Back where I belong: traumatic memory in an art practice.

I’m a little in love with this picture. It features one element of my new installation, which I’m about to show as part of a large group exhibition called Neither Use Nor Ornament or NUNO for short.

My work is called Conversation and it features an audio piece with an excerpt from my play Playa y Toro, (2014)

A bit like a Russian doll, my play contains a play, and it also combines characters and action from my father’s play Tierra Cautiva, which was written in about 1951, with characters from my art blog Barcelona in a Bag. The typewriter you see in the picture is the exact model he used to write his play. Those who follow my work will know that my father was exiled from Spain in 1939 when Franco’s Fascist forces defeated the democratically elected government. 2019 sees the 80th anniversary of the tragic events in which nearly half a million Spaniards fled for their lives across the border to France. My father’s early plays were a response to the continuing dictatorship and the beginnings of the tourist boom.

Since 2013 I’ve been working with my family’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War as a postmemory project. Postmemory in my case meaning that I grew up with an unspoken, yet inherited trauma. The Spanish Civil War was not my own first hand experience, but I lived with all the consequences of it, and it’s effects on my family, which were significant.

I’ve been aware that on a professional level I should be producing work in this year to mark the terrible events of 1939, and yet I’ve fallen largely silent, just when I might be expected to be most vocal. In part NUNO has taken a great deal of my time, but more truthfully I’ve felt emotionally overwhelmed.

For many of my 5-6 years of professional practice dedicated to this work, I’ve attempted to address the silencing of this history in some quarters, and the lack of awareness in others. This year I can’t complain of that. There is a tidal wave of material which is at last coming to light, and I predict swathes of responses to it in years to come. I’m delighted, but I’m also rendered mute.

I’ve had to think through why my response is one of flight.

Working with traumatic memory has consequences, and I’ve often been aware of the need to pace myself over the years. You can’t work close up with this material and not be affected. What I’ve learned in this anniversary year is that it’s incredibly hard when such a tidal wave hits your online networks. I finally realised this when a friend sent me a video the other day which I just couldn’t open. Earlier in February I wept at 6am, as I logged onto FaceBook with my morning coffee and viewed footage of countless Republican Spaniards streaming towards the border. That was my family, my dearest ones. I can’t help myself, I scan the screen searching for them. It’s quite terrible. Any such footage, photographs or mentions have this effect. I relive this moment of flight in my mind, and the deeply painful truths that were hedged as my family gave my sister and I golden summers on the beaches of Barcelona.

I think it’s the type and volume of information which appears randomly at any time of the day which makes me recoil. I spend a lot of time online. Exposure can happen when least expected. When I’m on a specific Spanish Civil War project and researching, I’m in control of the flow. Probably that’s the difference.

So I’ve been working quietly, and am so very grateful to my NUNO group – there’s a sense of safety in numbers and my work nestles within the collective showing to the public. My piece is gentle, but it does probe at the trauma site.

I’ve called this blog Back where I belong, because in the last 24 hours I’ve reconnected with a font of inspiration for my play – a series of recordings made by Federico García Lorca of Canciones Populares Antiguas. They recall a period of intense studio practice in which I was truly connected to this unspoken family history and surround by ghosts. Project management has in many ways disconnected me from this, but on hearing the music on my iPod I’m transported back there.

I’m also back where I belong in terms of my identity, in at last regaining my Spanish nationality. This feels like a pretty spectacular year to have done so.

Once more thank you so much Arts Council England, your funding of my work for NUNO has been a profound award in so many ways.


Published by soniaboue

I am an artist.

6 thoughts on “Back where I belong: traumatic memory in an art practice.

  1. Lovely blog post Sonia. It must be difficult trying to work through all of this but I for one am grateful that you do so. I am fascinated to learn that your father wrote plays. Hadn’t realised this before.
    Did you see there’s a series starting on radio 4 tomorrow about the disappeared under Franco? I’m going to try catch it. Hadn’t thought about the significance of this year as the 80th anniversary of the end of the Civil War until I read this. Thank you x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Fiona, thank you! Yes, Helena Buffery did a project on Tierra Cautiva, which is how we met. She’s writing a book on the plays 🙂 The radio programmes will be amazing – by the same production company I worked with. I wont be listening until a bit later on though as I am finding it really difficult at the moment. I’ll listen on iPlayer when I get some time to myself. TYSM for reading xx


  2. I find it very interesting to hear how the internet’s clamor, especially on personally resonant topics, such as your family’s experience, affects your work.

    I think this is a broader problem, stymying a lot of creativity–the fear of insignificance, in a sea of “more worthy” commentary or news or art, or just the escapist desire to avoid the rawness of it all, a knife which cuts too close to the bone.

    Everyone wants to have the veneer of professionalism, wants to be taken seriously. Yet the price of acknowledgement (the trolls, the un-asked-for comments–such as mine– and the twisting of one’s words, the absolute pillorying of those who attain any prominence) seems too high.

    This piece you show seems much more meaningful, coupled with that knowledge of your family’s history: the playwright, the flight, the secret police listening in, possibly, or, the need to communicate by phone rather than in person. I wish you success with your exhibition and your current artistic endeavors, and the peace of mind to ignore all the hysterical chatter!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. A very interesting article Sonia and I’m so grateful to you for opening my eyes. I’m passionate about trying to educate new comers here to more than those golden beaches. I’m sorry if I overwhelm you at times too. It’s such a different experience for me although anything to do with the Ritrado makes me think long and hard about your Dad and grandparents. Thank you for your work and enabling me to understand and feel so much for my beautiful country now.

    Liked by 2 people

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