A response to The Waiting Room: Spanish Exile in the United Kingdom, at the Cervantes Institute London (27th April to 30th June).
This piece in response to The Waiting Room is written from the self-avowedly personal. Readers of my blog will know that am a daughter and artist, whose project and mission is to create a body of work, which reflects a Spanish Republican’s exile in England from a second generation perspective. This means I work with the concept of post memory and that my vista is singular. I can speak to my own truths only, an important admission in an area of contested memory.
For the Spanish Civil War remains a history unresolved and largely buried under almost 80 years of politically orchestrated amnesia, which brings to mind classic fairytales in which principal characters think nothing of one hundred years lost in profound slumber. Tragically, this was no tale but a brutal and bloody reality, a shattering blow to Spain and it’s people which continues to reverberate to this day. It is almost impossible to convey to a British public the complex and delicate undercurrents, which still exist in telling my story and the political nature of everything I create. As I have said before, sometimes a landscape is not a landscape – it is rather an abstracted essay on the civil war.
It’s a serious business and responsibility to bring this silencing and it’s sequels to public attention even in a small way. My father felt erased by the dictatorship and negotiation of democracy through a pact of forgetting, and my project is to draw him back in as best I can. I imagined The Waiting Room might share this aim for its exiles, but I encountered something other and at times confusing, reflecting the greater confusion at hand and the many dilemmas in interpretation and presentation of this conflict. I think though it is at heart an attempt at celebration and for this reason despite numerous reservations it can be welcomed as one interpretation of one strand in this unending story rather than a definitive version of Spanish exile in the UK.
It is a project created by IC Communication in partnership with the Cervantes Institute, whose stated function is “to promote the Spanish language and cultures of Spanish-speaking countries.” The self proclaimed aim for the show is to “recreate a story about the Spanish Exiles in the United Kingdom that underlines their importance and contribution to the history of the country that hosted this disparate group of individuals.” This goes a long way to explaining a lack of depth to the Spanish context on offer and gap regarding contested memory. There is an 8 week programme of cultural events surrounding the exhibition, during which it may be possible to address contemporary memory issues. I hope so.
We are further invited not to focus on the usual association of exile as a forced condition and view it in psychological terms, which it is suggested may be adopted depending on our adherence to or separation from prevailing values, becoming ourselves potentially species of exiles even though we may be geographically free. This is an observation not so far from my own growing understanding that there are many forms of exile – while remaining absolute in my belief that this exile must be lodged securely in it’s political context. Furthermore, I insist that it is problematic to view exile as a wholly comparable psychological state in the absence of force in that it serves to belittle and diminish the effects of the forced state.
I am interested however in the celebratory spirit at play in a focus on exile and identity, whose avowed aim is to enlighten and enable marginal and alienated psychological states in the modern world. The notion here suffers from a lack of specificity but is well worth exploring. Some clues are present. The term global citizens is thrown in and we are given the delight of Gloria García Lorca as an example of the exile as global citizen. It was actually the highlight of the show for me to encounter this artist, who must of course be considered – if this is not oxymoronic – Republican royalty. Her work is truly wonderful.
It was a surprise to find the documentary element of the show presented with what for me was an overwhelmingly slick corporate design. It dominated the space and was in my mind at odds with the personal nature and fragility of some of the documentary material. I found it imposing and institutional the kind of exhibition furniture used increasingly by museums in which “official versions” of history are so often presented. My own guiding principle is to try never to speak for Republican exiles as a whole, for although theirs was a shared history in a larger sense, the detail of each individual case surely mattered greatly in determining the quality and emotional texture of that exile.
In truth the number of Spanish exiles to the United Kingdom was extremely small, due in large part to the British government’s policy of “neutrality”, which in fact assisted Franco’s military defeat of the democratically elected Second Republic and therefore was not neutral at all. Yet it was still varied. The close to 4,000 Basque children evacuated in the aftermath of Guernica, mentioned in passing here but well documented elsewhere, were exceptional and their safe passage to England was hard won by a philanthropic and humanitarian volunteer network. The exiles at the Cervantes Institute are those whose passage from Spain was in the main eased through connections and largely spared the horrors of the French internment camps of 1939 from which my father and his friends were rescued, again through exceptional altruism by an English volunteer. Not all who found refuge remained in England, but passed through to live out their exiles elsewhere, or in some cases over time were able to make a circuitous return to Spain.
Without You I Would Not Exist is a film collaboration with Jonathan Moss about my father’s rescue.
My father was amongst a group of forever exiles to England, for want of a better phrase. Life long exile can exude particular qualities I’ve found. “Unrivalled strategies” didn’t feature much at home, but resignation and the despair of an ordinary man trying to get on with the business of living permeated every minute of every hour. Dad was perhaps unusual in the depth of his longing for the life that could have been – but any exploration of exile must reach successfully into the darkest corners of the human psyche. I suppose that what I am trying to say is that this exhibition doesn’t wholly speak for me, doesn’t speak for my father and the despairing quality of his exile, although his history was bound up with some of it’s major players many of whom he knew and admired. Where in this exhibition is the uncomfortable truth that exile strategies can fail and that the inner world of the exile may crumble inexorably? Violent displacement has consequences.
It takes a lot of time to properly absorb this extraordinarily complex history, and my studies into the context for my father’s exile are in their infancy. Only two years ago my post memory odyssey began on inheriting my Spanish grandmother’s handbag. A cache of Proustian memories engulfed me and all my childhood travels to Spain, not knowing the circumstance that brought my father to live in England, tumbled out. If I have learnt anything it is that while the true integration of this fratricidal history is unresolved there is a sense of continuing threat to dissonant voices and a co-opting of narratives into officialdom.
The underlying truth of The Waiting Room is that the execution (of Federico García Lorca, among countless others), and expulsion of so many talented intellectuals as those featured here, drained the country of it’s intellectual life’s blood as policy. It’s not that the exiles were simply forgotten, it is rather that they were expunged from memory quite deliberately through strategic censorship and terror. The trouble with remembering is that there remain vested interests in forgetting.
But how should we remember? Inevitably we are interested in the documentary/memorabilia attached to exiled figures as a way of reaching into the lives of those we come to know through their works. It is a form of admiration and fleshing out – it can also be the evidence that strengthens narrative. There are some important documents beneath glass at The Waiting Room but also a photographic intervention “Archive and Memory” by Jordi Ruiz Cirera, which runs above the archival cabinets along one of the exhibition walls, through which we are invited to ponder the “wider context of recorded personal history.” This is usefully employed and highly effective. We must be careful with the hows and the whys of the ways in which we display personal material and do so ethically and with good purpose. These considerations should guide the quality and tone of explanatory text, to create a cohesive match between document and curatorial voice. I blame any disconnect in The Waiting Room’s tone and presentation on the absence of sufficient and relevant context, robbing it of the requisite depth for this story. Elements perforce remain untold and I was left wanting more. I hope that The Waiting Room’s undoubted initiative and energy can provide a springboard for other voices to be heard. It must not be viewed as “job done’ on Spanish exile in the UK.