Continuing our series exploring the day-to-day working practices of disabled artists, Sonia Boué lets us into her world, explaining how her work has adapted to lockdown conditions.
It’s nine weeks into lockdown in the UK at the time of writing, and I’ve taken to washing bananas. I’m also documenting domestic life under Covid-19. Photography has become a huge part of my practice while isolating from my studio. I like to have a bank of images for call-outs, such as Historic England’s recent #PicturingLockdown project. My photo wasn’t selected for the top 100, but I lost no time or energy, and that’s my definition of access.
I wake from a nightmare that our unsafe and grief-stricken land has a dangerous clown at the wheel. It takes a few minutes to realise I’m not dreaming, and that the death toll in the UK is estimated by some to be 60,000+ under Tory misrule. Sometimes, I feel the need to comment through my work, such as at Dominic Cummings’ infringement of lockdown rules. I’m developing a strand of performative photography and I think bearing witness is important. I like to play with images on Instagram and Twitter, and I love how even just timing a post can give it meaning without too much explanation.
Despite having nowhere to go I still can’t start my day without coffee so strong you could stand a spoon in it. I use this time to check emails and social media. I take my day from there. I love all the strands of my work, and often combine writing, mentoring, and consulting with creative practice – each element feeds the others.
My work is about home (and losing home) rooted in my family history. I associate lockdown with states of limbo such as exile and dislocation, which has given me a creative head start in some ways.
For now, my studio is out of bounds and I can’t work on my most recent cycle of paintings in oils. They were tantalisingly near completion. It was my first time using oils which proved so immersive that I was transported to my grandmother’s balcony in Barcelona in the Franco era while painting the ripening tomatoes that were ever-present on her windowsill. These tomatoes have become emblematic of my grandmother’s resilience as a survivor of a Civil War, and subsequent exile. She also avoided a Nazi round-up to the Mauthausen ‘work camp’ by hiding overnight in a forest. My work is about inherited trauma and my grandmother’s tomatoes have become an important motif in my work during lockdown.
When lockdown was announced, I quickly set up a small photography ‘studio’ (aka a cupboard and adjacent ironing board!) in my living room. My computer is close by, so uploading and editing images is seamless. I use a phone app to upload images from my SLR, and then edit with Apple Mac Photos. I don’t use Photoshop. I invested in a Canon Selphy printer a few months before Covid-19, and am now exploring analogue photo collage.
I can take a shot, extract the memory card from my camera, insert it in the Selphy, and print high-quality photos in seconds, so I don’t bother with WIFI for printing. I cut the elements I need with an extremely sharp pair of nail scissors (used only for collage) and use Blu-Tack to compose follow-on shots. I don’t tend to glue collage elements, so that I can keep experimenting. Sometimes the scanner muscles in. I love building up to performative photos using the timer on my SLR. Sometimes these develop into GIF-like micro-videos.
Keeping my earbuds in for some shots feels important. I use them in performances sometimes, but also to document how Covid-19 interacts with my neurology. Earbuds are a real solace at this time. Podcasts soothe cabin-fever, and cut-down background noise. I have misophonia (extreme sensitivity to specific sounds) and auditory stress can be a real problem in shared spaces. Earbuds are also my access buddies when I have to go out. They buffer my anxiety. Soothing voices work best, for instance, my current obsession is Great Lives on BBC Radio 4. Cornelia Parker on Duchamp, and Philippa Perry on Maria Montessori, fire-up my synapses. So does Lauren Laverne on 6 Music. This simple expedient keeps me in circulation.
As well as creating collage props to perform with, the objects I create can also function as pieces in their own right. Some of my #NewToolsForLife images landed on Instagram and helped me to navigate the first days of lockdown. I’m glad to have documented this moment as lockdown has begun to feel like the new normal quite quickly. At the time I was interested in exploring the balance between hyper-vigilance and humour in managing my mental health. I’ve just started using the hashtag again, so it could become an ongoing series. I also started a visual blog on my website in the early days so that when I feel speechless art can step in. I’m enjoying the freedom to play without having to pin down meaning. Right now it can feel like there is no meaning. Certainly, there is no justice or ceremony for the victims of the abhorrent ‘herd immunity’ idea. You can do a lot with captions and titles once you’ve nailed your image. If I’m feeling overwhelmed I compose a shoot. Sharing can be as important as making. I like my work to initiate dialogue.
I’m also interested in the need (or desire) to make do with a limited range of materials in confinement. There’s always internet shopping but improvisation (for me) references the inventiveness required by refugees and exiles, so an old worn pair of tights which I kept at the start of lockdown (in case tights became a thing of the past!) have become a key part of my current visual lexicon.
Now that we’re not able to be in the world consuming and polluting at will, there’s an echo of times past in which boredom also allowed time for reflection. Along with the carnage, Covid-19 gifts us time of a different quality. In this spirit, I spent two weeks looking back at iPhone capture from my BBC Radio 4 programme, The Art of Now: Return to Catalonia, made in 2018. I use Final Cut Pro for all my film work. The result is a new 9-minute film called One Blanket Between Two. Revisiting this material I came to realise that it could speak to this moment and the grief of distanced mourning.
I’m grateful to Lynne Walsh for her review in The Morning Star.
“One Blanket Between Two is a mesmerising and melancholy short film from artist Sonia Boue, recalling the exile from fascist Spain of her father Jose Garcia Lora. Boue uses a variety of media in her work, which can be witty and full of whimsy as well as deeply moving. Memories of family, forced emigration and a yearning for “home” are essential themes in the pieces she creates. This is a beautiful piece, which could break your heart and mend it again.”
I navigate my days autistically, which in my case is by feel. When I’m tired I put myself to bed, but my brain will be full of thoughts about what I can do tomorrow.