SEVILLA is famous for its ceramic art. It’s impossible not to marvel at the antique tiles lining the city’s churches, palaces – and bars. You can learn about the history of ceramics at the Centro Ceramica Triana, but for traditional ceramics with a playful modern twist, seek out The Exvotos.
Two artists from Sevilla, Luciano Galán and Daniel Maldonado, work together (and speak together) as The Exvotos, and are taking the art world by storm. Their ceramic sculptures have been snapped up by galleries and private collectors as far afield as Australia, North America and Taiwan, and sit in many private homes, public institutions, convents and churches across their home city.
The cabeza recipientes, container heads, (beautiful with a kicker of kitsch), are the most in-demand pieces of a collection of work that uses Spain’s heritage of art and religion as a springboard, but then goes its own way.
Galán and Maldonado have a workshop in Sevilla, hidden in one of those narrow streets north of Las Setas and south of Mercado de Feria. The giant ceramic heart at the entrance, and the strains of music coming from inside – usually classical, sometimes a bit of Cuban, depending on whether or not they need to concentrate – give it away.
Everything inside it is fascinating, from the salvaged wooden furniture to the terracotta heads in various stages of gestation staring blankly from the shelves. Sculptures, from the secular to saints and flamenco clowns, are posed under the kind of glass bell jars the Victorians used for displaying stuffed birds. “Here we call the jars fanales. We love them!”
When people step into this world, “they are delighted and we are proud. To create beautiful objects you have to surround yourself with beauty. We are still working on the decoration, but I think we can call the look, a ‘cabinet of curiosities’.”
The two artists are, much like their art, part serious, part funny, and deeply rooted in the classical tradition. Both went to Sevilla’s Escuela de Arte, then won grants to study abroad. Galán, who studied wood carving, sculpture, and clay modelling, travelled to Venice to learn Venetian mask-making techniques. Maldonado, who studied ceramic painting, went to Lisbon to work in 18th century ceramic art restoration. Returning to Sevilla in 2001, they combined their complementary skills.
“It sounds very romantic to say it, but we are really now in a situation where our life is art and our work is our life.”
The name ‘Exvotos’ comes from the tradition of offering something in thanks for divine intervention. An ex-voto might be a painting showing the miracle giver in the act of sorting out a problem; a painting or statue of the helpful saint; or an object relating to the miracle itself. Over the centuries, mariners and fisherman have left models of ships and boats in churches all along the Spanish coast in thanks for returning alive; farmers have left figures of animals; and arms, legs and torsos cut out of tin or zinc have been left by those cured of disease. Some objects are grand, but most are folk art, humble and a little home-spun. These days, ex-votos are more likely to be plaster casts, baby shoes and football shirts. There is a big collection outside the Capilla del Señor de la Puerta Real in Jerez.
Popular religious art is a central influence, but the idea of ex-votos exists all over the world and predates Christianity. The famous cabezas, for example, were inspired by terracotta heads the Romans made for their ancient gods.
Further inspiration comes from theatre, opera, and from films: “Classic movies like Cleopatra, Samson and Delilah, and Bitter Rice as well as good recent ones, like Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Joker. We watch cycles of Italian, French, Japanese, and, of course, Spanish cinema”. The bright and joyous ambiance of sunny southern Spain also feeds into the creative mix.
Some of the container heads have the look of women at a feria with their rouged cheeks and coronas of flowers . . . or fruit. The heads are hollow, and can be used for flowers, and come in different sizes, the biggest standing around 32 cm, and costing €700-800. There are also toreros and admirals, and others inspired by Greek mythology, including an unsettling Medusa and a Neptune, the back of his head encrusted with clams, and with coral as a crown.
They make the popular ex-voto body parts (“we have feet, hands, eyes . . . it’s funny when people ask how much an ear costs!”), and there are statues of saints, ranging from 32-65 cm, and starting around €600. Their saints are traditional, respectful and exquisite – but also endearing and funny. Studying them closely, it’s hard to work out why. They are similar to the antique figurines you might see in a church or museum, but there is something in the exaggerated gestures of their hands, the hint of a double chin, and the attitude in their glossy faces, that sets them apart.
They are reverent . . . but with a guiñon, a wink.
“On the one hand, we have traditional training – we know the methods, the 17th century techniques, and the pieces we make have a gravitas,” say the artists. “On the other hand, we have a great sense of humour, and while we have enormous respect for tradition and we don’t want to offend, we do like to have fun.”
The collection also includes paintings, wall hangings, candelabra, lamp stands, and candlesticks on which faces and torsos emerge out of the ceramic like figureheads on a ship, and collections of hand-painted plates – though surely no-one dares to put food on them? “We have clients who keep them only for decoration, but others who give lunches using our pieces,” they say, “and we eat off them too!”
Everything is hand-crafted, start to finish. For ceramic sculptures, that process can take up to 90 days to complete, from pencil sketch to miniature 3D model, through to modelling, drying, glazing, firing, decorating and painting.
Unsurprisingly, the waiting list for private commissions is long. Some assignments can be challenging: “Our strangest so far was a painted ex-voto dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe by a wonderful lady who lost her partner through the fault of his children,” they say. “We had to synthesise that story into a wooden panel.”
Galán and Maldonado work internationally, with interior designers who give them “the freedom to let our inspiration take us wherever it wants”. Closer to home, their patrons include the Marbella Club, where “we continue to collaborate in bringing dreams to life – for example, we had an idea for a fireplace and we were able to do it there. This year, we’ll be working in the hotel’s beach club.”
You’ll also find their pieces in the Marbella Club store, and on the exvotos.com website, and instagram (@theexvotos).
Visits to the studio are by appointment only. Tel +34 670 58 66 09; email@example.com