Sunday 29 December 2013


If Djei Gogo has his way, everyone will begin the New Year on an upbeat note. And not only upbeat, but dancing to a certain rhythm - a unifying, “Majestic Riddim”.

This is the name of an original music project that Djei has spearheaded. The Ivorian-born, Czech Republic-based producer sent the same reggae melody to performers around the world and asked them to create songs based on his tune, and he was surprised at the positive reaction he got.

Djei Gogo
Thirty-four artists from three continents agreed to provide vocals, resulting in 29 versions of Djei’s “Majestic Riddim”. The contributors include such big names as Jamaican singers Half Pint and Perfect Giddimani, and young talents that are being introduced to an international audience for the first time.

“I didn’t expect such a huge response,” Djei told SWAN. “I was planning to use only a few songs but as I listened and realized how good they were, I thought: why not use all of them?”

Djei says that “Majestic Riddim” has a “conscious vibe” and is meant to build bridges. The project unites artists from a host of countries, including France, Nigeria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Kenya, Germany, Senegal and Spain – all singing to a similar beat.

Djei, a professional bass player who has worked as a producer for 15 years, mixed all the contributions at his Flavour Production company in Prague. As each song has the same instrumental introduction, it does take the listener some time to get accustomed to more than two dozen songs all with the same melody. But then one focuses on the lyrics, which are all different, and which remind us, as Djei says, that music has no barriers and no frontiers.

The performers sing or rap in their own language, such as English, French and German, and the message is about love, justice, self-reliance and new beginnings.

Sista Carmen, one of the few women artists on the compilation, sings in Spanish that she wants “un mundo perfecto” (a perfect world) while Superior urges: People be smart / stay clean at heart / we have to restart / everybody take part. A pefect rhyme and riddim for 2014?

Majestic Riddim is available through digital download on iTunes, Amazon, and BandCamp.

Friday 6 December 2013


As people around the world mourned the passing of former South African President Nelson Mandela, who died on Thursday night, the words of UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova struck a particular chord.

“Nelson Mandela was truly a giant among men,” Bokova said. “He not only changed South Africa’s history, he changed the world and made it a better place. He taught us all a lesson on the power of peace and reconciliation; the importance of forgiveness and respect for the dignity of each and every human being.”

The head of the United Nations’ cultural agency continued: “The greatest tribute we can pay him, is to carry on his message of hope and to continue his fierce defense of the values he stood for.”

Saturday 30 November 2013


By Zofeen T. Ebrahim

"I have nothing against paint or the brush, but I will only use it if and when I have a reason to," says Rashid Rana, one of Pakistan’s most celebrated artists, who utilizes thousands of images to create his works.

"Right now I am quite happy with the technique I am using," he adds.

Rashid Rana's "Desperately Seeking Paradise", a
stainless steel structure with images of Lahore.
Acclaimed both in Pakistan and abroad, Rana gave an exclusive walking tour of his exhibition “Labyrinth of Reflections: the art of Rashid Rana 1992 – 2012” at the Mohatta Palace Museum, in Karachi, earlier this month - following the launch of a book of his works, by the same name.

Oddly, the Palace's majestic exterior in pink and yellow stone and the opulent interior with tiled floors made perfect sense as a place to hold Rana's exhibits, which reflect, by his own admission, the "paradoxes we all live with". He says that his works also "document my own contradictions" and "those that are outside".

Rana's seminal mid-career retrospective, which includes more than 60 works done over a period of two decades and which forms the museum's 17th exhibition, has been a runaway success. For Rana himself, seeing all of his work "under one roof" for the very first time has made him take stock of the momentous journey he has undertaken.

He is happy with what he terms the "micro-macro device" whereby a huge, single software-generated image is created by using thousands of “pixelated” images. These are not all photographs taken by him and he says unabashedly that some "are borrowed from other sources, including the Net" to make the exhibits he terms "original".

For example, on closer inspection, the image of a huge colonial building in the eastern city of Lahore, in Punjab province (to which Rana belongs), is composed of thousands of pointillist photographs.

Rana's "Red Carpet", with images of blood and flesh.
In similar manner, the images of the huge red Persian carpets, which he confesses became an instant "commercial success", comprise miniature images of blood and flesh.

"The carpet is the exotic orient and the small thumbnail images inside represent the violence we see around us," he explains. "There is a streak in us that loves sex and violence."

As one goes from one image to the next, it seems clear that Rana is consumed by the theme of "duality" that reflects the "polarities of our times".  Using this theme has helped the "ideas" brewing in his mind to take shape.

"I keep re-inventing so never tire of it, at least not yet," he says. Thus conventional paint and brush seem to have been swept out of his life for now.

While one finds Rana enjoying the overwhelming attention he is getting across the globe (he has said on various occasions: "I don't want my work to be seen just by an audience of twenty"), he emphasizes at the same time that "contemporary art should engage with people not only within the art circle” but "outside the creative world". He would be happiest to see his work being shown in public places - "like shopping malls" - for all to enjoy. 
Put up nine months ago, in February, the exhibition received new impetus this week when the museum launched a heavy tome, which has been described as “flawless” by Naazish Ataullah, former principal of Lahore's National College of Arts, of which Rana is a graduate. The book gives a veritable "insight into the artist's creative journey" and includes six essays by heavyweights in the academic world such as Ataullah herself.   
Rana - a "rock star" artist
Fondly terming him a "rock star in the US", Sherry Rehman, Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States, and a trustee of the Mohatta who presided over the book launch, said Rana definitely did not fit the label of "a cookie-cutter artist".

By not catering to "drawing room art", Rehman said Rana's art had the "power to challenge dogma". His art was challenging, she said, because "he refuses to be overly worrying of what people will think". That is a test of great art -- "it moves and transforms you," she added.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.  

Monday 18 November 2013


The global trade of creative goods and services totaled a record US$624 billion in 2011 and more than doubled from 2002 to 2011, according to a special edition of the United Nations Creative Economy Report which was launched in Paris, France, this month.

Life is art: an artist at work in a shop window. © SWAN.
Yet, many governments are still not doing enough to support culture and to encourage creativity and innovation. While culture ministers have to keep begging for a greater slice of the budget pie around the world, those who control the purse strings still need convincing.

“In most cases, culture has been relegated to inferior status in trade discourse and economic prescriptions within the world’s banking and financial sectors and ministries of finance,” says Jamaica’s Minister of Youth and Culture, Lisa Hanna.

“This is in spite of the data that show that culture and creative industries are among the fastest growing sectors in the world, even in the face of a global recession,” Hanna said in a speech at the UN General Assembly earlier this year. She reiterated the points last week before the launch of the report at the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO.

Apart from the financial aspect, the report stresses that “creativity and culture also have a significant non-monetary value that contributes to inclusive social development, to dialogue and understanding between peoples”.

The creative economy gives rise to job creation and export earnings for countries, the report shows, with the sector including new media, performing arts, audiovisual products, design, publishing and the visual arts.

A young man learns film-making in Guatemala.
© UNESCO/International Fund for Cultural Diversity.
Between 2002 and 2011, developing countries experienced an average of 12.1 percent annual growth in exports of creative goods, but there is still an “urgent need" to find new development pathways that can encourage creativity and innovation, the report says. The aim is to achieve sustainable growth that is both inclusive and equitable, it adds.

Many experts would like to see culture become a part of the next UN programme when the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) reach their term in 2015, and they’re making their voices increasingly heard.

We want culture to be a definite part of the post-2015 agenda which will be decided next year, and we're ready to negotiate our role," said Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO’s Assistant-Director General for Culture. 

He told SWAN that culture isn't just about "going to a concert or the cinema after work" but it includes "valuing local musical traditions" such as the "immensely rich traditions in Africa", and setting up enterprises that generate employment in the music industry, for instance.

Hanna, the Jamaican minister, said there is evidence that “culture provides a platform which transcends all boundaries … and unites all peoples in our collective engagement to secure equals rights and justice, peace and security, recognition and acceptance for ordinary men and women of the world.”

Music spices up the Caribbean economy. © SWAN
But she said that in spite of her nation’s “creative imagination and global impact”, Jamaica had not been able to “reap the full rewards of its cultural prowess”.

“This is largely a consequence of global economic and industrial policies that have not taken into account the role of culture in development,” Hanna said.

The report aims to change attitudes by the breadth of its coverage. It highlights examples of how the creative economy is diverse and innovative, “enhancing lives and livelihoods” at the local level in developing countries.

In Argentina, for instance, the cultural and creative industries employ some 300,000 people and represent 3.5 percent of the country’s GDP, while in Morocco, publishing and printing employ 1.8 per cent of the workforce, with a turnover of more than US$370 million, the report says.

In Bangkok, Thailand, there are more than 20,000 businesses in the fashion industry alone, while across the region, young people are earning a living as small-scale designers and dressmakers.

In Zimbabwe, the Pamberi Book Trust Café is an “innovative example of the arts being made into a sustainable business”, the report says. The partnership between an independent cultural non-governmental organization and a commercial entity has given rise to projects such as FLAME (female literary, arts and music enterprise) that bring women artists into Zimbabwean mainstream arts.

These pioneering programmes help to boost the participation of creative industry professionals in both local and global markets, the report states.

(For more information:

Wednesday 23 October 2013


The characters in Bernard Hoyes’ paintings do get around. Fresh from “dancing off the canvas” onto the stage in the United States, the iconic figures are once again in the spotlight, but this time in the historical centre of Florence, Italy.

Bernard Hoyes with his artwork. (Photo by A. McKenzie)
The city’s Gallery Mentana is displaying the works by the Jamaican-born, U.S.-based Hoyes in two shows: “International Independence”, which opened last month, and “Light and Matter”, which begins Nov. 2.

The shows focus on contemporary visual arts, including photography, mixed media and sculpture, by artists from around the world. Hoyes, whose works are instantly recognizable, is representing a distinct cultural aspect of the Caribbean.

“It’s an honor to be invited to Italy,” he says. “It fills my heart to know that Jamaican imagery, rooted in traditional African perspective, is embraced around the world.

“As a young boy growing up on the island, I never imagined that art would open so many doors for me.  But it’s proved to be a magical portal and a gateway to adventure,” he adds.

In Italy, Hoyes is exhibiting from his “Ribbons Series” and “Revival” collections, both known for their tapestry of colour and depictions of African-based spirituality. In fact, the first thing that one notices about Hoyes’ work is the artist’s bold use of colour, as swathes of red, yellow and green liven his canvases.

From canvas to stage
The second thing is the sense of movement; Hoyes’ subjects are usually dancing, swaying as they pray, beating drums or waving their arms in praise. So it’s little wonder they get to “travel around”.

Just months ago in California, his subjects made the leap from the canvas to the stage, when Hoyes produced "Seven Paintings", a seven-act play based on his artwork and celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence from Britain.

With huge video projections of the paintings forming a backdrop, 40 performers told the story of a young woman born in the church who wants to be become a dancer but who finally comes to terms with her destiny, as a healer.

The performers included 12 dancers who seemed either to emerge from or to enter the seven paintings as the story unfolded to drumbeats from the Kabasa Drum Ensemble and music from a tambourine-shaking choir, The Tambourine Chorus.

Now, the characters have returned to the canvas in Italy, but their vibration and light are already being noticed. It’s all these elements – light, colour, movement and mysterious stories – that have gained Hoyes a dedicated following. Collectors of his work over the years include celebrities such as talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and singer Natalie Cole, but he’s expanding his reach beyond the United States and the Caribbean.

A scene from "Seven Paintings"
Besides Italy, Hoyes has exhibited in Germany and The Netherlands (“Dancing into the Light”), in addition to a well-documented trip he made to China where he produced a nine-foot-high granite sculpture of a bluefin tuna, with the aid of local craftsmen.

Most of his inspiration, however, comes from his childhood in Jamaica and especially his experiences in the Revival Church. There he was a front-pew witness to the worship by the robed and turbaned congregation, to the intense spiritualism and to the practice of public baptism. The dancing and the singing in the church left a lasting impression on Hoyes.

“My grandmother was a deacon in the church, and she raised me until I was eight,” he says. “She didn’t believe in formal education, so what I learned came mostly from her and the church.”

Born in Kingston and raised in a house behind the city’s General Penitentiary, Hoyes often went to buy bread at the prison bakery for his grandmother or did other odd jobs for her as she prepared for her religious duties. He didn’t attend a proper school until he went to live with his mother when he was eight years old.

“I was so far behind by then that I still had trouble learning numbers and the alphabet,” he recalls. By age 12, he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue with school, so his mother enrolled him in a cabinet-making course and he got exposed to carving and sculpture. During those years he met the famous artist Edna Manley, mother of the late Jamaican politician Michael Manley.

Artful redemption
“She challenged me to come to classes on Saturdays, and there I really developed an appreciation and skill for sculpture,” Hoyes says.

He thought his future lay in this direction in Jamaica, but when he was 15 years old, he suddenly received a passport and heard from his mother that he was going to live with his father in Brooklyn, New York. Up until then, Hoyes had never met his Dad or even seen a photo of him.

He discovered that he also had a brother and a sister in the United States, and he soon found himself at Thomas Jefferson High School, where “nobody noticed” that he couldn’t read. Hoyes’ father was a stern disciplinarian which meant he had to attend school, but luckily for him the school had a teacher who recognized his artistic talent.

This led to a scholarship to study with professional artists in Vermont one summer, and the participants were so impressed with his work that they invited him to continue his education there. He began attending Vermont Academy, an elite secondary school that offered very academic subjects and great sports, but no art.

“The teachers took me under their wing and refused to let me fail,” Hoyes says. “After I rebelled a little bit at the curriculum, they even started to let me do art after class instead of sports.”

An instructor came from another school to give the course, which some of Hoyes’ friends also joined, and “suddenly the academy had an art group,” he recalls.

Artwork by Bernard Hoyes
When Hoyes graduated, he decided to go west (to the California College of Arts and Crafts) although he barely had any money to support himself. He slept in a sleeping bag on the campus grounds until a janitor offered him a room.

“This was the Sixties so you could always get a sandwich, and you could hitchhike to wherever you wanted to go,” he says, with his hearty laugh.

After graduating from college, Hoyes says he “played around with being an artist” until he returned to Jamaica in 1978 and was shocked by what he saw. The country was going through a turbulent time, rife with political violence. One night police kicked in the door of the house where Hoyes was staying with his mother and sister, claiming that they looking for guns. When Hoyes complained, he received a rifle-butt blow to the head.

“That was sobering,” he says quietly. He returned to California, living homeless on Venice Beach, but he was more serious about his art. With the works he sold, he managed to buy a house in a better neighbourhood in Kingston for his mother.

His paintings began to increase in value, but things really took off in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when the artwork was chosen for the backdrop in some episodes of The Cosby Show and was also used in a storyline for A Different World. This exposure heightened his profile and then he got further help from a fairy godmother – in the form of Oprah Winfrey.

Hoyes' art hits the stage.
The talk-show host decided to buy some of his paintings for her collection, and her choice generated enormous interest in Hoyes’ work. But some unwelcome attention also came from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) who thought it was strange that Hoyes suddenly went from a struggling artist to selling his work for big bucks. They audited him, and a significant amount of his new income had to be used to pay a tax lawyer and an accountant. To make things worse, that was also the year his mother died.

With his life being shaken up, Hoyes threw himself into his work after going to Jamaica for his mother’s burial service. His experiences enriched the art he was producing, and the sense of spiritualism, of reaching for a purpose, is evident in all his later works.

“What I try to do is travel the road, to spiritualism, nationalism, identity,” he says. “I want people to be a part of it. My art says Africa, Europe, Asia and that’s what the Caribbean is.” - A.M.

(Parts of the interview with Hoyes were previously published in Everybody's Magazine. Photos provided by the artist, unless specified. )

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Saturday 28 September 2013


For singer-songwriter Emeline Michel, it’s hard to separate art from politics, especially when one comes from a certain country. And if that place is Haiti, it’s almost impossible.

Emeline Michel during a performance in Paris.
Michel was born in Gonaïves, in the northern part of the Caribbean island, and she’s no stranger to scenes of rioting, flooding, mudslides and other catastrophes that have affected her homeland. But she is also a witness to the indomitable spirit and generosity of Haitians, and her music reflects this.

“In my country, when you have a voice and a mic, there is just so much that you can’t allow yourself to let pass by without saying something,” she told SWAN during an interview before two concerts in Paris, France, this week.

“You have to speak out for people who don’t have the same privilege. The inspiration and the issues are right under my eyes, and as much as I sing about love and other subjects, it’s impossible for me to be quiet about the social and political content,” she added.  

On tour to promote her 10th album, Quintessence, Michel said that the scars of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti caused her to look inward, to go back to basics. The music and her current performances pull listeners into a space where pain is mixed with healing, sadness with joy. “Sucré  et salé” – sweet and salty – she calls her renditions, as she moves from joyous to wrenching songs, and back.

Michel, in a relaxed moment.
Michel’s voice evokes something elemental, and brings to mind the talent of vocalists such as Miriam Makeba and Ella Fitzgerald. Her origins as a gospel and jazz singer infuse and bolster the African, Caribbean and Latin American rhythms in her music. But it’s the lyrics that cause reflection.

“I think your background absolutely impacts who you are as a singer-songwriter, and as a person,” she said in response to a question about her influences. “When you see someone standing up and singing after a hurricane, and you see the country re-forming, it changes you as a person. That's why so much of my music is about hope.”

Michel first gained attention when she won a talent contest at the age of 18, after having sung in her local church. The win motivated her to move to the United States to study jazz for a year at the Detroit Jazz Center, and when she returned to Haiti, she created a band and launched her career as a singer. Soon she was racking up hits in the French-speaking Caribbean, with both her voice and her good looks fueling awareness of her presence.

In 1991, she drew international notice with the release of the album Tout mon temps (All my time) and the success of the infectious song “A.K.I. K.O”. From that point, Michel could have gone on to be just another pop star, producing danceable but forgettable music. Instead, she chose to develop her skills as a songwriter and producer, and to combine her art with social activism. To “stay true” to her artistic vision, she created her own production company, “Cheval de Feu”, in 1999.

Four years later, she launched Rasin Kreyòl  (Creole Roots),  a collection of songs with poignant lyrics and powerful melodies that paid tribute to traditional Haitian rhythms and expressed a certain yearning for her homeland.

Michel, with her band, in Paris.
She was again living in the United States at the time, and the album caused influential people in the music business to take notice.  Michel was invited as a guest on National Public Radio and also performed at prestigious Carnegie Hall. In Canada, the French-language press hailed Rasin Kreyòl as one of the best world music records of 2004.

Alongside her music career, Michel became increasingly involved in community service in the United States, giving concerts for patients at various hospitals and also for prison inmates, including women prisoners.

Haiti meanwhile was eager to welcome her back, and in 2007 Michel was the guest of honor at Musique en Folie (Music Madness) in Port-au-Prince. She took the opportunity to launch her ninth album, Reine de Coeur (Queen of Hearts), there. Drawing anew on her African and Caribbean links, Michel worked with a team of 35 musicians, and used the album to celebrate her 20 years in the music business.

The earthquake of 12 January 2010 galvanized her and other U.S.-based Haitian artists to assist with the relief efforts, and anyone who watched the Hope for Haiti telethon organized by U.S. actor George Clooney will remember Michel’s raw rendition of the Jimmy Cliff classic “Many Rivers to Cross”. The telethon was broadcast around the world and raised $66 million.

Michel, before a rehearsal in France. © SWAN
The aftermath of the earthquake caused a change in Michel’s approach to music, she told SWAN. She said that she wanted to go to a “quiet place” with only the essentials, "only the bare minimum". Quintessence is thus an acoustic-driven album, pared down, poetic and jazzy.

Michel worked with the renowned Haitian author Edwidge Danticat on the stand-out track "Dawn", and what listeners hear is Danticat’s lyrical language delivered in Michel’s moving voice.

“I feel like I’ve been wanting to do this album forever”, Michel told SWAN. “I love reading and always wanted to work with some of the writers who’ve kept me awake with their books over the years.”

Not all the songs seem suited to a live performance, and several of Michel's friends thought the project was “too different”. But the singer says she felt it was important for her to do something she truly enjoyed.

“When you talk with your heart, people respond to it,” she said. “I’ve learned over the years not to do things because of trends.” – A.M. 

Thursday 19 September 2013


Two weeks after the Rome-based “multi-cultural” writer Taiye Selasi declared provocatively in Berlin that “African literature doesn’t exist”, her more famous counterpart Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will be in Paris to talk about literary stereotypes and identity.

Chimamanda Adichie © SWAN
Adichie of Nigeria is one of 28 high-profile writers taking part in the inaugural “Ecrivains du Monde” literary festival Sept. 20 - 22 in the French capital, where the issues of diversity and globalization are set to generate some interesting debate.

Like the fast-rising Selasi (Ghana Must Go), Adichie and many other writers reject being pigeon-holed according to their nationality or colour, and the festival is meant to be a “celebration of world literature”, or perhaps world-class literature, as it includes award-winning authors such as Michael Ondaatje, Walter Mosley and Salman Rushdie.

“African Literature is an empty designation, as is Asian Literature, European Literature, Latin American Literature, South American Literature, North American Literature, and so forth,” Selasi said in a recent speech.  “My very basic assertion is that the practice of categorizing literature by the continent from which its creators come is past its prime at best.”

The “Ecrivains du Monde” festival, organized by New York’s Columbia University and Paris’ Bibliotheque national de France (national library), may thus be ahead of the curve by focusing on the world of literature produced by writers from around the world.

Take Petros Markaris, for instance. Born in Turkey to a Greek mother and Armenian father, he became a Greek citizen in 1974. Before that, he had no citizenship. Markaris, an acclaimed screenwriter and novelist with fans all over the globe, will discuss language and identity on the opening day of the festival.

Festival co-director Caro Llewellyn © SWAN
That same evening, novelist Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun) will be participating in an “international reading under the stars”, along with Ma Jian of China (The Noodle Maker), John Banville of Ireland (The Sea) and Rushdie from “the world of living under police protection”, according to festival co-director Caro Llewellyn.

“Rushdie is a guest like everybody else and he’ll be reading and holding discussions just like everybody else,” Llewellyn told SWAN, when asked about the presence of the controversial author.

“The writers were selected based on many criteria … who they may pair well with, what’s their story and how does that reflect certain issues that we want to raise at the festival. But they are all great writers doing great work,” she added.

Llewellyn, an Australian who has organized festivals from Sydney to New York, says that there is a need for people everywhere to read the “world’s books” to achieve greater international understanding. This is a belief also held by Paul LeClerc, the new director of Columbia Global Centers / Europe who came up with the idea for the festival. The Center in Paris often organizes stimulating symposiums on global and cultural issues.

During the Ecrivains du Monde event, one much-anticipated debate will focus on whether globalization has hurt or helped writers from smaller countries. Have barriers really broken down between borders and language, with new markets opening up all the time? Most writers would probably laugh at this question, but the subject will be seriously tackled by Kiran Desai and Amin Maalouf, among others.

Walter Mosley (image from Ecrivains)
Meanwhile author Elif Shafak, who writes in both Turkish and English, will talk about “reimagining east and west” – a look at how “imaginary” geographical concepts can be “de-imagined” and “re-imagined”, as she puts it.

Speaking of mind games, book-lovers will also get to listen to celebrated crime writer Walter Mosley discuss whether there is anything more real than imagination. And Mosley will additionally cast a light on the mean streets of his popular protagonist Easy Rawlins, who solves crimes in a segregated American city of the 1950s and Sixties.

Readers needing some physical exercise after such intellectual discourse can opt for a walking tour of Paris on the final day of the festival with a Columbia University professor of architecture, who will relate the story of those who helped shape the city’s history. These movers and "shapers" include ancient Roman settlers, Resistance fighters and, of course, famous Parisian authors.

For further information:

Wednesday 31 July 2013


It starts with the cell. Measuring 2.4 by 2.1 metres, with nothing but a bench and a bucket inside, this recreated jail is the first item in the exhibition “Nelson Mandela: From Prisoner to President”, which is currently on tour internationally.

Shown in Paris, France, in June and July, the exposition of Mandela’s extraordinary life will also be seen in countries such as Peru and Ecuador this year. At each stop, visitors will get to experience for a few seconds the tiny space where Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years in captivity. They will find themselves wondering how he survived and could forgive.

Posters shown in the exhibition.
While the cell on its own is enough to make a lasting impression, the other items on display – ranging from film footage to early posters calling for Mandela’s liberation – combine to take viewers on an exceptional and emotional journey.

This second section begins with Mandela's birth on 18 July 1918 in the modest village of Mvezo, and follows his fight against South Africa’s apartheid regime as a young man, his long incarceration, his ultimate release and his election to the presidency.

“The main interest of this exhibition is that its progressive presentation shows the multiple dimensions of Nelson Mandela’s life, and reveals the strength and greatness of the man, without hesitating to recognize his weaknesses,” said Christopher Till, director of South Africa’s Apartheid Museum, which curated the display.

Organized according to six themes, the show presents “the man, the comrade, the leader, the prisoner, the negotiator and the statesman”. Throughout, visitors are impressed by this singular story of strength, grace and reconciliation.

Visitors view the exhibition in France.
But many of the images will also cause pain and anger, especially those showing students being brutally beaten by the security forces, or footage of the remains of an “informant” who has been killed in the most gruesome fashion.  The viciousness of apartheid comes through clearly in the exhibition, and against such a background, Mandela’s role as a unifying force is even more remarkable.

“With this exposition, one can better appreciate the reasons why Nelson Mandela embodies victory over oppression,” said French president Francois Hollande in a foreword to the show’s catalogue. “A visionary statesman, he has never ceased all through his life to prefer dialogue to confrontation, reconciliation to the demagogic exploitation of hatred accumulated in the past.”

Hollande also summed up the feelings generated by Mandela’s life and work, as outlined in the exhibition, when he declared that:  in a world threatened by ignorance, this man’s example should serve as an inspiration for all. - A.M.

Friday 7 June 2013


Meta and the Cornerstones want reggae fans to feel the “peace and love” but also to fight against intolerance and injustice. The multi-cultural band has produced an unabashedly inspiring CD with “Ancient Power”, their second album, and they’re taking the message on the road.

Meta Dia in concert.
“In all my travels, I’ve learned to be more tolerant and to balance things because tolerance brings peace,” said lead singer Meta Dia. “Peace, love and harmony – that’s the whole context.”

Born in Senegal, Dia grew up listening to music from superstar Bob Marley and other Jamaican singers, which influenced his decision to become a musician himself. The name of the band is taken from a line in a Marley song: the stone that the builder refused will always be the head cornerstone.

Marley wrote the lyrics after being shabbily treated by the "light-skinned" relatives of his father’s side of the family, according to biographers, and the song turned out to be a correct prediction. The Marley name is now known universally, and one of Bob’s offspring, Damian, is a guest on “Ancient Power”.

“When I started understanding Bob Marley’s music, his spirituality inspired me a lot, so it was really great to do something with the family,” Dia told SWAN before a recent show in Paris.

For the 32-year-old singer, who has been living in the United States since 2003, the ambition is to build consciousness on the cornerstone of his music.  The band’s fervent lyrics in English, French and Wolof tackle subjects such as Africa’s history and the plight of refugees.

“They stole everything we had … they divide the land,” goes a line in “Loneliest People”, which describes refugees as “wailing for help”.

Dia and his guitar.
The overall message of the album though is love, cliché as that may sound. In fact, some of the lyrics can seem a bit passé, as if one has already heard the same thing in countless reggae songs. But Dia’s warm, appealing voice helps to banish cynicism.

“I grew up with messages of love for the mother, love for the people, and things like that,” Dia told SWAN. “It’s great to express how you feel when it comes from the heart.”

On moving from Senegal to the United States, Dia initially performed as a rapper, but although audiences liked the work, he said he felt uncomfortable.

“The language barrier was difficult because I was rapping in Wolof and French, and I also felt that American hip-hop was not my reality,” he recalled. “When American MCs do hip-hop it comes from a real place, and it can be aggressive, but I couldn’t feel myself connected to that.”

His current music does have hip-hop elements, but it’s essentially a fusion of reggae, Afro-pop, rock and Soul, with echoes of other genres. A subtle Arabic groove underlies the reggae beat on “Silence of the Moon”, for instance, while a folk ambiance pervades the acoustic track “Anywhere For Love”. On the latter, Dia performs with just his guitar for accompaniment, his voice full of emotion.

In the Cornerstones' case, the varied background of the band members puts a new spin on the term "world music". Keyboard player Aya Kato is a classically trained pianist from Japan; guitarist Shahaz Mintz is from Israel; drummer Wayne Fletcher and bassist Rupert McKenzie are from Jamaica; and Daniel Serrato is an American from Texas.

“I saw this guy come into the elevator and he had a guitar and dreadlocks, and I also had my guitar, and we just looked at each other and started smiling,” Dia recalls of his first meeting with one band member. He came to know the others through community jam sessions and other events.

The mixture of “creative differences” from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and America seems to enrich the band’s music. And when one throws in the Africa-Jamaica link, “Ancient Power” can be rather affecting.

Recorded at Marley’s famous Tuff Gong Studio in Kingston, the album also features 70-year-old reggae icon U-Roy (the original “toastmaster”) as well as the contemporary artist Capleton.

“Recording in Jamaica was like a dream come true,” Dia told SWAN. “The vibrations were completely like the way I felt it in my heart, maybe even more.”

As Dia performs songs from the album on his current tour, he hopes audiences will also be able to feel these special “vibes”.

Monday 27 May 2013


On a day when thousands demonstrated raucously in Paris against the new French law allowing gay marriage, the jury at the Cannes Film Festival awarded its top honour to a coming-of-age film about love between women.

Abdellatif Kechiche
Tunisan-born director Abdellatif Kechiche and his two leading actresses won the Palme d’or on Sunday for “La Vie d’Adèle” (Blue Is The Warmest Colour), an explicit movie about a teenager who falls in love with an older woman.

The film was not the only one screened at Cannes that dealt with a relevant topic, however. Filmmakers from around the world showed their concern for human rights and social issues in a range of films - covering the problems faced by “foreign” domestic workers to the risks run by members of ethnic minorities in the face of “trigger-happy” cops.

Singaporean director Anthony Chen presented a moving drama about a Filipina maid working in his home country. His film “Ilo Ilo” won the Camera d’or, a prize given to the best first feature in any category, and it was a well-deserved win as Chen handled the subject with sensitivity and insight.

The film focuses on the relationship between the maid and the young boy she is hired to mind, and their eventual bonding is set against the problems faced by foreign domestic workers in Singapore, where overwork, suicide and the size of living quarters are just some of the concerns.

Anthony Chen (right)
"For me, humanity is about being flawed and what we do to make things better," Chen told SWAN in an interview. "I could have focused on the horror situations, but I'm not very keen to be up in your face with my film-making because I appreciate subtlety, and I always believe that audiences are more intelligent than you might think they are."

Chen said he was surprised and "moved" by the win because he had feared that his movie would be "dwarfed" by "bigger films with big budgets". The jury, though, appreciated his "delicate" handling of  the film's universal themes that included immigration and poverty.

Agnes Varda, president of the Camera d'or jury, said that members wanted to reward Chen's quiet "quartet" than to give the prize to a noisy orchestra of a movie. 

Another honoured first feature came from 27-year-old African-American director Ryan Coogler, who received the “Avenir Prize” in the Un Certain Regard category, a section of the festival devoted to “different and original” films.

Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” focuses on the last day in the life of a young man and is based on the true story of Oscar Grant, who was fatally shot by an “overzealous” police officer in Oakland, California, on New Year’s Day in 2009.

A scene from "Fruitvale Station".
Coogler doesn’t treat Grant as an angel, but he shows how the young man was trying to get his life together before he was cut down. As such, the film is both poignant and thought-provoking.

“If I can get two hours of people’s time, I can affect them more than if they threw a trash can through a window,” Coogler has said, in relation to the riots that followed the killing.

These sentiments evidently struck a chord with the Cannes selectors. Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, who chaired the Un Certain Regard jury, said:  “This selection was insistently unsentimental, and still poetic. It was political, highly original, sometimes disturbing, diverse and first of all, very often - unforgettable.”

"The Missing Picture"
The winner of the Un Certain Regard top prize, “The Missing Picture” (l'Image Manquante) by Cambodian director Rithy Panh, also fits this description, dealing with the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, from a personal point of view.

The "missing picture” of the title refers to the absence of photos (due to censorship) that might have documented the murders committed during Pol Pot's reign from 1975 to 1979.

Panh lost his parents and sisters as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s actions, and the film is based on his memoir "The Elimination”.  In the movie, the characters are represented by dozens of carved clay figures, to which Vinterberg referred at the prize-giving ceremony.

“Clay figures, extreme beauty, violence … systematic humiliation of the human kind … are just some of the unique images that will follow us for a long time,” he said. 

Apart from the Un Certain Regard prizes and the official competition awards, an often-overlooked accolade was given to Iranian director Asghar Farhadi for “The Past” (Le Passé). This was the prize of the Ecumenical Jury, which comprises Christian filmmakers and other professionals.

A scene from "The Past"
In citing Farhadi's movie, they stated: “How does one take responsibility for past errors? As a thriller, the film shows the life of a stepfamily, where the secrets of each and the complexity of relationships unravel bit by bit. A deep, engaging and dense film that illustrates this verse: ‘The truth shall set you free’ ....” - A.M.