On this Easter weekend, I ask for a pair of goat horns from Es Vedrà.
On this Good Friday of Pascua, as the cloaked, sombre procession takes place on top of Tanit´s mount, D’alt Vila, I call out for a pair of goat horns from Es Vedrà.
El Torre d’es Savinar
Those who have climbed up through the juniper bushes to the old defense tower, el Torre d’es Savinar, and who keep climbing upwards over the rocks, find themselves at a point seemingly at the top of the world. Hurtling into the depths down below, the ancient Phoenician quarry Sa Pedrera reveals its strange inverse cuboid forms; up to the North, the coastline softly curves its way towards Santa Agnès – and there, out to sea, stands the dark, angular cathedral of Es Vedrà.
Looking down from here, the roof of the pirate tower is a circular stage of warm yellow stone teteering above the sharp, craggy points of the island, otherwise surrounded by endless blue. They say someone ended their life here, on this platform – gazing out to Es Vedrà, they set themselves on fire.
Goat, Es Vedrà
This time last year, I stayed at the monastery of Es Cubells, tucked away in the pine forests a short walk away from the village, with its white-washed church – founded by the carmelite monk, Francesc Palau. Here, a dazzling, sunny and photogenic viewpoint featuring the quintessential on-trend Ibiza colours of white and blue – from outside the village bar I watched endless attractive couples wearing designer clothes park their hire car, take some photos, then drive on.
There are some steps around the church leading to a pathway that weaves down the cliffs towards his cave – Francesc Palau´s spring. A small chasm filled with mosses of infinite textures and shades of green, and freshwater trickling into a series of terracotta pots. And back in the hermitage, where the nuns offer bread and pour wine with a fiercely intelligent twinkle in their eyes, there is a cool, dimly-lit reading area with whole volumes dedicated to the monk Francesc Palau’s writings about his extended stays, in the late 1800’s, on the otherwise uninhabited, and uninhabitable, island of Es Vedrà.
the Carmelite monk Francesc Palau (1811-72)
He lived in complete solitude in a cave on that rocky crag, drinking freshwater that flowed in through a crack in the rocks above, and dedicating himself to deep meditation. In those years in the second half of the 18th Century, the Carmelite monk Palau reported repeated encounters with “women of light and celestial beings.”
And in the centuries that followed, no one lived there. As airline radar equipment malfunctioned in the skies above, and nautical navigation systems went a-kilter onboard boats in the surrounding waters, no one ever lived on Es Vedrà. As Catalan boys forged illicit night voyages to the rock in sea kayaks, foraging for gemstones, no one since Palau resided night after night on the island.
Apart from the goats.
…Up there, dotted upon the steep slopes, munching dozens of varieties of rare, threatened fauna – one of which, in buried island folklore, had magical powers, and caused two ibicenco brothers to trick and overcome a giant – el gegant des Vedrà – in order to safely forage the plant to turn into a life-saving poultice for their sick father.
And as Easter weekend approaches, we remember that lesser-known ritual carried out annually amongst the vedraners – the rock´s local land-owning family community – on the Eve of Pascua, Easter Sunday. A rites-of-passage trial in the solemn build-up to the resurrection of Christ, young men would forge their way out to the island of steep rock which has no mooring place, to hunt and kill an Es Vedrà goat with their bare hands, to be feasted on the following day.
In February 2016, island officials moored on Es Vedrà and killed the goat population of Es Vedrà, after prolongued concerns that they were rapidly extinguishing the various varieties of rare and endangered fauna common only to this rocky islet.
Now only their bones, their horns, and the scribbled visions of a Carmelite monk remain as testament to those beings who lived for more than a night and a day on the uninhabitable rock of Es Vedrà.
So, as the Eve of Pascua approaches, I ask whether anyone feels that same urge of the vedraners to take up a small boat, or perhaps sea kayak, and head out to forage for goat horns…
…for the sake of a mystic, magnetic rocky crag, and the tales it has yet to tell.
Theatre of the Ancients, Ibiza
Good Friday, 2018.
‘The Goats of Es Vedrà’, puppet designs by Theatre of the Ancients
“…Ibiza, that strange and colourful island
where people retreat to take off their masks,
or don new ones…”
“Nina”, Nina van Pallandt, 1973
Image: Ibiza….a dream? Tony Keeler, 1973
During the 1960´s they began to come – the hippies, the foreigners, descending on a pine-clad island in the Mediterranean which, until that point, had an isolated, almost-medieval culture. Here, on red earth, the hippies roamed barefoot to the sounds of goat bells, and cicadas – sensing through the preserved, peasant traditions and folklore of Eivissa a strange, ancient magic.
The foreigners used paint and canvas, word, dance and rhythm to give voice to this magic… they gathered often, but especially on full moon nights, to celebrate a wild, dark, and addictive force, known by those who built the Carthaginian cult here, millenia ago, as the moon goddess, Tanit. And legend has it that in those days, nothing more was required for these gatherings than a simple, white-washed country finca… it was the souls in attendance who harnessed their own colours and imaginations – creating unscripted, moonlight-drenched happenings on a tiny forested landmass.
Over decades, the lure of this strange supernatural force, activated by the simplicity of a rhythmic beat, magnetized more and more followers. Thousands heeded its call. The white-washed country fincas grew into Pacha, Priviledge and Amnesia – the superclubs – temples of colour, light, sound and spectacle… where all-night ceremonies took place, hosting thousands of attendees at a time, all seeking the ultimate earthly experience of sensory stimulation, togetherness, communitas.
A new cult grew on an island which had, until then, been known as Eivissa… it swelled to such mighty proportions, as an independent entity on this foreign soil, that it invented a new, recognisable name for its international tribe – Ibiza. But as soon as this new name was conceived, a separation began. The people who flocked to the modern temples of Ibiza didn´t know the soil of Eivissa – nor did they speak its language. Revellers danced beneath a full moon, absorbing the magical forces of an ancient Phoenician goddess who had for centuries brought fertility to the island´s fields, valleys and orchards, but left without caring to visit them – or the springs and wells that had always fed them. The visitors absorbed this magic for themselves, and then left.
Over the decades, a cultural masking had taken place – over the fragile, soft and quiet culture of Eivissa, something hard-edged, loud and attention-seeking had been placed – a thing called Ibiza. A dazzling mask, a seductive mask, a mask promising infinite things… which could not all be delivered without the causing of some kind of harm.
Nwantantay (plank masks), Nyumu family, village of Boni, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.
In village communities of Burkina Faso, West Africa, artists are commissioned by village elders to create the tall, striking, wooden Bwa plank masks, covered with an intricate language of black and white symbols. The symbolism on the masks is a coded map – a guide to all that is sacred to that particular community… the masks are worn at ritual dances, corresponding with specific phases of the lunar calendar and marking important rites of passage for members of the community.
In 2017, on the Spanish island of Ibiza, summer is just beginning, and with it, a season of not completely dissimilar mass-dances in those giant superclub temples. One of them, Woomoon, shapes its identity around ideas of ritual, and the cycles of the moon, more than any other. Here, a mask-maker has just been commissioned to make a set of masks – their only guidance being an image – of two traditional Bwa plank masks from Burkina Faso.
Work in progress: Bwa plank masks, traditional shape designs
The mask-maker sets to work on their commission. They are not given any obligation to acknowledge the traditional meaning of these masks, whose style and aesthetic they are about to adopt. Whether they do or they do not, will not affect the price they will be paid, or the credit they will be given.
But maybe no one is more aware than a mask-maker of the difference between the external and the internal – the outward displayed image, and the internal meaning of something. They are two separate worlds, polar opposites, and to blur them would be… the greatest possible lie that a mask-maker could ever make. So the mask-maker tries, in their way, learn the language of the Bwa plank masks. Perhaps it is an embarrassingly superficial understanding… but to the Ibizan mask-maker, the clumsy attempt is important – no, it´s essential.
Work in progress: mask designs
The mask-maker of Ibiza, just as those of Burkina Faso, gains the best possible cultural understanding of the symbols at their disposal. They then combine it with their imagination, and create their own unique design – a story through symbols.
Work in progress: painting the masks
The story of the masks goes something like this. The crescent moon at the top, just as in the African tradition, is the ´moon of masks´- the moon that shines during the season in which the dance is performed. The checkerboard pattern represents the separation of knowledge and ignorance, initiated and uninitiated. In the Burkina Faso communities, the elders sit on dark hides whilst the fresher, younger initiates sit on lighter hides… in this case, the checkerboard pattern represents the two different cultures of Ibiza and Eivissa, which sit beside, but at odds with each other.
The white zig-zags surrounding the central square panel represent two things in the traditional Bwa plank mask language – first, the serpent that is sacred to Burkina Faso, and secondly, the path of improper behaviour in village society. In these Ibizan masks, the zig-zags symbolise the same things: the destructive, ecologically damaging behaviour of people driven to Ibiza for purely hedonistic reasons, and also – the relatively new snake infestation that has taken place on the island in recent years – an island which, previously, the Phoenician settlers had said to be ‘blessed by the Gods’ because no harmful creatures inhabited it. The new arrival of a poisonous reptile to a once blessed, and harm-free land, is seen by some as a warning.
Woomoon: image by Valya Karchevskaya @Phantomography
The central symbol on each of the masks fuses traditional Bwa plank mask meaning with the visual language created by Violeta Galera, Woomoon´s lead artist. In her language, the motif represents a breast – symbolising creativity and fertility. In the Bwa plank mask language, a circular ring with a dot in the centre represents ‘sacred wells which never run dry’. In this case, the symbol stands for the wells of the island – ancient, sacred sites of ceremony in honour of Tanit, goddess of fertility – still celebrated year on year by the folk dance traditions of Eivissa, but largely overlooked by the tourist visitors of Ibiza.
Beneath the cylindrical mouth of each mask are three, barely visible black triangles. In the Bwa plank mask tradition these represent three tears for the death of an elder. On these masks, they are three tears for the death of Ibiza´s river, the Riu de Santa Eularia – a once abundant river which traversed the island from its source in the North West to its mouth in the East – a river whose gradual demise over the last four decades took place in parallel with the expansion of tourism, and the increasing depletion of a limited water supply.
Woomoon at Amnezia (Woomoon Facebook page)
In the villages of Burkina Faso, the masks are given initiatory names by their creators, based on the unique combination of motifs used. In public performances, however, a different name is given to the masks, chosen by their new owner. In a similar fashion, the mask-maker of Ibiza names each of their masks after two magical wells in the north of the island – Balàfia and Atzaro – but from the day of the first performance onwards, these names will not be known, acknowledged or used.
Woomoon: image by Valya Karchevskaya @Phantomography
The mask-maker lets the season of summer dances pass by, in those giant superclub temples of Ibiza, and observes an endless stream of images celebrating two, nameless masks. As the summer recedes, and the temples of Ibiza shut their doors, those who once flocked here go elsewhere. The season is over.
Now, the mask-maker can tell their story. The story behind a mask – because in the end, all masks come off. The story behind an image – because with time, all images lose their appeal. The story of two masks whose true names are Balàfia and Atzaro, named after two wells on an island blessed by a goddess of hedonism, and fertility… an island whose true name is Eivissa.
This is the week that everything changes. This is the week that the fine line between art…and business…is drawn. This is the week that tests the possibly of doing things with commercial success – but also with heart. This is the week that love and devotion have to be measured, limited, reduced. This is the week that I must somehow define my ´price´. This is the week that I have to wrap one of my most treasured objects in cellophane and plaster of paris, not knowing for sure that I will ever actually be able to remove it.
This is the week I become an almost-commercial podenco builder.
First, they asked me if I would sell them my two podenco puppets – based on the Ibizan hunting hound brought with the Phoenicians from Ancient Egypt, several thousand years ago. The proposition was disturbing – or maybe, what really disturbed me was how an almighty institution like that could make me feel, simply by suggesting that I give to them what is dear and precious to me for personal, creative and financial reasons. So then we thought of a better plan – that I would make them two brand new podencos of their very own. But based on the available budget, I would need to make these two podencos in five days, and the original ones took about three weeks…
Suddenly I´m no longer a craftsperson doing things for the love of it. I´m going commercial – it´s time to be scrupulous, its time to be cold and calculated. Time is of the essence – as well as being experimental with my mindset, this week I am going to be experimental with my medium. It´s time to try plaster of paris…
I´ve wrapped him in plastic and sellotape. And though it´s only monday morning of this strangest of strange weeks, I have already begun to converse with the podencos. I have told them that, this week, they have to do an unheard of thing – something I can barely believe I am asking them to do. They have to sacrifice themselves, offer themselves up, in order to give birth to a new set of podencos. We have discussed this at length. I have listened to their concerns, answered their questions. In principle, only one of them needs to be sacrificed, so it takes a while to reach the delicate decision of which podenco will be the one. The appointed dog has stepped forward, been covered with plastic and a liberal sponging of olive oil, and now he´s being mummified with plaster of paris bandages…a strangely apt ritual echoing those of his fatherland, Ancient Egypt.
But it will soon go disastrously wrong, and the first big lesson will be delivered. After three hours I realise that that embracing a new, unfamiliar medium last minute, as a supposedly quicker, more durable and convenient solution to my familiar cardboard, has been a mistake. I am left with two, irregular-shaped plaster halves of a podenco head which do not fit together, a studio covered in white powder, and a beloved podenco puppet covered in ripped plastic, white plaster stains, and a scalpel cut running down the front and back of its body. I have almost lost an entire working day to this failed mummification experiment, and I have also nearly lost one of my most prized puppets. My first day´s attempt at being a commercially successful artist has not been successful.
Lesson two: only under real pressure do you discover what you are capable of, what you know best, and how to make sound decisions. With one fifth of my making days lost already, I´ve cleaned the white plaster grime out of my studio and I am starting afresh with cardboard. Today, some kind of epiphany takes place. I feel strangely calm as I re-wrap the podenco in a fresh coating of plastic and sellotape, cook cornflour paste and soak my first batch of cardboard scraps. I am seriously behind schedule, but I feel almost drugged by the bliss of returning to the medium that I know and love… it has ease and familiarity. The cornflour paste is still warm, I am somehow soothed by the earthy brown and beige tones of the cardboard as I squeeze water out of my ripped cardboard pieces. This, the world of cardboard-mache, is the world I belong in, and it was ridiculous to think of trying to jump into another one.
This morning, time is of the absolute essence, but something magical is happening – I´m in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi´s flow state. The pressure´s on, but I feel I´m where I need to be, and doing the thing that I do best. Never before have I been so aware of the fact that I am being paid a quite decent wage, right now, to do all of the things which used to be a weird craft obsession – ripping, cutting, gluing and pasting cardboard in a particular way, based on having done it many times, each time learning new, better ways to do it. It begins to dawn on me that perhaps this niche cardboard skill of mine is useful, valuable – that it might even earn me a living.
In a couple of hours I have literally created my first new podenco. That felt too easy. He bakes in the midday sun outside the studio, and then I cut down the front, separate the two sides, and release my old, plastic covered podenco from within. It´s a weird moment. I feel like a midwife engaged in an ancient Egyptian birthing rite. When the cellophane-wrapped podenco beneath is liberated once more, I hug it.
The first new, post-podenco is sculpted into life by the end of the day. And I must admit, this is when one of several perplexing questions of the week arises… If it is actually so very easy to reproduce my creations on demand, for the super-rich Ibiza clubbing industry, does that mean that my original creations have less value…?
We are most certainly in the flow. It´s all a happy blur of Radio 4, Michael Meade podcasts and coffee. I seem to now have four podencos, and it´s still only wednesday. How has this happened? The new ones are smooth and beautiful – slightly bigger than the original ones, they seem a different breed. More meaty, stocky. Older, wiser.
I´m giving them their own breastplate, with the Woomoon symbol, as requested, the shape of a crescent moon. And as I make these creatures my ideas about them are changing. Previously, it had felt really important to make sure that they were different from my own podencos – painted differently from my usual style, different colours – black and gold and orange? These will be the ´commercial´ podencos, I thought. I don´t want anyone to confuse them with the old,´authentic´ ones…
But now I´m realising that I cannot make two new podencos, or in fact anything, without them being some kind of authentic expression of me. Regardless of constraints of time or money, I can´t just make a ´commercial´thing. Yes, they are a very different breed, these new hounds. Their creation, their reason for being here is completely different to that of the originals….and yet they have unwittingly become two more creations that have meaning to me, whether I like it or not. They have been made solely for commercial reasons – their price and value was negotiated and fixed before they came into being – and yet they´ve still become…meaningful creatures. They might be the commercial podencos, but they have their own story – just a different story.
They are getting different eyes, these new, fancy podencos. I would like them to be more Egyptian, and for their original brother and sister podencos to remain the more earthy, Eivissan countryside descendants – less Anubis, more island hunting hound. These new ones are feisty, a bit intimidating, a bit sexy. Clubland will just love them.
When I´m looking at my family of four podencos, I like to mix them up. They seem different variations of the same family. In a few days time, two of them will stay in the countryside of Balafia, San Lorenzo, whilst the other two will descend to the South, and have special boxes made for them – they will either be in their special protective boxes, or performing – parading through the throngs of fashionable people, to the sounds of house, tribal and techno music. But these two different variations still come from the same place, and are of the same family. It amazes me that these two breeds sit well together. It amazes me that even in the commercial domain, things can feel special, meaningful, even a little magical. It is possible. It amazes me that during the course of one week doing a supposedly calculated, ´commercial´ job, things can unfold which are unexpected, and which simply could not have been controlled or predicted. I suddenly realise that is what makes art meaningful, and magical.
I´ve headed South. I´ve put a special frock on. I am thirsty, because I wanted to buy a drink but I discovered they cost 12 Euros. But apart from that, I am happy to be here and absorb the typically Ibizan atmosphere – the distant pine-forested hills are soaked in gold, the music is tribal, hippies and shamans mix with millionaires and botoxed Instagram celebrities. A bundle of nonsensical contradictions which somehow gel together…nothing new there. Welcome to Ibiza.
A backstage door opens, and a pair of tall podenco ears emerge, then another pair. Far away, across the crowd, a parade has begun, weaving between the people. I can see my podencos approaching me – but already something has changed. On the journey South they slipped from me and became someone or something else´s – not mine. I´m glad to let them go. I am not attached to them. I think I have already lost interest in them.
* * *
Days later, the exhaustion has eased, and I´m doing an important thing. I mix a new batch of cornflour paste, soak some cardboard, and start the careful task of mending my podencos – sealing over the scalpel blade cuts and wounds which were inflicted for the sake of birthing their new Egyptian, clubland ancestors. I use papier-mache to bandage over the cut marks. The new cardboard patches are a slightly different colour, so the two dogs will now have a paler strip running down the middle of their faces. And I give the hounds a gift I had promised them, a reward for all that they went through. A new element of folkloric decoration – braided palm-leaf belts, with a repeat pattern of string semi-circles above. It was important to do this, as a demonstration of what value really is, to me, even in the commercial world. Time. Attention. Love. Devotion. Craft.
And now things are much as they were before. I don´t think I have become commercially successful. It´s still a baffling subject to me. I still have two podenco puppets, and I´m very attached to them – more so than before. These days they are more decorated, and they also have an odd, pale streak down the centre of their faces. It´s a long story.