When Sonia Boué tweeted b/w images from the Oxford-London train of the globetrotter-suitcase and later her face she seemed a time-traveller from the 30s/40s, on her way to meet me at a flat temporarily located in 2014’s London (so I could be found). We both have slippery footholds in a not so distant past and had previously connected through our respective blogs. Now the real thing was about to happen – she was coming to mine!
Sonia too is a post-memory artist who intensely explores traumatic history through family-ties – her abuela features prominently, speaking and spurning Sonia on, but really it’s all about her dad, whose silence regarding his experiences during&following the Spanish Civil War she addresses through art&writing. In spring I had come across her project Barcelona in a Bag on Facebook (it now has a manifestation on a-n blogs too), left comments and at some stage revealed myself as another daughter looking at history&war slightly to the side of a father’s frozen gaze, albeit from the perspective of someone associated with the perpetrators… We have been talking in all kinds of ways ever since.
Abuela is one who readily provides support&sustenance and does so in style: it was wonderful to unpack her delicately etched silver-tongs (I wrote silver-tongue, bet that’s right too) and Sonia’s almondy sand-cake. I brushed finger-tips and eyes-on-stalks across embroidered handkerchiefs from childhood holidays in Mallorca; a table-cloth bedecked with finely threaded flowers (acquired); two small dolls which I’d seen (on-line) as part of Sonia’s evocative assemblages-in-flux; and a much loved&leafed Little Miss Moppet-book with her name inscribed on the back-cover, making links with faces I covered in soft stitching in my father’s PoW-photographs. Plus the famous handbag, smaller than I’d thought, and filled with lentils. Such bounty! So moving to be able to touch these objects, each meaningful in past/present/future terms and chosen with care&deliberation.
Sonia and I unwrapped a few of my crocheted outfits, some of which she’d encountered here, and older, unfamiliar ones (you can follow this link to her account). The box with work-in-process pieces around my dad’s photos was next, my heart aflutter as Sonia held one after the other in her hands. Oh, and of course my favourite heirloom-stand in, the little sailor-suit, with its gossamer lining, was fittingly adored. We talked easily, simply continuing our on-line conversation face-to-face, compared notes about the compulsion to unturn stones and search for living, breathing history, and the roles we’ve long had in our families, as carrier of memories. Towards the end we touched on the question of healing through our respective projects – something that remains unresolved for me. But then the conversation has only just begun.
This must be my lucky autumn then – first Elena Thomas visited (see post) and now a second far-off blogger-friend&art-sister made her way to me. These meetings cross multiple divides which for artists may be no more than cherished thresholds.
Those of you who followed my project-posts will be aware that I often ask myself how I can do justice to different sides. If I feel for my father do I disregard those who were persecuted, and if I focus on the Nazis’ terror-regime do I let (the memory of) my father down? It makes me contort myself, knowing full well that I must fail and can’t stop trying. I need to learn to hold both.
Through the exchanges with Sonia I’ve learned aspects of German history I hadn’t known about: nearly half a million Republican refugees, soldiers and civilians, fled to France after Franco’s victory where they found harsh, even hostile, shelter in internment camps. Two years later many were handed over to the Gestapo by Vichy France under Marshall Pétain, alongside Jewish men and women and political prisoners, to be taken to German concentration camps. More than 23.000 of these refugees were interned in Mauthausen alone; only 9.200 survived.*
How Sonia’s grand-parents and her dad escaped that fate is her story to tell.
I’ve been thinking back to an older post in which I considered the surprising flip-sides of the word ‘to greet’ – its origins stretching from ‘come into contact with’ in the sense of ‘attack, accost’ to ‘salute, welcome’, ‘touch, take hold of, handle’ as well as ‘weep, bewail’. It seems to me now that this term viscerally describes the points of contact of our histories, relating and repelling, touching and affecting, and mourning the separations, the violent demarkation of sides.
With these precious encounters another threshold is crossed: that between an artist who makes work lying on the living-room floor if&when she can, and others who have a stronger (even if precarious in their own right) foothold in the wider world. I often feel like a big clanking old gate has fallen shut on me, with dents only from the inside where I occasionally kick, but now and then it does creak open and in comes a person who I’ve longed to meet. Both Sonia and Elena have indicated they’d like to visit again. I hope that before too bloody long I’ll be able to travel their way, with a little improvement in health, and a little help.
* Glad to say that about 2000-3000 German anti-fascists joined the Republicans in their fight against Franco.
PS. I need to play more. Have decided to try a little thing every day, and, if I can, photograph and tweet it. At the beginning of my post you can see no. 2.