alejandro villén, educating emotionally with images

Por Sebastián Gámez Millán

Alejandro Villén’s illustrations look suspiciously like Alejandro Villén: with their bright colours which haven’t been chosen arbitrarily, unlike in many other contemporary trends, they arouse in us humour and likeability, essential feelings to develop our humanity. Thanks to humour we are more understanding, flexible and tolerant of diversity, which is consubstantial to human nature and that belonging to any other species; and thanks to likeability we can relate better and earlier to “others”, undoing that imaginary border we build between “them” and “us”.

This way, we realise that “we are all us”. The feeling of “likeability” is closely associated to other feelings such as “empathy”, “sympathy”, “pity” (according to María Zambrano’s definition “knowing how to deal with the other one”) or “solidarity”, without which we can’t conceive humanization. As stated by Mexican writer Jorge Volpi, “one of the main functions of literary fiction is to put ourselves in someone else’s place: when doing so, not only do we get ready for potential futures but, when succumbing to other lives and other emotions, we also learn who we truly are” (Mindreading. The brain and the art of fiction, Madrid, Alfaguara, p. 155 and 156).

To date, Alejandro Villén’s most ambitious work project has been to illustrate a book about Bernardo de Gálvez, written by well-known author Guillermo Fesser and commissioned by prestigious publishing house Santillana (USA), for the Historical figures of the Hispanic World collection, which attempts to reassert the role of Ibero-American characters (Christopher Columbus, Cervantes, Simón Bolívar, José Martí, Pablo Picasso, Pablo Neruda, García Márquez) and build cultural bridges between the North American and Ibero-American communities.

Though he achieved many accomplishments and feats, among them his relevant role in the so-called American Revolutionary War, professor, politician and military leader Bernardo de Gálvez (1746-1786), is a rather unknown historical figure, especially in Spain, where significantly enough, the book hasn’t been distributed yet despite the facts that the authors are Spanish and it is about a Spanish person. Nevertheless, a statue of Bernardo de Gálvez stands alongside the statues of the Liberators in Washington D. C. and on December 16th 2014, the president of the United States, Barack Obama, signed the joint resolution of the US Congress whereby Bernardo de Gálvez was declared an honorary citizen of that country 229 years after the end of the American Revolutionary War.

In 2018 an illustration by Alejandro Villén showing the civil political conflict between neighbours of Málaga city centre and tourists, depicted in a piece that recalls The surrender of Breda (1634-1635) by Velázquez, went viral. On the viewer’s left-hand side, we can see the neighbours, who have received a registered fax commanding them to leave their rented flats, due to become tourist apartments. A woman with a shopping trolley stands in the position and mimics the gesture of Justino de Nassau. On the opposite side, we see flags with tourist company logos, men who come from a bachelor party, a man grabbing a beer and taking a selfie at the same time… Ambrosio Spínola is a blond tourist with a suitcase now. Let us hope they reach an agreement that is beneficial and civilized, respecting citizenship norms and allowing a sustainable kind of tourism.

Oddly enough, this image copyright was removed by Alejandro Villén to expand the visibility of the problem and the piece has spread to other cities with the same conflict. It is an example of the universal power of art and the ethical political imagination of Alejandro Villén, who admits he is a neighbour before anything else. Furthermore, the allusion to Velázquez is not coincidental, since he is, along with Bill Watterson and Norman Rockwell, a constant guide in his work as an illustrator.

He usually starts his illustrations by hand but he continues almost the whole process of creation digitally. He mainly works on commission. First of all, he analyses and assesses the project he is offered and responds with sketches that materialise through trial and error exercises. He presents this work to the person who commissions him and, if they agree, he finishes it after some corrections. This method suits the client and the illustrator. He claims to be straightforward and guided by this question: what does the image need to tell? He has a work ethic. Beyond his clients, he has commitments to his profession: firstly, maybe, how to face each project, with what kind of sincerity and responsibility…

In the middle of the endless conflicts of the civilized world, let us hope that work ethics like Alejandro Villen’s, along with an ethical-political imagination like his, allow us to continue building bridges between people, groups and cultures that help us see ourselves, not like “us” and “them” but like human beings.