“Major event in working class history to be discovered by participation”
“Solidarity Park: a different kind of memorial, relevant for today”
Historical Context: ‘Ciudad de Barcelona’
The International Brigades came from across the globe to stop the rise of the far right and fight fascism in the Spanish civil war (1936-39).
They believed in international solidarity and wanted a better and equal world for all.
On Saturday May 29th 1937, ‘Ciudad de Barcelona’ set sail from France with approximately 300 International Brigaders on route to Spain. By early afternoon on the 30th the voyage descended into chaos. While sailing along the Catalan coast the ship was torpedoed by an Italian fascist submarine, sinking the vessel in less than ten minutes just off the coast of Malgrat del Mar, north of Barcelona.
I remember a loud, dull thud, and the whole ship sort of shuddered. In a matter of minutes, it tilted sharply and began to go down by the stern. Pandemonium followed as men raced to the very few lifeboats. I remember a loaded lifeboat overturning and crashing down on its occupants. I remember the screaming faces of men trapped at the portholes. And above all I remember some seamen tearing loose anything that could float and tossing it into the sea […] as we came ashore, we found hundreds of villagers waiting with towels, blankets, and even some liquor.
Abe Osherhoff, American volunteer and survivor, 1937.
Survivors recall that as the ship went down the Brigadistas sang the ‘Internationale’ in one last act of bravery and solidarity.
According to local historians there were 250-300 aboard ship; 46 would die. A further 121 survivors are known, but many more are still unaccounted for. The actions of Malgrat del Mar locals, especially fishermen, saved many lives that day, however a further 23 volunteers would later perish on Spanish soil.
In 1938 the International Brigades produced an internal document calling for a memorial to the victims of ‘Ciudad de Barcelona’ on the beachfront. It was stated that they were ‘heroic volunteers for freedom’ killed by ‘fascist pirates’.
But the sinking of the Ciudad de Barcelona would become a forgotten tragedy; like many other stories from the Spanish Civil War, much history was lost or silenced during Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship (1939-75).
It would take almost 80 years after the plea for a memorial by fellow Brigadistas for a project to be launched, after an uncanny coincidence.
Native of Rugby, England and now residing in Catalonia, artist Rob MacDonald decided to launch a memorial project after reading about his namesake, a Scottish Brigadier, who sank with the ship:
“It blew me away. Here’s this guy, Rob Macdonald, who was 23 years old, who didn’t get to the Spanish civil war, who put his life on the line. He had pretty much the same politics as me. One of the journeys for me with this project was finding his family and learning a little bit about him. He’s an individual I have a really powerful connection with.”
Rob MacDonald set his mind on creating a memorial. However, the initial project soon gathered momentum as both local and international educators, historians, musicians and activists started to take interest.
It was then the essence of Solidarity Park emerged, as the artist remarks:
“This is a memorial and a project for everybody. That’s why I don’t want to go into my workshop, tap away and present something. I want people to say; ‘I helped make that, that’s my history.’
The Making of Solidarity Park
The memorial is hoped to be completed by May of next year, to mark the 82nd anniversary of the sinking of the ship. It will be located on the beach of Malgrat del Mar facing towards the seascape where the attack occurred.
When finished, Solidarity Park will consist of 60, half-metre tall sculptures, carved in local limestone. The figures, representing the Brigadistas, will be portrayed singing the ‘Internationale’ aboard an abstract interpretation of a ship.
The real ship may have sunk, but the conceptual ship will be depicted riding high across a stone patio map of the world, thus making it a symbol of the resilience of human solidarity.
All 60 figures will be identical in form, representing the unity of the struggle of the Brigadiers, but each will have individual carved features thus expressing the diversity of us all (see images).
Included on the sides of the monument will be “community portholes”; stone carved windows showcasing interpretations of the sinking of ‘Ciudad de Barcelona’, designed by student participants of the project.
The memorial has been and continues to be a work of participation.
Public workshops led by MacDonald have encouraged people across Catalonia to come and help carve the stone sculptures. So far hundreds have cooperated and the aim is for 1,000 participants to become involved in the physical act of carving the stone.
In partnership with Solidarity Park teachers from countries such as; Spain, Germany, and Australia and from different specialities; History, Art, English, Catalan and Spanish have been working on an educational project about the sinking of the ship “Ciudad de Barcelona”. The students are encouraged to undertake research and the focus is the positives of internationalism.
Students are also directly involved in design aspects of the monument and helping to create it, particularly the ‘community portholes’ (as mentioned above).
It is hoped the teaching programme will be extended across Catalonia and will continue to be so in future years. International schools are invited to participate.
In addition, artists across the world are producing images of the unknown Brigadistas and interpretations from the ‘Ciudad de Barcelona’ story.
An exhibiton of the participatory efforts above, vital to the process in creating the finished memorial, will be on display in ‘Brigadistas Return’ (exhibition in Civic Centre, Malgrat del Mar, November 2018)
As well as active participation, the project has inspired far-reaching collaboration:
The remaining cost of installation and additional works will be financially covered by the local council.
The details of the project have been translated voluntarily into over a dozen languages
Folk singer Eric Falconer has written a song about ‘Ciudad de Barcelona’ exclusively for the Solidarity Park campaign
‘Hopefully this community participation project will be the start of other similar projects where art, history and political understanding will be put back in the hands of the people. We can only try!’
Press Officer Solidarity Park – Catherine Howley email@example.com
Press officer (Malgrat del Mar) – Montse: firstname.lastname@example.org
Arts and Culture Counsellor (Malgrat del Mar) – Paco: email@example.com
Artist – Rob MacDonald: firstname.lastname@example.org
Archives – Josep Maria Jujol – Arxiu@ajmalgrat.cat (+34) 939764714
www.solidaritypark.com; historical documents, project designs and drawings, student’s artwork, social media, message of support from Ken Loach, international reach: the project in 15 languages
Videos; Exhibition promotion, Crowd-funding video, ‘Solidarity Park: the Story so far’, How to make a Brigadista, Student participatory videos
Artist’s webpage www.robmac.eu