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.
A post in which Abuela (grandmother) returns.
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.
Screen grab of my Instagram account.
Sometimes we need to look back. Sometimes we need a little bit of encouragement to take the time for reflection. An art practice is (I find) so often about looking forward, and about creating the next thing. How often do we get the excuse to review a body of work as a whole?
I’m always collecting, and that includes my work. In some senses I’m a hoarder. I’ve probably seen too many wonderful retrospectives! On the edge of consciousness I envisage exhibiting room after room of responses to the suppressed memory of the Spanish Civil War and Spanish exile. A dream, perhaps, but quite tangible nonetheless.
An invitation to present my work at the recent Instituto Cervantes (IC London) celebration of the Spanish exile to the UK has proved inspiring, and something of a catalyst.
When IC London Director Ignacio Peyró requested a CV of works relating to the Spanish exile I didn’t expect to present him with 8 pages. It’s an exercise I recommend. To my astonishment and delight I found myself delving into a store cupboard groaning with goods I’d prepared earlier. In 2013 I’d consciously set out to create a body of work about this history, but the years seem to have cantered by and suddenly there it is.
A fascinating day at Birkbeck School of Art in beautiful Bloomsbury has kicked off a process, a joyful one for me, albeit tinged with the acute poignancy of this history. I’m sharing the fruits of 6 years of works primarily on Instagram but also on Twitter. I understood, anew (as I always do when sharing my work with those who share the history and work on it too) the imperative nature of this work, as testament, tribute and commemoration. I’m deeply grateful to these colleagues, my brothers and sisters in many senses. They orientate me and set my compass.
I hope for many more years of making as my subject is vast, and my brain is constantly churning with ideas. I have so much more to give. For now I’ll bask in the poignant pleasure of sharing a body of work in this 80th anniversary year and reaching the audiences whose encouragement is so vital to keeping the creative flame alive.
See more at www.soniaboue.co.uk
Convoy phase 2
I’m working again with a family fragment oral testimony about a nazi roundup to the Mauthausen Camp on 20 August 1940. You can hear my mother recall what she was told by my grandparents here
Now, an invitation to join Dawn Cole and Dan Thompson’s Appletye Paper Trail project, has prompted a whole new response. I’ve been sent a sample of paper from 1940, the year of the Nazi round-up of 927 Spanish republican exiles at Angouleme. This lovely invitation to respond to the paper is what’s got me going again.
Unknowingly, the 927 exiles were bound for the Mauthausen extermination camp. They had been told they were to be transported to ‘la zona libre’, ie unoccupied France. Probably the worst they could’ve imagined at this time would’ve been that the Nazis had more likely organised their repatriation to Fascist Spain. This fear may have been what saved my family that day, but until yesterday I didn’t know about this detail.
You can read about the Paper Trail work on my WordPress site The Other Side, I was thrilled with this creative break through, but left with a sense of mystery surrounding it.
So until yesterday, how my grandparents and great-grandmother knew to hide in a forest while others were taken had seemed shrouded in mystery to me – though I now find it has been documented as (of course) these events affected a much wider community of republican exiles and survivors have been able to bear testimony. Yet the nature of my mother’s anecdote had been both vague and intensely personal. She had held it for probably 60 years and while she may only have received a fragment in the first place, all possible detail had long fallen away. It had also been narrated to her in a political and domestic vacuum, so to speak. This information had travelled nowhere, nor had it met with similar stories from the mouths of others – due to the interruption of such transmissions by many complex socio-political factors including the official suppression of the memory of these events within Spain.
Spurred on by the Paper Trail work I began to dig deeper into the history and I found several new sources. The German occupation of the region had made the Spanish republican exiles’ position even more tenuous than before in France, and there were events leading up to the roundup which had increased the Spaniards’ anxieties. The Nazi’s had already attempted to ‘organise’ the Spaniards in the region, and the net was closing in on the camp of Alliers near Angouleme in which entire families of exiles lived.
An order was issued to exiles living outside the camp in the surrounding area to present themselves at the camp of Alliers with their papers and as many of their belongings as they could carry – but rumours had begun to circulate. In one French source, a description can be found of the advice (from several quarters) to flee and hide for the night (19 August) even though the destination of this roundup was thought to be to ‘la zona libre.’ By this time many of the exiles were not living in the internment camp of Alliers, or if they did they had found work in the surrounding area and were free to come and go as they pleased. My family hid in a forest, many others were hidden by the people they worked for.
The Gestapo were disappointed that day. They had expected to ‘deport’ 2000 Spanish exiles and caught approximately less than half that number.
As I absorb these new details I’m processing the idea this tiny fragment – as it becomes hooked onto a wider history where more facts can accrue – is not just about one lucky escape. Hundreds of exiles disobeyed the order to report in to the camp of Alliers.
I will continue to plan my tribute for the 927 taken (I’m working numerically) but will now consider further works to encompass this new information. On a personal level I feel a curious sense of wonder and some relief. It feels nothing short of miraculous to locate our fragment within a body of information – the itch of curiosity is satisfied on the most basic level, but more importantly it brings me closer to understanding. I can now inhabit my work with greater confidence and I hope with sufficient sensitivity to the victims and survivors.
Photograph of a printer error made in my ‘home studio’ (tracing paper and inkjet)
My last post was called ‘Painting Extinction’, and in this post I’m mulling over giving up my wonderful yet increasingly expensive studio space. Gloomy, moi?
For the past year I have been working on projects which take me away from studio practice. In this time there have been major changes to the environment which surrounds this space. Smart offices have replaced a grungy recording studios on the ground floor, and the taxi firm on the upper floor next door to my studio has vanished. Tragically a once thriving family electrical firm went bust (after 3 generations) and vacated the plot across the way. Not only is this incredibly sad, it also fundamentally alters the relationship with place.
Within the studios major shifts have also taken place in my ‘absence’ (I get in every so often so I put absence in inverted commas). Artist have always come and gone, but when stalwarts move on it sends shock waves. I’m just not good with change, I guess, but when an artist with 10 years of exemplary professional practice relocates to another city, it leaves a crater. We didn’t socialise outside of our studio practices, but he was always there painting. We’d put the increasingly lop-sided world to rights and sometimes squint at each other’s work when asked to. Good humoured and friendly beyond the norm, he and his large scale works (which filled the space) are irreplaceable.
Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi runs on a loop inside my head.
I am now second longest standing artist on my side of the studios, an oddity in itself (as once I was the newcomer), and I’m wrestling with letting go. My life has changed too, and I’m a carer now (part-time in another city).
Through necessity I’ve kept my practice going at home mainly and the work has adapted. I’m working a lot with collecting objects, photography and collage. I’ve lost the thread with painting to be honest. This has happened to me before, and painting came back – so I won’t give up on painting yet. However, I do have to acknowledge a natural break.
I still don’t know what I’ll do with my space ultimately, but I need a good sort out. I feel instinctively that going though the contents of my studio will help me decide. A self-storage unit feels like a sensible option if needed, and I can certainly carry out my current level of practice at home (with a good sort out at this end too). I’ve been incredibly emotionally attached to my studio and have always felt I would regret giving it up too much to even contemplate it for too long. The difference now is that I can hold the thought in my mind, talk about it (even write about it) and make tentative plans. I never thought this time would come, but it seems it has.
Embracing change and moving forward is actually quite in keeping with my worry about working in acrylics due to environmental impact. Perhaps painting extinction wouldn’t be the wrench I’ve thought it would be.
Watch this space.
God this is a hard post to write, but I can’t put this off any more. Like so many people, I’m waking up to the vital task of being as rigorously plastic free as I can. I’ve been changing as many habits as I could at home – rejecting all the packaging possible, and reading all recycling information on packaging I can’t yet avoid. I’m gradually decommissioning all the more toxic household products we’ve sometimes resorted to, and I’m swapping over to ecological alternatives.
Bad habits had crept in. When the kids were small I was a purist, and hyper vigilant about plastics, and using organic products where I could. But packaging got ridiculous over the years without me noticing, and slowly but surely my confidence in organic produce was eroded by campaigns which said it wasn’t better, just more costly for no good reason. Well, it is expensive. Today I’m cross that being ecologically friendly is often significantly more costly than the alternatives – it shouldn’t be harder (or a privilege) to do the right thing.
It’s a process of unlearning bad habits, and also of beginning to think about my practice too. It’s dawned on me gradually, because been away from my brushes, that my chosen painting medium is basically plastic, and that latterly I’ve even been experimenting with latex to make small installation pieces.
Project management and the multiform nature of my practice have taken me away from painting recently. I’m also caring part time for my mum, which cuts studio time quite significantly. But I still have a largish stash of acrylic paints, and I’ve been painting with acrylics for at least 30 years. I use all manner of not so eco-friendly artist mediums too. I’m painting less, but am I facing painting extinction? God, I hope not.
Even as I write this I’m surprised at how painful that would feel. I’ve taken my painting practice for granted I think. I often neglect it, and I even play favourites with other forms (photography is tops at the moment). Yet, painting is where I began – and I remember clearly first finding, and then falling in love with acrylics. Painting is where I return when I need inspiration, when I need to reconnect to my creative core.
In a parallel journey of thought, I realise that if I’m serious about being as plastic free as possible, I must stop buying acrylic paints in their current form (even though this sentence makes me howl inside). That I must only use the ones I have now, and definitely cease washing out my brushes into the water system. This is toxic and appallingly harmful to the planet.
It had never occurred to me that I could isolate the plastic by cleaning my brushes in other ways. I now feel foolish and I’m glad I did the research.
It sounds dramatic but I wonder if these will be my last paintings (until my paints run out) in this medium, and how I will adapt to ecologically friendly alternatives such as a range by Colourcraft, I happened on in my reseach.
Golden Paints are my favourite paints, and thank goodness they have a socially responsible company ethic, using a Reverse Osmosis (RO) filtering system. Seymour Wallace are another company I use a lot, but beyond using quality natural materials (info on their website) I haven’t found out more.
For me to paint in the same way, whatever takes the place of my beloved acrylics must perform in equally forgiving and exciting ways. My painterly process is quite experimental (at it’s best) and I need flexible paints I can push round and which dry quickly so I can add to the multiple layers which so often make up one of my finished works.
Meanwhile, it’s up to me in the studio to be responsible in my use of the paints I have. If anyone has already done the thinking on this can you let me know?
Gracias in advance, and thank you for reading xx