Review no 111: artist Alberta Whittle (Barbados)

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tate Britain awarded a Turner Prize bursary award to 10 artists, including Barbados-born artist Alberta Whittle, in place of the normal Turner Prize. She is a previous recipient of the Margaret Tait Award and this year also won the Frieze Artist Award for a zeitgeisty video work referencing contagion and COVID-19. During the latter part of 2020 she has been part of the Brighton Photoworks Festival (this links to some cool activities based around her work) and her work has also formed part of the group Here be Dragons show at Copperfield art gallery in south-east London (only until 30 October).

Whittle, born in 1980, divides her time between Barbados, Scotland and South Africa. Her work is inter-disciplinary, encompassing performance art, film, photography, digital collage techniques, and large-scale sculpture, and her deeply-researched works of art explore the diaspora experience, racism and the ‘erasure’ of the black experience, trauma, memory and environmental issues, in the context of post-colonialism.

Whittle grew up in Barbados but, struggling with chronic pain and fatigue owing to fibromyalgia, she moved to the UK city of Birmingham in her teens. Her experiences, according to an interview for Studio International, gave her a “new perspective on how race, history and access to healthcare and education are experienced and visualised here, in particular how denial of these links is not remembered“.

The Tate website noted that the judges were moved by an exhibition of Whittle’s work at Dundee Contemporary Arts, entitled How Flexible Can We Make the Mouth, which explored notions such as healing, writing and speech in the quest for personal freedom and self-actualization.

The exhibition included a video work, Between a Whisper and a Cry, which explores the apathy of British people to three years of devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean. The Arts Council website linked above notes that the work explores ideas of academic theorist Christina Sharpe, who has written that “Slavery suffuses our present-day environment in an afterlife called the weather.”

One room in the Dundee exhibition showed an apparently part-submerged, to-scale Barbadian Chattel House, brightly coloured and evoking memories of Whittle’s childhood. A Chattel House is a small, wooden mobile home that is often seen in working-class areas in Barbados, and the name goes back to the days of slavery, when people might have to construct homes that could be moved from one property to another, so that they could move with the work. The collapsed structure created by Whittle movingly alludes to the involuntary movement of people of colour across the Caribbean.

Whittle has been quoted as stating: “No one can find Barbados on a map, whereas everyone can find the UK. That level of inattention galvanises so much of my work“. More of her work, including collage, can be seen on the artist’s website.

Review no 110: film A Screaming Man (Chad)

AFRICA

(In French and Arabic with English subtitles)

This October, during Black History Month in the UK, Africa in Motion (Scotland), Afrika Eye (Bristol), the Cambridge African Film Festival (CAFF), Film Africa (London) and Watch-Africa Cymru (Wales) have all come together to provide an opportunity to watch some of the best African films of the past decade online, for a small donation, at wearetano.org. The films have been screened consecutively, each for a 2-day period, and the event continues until next week, so there’s still time to take a look. The programme ends on 20th October, while the Africa in Motion film festival (www.africa-in-motion.org.uk) runs until the end of November.

I checked out the sites, and watched A Screaming Man (Un homme qui crie), a film from Chad that was showing on demand. Released in 2010, the film was written and directed by auteur writer-director Mahmat-Saleh Haroun (himself seriously wounded in civil conflict), who also wrote and directed the much-acclaimed 2002 Chadian film Abouna (Our Father). A Screaming Man is a modern-day tragedy of Shakespearean levels, set during the civil war of 2005 to 2010. It won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, the first time that a director from Chad had entered the main Cannes competition.

The story follows Adam (played compellingly by Youssouf Djaoro), an ageing former swimming champion (nicknamed Champ), who has been contentedly working as a pool attendant at an upmarket hotel in the capital, N’Djamena.

However, his life takes a turn for the worse when new owners move in, and he is humiliatingly replaced by his vigorous, fun-loving son Abdel, and demoted to operating the gates that let cars in and out of the complex.

Meanwhile, reports of rebel incursions are intensifying, and the local authorities demand support from the citizenry, whether that be money or suitably aged volunteers for combat. Adam thus finds himself in an impossible situation, and from that point on the emotional tension of the film gradually intensifies.

In many ways a morality tale, as well as an examination of the experience of absolute powerlessness, the film closes with a quotation from the poet Aimé Césaire:

Beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of miseries is not a proscenium, a screaming man is not a dancing bear

Review no 109: The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka (Venezuela)

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

The title of this short South American novel seems apposite, given the current climate (my husband is currently confined to one room and waiting for the results of a coronavirus test). However, the book has nothing to do with COVID-19, thankfully.

Published in 2006 in Venezuela as La enfermedad, the English translation appeared in 2010, and The Sickness was deservedly shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (now absorbed into the International Booker Prize) in 2011. Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s writing has drawn comparisons with that of J. M. Coetzee (who I have to confess I have never read so I can’t comment – he’s on my list for South Africa!).

Dr Andrés Miranda is a doctor who hates the nitty-gritty of the human body (he hated practicals in medical school), and when he finds out that his father is terminally ill he struggles to confront, or even communicate, the truth. Meanwhile, he is deluged with e-mails from a sort of hyper-hyperchondriac, Ernesto Durán, which he refuses to deal with and filters off via his secretary, Karina. Karina, a bit bored, is also lonely, and on the advice of a friend embarks on a surely ill-advised course of action.

The book is darkly humorous, and although it deals with serious issues it is entertaining, often mordantly funny and frequently profound. Despite the novel’s brevity (150 pages), the main characters are fully realised and complex, with the individual mixture of flaws and strengths that makes us human. The action moves along swiftly, in crisp prose, so that amid the thoughtfulness of the writing the pace of the plotting never drags, and it all comes to a satisfying ending.

I also liked this carpe diem quote from Julio Ramón Ribeyro that is reproduced in the novel:

“Physical pain is the great regulator of our passions and ambitions. Its presence immediately neutralises all other desires apart from the desire for the pain to go away. This life that we reject because it seems to us boring, unfair, mediocre or absurd suddenly seems priceless: we accept it as it is, with all its defects, as long as it doesn’t present itself to us in its vilest form – pain.”

Review no 108: Saudi Arabian film Wadjda

NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA

Written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, this heart-warming 2012 film was the first movie feature to be filmed solely in Saudi Arabia, and the first Saudi feature film to be directed by a woman. That it got made at all sounds almost fantastical, given Saudi Arabia’s constraints not just on the activities of women, but on film – cinemas were banned for some 35 years from the early 1980s until 2018. Al-Mansour had to direct some scenes from inside a van in case she prompted protests.

The story focuses on feisty pre-teen Wadjda, who attends a strict religious school in Riyadh, and lives in a devout household. She is determined not to let the expectations of her school principal and her parents deter her from her goal of owning a bike (“”you won’t be able to have children if you ride a bike”), so that she can challenge her friend Abdullah (“girls don’t ride bikes”) to a race.

Wadjda’s school is run by the terrifying, glamorous principal Ms Hussa (nicknamed Cruella), who comes out with devastating lines like “Don’t you know that a woman’s voice shouldn’t be heard by men? A woman’s voice is her nakedness” when she hears girls innocently giggling together. However, there is gossip circulating that she might not be as pure as she likes to suggest, and she seems to be wearing Laboutins under her abaya.

Wajda’s mother is also super-glamorous and attractive behind closed doors, although she is fully covered by her abaya when she leaves the house. However, despite her careful appearance and domestic deference, she fears that she is losing her husband, Wajda’s father, who she learns is meeting prospective brides in the hope that he can be provided with a son.

The film treads a careful line between religious and social conformity and incipient adolescent rebellion against the strictures of Saudi Arabian society. Wadjda experiments with nail varnish, sometimes fails to properly cover her hair, is a bit of an amateur entrepreneur and hangs out with Abdullah unsupervised on her roof terrace, but she also sets out to win the money for the much-longed-for bike by entering a Qur’an-recitation competition.

Wajda is persistent and resilient, and the film is often lightly humorous and charming. Overall a very entertaining watch, if shocking at times to a Western eye in its depiction of what is still an intensely repressive regime.

Review no 107: On Time and Water by Andri Snaer Magnason (Iceland)

Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith

EUROPE

This book is a mostly interesting, frequently terrifying meditation on environmental degradation and the inconvenient truth that true, irreversible climate disaster may be closer than we like to think.

Andri Snaer Magnason is well-known in Iceland as a best-selling author and an environmental activist, as well as a former presidential candidate. He also has some spectacularly long-lived adventurer grand-parents, who traversed enormous glaciers and explored the far-reaches of the landscape during their youth. A glacier that they ascended in 1956, which seemed permanent and immutable, has begun to melt away over the course of the subsequent 70 years, to such an extent that the Iceland Glaciological Society’s annual trips to the glacier are no longer able to take place, thus providing a concrete and terrifying example of the pace of climate change.

We are told that, as glaciers melt in some parts of world, an initial increase in water supply, will, with the disappearance of melting glaciers and their resulting rivers, lead to a desperate lack, potentially making parts of Peru, Tibet and India uninhabitable.

Alarmingly, Magnason writes that:

“It is the official policy of the Trump government … to remove words related to climate change from public records and web sites. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, talked about the melting of Arctic ice as ‘a new business opportunity’. Commercial sailing routes to Asia could be shortened by up to twenty days.”

Magnason also succeeds in effectively condensing our notions of time to put into perspective the timeline that we’re working within when we discuss climate change:

“The history of Iceland is, in a sense, the continuous story of twelve women like my Grandma. Twelve girls who were born and lived lives that each felt like a flash. … The earliest written records of humans date back five thousand years, events that happened practically yesterday. Humanity first emerged the day before that, in comparison to the ocean’s fifty-million-year history.”

Rather than being a straightforward polemic, Magnason incorporates family history and fascinating miscellaneous facts (for example, he notes that humankind has filled the world with chickens while wiping out so many other species), to provide what is an engaging call for action.

Review no 106: Film Midnight Traveler by Hassan Fazili (Afghanistan)

NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA

I’ve never understood the lack of empathy and dehumanizing torrent of media and political ire directed at refugees and other migrants. It doesn’t take much to imagine how desperate someone would have to be to sell their possessions and hand over all their savings to a people smuggler, putting their life, and the lives of their family in the dubious hands of a professional traffickers.

In case we’re struggling, Midnight Traveler, a film directed by the Afghanistani filmmaker Hassan Fazili, document Fazili’s family’s attempt to escape Afghanistan after he is tipped off that the Taliban plan to kill him. The family’s aim is to reach safety in Western Europe. Shot entirely on three mobile phones over a period of about three years, we follow the ups and downs of Fazili’s family as they leave Tajikistan, where they’ve stayed for over a year in an effort to apply for refugee status in various locations, and make the desperate decision to make their way to Turkey and take the perilous refugee route that was well-documented in the European media in 2015-16. From Iran they plan to reach Turkey, then cross to Greece, passing through Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary, in an effort finally to reach Germany, which famously announced a (domestically controversial) policy of extending a welcome to refugees.

Often events take place against an evocative soundscape: sometimes discordant, sometimes beautiful and mournful. Although, like the excellent Syrian documentary For Sama, this is an account of real events, Midnight Traveler is also a work of art – a testament to Fazili’s talents, and his refusal to let that side of his identity be subsumed into their ordeal. Amid the harrowing events, there are moments of joy, connection and fun – playing in the snow in Serbia, the older daughter’s exultation at the tidal waters in Turkey – which really shine forth from this film. And although filmed on mobile phones in difficult conditions, the finished film does not feel scrappy or incoherent. Emelie Mahdavian, a US-based documentary maker, produced and wrote the film that emerged, and it went through extensive post-production. The film notably won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for No Borders at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Hassan and his mostly cheerful wife Fatima try to remain positive in the most gruelling circumstances, partly for the sake of their two young daughters. Despite nights in the freezing forest and the barest of facilities in the various refugee camps and safe houses in which they end up, the girls and their clothing always look astonishingly clean and well-cared for. But their lives are uncertain, and at best simply on hold. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at times they’re not even ticking off the bottom rung, and the countries they reach do not exactly welcome them with open arms.

I wonder why people avoid films like this. Is it too much reality? I’m really glad I watched this film. It was beautifully made, fascinating and enlightening, and it should be essential viewing.

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)

EUROPE

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.”