Sometimes a visual blog is needed – fewer words more grasping at meaning and packing the kind of punch only a visual medium can get away with. These three photographs (one of which, Tomato Aub, owes a great debt to my art blog sister Marion Michell https://www.a-n.co.uk/blogs/sleep-drunk-i-dance and Miss Moppet) deal with the bitterness of exile.
Yesterday I made a journey. Abuela helped me pack. Taking a very sandy Sand Cake made from a recipe card given to me by Kate Murdoch https://www.a-n.co.uk/blogs/keeping-it-going-1 felt very important. I would have liked to pack one of my sand flans, but they are too delicate for such a journey and I focused instead on a group of objects, which I hoped would please Marion Michell https://www.a-n.co.uk/blogs/sleep-drunk-i-dance who I would meet for the first time, having exchanged so much online in terms of our work and our lives.
Among them were a cake slice and tongs (belonging to Abuela), which featured in my first residency in which Barcelona in a Bag was born. I have never shown them since or used them in my online work. They are almost too precious, but this is why they travelled with me, safely tucked in a vintage globetrotter suitcase – which itself appeared in my life to take this journey (or so it appears to me!) I thought of Marion’s recent photographs of her hands and the difficulty with hands not feeling like they were her’s due to some side effects of medications. Abuela’s hands were riddled with rheumatism and quite bent, I now recall. I wonder if she too at times looked down on her hands and did not recognise what she saw. I wanted Marion to feel the tongs and the cake slice and in this way to make contact with Abuela.
Abuela saw me off onto my bus and as I headed to London I plugged into the flamenco guitar music that has been haunting and connecting me to Lorca the songwriter, to the past, and to my roots. It seems that my immersion in my project has often included a need to live inside a soundscape which enfolds and transports me enabling me to approach with sideways glances the less approachable aspects of the work at hand. I know that I am gradually working my way around to reading my father’s plays. Post memory work is after all often related to trauma and I must find many ways around it’s themes and realities.
And so in a sense I travelled in ‘rôle’ feeling very much like a figure from the past, viewing London as I felt my father might – a very young man arriving in a new country, still energetic and hopeful – not the spent and resigned figure of his later years. My journey took an unexpected turn due to weekend service changes and I found myself on a platform at Blackfriars – my father, Abuelo and Abuela would have loved this! I thought, and could’t help wishing that I had packed some rice to sprinkle on the platform in honour of Abuelas rice making at Portbou on their flight from Spain 75 years before. They would have marvelled at the view of Tower Bridge and the sense of ‘progress’ such architectural and engineering feats appear to represent. I wished for Marion to share the view and for my mother also, knowing that they both for different reasons would find getting to such a vantage point a challenge.
Coach, tube, train and bus sped me to Marion – and eventually a tall dark figure opened the door to me. A twinkle of recognition mingled with surprise shot between us I think. A knowing and yet not knowing – we both were and weren’t what the other expected.
How quickly this sense of ‘not being’ became a being! Translating from virtual (and some postal) communication, the actual soon caught up and our conversation – about four hours when we had planned for two – was that of intimates, of those who have truly known one another, as indeed we have through the nature of our work.
As Elena Thomas https://www.a-n.co.uk/blogs/threads observed on her visit, you have to feel Marion’s work and hold it in your hands, rest it in your lap – sense it’s weight and scale, know the textures and hues. It’s spectacular! Crocheted mutations multiplied on the carpet as we knelt and delved into boxes, unwrapping the baby sized garments with impossible configurations of arm and limb holes, asymmetrical sleeves and legs – curious mirror images – two top halves and two bottom halves where top and bottom ‘should’ be. A box of works about Marion’s father were lingered over, threads dangling and trailing. So much left unsaid.
The objects I had brought included my own vintage copy of the Miss Moppet story – I hoped Marion would appreciate the illustrations of Miss Moppet with head in a dish cloth – face covered, perhaps in the manner of her covering faces in the photographs she works from and sews into. The adult Marion handling the very same book the child Sonia poured over so many years before.
And thus we weaved, back and forth and across time, our history’s entwining from mid morning to early afternoon, until it was time to make my journey in reverse – bus, train, tube, coach. We parted as old friends with a brief hug and a see you soon! At that parting shot I had to step back over the threshold and check. Er…I hope that is okay Marion, may I come again? Please! was the hearty reply – and I stepped out onto the now familiar street in which Marion lives, clutching the well worn globetrotter in my hand, and hopped onto the number 12 bus.
My final memory for this blog, though I feel there will be many others to emerge over time, is of Marion bravely grappling with the sand cake – good for dunking! she observed tactfully. The gluten free flour had certainly added to the dry and sandy texture which seemed so symbolic for this meeting as Marion has been ‘accompanying’ me to the studios on many a sand flan making day. We are not sister blogs for nothing Marion! Happy dunking!
Sometimes not many words appear and yet there’s something to say. Abuela nods her encouragement of this idea. Si, si…she says, patting my shoulder. The title of this blog post comes from a line in the poem ‘Barcelona in a Bag’. http://soniaboue.co.uk/section737318_280597.html
Abuela and I look at each other. It’s time, she nods again. Time for what? I ask. It’s like the moment you asked for my handbag, she suggests. Ah, I begin to see. A moment of impact, a moment in which to simply be and process. Things are happening in the studio, which I simply can’t explain. It’s gone a bit mud pies? Abuela says, trying to help. I smile. She is referring of course to the visceral pleasures of mixing, melting and amassing involved in my sometimes haphazard sand flan production. Today’s experiment is a variant I’m not so sure of despite the cloud of sweet cinnamon, which hangs in the air.
It has gone a bit mud pies, Abuela, I say, but something else too. Abuela looks at me carefully and suggests coffee -it’s getting to that time in the afternoon. With a swoosh of her apron she’s gone. My studio isn’t empty though and I am not alone. My research has taken me towards a new enchantment. I’m furrowing deep into the territory of the Cante jondo (deep song) in search of the lost land of my father’s exile.
This is a post which relates to the work I did in February 2014 on the 75th anniversary of La Retirada – the retreat from Spain at the fall of the Republic in 1939. It relates to Abuela’s (grandmother’s) improvised kitchen on the platform at Portbou Station, where in flight from the fascists she made rice to feed her family after an agonising three day journey without food. I work on the studio floor (as she did on the platform) and the tea lights I light in remembrance, once melted, become part of the recipe for sand flans. Cinnamon flan was Abuela’s signature desert during my childhood and here I make cinnamon sand flans, which also refer to the infamous French internment camps on the beaches, on which the fleeing exiles had to improvise shelter and food. As ever I use Robert Capa’s photographs, and written testimony taken from the exiles to allow me to imagine the conditions. Of course the exiles didn’t eat sand – but shockingly we know they drank sea water.
My technique is developing – the ingredients are basic, sand, cinnamon and wax. The single flan is the first in which I add the cinnamon and I’m happy to observe a crumbly texture, absent from the first six – made only with vanilla tea lights and sand. I have to work quickly before the wax cools.
The six sand flans shown together represent my family group, Abuelo (grandfather), Abuela, my mother and father, my sister and I. At family meals in Abuela’s flat the table was always set for six. I call this grouping of six wit the LED tea lights (more permanent and sculptural than the waxy melting ones) FAMILY.
Abuela is most insistent that we blog again today – no time like the present, she says, steering me towards the keyboard. No, I agree, no time at all, and it really does feel like no time since I began the tribute to Alec Wainman, which led to the film, whose stills I posted yesterday.
Abuela frowns slightly as if to say that I’m not quite getting to the point. And so I move my chair in a little and focus on what I need to say.
Today, four months after beginning my tribute, I received a small parcel in the post. One of several over the months from fellow artists and followers of the project. The idea was to ask for public responses in the form of labels, which would be pinned onto a suit, which would in itself represent Alec Wainman. The labels would contain messages to him or about him and together were to form a pin-board of appreciation with thoughts flowing back and forth across time.
Many times in my blog over on FaceBook I talked about ripples of kindness, not only did the decisions and actions of one man taken so long ago continue into the present, but further acts of kindness were generated by the project. It was as if Alec’s work was carried onwards and had the potential to reach into the future too. Talking about kindness seemed to engender it.
Ah yes! Today this gorgeous tribute arrived from Kate Murdoch whose support to the project has been unfailing, and whose identification with Alec through his name has brought about a new sense of companionship for it and for me. Kate looks to the meaning of the name Alexander “Defender, protector of man” and creates a highly significant and personal link to her own father and his values – the other Alec in our shared encounters.
Through this process Kate arrives at a double tribute to the “two Alexanders, men of great integrity”, and the corollary to this is a delicate, yet profound reworking of the title. I can think of no better kindness nor friendship than her words of acknowledgement for the two Alexanders, “Without Whom We Would Not Exist”.
Verdad! Abuela, exclaims and pinches my cheeks as though I were five again and stepping off the aeroplane to meet her.