Thursday, 20 October 2016


By Dimitri Keramitas

France’s fourth Viva Mexico film festival celebrated contemporary Mexican cinema with a series of screenings and panel discussions this month, highlighting topics such as climate change and the relationship between film and the visual arts.

A scene from Calle de la Amargura.
The festival presented a diverse programme, with a strong social interest, attracting French and Mexican academics as well as Mexican filmmakers and actors. The screenings at the Luminor theatre, in a central area of Paris, included both fiction features and documentaries.

One of the event’s most notable films was Calle de la Amargura, directed by Arturo Ripstein and written by his wife Paz Alicia Garciadiego (the couple also led the festival’s master class).

Ripstein has been one of the pillars of Mexican cinema for decades. It’s something of a family affair: his father was an important film producer, and now his son is also a filmmaker. Calle de la Amargura is set in a poverty-stricken neighborhood (the English title is “Bleak Street”), and depicts the struggles of a group of its more marginalized denizens.

Based on a true story, the film deals with the accidental – or negligent – homicide of two midget wrestlers, twin brothers Alejandro and Alberto. They got mixed up with a pair of prostitutes who tried to ply them with drugs, not realizing that the dose to knock out a normal adult would result in an overdose for a much smaller person.

Marginalized characters in Calle de la Amargura.
The film, shot entirely in black and white, spends much more time with the two prostitutes than with the wrestlers. Adela and Dora are both middle-aged and find it hard to make a living, especially when having to turn over a large part of their earnings to their exploitative madams.

As in French director Jean-Luc Godard's renowned movies about prostitution, the “oldest profession” here becomes a symbol of capitalist exploitation. Ripstein films the life of the street with unrelenting harshness, to the degree that we might think the movie is an exercise in miserabilisme—wallowing in poverty.

But like Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, Ripstein’s model, the director adds something more to the depiction of poverty. Not the surrealism of Buñuel, but a sense of artifice – the street looks like a theatre set, though completely realistic, especially as the camera glides along it like an inquisitive drone. The actors also bring a theatrical touch to their roles. The result is a subtle unreality that suits the theme of destiny, the sense that we’re all players in a cosmic game.

A shot of the 'bleak' street in Calle de la Amargura.
Other motifs enrich what might be a rather dismal march to the doom of the two pairs. There’s a curious emphasis on clothing and masks. Dora is outraged when her husband prostitutes himself with young men, wearing her clothes. On the other hand, the husband doesn’t want her to touch his magician’s costume.

The midget wrestlers wear decorative masks, like many wrestlers in Mexico, but they never take them off. Adela’s mother, an elderly woman used as a begging prop, often puts a cloth over her face. When the prostitutes arrange a tryst with the wrestlers, they cake their faces with make-up. The surface artifice becomes an existential second skin, dissimulating a suffering soul, a desire for self-invention, or perhaps an inner nullity.

More uplifting, or at least more human, is another theme, that of relationships. Every major character, no matter how unprepossessing, is significantly linked to at least one other person. These relationships tend to be difficult, even parasitical, but they lend genuine spirit to the characters.

Director Arturo Ripstein.
Adela, who exploits her elderly mother, takes care of her needs and comforts her. Dora has a teenaged daughter she spoils even though her maternal love is unrequited. She also has a strange, desperate intimacy with her shiftless husband.

Likewise the two brother wrestlers are bound by blood and physical particularity, and both are inextricably tied to an overbearing mother who’s a religious fanatic. The most crucial relationship of all is between the prostitutes and the wrestlers, who seem to enjoy their rendezvous with each other, before it turns into an appointment with (to quote the 2016 Nobel literature laureate Bob Dylan) “a simple twist of fate.”

Beautifully filmed by Ripstein and wittily scripted by Garciadiego, Calle de la Amargura looks unflinchingly at harsh social reality, but also at a mystery somewhere beyond it.  (Distribution: Oscar Alonso Festivals)


A scene from Mr. Pig by Diego Luna.
The other films in the festival (which is now moving to French cities such as Avignon, Bordeaux and Lille) include: Los Bañistes by Max Zunino and Sofia Espinosa (Best Film award at the Guadelajara film festival); La Delgada Linea Amarea by Celso Garcia (winner of several prizes in Mexico, Latin America and Europe); Résurrection by Eugenio Pulgovsky (jury prize at the Internacional Ciné Medioambiental Festival); Tempestad by Tatiana Huezo, about two women struggling against oppression; Plaza de la Soledad by Maya Goded (official selection at the Sundance film festival); La Région Sauvage by Amat Escalante, a self-taught filmmaker who has won prizes at Cannes; Me Estas Matando Susana by Roberto Sneider; I Promise You Anarchy by Julio Hernandez Cordon; Mr. Pig by Diego Luna (Best Narrative Feature, Dallas International Film Festival); and Somos Lengua by Kyzza Terrazas (Winner of prizes at FICUNAM and the Festival de Cine Mexicano de Duarngo). There was even an animated film, Las Aventuras De Itzel Y Sonia by Mario Fernanda Rivero (winner of the Best Film prize at the Cinema Planeta Festival).

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

Wednesday, 5 October 2016


It’s being billed as the largest exhibition devoted to Mexican art in at least half a century, and the impressive show now on at Paris’ Grand Palais does feel like a landmark event.

A billboard announcing the exhibition.
Titled Mexique 1900 - 1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Orozco and the avant-garde, it features Mexico’s most famous artists as well as those less known, and gives a historical perspective of the Latin American country through its art.

The more than 200 works on display trace “a vast panorama across modern Mexico, from the first stirrings of the Revolution to the middle of the 20th century, complemented by a number of works from contemporary artists,” say the co-organizers (France’s Réunion des  musées nationaux-Grand Palais  and Mexico’s Secretaria de Cultura, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Museo Nacional de Arte.)

The scope of the exhibition and several other events featuring Mexico over the next months in France reflect the much-proclaimed strengthening of diplomatic ties between the two countries.  On a state visit to France, Mexican Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu Salinas attended the official launch of the exhibition on Oct. 4, a day ahead of the public opening.

While she held talks with her French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault, the bilateral consultative body known as the Franco-Mexican Strategic Council (CSFM) also met to “formulate proposals for cooperation”.

A visitor reads up on Diego Rivera's La Molendera.
This massive exhibition can thus be seen as furthering diplomatic links, unlike in the recent past when relations froze over the row concerning a French citizen that Mexico imprisoned for her alleged involvement with a kidnapping gang (she was subsequently released).

That spat caused the Mexican government to pull out of the 2011 “Year of Mexico” cultural festival, resulting in the cancellation of some 300 events scheduled in France.

But all that now seems firmly in the past. The current show follows the blockbuster exhibition Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo: Art in fusion, presented in Paris from October 2013 to January 2014, and it, too, is a visual feast that will entice viewers.

The exhibition’s curator Agustin Arteaga Dominguez says that Mexique 1900 - 1950 offers a “fresh new look” at the “limitless Mexican art scene” of the first half of the 20th century. This was a period known for the Mexican School of Painting and its “most prominent” movement – Muralism.

A view of Diego Rivera's Rio Jurchitan.
Viewers get to discover the celebrated works of “Los Tres Grandes” (The Three Greats), as the most influential muralists were called. Their names – José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera – are familiar to art buffs, as they defined the era following the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 with their extraordinary and controversial creations.

Through the works of these artists and others, the exhibition “aims to demonstrate how the Mexican Revolution, as an armed conflict, laid the groundwork for a new national identity,” the co-organizers state. “The artistic creativity in the years following the Revolution [which claimed thousands of lives] had an ideological aspect. It employed media other than easel painting, including muralism and graphic design.”

Before viewers get immersed in the art of Los Tres Grandes and their portrayals of workers’ struggles, societal violence and other subjects, the show starts with an exploration of how the artists drew inspiration from both international movements and  the “collective imaginings and traditions of the 19th century”. This comprises paintings created in the 1800s and early 1900s, depicting notable individuals, nudes, street scenes, and landscapes .

Kahlo's The Two Fridas attracts a viewer.
Organized over two floors of the vast Grand Palais, the exhibition also includes a section on “strong women” – female artists who seized their “place on the artistic stage”, as the revolution “opened the way to many new possibilities and encouraged women to contribute to the economic effort”.

Most visitors will be drawn immediately to the iconic work of Frieda Kahlo, even though the organizers caution that her “towering presence … should not conceal a wealth of extraordinary artists such as Nahui Olin, Rosa Rolanda or photographers like Tina Modotti and Lola Alvarez Bravo”.

Indeed, Olin’s striking painting of lovers (Nahui y Lizardo frente a la bahia de Acapulco) occupies a prominent position in the exhibition, but one still can’t help being entranced by Kahlo’s The Two Fridas, her first large-scale work, or by her Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, created shortly after she divorced the unfaithful Diego Rivera.

Another section looks at the production from artists who went against the ideological tide of the times and presents the abstract works of Gerardo Murillo and Rufino Temayo, among others, while the final part of the exhibition shows “A Meeting of Two Worlds: Hybridation”.

In the presence of The Greats: Jose Orozco's
La fiesta de los instrumentos
Here, visitors learn the role that Mexican artists in the United States played in avant-garde movements and how, on the other hand, foreign artists influenced and were influenced by the local scene when they moved their studios to Mexico.

One drawing that stands out in this meeting of worlds is that by cartoonist Miguel Covarrubias titled Harlem and used for the cover of Vanity Fair in 1939.

But the images that will probably stay with most visitors are the vivid, immense murals by Rivera – such as Río Juchitán,  the last one he completed – and by Orozco. The latter’s La fiesta de los instrumentos has a powerful, mesmerizing energy that sums up the whole exhibition. - Text and photos: A.M. / SWAN

"Mexique 1900 - 1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Orozco and the avant-garde" runs until Jan. 23, 2017.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale 


When does a historical presentation of events cross the line and become something akin to voyeurism?

Visitors to a new exhibition in Paris may find themselves asking this question, especially when they stand in front of a charcoal drawing that shows a rabid-looking white man holding up the severed genitals of his black victim like a trophy.

The exhibition poster.
This drawing is just one of the images in The Color Line: Les artistes africains-américains et la segrégation (African American Artists and Segregation) that raise concerns about the selection process.

The artwork in question, by Charles Alston (1907-1977), depicts a lynching and castration that was perpetrated in Florida in the early 1930s, but its “rare violence” does not necessarily underscore the severity of the topic, especially in an exhibition that children will attend.

To add to the confusion, on the day of its official opening on Oct. 4, The Color Line immediately sparked controversy (for a different reason) when observers noted that a pedagogical booklet meant for children discussed slavery in Euro-centric terms.

The booklet stated that while slaves generally experienced horrific conditions, some had lives that were “plus agréables” (more pleasant). It also informed readers that most slaves were “sold by Africans to Europeans”.

Following an outcry at this simplistic description, the Quai Branly withdrew the booklet, noting that it had been produced by an outside publisher. Officials said the document would be revised and republished.

The Color Line's curator Daniel Soutif.
While all this shouldn’t detract from an exhibition that evidently has noble intentions, it does highlight the difficulties of telling African Americans’ story from a European perspective.

Asked about this concern ahead of the exhibition, the show’s curator Daniel Soutif told SWAN: “I don’t think that it has to be forbidden to work on the art of a community to which you don’t belong. Art history is about dialogue and verification.”

He added that, for example, the “biggest experts on 19th-century France are Americans” and that they’ve done “excellent work”.

Yet, this question of “who’s telling whose story” is a pertinent one, particularly regarding the Quai Branly, a museum often criticized for having disturbing colonial undertones.

Soutif, an independent curator and author, said he worked with African American professors such as Columbia University’s Robert O’Meally – who has organized acclaimed shows on the artist Romare Bearden – and that their input was invaluable. But as a French professional, Soutif’s curatorial work is aimed at a European audience.

A panel explaining "blackface".
“It’s important not only to know the subject, but also the public for whom you’re working,” he said in the interview. “An American audience probably wouldn’t need all the explanation about what ‘Jim Crow’ means.”

Explanations for a “public that doesn’t necessarily know” therefore form a significant part of the exhibition, along with the 180 pieces of artwork and some 400 documents that cover the visual arts, literature, film and photography.

The show’s title is meant to make viewers think not only about racism and the line drawn between people during segregation, but also about the subject choices that African American artists have made. The exposition is essentially intended as a tribute to these artists.

As such, their artwork is intertwined with the extensive history described, and one can appreciate the major work that must have gone into collecting and labeling all the items.

Henry Ossawa Tanner's Portrait of Booker T.
, State of Iowa Historical Museum.
The “narration” begins with the background to segregation after the U.S. Civil War of 1861 to 1865, and it examines the Reconstruction period and the phenomenon of “blackface” – where white actors blacked up their faces to mock black Americans.

It traces the “first battles against segregation”, African Americans’ participation in the Paris World Fair of 1900, the role of sportsmen such as boxers Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, and the experiences of World War II – where nearly a million African Americans served “under the Star-Spangled Banner” only to return home to continuing discrimination.

Also depicted are the Harlem Renaissance, migration from the southern United States to the north, the civil rights movement and contemporary issues – much of this seen through the eyes of the artists who bear witness in their work.

Some of the names – Bearden, Faith Ringgold – are well known to an international audience, but the exhibition includes a wide range of artists: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Horace Pippin, Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Aaron Douglas, Beauford Delaney.

Lois Mailou Jones' Mob Victim
Their creations were for a long time excluded from the American mainstream, but now many of their works have become collector items, shedding light on the painful aspects of a people’s existence and reminding visitors of on-going inequities.

“I hope this exhibition will be a door that opens,” Soutif told SWAN. “That people will discover artists they didn’t know about and that they will be struck by the works. I hope it will be the start of something new, that there will be more monographic exhibitions on some of these artists.”

Whatever The Color Line’s failings, many visitors will find themselves echoing this hope.

The Color Line runs until Jan. 15, 2017, and the Quai Branly museum has organized several complementary events such as concerts and seminars.

For more information:

Tuesday, 4 October 2016


“Lost in translation” is not just a cute phrase; it sums up the very real challenges and pitfalls of rendering words and thoughts into another language from the original. This is of even greater concern when the subject deals with war and witnesses’ testimony, not to mention literature.

Archive Manager Claver Irakoze speaks at the workshop.
Addressing such issues, Ireland’s University College Cork (UCC) hosted a two-day workshop titled "Translation and Activism" in late September, which had the stated aim of “building a network around activist translation”.

The invited participants included educators, writers and leading figures in translation studies, while the main discussion focused on “translating memory” in the archiving of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.

Survivors as well as perpetrators of the massacres have been telling their stories to archivists since the Kigali Genocide Memorial was established by the Aegis Trust in 2004. Most speak in Kinyarwanda – Rwanda’s official language – and their words are subsequently translated into English and French. But do aspects of their stories get lost in translation?

“This conference, and my interest in activist translation more generally, arose from my research on Rwandan genocide testimonies which brought to the fore a paradox at the heart of the translation process,” says Dr. Caroline Williamson, a member of UCC’s Department of French who organized the meeting.

Dr. Caroline Williamson and Paul Rukesha
“On the one hand, this crucial activity can provide visibility and engagement to the otherwise obscured and disenfranchised. On the other hand, it is a process rife with potential pitfalls and dissatisfactions,” she added.

She told SWAN that in applying for the Irish Research Council funding that covered the workshop, she posed the following question: “When translating texts that could be perceived as (culturally or politically) controversial or unpalatable to a Western readership, how do translators balance the need to remain faithful to their source material while maintaining international interest or indeed commercial viability?”

The overall aim of the workshop, she continued, “was to bring together translation specialists as well as archivists, ethnographers, and journalists to discuss this question and establish the terms and parameters of a critical and overdue debate about the role of translation in political and social activism.”

Archivists Claver Irakoze and Paul Rukesha – representing the Aegis Trust, a UK-based organization that works to prevent genocide – travelled to Ireland from Rwanda to participate in the workshop and to discuss their experiences.

Claver Irakoze and Paul Rukesha present information
about the Genocide Archive of Rwanda.
As the Kigali Genocide Memorial housing the Archive receives more than 70,000 international visitors a year, it’s essential that these visitors are able to read and view testimony in languages other than the local Kinyarwanda, the archivists said.

“Translation is important because we bring to the audience everything that is related to the roots of the genocide, its consequences, and the resilience of the Rwandan people,” said Rukesha, who supervises translating, transcribing and subtitling at the Archive.

“The genocide is not a particularity of any people. It’s a human tragedy that concerns everyone,” he told SWAN.  “Most of the survivors speak in Kinyarwanda, and when you speak in your own language, you can express things that you can’t in an adopted language. That’s why accurate translation is so important.”

This view was supported when Rukesha and Irakoze screened a short film at the workshop, showing survivors speaking about family members who had been murdered and about the horrors they had witnessed in the 100 days of killings in 1994 that took the lives of more than 800,000 people.

The cover of Hatzfeld's book,
in English translation.
The film, with subtitles in English, brought the tragedy of the genocide to the seminar participants, many of whom were visibly moved. It also underscored Rwanda’s work to achieve healing in a place where “perpetrators and survivors share the same country”, as Archive manager Irakoze said.

In other discussions of Rwanda, doctoral candidate Maja Haals Londorf examined the work of translators in ethnographic fieldwork with children after the genocide, and lecturer Anneleen Spiessens of Ghent University (Belgium) discussed the “fiction of an ‘innocent’ translation” in the work of French writer Jean Hatzfeld.

Author of Une Saison de machetes (Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak), Hatzfeld interviewed ten men who participated in the killings, and he presented their “extraordinary” testimony in this book and other reports. But scholars say he gave too little attention to the role of the interpreter during the interviews, raising questions about what might have been said or not said in the original language.

Further exploring the role of translation (or a lack of it in this case), Professor Hilary Footitt of Reading University, England, focused on non-governmental organizations such as Oxfam, who may not be doing enough to rectify the dearth of documents in local languages.

In Footitt’s paper “Translating Development”, she outlined the history of translation at the anti-poverty charitable organization, concluding that there is an “overwhelming Euro-centricity of language” in the international development field.

“NGOs always say that they listen to people … that they’re empowering people by listening to them,” Footitt told SWAN. “But it’s very difficult to hear people when you’re talking to them in your own language. There’s an Anglophone blindness in the development world.”

For more information on the Genocide Archive of Rwanda (in English), see:

(Note: SWAN's editor attended the workshop, discussing literature in translation.)

Saturday, 1 October 2016


When Cuban artist Belkis Ayón died in 1999, she was only 32 years old, but she left behind a body of work that belied her age, comprising huge and striking prints that had already received international critical acclaim.

Belkis at the Havana Galerie, Zurich,
1999. (Photo by Werner Gadliger)
Now, for the first time, a museum in the United States is hosting a solo retrospective of her work, with a view to making the public more aware of this singular artist who reflected Afro-Cuban traditions, the history of contemporary printmaking and the challenges that her country faced in the 1990s.

Titled Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón, the exhibition opens Oct. 2 and runs until Feb. 12, 2017, at the Fowler Museum at UCLA in California.  It presents 44 prints that the organizers say “encompass a wide range of the artist’s graphic production from 1984 until her untimely passing [she committed suicide] in 1999".

According to the Fowler, Ayón “mined the founding narrative of the Afro-Cuban fraternal society called Abakuá to create an independent and powerful visual iconography”. Abakuá is an all-male Afro-Cuban brotherhood brought by enslaved Africans to the western port cities of Cuba in the early 1800s.

“A brief synopsis of the founding myth of Abakuá begins with Sikán, a princess who inadvertently trapped a fish in a container she used to draw water from the river,” according to the Fowler.

“The unexpected loud bellowing of the fish was the mystical ‘voice’ of Abakuá, and Sikán was the first to hear it. Because women were not permitted this sacred knowledge, the local diviner swore Sikán to secrecy. Sikán, however, revealed her secret to her fiancé, and because of her indiscretion she was condemned to die.”

Belkis Ayon, La consagracion II (The Consecration II),
1991, collograph. Collection of the Belkis Ayon Estate.
However, in Ayón’s work, Sikán remains alive, and her story and representation figure prominently in the prints. At one point, the artist wrote: “I see myself as Sikán, in a certain way an observer, an intermediary and a revealer… Sikán is a transgressor, and as such I see her, and I see myself.”

The title word Nkame means “greeting” and “praise” in the language of Abakuá, and reflects a posthumous tribute and career overview, says Dr. Katia Ayón, the artist’s sister who helps to manage the Belkis Ayón Estate, a co-organizer of the exhibition with the Fowler Museum.

Katia and her daughter Yadira travelled from Cuba to Los Angeles to be at the opening and will participate in talks about Belkis’ life and work, Katia said in an interview.

Born in Havana in 1967, Belkis Ayón attended the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts and then the Higher Institute of Art / Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). She held her first solo exhibition in Havana in 1988, at age 21, before graduating from the Institute in 1991.

Two years after her graduation, she became a professor of engraving at the San Alejandro Academy and also at ISA, and that same year, 1993, she participated in the 16th Venice Biennale and won the international prize at the International Graphics Biennale in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

 Installation view at the Fowler Museum. All  works:
Belkis Ayon.  Collection of the Belkis Ayon Estate.
(Photo by Jose A. Figueroa)
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, invited her to participate in the Kwangju Biennial in South Korea in 1997, and some of her works were subsequently acquired by MOCA and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During the last year of her life, she had four residencies in the U.S. and solo exhibitions at various galleries and institutions. She committed suicide in 1999 at the age of 32.

Over her career, Ayón became an expert in the technique of collography, a printing process in which a “variety of materials of various textures and absorbencies are collaged onto a cardboard matrix and then run through the press”.

The Fowler says that Ayón employed a “deliberately austere palette of subtle tones of black, white, and gray”, which add “drama and mystery to her narratives”.  She produced many of the works at large scale by joining multiple printed sheets.

Cristina Vives, the guest curator of the exhibition, told SWAN that her aim is not only to show the artist’s relationship with Abakuá, but also to highlight how Ayón utilized these traditional themes to articulate certain concerns.

(L-R) Cristina Vives, Dr. Katia Ayon and Yadira Ayon
with (left) Nlloro (Weeping), 1991, collograph, and (right)
Resurreccion (Resurrection), 1998, collograph. All works:
Belkis Ayon. Collection of the Belkis Ayon Estate.
Installation view at Fowler Museum UCLA, 2016.
(Photo by Jose A. Figueroa)
“She used the traditions and history behind Abakuá to express something else,” Vives said in a telephone interview. “The 1990s were a tough time for people in Cuba, after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, and it was also a difficult time to express opinions as artists. So artists found ways to talk about what was happening in our daily lives.

“My main goal is to attract the public’s attention to her intentions rather than to her use of the traditions and history of Abakuá,” Vives added. “It’s also to bring back Belkis’ work to the audience because time has passed and the perspective is now different.”

Vives said that Ayón produced around 200 different images, from the time she began printmaking as a high-school student. In 2009, a decade after her death, Havana hosted a retrospective comprising 83 prints. The show at the Fowler is a version of this exhibition, but reduced in size.

“The overall presentation is almost the same, with beautiful installations because Belkis worked on such a huge scale,” Vives said.

Marla Berns, the Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum, said that Ayón’s contributions in her particular area of print-making are noteworthy.

Belkis Ayon, Sin Titulo (Sikan con chivo)
[Untitled (Sikan with Goat)] 1993, collograph.
Collection of the Belkis Ayon Estate.
“For a black Cuban woman, both her ascendency in the contemporary printmaking world and her investigation of a powerful all-male brotherhood were notable and bold,” said Berns.

She noted that Nkame follows a lineage of Fowler exhibitions that have explored artistic representations and evocations of African-inspired religions in the Diaspora, such as Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou (1995) and Transcultural Pilgrim: Three Decades of Work by José Bedia (2011).

“This is an important moment to spotlight the aesthetically stunning and poetically resonant prints of Belkis Ayón, especially with today’s heightened attention on Cuba and Cuban culture, and the historic reopening of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba,” Berns added.

The Fowler Museum is an institution devoted to exploring the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the Americas. More information at:

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Monday, 19 September 2016


While many literature festivals have become predictable in their line-up of bestselling authors, some innovative events have added a social-issues factor to their sessions, raising awareness about everything from climate change to the need for more diversity in publishing.

Nigerian-born, London-based writer Ben Okri
will be one of the speakers at the MLF
The Manchester Literature Festival (MLF), taking place Oct. 7 – 23 in northern England and celebrating its 11th edition, is one such event. This regional gathering of authors and book-lovers has increased its focus on global concerns since 2006, and its programme this year includes topics such as immigration, mental health and the urban experience.

“The Manchester Literature Festival is a place where authors, poets and broadcasters come together to share stories,” say the organizers. “Some of these stories enthral us with breathtaking plot twists and great leaps of imagination. Others are real-life stories that challenge and inspire us. Events like Refugee Tales, The Good Immigrant and Powerlines reflect the turbulence of the world we’re living in and remind us why we need to come together to fight discrimination and xenophobia.”

The participants for 2016 comprise regional, national and international authors, including Scotland’s Jackie Kay, Nigeria’s Ben Okri, Pakistan’s Kamila Shamsie, Canada’s Margaret Atwood and American writer Lionel Shriver. The latter recently caused controversy at a festival in Australia when she used her keynote speech to mock the movement against cultural appropriation, so her Manchester contribution will be particularly interesting for some observers.

The MLF's co-directors Cathy Bolton
and Sarah-Jane Roberts
The MLF is equally hosting writers from Sweden, Holland, Spain, Sudan, Bangladesh and North and South Korea, and it will “celebrate stories from the South Asian Diaspora in a special series of events curated in partnership with the Karachi Literature Festival”, the organizers state.

The MLF’s co-directors Cathy Bolton & Sarah-Jane Roberts discussed the festival’s direction with SWAN’s editor Alecia McKenzie in an e-mail interview.

SWAN:  How has the Manchester Literature Festival changed since its beginning in 2006?
Cathy Bolton: The festival has quadrupled in size over the past ten years both in terms of the number of events programmed and the audience we attract. The festival started out as quite a niche series of events largely showcasing regional authors but we now attract an impressive range of leading international authors and thinkers.

SWAN:  Some literature festivals in various countries have been putting emphasis on social engagement, rights and activism. Do you see this as a growing trend, and, if so, why?
CB:  It has certainly become an area of focus for MLF – we have found that there is a growing interest in activism and issues such as immigration, perhaps as a result of increasing disillusionment with mainstream politics and reactionary government policies. I think a great percentage of the population felt let down by the Brexit vote earlier this year and are understandably worried about what the future holds  - many are looking for an alternative form of leadership.

SWAN:  How did you decide on the programming this year?
CB: As always, we make a wish list of writers we would like to invite to Manchester (particularly focusing on those with interesting new books out).  We are always looking for high-calibre writers but also try and programme a balanced programme of established and emerging writers with particular programme strands showcasing literature in translation and events for children and families. We try to make the programme as diverse as possible so there is something on offer to suit the tastes of readers from all backgrounds and ages. We also work in partnership with a wide range of cultural partners including university writing schools and cultural embassies who feed in programming ideas. Over the past year we have been developing a partnership with Karachi Literature Festival which has resulted in a co-curated programme of events showcasing writers from the South Asian diaspora.

The MLF includes "An Evening with Jackie Kay",
with the writer who is Scotland's national poet.
SWAN:  One of the festival’s stated aims is to promote Manchester as a true hub for international cultural exchange.  Why is this important for the festival, and the city?
CB:  We are keen to open up our audiences’ reading horizons and programme events that reflect the lives and concerns of the city’s very diverse population. Manchester’s industry and culture has been very influenced by immigration – we want to celebrate the city’s unique history and diversity and hopefully attract increasing numbers of international visitors to the festival.

SWAN:  The festival also has a youth focus. How do literature events like this encourage reading among children, young people?
CB:  Literary performances by the likes of Michael Rosen and theatre adaptations of children’s books such as Hey Presto! really help bring books alive and make them more accessible for even reluctant readers. I think people of all ages get more out of reading if they’ve heard poetry read in the poet’s own voice or heard an author talking about the themes of their latest novel and what inspired their stories/characters.

SWAN:  The events include a presentation by Vivienne Westwood, a designer known for her activism and someone who is a part of the ethical fashion movement. How did her involvement come about?
CB:  We have been trying to persuade Vivienne Westwood to come and talk at the festival for a couple of years and luckily our persistence paid off this year. Her talk this October is very timely as her fashion designs are featured in the current Fashion and Freedom exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery.

The MLF hosts the Black and Asian Writers Conference
SWAN:  In addition to South Asian writers, the festival is putting focus on Black British writers. Can you describe the themes of the Black and Asian Writers Conference taking place Oct. 8?
CB:  Themes for this year include Afrofuturism, flash fiction, immersive poetry and new directions in theatre. You can read a full description of the various panels at:

SWAN:  Is the international component of the festival expected to expand, with more authors from abroad?
CB: We hope to continue to attract an exciting range of authors from abroad but this will be balanced with appearances from UK authors.

Canadian writer Margaret Atwood.
SWAN:  What is your greatest hope for the festival this year?
CB:  That thousands of people have a wonderful mind-expanding experience and discover some new favourite authors!

SWAN: How do you see it evolving in the future?
CB:  We would like to develop collaborations with more international festivals and develop a bigger and more ambitious programme of new commissions for the festival that could then be toured nationally and internationally.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale