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Rhythm: Exhibition of visual art works by Akinyemi Oludele

  Rhythm: An exhibition of Akinyemi Oludele’s work is taking place at The Horsfall, Great Anocats Street, Manchester city centre, and runs until 22nd September 2018. There are three floors of works, approximately eighty exhibits in all. The work divides roughly into three types. One: Musicians  On the first floor are drawing of scenes featuring musicians, set in bars, clubs and music events. If Degas worked often behind scenes, painting ballet dancers and circus artistes as they warmed up, Akin works in front of the scene, the angle of perspective suggesting he is right there among the crowd, in front of the band. The predominant medium is charcoal on paper, and the works capture the musical movement, the rhythm and flow before him.  In these charcoal drawings, the distance in time and space between painter and the subject reduced close to zero, the artwork becoming a vibe translated in real time, and surviving long after the music stops. We don’t have the music when we view the pictures, but we feel it. Oludele eschews here any attempt at capturing likenesses.  This is not portraiture. While the figures are not anonymized, neither are they highly personified. This is the artist as a channelling medium, a shaman, working while under a form of possession, being carried away by the music or by the spirit that underscores the music.    One effect of the choice of charcoal markings for these works  is a substantial erasure of distinction between black and white bodies, a suggestion of the coming together of the entire population of Manchester under the groove of the musicians – all is synchronised silhouette. If the typical 18th  century painting scene might suggest by the richnesss of costume and the iconic presence of a globe and perhaps a horse or early piano that the subject is saying, this is who I am – see my wealth, my dominions, my power – then Oludele’s chiaroscuro-like charcoal drawings work in a similar manner: they say, this is what Manchester is, this is what we are about. We aspire, not to wealth and adornment, but to creative collaboration on an equal footing.  The work also suggests a sense of art as a communal act – the artist not separated from the people but among them, one of them.   Two: Expressionist works On the ground floor of the Horsfall are predominantly Expressionist works.  If the Expressionist school was concerned with externalizing the mood and emotion within the artist, then it is necessarily a more intense and individual experience.  Most of these works are on artboard.  Some are small board works placed together in fours or threes: clusters of oblong panels, giving a feel of the panelling of church reredos or the triptychs around altar screens, or,  in the metaphor of music,  chords – different notes coming together to create a single effect.  These expressionist works are highly energised. The oil, acrylic, pastel and ink marks are applied and modified by scratchings, etchings, blottings, smoothing, palimpsest and blurrings, using implements that may have been sticks, needles, knives, feathers as well as the humble brush.  The energy of the line is more Basquiat than Kandinsky and there is often a verticality in the movement of the Work, an arrowing up. There are glimpses of the representational within these pieces: African features appear in the curve of a lip or the shape of a nose, but the general fluidity bypasses representation for mood and conjures up causeways, routes, journeys, diasporan energy: these works elevate movement, are anathema to stasis.     Three: Giclee Prints On the top floor are some Giclee prints.  Drawn (I assume) at a screen rather than on physical material, they are more sculpted pieces.  The work named ‘Salon’  shows women in a hair shop; we see the window light flooding in, the women inside,  the work on hair going on by the staff, a waiting customer on a mobile phone.  It is a highly recognisable slice of daily life image, yet not a prettification. It works well with the Giclee print in the same room, ‘Birth of Venus’ which reworks Botticelli’s image of the white, European woman stepping from a scallop shell. In Oludele’s version, this ideal of beauty is overthrown. ‘Band’ is another impressive Giclee print that, in its counterpointing of black and white, in the rhythm of the shapes made, perhaps echoes the playing of the base guitarist, trumpeter and keyboard musicians which it features. Its vibrant, confident colours, it daring angularity, the gelede mask shapes of the musicians’ faces, all come together in a sense of celebration, in veneration of spirits old and praise of spirits new.   The exhibition work  as a whole is testament to the hybridities, Africanities and fluidities of the music scene, and of the wider diverse communities of contemporary post-colonial Manchester, UK. It is well curated, the art smartly displayed in arrangements, contexts and juxtapositions that let each piece breathe. Oludeles’s deep grasp of African and European aesthetic traditions, and his unique sensibility combine to produce a magnificent exhibition that announces the arrival of an artist of astonishing range and formidable talent.   Until 22nd September 2018 at The Horsfall: 87-91 Great Ancoats Street, Manchester city...

Play Review: Hamlet, at The Lowry, Manchester, UK, Jan 2018, by Pete Kalu

This youthful, bleak, exuberant Hamlet is played with panache and at full tilt. The set design is two parts West African court, one part Basquiat. Live African master drummers bring a stormy atmosphere to proceedings at court. The cast is predominantly black. It’s a black Hamlet. I used to think it’s a bizarre play, Hamlet, because nothing much happens yet it somehow grips. Essentially a young man thinks of killing his step-father for three hours. Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet does not so much illuminate the play as set fire to the stage, and makes transparent  that the play’s grip is all in its psychological narrative – the torment, rage and grief –  the hell Hamlet is trapped in. Imagine having to face your father’s killer every day, and he’s sleeping with your mum too – wrong on so many levels! Paapa Essiedu is a real star turn – I can’t believe he will not go on to be a king of stage and film and I felt privileged to see him perform on Wednesday at The Lowry. I’ll be able to look back and say, “I was there!”  I watched in awe. He seemed so supple in movement and in voice, so contemporary, alive, pacing, sauntering, sharing space with and yet on another plane to the other actors, the characters around him, as he is meant to be – it’s his play.  He’s a young Hamlet.  Essiedu’s vocal control and range, his informal, sinuous bodily flow, his sneering disdain, his juvenile jests – the timing he lands every time, his whiplash wit, his almost wilful beckoning of hot insanity to come take him – anything is better than the cold hell he is in – all feed into this whirl who works the stage like a man possessed, like some Orisha has descended upon him and is inhabiting him. Inspired and tortured. Blazing. Watching his youthful burn and torment, it struck me Hamlet is a play that speaks so well to the hot topic of mental health and young people. Enough about Hamlet.  The stage was blessed with many superb performances. Mimi Ndiweni’s Ophelia is a multi-faceted gem – solicitous with her father, endearing, tender even in her manoeuvrings around Hamlet. Her harrowing disintegration after the death of her father is painful to the max. Tanya Moodie’s Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, combines haughtiness and conniving with a surprising warmth. Clarence Smith’s Claudius, the murdering step-father is magnificent – his pragmatist, realpolitik reasoning simultaneously repellent and utterly convincing. The grave scene, done with a West African inflection, is rip-roaringly funny, testament to the impression I got that even the bit part actors such as the grave-diggers had serious acting...

Very short review of The Granta Book of the American Short Story 1992 (republished 1998). Pete Kalu

This is a 710-page collection of 43 stories chosen by editor, Richard Ford. It has a thought-provoking introduction by Ford, that meditates on the evolution of  the short story genre. The intro ends with the rousing declaration that the stories ‘do the best for us that fiction can do. Now, read.’  So read I did. It’s an enthralling kaleidoscope.  How ‘American’ is it? What slowly became apparent to me was this sense of a literary nation back in 1992 confident in its whiteness. The white writers hardly see any other races. The latter are not so much side characters as peripheral or invisible. That was 1992.  It’s taken 25 years for ‘diverse’ people to move from peripheral to side, then to close side. And the progression over the next 25 years I expect will be from close side to central.  By central I mean to be depicted not as exotified beings, nor used to “provid[e] local colour”, as Morrison puts it in her essay, Playing In The Dark,  nor as moral backdrop for white characters, another of Morrison’s barbed apercus.  The point at which we become central will also be the the point at which white readers read black authors as a matter of good civics for sure, but also because they understand the world, including the world of the imagination, is shared by all and not owned by a...

Ekua Bayunu Re:Birth exhibition 500 word review by Pete Kalu

         Ekua Banuyu’s ReBirth is showing at Chuck Gallery, Manchester, UK  from 14th January 2018. There are a number of works in the exhibition, including 2D paintings, plinthed 3D figures, a video installation and a glass cage of curios. I looked primarily at the three women sculpture named Okoh Women Series – see photo.  The three women are dressed in African wax print fabrics. I’ve seen such fabric worn in Nigeria to weddings, thanksgivings and public celebrations. – they are not rare garments, but neither are they workaday clothes. The women look mobile – as if dancing, though perhaps I am influenced by the video installation showing the artist herself dancing. The faces on the three figures are individually distinctive but not individuated: they appear archetypal or ancestral; to my eyes they have in form something in common with the Yoruba Gelede masks I studied when researching for a Carnival band one year. Again, the context may be influential. Around them are other, free-standing figures, soaring from steel-looking plinths that have more classical African mask images embedded in the plinths, almost as guardians.  In contrast, the three women have an aura of modernity. They are celebrating what? I wonder. There are three women. Why three? Two is an intimacy.  Three is a group. So this is an expression of a group, some joy between them or symbolised through them. Then the thing of surprise. They are standing on slate. Welsh slate, to my eyes.  The northern rooftop material. Not only slate, but reclaimed slate – it still has the old holes where the original clout nails were knocked in and subsequently yanked out.  And this does something.  It locates these women in Northern England, slate being part of the vernacular of the Northern English landscape. And I find myself imagining a roof somewhere in the North under which perhaps these women might have danced. And looking at them, I’m thrown to memory – of how often on a grey day in Manchester I’ve been cheered by visiting a West African home, most times not luxurious, often that of someone or some family struggling to make ends meet. But the irrepressible African spirit would be there, under that grey rooftop. It is the reclaimed slate the figures stand on that brings this installation into the Here and Now, that speaks of Diaspora. The slate pulls in all the standard UK iterations and folk memory  of art that evoke a narrow, white Englishness – from Lowry to Constable to Turner – and layers onto this base of grey the three African women’s vibrancy, their colour and vigour.  It is a juxtaposition that brings the piece from technical excellence to wonder, making the art grounded and of its time, yet also radical, and timeless in its beauty. Chuck Gallery is at 166 Plymouth Grove, Manchester M13 OAF and www.chuckgallery.com More about Ekua Bayunu can be found at  http://www.ekuabayunu.com/...

Book Review: Tell No-One About This, by Jacob Ross (Peepal Tree)

These stories are page turners: tautly written tales, concerning subaltern characters, in real crisis, their backs to the wall against some external threat, some foe, their choices harsh. The stories grip. You want to know whether the characters emerge intact from their crisis. And emerge they usually do, though rarely completely intact. The stories are quietly moral – something hovers above them, holding out the promise that there is such a thing as justice, as a social contract, and that when it is broken by the powerful, then the ‘small’ people can and do have a right to fight back, and they have the intelligence and resources to do that, sometimes in surprising ways. De Laughing Tree is my favourite for this strand of storytelling, closely followed by A Different Ocean, both featuring resourceful, female protagonists: JR has a particularly deep commitment to creating space for women’s voices and his work often fuses technical craft with a quiet, caustic shaming of misogyny. There is rarely a lazy line in Ross’s stories. He generally uses the third person, ‘He/She’. It better allows that barely perceptible oscillation between author and character – the sense that within one paragraph you are at once hearing the voice of the character and the almost imperceptible pulling away towards some quiet, allegorical, authorial statement. So Walking For My Mother begins: “Old Hope turned out their children to watch Nella go. It was wonderful and frightening because the quiet in the air was all for her. All for her, the gifts, the utterances of pleasure, the sideways glances and sweat-rimmed smiles. Like they were seeing her properly for the first time.” JR has the attention to language of a poet. One example will have to suffice. In Giving Up On Trevor,  a woman walks past an alley and sees three young people. She notes they are ‘cowled.’ It’s a beautiful choice of word. I would have gone with hooded; but cowled, with its echo of a monk’s habit, quietly invites you to re-see, adds an undertow of religious piety to the troubled events that take place from this point. Of course, those events confuse and complicate such initial purity, but the starting point is important. Most of the stories in the collection are set in what I take to be the Caribbean island of Grenada, JR’s country of birth, though Grenada is never named. Why that preponderance? The Canebreakers seems to provide a clue. When the young narrator discusses his leaving the island on a scholarship – a passport to the wider world – his sister sharply tells him: ”dem offerin you a ticket so you could up and leave – like your modder – alone – and never come back. Leave everybody else behind.” And later adds: “Learnin to escape cane not enough. How to break it – break out ov it, is what you have to learn. You unnerstan?” I understand this as somewhere between a plea and an admonition for those who leave to remember those people left behind, and to “break cane” for them: to speak of their lives, both internal and external. The Canebreakers is one of my favourite stories in the collection. Tell No-One, is a collection of short stories. It is therefore, arguably, less commercial than a novel (for a novel try JR’s recent, prize-winning, The Bone Readers), but the stories here are flecks of gold. And through them JR shows himself a short story writer of the first order.   Hesitations: The dateline of the subtitle (“Collected short stories 1975-2017”) suggested for me that the order of stories would be chronological, by date of creation. But there are few clues to what was written when. I found myself guessing which were the early works and creating my own meta-narrative of the movement from young Jacob Ross to mature Jacob Ross: was it a movement from optimism to cynicism, from dense syntax to short clear sentences, from ascetic realism to the numinous?  Or maybe JR gets rich and the move is from a Marxist alignment with the voices of the oppressed to a concern with the lack of parking spaces in Chelsea?  None of the above. I gave up guessing. The style and themes are remarkably consistent. Whether this is because everything has been given a contemporary edit or simply that the author’s concerns have remained constant, I can’t tell. Even in JR’s description of villages, there is this sense of atomisation – of characters facing great danger and crises fundamentally alone. I ached for a story that showed a collaborative endeavour – a modern day Fuenteovejuna that might suggest the power of waging battles collectively, as well as individually. But I understand a writer is not a juke box: writers write what they write! Why do short story collections not get reviewed much?  I came across the blog of a retired professor of literature who did a six-paragraph critique of each of thirty stories in an anthology. It took him four blog posts to get through them all. I doff my cap to that professor.   Full disclosure: I met Jacob Ross this year while on a writers’ visit to Portugal & Spain.  As far as I can recall, he did not buy me any...

Book Review: Come Let Us Sing Anyway by Leone Ross (short stories)

Reading the Come let Us stories is like stepping into an hallucinogenic dream. A woman gives birth to geometric shapes in Love Silk Food. In Pals, there are two schoolfriends, one of whom coincidentally has no head. Echo begins with the line: ‘The young man dies like flower’ and is a story, told staccato, of pain, of a restrained, loving anger, as much a psalm as a story. In Breathing, a dead wife comes back to life, re-entering her husband’s life by the simple expedient of ringing the doorbell in the middle of the night. In Art, For Fuck’s Sake an artistic collaboration takes on multiple dimensions. Phone Call To A London Rape Crisis Centre voices a desperately sad call from someone who is being abused; that call ends with the plangent, ‘We do have fun. / We do.’ Velvet Man features a ghost ‘with clean, well-shaped fingernails’, who shows hope of a better life to a lonely, divorced woman. The brilliant, The Woman Who Lives In a Restaurant maps how people are weird but can reach vital, love-affirming arrangements around each other’s idiosyncrasies – a paean to acceptance and to love, however strange. There’s more. Mrs Neecy Brown, centre-stages a woman, drained by a faithless husband and needy, grown daughters. It’s a narrative that produces at its end three simultaneous, contradictory feelings:  a vicarious, bemused cynicism –  at the pious woman suddenly cast in a wanton shadow; a surge of pathos – aching for poor Mrs Brown to get some of the love she deserves; and a more distant, reflective vibe – on the strange twists life can take and how there is a piece of Mrs Brown in us all, the optimism of that thought. There’s more. Drag stars a young woman who at the story’s beginning feels more male than female and is writing a thesis on advertising. She picks up Michael in a Soho porn shop. They have sex and Jo insists Michael fucks her as if Jo were male not female.  There are three sections to this story, each divided by a centred asterix – a favourite marking device of LR’s to denote shifts in time and space. The story becomes Pinter-esque in its working through the personas. We see the duo again. In the second section, Jo / Josephine is masturbated to orgasm by Michael as she closes a business deal in a restaurant. Jump cut to seven years later and there’s a wedding.  Jo/Josephine dons a Cinderella-like wedding dress and, prior to the ceremony the couple make love. ‘We have never made love before,’ Jo tells him.  This comes across not as judgemental or sonorous, but as a distinction observed. So another sexual identity is introduced, another aspect of Jo’s identity opens up.  At the end of the story she runs off, abandoning, it feels like, all three identities – a defiance of conventional romance but also a refusal to be set down as one type, one way of being. I can imagine this story being filmed.  It would work well. Though I doubt  any Renee Zellweger – Hugh Grant type shctick would do it justice. My favourite story is Roll It. Set in Kingston, it begins with the line, ’The woman has fifteen minutes before she dies on the catwalk.’  I loved the deft weaving of Caribbean folkloric references (to the White Witch of Rose Hall, to the Rolling Calf myth etc). By turns, mysterious sweltering, shocking, macabre and phantasmagorical, the story trembles with ambiguous meaning. ‘Before she dies’ has many reverberations: the catwalk show theme is vampiric and there is lots of blood around, so it sounds metaphorical, not literal. And yet. As an attention grabber, it’s a brilliant first line and the rest of the story charges on in a blaze of righteous indignation, weary journalism, with the promise of redemption signalled by the transcendence metaphor allows. The main character is fashion designer, Parker Jones’s favourite model. Tellingly, she is never given a name. She’s beautiful and clever. She’s also dyslexic. She is vibrantly alive and wholly exploited by fashion industry celebrity, Parker (the story fore-shadows the 2017 furore that began around Weinstein and Hollywood). The triply horrific ending involves the macabre staging of Parker’s ghoul-themed catwalk parade, the heart-wringing horror of the young woman’s self-immolation and the moral horror of Parker’s indifference to the model’s fate, instead ‘swearing for his precious dress.’ Roll It shows beauty without warmth. It’s a mercilessly beautiful story. I could go on. The stories flik-flak between Kingston and London.  Other stories include a woman recovering from bariatric surgery…and… and… I now realise that reviewing short story collections is tricky. Nobody wants a reviewer to plough through every story in the collection offering a morsel from each one. So, stepping back for the larger picture… LR’s collection blends realism with a fabulous and at times astringent surrealism. She uses sharp, pithy, often simile-based images (“face like a streamed pudding.” “Hands a wedge of flesh”) that tend to cue up the transition from the real to the surreal. While the tones can be surreal, the stories are highly individuated, and often nightmary/dreamy. Taken together, the stories feel like an assertion of the richness of ordinary people’s internal lives, a richness that is often in stark contrast with their material struggles and with the way others’ see them. JR is a fabulously inventive, egalitarian writer.  ...