Zoe Bray was born in Paris, of a
Basque mother and English father. With her father working as a
journalist, her family traveled across Europe, living approximately
three years in different countries, including, in chronological order,
Italy, Belgium, France and Spain. Throughout this period, together with
her elder brother Xavier and younger sister Juliet, Zoe attended the
British educational system in local private schools. Thus, Zoe grew up
speaking French and English at home, and the local language in the
streets. These were extremely enriching years, as her family explored
their cultural surroundings and integrated into local life. Many
holidays and long weekends were spent discovering the countryside,
villages, museums, churches, and local festivities and traditions,
camping, cycling, windsurfing, often accompanied by their numerous pets
- ducks, hens, rabbits and dog. In all these different cultural
contexts, Zoe felt naturally at home.
While Zoe regularly visited relatives in the UK and France, attachment
with the other countries hence became integral parts of her identity. At
the same time, her parents having acquired a house in the Basque Country
close to her maternal grandparents, Zoe came to see this area as a more
settled base. Early in her childhood, she made it her mission to one day
learn Basque, in an effort to get closer to the people there.
At fifteen years old, Zoe was sent together with her sister to boarding
school in the UK, in an effort by her parents to give them a more stable
education and English roots. Bryanston, in Dorset, was a liberal and
active co-ed school, where their brother had already completed his A
levels. Nonetheless, boarding life was a shock to Zoe who had been used
to enormous freedom and different modes of thinking. Suddenly, her so
far unquestioned English identity was challenged by her more ‘real’
English classmates, who sometimes teased about her perceived French
accent! Bryanston life was a truly enriching time where, amongst other
things, Zoe learnt to play the drums, further developed her talent in
athletics, drama, photography and ceramics.
A level exams completed, Zoe prepared to take a gap year before
university. She set off as a volunteer English teacher to the provincial
town of Cholula, south of Mexico City, where she spent six months
sharing a room with three other volunteers in the compound of a Mexican
family of ten children. Once the challenge of teaching classes of thirty
nine-year-old kids in the morning and hormone-imbibed teenagers in the
afternoon was over for that period, Zoe set off traveling on her own to
the north of Mexico City and then, together with her father, to the
south of the peninsula.
Zoe finally left Mexico enamoured with the country, sensitive to the
struggle of poverty, class and racial discrimination, and with a desire
to one day return in order to deepen her understanding of its people. On
her way back to Europe, Zoe took a transit to Texas from where she took
a Greyhound to California to visit her Basque relatives who had settled
there a few decades previously. Finally Zoe returned to France in time
to see her maternal grandmother before she passed away from cancer.
The rest of her gap year was spent working in a French bakery in Oxford,
walking to St James of Compostella and working as a trilingual guide at
Lourdes. Having been rejected by Oxford university where she had applied
to read Spanish and French literature, Zoe opted to go to Edinburgh
university. Her final choice of studying Social Anthropology there was
made on the basis of her numerous exposures to living and communicating
with people of various backgrounds. Her personal experience made it
clear in her mind the importance of making sense of a link with people
of different cultures and getting to grips with identity as an empirical
The university dissertation was finally the opportunity to focus on the
Basque Country. She set off with the objective to finally learn the
language and discover local life. Researching social and political
dynamics in a rural community, she was kindly welcomed by local families
with whom she was able to live as an extra member of the household.
During her time in the area, she came to associate intimately with the
struggle to keep alive a rich and dynamic Basque language and culture.
She helped out in numerous Basque cultural initiatives, including
working with television and radio.
Despite this awakening and sense of personal commitment to the defense
and promotion of linguistic minority communities, Zoe still felt quite
at a loss with what to do next when she finally graduated from Edinburgh
university at 22 years of age. She took up a series of random jobs
including working as a fashion model and at the stock exchange in the
city of London, only to eventually wake up at her evident lack of fit.
Finally, a random application to work as a researcher for the European
Bureau for Lesser Used Languages led her to pack up her bags yet again
to head for Brussels.
Her year there was a moment of rediscovery, after having lived in
Brussels with her family when a child. This time, she explored the
Brussels world of ‘Europe’, European institutions and their politicians,
technocrats and lobbyists and all these people from different countries
who work around it, a multilingual world where her own fluency in five
languages was for once seen with more ordinariness. Nonetheless she
remained rather frustrated with the often stark segregation of this
Euro/international world and that of ‘ordinary’ Belgians. While her
research work in the institutional domain was certainly interesting, Zoe
also felt perturbed by the evident gap between politics and the people
it was meant to represent. It was at this point that Zoe contemplated
returning to academia in order to produce grassroots research to analyse
identity and politics from the bottom up, and serve as a challenge and
complement to the political and institutional ivory tower view of
ordinary life. In this vein, she applied to do a PhD at the European
University Institute, in Florence, where she was accepted to begin in
September 1998, at 24 years old.
Zoe has always expressed a keen interest in fine arts. This was fed at
an early age by her parents who are themselves curious art lovers. Her
mother trained as a modern painter in Madrid and her father is presently
managing their joint budding gallery initiative alongside his job. On
innumerable family trips to exhibitions, Zoe would remain transfixed by
certain paintings, wondering how on earth these had been produced. Since
the age of fifteen, Zoe has collected a growing series of sketch books
filled with her drawings and written observations. However, discouraged
by the lack of teaching of traditional techniques in most contemporary
art schools, Zoe never seriously contemplated following artistic
training. Everywhere she was, she took part in short and sporadic
drawing and sculpture classes, but remained restless and therefore
unconvinced. In Florence, she was mesmerized by the beauty of the art
around her and, in her final and fourth year of PhD, she discovered
Charles Cecil’s studio. This was a serious eye-opener, as here at last
she found a place dedicated to the serious study of naturalistic oil
Nonetheless, it still took Zoe a few years to pluck up the courage to
admit to her own artistic nature. Still committed to her anthropological
work, and to financial independence, she persevered in her doctoral
research, which brought her back to the Basque Country to deepen her
investigation of the construction and expression of identity amongst
inhabitants of a thriving community on the FrancoSpanish frontier, and
how these are affected by political attempts to dismantle boundaries in
the context of the European Union. She defended her thesis in September
2002, subsequently accepted an assistantship under Professor Helen
Wallace at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Research, in Florence,
and published her thesis as a book in March 2004.
In September 2002, she joined Charles Cecil’s school as a half-day
student, studying sculpture for three terms and figure-drawing for two
terms. In June 2004, she left the school and, in September, began
sharing a studio space with three other professionally-trained painters.
Here she started finally to do her own painting, putting into practice
the various tricks she had picked up from her time interacting with
other students at the Cecil school.
Zoe continues to do research, employed since September 2004 as a fellow
at the European University Institute with her former thesis supervisor
Professor Michael Keating for a research project comparing different
indigeneous minority linguistic communities located in European borders.
In her painting, Zoe wishes to combine anthropology and art. She seeks
to paint people in their natural space with a personal empathetic touch.
Zoe dreams of developing her drawing and painting, in a continuous
struggle to express nature and the soule. Conscious of her own integrity
as an artist, Zoe seeks to avoid pretence and sentimentalism. Art is for
Zoe a search for beauty, remaining grounded, looking at real life and
real people today with subtle naturalistic sensitivity.