Thursday, 25 February 2016

COLD WAR GAMES AND THAT PAN-AFRICAN ARTS FEST

Its goal was to bring together leading intellectuals and artists from Africa and the diaspora, and, 50 years ago, the first Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres (World Festival of Negro Arts, or FESMAN) did exactly that.

Leopold Senghor, centre, at the start of the festival.
(Photo: from Jean Mazel. Collection PANAFEST archive)
Played out against the backdrop of the Cold War, with the United States and the former Soviet Union jockeying for influence in Africa, the three-week-long festival took place in Dakar, Senegal, in April 1966, initiated by then President Léopold Sédar Senghor.

It included some world-renowned headliners: writers Wole Soyinka, Aimé Césaire and Langston Hughes; musician Duke Ellington; dancers from the Alvin Ailey troupe; iconic singer and activist Josephine Baker; calypso star Mighty Sparrow – and many others, representing some 45 countries.

The festival showed the world the wealth of African art and culture, and people got a clear taste of the rivalry between the superpowers of the era, as Russia sent a steamship to Dakar with about 750 passengers who participated in a festival that was attended by a large American delegation, underwritten by the U.S. State Department.

That back story, and the history and impact of the festival are now being highlighted in an exhibition that runs until May 15, 2016, at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. The show, titled "Dakar 66: Chronicles of a Pan-African Festival", presents film archives, posters, magazine articles and photographs, and it captures the ambience of the event and the times.

Dominique Malaquais (photo: McKenzie)
“We didn’t want to do simply a restaging of the festival,” says Dominique Malaquais, who co-curated the show with other historians Cédric Vincent and Sarah Frioux-Salgas. “How could you stage something that had all this extraordinary dance, music, poetry and colloquia? We didn’t want to do something static, we wanted to present something with movement and flux and people.”

The three experts had worked respectively on projects dealing with four of the major pan-African festivals to date, and on the role of Présence Africaine, the famed journal that began in 1947 in Paris and whose publishers helped to organize the Dakar festival. So they came up with the idea to focus on film, interviews and publications, with “specific entry points”, Malaquais said.

The exhibition begins with the official representations of the festival – such as the striking poster created by Senegalese artist Ibou Diouf, which later caused controversy because it was seen as an emblem of the Negritude movement – and it moves to videos of the speeches given by Senghor, Césaire and also André Malraux, the celebrated French writer and France’s first Minister of Cultural Affairs.

An article about the festival, in a U.S. magazine.
Visitors can watch these speeches in their entirety on screens installed at the exhibition, and they can view two full-length films about the festival, one in black and white made by African-American pioneering director William Greaves, and the other in colour produced by Soviet filmmaker Leonid Makhnach and titled Rhythms of Africa.

“What happened was that USIA, the United States Information Agency – one of the diplomatic arms of the US government – in a very specific Cold-War bid to present abroad a positive image of the United States that would counter Soviet propaganda, commissioned this [Greaves' film],” Malaquais told SWAN.

“These films were never shown in the United States, they were only shown abroad, and this film was made to do something very particular from the USIA’s point of view, not Greaves’ point of view,” she continued. “The idea was to show a picture of the United States as open to the voices of the African American minority, which of course in 1966 – no comment, right?

A journalist watches the Greaves film.
“What happens, however, is that Greaves is asked to make a 10-minute film, and he just runs with it, and he makes a feature-length documentary, and it’s all centred on the African-American delegation that comes to the festival. Later on, he’s going to come back and say: you know, this was my one and only chance because I’d never received funding before to make a film from a black point of view – I’m quoting him there. And so he took and completely turned on its head what USIA felt it was doing,” Malaquais said.

Each film has its own ideological perspective as Russia was keen to highlight the United States’ history of slavery and its continued oppression of its black population, according to the curators. Carefully sub-titled in French, the Soviet film is being shown for the first time in France, and viewers can watch both presentations and draw their own conclusions.

A shot from the Soviet-made film.
The exhibition examines, as well, the significant world events taking place around the time of the festival: notably the coup d’état in Ghana against Kwame Nkrumah, one of the founders of pan-African politics; student demonstrations in Dakar; the birth of the Black Panther movement in the United States; and Cuba's hosting of the 1966 Tri-continental Conference of African, Asian and Latin American Peoples, a meeting of mainly leftist leaders and thinkers. 

“You can see the ways in which the festival was implicated in larger global and Cold-War issues,” said Malaquais. “People tend to think of these great pan-African festivals as something localised, and they weren’t. They were worldwide events with international repercussions. And that’s what we wanted to express with this exhibition.”

Museum-goers can see illustrations, too, of the huge colloquium held at Senegal’s parliament house, on the “Function and Significance of Black Arts in the Lives of the People and for the People”. This attracted hundreds of observers and international experts from the worlds of literature, art, film, music and other fields, under the auspices of UNESCO.

Malaquais and Marie Laure Croiziers de Lacvivier,
Senghor's niece, with two visitors at the exhibition.
(Photo: McKenzie)
While some would prefer to consider the festival as a purely artistic initiative, the exhibition equally looks at the commercial aspects, which included the promotion of Senegal as a tourist destination, and the distinct merchandising of products such as postcards, souvenirs and other objects. Members of the public donated some of the 50-year-old items, while the curators bought others on e-bay or obtained them from friends and supporters.

“It’s a real mix,” Malaquais said. “We have an example of a medal that was given out at the festival, and there are key-chains that were publicity items, for instance. And there are advertising brochures for Air France and for the Russian steamship.”

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the slideshow of blown-up photographs, made available to the curators by a private collector named Jean Mazel and by a photographer who travelled to the festival as a young man. These pictures bring home the fierce motivation of the leading characters of the festival, many of whom today remain larger than life. –  A.M. Copyright SWAN. Follow us on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Thursday, 11 February 2016

SCHOLARS TO EXPLORE STUART HALL’S CURRENT IMPACT

Two years after the death of influential theorist Stuart Hall, scholars will meet at a university in Dortmund, Germany, to examine his legacy, in a world where the cultural and media landscape has changed tremendously over the past decade.

Stuart Hall (photo: E. McCabe)
The conference, titled “Wrestling with the Angels: Exploring Stuart Hall’s Theoretical Legacy”, is being hosted by the Technische Universität (TU) from Feb. 25 to 27.
Participants  will “engage with, examine, use, question, criticise, develop and transform Hall's many concepts and ideas”, according to the organizers - professors Gerold Sedlmayr, Florian Cord, and Marie Hologa.
Hall was one of the founding thinkers of “cultural studies”, an inter-disciplinary field that focuses on the political dynamics of contemporary culture, and on how power-relations play out between producers and consumers.
Scholars generally focus on analyzing the social and political contexts of culture, and, in this, Hall was primarily concerned with the impact on both individuals and communities, vis-à-vis society’s structure. But some current theorists are moving away from the “power and political” aspects, Prof. Cord said.
Prof. Florian Cord
“We still feel a belief in the relevance of Hall’s work, but has the field nowadays become too de-politicized? That’s something we’d like to examine,” he told SWAN.
As a long-time director of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Hall wielded major influence both within academic circles and in wider public discussions of politics, race and media.
Born into a so called middle-class family in Jamaica in 1932, he went to England as a Rhodes Scholar in 1951 to study at Oxford University. He continued on a PhD route (which he later abandoned), became a central figure of the British New Left, and co-founded the journal New Left Review.
For Hall, “intellectual practice was politics, and questions of culture were political questions,” say the meeting’s conveners. The conference’s title is in fact inspired by Hall’s own stated view that theoretical work meant “wrestling with the angels” and that the only theory worth having was one for which you had to fight and with which you had to struggle.
Author Caryl Phillips (photo: Daria Tunca)
British-Caribbean author Caryl Phillips has described Hall as a “sociologist, writer, film critic and political activist” and said that the theorist’s achievements were an extension of the work of a man Hall greatly admired, the Trinidadian intellectual, C.L.R. James.
Outside of the academic world, Hall developed into “Britain’s most insightful media critic on matters as wide-ranging as film, literature, race migration and class”, Phillips wrote in an article.
He considered Hall to be unique in his ability to “move between the worlds of the academy and the popular media with both elegance and authority”, he added.
“One day he is on television interviewing Spike Lee, or presenting a documentary about Derek Walcott, the next day he is delivering a guest lecture on [Italian theoretician Antonio] Gramsci’s political thoughts to a university audience, and the day after that writing a paper on the role of the modern black photographer in British society to be read at a gallery opening,” Phillips wrote in 1997, in the introduction to an interview with Hall.
It is this multi-faceted nature that makes Hall’s work so engrossing, according to professors Cord and Sedlmayr.  But his achievements and personality could be overshadowing his ideas.
Prof. Gerold Sedlmayr
“Hall is still very relevant - he is mentioned in almost every paper about cultural studies,” Sedlmayr told SWAN. “But there’s often no deeper engagement. He seems to be canonized, yet no one deals with his ideas anymore.”
The conference will not only address this anomaly, but some participants will offer theories on how Hall would have viewed the rampant development of social media, or the current political language in Europe, where governments are struggling to develop a coherent and humane response to the refugee crisis.
One scholar - Nina Power of London’s Roehampton University - will look particularly at “why the 21st century needs Stuart Hall”.  - A.M.
For more information, see: www.stuarthall-dortmund.de.You can follow SWAN on Twitter @mckenzie_ale

Monday, 8 February 2016

'THE MAN WHO MENDS WOMEN': HEALING THE SURVIVORS

By Dimitri Keramitas

The title of Thierry Michel’s documentary, L’Homme Qui Répare Les Femmes, about Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, is something of an understatement: The surgeon is a monumental figure on the African continent, up there with Nelson Mandela, Wole Soyinka, Kofi Annan.

Dr. Denis Mukwege, with some of his patients.
He does much more than treat broken women. But humility is part of his greatness, so he probably wouldn’t be put off by the film’s title. It is an accurate description of his job, though people may mistakenly think it refers to genital cutting. In fact, the women in question are victims of an even grimmer fate, if that’s possible.

The people depicted in the documentary live in the Eastern Congo, which has been wracked by non-stop war for decades. Aside from internecine struggles, the region has been impacted by the nations on its borders, Rwanda and Burundi. In a grotesque irony, when refugees flooded Eastern Congo in the aftermath of the genocidal civil war in Rwanda, they were welcomed by the Congolese who were then victimized when many of these same refugees regrouped as militias.

While women have always suffered as “collateral damage” in wars, in this conflict the combatants perfected the technique of specifically targeting women, not as spoils of war, but as a way to destroy the fabric of their communities. They have been raped, impregnated, forced to have sex with family members, and mutilated. Many have been killed outright. The endurance of these women is as astonishing as the superhuman efforts of the good doctor.

The doctor at his clinic.
In fact, the film adopts a parallel structure. First, we follow Dr. Mukwege to the clinics where he operates, as well as to Brussels, New York and Washington where he collects awards (such as the Sakharov Prize) or speaks out about the ordeal of the Congolese population.

We also hear him speak about his origins, how he became a doctor and especially this particular kind of doctor. Then we get the testimony of the victims, and see how they recover on a personal level, and also organize themselves within community organizations. Dr. Mukwege is also involved in these groups and workshops.

The doctor doesn’t exactly have it easy. Because of threats, and an armed attack that took the life of a staffer and friend, he lives under armed guard. When he goes to his clinic in Panzi it’s in a convoy of Blue Helmets’ jeeps. Aside from the obvious privation and courage is the fact that Dr. Mukwege willingly chose this path. At one point in his life he’d immigrated to Europe, where he had a good career and comfortable life, and safety for his family. But he decided that for a Congolese doctor to practice in Europe while his people were suffering would be to contribute to the injustice, and so he returned to the Eastern Congo.

Filmmaker Thierry Michel (photo: A. McKenzie)
When Belgian director Michel films the doctor and the women as they go about their lives, the documentary works powerfully and movingly. But certain filmmaking choices mar the film. The most distasteful is the use of over-the-top classical music to accompany several scenes of carnage. Perhaps Michel thought these sequences were too horrible, or that the audience couldn’t bear them. For many viewers, the music might come across as moralistic varnish or worse, a sort of cultural imperialism, as if human suffering has to be dignified by European high culture to qualify as authentically tragic.

Michel told SWAN in a post-screening interview, however, that this music was a “personal” choice, and that the Congolese are themselves fond of liturgical music, as it’s often played in religious gatherings.

But he also over-indulges in spectacular shots of Congolese scenery. It’s not difficult: as the director Boris Lojkine once remarked that the Congo is the most cinematographic place on Earth. These shots do serve a purpose, as the locals have a special bond with the land, and the natural resources are the stakes of the various conflicts there. But Michel sometimes veers towards excess, so that at times the film resembles a National Geographic travelogue. [He told SWAN that the setting acts as another character in the film.]

Dr. Denis Mukwege, at an international meeting.
Throughout the documentary, we see footage of the doctor being honored in Western countries. He certainly deserves the accolades, and we’re content that he seems content. At the same time, when the privileged audiences applaud the doctor we sense a degree of their own self-congratulation. Does anyone really think that a medical professional who has saved countless lives needs to be dignified by ceremonial retainers in medieval costumes? This takes place in Brussels, and we can suppose that the pomp derives from the Belgian royal tradition. Yet there’s no irony evoked about the roots of the DRC’s problems in King Leopold’s Congo Free State.

Likewise, the director makes references to past dictators Mobutu Sese Seko and his short-lived successor Laurent Kabila, but doesn’t mention their sponsors, particularly the United States. The film seems to portray the current DRC government as legitimate (if a tad inefficient and corrupt); no mention is even made of Joseph Kabila. But when the audience sees militia members on the dock, finally getting a taste of justice, we have the uneasy feeling their military judges aren’t all that different.

The film opens in France in February.
The film is much better off when the subjects speak for themselves. At one point Dr. Mukwege addresses a church parish about their struggles, and his own ascent from “the dust” of Panzi to international meetings with presidents. The son of a pastor, Mukwege powerfully expresses his faith in ringing terms, and he and the congregation revel in their spiritual bond. The scene shows us the source of the people’s strength under dire conditions, though secular-minded viewers in some countries may well be disconcerted.

Paradoxically, the film’s most searing scene is on the opposite end of the moral spectrum. It isn’t a scene of violence. Rather it shows the rebels coming out of the bush and giving up their arms after a decisive push by Congolese soldiers and international peace-keepers. Thuggish militia leaders give speeches, pretending to be conciliatory political leaders. A suspiciously paltry quantity of weapons is arranged in piles.

Then we see the guerrillas marching in formation and falling into ranks. They seem convincingly disciplined. As the camera focuses on these men we study their faces: they are stone-hard, unrepentant, filled with fury, unbowed in their humiliation. It makes us think about where these men have been, what they have done, what had been done to them and theirs. It reminds us that human evil is a mystery, not just a component in a Manichean equation.

Whatever the film’s flaws, Thierry Michel is to be commended for bringing to world attention a tragedy that has shamefully been off the media radar. (Consider that more people have died in the conflicts in East Congo than in Syria, Libya, Ukraine, and Iraq combined.) That he succeeds in evoking the resilience of the victims and the determination of those who’ve come to their aid is an achievement.  - © SWAN

Co-production: Les Films de la Passerelle / Riva Production / RTBF Sector Documentaries / Public Senat / Lichtpunt / Wallonie Image Production. Distribution: JHR Films. The documentary is supported by Amnesty International. Photos are courtesy of the filmmaker, except when noted otherwise.

Dimitri Keramitas is a Paris-based writer and legal expert.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

JAMAICAN ART PIONEER LEAVES AN INSPIRING LEGACY

By Sharon Leach

The Caribbean visual arts community lost one of its leading luminaries on Jan. 26 when revered painter Basil Barrington Watson died at his Kingston residence, after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 85.

Barrington Watson: "Self-Portrait" (1973),
Orange Park Collection.
But Watson, considered one of Jamaica’s most distinguished artists of the post-Independence period, has left behind a legacy that is likely to inspire Caribbean artists for years to come.

Dr David Boxer, the former curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica, described him as “our finest and most influential realist painter… [who] had no equal”.

Watson was born in the Jamaican parish of Hanover, in 1931 and was educated at Kingston College before going on to the Royal College of Art in London, from 1958 to 1960. He continued studying the works of European masters at the Rijksakademie, Amsterdam, and at major art schools in Spain and other countries.

On his return to Jamaica in 1961 (the year before independence from Britain and time of the nascent art movement), he became the first director of studies at the Jamaica School of Arts and Crafts - now part of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. There he promptly set about contributing to what would eventually be seen as one of his lasting legacies regarding Jamaican arts and the country’s cultural heritage as a whole.

According to former Jamaican culture minister Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange, Watson had “an undying vision of global reach for Jamaica’s artists. For him, the Jamaican artist could have a place in any international exhibition or gallery”.

Barrington Watson: "Barbara" (c.1962)
Aaron & Marjonie Matalon collection,
National Gallery of Jamaica
Having persevered and become an artist despite the vociferous objections of his own father, Watson was determined to change the mindset of his people as it pertained to the arts. At the Jamaica School of Arts and Crafts, he was instrumental in developing a curriculum that would afford graduates the ability to pursue income-earning opportunities, not only in the area of conventional and applied arts, but across a broader spectrum that included teaching, television and advertising.

In short, local artistic practice was now legitimized. As art facilitator Tamara Scott-Williams noted in a 2011 article in the Jamaica Observer titled “Barrington Watson: A Life in Paint,” he gave art students “the tools, the degrees and diplomas that would allow [them] to become professionals in their own right in a field that was commonly thought to be an idle pursuit”.

The emergence of what is today seen as a thriving art scene in Jamaica, and by extension the Caribbean, is in no small part due to Watson, who had begun, by the 1960s, to build a name for himself, not only in Jamaica and the broader Caribbean, but also North America and Europe.

Among his well catalogued and beloved oeuvre - such as Mother and Child, Washer Women and Conversation - are also various commissions and official portraits, including those of several Jamaican prime ministers, American civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, and former Commonwealth Secretary and University of the West Indies Chancellor Sir Shridath Ramphal.

Barrington Watson: "Conversation" (1981),
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Jamaica.
Watson became one of the country’s most prolific artists, producing, in addition to three sculptures, hundreds of paintings over a wide range of genres that included nudes, erotica, landscapes, history, portraits and self-portraits, for which he received numerous accolades, including the country’s prestigious Gold Musgrave Medal, the Commander of the Order of Distinction, and the Order of Jamaica.

But it is his acutely rendered paintings of Jamaican people - in particular, the Jamaican woman, his favourite subject - that perhaps have most endeared him to contemporary Jamaican audiences.

In a post-Independent society that was used to Eurocentric portrayals of so-called beauty, Watson unapologetically presented, through his sensitive compositions, an equally unapologetic Caribbean aesthetic that unswervingly reflected his appreciation and love of his people, and helped, probably unconsciously, to boost their self-esteem.

Edward Sullivan, an art historian at New York University and a specialist in Caribbean art, said: “Barrington Watson's death is a major loss for not only Jamaican art but for that of the Caribbean as a whole. His work was a touchstone of excellence and integrity for its technical brilliance but also for its forthright depiction of a wide variety of characters that form the cultural personality of his nation. I do not by any means refer to simple folkloric representations of ‘types’ of Jamaica, but, rather wish to underscore the significance of his innate comprehension of the social and psychological circumstances of the individuals and groups he portrayed.”

Barrinton Watson: "Mother and Child" (1958-59).
Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica.
Veerle Poupeye, executive director of the National Gallery of Jamaica, reacting to news of his passing, stated: “Barrington's exceptional command of paint and line and his professional success as an artist continue to inspire our younger generation.”

Recalling a lecture that Watson gave at the Gallery and how spectators admired him, she added, “I will never forget the reaction of young artists and students when he gave a public lecture at the National Gallery in October 2011 — they treated him like a rock star, mobbing him with requests for autographs!  We were very fortunate to be able to work with Barrington and his wife, Doreen, on his retrospective, which was held in 2012 and remains as one of the most popular exhibitions we have ever staged.”

As Jamaica bids farewell to this icon of the art world, the country knows that his impressive legacy is reaching a new generation of artists and art-lovers.  - © SWAN

Sharon Leach is an award-winning author and journalist based in Jamaica.