Living with ghosts and the value of creative resistance.

December 15, 2019 § Leave a comment

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View of my home with a painting by my father (in 1950) hanging above some vintage suitcases and alongside two works of my own from the Buenos Días Dictador (2018) series.

Those of you who know my creative work will know that I’m haunted. Yes. I live with ghosts.

I’m going to share a secret. I talk to a handbag. I’ve even written letters to it. No, I’m not loosing my marbles. In 2013 my grandmother’s handbag came back into my life and whispered in my ear. From this moment my life changed and my art practice blew wide open. I knew what I had to do, but I couldn’t guess where it would take me. I’ve just commemorated 6 years of works responding to the Spanish Civil War and my family’s political exile. Previously unspoken, I’ve sought to bring to light this history in order to understand my heritage and heal trauma wounds.

My practice has come a long way, but since those first whispers in 2013 – in which the rise of fascism seemed more historic and remote than it does today – a curious echoing of past times has struck me again, and again. Incremental, creeping closer, and ever more distinct, the feeling of deja-vu pervades. It announces itself as a sudden chill, or today as a moment of terror in reading about the multiple ways in which this brand new Conservative administration already threatens to mimic all that our American cousins have endured in their President for the past 3 years. As if we didn’t already know that Boris Johnson was the perfect UK double for Donald Trump.

My 6 year haunting – yes, I live with my art now and am surrounded by ancestor talismans and tokens – begins to feel prophetic. My grandmother has been whispering through her handbag for so long now that sometimes I admit I haven’t always heard her. Life became full at times and I forget to listen, but believe me I won’t be making that mistake again. Abuela (as grandmother is called in Castilian Spanish) is tugging at my sleeve.

I know that she will show me what to do, and this is a great comfort, but she’s taken great care to remind me how quickly the wind can change which is unsettling too. She knows the supreme value of preparedness because she’s survived a Civil War. Abuela will guide me in her gentle way, and then fasten her apron strings to make us cafe Bonbón. She knows how to cajole, but from now on she has my full attention.

The atmosphere of sudden departure is in my DNA. My family fled for their lives from Spain along with almost 500,000  Republican Spaniards when the fascist dictator Franciso Franco seized power in February 1939.

I know that I must ready myself in whatever way I can. History repeats itself, this we know. I’m not prophesying war and catastrophe, I’m obeying the unspoken laws of my DNA. I know I’m not leaving tomorrow, but I’m vigilant and quietly offloading. I have already asked myself what I could fit into packing cases and would there be time and money to ship my work? These are unknowns. A crossing of bridges.

Abuela smiles her approval. I look at the jewel-like object I know I would take with me no matter what. It would be my father’s only known/surviving painting from 1950, shared on Instagram just yesterday @s_boue, which also features in the image above. Abuela pinches my cheeks affectionately, and I’m suddenly taken back to the memory of my father sitting under an acacia tree writing while we were on holiday in Spain in 1972.  He would have been writing something other than his his plays, as by this time he had given up on playwriting for the sake of his mental health. I’ve come to view his exile theatre as creative resistance, and I increasingly see my own work in the same light.

Abuela beams at me. I’m old enough for these truths to be known, but then a shadow passes over us and her face becomes suddenly sombre. Fascism creeps in through the back door, she says with a shudder. I nod. It begins with fear; of what you read in the newspapers and what you can no longer say freely.  I understand now without her saying it that these 6 years have been a preparation too. All this time I have been on a parallel mission of making and packing, and leaving a trail for future generations – as I now realise that my father did in his time.

Life and art are never separate, not even if you try to wrench them apart. It’s been a long time since I wrote in quite this way, but we are living in increasingly frightening and unsettled times. My blog is a call for preparedness, but above all for creative resistance. Finding spaces in which the mind can be free become more vital when our actual freedoms are under threat. Every act of creativity and self-care is a means of survival. Reaching out and organising is what we must do.

 

 

You have even seen my autism as it is.

October 9, 2019 § 1 Comment

The painting you see before you is literally buzzing. It’s a good representation of my brain right now.

I painted it with great emotion, inspired by a piece of classic Spanish cinema called The Spirit of the Beehive (1972). Bees swarming. Having a bee in your bonnet. It’s all connected. But what do you do when the bees are inside your brain?

Such is the sensation sometimes with autism (I find). I qualify this because it will feel differently to others. We don’t need a bunch of bee-brain theories (or pea-brain theories, to be honest).

That’s why it’s hard to write about the less comfortable aspects of autism – you don’t want to fuel the ‘bad autism’ beast. See! Naughty autism got you, they might say, but I won’t let them. It’s not the autism that’s naughty. I guess I should blame the sillies who tried to tell me I was slow (for example) when it’s quite obvious I am fast (too fast at times). But I won’t do that either.

Increasingly, I’m inclined to believe that these people and many others just don’t know about brains, probably because they’ve never had to think about them (or their brains in relation to others).

Thinking about our brains (and what’s ‘wrong’ with them) is probably the sole preserve of the ‘misfit’. Majority brains don’t have to bother. In my view this labour is advantageous and our ‘misfit’ brains hold many advantages too.

It helps to identify the volume of traffic caused by the bees (ideas), and they don’t always swarm so. They also connect parts that other brain can’t reach.

What interests me about the mark-making activity documented in the painting above is that it narrates the impulses of my mind via the movement of my arm (and hand). The movement of my whole body indeed (because it was suitably frenetic – you won’t know this but I just typed frantic in error.)

I have therefore (in a way I can relate to) shown you the inside of my mind, without recourse to any words. You will see it. You will see my joy and my rage. You will also see my freedom. You have even seen my autism as it is. Dynamic, rhythmic, capable of control (for I have stayed within the picture frame and given you a harmonious dancing surface to gaze at.)

I want to show you more.

Convoy – responding to the Convoy of 927.

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.

1940 is a year I’ve worked with recently, for the Uncomfortable Histories (UH) exhibition, and the Paper Trail work very much follows on from my piece for UH, entitled They Slept in a Forest

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!

Dolls Heads: visual process blog responding to historic violence, noticing pattern, feeling my way.

August 6, 2019 § Leave a comment

Back where I belong: traumatic memory in an art practice.

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.

Not a programme to do your ironing to! #Radio4

March 23, 2018 § 5 Comments

 

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It’s not a programme to do your ironing to, my producer, Anna Scott-Brown, warned me minutes before the transmission of, The Art of Now: Return to Catalonia (an Overtone Productions programme for BBC Radio 4), which you can listen to on iPlayer on the link above.

I’d spent the previous three days feeling like I was trapped in an elevator shaft with the lift about to drop on my head from the tension of waiting to hear it!

With such a short run up time I’d  thrown myself into the project and relied on hyperfocus to develop the creative concept and refine every detail needed to retrace my father’s exile journey from Spain to England in 1939, making creative responses along the way.

We finished our recording in Spain, and my part was over. Anna and (co-director) Adam Fowler, then toiled at the edit and sound design to craft the woolly mammoth of material we’d created into a 28 minute programme ( we generated so much material in fact that the editing software groaned, registered full, and would take no more!) I just couldn’t imagine how they would do it.

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During transmission I was transfixed. I honestly sat staring at the radio with my ears cocked like a spaniel – I really did – as a dazzling geology of sound whizzed about my ears seeming to stop time.

It is the most extraordinary radio programme I have ever heard – due entirely to Overtone Productions artistry. I’m incredibly proud to be part of it. It’s a rich, immersive, sophisticated listen – the imagery piles in from moment 1.

My extended family sat 60 miles away gathered around the radio, listening intently together as families once did. My teenage daughter surprised me by slinking onto the sofa unbidden to hear it.

Messages flooded in. Enhorabuena! The layering is really beautiful! Your voice sounds wonderful….

A poet watched  patches of sunlight dance on the wall which she said  looked exactly like the sound of my voice as she listened. She sent me a video – it really does.

The following day I heard from friends who’d toiled up the mountain of listening (like the exiles crossing the Pyrenees) to unpick the intricate soundscape. Hearing is not always a given we must remember, and in this case a husband lent his ears to transcribe it from iPlayer for his wife. An act of love and dedication (on so many levels) echoing the love which went into making this programme.

I’m immensely grateful, and somewhat in awe – I feel I’ve reach a summit. This was my dream job – an artist can ask for no more. To open up my soul on Radio 4 has been quite extraordinary  – to have shared this journey with Overtone Productions is even more precious.

The genius of their work is that in each listening (and I keep on listening) you hear more layers. It took 5 times for me to catch my own voice lowered and playing under the sound of me digging in the sand – ¡Buenos días, dictator! I intone…the title of my recent exhibition, which is so so resonant in this moment of my ritual.

Having murmured into a recorder almost every day and sent endless files through WeTransfer, I realise that few people will understand my work better than they. They’ve heard me talking down my demons on my walks around Oxford, and know that I have all my best thoughts in the shower. It has been a revelation to record myself – something which I will continue to do as it’s such a useful creative tool. I will miss talking to Anna though – she has been such a wonderfully encouraging and receptive creative companion.

If you haven’t heard the programme yet I urge you to give it a listen. An art piece in itself, it’s a portrait of creative reliance in the face of inherited trauma. This has so much to say to us in present times.

A great deal of the visual output from this project can be found on my website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Confronting my fear

March 19, 2018 § 2 Comments

Enactment Argelès 4

This blog post was first published on the Overtone Productions website on March 2nd.

My journey to Catalonia with Overtone Productions for Radio 4’s The Art of Now has honestly been the trip of a lifetime. I set out with some trepidation (for the first time) to trace (in reverse) my father’s exile journey from Barcelona to England at the fall of Spain to the Franco dictatorship in 1939.

But I’m coming home with a deep sense of reconnection, and new insights into the profound value of a creative practice in confronting a most painful history, and I’ve been able to shine new light through some of the darkness.

Having carefully planned my artistic journey through the sites of two infamous French concentration camps of the period (Le Barcarès and Argelès-sur-Mer) with a stop-off at the Museu Memorial de l’Exili (La Jonquera) to make a personal donation to the archives, I was, nonetheless, anxious that my work could be met with hostility in some quarters.

Sonia Boue

The Catalan independence referendum of October 1st 2017 appeared to have heightened tensions in the region. As friends and contacts on the ground back then began to send me news and impressions (including video footage of police violence at the ballot box) I feared these horrifying scenes held echos of the Franco dictatorship, and I felt a new uncertainty. Since 2013 I have been creating work about the Spanish Civil War but I have never had the opportunity to show my work in Spain before. Whether I could do so now became a burning question.

Returning with the programme also involved breaking a family taboo, and a history of silencing through fear and trauma. Aspects of what followed feel a little dreamlike, bordering on the remarkable. I can’t wait to share some of my encounters in the broadcast.

Sonia Boue - Enactment Argeles

I learned that the memory of Civil War in Catalonia was never truly erased (because ‘the people’ remembered), and that there has indeed been a proud history of protest and resistance in the region. The somewhat infamous policy of ‘official amnesia’ has not been swallowed by the populace necessarily – though tensions about it remain, especially where Francoism lives on.

But to my delight, I was met with an overwhelming welcome for my project at each stage of the journey, including an invitation to exhibit and talk about my work from Queralt Solé at the history faculty in Barcelona University, which has opened up the possibility of a whole new creative dialogue.

Sonia Boue's exhibition

Making this programme has enabled me to find my voice in Catalonia, and to hear the multiple voices of all those wonderful friends old and new I met along the way.

Sonia Boue at Barcelona University - photo by Kayte Locke

My special thanks go to the Alsina family in Barcelona whose long and profound friendship to my family (dating from before the Civil War to the present day) inspires and sustains me. My deep gratitude also to Helena Buffery for her steadfast support and guidance on vital aspects of this project.

As I journey home I’m already longing to return once more to Catalonia.

www.soniaboue.co.uk

 The Art of Now: A Return to Catalonia is on BBC Radio 4 at 4pm on 19th March 2018.
An Overtone  Production by Anna Scott-Brown.

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