Wednesday, 19 November 2014

HAITI CELEBRATES ITS ART WITH PARIS MEGA EXHIBITION

Paintings in Haiti: Two Centuries of Artistic Creation (Photo: McKenzie)

Nearly five years after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, a wide-ranging exhibition of the country’s contemporary art began Wednesday in Paris, a testament to survival and a bold move to shatter misconceptions about Haitian culture.

Going far beyond stereotypes of naïve painting, the show aims to “transcend the magico-religious and exotic vision too often simplistically associated with Haitian art”, according to the curators.

A visitor views work by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
(Photo: McKenzie)
“We didn’t want to repeat what has been done before, so this really is contemporary work with a glance to the past, or a dialogue between the past and the present,” said Mireille Pérodin Jérôme, director of a museum in Port-au-Prince and co-curator of the exhibition with Régine Cuzin, who heads a France-based artistic events company.

“The works include all styles, and the artists were chosen for the force of their expressions,” Pérodin Jérôme told SWAN. “The impact of the earthquake is of course present, with some of the artists addressing issues of continued poverty, of people still living in precarious conditions.”

The exhibition, titled Haiti: Two Centuries of Artistic Creation, will run for three months at the landmark Grand Palais national galleries. It’s already generating a buzz in the French capital, especially because of the range of the 56 artists represented and the level of the 160-plus works displayed.

Jean-Ulrick Désert stands before his artwork.
Alongside creations by celebrated figures such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hervé Télémaque and Robert Saint-Brice, one can find striking works by acclaimed “contemporary artists of all generations”, living in Haiti and abroad.

The Berlin-based architect-artist Jean-Ulrick Désert has two pieces in the show that immediately capture attention. His huge wall installation Sky Above Port-au-Prince 12 January 2010, 9:53 pm is particularly poignant.

Rather than focusing on the physical destruction, Désert shows the constellations at the precise time of the catastrophe, evoking destiny, religion, astrology, power and powerlessness. The artwork, measuring 300 x 300 cm, comprises hundreds of metal orbs pinned into nine polystyrene panels covered in red velvet.

Each orb represents the exact location of the stars and planets at the time, and Désert said he worked from a satellite map to get it right. When one looks closer, one can also see that the pieces of metal are all embossed - with various images of the legendary American singer Josephine Baker, whom Désert considers a kind of goddess.

Jospehine Baker "in the stars",
“Because this exhibition is taking place in France, I wanted to have some Parisian gesture as well, because Josephine Baker is the perfect example of an icon in exile,” Désert told SWAN.

The piece pairs well with his floor installation, The Goddess temple, which consists of carpeting, concrete, black and white velvet, glass, and Arabic text from the poem The Ruins (made famous in song by the Egyptian star Umm Kulthum). Désert said this work was inspired by the façade of a house built for Baker.

The artist, who studied architecture in New York, is presented at the exhibition in “tête-à-tête” with Finland-based plasticien Sasha Huber, who also does installations. The show has three of these “face-to-face” or “dialogue” sections, in addition to areas devoted to untitled works, landscapes, spirits and chiefs.

Robert Saint-Brince "in dialogue" with Sébastien Jean
The other “tete-a-tete” segments feature Télémaque and Basquiat; and Saint-Brice and Sébastien Jean.

In the latter, one can view a painting by Saint-Brice that was nearly destroyed by the earthquake. Titled Loas and painted around 1958, it was lost in the rubble for nearly two months and has now been restored by experts at the Smithsonian Institution.

The earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people, also destroyed numerous artworks; and while these can never be replaced, young Haitian artists are continuing the island’s cultural traditions, said Pérodin Jérôme.

Among the participants in the exhibition is 28-year-old rising star Manuel Mathieu, born in Port-au-Prince in 1986, educated in Montreal and now working and studying in London.

Artist Manuel Mathieu
Mathieu uses different elements for his art, including photography, installation and video; but he’s showing two arresting semi-abstract paintings in the Paris show, with mixed media on canvas.

Mathieu told SWAN that taking part in the exhibition was like “having a big party with your friends”, since some of his colleagues and mentors, like the installation and performance artist Mario Benjamin, were also involved.

“I’m happy to be here and to show to everyone that we have a diverse and complex culture in Haiti,” Mathieu said. “Trying to put nearly sixty artists together is a journey in itself.”

The exhibition, which took nearly three years to bring to fruition, can also be seen as a journey beyond the earthquake. Several of the artists described the profound impact it has had on their work, and according to one, Vladimir Cybil Charlier, some even found it impossible to work afterwards.

Charlier, who was born in New York but who attended schools in Haiti, told SWAN that the earthquake “razed” her childhood in Port-au-Prince.

Vladimir Cybil Charlier and her response to Preacher Pat.
“It’s like it never existed, except in my imagination,” she said, adding that even “airport art”, or pieces sold to tourists, became “grimmer” after 2010.

In her work, Charlier plays with the idea of looking through several windows at the same time, using collage, ink, paper, wood and pencil to create distinctive pieces that gradually reveal layers of narrative to the viewer.

Her two pieces at the exhibition are from her Postcard to Preacher Pat series, a riposte to American televangelist Pat Robertson who preached that the earthquake was a consequence of Haiti being “cursed” because its people “swore a pact to the devil”.

Pointing out Robertson’s ignorance and shamefulness, Charlier said her artwork is also a critique of the missionaries who flooded Haiti after the earthquake, many without any understanding of the country’s culture.

Her collages are among the political pieces in the exhibition, which will also teach spectators much about the nation’s history. Through art, visitors will learn more about Haiti’s slave revolution and its battle with France to become the first independent country in the Caribbean and Latin America.

They will also get to understand that Hati’s art is the real “magic potion”, as famed writer Maryse Condé has said. - A.M.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

AFRICAN WOMAN TAKES ON THE WARLORDS WITH BEATS

Sia’s Tolno’s infectious laugh and relaxed “vibe” do not immediately convey the message that this Guinean artist is a fighter. But once you hear her story and listen to her music, you realize that Tolno is on a serious mission to change attitudes - towards war, gender and parenting, just to name a few issues.

Her latest album African Woman, with the single Rebel Leader, is a blistering critique of those who ravage and destroy countries with incomprehensible wars and of leaders who do nothing for their populations.

Set to Afrobeat music, the lyrics of Rebel Leader are addressed to warlords in general, and to Liberia's Charles Taylor in particular.

“Mr. Rebel Leader, tell me who you fighting for, tell me why this massacre,” Tolno sings with palpable anger and urgency. “How do you feel inside when you see children die?”

The 39-year-old singer says she has no interest in being a heroine, but she wants to use her music to bring about change.

“I know what it means to be a refugee in other people’s countries because of war,” Tolno told SWAN in an interview in Paris, where she now lives. “And I wonder about the mentality of people who create war, beating people who are already down. So when I’m alone, this is what I write about. I decided to use this album to speak about these things.”

Sia Tolno in Paris
Tolno’s empathy and drive owe something to her own rough childhood in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where she lived with her father who had relocated from Guinea to work as a teacher.

Her father used corporal punishment as a constant form of discipline, she says, and she can still remember being hit just because she had been seen walking home with a friend after school.

“He thought that beating was for a child’s own good,” she says. “Some parents don’t know the long-term repercussions that this can have. But I have to say that he was always there, and made sure I went to school, but he was not a mother.”

Her mother lived in Sierra Leone as well, but Tolno had little contact with her. Along with the feeling of isolation within her own family, Tolno suffered from the conflicts created by warlords fighting over the region’s “blood diamonds”, and she took refuge in writing and poetry.

“There are so many people who manipulate us because of our poverty, and nobody is there to help us,” she recalls of those days.

When she was 20 years old, and wondering whether to study drama or information technology, Charles Taylor’s forces once more plunged Liberia and the region into bloody warfare, and Tolno had to flee to Guinea, although she hardly knew the members of her family there.

“I can see nothing good about war, nothing,” she says. “It’s like a disease. What can you do if you’re not sure you’ll still be alive at the end of the day?”

Music was a means out.
Photo by N. Lawson-Daku / Lusafrica
Music provided a way out of the feeling of desolation, and in the mid-Nineties Tolno began performing at a club called “Copains d’abord”, operated by a Lebanese businessman named Mustapha, who she says was kind and helpful to the people working for him.

As a member of the conservative, “forest-based” Kissi ethnic group, Tolno could not draw on any griot troubadour tradition, and she says her family found it unimaginable that she had decided to be a singer.

But her powerful voice and her choice of material - popular songs by Western singers such as Edith Piaf, Nina Simone and Whitney Houston - soon won her many fans.

She represented Guinea in the first series of the “Africa Star” music show held in Gabon in 2008 and particularly impressed two of the judges: Gabonese musician and composer Pierre Akendengue and record producer Jose Da Silva (the CEO of the Paris-based Lusafrica label and the person who first recorded the late great Cesaria Evora).

Although Tolno didn’t win, Da Silva invited her to join his label, and her first international album Eh Sanga was released in 2009. That was the year more civil unrest broke out in Guinea, with security forces opening fire on a crowd and sexually assaulting women in the streets.

Pierre Akendengue, a mentor.
Living in countries where such atrocities have occurred has had an impact on Tolno’s writing and singing. She has now set her powerful voice and lyrics to Afrobeat, the rough and angry fusion of Ghanaian-Nigerian funk, jazz and highlife made popular by music legend Fela Kuti.

African Woman, her third international release, comes with notable contributions from Tony Allen, who was Fela’s drummer and artistic director for more than 10 years until they had a political falling out. But here there’s a difference: while the music is still “angry” and explosive, Tolno’s songs take aim at machismo, gender inequality, Africa’s inadequate children’s rights and the culture of warmongering.

African Woman also condemns female genital mutilation (in Kekeleh) and the treatment of migrants (Yaguine et Fodé). The latter song is perhaps the most moving on the album, as it focuses on the tragic story of two teenagers from Guinea, Yaguina Koïta and Fodé  Tounkara, who set out for a better life in Europe but who froze to death as stowaways in the undercarriage of a Belgian airliner in 1999.

Their bodies were discovered on the plane at Brussels International Airport after the aircraft had reportedly made at least three return flights between the Belgian capital and Conakry. If they had lived, the young men would have been 30 and 29 years old respectively in 2014.

Sia Tolno,
before a portrait of Cesaria.
“We have to do more for our young people who must cope with so much frustration,” she says. “You always hear that Africa is the richest continent in terms of resources, but what are the resources being used for?”

Despite such heartfelt words, there’s a small problem with the album: people may find themselves too busy dancing to the catchy rhythms to fully consider the urgent message. 

But one can only hope that at least some of Africa’s government leaders and warlords will hear the appeal from this African artist.


Watch the video of Rebel Leader here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUP2BHF__ao

Saturday, 1 November 2014

UNESCO LAUDS MANDELA'S LEGACY ON ITS ANNIVERSARY

With stirring tributes to the late Nelson Mandela, the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO launched celebrations on Oct. 31 to mark its 70th anniversary.

Nelson Mandela, "Papa Africa". Visual by J. Abinibi
The agency’s director-general, Irina Bokova, said that Mandela “embodied UNESCO’s ideals, our faith in human dignity, our belief in the ability of every woman and man to change society through tolerance and peace.”

The celebrations in Paris included a colloquium featuring the prickly Nigerian writer and Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka, who examined Mandela’s legacy and his impact on the world, in a sometimes uncomfortable lecture.

Soyinka, himself a former prisoner of conscience and long-standing critic of oppression, said there might be various reasons behind the universal love of the South African icon - including the desire to feel adulation for a legend - but the main cause stems from the human need for freedom.

       Wole Soyinka. © McKenzie
“Mandela was the protagonist of a universal humanity,” the writer said, explaining that dialogue and reconciliation were not means of appeasement but higher goals toward peace and forgiveness, following human rights violations.

Haiti’s president Michel Martelly, the guest of honour at the ceremony, added his voice to the tributes, saying that the world needs another Mandela to “help us overcome extremism and fanaticism, before it’s too late”.

Mandela was appointed a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador during his lifetime, and was also awarded the agency’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize in 1991, along with Frederik de Klerk, the last apartheid-era president of South Africa. Both men received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

Irina Bokova. © McKenzie
According to Bokova, Mandela always supported UNESCO’s “values”. The agency was founded in 1945 and has grown from 20 member states to a current 195. Its mandate in the post-World War II period was to develop the "intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind" with a view to promoting lasting peace.

"Today the world faces new and steep challenges, and we need to respond with the same courage, the same audacity the same vision - because violence today is directed against schools, against cultural diversity, against freedom and human rights,” Bokova said.

The 70th anniversary celebrations will continue through 2015, as UNESCO reflects on its history, which has been one of ups and downs.

The United States withdrew from the organization between 1984 and 2003, for instance, and UNESCO recently faced a financial crisis when the US government withheld its dues after the agency’s member states decided to grant Palestine full membership in 2011.

Singer Sally Nyolo, backstage. © McKenzie
Bokova’s exhortation of “long live UNESCO” at the anniversary launch may have been a reference to such upheavals, but the evening was mostly about celebration, with the plethora of speeches interspersed with artistic performances.

The Mahotella Queens group from South Africa had the audience laughing and cheering to their skits, dances and songs. They were followed by singer Sally Nyolo of Cameroon, who brought soul and style to the stage, accompanied by two musicians and sand-art artist David Myriam.

Choreographer Sam Tshabalala and his Gumboot Dancers later stomped in unison, recalling the tradition of black miners who used their feet to provide percussion as they sang. And the celebrated Guinean singer Mory Kanté performed his 1988 hit “Yé ké yé ké”, which made spectators and UNESCO officials get up and dance.

During his performance, Kante also paid tribute to Mandela, praising all that the freedom fighter and statesman did for Africa and the world.  

The public can learn more about Mandela’s life and work in an exhibition that runs until Dec. 31, 2014, at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters. Titled Nelson Mandela, from Prisoner to President, the exhibition was curated by South Africa’s Apartheid Museum and has been shown in various countries. 

The Mohotella Queens. © McKenzie
Sam Tshabalala and his Gumboot Dancers. © McKenzie

Thursday, 30 October 2014

REGGAE 'STORM' GUSTS THROUGH BROOKLYN, IN TRIBUTE


The Coalition to Preserve Reggae will present their annual Reggae Culture Salute on Saturday, Nov. 1, in Brooklyn, New York.

The event is aimed at raising funds to preserve and promote traditional reggae music (scroll down for an earlier article about the Coalition in SWAN), and chief organizer Sharon Gordon promises a “storm” of a concert.

“Lyrical wind gusts are expected to be 180mph so make sure you're safely seated by 7 pm in Nazareth H.S. located at 475 E 57th Street in Brooklyn because Da Real Storm is brewing,” Gordon says.

Performers include reggae icon Marcia Griffiths, U.S.-based musician Don Minott, and the fast-rising singer and poet Da Real Storm.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

FRANCE HOSTS MEXICO'S SHOW ON MAYA CIVILIZATION

The Quai Branly Museum in Paris is presenting another sure-to-be blockbuster exhibition titled Mayas: Révélation d'un temps sans fin (Maya: Revelation of an endless time), beginning Oct. 7 and ending next February.

Produced in Mexico, the show focuses on the civilization created by the Maya peoples of the pre-Columbian era, and allows visitors to appreciate their “legacy to humanity”.

“They have left to posterity dozens of cities with striking architecture, a range of technically perfect sculpture, numerous frescoes and ceramic vases, and a detailed record of their religious beliefs, their rituals, their community life, their habits and their history,” say the curators.

Done thematically - and covering the relationship to nature, the power of cities, funeral rites - the show features various aspects of this culture and its “creative genius”, without omitting the bloody tradition of human sacrifice.

The exhibition seeks to give both a general overview and to show the variety of styles and aesthetic achievements of the different Maya groups, each with their own language and their own forms of expression, according to the museum, which features collections of objects from the indigenous civilizations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.

Often criticized as having ”colonial undertones” or “regressive tendencies”, the Quai Branly has been working with countries and national institutions to give an appropriate presentation of their collections. 

This exhibition was conceived and first shown by Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH), highlighting the fact that the Maya originated in the Yucatán more than four millennia ago and saw their civilization rise to great heights in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala and other areas.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

INDIAN WRITERS IN SPOTLIGHT AT PARIS LITERARY FEST

The second edition of Écrivains du Monde (World Writers Festival) is featuring Indian authors in a range of discussions and events in Paris, France, this month.

Kirin Desai
(Photo by Annette Hornischer)
Taking place Sept. 17 - 21, this annual “celebration of world literature” brings together renowned writers such as Kiran Desai, Vikram Chandra and Amit Chaudhuri, alongside new voices, to talk about their work, globalization, language and politics, and other issues.

Organized by New York’s Columbia University and Paris’ Bibliothèque national de France (national library),  the festival decided to put the spotlight on India since one of Columbia’s Global Centers in located in the country, said festival director Caro Llewellyn.

“Last year, the festival was international, and this year we decided to focus on one of the countries where we have a Global Centre,” Llewellyn told SWAN. “There will be a lot of new names which I think is very exciting. We’re bringing writers that people may not have heard of, but that will change after this festival.”

Écrivains du Monde is the brainchild of Paul LeClerc, the director of Columbia Global Centers | Europe, which is known for organizing interesting symposiums on global and cultural issues. The festival partnered with a magazine in India and ran a competition to find emerging writers, five of whom will join masters students from Columbia University for “cross-cultural dialogue” and interaction.

Events begin Wednesday with a talk on Exile and Homecoming, to be held at Paris’ École Normale Supérieure, with novelist, poet, critic and academic Chaudhuri.

Amit Chaudhuri (Photo by Geoff Pugh)
The author of Clearing a Space: Reflections on India, Literature, and Culture will discuss his “impatience … with certain narratives (about India, Indian literature, modernity and modernism, etc.) and the way they compartmentalise" certain creative exploration, according to the festival organizers.

In conversation with Laetitia Zecchini, a researcher, translator and scholar of modern Indian literature, Chaudhuri will examine the “spaces he wants to clear; the way he himself navigates between different worlds and genres; the tensions of belonging; the singularity of his creative and critical writing, and his memoir Calcutta, Two Years in the City,” the organizers added.

Chaudhuri will also host a concert of This Is Not Fusion, a project in experimental music that he founded and which brings together genres including jazz, blues, and rock, with Indian raga.

The festival’s other events include an evening of readings in Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, and English as part of The Many Voices of India. This “show” features  acclaimed Indian authors based in India, Britain, and the United States: Booker Prize-winner Desai; poets and novelists Jeet Thayil and Uday Prakash; novelists Chandra, Indra Sinha, Shumona Sinha, and Akhil Sharma, and the celebrated Tamil poet Salma.

Part of the poster for the festival.
A 2013 documentary about Salma, by Kim Longinotto, will be screened, followed by a discussion with the poet. The film is about Salma’s life as a young girl in a south Indian village who was locked up for years beginning when she was 13 years old. Her family forbade her to study and forced her into marriage.

“During that time, words were Salma’s salvation,” according to Écrivains du Monde. “She began covertly composing poems on scraps of paper and, through an intricate system, was able to sneak them out of the house, eventually getting them into the hands of a publisher. Against the odds, Salma became one of the most famous Tamil poets today, discovered her own freedom and challenged the traditions and codes of conduct in her village.”

Sunday, 7 September 2014

EXPO: SOUTH AFRICAN EMBROIDERY CAPTURES HISTORY

Artists from two community groups in South Africa have for decades been using needle and thread to express views on issues affecting life in their country, and capturing history with the art of embroidery in the process.

Now the public has a chance to share these portrayals through an exhibition at the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), from Sept. 7 to Dec 7.

Embroidered textile, designed by artist Calvin Mahlauli.
(Photo: Don Cole, Courtesy of the Fowler Museum)
Under the title Bearing Witness: Embroidery as History in Post-Apartheid South Africa, the show comprises a selection of what the museum calls “fantastically-hued pictorial embroideries”. They were all produced around 2000, six years after the official dismantling of apartheid.

The artists (who hail from The Mapula Embroidery Project, founded in 1991 in the Winterveldt area outside Pretoria, and Kaross Workers, founded in 1989 on a citrus farm in Limpopo Province) portray historical events as well as their own personal experiences in remarkable stitch-work.

The objects “reveal the deeply political imaginations that have inspired them”, according to Gemma Rodrigues, Curator of African Arts at the Fowler Museum.

Among the topics covered by these “lyrical yet socially engaged tableaux” are the joyous celebrations of Nelson Mandela’s 85th birthday; the questioning of traditional gender roles; the impact of HIV/AIDS and other public health issues; and current affairs and global happenings in places as distant as New York City.

Curator Gemma Rodrigues
“People, animals, trees, and buildings embroidered in lilac, green, yellow, and red - colors chosen for their tonal harmonies and sparkling contrast - populate intricate narratives that pulse with life,” states the Fowler Museum.

The institution is devoted to exploring the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the Americas, and holds a vast collection of more than 120,000 examples of world arts, including a repository of some 20,000 textiles that “trace the history of cloth over two millennia and across five continents”.

The embroideries on display belong to a group of 45 textiles collected in South Africa by William Worger and Nancy Clark, scholars and professors of South African history at UCLA and Louisiana State University respectively.

According to the Fowler, Worger and Clark’s deep interest in South Africa’s past first attracted them to the artworks and later inspired them to make their collection available for further study and display by donating them to the Fowler Museum.

A grouping of the textiles in Fowler in Focus.Courtesy of the museum.
In conjunction with its 50th anniversary, the museum is also presenting Fowler in Focus: Yards of Style, African-Print Cloths of Ghana

This separate exhibition, which runs until Dec. 14, examines how the double-sided and factory-produced cloths convey different messages about "individual and community values, reveal perspectives on taste and fashion, and offer telling insights into the global economy”, as the curators put it.

The Fowler is part of UCLA Arts and is located in the north part of the UCLA campus. For additional information: www.fowler.ucla.edu.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

DIASPORA FILM FEST AIMS TO PROMOTE DIALOGUE, LINKS

With so many incidents of abuse of power taking place in the world, the African Diaspora International Film Festival is more than ever seeking to be a means of bringing people together and promoting dialogue, according to the organizers.

Diarah N'Daw-Spech and Reinalso Barro-Spech, organizers.
“This is an international festival that’s Afro-centric, but the aim is not to divide people but to promote and reshape the discourse,” says Diarah N’Daw-Spech, who co-founded the festival with her husband Reinaldo Barro-Spech.

Presented annually in New York, Washington, Chicago and Paris, the event’s fourth European edition takes place from Sept. 5 to 7 this year in the French capital, with the films aimed at generating discussion about the causes and effects of racism both in the United States and Europe.

The movies should also encourage people of African descent to discuss what being part of the Diaspora means, said N’Daw-Spech, the daughter of a Malian father and French mother, and whose husband was born in Cuba of mixed Haitian-Jamaican heritage.

“When you talk about the African Diaspora, everybody has their own understanding of what this means, although most people think of people coming from Africa,” N'Daw-Spech told SWAN. “But you can have roots in Africa without having been born there, and we want to look at the whole black experience.

An image from Freedom Summer
“It’s like opening a window on another world for people who either want to learn about themselves or who want to be exposed to others’ cultures,” she added “We see the festival as a way to create bridges across cultures, even across cultures of people of African descent.”

That is one of the reasons for the broad scope of the event. The opening film, Freedom Summer, puts the spotlight on the history of the American South, for instance, with a gripping documentary about the violence that met activists trying to encourage voter registration in Mississippi in 1964.

Director Stanley Nelson uses footage and testimony from the volunteers of the then Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to portray the injustices that occurred in the state, which “remained virulently committed to segregation” in the Sixties.

Working to advance human rights in Freedom Summer.
Many of the Committee’s members were young white students who, according to the film, were “transformed” by their work in Mississippi. Their story and the experiences of the African-Americans they supported remind viewers of the sacrifices made just 50 years ago to ensure civil rights for all.

Nelson will be available for a public discussion after the screening, as such debates are an integral part of the festival, N'Daw-Spech said.

Other films are set in countries ranging from Jamaica to Cameroon and cover a diverse range of subjects that affect the African Diaspora. From the Caribbean come two films - a dramatic feature and a documentary - about the impact of legislation in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom that allows foreign-born individuals convicted of crimes to be deported to their countries of origin.

A scene from Home Again
The deportations create enormous problems for both the home nations and the individuals, many of whom grew up abroad. In Home Again, a feature directed by Sudz Sutherland, three individuals from varying backgrounds come into conflict with this legislation. After their forced return to Jamaica, their ostensible “home” country, these characters experience a series of challenges and violent situations that test their survival skills. They end up learning much about themselves as well as their environment.

The second film dealing with this subject is Deported (Expulsés), which “gives a voice” to offenders from the United States and Canada who have been deported to Haiti after serving their prison sentence in North America. Their offences ranged from violent crime to drunk-driving and petty theft, and the film focuses on their attempts at re-integration in the country of their birth.

Directors Rachèle Magloire and Chantal Regnault construct Deported around trips in Haiti (where they followed their characters for three years) and events in North America where some families have no idea of the lives of those who have been sent back.

The deported face new challenges in  Home Again.
Discussions will also accompany the screening of Deported, and N’Daw-Spech says she hopes the festival will highlight this under-reported issue.

Another topical film is Otomo, a feature that shares a glimpse into the day-to-day world of refugees. This film reconstructs the true story of a West African asylum seeker in Stuttgart, Germany, who physically assaulted a ticket inspector on the subway, fled the scene, and became the target of a huge manhunt.

The film shows how institutionalized racism drives a disempowered individual to violence and inhumanity, according to its director Frieder Schlaich, and this subject is particularly pertinent as Europe debates how to deal with undocumented migrants and its Roma population.

Moving to the arts, the festival includes a film about music with Tango Negro. This documentary, by Angolan director Dom Pedro, “explores the expression of African-ness inherent in the dance of the ‘tango’ and the contribution of African cultures to the dance’s creation”.

Tango Negro explores the African origins of tango.
Pedro provides insight into the dance’s origins and cultural significance, depicting the social life of African slaves, and he brings together musical performances and interviews from tango enthusiasts, historians and various participants.

Other films being screened include Names Live Nowhere, a docu-drama that  gives a candid portrayal of the lives of African immigrants in Belgium; and W.A.K.A., a feature set in Douala, Cameroon, about a young waitress who becomes pregnant, has no one to turn to, and who faces the decision of whether to terminate her pregnancy or have her child.

“What we hear from viewers is that the films that we bring are works that people don’t have access to at all,” says N’Daw-Spech. “So that gives us inspiration to keep going. We’re not interested in films that don’t have a serious topic or are one-dimensional. All the films have a message.”

For more on the Paris schedule, in English, go to: http://fifda.org/paris-adiff-2014-english/ The annual New York presentation of the festival  will take place in November.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

SCHOLAR BRIDGES DIVIDE, LIFTS DEBATE ON SLAVERY

When Lucia Nankoe was shown a photograph of writers from the French-speaking Caribbean recently, she was able to identify everyone by name. The same goes for the main authors from the Anglophone and Dutch-speaking countries in the region.

Lucia Nankoe
 (Photo: Monique Kooijmans, Amsterdam, June 2013)
Nankoe, a Surinamese scholar and lecturer at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, is among those working to bridge the Caribbean linguistic divides that are a result of colonialism.

Fluent in English, French and Dutch - three of the languages spoken in the Caribbean - she is able to understand a wide cross-section of works, and to examine the area’s history and literature from different perspectives. She is equally interested in fostering debate about the impact of slavery - a tragedy common to the islands.

Her latest project is De slaaf vliegt weg (The Slave Flies Away), a thought-provoking look at the portrayal and perception of slavery in the arts. Co-edited with Jules Rijssen, a researcher and filmmaker also from Suriname, the book has been used as a basis for public discussions about slavery.

In the Dutch city of Leiden, Nankoe and Rijssen recently hosted an open debate that examined the attitudes of the descendants of both slaves and slave-owners to their mutual history.

Sculpture by Jamaican artist Laura Facey:
"Their Spirits Gone Before Them".
Part of the Slave Route Project
© Laura Facey
“It’s evident that the issues about slavery are very much alive, and this was clear from the many questions posed,” Nankoe told SWAN. “Members of the public obviously think that more should be discussed at the national level than has been done up until now.”

The book is timely as this year the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, is “celebrating” the 20th anniversary of the Slave Route Project, an initiative that was created to heighten “understanding of the history of the slave trade in societies carrying this memory” and to promote intercultural dialogue.

August 23 is also the UN’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. The day is observed annually “to remind people of the tragedy of the transatlantic slave trade”, and it gives people “a chance to think about the historic causes, the methods and the consequences”, the UN says.

The date recalls the uprising that began in Santo Domingo (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in August 1791 that “weakened the Caribbean colonial system” and led to the abolition of slavery and independence for the island. “It marked the beginning of the destruction of the slavery system, the slave trade and colonialism,” says the UN.

The organization is also preparing to launch the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), which should further help to advance dialogue about the 400 years of the trade in humans and its lasting effects.

Nankoe’s The Slave Flies Away comprises essays edited from lectures given in September 2009 in Amsterdam at an international conference on the relationship between historical novels and the imaging of the Netherlands’ history of slavery.

The speakers included the book’s co-editors and a multi-lingual roster of academics who explored the role of art forms on the public perception of slavery, and discussed the function of art in current debates about slavery's effects, particularly on the descendants of those enslaved.

The book focuses on the work of artists such as Letitia Brunst, Remy Jungerman, Frank Creton, Elis Juliana, Natasja Kensmil, and Ras Ishi Butcher, all of whom have portrayed slavery in one form or another. It includes literary contributions from a number of writers, including Rijssen.

Nankoe’s next project, still in its infancy, is a book with historian Jean Jacques Vrij that will comprise photographs from 1863, when slavery was abolished in Suriname. She believes that with the rise of nationalism and racism in many areas of the world, it's imperative to discuss these issues.

Meanwhile, her literary studies (she holds a degree in Modern Literature from the French university La Sorbonne) are continuing. Books she has edited include De komst van de slangenvrouw en andere verhalen van Caribische schrijfsters (The Arrival of the Snake Woman and Other Stories by Caribbean Writers), a collection that introduced several authors to a Dutch audience for the first time.