Sunday, 29 January 2023

KOREAN JAZZ SINGER YOUN SUN NAH ON ART AND SOUL

When the parents of Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah realized that the COVID-19 pandemic had begun, they called and urged her to return to Seoul from New York, where she was based at the time.

“They said buy the ticket immediately,” the singer recalls. “There’ll be a total lockdown and you might never be able to come home. When I watched television and heard that borders would be closed, I packed my bags and I got the last ticket. I thought I would come back in three months, but not a year.”

In Korea, under travel restrictions like most of the world, Sun Nah wondered how she could fight the blues that threatened to overwhelm her. She began writing lyrics and composing music for what would become the extraordinary Waking World (Warner Music), her 11th album, released in 2022.

The songs are an exploration of the life of an artist, confronting angst and despair, and their haunting beauty - as well as experimental range of styles - may help Sun Nah to broaden her already substantial international audience, as she embarks on a “Spring Tour” beginning in March. With the memorable track Don't Get Me Wrong, the album also contains a message about the dangers of spreading misinformation and hate, the "other" ills of the pandemic.

Born in Seoul to musician parents (and named Na Yoon-sun), Youn Sun Nah learned to play the piano as a child but grew up focusing on the usual curriculum at school. She graduated from university in 1992 with an arts degree, having studied literature, and she thought this would be her career direction. She didn’t want to pursue music, she says, because she had seen her parents - a choir director and a musical actress - work too hard.

Still, when the Korean Symphony Orchestra invited her to sing gospel songs in 1993, she began taking her first steps in the world of performing and recording, eventually moving to France to study music, as she relates. In Paris, she followed courses in traditional French chanson and enrolled at the prestigious CIM School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, where she had to overcome certain artistic challenges.

In the years since then, she has performed worldwide, sung at the closing ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, contributed to a Nina Simone tribute album, and taken part in the 2017 International Jazz Day concert which was held in Havana, Cuba. (International Jazz Day is an initiative of legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO.) In addition, she has received the Officier des Arts et des Lettres award from the French Ministry of Culture, the Sejong Culture Award from Korea, and a host of other music prizes and accolades.

In an interview with SWAN before a recent concert in Brussels, Youn Sun Nah spoke of her career with self-deprecating humour, discussing the effects of the pandemic on her art and the meanings behind the songs on Waking World. She shed light, too, on the experience of being a jazz singer amidst the global Korean pop music phenomenon. The edited interview follows.

SWAN: How would you describe yourself?

Youn Sun Nah: I’m a jazz singer from Korea. I studied jazz in France, and I travel around the world, and I’m kind of all mixed up, but I’m very happy with that.

SWAN: Are you now based in France?

YSN: No, I used to live in Paris for a long time, but actually, I don’t have a place to stay in France now. Every time I go there, it’s just for the tour, so I go to different places. I could say I live in Korea, but it’s a nomadic life.

SWAN: Let’s speak about Waking World, which was released last January. You’re doing a tour to promote it now, as that wasn’t possible earlier, during the pandemic.

YSN: Yes, we couldn’t really do the promotion thing, but c’est la vie. My manager called in 2021 to say: now you can come, you can take the plane now. So, I quickly bought the ticket, came back to France and recorded the album in Paris, and then I did some shows.

SWAN: A lot of artists have had to find ways to keep going during the pandemic, and it’s been especially difficult for many musicians who couldn’t tour, couldn’t be on the road. Has that been the case for you too?

YSN: As you know, jazz is really live music, and I think most jazz musicians feel the same way. You want to do as many gigs as possible. I don’t know if people listen to my music on platforms like Spotify or iTunes, but I feel very lucky to perform live music. More than 400 jazz festivals exist in France, so it’s a privilege.

SWAN: How did Waking World come about, and what does it mean for your fans, for you?

YSN: When I went back to Korea at the start of the pandemic, I was kind of optimistic that things wouldn’t last long. Everyone was wearing masks, but we could move around, just not take the plane. Then … six months, seven months, eight months. From that moment, I got really depressed, and I thought that maybe I should change my job, that maybe I would never be able to go back to Europe and perform. What can I do, I thought. All the musicians I played with were in Europe because I studied jazz in France, and I don’t know that many jazz musicians in Korea. So, I had a kind of homesickness even though I was home. But in Korea, we never lose hope, so I think that’s in my DNA. I told myself: you should wake up, and you should do something else; you can’t disappoint the people who’ve supported you for a long time, you should have something to present to your audience. So, I started writing some new tunes. Without the musicians I usually work with, I had to do it all by myself.

SWAN: How did you do that?

YSN: Actually, I watched YouTube a lot, and I learned many music tools. I learned how to play the guitar just by watching tutorials, and I learned how to compose with the laptop.

SWAN: And you wrote the lyrics too?

YSN: Yes, I’m not so good at English, but I just wanted to be honest, so even if it doesn’t sound quite right, I just wanted to express myself.

SWAN: But you’re used to singing in English?

YSN: Yes, after I started studying jazz. You know, when I came to France, I didn’t know what jazz was. If I’d known, I would definitely have gone to the States. I was so naïve … and maybe stupid? One day I’d asked one of my musician friends in Korea what kind of music I should study to become a good singer, and he’d said: do jazz. What is jazz, I asked him. And he said: jazz is original pop music, so if you learn how to sing jazz, you can sing anything. And I said: oh, it sounds great!

I’m a huge fan of French chanson, so he said one of the oldest jazz schools in Europe is located in Paris, so go there. Oh, great! I arrived there, and what you learn at school is American standards, and everything was in English. I actually studied in four different schools at the same time because, well, I’m Asian, and I’m used to that education system where you don’t have to have any free time for yourself! When I had only six hours of lessons, I thought: what am I gonna do with the other eighteen hours? (Laughter.)

SWAN: That kind of approach must have helped with the album?

YSN: Well, I didn’t know when I could record this album, so I just kept writing and composing. And arranging by myself, as I had a lot of time. But, as you know, jazz is like … we should gather together and arrange in the moment. When I could finally fly to France, I just gave all the material to the musicians. And they said, oh, we’ll respect your scores. And I said, no, no, do what you want. But they played exactly what I wrote, every single note. I’m embarrassed.

SWAN: Tell us about the inspiration behind some of tracks, such as Bird On The Ground, the first song, which has the refrain “I want to fly. I want to fly. I want to fly.”

YSN: Well, “bird on the ground” - that’s me during the pandemic.

SWAN: Don’t Get Me Wrong, the second track, has an infectious melody, but the message is clear: the world “has no chance with those who lie and lie”. Tell us more.

YSN: During the pandemic, I could only watch TV or go on the internet to know what was happening. But sometimes the information wasn’t true, and even though it’s a lie you end up believing everything. Yeah, so I thought the world has no chance with people who lie.

SWAN: The sixth track has an intriguing title - My Mother. (Lyrics include the line: “How can you keep drying my eyes every time, my mother?”) What’s the story behind it?

YSN: With the touring, I usually don’t spend that much time at home. But with the pandemic, I was home for a whole year, and I spent a lot of time with my mother, and I really had the chance to talk about everything, about her life and what she experienced. She’s my best friend, and we became even closer.

SWAN: And the title song Waking World?

YSN: I wanted this to be a dream and not real, but at the same time this is the reality, so it was kind of ambiguous for me. Where am I? Am I dreaming? No, you’re wide awake.

SWAN: Tangled Soul, track eight?

YSN: My soul was completely tangled. (Laughter.) And then one day, I felt: it’s okay, everything will be all right.

SWAN: Speaking about music in general, K-pop has become a global phenomenon. Are you in the wrong field? (Laughter.) More to the point, are you affected by the huge interest?

YSN: At every show, I’m really shocked or surprised because the audience says “hello” and “thank you” in Korean. Unbelievable! There are many people who’ve told me about their experience in Korea, too, saying they’ve spent a month or six months there. It’s something that my parents’ generation couldn’t have expected because the country was destroyed during the war - it’s not that long ago - and they had to build a completely new country. They worked so hard, and because of them, we have this era. People know Korea through K-pop, through Netflix.

SWAN: Then there’s this Korean jazz singer - you. When listeners hear your work, the “soul” comes through. Can you talk about that?

YSN: When I arrived in Paris, not knowing what jazz was, as I mentioned, I told my parents: Oh, I’m gonna study jazz for three years, and I think I can master it, and then I’ll come back to Korea and maybe teach. And afterwards, I felt so stupid, and so bad because I can’t swing, and I don’t have a voice like Ella Fitzgerald, and I could barely learn one standard song. So, I tried everything. On Honeysuckle Rose, I think I wrote down every moment that Ella breathed in, breathed out. But … I couldn’t sing like her, it sounded so fake. So, I said: No, I’ll never be able to sing jazz, this is not for me. After a year, I told my professors that, sorry, I made a wrong choice, I’m going to go back home. And they laughed at me. They said: What? Youn, you can do your own jazz with your own voice. And I said, no, I can’t. Then they recommended some jazz albums of European jazz singers, such as Norma Winstone, who’s an English singer, and my idol. She has a kind of soprano voice like me, and when she interprets, it’s like a whole new tune. And I said, oh, we can call this jazz too? I didn’t know.

So, I learned to try with my own voice and my own soul, with my Korean background, and the more I used my own voice, the more I did things my own way, the more I felt accepted.

SWAN: What is next for you?

YSN: Well, everyone has told me that this album is not jazz, but that’s what I wanted to do. Herbie Hancock always said that jazz is the human soul, it’s not appearances, so you can do whatever you want to do. We’ll see. It’s been a while that I’ve wanted to do an album of jazz standards, so we’ll continue this tour in 2023 and then we’ll see. - A.M. / SWAN

Photos (top to bottom): the front cover of Waking World; Youn Sun Nah in Brussels (photo by A.M.); the back cover of Waking World; Youn Sun Nah and statue (photo by A.M.)

Youn Sun Nah’s Spring Tour runs March 9 to May 26, 2023, and includes concerts in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Sunday, 6 November 2022

NEW ORLEANS IN ‘DAZZLING’ FOCUS AT PARIS EXHIBITION

An exhibition at Paris’ Quai Branly Museum has put the rich culture of New Orleans in the spotlight, with a striking display of carnival costumes and an in-depth look at the city’s history and traditions.

Titled Black Indians de La Nouvelle-Orléans, the show celebrates the “cultural and artistic creativity of African Americans in New Orleans”, say the organizers, who include experts from the Louisiana port city. “The most spectacular form of this creativity is the Black Indians carnival parade,” they add.

The name Black Indians “pays tribute to the native Americans who were subjected to French, Spanish and American domination for centuries, just like the African Americans were”, the curators explain in their notes to the exhibition, which runs until Jan. 15, 2023, at the museum (dedicated to the arts and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas). 

“Behind the dazzling costumes of beads and feathers lies a story of violence and resilience.”

The exhibition not only presents the colourful artistic creations that are paraded during Mardi Gras festivities, but it takes visitors on a historical trip that starts before the 1718 creation of New Orleans and continues to the present day - highlighting the role France and other European states played in colonizing this region of the Americas. The impact of the mass arrival of Haitian refugees in Louisiana in the early 1800s, following the Haitian Revolution, is equally explored. 

This comprehensive perspective demonstrates that the show was designed “in partnership with representatives of Black Indians communities”, as the curators point out. It achieves the stated aim of providing both a “geographical journey - from Europe to Africa and America” - and a historical timeline with key dates and personalities.

Visitors aren’t spared a discussion of the brutal aspects of this history, and the exhibits include a film about the French slave ship Aurore, for instance, whose “arrival in the Gulf of Mexico on 6 June 1719 announced the birth and horrors of the slave-owning society of New Orleans”.

In fact, during the 18th century, New Orleans and the Caribbean together were the leading producers of sugar and coffee, from the labour of enslaved people, as the exhibition details.

Discussing the tradition of the Black Indians costumes, head curator Steve Bourget said that based on oral tradition, African Americans “created these costumes in the nineteenth century to pay tribute to the Native American communities who kept company with them and helped them” during slavery.

“Artists who adopt this style see, in the indigenous people’s claims, a form of resistance to US society’s hegemonic power - and to them, this resistance resembles their own struggle,” he added.

Associate curator Kim Vaz-Deville, a university professor in New Orleans, explained that for the show she worked closely with the artists, or maskers, as they’re called.

“I interviewed those in the exhibition to learn about how they came to the tradition, their creative process, and their motivation to undertake such major projects every year,” Vaz-Deville stated. “I collaborated with them to ensure the text we included in the show accurately reflected their messages and intentions for participation in the tradition.”

Visitors to the exhibition will no doubt come away with lasting images of the stunning costumes on display, but they will gain insight as well into New Orleans’ history and current challenges (especially after Hurricane Katrina in 2005) – issues that are also addressed in this memorable exposition.

Photos, top to bottom: a poster of the exhibition; costume titled The Taking (La Capture), of Big Chief Dow Michael Edwards, 2019.

Thursday, 6 October 2022

CARIBBEAN-AMERICAN ARTIST DEPICTS ‘CHOSEN FAMILY’

For two months over the summer, Caribbean-American artist Delvin Lugo presented his first solo show in New York City, exhibiting large, vibrant canvases at High Line Nine Galleries on Manhattan’s West Side and featuring queer communities in his homeland, the Dominican Republic.

The exhibition, titled “Caribbean Summer”, pulled visitors in with its vivid colours and animated characters and also exemplified the success of alternative art events. The gallery space was provided by non-profit arts group Chashama, which describes itself as helping to “create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive world by partnering with property owners to transform unused real estate”.

These spaces - including galleries that normally close their doors for the summer - are used for “artists, small businesses, and for free community-centric art classes”. According to Lugo, the organisation’s assistance made his show possible and has also provided motivation to continue producing work.

The 44-year-old artist said he’s particularly interested in portraying LGBTQ activists and in expanding his work to include more countries of the Caribbean. The following (edited) interview took place in Manhattan during the exhibition.

SWAN: How did the show come about?

DELVIN LUGO: So, this exhibition is a response to work that I was doing before. I had just finished a series that was about my childhood, growing up a young, gay man in the Dominican Republic, because I lived there until I was twelve years old. And I’d spent so much time kinda dealing with the past that it got to the point that I was like: you know what, I actually don’t know anything happening with the queer culture and the lives of people in DR right now. Yes, I do go back and visit, but when I go back, I go to see my relatives in the countryside, so this was a way to really educate myself and really connect with the queer community in the Dominican Republic. And in this case, it’s Santo Domingo that I’m focusing on.

SWAN: What steps did you take to make the connections?

DL: Well, I really started by reaching out to individuals on social media that maybe I’d seen stories written about, or things that caught my eye on Instagram… so, I reached out to them, and we kind of started a dialogue first. Then when I was ready to start painting, I decided to go meet them in person, and the theme that I had in mind was “chosen family”. I had a few ideas about what the situation was like there, but I really, really didn’t know. It wasn’t until I started meeting people and they started telling me that basically they had no rights… and so I wanted to focus on artists and activists - people I really admired, people that are doing the work and doing the fight. That’s really how it started. I went there, I told my contacts to bring their chosen family, and we hung out and took pictures, and I came back here and that’s how the paintings were formed, from all the information that I had. And I usually don’t just work from one picture, I do a collage of many photos, and then I paint from that collage.

SWAN: So, there’s no painting that comes from just one photo?

DL: Well, in some cases, I borrowed pictures from an association that hosts Gay Pride marches, and I used the people pictured, but I added myself, or the car, or different aspects. With these images, I was inspired by the spirit - the spirit of celebration, the spirit of individuality… and I kind of just worked around the image, adding myself as the driver and so on.

SWAN: The paintings are super colourful, really striking - was that the intention from the start?

DL: I’ve been working with vibrant colours recently, and I knew that it was gonna be very bright… the Caribbean is bright, colourful, and also I wanted to make the paint symbolize the heat, the climate in DR as well. It also feels like summer with the hot pink. But I really do know most of these individuals. Except for some young people in one picture, I know everyone, like Agatha, a trans woman and gay activist from the Bahamas who lives in the Dominican Republic.

SWAN: Can you tell us about your own journey - have you always wanted to be an artist?

DL: I did, you know. It was one of those things that when I was done with school, I really needed to work to survive, so I took jobs and somehow I was always able to get jobs in fashion, and that really kept me busy for a long time.

SWAN: What did you do in fashion?

DL: When I started, I did sales, like showroom wholesale, but most of the time I was working as a fashion stylist, being an assistant and then doing my own work. And that’s a fulltime job. Then slowly but surely, I started doing my own projects, like ink drawings, just things for myself, to be creative. And that developed into my drawing more and playing with oils, which is something I had done before. To get back into it, I went to continuing education classes. I needed to be reintroduced to oils because I’d forgotten so many techniques and things that you need to know. From then, I kept painting, praying for more time to work at it. Then Covid happened, I was let go from my job, and, in the beginning, I kept thinking that they might call me back any minute, and I truly worked around the clock on my painting for the first two months. The job didn’t call me back, but at that point it was great because by then I’d got used to an everyday practice. I can tell you that from the beginning of 2020 to even now, the way that I’ve seen my work grow and even the way that I think, and the way that I approach painting, it has been quite a learning experience.

SWAN: So, this is your first real solo show?

DL: Yeah, it really is. I’ve done a number of group shows, but this opportunity came with Chashama and I applied for it. I was already working on all these pieces, so this was the right time. It’s an introduction to my work, it’s not like a full solo show in a way.

SWAN: How long have you lived in New York?

DL: So, my family left DR in 1990, when I was twelve, and we lived in Rhode Island and then I made my way to New York in ’97 and I’ve been here ever since.

SWAN: Where next, with the art?

DL: I want to continue painting, because it’s such a privilege to have a studio, to have a full-time practice, and I really do want to continue that. I’ve been painting from home up until October last year, and when I got my first studio - even though it’s the size of this table here - I couldn’t wait to get to the studio. I was there to do my own thing. Still, I actually get annoyed when people tell me: “Oh, it must be so wonderful, you’re in your studio, doing your art…” It is great, but it’s also really frustrating because I’m hitting my head against the wall many a day, or leaving angry because something didn’t go right. It’s a fight.

So, for me, it’s truly just to continue creating, to continue painting, following my instincts, following the stories. I really want to continue in the same path of representing and bringing a focus to the LGBTQ community, not just in DR, but in any other parts of the world. I think it would be an interesting project actually to go elsewhere to meet the queer culture and showing them in the painting, even like in other places in the Caribbean, like Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica. That would be really interesting. – AM / SWAN

Photos of Delvin Lugo at High Line Nine Galleries in NYC by A. McKenzie

Wednesday, 31 August 2022

POLITICS AND LYRICISM: REMEMBERING GEORGE LAMMING

 By Dimitri Keramitas

George Lamming was a pioneer of Caribbean literature whose reputation spanned the Atlantic. He was part of a legendary generation of writers, including VS Naipaul and Derek Walcott, who left what were then still colonies to make careers in London, the capital of the then-regnant British Empire.

This was at the beginning of the de-colonization phase during the post-war period, and the lives of Lamming and his literary peers were marked by an inner dialectic between the demands of literature and political sensibility. Lamming, who died in June of this year, was a particularly lyrical prose writer, but he could be astringent in his political views.

Upheaval in his homeland’s region came in the form of World War II. A largely unknown part of the war was the Battle of the Caribbean – a crucial transit point for supplies moving from the port of New Orleans to Europe and beyond. In addition, Trinidad was home to the second-largest oil refinery in the Empire.

The Caribbean became a target of German U-Boats that decimated commercial shipping. The Allies hunted down the submarines, created large bases on the islands, helped Gaullist Résistants overthrow the Vichy regime in the French Antilles. But there was a negative impact as well. Naipaul detailed how American money flowing into their bases resulted in corruption, prostitution and the black market. Lamming, in his great novel, In the Castle of My Skin, described how the fictional San Cristobal, based on Barbados, was deforested for timber and had its rail lines ripped out to provide steel for Britain’s war effort.

To a great extent, Britain’s efforts managing decolonization had to do with the very different war that followed: the Cold War. Just as the US plotted against a democratic leader in Guatemala, invaded the Dominican Republic, and supported anti-Castro Cubans, Britain intervened in British Guyana to quash the democratically elected, but Marxist-leaning, Cheddi Jagan government.

As part of the Cold War effort, Caribbean students were groomed with scholarships (courtesy of the Colonial Office) to Oxbridge and jobs at the BBC Colonial Service. This is where Lamming, Naipaul and Walcott found employment in 1950s London.

Lamming and Naipaul were colleagues at the BBC, but eventually became rivals. In the Castle of My Skin has a serious tone throughout, lyrical language, and a sensitive appreciation of character. Billed as a novel, it is in fact an innovative hybrid, fusing novel, short-stories, and memoir. In contrast, Naipaul’s early works, such as Miguel Street, are admired today for their idiosyncratic style and mimicry of Creole speech, but they were originally seen as bitingly comic, in the manner of Evelyn Waugh. Many West Indians were not amused, and Lamming called Naipaul’s approach “castrated satire”. Ironically, both Lamming’s novel and Naipaul’s Miguel Street resembled one another in their employment of microcosmic settings and young autobiographical personae trying to make sense of their world.

Lamming and other Caribbean writers didn’t find the “motherland” during the 1960s to be a stable cynosure of imperial order. Britain’s culture had become jarringly fashionable: Swinging London, Carnaby Street, the Beatles and Stones, the new cinema, the art of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. Politically and economically, successive Labour governments presided over stagnation and decline, and immigration from the Caribbean and other parts of the Commonwealth sparked racist backlash.

It wasn’t an auspicious time for the traditional English novel. Neither Lamming nor Naipaul would write major fiction during the decade. Instead, they both turned to nonfiction to examine the alienation and destabilization stemming from de-colonization.

Naipaul wrote The Middle Passage, a work of reportage on the contemporary Caribbean. He wrote it after being invited by the president of Trinidad to visit and write on the region; Lamming (who’d spent much of his early life teaching in Trinidad) received the same invitation.

Instead of reportage, Lamming in The Pleasures of Exile turned to literary and cultural criticism to trenchantly express how Western culture, including its canonical literature, distorted the image (and implicitly, self-image) of colonized peoples. In this he was a precursor of critic-scholars such as Edward Saïd, who explored similar themes in his classic Orientalism. Lamming followed that up with two more essay collections: Coming, Coming Home: Conversations II – Western Education and the Caribbean Intellectual and Sovereignty of the Imagination: Conversations III – Language and the Politics of Ethnicity. Lamming also wrote five more novels, notably The Emigrants (1954), a sequel to In the Castle of My Skin.

While Naipaul embarked on a globe-hopping career writing nonfiction, Lamming and Walcott spent years in academia, especially in the US. During the 1980s, Lamming taught at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut, and I came to know him when I attended two of his classes, one an introduction to creative writing, the second a literature course focusing on post-imperial fiction.

At that time he was a genial middle-aged man, nattily dressed with a halo of white hair. His double-focus was evident in the classes he taught. As a creative-writing instructor, he was kindly and supportive, even indulgent. He was amused by one of my stories, which satirised then-vice president George Bush. He was more rigorous when it came to his survey of post-colonial literature.

There’d been a violent military takeover in Liberia then, and Lamming turned a cold eye on what was transpiring there. His objective appraisal of the violence recalled Frantz Fanon, and evoked a favorite image of Lamming’s, that of Caliban in The Tempest. In effect he appropriated Shakespeare’s play about shipwrecked whites on an island (perhaps based on Bermuda) and reversed the perspective to that of the repressed indigenous whose rage must ultimately find release. Likewise, his takes on African writers Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o gave a 180° spin on the Africa-set fictions of European authors, in particular Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Derek Walcott and VS Naipaul both won the Nobel Prize, a distinction which eluded Lamming. Naipaul was eventually made a lord, and lived like a country squire in Wiltshire, in England (however, his plush country abode was rented, not owned). As for Lamming, he returned to Barbados, where he became an elder statesman of literature, and was made a Companion of Honour of his native country. 

To many, the most famous Barbadian is no doubt the singer and cosmetics mogul Rihanna. However, George Lamming was probably gratified that in the passage of time he not only reached the ripe age of 94, but also lived long enough to see Barbados become a republic. - SWAN

Photos (top to bottom): portrait from In the Castle of My Skin, and book cover (University of Michigan Press); image from the 1996 Caribana literary conference in Milan, and programme of a conference event where Derek Walcott also participated.

Wednesday, 6 July 2022

ABORIGINAL ARTIST SALLY GABORI IN PARIS SOLO SHOW

The iconic canvases of Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, the acclaimed Aboriginal artist who began painting around the age of 80, can be seen this summer in a stunning exhibition in Paris.

The show runs until Nov. 6 at the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, located in the Montparnasse area on the city's Left Bank, and it’s the first solo exhibition of Gabori’s work outside Australia.

“This immense painter has produced a unique body of work comprising extraordinary modernity, without any apparent attachment to other aesthetic currents, especially within contemporary Aboriginal painting,” say the curators.

Gabori is considered one of Australia’s greatest contemporary artists of the past 20 years, achieving national and international artistic fame before her death in 2015. She created hundreds of works within a decade, after she was introduced to painting at a local community centre.

The exhibition is not presented in chronological order; instead, visitors are treated to an ocean of colour, where the sea seems to take centre stage. This is a show where art lovers can simply immerse themselves in works that pulse with force, personality and creativity.

For more information about the exhibition and Gabori’s life and work, see:

https://www.sallygabori-fondationcartier.com/

Photo (by AM): A visitor looks at Sally Gabori's paintings at the Fondation Cartier, Paris.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

PARIS INSTALLS STATUE OF GUADELOUPE'S 'SOLITUDE'

She's here now. We can see her. She won’t be forgotten.

With these words, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo on May 10 inaugurated a statue of Solitude, a woman who fought against slavery in Guadeloupe, was sentenced to death by French forces in 1802, and killed a day after giving birth.

“History and memory are part of our lives,” Hidalgo declared, pointing out that women however tended to be the "forgotten ones". She said the commemoration was important not only for people today but also for future generations.

In France, May 10 is observed as the National Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade, Slavery, and Their Abolition (la journée nationale des mémoires de la traite, de l'esclavage et de leur abolition), and several events were held around the country, including one with President Emmanuel Macron at the Jardin du Luxembourg in the French capital - as in past years.

The statue’s inauguration formed part of these events, taking place in a symbolic location. “Solitude” stands on the Général Catroux Square in the 17th arrondissement, in a garden that the city had already named for her in September 2020.

Close by are monuments honouring famous writer Alexandre Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers) and his father Thomas-Alexandre Dumas - who was born into slavery in Saint Domingue (Haiti) and eventually became a general in the French army.

Up to now, the most striking feature of the square has been two huge “broken-chain” shackles on the grass, created by artist Driss Sans-Arcidet and installed in 2009 as "Fers, hommage au Général Dumas". It is around this iron sculpture that some associations have been paying homage to the victims of slavery, since the national May-10 day was launched in 2006.

In fact, even as Solitude’s statue was being inaugurated, another commemorative ceremony was taking place just a few meters away, with music sometimes drowning out the voices of Hidalgo and other official speakers (who included the statue’s creator - artist Didier Audrat - and former French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault). 

Apparently, the organizers of the two events had not consulted with one another, according to several spectators, who called the “clash” a “pity”.

Meanwhile, the statue’s inauguration drew a diverse crowd, who rushed to snap pictures of themselves beside the monument when it was unveiled.

The almost non-stop picture-taking sometimes felt jarring, but it was perhaps understandable, given Solitude’s legendary role in slavery resistance in the Caribbean. Beyond Guadeloupe, her life has been made known particularly through the work of French writer André Schwarz-Bart, whose Guadeloupean widow and fellow writer, Simone Schwarz-Bart, spoke at the inauguration, discussing his acclaimed novel La Mulâtresse Solitude (A Woman Named Solitude). Schwarz-Bart said that she and her late husband knew that the story had to be written.

According to Guadeloupean teacher and translator Suzy Roche, both writers indeed worked to shine a light on the little-known aspects of Solitude's life and to "return her" to her people, as so many Caribbean heroes "have been lost to history".

Solitude was born circa 1772, some two decades before France first abolished slavery in Guadeloupe (in 1794). She came of age during a period of uprisings, as people in French colonies fought for their freedom, against the backdrop of the French Revolution.

It was in 1802 that, while pregnant, she joined an uprising against French troops sent by Napoleon Bonaparte, who wanted to reinstate slavery. The uprising was brutally suppressed, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has produced pedagogic material on Solitude as part of a “Women in African History” project.

Researchers say that she “was taken prisoner around 23 May 1802”, sentenced to death and "suppliciée" (possibly tortured, flogged to death or hanged) on 29 November that year, a day after giving birth. That same year, France reinstated slavery, before abolishing it again in 1848.

Solitude’s story is a universal one that symbolises the fight for freedom and the current need for continuous dialogue, said Hidalgo at the unveiling of the statue.  

It also symbolizes the struggle against racism and xenophobia - both of which are enduring features of life in France, as various anti-discrimination organizations have noted. - SWAN

Photos (top to bottom, by A.M.): the statue of Solitude, by artist Didier Audrat; sculpture "Fers, hommage au Général Dumas" by Driss Sans-Arcidet; officials, including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo (centre) and former Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (far left) posing with "Solitude". alongside writer Simone Schwarz-Bart (in sunglasses).

UNESCO info: https://en.unesco.org/womeninafrica/mulatto-solitude/pedagogical-unit/1

Saturday, 30 April 2022

MULTILINGUALISM VIEW: YOU ARE NOT YOUR LANGUAGE

By Valentina Vagliani

(The following article is a contribution to SWAN's discussion of languages and translation, in collaboration with The Caribbean Translation Project.)

As a multilingual child, I remember feeling surrounded by a variety of tones, rhythms and melodies, all at reach to seize and happily combine. Every word you catch as a toddler is welcomed by marveling grownups; any combination is allowed and whatever you formulate is seen as “adorable”.

Then comes the time for separation, when variety turns into difference. You discover what is right and what is wrong in each separate tongue, what is possible and what isn’t in one or the other, how unity must be shattered. Each culture clearly sets its boundaries, but along with my growing knowledge and love of these cultures, there was no single one growing inside me, and never will be.

Later, strangers, acquaintances and family started asking questions: “Which one is your favorite?” “Which one is the strongest?” “You must have a first language.”

I can still see them, on the lookout for confirmation of the answers they wanted to hear. I don’t think they were ever interested in the actual frame of mind of the “whiz-kid”. One way or another, the response had to fit their own assumptions.

I realize now how those innocent questions were all about discrimination and grading, and how I instinctively protected my opposite mindset as an inborn reflex of self-preservation. Why should I put my musical friends - my languages - in rivalry, when I loved them all?

When you speak several languages, people assume you are a born translator. What else could languages be useful for?

While you may or may not enjoy the challenge of translation, the beauty of natural born multilingualism is precisely that there is no need for translation. You don’t need to refer to a dominant culture to understand another.

However, a strange phenomenon occurs: you are always seen as from the other country by locals, even your own kin. You are still a member of the family, but a different one. I’ve heard that it happens to all expats as well. Once you’ve seen your country from the outside, you become an outsider. You are no longer really one of them. It’s not all bad, you stand out as an exception, you attract attention and interest, but it affects your sense of belonging.

Then your “exoticism” can become invasive. That shouldn’t always be the source of interest towards you. It gets in the way of what you want to say and to do with your life.

And that’s when someone says: “Come to think of it, you’re really nothing, since you are none of them completely” (meaning none of my three cultures). “Nothing personal…”

Seriously? Certainly nothing you can imagine.

The dismay caused by those words is reflected in Toni Morrison’s famous quotation:

“Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do.” (Portland State Public Lecture on the theme of the American Dream, 1975)

I was also told: one day “you’ll find your idiom”.

Multilingualism is a way of thinking, not only the ability to switch languages. Is that what makes some people so uncomfortable? Perhaps they can sense but cannot see, and therefore can’t quite understand or even imagine the mind of the multilingual person? Yet, when we explain what we experience, it doesn’t calm the threat, it just triggers more provocation, which reveals denial of multilingualism’s specific characteristics. And it is this denial that creates issues.

In people’s defense, the lack of words to represent what exists in multilingual persons’ minds doesn’t help others to envisage the possibility of what one describes. The expression “father tongue” is not as commonly used as “mother tongue”, and how does one refer to the language you acquire from attending school in another country? The lack of specific terminology shows how little multilingual culture is represented.

To further describe the multilingual mindset, imagine being everywhere at once, having a certain gift of ubiquity, as you can stand in a culture while watching it from the perspective of another, and this, without being watched in return.

Come to think of it, that in fact could be so disturbing to some people that they just lose it. How else could several cultures add up to nothing?

Fortunately, many individuals don’t need to know a second or a third language to use their imagination and open their minds. Putting thoughts into words is the first act of translation we all experience.  Others love to learn foreign languages. They enjoy discussing thoughts, concepts and are glad to explore the many ways of thinking and possible representations of the human mind. And that, in the end, is the most interesting part of life and of multilingualism.

Yes, you will find your idiom, it’s called freedom. 

Italian and American, born in France, of Jamaican and Barbadian origins, Valentina Vagliani is a dancer, singer and voice teacher based in Paris. She is naturally trilingual and also speaks a fourth language.

Editing by SWAN. Photos (top to bottom): Valentina Vagliani, by Rémi-Charles Caufman; image of Toni Morrison on the cover of The Source of Self-Regard, published by Knopf, 2019.

Follow the Caribbean Translation Project on Twitter: @CaribTranslate.

Monday, 28 March 2022

FESTIVAL OF BRAZILIAN FILM IS BACK WITH MUSIC FOCUS

Like many arts events, the Brazilian Film Festival of Paris found itself scrambling to survive when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Organizers first moved the programming online because of lockdowns, and then changed the date to summer in 2021. Now, the festival is back with live screenings of films that will take place in the French capital March 29 to April 5.

This 24th edition is putting the spotlight on music and on pioneering musicians, presenting Brazil’s greatest cultural export through different lenses, according to the festival’s founder and director Katia Adler. A resident of Rio de Janeiro who studied film in France and worked in television, Adler began distributing Brazilian films in 1998 “as a way to show a different picture and to help filmmakers at a time when culture was being pushed to the side-lines,” she said.

“When I was working in television in the late Eighties and there was something about Brazil, it was always negative, focusing on street children, drugs or poverty,” she told SWAN in 2013 - a year that Brazil was the “guest of honour” throughout France, with a range of cultural events.

While the festival has faced difficulties since then, Adler says it has become an important event in Europe, and she and her co-organizers are determined to see it continue. The following edited interview with Adler took place in Paris via telephone in March 2022.

SWAN: The pandemic affected the festival in 2020. How did you cope?

Katia Adler: We had to cancel the in-person screenings and go on-line. We had a selection of about 60 films and quite a number of virtual debates as well. Then in 2021, we moved to July, for four days, with precautions. But people were still afraid to go to the cinema, so our audience was smaller. Now we’re back to our format before the pandemic, and I hope people will come out to see the films and that things will be more or less back to normal. We hope we’ve left the pandemic behind us.

SWAN: What’s happening at this year’s event?

KA: We have a line-up of 29 films, and we’re really happy to be back with screenings in the cinema because that’s important for viewers. We have 10 to 12 special guests coming from Brazil - I think that’s significant too. And the festival can be seen as a fighter because we’re still resisting negative trends even though we don’t have a sponsor this year.

SWAN: Among the notable films that will be screened, there is a documentary on renowned musician Gilberto Gil, titled Gilberto Gil - Antologia Vol.1 and directed by Lula Buarque de Hollanda. Can you tell you tell us more this?

KA: Yes, the closing film of the festival is about Gilberto Gil, and it includes archival footage that’s unknown to most people. The images come from his personal archive, and it’s a very interesting film about him, about his life and music.

SWAN: Along with this year’s theme of music, you’re also focusing on a work that had a great impact on Brazilian filmmaking.

KA: We’ve chosen a film by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Rio 40 Graus, which somehow changed the way that directors subsequently made movies because it was filmed in a favela in Brazil, with Black actors, and that was significant. After this film, Brazilian cinema changed a bit, but we’re still far from having representative Black directors in Brazil. There’s still much to be done to portray and represent Black Brazilians, who make up 50 percent of the population.

Our opening film this year, Pixinguinha (directed by Denise Saraceni), is about a great Brazilian musician and I think that it’s important for the festival to show this film, and to have discussions and debates.

SWAN: Overall, what’s the main importance of a festival such as yours, especially with the sizable Brazilian community in France?

KA: In addition to the Brazilian community, about 70 percent of our audience consists of French film fans who are interested in Brazilian culture, and the festival serves on one hand to promote Brazilian cinema, but it also serves to highlight French distributors of Brazilian films. France is the leading country for co-production of films with Brazil. But Brazilian cinema is on average still not widely known. It’s not like Brazilian music, which most people know, and which is played just about everywhere. I think it’s fundamental to have a festival that has existed for 24 years and which is a platform for Europe, because other countries ask for the films after seeing them at the festival.

Photos (top to bottom): the poster for the Brazilian Film Festival of Paris; Katia Adler; and a shot from the film Pixinguinha. Images are provided courtesy of the festival. 

The festival is also making about 8 films - features and documentaries - available online from March 29 to April 30, 2022.

For more information: Festival du cinéma brésilien de Paris 24 - Festival - Jangada

Monday, 14 March 2022

ANGOLAN ARTIST BONGA KEEPS THE LIGHT SHINING

With his latest album Kintal da Banda, the acclaimed Angolan musician Bonga has reminded us how valuable art can be in times of darkness.

From the first track, which gives the album its name, listeners will feel their spirits lifting as Bonga’s passionate, raspy voice and irresistible melodies take us to a sphere of light.

The collection of songs celebrates his memories of growing up in Kiripi, Angola, and receiving an education in the courtyard of his family’s home. The album’s title translates as “the Courtyard of the Place” or, perhaps more loosely, “Yard Band”, and it recalls the area where Bonga “forged his social and political conscience” and his “aptitude for tenderness and revolt”, as French author Anne-Laure Lemancel puts it, in notes about the release.

The themes range from family get-togethers and shared meals to the need for resistance against the “dark forces” of the planet, no matter who they are – although Bonga asserts that he doesn’t wish to get angry anymore because it’s detrimental to his health. The stories in the songs come alive through the melodies of semba, the traditional Angolan music genre that Bonga is credited with popularizing on the international scene.

One of the album’s highlights is Kúdia Kuetu, a duet with French singer Carmélia Jordana that speaks of Angola’s famed cuisine, and which somehow evokes the sweet sadness of songs by the late Cabo Verdean star Cesária Évora. (Both Bonga and Évora were born in the early 1940s.)

Other tracks, such as Kolenu and Sem Kijila, recall Bonga’s long career of activism and revolt, and even as we dance to the rhythm, the message is clear: keep resisting the darkness and the warmongers.

Listen to Kúdia Kuetu here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejkcvasYyVM

Monday, 14 February 2022

A CUBAN-BORN WRITER ON TRANSLATION'S 'VITAL' ROLE

By Marta Fernandez Campa

Critically acclaimed Cuban-American writer and translator Achy Obejas is the author of many works of prose and poetry, including seminal texts such as We Came all the Way from Cuba so You Could Dress Like This? (1994) and Memory Mambo (1996). Obejas’ most recent publication, Boomerang/Bumerán (2021), is a book of poetry that explores a wide range of themes, including love, exile, politics, gender and language from a multilingual perspective.

Her writing has been widely anthologised in collections such as Cubana: Contemporary Fiction by Cuban women (1998, translated from Spanish), Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (2008), and Radical Hope: Letters of Dissent in Radical Times (2017), to name a few. She is also a journalist and has published investigative and opinion articles for The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Out, The Washington Post, The Village Voice and other publications.

As a translator, Havana-born Obejas has translated the writing of several authors, including Caribbean writers Junot Díaz, Rita Indiana Hernández and Wendy Guerra. She has translated into Spanish Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and translated into English Hernández’s novel Tentacle and Guerra’s Revolution Sunday and Everyone Leaves (which has been translated into several other languages as well).

She is the recipient of multiple awards, including a Lambda Award and a Pulitzer Prize for her journalistic work, alongside National Endowment for the Arts and Ford fellowships. Her most recent short story collection, The Tower of the Antilles (2017), was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner award.

The following interview with Achy Obejas, conducted by email, is part of SWAN’s series of conversations with translators of Caribbean writing, in association with the Caribbean Translation Project.

SWAN: How did your interest in translation begin?

Achy Obejas: I feel like I’ve always been doing translation. When we first arrived in the U.S., I was six and took to English very quickly, so that I became my family’s translator/interpreter. This meant that, for me, translation came very naturally. It wasn’t until I began doing it professionally that I realized it was actually a specific skill set, that it wasn’t just what you did to help your (immigrant) parents along.

When I first moved to Chicago, I began doing interpreting gigs: depositions, labor disputes, medical emergencies. I had to learn new vocabulary, reconsider the casual Spanish of my family, and the regional variants that often came into play.

My first actual book translation was an accident, really. Akashic Books editor Johnny Temple and I agreed that I’d edit a Havana entry for their noir series. At the time, I figured most of the writers I was thinking of using had translators or work already translated, but the truth is we didn’t consider translation very much at all. And then, when I started getting the translations, they were god-awful. It soon became apparent that it was better, and easier, for me to just do the translations than try and fix them. Johnny and I ended re-negotiating for translation fees on top of the editing fee.

After Havana Noir came out, David Unger was gracious enough to recommend me to translate Junot Díaz’s Brief and Marvelous Life of Oscar Wao. I honestly didn’t think I stood a chance so when I was asked for a sample, I just went with a kind of Spanglish that complemented what Junot was doing in English. I got the job, and great reviews for the translation, and suddenly I was a translator of literary fiction.

SWAN: You’ve translated the work of many Caribbean authors, including Rita Indiana Hernández, Wendy Guerra and your own writing. Can you tell us more about these collaborations and your process of translation?

A.0.: Every author is different. A lot depends on their personality, the work, their own level of interest in the translation, their own knowledge of English. Wendy just hands it (over) and trusts me to do her right, and of course I cherish that trust. With Rita, I had a few questions but it was mostly a hands-off situation.

I honestly prefer when I’m left to my own devices, to ask questions when I have them but to not feel too supervised. My worst experiences have been with authors who think they speak English, for Spanish, well enough to intervene. It’s usually not the case, and it requires a lot of diplomacy.

I’m a pretty straightforward translator - I read the text and take notes for questions, research, challenges and doubts. And then I dive in, chronologically, usually one page per session, with several sessions in a given day. I re-read the previous day’s work every morning. After each chapter, I back up and read from scratch, just to make sure the voice is steady, that there aren’t connections I’ve missed, that kind of thing.

In addition, I always hire a reader. This is particularly important to me when I’m translating into Spanish for two reasons: one, because I’m autodidactic in Spanish (all my formal education is in English) it’s important to have that safety net, and, two, because I’m frequently translating into variants that aren’t Cuban, I want to make sure that the voice is absolutely true.

SWAN: How important is translation for today’s world, especially for communities that might be underrepresented?

A.O.: I think it’s vital. I’m always disturbed by this notion that the translator is somehow a traitor. The translator is a bridge, a pathfinder, the one who makes communication possible. And communication is imperative in our fractured world. And given that the world’s superpower refuses to foster multilingualism, then I think translation is our only hope of expanding minds and opening hearts.

SWAN: In the Caribbean, as in other regions, it sometimes feels as if countries are divided by language. How can people in the literary and education spheres help to bridge these linguistic “borders"?

A.O.: I think the only way that’s real is to learn each other’s stories, to get closer to each other’s lives. We do that by talking to each other, which means we use translation as a bridge, not just to understand each other’s language but each other’s experiences and how they shape each of us.

SWAN: How do you see literary translation evolving to reach more readers?

A.O.: I think it’s a pretty exciting time to be a translator, and a terrific time for discussions about the hows and whys of translations. Language is always evolving but right now feels like a very emphatic moment in terms of gender, disability, race and other political concerns and how language frames these conditions. It seems to me I’m constantly re-evaluating and reconsidering my approach.

SWAN: The decade of Indigenous Languages begins in 2022. Can you speak a little about what that can mean to the work of translators and to translation generally?

A.O.: Wider circulation, I hope, of indigenous texts. And greater respect and honor for indigenous communities, their histories and stories. And a greater understanding too of how much those languages have infiltrated and influenced more widely used languages, especially European languages. Because we owe a lot.

SWAN: Congratulations on the publication of Boomerang / Bumerán, your latest poetry collection. In its Author´s Note, you mention that you wanted to write largely a gender-free text and you highlight the challenge particularly with the sections in Spanish, a language that is marked by gender categories in its grammar and that, as you say, “exists on the binary.” How do you see the poems disrupting gender binaries as well as other binaries and discursive levels?

A.O.: Most of the time when we talk about inclusive language in Spanish, it means degendering persons, but the rest of the language remains gendered: the table is feminine, the coffee is masculine. I have yet to understand why that’s okay in a supposed de-gendered text; I have yet to understand the utilitarian nature of gender. So, in Boomerang/Bumerán, I de-gendered the table and the coffee and everything in between. I don’t think you kill the binary in persons but allow it in things; why?

This is, of course, an intellectual and political exercise. Most of us only de-gender a little here and there in our speech - todes, amigos, that kind of thing - but I wanted to propose a vision of another possibility. Not the way necessarily, but a way.

SWAN: What are your next projects?

A.O: I’m currently working on a novel. I’m excited about returning to that form. 

Photos (top to bottom): Writer and translator Achy Obejas; Havana Noir (Akashic Books); Revolution Sunday by Wendy Guerra, translated by Achy Obejas; the cover of Boomerang/Bumerán by Achy Obejas.

Marta Fernandez Campa is a researcher and lecturer based in London, with various research interests, including multi-lingual texts and the role of translation.

Follow the Caribbean Translation Project on Twitter: @CaribTranslate