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(I’m taking a camera which can’t take pictures to document the erasure of this history). 

The Art of Now: A Return to Catalonia

BBC Radio 4
Transmission Date Monday, 19th March 2018, 4pm
Presented by Sonia Boué
Produced by Anna Scott-Brown

So I’m finally returning. I can’t help wondering what Abuela (grandma) would say?

I wish too that my father could know that I am going back to Catalonia, via the beaches of Barcarès and Argèles (where he was held in refugee interment camps), to retrace his exile journey to England in 1939.

At the age of 18, he, along with 500,000 other Spaniards, fled for his life across the border to France. I have spent the last five years building a body of work in response to this family history, and have also cast my net wider to encompass figures such as British artist and Spanish Civil War volunteer, Felicia Browne, and the exiled Spanish writer and broadcaster, Arturo Barea.

Now, I have been asked to make a programme for Radio 4 with Overtone Productions, and my question about taking my practice to Spain will in part be answered. I will be retracing my father’s footsteps and creating responses along the way. We have a very short timeframe to make this programme and so I’m thrown into sifting and planning (in ways I am very conscious the exiles couldn’t) the artistic side of my journey.

The job feels vast, and at times overwhelming in the time available – not helped by a brain which  likes to canter off in 10 directions at once. Reigning in and staying focused is the thing. Here is where my obsessive nature is hugely beneficial to my work. I dig in and apply myself to the detail.

My feel for the bigger picture is pure intuition – I trust I can make the stages of my journey join up by getting each stage right conceptually speaking. My work is made easier because I can draw on some existing pieces in my growing collection, but I will be making new responses and hoping to bring them all together by the end of the programme.

I’m brimming with gratitude to Overtone Productions for pitching this programme, and feel a weight of responsibility – this is a highly sensitive history. Also lurking is the spectre of inherited trauma – as I probe more deeply into it I gain a firmer grasp on the terror through which this history was suppressed. I hear new information from my mother which confirms it and brings it closer.

I feel my father’s fear as though it were my own. As though it were live.

I conclude that it is. This is what we mean by the term, postmemory. Recent events in Catalonia serve to demonstrate how difficult Spanish history is, how tensions remain from the unresolved legacies of the Civil War.

I won’t really know how to respond until I get to the beach of Barcarès, or until I’m confronted with the entrance to my grandmother’s flat (which she left in 1975) in the Barceloneta. All I can do is plan and pack my suitcases full of artistic possibility.

Each morning I pinch myself anew. Somehow I’ve landed the job of my dreams.

 

 


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Photograph by Stu Allsopp with the object based installation for the show. 

It’s been a while since my last painting exhibition – due to working in other media, and in my roles as project manager and mentor – and showing my new ¡Buenos Días Dictador! work is proving to be a truly fascinating experience.

Looking back at my previous blog posts as the series emerged it’s not surprising that the paintings are eliciting a range of reactions. This is why blogging can be so important and act as an aide memoire of actions and intentions. I can remind myself how unexpected these paintings were, and the range of emotions which accompanied their making. I’m especially drawn to the following paragraph.

“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.”

In my last blog post I wrote about the peaceful feeling instilled by the work for someone who is effectively living in the UK in political exile, as my family were.

There have since been many other visitors and reactions. I’ve had the joy of hanging out, chatting with guests, observing how people view the works (always interesting) and catching up with the comments book.

An artist friend had been worried ahead of visiting – paintings sometimes get flattened out in photographs and she really wasn’t sure she’d like them. Seeing them in reality, revealed the complex layering and textures. This was a relief – she could tell me honestly that she loved them! I found this so informing in terms of how I often present my work online where it may not be best served unless I can arrange for a photo shoot with a macro lens and professional lighting.

It’s wonderful when people find beauty in what you’ve made, and I’ve had many such comments – but I’ve been a little uneasy on this score too. It’s been nagging at me that this exhibition can work and be read on many levels and in many ways. I worried that the ever-present menace of Franco’s dictatorship could be missed – and I have to accept that it will be in some cases – as everything depends on the level of engagement with the material that the viewer is able or willing to give to it.

This work has been called brave, inducing sadness and a sense of isolation (good!) in one visitor who shares aspects of the Spanish legacy. The sunshine of Spain is missing, said another, the paintings are icy (yes – also good!).  I’m delighted when people absorb the the peculiar and surreal atmosphere of my childhood – where the dictator’s presence was invisibly felt at every turn. I want it to be understood that I’m working with a taboo subject – but can see that this takes time to absorb and retain.

In each canvas there is a brooding cloud (or form) and I hoped to capture the uneasy balance of our lives; on the surface ‘normal’ but with an extraordinary dark undertow.

Yesterday brought two extremes – one a 1/10 review in the comment book! This appears to have been a prank!

This was outweighed by a charming and fully engaged viewer, who’s written a lovely review on his Instagram account – a new immersion course for English language students based on cultural tours of Oxford. I wish him huge success.

I’m now looking forward to my artist’s talk on the 9th February. If you’re in Oxford come along, but don’t forget to book first.

 

 


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11th January 2018

The day has finally dawned on the ¡Buenos Días Dictador! exhibition at the lovely Arts at the Old Fire Station Gallery. The opening is this evening 6-8pm.

The install began on Monday and took two days.  I can honestly say this has been the best install experience ever, due to the phenomenal team at the gallery. I could get used to being so well looked after!

Usually it’s just me and my toolkit – though I’ve had some great fun installing shows when friends have helped out too.

But there is something wonderful and indeed magical about having the work installed for you, I have to say. Rebecca Lee, the Technical Manager, has quite inspired me with her calm precision, and a quietly methodical approach – she’s quick too. I would literally bury my head in some detail (my exhibition notes for example) a few moments later (it seemed) she’d sail past me saying she was off to find a particular type of pin. I’d nod, busy my head again, and then pause, look up – and BOOM – whatever she was working on would be done, and looking bang on right.

More than once I stood back and revelled in a WOW! when did that happen, moment.

It was also total pleasure to work with Visual Programme Director, Sarah Mossop, again. Having curated my Through An Artist’s Eye project in 2016, she knows me and my work well. Sarah is also unerringly calm and reassuring and I felt (as ever) in very safe hands indeed.

Alex Coke, Marketing & Programme Manager, has made the usually worrisome  jobs of promoting the exhibition feel seamless. Her ability to translate my work for audiences, and the gentle encouragement to drop some of the art language I’ve acquired (as a jobbing and blogging artist) has been a revelation. Never has writing up the regulation exhibition ‘blurb’ been so easy. I’m not a fan of art speak really – but it can creep in.

A great part of the joy of this show also lies in the partnership of Arts at the Old Fire Station with the charity, Crisis. Thanks to the work of Participation Officer, Racheal Harrison, I’ve been lucky enough to be the artist whose show has come at the very beginnings of a gallery internship for one Crisis member. It’s been especially gratifying to talk things through with her, and to learn that my own work on exile is inspiring to her in a particular way. She has told me that my work instils calm, that she didn’t realise you could work on such a painful subject as exile and yet create something beautiful. This was a lovely moment – and it also got me thinking about my own practice.

The exhibition struck also struck a deep chord with her own experience of displacement and political oppression and we spoke for a long time about the situation in her own country. I’m now looking forward to inviting her into my studio space later this month, as part of her internship.

Being able to show your work is surely the tops for any artist. I’m extremely pleased to have works on show in such a fabulous gallery in this particular central location where Crisis members, among many other members of the public (I hope) will be able to see what I’ve been up to in my studio.

It’s felt quite odd at times to see these works take their first outing. They were made in the first quarter of 2017 (I think) but the year has been largely spent outside the studio on other projects and it’s all a bit of a blur. In the interim the number of works seemed to have grown! Did I really paint so many, I found myself wondering,  and yet they’re all so familiar – each one like a dear friend I hadn’t seen for a while. A gallery space can really transform a series and help you see what you’ve achieved. Having the space to view the works together without the clutter of the studio makes all the difference.

It’s perhaps my most intimate show to date. There are all kinds of personal items, relating to my family archive, on display on a low shelf. The viewer is invited right in at hand level. Only I’d rather people didn’t actually touch the objects and move them round (they are attached)!

The idea is to create context, to show visitors the object relatedness of the work, but the shelf is also a work in itself. Pulling it together in the space was probably the highlight of the install on a practice level.  Working with objects in an exhibition space is once step away from the performance side of my practice – where I make live assemblage pieces. But that’s another story.

In this exhibition I want to close a circle maybe, and bring about a further resolution of my family history.  But in truth I hope I’m opening up the space for more. My determination to create a body of works, which gives expression to the exile experience is something I’ve written about many times, and each time I show my work there is a sense of a story untold. The silencing by terror and political means spills out into the contemporary – a failure in Spain to acknowledge and work on recent history continues.

¡Buenos Días Dictador! could even be a contentious title for an exhibition in the Spanish context, and as ever, I ask myself whether my work could be shown in Spain.  The answer remains a question mark, or at best a maybe. And so I know my work is not yet done.


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My art practice has taken me on a tremendous journey this year. I have been intensely busy, and more than fortunate. Two professional awards kept me busy, but also stretched me in very different directions – of which I am also grateful despite the lack of studio time this implied.

The a-n Professional Development Bursary turned out not to be the neat three month project I had envisioned. At times this was a worry to me, but as I succumbed to the full process I realised that I had been unrealistic about the kind of learning involved.

I have been forced to think about video as a medium at a much deeper level – and to own yet again that I don’t learn in conventional ways and probably never ways that can be planned for. Autism means I am an autodidact (at core) and that my learning is best done hands on in full immersion mode.

My filmmaking companion was immensely patient with me, and the process of working together has been a fabulously enabling introduction to the essentials of filming and editing on professional software. So much so, that I’ve now had the confidence to tackle a follow on video commission solo. This is what I want to write about today.

I needed the bursary to make my own videos. While I love the process and the results of film collaborations, there is always a distancing of vision. The work I do is so essentially about lived experience & needs to achieve full expression. As I’m a multiform artist, each branch of my practice has evolved by my own hand – until I’ve reached the end of my skill set. Being allowed to push through this barrier has been just brilliant.

And so I’ve made my first solo piece of work all on Final Cut Pro! I’ve loved every minute of it too.

The benefit of working alone is that I don’t have to contort my brain to do the kind of planning most filmmaking schools recommend. Consulting with other autistics who make film I found that I am not alone in needing to feel my way, piecing together a project through a process of trying things out and using constant playbacks to work it through. So that’s what I did, I essentially powered through prolonged  sessions of constant playbacks until I was done. Something about this process seems to light up my brain and is intensely satisfying.

Dual Identity, feels like a real homecoming too. I’m back in my most familiar territory, responding to Spanish exile from the Civil War.  Arturo and Ilsa Barea, were exiled Republicans who came to live in England in 1938, and worked together on Arturo’s seminal writings, and broadcasts for the BBC’s radio service to Latin America. In the New Year their archive will be deposited at the Bodleian Library, for which event I was commissioned to make a video response. This project has been one of the most rewarding pieces of work I’ve undertaken, as the family have been incredibly generous in welcoming me into their home , and sharing materials from their own collection.

There were also times this year when my practice felt compromised by unhelpful distractions. So it’s been especially good to end 2017 by touching base with the core of my professional identity.

I also can’t wait to share the Felicia Browne film, Gift, made through the generous  a-n Professional Development Bursary as mentioned above. I have the sound studio booked for my voiceover, and with renewed confidence in my voice work I’m looking forward to producing a voice track worthy of my filmmaker’s visual capture. So it’s a big thank you to Simon Haynes for his work this year too.

I can’t share the video, Dual Identity, yet, as it’s due to be shown for the first time at an event in February. But I can share some handy stills I prepared earlier on the following link.

Thank you for reading! Oh, and Happy New Year!

Sonia.

 

 


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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.


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