Rogelio López Cuenca

Juan Goytisolo, one of Spain’s most combative novelists, has on many occasions addressed his country’s contemptuous attitude toward Muslim culture. Yet the proximity of the Spanish and Moroccan coasts, and what’s more, a shared history, have left a strong mark on our architecture as well as our language. Astonishingly, the contributions of the Maghreb are still mostly ignored, but one exception is in the work of Rogelio López Cuenca. His exhibition “El paraíso es de los extraños” (Paradise belongs to outsiders; all works 2001)—the outsiders here being- Muslim immigrants—emerges from the artist’s reading of an illustrious group of writers who have helped construct the image of the Orient. He has accumulated texts by Marc Augé, Charles Baudelaire, Amin Maalouf, Tarek el-Bechn, Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, Azorín, and José Zorrilla—significant figures from French and Spanish culture as well as writers unknown in Europe. Along with these texts, López Cuenca utilizes many photographic, pictorial, and cinematic citations. He unselfconsciously mixes references from tourist guides and pamphlets with fragments of Orientalist paintings such as Exécution sans jugement sous les rois maures de Grenade (Arbitrary execution under the Moorish kings of Granada), 1870, by Henri Regnault. While these quotations might have made the work cumbersome and hermetic, thankfully this is not the result.

Still, those of us unfamiliar with Arabic may be missing an important ingredient. For example, one piece shows the Regnault painting, in which a severed head lies in a pool of blood in the foreground. A beefy executioner cleans the blade of a sword shining against an imposing and luxurious backdrop reminiscent of the Alhambra. Beside this image the artist has placed an anonymous poster printed in Algiers during World War II. On this sign two heads can be seen: “one of a white man resembling a colonialist explorer and the other of a turbaned North African.” Each covers his mouth with his finger, signaling silence. In French it reads “Tais toi” (Be quiet); in addition there is a text in Arabic that most likely means the same—or does it? Furthermore, López Cuenca has added words taken from a fashion magazine: “Un vrai luxe par la fluidité du tombé, la discretion raffiné des tons et le choix des matières” (True luxuriousness, thanks to the fluid way it falls” the refined subtlety of the hues, and the choice of fabric). Of course, “the fluid way it falls” alludes ironically to the severed head, while also calling attention to the Europeans’ propensity to attribute such refined cruelty to North Africans.

Other works do not possess this visual and semantic complexity, instead settling for clichés. For example, one shows a Western woman sunbathing on a beach where two North Africans covered by veil and djellaba walk; juxtaposed with this image is a black-and-white photograph in which a female immigrant, probably drowned, is laid out in the sand next to a Spanish policeman. The Maghrebies are doubly, victimized—in their own land and in their attempts to escape it. The irony is maintained in the text that accompanies the work, taken from the early-twentieth-century writer Isaac Muñoz: “I have lain down like a dead man upon the Arab tapestry and opium, the sacred, emerald green venom, has taken me to the regions of a fanciful country.” And it is clear that for many immigrants who risk their lives crossing the strait, Spain is an idealized fantasy that does not correspond to reality. Sadly, these two neighboring cultures barely manage to see each other.

Juan Vicente Aliaga

Translated from Spanish by Michèle Faguet.