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.
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!
August 6, 2019 § Leave a comment
May 31, 2019 § 2 Comments
I’m out of office and in a new country, but I’m not on holiday.
This is because I’m helping care for my 93 year old mother who needs 24/7 at home, after a sudden acute infection and a two week hospital stay. My sister and I kept a constant vigil at her bedside and her recovery has exceeded expectations.
Caring has taken over for now. Everything’s been on hold, but I’m inching my way back to elements of my previous existence. Life took a turn, something happened (as they say) and I don’t quite feel the same about anything.
Hospital life is a parallel universe – you both live on the edge of your nerves and wade through treacle. There’s an airless tension to waiting for (and advocating for) wellness within a vast institution, and to observing extreme ill health at extremely close quarters. It makes you think (a cliche of course).
BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs kept me going through the quieter night shifts, and also settled me on my nights off. I could just about post to Twitter and Instagram on occasion, but all I could really think about was getting mum through it. Hyper-focus enabled me to keep going despite exhaustion, anxiety, and sensory stress. Autism was helpful in this situation (despite extreme challenge).
My art practice focuses on objects, and now that we’re out of hospital I can find moments in the day to touch base with it a little. I’m indulging a growing obsession with an intriguing thimble I bought online just before everything kicked off. My husband brought it for me one visiting day, tucked among my spare clothes in a small suitcase. Emerging jewell-like from it’s cardboard tube, it seemed impossibly exotic and evocative – speaking to me of my other life – amidst the wreckage of the elderly ward.
So I’m now on the trail of this thimble, and have found that it is one of a set of six. Why they have been inscribed with Spain 1937 is of great interest to me. I need to find out what occasion they were made for.
By great luck I’ve managed to find a seller who has the remaining five thimbles (of course I snapped them up), and one set that was sold only three days ago. My only clue is Marin Spain in the listing that was sold (for which there was a box).
The two current leads pursued are a suggestion that the thimbles could have been made as souvenirs for the famous Paris Expo of 1937 (for which Picasso created his seminal work Guernica), or that they could relate to Marin Chiclana dolls (as each thimble seems to feature a flamenco dancer). But, if they are Marin Chiclana related, why the inscription Spain 1937?
Is it possible that Marin Chiclana dolls were featured on these thimbles for the 1937 Paris Expo?
Another possibility suggested to me is the occasion of the antifascist Second International Writers Congress in Defence of Culture (1937), with the Paris Expo being more likely.
Whatever the case may be (including possibilities not yet touched on) the date, 1937, and country, Spain, make these thimbles significant and probably politicised objects.
A curious symmetry of circumstance means that I have to wait a little longer for my thimbles to arrive, the seller has been suddenly called away from home to care for their mother…
April 11, 2019 § 2 Comments
What NUNO has created – through it’s emphasis on people and relationships – is a warm hug.
Soon I will be asking the artists on the Arts Council England (ACE) funded Neither Use Nor Ornament (NUNO) project, how was it for you?
I have to do this as part of my evaluation process, but I’m also genuinely curious. This has been a unique project in which I have explored what it means to lead autistically (in my case).
I won’t have got things ‘right’ in all cases, but we made it to the finishing post of our exhibition opening in quite some style. I’m anxious to hear if and how my leadership has made a difference to the artist’s experiences of participation – and if this has further impacted their lives.
What I can tell you is what this project has done for me, by investing in my participation as a ‘player’ at a more senior level in my profession. In doing so I make the case for more of this for more of us. Autistic arts professionals are currently lacking such opportunity for progression – not only as artists but also as artist organisers. This needs to change.
It’s really very simple. In enabling me – through funding – to lead a significant project like NUNO, ACE have helped me to shift from a state of aversion to one of enthusiasm. Autistic aversion (in my case), I see now, was clearly fostered by a lifetime of exclusion. Not understanding neurotypical social code is perhaps where an autistic person begins in life, due to fundamental perceptual differences. What is less understood perhaps is the continued impact of this as a mechanism of our exclusion across a lifetime. Or indeed, what might happen in terms of ‘social appetite’ if the dynamic of exclusion were somehow ameliorated by genuine inclusion at any given point in time. It’s all so obvious once you’ve lived through it, but how many of us get this chance?
I feel we should be more aware that for some autistics social exclusion and a resulting aversion is a dynamic predicated on social bias, which once in play generates a serious barrier to our ability to decode social situations over a lifetime. Through such a dynamic myriad points of learning are lost, by which I mean two-way learning.
So what impact on the possibility of ‘social learning’ across neurologies can genuine inclusion make? I pose the question thinking that I know the answer. I think the impact can be highly significant because of the quality of my own experience in my shift from aversion to enthusiasm. Suddenly, elements of shared social spaces stack up. I am exposed to learning and foster learning in others. This is a two-way conversation.
I’m careful to mention the other side of the neurological coin in terms of learning (so-called neurotypicality). I’ve found that leading as an autistic person enables learning to flow in all directions. Neurotypical learning around me is probably the bit I can’t see, but which I reckon has made a whole heap of difference to how I am received and therefore to how I feel. I know that I am lucky in this regard – it can go so badly wrong when people can’t listen well. I’ve built up to this moment and have chosen my shared social spaces very carefully.
Being a ‘player’ has been vital to this process in which I now find myself wanting to engage with people and places in new and unexpected ways. I still crave a duvet day when life gets too busy, and I don’t love crowded events or small talk. I haven’t stopped being autistic – that not a thing, and I wouldn’t want it to be. What I’m talking about is appetite. The vital waters of my professional life no longer feel cold and uninviting. What NUNO has created – through it’s emphasis on people and relationships – is a warm hug.
Social anxiety and social sensitivity are often seen as negatives, but what if they have fostered a deep sense of responsibility and generated a high level of care for the people on my project? I myself know that they most definitely have. What also, if by some mechanism unknown to me – other than sharing my neurological status and leading autistically – I have been treated more carefully in return? I feel this must be true.
What if seizing the opportunity to lead autistically and to design my project as accessibly as possible has led to something really fundamental? I look forward to gathering more evidence for this exciting notion in the weeks to come.
Currently, we lack models for what is needed to challenge the stranglehold neurotypicality has had on our culture. The dynamic it creates for autistic people is, in my view, toxic. So I very much hope that in time NUNO may provide one such needed template for others to riff with.
March 17, 2019 § 6 Comments
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.
March 9, 2019 § 2 Comments
This blog post was first published on @an_artblogs
I’m very interested in inclusion. This is probably because I’ve experienced exclusion. I know what’s like to find yourself behind a glass wall looking in.
As an unidentified learning disabled child, I failed the 11+ and watched my sibling sail through the gates of a prestigious independent school. My parents were a teacher (at the same independent school) and an academic at the local university, I felt foolish and left out when each morning they journeyed together in the family car, while I took a long bus ride alone to a pretty rough comprehensive school which has since been razed. It taught me a great deal.
I know what it is to try and to ‘fail’ early in life. Bewildered by an exam I couldn’t decode, I couldn’t know at this time that the system was failing me. I look back now and see the system as failing many. Don’t get me started on education cuts and the news that some schools now have to close on Friday afternoons.
I remember smelling privilege at the independent school’s gates on the odd occasion I found myself there. I looked on and saw confidence and opportunity oozing from the very fabric of the building. I understood that I was an outsider, but could not have articulated it. The world inside this place simply felt intimidating and unreachable. A closed door.
Did I want to be part of this world? I really don’t remember, but I know I felt lesser. I didn’t discover the joys of study until I was 16, but then with my geek fully on I began to motor my way to university. It wasn’t plain sailing. I struggled greatly with my learning and will never forget the powerful knock back from a tutor in my second year at uni, who told me my work lacked the polish of my privately educated contemporaries (of which there were many studying history of art at this time!) Yes, this was 1982 and this conversation really did happen.
Red rag to a bull, I summoned my geek and got a first class degree.
I haven’t yet touched on how undiagnosed autism has impacted on my trajectory, nor the importance of a diagnosis in overcoming barriers. But I’ve written about this extensively on The Other Side.
My story is just one – of exclusion, and of pushing through. Each of the neurodivergent artists on my Arts Council Funded project, Neither Use Nor Ornament, (NUNO) will have their own story. On NUNO we are working to address the impacts of exclusion over a lifetime. It is very deep work indeed, which has required great thought and adaptations along the way.
Working responsively means that NUNO has had to change shape in the making. A fact of which I’m incredibly proud. I’ve observed that the neurotypical template for freelance project work seems to be that we must adapt ourselves to a pre-designed project. In this model the ‘project’s needs’ are paramount. NUNO turns this on its head. Artists needs are my first consideration and if I haven’t got that right I must adapt the project.
This process has taken place throughout and as we get closer to delivering our project I’m looking forward to the richness of the evaluation process.
I’m not blowing my own trumpet. Daily I give thanks to Arts Council England for backing the project so that I could work with 13 incredible artists across neurotypes. It is extraordinarily hard work to project manage, I often have to work against myself as so many tasks fall to me which require heavy duty admin, and that’s just not my forte. Next time can I have a PA please!
But we can’t wait to show you our work – it’s such a rich offer due to the wonderful NUNO artists whose object-based practices we are lucky enough to showcase. Bring it on!
Register FREE for our spring event at our Eventbrite page or just turn up! We’d love to see you.
Press release is on our website https://www.museumforobjectresearch.com/press/