Thursday, 10 October 2019


PARIS - Fresh from unveiling a huge statue of a black man on horseback in New York’s Times Square, renowned African American artist Kehinde Wiley flew to France this week to “meet” 18th-century French painter Jacques-Louis David.

Wiley - most known for painting the portrait of US President Barack Obama in 2017 - is now “sharing a room” with David, who lived from 1748 to 1825 and was a painter and supporter of French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte.

Artist Kehinde Wiley discusses his work. (Photo: McKenzie)
In an exhibition titled “Wiley Meets David”, the American artist’s massive and colourful 2005 painting Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps can for the first time be viewed opposite David’s 1800 depiction Bonaparte Crossing the Great St. Bernard Pass (Le Premier Consul franchissant le col du Grand-Saint-Bernard), in a show that runs until Jan. 6, 2020.

“There’s lots of chest beating going on … that’s why when you look closely at my painting, you’ll see sperm cells swimming across the surface," said Wiley at the Oct. 9 opening of the exhibition. "This is masculinity boiled down to its most essential component. All of this stuff, warfare, is about egos, about nationhood, about the formation of society.” 

The two works of powerful-looking men on horseback are presented “in dialogue” at the imposing Château de Malmaison, just outside Paris. This is the former residence of French Empress Joséphine, which she shared with Bonaparte before they divorced in 1809.

Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps,
2005. Oil on canvas, 108 x 108 in. Brooklyn
Museum. (c) K. Wiley. (Photo: McK/SWAN)
Wiley’s painting comprises a reinterpretation of David’s portrait, and it is the first in his series “Rumors of War”, where African American subjects replace the historically mighty in a questioning of warfare and inequality. Here, a model named Williams is on horseback, in the same pose as David’s Napoleon, but wearing contemporary urban gear and a golden cloak. In contrast, David’s depiction was a “symbol of the glory of Bonaparte” when it was produced in 1800, according to the show’s curators.

Wiley stressed that his work was meant to make people of African descent visible in ways that they haven’t been in the history of art. But he added that despite the aura of power in his painting, he was also portraying “fragility”, even amidst certain social advances.

“I want to caution us against a facile acceptance,” Wiley said. “These steps that we’re moving forward with, I prize greatly, but I also recognize their fragility. As powerful as that young man looks on that horse, it’s not his power that I’m concerned about, but rather his fragile position within that culture … that relegates artists like myself to even need to make utterances like the ones that I’ve done.”

Before being brought to France, Wiley’s painting had been exhibited for years at the Brooklyn Museum of art, and the current show is a joint project between this museum and the Château de Malmaison.

Le Premier Consul franchissant les Alpes
au col du Grand-Saint-Bernard
, 1800. Jacques
Louis David. Rueil-Malmaison
After the exhibition in France, both paintings will be on display in Brooklyn, from Jan. 24 to May 10, 2020. David’s work is therefore returning to the United States, where it had spent time in New Jersey in the 1800s as part of the property of Napoleon’s brother Joseph.

“The partnership with the Brooklyn Museum will provide an opportunity to shed light on the current practices of North American museums with regard to groups of artists who have been overlooked in history and the history of art, and their links to audience development,” said Emmanuel Delbouis, a co-curator of the exhibition.

For Wiley, 42 years old, it’s high time for a change in the narrative regarding the contributions of people who have traditionally been excluded from mainstream stories. He said it was not a “trend” or a “movement” that so many artists of African descent are now focusing on historical issues affecting people of colour.

“We have been able and capable of contributing to the larger conversation globally, and now these conversations are happening,” he said during the exhibition’s press opening. “I think perhaps the culture is evolving. So, it’s not a trend … it’s simply another human voice being paid attention to.”

He said his painting was a criticism of colonialism and a challenge to its legacy, but that it was also an “embrace” of French art and David’s talent.

Wiley arrives at the Château de Malmaison with associates.
Wiley, who rose to fame with the portrait of Obama, has seen his artistic impact grow, both in the United States and internationally. He has held several exhibitions in France, and before the opening of this latest show, the unveiling of his 27-foot-high statue in Times Square, on Sept. 27, garnered global attention.

That work, his first public sculpture, will be on view at the famed square for several weeks before being permanently installed at the entrance to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond, Virginia. It is being shown at the same time as the painting in France, sparking dialogue on both sides of the Atlantic about history and who gets to be celebrated in public monuments.

“We’re standing on the leading edge of story-telling, arguably on the leading edge of propaganda,” Wiley said in France. “Art has for centuries been at the service of churches, of state, of powerful men. And now artists have the ability to take that language and do what they will with it.

“So what am I doing? I’m engaging that language in a way that says ‘yes’ to certain things and ‘no’ to others,” he added. “The culture evolves, but we’re stuck here together, and we have to figure out how we’re gonna evolve together.” - A.M.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Saturday, 24 August 2019


It must be a daunting prospect to sing songs made famous by the incomparable Nina Simone, but performers Ledisi and Lisa Fischer brought their individual style to a BBC Proms concert in London, honouring Simone and gaining admiration for their own talent.
The show, “Mississippi Goddam: A Homage to Nina Simone”, paid tribute to the singer, pianist and civil rights campaigner - a “towering musical figure” - at the Royal Albert Hall on Aug. 21, more than 16 years after Simone died in her sleep in southern France at the age of 70.
Ledisi at the BBC Proms paying homage to Nina Simone,
 with the Metropole Orkest. (Photo: Mark Allen) 
This was a celebration to recognise her “unique contribution to music history”, according to the Proms, an annual summer festival of classical music that also features genres “outside the traditional classical repertoire”.
The concert’s title refers to the song that marked a turning point in Simone’s career, when she composed it in fury and grief following the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, and the deaths of four African-American girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.
Performing the song at the tribute, New Orleans-born vocalist Ledisi held nothing back. She put all the anger and anguish that the lyrics required into her rendition, creating one of the high points of the concert.
The composition stood out particularly because of the contrast between the lyrics and the rhythm, and Ledisi - who’s also an actress and writer - emphasized this disparity. While the “tune has an almost fun-filled, pulsating vibe” (as conductor Jules Buckley put it in his written introduction to the show), the message itself is uncompromising.
“It speaks of murder, of dashed dreams and severe inequality, and it shattered the assumption that African-Americans would patiently use the legislative process to seek political rights,” Buckley wrote. Listeners got the full context, and they were reminded that some things have not changed much in the United States.
Jules Buckley conducts the Metropole Orkest at the
BBC Proms tribute concert. (Photo: Mark Allen)

Conducting the Metropole Orkest, whose members played superbly, Buckley said that in putting together the programme he wanted to shine a light not only on Simone’s hits but also on a “few genius and lesser-known songs”. With the sold-out concert, he and the performers succeeded in providing the audience a clear idea of the range of Simone’s oeuvre. 
The concert began with an instrumental version of “African Mailman” and segued into “Sinnerman”, the soulful track about the “wrongdoer who unsuccessfully seeks shelter from a rock, the river and the sea, and ultimately makes a direct appeal to God”, to quote Alyn Shipman, the author of A New History of Jazz who compiled the programme notes.
The orchestral introduction paved the way for Lisa Fischer’s arresting entrance. With her shaved head and flowing black outfit, she moved across the stage, singing “Plain Gold Ring” in her inimitable voice, evoking the image of an operatic monk. The two-time Grammy winner displayed the genre-crossing versatility for which she has become known, using her voice like a musical instrument and hitting unexpected lows before again going high. The audience loved it.
Lisa Fischer amps up the energy at the BBC Proms tribute
to Nina Simone. (Photo: Mark Allen)
Fischer introduced Ledisi, who wore a scarlet gown (before changing to an African dress after the intermission), and the two women then took turns singing Simone’s repertoire, expressing love for the icon as well as appreciation for each other’s performances.
They both kept topping their previous song, and the temperature rose with “I Put a Spell on You” (Ledisi), “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (Fischer), “Ne me quitte pas” (poignantly rendered by Ledisi) and “I Loves You, Porgy” (memorably delivered by Fischer).
Then there was, of course, “Mississippi Goddam”, which followed a haunting, syncopated “Dambala”, a song made famous by Bahamian musician Tony McKay aka Exuma, who had inspired Simone. Fischer performed "Dambala" with the requisite mysticism, getting listeners to shake to the beat.
Back-up vocalists LaSharVu, comprising three powerhouse singers, also contributed to the energy and success of the concert. Two of them joined Ledisi and Fischer for an outstanding and moving presentation of “Four Women” - Simone’s 1966 song about the lives of four African-American women that has become an essential part of her artistic legacy.
Backing vocalists LaSharVu join Ledisi and Lisa Fischer
at the BBC Proms' Nina Simone tribute. (Photo: M. Allen)
For other songs, LaSharVu teamed up with the orchestra to provide "percussive support" through clapping, while the orchestra’s skill on moving from reggae (“Baltimore”) to gospel underpinned the overall triumph of the show.
The concert ended with an encore, as Fischer and Ledisi performed “Feeling Good” to a standing ovation and to comments of “fantastic”, “fabulous” and other superlatives.
The show was not the only part of the homage to Simone. Earlier in the day, the BBC’s “Proms Plus Talk” programme had featured a discussion of the “life, work and legacy” of the singer, with poet Zena Edwards and singer-musician Ayanna Witter-Johnson interviewed by journalist Kevin Le Gendre, author of Don't Stop The Carnival: Black Music In Britain.
The three spoke of the impact Simone has had on their work and recalled her style and performances. Responding to certain questions, they also discussed the abuse she suffered from her second husband and the painful relationship she had with her only daughter, Lisa, whom Simone in turn physically abused.
Witter-Johnson said that Simone had inspired her to feel empowered in performing different

genres, so that she could sing and play music across various styles. “Her courage, outstanding musicianship and love of her heritage will always be a continual source of inspiration," she told SWAN later.
The Nina Simone programme at the Proms.
Responding to a comment from an audience member, a publisher, that Simone had been an extremely “difficult” person, Edwards stressed that Simone had been a “genius” and could be expected to not have an easy personality. Le Gendre meanwhile pointed to the difficulties Simone herself had experienced, with relationships, record companies, and the American establishment, especially after she began defending civil rights.
In an email interview after the tribute, Le Gendre said Simone’s music had had a “profound effect” on him throughout his life.
“There are so many anthems that she recorded it is difficult to know where to start, but a song like ‘Four Women’ can still move me to tears because it is such an unflinchingly honest depiction of the black condition that African-Americans, African-Caribbeans and black Britons can easily relate to,” he told SWAN.
“The way she broaches the very real historical issues of rape on a plantation, girls forced into prostitution and the internal battles based on skin shade affected me a great deal because, having lived in the West Indies and the UK and visited America several times, I know that what she is talking about is simply the truth,” he added. 
“There is a war within the race as well as between the races, and we will only move beyond self-destruction if we firstly recognise these painful facts. I continue to be inspired by her ability to 'keep it real' as well as her great musicianship. Above all else she has made me think, as well as listen and dance.” – A.M. / SWAN
The BBC Proms classical music festival runs until Sept. 14 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. A concert on Aug. 29 features “Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music”, with conductor Peter Edwards, pianist Monty Alexander and tap dancer Annette Walker. Photos are courtesy of the organizers.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Thursday, 22 August 2019


By Stephen Williams
For the acclaimed Ghanaian painter Ablade Glover, art has been a way of life for more than five decades. 
He celebrated his 85th birthday earlier this summer with a major exhibition at the October Gallery in London, titled “Wogbe Jeke - We Have Come a Long Way”. The show comprised vibrant new works that reflect Glover’s passion for Ghana’s culture and energy, and it garnered him new fans who found themselves diving into oceans of colour: reflecting marketplaces and crowded streets. 
Ghanaian artist and professor Ablade Glover.
(Photo: J. Greet. Courtesy October Gallery, London.) 
Those familiar with his work know that the paintings appear to be composed in a simple manner but are, in fact, highly complex and skilful, and this becomes apparent the longer one looks.
As the October Gallery says: in addition to Glover’s “fearless use of colour”, it is his use of perspective that also draws the viewer in.
“Often the perspective that Glover employs is from a high vantage point overlooking the crowd. From this position, Glover effortlessly transports the viewer into the scene,” the Gallery adds. “Almost every single painting reveals a double aspect, being at once an explosion of colour and a detailed observation of reality. Abstract shapes transform into flocks of birds, bustling market scenes or townscapes.”
A Life Fellow of the Royal Society of Art in London as well as a Fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, Glover has had an important impact on contemporary arts both in his homeland and internationally. In an interview during the London exhibition, he told SWAN how his career began and progressed. 
Glover recalls his early years as being a happy time, bucking the myth that an unhappy childhood makes for great art. His upbringing might be considered uncommon in some ways, however.
Ablade Glover, Red People IV (Detail), 2019. Oil on canvas,
152.5 x 152.5 cm. (Photo: J. Greet. Courtesy the Artist and
October Gallery, London.)

“I was born in Accra and I come from a family where the father stays in one house and the mother in another,” he said.
When he was around six years old, he was taken from his mother’s house to stay with his father.
“It was a perfectly natural system, even a traditional arrangement, although it is dying out now; usually boys were raised by their fathers and girls with their mothers,” he told SWAN.
Schooled at a Presbyterian boarding school, Glover went on to train as a teacher for a year.
“I realised general teaching was not for me, I didn’t have the patience, so I went back to college to train as a specialist art teacher at the Kumasi College of Technology,” he said.
Having completed a two-year diploma, he found it difficult to attain the specific teaching position he wanted. But he came across a government advertisement to work in a new textile factory to be built in Tema that involved being sent to London, to the Central School of Art and Design, for a four-year training course in fabric design and printing.
“It was so-o-o cold,” he recalled with a chuckle, “but I stuck it out. I was missing Ghana, although London was very interesting, and after completing my studies I went back home.”
Glover was to discover that not only had Ghana’s political climate become very volatile, but the proposed textile factory at Tema had not even begun to be constructed. “I was left high and dry,” he said. “I wanted to get out.”
Ablade Glover, Market Scene, 2019. Oil on canvas.
(Photo: J. Greet. Courtesy the Artist and October Gallery,
Meanwhile, he had to find work, and so accepted a general teaching post in the town of Winneba (which, after living in London, he found a little slow); later he joined Ghana’s Ministry of Information in Accra, producing posters, which he freely admits was akin to creating propaganda.
He continued to paint, however, and had a powerful mentor through his friendship with Shirley du Bois, wife of the famous civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. The couple had been invited to Ghana, and Shirley would arrange soirées at her home to exhibit Glover’s paintings, inviting her friends to come, view, and hopefully buy his works.
He confided to Mrs. Du Bois the problems he was having in securing a second overseas stint - having received one scholarship, getting another seemed unlikely. 
She readily agreed to help and organised a meeting with President Kwame Nkrumah, but Glover was nervous at this prospect. “I had heard the rumours doing the rounds in Accra that Nkrumah sometimes killed people!” he explained.
“After about a week or so, she sent a car for me and then we both went to the presidential offices, were shown into a room when another door opens and in walks Nkrumah. ‘This is the young man I was telling you about,’ Mrs du Bois announced. That’s how I met the president!"
The upshot of the meeting, this brush with history, was that Nkrumah wrote Glover a note to take to the relevant ministry. He was then able to register to study textile design at Newcastle University in the UK.  
It was there that a tutor, watching him paint, suggested that he use a palette knife. “I took his advice and found a new way to paint. I dropped the brush,” Glover said.
Later he was invited to the United States to complete a doctorate and went to study at Kent State University, Ohio, in 1972 -  an institution infamous for the shooting of anti-Vietnam war demonstrators on the campus by home guard soldiers just a few years previously.
His being able to attend Kent State was thanks to a benefactor (in fact a tutor) who covered his tuition fees. “I was very touched by that generosity,” Glover said.
But whether painting in the UK or the US, the subject of his paintings always revolved around his home, Ghana. He admits to being fascinated by Ghana’s markets and market women.
Many of his works have been market scenes in a style that has been imitated but rarely equalled by others. These paintings in many ways echo his appreciation of the Dutch master, Vincent van Gogh.
For the future, Glover says he will continue painting and exhibiting. He is represented by galleries in Nigeria and South Africa as well as the October Gallery in London and has his own gallery in La (sometimes known as Labadi), a suburb of Accra where he was given land to build the Artists Alliance Gallery. Glover opened it in 1993, and his wife is the administrator. It has become one of the landmarks for Ghanaian arts. 
Stephen Williams is a London-based journalist who writes about African arts and culture. He contributed this article to SWAN. 

Tuesday, 20 August 2019


By Sondré Colly-Durand

The curtain fell on the 22nd edition of France’s Reggae Sun Ska festival on Aug. 4, with a tight set led by Ziggy Marley who delighted the indefatigable audience. Some 27,500 fans attended this year’s festival on the Domaine de Nodris, in Vertheuil, about 70 kilometres from Bordeaux.
Prior to the closing act, the festival throbbed to the sounds of an array of musicians from around the world. In addition to Jamaican artists such as headliners Buju, Ziggy, the Skatalites, U Brown, Don Carlos and Mad Professor, the lineup included other influential global artists including Dub Inc. of France, Tiken Jah Fakoly and Alpha Blondy from Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Calypso Rose from Trinidad and Flavia Coelho of Brazil.
Buju Banton in performance at Reggae
Sun Ska. (Photo: S. Durand)
Buju Banton’s set began with an aura brought on in equal parts by pregnant impatience and the mystic vibes of the set up and introduction. The controversial man himself came onstage to “Destiny” and was as much in a trance as his hyped-up, amped-up audience.
Then came “Not an easy road" - and clearly the poignant lyrics echo Buju’s coming in from the cold after 8 years, 6 months, 27 days, 13 hours, 5 minutes and 26 seconds of incarceration in the United States. His set ended with a medley of old dancehall crowd pleasers, and the crowd went wild. He preached, he taught, he counselled and entertained. By the end of his set he was dripping wet, as was the mesmerized audience.
For Alpha Blondy, in comparison, the music was about political engagement. During his post-performance interview session, in response to a question on the migrant “crisis”, the singer quoted from the book “Le Ventre de l’Atlantique” (The Belly of the Atlantic) by Senegalese writer Fatou Diome, where she noted that if 10 French nationals had drowned in the Mediterranean, then the European Union would have emptied the sea. Blondy highlighted the double standards inherent in this reality while admitting that the incompetence and dishonesty of many African leaders have led to the current state of affairs.
Musically, selections from his latest album “Human Race” were well received. His “Whole Lotta Love”, Led Zeppelin-cover, harks back to his roots-rock-reggae desire to “spread” the music and move it from “coconut trees to the Rocky Mountains.” Blondy has a particularly positive outlook on emerging styles and artistic adventures. He said he believes that Afrobeat truly reflects the desire to infuse the music with new life and energy while attracting hitherto unreached audiences.
His compatriot Tiken Jah Fakoly took the stage by storm on the opening night of Reggae Sun Ska, as the penultimate act before the much anticipated Buju Banton. Fakoly’s latest album, “Le Monde est Chaude”, was released May 17. The title track - which features French rapper Soprano - grabs listeners immediately and forces one to sing along while reflecting on the excesses of modern life and the havoc wreaked on the ecosystem.
Reggae Sun Ska showcased global artists, attracting
thousands of fans. (Photo courtesy of the festival.)
Fakoly - who uses his art to raise awareness - has started an initiative entitled “one concert, one school”. The objective is to fund the creation of a school from the proceeds of each of his concerts. During his press conference at the festival, he revealed that he had visited Jamaica several times and believes in the potential of building reggae culture in Cote D’Ivoire.  
He has also shone light on the incompetence and egregious misuse of power of many leaders who have in turn proclaimed him persona non grata. He has also provoked the ire of his compatriot Alpha Blondy, who prefers a less bombastic mode of protest.
Reggae Sun Ska founder and director Fred Lachaize describes the artist as an ambassador for the festival, for the music and for the culture. Lachaize said he was in awe of the message and the mindset portrayed by Fakoly and was proud to provide a platform for the Ivorian artist.
Onstage, outraged and engaged at Reggae Sun Ska, Fakoly’s set started off energetically. “Mama Africa”, the second song he performed, is infused with spiritual texts invoking Jah’s blessing and guidance on the path to economic and social freedom on the African continent. Like Alpha Blondy, Fakoly is also enthusiastic about Afrobeat, a form of music that contributes to wider information about a continent whose history many believe started with slavery and colonization.
Performer Calypso Rose at Reggae Sun Ska: age is just
a number. (Photo courtesy of the festival.)
On the opening night as well, Trinidad’s Calypso Rose began her set with a hilarious number entitled “Leave me alone… I ain’t going home”, where she claimed her rightful place in the line-up in spite of her age (75). Similar to the festival itself, Calypso Rose’s range  was eclectic. She went from celebrating her African ancestry to pining for a “young boy.” This song amuses, raises eyebrows even, but is in keeping with her fight for female empowerment even within the fraught areas of sexuality.
Beyond the music, and always present in the background, is the fact that the Bordeaux region has maintained a love-hate relationship with the festival. The story of Reggae Sun Ska reads like a novel with the villains often identified as the festival-goers themselves - stigmatized as zoned-out marijuana smokers camping out in bourgeois territory and giving the Médoc wine region a bad rap. Lachaize, a native of the region, refutes the label categorizing the festival as “marginal”. Sun Ska, according to its founder, is based on a special mindset.
Inspired by Reggae Sunsplash – the popular festival in Jamaica - Lachaize succeeded in marrying his love of the island and its music with his desire to promote and culturally enrich the Médoc area. Reggae Sun Ska has grown into the biggest reggae festival in France, and its objectives include pedagogical concerns such as matters linked to ecology and peaceful sharing of the planet and its resources.
A look back at the eclectic line-up.
As Lachaize maintains, the festival is “a family, a way of life, a philosophy” that has nothing to do with utopia. For him Reggae Sun Ska is a vibrant socio-economic model that includes its reliance on a contingent of dynamic, dedicated local volunteers, mostly from the Gironde region. This message and its model are particularly welcomed at a time when the far right Rassemblement National has made huge inroads in the region.
However, the lack of coherent, sustained support for Reggae Sun Ska has meant that the festival has had to relocate several times. Now after 22 years, the team has come of age and has perhaps finally found a home at its current location in Nordis. In fact, the lack of a permanent site has weakened the festival - one year they lost 50% of their audience - and the organizers are seeking reassurance, partners and investments.
In July, the festival lost its president Jean Guillaume Bouyssy, who died at age 67 in a car accident. According to Lachaize, this tragedy sent an electroshock through the team as they lost their “guardian angel”. (The new president is Stephanie Rolland, who has been involved with the festival for some time.)
Despite its ups and downs, the thousands of fans who remain loyal to the festival show that Reggae Sun Ska is greatly appreciated, with its message of inclusion and its showcasing of reggae talent from the world over. - SWAN

Saturday, 13 July 2019


By Tobias Schlosser

Writers and scholars such as Franz Fanon have examined the effects of colonialism on the mental health and well-being of both colonized and colonizer, and the topic is growing in importance in the so-called postcolonial world.

Frantz Fanon's seminal book.
During a conference on the issue at the University of Leeds in June, many scholars also took a closer look at neocolonial structures within the global health system.

Sanjoy Bhattacharya, a professor in the history of medicine, explored how the World Health Organization (WHO) claims successes for itself - such as the defeat of smallpox. Here, he sees a Eurocentric power structures at work as, according to his research, the dominating narrative is that diseases stop when the WHO steps in. But this picture is highly problematic because it ignores the efforts and contributions of developing countries themselves, he said.

Deepika Bahri, a professor of English, discussed the aim of colonial powers to “build a reformed class of persons in India”. In the past, this was in keeping with the objective to “educate the body” of the colonised – a phenomenon she calls “Biocolonialism”. Nowadays these attitudes still come into play, especially when one looks at the global marketplace where the main target of multinationals is to have consumers who behave the same, buying similar products. 

In addition, Bahri addressed the problem of how corporal expressions and movements are associated with intelligence or are perceived as a sign of an uncivilised lifestyle, such as whether one sits on the ground or on a chair. The choice has nothing to do with one’s intelligence, but such associations work on a subconscious level, leading to certain prejudices, she said. In one noted example, famous personality Oprah Winfrey in 2012 made the following comment to a wealthy Indian family on her show “The next chapter”: “I heard some people in India eat with their hands still.”

A conference text about the issues.
Scholars also discussed the traumas caused by colonial oppression in spaces such as residential schools in Canada and Australia, and they addressed sexual health, women’s health and current developments in “postcolonial” countries.

Cultural psychologist Tarek Younis, for instance, focused on the UK government’s “PREVENT” policies which seeks to identify individuals who are prone to radicalisation, thus obliging health professionals to report persons for potential crimes. According to Younis’ research, these policies have racial implications and create a scenario close to the speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick’s short story “Minority Report”. 

Prior to the conference, Leeds University’s School of Earth and Environment hosted a workshop on research in indigenous contexts, with a keynote lecture. Métis presenter Zoe Todd highlighted the fact that minorities’ outrage at injustice is often regarded as overreaction - for example, concerning missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women in Canada. She stated that according to official reports published in June 2019, such incidents are now rated as genocide, indicating that Native peoples did not overreact to these “uncomfortable histories”.

Todd said that another “unhealthy” reality for research itself is that in US academia, 94% of the hired anthropologists come from only 15 American universities. Thus, a wide range of perspectives is still being ignored, and academia itself is driven by a few dominating institutions.

Regarding literature, the conference spotlighted new or upcoming publications that mix humanities with perspectives on human health and psychological and medical research. Such publications include Humiliation: Mental Health and Public Shame by Marit F. Svindseth and Paul Crawford (May 2019), Mad Muse: The Mental Illness in a Writer’s Life and Work by Jeffrey Berman (Sep 2019), and the volume on Literature, Medicine, Health from the Moving Worlds series (Number 2/2019).

Thursday, 4 July 2019


Danh Vō said not a word during a recent presentation of his work in Fontainebleau, France, at the 9th Festival of Art History.

Instead, the Vietnamese-born Danish conceptual artist sat quietly on stage, occasionally sipping a glass of water, as American scholar Joshua Chambers-Letson delivered an erudite study of his art, accompanied by slides and a video. The session - the festival’s opening event - had been billed as a “conversation”.

Danh Vo. (Photo: M. Engelund)
Afterwards, the audience was perhaps too dumbfounded to ask questions, so artist and scholar left the stage with a simple “thank you”.
The message seemed to be this: an artist doesn’t need to speak, as his or her output already says volumes. And why talk anyway when there is an expert to do so for you?
In the case of Vō, his iconoclastic installations do tell stories – about migration, struggle, resistance, individualism, history.
In one notable work, for instance, he created art from the refrigerator, television set and other items that his grandmother received as an immigrant to Europe, thus depicting her journey via his presentation.
In another, the main object is a chandelier that might have come from some palace or castle. Viewers are invited to question its meaning.
“I see my work as sculptures,” Vō told SWAN in an interview at the festival, after agreeing to discuss his art. “When you look at the chandelier, you don’t see the castle, but it’s all there too - the history, the colonialism. Our vision gets easily blurred, so the real work is to continuously remember to look at things. We close our eyes too often.”
Born in Bà Ria, Vietnam, in 1975, Vō was still a child when his family fled the war-torn Asian country in a homemade boat. They were rescued at sea and eventually settled in Denmark, according to his media biography.
Danh Vo and scholar Joshua Chambers-Letson on stage.

The assimilation into European culture and the events in Vietnam that forced the departure have influenced his art, with a critic noting that Vō’s work exposes the “intertwining of collective history and intimate experience that shape our individuality”.
An intriguing aspect of his art is also the way he addresses colonialism by using objects associated with this history - such as the chandelier or a throne-like chair. During the interview, he joked that some of the furnishings at the Chateau de Fontainbleau (where the festival was held) would make a good artistic narrative.
Such objects, Vō believes, accumulate a “symbolic burden”, and by interacting with them, viewers can examine their own history and heritage.
Vō said he was often urged not to cling to the past while growing up, but he thinks the avoidance of history can be a problem for personal development. “There are traps on both sides - being immersed in the past as well as being determined not to look back,” he told SWAN. “We have to find a balance.”
At the Festival, he was representing Denmark, as the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden) were the guest of honour at the event. He said he embraces his various identities, seeing this as enrichment, and the multiplicity of perspectives does add to the impact of his work.
“The idea that people don’t move is a crazy concept,” he said. “We’ve been led to believe it - that territories are for some and not others.”
Vō and his art are in fact constantly on the move, with exhibitions in Asia, the United States and Europe. In France, Paris’ Museum of Modern Art held a major show of his work in 2013, and last year he was a featured artist at Bordeaux’s contemporary art museum, the CAPC.
But not everyone gets his work. After the presentation at the Festival, a member of the audience told SWAN that “all this talk about colonialism was not interesting” and that it was “pointless” to keep bringing up the past. “That lecture was awful, horrendous,” the spectator said.
It’s a reaction that is familiar to artists and scholars who address colonialism. “Being in France is always a learning experience for me,” Vō said. “I like to see what the reaction is to my work.” - SWAN

Monday, 24 June 2019


Dogs barking in the distance. Birds chirping nearby. A man walking through the mist, surrounded by lush vegetation. A distinctive vibrato singing “Speak Softly, Love” over it all.
So begins Inna de Yard, a documentary that can safely be called a love poem to reggae music - or to the “soul of Jamaica”, as the film is sub-titled with an obvious play on words.
The poster for Inna de Yard.
Directed by Peter Webber (whose first feature was the acclaimed Girl with a Pearl Earring), the documentary comes at a timely moment: reggae was inscribed last November on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
Before opening across Germany on June 20, the film was screened in Paris at the UN agency’s headquarters to a full house of spectators, many of whom seemed to know the artists and the songs. Several stood up to dance when the musicians performed after the projection.
Inna de Yard takes us into the lives of pioneer reggae musicians who have come together to record music in a hilltop studio. This is a weathered, old house that offers breath-taking views of the capital Kingston. It is filled with stacks of vinyl records spilling out of decaying jackets, while an ancient piano sits on the porch.
The man walking through the mist at the beginning is a piano tuner, who tells viewers that the instrument is sometimes infested with insects, but he needs to get it ready for the musicians. We watch as he uses bits of wire and other objects to do just that.
Then the music begins in earnest. We are introduced to the artists - Ken Boothe, Kiddus I, Winston McAnuff, Cedric Myton, The Viceroys and Judy Mowatt - as Boothe’s vibrato accompanies aerial shots of the spectacular landscape.
The four main artists of "Inna de Yard" (L-R): Cedric Myton,
Winston McAnuff, Ken Boothe and Kiddus I. 
(Photo copyright: N. Baghir Maslowski)
Kiddus, who appeared in the 1978 cult film “Rockers”, explains in his deep, pleasant voice that the project is “an amalgamation of elders playing acoustic music”, and McAnuff adds that the aim is to capture the music “in its virgin state”.
Mowatt, looking like an urban goddess in her patterned robe, says that the house up in the hills “felt like heaven” when she first visited.
In a previous era, Mowatt performed with the I-Threes, the trio of backing vocalists for Bob Marley and the Wailers. But beyond her presence, the extended Marley clan is not in focus here. This documentary is about the other trailblazers and about the sources of the music.
“Some countries have diamonds. Some countries have pearls. Some countries have oil. We have reggae music,” says bass player Worm in the film.
With footage from the Sixties and Seventies, the documentary recalls the beginning of ska and rocksteady, showing how the music developed, influenced by American rhythm and blues.
One of Judy Mowatt's early albums, "Only a Woman".
“We paid attention to what was happening outside our shores and we amalgamated (that) with what was happening here,” Mowatt tells viewers. “The 1960s was the romantic era, but the 1970s was the conscious era.”
She said that reggae “talked about the realities of life” and that “all of Jamaica was living the songs that were being sung” - songs about political violence, hardships, and police repression of Rastafarians, for instance. It was the “golden age” of the music.
The documentary gives each of the artists space to reminisce even as it describes their lives now. “We miss everything about those days,” says Cedric Myton, a playful, lively spirit in the film who knows he’s “going up the ladder” at 70-plus years old.
During one of the most memorable scenes, we see him heading out in a boat and joking around with fishermen as he sings “Row, Fisherman, Row”, in his iconic falsetto. The film cuts from the sea to the studio in the hills, then to Myton enlightening viewers on the origins of the lyrics.
Like many of his peers, Myton started out in the music business with what seemed a bright future, but troubles in the United States - related to “herb charges” - meant he couldn’t perform there. In addition, all the musicians have had experience with unscrupulous record producers, or “thieves” as Myton calls them.
The musicians and film director discuss their art at UNESCO.
(Photo: McKenzie)
“We’re not giving up because we know there are better days ahead,” Myton says. “But financially it’s been a struggle.”
Some of his fellow artists have had more personal struggles. Winston McAnuff lost his son Matthew, also a singer, in 2012, and his description of the “senseless” death is among the most moving sections of the film. So is the story of younger musician Derajah, who lost his sister to gun violence. We see them working through their grief via the music.
“It’s a message for healing,” Kiddus says.
The “Inna de Yard” project puts the pioneers in contact with younger musicians who perform with them in the studio and on tour, and the film profiles these artists as well. “We learn from the younger guys and they learn a lot from us,” Kiddus comments.
Mowatt also records with two younger singers, the fiery Jah 9 and her colleague Rovleta. Speaking passionately, Jah 9 gives an introduction to the history of the island and the role that the Maroons and their legendary leader Nanny played in fighting against slavery.  Then she joins Mowatt and Rovleta in the studio to sing Mowatt’s “first solo anthem” - an intense track called “Black Woman”, and a call to stay strong.
Filmmaker Peter Webber. (Photo: McKenzie)
“It’s a love splash,” Mowatt characterises the session, describing the affection and solidarity between the three.
Accompanying the individual musicians to their childhood homes, the film also carries us through unspoilt areas of Jamaica - waterfalls, natural diving pools, forested Maroon country. But it doesn’t shy away from showing poor sections of the capital Kingston where the music was born, or the environmental degradation of some beaches. We also get a glimpse into eroticised dancehall culture, during a segment in a bar.
Film director Webber was not interested, however, in showing scenes “that would cause eyes to pop in the West,” as he told SWAN in an interview following the screening in Paris. Webber added that the restraint in filming certain aspects of the culture was “deliberate” as he didn’t “feel the need to labour the point”.
Because of this approach, viewers get a sense of the love and respect for the music, unlike some sensationalist portrayals of Jamaican arts.
Webber said he was first introduced to the island’s music as a teenager in London and became “a huge fan of reggae”. Years later, he was working with French producer Gaël Nouaille on a Netflix project when Nouaille told him about the “Inna de Yard” musicians and their recordings.
“I had never been to Jamaica before, partly because I had a Jamaica in my head, and I knew that if I got on a plane, I would have a touristic experience and it wouldn’t live up to what I imagined,” Webber said. “I didn’t want to spend two weeks on a beach in Negril. But this was a different way to go.”
When he got to the island and met the musicians, he initially wasn’t sure there was a feature film to be made, and he questioned whether he could produce a documentary that would “appeal to a more general audience” than traditional fans of reggae or dub.
He said it was also important to meet younger musicians. “I was wondering: are these guys like the last of the Mohicans?” he joked.
Asked why he was the one to make this film, Webber said: “I did it because of my love and enthusiasm and because I had an opportunity to do it. You may wonder if the world needs another middle-aged white man dropping into Jamaica, but I see myself as a medium. I’m a channel, and I basically put my technical skills and my creativity at their disposal to tell their story. It’s not a film of cultural appropriation.”
He said the documentary developed based on the “spine of the story” - the musicians recording an album “up in this house in the hills”.
The house is indeed at the centre of the documentary, but from there, Webber and the musicians take us on a journey: back to the past, around the island, to concerts in Paris, and into the soul of reggae and Jamaica. And Webber does so with an artist’s touch, reflecting his background as a student of art history. – A.M. / SWAN
Production: Bolsalino / Wagram Films / Le Pacte. Opens in French cinemas July 10.
Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Sunday, 9 June 2019


By Dimitri Keramitas
In many countries, abortion has long been legal and so has passed out of current debate. This is the case of most "Western" nations. However, in the United States, where a Supreme Court decision legalized abortion in 1973, several conservative states have passed restrictive laws that are tantamount to a ban. Missouri may soon no longer have a single abortion clinic.
These states aim to force the Supreme Court to reconsider its landmark Roe v. Wade decision, now that a majority of justices (with two recent Trump Administration appointees) are conservative. If this happens, the US won’t want for company. Research shows that 26 nations forbid abortion under all circumstances (including three small European states: Malta, Andorra, and San Merino). Thirty-seven permit abortion only in exceptional circumstances (when the mother’s life is in danger). Thirty-six more permit abortion under slightly less rigid legislation (preserving the mother’s health). And 24 countries take into account preserving the mother’s mental health. (Figures from World Population Review).
A scene from Que Sea Ley.
That makes 123 countries where the right to choose is restricted or prohibited. This is the context to keep in mind when we watch Juan Solanas’s documentary Que Sea Lea (Let It Be Law), about a recent effort to liberalize abortion law in Argentina. The film was screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where women assembled on the red carpet to continue their protest.
Argentina is one of those nations that doesn’t completely ban abortion, but severely restricts it. Many women in the country are too poor to finagle pseudo-legitimate abortions as the more privileged do, and this highlights the sharp schism between rich and poor concerning the most basic of rights, reproductive freedom and control of one’s own body.
On a practical level, it leads desperate women to fatal alternatives: self-abortion and clandestine abortion. A new law was to change this situation. It was voted by the Argentine House of Representatives and needed only the approval of the Senate to become law. Que Sea Lea focuses on the campaign in 2018 to convince the Senate to pass the legislation and put Argentina among the ranks of advanced countries with liberal abortion laws.
The film is on one level a mosaic, with a diversity of segments that alternate. There is kinetic, colourful footage of huge street demonstrations of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, marching on the pavement in Buenos Aires. The atmosphere is festive, with much chanting, singing, drum-beating, and dancing. Visually we note the color green, symbol of the pro-choice movement.
Film director Juan Solanas.
What’s remarkable is the overwhelming number of women, mostly young, with contingents of the middle-aged and elderly, and a smattering of children. It’s reminiscent of the Women’s March in Washington after Donald Trump’s election. This being Latin America, one cannot help recalling the scenes of enormous pro-Allende crowds in the film The Battle of Chile. (Solanas’ father Fernando was the director of another classic Latin American documentary, The Hour of the Furnaces.)
We also see a few scenes of anti-abortion protestors, with their blue color. They seem to be mostly evangelical Christians, with more male speakers, and are generally an older crowd. Like right-to-lifers in the US, they can be vociferous (the crowd’s mascot is a giant embryo reminiscent of the star-child in 2001). Some activists openly make references to the American anti-abortion movement as inspirations (it’s common knowledge that evangelical groups have become increasingly active in Latin America).
We also witness several speeches inside the Senate chamber. There are Senators and guest speakers on both sides. The most powerful pro-abortion advocate is actually an elderly male senator, while a doctor, also male, presents a forceful anti-abortion speech that strangely mixes medical authority and evangelical fervour. Whatever position one has on abortion, it’s hard not to be impressed with the passion with which the Argentines debate the issue. 
There are the inevitable talking heads as well, speaking directly to the camera. Activists, politicians, and doctors contextualize the issue for us. They’re obviously intelligent, educated, sincere persons, and we appreciate the explanations concerning Argentine society. However, as with all such interview sequences, we can’t help feeling we’re being told how and what to think. This is why the great documentary film-makers like Frederick Wiseman do without them, while someone like Michael Moore prefers antagonistic interviewees (e.g. Charlton Heston in Bowling for Colombine) that he can undercut and skewer.
Street demonstrations in Que Sea Ley.
The most impressive figures are the parish priests who work in poor villages. Their faces have a worn yet hardy look, so different from the slick elegance of the upper-class interviewees. Their spiritual values are implicit, incarnate if you will, as they unpretentiously recount the simple facts about the plight of poor women and girls with unwanted pregnancies.
The most searing parts of Que Sea Lea, the set-pieces of the mosaic, are the case studies of women who desperately sought abortions. One woman, Ana Maria Acevedo, seems to have become a cause célèbre. The mother of several children, she died after having a clandestine abortion and receiving egregiously poor care in a hospital. We hear from her parents and her children, see the primitive place where the family lives.
The stories of other women depicted are no less heart-rending. Many of the women were not only poorly treated in hospitals but subjected to persecution by the police - even while hospitalized - for having obtained illegal abortions. In one case a woman had miscarried, yet was threatened with arrest on suspicion of having had an abortion. Thanks to these powerful segments we see that abortion laws aren’t just abstract talking-points but have life-and-death consequences.
The varied segments are not organized haphazardly. Seeking a comprehensive view of an entire society through the prism of one issue, Solanas divides the film into sections dealing with different themes: social inequality, feminism, religion and the like. Keeping the mosaic form throughout, especially the vivid demonstration and case-study scenes, prevents the film from becoming schematic.
There are gaps: the role of sex education, contraception, and adoption are mentioned but not really explored. We also never get the perspective of the men. I don’t mean the male politicians, activists, doctors, priests, and even fathers, but the partners who were co-responsible for the women’s pregnancies. What were their feelings? Did they support the women? Were they irresponsible or just indigent? Perhaps intellectual lucidity comes at the price of not gumming up one’s emotions.
The campaign comes to an end, bringing the film to a close. It was not the result the women campaigners were hoping for. After such heroic efforts and so much heartbreak, the conclusion feels genuinely tragic. But as in a Shakespearean tragedy, once the bodies are cleared away, there are the survivors who carry on. The title, Let It Be Law, implies an arc that will bend to justice one day even if we can’t put a timeline on it. In the meantime, we can be sure that the importance of Juan Solanas’s brilliant documentary is, unfortunately, not limited to his own land.
Production: Les Films du Sud. Distribution: Wild Bunch. Photographs courtesy of the producers.
Dimitri Keramitas is an award-winning writer and legal expert based in Paris.