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

Thursday, 7 February 2019



Nearly every writer from the Caribbean has a story about a “mad” character - walking the streets, disrupting complacency, revealing certain truths or suffering in silence - and scholars are increasingly examining this pervasive theme in literature from the region.

A new book, Madness in Anglophone Caribbean Literature: On the Edge, “takes as its starting point the ubiquitous representation of various forms of mental illness, breakdown and psychopathology in Caribbean writing”, according to the editors Bénédicte Ledent, Evelyn O’Callaghan and Daria Tunca.
In an essay titled “Madness Is Rampant on This Island”, the three discuss the writing of “altered states”, while other contributors scrutinize “madness” in the work of Jean Rhys, Jamaica Kincaid, Caryl Phillips, Junot Diaz, and Marlon James, among several internationally known writers.
A central concern of the book is “how focusing on literary manifestations of apparent mental aberration” can extend readers’ understanding of Caribbean narrative and culture. It also aims to increase questioning of the “norms that have been used to categorize art from the region, as well as the boundaries between notions of rationality, transcendence and insanity across cultures”.
The editors stress that the topic has been “relatively neglected in criticism, especially in Anglophone texts, apart from the scholarship devoted to Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)” - the response or prequel to Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre by the Dominican-born British writer.
They add that the new volume demonstrates “that much remains to be done in rethinking the trope of ‘madness’ across Caribbean literature by local and diaspora writers”.

The book grew out of a conference held in 2015 at the University of Liège, Belgium, with scholars including Alison Donnell, Rebecca Romdhani, Kelly Baker Josephs, Tobias Schlosser and Ping Su, alongside writers such as Caryl Phillips, Alecia McKenzie, Kei Miller and Desirée Reynolds.

(Madness in Anglophone Caribbean Literature: On the Edge is published by Palgrave Macmillan. Link:

Monday, 28 January 2019


By S. Williams

A right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, was inaugurated on Jan. 1 in Brazil, the fourth largest democracy in the world.
This divisive figure, considered by many to be misogynistic, racist and homophobic, garnered support through promises to deal with high-level corruption and a surge in violent crime. His election has sparked widespread trepidation internationally, but it has also created a strong determination to resist his bigoted attitude toward people of African descent and marginalized communities.
The resistance comes from women activists, indigenous peoples, the environmental movement, scholars and an array of artists, who are making their work speak for them. 
African art in Brazil.
The counter-narrative was already in the air during the 6th Brazil Africa Forum that took place last November in Salvador, capital of the northeast state of Bahia. The event coincided not only with the national Black Consciousness holiday in Brazil but a major exhibition of African art.
The forum, organised by the Brazil Africa Institute, brought together some 200 representatives from 38 countries for talks on "new strategies" between Brazil and African countries "to promote youth empowerment and sustainable development”, according to the organizers. 

The participants included students, academics, businesspeople, artists and diplomats from both sides of the Atlantic, who countered political extremist views.
The event also served to celebrate the ties that bind both sides of the Atlantic. During the closing session, Paulo Gomes, president of the Consultative Council of the Africa-Southeast Asian Chamber of Commerce, mentioned a project by Ghana’s president Nana Akufo-Addo called “The Year of Return”.
“The president of Ghana wants to make 2019 ‘The Year of Return’,” Gomes said. “We are going to ask all Afro-descendants to return to Africa so that we can do business.”
Reports by the site This Is Africa said that “Ghana is launching a series of programmes that seek to encourage people of African ancestry to make the ‘birthright journey home’ as part of ‘the global African family’”.
The site added that “in the 1820s and 1830s, the Tabon people, a group of African slaves in Brazil, returned to Accra after a popular slave rebellion. Their descendants have been fully assimilated into Ghanaian social and political life.”
A member of Ilê Aiyê.
Some Brazilians may answer Ghana’s call, but artists will also continue working throughout the “New World’ to carry on the fight against anti-Blackness and discrimination, say cultural observers.
Performing at the forum was the music and dance ensemble Ilê Aiyê, one of Salvador’s most popular bands and a group working to highlight Brazil’s African heritage.
The group was targeted by the police and the media during its early years (it was founded in 1974 by Antônio Carlos “Vovô” and Apolônio de Jesus in Liberdade, the largest black neighborhood in Salvador), but it now includes hundreds when it performs during Bahia’s carnival - with spectators singing along to songs that emphasize African cultural heritage.
(An estimated 60 percent of Brazilians have African heritage as more than four million people enslaved by Europeans, primarily the Portuguese, were transported to the South American country to work on sugar plantations and in mines.)
As the forum took place, African culture was also brought into focus by an exhibition of the Claudio Masella African Art Collection, which occupies three rooms at Salvador’s well-known Solar Ferrão Cultural Center. 
The exhibition consists of about 160 pieces from across Africa that was collected over 30 years by the Italian architect and businessman. Masella married a Brazilian woman, and three years before his death in 2007 the collection was donated to Bahia.
Other art venues that cast a light on the heritage of African-descended peoples in Brazil include the Museu Afro-Brasileiro, with exhibitions that inform visitors about traditions such as capoeira and Candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian martial art and religious tradition respectively.
Despite political rhetoric, the role of African cultural heritage in Brazil is undeniable, and a range of groups are resisting any attempt to belittle this presence. 
S. Williams is a traveling journalist. He contributed this article and photos as a “Letter from Brazil”.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019


The world doesn't require another “best of” list, so we’re not going to compile one. What we wish to do instead is invite readers to check out a few of the great books we've read over the past year, written by both scholars and “creatives”. Some made for difficult, disturbing reading. All were invaluable.

Here we go (in no particular order):

From the Tricontinental to the Global South: Race, Radicalism, and Transnational Solidarity. Author: Anne Garland Mahler. Duke University Press.

Sing, Unburied, Sing. Author: Jesmyn Ward. This edition: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. Edited by Roxanne Gay. This edition: Allen & Unwin. Features contributions from Claire Schwartz, Gabrielle Union, Ally Sheedy and Liz Rosema (a graphic story), among others.

Me and My House: James Baldwin's Last Decade in France. Author: Magdalena J. Zaborowska. Duke University Press.

The Colour of Shadows: Images of Caribbean Slavery. Author: Judy Raymond. Caribbean Studies Press.

Journal of a Homecoming / Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. Bilingual edition of the Aimé Césaire classic. Translated by Gregson Davis, with introduction, commentary and notes by F. Abiola Irele. Duke University Press.

Nourished Planet. Sustainability in the Global Food System. Edited by Danielle Nierenberg (co-founder of Food Tank), with the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition. Island Press. 

Thursday, 20 December 2018


The French release of “The Forgiven” takes place early January 2019, but a select number of moviegoers got to see the film Dec. 15 when American actor Forest Whitaker hosted a pre-screening in Paris alongside director Roland Joffé.
Forest Whitaker at the pre-screening of "The Forgiven". 
(Photo courtesy of UNESCO)
Based on the play "The Archbishop and the Antichrist" by Michael Ashton, “The Forgiven” tells a story that involves Archbishop Desmond Tutu's search for answers during South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The drama pits Tutu against the fictional character Piet Blomfeld - a convicted murderer, who is a composite of various racist personalities - played by the Australian actor Eric Bana.
While many critics have hailed the subject matter, noting that Tutu’s historical role is a worthy topic, most panned the heavy-handed treatment by English-French director Joffé when the film was released in the United States and the UK last March. Variety magazine reviewer Guy Lodge, for instance, wrote that the movie was “drab” and “vigourless”, and a far cry from Joffé’s award-winning work on “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission”.
“The Forgiven” (or just "Forgiven" for the French market) might, however, strike a stronger chord with French viewers, where the questions of égalité and liberté spark philosophical discourse, even amidst hypocrisy in national dealings with oppressive regimes. 
The French-language poster for the film.
Whitaker plays Tutu, who is running the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid and who visits Cape Town's Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison to meet Blomfeld, a former officer of the South African Defence Force and member of a neo-Nazi organization, to assess his candidacy for amnesty.
Blomfeld is a potential witness to murders committed under apartheid, including the disappearance of the teenage daughter of Mrs. Morobe (played with poignant depth by Thandi Makhubele), who implores the archbishop to find answers regarding her missing child.
The movie comprises other sub-plots, but the main action consists of the tense confrontations and psychological games between Tutu and Blomfeld, which, if nothing else, may spur viewers to do research on the apartheid era (and its legacy). If that happens, the film will have served a purpose, whatever one thinks of the overall production.
The Paris pre-screening took place at the headquarters of the United Nations' cultural agency, UNESCO, during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in Paris on Dec. 10, 1948.
“It is always inspiring to see people coming together to watch a movie about justice,” said Whitaker, who is UNESCO’s Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation.

Distribution (France): SAJE Distribution.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018


Valérie Oka wants to break down the barriers between art and digital technology. 
The Ivorian-French artist mixes conventional techniques and digitalization to depict individuals who have shattered social codes and barriers, and she questions the boundaries between the “real and the virtual”, as she puts it.
Valérie Oka stands beside her portrait of Angela Davis.
Oka believes that digital know-how is “related to creative freedom”, because through technology artists can reach a broader audience and spread their vision.
She currently has an exhibition at UNESCO headquarters in Paris that portray 16 women activists and political figures such as Angela Davis and Christiane Taubira as well as artists including outspoken American writer Maya Angelou. The mixed-media works are a small portion of the 150 portraits she has produced over the years, of both men and women.
Her exhibition, titled “La Carte n’est pas le territoire” (The map is not the territory), fills a hall of the massive UNESCO building and is part of a four-day conference on creativity and artificial intelligence (AI).
The meeting has brought together artists, scholars, entrepreneurs and others to discuss the impact of innovation on the cultural and creative sectors, and how technology can help to promote sustainable development and gender equality.
Oka says that the issue of equality is central to her work, along with the idea of the “story told and the historical truth”. 
A part of Valérie Oka's exhibition at UNESCO.
“Sometimes we don’t see ourselves in history and part of my goal is show Africa’s heroes and enable the rest of the world to discover them too,” she told SWAN.
“I want to show these people who aren’t given enough recognition in the mainstream," she said. 
"These are people who defied stereotypes, broke codes and marked history. I especially wanted to honour women heroes.”
Oka begins her artistic process with a series of drawings, after which she digitalises the artwork, adding depth and shadows on the computer. When the portraits are printed, she enhances them further by hand.
“I think technology plays an important part in the economic development of a country, and I want to convey that through my work,” she said, referring to the UNESCO 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. This convention puts creativity “at the heart” of sustainable development, and the conference comprises a meeting of its intergovernmental committee.
“Sometimes we have the impression that Africa is behind with new technologies, but innovative methods can give the continent the opportunity to speak of its history, to break barriers, and to move forward,” she added.
Visitors to her exhibition can also tour a “virtual gallery”, through the use of special 3-D glasses - another example of the use of technology in art.
Born in France, to a French mother and Ivorian father, Oka studied and worked in Paris before opting in 1996 to live in Ivory Coast, where she’s still based. She said she has had to fight to be able to follow her passion, as traditional parents “don’t encourage girls to be artists”. Her father would have preferred her to study law or medicine, she told SWAN.
Experts discuss gender equality at UNESCO meeting.
“As a woman you have to believe in yourself, you have to insist on the right to have the profession you want,” she said.
Other participants in the UNESCO conference, Dec. 11-14, spoke of the relative absence of women in technology sectors, even when these industries intersect with culture - another focus of the conference.
“Why don’t women have access to these sectors? Why aren’t they studying in these areas and getting training?” asked Dieynaba Sidibé, a Senegalese representative, who took part in a panel titled “Empowering Creative Women”. 
Sidibé directs a training programme called DigitELLES, which aims to strengthen women’s technical and artistic skills, and which is among several projects that have received support from an initiative called “You Are Next: Empowering Creative Women”, launched by UNESCO and 27-year-old Chinese entrepreneur Sabrina Ho.
According to the initiative, “a multifaceted gender gap persists in almost all cultural fields, in most parts of the world. In the digital creative industries, women entrepreneurs remain invisible even though they represent half of those employed in these sectors worldwide”.
You Are Next aims to increase opportunities for women under 40 in the digital creative industries, according to UNESCO, and it also supports “national policy initiatives and strategies that address gender equality in this field”.
For some people, however, the spread of digital technology in the creative sector throws up a frightening scenario of autonomous machines producing books, paintings, music. Automation and digitalization globally have also been responsible for job losses, as many studies have suggested. But others see the technology as a means to enhance creativity and promote development.
“Digital technology gives me greater liberty to express myself,” Oka said.
Her exhibition will travel to several countries in 2019, including Mali in February.
Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale.