Review no 121: Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

“In Plain Sight” teaser at https://www.mariangoodman.com/exhibitions/416-tavares-strachan-in-plain-sight/

You know, when you’re a kid on an island of 250,000 people, you have to stay in your lane. I wasn’t really good at that.

– Tavares Strachan, quoted in Elephant magazine, autumn 2020

During September and October this year work by US-based Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan (b. 1979) was on display at the Marian Goodman Gallery in London, presenting an “immersive and site-specific experience“. A Guardian journalist described it slightly differently, as “baffling, complex, not to say deeply complicated” (while giving it a five-star review), although looking at and into Strachan’s work it seems no more confounding to me than any other conceptual oeuvre!

I didn’t make it out of South London into the Central London galleries between our first and second ‘lockdowns’, and I’m not much inclined to now, until the new Covid vaccine is hopefully wheeled out in early 2021 (I’m biting back the feeling that it is all too good to be true, after all the dire news in 2020).

In 1972 John Berger noted that “The days of pilgrimage are over, it is the image of the painting which travels now“, which gives me a handy ‘out’. Nevertheless, I’m inclined to agreed with the art critic Ossian Ward, who some 40 years later wrote in his book Ways of Looking, that “encountering a work of art in the flesh is paramount to its understanding“.

As a sort of compromise solution, many galleries have set up online viewing rooms and gallery walk-throughs so that people can engage with art as it is hung in an exhibition (and, presumably, buy it), while they are unable to visit either due to temporary restrictions on movement, or due to safety fears. The Marian Goodman gallery is one of these institutions, so although I missed the physical show, I was able to view some of the work online, and download a handy list of the works exhibited (together with little thumbnail pictures).

Strachan has a fascination with human aspirations and physical limitations, as well as the obstacles that have traditionally been imposed on people by cultural strictures and structures, rather than by the limits of the human body.

Specifically, his art has been influenced by the life of Matthew Hensen (1866-1955), an African-American explorer who, in 1909, took a key role in the first recorded expedition to reach the North Pole. For some reason (entrenched racism, presumably) his name seems to have been virtually erased from history.

Strachan’s interest in inhospitable climates, in the achievements of Matthew Hensen and in the power of the individual is not new. For his 2005-06 work The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want he arranged for the excavation a 2.5-ton block of ice from the Alaskan Arctic. The ice was then transported to the Bahamian capital Nassau using some kind of special refrigeration unit and was displayed in a solar-powered freezer in the courtyard of Strachan’s childhood primary school.

The piece is, quite literally, monumental, and evocative at the personal level of individual biography, as well as in the much wider sense of referencing the fragility – but also the adaptability – of the natural environment and the dissonant beauty of displacement. My husband points out that this work of art could also be interpreted as a massive ‘fuck you’ to Strachan’s old school, given it seems to involve plonking a massively inconvenient hunk of Arctic ice in the playground.

Strachan’s later multimedia, multi-part work Orthostatic Tolerance (2010) makes reference to the physiological stress that astronauts experience when leaving and re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. As part of the work, Strachan experienced some of the training received by Russian astronauts as well as taking part in experiments at the Bahamas Air and Space Exploration Center; as part of this ‘installation’, he endured 16 units of G-force.

More recently Strachan has been working on an ongoing written work of art called The Encyclopedia of Invisibility (2018), included in the London exhibition, which currently comprises some 2,400 pages and 15,000 alternative entries. These describe individuals, locations, objects, concepts, works of art and scientific phenomena that have been un(der)recognised or have simply … disappeared, including both an ancient Israeli unit of measure called the omer, and Richey Edwards of British band the Manic Street Preachers. On archival paper, leather-bound, the work was exhibited in a glass case evoking the silent power of books compiled in past centuries by colonial-era white men, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, in a work that questions the validity of our collective memory.

Also included in the recent London exhibition, the immense double-panelled 2020 painting Every Knee Shall Bow (measuring some 2.5m x 2.5m) immediately brings to mind the Black Lives Matter campaign and the colonial past of the Bahamas. The pop-culture style painting features Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie on the cover of a 1952 magazine, while Queen Elizabeth gazes out at the viewer, foregrounded by incongruous (to me) snowy owls. Importantly, in terms of context, the Queen ‘took the knee’ when she met Selassie, with emperors deemed to be of higher rank than simply royalty.

The upstairs gallery at the Marian Goodman Gallery was given over to a collection of busts entitled Distant Relatives, individually named for influential people of colour throughout recent history in the USA and the Caribbean. They are named for, for example, the writers James Baldwin and Derek Walcott, nurse Mary Seacole, Henrietta Lacks (whose cells revolutionised the understanding of cancer), and the explorer Matthew Henson (of course). However, the realistic busts are often obscured by elaborate African masks, their individual features symbolically erased by the foregrounding of their African ethnicity.

Strachan’s neon works are also iconic, and his latest is intended to be installed in Colorado in the near future, on a massive scale. Conceived prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, but resonating very deeply with the situation in 2020, individual words make up the simple phrase “We are all in this together“, whether interpreted as a call to action or as an expression of unity.

Review no 120: Flames by Robbie Arnott (Australia)

FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA

Our mother returned to us two days after we spread her ashes over Notley Fern Gorge. She was definitely our mother – but, at the same time, she was not our mother at all. Since her dispersal among the fronds of Notley, she had changed. Now her skin was carpeted by spongy, verdant moss and thin tendrils of common filmy fern. Six large fronds of tree fern had sprouted from her back and extended past her waist in a layered peacock tail of vegetation. And her hair had been replaced by cascading fronds of lawn-coloured maidenhair – perhaps the most delicate fern of all

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, according to received wisdom. But how about judging a book by its opening line, or its opening paragraph?

Set in the extravagant natural environment of Tasmania, off the Australian mainland, this is a debut novel like no other: highly imaginative, incredibly creative and confoundingly faux-mythological.

In an attempt to save his 23-year-old sister Charlotte from the distressing tendency of the bodies of the deceased females of the McAllister family to return from the dead and self-immolate (bear with!), Levi McAllister decides to design and build a high-quality coffin to contain her ashes when she eventually dies. However, when Charlotte catches sight of evidence of his plans she assumes the worst, and runs for her life…

The novel seems on its way to becoming a bit of a straightforwardly alternative road movie of a book, but author Robbie Arnott instead employs a diverse range of storytelling devices, and the narrative veers into something more technically ambitious, with strong folkloric elements and a focus on the diversity, cruelty and wonder of the natural world.

At times we have a standard third person narrator, but at others the story is told from, say, the first-person perspective of an alcoholic lady detective, or via the lost journal of an insane (or possessed?) wombat-farmer, or the belligerent letters of a temperamental carpenter or even the consciousness of a power-mad (or just straightforwardly godlike?) water rat.

These efforts to push the boundaries of traditional narrative and the hyper-focus on a sort of elemental magical realism can occasionally be taken further than is perhaps wise, tipping into faint ridiculousness. However, the prose is saved from becoming too self-reverential by touches of humour, and is always wonderfully original.

I don’t read much fiction from Australasia, and I meant to get involved with Ausreading month, hosted by @bronasbooks earlier in November. At least I’ve managed to squeeze in one read!

119: Some Kind of Peace by musician Ólafur Arnalds (Iceland)

EUROPE

The Icelandic multi-instrumentalist and composer Ólafur Arnalds has written numerous film and television scores and has already released four previous solo albums. His new, 10-track album some kind of peace (no caps please!), released in early November this year, is mesmeric and transporting.

Shortish, at 38 minutes, the album provides an enveloping soundscape of what might broadly be described as ambient electronica, although classical instruments, notably strings and piano, are prevalent throughout.

The tracks are virtually devoid of lyrics, but do feature occasional guest artists. Josin, otherwise known as the soaring German singer and composer Arabella Rauch, is credited on The Bottom Line, while Back to the Sky features vocals by female Icelandic singer and musician JFDR.

For me, Woven Song had echoes of mid-1990s world music ensemble Deep Forest, if you can remember them (it actually samples the voice of Herlinda Agustin Fernandez of the shamanic Shipibo of Peru).

The hypnotic Spiral is gorgeously meditative, while Zero is a wavelike instrumental track. Elegiac closing track Undone is full of mournful surging strings, and opens with sampled speech faintly reminiscent of The Orb’s classic chill-out listen Little Fluffy Clouds (although that vocal sample, of an interview with US singer Rickie Lee Davis, was unauthorised – The Orb are apparently forever known to her as “those fuckers”).

Bonobo, aka talented US-based British DJ, producer and musician Simon Green – who has, I guess, chosen to name himself after a particularly sexually profligate breed of monkey – is credited on the first track, Loom, which also features a wordless female vocal. I found it to be a particularly gorgeous listen (the video can be found at the end of the post).

According to semi-trusty Wikipedia, Arnalds unexpectedly turns out to have drummed for heavy metal bands before embarking on his solo career. He is nothing if not innovative. The New Statesman noted that his previous album, Re:member, featured “two self-playing, algorithm-driven pianos of [his] own design”.

At its most basic the album provides a kind of enveloping aural wallpaper, that you can sink into like an accommodating sofa while you WFH. But at its best it approaches transcendence. It’s an album that benefits from repeated listening, and here in the UK is available on Spotify.

Review no 118: Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys (1890-1979)

DOMINICA, AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

The kitten had an inferiority complex and persecution mania and nostalgie de la boue and all the rest. You could see it in her eyes, her terrible eyes, that knew her fate.

Jean Rhys died at the age of 88 in 1979, although her death had first been announced in 1956 (“I feel rather tactless at being alive” she reportedly said, once this information eventually reached her). The quality of her writing was not recognised for decades, despite the boost provided by her earlier entanglement with influential modernist Ford Maddox Ford.

Rhys published no work between 1939 and 1966, when her magnum opus Wide Sargasso Sea, which was apparently pieced together from a manuscript kept in carrier bags under the bed, won the Royal Society of Literature Award. “It has come too late,” she said.

Although Rhys spent much of her life in the UK, she felt that her Creole colonial background in Dominica and her Caribbean accent had marked her out as an outsider in England as soon as she arrived at boarding school in Cambridge in her late teens. She subsequently had momentous struggles with alcohol her whole life.

The first-person narrator of her novella Good Morning, Midnight (which I devoured as part of Novellas in November month) is Sophia Jansen, who has restyled herself as Sasha. She has been drawn back to Paris, specifically Montparnasse, from London, where she has been living in grim lodgings on the Gray’s Inn Road following an unhappy, brief first marriage.

A legacy brings in a regular, though far from extravagant, income. But the arrival of some form of financial stability has not necessarily been a wholly positive event:

“Well, that was the end of me, the real end .. It was then that I had the bright idea of drinking myself to death.”

We sense past tragedy, which is revealed as the novel progresses, while Sasha has been consistently let down by her forays into both love and work. Around her, male characters repeatedly weave in and out of her consciousness, fading out before reappearing unexpectedly. Her closest neighbour in her seedy hotel (who appears to wear only dressing gowns) is compared overtly to a spectre, while her new (supposedly) Russian acquaintances, her errant husband Enno and her tergiversating drinking companion René, known mainly as ‘the gigolo’, seem to manifest themselves intermittently and then disappear.

Nicholas Delmar, one of the “Russians”, espouses an attractive philosophy: “that’s what I say to myself all the time: ‘You didn’t ask to be born, you didn’t make the world as it is, you didn’t make yourself as you are. Why torment yourself? Why not take life just as it comes?’ … you have the right to take life just as it comes and to be as happy as you can.”

However, Delamar doesn’t necessarily seem able to stick to this recipe for life, while Sasha’s narrative voice is predominantly deadpan and melancholic, with elements of fatalistic humour. The fragmented prose reflects the refracted and splintered nature of Sasha’s existence, which has become defined by alcohol.

“I’ve had enough of these streets that sweat a cold, yellow slime, of hostile people, of crying myself to sleep every night. I’ve had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whisky, rum, gin, sherry, vermouth, wine with the bottles labelled ‘Dum vivimus, vivamus … ‘ Drink, drink, drink … As soon as I sober up I start again.”

From a modern perspective the slippery prose also reflects that churning, infinite looping repetitiveness of thought that characterises the thought processes of survivors of trauma: inchoate ruminations on her brief ruinous marriage, her immeasurable loss and the way that time concertinas as we gain the perspective of age.

“I don’t believe things change much really; you only think they do. It seems to me that things repeat themselves over and over again.”

The wheeling repetition of themes and phrases gives the book a poetic feel, while the prose is marked by dashes and ellipses, which express the lack of coherence in Sasha’s thought processes, but also, of course, a pervasive sense of omission. Irmgard Keun’s Berlin-set The Artificial Silk Girl (1932), another book that feels very much ahead of its time, similarly makes liberal use of the ellipsis, expressing the dizzy-natured antics of protagonist Doris. She is another misused heroine, but that book has a much lighter-hearted feel.

Despite Sophia/Sasha’s state of brain fog and cognitive dissonance, the structure of Good Morning, Midnight is nothing if not tight. The prose weaves its way to its carefully carved out conclusion, in a narrative that gives a voice to the dispossessed.

Review no 117: African film Kmêdeus: Spirit of a City (Cabo Verde)

SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA

In Portuguese with English subtitles, running time 55 minutes

Written and directed by Nuno Miranda, this 2020 film uses its focus on a homeless eccentric, known locally as Kmêdeus (literally translatable as “Eat God”), to explore the culture and history of the West African archipelago of Cabo Verde, which is home to some 500,000 people.

The enigmatic Kmêdeus lived on the island of São Vicente, Cabo Verde’s principal port. Through interviews with people in his home town of Mindelo, an affectionate portrait is built up of a well-known local character. Bedecked in the contrasting religious imagery of a Star of David and a Christian cross, he carried a tin can and would apparently revel in telling people that he “ate God with rice”.

While many people who met him remember him as mentally ill, others consider him to have been something closer to a philosopher or a street and performance artist. The film challenges us to avoid reductive labels applied to “those we call crazy”. I’d have liked to have been told more about the life of Kmêdeus, who we learn “must have had a sense of humour as he attempted to kill the President” (no more information is forthcoming!) and who met a “violent end” (not expounded upon), in contrast to his apparently largely peaceful life. He actually sounds to have been hugely vulnerable, and I question the philosopher label!

We are shown extracts of a 2008 piece by the contemporary choreographer and dancer António Tavares, based on the life of Kmêdeus, which inspired the film itself. From here we are introduced, through the course of three distinct acts and archive photography, to a wider examination of the importance of representative art, music and film in Cabo Verde, and the power of mythology and the imagination. Notably, the film highlights the significance of the euphoric annual carnival, and the opportunity it provides for people to cast off, if only temporarily, their everyday identity.

In focusing on the multiple interpretations of Kmêdeus’s life, he becomes a sort of metaphor for the paradoxes and inconsistencies in Cabo Verdean identity, and showcases the multiplicities inherent in the islanders themselves, as well as the pervasive impact of their national history. Edouard Glissant, best known for academic theories focusing primarily on the Caribbean and the so-called New World experience, is quoted in the film (“a man on an island knows of life abroad”): thus, the life of an islander is not necessarily closed off and insular. Indeed, the inhabitants of this tiny country appear to be incredibly cosmopolitan and creative. Notably, too, Glissard’s Caribbean Discourse sought to interpret the experience of islanders (not specifically Cabo Verdean islanders) as infinitely varied, rather than encapsulating a fixed, homogenous meaning imposed by the history of colonization.

The organizers of the Africa in Motion film festival (which showed the documentary this November) noted that the film (which was made in conjunction with the Cabo Verdean film collective Negrume) ultimately becomes “a search for the roots of one of the oldest Creole communities in the world”. Doing a bit of research after watching the film, I learnt that until the 15th century, when Portuguese settlers discovered the islands, the archipelago was completely uninhabited. The islands finally achieved independence from Portugal in 1975, but due to their isolated location, as well as the population’s primarily mixed heritage, the inhabitants can inevitably feel, both literally and figuratively, somewhat cut adrift from the rest of the continent and the wider world.

Although let down somewhat by poor subtitling, this was a interesting insight into Cabo Verde, a country about which I knew very little, and a thought-provoking and often beautiful film. I really fancy visiting one day…

Review no 116: The Transmigration of Bodies by Mexican author Yuri Herrera

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

Translated by Lisa Dillman

This novella, first published in 2013, and published in English translation by And Other Stories in 2016, comes in at barely 100 pages, so I was able to read it in a single day. Set during a mysterious mosquito-borne pandemic, I found it to be a comically noirish gangland tale of rival families, faintly resonant of Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story crossed with a bit of Raymond Chandler.

Our (anti-)hero, known as The Redeemer, is a gritty, hard-boiled fixer, a sex-obsessed alcoholic and depressive, who works for someone known only as the Dolphin (because, it seems, he’s full of holes, both from being shot and from wearing out his nose with “too much blow”). The Redeemer becomes embroiled in an enterprise to, as it were, repatriate the bodies of two dead (just about adult) children, each of whom has died while in the hands of one of the enemy families, the Costas and the Fonsecas.

The story read to me like a pastiche of noir fiction, since these gangland tropes are so familiar. The book’s use of language is quite often ridiculous, though extraordinarily inventive and read-out-loud entertaining. One bruiser is described as walking “like he was forever on his way out of the ICU, moving each muscle with considerable care“. Peak stupid quote though was when the Redeemer thinks “Talk and cock is all I got … And sometimes fear.” What a tit!

All the characterisation is fairly thin, but that doesn’t matter because the book doesn’t seek to provide well-developed characters. It’s very testosterone-driven, and most of the female characters are either dead, drunk or simply fun in the sack. After reading this book, you do find yourself using phrases like “fun in the sack”.

The Redeemer’s paramour is known only as Three Times Blonde – we’ll leave it to the imagination as to why that might be. He doesn’t know her name and she doesn’t know his, but that doesn’t stop them – maybe it’s a bonus! – and the plot is inter-spliced with fairly, erm, graphic sex scenes. (Writing this review seems to be making me even more uncomfortably British than usual.) I should make it clear, too, that I’m not really criticising the book for its female stereotyping, since the men are all ciphers too…

Some of the imagined context of the novel has become familiar to us as part of everyday life during a pandemic: people are told to stay indoors, but not panic, and “it was terrifying how readily everyone had accepted enclosure.” Mask-wearing has become ubiquitous, with runs on pharmacies, people sneeze into their elbows rather than their hands and there’s an amusing scene set in a strip club, where: “One girl was dancing before a cluster of liquored-up fools, naked but for the mask over her mouth; each time she leaned close she made as if to take it off, and the boozers whooped in titillation.”

Like a fever dream, this high-octane tale spun out kaleidoscopically before my eyes, but I’m fairly certain I’ll struggle to remember much about it in a week’s time. I’m pleased, though, to have ticked this one off my massive list of unread books for week 3 of Novellas in November (#novnov).

Review no 115: A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar

LIBYA – NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST, CENTRAL ASIA AND THE SOUTH CAUCASUS

Published by Penguin, 118 pages

“In the end, as it is in the beginning, love and art are an expression of faith. How else to function with the limited knowledge we have? … the whole history of art can be read as that: a gesture of hope and also of desire, a playing out of the human spirit’s secret ambition to connect … to traverse that tragic private distance between intention and utterance, so that, finally, we might be truly comprehended … to be seen, to be recognized, not to be mistaken for someone else, to go on changing while remaining identifiable to those who know us best.”

A Month in Siena is a slender work of non-fiction, which I had been planning to read, a decision hastened by the knowledge that many book bloggers have been reading ‘non-fiction novellas’ as part of Novellas in November (#novnov), encouraging engagement with other book-obsessed people (and especially valuable at a time during the global pandemic when life’s ‘real world’ experiences have narrowed so much!).

I really like Hisham Matar. His writing is lucid and engaging and vivid, and I have read a lot of his work. I would love to meet him, though he is much more erudite than me, so we probably wouldn’t get along. For example, he has impressive conversations with his wife Diana about the overlaps and contrasts inherent in the meaning of the terms “freedom” and “assertiveness”. My husband and I do not have conversations like that (probably for the best).

I started reading Matar when my son was tiny, with his pacy novels, literary political thrillers really, In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance. Later, when I read his memoir The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography), I learned how much of his fiction was informed by his own experiences, and how he lives with a devastating, uncertain void where his father used to be. He is brave, or more accurately resilient, in that way that people who’ve been marked by life’s tragedies can be. I think it comes from the brutal reality of having no choice but to cope, together with a determination to seek out the beauty in life while never seeking to deny its horrors. (As an aside, I vividly remember a counsellor saying to me after my daughter was born very ill, having been diagnosed with a lifelong disability caused by a fetal stroke just before birth, that she thought the families of disabled children were “brave”. Irritated by her unhelpful platitudes I left and found a new counsellor…)

Matar has had, in so very many ways, a difficult life. He was born in the USA to comfortably-off Libyan parents during a diplomatic posting. However, on returning to Libya, Matar’s family were ultimately forced to flee the country. His father was a prominent dissident leader and a wanted man, amid the upheavals that ushered in the Qaddafi regime. The family were therefore dispossessed and exiled for much of Matar’s childhood, and at one point he didn’t return to Libya for some 30 years; growing up, Matar’s father would check the car for concealed explosives before allowing his family to get inside, and travelled under a pseudonym.

Matar writes that, in 1990, while studying in London, he became obsessed with the Sienese school of painting, spanning the 13th to the 15th centuries. This interest seems to have provided a means of coping with the trauma of the disappearance of his father, with which it coincided:

I had lost my father that year. He had been living in exile in Cairo, and one afternoon he was kidnapped, bundled into an unmarked airplane and flown back to Libya. He was imprisoned, and gradually, like salt dissolving in water, was made to vanish

Occasional letters reached the family from prison, but after 1996 there was only silence. The overthrow of the Qaddafi regime led to no answers, only more questions, as discussed in The Return. In middle age, and following the completion of The Return, Matar’s trip to Italy, to Siena, is on the surface inspired simply by his enduring love of Italian art from a particular place and time. He rents a flat that forms part of an old palazzo, with frescoes and beautiful proportions.

The place reminded me how the buildings we encounter, like new people we may meet, can excite passion that had until then lain dormant … [demonstrating] the transformative possibility of crossing a threshold

He discusses time spent wandering the city with his wife, the beauty of that and of the paintings he sees, and along with accounts of these experiences provides profound insights into the nature of art and the human condition. After his wife’s pre-agreed departure, Matar’s forges connections with local people, discovers treasured vantage points, and becomes familiar to gallery staff. The realization comes that:

“I had come to Siena not only to look at paintings. I had also come to grieve alone, to consider the new terrain and to consider how I might continue from here.

This is an intensely intelligent, beautiful and humane little book, which, ultimately, is much more than the sum of its parts.

Review no 114: Artist Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935)

UKRAINE, EUROPE

I read a lot of non-fiction anyway, but for #nonficnov, and fitting in with the general theme of ‘time’, I finally read in its entirety a fascinating book called Lost Art, edited by Jennifer Mundy, and published by Tate. Informative, often poignant, the book examines artists whose work has been ephemeral in some way: maybe stolen, or destroyed, or lost, or perhaps always intended to be transient, as with Christo’s Wrapped Reichstag, which I discussed earlier this year.

Kasimir Malevich’s lost work appears in the section labelled “Missing” – as has been the fate of so much work produced in the first decades of the 20th century – and inspired me to look into the artist a little more.

Influential pioneer of abstraction Malevich was born in what is now Ukraine in 1875. By 1912, influenced by work elsewhere in Europe, he was painting in a so-called Cubist-Futurist style. Malevich’s focus on the emotional power of art, rather than its representative use, subsequently led directly to the evolution of the Suprematist movement, and its obsession with strong lines and simple shapes. He subsequently went on to produce the works for which he is now most famous, Black Square (1913) and White on White (1918), reproduced here and here.

Tate gives a useful guide to the importance of Black Square (the blackest of black squares on a white background), which was exhibited amid the febrile tensions of the First World War, here.

Trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square.”

With White on White the square has lost any sense of materiality, and merges into the ether, therefore seemingly taking abstraction to its furthest frontier. Later in the decade, other Suprematist works by Malevich increased in complexity, introducing more shapes in more complex arrangements.

Black Square has survived, along with many of his abstract works, even if the paint is now cracked and faded. In contrast, the particular work referenced in Lost Art couldn’t be more different, and shows evidence of Malevich’s early (and consistent) interest in folk art and the rural farmland in which he grew up, as well as his continuing interest in the depictions of the human condition produced as part of the European modernist movement.

The enormous, figurative, by then highly unfashionable painting Peasant Funeral (1911) – see below – accompanied Malevich to Germany in the mid-1920s along with many of his other works, as his art fell out of favour at home, and the artist, who had been appointed Director of the State Institute of Artistic Culture, came under suspicion by the state under Stalin. Malevich was subsequently ordered to return the Soviet Union, where his artistic freedom was restricted and where he died in 1935, having been unable to seek cancer treatment abroad.

Much of his work, however, which he had exhibited in Western Europe, remained in Berlin for safe keeping, and fortuitously survived the Nazi purges of “degenerate” art; however, Peasant Funeral (together with several other large pieces) disappeared, and remains missing, presumed destroyed, its only surviving depiction a poor-quality photograph that accompanied a review of the work in 1912.

[Photo taken from the book Lost Art edited by Jennifer Mundy (published by the Tate in 2013).]

Cultural Plans for November 2020

My usual reviews of world culture resume later this week.

Meanwhile, this month seems to be a month of reading challenges. Luckily (in this one very small sense at least), we have a month of lockdown in the UK, and I’m also on holiday from work for some of it, with nowhere to go.

Books

Peak book nerdery: Books sorted into vague categories, with overlapping ones applicable to more than one 🙂

For Novella November (#novnov), hosted by @bookishbeck and @cathy746books, I’ve selected:

  • Weather by Jennifer Offill – I loved the Debt of Speculation and am looking forward to this. ☑
  • A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar (non-fiction, so I guess not technically a novella, but it is short! – on Kindle so not pictured in my photo) – a memoir by the prize-winning author, ostensibly about looking at paintings in Italy. ☑
  • A Life of One’s Own by Marion Miller – a bit of a random find, mentioned in an art book I read, published in the first part of the 20th century, it’s an account of a seven-year personal journey to discover what it is that makes her (and maybe us!) happy.
  • The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera – dystopian/speculative fic from Mexico. ☑
  • Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys – the classic tale of drifting and drinking in Paris. ☑
  • A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen – recommended by my daughter who’s doing this for A level. ☑

For Nonfiction November (#NonfictionNovember, #Nonficnov), hosted by a few people, I think @shelfaware, @abookolive, @julzreads, @doingdewey, and @what’snonfiction, I’ve selected:

  • Lost Art edited by Jennifer Mundy – discusses many works of art that have disappeared, been destroyed or simply been intended to be transient, predominantly over the 20th century, with a couple of pages dedicated to each work or artist. ☑
  • A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar (doubling up!) ☑
  • The Five by Hallie Baillie – buzzy social history about the victims of Jack the Ripper.
  • A Life of One’s Own by Marion Miller (also doubling up)
  • Modern Nature by Derek Jarman.

For Reading Australia month (#AusReadingMonth) hosted by @Brona’sbooks I have:

  • Flames by Robbie Arnott, described as “a mad, wild debut novel, roughhewn from the Tasmanian landscape and imbued with the folkloric magic of the oldest fireside storytellers”. ☑
  • Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill (recommended by my friend David), described as “a satirical, funny alternative history to Australian literature” (which could also work for Nonfiction November).

For German Lit Month (#germanlitmonth) hosted by @lizziesiddal I have:

  • You Should have Left by Daniel Tyll (not pictured, as it’s in the post!) which sounds like a psychological/gothic horror with a touch of The Shining about it.

For Margaret Atwood Month (#MARM) I have:

  • Hagseed by erm Margaret Atwood, a retelling of The Tempest.

And additionally I have:

  • The Women by T C Boyle, a fictionalised account of the personal life and colourful love life of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
  • The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley (for my RL book club, not that we can meet up, and zoom just reminds of bloody work meetings) – described as the “feel good read of 2020”.

plus two audio books:

  • Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers: a light novel, about an apparent virgin birth. ☑
  • Ramble Book by Adam Buxton “Musings on childhood, friendship, family and ’80s pop culture” by the very funny if faintly narcissistic Buxton, who’s also a massive Bowie fan like me.

If I get through all these it’ll be a miracle, but we’ll see!

Filmwise, I’m absorbed in the Africa in Motion Film Festival 2020, and in terms of art I’m making a last-minute pre-lockdown trip to Tate Modern, and flicking through photography books. I also have a shiny new bike that I’ll be taking to the park, if my bad shoulder permits.

Also watching telly with my tween and/or two teens (currently on the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost vehicle Truth Seekers, after whipping through a couple of series of Misifts from around 2010 – but we’ve lost conviction now we know the fabulous Nathan, played by Robert Sheehan, leaves in season 3 – and also loving Bake Off and Taskmaster for cosiness and laughs).

Review no 113: Dhalinyaro (Jeunesse or Youth), a film from Djibouti

NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST, CENTRAL ASIA AND THE SOUTH CAUCASUS

in Somali and French with English subtitles (2019, running time 1hr 25 mins)

As part of the Africa in Motion film festival 2020, which runs from 30 October until 29 November, I watched this online screening of the 2019 feature Dhalinyaro, directed by Lula Ali Ismail.

The film follows the lives of three girl friends, Asma, Hibo and Deka, throughout their final year of school in Djibouti city. The film is beautifully filmed, and I loved the insights into life in Djibouti, the bustle of the city and the port, the beautiful sands of the beach, the rolling waves and the sharply contrasting lifestyles of the three girls.

The film is set in contemporary society, where mobile phones and laptops are ubiquitous, and which seems to mix conservatism with opportunities for self-development. As well as taking their BAC exams (the International Baccalaureate), the girls have to make decisions about their future, and if money permits they are encouraged to travel to France to pursue their university studies (as Asma notes, funds for further studies, for her, are “rare as snake’s shit”). This is the second African film I’ve seen lately that discusses study in France as a natural progression from schooling in a francophone nation (although looking online it seems that illiteracy is fairly common in parts of the country). I had no idea that travel to France was such a rite of passage for so many middle-class francophone Africans. Watching African films, it also interests me how the dialogue often switches between languages (here between French and Somali), and whether there are informal societal rules governing this (I did study linguistics at university back in the day so maybe this explains my geeky interest!).

The story itself is gently paced and doesn’t break any new ground: it’s a straightforward coming of age tale, but no less charming for that. It opens with wealthy, appearance-orientated Hibo (who typically sweeps around in a chauffeur-driven four-by-four), sobbing in the school bathroom as she miscarries – a shocking and scary experience that has coincided with Eid. Asma and Deka do not judge, but lend her a black abaya to cover her blood-stained trousers and swiftly and stealthily arrange her a taxi to the hospital. From then on in the three are inseparable.

The movie is the first to be made by a female director from Djibouti (and Lula Ali Ismail also has a cameo role as the girls’ school teacher), and it provides a convincing, character-driven exploration of friendship and the challenges and pleasures of youth.