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.
(Photo: McKenzie)
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.

You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

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.