Sonia Boué

Sonia has a multiform visual arts practice with a focus on themes of exile and displacement. In recent years she has collaborated with Tate Britain, and a gained a commission with BBC Radio 4. Her work includes assemblage,installation, painting, performance and video. 

Sonia has created and led several Arts Council Funded projects including her most recent Neither Use Nor Ornament (NUNO) exhibition.She collaborates with Dr. Helena Buffery on the exile theatre of her father José García Lora, and is a film artist and consultant for the AHRC funded Playing A/Part project lead by Professor Nicola Shaughnessy at the University of Kent. 

They slept in a forest draws on a fragment of oral testimony transmitted across three generations of my family. It was told by my grandparents to my mother (who is now 92) at some unspecified time in the 1950s, and by my mother to me. It was recorded during the making of my BBC Radio 4 programme The Art of Now: Return to Catalonia (2018), but didn’t make it to the broadcast. 

The fragment is my mother’s retelling of the night my grandparents and great grandmother spent in a forest near Ruelle-sur-Touvre, to avoid a Nazi roundup of Spanish Republican exiles. This story was first teased out in the early moments of my postmemory research in 2013. It emerged as a shocking yet unsubstantiated tale, wholly lacking in detail yet tinged with the unspeakable (and unspoken) menace of a Grimm’s fairytale.

Had I not asked questions about my family history, this fragment would have remained buried, as the subject of my family’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War had, for many reasons, had been taboo. Some time later I encountered the precise historical evidence to support it, and it importantly gave me a date for the night in question[1]

They slept in a forest happened on the night of 19thAugust 1940, by which means my family avoided boarding a cattle train on the 20th, which left Angoulême station with 927 Spanish exiles on board. Transported forty – fifty per wagon (each wagon had been designed to hold but eight horses), standing and without food or water, the exiles arrived at Mauthausen on 24thAugust. 

Women and children (boys under thirteen) were sent to Spain; the women to face interrogation and imprisonment if there were no one to vouch for them, the children to state orphanages, even if there was someone to care for them. The men were sent directly to the camp, and of the 490 Spanish males, 397 died there. 

Had my grandmother and great grandmother boarded that train they would most likely never have seen my grandfather again. As it was all three survived to return to Spain in 1941, and indeed my grandparents went on to outlive Franco by a narrow margin.

The exiles thought they were being taken to Vichy[2]. My grandparents clearly knew or suspected otherwise, but how, and what they knew remains a mystery. 

This history has been uncomfortable indeed, and I’ve had to nurture this work over a number of years, using family photographs and the objects in my studio associated with childhood play. For the Uncomfortable Histories exhibition I present this carefully excavated fragment as a small installation with sound. 

The allusion of a fairytale, a charmed night in which mortal danger was eluded, is present in this work. I imagine the domestic detail, perhaps because my grandmother was an immensely practical woman who ran her home like clockwork. Despite the terror, or indeed the speed with which they may have fled to the forest, I feel she would have secreted food, and that some kind of domestic ritual would have taken place. Despite a necessary vigilance, they must have slept, even if only in snatches. I can only guess at their feelings on finding their community largely vanished on their return. 

[1]THE SPANISH HOLOCAUST, Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain, Paul Preston, London, Harper Press, 2013 edition, p 516.


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