Art, fog, and beautiful brains: thinking about autism and culture shift in the arts.

February 15, 2020 § 1 Comment

Two very red tomatoes painted on a rose/white background

You can’t tell me how to paint tomatoes #WIP

 

I’m a late-diagnosed autistic. The more I learn about myself the more I recognise  unwitting social ableism. As a cohort of emancipated autistics at loose in the world we can can be vehicles for change. We need both inner metal and moments of respite because it’s not easy (and it’s not for everyone). We can only work to capacity, and move forward without judgement, because this is painful work.

In my travels I often encounter casually displayed social prejudice embedded in seemingly benign comments, which are rarely maliciously intended. In most cases it would feel wrong to interrupt and say…excuse me, what did you just say?! These are not yet the social rules.

So it would be awkward and seem rude, and yet – there it is! A social ableism which not only hurts and offends your ears but  holds back the kind of  culture shift we desperately need – not only for equality, but to save lives.

Autistic people die by suicide  because they can’t perform as non-autistics. Autistic people also die in social care.

There is urgent cultural work to be done. Yet, faced with such a moment I often fall into a familiar mental fog.

Where to begin?

This is the question autistic people report facing with many even ordinary every day tasks. I’m finding it useful to think about this as a form of ‘brain fog’ which affects my ability to join up facts, marshal arguments or take action in a conventional expected/demanded linear fashion. Invisible barriers descend and conspire against us – and sometimes we haven’t even left the house.

People often use the term ‘procrastination’ to describe such delay in coordinating action or response, but I find this inaccurate and pejorative. It’s not as though we have a will in the matter.

So I want to talk about brain fog as a neurological condition and use fog as a metaphor to think about my disability and my art practice. Logically, I feel, the way my brain works will show itself in my creative method – an obvious point but one rarely analysed in mainstream arts.

It couldn’t be clearer. Procrastination suggests there’s an alternative involving non-procrastination. Namely that I could speed up if I just moved directly into tackling the ‘task at hand’.

But no.

I challenge anyone to move swiftly and directly in a dense fog. No. The sensible thing is to adjust your ETA, slow your speed and find a fog lamp.  You literally have to inch your way.

Brain fog (I find) can be made up of two categories:

  1. Too much stuff – options, information, thoughts, hostile demands (which go against brain type)
  2. To little stuff –  lack of relevant information, coded information,  not enough working memory, dissociation, loss of focus.

It’s a hugely complex picture as our fog-prone brains are also our best friends. Brain fog seems to be a feature of an expansive and holistic thinking style, and I want to add that it’s not a permanent state which finds a wonderful counterbalance in hyper-focus. We can be incredibly focused when conditions allow.

Also a fog prone environment is a treasure trove of intuition, capable to a fault. This line of thought helps me to understand the kind of learner I am – I have to experience something to learn about it and feel my way.

It also helps explain the methodology of my painting practice, which flows not only from brain-type but also from the origins of my painting practice in an experiential painting group during my art therapy training.

My most recent (obsessive) tomato paintings couldn’t illustrate this fact more perfectly. My method has been to coax my painted tomatoes (signifiant symbols of a very specific childhood memory and location) onto a series of canvases through a process of trial and error. As though themselves emerging from a fog, they’ve come in and out of focus, been marked in and erased countless times along the way. A vital part of this process has been checking my work against the harsh studio lights. If the tomatoes weren’t ‘ripe’/right I pushed them firmly back into the fog. Painting in oils has felt almost like sculpting in clay.  Importantly I’ve revelled in sharing my process on Instagram – knowing now that what I’ve really wanted to say is look at my brain! This is how it works…

What’s vital to my process is the to-ing and fro-ing – the freedom I give myself to experiment without judgement and begin again if I’m not happy with the results. It’s so not a linear process. What counts is the visible and concrete nature of this exploration – this is my kind of research.

What I hope to do in my practice is begin to show more of my process so that I can carry on exploring these connections more publicly. Working with a fog-prone brain is truly wonderful (I wish you could try it if you don’t have one!) until I’m forced to complete a linear task in a linear fashion, or I’m not able to access missing data. Feeling my way as a method is vital to my ability to function, stay well, and at times excel. What many of us need is support to make our way in a world not yet fit for purpose, and which forces us to work against ourselves.

And so we return to the start of this blog post and the desire for culture shift, and the needs for resilience in the face of social ableism.

I’ve written previously about reviewing where I am  4 years on from an autism diagnosis – I will be 4 on the 4th of March 2020 autistically speaking. I want to use my practice to talk about accommodating brains that are ‘other’. Our multifaceted, beautiful neurodivergent brains, with which we can be the useful ‘aliens in the room’ (a recent phrase I’ve heard used to talk about innovation).

It’s important to feel useful to stay alive. It’s what I want for us all. We must all feel that we have agency over the things which matter to us. In my studio I know that my tomatoes will dance, sing, and play with me, until they’re ripe and ready to emerge as talismans for a way of being that can’t be silenced – it is too joyful and beautiful.

Okay, I know I can’t effect culture shift with my tomatoes! Though I can add to the growing conversation in the arts sector.  I’ve recently been inspired by a colleague about to think about the power of silence as a defence against social ableism.

I’ll be holding the possibility of using silence in any future encounters with unintended social ableism. Let’s see what opens up in the gap.

You can see more tomato action on @s_boue

 

 

 

 

The building blocks of learning. Thinking about ‘social disability’ and access.

February 6, 2020 § 5 Comments

Red, yellow, brown, green, blue and orange toy wooden building blocks arranged in towers. Shapes include cubes, cylinders and a triangle

A blog post in which I talk through some new thinking about the term ‘social disability’.

 

I love an epiphany!

God, being autistic is sometimes an absolute blast. I get to peel back layers of a life time’s accumulation of faulty learning and go, wow! so that’s how it really works…

Recent adventures have got me thinking about ‘social disability’ as an important addition to the terms I can use to help articulate accommodation needs. This could be a sensitive term for some, so here comes the bit where I make the usual disclaimers. As ever in my writing I only speak for myself, and please remember that when you’ve met one autistic you’ve only ever met one autistic.

The point is (however) that each autistic has to work things out for themselves. We mainly have no such thing as aftercare following an autism diagnosis. I’ve been through many a recalibration of my identity since my official diagnosis in March 2016, but my love for the word autism has never wained. I was luke warm on the term neurodivergent for the longest time, but have recently cosied right up to it – it’s so useful and brings much needed solidarity with a wider group. I’ve got a lot of affection for the term invisible disability, but rarely remember to use it (note to self to do more of this). But in almost mint condition is my sudden mental adoption of the term ‘social disability’ which I’m test-driving here. I’m excited by it mainly because I feel the need for clarity and specificity. This is about refining and recalibrating where I am 4 years on from my diagnosis and readying myself to meet new challenges.

It’s taken 4 years for me to absorb that I can never fully compensate for my autism with workarounds, accommodations and self-care. There’s no magic neurological catch-up or compensation that can level out the playing field (ergo it’s the playing field that needs to change, by the way!) I HAVE A NEUROLOGICAL CONDITION ( which affects me in many ways) as well as an identity to forge – and for me the two must go hand in hand.

The penny has finally dropped. It doesn’t matter how much learning I do, or how much I am accommodated, I will remain at core disabled by my hyper intuitive and sometimes scrambled navigational systems. This insight, by the way, does nothing to negate my autism positive position – I see autism as both disability and identity, and find no conflict in this position.

I feel great joy at being me, I love myself and my autism quite fully, right up to the brim in fact. But I will forever spend my days in hostile environments following norms I can’t ever hope to understand. I will always need to use my native intellect and find the will to be assertive and seek adjustments, but I need more than this. I NEED IT TO BE UNDERSTOOD THAT I AM RADICALLY SOCIALLY DIFFERENT – AND THAT I DON’T WANT SUPPORT TO APE YOU OR OPERATE LIKE YOU (if you are a non-autistic reader). This is not rudeness on my part, I’m talking about neurologically based social orientations and needs.

I do a lot of writing, thinking and advocating about autism and the arts, and I encounter a lot of artists who are autistic and struggle with the question of how to place themselves in their professional lives, and in the art world as a whole. There is no such category as ‘autistic artist’ that would fit us all – as stated above, once you’ve met one of us you’ve only ever met one of us. So what kind of beastie are we, and where do we fit, if at all? What does it mean to be an autistic artist?

We return to the conundrum of extreme diversity within divergence, but I believe we can perhaps haul some commonalities out of the possibly infinite variety of minds, though once more I can only truly speak for myself.

A social difference that’s disabling and is life long means the building blocks of learning have been (and will continue to be) different. THIS DOESN’T GO AWAY. Our thinking can run so counter to the non-autistic that we can feel alien even when we appear to be joining in and on side. We’re conditioned to mask our difference and often don’t know how to drop this adaptation. We can also find many points of joyful and genuine connection, but it takes colossal effort on our part to ‘make it’ into the room. Once there, we may well have no idea how to network and ‘makes things happen’. We can learn some of your tricks though kindness and information sharing, but THIS TOO DOESN’T GO AWAY.

So what’s my vision, and what does focusing on the term ‘social disability’ gain? I feel this would be suitably radical and risky. Talking about social disability is usefully uncomfortable and revealing. We reward neuro-normative sociability with popularity and power and we judge those who can’t perform it. In doing so we must sometimes confuse neurology with personality – neither should be judged, but disability is a protected characteristic and requires positive action.

Accommodations are vital, but so is culture shift. Please understand that I don’t want a leg- up to join the ranks, I want to break the current neuro-normative socially biased mould. I feel social disability as a term enables me to pinpoint a very particular aspect of my struggle as an autistic artist. At the forefront of articulating and carving out autistic space and power is where I want to be.

Critically reviewing disabled artists.

January 9, 2020 § 1 Comment

 

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So last week I went to the fantastic closing event (conference) organised by Disability Arts Online as part of the Contested Spaces exhibition, at the Foundry in London, curated by Aidan Moesby.

Access arrangements were superb and the event was pithy. Succinct, and brimming with content, it was concluded with a quite beautifully poetic performance by Malgorzata Dawidek. Aidan deftly chaired the panel, which featured Jennifer Gilbert, Ashok Mistry, and Elinor Morgan. I came away enriched and energised.

I was especially struck by the lack of critical review for disability arts as a topic – though  I’m a relative newcomer to the field. This is a good moment to say that I’m autistic, and that I can’t claim to speak for anyone but myself, and that I will focus on critical review in my blog post.

Jennifer Gilbert highlighted some shocking examples of ableism in mainstream reviewing of disabled artists, Elinor Morgan suggested strategies for disabled artists to gain access to feedback and build confidence, which might in turn lead to critical review. Raising the quality of our work was also touched on in this context. I will come back to this.

I was pleased Ashok Mistry spoke about having something to loose in engaging with the art establishment for approval – our very difference is precious. It is. Our very difference is our sometimes very ‘marketable’ USP (unique selling point), among other arguably more important things. I can’t think of anything worse than contorting the self to fit in. Surely we need to infect the ‘mainstream’ with our glorious USPs rather than try to second guess it.

I left the building with Artistic Director of DASH, Mike Layward, who kindly saw me to Marylebone Station. I’m indebted to our conversation for helping me articulate what I think I feel about the critiquing of art made by disabled artists, certainly I feel it about the area I know best, autistic creatives. We are all of us outsiders by default unless masquerading as…well…just artists.

Someone (I think it was Mike) had earlier pointed out that Frida Kahlo has been assimilated by the mainstream through the erasure of her disability despite it often being her subject.

Another good point which I hadn’t considered was raised by the panel that critics can be frightened of reviewing us because they might ‘get it wrong’, thereby causing offence and also loosing credibility. Time for some tough love. Do the work. Research the field, don’t avoid it. Yes, it can be quite hard to get it right, but a lack of familiarity with disability issues as an excuse in 2020 looks as weak as a used teabag. Get on with it, because here is where the good stuff often is!

I’m autistic, so as usual I experienced a lot of upside-down thinking about this topic. I so appreciated Ashok’s comment that he’s a professional outsider! Okay, critical review is important. Informed critical review can be vital to a career, but the uniformed critic who’s anxious about getting it wrong isn’t what we need. I say this as someone who supports neurodivergent (ND) artists professionally. Often the job is to unpick the barrage of unhelpful mainstream ‘critique’ they’ve experienced over a lifetime.

These nascent artists need nurture, and perhaps most importantly autistic artists may not find conventional critique/ review helpful as a form – though of course they may benefit from exposure. It isn’t just that we need to build ourselves up. There can be a genuine cultural difference, I’ve found, whereby our need for input is simply that – different. So I think we need a range of methods for evaluating and elevating artists. ND artists may not need conventional critique so much (because it may misread or prove irrelevant to them) to improve the quality of their work, but may perhaps benefit more from access to the kinds of resources which enable better production values. Quality issues (if they exist) may be about being cash poor and unable to invest in materials or production processes. That’s not to say that encouragement and tailored mentoring aren’t vital. They can be. It’s just that the current model for artists’ elevation via critique and review is like the hotel elevator that ain’t working. We often don’t get off the ground floor and I wonder if this resonates more generally for disabled artists? What would really help you, is my question.

Little about the way many ND artists work best is reflected in neuro-normative professional practice. There can be a great deal of unlearning to do in unshackling ourselves from these tyrannies. Perhaps more needed than conventional critique is help in understanding neuro-normative codes. It’s very simple, you can’t be expected to navigate what you can’t see or even begin to process. The current system is completely weighted against us.

So my heart sinks a little at the idea of chasing conventional critiques – though ironically if my most recent DYCP ACE funding bid is successful (very slim chance), I will be doing exactly that thing, but doing so autistically and on my own terms! Surely the best critiques consist of dialogue and if reviewers are frightened then that’s a sign that such a dialogue is lacking.

So, what’s needed first is a culture shift, and projects or initiatives which dare to throw stakes in new ground. Critics need to understand what they’re viewing if they’re to be any good to us. Review isn’t just about exposure, it’s also about framing. Ah yes, and it’s about bums on seats, which is an area I haven’t yet touched on and probably won’t for lack of time.

Ashok unlocked something vital when he talked about the need for us to be allowed to be our ‘messy’ selves (forgive me if I haven’t paraphrased you correctly, Ashok!) For me this is the key to making a necessary 360 degree turn.

Critics need to know what they’re looking at to get it ‘right’ and be helpful. It goes without saying that we need disabled critics and curators, but we need ally curators too. I hope that if some of the Shaping the next ten years (Arts Council England) policies go the right way we may see a real development of ‘hybrid’ ally professionals along with more of us (of course!) I’m very keen on collaboration as a way forward.

In the field of invisible disability (which has a shorter history) I feel we are in a useful moment of transition where disruption can occur (and I hope this resonates more widely with my more experienced disabled colleagues). I don’t think that what we need is judgment on abled/neuro-normative terms, but rather that our products must be allowed to flourish as they need to and be equally valued. What I feel we need is opportunity on our own terms to create what we believe to be good, which may be very different from the current mainstream critical agenda.

We also probably won’t be equal until the boot is on the other foot and the ‘mainstream’ values and seeks out what disabled curators and critics think about its cultural outpourings. Dialogue is all.

I began my 2018 catalogue essay for the Shadowlight Artist’s Arts Council England funded RISING exhibition with the following provocation.

“What if everything you ever thought about learning disability is wrong.”

A power imbalance exists because the ‘mainstream’ gaze monopolises and is uninformed. It creates insiders and outsiders and is extremely outmoded, as Drag Syndrome are currently proving on the global stage in taking it by storm.

I think the conversation has probably moved on already and it’s now for the ‘mainstream’, so-called, to catch-up if it can.

 

Living with ghosts and the value of creative resistance.

December 15, 2019 § Leave a comment

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View of my home with a painting by my father (in 1950) hanging above some vintage suitcases and alongside two works of my own from the Buenos Días Dictador (2018) series.

Those of you who know my creative work will know that I’m haunted. Yes. I live with ghosts.

I’m going to share a secret. I talk to a handbag. I’ve even written letters to it. No, I’m not loosing my marbles. In 2013 my grandmother’s handbag came back into my life and whispered in my ear. From this moment my life changed and my art practice blew wide open. I knew what I had to do, but I couldn’t guess where it would take me. I’ve just commemorated 6 years of works responding to the Spanish Civil War and my family’s political exile. Previously unspoken, I’ve sought to bring to light this history in order to understand my heritage and heal trauma wounds.

My practice has come a long way, but since those first whispers in 2013 – in which the rise of fascism seemed more historic and remote than it does today – a curious echoing of past times has struck me again, and again. Incremental, creeping closer, and ever more distinct, the feeling of deja-vu pervades. It announces itself as a sudden chill, or today as a moment of terror in reading about the multiple ways in which this brand new Conservative administration already threatens to mimic all that our American cousins have endured in their President for the past 3 years. As if we didn’t already know that Boris Johnson was the perfect UK double for Donald Trump.

My 6 year haunting – yes, I live with my art now and am surrounded by ancestor talismans and tokens – begins to feel prophetic. My grandmother has been whispering through her handbag for so long now that sometimes I admit I haven’t always heard her. Life became full at times and I forget to listen, but believe me I won’t be making that mistake again. Abuela (as grandmother is called in Castilian Spanish) is tugging at my sleeve.

I know that she will show me what to do, and this is a great comfort, but she’s taken great care to remind me how quickly the wind can change which is unsettling too. She knows the supreme value of preparedness because she’s survived a Civil War. Abuela will guide me in her gentle way, and then fasten her apron strings to make us cafe Bonbón. She knows how to cajole, but from now on she has my full attention.

The atmosphere of sudden departure is in my DNA. My family fled for their lives from Spain along with almost 500,000  Republican Spaniards when the fascist dictator Franciso Franco seized power in February 1939.

I know that I must ready myself in whatever way I can. History repeats itself, this we know. I’m not prophesying war and catastrophe, I’m obeying the unspoken laws of my DNA. I know I’m not leaving tomorrow, but I’m vigilant and quietly offloading. I have already asked myself what I could fit into packing cases and would there be time and money to ship my work? These are unknowns. A crossing of bridges.

Abuela smiles her approval. I look at the jewel-like object I know I would take with me no matter what. It would be my father’s only known/surviving painting from 1950, shared on Instagram just yesterday @s_boue, which also features in the image above. Abuela pinches my cheeks affectionately, and I’m suddenly taken back to the memory of my father sitting under an acacia tree writing while we were on holiday in Spain in 1972.  He would have been writing something other than his his plays, as by this time he had given up on playwriting for the sake of his mental health. I’ve come to view his exile theatre as creative resistance, and I increasingly see my own work in the same light.

Abuela beams at me. I’m old enough for these truths to be known, but then a shadow passes over us and her face becomes suddenly sombre. Fascism creeps in through the back door, she says with a shudder. I nod. It begins with fear; of what you read in the newspapers and what you can no longer say freely.  I understand now without her saying it that these 6 years have been a preparation too. All this time I have been on a parallel mission of making and packing, and leaving a trail for future generations – as I now realise that my father did in his time.

Life and art are never separate, not even if you try to wrench them apart. It’s been a long time since I wrote in quite this way, but we are living in increasingly frightening and unsettled times. My blog is a call for preparedness, but above all for creative resistance. Finding spaces in which the mind can be free become more vital when our actual freedoms are under threat. Every act of creativity and self-care is a means of survival. Reaching out and organising is what we must do.

 

 

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

October 26, 2019 § 4 Comments

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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.

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 www.appletye.org 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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