A new/old/young Sizwe: a review of the play Sizwe Banzi is Dead

 
 
 
 
It was my birthday on Saturday, so I took myself to the theatre. It was a last-minute decision after a difficult day, so I was very grateful that when I rushed in (late, puffed) and only had enough for a £10 ticket, the Young Vic staff were able to accommodate me.
As I was waiting for my late-comers’ entrance time, I had a quick run-down: a bit of the section I’d missed – a monologue from Styles about his time at the Ford factory, but nothing I couldn’t catch up on. 
 
And, it was explained to me, the crowd and entrances were segregated – we were sitting on separate bleachers.
I wasn’t shocked.
Perhaps I already knew from something I’d heard about last year’s season. Perhaps it just made sense, being that the play was portraying South African Apartheid.
 
 
 
The play
 
Sizwe Bansi is Dead was written by South Africans Athol Furgard, Winston Ntshona and John Kani, deep into Apartheid/National Party in the 1970s. First premiering in 1972, Cape Town, its first season in London (1974) won accolades and connected English audiences to the nature of apartheid (and its UK complicity – noting the presence of Barclays in the South African City skyline at Styles’ studio). It has since been performed here in 1977, 2007, 2013 and now 2014. 
 
 
The official blurb: 

It’s 1972 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and Sizwe Banzi’s passbook gives him just three days to find work. No work and he’ll be deported. That was four days ago.
So when Sizwe stumbles across a dead body with a passbook, he asks himself – does his identity card really define who he is? Could he give up his family and his name in order to survive?
 
 
 
Typically and misleadingly, Furgard is often touted as *the* writer of the play, however Ntshona and Kani are deeply entrenched in its dialogue – they played Styles and Bansi (Banzi) in the 1972/74 and 2007 seasons, and their names appearing as cameos in the play. Ntshona is the name of Buntu’s friend, and the “answering to ‘John!'” as a subordinate term was (presumably) not just about the de-nomination of Afrikans/Bantus, but also an oblique reference to Kani.  
 
 
 
Background info
Port Elizabeth, the setting for the play, is a White Area on the Eastern Cape outside the sanctioned African Reserve Areas of the Ciskei/Transkei. Highly regulated. And not to be confused with even-more regulated Port St. Johns.
 
Africans/Bantus require a permit to be in an area outside of their ‘Homeland’, or another Bantu designated work area, requiring the kind of visa the UK Home Office dreams about.
 
I am lucky to have a little knowledge of Townships, Homelands and the business of the book* thanks to some reading I had done last year1, which outlined the restrictions for working in towns like Port Elizabeth and the legalities of why the character would HAVE to go back to King William’s Town. 

Of course, I have zero understanding of the system portrayed in the play, but I got a little closer through seeing it.
 
 
This production
Sibusiso Mamba, who plays Sizwe Banzi/Robert Zwelinzima is actually adorable. He brings to the role a solid combination of solemn, awkward and honest – pathos. And this is crucial to playing a man struggling with being turned into someone he isn’t: not just his name, but someone who is twisted into dishonesty and manipulation in order to fit within the white supremacist system of Apartheid – in order to continue being something he used to be.
 
There is a section in the second half of play –  the crux of the work –  at the point in which Sizwe Bansi becomes Dead. It is where the desperation of being cut into a corner, dehumanised and bureaucratised has built to a point of such frustration, that he is willing to go to any lengths to prove that he is actually who he believes himself to be: a man.
 
The dialogue is full of tension. 

And, unfortunately, in the performance I saw, it lacked the conviction of that situation.
There is like a very good reason for this (see the next section), probably nothing to do with Sibusiso’s acting, but it was still a little disappointing.
 
Tonderai Munyevu – who I had seen recently in Zhe at the Soho Theatre – is fantastic. He’s such a bright light on the stage and brings that cheeky Southern African humour to it whilst balancing the gravitas of oppression under legislated white supremacy and poverty. I could be making this up, but I felt like he is more Styles than Buntu – more “dapper, alert, thriving’, than ‘strong, compassionate, willing’  but that’s just me projecting it onto him.
 
The Styles section of the play was exactly what I needed on my birthday: Lots of laughter, lots of humanity, lots of cheerfulness in the face of adversity, and lots of determination.
 
The blankes/whites
Throughout the last 30 minutes of the performance, every 10 minutes or so four white, drunk, fairly-young members of the audience tramped and sloshed their way across the bench seats and out the door. Stumbling, making noise, disregarding the action on the stage and being arses. One woman falling up the stairs and clearly unable to manage anything quieter than a stage whisper when talking to the ushers.
 
When the first two left, I was confused. I thought the preview I was in was, perhaps, a rehearsal and that they were crew making changes. Then when the next person left I realised that they were just being rude. And by the time the last woman left – making the most noise, I was ropable.
 
Of course, the disturbance was not just that of individuals or the performance itself. 
 
It highlighted the disregard us blankes still have for Africans and Black British people and stories. It reminded us that, despite being at a great performance of contemporary theatre, in one of the most diverse cities in the world, racism still exists. 
Overtly. Subtly. Structurally.
Truly, Madly, Deeply.
 
Theatre-goers aren’t some special breed, inocculated against ignorance and bad behaviour. And, in true privileged style, most of us theatre-going white folk like to think we are separate from it, so we also didn’t like it when they showed us up. Me included.
 
 
And this is problematic, but it was somewhat satisfying to spy one of the girls in the foyer and express my displeasure. Not in an English, passive agressive way, but it in an overt way. As overt as her racist behaviour was. I was also slightly relieved and pleased to hear others telling her and her friends off, expressing their dissatisfaction.  It felt like maybe a step towards a desire for whiteness to not include such disgustingness. Clearly I’m still in denial.
 
 
Set for racism
The white supremacy that the characters in the play are railing against is continued in the structure of the performing of the play itself. And, given the behaviour of my four ignorant friends, here, I would suggest that it’s destructive, rather than enlightening.
 
The fact that Furgard is still touted as THE writer of the play (especially in London), rather than as one of three equal contributors is a reflection of the way in which white writers are still privileged over black ones.
 
In fact, the 2013 season of Sizwe Banzi and The Island was often touted in the liberal London press – (Time Out, The Guardian) as an Athol Furgard season. Not a Furgard, Kani and Ntshona season.
All three writers wrote both these books, by the way. And it would have been the lived experience of Ntshona and Kani that enabled Furgard to even speak of many of these actions.
 
With this production, audience segregation is the action of white supremacy and it had a racist effect. Regardless of its intention.
Back to our drunk mzungus – did it charge the conditions for racist behaviour? White supremacy as a system, causes racism. If the crowd has been mixed, or our differences not highlighted or enacted in such a way – if the system was not replicated, would these people have still done this? 
 
Probably – because they were disrespectful, drunk and consequently self-absorbed and ignorant (the breeding ground of acting out internalised racism) but I’m asking the question anyway. 
 
Because I think it’s quite important for me to remember – especially as an intelligent, politically- and racially-aware white woman – that oppression and racism (see also patriarchy/misogyny, ablism, hetero/cis-normative/homophobia) it is not about individuals and their own actions. It’s the awareness that we are a group of people who contribute and that there are systems (designed) that create and perpetuate these destructive actions and beliefs.
 
It also reminded me that it’s only the privileged who get to really fuck around with paying homage to oppressive systems in art or theatre or design. It’s only really those who have no clue who are able to cherry pick symbolism, ‘reincarnate’ or try to bring it to life – because we can all go home, tralalala and write a blog post about it instead of committing suicide or stealing a dead man’s passport to stay alive.
 
1. Bantustans – The Fragmentation of South Africa was a disturbing but enlightening publication from 1964 by Christopher R Hill and the Institute for Race Relations, London. I learned a lot about the specific policy of apartheid and the gross financial and econonomic destruction that was behind the ideology, sold as ‘solutions’ every couple of years.
The Court Theatre study guide to the play is an interesting accompanyment.

image: promo shot pinched from the Young Vic website.

Hannah Arendt (The movie): A review




Last week, as I was revisiting the discussion between Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks at the New School*, I remembered my academic crush on The New School as a school in which a lot of my favourite thinkers, writers and artists have taught/teach and whose research I admire.

 
Which, in turn, reminded me about the Hannah Arendt film released here last year, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, and centred around her time at the New School.
 
Now, I think Hannah Arendt is amazing.
Her books The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition are crucial, her take on Rosa Luxembourg is heartwarming and my copy of The Portable Hannah Arendt is tattered with love and much use. The reports she made about the extraordinary trials in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann were so sensational and provoked vital critical thinking about genocide, sovereignty, international law and crimes against humanity.
 
She has problematic views too. Her take on the Little Rock Nine and desegregation of education the US is one I categorically reject, and her complicity in the occupation of Palestine through her work with Youth Aliya disturbs me.

Yet her complexity and her writing (as a whole) is a formidable influence on my work, thinking and inevitably on the work of people I admire, too.
 
So it was with a bit of trepidation that I approached the film. 
 
Much in the same way films about Frida Kahlo, Sylvia Plath and Truman Capote have been unsatisfying*, I didn’t want to witness a degrading, thin or limiting rendition of someone who is complex. Especially not someone who I admire and to whom I think the world needs to pay attention. 

There is always the threat that, in attempting to funnel their life into a story of 120 minutes within the genre of contemporary filmmaking , it will reduce them to an afterthought and undermine the work they’ve done. Especially as the history of mainstream cinema banks on that kind of entertaining reduction and revisionism: palatable, easily distributable and marketable.
 
As much as I enjoyed the film, sadly, I think that’s what has happened to the character of Hannah Arendt in this film.
 
Given that Arendt is a writer and theortician, I imagine it is not easy to depict this kind of life in film.  
So the obvious way through is to focus on the drama – the fracas she caused with her New Yorker report from 1961, Eichmann in Jersualem (still available on the New Yorker website!).

So the film centred around her trip to Israel for the trials, her discussions about the trials and theories of evil, justice and humanity, the writing of those articles and the aftermath of the publishing.

 
It was the beginning of discussion about the role of law, who gets to punish, about the role of media/journalism in such a massive undertaking.


And given that, I think the title should have been Hannah in Jerusalem, or something along those lines – something that was in line with the story and trajectory of the film. By its broad title, it suggests a story about her entirety, or at least the whole of her career.

The film did manage to focus a little on her relationships with students, her work with Karl Jaspers and Youth Aliya and other writers/acedemics at the time, but it primarily focused on her relationship with her bloody husband!
Just like every other biopic about women in the arts and letters.

Frida was about Diego, Sylvia was about Ted and Hannah Arendt was about Heinrich (and/or Martin Heidegger). In fact, the only recent film I have seen about an influencial woman that wasn’t about her husband, was The Iron Lady about Margaret Thatcher. Which was about her debilitating illness instead. Not to degrade that, mind, but for god’s sake can we have a film about the breadth of an intelligent woman’s life!
 
With those criticisms out of the way, I was still chuffed to see a political theorist in film –  a female academic on film*: her strong and opinionate character, the smoking (lordy – she didn’t stop!), her friendship with author Mary McCarthy and a bit of her connection with Heidegger. To see on-screen discussion of the theories of Heidegger and the difficulty in divorcing his excellent theory work from his decision to stay in the Nazi Party – that was welcome, and perpetuated in similar grey areas about Arendt and her complicity (although not necessarily teased out).





And, as I mentioned, I appreciated seeing the New School as a kind of character, too  – the subplot of their flip-flopping sycophancy and subsequent rejection of their controversial ‘prized lecturer’.  Reminiscent of the character of Harvard University in The Social Network, the university and its influence on those who influence is an interesting side-note.

 

I am not sure how good a film this is if you don’t know who Hannah Arendt is.
This is a shame, because film is oftentimes an opportunity to also educate or intrigue people who may be otherwise in the dark. 
But if you do know about Arendt and her work, it is still worthwhile seeing for a kind of curiosity, fondness or revisiting her written work. And perhaps for generating resolve towards better scriptwriting about intelligent women of influence.






*when i say revisiting, i mean clapping my hands gleefully and yahooing around the house like a madwoman.

* geez – why are all these films just their names? how about ‘zapatista in surrealism’ or ‘in the blue hours’ or ‘the love of in cold blood’. OK, Im terrible with titles, but c’mon – single word names?
* How low is the bar, ladies?

Confiscated Childhood: A review of Afro Supa Hero and Confiscated Cabinet at the Museum of Childhood

It’s not far from where I live, but I had never been to the V&A’s Museum of Childhood before now. Crazy, huh. 

 

Anyway, last week I finally went to check out their two concurrent shows: Afro Supa Hero and Confiscated Cabinet

 
 

If I’m honest, the building itself shocked me a bit, reminding me of a starker version of the Pitt Rivers Museum (which is a weird museum – another story). It was all open and noisy. I don’t know why, but I was expecting more of a library, journey-type museum, rather than an (admittedly, gorgeous) open hall and with massive ceilings and balconies around the outside. 

 

I was also hungry at the time, so some of these opinions may be slightly skewed.

 
Wow, I’ve digressed already.
 


Afro Supa Hero – Jon Daniels


 

I loved the underlying idea behind Afro Supa Hero. I loved seeing the comics from the 1960s onwards –  I wished I could have read some of them there. I’m not even into comics that much, but there were some seemingly great action stories and ace history-based ones I wanted to peer into (especially the one about Harriet Tubman).

 

But the historical journey of Afro action figures and heroes was the really interesting bit. It was a relief to see a shift from their names being ‘Black XYZ’ to just XYZ. That’s polite of everyone.

 

Some renditions of famous black characters into toys was embarrassing – you could compare the printed image on the box to the way they’d been rendered in 3D and you could tell sometimes it was just like – “eh, we’ll just make White Lady Action Figure into darker skin and it’ll be fine!” Cringe.  

I learned that Jean-Michel Basqiat and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry have action figures (!!). Which is pretty rad, although i never really played with dolls (cough). And, on a selfish level, I was a bit bummed that Frozone from the Incredibles wasn’t in there. Maybe he’s missing for a reason. Like licensing blah blah. 
(Or maybe Jon Daniels doesn’t like Frozone?)

At the end of the historical/collectible action figures was Jon Daniels’ own super hero design.
And it was fly – matching mega afros, the earrings matching the goatie? red, yellow, green and black colours of Africa? Loved it. 

 

There were mock-ups and lego versions, although I really want to see them in production. Surely Momiji dolls need a new range – I would have bought some Afro Super Hero dolls, for sure.

Well, I say that, but I couldn’t afford to buy one of the cute mugs on sale, so who am I kidding ( I would like to think that the money went to Daniels himself and not back into the V&A merch pot)

But what Daniels’ show highlighted, of course, was the limitations of scope in action figures and super heroes and how that perpetuates the limitation of scope in pop culture of human beings, especially human beings of colour. Starting from the beginning. In childhood.

Super important issue to tackle.

 

And, here’s where I add to the problem: I wanted to draw even more out of that show. 

 

I wanted to extend it into a whole show about race and childhood and toys. 
Like, looking at the Mamie Clark research from the 1960s on colour dolls and how she changed the way race and childhood imagery was understood; it has had an influence in psychology, cultural studies, art and image-making and of course education. 

And I could totally imagine a wider scope that takes those ideas, includes the excellent ones from Daniels’ work and extends even further – Makie dolls, Bratz, Barbie, Fino and Bino dolls, Home-made toys/dolls from non-western cultures, etc.

 

I wanted to see more, not because I’m culturally greedy (although there is that), but because the influence toys/dolls have on us as adults is significant.

With them we learn to play, to associate, develop identity, understand our body and the abstraction of the internal experience to a external object in identification – we boil down our expansive selves into these very particular objects.

 

And a show like that would become a museum show about the history of where limitation starts. The history of where adults decide how small a box they can squeeze future adults into, in order to get the best possible outcome for current adults.

 

Wouldn’t THAT be a cool show to see?

 
OK, I’m being a bit ascerbic, but I do think that, given the influence of dolls from childhood into adulthood, especially when it comes to race and culture, it’s a massive topic that deserves even more attention.
 

And speaking of home-made toys/dolls….

 
Confiscation Cabinets – Guy Tarrant
 
 
 

These cabinets of confiscation were fascinating: A collection of toys/weapons/objects that have been confiscated from school children over the last 30 years.

Hand-written notes, those paper-based things girls play with, knives, flame-throwers (what?!), stones, playing cards, chewing gum, etc.

 

It was organised according to ‘age’ and ‘gender’. Two cabinets each for girls, two for boys. Two for lower grades and two for higher grades.

 

That sorting in itself intrigued me. 
Yes, there are obvious links between boys and girls of similar ages. But i think it also would be interesting to make the cabinets sortable in different ways. 
Like, actual age – what do all 9-year olds hide. 

Or chronology – all the things confiscated in 1991, or 2007. 
Maybe even by kind of school – what do grammar school kids bring and what do comprehensive school kids bring?
Actually, given the place of class and schooling in the UK, that would be particularly enlightening.

 

Vack to the display at hand, it was still enlightening for me, as a woman (who was previously a girl at a catholic primary and single-sex private high school) to see what was gendered. 
So it wasn’t just in my school – girls really do use words as weapons. And vanity is a weakness (one conditioned, I argue).

So much make up, cruel notes and there was a chewing gum/hair attack sample that was simultaneously gross and stark reminder of the nature of our attack/defence tactics: long-lasting and shame-based.

 

Boys? Garden-variety violence.

I knew it, but the image of some of the sticks and metal rods brought to highschools still made me go a little weak at the knees. How the hell you’re supposed to cultivate nuanced social interaction when that’s a threat, I have no idea. The fact that men grow up to be sensitive at all? Bravo. Hats off to the sensitive ones!

 
 
 
A History of Childhood

I do wish shows like both of these could be seen and talked about more. Especially because, given that we all have childhoods and those become our adulthoods/society at large, it’s amazing that more people aren’t fascinated with the history of the small but constant ways in which we really belittle ourselves as humans.

 

I know, clear reminders of painful history and the failings of the human condition is not traditionally a thing that we enjoy pondering over on a wet Sunday (except if you’re in a cinema), but I think I would like them to be.

 

Perhaps if we could see these childhoods in museums (in an abstract way) and how they project forward, we might be better able to make decisions about our own adulthoods, or any childhoods we may be in the business of influencing right now.


Details:
Afro Super Hero
14 September 2013 – 9 February 2014

Confiscation Cabinets 
9 November 2013 – 1 June 2014

At V&A Museum of Childhood
Cambridge Heath Rd, London E29PA

images pinched from the V&A Museum of Childhood site.

Hard out Here: Sarah Lucas and Kehinde Wiley

This was originally a post about Lily Allen’s tone-deaf video: Hard Out Here. But, well, who needs yet another mouthy white woman’s opinion on the subject, really.*

So I’m going to do what I do better – write about art.

Specifically about two recent exhibitions speak with a little more nuance about some of the issues that Ms Allen was trying to portray in that racist piece of shit video. Oops? did I really say that.

Anyway, back to it: Sarah Lucas and Kehinde Wiley.

Sarah Lucas at the Whitechapel.

…and it’s all about bitches. It’s all about the images, the violence, the tawdriness of the same-ol-same-ol images of women’s bodies, men’s bodies – the same blah blah bullshit we’re all just a little bit sick of seeing.
Maybe you’re not sick of seeing, but I am. Friends of mine are. In fact, my first visit to the show was with a friend who is battling depression because of the hatred she has about her body because it doesn’t ‘fit’ with what ‘should’.

Anyway, it’s all there in the gallery. Just there. In all kinds of detail. with varying levels of humour, finesse, mess and message.

It is refreshingly unsimplifed – in fact, it’s all over the place.
It is probably ‘sanitised’ for the general Whitechapel Gallery-viewing public, but even with that in mind, it’s not a perpetuation of the ‘good girl’ imagery. But neither is it so erratic that there isn’t plenty of room to read her messages about images of women.

About the control of our own image, and who has it.

Although this isn’t a post about the video, I do think this image says some of what Ms Allen WAS trying to get at with her BAGGY PUSSY imagery, but with a whole lot finer detail. It is hard being that bitch.

Having said that, Sarah Lucas is a white, middle class woman who presents a fairly singular image of Woman.
But for that, it’s relentless. And consistent. She portrays the violence of gender symbolism, makes fun of the entendre – the guardsman of language – and rides it like she’s going to come any second.

She is unabashed.

The variety of materials is also refreshing: sculptures, readymades, drawings, wallpapers, prints, mechanical wanking cocks (a material type all of its own), photography and text. And on that front, it is not singular.

It was a relief to see the savageness of her response to the same old sexist bullshit about the female form.

Personally (and currently up to my back teeth with it all), it is an exhibition which says ‘It’s ok honey, i feel the same way’.

The work takes up so much space, too. It gets into every bit and there’s not enough space to spread out and because of that, do make plans to see the show twice.

Before anyone whinges about it, I don’t think the antidote is to give more space. I think the slightly-claustrophobic feeling of the show perfectly demonstrates a) the intensity of being an artist: you have a thousand things on the go at the one time and there’s no space from it. You can’t walk back from your life. b) same thing about being a woman. Your imagery and the intensity is relentless, there isn’t a break from it. You don’t get to take a 10 minute breather, walk back and see how it feels to not have all of the ‘requirements’ and ‘opinions’ and ‘representation’ in your face. So why should you in an art gallery?

Kehinde Wiley at Stephen Friedman Gallery

The first time I saw Kehinde Wiley’s work was in his Black Light book at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin (note the caption: I still REALLY want this book.)

The show at Stephen Friedman gallery last month was his work from Jamaica. Floral, Patterned and Beautiful. Part of his ongoing series from around the world – especially places that have significance for (young male) figures unseen in the former colonies: Israel, Africa, Brazil.

This is one of my favourite: all pattern everything.

I love the OTT of it all. Yes, posed staring out in a fairly straight-up pose, but bursting with life and colour and yowsers!

Unlike previous works of his and other shows I’d heard about/seen, this show included the ladies. In fact, the gallery at #11 was all Ladies. Three large works of larger-than-life ladies, showing off their thang. I don’t remember ever seeing a woman portrayed by Wiley like that – he has been notoriously focused on the young men until now.

Despite the regal/papal titles given to these paintings of women, the underlying message that comes with them is that ‘this is not their life’. They are not ‘portrait sitters’, like the subjects Wiley refers to in his video about the history of portraiture.

They are the ‘bitches’ in Allen’s song. (The ones who she will never be and has never been.) These are the women for who it is fuckin’ hard. Oops – I went there again.

To repeat myself, the images are seriously beautiful. They had me, as a 30-something educated white woman staring at the ornate, decorated images of young black men. Hmm

This was the difficult part about the show for me, and the subject of a long chat with the gallery staff.
(I’m very glad they were willing to have the discussion. They didn’t, to their credit, ignore the obvious racial and ethical place of art/paintings/objects/viewers in what they’re selling, and hide behind the ‘it’s just paintins, miss‘.)

So, we have this age-old dynamic.
Me: western, privileged white appreciator of young, gorgeous black specimen. Not that’s how I personally believed I was viewing these images and people, but I cannot ignore the echoes and the dynamic that had been set up. Into which I had walked and cannot avoid because of the fact that I am most of those things. Depressing.

The gorgeous patterns, the refreshingly different images of men and women surrounded by colours and framing reserved for the white elite – they’re amazing and I love them. but if *I* take one home and stick it on my wall, am I not the same as the old anthopological doyenne with her specimens of ‘the noble savage?’.

Argh! the mobius strip questioning of ‘for whom is this art made?’ ‘who has the power?’ drove me wild, in a way that I value: Is Kehinde selling out young black street stylers – his own peeps, for the fodder of white folks, again? Or is he taking back that role of representing the young black gorgeous man into the hands of young black gorgeous man and the privilege white folks just get to watch, whilst they get to be immortalised. Or something of both. Or neither.

I left the show with all those complex feelings of wanting to take a shower, to dance in joy, all desire and need to turn off all the images in my day to ignore how annoyingly complex and shit human power and relationships are.

And to that end, the power within those paintings – especially for the black collector, or one with her eyes open, is worth the 5-figure price tag that will rarely go out of fashion.

*here are a few excellent responses to that video:

– Deanna Rodger, poet wrote and performed a piece about it:
http://bit.ly/19CG9s5 
– Chimene Suleyman, also a poet wrote an excellent essay:
http://www.poejazzi.com/fighting-against-the-fetishisation-of-women-doesnt-work-if-you-fetishise-women/http://www.poejazzi.com/fighting-against-the-fetishisation-of-women-doesnt-work-if-you-fetishise-women/
– Bridget Minamore made an excellent storify of women on twitter: https://storify.com/bridgetminamore/lily-allen-and-satire

image credits:
Sarah Lucas, Chicken Knickers, 1997
Sarah Lucas, Bitch (detail) 1995

Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of James Hamilton, Earl of Arran’, 2013

word. sound. power: an exhibition review

A few weeks ago, on a gloriously sunny day in London, my fellow smart-lady, Zana, and I covered ourselves in wordiness along the southern bank of the Thames.

We sandwiched the BFI’s screening of Right On! between visits to the Tate Modern Project Space for their brilliant exhibition Word. Sound. Power.

Right On!

The Herbert Danska film is of the (original) Last Poets –  late-60s poets, performers, griots-if-you-will, from New York City. And crucial influences on the development of rap and hip-hop.

It was an amazing film, consisting of an 80-minute flow through eight pieces by the trio, backed by drums, costume changes and amazing black male power on a hot summer afternoon/evening.

The series of spoken word performances –  poems, matras, incantations –  were performed, spat and hand-delivered from the rooftop of a hot Harlem block on a sunny afternoon in 1970, to a dark soporific theatre in London.

As the sun tripped from east to west across the sky, the trio: Felipe Luciano, Gylan Kain and David Nelson, interchanged between lead performer. The different forms for each poets flow, their particular voice and rhythm were mesmerising and supported by a powerful drums, occasional dance and the uhs, ahas and energy of the other two artists.

Works like Poetry is Black, Jazz and James Brown were not so much choreographed, but embodied. As crucial element of the relationship between words and the body, between the themes of race, sexuality, white power and poverty, as they came spilling out.

 

 

Word. Sound. Power

Whenever I think about this show, lyrics from the Sub Swara ft Dead Prez song Speak My Language (Machinedrum Mix) comes flooding into my mind:

“This is word sound power, this is rebel soul.

This phenomenal exhibition is rebel soul, curated by two amazing women in conjunction with the fantastic KHOJ artists collective from India. It features 6 artists making work about sound, the voice, the word and power (not that you needed my help in making that leap).

Lawrence Abu Hamdan has two works in the show. His work with Janna Ullrich, Conflicted Phenomes (pictured, pinched from the Tate website) is visual research and data map of Somali spoken language tests enforced to ascertain cultural original, to satisfy criteria for refugee status. As a data excercise on its own, it’s quite beautiful – with its graphic keys to each person’s relationships and language connections

As a reflection of official policy on the business of people’s asylum and freedom implemented by outsourced agents, without checks or balances, it’s creepy.

I was originally suprised to see that Australia uses this for their immigration processes. Then I really remembered Australia’s immigration processes and was unsurprised again.

His other work in the show, The Whole Truth, shines a light on the relationship between the place in which the voice and power intersect: the Lie Detector; When the voice is used to support incarceration, the place in which a person’s (political) voice is removed – according to Foucault.

Caroline Bergvall‘s word drawing and spoken piece was quiet, but striking. A poem, with all of the letter o-s taken out, and placed on the opposite wall, creating a spacial relationship to the word and the sentiment, supported by the surround sound work. It was simple, but I felt things.

Zana and I went back twice to see Mithu Sen perform I am a Poet and both times we missed her – she cancelled one performance, as it was too much to do too many in the day, and then she must have finished the reading early, because it was already over by the time we arrived after the movie. We were both super disappointed because we wanted to hear her.

But her work in the gallery is interesting and engaging nonetheless. I loved her underlying premise of nonsense as resistence. The language is crucially human and that defying the technology of language, there is a core resistance of all that is human.

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum and his videos Arise and Keep Evans Safe Tonight were seemingly a major focus for the exhibition. Although, to be honest, I didn’t feel like they were as crucial to the themes of the show as some of the other works, or the exhibition as a whole. Just my opinion.

The interviews in KEST were quite lovely, giving young men a voice and ability to speak out. I especially enjoyed the KEST boys speaking of the common diasporic experience of going back to the land of one’s parents and suddenly feeling the ease of a culture that is deep within.

Added to the work in the gallery, the essays in the catalogue were amazing.

Both women speak about the relationship between sound, power, culture in different, but equally engaging, ways. They provided second and third angles on the underlying themes of the show, providing a solid triumvirate, reflecting the title itself.

Hansi Momodu-Gorden from Tate Modern writes about the experience of sound, referencing Brandon La Belle and speaking about it as a means of creating an ‘aesthetic space’ and the apparatus of the vocal, quoting Louis Chude-Sokei.

Asmita Rangari – Andi from Khoj speaks about the privilege of using the voice (and other sound means) to speak out – the ability and agency to articulate and the place of silence in this privilege.

The place of words, sound and power in contemporary aesthetics, culture and politics are particularly present at this time and the exhibition is a must-see for anyone remotely interested in any of these things, as well as the ways in which political ideas can be presented aesthetically not didactically.

The exhibition is on until November 2013.

TRIBE

 
For their exhibition at Peckham Space, Sarah Cole and the TRIBE of eleven young girls (from Southwark Arts and Culture Group) played and explored around the themes of female adolescence, feminism, group dynamics, hiding and inclusion. For the short period of seven weeks, they ostensibly formed a tribe of their own and explored its motifs, its ceremonies and its significant activities.
 

They have now turned Peckham Space into a journey of their clan – a living game of Hide-and-Seek  leaving clues and ideas about themselves, about womanhood and about their place in both secret and public worlds.

 

The installation doesn’t focus on a single visual point of expression, but has become an enjoyable space of touch, smell, taste, feel, vision and intuition, where the viewer can be simultaneously included and rejected from the ways of the TRIBE – as it is when you’re a teenage girl. 

Green/grass
The green exterior of Peckham Space and its overtly-geometric outside fuzzily merges with its inside through the presence of turf. Real turf. Their turf. Soft underfoot and smelling faintly of petrichor.

It immediately conjures all the Rococco images of grassy picnics, swings and lassez-faire frollicking that Fragonard would have loved. Except it’s South London and the frollicking in this show is being done by a small pride of fierce girls in bright, colourful full-bodied onesies and animal masks.

 

Play/play/play
Most of the ‘play’, crucial to their work, is revealed on video – a nice triple entendre. Most of the videos reveal the dance/movement performances the TRIBE did during their time with Cole: rolling and dancing on hills, cavorting on workshop floors, in public – displaying none of the usual self-consciousness of girls in early adolescence.

The video which sparked my interest the most showed one of girls drumming on cardboard box in Peckham Square at night – it was menacing, a challenge to all the forces, to fight, a reference to home (lessness) and being a woman at night in an open city square, masked in a onesie, Powerful and vulnerable.

The imagery was reminiscent of Gob Squad’s Super Night Shot (the onesie and the mask, slowmotion, at night) and it held the same playful and challenging spirit to public space and storytelling. But with the added friction of the main protagonist being a young teenage girl calling on a power uncommonly portrayed.

Costume
The onesie is an important feature of this show. I must confess to being a little cynical and my first impression of the onesies hanging in the gallery was a groan – against an item that seems to have gained cupcake status in certain female sections of the creative community.

However, in this context, it was the perfect costume to reveal the actions of adolescence, whilst avoiding the unwanted (male) gaze and unnecessary distraction of fashion with all its heavy and sexualised symbolism.

It seemed to allow the girls to play without burden, to really move in new ways and to connect with the self. Perhaps similar to the role of the burqua in certain religious circles (or so I’ve heard) – a removal of the pressure to match outsides with insides.

Music
Peppered throughout the space are points of musical connection. In the entrance, a gorgeous old record-player plays a custom vinyl of music from the group (arranged by Isa Suarez), a cuckoo clock keeps a rhythm for the show and  on the opening night, a drum kit was set up outside the gallery – free for anyone to bash on it –  a chaotic counterpoint to the ice cream truck playing Greensleaves.

When I spoke to Cole about the reasons sound and music were connections between ideas, she suggested that it was instinctive.

It makes sense to me that this, in particular, was the means by which the presence of intuition in the TRIBE was was conveyed:  the relationship to sound is personal, without necessarily being gendered, class-based or ascribed the heavy weight of society that visual or even performative works can be. It is a lighter touch to speak of identity and perfect for the in-between-ness of a group of teenage girls.

Buckingham Palace
Thanks to this show, Peckham Space has acquired a new mantel over the entrance with a fluorescent re-naming as Buckingham Palace. Lit up until 3am, Cole thinks that the outside of the gallery now ‘looks more like a nightclub than a gallery’. The duality of irony and appropriateness betwen the hot mess of bustling Peckham is so cheeky, it’s delicious.

And that same Buckingham Palace motif again switches from outside to inside, becoming a score for the small music boxes that are mounted on the walls. You can literally ‘play’ the word Buckingham Palace over and over again.

Cole was forthcoming with a lot of information about the show – the meanings and processes behind the works, but when it came to discussion about Buckingham Palace, she chose to not reveal its significance. It was part of the language that stayed solely with the TRIBE – hidden and private. Special.

Ceremony
The opening night was, in tribal terms, a ceremony: it gathered together all the people involved in the TRIBE (and those of other tribes), to come together over food  – free softserve icecream, drink, drums, music and costumes to exchange ideas, ways of doing things; to touch palms.

One reason I make this self-consciously gauche analogy of the occasion in tribal terms is because of the relationship between adolesence and rites-of-passage (and not just a thoroughfare in front of Peckham Library). In white, western, especially urban environments, we have ceased to continue those actions that acknowledge movement from one state of being to another.

The other reason I bring up the quasi-ceremonial aspect to the evening is because it presents an entirely different percption of the exhibition and of the TRIBE than the one most people will experience. Those present for the event received the full extent of their expression.

Most people will see the exhibition in its quiet, daily manifestation: a slightly kooky place with slowly-degrading and trodden grass, video works of girls twisting and birds killing, not a lot of noise, save the record overhead and the sound of traffic outside.  It will become a much more contemplative ‘village’ and some of the underlying ideas will not be translated, whilst others, perhaps sadness, death, loneliness, will really come to the fore.

Yet, this is me, a white woman from an urban setting, nativising the whole situation, which I acknowledge is problematic. Cole herself mentioned its problems, but is still seeking to discuss these ideas of Tribes (as opposed to Communities) for group dynamics. Can a bunch of girls from disparate racial, social and class backgrounds create a new tribe for the purpose of talking to each other and creating new cultures? Why did it work so well?

These are the kinds of questions that I suspect drew me to the exhibition.

As well as revealing aspects of identity and definitions of femininity, like any good exhibition, it continued asking me more questions than those it answered.

Important ethical questions, like what is the role of the elder/artist for a group of young teenagers in contemporary life? Is it to guide? Is it to draw from and adapt either the past or other worlds in order to understand this one? Or is it to only present our own experience – with all its inherent benefits and problems, and allow them to take what they will?

Adolescence is difficult for everyone. This exhibition, rather than ‘fix it’, has found a way to continue to explore it without it being painful or saccharine. It opens up the gallery and the discussion – from inside to outside, to allow for those questions and that difficult fuzzy space to hang; unanswered, but honouring the process of being allowed to work it out. Just like being a teenage girl.

 
This writing was first published on Interface (May 2013) www.a-n.co.uk/interface as the result of a Critical Writing Bursary provided to a-n by Peckham Space