Tantra Song – The Mystical Modernity of Paintings from Rajasthan

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Energy fizzing about a turquoise sea - From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio

Energy fizzing about a turquoise sea – From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio

With our modern eloquence, our technology and our brash and inventive culture, contemporary artists have developed individual ways of expressing hopes, beliefs, doubts and fears through art. Yet magically, when arts and crafts are brought together from across the world — from cultures and nations completely separate from one-another — unlikely bonds emerge, suggesting a common human struggle for expression.

An excellent example of this can be seen in Tantra Song, a new book compiled by one of France’s leading contemporary poets, Franck André Jamme. The book features a collection of rare Tantric paintings from Rajasthan, India, used to awaken heightened states of consciousness through meditation. Collated by Jamme during many trips to his beloved India, the paintings bear an uncanny resemblance to 20th century abstract art, Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism, despite the fact that they are articles of the 17th century, replicated by generations ever since.

Having spent more than two decades in conversation with the private communities of Rajasthani tantrikas, Jamme—like other poet-ethnographers before him, Michaux, Leiris, and Bataille, was moved to highlight the paintings’ subtle magic.

The pictures presented are often joyful: filled with colour, they are both hypnotic and sensual, their simple geometry elegant yet immediate. Produced upon recycled paper, the paintings feature divine and religious diagrams and representations of deities and mystic forces, which are used to help believers visualise the deity they portray.

White arrows dance and fizz across a deep turquoise square representing energy, whilst colour filled wheels contain all the shades of the Earth. There are fiery triangles atop a tropical shade of blue — the tongue of the goddess Kali in duplicate — the repetition supposedly inducing true intoxication.

All the colours of the world - From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio

All the colours of the world – From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio

Jamme quickly recognised the simple logic of the Tantrika craftsmen: “They see time and day and night very naturally, they think of two stripes, black and white.”

“There are a lot of small rules with this kind of Tantric painting,” Jamme adds, “but [ultimately] they respect colour: if they want to express consciousness, they are going to use light blue; they are not going to use red.”

This favouring of colour over stipulation is indicative of Tantra, which is often looked upon with scorn by traditional Hindus who’s own religion is comprised of complicated rules and regulation. In comparison, Tantrism embraces freedom, personal liberty, and gender equality. “Traditional Hindus are skeptical and a bit afraid of this,” explains Jamme, “because Tantrism can sound a little bit devilish to them — there is so much freedom. They’re afraid of freedom. — [fear] is the standard for humanity.”

Returning to France from India with the artwork and a better understanding of its meaning, Jamme exhibited the paintings as part of Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) an exhibition held at the Pompidou Centre in 1989. The display brought together contemporary art from across the world in an attempt to answer the question: “Is there such a thing as a common world art?”

Jamme considers the answer to that question to be yes; the evidence lying not only in the distinct similarities between Tantric painting and our own contemporary art but in the art and culture of eras past.

“In Orissa, India,” Jamme says, “[they’ve] found a particular form of poetry from the Medieval times which is extremely close in form to Haiku poetry from Japan — very short pieces with the very same number of syllables. That’s fascinating! I think there is [universally] a collective, hidden human search for expression,” Jamme explains, “just think of yodelers in Switzerland — you have exactly the same thing in the North of Vietnam.”

The principal force driving this search is freedom of expression, something embodied by the Tantrika craftsmen who harbour a “mad and pure desire for mental elevation. They’ll think of any way, any manner, any practice to reach that goal, beyond many of the rules and regulations of their rite.”

These Tantric paintings are the colourful, disciplined result of concentration combining with freedom, beautiful to look at, yet also — to those who believe — an attempt to “assemble almost everything, out of almost nothing.”

Tantra Song, collected and with writing by Franck André Jamme is available through Siglio Press.

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Factual Nonsense – The Art and Death of Joshua Compston

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Those Kray twins were right bloody bastards weren’t they? With all that filching, cly faking, dewskitching and dollyshop demandering. Should have gone into scrap metal like their old dad instead of always being a few sour moves away from a pair of silver derbies. Ronnie and Reggie were both born in Hoxton, London, which today is sewed together with bordering Shoreditch. Back in those fun filled glamorous days that we collectively term England’s Middle Ages, the body of Jane Shore, a noteworthy tart and one time gumar to Edward IV, you know, that pudgy faced, all cheeks and very little mouth, David Cameron lookalike of a Plantagenet monarch, was dumped in a ditch in the area, leading to the district’s ironic dubbing, or so the highly dubious and historically disputable story goes.

Hoxton and Shoreditch used to be characterised by bustling small industry, factories and workshops, but in the years after the Second World War industry began to move out, leaving behind a great number of empty warehouses and shop floors cheaply available. Because of the large spaces and low rents artists and musicians began to move in, giving birth to a burgeoning creative scene. The cultural bridge between the tail end of the industrial Kray scarred Shoreditch and its early days as an artistic haven in the early nineties was dreamed up, built and cemented by Joshua Compston. Artist, impresario and curator.

Compston is best known for the gallery he set up in a former factory on Charlotte Road named Factual Nonsense. Described as a “cultural think tank” Compston wanted the gallery to aim towards revolutionising the lives of the working classes. In his lovingly crafted new book on Joshua Compston, published in conjunction with an exhibition of work and materials related to Joshua’s career at the Paul Stolper gallery in London, Darren Coffield, a friend and contemporary of the artist, writes of Shoreditch in the early 1990s. Coffield describes the area as “a dilapidated and unpopulated place”, in the wake of another British recession, a place that appeared to Joshua as something of an ‘undiscovered country’, a million miles away from the late-era Thatcherite middle class hedonism that had taken root in London’s west.

Factual Nonsense organised a number of public events that, if one, like a complete fucking buggerlugs, were to analyse Shoreditch’s recent cultural development, would be regarded as key moments in the area’s rebirth. The Fete Worse than Death (1993) was one such event, a kind of art house street party organised by Joshua and located in Hoxton Square around ‘the notorious triangle of Great Eastern Street, Old Street and Curtain Road, a Victorian artisan area famous for its nobler design.” Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst famously dressed up as clowns for the event, producing spin paintings at one quid a pop, just as anyone who has bought a Hirst in the following years should have adopted similar jovial gear.

Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst at the Fete Worse than Death dressed as Clowns by Guy Moberly.

Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst at the Fete Worse than Death dressed as Clowns by Guy Moberly.

Gavin Turk did a bash the rat stall, Brendan Quick a pubic hair exchange for those who wished to pluck and barter with their tangled diamonds, Sarah Lucas had an empty stall with a piece of cardboard placed on it reading ‘our thoughts on any matter for 20p’ and James Goff (these are all names of artistic veks who were on the scene at the time, quoted diligently in Coffield’s book) was particularly proud of his tuna fish tail stall. “We went to the bloody fish market and got all these tuna fish tails and then we got this grill and we barbecued together and we sold it. And I remember at the end of the day, we were sweating and stinking and we were selling tuna fish tails for five quid a piece. And Damien Hirst was selling his fucking spin paintings for a quid a piece.” Across the way from Goff’s tuna fish tail stall Tracey Emin was running a kissing tent, 50p for a kiss and by 7pm of the same day you could get a lot more for the same price. Did James Goff of the tuna fish tail stall stop by for a snog on the rot from Jane Shore, oh, I mean Tracey Emin. “No, we were to busy doing the fucking tuna,” he remembers. The Fete ended with the traditional drawing of a raffle (the prize: a bag of dildos) and someone yelling at them to turn the music down.

The Fete was successful in binding together a disparate set of characters into a community, but the cool reputation it garnered as the event fell into crystalline memory began Shoreditch’s transformation into what it is today. “Within a year and half,” Gary Hume notes in the book, “everything had gone up in price. People could no longer be there. A coffee house arrived and another one. The Fete was the beginning and the end of it.”

In the meantime Factual Nonsense continued its pioneering work. There was The First Party Conference (1993), a string of cultural events of the kind that if you remember them then you weren’t really there, the cock and yarbles posters that publicised the programme are fondly remembered, but caused a great deal of controversy when they tried to plaster them down the King’s Road. There was also the Fete Worse than Death II, which Compston said attracted “over 4000 people of different descriptions and denominations, making myth of the area of Hoxton and Shoreditch as an upbeat up and coming cultural zone.”

Darren Coffield and Graham Bignell -  Factual Nonsense  - Sex Art Money

Darren Coffield and Graham Bignell –
Factual Nonsense – Sex Art Money

Compston’s public work, such as the Fete, in many ways foreshadowed some of the recent public artworks by Jeremy Deller, yet aside from the public events, the book also highlights Compston’s more conventional artworks. Coffield praises Joshua’s ‘Other Men’s Flowers’ collection as “one of the most underrated and overlooked artworks of the last twenty years.”

Coffield notes that he and Compston were interested in printed ephemera and says that the two of them would attend ephemera fairs at the Victory Services club near Marble Arch, with Joshua going on to recycle the purchased turn of the century paper curios by sending people letters scrawled on the back of “old ocean liner menus, Edwardian cheques and pre-war public health posters.” Compston’s ‘Other Men’s Flowers’ project saw him recruit a number of leading British artists, old and new, to produce a series of prints, inspired by ephemera and based on old texts, so Mat Collishaw recreated a page from Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for example, while Henry Bond contributed a description of Monaco.

The title was inspired by a collection of poems collated by Viscount Wavell, a general in the Second World War, who had the habit of reciting poems to encourage his men on the eve of battle, he was later persuaded to compile these poems into a collected volume, which he titled ‘Other Men’s Flowers’, flowers being an age old term for writing. Compston’s father had given him a copy of the book and he later discovered that the title was not Wavell’s own, but belonged to the French writer Michel de Montaigne, who had written to describe his own collection of other men’s poems, “I have gathered about me a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own.” Which is rather a good description for the stories presented in this fine book, Coffield gathering together and binding up for the sake of posterity the life’s work of a dear friend.

Darren Coffield and Graham Bignell Factual Nonsense - Verbage

Darren Coffield and Graham Bignell
Factual Nonsense – Verbage

Joshua Compston died in 1996, at the age of 25, and was buried with all the fuss and shenanigans usually accorded a pharaoh or a brave and true conqueror of great panoramas of giant stuff. “Joshua’s funeral, it kind of looked a bit like one of the Kray twins funerals,” writes Coffield, “it was a lot of people.” His coffin was painted with a William Morris pattern and bottles of wine were stashed by his body as crowds of people thronged the East End while Joshua made the journey from Factual Nonsense to his final resting place. “I found the funeral quite strange,” says Andrew Wilson. “I remember thinking, who are all these people? It was a sort of circus and it was, almost, dare I say it, one of the most successful events that Joshua inspired, but he didn’t benefit from it at all.”

London characters come and go, but the city is eternal. Rejoice by the dusty railings around the steps to the pedestal of the statue of this great and incorruptible youf. Rejoice. Rejoice. Rejoice.

Factual Nonsense – The Art and Death of Joshua Compston is available now: http://www.factualnonsense.com

All images (except the first) courtesy of the Paul Stolper Gallery, London ©Dosfotos

How did London become the first metropolis to disappear?

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Go to the City of London on a Sunday afternoon and you will find emptiness. Street after street of emptiness. Nobody comes to the City, London’s financial district, on a Sunday.

The irony of this is that the City IS London. The boundries of the City are the same that marked the Roman settlement of Londinium, established nearly 2000 years ago. The City is where London first started to breathe and grow and develop into the teaming metropolis that it has since become.

Under the modernist, brutalist layers of the Barbican Centre, lie not only Roman foundations, but Tudor foundations too. It was here, in the bustling Barbican of Tudor times, that Shakespeare lived, in Cripplegate, and wrote Hamlet.

The City is where Londoner’s endured the greatest calamities of the metropolis’s history. The Church of St-Giles-without-Cripplegate, which sits, preserved, within the concrete womb of the Barbican, survived not only the Great Fire of London in 1666, but also the Nazi bombs of the 1940’s, which obliterated the rest of the area.

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This church’s canny skill of self-preservation allowed not only Oliver Cromwell to marry at its altar, but also allowed Rick Wakeman to record The Six Wives of Henry VIII, in the church’s nave, a century later.

Today the population of London’s historic heart is just 8,000, out of an overall population of nearly nine million, a number that has stayed static for decades.

It is surprising that anyone still lives there at all, in this cavernous mass of offices and sandwich shops.

There are over forty Eats and Pret a Mangers within the Square Mile and there are probably more on the way. That is one to serve every 200 of the City’s population, which is quite a good ratio of sandwich coverage.

But, civilisation does cling on and people do live there in the penthouses that sit at the top of the ever taller office blocks and in the beautifully appointed apartments of the Barbican.

I once even met someone who lived in a converted flat in the spire of Christ Church Greyfriars, the bombed-out church at the top of Cheapside, which was left partly in ruins as a memorial to those who died in the Blitz.

This is, to say the least, one of the City’s more unusual desirable residences, sitting as it does above the grave of Isabella of France, the so called ‘She-Wolf’ and original femme fatal, who was married to Edward II.

The rise of global finance and the power of the City of London Corporation and Parliament’s reliance on it as the economic engine room of the country, led to the sanitisation of this very crucial slice of London’s history.

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The very centre of wider London, sits not in the City though, but under the statue of Charles I in front of Trafalgar Square. The statue of the beheaded King was torn down in the wake of the Civil War and the Roundheads ordered that it be melted down. The canny merchant who bought it though, buried the statue in his back garden and returned it to Charles II on his restoration in 1660.

It is from this spot that the accession of future Kings and Queens of England will be announced, but the monarch too, just like the workers in the City, is a commuter. For long periods of time Buckingham Palace is empty, turned over to millions of tourists, while the Queen reigns from Windsor or Balmoral or Sandringham.

Go to Chelsea or Kensington, or any of the more well healed inner suburbs of London and you will find emptiness too. Street after street of houses bought up by millionaires and billionaires, who use them once in a blue moon whenever they are in the city.

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Go to County Hall, the imposing building that sits opposite Parliament, the former home of the powerful and independent Greater London Council and you will find only fish. Tank after tank of tropical fish. It was converted by Margaret Thatcher into an aquarium in the 1980s.

Pretty soon you won’t even find Parliament in Parliament. The Commons and Lords are all set to move to allow a multi-billion pound restoration to take place.

The centre of London has been hollowed out and turned into a playground for bankers and tourists, while the real people, the lifeblood of the city, have been pushed further and further out into the endless outer suburbs.

The pulse of the city can now be found in its extremities rather than at its heart.

As Patrick Keiller, in his excellent 1994 documentary film, ‘London’ writes, ‘for Londoners, the City is obscured. Too thinly spread, too private for anyone to know. Its social life invisible, its government abolished, its institutions  at the discretion of either monarchy or state or the City, where at the historic centre there is nothing but a civic void, which fills and empties daily with armies of clerks and dealers, mostly citizens of other towns.

The true identity of London is in its absence. As a city it no longer exists. In this alone it is truly modern. London was the first metropolis to disappear.’

USSR 1991 – A Conversation with Keizo Kitajima

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06/06/1991, Nevelsk, Sakhalin, Russian SFSR: Larissa Romanov, 20 years old, works at a clothing factory. In September 1983, the Soviet Air Force shot down a Korean jet off the coast here, killing more than 200 people.

06/06/1991, Nevelsk, Sakhalin, Russian SFSR: Larissa Romanov, 20 years old, works at a clothing factory. In September 1983, the Soviet Air Force shot down a Korean jet off the coast here, killing more than 200 people.

In Keizo Kitajima’s new collection, USSR 1991, there is a picture of a blonde girl with dark eyes standing on the side of the River Neva in St. Petersburg. Her clothes look surprisingly modern despite the 21 years that have passed between the images being taken and their publication. Only the caption gives it away: “Yes, the name St. Petersburg is fine,” 22 year old model Silvia Myznikov says, “but I’m not used to it yet.” Born when the city was still known as Leningrad, Silvia absently turns a monumental moment from history into something like an inconvenience at the post office.

Before his arrival in Russia, Keizo spent his career producing picture collages of life in Shinjuku, a district of Tokyo and hotbed of underground culture and politics, where he created twelve booklets of photographs conveying the aura of the time. He also produced a seminal collection of images of New York in the 1980s. This new collection of photographs, taken on a trip through the USSR in 1991 and gathered together by Little Big Man Press into a lovingly crafted book, captures ordinary people living through a period of great upheaval. “Compared with the dramatic change of a political system, the tale of each individual’s life is very small,” says Keizo, “however I wanted to ensure the photographs valued these people’s stories.”

23/9/1991, Baku, Azerbaijan SSR: Andrei Titov, 16 years old. A Russian boy whose father is a Soviet Army officer and whose mother is a physician.

23/9/1991, Baku, Azerbaijan SSR: Andrei Titov, 16 years old. A Russian boy whose father is a Soviet Army officer and whose mother is a physician.

Depicting the re-evaluation of imposing and strong objects of state, suddenly rendered small and laughable in the wake of political revolution, it is often the individual who is at the foreground of these photographs. “I imagined that the collapse of the Soviet Union gave the Russian people an unfathomable shock,” says Keizo, ” and I tried to make a symbolic iconographic image of the people I met, based upon each individual’s tale.” Like the old paintings of Tsar Nicholas II that place the monarch front and centre his coat decked in garter ribbons and trinkets signifying royal power, the people here stand by icons of their respective trades: a woman in a red cardigan stands by a green loom in a silk factory bankrolled by Charles Aznavour, while a man in a blue flat cap with a wrench in his hand works by the gnashing teeth of a Siberian logging machine.

History is the landscape from which individual stories rise, like, for example, the story of Larissa Romanov, a 20 year old clothes factory worker. She is photographed in Nevelsk, a fishing town located on the southwest coast of Sakhalin Island in the North Pacific. During its history the island has passed between Russian and Japanese sovereignty so Nevelsk is also known by its Japanese name Honto-Cho. “A Korean Air jet was shot down by the Soviet air force offshore here in September 1983, 200 people, or more, were sacrificed,” Keizo says, before adding, “for me this photography represents a hybrid scenery, in which various histories are piled up.”

29/09/1991, St. Petersburg, Russian SFSR: Sylvia Myznikov, 22, was born in Leningrad and has been a model for five years. "Yes, the name St. Peter'sburg is fine, but I'm not used to it yet" she says.

29/09/1991, St. Petersburg, Russian SFSR: Sylvia Myznikov, 22, was born in Leningrad and has been a model for five years. “Yes, the name St. Petersburg is fine, but I’m not used to it yet” she says.

Whilst Keizo asked many people to pose for portraits, not all accepted, “but all those that did seemed to show me their pride,” says the photographer. That pride is clear in the portrait of Dzhuma Redzhepov, a 65 year old, who made rugs with pictures of celebrities on them. With two etchings of Stalin hanging above him, he stands in a cluttered living room, the lapels of his blazer lined with medals won during the defence of Stalingrad in World War Two.

“I thought that I should try not to forget the people of the USSR I met that year,” Keizo adds, and his photographs offer a vivid reminder of those people who didn’t live for the Soviet Union, but nonetheless tried to live as best they could within its fabric.

8/6/1991, Yuzhno-Sakhalnsk, Sakhalin, Russian SFSR: Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk suburbs

8/6/1991, Yuzhno-Sakhalnsk, Sakhalin, Russian SFSR: Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk suburbs

Photography Keizo Kitajima

Thinking Nollywood – Icons In A Wasteland

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A woman with milky white irises stares blankly towards the camera. A human hand protruding from her mouth, like the tail of a calf trapped in the jaws of an anaconda. An old woman sits by a barred window, in a rocking chair, two golden coins resting in her eye sockets. Her fee for the boatman to ferry her to the underworld. But she doesn’t look dead.

A badly burnt body rises from a car wreck and a vampire taxi driver cradles his latest fare. While a man sits dressed in black, with a black top hat. White paint coated thick around his eye’s he seems to resemble Baron Samedi the voodoo master of the dead, giver of life and healer. He sits, the king of his own domain amid the empty Total oil barrels and rotting mattresses.

These are images created and photographed by professional photo-journalist Pieter Hugo and are partly inspired by Nollywood, the trail-blazing Nigerian film industry whose shoestring budget and dynamically creative sensibility is taking the continent by storm. The compositions also owe a large amount to Nigerian myth, character and a visionary imagination, fired by a parched, empty landscape that helps give man-made images more potency. As Pieter highlights “I wanted to use the Nollywood aesthetic as a starting point; its theatrical and performative quality, the spectacle of it. Fictional reality presents us with opportunities of reinventing ourselves. That’s beauty.”

Nollywood, is the third-world successor to its decadent father on the Californian coast. It is the third largest film industry in the world, producing nearly 1000 films a year for the home-video market, with an annual turn over of nearly $500 million. Some of the films are made in as little time as a week, with limited budgets, on location on the streets, in real homes and offices, among the people. Script errors are left in, the storylines are often shockingly convoluted and the picture quality is questionable.

Nevertheless, it’s got the excitement of Hollywood in the thirties. The industry is booming and Nigerian stars are in the ascendant. The centre of the industry is an area called Surulere, a dusty bedraggled, district, buried within the Nigerian capital Lagos. You are more likely to find open sewers than a star lined boulevard, but the area serves the same purpose as Hollywood’s chic towers. Surulere’s fading colonial leftovers, hide a melee of casting couches and thousands of young hopefuls mill around waiting for their chance.

The country has always had a strong film industry by African standards and government help has always been available in one form or another. The National Film Corporation was set up in 1979 and promoted distribution, and more importantly implemented a system where cinema owners had to show at least one Nigerian film for every ten foreign films presented. This helped create an audience for home grown cinema and ensured that Nigerian film did not go unwatched in favour of more glamorous fare from foreign shores.

The western reaction to Nollywood is confusion and Pieter’s book will play a role in the continuing discourse. Is it art? Or just throw away soap-opera? “Nollywood doesn’t give a fuck about art” says Stacy Hardy, who contributed an essay to a book that presents the Nollywood photos. “It doesn’t even care if you think it’s art. Nollywood is it’s own medium of corroboration, a means of self affirming and self-creation, speaking up. It decimated Western divisions of hi and low culture of creation and enterprise, of production and distribution.”

Nollywood confounds the expectations of the western view of film making. To us the film is still sacred. It’s an art-form passed down from Marnau to Chaplin from Capra to Cassavetes. Whatever taboos we break, films are still presented around the same basic rules of script, setting etc. No matter how crude, they have a particular quality. They must ultimately respect and be reverent to the fact that they will play upon the “big screen”. The Nigerian industry has no reverence for our traditions but then again why should they?

Interestingly, one of Pieter’s pictures shows a naked man, alone in the empty, barren, Nigerian landscape, wearing only a Darth Vader mask. A famous western cinematic symbol upon a body totally unhindered by western decadence, representative of an African culture that intends to be influenced by the west but not so much that it loses touch with itself. Losing its original form to gluttony and obesity.

Horror is another favourite genre for Nollywood and Pieter’s images show their fair share of gore. Vampires appear quite frequently, feasting upon numerous victims, or just staring empty eyed into the camera. These aren’t the vampires of John Polidori though, the suave landed gentry vampires, who go for the genteel lay-dees, who wine and dine them before going for their necks and trolleying them off to the land of the un-dead. No, these vampires are bit more danky, they forego the night at the opera and jump you in the dark alley by the post office.

The vampire myth is taken slightly more seriously in parts of Africa than it is in the west though. As recently as 2003 there were riots in the African country of Malawi over fears that the government was colluding with vampires. One man was stoned to death and reports of alleged vampire attacks swept the country. Nollywood and Pieter’s use of them is of course a nod to the role they still play in the African occult, but there is also much deeper reasoning behind their usage.

Stacy Hardy describes them as “slippery creatures” who jump between the boundaries of the living world and the afterlife. They have no respect for longstanding lines and rules, they hop between them and confound expectations like Nollywood itself. Stacy writes in the book “ The obsession with strictly defined boundaries haunts Western conceptions of subjectivity, perhaps the vampire, the figure who lives crossing lines, messing with those boundaries, tells us something about how they are made and how they can be ripped down.”

They also perhaps represent our, the Westerners relationship with Africa. We are often voyeurs to African suffering. We gaze at our television screens at images of slaughter and genocide and half turn away, but keep one eye on the screen. “Urgh isn’t that kind of barbarism ugly” we think to ourselves, but will we, personally act to stop it. Of course not, we are just craning our necks to get a good view of the car crash, having a good look at the body before the police arrive.

We keep one eye on the screen because we are witnessing how the other half lives, it’s a million miles away from our comfortable lives and we thank heavens we are not with them. It is after all only natural, we are interested in witnessing it and stuffing our charity envelopes, but from a sensible distance. We are still intrigued, fascinated even by the “black continent”, but it’s the Rivera still for our holidays. We refuse, as bloated, recklessly moneyed, western nations to salvage Africa, to write off debt. We invest yet we ensure a healthy amount of the profits return home. We quite happily feed off Africa’s struggling body, so are we the vampires? Possibly.

For years and years we have been bombarded with images of African butchery, civil war after civil war, famine after famine. These are now old images. Things do change. Situations do improve dramatically. Just the fact that Nigeria has a film industry worth millions is an example of change, that an African nation now deals partially in showbuisness and not bullets. But imagine yourself in a suburban middle class British home, telling your suburban middle class British neighbour that you are about to take the children on holiday to Nigeria and what will the reaction be? A howl of derision and furrowed brow? Old perceptions are difficult to overcome.

Hugo’s pictures highlight these responses, these perceptions within us and Nollywood happily mocks our ignorance. As Stacy Hardy says, the photographs “ force us to acknowledge our icky vampirism.” It is up to the individual to decide of course if Pieter’s images, the blood, the gore, the age old symbolism involved,  actually furthers long-held perceptions, by showing images based around age old myth and blood letting.

The Nollywood landscape is often a desolate one, empty, the natural magnificence that springs into the mind of the casual tourist when he thinks of Africa is missing. No this landscape is barren, a wasteland, yet it is full of intriguing figures and dynamic, sometimes unsettling icons. As T.S Eliot says in his poem The Waste Land “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats. And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief. And I will show you something different from either. Your shadow at morning striding behind you. Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you.” Thrilling images amid an empty landscape, cheaply made to entertain the masses.  A repressed nation by war, colonialism and poverty, finally finds its voice.

Images By – Pieter Hugo

Listen to Marylebone!

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I recently moved from the near suburbs to the city centre and the change has been louder than I expected. I used to think the idea that the city never slept was a cliché. That if you went to Piccadilly Circus at 4am on a Monday morning then you would find something approaching emptiness.

After two months living in a top floor flat at the upper end of Wimpole Street in Marylebone, I can confirm that the city does indeed never sleep and for a while, until I got used to it, neither did I.

Perhaps the most surprising noises come from the sports cars and motorbikes that seemingly peep their noses out of subterranean garages at midnight and fly down the street at ferocious speeds, seemingly for no other reason that it is easier to get away with that kind of thing late at night.

Then there are the sirens from the ambulances making their way to University College Hospital or even to the mysterious London Clinic at the end of my road, England’s biggest private hospital, where hooded figures limp out of limousines and Range Rovers and into waiting wheelchairs.

There are helicopters, drunks, parties, delivery wagons, late-night road works and a reverberating dial tone from some unknown telephone that projects into the street and echoes down it when someone tries to make a call.

The bells of the St Marylebone Church, two streets away, toll the hour, as well as every half and quarter. They also toll to mark the start of the Sunday service.

There are 63 sets of bells in Westminster, including those in the Royal Courts of Justice, the eighteen bells at Fortnum and Mason and the Swiss glockenspiel in Leicester Square.

In fact, it is nearly impossible to live anywhere in Westminster without hearing bells, especially when Big Ben can be heard all the way to Pimlico.

Imagine living across from a large Swiss glockenspiel that bursts into song every fifteen minutes though. The one in Leicester Square is wirelessly controlled from Derby too, so going at it with a pair of wire cutters isn’t going to get you anywhere fast.

The strange thing is, that after a rocky start, I think all the Marylebone noise is helping me to sleep better. Once all the noises are settled in your mind, they become a kind of scored symphony, a familiar tune, that is able to lull you into sleep.

If a note is missing then the melody is broken and London certainly has many notes to play, with its ‘pulse like a cannon’ as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. London is certainly a city that never goes to sleep.

From Virginia Woolf to Flann O’Brien – A literary patchwork quilt

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Changing from one literary world to another can often be a wrench. Quite a lot of time is devoted to reading a book from cover to cover and when the imaginary world that you have invited and invested yourself into caves in and dies on the last page, it is difficult not to feel bereft, especially if the jump from the old world into the new is particularly jarring.

I recently finished reading At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien and started to read Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.

When it comes to plain facts, these two books have quite a lot in common. They are both heavily influenced by James Joyce’s Ulysses. They both circumvent literary style, moving forwards and backwards in time and switch quickly from the perspective of one character to another.

Swim-Two-Birds is a ford in the River Shannon between Clonmacnoise and Shannonbridge, a place where you can cross the river more easily and find your footing. Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse sixteen years after finishing Mrs Dalloway.

And yet, the actual emotional affect on the mind that these two books have couldn’t be more different.

If you jumped from At Swim-Two-Birds to Mrs Dalloway, you go from witnessing Mad King Sweeney be driven insane by St. Ronan’s curse, banished for ever to fly about the Irish countryside like a bird and live in the trees, to watching dead headed summer flowers bobbing up and down in a vase of water in a summer drawing room.

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Neither Virginia Woolf nor Flann O’Brien ever wanted those two images to collide and they have done so now purely by chance and will, possibly, never be conjoined again, except in my memory.

These two pictures are now part of a composite patchwork quilt of imagery that one collects over a lifetime of reading. Patch after patch of seemingly unrelated images that come together, ultimately, to form a single garment, which is the backdrop to your life.

The book that links these two novels together, Ulysses, is a book which, like many people, I am familiar with, but have never actually finished. It is seen, perhaps incorrectly, as being the Mount Everest of the literary world. The final peak you have to conquer before you can class yourself as a well read person (with honours).

But Ulysses, much like Everest, has become worn down and overwrought by challengers. Base camp is strewn with rubbish and the old paths to the summit are becoming a little worn and tatty.

There are new, more recent challengers to the crown, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, for example, and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Both fiendishly complicated. Both seemingly never ending.

‘Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home,’ writes James Joyce. No matter how many perspectives a book tries to bury you in, no matter how many complications and twists and turns, you are always going to run into one recurring character, yourself.

La Valse – Painting Pictures with Music

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Let’s for a moment accept all the clichés of what one generally assumes turn of the century Paris was like: tea at Maxims, ladies with parasols, Art Nouveau and the Moulin Rouge. And now imagine a Parisian concert hall in 1894, packed to the rafters for a premier of a new piece of music by that master of classical impressionism, Claude Debussy. The piece being performed is Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune. It is a beautiful symphonic poem which conjures an image of someone day-dreaming away a summer’s afternoon. It brings to mind the feeling of lying in a field listening to the birdcalls, listening to the sifting of moving air through summer leaves, the feeling of the heat of the sun on your face and the momentary desire to have your senses overthrown by nature.

 

 

The piece at the time of its premier was ridiculed, booed at, and dismissed as “darkly crazy, modern music.” You might not think that to hear it now, to the untrained ear it sounds just like any other piece of “classical” music, but this prelude arguably gives birth to the modern musical craft by embracing musical ambiguity and a whole host of combinations of chords, keys and harmonies. Brought together, these notes create lush, convoluted and colourful soundscapes, which transport music from the black and white into Technicolor.

The melting of musical clarity into a hazy intoxicating smoke that Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune represents, came only right at the start of this progression. Ultimately the tonal fences and walls, which had restrained musical experimentation in the past would crumble, leaving music unchecked and able to run free in a jungle of unnatural sound and hallucinatory sounds.

Maurice Ravel’s La Valse is another piece, composed a few years after Debussy’s work, that uses expressive music to paint a vivid picture. The form used is the waltz, which was, by 1920, the year of La Valse’s creation, unfashionable and outdated. Ravel grabs it by the scruff of the neck and breathes new life into it, before demolishing the old form waltz with a brashness that forges new and old together successfully. The music also represents the collapse of the old European order into the horrors of the First World War.

La Valse grumbles and bounces and sways to begin with, bringing to mind a dusty troupe of aged aristocrats, in a neglected ballroom. They are grouchy at first, but then they start to get into it. Society beauties regain their finesse, marquises and counts, regain their gentrified polish. Marie Walewska arrives, in a flourish of trumpets, walks over to the Duchess of Parma and slaps her across the face. She drops her champagne, the glass shatters on the floor and the attendees stop and turn and stare. Then the orchestra kicks in, all powdered wigs and livery, as the aristocracy rises and falls to the traditional waltz. But then the floor starts to shake, the walls crumble, debris fall to the floor and a chandelier whistles from ceiling to ground.

The doors burst open and in pile hundreds of soldiers, Cossacks, bombardiers and Prussian cavalrymen. As artillery pounds, the waltz struggles to be heard, but it fights on, the old order still dance, dresses and shirts blooded. As shrapnel flies into the engines, and the waltz whirls around erratically like the rotors of a downed helicopter, fighting against slashing strings. The bombs fall and the floor cracks and a great dark abyss can be seen, the waltz has one final bristle, one last gust, one last gasp for survival over the din of war and pillage, and then the whole affair tumbles into immortality.