October 13, 2017 § Leave a comment
This is quite a specialised blog post. I’ve been excited to find a slide show presentation from 2014 on a memory stick (autistically I burrow backwards and rely often on chance encounters with the past – the trick is to leave a trail…)
Like Hansel and Gretel before me I left some breadcrumbs, but still I’m rather awestruck that I could have missed working my way back to this somewhat seminal moment in the evolution of a project called The Museum for Object Research.
It’s a singular slide show. Many of the references will be obscure. It relates to my father’s two earliest plays – one unpublished and the other published in the Castilian language in small number and now out of print. Many of the references would be known only to the conference delegates of 2014 (familiar with the history of Spanish exile). Other references perhaps only I, or a handful of other people would understand. This doesn’t really matter. It’s the conceptual framework for my object work that matters – this is the exciting nature of my find!
October 2, 2017 § 7 Comments
I am not Catalan but I feel the recent events in Spain very deeply. I am an Anglo-British daughter of a Spanish Republican exile born in Madrid. My grandfather was from Galicia and my grandmother from Southern Spain, but they returned from their exile in France in 1941 to live in Barcelona. This place was my home from home as I grew up. Barcelona was my long Summers’ idyl, the city of all my high days and holidays, and my absolute love.
I have written often in my art blog about the long erasure of the Spanish exiles from the history books of Spain, and how my father and my grandparents never spoke of their internment in the French camps of Argelès sur Mer and Barcarès. I didn’t know or question why I lived in two places, or why my grandmother wept so bitterly in her kitchen each time we returned to England.
This is what violent political repression does – it silences you. Not just in the streets with batons. No. The erasure of memory and the taping of tongues creeps deeply into the everyday fabric of our lives. In many ways the invisible brutality of a dictatorship is at the heart of my recent cycle of paintings called simply, Buenos Días Dictador.
The dictator is everywhere and nowhere. The dictator follows you wherever you go.
The Catalan question itself is too complex for me to write about. I am an artist, not a historian or political analyst. But I know about living with exile. I know about suppression. And I know what’s more that these wounds run so deep in Spain that even 81 years on from the start of that Civil War it is hard to talk about Spain. Mine is a postmemory experience. My contact with the history is indirect, but my fear is present and real.
I have changed my social media settings to share this blog post.
The Catalan question can be hard to grasp, but you can recognise state suppression when you see it. All the hallmarks are there – and it’s impossible to argue with the statement by Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau. A line has been crossed and Rajoy is not fit to serve. Like so many bullies before him he is a coward, one who has set armed police against an unarmed citizenry.
There have been many opportunities to negotiate, which is what democracies are made for. Democracy is talking. Democracy can never be throwing citizens around like rag dolls, breaking their fingers, kicking and batting them with truncheons. Someone has died I believe, and more than 800 injured.
Most sickeningly there have been statements by Rajoy and his deputy claiming a proportionate response. But, no. This is not ‘normal’ or right.
With my art practice I witness. It’s all I can do.
August 20, 2017 § 3 Comments
I began a tribute to Heather Heyer called Rest in Outrage.
Shortly after the vile act of terrorism which took her life, we witnessed another – the atrocity of Las Ramblas in Barcelona. So I’ve felt compelled to cast my gaze back to my beloved childhood haunts, and stretch my tribute work across these two traumatic events.
I’m using labels for my tribute, which I’ve worked with in the past, especially during another tribute to Alec Wainman (2014). Looking back through some of my archive boxes I’ve found two further examples of label work, which now seem prescient. They could even have been made for Rest in Outrage.
I’m not clairvoyant of course, but my practice while seemingly fragmentary at times becomes coherent retrospectively.
The colourful Landscapes of Resistance labels were made in response to Trump’s inauguration (Jan 2017). In 2013, I made labels with fragments of printed family photographs featuring Barcelona among other places. It seems I was beginning my journey towards my current preoccupations back then.
I’m so glad I can use them to some purpose, that somehow this work hooks up and begins to make sense. My work may be as simple and inconsequential as finding missing sock and making a pair, but it’s all I can do.
August 18, 2017 § 2 Comments
(This image is of continuing work on a tribute to Heather Heyer, I must now find a way to extend my witness within my practice to grieve for Barcelona.)
There are no words for the atrocity which has taken place on the Ramblas in Barcelona. Yet I persist. I need to try.
I watched the horror unfold on my laptop. It had been a gruelling day. Unwelcome family news, a day spent in hostile sensory environments and the predictable near meltdown in a supermarket. It all paled as I took the news in.
Yesterday was also my wedding anniversary. As I held a glass of chilled Cordorniu and took my first sip I closed my eyes invoking a memory. It’s the same delicous cava my grandmother ritually served in celebration at our arrival from England to Barcelona between 1962 and 1975. Her dusty flat overlooked a series of now vanished warehouses to the old port area. You could see the statue of Columbus, from which the Ramblas begins (at the port end) from the shared roof terrace on which my grandmother hung her sheets to dry.
In my imagination the Ramblas begin almost at the foot of the marble stairway which opened out from my grandmother’s door and down five flights to the street. In reality it is several blocks away, but they seemed to melt as I drank on, recalling the particular intense dry heat of Barcelona, which in my memory always greeted us on arrival from England. As the taxi from the airport ejected a travel sick child onto the pavement, she would be moments away from grandmother’s joyful pinching of cheeks and the popping of a cork. Small sips of cava were encouraged and a cream confection was served back then. Our arrival was met by such ceremony (I later learned) because our separation from my grandparents had been forced. My father was living in England in exile and all our reunions were both joyful and filled with grief.
The bubbles on my tongue connected me to the Ramblas. They formed a memory hotline to that smaller me whose footsteps wore lovingly at the wavy paving which appeared on my screen as a crime scene shot. It was my stretch and I walked it so very often with my hands held by one parent now 90 and, one too long dead.
As a child I adored the decorative pavements of Barcelona – they were my friends and helped distract me from tired feet. Even as a child I understood the Catalans knew how to do street furniture, while in my other home (Birmingham), not so much. The Ramblas appeared to me as a paradise of exotic (and not so exotic) birds in cages, luscious flowers and foliage, magazine and book kiosks. It wasn’t a tourist trap back then. It wasn’t a death trap either. No one had invented cars and vans as lethal weapons for terror.
Barcelona had seen other atrocities, but I was blissfully unaware.
And now this. A senseless bloody carnage.
And the questions.
I don’t have any answers of course, I only know that when I grieve it’s for the old seemingly safe Ramblas – those seemingly more innocent times (and yet I know now that their backcloth was dictatorship). My nostalgia is thus tainted, and I fear we will hear more about how good things were back then. I hope not.
My work now entails researching aspects of the Spanish Civil War. As I viewed the colour photographs of chaos on the streets and armed police defending the public in 2017, my mind superimposed the black and white photographs of the street fighting in Barcelona, which marked the outbreak of civil war 1936.
Tricks of the mind.
And tricks of the mind is what we seem to face in all this horror. Somehow, somewhere human minds are being warped in dark and not so dark corners. We don’t yet know what this pattern means – the cycle of wanton carnage by the few and civic defiance by the many, as we witness again a show of citizenry on the streets chanting, we are not afraid. We only know that it’s becoming all too familiar, like a ghastly tape on a loop that won’t stop playing in increasingly rapid cycles.
I only know that a few days ago I began my tribute to Heather Heyer, invoking my Spanish ancestors to help me in my witness, and now I must cast my gaze to my old home town of Barcelona. Somehow these moments are joined despite their distant geographies.
My heart is breaking for Barcelona. For the Ramblas, and for all the victims of this latest act of terror. It seems the acts of witness are never done.
August 16, 2017 § 5 Comments
(These images feature an improvised art ‘ofrenda’ to Heather Heyer victim of a white supremacist terrorist attack in Charlottesville USA, August, 2017. The tribute was made for Heather but also bears the hallmarks of an ongoing practice.)
My last blog post featured a family photograph and was called What would Meri do?
I wrote about wanting to pay tribute to a recently murdered young US activist called Heather Heyer, and called on my ancestors to help me. This is a moment for witness.
My family were survivors of the fascist rebellion in Spain, which led to the Spanish Civil War and the slaughter and exile of thousands (1936-1939). This family history drives my art practice, but I began my work in 2013 when the contemporary political landscape was not as it is now.
Increasingly, since 2015, I have at times found cause to shift my gaze into the now, drawing unmistakable parallels with those past horrors.
My tribute to Heather therefore also draws on past works, as I build a language to deal with this need for witness and rituals of reparation, including one made in 2014 to Alec Wainman. His work countering fascism in Spain was not only exceptional but also intricately bound with my father’s story of rescue from a French internment camps in 1939. Here I use the labels attached to a garment as I did then.
For Heather’s tribute, I also introduce a tea cup from the tea set bought in Nazi Berlin (circa 1931) by British artist Felicia Browne, who lost her her life in the cause of antifascism in Spain in 1939. Felicia was the subject of my recent project called Through An Aritst’s Eye. I think of these two courageous women (who both gave their lives at the age of 32) holding hands across history. I seem to hover between them somehow, offering witness and metaphorically pouring tea
The soap featured is that of a German Jewish firm, Dr Bonner, with a history bound to Auschwitz and Theriesenstadt. At one point the soaps bore the motto “We are All-One or None!” on the label. I work intuitively and, in the process of making, the soap seemed to fly from my bureau to the suitcase (a ubiquitous trope in my work). No whitewash, it seemed to want to say.
The labels themselves bear Heather’s portrait painted over in white (they tried to silence her) but her features come through. Again, no whitewash. No white wash! Here I borrow from a work by Mexican artist Abraham Curzvillegas, entitled Blind Self Portrait as a Post-Thatcherite Deaf Lemon Head. In this work Abraham paints in white over hundreds of paper vestiges of a period of his life, signalling a form of erasure. Heather’s face cannot be erased if we hold firm our gaze and keep her close.
Labels I’ve made in the past have carried typed phrases. For this atrocity I have no words. Not yet. I am rendered mute by incomprehension, but my hands can work.
My plan is to keep making labels – to keep adding as I process and hold my witness. If you’d like to add a message for inclusion on a label please use the comment section.
Thank you for viewing, and for reading. Thank you for helping me bear witness.
UPDATE – the tribute grows.
Incorporating the first message and my Landscape of Resistance labels made on the inauguration of Trump.
August 14, 2017 § 2 Comments
This post relates to my research and the family history which fuels my art practice. My mission is to create a body of work around the themes emerging from a second generation experience of Spanish Republican exile to England.
My great grandmother sits beneath a bakelite radio, surrounded by family photographs in Madrid, 1935.
A portrait of a small child hangs to her right, it’s an image of my father which now rests in a plastic wallet in my mother’s house in Birmingham, England. This wallet contains all the photographs which graced the walls of my grandmother’s flat in Barcelona.
When my grandparents made their final journey from Spain to England in the mid 1970s the photographs travelled with them in a suitcase. That suitcase sits in my art studio in Oxford.
Packing and unpacking history is a cross-generational game. We shuffle the decks perhaps, but the intense joy of seeing and holding these images can’t be equalled. They centre me and show me the way forward. They tell me who I am.
This woman called Meri, who bore my dearest abuela (grandmother) sits waiting. Within months (a year at most) Spain would be at war, and after the siege of Madrid she would leave her home, travelling to Valencia and then Barcelona. In 1939, she would flee for her life and face the brutal camps of France where Spanish exiles from Fascist Spain were held behind barbed wire and under armed guard.
She was one of the fortunate exiles, allowed to leave the camps and live a civilian life in Angoulême along with my abuelos (her daughter and son-in-law). Work was tough. I recently learned that my abuelos worked 12 hour shifts in a munitions factory, but they were happy to be allowed to rent a small flat and make a home again.
By 1941 they were able to return to Spain, and grated permission to live in Barcelona. Despite being Republicans they were pardoned – they got lucky somehow.
As fascism rears violently in Charlottesville and I try to process this new horror, I look back at Meri. And I ask myself what would Meri do?
Meri was witness and survivor. Meri I feel, (like abuela also) would untie her apron and go to the market for flowers to make a tribute. We are called on to witness, again and again.
Since I began my art practice and tuned in to this history my work has expanded and diverted at times but I have always retuned to the ritual of the tribute. With the Nazi uprisings in the US my senses are sharpened once more, as with the refugee crisis, there are moments in contemporary life when my heritage kicks in and I can’t look away.
The news overwhelms and threatens to engulf us with all our senseless inhumanities. But now I know what to do. I must head to my studio to gather my ancestors and make some work. However small, however fleeting my witness may be I need to stay human. I need to engage and resist.
July 2, 2017 § 10 Comments
Photo by Stu Allsop – at RE:collections exhibition 2016 with my installation.
And lo, it came to pass that one day in the later decades of my life I experienced a touch of the ‘normals’.
But please don’t worry – I am quite okay. In fact I’m more than okay. I’m frankly energised in ways I don’t yet fully comprehend.
And again – don’t worry – I haven’t been ‘cured’ of my autism or gone all typical overnight. I am still emphatically me, only I’m suddenly a me with a growing sense that there are others quite like me, rather than me being a somewhat ropey version of you (you – for the purposes of this post being the non-autistic reader).
You see this typicality runs very deep in our culture. It seems to me there’s always a best and correct way of doing things – indeed our whole learning culture depends on such concepts and methods, fathomable only perhaps to a ‘typical brain’. Professional structures depend on this too – in fact typicality is so deeply assumed that I suggest we as modern societies simply don’t even get close to understanding this as oppression. But it so is.
Those of us who experience it simply feel innately faulty – because it is in effect the only kind of template out there, and it covers just about every thing in sight until you get to certain leisure pursuits or the kind of employment where creativity and innovation is prized, and can be self-led. We seem to have a cultural obsession with the conformity implied in ‘getting it right’ and using ‘correct methodologies’. I’m beginning to think this accounts for some of the growing tyranny in schools and professional life of trackable and measurable outcomes, in which a somewhat warped idea of accountability seems to have replaced something more human and, dare I say it, more generous.
Generous and confident cultures perhaps accept more plurality? This is where I hope we can be headed – away from the idea of ‘best way’ and one way, to many ways of doing and being.
Because it’s all right for an older crock like me to grow into herself finally, but what about those coming after me – my own kids included. To use a well worn metaphor I’ve been a square peg in a round hole (without knowing it) and it’s taken decades to discover my square peg buddies.
But I can tell you that when one square peg (autistic) mets another – and when their square-pegged life notes are exchanged – something revelatory happens. You realise that what is needed (and always was) are more square holes. Simple. You may need to build them yourself – but that was it folks. No square holes, visible or otherwise.
Perhaps this is a newly useful if ancient metaphor after all? Let’s try it out.
So – I am after all a perfectly ‘normal’ (autistic) square peg. So is my friend. There are it seems many of us. SO many that we can’t count one another. Society functions on a round peg basis. We need square holes – in the same way that wheel chair users need wheels and ramps.
Square holes could perhaps stand as a visual metaphor for our access needs and the need for access tools to be shaped by us for us – because only we can think in square-pegged ways. If this were to be true and even useful, the steps involved might look like this.
Step one: experiencing a necessary touch of the ‘normals’ in which the penny drops. This world is not designed for me but this doesn’t mean that I am faulty. We need as many of of us out and signalling to one another as possible.
Step two: identifying the patterns of square peg thinkers and how they are disabled and mitigated against via systems which demand round-pegged conformity. This means dialogue about how our brains work in practice in ways we recognise and understand as our own.
Step three: designing, lobbying for & implementing square hole access tools and arrangements in schools and workplaces. Probably many small initiatives connecting where possible – perhaps leading to national programmes which are autistic led.
I put it out there – because growing into yourself is only the inner life hack. We need more autistic thinking to filter into the way we design education and work practices too. Having met some of my autistic square peg counterparts I can assure you that we’re pretty freaking amazing. You’ll want some of that in your school or organisation – if you’re smart you really, really will.