A highly emotional day at Barcelona in a Bag – Almudena Cros, President of the Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales, made me a gift of this genuine Retirada suitcase, and sent it through the post from Madrid. Essentially a painted wooden box with a handle and clasps, this beautiful object puts all the other suitcases in the collection in the shade. They of course look down on their country cousin from their wobbling pile – there’s strength in numbers. But this hard case is a survivor.
You can see the suitcase stack here:
My first thoughts are that this suitcase predates the ones I have, but perhaps it is because this is an artisan piece – handmade. It is a rustic village suitcase with a minimal of industrial process (in the metal components). It’s size suggests no overnight stay but a longer journey, and so it was. Is it fanciful to suggest it could have been made especially? We must remember that time would have been precious in the final moments of the Spanish tragedy, but there is a possible precedent, I found in earlier research, in the figure of Enrique Tapia Jiménez.
Enrique made a very similar suitcase, used during his family’s flight from Catalonia, which I was stunned to learn was used to sleep his three month old baby boy in exile. Again we don’t know exactly when it was made. Enrique was a pilot and amateur photographer, thanks to his reportage of the retreat from Spain, the camps and the Spanish exile community in Toulouse there is a wonderful archive of images, including one of his suitcase (not available in digital form). This image, seen in the catalogue of El Ojo del Exilio 2004, inspired my very first Ofrenda piece – the suitcase cot, which was shown with the lid open and later shut, during open studios.
You can see an image here:
As the photos at the top show – once I made my way through the acres of bubble wrap – I was fascinated by the patina of the painted wooden case and thought I saw uncanny likeness to some of the EXILIO landscapes. Not for the first time this week did I marvel at the human eye and processing skill of the brain, working in tandem, unconsciously it seems, to record and transmit (not literally of course) the data our experience. The suitcases nestling in the studio have their part in this transmission of the landscape of exile – and so it was with wonder that I met their cousin and saw aspects of my canvas’ and boards staring back at me.
It’s been by far the most moving of all the objects I’ve encountered in the project so far. This case was used by members of a family who it appears went into hiding (internal exiles), and who later, on their return home, stored it in an attic until it came onto the market in Spain decades later. Almudena bought it some years ago, but was now looking for someone to pass this extraordinary object on to. I’m extremely privileged to be the one she chose.
Here’s a fragment of the narrative, written by the man who sold it to Almu, translated from Castilian into English by me.
“I acquired the suitcase in a village of the province of Cordoba. It had been stored in the attic of a house, and the lady who owned the house told me that it belonged to her parents, who fled the village and stayed in Pozo de la Serna, or somewhere like that throughout the war. When the war was over, they returned to their home and stored the suitcase in the attic.”
He says that there were many other domestic items stored with the suitcase from the period – a fact I will be looking into to try and reunite the objects and piece together the story.
Inside it was this message from Almu – which served in the nicest possible way as the coup de grace of my emotional outburst.
“Because without your work, Memories would be lost. Thank you for reclaiming the history of betrayal, loss, exile, compassion and salvation.
In loving memory of the Spanish Second Republic.”
Receiving and unwrapping this suitcase has been beyond powerful, and I confess to breaking down in tears. The way in which this wooden box connected me to the moment of my own family’s flight was visceral and overwhelming. With a little distance from the exact moment but with enough proximity to feel it still, I know that this dusty box with a handle acted as a portal to the past in ways I can’t adequately describe. It was an entirely sensory experience. It brought my grandparents to me; the swish of my grandmother’s dress as she speedily packed, the smell of naphthaline in the closets they would leave behind. The panic.
I wrote to Almu in the moment. She had also found my film Without You I Would Not Exist deeply moving.
“Almu it is my turn to cry. Thank you for your passion and commitment to this memory – without which I wouldn’t have received this gift, which strikes at me like no other. I am in touch now for the first time with my ancestors, with that moment of flight. I am seeing it, touching it, holding it and I am weeping. Thank you so much. I am speechless. The power of objects to connect us to our histories is extraordinary. I am very, very humbled.