Home / Artists / Heroic volunteers of freedom

Heroic volunteers of freedom

osjk12017 marks the 80th Anniversary of the sinking of the ocean liner ‘Ciudad de Barcelona’ (City of Barcelona).The ship was carrying ‘International Brigadistas’ – socialist volunteers who fought alongside Spanish revolutionaries in the 1936-9 civil war against General Francisco Franco’s fascism.  ‘Solidarity Park’ is a significant new memorial to the International Brigade fighters being created by sculpture artist Rob MacDonald of Bad Art.


James Ivens speaks to Rob MacDonald to uncover the unusual story, design and participatory process planned for the memorial.


James: So what happened the day this ship went down – and why was it sunk?

Rob:  The Ciudad de Barcelona – which was bringing, it’s believed, 300 brigadistas to join the struggle – was sunk by a torpedo on 30 May 1937, just off the coast of Malgrat de Mar, Catalonia.

The ship was supposed to be carrying civilians, as the brigadistas aboard were joining the fight clandestinely. Still it was attacked by a fascist submarine, lent by the forces of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. This is because Mussolini supported Spain’s fascist-led ‘Nationalist’ forces in the civil war, against the anti-fascist ‘Republican’ forces.download (2)

There is still historical research to be done as documents were secret, but we know now at least 45 of the brigadistas died. Some accounts say up to 65. The truth is very likely a lot higher. They would have died unrecorded, unknown. We also know now that at least 23 of the men that survived the sinking were to die later in the conflict.

Many more were saved, too. The torpedo was heard in the villages nearby and the fishermen and other citizens in Malgrat de Mar rushed to the rescue.

This is a major event in Catalan history. But as with many other stories in the Spanish Civil War, much information was lost or silenced during the fascist dictatorship’s years in power, and now not many people know about it. At this year’s anniversary we plan to put that right and start the process for a major memorial to what is a fascinating and revealing story of the times.


What inspired you to create the memorial?

When I first moved to Spain I wanted to get involved in the struggle and try to make an impact here. My political knowledge of Spanish history was basic, so I was always keen to learn details of local history. One of my political references as a younger man was the lessons of the Spanish Civil War and, like many people, the heroic actions of the brigadistas inspired me.

So one day, not long after I had arrived, I was wasting time flicking through Facebook and I came across some emotional accounts of men who had survived the sinking of the ship. I was deeply moved by the accounts of the men singing the Internationale, the world anthem of socialism, as the ship sank. But I was stung silent when I read that one ‘Rob MacDonald’ – my namesake – was one of these guys.jack 4png

It hit me that Rob had not made it to Spain to join the struggle for socialism, but I had. After that I knew I had to make a sculpture to him. After some further investigation it became clear to me that the whole story of all these brigadistas, the people of Malgrat de Mar, and in fact the broader story, needed telling as widely as possible.


Tell us why you think this particular story is so important.

As I said, the actual story of the Ciudad de Barcelona is largely unknown. That it was one of Mussolini’s submarines that sank the ship; how the men sang the Internationale as they died; and how the local community rushed to their aid, saving many.

But there is the wider political story of the period that is largely suppressed too. How these brigadistas came from across the planet to fight not just against fascism, but for a better world, free of oppression – a socialist world.

I think now is the time that young people in Catalonia and across Spain and the world need to hear what these men stood for, why they came to Spain. Not just an academic history lesson, but a practical lesson for understanding and dealing with today’s issues.

We have the Trumps and Le Pens of this world who want you to think it’s the immigrants’ fault that you don’t have a job or a home or decent public services, that it’s refugees taking all the resources. With these defenders of the capitalist establishment, even with the ones who pose as anti-establishment like the populist right does, it’s always somebody else’s fault. They want to channel working-class anger, which is really caused by the attacks of the capitalists, into hate and blame against other workers, the poor and the oppressed.

The brigadistas came to Spain to fight the most extreme expression of those ideas. They stood for genuine equality, solidarity and a socialist world. For me this is reason enough to build a memorial as a beacon, however small, to humanity.


Tell us more about the artwork itself.

The key inspiration is the men singing the Internationale as the ship went down. So the memorial consists of 60 sculpted brigadistas singing. Each will be built on the same template to express their unity, but each will be hand-crafted and have individual aspects to celebrate their differences.X01 1

The Brigadistas on the boat came from all around the world: USA, Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, Poland, Germany, Britain, Austria, Denmark, France, Australia Norway, New Zealand… Those are just the places we know some of them came from, but some likely came from other places too.

The 60 brigadistas are set aboard a stone ship. I didn’t want the ship sinking, that felt negative, so I have set it riding high across a stone patio of the world. This makes the memorial into a small park. So in the design we added seats in the form of waves, so the area could be somewhere to relax and contemplate everything, and again make it something the community can participate in.


But the idea is more than just a stone monument. We want a community project to develop with things like workshops, historical information-gathering and educational programmes. It’s with collaboration, that’s the way we can really learn the lessons for today.


How will you make the sculptures?

They will be cut, chiselled, carved, sanded and polished, mainly by hand, from local limestone. Actually the quarry I plan to buy the stone from is near one of the last front lines in the civil war in central Catalonia.

Resources allowing, I will form a special new workshop in the town of Malgrat itself just for this project. I see it as a type of method acting – I want to immerse myself in every aspect of the town and its people today. In doing this I want to give local people the opportunity to come in the workshop and participate. I also want the international community, which normally floods the town every summer, to come and take part too.

There’s lots to do when you make 60 sculptures of a half-metre each. So there will be a chance for people to learn a bit of sculpting too. Most people never get the chance to do that; sculpting is often seen as elite art – it’s not, you can sculpt with anything – but it’s hard to get a chance at a level like this.


So this is going to be a participatory project?

Yes! as much as possible I want people keeping me company in the workshop. That way we all create it together. This is important to me, as the collaborative and inclusive approach is central to the socialist ideas the brigadistas stood for.

The project, from the beginning, is a link between the local community and the international community. So at every stage we are trying to strengthen that, make that the driving force.

We want as much as possible to involve the local community in the actual creation of the work. For example, a part from having people coming to the workshop, we also intend for secondary school students to be involved in designing what we are calling “community portholes.” These will be carvings in the shape of the windows of the ship that will tell the story of the day and wider events.

Too many memorials are weird, abstract shapes, or boring blocks of stone, created by a hidden artist. That can be OK – but they don’t have any participation in them; they’re not really owned by the community they’re supposedly put there for. For me, the art is as much the process as the result. So I hope we can take a different route with this one.


Who else is involved in the project so far?

The project started when I met the group who had pieced together the events for the 75th anniversary, Amics del Ciudad de Barcelona. Some of them are local, some international; they are all doing a fantastic job researching and gathering information, documenting and getting the event to be known.

Among them there are some historians and a filmmaker. I presented to them my draft ideas and since then we have worked together in numerous meetings, doing presentations to the local council, shoot a promotional video, etc.

As we develop the project more local people are getting involved voluntarily as for example there is this local architect who helped with some technical aspects.

We also have some of the families of the survivors, who are all an inspiration. Very recently I found the other Rob MacDonald’s family. It took a lot of online searching, but amazingly I found them! I always wanted to link up with them, it has been an emotional and profound experience for me.

We have the support of many workers’ movement figures, like Sean Hoyle, president of Britain’s militant National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers.

Our latest supporter is Eric Faulkner, a great folk singer, who has written a very moving song about Rob and the Ciudad de Barcelona brigadistas. We hope to release it to help raise funds for the memorial.


So how can people help?

Well, get involved! Join the Facebook group (details below), add to and share our experiences as we make the project come to live. We want to be as transparent and open in the process as we can. What would also be great is to share the story, because it’s a story of great humanity, but also we know there’s more history to uncover.

The first stage of the finance is going to come from a crowd-funding campaign, so of course a donation is useful.

In 1938 the International Brigades produced an internal document saying there should be a memorial to these men built on the beach front. That they were “heroic volunteers for freedom” killed by “fascist pirates.” Now it’s the 80th anniversary, so time to get on with it I think.


Who is your artistic inspiration?

All people I know trying to be artists.

What right now is your favourite work by another artist?

I think it’s the hundred or so graffiti artists who are doing the work on a long wall next to my Barcelona workshop. There is space for about ten plus works. It’s like open democracy every day, for months two or more images appear over other ones. Each one is brilliant. I’m mesmerised by it.

If you were not a sculptor what would you be?

A cosmologist looking for aliens.

Could you describe the arts world today in five words?

Leaking out through prison bars!

If you had one political wish, what would it be?

That the German revolution of 1918 had been a success, and the world socialist revolution started in 1917 in Russia could have continued. Then maybe we would be the second or third generation of a socialist world, and all the suffering since wouldn’t have happened.

Scroll To Top