Thursday 20 December 2018


The French release of “The Forgiven” takes place early January 2019, but a select number of moviegoers got to see the film Dec. 15 when American actor Forest Whitaker hosted a pre-screening in Paris alongside director Roland Joffé.
Forest Whitaker at the pre-screening of "The Forgiven". 
(Photo courtesy of UNESCO)
Based on the play "The Archbishop and the Antichrist" by Michael Ashton, “The Forgiven” tells a story that involves Archbishop Desmond Tutu's search for answers during South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The drama pits Tutu against the fictional character Piet Blomfeld - a convicted murderer, who is a composite of various racist personalities - played by the Australian actor Eric Bana.
While many critics have hailed the subject matter, noting that Tutu’s historical role is a worthy topic, most panned the heavy-handed treatment by English-French director Joffé when the film was released in the United States and the UK last March. Variety magazine reviewer Guy Lodge, for instance, wrote that the movie was “drab” and “vigourless”, and a far cry from Joffé’s award-winning work on “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission”.
“The Forgiven” (or just "Forgiven" for the French market) might, however, strike a stronger chord with French viewers, where the questions of égalité and liberté spark philosophical discourse, even amidst hypocrisy in national dealings with oppressive regimes. 
The French-language poster for the film.
Whitaker plays Tutu, who is running the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid and who visits Cape Town's Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison to meet Blomfeld, a former officer of the South African Defence Force and member of a neo-Nazi organization, to assess his candidacy for amnesty.
Blomfeld is a potential witness to murders committed under apartheid, including the disappearance of the teenage daughter of Mrs. Morobe (played with poignant depth by Thandi Makhubele), who implores the archbishop to find answers regarding her missing child.
The movie comprises other sub-plots, but the main action consists of the tense confrontations and psychological games between Tutu and Blomfeld, which, if nothing else, may spur viewers to do research on the apartheid era (and its legacy). If that happens, the film will have served a purpose, whatever one thinks of the overall production.
The Paris pre-screening took place at the headquarters of the United Nations' cultural agency, UNESCO, during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in Paris on Dec. 10, 1948.
“It is always inspiring to see people coming together to watch a movie about justice,” said Whitaker, who is UNESCO’s Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation.

Distribution (France): SAJE Distribution.

Wednesday 12 December 2018


Valérie Oka wants to break down the barriers between art and digital technology. 
The Ivorian-French artist mixes conventional techniques and digitalization to depict individuals who have shattered social codes and barriers, and she questions the boundaries between the “real and the virtual”, as she puts it.
Valérie Oka stands beside her portrait of Angela Davis.
Oka believes that digital know-how is “related to creative freedom”, because through technology artists can reach a broader audience and spread their vision.
She currently has an exhibition at UNESCO headquarters in Paris that portray 16 women activists and political figures such as Angela Davis and Christiane Taubira as well as artists including outspoken American writer Maya Angelou. The mixed-media works are a small portion of the 150 portraits she has produced over the years, of both men and women.
Her exhibition, titled “La Carte n’est pas le territoire” (The map is not the territory), fills a hall of the massive UNESCO building and is part of a four-day conference on creativity and artificial intelligence (AI).
The meeting has brought together artists, scholars, entrepreneurs and others to discuss the impact of innovation on the cultural and creative sectors, and how technology can help to promote sustainable development and gender equality.
Oka says that the issue of equality is central to her work, along with the idea of the “story told and the historical truth”. 
A part of Valérie Oka's exhibition at UNESCO.
“Sometimes we don’t see ourselves in history and part of my goal is show Africa’s heroes and enable the rest of the world to discover them too,” she told SWAN.
“I want to show these people who aren’t given enough recognition in the mainstream," she said. 
"These are people who defied stereotypes, broke codes and marked history. I especially wanted to honour women heroes.”
Oka begins her artistic process with a series of drawings, after which she digitalises the artwork, adding depth and shadows on the computer. When the portraits are printed, she enhances them further by hand.
“I think technology plays an important part in the economic development of a country, and I want to convey that through my work,” she said, referring to the UNESCO 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. This convention puts creativity “at the heart” of sustainable development, and the conference comprises a meeting of its intergovernmental committee.
“Sometimes we have the impression that Africa is behind with new technologies, but innovative methods can give the continent the opportunity to speak of its history, to break barriers, and to move forward,” she added.
Visitors to her exhibition can also tour a “virtual gallery”, through the use of special 3-D glasses - another example of the use of technology in art.
Born in France, to a French mother and Ivorian father, Oka studied and worked in Paris before opting in 1996 to live in Ivory Coast, where she’s still based. She said she has had to fight to be able to follow her passion, as traditional parents “don’t encourage girls to be artists”. Her father would have preferred her to study law or medicine, she told SWAN.
Experts discuss gender equality at UNESCO meeting.
“As a woman you have to believe in yourself, you have to insist on the right to have the profession you want,” she said.
Other participants in the UNESCO conference, Dec. 11-14, spoke of the relative absence of women in technology sectors, even when these industries intersect with culture - another focus of the conference.
“Why don’t women have access to these sectors? Why aren’t they studying in these areas and getting training?” asked Dieynaba Sidibé, a Senegalese representative, who took part in a panel titled “Empowering Creative Women”. 
Sidibé directs a training programme called DigitELLES, which aims to strengthen women’s technical and artistic skills, and which is among several projects that have received support from an initiative called “You Are Next: Empowering Creative Women”, launched by UNESCO and 27-year-old Chinese entrepreneur Sabrina Ho.
According to the initiative, “a multifaceted gender gap persists in almost all cultural fields, in most parts of the world. In the digital creative industries, women entrepreneurs remain invisible even though they represent half of those employed in these sectors worldwide”.
You Are Next aims to increase opportunities for women under 40 in the digital creative industries, according to UNESCO, and it also supports “national policy initiatives and strategies that address gender equality in this field”.
For some people, however, the spread of digital technology in the creative sector throws up a frightening scenario of autonomous machines producing books, paintings, music. Automation and digitalization globally have also been responsible for job losses, as many studies have suggested. But others see the technology as a means to enhance creativity and promote development.
“Digital technology gives me greater liberty to express myself,” Oka said.
Her exhibition will travel to several countries in 2019, including Mali in February.
Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale.

Friday 30 November 2018


Reggae music of Jamaica has been inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List, a compilation of the oral and intangible treasures of humankind. 

Stephen Marley in concert in Paris. (Photo: McKenzie)
The announcement came Nov. 29 at a meeting in Mauritius of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the members of which are elected by UNESCO member states. Following the news, delegates stood up and danced to “One Love”, a well-known song by the late reggae superstar Bob Marley.

Support for the music’s inclusion was “unprecedented”, according to Jamaica’s Minister of Culture Olivia "Babsy" Grange. She said that 20 of the 23 countries on the Committee spoke on Jamaica’s behalf. The Caribbean island is the 24th member of the Committee.

Reggae originated in the poor areas of the Jamaican capital Kingston in the 1960s, as the “voice of the marginalized”, but the “music is now played and embraced by a wide cross-section of society, including various genders, ethnic and religious groups,” UNESCO stated.

Minister Grange (4th from left) and supporters. (Photo: L.I.)
“Its contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love and humanity underscores the dynamics of the element as being at once cerebral, socio-political, sensual and spiritual,” the UN’s cultural agency added.

Reggae has spread around the world, with popular festivals and performers in Africa, Europe, South America and other regions, but it remains an iconic Jamaican art form.

The island's venerated artists include Marley and members of his family (Rita, Ziggy, Stephen, Damian, etc.), Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Toots and the Maytals, and the effervescent Burning Spear.

Reggae was one of the 31 new elements inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity - to give the UNESCO list its full name.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale.

Tuesday 13 November 2018


By Dimitri Keramitas

Little Dilili, the heroine of Michel Ocelot’s new animated film Dilili in Paris, comes all the way from Kanaky (New Caledonia to the imperialists out there), but she’s a cousin of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Another child on her own in Belle Epoque Paris, helped by good guides and tormented by bad ones.

Image of heroine Dilili, from Dilili in Paris.
Paris is once again a wonderland starring some of the period’s famous notables. Dilili may also be seen as a cousin to Tintin, exploring Paris as he did Africa, but the movie is a sly send-up of that iconic but retrograde comic book with its stereotypical representations.  Even Dilili’s pile of dark hair is a parodic counterpart to Tintin’s blond quiff. So, this is not your grandparents’ cartoon extravaganza but something new, a 21st-century take on the early 20th century. Young children will be entranced, but there are also nudges and winks for maman and papa.

The film’s look is lovingly stylized. In the way of other arty animated movies, such as Ocelot’s Kirikou, there’s a flat, cut-out style meant to evoke storybooks. This is very un-Disney, which is probably the intent, but it also lacks depth and dynamism. To compensate, the filmmaker combines photographic views of Paris with the animation. This jazzes up the visuals, but probably more for the eye of the adults in the room.

Belle Epoque Paris, from Dilili in Paris.
The opening of Dilili pulls one in immediately with its perspective. We see a stereotypical “tribal” family, including a young girl, going about the daily struggle of village life. Then the view widens to show that this is actually an artificial exhibit in Paris, part of the Exposition Universelle (World Fair), in which Dilili is a character. (Historians will be aware that “human zoos” were a feature of European colonialism.)

It turns out that like so many child heroes of fiction and film, Dilili is an orphan, half-French and half-Kanak. She complains that she’s considered too light in New Caledonia, and too dark in Europe, but the film doesn’t dwell on this, and viewers are left to draw their own conclusions about race and colonialism. Dilili makes the acquaintance of Orel, who works as a courier and delivery boy, and she takes him on as a guide so she can discover the strange world that is turn-of-the-century Paris.

Soon they’re embroiled in a mystery. It seems that somebody, or a group of somebodies (they’re referred to as the malmaîtres, or bad masters), are abducting young girls. Even though this winds up being a fairy-tale-like diabolical plot by cartoon villains, we can’t help but think of the more realistic circumstances of child abductions. This lends a note of menacing suspense but also leaves a bad taste for the adult viewer and perhaps traumatic fear for a child (though no more than in Hansel and Gretel or the Wizard of Oz). In any case, Sherlock Dilili and her delivery boy Watson investigate, only to wind up as the prey of a malmaître.

The French poster for the film.
Dilili and Orel travel around Paris on Orel’s pedal vehicle and enlist the aid of the capital’s leading lights. Since the film is gently but firmly pushing a feminist agenda, several are famous women: the feminist anarchist Louise Michel (who taught Dilili her impeccable French when she was exiled in Dilili’s homeland), scientist Marie Curie, and the divine actress Sarah Bernhardt.

There’s also the sculptress Camille Claudel, not to mention a host of male rabble that includes Rodin, Monet, Gauguin, Picasso, Erik Satie, Proust and the circus performer Chocolat. It’s amazing to consider how many brilliant people lived in one city at one particular time, but for the most part we only get glimpses of them - they’re guest stars. So while the grown-ups will be dazzled, the stars won’t register in the same way (if at all) with very young viewers.

We discover that the malmaîtres are an anti-woman cabal who force girls to wear full-body gowns and to kneel down so that they resemble large stones. The murky aim of the villains is to turn back the clock regarding the progress of women and establish a barbaric patriarchy. Needless to say, after a number of hair-raising encounters with the dread malmaitres, Dilili and Orel and their allies save the day.

This sounds like an edifying girl-power movie, and it is. However, the director’s political subtext is dodgy. The police, from the agent de la police all the way to the Prefect, are held up as villains. Really? Who promulgated the laws that repressed women? Not the police but the lawmakers, who represented the upper classes. And who exploited the female underclass, whether domestics, factory workers, or farmhands? Again, the monied classes, not the police whose ranks came from the working and lower-middle class.

Dilili and her helpmate, in Dilili in Paris.
This egregious falsification makes us call into question the film’s general class bias. Although Orel is a working-class gopher, and a chauffeur also joins the good guys (and gals), much of the film’s Paris is composed of the bourgeoisie or glamorous artistes. Yet the French capital at that time was largely populated by workers, the poor and the lower middle-class. To top it off, another of the film’s heroes is Ferdinand Von Zeppelin, the German aristocrat who supplies a marvellous airship to help our side. You wouldn’t know from the film that the zeppelin would become an instrument of mass death a few years after the time-frame of the story, during the First World War.

Dilili in Paris has a genuinely charming, quirky heroine and an affecting sidekick. The vividly rendered Paris of the film can seem magical, and the adventures are often funny and sometimes thrilling. The general point of view, empowering girls and fostering égalité and fraternité (and maybe sororité?) is admirable. But the filmmaker unfortunately goes beyond that, and in a rather dubious fashion, scapegoats phony villains while prettifying a miserable social system. Some might consider the embourgeoisement of young minds to be a worthy mission civilisatrice. Others might call it abuse. 

Production: Nord-Ouest Productions, Studio O, Arte France Cinema, Mars Films, Wild Bunch. Ditribution: Mars Films. Photos courtesy of Artemis Productions.

Dimitri Keramitas is an award-winning writer and legal expert based in Paris.

Saturday 13 October 2018


One of the Caribbean’s most acclaimed authors, Maryse Condé of Guadeloupe, has won the “alternative” Nobel Prize for her writing.

Announced on Oct. 12, the award replaces this year’s official Nobel Prize in Literature, which was postponed to 2019 following a scandal involving sexual misconduct. Condé's alternative honour, formally called The New Academy Prize, was set up by “a wide range of knowledgeable individuals” who accepted the nominations of authors from Sweden’s librarians.

The New Academy then urged the public to choose from a list of 47 writers, and about 33,000 people around the world voted, according to the organizers. Condé emerged the winner from a resulting shortlist of four authors that included Vietnamese-Canadian writer Kim Thúy, British writer Neil Gaiman, and Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (who later withdrew his name to “concentrate on his writing”).

Condé, who writes in French, is the author of critically praised books such as Segou (Segu), Une saison à Rihata (A Season in Rihata) and Moi, Tituba sorcière… Noire de Salem (I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem). Her work has been translated into many languages.

In its citation, The New Academy said: “Maryse Condé is a grand storyteller. Her authorship belongs to world literature. In her work, she describes the ravages of colonialism and the postcolonial chaos in a language which is both precise and overwhelming. The magic, the dream and the terror is, as also love, constantly present.”

Condé has previously won literary prizes in France, of which Guadeloupe is an overseas department, or part of the French Caribbean.

In a 2010 interview with fellow Caribbean writer Elizabeth Nunez, published in the UNESCO Courrier, Condé said she writes about slavery, Africa, the condition of black people throughout the world” as a means “to order” her thoughts, “to understand the world, and to be at peace with” herself.
Maryse Condé. (Photo: MEDEF)

“I write to try to find answers to the questions I ask myself. Writing for me is a type of therapy, a way to be safe and sound,” she said in the interview.

On receiving the alternative Nobel, Condé said she wished to share it with her family, her friends and, “above all, with the Guadeloupean people who will be so thrilled and touched by seeing me receive this award”.

The prize will officially be awarded during a “grand celebration” in Stockholm Dec. 9, according to the New Academy, which said the organization “will be dissolved in December”. - SWAN

For more information, see:

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale.

Thursday 4 October 2018


When Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings were shown in France a few years ago, a visitor overheard a teenager remarking that the artwork seemed to have come from “a very angry little boy”.
Posters announcing the Basquiat exhibition in Paris.
Now, that sense of artistic fury or frenetic energy is put into context in a stunning new exhibition that comprises more than 120 works displayed in the remarkable setting of the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris  -  the museum and cultural centre designed by the architect Frank Gehry and launched in 2014.
The Foundation’s spacious galleries present the Caribbean-American artist in a new light, emphasizing Basquiat's status as a major figure in the history of art, 30 years after his death at the age of 27.
“The Foundation spotlights an artist I personally consider to be among the most important of the second half of the twentieth century,” said Bernard Arnault, president of the Foundation, and CEO of global luxury-goods company LMVH, which sponsors the museum.
In a foreword to the exhibition, Arnault, an avid art collector, added that the “complexity of Basquiat’s work is equalled only by the spontaneity” of the feelings it arouses.
“He figures among the origins of my collection and I owe him a tremendous amount for inspiring my passion for art in general, and for contemporary art in particular,” wrote Arnault, whose collection has contributed to that of the Foundation.
A visitor views Basquiat's "Gold Griot".
The exhibition comprises an impressive range of huge paintings and drawings on canvas, wood and other materials. They are shown in a thematic fashion that takes viewers into Basquiat’s thoughts and feelings about issues such as discrimination and inequality, and one can’t help being impressed by the immense number of works he produced in his short life.
The show runs in tandem with an exhibition on Austrian painter Egon Schiele, who also died in his twenties - 70 years before Basquiat, in 1918. Both artists are “signal figures in the art of their time, the early and late twentieth century respectively,” says Suzanne Pagé, artistic director of the Louis Vuitton Foundation.
Although their art is presented separately, in different parts of the museum, the artists are linked by “their breath-taking, youth-driven work” which has made them “icons” for new generations, according to Pagé.
The “Jean-Michel Basquiat” exhibition certainly addresses his iconic stature: his work is easily identifiable from his graphic style of painting, his use of vibrant colours and the subjects he addressed. As viewers walk through the eight galleries, over four flours of the museum, the works form a searing biography of the artist.
Born in Brooklyn in 1960 to a mother of Puerto Rican descent and a father from Haiti, Basquiat grew up with a love for art, as his mother took him to museums in New York and enrolled him in art lessons.
His childhood was marked by an accident in 1968 when, at the age of seven, he was hit by a car as he played in the street. While recovering from a broken arm and internal injuries, his mother gave him a copy of Gray's Anatomy, a book on human anatomy with illustrations of body parts, skulls and skeletons.
The exhibition includes a gallery of Basquiat's drawings.
According to biographers, this book would have a great influence on his work; indeed, a theme in the current exhibition is Basquiat’s preoccupation with the inner functions of the body and with dying.
As a child, Basquiat also experienced his parents’ separation and his mother’s mental illness, as the family moved between New York and Puerto Rico. He dropped out of high school at age 17 and was homeless for a while, producing postcards and other items to support himself. But his precocious talent soon caught the eye of gallery owners, collectors and fellow artists including the influential Andy Warhol.
“With a natural instinct for openness, linked to his twin Haitian and Puerto Rican roots, Basquiat absorbed everything like a sponge, mixing the lessons of the street with a repertoire of images, heroes, and symbols from a wide range of cultures,” Pagé said in a text introducing the exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation.
The sequence of his works at the show begins with the 1980 painting Untitled (Car Crash) and ends with Riding With Death - a striking painting that depicts a figure on a horse-like skeleton and which Basquiat produced shortly before he died in 1988 of a heroin overdose.
Jean-Michel Basquiat's "Horn Players", 1983.
Acrylic and oilstick on three canvas panels
mounted on wood supports. The Broad Art
Foundation. Copyright Estate of Jean-Michel
Basquiat. Picture: D M Parker Studio, LA
In between, visitors can view the works portraying boxers such as Sugar Ray Robinson and Cassius Clay / Muhammad Ali, and see Basquiat's artistic and political commentary on exploitation and the slave trade through paintings that include Price of Gasoline in the Third World and Slave Auction.
“Basquiat mirrored himself in his figures of black boxers and jazz musicians, as well as in victims of police brutality and everyday racism,” said Dieter Buchhart, curator of the exhibition, in an interview published by Le Journal de la Fondation Louis Vuitton.
“He connected the Black Atlantic, African diaspora, slavery, colonialism, suppression and exploitation with his time in New York in the 1980s, always keeping his own circumstances in view as well as those of humanity in general.”
For Basquiat, who was a forerunner of hip-hop culture, music and musicians were an essential part of the diaspora experience, and he paid homage to jazz artists, particularly Charlie Parker, with Horn Players, Discography and other works in his signature style of skulls, teeth, frantic figures, and text that send cryptic messages.
His collaborations with Warhol also form a significant part of the exhibition, with huge mural-type paintings that they jointly produced. The painting Eiffel Tower illustrates their respective styles as they playfully depict the most symbolic structure in the French capital. It’s a fitting inclusion in this Paris-based retrospective. - SWAN
The Jean-Michel Basquiat Exhibition runs until Jan. 14, 2019, at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Related events include conferences, literary readings, and a talk by renowned African American curator Thelma Golden, who recently received the J. Paul Getty Medal for contributions to the arts.
Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale.

Wednesday 19 September 2018


“Is that you in the picture, Grandma? And is that Grandpa?”

This is a common question when youngsters see a slightly yellowed wedding photograph in an album, on a living-room wall or on a family sideboard.

Agnes Jane Harris (1924-2016) and
Henricus Leonardus (Leo) Maria Knoppel
(1917-1995). Photo courtesy of L. Nankoe.
For answers, they and other visitors can currently view a wide range of ancestral photos in ‘Trouwportretten, Surinaamse Voorouders in Beeld 1868-1950’ (Wedding Portraits, Surinamese Ancestors in Images, 1868-1950) - an exhibition that runs until Nov. 14 at the Amsterdam Public Library in the Netherlands.
Photos bring the past world to the present day and that is certainly the case with the photographs in this show, say the organizers, headed by Lucia Nankoe, the freelance curator of the exhibition. 
The pictures portray Surinamese bridal pairs, or couples in which one of the partners has a Surinamese background. The photos not only provide a striking depiction of the period in which the marriage occurred, but they highlight how much the Surinamese have travelled to all corners of the Netherlands under Dutch administration, according to the organizers.
The introduction of photography to Suriname in the second half of the 19th century enabled couples to be photographed in the first studios in Paramaribo or in their parents’ courtyards. Some marriages were also performed in the Netherlands. The oldest photograph in the exhibition dates back to 1868, and some stories are even older, the organizers add.
The exhibition is the first of its kind to focus on the cultural diversity of Surinamese society through the use of photographs and the stories of the descendants of those pictured. It also includes wedding photographs of Surinamese-Dutch, Surinamese-Indian and Surinamese-American couples.

Saturday 18 August 2018


By Dimitri Keramitas
Don Diego de Zama, a magistrate and officer of the Spanish Crown posted in a remote region of South America, often looks with tortured longing at the ocean. The water represents both the distance from his superiors and the separation from his wife and family, as he waits for a letter permitting him a transfer out of what he considers a stagnant posting. His regard will translate into his subjugation of a conquered people, but always with alienated detachment. 
This is the drama created by Argentine director Lucrecia Martel in her acclaimed film Zama, based on a 1956 novel by Antonio di Benedetto. It is a different version of those stories of lost male souls in the New World, a story that has been told by Werner Herzog in Aguirre: Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo,  and by Terence Malick in The New World. In those movies, directed by men, we see things from the subjective view of the (male) protagonist and share the objectivizing gaze upon tropical nature and indigenous peoples. Ms. Martel turns the imperialist tables, and the result is an unsettling but refreshing and visionary film. 
For one thing, the women here are not the usual “compliant native concubines”. When Zama happens upon a group of nude women applying mud packs on the beach, they call him a voyeur, and one of them chases after him until he strikes her down. His indigenous mistress has a child with him, but they live apart from him and cultivate an indifferent attitude. A married colonial woman (played by a sensual Lola Dueñas) lives as she pleases, strings Zama along but refuses his advances. Even the women employed at a brothel seem more work(wo)manlike than seductive. The implicit logic is clear: women who survived the voyage across the Atlantic, or went from traditional ways of living to a Europeanized world, wouldn’t have been fragile flowers but hardy roses with thorns.
In contrast, indigenous men and their African peers are portrayed as sullenly docile workhorses. Is it because they were subject to more brutal punishment than noncompliant females? Or is Ms. Martel’s approach less a matter of rigorous logic and more an insistence on gender? This isn’t clear, as these characters remain little more than walk-on extras. 
Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho plays Zama as both repugnant and poignant. He has the scrutinizing eyes, thin lips, and blade-like aquiline nose of the judge his character incarnates. As Zama goes about his duties in a cold but diligent manner, we feel that he’d be at home officiating in the Inquisition or even at a latter-day concentration camp.
Cacho is remarkable at showing Zama’s utter banality, whether at work or in his personal life. Never smiling or raising his voice, he seems to go through the motions not just of a dreary job but life itself. This is no conquistadore from the 16th century in a pie-wedge helmet, physically bloodthirsty and spiritually transcendent, but an 18th-century civil servant in a tricorn hat.
Though Ms. Martel is described as a visionary, that doesn’t mean gauzy, dreamy subjectivity. For the most part her filming is implacably clean, a baleful feminine eye on the brutality and squalor of colonialism. Likewise, the film’s editing omits felicitous transitions, abruptly cutting to essential sequences, like an enraged housekeeper surveying a filthy environment and saying “Look here! And here! And, ugh, here!”
Daniel Giménez Cacho as Zama.
At the same time there are surreal touches - a moving box, the shovelling of a rain of dirt on a coffin - explained realistically, but whose reality is left in doubt (though not their metaphorical resonance). There are also beautiful shots of tropical nature, images that contrast starkly but oneirically with the bug-like antics of the people.
Zama finds himself in a No Exit situation. He tries to get transferred out of the backwater where he’s trapped, but to no avail. He pleads with the governor (played by Gustavo Boëm with oily authority) and petitions the king. We can assume that the authorities simply lack replacements for his post, but whatever the cause, Zama is in a Kafkaesque predicament, and a very ironic one: a patriarchal figure stymied by the patriarchy (which fits glove-like into hierarchy).
Aside from Sartre and Kafka, one gets the impression that the director wanted her film to be like those Conradian stories of men stranded in the cosmos they’ve created for themselves as much as in the engulfing tropics, stories like Heart of Darkness, Outcast of the Islands, Almayer’s Folly.
The problem in Zama is that on one hand, the director doesn’t have the sympathy for her protagonist that Conrad had for his. We’re not speaking of the mindless, over-the-top identification of romantic filmmakers, but the sympathy which leads to understanding as well as compassion. Ms. Martel tells us of Zama’s family, but we get no flashbacks or even spoken references in dialogue to his old life. Without this sense of his human side he remains a blank.
On the other hand, while Ms. Martel’s antipathy makes the character opaque, she gives an impression of knowing all too well the nature of external forces on the maintaining of the status quo. There’s no real sense of mystery. Instead viewers get a motif about a renegade on the loose, pillaging and raping, who must be hunted down. The mysterious villain remains lurking about for years, but in the end he’s just a name, as the renegade himself says at one point.
Viewers are meant to get the idea that it is this “villain” (communism, criminality, rebellion, liberalism, dissidence) that helps keep the patriarchy in place. Ms. Martel is a wonderful director, but her narrowness leads her brilliant film to a dead end. The paradox of art is that with no real mystery, there’s no real revelation. Yes, the director’s scathing gaze strips the clothes off her target, but the universe she’s created is already a nudist colony.
Production: Bananeira Filmes / Rei Cine. Distribution: Walt Disney Studios (Argentina) / Strand Releasing (US) / The Match Factory (worldwide).
Dimitri Keramitas is a writer and legal expert based in Paris.
Aug. 18, 2018, marks 500 years since the King of Spain, Charles I, issued a charter authorising the transportation of slaves direct from Africa to the Americas.

Tuesday 31 July 2018


By Julia Siccardi

Gina Athena Ulysse was at the back of the room when her name was announced, and she started her lecture with an unexpected chant, slipping in the first lines of The Fugees’ “Ready or Not“, as she slowly walked to the lectern on bare feet.

So began the “Caribbean Women (Post) Diaspora: African/Caribbean Interconnections“ conference, held earlier this month at London South Bank University.  It brought together scholars from around the world to reflect on issues facing black women in contemporary societies and to offer views on activism for the future, including on women’s mental and physical health.

Gina Athena Ulysse
Organized by Dr. Suzanne Scafe and Dr. Beverley Goring of LSBU, the two-day event included research presentations, an art exhibition and literary readings, in an attractive venue near the river Thames.
After an introduction by Scafe on the first day, all eyes were on anthropologist and first keynote speaker Ulysse, a professor at Wesleyan University in the United States.
She kicked off her shoes and sang in a clear voice, at the start of her “lyrical meditation on the politics and poetics of movement and suspense”. The aim was to “make sense of why we carry what we do against the weight of exile”.
In her performance, Ulysse emphasized the necessity to “dare to know oneself”, saying that “if we don’t define ourselves for ourselves”, then we are controlled by others’ limitations.
“We exist as we are and that is enough,” she declared. “Subjectivity allows me to claim who I am and not who you want me to be … your objectivity suffocates me.”
At one point, she cried as she shared her experiences, and during the question-and-answer session that followed, another participant, of about the same age, also broke down in tears, as the discussion turned to how often women of colour are “not heard” and vulnerable people “not seen”.
Ulysse reminded participants that people cannot do away with history, as the past affects contemporary situations. She expressed her worry that “forgetting is happening too much in this world” and wondered how it was possible to create spaces so that history won’t be forgotten.
“The need to create spaces for remembrance could not be more crucial,” she said. (For an article in New African magazine about the measures to create sites of memory, see:
“The problem is that people prefer simple narratives,” said Ulysse. “However, the past makes the narrative more complicated.”
Guyana-born British artist Desrie Thomson-George
with her work.
Detailing every-day struggles, she told listeners: “I’m forced to believe that we must survive … we are each other’s business.”
The conference also comprised an exhibition by Guyana-born British artist Desrie Thomson-George, whose sculptures told the story of “Jilo, the Survivor”. Her work referenced the “Windrush” generation in Britain and gave insight into how immigrants have coped with being in a hostile setting.
Thompson-George said she was 6 years old when she arrived in Britain, and the sole trace of her existence was the simple mention, on her grandmother’s passport of: “…and child”. She told conference participants about her experience of being a black child in a racist, white environment.
She said that white kids would laugh at her until she started genuinely finding herself ugly. When she was 10, she tried to modify her features on a picture of herself, making her lips thinner. She understood the concept of “invisibility” when her teacher one day asked a mathematical question and her hand shot up in the air but the teacher ignored her until, after calling on every other pupil, she finally had to turn to Thomson-George, who gave the correct answer.
The teacher’s reaction, instead of praise, was to ask: “How did you know that, did you cheat?” Thomson-George responded that her uncle gave her math lessons and made her work very hard, which was why she knew the answer to the question.
Fighting against being invisible, being silenced:
artwork by Desrie Thomson-George.
She recounted how she returned home that day with a letter in an envelope for her uncle, which she dutifully handed over. In it, the teacher asked the uncle to stop teaching Thomson-George because it was “disrupting the class” and made the other pupils feel less good.
Her uncle ignored the “request” and stressed that it was the teacher who had a problem, Thomson-George said. But the experience stayed with her, and her work as an artist refers to this attempt to make some people invisible as it takes viewers on the immigrant’s journey to survive.
A range of other presentations at the conference focused on topics such as: the gender dynamics of migration, queer diaspora human rights activism, new frontiers in black women’s writing, Cuba-Jamaica migration, and black feminist archiving in the digital age.
A second keynote speaker, Jan Etienne of the University of London, discussed and acknowledged the “sacrifices made by the Windrush sisters (first-generation African Caribbean women) whose womanist voices were for far too long suppressed as they prioritised support for the family and wider community”.
British-based health experts Jenny Douglas and Dawn Edge meanwhile focused on the need for women to pay attention to their health and called for increased awareness of the particular issues and challenges that women of Caribbean descent face in Britain.
Citing the increasing incidence of dementia among this population, Edge said that many people with depression end up with dementia. Douglas said greater activism was necessary on behalf of women’s health.
The cover of Diana Evans' latest novel.
The conference ended with readings by authors Alecia McKenzie and Diana Evans. McKenzie first shared a poem before inviting another conference participant (Aisha Spencer, from the University of the West Indies) to join her in the reading of “Full Stop”, one of the first short stories she wrote.
Written in an epistolary style, “Full Stop” takes the reader into the intimacy of letters exchanged between a Jamaican grandmother and her granddaughter who lives in New York. As the letters follow one another, we slowly discover that, maybe, the grandmother is a manipulative woman, but the doubt always remains as to whether this is so or not. The oral performance was fascinating as well as funny and made one want to read more.
For Evans’ reading, she chose an extract from her latest novel, Ordinary People. This was a very intense passage that sparked reflection, and Evans’ smooth writing made listeners want to discover all her books. Both writers evoked the question of belonging. Evans explained that although she is from Britain, she doesn’t quite belong, and writing is a way of exploring what it means to be Black and British, of thinking about “how we wear our history”, because, she said, echoing Ulysse without knowing it, “we will never lose our history.” McKenzie, a Jamaican living in Paris, said she had grown used to not belonging.
Julia Siccardi is a doctoral candidate at the Ecole Normal Supérieure de Lyon, France. At the conference, she presented a paper on “women looking for homes in Zadie Smith’s novels”. Follow her on Twitter @literaryjulia.

Sunday 8 July 2018


Nearly 40 years after her death, Caribbean-British writer Jean Rhys made her presence felt in Paris during an international conference devoted to her work, held at the famous Sorbonne university.
Phillips reads from his novel about Rhys.
Rhys was everywhere - in the wide-ranging scholarly presentations, in a new novel by St. Kittian-born English writer Caryl Phillips, and in a French theatre production. She also loomed in the memories evoked by her granddaughter Ellen Ruth Moerman, who seemed determined to correct misconceptions or mis-readings of Rhys’ life and books, including the much-lauded Wide Sargasso Sea.
The aim of the June 21-23 meeting, titled “Transmission Lines”, was to bring the two “sides” of Rhys’ work together: the modernist / European one and the colonial / postcolonial / Caribbean one, said Kerry-Jane Wallart, a professor at La Sorbonne and a member of the organizing committee with her colleagues Juliana Lopoukhine and Frédéric Regard.
“The problem was that (A) scholars did not interact with the other team, which seemed a shame, as academese can petrify, and, conversely, can be much invigorated by new angles and concepts,” said Wallart. “And (B) that this produced an odd dichotomy between Wide Sargasso Sea and the rest of the work.”
Rhys is known for her minimalist, avant-garde style in early books such as Quartet (based on her affair with the writer Ford Maddox Ford in Paris and published in 1928), After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight. But her greatest acclaim came for Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966 when she was in her mid-Seventies.
This “prequel” to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre garnered her fame - after many had assumed her dead - and both scholars and readers developed an intense curiosity about a life that began in Dominica in 1890 and took Rhys from the Caribbean to England, with several stints in Paris. Along the way, she was a showgirl and a model, often facing poverty and depending on unreliable lovers.
Some scholars prefer to focus on her first body of work, while others see Wide Sargasso Sea as a “postcolonial” chef d’oeuvre, with the other novels in a different category.
“But Wide Sargasso Sea is also a modernist novel, and you find traces of an in-between / estranged / unstable other / postcolonial identity in all texts, including the letters and the autobiography,” Wallart wrote in a note about the conference. “That’s why it was important to get all sides talking.”
Although Paris features extensively in Rhys’ storytelling, “no one had ever organized something on her in France, which is a country where she lived and wrote”, said Wallart. 
When the conference organizers issued an initial call for papers, they were “completely taken by surprise” at the response. 
“The number of scholars answering the call for papers was much unexpected (for someone whose last texts date back to the 1960s). It might have seemed that everything had been said in the 1980s and early 1990s, but apparently Rhys insists (on attention),” Wallart said.
Conference organizers J. Lopoukhine and K-J Wallart.
The conference highlighted Rhys’ continued relevance for today’s readers, especially concerning migration and displacement issues, some scholars noted.
“We see so much in her work about the migrant who can’t be read by the society around them,” said Helen Carr, a retired professor from Goldsmiths, University of London.
“The way some people look at migrants as non-humans, it seems to me that this is a moment when we need to re-read Jean Rhys in terms of what’s happening today and to realize how important her work has always been,” Carr added.
For researcher Floriane Reviron Piégay, Rhys made “coherent art out of a shapeless life”. Piégay discussed the many biographies of the writer, quoting the maxim that “you can never trust anyone blindly when it comes to telling someone else’s life”.
The biographies about Rhys in fact generated heated discussion, with the writer’s granddaughter Moerman declaring that many of their assertions were “screamingly inaccurate”.
The conference logo: "Transmission Lines".
As executor of Rhys’ estate, Moerman said she has stuck by her grandmother’s will – “no biography”. She told SWAN, however, that Phillips new book A View of The Empire at Sunset seemed different as the approach was that of “a writer talking about a fellow writer”.
Phillips, the conference’s guest speaker, read from his novel during the event, including at the renowned Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Company, telling listeners that he was not particularly “interested in facts” and had no desire to write a biography. 
He said he thought that Rhys was “hugely underrated as a writer, particularly because she’s a woman”, and the novel seems an attempt to pay homage to someone whose work he admires. 
“People are more interesting than facts,” said Phillips, who prefers Rhys’ early books to Wide Sargasso Sea
Throughout the conference, Moerman for her part insisted on pointing out what she saw as nonfactual elements in different presentations. (She told SWAN that the conference wasn’t her “cup of tea” as there was “an awful lot of talking about people who’ve talked about Jean Rhys”).
In her own paper, titled “Jean Rhys the Reader”, Moerman gave a lengthy description of books that Rhys had in her library, which explained some of the writer’s literary influences. Moerman said that the more than one thousand titles, records and audio files consisted of “lots of poetry”, “dozens of anthologies of short stories”, Rhys “favourite French writers” such as Colette and Baudelaire, and “an awful lot about the West Indies”.
One of Rhys' early novels.
For some “West Indian” readers, however, Rhys’ depiction of people of African descent in her work is problematic, and this creates an issue about how to teach her writing, said Barbados-based professor Evelyn O’Callaghan, a dean at the University of the West Indies. In addition, what should one make of the debate about where to place Rhys?   
“My not entirely unrelated interest is in the recurring critical classification of Rhys’ work in terms of either/or; black/white; creole/European; Caribbean/continental literary tradition; modernist/postcolonial," O’Callaghan wrote in her paper.  
“Rhys and her work have been transferred from camp to camp over time, and the issue of where they belong shows no sign of being resolved,” she added, before examining how race has played a part in the debate. (Interestingly, there were no black scholars presenting papers at the conference.)
In the end, the divide on Rhys’ work may matter little to readers and to students themselves.
“When I read Wide Sargasso Sea, I never thought about Jean Rhys’ race,” a former student told O’Callaghan.
“What moved her instead”, according to O’Callaghan, “was the ‘pervasive unbelonging that is experienced by many different kinds of people in the Caribbean’.”  - SWAN