16th November 2020
“When a tradition gathers enough strength to go on for centuries,
you don’t just turn it off one day.”
“Same as the first, a little bit better & a little bit worst?”
So, how is your Lock Down? Judging by the numbers of people out on the streets there is a great deal less ‘confinement’ than the early edition. Does this mean there is less isolation? The visible people queuing for Take Aways outside the new Tex-Mex restaurant on the High Road or wandering about drinking their Latte-to-go are probably not the ones feeling vulnerable or alone because they are missing their family. There will still be those fearful for themselves or their loved ones. I must admit that I feel very different about life compared to version one. Although it is hard to put a finger on exactly why, I suspect it is because, while I really do not want to catch the Virus, I am not a ‘scared’ of it in the same way. Having lived under its shadow for many months and had several friends who have experienced it personally, it is no longer the unknown that it was. My own safety measures and a broad but imperfect following of the rules have become a comfortable routine. The more familiar the threat: the less intrusive in our lives it becomes.
So, as I asked at the beginning, how is your Lock Down? I would be interested to hear how far your routines are the same as the first one and if not how have they changed? Weirdly, my first Lock Down routine included very little reading as my ability to concentrate was somehow obliterated: something that talking to friends seems to have been pretty common. Fortunately, that has improved and this time I am able to relax with a book. The wintry weather (and a Covid postponed hip-replacement) curtails the amount of walking I did in the summer. I still try to avoid switching on the goggle box until mid-evening (apart from rugby) but that itself then presents its own dilemma – what to watch. Too much attention to the news and current affairs is both depressing and stress inducing so I definitely control that. Is it snobbish or elitist to complain that the superficiality of much of mainstream TV gradually reduces your brain to mush? Of course, there are various streaming and pay-per view channels but there is a new family routine where everyone sits in front of Netflix and for thirty minutes it is ”Seen that, not in the mood for that, rotten tomatoes only gives it a 40%, she’s rubbish” before everyone settles for a compromise ‘Lord of the Rings’ for the fifth time. Yet, despite much of that dumbing down there is still some great content produced, predominately but not exclusively, by the BBC. Thank god for iPlayer and catch up because many of these programmes are not shown prime time. My main watching comes from scrolling to ‘Arts’, ‘History’, ‘Music’ and ‘Documentaries’ on the Categories bar. I would like to share with you, two three-part series, still available on BBC iPlayer that recently blew me away.
Lock Down Viewing Recommendations
Like many Europeans I tend to be pretty ignorant of American art, and if I am honest, pretty dismissive. It seldom grabs my attention or emotional engagement. I did visit Los Angeles last year, for the first time, and was massively impressed by the quality of the galleries and museums I visited there – they just seemed to have so much space and funding compared to traditional European galleries. I was deeply moved by some Mark Rothko pictures housed in the optimum conditions he designed and by my first introduction to Kara Walker’s work (before her installation at the Tate Modern) but my ignorance is shameful. So Waldemar Januszczak’s “Big Sky, Big Dreams, Big Art: Made in the USA” (BBC4) series was a revelation. I can honestly say I have not enjoyed an arts programme so much. Although each of the three programmes focuses on a different category: the ‘West’ with special reference to the great outdoors, the urban and city life and, finally, ‘Small Town’ America, there is a cohesion and a narrative to the series as a whole. ‘Waldy’s’ unadulterated joy at the whole concept and the amount of fun that he is having shines through. His delivery can be idiosyncratic at times; almost bordering on the downright quirky, and for me this is part of the attraction. His description of individual pieces and his explanation of the artists’ driving ‘leitmotifs’ provide genuine insight into such styles as Abstract Expressionism so that for the first time I felt I ‘got’ Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky. Come the end of Lock down I have a whole list of American artists I will rush to galleries to experience properly for the first time.
However, I expect Waldy is not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea – particularly the purists and some of the art establishment. I note there were no reviews in the TV sections of the mainstream press. I did find a couple on specialist art sites and they were a bit sniffy: accusing him of putting his story line above accuracy. It did slightly jar when reviewing the Land Art genre, (‘Spiral Jetty’ by Robert Smithson 1970) he suggested this could only be done physically in the USA – I could think of several places in Africa for example. He made the valid and insightful point that much of America’s great art had been produced by first or second generation immigrants, whose alienation from the culture had driven much of their creativity. Son George, joining me on my second viewing, made the point that when Waldemar referred to Marx’s theory of Alienation he was actually describing Hegel’s. This kind of inaccuracy might be critical in a scholarly work but this is a programme intended to excite a general viewer by the depth of the American artistic landscape and it succeeds. I was particularly thrilled by his presenting Indigenous Americans’ cave and rock art, some going back 6,000 years and explaining the difference between pictograms and petroglyphs at the same time. He showed how much their influence is reflected in later work. I also appreciate an arts programme that does not take itself too seriously and there are plenty of subtle digs, wise cracks and other cultural references to keep you on your toes. A strong Lock Down recommendation!
My second recent favourite plays very close to a subject that I have written about in previous Blogs – the story of how European colonialists denigrated African culture to create the enabling narrative for extraction, particularly slavery. That might sound a bit intense or even gloomy but Afua Hirsch’s “African Renaissance: When Art Meets Power” is full of the vibrant light, music and colour that I associate with my years of living and travelling around Africa. The three programmes in the series pick three very different nations with contrary colonial experiences. She highlights the uniqueness of the individual cultures: thus avoiding the stereotypical generalization of ‘Africa’ as described so accurately by Ryszard Kapuscinski. “The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa’. In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.” Afua’s choices, and I hope she gets another series with three more countries, provide the opportunity to showcase the richness of the three compelling examples: Ethiopia, Senegal and Kenya. The first, having repelled the Italians to avoid being truly colonised, the second and third illustrate the experience of the French and British colonial systems. Ethiopia covered the unique glory of Emperor Haile Selassie, his links to Rastafarianism and his gradual decline from reformer to isolated despot. One point Afua did miss was that in a clip of Selassie marching back into Addis Ababa after the city was retaken by the Allies in WWII, the guard of honour around him were Nigerians. The motorised Nigerian Brigade as part of the 11th African Division were a key component of that campaign and were clearly visible in the clip shown.
My favourite of the Episodes was centred in and around Dakar, the exciting capital of Senegal. Much of the wonderful music in West Africa has been produced over the years by a caste of bards who traditionally maintained oral history for the royal households through song: the Griots. The sound of the 21 stringed harp-like instrument, the Kora, is the sound of Francophone Africa. What I did not know was how modern Senegalese music has adopted the rap form and infused it with its own traditions. The fashion scene clearly reflects the French colonial legacy but with a vibrancy that, for me, could only come from this coast. As a stark contrast to the joy of modern wall art and graffiti were the shots of the prison yards on the notorious Goree Island: base for much of the early trade in enslaved persons. I thought this section demonstrated Hirsch’s skill at bringing out the juxtaposition of the natural vivacity of the people she interviewed with the darker history of colonial oppression – without smacking you in the face with it. The serious side of the narrative is fundamental to the programme but, for me, her genuine pleasure at being there and her unaffected engagement with local people is key to its success. It reminds me of Zainab Badawi’s African History series of a few years back in the honesty of those conversations, demonstrating that cultural programmes are best curated and presented by those with genuine connections with those cultures.
The third programme of the series was by far the grimmest. Having travelled extensively across Africa the country where I have felt the pain and anger at the colonial period most keenly (with the exception of South Africa) is Kenya. I don’t think Hirsch really brought out enough that one critical factor differentiating the various post-colonial attitudes is to do with land. Simply put, in Ethiopia and most of West Africa, the occupying Europeans did not strip land ownership away from the local people wholesale whereas in Kenya the British cleared indigenous people from their ancestral homes to create ‘The White Highlands’. Simply, the British stole the best arable and grazing land, predominantly from the Kikuyu. After years of abuse they rose up in the Mau Mau revolt. British atrocities in response were so bad there has been a series of UK government attempts to conceal and destroy records of it. Despite FOI attempts many of them are still embargoed. Hirsch interviews survivors and visits the sites of the concentration camps set up by the British Army. These are clearly the most harrowing and disturbing scenes of the series. Afua Hirsch’s skill is to combine the darker side of these nation’s colonial history with the brightness and vibrancy of their modern societies. Their heads may be in the present but their feet are very much grounded in cultures that existed long before Europeans pitched up. I think this the major achievement of my second Lock Down recommendation.
While George and I were watching the Kenyan episodes and were enjoying the background music he recognised a couple of the tracks and sure enough he found the compilation album that seemed to be the source of this music. It is of various Kenyan and other East African artists of the ’70’s and 80’s and while you can hear the influence of Afrobeat and Makossa on some tracks it all has its own feel to it. It is on Spotify so do give it a listen.
However, for my Video choice I want to return to the wonderful Kora.
So, yes, my musical interlude is by a British-Gambian artist, Sona Jobarteh. The difference between Senegal and Gambia is a line drawn by the colonial powers and defined by the range of a cannon on a British warship moored in the River Gambia. Google it. Born into a Griot family that includes icons such as Tunde Jegede and Toumani Diabate, Jobarteh is the first ever woman to be allowed to use the appellation Griot. While this is classic Kora it has the addition of a more modern instrumented band. She has also studied at the Royal College and Purcell School of Music and is a class act. Enjoy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQIYXPkIa5c
A version of the Blog appears in Chiswick Calendar.