Friday 29 December 2017


By Tobias Schlosser

On his seventh album, dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah shows that he still has a great deal of energy and anger, but also heaps of empathy and love.

The title of his complex and well-thought-out record Revolutionary Minds (Fane Phonics label) immediately makes clear that his main agenda is changing the world. He wants to see people liberating themselves from oppressing forces.

The cover of Revolutionary Minds.
As with his former records, Zephaniah does not focus on one specific issue of marginalisation and exclusion, but on a range of issues that include unequal educational opportunities, animal rights, women’s rights, indigenous rights, religious freedom, sexual abuse of children by religious authorities, political and artistic corruption, police arbitrariness, the state of whistle-blowers, past and possible future environmental catastrophes and so on (the list doesn’t end here).

Some might associate revolution with chaos, violence and inherently dangerous movements that could lead to totalitarian regimes. But this is not the revolution Zephaniah has in mind. The artist is turning the tables and making it perfectly clear that the most dangerous thing is not being a revolutionary. He demonstrates the danger of passivity in the song “In this World”: 

We live in a world where they say we communicate more, but the world stayed silent when the slave trade was making money, the world stayed silent when the Nazis started to kill trade unionists, people with disabilities, homosexuals, left-handed people and Jews, and now in the age of the global village and mass communications, the world is staying silent as the Palestinians are annihilated.

Benjamin Zephaniah and band (photo R. Ecclestone).
The same thought is brought up when actor Matt Damon reads the words of the American historian and activist Howard Zinn on the track “Revolutionary Minds”: “The problem is not civil disobedience, the problem is civil obedience”. Thus, no one can fail to understand that from Zephaniah’s point of view, being a revolutionary means uprightness and honesty. And with this righteousness the artist deeply disagrees with the current status quo, which, he asserts, comes from the “greed and short-sightedness” of politicians and economic leaders.

The heart of Revolutionary Minds consists of the longest, electronic, dub-wise track “In this World”. The poem is a mere enumeration of injustices in the world we inhabit:

We live in a world where one in four people live in a state of absolute poverty, 35,000 children die each day because they are born to poor parents, each year 24,000 people are killed and maimed by landmines, and when you hear the information rich telling you that the world is ‘wired’ and getting smaller, remember many people in the world have never made a phone call.

A serious Zephaniah (R. Ecclestone).
This counting and accounting goes on for more than six minutes, so after a while, listeners may start feeling uncomfortable. The strength of the poem is its descriptive power, a merciless and enduring confrontation with something that is there, but which nobody seems to have any interest in discussing. Nevertheless, the poem ends on a positive note: “We care, but we don’t fear”. The message is that not everything is lost, that there is still hope.

Fans may sometimes get the impression that they’re at a philosophy lecture, hearing a smart person creatively explain Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil, and learning that evil powers can emerge when everybody just plays by the rules of the current regime, focusing on what is right or wrong in the eyes of the leaders. Here, moral obligations – which might result in disagreement and resistance – are rejected by the individual. Are most people just too lazy or afraid to make an effort to achieve change?

This passivity might also be the reason that a certain president is currently in power; he is the subject of the poem “President”. Without revealing the name of the person, it is still clear whom Zephaniah has in mind when he vents his fury: “Dear Mister President [...] you suck presidentially. Just run, run as slowly as you can, and take your arms trade with you”.

Zephaniah’s anger seems equally a sign of deep sadness. In the poem “What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us”, the artist reminds his listeners of the death of the young British man who was murdered in 1993. The case unveiled institutionalised racism in Britain and questioned the juridical practice of double jeopardy with regard to murder cases. With the current incidents of police violence in the United States, bringing up the case of Stephen Lawrence is like witnessing a never-ending tragic cycle. Almost 25 years later, his murder reminds us that we live in a world where freedom and justice are not rights that can be taken for granted.

With respect to musical influences, Revolutionary Minds is quite diverse, very electronic, very roots and very reggae-based. It is not easy to put Zephaniah’s artistic styles into one genre. However, it is not necessary to do so. The artist has other motivations, as he has already stated on his last record Naked: “Is it hip hop or is it reggae, who really care? As long as it’s loud, as long as it’s clear”. And it is clear.

Tobias Schlosser is a writer, researcher and expert drink-maker, based in Germany. 

You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Monday 4 December 2017


Fans of African art in France have been spoilt for choice this year, with an abundance of exhibitions around the country, particularly in the capital Paris.

Paintings from Ebony Curated gallery at AKAA.
During the spring, Art Paris Art Fair featured Africa as its “guest of honour”, with works from all over the continent, while the Louis Vuitton Foundation dedicated its vast space to art from South Africa and other countries in the region.

Paintings, sculptures and photographs have all been on view, with established and emerging artists showcased. The highlights of the year so far include the thrilling Also Known as Africa art and design fair (AKAA) and the highly praised exhibition of photographs by Malian icon Malick Sidibé, titled Mali Twist and running until Feb. 25, 2018.

AKAA presented its second annual fair in November with 140 artists from 28 countries participating. The three-day event, which attracted 15,000 visitors, received glowing reviews for its quality and cultural programme comprising talks, music, film screenings and dance.

“The fair is a great way to bring people together who love this art,” said Sorella Acosta, the owner of Spanish gallery “Out of Africa”.

AKAA founder Victoria Mann
AKAA is the brainchild of Victoria Mann, a French-American art lover and entrepreneur who studied modern African art before turning to the contemporary sphere.

“It’s a very exciting time for African art, which has seen a world-wide momentum,” Mann said. “But despite all the interest, the market is also very fragile. We’re thinking about the development globally and working with a select group of galleries every year.”

She told SWAN that the fair collaborated closely with “creators, thinkers and writers” to develop its cultural programme, which was directed by Senegalese curator Dalimata Diop. The AKAA selection committee also included Simon Njami, a writer, curator and artistic director of the Dakar Biennale’s 12th edition. Some 38 international galleries were chosen to take part in this year’s AKAA.

"Tears of Bananaman" by Jean-François Boclé.
“We believe in a sense of community and working hand in hand with participants for an exchange of perspectives that will make us go forward,” Mann said. “One of our key aims at Also Known as Africa is to create dialogue.”

The artworks certainly gave rise to discussion. One installation - created by Jean-François Boclé and presented by the Paris-based Caribbean gallery Maëlle - comprised bunches of bananas arranged in human form, for a reflection on the legacy of colonialism.

Titled The tears of Bananaman, the artwork had words or phrases carved into the fruit’s peel, in various languages: eat your liberty, come mis labios, tropicale moi. On the final day of the fair, the bananas were distributed to visitors, some of whom seemed bemused as they hesitatingly took bites. The irony was not lost on others - that the fair was taking place in a country that has a complicated and uneasy relationship with its former colonies and overseas territories.

Bananas were also a feature in paintings by South African artist Lady Skollie, whose pulsating works were displayed on the lower floor of the Carreau du Temple, a renovated 19th-century covered market where the fair was held. Skollie’s “Mating Dance” incorporated the yellow shapes, sending echoes of Josephine Baker’s legendary and controversial images while also provoking thoughts about history.

Artist Virginia Ryan, beside her artwork.
Artists who participated in the fair, such as Virginia Ryan of Italy, willingly agreed to be photographed with a bunch of bananas, for a seeming expansion of the artwork. Ryan was one of several artists “from other nationalities” at AKAA who have links to Africa. Her latest work investigates the “relationship between white and black, between contrast and contact,” according to the fair’s organizers.

“We’re not putting artists into a box and saying you have to be from a certain place,” Mann said. “AKAA allows for interpretation. Participants can determine themselves what is Africa and what it means.”

The artists from the continent addressed a range of topics, such as inequality and apartheid, as in the case of South African painter Robyn Denny. She put on an exhibition titled “Indigo - Passage to Healing” with performance artist Mamela Nyamza.

The show (curated by Beathur Mgoza Baker and hosted by Candice Berman of the Johannesburg-based Berman Contemporary gallery) consisted of Denny’s large-scale paintings and Nyamza’s live dance performance.

“Through our collaboration, we talk about the dark history that many people don’t want to talk about,” said Denny, who used crushed indigo and acrylic for her work, creating striking hues. “There’s nothing we can’t say to each other.”

Artists Robyn Denny, James Barnor and Mamela Nyamza.
Healing, in fact, was a theme of this year’s AKAA, which posed the question: can art heal us?

“When we turn our gaze away, artists heal and revive our inherited memories, giving us back our history,” said the organizers.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of AKAA was that very few objects could be considered a “pretense” for "real" art, unlike in many contemporary fairs. Whether it was the sculptures of Senegalese artist Ousmane Sow - who died last year and to whom the fair paid homage – or the pictures of Ghanaian pioneering photographer James Barnor, nearly all the works evoked history and narratives.

“One thing the artists here have in common is that they are story-tellers, and we all respond to a good story,” said Mann.


Across town, the same could be said of Malick Sidibé, whose work captures an era in the Malian capital Bamako and tells stories of the young people, families, and couples who invited him to their soirées and into their lives.

Malick Sidibe: Nuit de Noël, 1963. Gelatin Silver Print.
Collection Fondation Cartier pour l'art Contemporain
On show at the innovative Fondation Cartier in Paris, the photographs in Mali Twist highlight the diversity of Sidibé’s output from 1960 to 1980, including some world-renowned images: Nuit de Noël (Christmas Night) and Fans of James Brown. They pull viewers back to by-gone parties and to picnics along the Niger River.

For art lovers who appreciate music, Mali Twist has its own original playlist as well, selected by U.S.-based writer and professor Manthia Diawara and curator André Magnin. 

As if that’s not enough, visitors can also view the sardonic portraits of city life by Congolese painter JP Mika, whose art “reveals the influence of Sidibé’s work on an entire generation of artists”, as Magnin puts it.

The next edition of AKAA takes place Nov. 8 to 11, 2018. You can follow SWAN on Twitter @mckenzie_ale.

Artist JP Mika in front of one of his paintings at Mali Twist.

Wednesday 22 November 2017


By Dimitri Keramitas

Screened at the recent Amnesty International Human Rights Film Festival in Paris, Christian Sonderegger’s Coby explores the experience of a 23-year-old girl who transitions into a strapping young man.

Of course, the topic is well-worn by now. What makes this documentary fresh is what the director bluntly calls its “feel-good” aspect - it has a happy ending that’s a sharp departure from the lurid or adversarial, and is not made up by a Hollywood team of scriptwriters. It also demonstrates how gender transitioning can involve not just the individual, but an entire family, which has to change how it views a child or sibling.

A poster for the documentary Coby.
This brilliant film is, however, too complicated to remain within feel-good confines. There are uncomfortable and mysterious elements, some of them discreetly (or coyly) unrevealed by the filmmaker, others perhaps unintended.

The movie is about an individual - Coby - in the furthest reaches of the U.S. Middle West. What is a French director doing making a documentary here? One hint is that Coby’s mother Ellen says a few words in fluent-sounding French to the (off-screen) director, and makes an ironic remark about how the French have an excessive need to understand everything. Perhaps she’d visited France, and met the young director? This isn’t addressed in the film but at the screening Sonderegger revealed that Ellen is actually his “biological mother”, that she’d had him during a sojourn in France and put him up for adoption. That makes him the half-brother of Coby, the subject of his film, and accounts for the sympathy and easy intimacy of the sequences with her/him.

Coby has a dual structure. We see Coby as he is now, with his post-transition name Jake. He works as a paramedic in his rural Ohio town, and lives with his partner Sara (and two adorable dogs). The director has a wonderful eye for nature, whether the harsh snowy winters or the flowery summer season. He also captures the working-class lives of the village residents without condescension.

The other narrative strand is a series of YouTube diary sequences that Coby made when he was still a she named Suzanne, when the physical-physiological transition finally caught up with the psychological one.

Coby is the same person as Jake, but in the end not really. Coby is several years younger (in the YouTube footage), and looks like a teenager. (The documentary makes us realize how in a sense we’re all transitioning age-wise.) He also seems unstable, a molten stew of desires, anxieties and other feelings, pushed along by the determination to become physically, inside and out, what his self-image is. Jake, on the other hand, is a well-adjusted guy. Coby is more interesting - it’s no mystery why the film is titled after that name, rather than “Jake”. The director is masterly at interweaving the segments, creating a counterpoint at once dissonant and harmonious. But credit must go to Coby for the videos’ creation and performance (in addition it was Coby who asked his French half-brother to make the documentary).

Director Christian Sonderegger.
The other characters in the documentary are vividly depicted. Sara, Coby’s partner, has the spunky character of Harry Potter’s Hermione. She’s the one who pushes him into concrete transitional action once he determines it’s the right path. She also defends Coby in public when others react to him in a bemused manner. Coby’s parents are also memorable in their own way. Ellen has a large personality, sometimes on the obstreperous side, but always human. Coby’s father Willard comes off as decent and intelligent, almost a sitcom caricature of the caring liberal dad.

The family represents a bit of a puzzle, or at least something mysterious. Coby’s parents are intelligent, articulate, and educated. They’re also well-off in a way that’s at odds with the rustic setting. Ellen lived in France as a younger woman, and she says she lived a “crazy life with all sorts of people”. Coby refers to how they made “lots of money” (unlike him). We learn that they home-schooled their children and didn’t expose them to television, isolating them (as Coby’s father admits) from mainstream culture. Who are these people really? The family history is probably a movie unto itself, so maybe it’s better not to get sidetracked from the central story, which belongs to their daughter-turned-son.

Appearing with the director at the Amnesty France screening was a young woman who identified as intersexual. She made a valid point that those who examine gender issues tend to pathologize them, to examine them with the idea that they are not just phenomena but effects for which we need to isolate the cause. Ellen argues along the same lines, saying that her son’s situation “just is”, that it isn’t because of his past or his family. If we’d been privy to the full story maybe we’d agree with Coby’s parents that his family was the right thing to have happened for his development. But not fully examining the family history seems to undercut this thesis.

Aside from the YouTube clips, the director includes still photos from Coby’s childhood as a little girl. She doesn’t seem to be particularly tomboyish, but apparently she had a tempestuous, rebellious streak (which in adulthood has become puckish charm). More disturbing is the number of photos of the child Suzanne in the nude. There are families who take such photos of their baby or toddler children in a totally innocuous way, and presumably Coby’s family was no different. It’s a question of culture, and possibly the home-schooling / no-TV household had a very natural slant. But again we are left with the feeling that this documentary, compelling and comprehensive as it seems, is the tip of a submerged iceberg. Coby’s story has a happy end, but a murky beginning, one the director leaves opaque.

Production: Ciaofilms/Willow Films

Dimitri Keramitas is an award-winning writer and legal expert based in Paris. The Amnesty International France Human Rights Film Festival is an annual event. Please see SWAN’s earlier article for details about the movies screened.

Wednesday 15 November 2017


The new director-general of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, called for unity and humanism, as she takes over the troubled educational, scientific and cultural agency.

“The period in which we’re living faces numerous global challenges: massive degradation of the environment, obscurantism, terrorism, questions about the contribution of science, deliberate attacks on cultural diversity, the oppression of women, massive displacements of populations,” Azoulay said at her investiture ceremony on Nov. 13 in Paris.

Audrey Azoulay (Photo: UNESCO/Alix)
“Our inability to prevent these tragedies can be explained by a common blindness: the lack of knowledge, the denial of universal values, and the absence of a global and humanist response,” said Azoulay, a former culture minister of France.

She said that UNESCO is more “necessary” than ever and stressed that the organisation “can and must participate in a world order based on multilateralism and humanist values”.

At her swearing-in ceremony, an ambassador of one of UNESCO’s 195 member states told her: “May the Force be with you”. The “Star Wars” quotation evokes the difficulties that lie ahead for Azoulay, in the quest to strengthen UNESCO financially and heal internal rifts.

Without a magical lightsaber, she will have to rely on her experience, diplomatic skills and the backing of member states, many of whom expressed support and encouragement after her election, although they did not all vote for her.

“I would like to assure you of the support of the Africa Group as you carry out your work,” said Zimbabwe’s Ambassador Rudo Mabel Chitiga, on behalf of UNESCO’s 48 African member countries. “We are very happy to note that you have roots in Africa ... we therefore welcome you as a sister.”

Azoulay at a press conference.
Azoulay, 45 years old and of Moroccan descent, was a minister of culture and communication in the government of François Hollande and has worked in various related sectors.

She was first nominated by UNESCO’s 58-member Executive Board on Oct. 13, with 30 states voting in her favour, against 28 for Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari of Quatar. There had been nine candidates at the beginning of the race in March, including three women.

UNESCO’s General Conference – the second of the organisation’s two decision-making bodies – voted on Azoulay’s nomination Nov. 10, with 131 states in favour and 19 against (some of the organization’s member states were not eligible to vote). Her investiture ceremony took place a day before the two-week Conference ended, on Nov. 14.

Throughout the process, some delegates said Azoulay had shown keen awareness of UNESCO’s precarious situation, especially as the United States and Israel have announced their withdrawal from the organization.

It’s expected that she will use her multicultural background and youthful “dynamism” to bring diverse parties together.

Audrey Azoulay and Irina Bokova (Photo: SWAN/McK.)
“I grew up in France with the chance of coming from elsewhere, like millions of French people,” Azoulay said at her investiture. “France and Morocco, Europe and Africa, North and South. Morocco has this special asset in today's world – an asset that is enshrined in its most important text, its constitutional text – to be based on multiple roots. The preamble of its Constitution clearly affirms the attachment to Berber, Jewish, Arab-Muslim, Andalusian and African civilizations.”

She pledged to uphold UNESCO’s mandate of working for peace through the advancement of culture, education for all, and science.

Azoulay takes office Nov. 15. She is the second woman to lead the organization, succeeding Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, who was director-general from 2009. 

For a more complete article, see INPS news agency. You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Tuesday 7 November 2017


The French branch of rights group Amnesty International is hosting its 8th Human Rights Film Festival, with movies from countries including France, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia.

The six-day festival, which runs until Nov. 12 in Paris, includes features and documentaries, with the aim of raising awareness and increasing the public’s engagement in favour of human rights,” the organization said.

Each screening will be followed by discussions between the filmmakers and the audience.

“Through a rich selection of narratives, the films give a voice to victims and to those who fight daily to advance rights,” Amnesty International France said.

“Cinema can arouse emotions, spark indignation and give us a wish to discuss and to understand ways in which each of us can contribute to change,” said Camille Blanc, the group's president.   
The focus this year is on violence against women and children (Jusqu’à la garde / Maman Colonelle / I Am Not a Witch), the situation of refugees in France (Une saison en France), transexuality (Coby) and human exploitation (Makala).

French-Iraqi filmmaker Abbas Fahdel is the keynote presenter or parrain, appearing at the launch on Nov. 7 for a discussion with the audience.

The poster for Maman Colonelle.
The opening film is the gripping Jusqu’à la garde (Custody), by French actor and director Xavier Legrand, who got an Oscar nomination for his 2013 short film Avant que de tout perdre (Just Before Losing Everything). 

Already acclaimed at screenings during the Toronto and Venice film festivals, Custody is the continuation of the story, begun in the earlier short movie, of an abused woman dealing with a manipulative ex-husband.

Other participating filmmakers include Dieudo Hamadi, from the  Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), whose documentary Maman Colonelle portrays a senior policewoman battling to stop abuse of women and children; Emmanuel Gras, with the documentary Makala, a film about back-breaking labour, also set in the DRC; France-based Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, with the drama Une saison en France (A Season in France), which tells the story of undocumented migrants (“sans papiers”) in Paris; and Zambian fillmmaker Rungano Nyoni with her haunting debut feature I Am Not a Witch - about a 9-year-old girl accused of witchcraft and sent away to a "witch camp".

SWAN will have reviews of some of the films at a later date.

Tuesday 31 October 2017


By Zofeen T. Ebrahim

October may not be the best month to launch events in Karachi, a city described as "maddening” by Amin Gulgee, the chief curator of the Karachi Art Biennale 2017 (KB17). But neither the sizzling heat nor the crazy Karachi traffic seems to have deterred artists or art lovers from doing the rounds at the 12 venues selected for this two-week event.

Touted as Pakistan’s "largest contemporary art event", the Biennale has artwork strewn across the city of 20 million and runs until Nov. 5. The prime location is the architecturally striking NJV High School, but other venues include an old bookstore, a cinema, the building of the Alliance Française, and the Karachi School of Art.

At the Biennale: Mussalmaan Musclemen by Z. A. Bhutto,
2016. Archival inkjet print on cotton fabric, hand-sewn
printed polyester and blue embroidery thread.
The theme of the biennale - "Witness" - aims to take visitors through the city’s history (with the opening up of old colonial buildings), to question the present, and to imagine what the future might be.

In the absence of a museum of modern art where the organisers could have set up the event under one roof, Amra Ali, a Karachi-based curator and art critic, is happy the biennial has opened "art that has been confined to galleries, to a larger audience".

"Public art interventions in 'non-art' spaces such as the ones selected by the organisers bring about a negotiation of art to its social and cultural histories," she said.

For their part, the organisers say they made a very "conscious effort" to let the public traverse the city and its historical precincts. 

Amin Gulgee, chief curator of KB17.
According to Ali, with people visiting one venue or the other, there is a greater "sense of discovery in revisiting, and in some cases visiting for the first time, spaces that have existed in our memory".

Additionally, such an event not only speaks of the "power of art to transform and bring people to view and be inspired," but it shows that art “belongs to us, as a city, collectively", she said.

The works by some 140 artists from more 30 countries include installations, videos, photographs, dance, performances and other art forms, most of it conceptual.

"It's been a labour of love, passion and a lot of hard work," said Niilofur Farrukh, the CEO of KB17, while Gulgee has reminded observers that the surreal journey he embarked upon more than a year ago was done on a shoestring budget.

For many visitors, however, some of the installations need decoding since most messages are not always obvious. "What I find amiss is a short guide with explanations of the art works," said Ingo Arend, an art critic and art editor from Germany. "If you want to reach out for a wider public, not that familiar with contemporary art, one should give them some advice."

A parallel south-south critical dialogue is equally taking place at the Biennale. "As a theme we want to explore how thinkers/artists/art from Latin America are bearing testimony to their times," said Farrukh.

Daalaan, 2017 by Salman Jawed,
Faiza Adamjee, Ali S Husain, Mustafa
Mehdi, Hina Fancy and Zaid Hameed.
"The project also aims to strengthen intellectual exchange directly between south-south independently and not via the north." she emphasized.

Cuban art curator Dannys Montes de Oca (who was reminded of Havana's road "chaos” by the tsunami of traffic on Karachi’s main thoroughfare) says that the voices from the South are usually missing at these so-called "international" art shows. This is because these shows are costly, so most artists from developing countries cannot afford to showcase themselves.

She thus favours "alternative" biennales. She said she was happy the art on display was not "passive" and seemed to engage the audience.

Arend, who was among the three jury members for the KB17 art prize, has, like de Oca, attended biennales in the North and had specially come to Karachi to see "something else". He expressed satisfaction that the event promotes a counter-narrative to the so-called modernist obsession with the white cube.

"They [KB17] should try and stay on the experimental ground and avoid the sterile white cubeism," he said, noting that had it not been for the venues, the event could very well have fallen into the Venice Biennale-like model.

For him, it was uplifting to see how the artists had reclaimed "amazing public locations" that had been relegated to the inner recesses of people's memories and had revived them, through the Biennale, to provide a platform "for collective discourse".

Untitled, 2017, by Ayaz Jhokio,
Mixed media installation.
Karachi curator Ali (who has attended Germany’s huge art fair Documenta), fails however to see why people should even think that KB17 needs to be compared with the European or "Euro-centric" model.

"There are thousands of biennials all over the world now; every major city has been holding them. In terms of structure, I think that looking closer to this region, to places such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, would bring more parallels and shared concerns,” she said.

“We have to develop our own models, even if the model is an anti-biennial model, and that will come naturally, as we evolve. That will all happen, as we have taken the first step, which is most difficult. We have opened ourselves to the world," she added.   
Art events across the globe have increasingly become a source of local pride, tourism and cultural capital, generating revenue for cities. Paolo De Grandis, an Italian contemporary art curator who works with the Venice Biennale, said that while art carries several messages including a very strong "political message" it provides "a massive business opportunity" too that needs to be tapped.

The grandpa of all these events is of course the Venice Biennale, founded in 1895. Fondly known as the "Olympics" of art, it is also the most prestigious.

This first Karachi Biennale may have taken only baby steps, but it is a big deal for the Pakistan artist community, who may see their work at the next Venice Biennale, in 2019.

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

Thursday 26 October 2017


You can be one of the most famous writers in the world and still face problems at certain airports if you don’t have a “Western” passport.

That’s what best-selling Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discovered on a recent visit to Paris.

“When I arrived at the airport with my Nigerian passport, I had the most humiliating, and annoying, questioning,” she told participants at the 2017 CityLab conference held in the French capital Oct. 22-24.

The event, described by organizers as “a celebration of cities and city life”, brought together mayors from around the world, as well as “urban experts, business leaders, artists and activists”, to discuss sustainability, inclusion and other issues.

Writers Ta-Nehesi Coates and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
speak with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg (Photo: SWAN
The main objective was to “explore solutions for the most pressing issues facing city leaders and city dwellers alike”, said the organisers and co-hosts – The Atlantic media group, The Aspen Institute and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Adichie, the author of Half of a Yellow Sun and We Should All Be Feminists, participated in a discussion with fellow writer Ta-Nehesi Coates titled “Identity and Belonging: The Souls of a City”, responding to questions from Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic.

“I think we have to be careful not to romanticise cities,” Adichie said, when asked about her favourite town. “They can be alienating as well. People walk past each other.”

She was particularly blunt about Paris, saying that “Black people feel excluded” in certain areas of the city, and she described ways that her acquaintances try to fit in, some by speaking English instead of French because Anglophone foreigners seem to be “more respected”.

Adichie stressed that a city needs “affordable housing and inclusion” to be sustainable – things for which Paris aren’t highly rated  and these were themes that also concerned other artists at the conference.

In an earlier discussion, Ruth Mackenzie, artistic director of the city’s Théâtre du Châtelet, said that to achieve more social inclusion, artists can make a difference in neighbourhoods by engaging with local communities.

“You listen and use their skills,” Mackenzie said. “You can use public spaces where people can see work for free.”

Choreographer Elizabeth Streb. (Photo: SWAN)
She and her colleague Elizabeth Streb, founder and director of dance company Streb Extreme Action, took part in a panel on “setting a more inclusive stage”, which is seen as necessary in most major cities.

“When we talk about the theatre-going public, the issues of class and race are hardly addressed,” Streb said in an interview with SWAN, on the sidelines of the conference. “I think it’s a disgrace and ignorance when you hear some of the things said in the ivory tower about outreach and including people.”

Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, co-founders of The Good Chance Theatre which works with refugees, called for cities to do more to support activist cultural initiatives. On a panel with Majid Adin, an Iranian animator, filmmaker and refugee, the two said the arts could help to decrease social tensions and divisions.

“This is a difficult moment in our collective history, with things that are dividing and segregating us,” Murphy said. “We believe that culture should be at the centre of our cities.”

With all the talk from participants, it was left to Adin’s animated film to demonstrate the impact that artists can have. Loud applause followed the partial screening of his video for Elton John’s well-known song “Rocket Man” – interpreted as the journey of a refugee.

With support from Murphy and Robertson, Adin had entered “The Cut”, a competition that invited independent filmmakers “to create the first official music videos for three of Elton John’s most famous songs”.

Adin based “Rocket Man” on his own migration to England, via the Calais refugee camp in northern France, and was named one of the contest's three winners. The video premiered last May at the Cannes Film Festival and is a poignant appeal for the inclusion of people who are so easily marginalised in cities.

You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Sunday 22 October 2017


Just two years ago, Elida Almeida burst onto the world scene with her debut album Ora doci Ora margos (Sweet Times Bitter Times), claiming her place as the new voice of Cabo Verde.

That album had a serious message for listeners, alongside the melodies and beats of Santiago - the island where Almeida spent part of her childhood - and it gained the singer a large international following. (See:

Since then, Almeida has been touring and heightening her profile. She has performed in Europe, Africa and North America, where members of the Cabo Verdean Diaspora and other fans have welcomed her in clubs and at music festivals.

Now comes Kebrada, her second album, released Oct. 20.

Named for the village where she grew up, Kebrada asserts Almeida’s African identity. She seasons her Cabo Verdean beats - batuque, funaná, coladera and tabanka - with Latino rhythms, for that traditional musical journey: Africa to the Americas and back.

Almeida has written most of the lyrics and music, with arrangements by guitarist Hernani Almeida, and the album is catchy from the first song “Djam Odja”. As with the best music from Cabo Verde, the themes of joy and sadness intermingle, and the “danceable” tracks don’t undermine the album’s social criticism.

On “Forti Dor”, Almeida tells the story of young man who dies after falling in with a bad crowd, and this ballad is at the heart of the compilation, captivating listeners with the warm, rich voice.

Kebrada is a worthy follow-up to Ora Doci and shows an increased maturity and confidence. With Almeida being only 24 years old, listeners can look forward to a future of great songs from this talented Cabo Verdean artist.

Label: Lusafrica. Produced by José da Silva. Photo by N'Krumah Lawson Daku. 

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