by BILI PUIG DE LA BELLACASA
MARÍA CASTAÑEYRA RUIZ, A NATIVE OF FUERTEVENTURA, STUDIED HISTORY OF ART AND, ONCE SHE FINISHED, SHE GOT A JOB IN ARCHAEOLOGY, A FIELD IN WHICH SHE HAD BEEN SPECIALISING WITH A MASTER DEGREE AND HER THESIS ON PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY, THE STUDY ON BONES.
At the age of 35, she works as a Research Assistant in the University of Liverpool. She arrived in England thanks to the scholarship of the Fundación Canarias Doctor Manuel Morales and to her tenacity: «You were supposed to have previous contacts with the University you chose, but I had none. I was sure I wanted to study Facial Reconstruction and in Liverpool was Caroline Wilkinson, one of the best in the world in this field».
The moment was right as well because, when she wrote her application to the University, the artist and photographer Francesca Philips was developing the idea of her Exhibition about the Search for Ancestral Faces. Its purposes consisted in giving a face to the Canarian identity through a comparative study between the contemporary and aboriginal population in Fuerteventura. «She had already taken pictures of the contemporary population, and she then needed to create the images of the ancestral faces of the first aborigines».
As is common among Canarian people, María’s aim was to give the islands the best visibility she could, «when I finished my thesis, I thought about something that hadn’t already been done in the islands, so I wrote to several places and in Liverpool they involved me in this project».
This is how everything started. The process took one and a half year to complete, and the period was divided into different phases. «To obtain facial reconstructions, we first examine the skulls (they can be found in the Canarian Museum) and the facial characteristics, we scan them, we make a 3D copy and, through a software, we put layers of tissues according to an average we calculated about how the soft tissues could have been: their water, fat, muscles… For the Canarian population I used an average from the North of Africa».
Till 31st March, the exhibition was staged in the Canarian Museum, and it is now waiting for a new destination. «To whoever has the chance to, I recommend them to visit it. It is a very interesting exhibition, and not only on a conceptual level — since it is a beautiful idea —, but also on a performance level, because it is really emotional to see the two faces, the aboriginal and the contemporary, one opposite the other».
This project was the starting point of the next one, which consists in the identification and facial reconstruction of the African immigrants who died trying to reach Fuerteventura on fishing boats and are now buried on the island. The first boat to be registered landed on the Canary Islands in 1994 and till last year migrants kept arriving in Lanzarote; the most terrible years for the arrival of these boats from Africa were 2005 and 2006, when the tragedy destroyed the coasts of Fuerteventura.
«There are immigrants buried on all the Canaries and depending on the cemetery, the niches are identified somehow: some have «immigrant» written on them, others have «African» and the date of death».
Some of us may feel overwhelmed by the responsibility and the burden of having such a precious study in our hands, but María — on the contrary — looks very calm, secure and patient. «It usually takes years to complete a study with this characteristics. We are now in a first phase of gathering data to try to give a name to these people who died in the sea and find their families. I’m going to Senegal in October for this reason».
This is a pilot project in the Canary Islands, with a local start but with an international perspective. «This project got the cooperation of the University of La Laguna and the University of Milan, where Cristina Catanero works; she is in charge of the immigrants’ identification of the University and she is one of the best in the world. The final objective of this project is to create a useful database to be used at the international level and to try to validate facial reconstruction as a method for the identification of dead illegal immigrants, helping their families find them. We want to find a way for both living and dead people to finally be at peace».
A part of the data they have to combine comes from forensic data about these people that had previously been collected. «In some cases, we count on a forensic analysis and photos of the corpses, and sometimes on digital prints, but exhumation is fundamental. We clearly know that it’ll be the most difficult thing to get, but we hope to achieve that, given the importance of the cause of helping families be at peace. There are niches occupied by people that we know are Africans and whose families are waiting for news».
When we asked her about her favourite part in this process, she could not choose, she said she likes every stage of it. «When you work on facial reconstruction, you give features to the job you’ve been doing for so long; moreover, it is really nice to see how an image gets reconstructed according to the averages you calculated; sometimes it comes out exactly the way you imagined that».
What do you miss the most about your life in Fuerteventura?
I easily adapt to changes and I’m happy to live in England; plus, there are regular flights connecting with Spain. I miss the sun and what I really find hard is to write in English (laughing), but I am happy.