Northwestern Spain: Pilgrims and Refugees

Galacia Center of Contemporary Art
Santiago de Compestela, Spain

Date of Visit: October, 2019

The Pilgrims
Walkers embark on the famous Camino de Santiago for various personal objectives: perhaps a retreat from modern living, a vehicle for self-realization or even for the physical challenge. From what I’ve read a pilgrimage acts as a metaphor for life; the highs, lows, trials and tribulations met and dealt with on the walk are symbolic of what we will meet over our entire lifetime. I ran into a gentleman named Peter from Ireland who told me that he was taking his second Camino pilgrimage in 6 months to help recover from the death of his beloved wife. He said, “There are a lot of lost souls trying to find peace within themselves on this walk.” I can’t say how many of the walking souls are lost but there certainly are a lot of them—350,000 completed at least 100 km of the trail this year and up to 500,000 are projected in the coming year. That is a big number of people on the move, averaging over 1,000 a day arriving in this town of 95,000.

camino de santiago de compes
The “sun burst” symbol for the camino, used on trail markers is representative of all of the different trails converging at the cathedral.

Touring by car we saw them often, alone or in groups, as we drove along various roadways in the northwest. The pilgrims are easily identifiable, many proudly displaying a large scallop shell tied on a string around their necks. When they reach the final destination of their walk, the Cathedral of St. James, they gather in an atmosphere of celebration and satisfaction. Many sit with their fellow walkers and bask for hours in their accomplishment before they start their return home.

santiago church
Pilgrims at the completion of the walk, gathering to reflect on their journey. Note the white scallop shell hanging from the backpack on the gentleman on the right.

The Refugees

However a few blocks away, in an exhibition at the Galacian Center for Contemporary Art, the act of taking a journey is not so celebratory. The walks described therein are those of fleeing refugees and displaced persons, currently numbering over 65 million in the world. Walking is not the choice of this group and when they arrive at their new destination they are not celebrated, nor even welcomed. In 1948 the UN declared that all persons in the world have the right to move away from persecution and find safety but unfortunately there is a disconnect between a declaration and reality.

This exhibition, We, Refugees, was inspired and entitled after the famous essay by Hannah Arendt in which she describes what it is like to be a refugee and why people are forced to become one. “First we do not like the name, refugee.”

We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in the world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos, and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.

Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings—the kinds that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends. H.A. 1943

A reminder that turning away from this reality is not a possibility.

We non-refugees may feel compassion but we feel it cannot happen to us. What we must realize is that it can happen to anyone, any time, and anywhere. You could find yourself in a war zone, or you’ve could be suddenly displaced from your comfortable life as your entire community is devastated by a hurricane, or global warming has flooded away your river side or coastal home, or your sexual orientation is illegal in your country, or the political tides have shifted against your particular ethnic group… on and on… Almost no one is safely inoculated from the potential for displacement.

Curators Piedad Solans and Santiago Olmo selected 20 artists from around the world, mostly contemporary, to tell this story. The work pretty much spoke for itself, although there was ample written material that accompanied it. The first artist encountered was the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya. His print, the famous The Sleep of Reason Creates Monsters, 1799, was a haunting image that set the mood for what was to come.

Francisco Goya, this one in a series of eighty prints, Los Caprichos.

After contemplating the Goyas I caught up to my travel partner absorbed in a video by Peggy Ahwesh, an American artist who is known as bricoleur; an artist who incorporates material from various sources in her work. In her video presentation one watches a succession of  smooth and neutralized animations of horrific images. Bombings, nuclear blasts, fish kills, and more— all in super saturated colors. Her images are gleaned from a Youtube database of a company that produces animated news. cluster bomb

Syrian Boy. There is no way to sugar coat this image, nor should there be. Especially in a week when Turkey began attacking the Kurds in Syria. Images provided by the artist.
State of Seige. A project by Jesús Palomino in collaboration with ARTifariti 2016. 1,000 issues were freely distributed in the Sahrawi Refugee Camps. Tindouf, Algeria.

Another work, State of Siege by Jesús Palomino, highlighted the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish (1942–2008). “The work was written while the poet was under siege in Ramallah during the Israeli invasion of 2002. An eloquent and impassioned response to political extremity, the collection was published to great acclaim in the Arab world.”[1]

Suso Fañdino, Vous Êtes Ici (You Are Here)” detail, 2016, serigraph on map (Aleppo, Syria).
Welcome (in Portuguese), Rogelio Lopez Cuenca, 1998.


Eugenio Ampudia An especially arresting concept, playing old newsreels of refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930’s … but instead played backwards, allowing them (in our imagination) to return to their home towns. Soldiers rolling their tanks backwards from the front. It was genuinely uplifting to imagine the possibility of reversing the path.

We left Santiago to continue on our own journey, luckily for us it was for pleasure and enrichment, not a spiritual walk or fleeing from danger. Just having seen this exhibit made us more appreciate how we move across countries and oceans with the ability to go back home as we wish. A walk in the beautiful mountains of the Picos de Europa later that week cleared our heads and fed our spirits before we returned to our homeland and its lost soul.

picos mountains

2 thoughts on “Northwestern Spain: Pilgrims and Refugees

  1. Very interesting and touching, Nancy. Having written all those little books about immigrants, I have huge empathy for refugees. It is good to keep their plights in our awareness even if it doesn’t solve the problem. And it is good that you and Eric appreciate your good fortune. We talk about that often – what a cushy little life we have. The last sentence of your piece is poignant. T.


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