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 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.
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.