Neurodivergence and tokenism in the arts!

November 18, 2019 § Leave a comment

Fragementation 2

Stills from video capture: Sonia Boué, 2017

I’m autistic. It’s my job to be anxious. Being anxious is one of the things I do best, so I’ve done some good worrying about some of the more recent approaches I’ve experienced from arts organisations who I am not in partnership with.

I’ve started to fear the spectre of tokenism towards neurodivergence in the arts and worry that the direction of Arts Council England’s (ACE) 2020-2030 strategy could even unwittingly fuel such a development. I’m also worried about artists funding in general and for neurodivergent artists in particular, a concern which runs though my piece.

I believe that good practice for working with and supporting neurodivergence in the arts is emergent and there is much to be hopeful about in the coming decade. But I remember reading ACE’s Shaping the next ten years draft strategy document at the consultation stage and wondering what its shifting imperatives might lead to, including the possible contortions on the part of those seeking funding to fit criteria set by ACE. I’ll need to go around the houses to give the context for my specific misgivings regarding neurodivergence, but bear with me and we will get there in the end.

Since completing my own ACE funded pioneer support project for neurodivergent artists earlier this year, I’ve had cause to wonder how the new imperatives might translate at the funding interface for others? What effect might they have on potential applicants? And what of those whose practices and services won’t ever be recognised as “relevant” by ACE but are nonetheless meaningful and valuable?

Cultural historian and commentator on the arts, Robert Hewison, wrote an article A strategy for self-preservation, in Arts Professional, critiquing the Shaping the next ten years strategy thus,

“…it seems Arts Council England (ACE) intends to achieve a transformation from a country where ACE exists to help the arts to one where the arts exist to help the Arts Council.”

I admit that aspects of the document were perplexing to me. Should we now call ourselves creatives rather than artists? By which logic, what of Arts Council England as moniker! Time for some expensive rebranding, perhaps? Must creatives now also primarily seek to become agents of social change to achieve funding? What about the artists whose mission it is simply to make great art – which incidentally the sector/industry relies on?  Can we as artists be expected to do all that is required by ACE without becoming something else in the process? I can speak from experience on the latter.

A paper by Susan Jones, The chance to dream: why fund individual artists? lays out the current disparities in the ACE funding system and the paucity of direct funding to artists, without which (I repeat myself ) the sector would dry up.

“The decline in volume and value of direct funding to artists from ACE is unambiguous. Notably in 2009/10 fewer than 2.5% of artists were directly funded by GftA, but by 2013/14 this reduced to less than 1% with DYCP showing a further decline.”

For those who don’t know, Grants for the Arts (GftA) now replaced by National Lottery Project Grant (NLPG) is a general sector pot. Artists must demonstrate audience engagement figures and provide match funding in order to get NLPGs, as well as making the ‘creative case’ for diversity. In my experience the effect on an arts practice is to develop invaluable project management skills (among the myriad benefits) but to lose out significantly on time to make work. Developing Your Creative Practice (DYCP) is a ‘no strings’ award designed to address core NLPG barriers for individual artists. However, DYCP is a tiny pot with only a 10% success rate for applicants, I’m told. The subtext in all ACE’s material on DYCP is that it’s almost impossible to gain this type of funding. I worry. What kind of message does this give to artists!

The stipulations within the previous GtfA, and current NLPG, have already shaped applications and had an impact on what’s produced within the arts in recent years.

In future to achieve funding applicants will need to demonstrate “ambition and quality”, “inclusivity and relevance”,  “dynamism and environmental sustainability” – if you can decode what this actually means in practice.  As an artist applicant it can often feel as though you’d better offer to tap dance on the roof too – the list of promises made in an application can be legion. You begin to see my point about contortion, which is an especially serious one if we’re to consider the artist and the sustainability of creative practice.

Is, as Robert Hewison seems to suggest, the tail wagging the dog?

So I’m frankly worried about a possible rash of quick-fix funding bids and tokenism at an arts organisation level too, because I’m not sure all are cut out to be ACE’s agents for socially engaged creativity (however laudable and desirable this would be in practice). Also, because I now provide pockets of sector support in this area I know how intensive and specialised the work of building authentic, robust, and meaningful programmes/services for neurodivergent communities can be. I’m immensely lucky in my partnerships, but am also sometimes approached in a tokenistic manner, which is how I know.

Specifically, in the case of neurodivergence then, I must ask where the knowledge base is for working with us? Further, how can the sector provide services that represent a good investment of public funds without such a resource, which I would add should be self-led. Until that knowledge is acquired and those relationships have been built how can arts organisations do the deep learning that’s needed? Enter Jon Adam’s long and at times painful mission to fund the Flow Observatorium hub in Portsmouth as an example of self-led/user-led organising to fill the gaps in sector knowledge and provision.

Interestingly for us ‘next frontier’ marginals – the neurodivergent – Shaping the next ten years coincides with our gradual seepage into  mainstream conversations about diversity in the arts. Hence the arts are now peppered with references to neurodiversity, which in itself should be a welcome development but with which I sometimes find myself at odds.

My heart sinks knowing that uninformed bids, featuring neurodivergence, are quite possibly sitting in the Grantium portal as I write.  You can understand it. We’re now more visible.  I often see neurodivegence tagged in the growing lists of marginalised identities, which is lovely but at this stage of our evolution into public consciousness is often shorthand, or a friendly nod.

What a well-intentioned temptation it could be to throw in support for neurodivergent artists (for example) to strengthen a bid’s “relevance” without understanding the first thing about the need for tailored programmes/opportunties and relational work. I want to write it large, you can’t just offer the same stuff in the same way – the thinking and design around what we need has to come first and can’t effectively be bolted on afterwards.

I worry too that the imperatives for ACE “relevance” may (albeit unwittingly so) create even more barriers for the neurodivergent applicant. I could write reams about this but don’t have the unpaid time to offer up to such a task.

I’m often approached for support with ACE applications and questions about the DYCP in particular – the ‘no strings’ opportunity to focus on being an artists is probably every artist’s dream. My advice until now has been to opt for NLPG, which has a surprising 42% success rate, I’m told. But I’m beginning to wonder if we should all apply for DYCPs to demonstrate our need, rather than be put off by the mixed messages embedded in this opportunity.

I feel incredibly blessed to have gained both GftA and NLPG in my time – a combination of doggedness and good fortune. I know how vitally important these awards are to an artist’s professional life, and I’m confident in saying ACE have invested well in me. I can now give back 100%+. And now that I’m almost at the end of my piece you’ll see that it’s all connected – artists are our industry including the neurodivergent. We need to fund so many more experiences like mine to build the knowledge bases I’m talking about. We also need to be allowed to remain creative practitioners as well as developing such vital sector support skills.

So in the last round of DYCP I submitted an application too, feeling not a little unlike Don Quixote tilting at windmills. It’s a bit like buying a lottery ticket now that I think of it, but as Susan Jones says we artists need the chance to dream – preferably funded.

On all the above, watch this space!




Neurodivergence – language, the concept of ‘group brain’, and neurological-ecologies.

November 5, 2019 § 1 Comment

Sonia Boué bw 2

Photo credit Joel Chester Fildes

Do you know how to use the terms neurodiverse and neurodivergent? 

What’s in a word? What are four letters between friends, you might well ask.

I myself am no fan of getting hot under the collar about language OR spelling. I’m dyslexic and I loathe being corrected. Way to feel like you’re back in primary school waiting to read to Miss, knowing that you’re destined to fail because your brain (unlike those of your mates) won’t let you.

So I proceed cautiously, but with a passion.

In my heart I know that words matter, though I honestly feel we can go too far. Again, I’ll take care, yet my impulse is to be strident because this is important.

My recent appointment to the A-N Board is an exciting development. An opportunity to help direct the biggest arts organisation for artists in the UK (and possibly even in Europe). I will do so neurodivergently.

I won’t help direct the Board neurodiversely because I am an individual and not a group. We are as a group (species; Homo sapiens) neurodiverse. Ergo, neurodiversity refers to a neuro-ecology. Pretty much think biodiversity, but with brains, and you’re there.

The neurodiversity paradigm is a term coined by Nick Walker, and I would recommend everyone who wants to understand it and the terminology to read his key text Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms & Definitions. It is short and extremely clear.

Here’s one pithy example:

“Neurodiversity is not a trait that any individual possesses. Diversity is a trait possessed by a group, not an individual. When an individual diverges from the dominant societal standards of “normal” neurocognitive functioning, they don’t “have neurodiversity,” they’re neurodivergent.”

The neurodiversity paradigm is hitting the arts big time. Almost daily I’m astonished to read about opportunities for neurodiverse artists. The other day this was topped by reference to a self-diagnosed neurodiverse artist.

In the first case, technically speaking this reads as an open call like any other. In the second case, it reads like a double negative. Artist discovers they are part of a greater neurological-ecology like the rest of humanity.

I astonish myself by how much these understandable mistakes press my buttons, until I scroll back down the decades of dedicated research (and hard won experience) my current level of knowledge is founded on. This is not like my autistic ‘quirk’ about the status of the Tupperware cupboard (yes, I do have an unusual need for order in this department). It’s because the concepts my community have toiled over and honed for eons are sometimes being chucked about like newly plucked feathers.

I understand. When I was first corrected on this point, by Nick Walker himself, it took time to absorb the difference and get used to using the terms correctly rather than interchangeably, but I have done the work to get there because it matters to the paradigm shift we need to make. As Nick says, this is a social justice issue.

I’ve since developed my own understanding of the importance of working intentionally with neurological-ecology in mind. This I’ve termed ‘group-brain’.

To give an example, for my recent Arts Council England funded #NUNOproject I was enabled to lead, and my ‘shortcomings’ were compensated for by the project’s combined neurologies – ‘group brain’. Whenever I needed it, there was a rich pool of talent to draw on, a sea of helping hands, and extraordinary good will to support me in doing my best job. This was possible because we were working openly with an understanding of our neurological profiles across the project, and across neurologies too. No hierarchy, no judgements, and full consideration to optimal working conditions for ALL, regardless of neuro-type.

Unless as Nick Walker puts it, those closer to the “dominant societal standards of “normal” neurocognitive functioning” understand they too form part of our neurodiversity as a species, we neurodivergents will be forever othered and we all miss out.

So I urge you neurodiver-gently to consider the difference. Absorb the language and the process it represents of de-centring neuro-normative brains. I say to you gently, move over, it takes all kinds of brains to make a better world.

In my view, arts organisation need to embrace the depth of learning required to become agents of genuine change. Being smart about language is a good start.




Slick as a seal, I rise – making autistic empowerment visible

October 26, 2019 § 4 Comments


Well, I try. The last time I used this line (in a poem) I was met by guffaws. My children find me hilarious, a fact I often find bemusing but welcome. I don”t think my head will ever get too big while they’re around to remind me that I sometimes risk being pretentious if not risible.

In my art practice I’m building up to new works, and am encountering new ideas in my other work too. I have many jobs (or many projects more accurately put) to which I can now bring a lifetimes experience of the kind that matches, when so often in the past my experience has been out of kilter. I’ve also been given a creative opportunity which has over the past year blown my practice wide open. These two related events are working a strange kind of magic on me.

We are a sum of all our parts, it’s said, but for autistic people it can be hard to experience the parts as connected. I certainly didn’t until quite recently. This feeling of fragmentation is something I’ve written about before. I think about evolving as an autistic person since my diagnosis in 2016 as a series of incremental steps towards a feeling of congruence. I believe the mechanism involved is the unlearning of unhelpful coping strategies and exploring new more suitable ways of navigating the social world.

With my relatively newfound anthropological lens on life even my mistakes become opportunities for learning. I’m no longer mortified, feeling (quite rightly) that I can’t help being ‘blunt’ at times. I’ve decided I really would like a t-shirt which says, congenitally tactless! I feel it might go down well at parties I will never go to and be quite fun to wear. I’m not the first to notice that people like it if you get in first with the joke and don’t mind having a good humoured chuckle at yourself. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For some autistics this would feel very alien advice and so I don’t share it as advice (because for many of us being the butt of the joke all our lives has been bad enough without any own goals in this department). I share it as an observation (from a self-confessed privileged vantage point), and because I’ve found that opening up about my areas of struggle enables others to come forward too. This is revealing and, I think, important  – I remain convinced that there are more ND people in the world than the world currently knows about. Also that in accommodating our needs we accommodate others. So privilege and path-beating go together.

As I continue my journey towards autistic congruence, I can’t help thinking that the high incidence of hostility to social difference in our culture can block our ability to experiment and learn early on in life. Accurate perceptions about autism in the non-autistic population are also equally stymied it seems to me. As I’ve said so often before, if the welcome isn’t right we can (unsurprisingly) become contact averse. Like so much misperception about autism this process (in my experience) is an ongoing social dynamic whereas people tend to think of autism as a fixed state of being. This is not to say that I think we need more encouragement to adapt to the neuro-normative society we find ourselves in (this is not what I mean) – simply that with the right knowledge and conditions we can all learn from one another across neurological types.

The discouragement that an autistic person might receive over a lifetime can perhaps be seen as an incremental force in the opposite direction to the one I’ve found myself travelling in since 2016. This is a truly terrible thought. Okay, I’ve always ‘worked on myself’, but it’s become clear I was working with the wrong information. As I said quite recently to a friend – it was like I was paddling along in a canoe and suddenly I was given a turbocharge engine.

I can’t talk about my new work yet, but it makes my pulse race and spurs me on even as we face the tipping point of winter (my life long nemesis!) What I do want to do is offer encouragement to others, wherever you may be in your journey to congruence.

This is why I make myself visible, because in the words of Soweto Kinch on BBC Saturday Live this morning (about 20.40 mins into the programme), you can’t be what you can’t see. This too I want on a t-shirt.




You have even seen my autism as it is.

October 9, 2019 § 1 Comment

The painting you see before you is literally buzzing. It’s a good representation of my brain right now.

I painted it with great emotion, inspired by a piece of classic Spanish cinema called The Spirit of the Beehive (1972). Bees swarming. Having a bee in your bonnet. It’s all connected. But what do you do when the bees are inside your brain?

Such is the sensation sometimes with autism (I find). I qualify this because it will feel differently to others. We don’t need a bunch of bee-brain theories (or pea-brain theories, to be honest).

That’s why it’s hard to write about the less comfortable aspects of autism – you don’t want to fuel the ‘bad autism’ beast. See! Naughty autism got you, they might say, but I won’t let them. It’s not the autism that’s naughty. I guess I should blame the sillies who tried to tell me I was slow (for example) when it’s quite obvious I am fast (too fast at times). But I won’t do that either.

Increasingly, I’m inclined to believe that these people and many others just don’t know about brains, probably because they’ve never had to think about them (or their brains in relation to others).

Thinking about our brains (and what’s ‘wrong’ with them) is probably the sole preserve of the ‘misfit’. Majority brains don’t have to bother. In my view this labour is advantageous and our ‘misfit’ brains hold many advantages too.

It helps to identify the volume of traffic caused by the bees (ideas), and they don’t always swarm so. They also connect parts that other brain can’t reach.

What interests me about the mark-making activity documented in the painting above is that it narrates the impulses of my mind via the movement of my arm (and hand). The movement of my whole body indeed (because it was suitably frenetic – you won’t know this but I just typed frantic in error.)

I have therefore (in a way I can relate to) shown you the inside of my mind, without recourse to any words. You will see it. You will see my joy and my rage. You will also see my freedom. You have even seen my autism as it is. Dynamic, rhythmic, capable of control (for I have stayed within the picture frame and given you a harmonious dancing surface to gaze at.)

I want to show you more.

A little bowl of love and kindness – taking the strain out of caring.

September 3, 2019 § 2 Comments

This has been an exhausting week. I’m used to caring for my mother part time in her own home where she has all the adaptations she needs. Suddenly the need for me to be on my own home turf coincided with mum saying she was ready to come and visit us in what has been (up until more recent times) her home from home. In a flurry of activity I cleared the clutter, refreshed her linen, and steamed the floors.

It’s been a luxury to spend 7 straight days in one place to be honest, but we’ve struggled at night due to a lower bed frame and lack of accustomed grab rail to help mum get out of bed. There had been no time to get one and no way to improvise a safe alternative. She has nocturia which means myriad trips to the loo at night, which combined with the loss of her mobility aid made for a whole heap of broken sleep for me. You can imagine what helping someone up 6-7 times does to a body, and I could see exactly why she snoozes so much during the day. I now have wrinkles on the bags under my eyes!

I admit I’ve felt mangled, and quite unable to piece together more than a Tweet or two. Oh, it’s been glorious too. Just seeing mum’s face as she took in a loved environment she thought she might not see again was marvellous. I swelled with pride as my little home proved more adaptable than I could ever have hoped. Mum could manage everything but the bed.

I’ve done the obvious and ordered a grab rail which will hopefully arrive before her next stay. These things can never come quickly enough though – where are all the local grab rail outlets when you need them? That said, it is amazing what the body and brain can sometimes do in straightened circumstances. We spent a morning troubleshooting the problem after a particularly ropey night. She worked out – quite spontaneously – that she could grab the bed frame itself and lean on her elbow (practice helped) to swivel round on her side and get her legs over the edge to terra firma. It was a case of now I can and now I can’t for a night or two. This became easier and more fluid an action as the nights wore on. We kind of managed, but her risk of falling is great and one must keep an eye open (from the futon mattress at the end of the bed).

Today I was to drive her home (to her house) after lunch, and feeling slightly less mangled than before I was inspired to make croutons to go with our homemade courgette and black bean soup. It would use up a block of stale bread which had got trapped in the bread bin under a pile of newer slices. The act of not wasting felt good in itself. A cheery drizzle of olive oil was soon guzzled up by the pale hunks, and so I drizzled some more, and then some some more! Croutons know how to take care of themselves allowing me to wander back and forth between various points of interest in the room.

Mum – newspaper on lap – slept peacefully in a chair while my now young people bantered. Granny (mum) helped bring them up when they were tiny, and was a faithful weekly visitor despite the 70 mile commute. One picked out a tune on the piano, the other worked on a drawing. Both hovered over the pan. Smells like sausages!

I chucked some thyme at the croutons, no longer pale and wan they looked crispy and golden. This simple transformation lifted a hearty yet simple soup to new and quite heavenly heights. Delicious! called out three generations. Mum doesn’t eat a lot these days, but she had polished off every single crumb. This felt like old times again when she was at the heart of our little family as the commuting grandma. It was wonderful to have her there again as we really didn’t know if she could manage the environment.

Extreme old age isn’t easy, not one bit. Mum carries it with great dignity but these few days without a bed rail have taught me so much humility. We will all at some point need adaptations (if we’re lucky) and should probably plan ahead. I’m chastened by the unravelling that can take place for want of one simple adaptation.

I can’t really explain it but somehow that lovely bowl of soup set us on our way and mum’s visit feels like a triumph. For want of a bed rail the battle for sleep was lost, you might say, but a bowlful of love and crispy croutons won the day. Next time I’m awake in the wee hours I will try to remember this well.

Convoy – una respuesta artística al convoy de los 927.

August 15, 2019 § Leave a comment

Sonia Boué explica su nuevo proyecto: crear un memorial para El convoy de los 927 en el año 2020

Hola, soy Sonia Boué, hija de un exiliado español (llamado José María García Lora), viviendo en gran bretaña. Soy arista visual, y desde 2013 mi trabajo ha tratado con el tema del exilio español y la respuesta cultural a la guerra civil española en gran bretaña. Este trabajo se encuentra en mi pagina web

Ahora tengo un nuevo proyecto. Se trata de un fragmento de testimonio oral narrado por mi madre. Ella cuenta que una noche en 1940 mis abuelos y bis-abuela escondieron en un bosque para escapar los Nazis. Resulta que la anécdota de mi madre refiere a El convoy de los 927 que partió de la estación de mercancías de Angoulême, 20-8-1940. Exiliados y separados de mi padre, quien había salido de España a pie durante la Retirada con el ejercito republicano, ellos en cambio eran funcionarios y habían sido evacuados por tren de Barcelona al destino de Port Bou. Pasaron por los infames campos de Francia y finalmente habían sido permitidos vivir cerca de Angoulême y trabajar allí en una fabrica de armas.

El convoy de los 927 fue el primer ejemplo de la transportación de familias enteras con destino a un campo de exterminio Nazi, y el número 927 se refiere al número de exilados españoles, incluyendo mujeres y niños, llevados ese día en vagones de mercancía (transporte para animales mas bien) al campo de Mauthausen. Llegados a Mauthausen, los Nazi separaron a las familias, internando as los hombres y chicos mayores de 13 anos, y mandando a las mujeres y niños menores a la España de Franco. El documental El Convoy de los 927 contiene testimonio de los sobrevivientes que nos puede ayudar a comprender las condiciones, aunque el acto mismo es casi impossible de entender.

Somos hermanos

Cuando hice mi programa de radio con la BBC The Art of Now – Return to Catalonia (en 2018) me encontre con un grupo de valencianos en Argelès sur Mer que también eran hijos de españoles republicanos. Me regalaron naranjas y cuando nos despedimos uno de ellos me dijo, somos hermanos (se oye en el programa a los 16.15 mins). Me pareció de lo mas hermoso y esto es el espíritu solidario del proyecto Convoy.

Mi concepto artístico se basa en un patrón creado repitiendo cuadros usando una fotografía de 1939 de mis abuelos y bis-abuela tomada en su exilio (lo cual fue mandado a mi padre en su exilio en Londres). El cuadro consiste de dos imagines rectangulares. Utilizando técnicas digitales he añadido al retrato original una imagen reflejada (en rojo) significando un possible destino alternativo. Con el arte puedo imaginar el inimaginable – que el convoy podría haber sido de los 930.

Mis obras suelen contener un fuerte elemento de homenaje, y con Convoy mi visión es crear un acto de solidaridad con los 927 exiliados llevados en ese día de terror. El sentimiento que trabajo aquí es de una familia amplia y acogedora de españoles republicanos y exilados, que guardaremos en nuestra mente colectiva tras las generaciones. No paro de pensar en el momento cuando salieron del bosque, mis abuelos y bis-abuela, y encontraron a Angoulême vaciado de gente. Al llegar a España por fin en 1941 mi abuela estaba tan traumatizada que no podia hablar. Mi abuelo preocupado por ella la mando a su pueblo en Galicia para recuperar peso y ánimos. Nunca hablaron a mi generación de este tema ni de la guerra civil en si.

Con la repetición de una imagen generas algo nuevo y quizás con cada repetición se vuelve mas potente. La idea de usar el retrato para significar cada español en ese convoy se formo durante mis investigaciones – y de allí entro la matemática. También se puede jugar con orientación y color entre las múltiples posibilidades artísticos.

En la siguiente imagen (abajo) se voltea el destino de mi familia. De allí entro la idea de usar 930 caras en Convoy, así mostrando la solidaridad de los 3 exilados escapados. Imagino que no fueron los únicos escondidos ese día – quien les aviso, y quienes pudieron avisar (en su turno), son detalles que nos faltan. Quizá siempre serán misteriosos.

Pero el arte nos acerca a otras verdades, y nos ayuda a mediar historias traumáticas. Buscando la manera de representar múltiples personas con las caras de mi familia en forma cuadrada he creado un patrón totalmente accidental. A veces me parece mas potente lo inesperado. Lo que llama atención es el momento en que el ojo pierde la caras y empieza a ver solo el patrón. Para mi la illusion óptica llega a ser símbolico de la posibilidad de perder la humanidad. Quizás nos puede decir algo sobre la tendencia en ciertos circunstancias a la inhumanidad cuando de trata de grupos de personas numerosas.

La decision de usar el color rojo significar sangre y la política de usar el termino rojos para abusar y exterminar a los exilados españoles.

Investigando mas profundamente el lado matemático de mi concepto resulto en un plan de crear 155 cuadros midiendo 10 x 10 centímetros con la forma de 5 lineas de 31 cuadros para representar los 930 personas en esta narración. La obra final medirá 50 centímetros por 3.1 metros – una forma poco usual y así mas llamativo. Me encanta esta idea de una obra larga y delgada que implica un camino de parte del visitante, y que dependiendo del punto de vista uno encontrara caras o patrón.

Ahora me falta encontrar el lugar debido para mi homenaje que quiero exponer en 2020, lo cual sera el aniversario de 80 años. Espero poder escribir noticias del desarrollo de este proyecto pronto. ¡Hasta entonces!

Convoy – responding to the Convoy of 927.

August 12, 2019 § 5 Comments

Sonia Boué explains her new project: to create a tribute in 2020 for the Convoy of 927

I have been lucky enough to be invited to join Paper Trail project:

“100 pieces of heritage paper spanning over 100 years, given to 100 artists to create a piece of work.

Each piece of paper represents a year. We have invited the artists to create a work in response to something that happened during that year.

The paper must be used in the creation of the work. It can be printed, painted, written word, pulped, re-created, sculpted, folded, cut, collaged etc”

As the founding artists of appletye, Dawn Cole and Dan Thompson, know my practice well they have chosen the perfect Paper Trail year for me. I’ve been given paper 16 from 1940 made at Hayle Mill, weighing 150gsm (hot pressed). The sample sent to me is approximately 10 x 7 cms.

1940 is a year I’ve worked with recently, for the Uncomfortable Histories (UH) exhibition, and the Paper Trail work very much follows on from my piece for UH, entitled They Slept in a Forest

The subject of my family’s evasion of a Nazi roundup of Spanish republican exiles at Anguoulême on August 20th, 1940, to the Mauthausen camp, continues to be the focus as I build my Paper Trail response, and it’s suddenly gone from a tiny sketch (inkjet print on tracing paper which I’ve clipped to the 1940 paper sample) to an ambitious project, which I’d like to realise in 2020 as an act of remembrance. So I’m already looking for gallery space!

This new work is entitled ‘Convoy’, because the roundup has become known as El convoy de los 927 (927 being the number of Spanish exiles herded into cattle wagons that day). Almost overnight the tiny sketch evolved into a big idea with unexpected mathematical underpinnings. Through this exploration I’ve become enthralled by the idea that a number (repeated) becomes a pattern, and that this can in an immediate and powerfully visual way tell us something about the inability to ‘see’ dehumanisation in the face of number.

What you are looking at in my tiny sketch are three members of my family, my grandmother, grandfather and great-grandmother, more accurately a photograph of them. It was taken in 1939, and sent to my father (most probably to reassure him in his exile in England that they – in their exile in France – were okay). By August 1940 they had somehow ‘faced down’ a second genocidal threat (the first being their evacuation from Barcelona in February 1939). By 1941 they had made their way safely back to Spain. My father remained in England.

What I’ve done is to imagine their alternate fate with a red mirror portrait, which has created a square-shaped image. I’ve multiplied it repeatedly, et voila, together with the small size of my print (10 x 7 cms to match the Paper Trail sample), you can’t immediately see that the image is made up of faces. What you see is pattern.

How my family knew, and what they knew remains unknown. Who told them of the danger and who they then told (if anyone) is probably unknowable. A fragment of oral testimony mentions a friend, but this is vague and quite elusive information narrated almost 80 years on by my mother who is now 92. She goes on to say that they returned from their place of hiding (a forest) to find “the Germans had cleared the place.”

As the pattern builds the orientation turns to reveal the possibility of an alternate destiny in which historians would refer to El convoy de los 930.

As I tentatively made my way into this work I chose red to symbolise the bloodshed and for the association with communism. Spanish exiles were targeted as ‘Rojos’ whether they were communists or not.

I quickly realised that my use of the square in a square formation was problematic, also that in using 6 faces I could never aspire to creating a piece of work which would represent the 927 Spanish exiles. In any event I wanted to work with 930 to include the 3 who, as my son remarked, “got away.” I am sure they were not alone in this, but Convoy is about a very personal response, and perhaps even the expiation of survivor guilt. This feels to me like an act of both memory and solidarity.

In overshooting the mark to create 1536 faces, I began to dial back to work out how to make my 6 faces become 930, and what shape they could form.

In working this out I have arrived at my plan, to create 155 squares (10 x 10 cms). The formation will be 5 rows of 31 squares, measuring 50 cms by 3.1 meters. I now need to find a space which will take me and my tribute (probably rendered on photographic paper on whatever kind of support works best with the gallery space in question).

There may be other versions and/or further sketches but I feel my concept is whole. I have never experienced inspiration like this (based on pattern and number) and this is a whole new way of working for me, though my commitment to the history I’m working with feels the same and I’m determined to see this important tribute come to pass. There is something quite compelling about the form I have chosen.

There is much more to say about El convoy de los 927 and I will blog about it as I make my way.

Meanwhile if you know of a venue which would welcome this work in 2020 please do let me know!

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