Thursday, 11 February 2016


Two years after the death of influential theorist Stuart Hall, scholars will meet at a university in Dortmund, Germany, to examine his legacy, in a world where the cultural and media landscape has changed tremendously over the past decade.

Stuart Hall (photo: E. McCabe)
The conference, titled “Wrestling with the Angels: Exploring Stuart Hall’s Theoretical Legacy”, is being hosted by the Technische Universität (TU) from Feb. 25 to 27.
Participants  will “engage with, examine, use, question, criticise, develop and transform Hall's many concepts and ideas”, according to the organizers - professors Gerold Sedlmayr, Florian Cord, and Marie Hologa.
Hall was one of the founding thinkers of “cultural studies”, an inter-disciplinary field that focuses on the political dynamics of contemporary culture, and on how power-relations play out between producers and consumers.
Scholars generally focus on analyzing the social and political contexts of culture, and, in this, Hall was primarily concerned with the impact on both individuals and communities, vis-à-vis society’s structure. But some current theorists are moving away from the “power and political” aspects, Prof. Cord said.
Prof. Florian Cord
“We still feel a belief in the relevance of Hall’s work, but has the field nowadays become too de-politicized? That’s something we’d like to examine,” he told SWAN.
As a long-time director of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Hall wielded major influence both within academic circles and in wider public discussions of politics, race and media.
Born into a so called middle-class family in Jamaica in 1932, he went to England as a Rhodes Scholar in 1951 to study at Oxford University. He continued on a PhD route (which he later abandoned), became a central figure of the British New Left, and co-founded the journal New Left Review.
For Hall, “intellectual practice was politics, and questions of culture were political questions,” say the meeting’s conveners. The conference’s title is in fact inspired by Hall’s own stated view that theoretical work meant “wrestling with the angels” and that the only theory worth having was one for which you had to fight and with which you had to struggle.
Author Caryl Phillips (photo: Daria Tunca)
British-Caribbean author Caryl Phillips has described Hall as a “sociologist, writer, film critic and political activist” and said that the theorist’s achievements were an extension of the work of a man Hall greatly admired, the Trinidadian intellectual, C.L.R. James.
Outside of the academic world, Hall developed into “Britain’s most insightful media critic on matters as wide-ranging as film, literature, race migration and class”, Phillips wrote in an article.
He considered Hall to be unique in his ability to “move between the worlds of the academy and the popular media with both elegance and authority”, he added.
“One day he is on television interviewing Spike Lee, or presenting a documentary about Derek Walcott, the next day he is delivering a guest lecture on [Italian theoretician Antonio] Gramsci’s political thoughts to a university audience, and the day after that writing a paper on the role of the modern black photographer in British society to be read at a gallery opening,” Phillips wrote in 1997, in the introduction to an interview with Hall.
It is this multi-faceted nature that makes Hall’s work so engrossing, according to professors Cord and Sedlmayr.  But his achievements and personality could be overshadowing his ideas.
Prof. Gerold Sedlmayr
“Hall is still very relevant - he is mentioned in almost every paper about cultural studies,” Sedlmayr told SWAN. “But there’s often no deeper engagement. He seems to be canonized, yet no one deals with his ideas anymore.”
The conference will not only address this anomaly, but some participants will offer theories on how Hall would have viewed the rampant development of social media, or the current political language in Europe, where governments are struggling to develop a coherent and humane response to the refugee crisis.
One scholar - Nina Power of London’s Roehampton University - will look particularly at “why the 21st century needs Stuart Hall”.  - A.M.
For more information, see: can follow SWAN on Twitter @mckenzie_ale

Monday, 8 February 2016


By Dimitri Keramitas

The title of Thierry Michel’s documentary, L’Homme Qui Répare Les Femmes, about Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, is something of an understatement: The surgeon is a monumental figure on the African continent, up there with Nelson Mandela, Wole Soyinka, Kofi Annan.

Dr. Denis Mukwege, with some of his patients.
He does much more than treat broken women. But humility is part of his greatness, so he probably wouldn’t be put off by the film’s title. It is an accurate description of his job, though people may mistakenly think it refers to genital cutting. In fact, the women in question are victims of an even grimmer fate, if that’s possible.

The people depicted in the documentary live in the Eastern Congo, which has been wracked by non-stop war for decades. Aside from internecine struggles, the region has been impacted by the nations on its borders, Rwanda and Burundi. In a grotesque irony, when refugees flooded Eastern Congo in the aftermath of the genocidal civil war in Rwanda, they were welcomed by the Congolese who were then victimized when many of these same refugees regrouped as militias.

While women have always suffered as “collateral damage” in wars, in this conflict the combatants perfected the technique of specifically targeting women, not as spoils of war, but as a way to destroy the fabric of their communities. They have been raped, impregnated, forced to have sex with family members, and mutilated. Many have been killed outright. The endurance of these women is as astonishing as the superhuman efforts of the good doctor.

The doctor at his clinic.
In fact, the film adopts a parallel structure. First, we follow Dr. Mukwege to the clinics where he operates, as well as to Brussels, New York and Washington where he collects awards (such as the Sakharov Prize) or speaks out about the ordeal of the Congolese population.

We also hear him speak about his origins, how he became a doctor and especially this particular kind of doctor. Then we get the testimony of the victims, and see how they recover on a personal level, and also organize themselves within community organizations. Dr. Mukwege is also involved in these groups and workshops.

The doctor doesn’t exactly have it easy. Because of threats, and an armed attack that took the life of a staffer and friend, he lives under armed guard. When he goes to his clinic in Panzi it’s in a convoy of Blue Helmets’ jeeps. Aside from the obvious privation and courage is the fact that Dr. Mukwege willingly chose this path. At one point in his life he’d immigrated to Europe, where he had a good career and comfortable life, and safety for his family. But he decided that for a Congolese doctor to practice in Europe while his people were suffering would be to contribute to the injustice, and so he returned to the Eastern Congo.

Filmmaker Thierry Michel (photo: A. McKenzie)
When Belgian director Michel films the doctor and the women as they go about their lives, the documentary works powerfully and movingly. But certain filmmaking choices mar the film. The most distasteful is the use of over-the-top classical music to accompany several scenes of carnage. Perhaps Michel thought these sequences were too horrible, or that the audience couldn’t bear them. For many viewers, the music might come across as moralistic varnish or worse, a sort of cultural imperialism, as if human suffering has to be dignified by European high culture to qualify as authentically tragic.

Michel told SWAN in a post-screening interview, however, that this music was a “personal” choice, and that the Congolese are themselves fond of liturgical music, as it’s often played in religious gatherings.

But he also over-indulges in spectacular shots of Congolese scenery. It’s not difficult: as the director Boris Lojkine once remarked that the Congo is the most cinematographic place on Earth. These shots do serve a purpose, as the locals have a special bond with the land, and the natural resources are the stakes of the various conflicts there. But Michel sometimes veers towards excess, so that at times the film resembles a National Geographic travelogue. [He told SWAN that the setting acts as another character in the film.]

Dr. Denis Mukwege, at an international meeting.
Throughout the documentary, we see footage of the doctor being honored in Western countries. He certainly deserves the accolades, and we’re content that he seems content. At the same time, when the privileged audiences applaud the doctor we sense a degree of their own self-congratulation. Does anyone really think that a medical professional who has saved countless lives needs to be dignified by ceremonial retainers in medieval costumes? This takes place in Brussels, and we can suppose that the pomp derives from the Belgian royal tradition. Yet there’s no irony evoked about the roots of the DRC’s problems in King Leopold’s Congo Free State.

Likewise, the director makes references to past dictators Mobutu Sese Seko and his short-lived successor Laurent Kabila, but doesn’t mention their sponsors, particularly the United States. The film seems to portray the current DRC government as legitimate (if a tad inefficient and corrupt); no mention is even made of Joseph Kabila. But when the audience sees militia members on the dock, finally getting a taste of justice, we have the uneasy feeling their military judges aren’t all that different.

The film opens in France in February.
The film is much better off when the subjects speak for themselves. At one point Dr. Mukwege addresses a church parish about their struggles, and his own ascent from “the dust” of Panzi to international meetings with presidents. The son of a pastor, Mukwege powerfully expresses his faith in ringing terms, and he and the congregation revel in their spiritual bond. The scene shows us the source of the people’s strength under dire conditions, though secular-minded viewers in some countries may well be disconcerted.

Paradoxically, the film’s most searing scene is on the opposite end of the moral spectrum. It isn’t a scene of violence. Rather it shows the rebels coming out of the bush and giving up their arms after a decisive push by Congolese soldiers and international peace-keepers. Thuggish militia leaders give speeches, pretending to be conciliatory political leaders. A suspiciously paltry quantity of weapons is arranged in piles.

Then we see the guerrillas marching in formation and falling into ranks. They seem convincingly disciplined. As the camera focuses on these men we study their faces: they are stone-hard, unrepentant, filled with fury, unbowed in their humiliation. It makes us think about where these men have been, what they have done, what had been done to them and theirs. It reminds us that human evil is a mystery, not just a component in a Manichean equation.

Whatever the film’s flaws, Thierry Michel is to be commended for bringing to world attention a tragedy that has shamefully been off the media radar. (Consider that more people have died in the conflicts in East Congo than in Syria, Libya, Ukraine, and Iraq combined.) That he succeeds in evoking the resilience of the victims and the determination of those who’ve come to their aid is an achievement.  - © SWAN

Co-production: Les Films de la Passerelle / Riva Production / RTBF Sector Documentaries / Public Senat / Lichtpunt / Wallonie Image Production. Distribution: JHR Films. The documentary is supported by Amnesty International. Photos are courtesy of the filmmaker, except when noted otherwise.

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

Wednesday, 3 February 2016


By Sharon Leach

The Caribbean visual arts community lost one of its leading luminaries on Jan. 26 when revered painter Basil Barrington Watson died at his Kingston residence, after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 85.

Barrington Watson: "Self-Portrait" (1973),
Orange Park Collection.
But Watson, considered one of Jamaica’s most distinguished artists of the post-Independence period, has left behind a legacy that is likely to inspire Caribbean artists for years to come.

Dr David Boxer, the former curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica, described him as “our finest and most influential realist painter… [who] had no equal”.

Watson was born in the Jamaican parish of Hanover, in 1931 and was educated at Kingston College before going on to the Royal College of Art in London, from 1958 to 1960. He continued studying the works of European masters at the Rijksakademie, Amsterdam, and at major art schools in Spain and other countries.

On his return to Jamaica in 1961 (the year before independence from Britain and time of the nascent art movement), he became the first director of studies at the Jamaica School of Arts and Crafts - now part of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. There he promptly set about contributing to what would eventually be seen as one of his lasting legacies regarding Jamaican arts and the country’s cultural heritage as a whole.

According to former Jamaican culture minister Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange, Watson had “an undying vision of global reach for Jamaica’s artists. For him, the Jamaican artist could have a place in any international exhibition or gallery”.

Barrington Watson: "Barbara" (c.1962)
Aaron & Marjonie Matalon collection,
National Gallery of Jamaica
Having persevered and become an artist despite the vociferous objections of his own father, Watson was determined to change the mindset of his people as it pertained to the arts. At the Jamaica School of Arts and Crafts, he was instrumental in developing a curriculum that would afford graduates the ability to pursue income-earning opportunities, not only in the area of conventional and applied arts, but across a broader spectrum that included teaching, television and advertising.

In short, local artistic practice was now legitimized. As art facilitator Tamara Scott-Williams noted in a 2011 article in the Jamaica Observer titled “Barrington Watson: A Life in Paint,” he gave art students “the tools, the degrees and diplomas that would allow [them] to become professionals in their own right in a field that was commonly thought to be an idle pursuit”.

The emergence of what is today seen as a thriving art scene in Jamaica, and by extension the Caribbean, is in no small part due to Watson, who had begun, by the 1960s, to build a name for himself, not only in Jamaica and the broader Caribbean, but also North America and Europe.

Among his well catalogued and beloved oeuvre - such as Mother and Child, Washer Women and Conversation - are also various commissions and official portraits, including those of several Jamaican prime ministers, American civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, and former Commonwealth Secretary and University of the West Indies Chancellor Sir Shridath Ramphal.

Barrington Watson: "Conversation" (1981),
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Jamaica.
Watson became one of the country’s most prolific artists, producing, in addition to three sculptures, hundreds of paintings over a wide range of genres that included nudes, erotica, landscapes, history, portraits and self-portraits, for which he received numerous accolades, including the country’s prestigious Gold Musgrave Medal, the Commander of the Order of Distinction, and the Order of Jamaica.

But it is his acutely rendered paintings of Jamaican people - in particular, the Jamaican woman, his favourite subject - that perhaps have most endeared him to contemporary Jamaican audiences.

In a post-Independent society that was used to Eurocentric portrayals of so-called beauty, Watson unapologetically presented, through his sensitive compositions, an equally unapologetic Caribbean aesthetic that unswervingly reflected his appreciation and love of his people, and helped, probably unconsciously, to boost their self-esteem.

Edward Sullivan, an art historian at New York University and a specialist in Caribbean art, said: “Barrington Watson's death is a major loss for not only Jamaican art but for that of the Caribbean as a whole. His work was a touchstone of excellence and integrity for its technical brilliance but also for its forthright depiction of a wide variety of characters that form the cultural personality of his nation. I do not by any means refer to simple folkloric representations of ‘types’ of Jamaica, but, rather wish to underscore the significance of his innate comprehension of the social and psychological circumstances of the individuals and groups he portrayed.”

Barrinton Watson: "Mother and Child" (1958-59).
Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica.
Veerle Poupeye, executive director of the National Gallery of Jamaica, reacting to news of his passing, stated: “Barrington's exceptional command of paint and line and his professional success as an artist continue to inspire our younger generation.”

Recalling a lecture that Watson gave at the Gallery and how spectators admired him, she added, “I will never forget the reaction of young artists and students when he gave a public lecture at the National Gallery in October 2011 — they treated him like a rock star, mobbing him with requests for autographs!  We were very fortunate to be able to work with Barrington and his wife, Doreen, on his retrospective, which was held in 2012 and remains as one of the most popular exhibitions we have ever staged.”

As Jamaica bids farewell to this icon of the art world, the country knows that his impressive legacy is reaching a new generation of artists and art-lovers.  - © SWAN

Sharon Leach is an award-winning author and journalist based in Jamaica. 

Sunday, 31 January 2016


To those who like to say that poetry is dead, Elizabeth Acevedo has a ready answer: poetry is by no means dead, it’s just constantly taking on new forms. And slam is one of these transmutations, where poets recite their work on stage, engaging directly with the audience.

Elizabeth Acevedo
“I see hundreds of young people at slam performances,” says Acevedo, a prize-winning writer and performer based in Washington, D.C. “But some people would like to dismiss this as just yelling. That makes me want to rebel.”

Acevedo was a member of the Beltway team that won the 2014 National Poetry Slam in the United States, by delivering impassioned, uncompromising verse. Since then she has been touring colleges, conducting workshops and giving lectures.

Currently on the road in Europe, she performed in Paris, Sevilla and Brussels in January, drawing attention to the ways in which slam has raised the concerns of women and ethnic minorities through poetry – and, along the way, ruffled establishment feathers.

“If you think of how marginalized people are criticized for being marginal, maybe the work that we’re doing is to get people to understand others’ experiences, to walk in others’ shoes,” Acevedo says. “Art can make people more empathetic.”

During a workshop in Paris, for instance, she recited a haunting poem about police shootings of African-American men, using imagery drawn from her own heritage as an “Afro-Latina”, as she calls herself, and mixing Spanish terms with the English.

Acevedo in performance.
Born in New York City of parents from the Dominican Republic, Acevedo (who turns 28 in February) says she grew up with a love of music and storytelling at home. She initially wanted to be a rap star but got into slam at age 14 because of a teacher who encouraged her to perform her poetry with other schoolmates.

“When I saw how seriously the students took the slam competition, it pushed me to see how I could stand out,” she told SWAN in an interview. But after a few years of contests, she withdrew to concentrate on her studies.

She was working on a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Maryland when she and a team went to the National Poetry Slam, an annual contest that had 72 competing groups in 2014. Acevedo performed an individual poem in each round and was one of about seven women among the final four teams of 16 to 20 contestants.

The team’s win made her realize this could be a career, and over the past year, she has visited some 50 colleges as a performer.

“I’m lucky to be able to make a living from these shows,” she says, adding that she’s sometimes surprised by the chord that her political work strikes. Still, she remains irked by the dismissal, especially among some academics, of slam as a paltry substitute for real poetry.

Acevedo at a Paris bookshop.
Some critics say that the sport-like competitiveness of slam events and the raw political nature of most recitations serve to diminish the art of poetry.

“I don’t think that the fact that it’s different makes it any less powerful,” Acevedo told SWAN. “I’ve seen people cry over a poem at some performances.”

She considers herself part of a growing tradition. It’s almost 26 years since the first National Poetry Slam took place in San Francisco in 1990, following the launch of the genre in 1984 by American poet Marc Smith.

The movement grew in Chicago and later spread to New York, with shows at the Nuyorican Poet's Café, hosted by poet and activist Bob Holman who championed poetry in various forms, particularly spoken word.

Slam’s popularity spread to other countries such as France and England, where many young poets have seized on the art form. In Paris, Acevedo was a guest of Paris Lit Up (PLU), a project that brings writers together and organizes multimedia literary events.

Jason Francis McGimsey, of PLU.
“From the beginning, Paris Lit Up has aimed to create open community spaces where writers can meet, share their work and inspire one another,” says PLU’s executive director, Jason Francis McGimsey. “We try to stress the social nature of writing and the importance of writing communities.”

For artists like Acevedo, one of the attractions of such projects is being able to speak directly to an audience as a writer and to bring poetry to people who might not necessarily read it, or who might have got turned off by the way it was taught in school.

Acevedo is also aware, however, that what sounds good on stage might not bear up under closer scrutiny or work as well on the page.

“How do you walk the line between a poem that’s equally as powerful when it’s performed as when it’s written down?” she muses. “That’s something I’ve been grappling with.”

A chapbook of her work will be published later this year and she’s working on other projects. But she thinks there’s no turning back from slam, despite disparagement of its artistic validity in some quarters.

“It feels sometimes as if we’re bulldozing our way,” she says. “But I’m also just trying to tell the stories I wish I’d been able to read.”  -  A.M.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016


Alphadi flanked by models. (Photo: UNESCO/P.Chiang-Joo)
The acclaimed African fashion designer Sidahmed Alphadi Seidnaly, or Alphadi, was designated a UNESCO Artist for Peace on Jan. 25, in a ceremony at the Paris headquarters of the United Nation’s cultural agency.

UNESCO's director-general, Irina Bokova, said the honour was in recognition of Alphadi’s “commitment to culture and development at the service of peace, respect and human dignity, and for his contribution to the promotion of tolerance”.

Alphadi and UNESCO's Director General Irina Bokova.
(Photo courtesy of UNESCO/P.Chiang-Joo)
Alphadi’s work has had a huge impact on many designers of African origin, in France and elsewhere. The Paris-based stylist Vanessa Augris told SWAN that he has been an inspiration to her and a generation of other fashion creators.

“He is one of the most important African designers,” she said. “And his work has really helped to advance the appreciation of African fashion.”

Alphadi was born in Timbuktu, Mali, in 1957, and grew up in Niger. He studied in France and is a graduate of the Atelier Chardon Savard school of fashion and design, located in Paris. Admirers describe him as the “magician of the desert”, and he has been recognized by other internationally known designers such as Takada Kenzo, Paco Rabanne and the late Yves Saint Laurent.

One of his major accomplishments is the creation of the International Festival of African Fashion (FIMA), which he launched in 1998 in Niger’s Tiguidit area of the Sahara desert, under the auspices of UNESCO. 

One of Alphadi's designs shown at UNESCO
The Festival has since become a place of “exchange and dialogue between cultures from all over the world”, according to the UN agency.

As a UNESCO Artist for Peace, Alphadi will work to transform FIMA into an itinerant event so that the next editions may take place in other African countries, notably Mali and Côte d’Ivoire, UNESCO said. The designer intends to develop the festival’s educational function as well.

He has already created the Alphadi Foundation, which works to improve the lives of women and children in the Sahara and helps create and develop employment in the region, UNESCO added.

In a speech at his designation ceremony, Alphadi deplored the rise of intolerance and said he would work to boost peace, culture and development.

“We need to create a world of love and lasting peace,” he said. “I will use all my energies to build peace through fashion and the arts.”

He then presented a runway show that highlighted the designs for which he has become known: modern garments that combine striking colour, glamour and traditional influences.

A model shows off Alphadi's creativity. (Photo: UNESCO/P Chiang-Joo)

Monday, 18 January 2016


The influence of African masks on the work of selected contemporary artists is being examined in a critically acclaimed show that runs until March 13 at the Fowler Museum, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Bristle Disguise by Walter Oltmann,
a South African artist. (Photo: A. Pokroy)
The exhibition, “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art”, explores 21st-century artistic evocations of the African mask and contemporary forms of disguise, and it challenges viewers’ perceptions of identity, the curators say.

Organized in collaboration with the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), the show brings together contemporary artists working in Africa and America. For two years, SAM’s Curator of African and Oceanic Art Pamela McClusky, and Consultant Curator Erika Dalya Massaquoi, sought out artists who explore the idea of disguise in their work.

They selected 12 contemporary artists to represent the core themes of the show, and eight of those artists were commissioned to produce new visions and sounds specifically for the exhibition.

According to McClusky, the artists were encouraged to use SAM’s collection of African masks as a catalyst for creating fresh visions of masquerade.  The work they produced includes photography, drawing, video, performance, installation and sculpture.

Alongside their creations, examples of the same mask genres from the Fowler collection are on display during the exhibition - which the Fowler says goes beyond disguise, representing a “bold move” to bring masquerade into the museum.

“These contemporary artists use the notion of disguise to hide their identity and reveal issues of social, political or cultural import in their work,” according to the curators.

Neo Primitivism 2, by Brendan Fernandes, Kenya/Canada.
(Photo courtesy of the artist.)
“The act of altering or concealing one’s identity is at the core of traditional African masquerade, though with an important addition – an individual’s identity is not only concealed but entirely transformed,” they stated.

The 12 artists comprise six from continental Africa and six Americans of African heritage, who employ “artistic strategies of disguise" as well as "key visual and performative elements of traditional African masquerade in their work”.

The group includes British-Nigerian author, artist and filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa, who was born in Nigeria in 1976 and whose father – the writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa – was executed in 1995 in the Niger Delta.

Returning to the region in 2013, Zina Saro-Wiwa began a journey of cultural discovery, according to the show’s curators. “She went in search of masquerade culture in her indigenous Ogoni homeland and came across a modern form of masquerade started in the late 1980s called Ogele, a masquerade featuring a heavy, tiered mask that told stories about modern day politics as well as animist deities.

The Invisible Man by Zina Saro-Wiwa, US/UK/NIgeria.
(Photo courtesy of the artist)
“Inspired by this modern form of masquerade, Saro-Wiwa decided to create a mask and all-female masquerade group for herself. The mask she designed called ‘The Invisible Man’ explores her own personal demons. This neo-Ogoni mask is a document of loss. It depicts the men that have disappeared in her life – her activist father who was murdered and her brother among them. Through this exploration she wants to bring African masks to life in a completely fresh way,” the curators added.

A selection of the Fowler’s Ogoni masks is shown beside her work as inspiration. “I want to bridge the gap I always feel when I go and see African masks in museums. I want emotional connection,” Saro-Wiwa has said.

Curator McClusky told SWAN that all the artists have taken an old art form to produce contemporary and “entirely new masquerades” to challenge viewers ideas of disguise and identity.

“It’s a common fact of life that we disguise what we’re thinking and feeling, and masks force us to realize this,” she said.

Marla Berns, the Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler (a position named after major funders), added that disguise in African masquerade can be a tool for facilitating transformation but that the featured artists use it to “comment on the challenges and complexities” of our increasingly digital and globalized lives.

“The artists meld carved wooden sculptural forms with new electronic media; they create spaces for women in masking traditions formerly dominated by men; they challenge our understandings of what constitutes authenticity in African masks; and they stimulate questions about the heritage of African masquerade and the invention of modern Western art,” Berns said.

To accompany the exhibition, the Seattle Art Museum and Yale University Press have co-published an illustrated catalog containing artists’ statements, an essay by McClusky, and an interview with Dalya Massaquoi. 

(The Fowler is part of UCLA Arts and is located on the university's campus.) 

Monday, 11 January 2016


Seeing eclectic singer-songwriter Carlton Rara in concert is like watching a chef who picks familiar ingredients from all over the world to create an original, unusual-tasting brew.

Carlton Rara (Photo: SGT)
Born in Lourdes, France, to a Haitian mother and French father, Rara grew up listening to American and Caribbean music, and he mixes genres from one song to the next, moving from jazz to blues to reggae. Fans never quite know what to expect at his concerts, and the same is true of his recorded music.

His third album, Raw Sides (2015), starts with the jazzy “A woman is watching me” and takes listeners to Haiti along the way with the traditional “Papa Danbala”. Although he seems at his most authentic when singing Caribbean-influenced songs, Rara dislikes being categorized and thinks an artist should be free to produce whatever he or she feels.

In an interview with SWAN, after a concert in Paris, he spoke about his music.

SWAN: How did you start singing?
Carlton Rara: I started singing when I was about 12, listening to Michael Jackson's songs. There was like some sort of magic and madness about this man, we all wanted to sing his way. Singing is a very intimate way to express feelings, and the MJ experience pushed me to sing out and dance in front of an audience as a street performer.

Rara in concert (Photo: Ina Boulange)
SWAN: Can you tell us more about your background, how you got to this space?
CR: I spent a lot of my time when I was a young boy in a theatre where my dad used to work. There we could attend shows of all kinds: music, drama plays, comedies, dancing, and art performances. We could see many international artists (people like Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Keith Jarret, Carolyn Carlson, Mercedes Sosa, Lucky Peterson, Israel Galvan, Django Edwards and so on). To me it was just like daydreaming and that was my first school of entertainment. Then as I started playing percussion, first as a self-taught musician, I picked up many things from various musicians. Then the Haitian traditional music started to be a great source of inspiration too. Singing came naturally as I started to compose my first tunes.

SWAN: Your songs about Haiti are beautiful and evocative of history, of place. What is the inspiration for them?
CR:  Haiti is a country with a very strong identity and cultural background. The African roots are deep and strong but that is a land that was first inhabited by native Indians and then has been mixed up with influences from all around the world over the ages. You can find all themes about people's life and experiences throughout history in the voodoo rites and music, about their relations with nature and spirits but also about conflicts, pain and suffering. Haiti is also a place where very particular human things have happened in history. Haitians have to accept that their identity is complex and that they have to reconcile with themselves in a way.

The cover of Raw Sides (Photo: SGT)
SWAN: You perform such a wide range of music – do you have a preference in genre?
CR: I have no preferences. Each song comes out with its energy and style, you just have to feel it and get into it as deeply as you can. Whatever the genre, I try to remain 100 percent Carlton Rara. People remain free to see me the way they want to, to sort me out according to their cultural background, to what they think they know or feel,  there is actually nothing I can do about it, that is not my responsibility.

SWAN: How would you define yourself as a performer?
CR: I am Carlton Rara as you are who you are – as unique as we can be in the universe. Defining myself would be too much and not enough at the same time. Thinking of it, I would say "universal" but as I said this definition could fit anyone.

SWAN: Are there particular stories behind the songs on the new album? 
CR: There is this a capella song "Left Alone" that deals with the idea that humanity is quite the same everywhere on earth, people live the same things, suffer the same. It is obvious that humans everywhere are much more alike than different from one another. "Why Worry" is just a love song. "Wvayaj" is about all the changes we go through within a lifetime, meaning that life is like a route on which we have to walk our way.

SWAN: How do you see your music evolving?
CR: My music remains a free space where I am trying to be as close as what I feel like, free as I try to be. I sing in Creole and English, I can play blues, I can be jazz, I can be pop, I can be soul, I do spoken words and act too, the sky is not even the limit. I am now working on a new album full of suprises that will be in a hip hop jazz and blues fusion groovy funky soul mood, believe it or not.

SWAN: When are the next concerts?
CR: I am now working on preparing my album, no shows on the schedule for the moment...I will be back on the Raw Sides Tour next spring and summer. We will see on the road.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015


Desirée Reynolds is a British-based Caribbean writer and author of the acclaimed debut novel Seduce (Peepal Tree Press) - written in "literary patois". She and fellow writer Alecia McKenzie (SWAN’s editor) met in April 2015 at a symposium on “Configuring Madness in Caribbean Literature”, held at the University of Liège in Belgium. That meeting led to many discussions about writing, including the following interview / conversation.

AM: Many 'Caribbean' writers live outside the region, which sometimes sparks questions about identity. Do you consider yourself a Caribbean writer, a British writer, both, or beyond such definitions?
Desiree Reynolds
DR: I find that a very interesting question and one that I've debated with friends from the 'Caribbean diaspora'. It's a well-worn discussion, filled with notions of home and belonging and loss. I have finally concluded that I'm a Caribbean British writer. Not pretty semantically but it is the best description of my work so far. I heard the term, ‘Anglo-Caribbean’ recently and I didn't like it. Whilst everyone has a right to name their own names, names and categories are forced upon you, whether you like it or not. There's strength in what I choose to align myself with. I'm looking back at a road filled with other people’s hard work, blood, sweat and tears, how can I choose to deny that, when it's given me everything? What is a Caribbean writer? One that was born there? One that still lives there? One whose parents bring them up to believe that it is their home, wherever else in the world that they might be? That's home. But then you get back there and everyone there tells you how much you’re not from there, it's not your home and we are not the same people. You don't have the talk, your references are different, you haven't had to live in the same way, which is all very true. Cultural output in this country is still horrifically white, male and hetero. You’re not welcome here either. So, a niche has to be carved and re-carved, being a writer that sits between notions of worlds, you have that right to name your name and your identity isn't just about food or music or who you love, but where you're home, even if you’re carrying that home on your back.

With this question come issues of 'authenticity'. For the wonderer and wondee, it is ultimately a frustrating and fruitless debate, because who actually gets to decide and based on what? There are so many writers who do not live in the Caribbean, should we time them? If they are away for x amount of time, their Caribbean status is revoked? You can claim if you have one Caribbean parent? Two? If you're married to one? It's a circle and a cycle that shows up our need for justification, which illustrates the geographical violence of colonialism and subsequent migration leading to the development of ideals like ’diaspora’, an effort of belonging.  We want to be claimed, but have no power as to who. A woman asked me why it was I felt that I should write this book? Why me? Implying did I have the right? I could only say because I wanted to. My parents hated London and sent me to Jamaica, where I had my first birthday, so we could move to Brooklyn. Plans changed and by the time I came back to London, I didn't know them, I thanked them politely for my dinner, took up my wicker basket and told them I had to go home...

AM: That's a thought-provoking response. I think that in the end, we just have to do what we do. That’s my philosophy anyway. What made you want to become a writer?
DR: I like that quote from Toni Morrison, who says, she wrote the book she wanted to read. That fits perfectly for me. I wanted to see myself, my family, my language, my street, in these things called books that I loved. It wasn't only where am I, but where are we? Without wanting to sound like a cliché, my childhood was difficult. Twelfth Night, The Bluest Eye, Pickwick Papers, The Wife Of Bath, One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Conan The Barbarian, and The X-Men, these stories were my best friends.

AM: What was the inspiration for Seduce?
DR: The stories I heard from young, when eavesdropping on Big People talk. I come from a long line of fiercely independent and strong women, it was them. I wanted to show who they could be, how they were, what made them cry of laugh or cuss, not in a sociological way but in a way that was as beautiful as they were. I hope I've done that.

AM: You made certain choices about the language and the setting in the novel. Can you explain these?
DR: I never wanted to write a book. It was never my ambition, still isn't in a way, and if you set that as a goal, it will be a struggle. My ambition and hope is to be the best writer I can be, my first allegiance isn't to any childish notions of fame or money,(you learn that second part well quick, there ain't none), but to the story. I owe it to the story, to do my best by it, to fight it, cuss it, abandon it only to come back pleading. I owe the story. So, the choice to write Seduce as it came out, ended up not being a choice at all. How I told it, made the story work far better, than the twenty thousand words I had before, which didn't work at all, didn't flow, wasn't happy with itself. I discussed this with my editor, Jeremy Poynting at Peepal Tree, and he knew what the story needed and luckily he had faith enough in me that I could pull it off.  I can't say if I've pulled it off or not, I'm my own worst critic, I hope so. Telling the story in nation language, as I say, wasn't really a choice in terms of the story but it was risky. Would readers get it? How do I spell that word? Can this be a sentence structure? All valid questions, but the story dictated how it was going to be.

What I wanted to do, as Robert Antoni puts it, is to 'activate the reader'. I love that idea. Obviously, reading isn't passive, but I wanted the reader to think, damn, there's a lot in here and I need to take time to ingest it all. That then leads to discussions about who we write for, ourselves, an idea of a perfect reader, our mums? All of the above, I suppose.  Also, nation language is so pervasive in British culture, that I automatically think people must know that phrase or word anyway, example, gwaan. You can hear nation language being spoken by white kids in the north, Asian kids, people whose ancestry isn't connected to the Caribbean at all. I don't say people can or can't use those words or phrases, language is a living thing, but I do say, this is where it came from first. I set the novel on a indeterminate Caribbean island, because Chattel slavery and colonialism has ensured that part of the Caribbean, rests in an imagined Caribbean and I wanted to explore that, because it is as real, to the diaspora, as the Caribbean is.

Reynolds work is inclided
in the anthology Closure.
AM: The book taps into the themes of madness and alienation. Are these inescapable in ‘Caribbean literature’, or Caribbean diaspora lit?
DR: Hmmm, I don't like to think that anything is inescapable, but the Caribbean is a migrant population, from the first Indians to slaves to indentured labour to settlers to slave owners to hotel owners. We have been moved and continue to move. With that movement can come an unconnectedness, a set drift from those things that ground you, language, religion, place, etc. Colonial survival is entrenched in that movement. A lie about a Motherland, in order to keep you in place, a lie about God/s, the  maintenance of the lie of our unattractiveness, our slovenly ways, closer to the earth and over-sexualised behaviour, means that in your daily life, you’re fighting with these notions 24/7. That's a huge emotional burden. More so for the ones that came before us, because they felt they had to literally fight every stereotype, whilst being pleasant enough so as not to frighten anyone. Cos we're not that either. Whilst we, second, third and fourth generations don’t really care about notions of our otherness, they do not haunt us or provide any framework we feel we have to operate in, what you think of me is your business. Writing is mine.  But, there is an emotional/psychological cost. Put that with the stereotype of our being more prone to madness anyway and we have the recipe for a 'theme'. I Think madness and alienation is a part of the human story, but given the circumstances that brought about the birth of The Caribbean, perhaps they are inescapable after all.

AM: You write in other genres as well - journalism, short stories, poetry. Do you have a different way of approaching each?
DR: Yes. I started out as a journalist at The Gleaner, London, Brixton, Acre lane. I was at one time carnival correspondent! I think very definitely the approach is different because the intention is different. What you plan to do with it, dictates how you tell it. I doubt if my poetry will ever see the light of day.

AM: How do you see the future of books and writing?
DR: I'm a purist. I like books. I was given a reader and I do appreciate the carrying of nuff books on one device, I get a lot of trains, but I don't like the sad decline of bookshops and libraries. You can't browse the internet in that same way and pick up a book you've never heard of, just cos you like the cover or what it says in the blurb. The internet is taking away our choices. Writing is a part of who we are, we have a need to document the human condition. Letter writing was in decline and out came emails and texts, the rise of Flash fiction, we are still writing and I think we always will, even if the spellings are different.

AM: Can you tell us about your next project?
DR: I'm writing a short story collection at the moment, with a central character that is a thread throughout. Fingers crossed and with a good tail wind, I hope it'll be out next year. I'm in 'Closure', an anthology of Black British short stories, edited by Jacob Ross and published by Peepal Tree Press. I've recently edited a collection of young people’s writing. And I would like to turn Seduce into an audio book. I'm doing a PhD and I'm already researching and writing the next novel, which will be based on the Haitian revolution. - © SWAN

(Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale)