It will happen”. That said, he has little sympathy for those put off by the lack of public transport.
“They should get a car, experience the view, walk, drive a little way, and walk again – although I would say yes to bicycles! There is so much here to explore.”
Eagles are frequently seen soaring in the distant hills; wild boar inhabit the woods and the sight of a sleepy (intoxicated?) artisan nodding off while his mule negotiates a familiar rural route is not uncommon.
Tourism is Miguel’s third focus. Visitors mean money, which has got to be good for the local economy but Alcalde is
clear about who should be targeted. “I don’t want to attract mass tourism, just the discerning who can appreciate
what is here and what it offers this community that lives ‘off the grid’. “We do need a small hotel here though; there is a small pension, rural homes with rooms to let, but nothing that will spoil this place.”
Not one to leave jobs half finished Miguel plans to stand for one more term as Mayor. “We have a saying here, ‘If you have planted the seeds, you want to be able to collect the tomatoes’ and that is how I feel.
“If people were not so afraid of failing they would do many more things. I’m just the opposite. This is a perfect place
for art and creative people to work and sell their art. Like Pepe, who is a weaver, and makes beautiful things that can’t be reproduced by a machine. One of the top artists who came here – sculptor Eugenio Merino, a really nice guy, whose ‘Franco in a fridge’ caused such controversy at ARCO Madrid in 2012 – is to come to Genalguacil for three months to work.”
Earlier this year Spanish film director Juanma Bajo Ulloa used the village as a location for scenes from his latest
picaresque comedy about a quest to establish paternity. Clearly a happy experience Miguel recalls, “What was so
beautiful is that all the villagers took part in it. Ullao is a romantic, that’s why he came here. He doesn’t work for
Warner or Fox or the big production companies who change everything. It’s called Rey Gitano (Gipsy King) and the
film goes on release in March 2015.”
Our ‘official’ interview over Miguel and I join my English host whose finca is one of those visible on the horizon. After seven years in residence he has just discovered where to get the best bacon sandwich in Genalguacil.
Is there anything that this village can’t provide . . . . . . ?
*If you can’t wait two years for the 2016 Los Encuentros de Arte del Valle del Genal Festival and want to sample life
in Genalgualcil ‘en fete’, the next official event is the annual Chestnut Festival in November. Chestnuts are one of
the main natural resources and feature largely in the local economy. Alcalde explains ‘We roast chestnuts and drink
aguardiente – its like aniseed, a sweet white liquor which was made in large quantities here in the old days. Now
it’s just a tradition.” And the festival? “Well, it’s a big party. We like having parties here!”
The Monday Line returns next week.