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).
August 12, 2016 § 8 Comments
Photography Stu Allsop: At RE:collections at the North Wall Gallery, Oxford.
An interesting article appeared in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, featuring my good friend and fellow autistic artist Jon Adams.
I like this particular quotation from the piece,
“Adams says it’s impossible for his autism not to affect his work. “It’s not separate so it must inform every bit of the work I do, even at an unconscious level. I make work touching sound, finding patterns and observations from my life all woven together as one.” He feels it may even give him an advantage: “It’s both my downfall and my creative edge,” he says.”
I’m chuckling though.
“…may even give him an advantage…”
Are you kidding?
While not wishing to indulge in trumpet blowing, I have to say that autism is of course advantageous in the making of art. No question.
Jon and I have talked about this on several occasions and conclude that art making has emerged in our lives as an inner compulsion – we live and breathe it – this is what drives us to create to our best abilities. Hyper-focus, perfectionism, task completion and originality (by default we see things differently), are my four (not so) secret weapons.
This doesn’t make me Rain Woman!
AND there is a downside. In the making autism is an advantage, but it is in the professional development and dissemination of our work that we often suffer.
Professional structures are socially driven and thus biased against autistics.
It’s a criminal mismatch when you think about it.
All that creative talent and very little scope for opportunity.
What a waste.
January 4, 2016 § 3 Comments
Objects found today which speak…With all the forms I use as an artist I sometimes forget that the principle source of my inspiration is object work. No matter what I do it all springs from the objects around me and, of course, the ghosts of the past echoing through them.
Today was an important reminder. For the first time in a while I found myself with the opportunity to browse in a charity shop. I have a big submission to write and its skeleton (a sketchy draft) lies buried under a pile of papers – I know what I must write but I’m still feeling my way to nailing it down. Something stops me from committing to the format. My work doesn’t really fit into an online form but I’ll have to squeeze it into shape somehow.
The charity shop took me one step further. Towards the end of a reasonably pleasant rummage (no vintage suitcases alack!) I happened on a basket of scarves on the counter. I usually like to run my hands through them for silk. I rarely buy but sometimes the right one fishes up. Today it did – though at first I was ready to walk away despite it’s powerful call.
It said Abuela (grandma) – the woman responsible for my entire project and the deepest font of all my inspirations. I picked it up and admired it and immediately considered it for the performance I’m working on. Sometimes an object is the cornerstone of a piece providing a way in and anchoring it – making it tangible and real rather than a mere figment of my imagination. Only the other night I realised I would have to call on Abuela for my performance idea. Now here she was!
Yet I put it back. I turned away. A sensible voice told me that I collect too much stuff, that I’ll forget the scarf, that if I even get the gig I will have moved on by then and I won’t need this scarf despite the powerful jolt of recognition it’s bold colours and flowing florals bring.
But Abuela calls again. She’s in the room now, standing next to me urging me to turn back and so I do. I’ll take the scarf I say, and suddenly notice a small leather-bound dictionary nestling on the counter behind the basket. It hasn’t yet been placed out in the store. Spanish-English English -Spanish. My two tongues.
As the woman takes the scarf and wraps it in a paper bag I reach for the dictionary. Inside a dedication, with love and best wishes from Mummy Xmas 1954.
It couldn’t be more perfect an object – reeking of the times (my father’s fertile playwriting years), of family bonds, of bilingual bi-cultural lives, of journey back and forth. Reeking even of my mother’s own hand and her endless dedications to us over the years. It reeks of my father, his library, his life’s work. It reeks of grandma and grandpa and every single object in their flat in Barcelona, every detail of their clothing, their routines, their foibles. Their enveloping love.
From this tiny book you can learn that exile is destierro. There is no mention however of homesickness – añoranza.
Abuela’s scarf was right to pull me back. She knew I needed this book for my performance. She just knew.
December 13, 2015 § 3 Comments
This is a post about the effects of working with trauma in a creative practice, and most specifically about using the notion of postmemory to direct research and create output.
My project centres on the rupture within my family at the hands of the Franco dictatorship, which in 1939 succeeded in ousting a democratically elected Republican government in Spain. The subsequent lifelong exile of my father in England formed the emotional texture of my own beginnings and has dominated the landscape of my psyche in secret ways, for this was a history unspoken due to trauma and repression. I grew up not knowing why my grandparents lived in Barcelona or why we shuttled constantly between this idyl and the bleakness of 1960s-1970s Birmingham where we lived.
In my own work there is an additional dimension of Specific Learning Disability (SpLD). Again this is something that has dominated but remained secret (or rather unknown) and is becoming revealed to me later in life.
Recently I discovered that I have dyscalculia which crosses over into dyslexia. Following sequential steps and linear argument is hugely challenging, and I’m essentially unable to access the realms of number, science and many abstract areas of thought. My natural territory is swooping intuition based on what I can touch and see. I am also awaiting a formal diagnosis of autism. This is a process I have decided to be very open about, in part because I believe autism is crucial to my ability to work with postmemory material in a multiplicity of ways.
Autism is a plus in both my life and work. It makes me both more susceptible to emotions (contrary to stereotype) and more visually sensitive than average. I am socially capable but with strong preferences for solitude, order and the blissful flow of creative life in my studio. My most valuable tools in this work are my abilities to focus, to absorb emotional material like a sponge and to draw in diversely connecting layers of information in both written and visual forms.
But this hyper focus sometimes leaves me particularly open to traumatic material such as (while obsessively following news events) exposing myself to a video which appeared online the day after the English parliament voted to bomb Syria, in which footage of a five year old Syrian girl who had later been killed by Russian bombs featured. As I opened the link I knew it was risky and hesitated, my finger hovering over the command key. You can’t un-see traumatic material. After some moments I gave way to the stronger sense of moral obligation to witness
This experience revealed to me that I was becoming numbed by internet exposure to recent developments in world events including terrorist attacks and a political situation in my own country I felt powerless about and experienced as deeply alienating. To my horror I could feel nothing. What I viewed felt remote and as unreal as a movie. Registering this as a troubling signal of creeping emotional brutalisation I headed for the studio.
It is with particular sensitivity that I have sensed the political landscape in Europe unravel in recent months. Since the refugee crisis peaked during our Indian Summer I’ve felt a horrendous and uncanny deja vu with the events I never lived through via a combination of second hand information (research) and the information I now know I imbibed through family atmosphere – postmemory material.
In my work I’m piecing together the unspoken and potentially unspeakable, yet speak I must. When I’ve attended rallies in support of refugees it’s been with a keen sense of a family obligation to do so – the wheel coming full circle.
The #RefugeesWelcome banner made with a dear friend Alex van Hensbergen.
It’s not the first time I have bumped up against the knowledge that not only my subject but also the internet based reach methods I use can expose me to trauma. In honouring my family and exploring inherited trauma I have often had to do a species of one step forward two steps back dance. I’ll re-traumatise myself if I’m not careful. The dilemma is that I must do this work as the sense of obligation is acute. I must keep going and yet to re-traumatise myself is not only undesirable personally speaking, it would also stall the project.
It all boils down to looking without looking too much, yet knowing when to stop and when to move forward can be difficult. Hyper focus means my research stamina is almost limitless and stopping isn’t easy, but I’m also a trained art therapist and my compass for what is healing is strong. Tried and trusted methods are at hand and it becomes possible to navigate the postmemory ravine (as I shall call it) with a paint brush in my hand so to speak.
Painting it out is a powerful antidote to the creeping numbness and other symptoms of traumatisation such as acute anxiety and insomnia. Pausing is generally a good idea too and getting back to the good in humanity through positive human contact. I would suggest that almost any creative act brought to a level of resolution is potentially healing. Most valuable also in these periods of recovery is the opportunity to experience the work and in particular the working processes of other artists.
As recovery is a process itself, it can be that a combination of these healing factors is needed to get back to a place of sufficient recuperation to work again.
That very day in my studio I resolved a painting and created one of the most explicit and uncomfortable pieces of work I’ve ever made on war. “Trajectory of your bomb through my washing line” was a direct response to the vote on Syria and my act of witness. But I still couldn’t conjure an emotional response to the girl.
“Trajectory of your bomb through my washing line.” Sonia Boue, mixed media, 2015
Days passed, I took time out, couldn’t sleep and felt useless.
I heard Cornelia Parker speak at the new Western Library in Oxford. It was extremely inspiring. She’s an affable and charismatic speaker who exudes brilliance through a seemingly boundless creative curiosity. This was a real treat.
I took a day out with Ali Berrett a dear longstanding artist friend with whom I have over the years spent many hours in deep conversation about art and life. Our day included a viewing of Anne Hardy’s exhibition Field at Modern Art Oxford. Beforehand we were two somewhat worldweary people taking a break. Afterwards we felt uplifted and cleansed of the contamination of terror and it’s endless reflections in mass and digital media in our lives. I was immediately impressed with the power of Hardy’s immersive installations to transform me, to shift more than mood.
Cornelia’s work resides in open planes, by which I mean there is no one fixed reference point in our culture for what she is doing with her work although there are many distinct allusions to be found. Paradoxically it is rooted in the specifics of quotidian life and the physics of the material world. It strikes me as an intensely playful if not anarchic practice tempered by serious method and an aesthetic of the highest order. The significance of her most famous work Cold Dark Matter – an exploded shed – is not lost in a discussion of bombs on domestic spaces.
Cold Dark Matter by Cornelia Parker
As I came back to myself in conversation with my friend I experienced a painful flashback to the video of the child. My emotional life had been kickstarted by quality doses of human creativity.
For the next two days I did very little work creatively speaking. There’s always admin and thinking to be done in a creative practice but I succeeded in mainly tripping myself up and losing my keys.
In the evenings I’ve watched What do Artists Do All Day, giving myself another dose of Cornelia Parker and also finding new artists to look at. Polly Morgan and Shani Rhys James were also memorable to watch. I listened extensively to Spanish guitar music and realised anew that the warmth of the strings, deeply expressive quality and lively rhythms have become intensely meaningful in my life since beginning my project.
Samuel Diz is a wonderful new discovery for me.
With Anne Hardy there was also a sense of return to a sensory world of before’s. I often now rehearse the phrase I’ve hit upon that exile is the after of the before. The before being the golden time prior to rupture and loss. Probably a time when we didn’t know what we had till it was gone a la Joni. Though I’m talking about childhood innocence.
Hardy’s practice is also also gloriously playful, taking the viewer to far off elemental places deep inside the sensory memory banks of the psyche. In particular I found myself in kindergarten spaces and the wonderment of the nursery. The spaces we inhabit prior to our knowledge of the vile destructiveness of the human race. Spaces where the sensual world dominates in which texture and hue, pattern and form nourish us as directly as the milk we hungrily suck down. This is what we respond to with the abstract form. I was five years old again in the Modern Art Oxford John Piper gallery, with my shoes off responding to the extraordinarily rich 1970’s vibe of this marvellous composition of colour and stroke by Anne Hardy.
Detail of a kindergarten painting I’ve returned to often, painted when I was 5 in Mexico City.
Art and creativity matter more than we can ever know in the mediation of trauma. It is immeasurably significant in our lives in terms of remaining human in our responses. So it perhaps comes as no surprise that our current government has been seeking to erode it from our schools and public life.
There’s a symmetry here which must not be missed. It is not simply that art is deemed an uneconomic and superfluous activity -a spurious argument at best. It is that art keeps us human and provides us with freedom of thought and expression. Our government doesn’t want this for it’s people and devalues art as it carries out it’s political agenda to undo the welfare system and promote the values of finance.
Through art we play, problem solve and grow. Through it we are able to mediate the most difficult aspects of our existence and resolve some of the most painful feelings known to us. Beauty alone is worth cherishing – it too keeps us human and connected, reminding us of our responsibilities to the planet and each other. Art also allows us to tackle the ugliness of life, and to face our truths and speak their name. We can be overt or we can work obliquely if we wish. Art is about free will and this is what’s at stake in the world today.
Art is how I survive and art is why I continue.
Nine days after viewing an online video of a five year old Syrian child with footage of the families razed property in which we learn that she was shortly after slain by Russian bombs my heart was finally pierced and I wept freely into my morning porridge.
December 11, 2015 § Leave a comment
Here is a short (less than 2 minutes) video with my take on the backbone to my creative practice; the concept of postmemory. First developed to describe the transmitted trauma to the children of holocaust survivors, this term is incredibly meaningful in anchoring my own experience of living with my father’s traumatic lifelong exile from Spain.
The video says it all.
November 20, 2015 § Leave a comment
Today’s post is a mediation on the line. The line has become a constant motif in my paintings since the introduction of the typewriter ribbon in Exilio 2014 shown in the first image below.
During Q & A after a performance of The Sadness of Being Nothing at Bangor University Department of Modern Languages and Cultures Research Forum the question of the line emerged and coalesced.
I saw that it runs across the forms I engage in whether it be assemblage, performance or painting.
I began to see it in the landscape as I drove home and later in the hasty images captured in the view from my hotel room.
I see it today in the news that the US is withdrawing it’s relief programme to Syrian refugees. We are crossing a line.
For me the exploration of inherited exile trauma has brought an understanding that many people can relate to exile because it is a loss. Metaphorically I have chosen to focus on the line (sometimes as a block of colour which separates the visual field) as the marker for decisive upheaval – usually a shift in being or state over which we have no control.
Exile is the after of the before.
We have a choice about the refugees fleeing from war. They are our fellow humans not rabid dogs. But in the US the “othering” of Syrian refugees is taking a new and devastating turn.
It’s a time to be vigilant and to speak out. It’s a time to fall into my metaphor and draw it out as far as I can. Rope – one of the lines used in my performance – is also used in the game of tug-o-war. I’m not about war or it’s damaging rhetoric but I am about grabbing the rope of reason with all of my creative might.
Exilio 2014, mixed media on canvas, 24 x 34.5 inches.
Performance shot – typewriter ribbon and LED tea light
The lead line within the window view from my hotel room.
November 19, 2015 § 2 Comments
It was an incredible experience to find myself again in performance and to talk about the work in conversation with Dr Eva Bru Dominguez. Although performance for me is based on detailed research and as an object artist I must pack and predetermine the components of my piece, the moment of performance is improvised. Usually performance spaces are a distance away and can’t be prepared in beforehand and part of the work is to respond to the space. I must trust my instincts and the language I’m developing to work through my body. Elements I thought I would use were left to one side in the moment. The strength of my emotional reactions surprised me at the start of the piece when I taped my mouth – from that point on I was thinking on my feet about how to resolve the objects as assemblage where each element is a redolent signifier but must be brought together to a state of harmony.
I’m still processing the rich layers of association and newly accrued meaning this performance engendered. I begin to define my art in this form as live assemblage, imbued with ritual. An attempt to transmit the essence of my studio research to an audience, capture their attention and move them in some way.
My great thanks to Dr Eva Bru Dominguez and to Dr Gillian Jein for the invitation to present this work at Bangor University School of Modern Languages and Cultures Research Forum.
Improvising performance intentionally honours the improvisational skill and instinct of the Spanish Republican exiles of 1939, and all refugees in all times who have had to, and continue to have to make domestic spaces out of nothing in locations they cannot anticipate.