What Does Success in the Arts Look Like? - Interview XVI with Sonia Boué

Sonia Boué - Artist, Oxford (england)

Sonia Boué is an Anglo-Spanish multiform artist. Her practice is concerned with a legacy of exile, leading to a growing body of work which relates to the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.

In 2015 she was recognised by researchers at Tate Britain as a singular voice responding to this history within a British context. Subsequently Sonia featured in a film made by Tate Britain entitled Felicia Browne: Unofficial War Artist, and in 2016 she received an Arts Council grant for Through An Artist’s Eye, a collaborative project about the life and work of Felicia Browne (who was the only British female combatant and the first British volunteer to die in action in the Civil War).

Sonia is also an arts educator with roots in History of Art and Art Therapy. She has a special interest in autism and has worked with children on the autism spectrum designing customized educational tools.

Visit Sonia’s homepage for more.


What are your thoughts on fame in the arts?

We all need validation to keep going but I try to cultivate the conditions for my work to be self-generating. I’m also philosophical. I know there is a good chance my work will be met with indifference, but I find this freeing. Paradoxically, or perhaps because the work comes from a genuine place, it usually finds an audience.

Fame is different from opportunity (though of course fame brings opportunity), which is far more important I think. Being able to keep working and finding audiences who appreciate what you do is key to what I view as success.

I see what fame can do to a creative practice and how at times it seems to lead to overexposure, uneven output, and viewer fatigue. I have to remind myself that fame can also be well handled and that I only know about my favourite artists because they have become famous! I prefer to keep my head down and keep busy.

To be frank, I am extremely suspicious of fame and always have been. I was brought up with a deeply buried and painful family secret. My father’s exile and his literary ambitions had contributed to a long struggle with a serious clinical depression.

This was not talked about, but as a very young journalist he had received a political commission to report on tank activity at various sites including the Battle of the the Ebro. By the age of 18 he crossed the Pyrenees in fear of his life - along with almost half a million Spanish Republicans - in February 1939. His journey was to lead to a punishing spell in the internment camps of France, and permanent exile in England.

It is a complex story but I now believe he craved literary ‘success’ to redeem his situation. The Franco dictatorship sought to erase the exiles from the national memory and I think ultimately this wore him down. He tried to resist with his typewriter, but culturally adrift and without an audience for his work after many years of writing plays he gave way to despair.

My mission in recent years has been to repair aspects of this history in my father’s memory. Among his gifts to me comes insight into the perils of a certain kind of ambition and I have no truck with it, but I understand that for him it was an existential imperative. I have to acknowledge that I haven’t been challenged in the same way.

What is your approach to rejection as a site of success?

I like the idea that rejection can be a site of success; but you have to cultivate resilience for this to become possible. I am very conscious that this is harder for some people and my approach has been hard won and comes from a place of privilege.

Essentially success can be defined in any way you want to, and I feel it’s immensely important in a creative practice to define it on your own terms. For example, I have learnt never to make comparisons with other artists. In my case this is necessary because I am autistic and the playing field is not level, but I reckon this works as general rule too. I only received my autism diagnosis two years ago but looking back I see that I’ve had to make rejection a site of success by default.

I recently received quite a painful rejection. The uppermost feeling was one of humiliation but the moment of self-reckoning quickly followed, and I moved on to the next thing. Doubling down on rejection and ‘proving them wrong’ is a pattern for me. Whether this is a means to creating success from rejection or emotional survival, I’m not sure.

Holding onto self-worth in the face of rejection takes practice and requires self-belief which may include holding principles higher than those contained in the opportunity involved - such as being authentic. How we build this is a highly individual thing. It has become enormously important for me to achieve congruence in my working life since my autism diagnosis.

Rejection forces you to figure things out. Ultimately it can also be an exercise in letting go and learning to follow your better instincts. I also believe that rejection - while it can feel personal - should not be taken as such where possible. Often this is just a numbers game.

Sonia Boué © Photographer: Stu Allsopp, Courtesy of the artist

Sonia Boué © Photographer: Stu Allsopp, Courtesy of the artist

Any thoughts on income and financial stability and success?

This is incredibly difficult and requires time, industry, the ability to diversify, helpful contacts, and plenty of good luck! Artists tend to work ridiculous hours and the financial payback can be a very long game indeed. Usually it’s a case of subsidizing your creative practice with other work. It helps if this work is related somehow.

Nobody really acknowledges how privilege and the ability to network form the backbone of opportunity in the arts. As an autistic person this is especially challenging.

My own strategy has been to develop as a professional artist via public funding (gaining this kind of funding is an occupation and a skill in its own right). I also use the funding process to talk to Arts Council England about my specific needs as an autistic person in an attempt to beat a pathway for change in the system. This has enabled me to work on my own projects and develop multiple skills, resulting in a more flexible offer to potential employers within my sector. I can now offer consultancy and carry out project work for others which helps me to stay afloat and fund my studio practice. The balance between project work and creative work is hard to maintain - a common problem.

I have found that the more headway I make, the more opportunities arise. Staying on top of multiple demands can be stressful. As a freelancer it is really difficult to reach a point where a stable income can be earned as often there is a need to invest time in making things happen, and one is also dependent on offers coming in.

Perhaps the most important skill is to be a plate spinner. You have to know when to let one fall. Everything changed for me when I drew a line under working for free.

How do you define success in the arts?

To me success is to keep going over time. It is all too easy to give up on an artistic practice for so many reasons. Turning up and putting in the hours is all that counts.

Do you have role models for success and who are they?

I’m inspired by other female autistic creatives who make themselves visible. The writer Katherine May, and poet and broadcaster Kate Fox, are good examples. These are autistic women who are incredibly talented and obviously very hardworking, and are in the public eye. They’re relatable to me in ways neurotypical people often aren’t - because we don’t share the same challenges. They are successful in their careers, witty, warm, and genuine. As more of us are diagnosed and come forward it becomes easier for the next generation, and we lower the levels of stigma and ignorance which have grown up around autism. We are simply humans, and some of us are artists. Many of us would like to be known for our work rather than our neurological status. It is vital to me that autistic professionalism be recognised - we are often incredibly professional!

I also work with two brilliant neurotypical mentors who are my role models. They are simply great people and wonderful art professionals who are at the top of their game. They help me decode the neurotypical world.

Which advice would you give your 18 year old self?

Autistic people can be late bloomers. I think I would say hold tight!

I have followed my instincts in courses of study and career choices, and my path to being an arts professional has been unconventional. As I look back I’m astonished that the range of skills and experiences I picked up along the way form the core from which I now make my work. It all seems to make perfect sense although it was an organic process.

At the age of about 7 I was taken to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. It was one of those stand out moments in a life, which has stayed with me and ever since I remember thinking that I could be an artist too. By the age of 18 I had lost all belief in this idea. So I would also tell my 18 year old self that there are many ways to be an artist and not to lose sight of that dream.

The best advice I ever had was that to become an artist you have to simply turn up and make art. If you do this for long enough you develop a practice. I’d probably throw that in too!

Your thoughts on success in the arts and race/gender?

It is quite obvious that the arts are currently a white, middle class, neurotypical/abled (and I would add, young person’s) game.

I’ve added four intersections to the question other than race and gender because the invisibility of what we now call neurodivergent artists (including autistics) is quite pernicious to their survival in the arts, ableism and ageism are also majorly written in to opportunity. Where do we even begin on classism when the arts are founded on it!

We are however discovering that as women tend to live longer and outlive their male contemporaries they are finally finding recognition in their 80s and 90s (see Rose Wylie and Carmen Herrera). I have a running joke about this but of course it’s a serious matter.

White women do seem present to me - but that may be because there has been quite a drive in this direction in some regards; in programming for example (very notably in recent years at the Tate). I also work mainly with women - but at a recent arts conference it became very clear that men, while lesser in numbers on the ground, were still dominant in more powerful positions.

What more damning comment can I make other than that at this same arts conference there were a mere handful of BAME arts professionals present.

I feel that what needs to come through is an emphasis on lived experience as the driver for ownership and entitlement in the arts. There has been a longstanding tendency for appropriation of divergent narratives by the dominant culture. I’m afraid this is hard to challenge and change is slow, but it is a powerful message and inevitably change has to come!

Through her archive, this film uncovers the work and untimely death of Felicia Browne, a young artist who lost her life in the first months of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. This event reverberates through the work of artist Sonia Boue, here reflecting on the significance of British volunteers, like Browne, who helped republican exiles like her father.