After the Crisis: Seville's Artistic Response

Article published on July 20, 2014
Article published on July 20, 2014

Setting off for Seville, the city where a stag­ger­ing 50.6% of 25-44 year olds are un­em­ployed, I was steel­ing my­self to encounter Spain’s un­der­dogs. I pictured down-and-out­ers de­nied jobs and drained of joie de vivre, floored by the financial crisis. But happily Seville surprised me when I came across Red House, where postmodern artists are turning to the Pre-Raphaelites for inspiration.

“The fi­nan­cial cri­sis? Why dwell on some­thing that de­press­ing?”

Such is Al­varo Diaz’s reply when I ask about the sit­u­a­tion for young peo­ple in Seville, ac­com­pa­nied by a cheery wave at a group of said young peo­ple as they stroll into Red House. Al­varo, 30, hails from Huelva, and Red House is the café-gallery he launched in 2012, to­gether with his wife Cristina Ga­le­ote. Both stud­ied at the pres­ti­gious Royal Acad­emy of Fine Arts in Seville. And quite apart from their im­pres­sive cre­den­tials, Al­varo and Cristina clearly pos­sess that rarest and most use­ful of ac­com­plish­ments: they’re in­stantly in­ter­est­ing. 

“What gave you the in­spi­ra­tion for this place? What’s the ethos be­hind it?” I ask. We’ve not got long to chat. At Red House there’s al­ways plenty to be done, morn­ing until night.

“The idea came to us when we were trav­el­ling. We went to Madrid, Lon­don, Berlin, Moscow,” Al­varo tells me. “And in every city, we came across sim­i­lar cre­ative spaces. So we thought we’d try our luck in Seville. There was noth­ing like it here at the time.” Red House – right up to its name, Al­varo ex­plains – was con­ceived as an homage to William Mor­ris, the 19th cen­tury Eng­lish Pre-Raphaelite artist. Hence my fas­ci­na­tion. I’d imag­ined Spain in a fog of eco­nomic de­cline, its dis­il­lu­sioned grad­u­ates reel­ing from the cri­sis and stuck on the dole, dogged by melan­cho­ly.

“Of course,” Alvaro con­tin­ues, “We’re all wor­ried about the cri­sis. But our ap­proach is to stay pos­i­tive and hope that our at­ti­tude can rub off on other peo­ple. We want to en­cour­age a spirit of en­tre­preneurship and cre­ativ­ity in Spain. It’s im­por­tant to have places where peo­ple can come to­gether and sup­port each other through dif­fi­cult times.” He is wav­ing again – more reg­u­lars have ar­rived.


Op­ti­mism abounds at Red House. There is a tan­gi­ble com­mu­nity spirit here – cou­pled, of course, with a tinge of Mor­ris. The café looks a bit like a giant guest bed­room, com­plete with snug sofas and large ta­bles. Con­trast­ing con­stituent in­gre­di­ents ren­der the room eclec­tic, to put it mildly, and yet the over­all ef­fect re­mains some­how har­mo­nious. The café, dou­bling as a gallery, sells an as­sort­ment of art­work. Be­sides paint­ings, there are dec­o­rated plates by artists from all over Spain, skate­boards turned into sculp­tures, or vin­tage fur­nishings. And one of the walls en­shrines a se­ries of Dash Snow­-esque po­laroids, proudly por­tray­ing a mot­ley mix of male and fe­male gen­i­talia.

Yet Mor­ris’s own Red House was de­signed to meet its in­hab­i­tants’ daily needs, prac­ti­cal as much as artis­tic. Al­varo and Cristina are guided by the same prin­ci­ple: “Our Red House is a place where peo­ple can come and feel at home, as well as dis­cov­er­ing new artists. We often or­ga­nise ex­hi­bi­tions and con­certs to show­case local tal­ent.” And just as William Mor­ris and his fel­low Pre-Raphaelites lamented the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion’s im­pact upon ar­ti­san­ship and time-ho­n­oured crafts, Seville's Red House is wag­ing its own war against mass pro­duc­tion. Every­thing sold or used in the café is lo­cally pro­duced – every­thing, that is, save the Cal­i­forn­ian beer that Al­varo has just served me: “We love tra­di­tional An­dalu­sian food. But it’s nice if we can in­tro­duce our cus­tomers to some­thing a little dif­fer­ent.”


Ap­pear­ances can be de­ceiv­ing. Red House may be all bus­tle now. But for its founders, get­ting here hasn’t been the smoothest of rides. “It’s eas­ier to open a phar­macy in Kabul than a café in Seville,” Al­varo says. It's the first in a litany of com­plaints against the Span­ish gov­ern­ment. “In a coun­try where the un­em­ploy­ment rate is so as­tro­nom­i­cally high, they should be en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to start busi­nesses. They’re ba­si­cally doing the op­po­site.”

“And you don’t want to do what every­one else is doing, and get out of here?” I ask.

“We both love to travel,” he replies, “But Seville is where we’ve made our home. It’s where we have our fam­ily, our friends. Be­sides, we could never have a place like this for the same price in Lon­don.” He tells me that Spain’s young artists, de­spite hav­ing to fight to con­tinue pur­su­ing their craft, are nonethe­less doing bet­ter than young doc­tors or young ar­chi­tects. “As artists, we’re able to work on the fringes of so­ci­ety. Cristina sells and ex­hibits her paint­ings, I make films – I shoot a lot of music videos." He adds that here in Seville, there’s a gen­uine fel­low­ship amongst young en­tre­pre­neurs – a spirit of co­op­er­a­tion and mu­tual sup­port. “A col­league of mine re­cently opened a tat­too par­lour,” Al­varo ex­plains. “And we were happy to use our con­tacts and our stand­ing on so­cial media to help him get on the radar. My fa­ther is an ar­chi­tect. He was out of work for a while, so he de­voted some of his time to this place. So now Red House is func­tional as well as beau­ti­ful.”


“Have you no­ticed your cus­tomers chang­ing over time? How has Sevil­le changed?” I can’t help but sus­pect that the down­turn has seen Spaniards spend less time and less money in cafés and gal­leries. Yet: “Al­though peo­ple didn’t re­ally get us at first, they do now,” Al­varo in­sists. “When we launched Red House, peo­ple thought we were just a fur­ni­ture store or a nor­mal gallery. But not any more. Now, young artists who’d left Seville to look for work are com­ing back and re­build­ing their ca­reers here. Many are launch­ing busi­nesses of their own.”  

Red House is fill­ing up. Cristina and her col­leagues are grow­ing vis­i­bly flus­tered. I don’t want to keep Al­varo any longer, so I re­turn to my orig­i­nal ques­tion. 

“The ef­fects of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis are still felt,” comes the reply this time. “That won’t stop any­time soon. But nor will it last for­ever. We can’t ig­nore it, but ag­o­nis­ing about it isn’t help­ful. We’re launch­ing a new place soon, the No Lugar. We stay pos­i­tive – no mat­ter what.”

It seems Red House has every rea­son to look on the bright side. I’m not sure if a phar­macy in Kabul is easy to open or not. But a café in Seville can cer­tainly change the face of so­ci­ety, and put art and artists alike back on the menu.


© Pho­tos: Va­len­ti­na Cala Ka­ta­rzy­na Pia­sec­ka