Comment: Drawing conclusions from the work of El Roto

The work of Spanish cartoonist Andrés Rabago, otherwise known as El Roto, features regularly in El País, the country's highest-circulation daily newspaper.

The work of Spain's esteemed political satirist, Andrés Rabago, is currently on display in CAC Málaga - and no social, religious and economic stone goes unturned, found Matthew Clayfield.

The Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga is currently hosting an exhibition of works by El Roto, the pseudonym of Spanish cartoonist Andrés Rabago, whose work appears regularly in the daily newspaper El País. Entitled 'Apocalipsis: Cartoons from the Book of Debits and Credits', the exhibition is striking not only for its size—271 works arranged in four themed sections — but also for its unbridled anger. His sense of revulsion is almost palpable. It drips off the canvas and onto the parquet.

'Apocalipsis' closely resembles Los Caprichos, a series of 80 aquatint prints created by Spain's greatest artist, Goya, in 1797 and 1798, which he described as a condemnation of "the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society" and "the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual". Like Goya, El Roto rarely mocks anyone outright, tending instead towards archetypes that render his critique more universal. He also shares Goya's tendency towards grotesques — in one image, two revolting-looking businessmen raise their glasses: "for another crisis like this one" — and the master's anti-clericalism. One of the simplest and most graphically striking cartoons in the show shows a minaret, a church steeple and a radio tower in a row, with the Burroughs-like caption: "Control towers."

On the day that I visited the exhibition, El Roto's cartoon in El País showed a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. The caption appeared in red ink: "How to contain the air that immigrants carry in their lungs?"

The cartoon was a response to events in Ceuta and Melilla, Spain's autonomous exclaves on the north coast of Africa, which have drawn international condemnation this month. On February 6, Spain's Guardia Civil used anti-riot equipment, including rubber bullets, blank cartridges and smoke canisters, to stop sub-Saharan African migrants from swimming to Ceuta from neighbouring Morocco. While hundreds tried to climb the border fence, others attempted to swim around the man-made breakwater that separates Spanish and Moroccan waters. An estimated 15 migrants drowned and 23 others, who reached the shore, were forced back across the border without formal procedures. A week-and-a-half later, 150 African migrants made it into Melilla after an assault on the border fence there. (For its part, Morocco has previously been accused of rounding up migrants from various sub-Saharan countries and, according to Amnesty International, "either summarily deport[ing them] to Algeria or dump[ing them] in desert areas close to the border with Mauritania.") El Roto's critique was less oblique than usual: the fence in his cartoon was very clearly the one that runs along Melilla's border with Morocco.

Of course, the cartoon could just as easily been a response to last week's events on Manus Island, which I followed from Spain with horror, embarrassment and a complete lack of surprise. Is there a government in the world as committed to answering El Roto's question as our own? Is there a country? The fact that 60 per cent of Australians reportedly want the Abbott government to "increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers" suggests that we're certainly gunning for the dishonour.

This despite the fact that our problem with irregular maritime arrivals — compared to Europe's with irregular economic immigration — is relatively minor. In Australia, between 70 and 90 per cent of all irregular maritime arrivals are eventually found to be genuine refugees. Even if we account for the influx of genuine humanitarian refugees from Syria's civil war, a large portion of irregular arrivals in southern Europe's gateway countries — Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain — are economic migrants. This in no way justifies anti-immigration sentiment as expressed by groups like Greece's Golden Dawn and Italy's Lega Nord, of course, let alone the use of anti-riot equipment in the Ceuta incident. The world's richest countries are more often than not culpable for the poverty such migrants are escaping, just as they often have a hand — or else refuse to lend one — in the instability that leads to great movements of humanitarian refugees in other instances. But at least in countries wracked by debt and unemployment — Greece's unemployment rate is now 28 per cent, Spain's a little over 26 per cent — the pretext is isn't entirely flimsy. In Australia, by contrast, an entirely manageable concern has been transformed into a suppurating moral sore for the sole purpose of winning votes. El Roto may be disgusted by Spain, but he wouldn't know what to do with us. Both major parties' policies have consistently pandered to the worst of what Goya called our "common prejudices" or else created them where they didn't previously exist by means of what he called "deceitful practices." That a mandate to murder is not a mandate worth having never seemed to cross their minds.

But pandering to what John Flaus once called, in a brilliant piece on David Caesar's Mullet, "our 'old' culture (i.e., our old white culture), which was dominant until the 1960s but is now in remission everywhere and moribund in our big towns," isn't going to work in the parties' favour forever. Before coming to Spain, I spent some time in Mount Gambier, South Australia, where I grew up and where my family still lives. One of the greatest changes to the city in the decade since I moved away has been the relative influx of refugees to the community. In 2007, two families of Karen refugees from Burma moved to Mount Gambier as part of a Department of Immigration and Citizenship pilot program designed to resettle refugees in regional areas. Within a year, they had been joined by eight more families, all of whom had spent considerable time in camps on the Thai-Burma border. Since then, nearly a thousand other people — Karens and Kareniis from Burma, Afghanis and Congolese — have been resettled in the Limestone Coast area, too. For some reason, I always notice this most in the supermarket. What I notice is the extent to which nobody else seems to notice.

Similar regional resettlements have not all gone smoothly — two Sudanese men were seriously assaulted in Castlemaine in 2009 — and even at home there's room for improvement. But the change in perspective is obvious, even within my own fairly conservative family. (For its part, Castlemaine held a march against racial intolerance.) At the beginning of January, I had lunch with several of my cousins just outside of Naracoorte, which has resettled nearly 300 Afghanis in recent years, the majority of whom were irregular maritime arrivals. (A couple of them have become shearers.)This represents a population increase of more than five per cent.

"It throws you at first," my cousin, a viticulturalist and father of three, told me. "Harvey comes home from school and talks about his friends Aarash and Majeed and I think, 'God, there weren't any kids with those names when I was at school.' But I think they bring a lot to the community. They're hard-working. They're polite. Harvey's going to grow up with a different idea of what's normal. I think that's a good thing."

A throwaway comment from a family member as he opens an ill-advised third bottle of red is hardly a solid foundation for an argument in favour of unfettered immigration, of course. And indeed an argument for unfettered immigration is not what I'm making here. But it was clear from talking to him — this farmer's son in a safe Liberal seat who'd probably never met a non-European foreigner until a year ago — that none of the usual arguments hold. Australia is not an inherently racist country so much as an inherently ignorant one and a cynical defence of "our old whiteculture" on electoral grounds is likely to exhibit diminishing returns over time. That culture is being born anew — without the italicised "white" — in some of its traditional strongholds. Eventually Harvey's going to grow up and wonder what the fuck his government is doing. We need to change our idea of normal, which has been so thoroughly perverted over the past decade or more. No longer trying to contain the air that the immigrants carry in their lungs would seem to me to be a pretty good a start.

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent currently working in Spain. In 2012, he covered the Greek parliamentary elections in Athens and anti-austerity protests in Madrid.

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