Cultural identity in the face of political suppression – a longer view of Spanish exile: thoughts on #Catalonia.
October 28, 2017 § Leave a comment
Lately I feel muzzled. I’m taking a crash course in some of the issues surrounding the current turbulence in Spain, but my brain won’t make the stretch required and I don’t know how to talk about it. It’s become my job to respond with my art practice, I’m just taking my time getting there.
The debate (such as it is writ on screens) narrows into ugly nationalism pinned to flags, and fists knocking against a glass fronted Catalan radio station. Soundbites scream at me from opposing sides, I try to read longer articles in the night as insomnia claws my brain’s waning powers, but it is all like treacle. Words, drip and meld. Right or wrong? Legal or illegal?
But, my remit is never going to be the fine detail of political analysis involving finance and corruption, among a plethora of arguments about who did what. Forget questions of legality – I will never fully grasp them – they are a maze of contradictions, with confusion (as far as I can see) between EU enshrined rights to self determination and the Spanish constitutional legacy with it’s roots in a bloody history of civil war, the long Franco dictatorship, and an unresolved passage to democracy.
From the perspective of an Anglo-Spanish exile ( yes, I am still to reclaim my lost Spanish nationality) the hands of Mariano Rajoy have Franco’s fingerprints.
Yet many on the left remain silent. Some are even vocal against Catalan self-determination. It is ugly nationalism, the Catalans owe Spain money, the Catalan parliament has been tainted by Pujol’s and other corruptions, they say. And on it goes. Rajoy’s corruption of course figures in the argument, but only takes this particular brand of opinion so far in terms of tolerance for the Catalan question.
They’re certainly no fans of Rajoy but they are tired of it all – they want the Catalans to pipe down. And that’s the generous view. Okay, the Spanish nationalist backlash is a great worry for them, but in a very real sense the nationalism (if that’s what it is) shown on both sides is received with the same odium in some quarters. Forgive me, but I feel this lacks nuance given the historical background – and yet it is some of those who know this background intimately who aren’t sympathetic to Catalan secession. Of course, I realise that not even all Catalans want independence, and the current situation is proving divisive within the region too. But I have had my eyes opened to the lack of support for the separatists in unexpected places.
What is little spoken about is the quite visceral hatred of the Catalan people (and their cause) which is to be found in other parts of Spain. It’s an uncomfortable truth, often lacking in the international coverage of events. And yes, this level of hostility can work both ways, but you have to ask what’s provoked it from the Catalan perspective?
People say follow the money, it’s all about finance. On one level this may be correct, but then again what is it that ordinary citizens who voted for independence want, rather than the politicians and financiers? What is it that they want to separate from?
I take the long view, and I’m again astonished by the silence of the left in this respect (no doubt someone will fill me in). Surely the impulse towards self-determination lies in historically suppressed and contested questions of culture and identity.
You see I’m old enough to remember Barcelona in the Franco era, and to have heard stolen snatches of Catalan in the night air on my grandmother’s balcony. Back then it seemed a quaint language – I didn’t know it had been forbidden. Catalan phrases sometimes tripped off the tongues of our friends and neighbours at home. But it was swallowed back in public spaces, and I never learned more than fragments alongside the Castilian I picked up so naturally in my grandparents home in Barcelona. I was the second child of a bilingual family and I now wonder if I could have been just as easily trilingual.
I can’t separate what I’m gradually learning and absorbing of recent history from this present struggle. Why is so little spoken about the open wounds resulting from a national failure to face up to and negotiate historic memory. Franco sought to destroy Catalan separatism, and with the fascist victory at the Battle of Ebro (1938) he took control of the region. More than three thousand people were killed and significantly more exiled, including my father. He had been born in Madrid but as the son of Republican civil servants followed the elected government in retreat to live in Valencia, and subsequently in Barcelona. He was at the Battle of Ebro too, a young reporter with a commission to write for a regional magazine called Blindajes, which covered the armoured forces of Catalonia (tanks).
After the long dictatorship the degrees of autonomy were granted at the negotiation of democracy in 1977 have been played heavy-handedly with by Madrid, leading to the growing call for independence since 2010 when the Constitutional Court in Madrid overruled part of the 2006 autonomy statute.
Isn’t it this heavy hand which feels like Franco’s? Isn’t it this clumsy game of cat and mouse which has inflamed the separatist feeling so?
So I return to my reading – the treacly texts sometimes stick and I get glimmers of understanding. Catalans who want independence have been abandoned. The EU supports Spanish unity despite the obvious violence against citizens at the polling stations, and the proposed state control of the region’s parliament, it’s police and telecommunications to ensure ‘order’ for a new election process (not a referendum) to replace the sacked officials.
It will all be temporary it is claimed – but the intention seems clear. We are back to Franco’s imperative to squash Catalan separatism once more. Nobody knows where this will lead contemporary Spain, but you can’t help feeling, nowhere good, is the likely answer.
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 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.
June 15, 2017 § Leave a comment
¡Buenos Días Dictador!
Eight new postmemory paintings by Sonia Boué
Sonia Boué is an Anglo-Spanish multiform artist. Her practice is concerned with a legacy of exile, leading to a growing body of work which relates to the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.
In 2015 she was recognised by researchers at Tate Britain as a singular voice responding to this history within a British context. Subsequently Sonia featured in a film made by Tate Britain entitled, Felicia Browne: Unofficial War Artist, and in 2016 she received an Arts Council grant for Through An Artist’s Eye, a collaborative project about the life and work of Felicia Browne (who was the only British female combatant and the first British volunteer to die in action in the Civil War).
“Since 2013, my work has centred on a buried family history relating to the Spanish Civil War.
My childhood and adolescence spanned the final decade and half of the Franco dictatorship, yet the Civil War was never mentioned. This history was silenced for almost 40 years, and subject to a “pact of forgetting” when democracy was negotiated in Spain, following Franco’s death in 1975.
Unbeknownst to me Spain had been navigating an open wound.
My father and my grandparents had been involuntarily separated in 1939, and my father remained exiled in England until his death in 1989.
My practice is now concerned with this inherited memory and the need to confront this history through my work.”
About Buenos Días Dictador
Sonia Boué has created a series of new works about growing up with the invisible shadow of dictatorship. In them she explores the the duality of her childhood, drawing on an immersive painting practice. Through it (and the other branches of her multiform work) Sonia seeks to recover aspects of historic memory (memoria histórica), previously erased by political suppression.
With Buenos Días Dictador, Boué’s previous focus on the narrative histories of the Retirada (Republican retreat from Spain), and British involvement in the Civil War, has shifted to her own memory sites – the return journeys to Spain from England in the 1960s and 1970s.
Her painted responses are conjured scenes (dreamscapes) in which collaged figures plot an upbringing spent shuttling between Birmingham and Barcelona to visit her grandparents. Through these works she examines the fabric of daily life anew.
“The dictator was everywhere, silently and invisibly setting the preconditions of our lives.”
The spirit of these works is nostalgic yet confrontational, employing a juxtaposition of painted and collaged elements as a means of articulating the unspoken. Buenos Días Dictador, forms a visual essay which tweaks at the invisibility cloak of Franco’s rule to ask a serious question; how can we live the life domestic in the face of violent rupture, exile and dictatorship?
In these enigmatic new works the dictator is everywhere and yet nowhere to be seen. Cut-out figures from the period (borrowed from sewing pattern illustrations) are transplanted to imprecise geographical locations. Buenos Días Dictador, is a series of haunting dreamscapes conjuring a surreal and dissonant atmosphere.
Please share with colleagues and organisations where the visual arts, and subjects of Spanish Civil War, postmemory, displacement, and exile are of interest.
Contact Sonia for artist talks, conference papers and performances.
These works are also available for exhibition (8/ 50 x60 cms mixed media on linen).