Mogarraz: Portraits of a Pueblo

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As you walk through the shady, narrow and steep streets of Mogarraz, faces from the past stare down back at you. This quiet village, sitting over 700 m high within the mountainous Sierra de Francia region of Castile y Leon, has gained some fame in recent years due to a particularly unique art project. 

In 2012 artist Florencino Maíllo Cascón painted portraits of 388 residents who were living in Mogarraz in the 1960s. These images hang on the houses where each person once lived and on the 17th century bell tower of the ‘Our Lady of the Snows’ church. Born there himself, and descended from the town blacksmiths, Maíllo is a painter, photographer, sculptor and Full Professor at the University of Salamanca.

This ambitious project, a record of the past memories of this village, actually originated with some classic Spanish administration. In the 1960s the government ordered everyone of legal age in Spain to get an ID document, with a photo of course. This would have required all the adults to travel to nearby Salamanca, a journey of over an hour each way and a bit of an effort for the more elderly citizens. So, one autumn morning in 1967, in a rare display of local government efficiency, the Mayor of Mogarraz asked local photographer Alejandro Martín Criado to take the pictures himself. A white sheet was hung up in the street and all 388 eligible residents, from farmers to shopkeepers, passed through and posed.

The original negatives were stored in Criado’s house for years, and were largely forgotten until the 1990s, when he asked Maíllo to make a video slideshow for his daughter. The artist (only five years old when the photos were taken) became fascinated by the ethnographic record they represented, and the idea for the painting series was born. 

The portraits themselves are made using an encaustic technique which involves mixing heated wax with coloured pigments, then painted onto wooden boards. This technique, first used by the Romans, gives the faces an antique quality and was a deliberate choice for Maíllo. He links this commemoration of his own ancestors to the way the Romans remembered their dead through highly realistic altar paintings.

These images show a moment frozen in time, a record of a community on one particular day and for Maíllo this creates bitter-sweet memories. The faces are of those who chose to stay in Mogarraz at a time when Spain was experiencing a great population shift. Thirty years into Franco’s regime, villages like this in the rural west were losing their residents to the better wages in industrialised cities like Madrid and Barcelona. On top of this, between 1960 and 1973 over 2 million Spaniards emigrated to France, Germany and Switzerland where demand for labour was high. This decimated rural communities, an effect which is still felt decades later, as you pass the derelict buildings and for ‘For Sale’ signs that litter villages all across the country even today (see my previous post about the village of Belmonte).

The original 388 faces have been joined over the past few years with newer portraits of those who moved away. Today over 800 paintings decorate the facades of the medieval buildings and have become something of a tourist attraction for visitors to the region, drawn to the picturesque villages, natural beauty and famous black ham). For Maíllo this is a double-edged sword, the visitors are a source of income, but the economic development issues that forced many residents to leave in the 1960s have not been addressed. The “bleeding of identity and memory” as he calls it, continues with few opportunities for young people and a reliance on money brought in from outside.

While the past residents of Mogarraz have been brought back together once again, these guardians can only look down and watch, as the future of their village waits to be drawn.

More information about this project and an interview with Florencio Maíllo Cascón see here.

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