Aberdeen, one of Scotland's most prominent coastal cities, has a deeper history of industrial and working-class culture. It's from this culture and its stories that Vhils drew inspiration for his latest piece at NuArt festival, based on an unlikely encounter between locals and a ship full of sailors.
At NuArt festival in Aberdeen, known for its plethora of challenging and innovative artistic interventions that seek both to ask and answer pressing questions. Unsurprisingly this year's agenda was full of artist's exploring identity, both local and global, in the face of continued political and social polarisation.
Artist and attendee all inhabit similar parts of the world, not that geography matters much anymore, with globalised 24-hour news homogenising opinion and thought. It's exactly because of our increasingly connected world that identity is on our minds. Portuguese street artist Vhils chose to tackle this issue thoughtfully, interrogating a variety of questions surrounding the ideas of what makes us different, but more importantly, what brings us together,
Vhils chose to depict seaman John Londragan, a subversive figure in Aberdeen's seafaring and docking past who facilitated the strike of a shipload of Spanish sailors as a means of claiming what's rightfully theirs, money that was being held back. He was a figure of rebellion against a system built on exploitation, but also a symbol of solidarity between seemingly disparate peoples. As a figure of identity, on both an individual and collective level, Londragan had it all.
A local communist leader provoked the strikes by entering a docked ship of Spanish sailors to educate them on their rights, the ones they were unaware were being abused by their captain. The ensuing 15 week strike, where the ship was unable to move due to staffing restrictions, meant that sailors were going to struggle to live in Aberdeen with no money and no family. It was here that Londragan and the people of the city thought to step in.
The sailors were housed, clothed and fed by locals, even being taken out to local dances as a means of breaking the monotony of living in a foreign land - a move that many of the local men were worried about. The handsome foreign sailors were all too capable of poaching their wives and girlfriends, they thought. Separate cultures weren't a source of isolation though, rather of bonding and inclusion - it was a reason to embrace these men, after all, their fight was the same one as theirs, albeit in different circumstances.
Negotiations took place between ship-owner and the sailors, eventually brokering a deal. When the sailors left back to Spain, the farewells came with heavy hearts as the men were returning to the ferocious Civil War. Not willing to watch their new friends fight it alone, many from the city and local villages followed them to travel to Spain shortly after, standing beside them to fight against Franco's fascist army.
Growing up in dire poverty, Londragan sought not only a better life for himself, but equality for all. Family members fondly remember him as having a true affinity for Underdogs. It's this story of bravery and transatlantic altruism that Vhils paid tribute to, stating that:
"His story stands to symbolise that we are stronger when united, pushing for a better future for all. I wanted to make this old pic almost develop itself on an old wall in Aberdeen, allowing the past to resurface – reminding us that we should keep it in mind as it can tell us so much about the future."
It's not only a case of our strength together but the idea of breaking down perceived limitations and borders - both geographical and psychological. Beyond national identity, there will always be a solidarity amongst the workers of the world, those exploited or treated unfairly against the one's that reap their rewards.
John Londragan is one symbol of this. We should never underestimate the power of a symbol. His story, and that of his community, is something to keep in mind when looking at new people and experiences. A lot of differences are superficial, but similarities tend to run much deeper.
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