Monday, 13 May 2019


A coffee cup that you can eat. Chairs made from recycled wood. A stationary bike that powers a blender when you pedal, to produce fruit smoothies. And a range of biodegradable packaging.

A chair made from recycled wood by Pimp Your Waste.
These were some of the items on display at Sustainable Brands Paris (SB Paris 2019), a ground-breaking event on creativity, innovation and sustainable development that took place April 23-25 in the French capital.

Organized by design agency Pixelis, the event attracted more than 3,000 participants who shared information about how art, design and technology can be used for sustainability, for combatting climate change, and for reducing waste. The speakers included “youth hactivators” who challenged corporations to improve their environmental policies.

“We all need to find solutions,” said Pixelis CEO Edouard Provenzani. “And that includes big brands, innovators, designers, consumers, youth.”

Provenzani, who founded Pixelis 22 years ago in France, said the main aim of the meeting was to help brands become “more environmentally aware, more useful and more efficient” in their sectors. The event forms part of the Sustainable Brands movement launched in 2006 in San Francisco, California, to help “design the future” of the business world.

“We want to demonstrate that sustainability is not a burden, but an innovation driver in every dimension of business,” Provenzani said.

Pixelis CEO Edouard Provenzani
He stressed that multinationals who contribute massively to the crises of carbon emissions, pollution and loss of biodiversity need to be part of the solutions.

They should demonstrate the measures they’re taking to improve their business models, even in the face of criticism because - as environmentalists have pointed out - doing “business as usual” will not meet the climate targets set in the Paris Agreement to reduce global warming, he added.

The companies that took part in SB Paris included small firms as well as the global consumer giants L’Oréal, Danone and Ikea, who staged exhibitions and discussed their sustainability pledges.

“We’ve assessed all our products … and we have a commitment that each will have a better impact on the environment than the previous one,” said Anthony Grassi, a communications representative for L’Oréal, the world’s leading company for “beauty” products - mostly sold up to now in single-use plastic containers. 

The group says that it aims to play a “catalysing role” in addressing the challenge of climate change and that it is committed to making a “profound transformation towards a low-carbon business model”. 

Actions include improving energy efficiency and using renewable energy at all manufacturing sites, L’Oréal says, as well as upgrading the “social and environmental” profile of products. It displayed its “certified organic” skincare line as well as biodegradable containers at SB Paris. Consumers can read the company’s “sustainable commitment” at:

Plastic waste in the river Seine, near the venue of SB Paris.
Still, “big companies are doing a terrible job in educating consumers”, says Mirela Orlovic, an activist and founder of UrbanMeisters, a green-lifestyle community for urbanites.

Orlovic told SWAN that the public often doesn’t know what to do with packaging or with items that they don’t need anymore, and that it’s mostly up to the media, including bloggers, to try to decipher and describe what is being done.

“Companies need to show consumers how sustainability can be part of their everyday life everywhere,” she said.

At SB Paris, Danone personnel showcased recyclable containers for brands including Evian water and certain yoghurts, saying that “cross-industry” collaboration is needed to address the “critical issue” of plastic waste. 

Danone - which markets a range of beverages in plastic bottles, is active in some 120 countries and recorded income of 24.7 billion euros in 2017 - said that SB Paris was an opportunity to “showcase how together we are transforming our approach to plastic and changing the future of hydration”. 

A representative said in an interview that recycling may not be the only solution, however, and that consumers would increasingly need to consider providing their own containers for products, as is already happening in some stores.

Recyclable, reusable bottles among the solutions. - Danone
According to a report published in Science Advances magazine and quoted by environmental group Greenpeace, only about 9 percent of plastic has been recycled, 12 percent has been incinerated “(polluting the air with toxic gases)”, and the other 79 percent remains in the environment.

Greenpeace says that if current production and waste management trends continue, there will be 12 billion tonnes of plastic in natural environments by 2050, including in the world’s oceans.

In Paris, Danone equally put focus on plant-based drinks produced by Alpro, the Belgian-based company it acquired in 2017. Alpro has expanded its range of beverages to now include soya, almond, oat and coconut “milks”, with the message that a “plant-based diet is better for the planet”, as Greet Vanderheyden, Alpro’s senior sustainable development and communication manager, told SWAN.

Alpro used its beverages in coffee to demonstrate the point, offering frothy, tasty coffee mixed with coconut milk, for instance, to SB Paris participants. This coffee was distributed in recyclable paper cups, but in another section of the event, participants were given coffee in cups that they could eat, taking sustainability a step further.

Tassiopée serves coffee in cups that one can eat. 
The company responsible for the edible cups - made from organic ingredients - is Tassiopée, launched in 2016 in France, after many months of research and design. The idea is that eating your cup reduces waste and is good for the planet, and the cup is relatively low in calories too (about the same as two squares of chocolate), Tassiopée says.

The waste-reduction drive was evident in other items as well, such as wooden chairs made by the start-up “Pimp Your Waste” - begun by four friends who graduated from an architecture school in Paris.

“The motivation was to help reduce the amount of waste produced each year by the construction industry,” said Eric Dorleac, one of the co-founders. “All the material comes from building sites. We take it, transform it and create furniture."

The renewable energy section of SB2019 showcased a range of innovative products, including a stationary bike that participants can pedal to yield energy for food blenders. The bike can be used in restaurants or for special events where patrons can power-pedal to produce their drinks.

While these may be considered minor steps compared with the fundamental global change required in economic models, small-scale innovation is helping to address the issues, through putting creativity to effective use for sustainability, says Provenzani. 

“We can use our creativity to change the model or to create a new model,” he told SWAN. “It’s an issue of urgency now because we’re running out of time.”

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Sunday, 12 May 2019


The stunning region of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, is once again hosting the Two Seasons Talking Trees Literary Fiesta, taking place May 25-26, 2019, with the theme “Literature: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow”.
The organizers have partnered with the Department of Literatures in English at The University of the West Indies (UWI) and the Gloria Lyn Memorial Fund to stage this biennial event at Treasure Beach, an area known for community and ecological tourism on Jamaica’s south coast.
Two Seasons Talking Trees Literary Fiesta: May 25-26.
The family-oriented day will feature readings by new and established poets, novelists and playwrights, while children will have their own programme running concurrently with activities on the main stage, the organizers say.
The literary fiesta helps to promote literature beyond the college campus, according to UWI. The aim is to broaden the reach and to spark “interest in literature as an important field of study”. In addition, the event will be a time for fun and reflection as participants listen to Jamaica’s poet laureate and other acclaimed writers.

Monday, 29 April 2019


The first thing that will strike pedestrians this month as they approach the Maison de l’Amérique Latine in Paris is the riot of colour – vivid reds, yellows and blues on a massive banner announcing a special kind of party.
One of the posters for the exhibition.
Until May 7, the Maison (or MAL) is hosting Fiesta Gráfica, an exhibition of pulsating graphic artwork by French artist and curator Michel Bouvet and his 26 “friends” who hail from nine Latin American countries.
The show is the fruit of Bouvet’s travels throughout Latin America and of the collaborations and friendships he has formed over the past 30 years. The wide-ranging exhibition includes political posters, graphic novels, cartoons, advertisements and other forms of graphic art, and it highlights a variety of techniques and perspectives, across decades and borders.
Bouvet’s own designs are regularly visible in the Paris Metro and on the city’s Colonnes Morris, announcing La Fête de la Musique or Les Rencontres d’Arles, and he has been a fixture in French graphic art since the 1970’s.
An art fan views works by Cuba's Idania del Rio.
Alongside some of his most well-known affiches, Fiesta Gráfica offers works of diverse artists, 11 of whom work in collectives.
The countries represented include Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico and Paraguay, and the artwork provides commentary on social and philosophical issues, among other themes. A notable feature is the presence of many women artists (so often missing from group exhibitions), with striking works by Bebel Abreu of Brazil, Idania del Rio of Cuba, and Marta Granados of Colombia, for example.
As visitors enter the lobby of MAL’s imposing building, they are first greeted by a joyous poster of bold lines and the words “FRIDA & DIEGO” against a yellow background. Meanwhile, the rooms on either side of the lobby are filled with giant-sized works by Bouvet, “in dialogue” with works by artists from a range of countries.
Crowds packed these rooms on a recent Saturday, among them Paris-based artist Randy Dims who gazed intently at each poster, as if absorbing their energy.
Paris-based artist Randy Dims at the exhibition.
“Some friends were raving about this exhibition, and I really wanted to come and see it,” said Dims, who puts his own art on tee-shirts and does portraits of Hip-Hop music personalities. “All the colours and shapes really make an impact.”
The exhibition fills the vast downstairs spaces of the MAL as well. Here, the collage pieces of the collective El Fantasma de Heredia (Argentina), the satirical images of Bebel Abreu (Brazil) and the lyrical, surreal compositions of Celeste Prieto (Paraguay) comprise just a small sampling of the dozens of works by the effervescent community of graphic artists active in Latin America.
Socially engaged and provocative, these artists believe, as the Uruguay militant Pablo Irturralde puts it, that “the poster is a poem”, and a weapon in the fight against injustice. This show is a visual fiesta of colour and content and well worth the visit. – Susan Hamlin / SWAN

Monday, 22 April 2019


A teacher enters a classroom and is surprised to find that the students who should be waiting for him are all missing.
“It’s as if their absence is sending a message,” he muses in consternation.
In fact, there is a message. Written on the desks are letters that taken together spell: “STOP GLOBAL WARMING NOW”.
Cartoon by Floris Oudshoorn, done at ICSW 2019.
This is the storyline of a cartoon titled “The Educators” by Amsterdam-based artist Floris Oudshoorn, who participated in sessions on global citizen education during International Civil Society Week (ICSW) - an annual meeting held this year in Belgrade, Serbia, from April 8 to 12.
Co-hosted by the Johannesburg-based global civil society alliance CIVICUS, the event brought together more than 850 delegates from around the world to focus on the protection of “democratic values” and human rights, amidst increasing attacks on rights defenders.
Oudshoorn said his cartoon was a shout-out to the students participating in the weekly climate strikes in various countries, calling on governments to act to decrease emissions and fight climate change.
During ICSW, Oudshoorn produced a series of live drawings that reflected the topics addressed by Bridge 47, a Finland-based organization created “to bring people together to share and learn from each other” with the help of global citizenship education.
This system of civic learning puts emphasis on rights, environmental awareness and social justice - subjects that engaged participants during Bridge 47’s four ICSW sessions, held under the title “Global Citizenship Education: Recalibrating Action for Systemic Change”.
“With members hailing from all continents of the world and a total of 48 countries, the gathering provided a dynamic hub for exchanging experiences and perspectives on the different types of value-based education,” Bridge 47 stated.
Rilli Lappalainen, founder of Bridge 47.
The organization used storytelling, art, communication activities and other techniques to provide its members with “new ideas and tools” to employ global citizenship education for social change.
Rilli Lappalainen, Bridge 47’s founder and steering group chair, said that the Belgrade meeting demonstrated that civil-society groups and others (educators, artists, policy-makers) need to work together.
“It showed how we need to allow the space for dialogue, and that dialogue is the essence of peaceful society. If we really want to make a change, we need to communicate and cooperate, rather than everyone sitting in their own box.”
Besides “getting to know each other and strengthening their work”, Bridge 47 Network members also had the opportunity to explore other topics among the host of ICSW event sessions. These included issues such as shrinking civic space, attacks on press freedom, and the engagement of youth, which Oudshoorn covered in his cartoons.
The Bridge 47 sessions were also open to those outside the organization’s network “in order to further disseminate information” about global citizenship education as well as to “facilitate new, cross-sectoral partnerships amongst the international civil society community”, the group stated.
Bridge 47’s name comes from “Target 4.7” of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), set in 2015 for achievement by 2030.
Goal 4 is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.
Target 4.7 is to ensure that by 2030 “all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development” through education that includes “human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”.
African educator Bolanle Simeon-Fayomi uses story-telling
for global citizenship education, at ICSW 2019.
Photo courtesy of Troy Bjorkman / Bridge 47.
For the UN, an “indicator” of Target 4.7 is the “extent to which (i) global citizenship education and (ii) education for sustainable development, including gender equality and human rights, are mainstreamed” at all levels.
Lappalainen said that formal education “is absolutely needed” for this mainstreaming but that it’s not enough.
“We need to recognize the importance of learning outside of the school system. Part of our work is that we advocate for governments to give the space and respect for this kind of education,” he said.
A key exercise during Bridge 47’s sessions was storytelling, done verbally by lecturers such as Nigeria’s Bolanle Simeon-Fayomi who focuses on literacy for development, or communicated through the written word or art.
In the case of cartoonist Oudshoorn, his work is a means to educate the public by using satire to effect social change, to promote rights and sustainability, and to help defend activists.
“As cartoonists, we’re between artists and journalists,” he told SWAN. “And one of the first things that autocrats try to rub out is journalists and artists. So, I’m in the crosshairs as well.” 
Follow SWAN on Twitter @mckenzie_ale. See also
For more information about ICSW, see IPS news agency stories, including: 

Wednesday, 17 April 2019


No sooner had the fire been put out at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris than the backlash started, sparked by the perceived double standards in reactions to disasters of this kind.
When President Emmanuel Macron said that France would appeal for international help, someone tweeted, for instance, that the country should use the money it “stole” from Haiti, referring to the vast sums that Haiti had to pay the colonial power after declaring independence in 1804. The comment was retweeted thousands of times.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, after the fire.
Another Twitter user, "Doe Bitch" (@bacchianbabe), also started a thread of “ethnic cultural heritage sites that have been destroyed throughout history, including in recent years”. The listing comprised a range of sites around the world, with the addition of the 6th-century monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan, which extremists dynamited in 2001. Doe's point was that few of the sites received extensive international attention. This thread has got thousands of retweets and "likes" as well.
A third commenter, based in the Caribbean, slammed the media for the continuous coverage of the fire, saying that “a cathedral" burns, and the press acts as if a major catastrophe had happened.
Further, when the White House announced that the United States would offer "assistance in the rehabilitation of this irreplaceable symbol of Western civilization," social media commentators like Dana Vivian White wondered about the missing help for Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, and the apparent lack of assistance for destroyed U.S. black churches.
A painting of Notre Dame by student J. De Clercq.
The criticism doesn’t minimise the fact that the damage to 850-year-old Notre-Dame is a tragedy for universal heritage, especially when we celebrate World Heritage Day on April 18. This is a day meant to "encourage" us to reflect on the importance of cultural patrimony to our "lives, identities and communities", according to the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

As people packed the area around the cathedral in the aftermath of the April 15 fire, one of the most frequent remarks was that Notre Dame belonged not only to the French but to everyone. The 13 million visitors it receives annually come from all over the globe.
The backlash does indicate, however, that many believe the cultural traditions of some are considered more important than those of others. Looking at the sites inscribed on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), it’s clear why this is a concern: a few countries dominate the list, with France in fourth place for the number of sites registered, after Italy, China, and Spain.
Numerous countries of the Global South are barely represented on the list, although UNESCO is trying to remedy that, urging member states to put forward sites for inscription. At a press briefing last year, officials said that the UN recognized the issue.
What needs to be stressed, though, is that the world has a stake in protecting monuments that are historically significant, wherever they might be located. Former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, who was in Paris this week as part of her “Becoming” book tour, said in a tweet: “The majesty of Notre Dame - the history, artistry, and spirituality - took our breath away, lifting us to a higher understanding of who we are and who we can be.”
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay (file photo).
The Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, meanwhile issued a statement saying, “Notre Dame represents a historically, architecturally, and spiritually, outstanding universal heritage. It is also a monument of literary heritage, a place that is unique in our collective imagination. Heritage of the French but also of humanity as a whole. This drama reminds us of the power of heritage that connects us to one another”.

She added, "We are already in contact with experts and ready to send an emergency mission to assess the damage, preserve what can be preserved and plan short and medium-term measures".
The statement is actually nothing out of the ordinary, as UNESCO has mobilised resources to support restoration of patrimony in countries from Haiti to Mali, especially when such patrimony is of global and historical value. (We may argue about who decides on such value, but that is another discussion.)
Notre-Dame forms part of the world’s collective memory. As a recent example, in 2010, hundreds filled the church after the earthquake in Haiti, participating in a mass for the victims, coming together in sorrow and grief. Several in the congregation expressed anger toward France and the West in general, for past and continuing injustices; Notre-Dame provided a space to do so. It belonged to all who were there in that moment.
Still, as French tycoons and people around the world donate vast sums to restore the cathedral, we need to think about others' cultural heritage as well. (Haiti's is still in need of rebuilding, nine years after the earthquake.) We need to highlight what has happened in Iraq, Syria, Mali and other countries. We should emphasize that the loss of artistic and cultural heritage has an impact on development.
In 2010, Haiti’s then Minister of Culture Marie-Laurence Jocelyn-Lassègue said, “For us, culture is not a luxury, not an accessory … It is through culture and by culture that we’ll be able to develop certain aspects of our society.” (
We all need to give increased global attention to exceptional monuments in cities less well-lit than Paris, in towns off the beaten track - monuments being destroyed by warmongers, terrorists, state agents, vandals and others; monuments lost to fire; monuments ravaged by hurricanes and other natural disasters. Leaders need to send a clear message that everyone’s culture is important - particularly when it doesn't infringe on the rights of others.
We also need to restrain ourselves from expressing unseemly glee when someone else’s patrimony is destroyed and instead work together to safeguard universal heritage.

As Claire Oberon Garcia, a U.S. Black Studies professor and author, said: Notre-Dame is "a triumph of human ingenuity, aspiration, and longing for beauty and transcendent truths". It has meaning for all of us. - SWAN


Monday, 25 March 2019


Amid the morass of Brexit and continuous debates on immigration, a French museum has launched a thought-provoking exhibition about music and migration.

The massive show at Paris’ Musée de l’histoire d’immigration (National Museum of the History of Immigration) “explores the close and complex relationship between migration, music, anti-racism and political activism”, according to the curators.
The poster for Paris-Londres: Music Migrations.
It comes at a time when “many European nations are turning inwards and succumbing to the temptations of closed borders,” they add.
The exhibition – “Paris-Londres: Music Migrations (1962-1989)” – runs until Jan. 5, 2020, and was inaugurated ahead of the United Nations' International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, observed annually on March 21. The launch also preceded the fourth edition of a one-week “Grand Festival” in Paris against racism, antisemitism and anti-LGBT prejudice.
The show breaks new ground by linking artistic movements in England and France that demonstrate how “successive generations of immigrants in these two colonial powers used music to stake their claim to equal rights, affirm their presence in the public space, and contribute to the urban, economic and cultural transformations reshaping” both countries, the curators say.
Most music lovers are already aware of the influence that genres such as ska, reggae and rai have had on popular music in Europe, and the exhibition details this impact through an array of documents, videos and recordings. But it goes further by highlighting how immigrant musicians played a crucial role in fighting racism, with movements such as “Rock Against Racism” in Britain and “Rock Against Police” in France.
“These two stories have not previously been put together side by side in a postcolonial way,” says Martin Evans, a professor of modern European history at the University of Sussex, and one of the three international curators of the exhibition.
“We really wanted to look at how London and Paris reinvented themselves with the influence of the new arrivals from the Sixties to the Eighties,” he said in an interview.
As the exhibition puts it, a “wealth of musical styles linked with successive waves of immigration transformed Paris and London into multicultural capitals” between the early 1960s and the 1980s.
A section of the exhibition about Linton Kwesi Johnson.
A significant aspect of this immigration has been the global impact of Jamaican history and culture, Evans said, particularly through the contributions of dub poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, who was himself influenced by Martinican writer and statesman Aimé Césaire.
“In doing this exhibition, we discovered a lot of stories about links between artists and activists in France and Britain,” Evans said. “So, a very important aspect is uncovering these hidden stories”.
The curators showcase more than 600 documents and artworks “connected with music”, including instruments, photographs, concert posters, videos, costumes and other items – many of which are on loan from institutions such as London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and from the personal collections of well-known musicians.
Visitors to the exhibition are greeted by black-and-white footage of people exuberantly dancing, while a narrator explains the origins of the music that’s driving them into paroxysm of delight. “This is ska”, taking Britain by storm in the 1960s after its emergence “from the Jamaican sound systems of the late 1950s”.
Following this introduction, and the familiar lyrics of “Sammy Dead”, the show moves into the activist nature of music by London-based groups such as The Equals (the first major “interracial” UK band, formed by Guyana-born Eddy Grant), who used their song “Police on My Back” to highlight police harassment of immigrants.
A clip from The Harder They Come, among the exhibits.
Meanwhile, history lessons about the arrival and settlement of immigrants are included in the captions to a host of memorable photographs, detailing how immigrants to England settled in the inner cities while those to France inhabited the outskirts or banlieues.
The Windrush generation (which refers to Caribbean passengers on the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948 and their descendants) also feature here, with information about recent scandals regarding the British government’s treatment of individuals and historical documents.
In addition to the visual displays, the exhibition boasts a “killer playlist” that features ska, reggae, punk, makossa, rai, rumba, rock and other genres, and visitors will be seen dancing as they listen to music through headphones or stand in front of video clips of Millie Small singing “My Boy Lollipop” or Jimmy Cliff belting out “The Harder They Come” from the iconic 1972 film of the same name.
On the French side, one learns about African and North African musicians who changed the sound of French music: Manu Dibango, Salif Keïta, Noura and Khaled, among others. Meanwhile, the cross-border links can be seen in Serge Gainsbourg’s reggae version of France’s national anthem La Marseillaise – a recording that sparked outrage in certain quarters and earned the singer death threats.
“Gainsbourg used this music as a political vector,” says Stéphane Malfettes, the lead curator, who’s in charge of the museum’s cultural programming. “He went to Jamaica to record and was a big fan of reggae. In fact, France has always had a link with this music.”
Lead curator Stéphane Malfettes.
According to Malfettes, concerts by reggae star Bob Marley and other artists drew thousands of fans in France in the 1970s and early 1980s and provided a spur for the later creation of France-grown reggae groups such as Danakil who perform political music.
Some visitors will find the political aspect of the music to be the most interesting part of the exhibition, as it gives the background to Rock Against Racism – an activist movement sparked by the “rise of the far right and the spread of racism in political discourse”.
English musicians Red Saunders and Roger Huddle launched Rock Against Racism in 1976, following “murky racist proclamations from the likes of Eric Clapton and David Bowie,” the curators state. The first concert was held in Victoria Park in the spring of 1978 and attracted some 100,000 people, with groups including Steel Pulse, The Clash and the Tom Robinson Band performing – “revealing the often-overlooked solidarity between” rock, punk and reggae.
The movement influenced activists in France, where Rock Against Police grew out of a “proliferation of racist incidents and violence” in the late 1970s and early 1980s, “compounded by the success” of the far-right Front National in the municipal elections of 1984, according to the curators. The exhibition highlights the personalities and musicians involved, through footage, music, photos and articles.
A poster for an anti-racism concert.
As the exhibition nears its cut-off point (1989), visitors also learn about other landmark happenings that emphasised the “multicultural identity” of Paris and London. Two such events were the huge SOS Racisme concert held in June 1985 on the Place de la Concorde and the massive anti-apartheid show held at Wembley stadium to mark the 70th birthday of South African icon Nelson Mandela, in June 1988.
“All these stories push us to look at things differently,” says Malfettes. “We hope to reach people interested in the music, interested in the movements and those who may not know this background, especially young people.”
If there’s one drawback to the exhibition, it is in the sheer range of objects and information, which makes it difficult to absorb everything during a single visit. Many visitors will feel the need to return for a second look, especially regarding the musical connections – the punk and dub-reggae productions of John Letts, and the “Asian underground sounds” of Asian Dub Foundation, for instance.
An irony, too, is that this exhibition is taking place at the imposing Palais de la Porte Dorée  – which houses the history museum. The building, with its ornately decorated façade, was constructed to host the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931 and was used for many decades to showcase the “civilizing influence” of French colonialism. It has now, seemingly, changed its focus. – A.M.
You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019


On the first day of spring, Paris officials unveiled a striking artwork by Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow, paying homage to the artist who died in 2016 at the age of 81.

“He was a singular person, and his art is beyond comparison,” said Jean-François Legaret, mayor of the city’s First Arrondissement (or district), where the work has been placed on a square close to the iconic Louvre museum.
Ousmane Sow's "Le Couple de Lutteurs".
The inauguration of the bronze sculpture, completed in 1984 and titled Couple de lutteurs (Couple of Fighters), took place on International Francophonie Day, or Journée internationale de la Francophonie, which is observed annually on March 20. It also came on the 20th anniversary of a public exhibition of Sow’s work on the Pont des Arts in Paris.
That 1999 show, with its 75 “majestic” sculptures arrayed on the famed bridge, attracted three million visitors over its course and will live on in collective memory, said Christophe Girard, Paris’ deputy mayor for culture. He stressed that Sow was an artist of both Africa and Europe, representing an international outlook, and that his work had a rightful place in Paris.
“Africa is the biggest Francophone continent. All its artists have their place in Paris, and they are truly our cousins,” he said.
A notable feature of the inauguration event, though, was the absence of Paris-based Senegalese officials or other embassy representatives from African countries. When asked about this, French participants said that they did not know the reason and that the organization had been carried out by the mayor’s office.
Marina Sow, the artist’s daughter and the president of the Association Maison Ousmane Sow in Dakar, told SWAN that her father had always been more popular in France than in his homeland.
Ousmane Sow's artwork inaugurated in Paris.
“Maybe this is not a politically correct thing to say, but to be completely honest, the French have always revered him more,” she said.
She and other members of Sow’s family were among those attending the inauguration, but she was not on the official roster of speakers, which was supposed to have been headed by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. The latter was unable to be present because of “security issues”, her staff said.
According to Hidalgo’s office, the city wanted to honour a “popular artist and founder of African contemporary art who lived in Paris for some 20 years”. Sow was the first African artist to be elected a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts – one of five “learned” académies of the Institut de France.
He had exercised different professions before devoting himself fully to art at age 50, and he wasn’t content “just to sculpt bodies in bronze and clay, but he took on the job of moulding and massaging pain to make it disappear,” according to a statement from the mayor’s office.
“With his Fighters, Sow forever celebrated Africa which fought to exist,” the statement added.
The Couple des lutteurs forms part of the artist’s Nuba series (inspired by the people of southern Sudan) and will no doubt touch everyone who sees it, said Girard, who called on people everywhere to fight to have art in their towns. - SWAN
Sow’s artwork can be seen on the Place de Valois in Paris.

Monday, 25 February 2019


By Dimitri Keramitas

Laurent Van Lancker didn’t intend to make a documentary about the “Jungle”, the teeming encampment in Northern France of migrants seeking to wend their way to the UK (and which has since been dismantled).

The Belgian filmmaker was in the process of making a fiction feature and wanted to incorporate a single shot of the migrant camp near Calais (or “Kalès”). So he went, he filmed, and then he stayed.

A view of the camp, in Kalès.
The term “Jungle” is meant to indicate a wild state of affairs, but what impressed Van Lancker about the tent city of about 5,000 people - some estimates put it at 10,000 - was the sense of community he found.

The documentary he released a bit over a year ago is an impressionistic symphony of vivid images that are sensual even at their most gritty. At the same time, in a subtler way, it’s an aural collage of talk, music, and silences. The film has been making the rounds over the past months, as the immigration debate continues and Brexit draws near, and it was recently screened at the Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles in Paris.

It has as its epigraph a verse from Dante’s Inferno, and when, in the opening scene, we follow a path in a sort of wasteland, we expect the worst. We see many tents constructed out of tarp, but also plastic wrap, like very large garbage bags. Dark or black-skinned men can be seen walking aimlessly or lounging about, trapped in an administrative no-man’s land. The camera glides through the area in the manner of a Frederick Wiseman documentary, an exploratory approach that can seem meandering. There’s no propagandistic or discursive structural juggernaut, and as in Wiseman’s films, no intrusive voice-over.

Taking over the narrative at the Calais camp.
One thing that strikes us initially is that the tents aren’t little hovels, but spacious and orderly. Probing their interior evokes an impression of a desert nomad’s abode, where people visit and provide updates and information.

Some touches seem surreal: mobile phones and tablet computers are ubiquitous, and bring not only conversation with loved ones, but soccer matches from the homeland. There are even phone apps replicating traditional musical instruments. In the midst of make-shift life, a migrant will complain about a spot’s reception: “There’s no good Internet here.”

Inevitably, a commercial/social life sprouts here: a tent general store, a lounge, even what looks like a nightclub. Also, very discreetly, a brothel. The commercial life seems to be run mostly by Afghan migrants or refugees. We see one of them making cigarettes by hand and wrapping them in foil. We follow another merchant as he goes to an Auchan hypermarket to pick up supplies.

In addition to food for sale, the migrants / refugees organize a sizeable communal feast. We wonder where the money comes from. It’s difficult to account for every expenditure, but many saved up for their journeys to Europe, and may also receive money from family, NGOs and public bodies. In any case, material deprivation isn’t the primary concern of the residents.

Community in the camp.
Another surreal element is the juxtaposition of this supposed “jungle” with modern-day France. Aside from the surprise of some viewers on seeing a migrant shop at a French hypermarket is the sight of busy highways nearby, with drivers oblivious to what is happening a few hundred meters away. Even within the camp are boards covered with graffiti scrawls in English that one might observe in any bustling European city.

The imminence of Brexit at the time of viewing makes ironic the migrants’ desire to go to the UK. Some of the camp’s residents are taking English lessons, while others discourse on the historical links between their home countries, for example Sudan, and Great Britain. This evokes visions of Lord Kitchener and the Mahdi during the “scramble for Africa”; who would have thought the Fashoda Incident would find echoes a century and a half later in a migrant camp that contributed its part to the tensions leading to British withdrawal from the EU?  The imperial chickens took a mighty long time, but they’ve certainly come home to roost.

Van Lancker met numerous migrants and refugees during his extended stay at the Jungle, but he became friends with one Sudanese man in particular, Khalid Mansour, who acts as Virgil to Van Lancker’s Dante - a guide to the migrant limbo. At one point, Mansour takes control of the camera and leads the director (and us) on a shaky mock-tour, sardonically interviewing friends and acquaintances. The soundtrack also contains snatches of Mansour singing and reciting poetry.

The Inferno becomes literal at the end, when the camp is not only dismantled but set ablaze by unknown arsonists (or by accident). Footage shows the firestorm engulfing what had been the communal infrastructure for thousands (fortunately after it had been evacuated). Mansour was able to obtain asylum thanks to Van Lancker and other volunteers with whom he became friends.

The screening of the documentary at the CWB in Paris was followed by a question-and-answer session attended by both the director and Mansour. To see someone who’d lived in the stark environment we’d just visited now appear in a plush Parisian setting was yet another surreal touch. The testimony of the two provided some insight into the ambiguous nature of the documentary, and the documentary form in general. Mansour seemed like a generic migrant in the film, but he stated that he’d been a journalist in Sudan until it got too dangerous, and also that he’d lived abroad, notably in the Ukraine, where he worked as an actor. In France, he has been taking university courses.

As for Van Lancker, the director not only filmed the camp, but placed himself among his subjects, developing a rapport with them. That he’s an anthropologist to boot, and never appears in the film, set one thinking about the contextual dimension of the documentary. It was also revealed that while mostly men are seen in the film, many women and children were also present. It was the director’s decision not to the film them, his selectivity skewing our perception of the Jungle.

While Kalès gives an invaluable taste of the migrant experience, one that contradicts the clichés of the mainstream media, it too must be supplemented by approaches that go beyond the sensory. One could also add a discussion of the “white saviour” phenomenon - which is very much in the spotlight during this current cinema awards season, but which doesn't quite apply in the same way to Kalès.

Production: Polymorfilms. Photos courtesy of the film producers.

Dimitri Keramitas is an award-winning writer and legal expert based in France.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019


A documentary about a Cuban family facing an uncertain future had its world premiere Feb. 12 at the Berlin International Film Festival, one of the world’s most prestigious cinema events. La Arrancada (On the starting line) is a debut feature by Brazilian director Aldemar Matias, focusing on a young athlete who is having doubts about her role in national sports in the Caribbean country. The narrative follows her as she considers her future, which may well lie abroad, she reluctantly realizes.

Jenniffer, in La Arrancada.
Structured with sensitivity and shot in an understated style, the documentary eschews the usual visual clichés associated with Cuba. Instead, with nary a Cadillac in sight, it offers a story with a strong feminist sensibility, told as it is from the point of the view of the athlete, Jenniffer, and her mother Marbelis. The latter is a no-nonsense boss of a fumigation centre in downtown Havana who marshals her army of mostly male fumigators to destroy mosquito nests throughout the city. Away from work, she tries to ensure that her daughter and son fulfil their potential.

The mother-daughter relationship is at the core of the film, with some poignant scenes, but La Arrancada also addresses the role of young men who feel they have to quit their homeland to improve their lives. We see Jenniffer’s brother getting ready to leave Cuba, and travelling through several Latin American countries, even as Jenniffer struggles to find her own role at home in the competitive arena. This intimate account of a family in the “Global South” explores issues of emigration and youth unemployment and “unfolds the portrait of a generation unsure of what’s next in Cuba”, as director Matias says.

In the following interview, Matias - who studied in Cuba - discusses his background and the themes in his film (a Cuba-Brazil-France co-production, distributed by Miami-São Paulo company FiGa Films).

Director Aldemar Matias
Q:  Before we discuss the film, can you tell us about your background, where you were born and how you came to study in Cuba?

Aldemar Matias (A.M.): I was born in Manaus, Brazil. In my early twenties, I started working there as a TV reporter for local TV channels. It was always TV shows about arts or environmental subjects. Then I had the desire to spend more time with the people I was interviewing, to have the possibility to develop a deeper relationship with the characters. That’s when the interest for documentaries appeared. At that moment I already knew about the school in Cuba. It seemed like a holy land for aspiring filmmakers, specially from Latin America, Asia and Africa. Actually, the institution was initially thought to give high quality film education for these “3 worlds”. For me, It was a life-changing experience. It’s still my favorite place in the world. 

Q: Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?

A.M.: Not really. I was initially more attracted to TV because It seemed more accessible. The idea I had of filmmaking as a teenager was only big blockbusters, big fiction productions. I didn’t see myself there. It was actually a bit repelling to me. It was not at all a childhood dream or anything like that. It was built little by little. 

Q: What sparked the idea for La Arrancada?

A.M.: I already knew Marbelis (Jenni’s mom) from a previous short film I did, El Enemigo. Then, I was in Cuba trying to do another project, with multiple characters, that was not working very well. I called Marbelis to be part of it and to film a day at the beach. Her daughter asked if she could join in. When I saw these two interacting, that’s when I really saw the possibility of a powerful story, and I decided to focus completely on them. 

Filming La Arrancada in Havana.
Q: The film could have been set in many other countries in the Global South, with its themes of young people leaving their homeland in search of better opportunities, parents living with the sadness of distance, national uncertainty about the future, etc. Could you discuss your reasons for highlighting these concerns?

A.M.: I believe the intimacy of a family is a great place to portray bigger political contexts. When we see the lives of these two, we can understand better how complex it is to make these decisions, to deal with these uncertainties. Jenniffer might have the idea that she can reach better opportunities somewhere else, but at the same time, she cares about what she’s doing in Cuba, I mean, she’s very upset when she can’t compete. Marbelis might reproduce a nationalist speech in the morning for her workers, but at the same time she can help her son to leave the country. How do we know what’s the best life project for us and our kids? When we see particular family stories up closer, immigrants (from Cuba or from anywhere else) become more than just a number or statistics. It’s not as reductionist as “there is good, here is bad”. 

Q: La Arrancada may be considered a feminist film, even if this aspect isn’t over-emphasized. Many viewers will appreciate the comments from Marbelis, the mother, to her son in one memorable scene, where she cautions him about the misogynistic lyrics in certain types of music. Can you tell us more about this section and why you included it?

Havana community in the documentary.
A.M.: I think about Marbelis’ feminism the whole time! Not just this scene. But it’s not up to me to judge it. As a filmmaker, and especially as a male filmmaker. I love the fact that it just comes naturally: she might know nothing about concepts such as sorority or empowerment. But she’s there leading a troop of men every morning in the health district with “audacity and discipline”, as she says, alongside her sister Delaires. At the same time, she might make a joke with Jenniffer saying “she won’t get married if she doesn’t prepare the lunch fast”. The patriarchy culture is there as well, obviously. That’s her authentic personality and I have to be honest with its complexity. The same way she might call out her son for misogynistic lyrics, and then she can dance to it later. 

Q: The story is told in a very understated way, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions, especially concerning the role of women in “male” domains. Why did you choose this approach?

A.M.: I believe my job as a filmmaker is to open discussions, not to give conclusions. And to make the viewer empathize with complex realities and personalities. That’s why I choose to film in this way. But of course, I also need to take responsibility of the journey the viewer is taking and to provide the right path to generate the questions I want him/her to think about. 

One of the mother-daughter scenes in La Arrancada.
Q: The “actors” give very good performances, but we lack a certain context regarding the daughter - we don’t get to know her friends or her boyfriend, as the focus stays on the mother-daughter relationship. Are there particular reasons for this directorial choice?

A.M.: I have to say It’s weird for me to think of them as actors, as they are “real people” living their lives. The focus on the mother-daughter relationship is the most interesting for me in this context. They are the ones who have the strongest bond and that might be apart soon. Marbelis forms part of an older generation and, naturally, is more influenced by the Cuban system. Jenniffer is a new force, a generation that questions this model of life, but is also attached to it. She’s also the one who has the mission or the burden to carry on the sports legacy. The affection between mother and daughter makes all the contradictions way more interesting to me. It obliges both worlds to dialogue with each other.

Q: The setting is also not given a focal role. We don’t see the buildings and cars (except once) that have come to typify Havana or other parts of Cuba. Why is this? 

A.M.: What we see regarding the context is what we need to tell their story. Their neighbourhood, the sports area, the health district. There’s also the wi-fi square which is a place that is part of Jenniffer’s daily life and very representative of this moment in the country. I really wanted to avoid showing Cuba “for free”. I was actually very concerned to not fall into the trap of making the usual circus full of Cadillacs and other cliché representations of Cuba. It’s very seducing because Havana just blows your eyes with so much visual stimulation, but we’ve had enough of that.

Q: The English title is “On the starting line” but “arrancada” could also be “torn” which accurately sums up Jenni’s situation. How did you choose the title?

A.M.: This great idea is from the editor, Jeanne Oberson. I believe the title must provoke a question at the end of the film. “La Arrancada” has the obvious superficial first layer/meaning connected to Jenniffer’s sports activity that you see immediately in the beginning of the film. But then you think about the title again in the end and you actually might question yourself where is this “arrancada” taking her? Will she be able to be “arrancada”? How is this “arrancada” going to be? At least, that’s what we intended to provoke. 

Q: This is a Brazil-Cuban-French co-production. Can you tell us about the production aspects?

A.M.: The production company is Dublin Films, from Bordeaux. The film was actually financed and post-produced in France, all shot in Cuba (with a Cuban crew) and directed by me, Brazilian.

Q: What is your next project? 

A.M.: Right now I’m in the post-production of a short film I did in my city, Manaus, and a 5-episode TV series about young dancers in Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil who challenge the conservatism of their communities. Although I’m based in Barcelona, I want to keep researching new stories in Latin America, especially in the Amazon, the region where I’m from. By the way, the political moment we’re living in Brazil now urges new stories to be filmed. 

Text by McKenzie/SWAN. Photos courtesy of FiGa Films / Dublin Films. Readers can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale