August 18, 2017
(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.
¡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).
So I’ve been working in my studio on a series of paintings – only honestly it feels as though the paintings have been working on me.
Emerging from one idea – to respond to a particular space – I find myself co-habiting with a peculiar bunch of images which go deep into my psyche.
This was supposed to be about landscape (okay some of them are & two of these have already flown the nest – sold and gone for good). But what I find is that it is often never that simple and I’m working though something singular and complex. Landscape here is a warm up or a backcloth to the cut out figures who take centre stage.
Through them – but also through their placing (or indeed staging as it were) I’m pin-pointing precise moments (places, events, emotions) of my Anglo-Spanish childhood under the hidden shadow of the Franco dictatorship.
I know exactly where I am in these works. They signal a curious return. They are wistful and joyful – nostalgic in the extreme. They are also frankly a little strange.
So I’m at both at home with them and uncomfortable. And I realise that this is perfect.
I have also set myself up in creating these works for my first experiment of showing in a wholly commercial space. They belong within the body of my postmemory works and they need to stay together as my overarching project unfolds. I have to own that they will not be at home on their first outing. Marvellous! Conceptually speaking this could not be more perfect.
Wilful imagination – powerful unconscious compass! You take me where you need me to go but not where I planned for. Like forgetting to take a coat on holiday and arriving in a storm – I am unprepared. My work makes me naked but actually I love that.
Haha! I find it as difficult to translate myself for a market as my exiled father (and playwright) did in sharing his vision of the Spanish dictatorship with British audiences. In a very real sense I’m working in a family tradition. Hey dad – I’m on it!
Flux and flow in the studio. Impending jury service means I’m in a hurry and so I’m putting the hours in whenever I can, and it’s so good to be making work again.
Through all the surprising landscape work that’s been emerging I’ve come to a point of clarity – and this gives my work a vital hook back into the ongoing postmemory project with which I began this blog.
I find my practice is never as disjointed as it feels at times. There is always a thread.
My last post was about the politics of painting as action and resistance. There’s more to be drawn out of this as a source of resilience in the face of a wannabe autocrat like Trump. Such figures live in our minds if we let them and I have been consumed by the MSM and SM storm surrounding his presidency.
But having worked (or maybe walked – it is landscape after all) through the storm last week, this week I hit on a clearing. Or if we take the walking metaphor further – this was a circular path after all (ha! the scenic route!) – which took me back to base. Though perhaps I can now see things from a different angle.
These works – two of which are shown above – hark back to my earlier love of collage but are related to my Anglo Spanish childhood unknowingly lived in the shadow of the Spanish dictator Franco.
I had begun collecting materials earlier this year (from secondary school Spanish language materials from the 1970s) and arrived at a title; Buenos Dias Dictador.
And here are the works – just catching up with their title. They are still in progress but taking shape.
Last post I wrote about Painting Without a Rudder. This post I’m happy to report that I’m finding my way.
It’s still all somewhat unexpected (in terms of my practice) but at least now the internal logic of what I’m doing is becoming clearer.
Mine is a politically engaged practice, albeit focused on a historical example of fascism (the Spanish Civil War). Yet increasingly I find contemporary events to be redolent of those past and my work must veer a little to encompass this.
And so the phenomenon of creating work I don’t quite recognise occurs – and that’s the point.
I’m creating landscapes that feel new and not like me – and this is precisely because I no longer recognise my world. We’re presently living through a time of political crisis and these strange paintings (strangers to me at least) have been conjured as a direct response.
I truly believe that painting can be a political act in itself. I need to be brave about these works (my impulse is to paint over them and create something more me!) and go with what’s emerging.
And in trying to arrive at a greater understanding I’ve turned to another form…
So I drib and dab
at scraps of linen
solid wooden frames
in my studio.
I go at it
and stand back.
I squint and squint
turn lights on and off.
This is my body politics
I need action.
To make is to shake off
Stupid I know
but I squint and squint
because this is my job.
I imagine spaces
And spaces impossible
do not exist.
in dribs and dabs
is not not real.
In the moment of action
I am painting.
© Sonia Boué 2017