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Trinidad Incantation and song

        Moko Jumbi Incantation   Things scribbled in margins. The spilled fruit-seed of gardeners, linguists, carvers, in their crossings, hauntings, meridian measurings; a constant shifting of the phantom cargo of memory, interweavings, trailings, pathways. I pause at the crossroads, as Eshu arrives:   Hear me now: ecoutez bon, digame lo que pasaba– stories from the perfumeries of Sevilla, of los negreros del rio Guadalquivir, los conquistadores buscando el oro,  los barcos dolorosas,the stenching  folly of the Oyibo – tell me everything.   From under this hash and hex, by the throwing off of murk, mud, pushing through jetsam, in this way, newness shakes its holy dusted head and leaps into the world: hybridizing, creolizing, conjuring from the sprawl and depth of the Carib, from African hinterlands, from the debt bond courts of India… Yes, newness comes swirling into the sweep of archipelago, sliding across the chopping stilts of moko jumbie: Eshu is alive:   Digame.  Stirring. Dicing. Confusing memory. Invoking the global apocalypse of rising waters,  set to cast under the port of London, the port of New York, the West’s ruins-to-come to be as ancient and fascinating in this future as the Roman relics of now.     Ecoutez bon.The modulations, mutations, hallucinogens. Watch the stilt dancers, measuring  the moments from the overwhelm with the arc of their stilts.  The swivel of their compasses. Destiny made manifest.   Nemesis nemesis nemesis  an unravelling, a doubled display of fear doubled consciousness tripled, flung into a trillion synapses carrying the old voltages, channeling heat to light new fires.  Horned, gored, grooved, the mutating voices disappearing into valleys to be transmogrified, becoming tin, pan, the quake-rattle kish-boom that leaps from island to island, hopping from continent to continent declaring renewal, newness, in a syncopated, shimmering burst of brilliance   Don’t ask me. Qu’est ce qu’il dit, lo que creen, lo que piensan, pues hay cosas que no podemos entender, no podemos (sobre)vivir   Never still. They rock constantly, They leap back in time, shaken by the tunneling, the pathways, conduits, viaducts, the signallings of the Orishas. High and far-seeing. Dancing  futures, stomping the dust-beat of future trials, future visions, hailing the rendez-vouz of future victories. They tower over us. We can only crane our necks, behold them, read the scattered bones of their divinations.                   Song For Eshu and Moko     Eshu, trickster of the first order You, who can leap across borders   Eshu, you linger at the cross roads Smoke, mirrors, confusion, your mute codes   Moko who can stare into the horizon sun See all the trials that have been and that may come   Eshu, God of a thousand faces Moko, stepped from a thousand places   Eshu, how many crossroads will we step and face? Moko, how many rant-raves-riddles will we needs must hunt and chase?  ...

Dance Away The Spiders – a short dance review by Pete Kalu

Dance Away The Spiders took place at Home, Manchester, UK. on 22nd January 2019. Ask theatre professionals what group might be the hardest group to work with from the point of view of simple logistics, and asylum seekers / refugees would be right up there. They often live precarious, indigent lives in which even turning up to a meeting can require expense and movements beyond their capacities. To attempt to organise a group of seven into a solid dance corps and to create a work of art to be staged live in a major theatre is to embrace therefore the utmost uncertainty.  Yet working with Sheba Arts, a refugee-led arts organisation, this group managed it. On the night, the performance was preceded by a short video providing glimpses into the women’s lives, the difficulties they have had, some reflections of their selves outside the rehearsal studio, off-stage: their daily lives, the private joys they find there and the challenges they face – the video makes an explanatory and humanising counterpoint to the live performance. The stage was set. The lights came up.  Dance Away The Spiders began as individual dances, each performer expressed her own tradition of dance – Latin American, South Asia, Eastern European and West African – while also delivering those moments of individuality that bring such dances alive. The individual dances segued into a group dance in the round. To a vibrant soundtrack, a narrative emerged of the hardships some of them have faced and escaped, and how, by coming together in solidarity in Manchester, they have managed to build hope, both individual and collective.   The power of Dance Away The Spiders comes not from the competence of the dancers (and they were wonderfully expressive) but from the sense of an important moment in their lives taking place.  The opportunity to express themselves, to produce and share something of aesthetic value with the audience and in that way bridge the gap between refugee on brightly lit  stage and authorised citizen in the comfort and dark of the theatre seats; for all  to slip labels and become in the moment of the performance and sharing, a community of people uniting in a shared will to a fairer, kinder future for all. They took to the stage to dance away spiders, to chase away fears. The dance shone with life and vibrancy; the costumes were upbeat, from bold red, flamenco dresses, to the kathak-influenced, to aspects of folk and Western contemporary. There was a delicacy and tenderness between the dancers. If one faltered, another would step closer, pull them through. In this, there was a template for us...

Baghdad Noir: short story collection – review by Pete Kalu

    Baghdad Noir (Akashic Books) contains fourteen new short stories penned by an impressive line-up of primarily Iraqi writers. Each story is set in a different part of Baghdad. The tales are a heterogenous bunch: in ‘I Killed Her Because I Loved Her’, a mother and her two daughters are working on different sides of the American forces v Insurgency divide, with tragic consequences. In ‘Doomsday Book’, a man is recruited to commit “divine, holy murder” until his distraught brother tracks down the recruiter. In ‘Baghdad on Borrowed Time’, a detective is hired by a killer with a bizarre proposition: the killer wants himself killed. In ‘The Apartment’, a sharp-eyed criminal investigator detects an old lady’s death was not by natural causes. In ‘Empty Bottles’, a young woman is murdered, her screams masked by the call to morning prayers, as an entire neighbourhood blocks its ears. In ‘Homecoming’ a father is attacked by an area thug, leaving his soldier son seething.  In ‘Baghdad House’, an accountant lands in a hotel with deadly goings-on. The overall effect of this gathering of stories is kaleidoscopic: shifting fragments that, coming together in the collection, create a sense of Baghdad’s uneasily beating heart. The stories are crisply edited. Most of the stories have been written in English. A few have been translated from Arabic, and where they have, the translations are smoothly done.  As a city, Baghdad presents a challenge for crime fiction.  Arguably, the genre is predicated on a functioning state apparatus imposing law (however cankered), and handing down some form of justice, (however partial or temporary), against a backdrop of a society in some form of order (however warped). Given all these anchors – law, justice, order – appear to have been pulled up by the maelstroms Iraq has experienced, the genre has to react. The Baghdad Noir response is to explore what justice might mean to citizens living in such a shattered landscape, how individuals either reconcile themselves to these disjunctions or else attempt to reconstitute justice and its associated concepts. The collection features a wide range of such troubled, burdened protagonists: nervous accountants, embittered relatives, laconic detectives, traumatised children and frightened students among them. There are touches of the phantasmagorical and the magical in the tales but, for the most part, the mode is realist, as if the absurdities of life in Baghdad need no extra gilding with fantasy….   (Full review is contained in Banipal Magazine, Edition 63 (The 100 Best Arabic Novels)...

Salvage II exhibition of Christopher Ankeli’s work at Chuck Gallery, Mcr, UK. A review by Pete Kalu

Ankeli’s paintings vary in size from A4 landscapes to metre x metre plus squares. They are predominantly acrylic on canvas, often incorporating lightweight ‘found objects’. The prices range from 150 pounds  to just under two thousand pounds. The exhibition runs till 2 Dec 2018. Townships and streetscapes have become a standard of the African painting market. Where are Ankeli’s located? Architectural and street life tropes in his works suggest the setting is more likely Lagos than the north Nigeria of Ankeli’s birthplace. I have a variation on the street life painting view – a narrow painting of yellow buses in traffic, by the artist, Sokanu, on my wall. They are popular subjects. What appeals in them?  I visited the district of Mushin in Lagos years ago. The roadside there is full of noise from a thousand sources, the air blows up with scents and smoke, there is a chaos of movement especially in rush hours.  Painting mutes all audio and movement and allows the mind to home in and contemplate the visual.  In Ankeli’s paintings, the housing assumes a more symmetrical aspect, boosting both the geometric patterns and the colour harmonies that you miss when in the thick of the scene. Ankeli’s ‘scapes have vibrancy and an upbeat symmetry. The colours: brightly lit old blue, strong orange, deep rust and traffic light yellow, all work in harmony; ultimately the painting feels like a panoramic vista that someone nostalgic for urban Nigeria might want to acquire.  Another painting in the exhibition – and there are variations of this type on display –  is the Couple painting. It is clearly mixed media: gauzes, ribbons, rope or string, tubing, threads, other small found materials applied to enhance, compliment or integrate with the basic acrylic paint marks. Found objects have a sympathy for lost people, the poor and downtrodden. Ankeli’s paintings of this type are not anarchic or full of revolutionary zeal  – he does not depict  politicians’ heads lopped off, there is no Basquiat sloganizing, no roughly framed, invocation of chaos. My thoughts drifted to Nigeria’s constitutional situation and history.  The police, the army, the judiciary, the press, the role of president. You can tilt at a society with established institutions more easily than one whose institutions are fragile.  And yet. If you take to Nigerian twitter, you can hear the healthy, democratic clamour of criticism and judgement of govenments and corporations alike. Ankeli’s intervention is more metaphysical or symbolic than political; his work suggests an essential dignity in all human beings no matter their status or circumstances.  And you can read that line (and the art) how you wish. None of the powers that be in Nigeria would have their hackles raised by seeing Ankeli’s mixed media art work on their walls: its political content is sufficiently ambiguous or latent to elude official opprobrium. One aspect I loved to this work was the elusiveness of the human narrative. Step too close and you don’t see the figures within this painting. Step back three metres and they suddenly become apparent, two faces outlined using an African figurative/symbolic language: the narrow line for the nose, the small o for the mouth. Zoom to extreme  close-up and you see what might be interpreted as scarifications, blisterings, markings, repairs; the Japanese  kintsugi  tradition (of broken pottery repaired by gold) came to my mind as I looked this way. There is an Africanity to the head shapes that reminds me in its silvery/bronze metallic sheen of female Ibo masks, of the wood masks of Kwele of Gabon,  and the masks of the  Guro of Ivory Coast. It got me thinking, as I looked, as to why my mind jumped to masks.  The answer arrived that maybe painting is not an ancestral African art: to chance a sweeping statement, masks and sculpture are predominant historically in (West) African societies. From there I wondered how this Western form (painting) is adapted to African conditions, where it finds its home(s). Painting as far as I know is not used/adopted   as part of ceremony or ritual nor has it become an aspect of court art, and it appears not to be present to any great extent as part of everyday life.   My mind drifted back. I was in Nigeria visiting relatives last year and, as you do, glanced at their walls as I went around.  Lots of framed photographs of their children( the older ones where fortune had smiled on them, in mortar board and graduation gowns), older frames holding the elders of the family, sometimes in the black and white prints of gone times. Going around Manchester, UK, visiting friends, I have a similar experience.  Photos of family adorn mantlepieces. Perhaps a few prints in Ikea frames make it up – New York, a lush tree, some Rothko-inspired blocks of colour. Occasionally there is  a rarer print on a feature wall; in Black British houses, it might be something showing positive, strong, elegant black women with a rootsy yet modern African feel; or if the home is that of a loved-up couple, then a black romantic pairing  under the wing of a swan or some other such gentle, protective, image, symbolically holding love in the house while the occupants go out to their nine to five. You get the gist. In both locations, no original art work. Why? An original painting is expensive compared with a print. And...

Death of a Salesman, RX, Manchester 2018: Review by Pete Kalu

    Death of a Salesman Review by Pete Kalu (including a reflection on colour-blind casting)   I saw Arthur Miller’s theatre play, Death of a Salesman on 2 November 2018  at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.  Most of the cast were black in this version, including the main character, Willy Loman. Don Warrington is superb as Willy Loman. If one of Loman’s attributes is charm, then Warrington exudes this effortlessly. Really. I’d buy any used car off the guy when Don-as-Willy goes into charm mode. Flickers of Warrington’s debonair Rising Damp sit-com persona, Philip, come into my mind as I watch the early scenes.  And this is what interested me, phenomenologically, about Death of a Salesman. Arthur Miller once said the play was originally going to be called The Inside of his Head, and the play’s remarkable in the way it shuffles time and shows the presence of the past – of memory – in present, intense consciousness. Which brings me to myself as a black member of the audience, watching this colour-blind casting: what goes on inside my head while watching Don Warrington play Willy Loman? First, the utter brilliance of Don Warrington. He delivers that mash of charm and bewilderment, of flattering, deluded hope, rage, tenderness, machismo, inarticulate love, the whole kaboodle of aching contradictions that make up Willy Loman. It’s delivered with aplomb, fabulously assisted by a talented cast – it’s no easy gig playing in RX’s theatre-in-the-round, and the RX team made it work, and some. But back to inside my head and colour-blind casting. What knocks around my skull when I watch Don play Willy? First the ‘doubling’ of the action.  Here is a life lived as if racism did not occur in the America of the 50’s in which Death of a Salesman is set. It’s a huge what-if that smokes its way all through the performance, a form of alternative history or shadow play: what would it have been like if there had been no racism in America at the time?  Could a black man have been able to get Willy Loman’s job, and have a family life as saccharine, as idyllic (at least in memory) as Willy Loman remembers his? Running alongside this stream of thought throughout, is its reverse: the thought that this play could only have been written by a white man. Only a white man would not comment upon the effect of race on a man’s prospects.  I remember seeing Blues for Mr Charlie by James Baldwin in the same theatre. Baldwin would never have written Salesman. Which doesn’t make Salesman a lesser play. Not at all. But it brings to mind the meaning of white privilege: White Willy Loman could aspire to be the boss of the firm, whereas a black man knocking on that firm’s door would not even have got a foot on its lowest rung. And then mingling with these two cross-currents of thought comes the wider, existential tragedy at the deep end of the play. Willy Loman kills himself.  Even with the benefit of the privilege of being white in a racialised society like America at a time when whiteness was the assumed universal, Willy still found life unbearable. It invites us to think of the absurdity of life, whoever we are, wherever we are. What Albert Camus in L’Etranger called ‘the benign indifference of the universe’ smacks Willy Loman in the face. Smacks us all.  Remorseless, indifferent Time finishes us all off sooner or later. It’s this last point that makes the play talk to anyone, everyone. So much for the big thoughts. Sticking with the phenomenological approach, another less abstract yet still parallel stream of thought I experienced while watching the play runs: how much are they paying this genius of an actor? Fame and fortune are arbitrary. Don Warrington was unsurpassable as Philip in Rising Damp.  Here in Salesman, he shows that was no fluke. His talent endures. I have no idea if the man is loaded or broke – whether this gig he’s doing is a hobby or a financial necessity. Such is the life of an artist. Then a more social stream of thought runs through here somewhere too. It goes: there are relatively few black people in the audience – why? When I go into a theatre or any other large space, I always scan for how many black people are around. Very few tonight. Theatre has always been claimed by a discourse that separates high art from low art. The arts council of Britain was set up in 1946 to foster ‘theatre, music and painting’. The sociologist Bourdieu famously expounded on how class markers are expressed through ‘taste’;  knowledge of and attendance at the theatre is one of those markers.  It amused me that on the night I went to see Death of a Salesman, there was a large sign in the  theatre foyer, saying ‘Manchester Wine School’. You can’t get a better signifier of aspiring middle-classness than that! I laughed. Almost out loud.  A theatre across town called Contact, tackled the problem of theatre’s class-based, virtue-signalling  associations head-on by abolishing the word theatre from their title. It’s not Contact theatre they tell you, it’s Contact. All this is not to say I don’t like theatre or other forms of ‘high art’. I attended a ballet only last week (La Fille Mal Gardee at The Lowry since you ask). There...

Rhythm: Exhibition of visual art works by Akinyemi Oludele. Review by Pete Kalu

  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...