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.
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!
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.
March 23, 2018 § 5 Comments
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.
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.
February 16, 2018 § Leave a comment
(Still from my new film called, With You, featuring my father José García Lora & the gardener’s son at the Old Prebendal House, Shipton-under-Wychwood.)
Life’s a bit full on at the moment, but in infinitely good and exciting ways. My work with Overtone Productions for the Radio 4 programme, The Art of Now: Return to Catalonia, continues apace and is all consuming, partly because we have such a short window in which to make it. It’s also a compelling piece of work to be making at this time of high tension and uncertainty in Catalonia.
I am loving working with Overtone who make this easy for me, and are infinitely encouraging about all the sound pieces I’m recording ahead of our trip to France and Spain next week. The process of recording myself is in itself fascinating – a new form to learn about and enjoy from behind the scenes.
Mainly, I find myself thrown headlong into an intensely personal creative exploration where family history, the recent conflicts in Catalonia, and the opportunity to extend (embody & flesh out) the visual language of my practice collide. I’ve been scared at times that this could get messy, and I still don’t quite know what my journey will bring, but I feel so well held by Overtone and the various people now supporting this project in Barcelona that I’m mostly reassured and have begun thinking about my work in terms of transmission and reception. Amid the fear engendered by buried trauma (a second generation inheritance called postmemory) there is a new sense of welcome which opens out possibility. This is deeply inspiring on the importance of welcome and receptivity in both cultural and human terms.
The title to a Nora Jones song – Strange Transmissions – has worked its way into my brain in relation to recent conversations with Dr Helena Buffery (probably only the title to this song is relevant). Helena works with me on my father’s plays and together we try to make sense of his creative project in the context of Spanish exile. She has also facilitated the reception for my work in Barcelona. It’s immensely beneficial to the preparation to have a sense of arrival for the project once we hit Spain.
Intense processing has led me to what I hope will be a coherent outcome in terms of the art-making side of the programme. I now have a plan, and it’s a pretty tight one at that. With so few days on the road – traveling in quick succession through the camps of Frances at Argelès and Barcarès, over the border at La Jonquera and then on to Barcelona – I’ve needed to think this through in the finest of detail possible.
Last week we recorded the English leg of our journey at Shipton-under-Wychwood. It was a cold and soggy day with enough time spent outdoors to thoroughly soak our feet and test out our waterproofs – mine being newly acquired for the purposes of this journey. It was a good excuse to equip myself properly and has paid for itself already by enabling me to film on location and capture footage I’m incredibly pleased with. It couldn’t have gone better I feel, and rain added a perfect melancholy and depth to the work.
So I’ve created a new film to take with me to Spain called, With You – the still capture (shown above) has been taken over a transition. I’m excited by this effect and the way in which it says exactly what I want to convey about the layers of my project by superimposing one image over another.
Yesterday I cracked the piece for the final leg of my journey in a momentary flash of inspiration on acquiring a new and unexpected object. I can’t wait to share this with listeners to Radio 4. Tune in on the 19th March at 4pm and all will be revealed!
February 5, 2018 § 9 Comments
(I’m taking a camera which can’t take pictures to document the erasure of this history).
The Art of Now: A Return to Catalonia
BBC Radio 4
Transmission Date Monday, 19th March 2018, 4pm
Presented by Sonia Boué
Produced by Anna Scott-Brown
So I’m finally returning. I can’t help wondering what Abuela (grandma) would say?
I wish too that my father could know that I am going back to Catalonia, via the beaches of Barcarès and Argèles (where he was held in refugee interment camps), to retrace his exile journey to England in 1939.
At the age of 18, he, along with 500,000 other Spaniards, fled for his life across the border to France. I have spent the last five years building a body of work in response to this family history, and have also cast my net wider to encompass figures such as British artist and Spanish Civil War volunteer, Felicia Browne, and the exiled Spanish writer and broadcaster, Arturo Barea.
Now, I have been asked to make a programme for Radio 4 with Overtone Productions, and my question about taking my practice to Spain will in part be answered. I will be retracing my father’s footsteps and creating responses along the way. We have a very short timeframe to make this programme and so I’m thrown into sifting and planning (in ways I am very conscious the exiles couldn’t) the artistic side of my journey.
The job feels vast, and at times overwhelming in the time available – not helped by a brain which likes to canter off in 10 directions at once. Reigning in and staying focused is the thing. Here is where my obsessive nature is hugely beneficial to my work. I dig in and apply myself to the detail.
My feel for the bigger picture is pure intuition – I trust I can make the stages of my journey join up by getting each stage right conceptually speaking. My work is made easier because I can draw on some existing pieces in my growing collection, but I will be making new responses and hoping to bring them all together by the end of the programme.
I’m brimming with gratitude to Overtone Productions for pitching this programme, and feel a weight of responsibility – this is a highly sensitive history. Also Lurking is the spectre of inherited trauma – as I probe more deeply into it I gain a firmer grasp on the terror through which this history was suppressed. I hear new information from my mother which confirms it and brings it closer.
I feel my father’s fear as though it were my own. As though it were live.
I conclude that it is. This is what we mean by the term, postmemory. Recent events in Catalonia serve to demonstrate how difficult Spanish history is, how tensions remain from the unresolved legacies of the Civil War.
I won’t really know how to respond until I get to the beach of Barcarès, or until I’m confronted with the entrance to my grandmother’s flat (which she left in 1975) in the Barceloneta. All I can do is plan and pack my suitcases full of artistic possibility.
Each morning I pinch myself anew. Somehow I’ve landed the job of my dreams.
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.