Review no 105: Photographer Joana Choumali (Côte d’Ivoire)

AFRICA

Photographer Joana Choumali was born in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in 1974, and came to my attention after wining the Prix Pictet photography and sustainability prize, themed ‘Hope’, in late 2019 for her series Ça va aller (It will be OK).  The winning photographs were taken on an iphone three weeks after terrorist attacks were carried out in the former colonial Ivorian capital of Grand-Bassam, a popular beach resort town, in March 2016. The photographs were then decorated with ornate, vibrant embroidery. Embroidery, that traditionally feminine craft activity, has been employed by other artists working to explore trauma, notably Mexican artist Margarita Cabrera.

Choumali is quoted as saying: “This work is a way to address the way Ivorian people deal with trauma and mental health. Each stitch was a way to recover, to lay down the emotions, the loneliness, and mixed feelings I felt. Adding embroidery on these street photographs was an act of channelling hope and resilience.”

Due for physical exhibition and a world-wide tour, the Prix Pictet initially had to be reimagined as a virtual exhibition in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The interactive 3D exhibition was designed by digital artist Gabriel Stones. A physical exhibition has since opened at the EPFL ArtLab in Lausanne, Switzerland.

More of Choumali’s work can be found on Instagram here and here, and if you’re feeling flush is available for purchase here.

Review no 104: Viennese artists Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918)

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I’ve always liked Klimt, most famous surely for The Kiss, a large reproduction of which hung on the wall in the house that I grew up in. When I had my first child I remember sending out a card featuring the charming maternal part of the Three Ages of Women. Schiele, meanwhile, equally talented, feels much darker. I’ve seen two joint exhibitions of their work. One was in Paris in 2018 at the incredible digital art museum Atelier des Lumières.

The work was recreated on a massive scale, set to music, and the images dissolved and were reassembled before our eyes. It sounded like it would be excellent, or cheesy, or some infernal combination of the two – but it worked brilliantly. Klimt was a perfect choice for this exercise in dematerialisation, because his art – as here with the Water Nymphs of 1899 – often seems to be in the process of simply melting into the air.

I was inspired, and bought a book on Klimt – whose work only achieved mass popularity in the 1960s – in the gift shop, but was then put off by all the French (bearing in mind I actually did French at degree level, go figure), and it still languishes unread in my book pile. Think of all the extra facts I could include if I only read the bloody thing.

Meanwhile my daughters found the exhibition a bit creepy, due to the dim lighting and, I think, that very immersiveness. And while Klimt’s work blown up to a massive scale is pure beauty, amplified – with its undulating curlicues and opulent gold leaf detailing – Schiele’s tortured, twisted figures were more disturbing.

The following year I went to see an exhibition of drawings by the same two artists, which had travelled from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Austria, to London’s Royal Academy of Art. The drawings, as might be expected, were beautiful. However, the focus on young, gorgeous, barely adolescent girls made me wonder about those girl-women and what became of them. The exploitation was evident in cast-down eyes and shielding hair (#themtoo), as in the Klimt drawing below, although Schiele went in for more raw eroticism (see below). Schiele was also a fan of an agonised self-portrait, seemingly flayed, martyred (this is the man who even portrayed himself as Saint Sebastian), wrongly (maybe) imprisoned (owing to a sexual misconduct charge) and more or less crucified.

Although decades apart in age, both men died in the same year, Klimt in February 1918, following a stroke, and Schiele in October, a victim of the Spanish flu, which – unlike COVID 19 – was no respecter of youth. Schiele left behind an unfinished picture, The Family, which has been said by some to depict himself, his wife Edith and the child they were never to have. Laura Spinney suggests in her book on the Spanish flu pandemic that Schiele painted it following Edith’s death from the disease when six months’ pregnant, and that he followed her to the grave three days later. Such a frenzy of activity, while succumbing to a mortal illness, although romantic, sounds unlikely. Other sources suggest the painting actually features a sentimental depiction of his nephew Toni. Either way, Schiele’s is a tragic tale of curtailed talent.

Review no 103: stories by Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), and My Katherine Mansfield Project by Kirsty Gunn (New Zealand)

FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA

I’ve dipped into Katherine Mansfield’s stories over the years, and then recently worked my way through a huge batch of them, as well as listening to a number read by the actress Juliet Stevenson on Audible. I’m a fan of the modernist period, and I love Mansfield’s stories for their imagery, their symbolism, their devastating moments of epiphany and their focus on interiority and the timeless, shimmering moment – which sounds like something Mansfield would have said, and maybe I’ve accidently plagiarized her. I prefer her shorter short stories to her longer stories, some of which almost approach novella-length – particularly the evocative Prelude which was snapped up by Virginia Woolf’s press. Prelude, set in her native New Zealand, was intended as an elegy for her brother, who was killed in WWI. Perhaps my favourite stories, though, are the beautiful, ironic and explosive Bliss, which evokes and then shatters a world of complacent, upper middle-class domesticity, and the bleakly amusing The Daughters of the Late Colonel.

Simultaneously, I read a short 2015 essay/memoir by New Zealand writer Kirsty Gunn that I picked up in the Oxfam book shop, entitled My Katherine Mansfield Project. I was intrigued by the implied premise, and attracted by the beautiful book jacket and binding by Notting Hill Editions. Gunn, like Mansfield, was a native of Wellington, New Zealand, who was drawn to the UK, but found herself drawn back to Wellington for a winter on an academic fellowship. Mansfield, too, effectively rejected New Zealand for the UK (and Germany, for a time), but during her final illness wrote yearningly of her homeland. Gunn’s book is a lyrical exploration of the themes of home and memory, and she encounters again places that would have been familiar to Mansfield. However, I didn’t really enjoy the book and found myself skimming the pages. I think, as I was reading Katherine Mansfield at the same time, for me it just threw into stark relief that fact that Gunn is a less proficient writer and her focus on “exile” seemed a bit overwrought given the smooth travel connections of the 21st century.

Review no 102: Artist Wangechi Mutu (Kenya)

AFRICA

Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu was suggested to my daughter by her school art teacher as worthy of research on the topic of “marginalised female artists”, in response to the BLM protests. This provided me with some much-needed inspiration, and a new artist to find out more about. I hope to visit galleries again in person in the not-too-distant future, but for now I’m getting my fix online and via books and magazines – and Mutu’s art, as displayed here at the Victoria Miro gallery, is definitely worthy of interest.

Wangechi Mutu has lived and worked in New York in the USA for many years. As well as creating paintings and sculptures, she also works in film and performance. Her work has been widely exhibited in the USA, in particular, but also throughout Europe. In the UK her work has been on display at Tate Modern in London and in 2014 her Sirens and Serpents exhibition was held at the Victoria Miro gallery in London. As the Victoria Miro notes, her work comprises not only paintings, but also collage.

In creating her mixed media collages, “Mutu manipulates ink and acrylic paint into pools of colour, then carefully applies imagery sampled from disparate sources including medical diagrams, fashion magazines and traditional African arts. ” This technique is exemplified in her 2007 work, A Dragon Kiss always ends in Ashes. Often the pictures are created not on canvas or a paper-based material, but instead on mylar, a kind of plastic sheeting.

(Le Noble Savage, 2006, ink and collage on mylar.)

Recent, larger-than-life sculptures of seated African-inspired female forms for the Metropolitan Museum in New York “speak as messengers from an Afrofuturist-inflected otherworld” writes the New York Times. They are cast in bronze, with robe-like clothes that seem to ripple to the ground, while the imposing lip discs reflect an aspect of traditional Kenyan culture.

Apparently trained as an anthropologist as well as an artist, she repeatedly recasts and represents the female body as a site for an exploration of identity, self-image, gender, trauma and environmental degradation, in concert with the influence of African politics and post-colonialism.

“My work is often a therapy for myself – a working out of these issues as a black woman. And a way of allowing other black women to work through this kind of stigmatization as they look through the images and feel how distorted or contorted they might be in the public eye.”

Review no 101: Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg (Italy)

Translated by Jenny McPhee

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Even though the story is real, I think one should read it as if it were a novel, and therefore not demand of it any more or less than a novel can offer … memory is ephemeral, and … books based on reality are often only faint glimpses and fragments of what we have seen and heard

This is a deceptively light read, an autobiographical novel describing the ticks and cadences of Ginzburg’s family life before, after and during the Second World War in Italy under Mussolini. (I’ve not done very well at stepping away from books set during the War!) It comes with a useful introduction by Tim Parks, who notes that “Ginzburg’s book is written in an extremely colloquial Italian, something quite unusual in the early 1960s and difficult to show when translating into English“.

Ginzburg wrote the book while living in London during the 1960s, and missing her Italian family deeply. The characters of Ginzburg’s family members, friends and servants are vividly drawn, and there is much humour. The prose is straightforward and somehow unemotional, briskly whipping through moments of great tragedy as well as charming domestic incidents, which are described with beguiling levity.

My father went very reluctantly to the seaside. He would sit under a beach umbrella, dressed for the city, angry because he disliked seeing people in bathing suits. My mother, she would go into the water, but she’d stay very close to the shore since she didn’t know how to swim. While she was in the water she enjoyed herself, rolling in the waves, but when she returned to sit next to my father, she also sulked. She was jealous of Paola, who would go far to sea in a pedal boat and not come back in for ages.”

Ginzburg’s father, the Jewish scientist Giuseppe Levi, sounds as though he may have been somewhat belligerent and even terrifying, as his intolerance and extreme inflexibility come across with clarity, but again the author’s lightness of touch means that is affection and warmth that dominate, rather than any sense of domestic turbulence. His gentile wife Lidia is the perfect foil for his temper, and then there are their children, Mario, Gino, Alberto and Paola, who, led by Natalia, the youngest family member, we follow well into adulthood.

Unfortunately, I didn’t realise until the end of my edition of the book, published by Daunt Books, that there are extensive notes explaining various historical and cultural points that might be a bit oblique when reading the book, and which would have been handy to know about in advance. A few footnotes might have been a useful addition, then. Overall, though, this was a great read.

Review no 100: Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Tanzania)

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Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, this is a coming of age story set in East Africa prior to the First World War, and during the German occupation. The author Abdulrazak Gurnah was himself born in East Africa in what is now Tanzania, and emigrated to the UK in 1968. The book is beautifully written in a lyrical, mythical style, and takes the story of Yusuf, from the Koran, as the loose basis for its plot.

The boy first. His name was Yusuf, and he left his home suddenly during his twelfth year. He remembered it was the season of drought … Unexpected flowers bloomed and died. Strange insects scuttled from under rocks and writhed to their deaths in the burning light.”

The Swahili boy Yusuf is plucked from his home in the first pages of the book in order to settle his father’s longstanding debt to a wealthy Arab merchant, ‘Uncle Aziz’. Yusuf becomes, in effect, a domestic slave – long after the practice had been officially prohibited. The title Paradise may, at least in part, allude ironically to the preconceptions of Western tourists to the eastern coast of Africa: the location is not much of a paradise for Yusuf, who – like historical East Africa – is a really a powerless pawn, subject to dominance by exploitative forces, whether Arab or European, beyond his control.

Paradise no doubt also refers to the beautiful walled garden that belongs to Aziz, and is largely barred to Yusuf, and which serves as a sort of gilded cage for Aziz’s wives Zulekha and Amina. As Yusuf matures, his attractive looks and nature lead the older, physically disfigured wife, Zulekha, to take an uncomfortable interest in him, while he is increasingly sexually interested in the young women that he meets, particularly the forbidden Amina. Zulekha, who is rumoured to be “crazy”, feels that Yusuf’s touch may heal her:

She says you are a beautiful boy. She watches you in her mirrors in the trees when you walk in the garden. Have you seen the mirrors?

Because the sad and tragic Yusuf is largely a symbolic figure, I struggled a bit with the book, as I find it easier to engage with fiction that is strongly character-driven, and I never really believed in Yusuf as a fully fledged person – that’s not the point of the book. So I feel a bit ashamed to admit that, although undoubtedly brilliant, the novel didn’t really involve or move me; although it is successful on its terms, it is simply not a book that I was naturally drawn to.

Review no 99: Ai WeiWei (China) at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA

An email dropped into my inbox the other day from the Royal Academy of Art (RA) in London, which like everything else has been closed during the coronavirus pandemic. The email announced that the RA was reopening (hurray!), and also invited me to experience the Academy’s 2015 exhibition of Ai WeiWei’s work in a “360 degree immersive tour of the galleries“, together with commentary from curators – plus the newsreader Jon Snow. I quite like Jon Snow, so how could I resist?!

Seriously though, I had been intending to cover Ai WeiWei for my “China artist”, so I clicked on the link. I had expected slightly more tech than I got: the 360 degree claim is a little over-stated, as it only applies to certain clickable areas, and I’d imagined I’d somehow be able to be transported around the exhibition more or less at will, from any imaginable angle.

The work itself is really interesting. Ai WeiWei is a prolific conceptual artist, well-known as a proponent of freedom of expression, who stands in opposition to the ideals of the prevailing regime in China. He is no doubt China’s most famous contemporary artist, and his biography is fascinating, and makes his political sensibilities seem almost inevitable.

I’ve not encountered much of his art work in real life, though I did visit the Tate Modern’s Sunflower Seeds installation almost a decade ago (and I believe my mum still has a pilfered porcelain sunflower seed from that very exhibition, tut tut). Each of the 100 million life-sized seeds that filled the Tate’s massive Turbine Hall appeared to be identical, but was, in fact, carefully hand-made and painted in Chinese workshops by skilled craftspeople. The Sunflower Seeds installation challenged the ubiquitous ‘Made in China’ label and the geopolitics of cultural and economic activity.

In 2011 Ai WeiWei was arrested at Beijing airport and imprisoned for 81 days, accused of so-called economic crimes. He subsequently created a six-part diorama documenting his time in prison, S.A.C.R.E.D., depicting himself and his guards, encased in steel boxes. The installation forced the viewer into the uncomfortable role of voyeur of degradation and powerless bystander.

He is currently on show at the Imperial War Museum in London, with History of Bombs, in which the museum’s atrium has been given over to an artist for the first time. The work promises to continue Ai WeiWei’s interrogation of political freedoms and strictures, and the impact of state power at the individual and societal level, through an exploration of migratory flows. Ai WeiWei himself feels that he has been forced into exile, of course – after finally regaining his passport from the Chinese authorities in 2015 he moved his family to Europe.

An exhibit in the 2015 RA show that I viewed online is an exquisitely crafted marble pushchair, and a marble camera (2014). Ai WeiWei recalls walking with his son in parks, visiting restaurants, and then becoming aware of a man taking photos. When he challenged the man, he claimed to be simply a tourist, but after angrily taking his memory card, Ai WeiWei discovered image after image of his child at the family’s regular haunts – it was at that point that Ai WeiWei says (on a video clip on the exhibition commentary) that he “was speechless to see how a state functions, how they invade people’s privacy and how powerful they are” and became determined to remove his family from China.

Review no 98: A World Gone Mad: The War Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45 (Sweden)

Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death

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Astrid Lindgren is best known for her iconic children’s book character Pippi Longstocking. But she also kept diaries throughout the Second World War, recording world events, and tracking with horror the progress of the war from her home in officially neutral Stockholm. I found the diaries to be a mixture of the fascinating and the prosaic. She records in detail the news as she interprets it from her reading of the papers and from insights from friends and colleagues. This is mixed in with interesting details of family life, even listing the presents that her children receive for their birthdays and at Christmas, and with detailed descriptions of the food eaten at special meals.

21 May 1940

In the evening I was out at Anne-Marie and Stellan’s at Stora Essingen. We went for a walk around the island in the light of the full moon with the scent of lime blossom and budding bird cherry in our nostrils. Lovely, lovely! But the Germans are advancing by forced march; nothing can stop them.

However, sometimes the diaries lack essential detail – one year is particularly gruelling for Lindgren due to some kind of personal crisis, but the diaries as published are cagey and non-revelatory, so it all felt very obfuscating. Maybe Lindgren’s surviving daughter (who provides the preface), edited the detail out as an invasion of privacy too far, or maybe Lindgren didn’t confide all in her diaries – we know that Lindgren’s marriage subsequently broke down, so I can only assume her personal crisis relates to this later event. No doubt I’m being intrusive, but so much context was missing from this part of the diary that it just felt confusing.

Overall, though, Lindgren comes across as a loving, engaged and resolute, and I was very happy to spend time with her. Towards the end of the war, Lindgren reads Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European (which is on my to read list, too), and is moved by his writing. I’ll come back to that book soon, but for now I’m moving away from the Second World War – it’s not healthy to spend too much of my reading time there.

Review no 97: Honeyland (film from North Macedonia)

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I’m aware that by choosing to spend a summer evening watching a film about North Macedonian bee keepers I have basically become a parody of myself.

The film, however, directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov, comes laden with plaudits. It was nominated for the Oscars in the categories both of best international feature film and best documentary (the first time that this has happened, apparently), and won three awards at Sundance in 2019.

It focuses on the life of a middle-aged ethnic Turkish woman, Hatidže Muratova, one of the last “wild bee-keepers” in Europe. With sun- and wind-battered skin, and teeth that appear never to have seen a dentist, she is living with her octogenarian mother (who hasn’t left her bed for four years and has some kind of terrible suppurating sore around her eye, which surely would benefit from hospital treatment), in a stone house in the countryside, scaling crumbling scree and rock faces to tend to her bees. Living conditions are rudimentary in Bekirlija, the abandoned village in which she lives, without utilities or paved roads – basic in summer but punishing in winter. We learn, almost in passing, that Hatidže lost three sisters in childhood, all of them under the age of 10.

She travels to the North Macedonian capital Skopje to sell her honey for around 10 euros a jar, where she seems like a fragment from the rural past, with her peasant clothing, but negotiates confidently with the traders, and ponders shades of hair dye. Her honey, she makes clear, is untainted by extra sugar, is pure and delicious, and she claims for it both medicinal and nutritional qualities.

However, a family moves in nearby, with several children, also seeking to capitalize on the talents of the local bees. Hatidže plays and sings with the children, and it is obvious she would have made a brilliant mother, through she has never married. In a reflective, regretful moment she wistfully asks her mother whether her parents actively discouraged suitors. The children, meanwhile, are hardy and practical: one boy matter-of-factly delivers a calf.

I fretted about safety and hand washing, and thought my own life would look crazy in contrast. The family often deal with the bees with zero protective gear: the filthy children are horribly stung, but this is just part of daily life. Life is beautiful and bleak, and tech is more or less non-existent.

Hatidže comes to resent the family’s intrusion on her world however, as Hussein signs a deal with a local trader to mass produce honey, in a desperate effort to keep meals on the the table for his children – a decision that threatens to destroy the fragile and symbiotic ecosystem within with Hatidže has made her life.

In the film, we watch Hatidže follow airplanes with her eyes as she see them cross the skies, and we assume they are utterly alien to her. Since her mother’s death, however, she has travelled to Hollywood for the Oscars, and to several international film festivals. The BBC also reports that the directors purchased a home for Hatidže in another village, where she can live near to her brother and his family – but that she always returns to her former home for honey-making season.

Review no 96: Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

World-renowned peripatetic installation and performance artist and filmmaker Alfredo Jaar was born in Chile in the 1950s, but settled in New York in his 20s (as so many successful artists from around the globe seem to do). He studied architecture at his father’s insistence – I suppose it monetizes drawing quite effectively – and in the video above he notes that he has never regretted his architecture training, using it as a tool in his art work, which seeks a balance between “the dire, and poetry”. (The video was created by The Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the UK, which held an exhibition of his work in 2017, and now features one of his works as part of its permanent display.)

Jaar often focuses on political outrages, humanitarian trauma, inequality and injustice around the world, and is perhaps most famous for his six-year Rwanda Project. That project sought to bring home the horror of those impersonal atrocities broadcast on the news channels in the mid-1990s, and at the same time create “a memorial for the people of Rwanda”. He travelled to the war-torn country, but some of his testimony he considered to be so disturbing that for his work Real Pictures 1995 he permanently sealed the images in black boxes: they challenge the viewer to consider what is more devastating, the image, or the imagined image, in a sort of dreadful manipulation of the Schrödingers cat conundrum. Jaar’s Rwandan work was due to be displayed in 2020 at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art in South Africa in its first exhibition in Africa, but the coronavirus epidemic will have caused that to be postponed.

In contrast, Jaar’s earlier, very famous 1987 work A Logo for America, a 38-second animation, interrogates the USA’s place in the world and challenges US hegemony over the use of the term “America”. In the style of a (now necessarily rather retro) electronic billboard ad, a phrase flashes up in large capital letters: “This is not America”, followed by a map of the USA. Next, come the words “This is not America’s flag” superimposed on a graphic showing the familiar stars and stripes flag, then comes the word “America” alone, the “R” of which is transformed into a rotating graphic representation of a map of the Americas as a region. I remember from when I read American Dirt that the other countries in the Americas would never dream of referring to the USA as America: it is always the United States. As Jaar said of his work “It is a reflection of a geopolitical reality of the dominance of the United States. It goes beyond semantics; language is not innocent” – as any good discourse analysis student knows (yes I was one).

His latest work, made this year, is a video work created in response to the COVID-19 crisis in New York. Between the Heavens and Me adapts BBC news footage of the mass burial of unclaimed coronavirus victims by unpaid prisoners – in a form of slave labour. These dead would have been unable to afford a funeral or been without next of kin. The nameless internments took place without ceremony, or anything to mark a life lived. The work has not yet been made public, but it has been widely documented. In it, the original news footage has been slowed right down, and the commentary replaced by mournful music played on a Tunisian lute. Jaar is quoted by The Economist as saying “My brain could not comprehend what my eyes were seeing … the poorest people in New York … the anonymous, the invisible, the no-name people being buried by prison inmates, many of whom are poor and black like them.”

Jaar has followed the news avidly throughout his life – in the mid-1990s he is reported to have subscribed to 79 different newspapers and magazines (even more than me!). The article in The Economist quotes Clara Kim, senior curator at Tate Modern in London, who notes that the enduring power of Jaar’s art work is the way that he inhabits two roles simultaneously: not only that of an artist, but also that of a witness to events of global and enduring historical significance.