Swansea and Chile: exploitation, sanctuary, fulfilment

May 6, 2022 0 Comments
Josef Herman, Miners (1951) (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery) (detail)

The Glynn Vivian has a show of work from its collection on the theme ‘art and industry’.  It’s full of wonderful and thought-provoking things: well-known paintings as well as much less familiar items on paper and in other media. 

A whole wall is taken up with Josef Herman’s massive ‘Miners’ oil painting of 1951, surely one of the finest pieces of art to emerge from the Festival of Britain. In the subdued light at the end of the room it shines powerfully, a hymn to the strength and dignity of labour.  New to me is a large etching by Frank Brangwyn called ‘The last of HMS Britannia’ (c1917).  The skeletal training ship, beached and helpless, looms darkly over the scene, against a circle of light refracted through mist.  At the bottom are numerous workmen, not monumental but tiny as ants, busy dismantling and stripping the carcass of the old vessel.

Frank Brangwyn, The last of HMS Britannia (c1917)

Unsurprisingly, several works in the show feature Swansea’s copper industry.  Just before you enter the main room, in the link from the original building, there’s a small display that’s easy to miss, about Swansea’s links with Chile.  At its centre is a long rectangular cuboid, crusty, multi-coloured and heavy-looking.  It’s a copper block, one of thousands transported by sailing ship from Valparaíso and other ports in Chile to Swansea for smelting (this one came from the Lapwing, a ship wrecked off the Isle of Wight in 1872).  The Swansea smelting industry was unusual, in that the ore came from afar to be treated: economically this made more sense than transporting the fuel (coal) for the smelting process to where the ore was.  As Chris Evans and Louise Miskin explain in their book Swansea copper: a global history, ore was first sourced from Cornwall, Parys Mountain, Anglesey and elsewhere, but as the industry grew new, larger mines needed to be used, even if they were half way across the world.  In the 1830s and 1840s Cuban and then Chilean mines supplied Swansea with huge quantities of copper ore.

Ignacio Acosta, Las Campagnias, Coquimbo (2014)

Other traces of the Chile copper trade survive today, for example the memorial stones, in graveyards in Wales and Valparaíso, of Welsh sailors who made the dangerous journey across the southern Atlantic, or the ‘bells of Santiago’, brought to Wales to Graham Vivian, of the Swansea copper industry family, and returned to Chile by Oystermouth Parish Church in 2010.  But survival is distributed unequally.  Two recent photos by Ignacio Acosta in the exhibition show, first, the lower Tawe today, cleansed of his copper past, except for the name ‘Copper Quarter’ given to new riverside flats, and second, an abandoned copper mine at Coquimbo in central Chile, preserved by a dry climate and a disinclination to sweep the past away in favour of the modern.

Humberto Gatica

A new chapter in the relationship between Chile and Swansea began when in September 1973, when General Augusto Pinochet, with the help of the US government, overthrew the democratically elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende.  Britain’s Labour government accepted many refugees fleeing from Pinochet’s murderous rule – a policy in complete contrast to the miserly attitude of the Johnson government to Ukranian refugees today.  Some settled permanently in Swansea, including Humberto Gatica, a poet and photographer.  Some of his pictures are in the exhibition.  One of them is a collage that conveys vividly the violent fractures opened up in the lives of many Chileans by the coup and subsequent repression.

Rocio Fifuentes

Another Chilean who settled in Swansea was Jose Cifuentes.  He too fled imprisonment and torture at the hands of Pinochet’s regime, with his wife Maria Cristina and their one-year-old daughter Rocio, in 1976.  Jose became an educational psychologist in Swansea and in 2016 published a book, Revolutionary dreams: from Chile to Wales: the story of a young family’s escape from Pinochet’s fascist regime in the 1970s, translated from the Spanish by his daughter.  Two weeks ago Rocio Cifuentes took up her new post as the new Children’s Commissioner for Wales (the Commission is responsible for promoting and protecting children’s right and making sure that Welsh Government policies take account of children’s interests).  The stories of father and daughter are remarkable – but by no means unusual – examples of how the act of giving refuge to those fleeing oppression and trouble often leads to the immense enrichment of the sheltering society.  It’s a lesson our current Westminster xenophobes are yet to learn.

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