Thursday, 31 December 2015

Saying goodbye to 2015...

'Woman' by Willi Soukop R.A.
London, December 2015.

If there's one thing I've learnt about being in my 20s, it's that life is constantly characterised by being in a state of flux. The past two years were meant to be about staying in one place, trying to put down some roots. But restlessness is striking once more and the biggest news of 2016 is that I'm going to be moving to Stockholm for half a year. 

2015 has been a good year. I partied in Berlin with Francis, experienced rainy Midsomer in Gothenburg, made too many hats, and started a second degree. I played loads of gigs with my band, rediscovered my love of sewing,  got an awesome bike and developed very muscular legs. These are some of the good things; there have been tantrums and tears along the way, and at the moment I'm so broke it's not even funny!

I'm always making plans that I never seem to be able to entirely pull off: I get too distracted by the myriad of things to do, that I never quite seem to manage to finish. I stopped making new year's resolutions a few years ago; it seemed like just another to-do list that I wouldn't be able to finish. Life's a work-in-progress. 

One thing I loved about going back to university was the fact that my life got some structure and sense of purpose back. So some things that I know I will accomplish in 2016 are easy: get my Masters degree, live in another country, and learn another language. 

Instead of resolutions, I just want to implement some changes - things that I've chosen to do for once. 
My 2016 plans are:

+ To get up earlier

+ To stop wearing red and purple together

+ To get my Masters!

Right, back to my essay...

Monday, 16 November 2015

Signs of resistance

Near Holborn, London, November 2015

London has changed a lot in the last 5 years. This is nowhere more obvious than on the street, the intersection of city structures and city dwellers. Cycling into, across and around central London provides an overview of the city that cannot be glimpsed through the subway tunnels alone; nor in the newspapers or news broadcasts. On backstreets and main roads, more and more small businesses are boarded up, having been forced out by rising rents and competition from national chains.

But people won't be silenced, and I'm starting to see more and more signs of resistance emerging. Last week, protests took place in London on two consecutive days. On the afternoon of the student protests, police swarmed the streets and enforced road blocks. It was eerily quiet. But on a side street in Holborn, close to many university campuses, I spied this encouraging message:

"It is the power of the mind to be UNCONQUERABLE."

In September, this poster was attached to the window of an empty building, which had previously housed an independent catering business that sold Malaysian food:

"Think Locally - Fuck Globally"
High Holborn, London, September 2015

This notice has since been removed, whilst the homogenous national sandwich chains (Pret, Eat and the like) are thriving. They offer 'Malaysian-inspired' soups every now again, which are not very tasty. 

These are graffiti messages from strangers to strangers. They'll be taken down, scrubbed clean, papered over. But people will continue to make their mark, and graffiti will always be subversive. This is neither a name tag declaring ownership of the street; nor pretty, colourful pictures subverting connotations of anarchy; but messages inspiring resistance. It's nice to know that I'm not alone; and you're not alone either. 

It's especially needed when the establishment only offer us signals praising those who conform. Like this:

"The joy of NORMAL"
Shepherd's Bush underground station, London, September 2015

and this:

Metro newspaper tube advert campaign. Central line, London, September 2015.
This ad campaign openly mocked commuters' typical 'antisocial' behaviour, and encouraged them to instead read this free newspaper instead. (i.e. don't do what you want to do on your journey; don't have an independent mind; read this commercial paper funded by advertising instead! It's much better!)

We need to keep thinking, keep questioning; keep talking and writing out. They're trying their best in Brixton:

"CAUTION. Cleansing in process."
Brixton, London, September 2015.

We need to keep working, separately and together, to show that we're not alone. 

Friday, 13 November 2015

Liberate Your Legs

I don't have a television, don't take public transport every day, and don't read many magazines. I manage to bypass a lot of advertising that reaches people through the traditional channels of regular ad breaks on TV, and posters and billboards on the tube. There's a huge amount of advertising online though, which I can't escape on my computer and phone. I try to skim over a lot of it, but naturally some of it still stands out.

I was pretty surprised to see a 'suggested post' on Facebook this evening that advertised a razor marketed at women with the slogan 'Liberate Your Legs' and accompanied by the hashtag slogan 'Ditch Your Tights'. I haven't experienced hair removal adverts since I stopped watching TV 6 years ago, so I found it very weird that their copywriting and overall approach hasn't changed much over the last 10 years.

Although the razor in question was now blue, it was still photographed on a glossy, bubblegum pink background. The brand's subdivision is called 'Wilkinson Sword Women', together with its slogan 'Liberate' and sub-site '' lending connotations of strength and power. Free yourself! Be a strong Female, and join with us other sword-wielding Women!

The 'Hydro Silk' subtext further underlines the glossiness of this ad campaign. 'Ditch Your Tights' I find pretty horrid because it immediately suggests that you should only be going bare-legged if you've shaved.  It's also pretty weird when you consider that November in the Northern Hemisphere is not really the  ideal climate for bare legs. So where are you going around with bare legs? Probably in intimate situations; but why should you feel ashamed?

Well, it's in the interest of companies like Wilkinson Sword to promote positive associations of hair removal so that they can sell razors. Smoothness and silkiness transfer from the imagery of the advert to the skin on your body. This ad offers a free sample razor, but obviously the promotional campaign aims at future brand loyalty. It's free, so what's stopping you? Get smooth legs! You'll never be able to take your tights off otherwise!

Facebook treats its ads like a public forum, so naturally I had to reply to them. (See the image above.)

Of course, I have no idea why Facebook thought that this was an appropriate post to 'suggest' to me. I know that the site monitors its users, so how could it have failed to miss all of the LGBTQ-friendly, gender-queer empowering, pro-feminist (etc) events that I've shown interest in as of late?

Luckily, unlike with adverts on the TV, public transport, and newspapers/magazines, Facebook actually allow you to respond to their choice of adverts. Though Facebook is definitely not an unproblematic phenomenon,  I honestly do appreciate the level of interactivity that it still offers.

Hopefully this will allow me to continue living in my own little bubble of liberation for sometime longer, unplagued by ignorant and brain-washing adverts. And of course, the true liberation is both not being offended by my own body hair; and not allowing huge corporations to profit from giving me a negative self image. Power to that!

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts

I was very happy to be able to see Ai Weiwei's exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. I have a bit of an ambiguous relationship with installations and abstract art, but I've always had great respect and admiration of Ai's drive and determination in face of China's system of government, both as an artist and a citizen. Ai's politics are central to this show, with the exhibition overall focussing on his relationship with China. The works on display are often hugely tactile, large, and emotional in their literal embodiment of government corruption. Within the exhibition, and the treatment of Ai Weiwei in the British Press, Ai's studio becomes symbolic of resistance to China's regime.

After a crowd funding campaign, the trees can be experienced for free in the RA courtyard. These trees were created from pieces of trees which died naturally, which were subsequently sold in pieces in markets. People looking for innovative ways to make some money, or the commodification of the natural world? Ai created the trees from the pieces that he bought. They were very imposing on the gloomy November morning.

A couch beneath allows people to sit and look up at the branches; but a lady was contributing to the installation by applying a full face of make-up.

According to the Guardian, Ai describes the process of creating these trees as "just trying to imagine what the tree looked like”. To me, the simplicity in this statement calls into question our preoccupation with validation and the creation of value, specifically regarding the art world and celebrity.

The exhibition describes his work as being influenced by Dada. This was very helpful for me as a gallery visitor, for the simple association with a movement and art philosophy helped me situate Ai's work and understand it in a broader context.  Ideas and objects are as important as the overall messages intrinsic in the work. Sometimes subtle, sometimes very obvious, Ai's art works to challenge preconceived normals, and what is considered of importance and value in society.

Ai Weiwei's show at the Royal Academy: amongst Trees, selfies, tourist portraits, and the union jack flag.

This is an important exhibition. Situated at the Royal Academy of Arts, this is no trendy, edgy, fleeting show; it has weight and significance. We must not ignore the injustices which the Chinese government exert on its citizens, even though our economy is dependent on said government. The British establishment has made its loyalties clear in the recent treatment of those protesting the Chinese government in London. Ai Weiwei's show makes it clear, however, that government corruption is real; and that people resisting it are right in doing so.

I won't go into detail on the specifics of the exhibition, as you can find that in the broadsheets' arts columns if you wish to. Or, go with an interest in the work but allow yourself to be surprised by what's on offer. You cannot fail to be moved.

Ai Weiwei
Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly
Until December 13
Click here for information on tickets

Monday, 2 November 2015

Presence then absence: the private/public dilemma

London, November 2015

Tonight's post comes in two parts: first an update on where I've been and where I'm now. And secondly, a musing on being present or absent in the online and physical world in 2015.

Greetings in Daylight Saving Time and the month of November. 

Where have I been in the last two or three months? Mentally, in a state of disarray; but physically, mostly buzzing around the various campus buildings attached to the University of the Arts London. In September I started a Masters degree called MA Fashion Cultures. This slightly ambiguous title is a vehicle to write about great clothes, bad women, sex, and really messy nights out within an academic framework. To the academics amongst you, I'll clarify that within the Masters, I am focusing on queer theory, gender and sexuality studies, and subcultural groups. And hopefully I'll get some gender-bending films, theatre and performance art into the discussion too.

The Masters is pretty demanding but incredibly stimulating, and it's great to have a viable, positive space to channel my questioning, restless mind. Lectures have led to many more thoughts, and providing I get back on schedule with this blog, should lead to more content here too.

It's become very clear to me the reason why I have never been a successful blogger: my lack of regular posting. In my defence, I think that success in anything requires consistency, which demands stability; and my life in the past 5 years has lacked all of these things. This seems to have made me more likely to give up on things than I would have been a decade ago. After a raucous Friday night out celebrating terror and lost souls with some good friends, my pal Kate said to me quite simply, 'You should just write it again.' And so I am. 

This leads me nicely onto the second subject of this post, which I will only touch upon here as it's a massive topic, capable of generating much more thought and discussion. Being absent in a world of communication is not only difficult, but I believe is actually becoming subversive. I was recently speaking to another dear friend Akeela on the topic of disappearing, and how it's near impossible to do this today. Your phone has automatic GPS built into it; contactless payment is the norm for public transport in London (in fact the only option for buses); payments are made directly into bank accounts. But not only is it supremely easy to be monitored and found by outside forces; we do our own internal monitoring, of ourselves and of others. The tell-all sources of Facebook and blogs have been near-eclipsed by the show-all forum of Instagram, where displaying the private publicly is clearer and less ambiguous than ever. And we want to be seen: merit is placed on neo-celebrities who are famous for being famous, liked for being liked.

Recently, I was informed that David Bowie doesn't have an Instagram or a Twitter. The closest you can get to him in private is via his partner's Twitter account (where she sometimes shows photos of their dinner). Could his choice, as a celebrity [who is actually famous for talent], to continue to keep an invisible inner life be something radical today? Are the most subversive people the ones we've never heard of, doing things we'd never think to follow?

I'd love to hear what you think.

And I'd love to hear what you think I should write about next!

Bis bald,


Friday, 21 August 2015

Some place I call home

Trafalgar Square, January 2014. Photography: Francis Botu.

I have lived in my north-western London flat for 1 year and 5 months now, and I don't know whether to call this part of town my home. London is a sprawling mass of buildings; it grew so far outwards that now all that's left is to build up. Within its many dark corners are pocketed villages with close-knit communities; families you'd never be part of even if you noticed them. Yet it's ever-shifting; it's always changing; indeed, it has changed and so much over the past 5 years. With still more people constantly passing through, staying for a day a week a decade or more, who can really call it home when its identity is some constant kind of flux? And who are you to think you'll always stay, when the ground beneath you is different from one day to the next?  

The London now is not the London that so many of us Londoners grew up with. You catch the edge of your shoe in a paving slab, stumble and trip, look up at your surroundings as your head snaps backwards in the fall and see grey and glass glinting, glass where previously there was only space.

I grew up in a north-eastern suburbia, where most of the houses were still actually houses, not chopped up into flats. The parks there still had trees, not tower blocks; and there was only one tube line to choose from. The house was my home; but the area a mere dwelling place. I made my stomping-ground in Soho, or down the Southbank; I went to the Tate Modern every weekend, worked in the West End, shopped in Spitalfields. All these places have changed because they've been made clean. Curfewed, modernised, gentrified. Where to turn to?

Now, in my NW-something flat, in my twenty-something years, I don't know what place should claim me. I fear that something real may get lost in this big old mess of a city.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Yet another female cyclist dies in London: why conditions for cyclists aren’t safe enough

On Monday 29th June, a vigil will be held to commemorate Ying Tao, the 8th cyclist killed on London roads since January. This is more than one per month, and notably, 6 out of the 8 cyclists have been women.

Most of the cyclists were commuting to or from work, and 7/8 of the culprits were lorries and HGVs turning left at a junction. A bus was involved in one incident. These deaths are attracting more and more press, which raises the question: if Boris Johnson promised to make London a cycle-friendly city when he was elected Mayor of London, why isn’t he doing more to safeguard cyclists?

He seems to have tried.  He launched London’s cycle-share scheme to a big fanfare. Boris Bikes (sponsored by huge banks) are great for introducing cycling to people, but my sole thought whenever I’ve used a Boris Bike in London (or the equivalent abroad) is: I wish I were on my own bike!

Cycle lanes are typically on the far left of the road, meaning that cyclists are victim to obstructed sightlines when motor vehicles turn left. This issue is especially pertinent to larger vehicles such as lorries, vans and HGVs with massive blind spots. Cycle boxes, a designated rectangle painted on the road at the front of the traffic queue, are now more common at junctions. These boxes are designed to allow cyclists to position themselves in front of traffic, in a place of high visibility.  

But many motor vehicles don’t respect the cycle boxes, driving into them in traffic and preventing cyclists from using them. Alternatively, road layouts are often such that it can be very difficult for a cyclist to even reach the boxes at all. This comes to light when the road narrows, either cars ignoring the 1m distance from the kerb that is required by the DSA, therefore not allowing enough space for the cyclist to travel; or by the lack of cycle lanes.

There are a few more cycle lanes than before, but even these are not enough. Snugly positioned against the gutter, they are on the far left of roads, sometimes shared with buses and taxis, and frequently disappear altogether. Sometimes cars are parked in them, or they run alongside parking bays. Being so far on the left yet in the road is highly unrealistic: it’s difficult be seen by vehicles, as cyclists tend to hug the kerb rather than cycle 1m away from it. The 1m distance is crucial when you consider car doors opening suddenly, frequently hitting cyclists and causing nasty injuries and distress. Additionally – and crucially – it encourages undertaking, as it puts us in the mentality of always passing on the left. It is actually illegal for cars to overtake on the left and you could fail your driving test for doing it; so why are cyclists doing it all the time? Moreover, as overtaking is meant to be on the right, drivers are trained to check their mirrors and blind-spots far more on this side than on the left.  The seemingly deliberate positioning of cyclists in in difficult road positions, which do not follow the natural or obvious sight lines, is surely a huge contributing factor to these fatal collisions.

It is stupid that this city is continuing to implement unsafe and unrealistic cycle lanes. Moreover, it doesn’t have to be this way. In Copenhagen, the law is in favour of cyclists when it comes to road incidents. When will cyclists in the UK have such protection from the law? I don’t think that we could ever compete with the amazing cycle lanes in Copenhagen and Amsterdam; London is too sprawling, with too many narrow twisty streets and bizarre road layouts. But we should look at placing cycle lanes away from road traffic, rather than within it. 

An arterial road in Gothenburg has its cycle lane completely separate from motor vehicles. One side is for cyclists the other for pedestrians. The lanes are kerbed, separated, and have their own set of traffic lights at all junctions. Smaller but similar versions of this road layout exist all over the city. 

Gothenburg has only recently been introducing more cycle lanes, and nearly all of these are off-road and kerbed. Cycle lanes there all have their own traffic lights at junctions, meaning that it’s incredibly easy to avoid dangerous junctions and vehicles. Neighbouring lanes are for pedestrians, rather than parked cars or buses and taxis. Some of these dual-pavements (pedestrians on the left, cyclists on the right) are rather narrow, it is true; but it is wonderful that the city has refused to compromise in these situations.

Policy-makers in London need to look seriously to our neighbours in Northern Europe for inspiration on how to make changes, for otherwise we will merely see more and more deaths which could have been prevented.

Click here for information on the vigil & the Facebook event.

Sadly I cannot attend as I am working but if you are free you may like to consider showing your support.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

"Don't Ask Me Where I'm From!" Or, Identity in Post-Colonial Britain

You see a stranger. It's someone new. You know nothing about them and perhaps aren't interested in them at all, but they're staring at you, scrutinising. It's only a matter of time till they voice what's on their mind, and you know what's coming.

"Where are you from?"

At this point, I always know which way the conversation will turn, but this is how it goes with me:

"Yes, but where are you REALLY from?"
"I'm from London."
"No no, where were you BORN?"
"Oh no no, where were your PARENTS from???"
"My mother was born in east London."
"What about your FATHER, where is he from?"
"But what about THEIR PARENTS??????"

After this, depending on whether they seem obnoxious and demanding, or just curious but misguided on  basic social etiquette, I might end up giving them a hint.

I get interrogated on a regular basis by complete strangers who believe that their curiosity, perhaps even confusion, about my appearance gives them the right to ask demanding and very personal questions. These people are relentless and don't take 'no' for an answer.

This happens to me nearly every time that I leave the house. I could be: buying groceries at the supermarket, waiting for public transport, at a bar, being introduced to new people at a meeting, or just walking down a street, at any time of day (busy morning, quiet day time, or the lairy night filled with drunk-and-disorderlies). I could be alone, with my boy-friend, or in a group.

I get asked all of these questions because I look like this:

Recent selfies, looking (left) great and (right) pretty tired...

Now these nosy people do vary. When I lived in provincial, conservative, and dominantly white Bournemouth for three years at art college, locals looked at me like I was a strange alien creature. Random old white people spoke to me with curiosity ("Where are you from, dear?") and I answered "London!" in my best cockney accent.  And I will never forget the weekend I visited a friend in Exeter, where just walking down the road with her elicited stares and suspicious confusion. And the bar staff at the pubs didn't think I could speak English. And when I made my order, they talked to me like I was either stupid, deaf, or did not have English as my first language.

I now live in London again, and yet I still get asked this question. A lot of the questioners are caucasian, and grew up in a place which was distinctly not a multi-cultural city like London. I think that they should really get used to seeing people of different colours pretty quickly for they ain't in the village no more. I don't always fancy being someone's point of education: it's tiresome and repetitive. 

Sometimes it is by East or South-East Asians who think they can see a bit of themselves in my features. I don't mind this as it's a way of reaching out and finding community. But most of the time, it's by people who don't understand diaspora or the effect of migration and the Empire. 

Often these people are white. Recently it was a middle-aged (and middle-class) woman who had lived abroad and only returned to England relatively recently; therefore perhaps did not realise that our society's attitudes to all this has changed since the 1980s/1950s/whenever. I also spent a whole year working with a truly lovely person from a very small village in South Wales, who just could not get his head around the fact that my mum was born in London, not China; that all of my family were fluent in English; and that we celebrated Christmas. 

But it ain't always the ang mohs. I have had a LOT of South Asian (Indian/Pakistani/Sri Lankan/Bangladeshi) men be very inquisitive towards me, in varying degrees of friendliness and aggression. And also the black community in London, who are culturally outspoken and - from my direct experience - are always unabashed by asking questions. This includes women: I once spent a whole 15 minutes at a bus stop trying to deflect the ceaseless questions of a septuagenerian Jamaican woman  insistent on discovering my family tree and utterly dissatisfied with the factual answers that me and my mum are from London and that my father's family live in Scotland. "I think you should look into your family background you know," she told me. "You might find that someone in your family is Chinese! You should look it up! You should discover it! I think that not everyone in your family is from here!" 

Well thanks, you're really telling me something new…

Now, these nosy people are united in being very insensitive, even being hurtful. They act this way on several levels. First, often the curiosity comes as a strong impulse and people ask you where you're from before they ask anything else about you. Your name, occupation, how you're feeling, what you're doing - all these things become irrelevant! This is pretty rude.

Then there's the deeper stuff. To take myself as an example, I grew up in a single parent family as my father had (still has) no wish to have a relationship with me. He is of a different ethnicity to my mother. Single parent, mixed-race families are very common, and it's a difficult and often hurtful situation to grow up in. So if you know nothing about one of your parents - let alone their heritage and details of their ethnic origin - the last thing you want is for a complete stranger to start asking you all sorts of questions about your origins! 

Nosy and/or Ignorant People (henceforth referred to as NIPs) also tend to make gross assumptions about appearance, ethnicity and heritage. What these bloody NIPs tend to overlook is that migration of people happens in waves, and is an ongoing process that has been taking place for centuries. I am now going to refer primarily to the overseas Chinese communities as that's my direct experience.

My mother (left) and her sister were born in London. They look like this:

My siblings and cousin here look similar to me; we are half Chinese and half Caucasian and we were all born in the UK. We also resemble our grandfather.

However, nobody in my family has anything at all to do with this:

My family are ethnically Chinese, yes. But we are not really from China. My great-great-great grandparents left China between 1890 and 1915, and settled in what was then Malaya, a British colony. Specifically the British-run town of Malacca. They left China long before anything to do with the cultural revolution. Overseas Chinese communities (big ones in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong; but also more places around the world including Jamaica, Guyana, Mauritius…) are very different from mainland Chinese (or PRCs as they are often referred to). I believe that this is primarily because they didn't live through communism. An obvious facet is the presence of spirituality in their lives, which the communists tried to rule out. Another is the use of Chinese dialects, which were overruled when Mandarin was made the official dialect in China, in 1913. The overseas Chinese I know speak Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese; not Mandarin. My grandparents, growing up in 1950s Malaysia, were educated in English. Malay was not used in education until 1968, long after they had both left, so they technically don't speak the languages of their homelands. 

My grandparents entered the UK as (ex) Commonwealth citizens, and met in London. They were part of a Chinese minority community in Malaysia but this community was non-existent in the UK when they arrived; it is still negligible. By the time that people from these communities reach the so-called West, they form a multi-layered migratory pattern, which further contributes to their identity. However, both in Malaysia and London, my family has proven that success in immigration relies on integration. We speak primarily English but also a pidgin mix of Mandarin and Hokkien. My grandfather makes an amazing curry rendang; but also a mean Sunday roast. When any of us go back to Malaysia, we are different. That country has changed massively; and we are part of Britain.

So why don't people, and those frustrating NIPs (Nosy & Ignorant People) accept that? 

Keeping your post-colonial identity and referencing your heritage is fantastic. It is a really great thing to learn about your family history, and even keep cultural traditions alive. This is not even mentioning religion. Yet, in a multi-cultural but dominantly Caucasian setting, heritage informs identity rather than entirely forming it. You could be said to be holding two or more cultural identities at any one time; yet being born in the West, often but not always in the relevant diasporic community, your identity will always be influenced, at least equally, by being a Westerner; in this case, by being British.

It's rather like being an Italian or Irish or Polish Jewish immigrant and then moving to the USA: you are your diasporic community, but you are also American, the end of your journey; or your family's journey. It's something that Americans both WASP and not are very good at doing: holding a dual identity of country and history.

This is surely a natural and healthy part of integration (note that I'm speaking of the Western-born, second-generation children of immigrants); and it will be stronger as the generations continue and the link with the so-called 'motherland' of people's parents, grandparents, great-grandparents is weakened. Until someone reclaims their cultural identity, that is. Please note that (for example) keeping a family altar in the house and making offerings to it in the UK is a conceptually different practice than the same actions in South East Asia. Ethnic minority communities in the UK are renown for being either far more lax, or conversely much more extremist, in upholding cultural/religious traditions than in their homelands.*

Where are you from? Surely the answer to this question must always be local, not global. If you go back far enough then the answers are rarely clear - as I have demonstrated with half of my family history here. In the UK I am apparently not British enough (i.e. do not look caucasian) to make London a satisfactory answer. But I would definitely not pass for a local in either China or Malaysia. And why should I? My family last lived in Malaysia nearly 60 years ago, and those countries have far less influence on me as a person than the UK. What forms Britishness in a post-colonial society is far wider than it was a century ago. To hold people utterly accountable to their ancestors' places of residence is to suggest that there is no real change made by migration.

But also, it's nosy and irrelevant. And not really to the point. They don't want to know where you're from. They just want to know the precise details of your ethnicity.

And to that I'll say for now,

It's none of your bloody business.


I've got so much more to say on this subject, but for now I'll just end with a photo from the Asian American Student Collective's 'Where are you REALLY from?' campaign.

Oh alright, just one more.


*This is a blog post, not a formal piece of journalism or academic analysis; but please be assured that my statements are based on many conversations over the years with people, though predominantly women, from minority ethnic groups of varying religious beliefs and practices. If anyone's really interested I will actually go out and formally interview people; just let me know...

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Marlene Dumas: readings and viewings

I feel really very ill regarding the results of the general election today. Mental despondency, a feeling of depression and helplessness, and actual physical cramps in my stomach all day at the thought of what will happen to this country; at the prospect of what will be a whole decade of conservative rule.

Anxiety, frustration and helplessness; these are themes which link quite nicely with the exhibition I saw at the beginning of the week: the Marlene Dumas retrospective at the Tate Modern.

I hadn't heard of Dumas before seeing the exhibition advertised, but was intrigued by imagery of her haunting and evocative portraits in black ink - a favourite medium of mine. It took me several months before getting to the exhibition as I find ticket prices at the Tate prohibitive. But I finally bought a National Art Pass which got me in half price and was able to satiate my curiosity.

The first noticeable thing about Dumas' work is the lack of colour. The second is the scale. Portraits hang high on the walls, larger than life and hold striking simplicity with a bold outlook. But what must be noted about Dumas is that she never paints from life: all sources for her paintings are second hand, taken from newspaper and magazine clippings, films and photographs.

'Rejects' - Marlene Dumas - Photograph: Tate

As I discovered more about the artist from the work and the exhibition walls, I learnt that she is also a poet. Reams of text accompanies the work, not as a description or explanation per se; but as an extension of the question the artist is posing. Her poems as well as her paintings, then, are more political responses to source material; than portraits in the traditional sense. She makes images from other images and in this re-rendition of her sources, imparts more meanings on top.

'The Widow' - Marlene Dumas, 2013 - Image: Tate

The exhibition ends this weekend, and whilst I do apologise to you readers for leaving it so late to write about it, in actual fact I don't think that you need to see the exhibition in person to be able to appreciate Dumas' work  - or not, however your tastes lie. The juicy themes of sex and death, the paintings on huge scale and the exploration of inky washes are fun; but image-making in this way is just as well appreciated in reproduction. She's known for painting the rich and famous (Naomi Campbell, Princess Diana, Amy Winehouse); as well as faces that editorials pick up on less frequently, such as the series called Black Drawings 1991-2, exploring perceptions of black people during the apartheid in South Africa. But it's her witty and perceptive subtexts which caught my attention far more than the images on the walls.

She writes poetic criticisms of the nature of art and artistic circles; as well as exploring the themes which draw her, and which she also depicts in images. It's the writing that I find most enjoyable and memorable, and the writing that I urge you to explore. I'm going to end this exhibition review with some of Marlene Dumas' writing from 'Sweet Nothings', an anthology of her work published by Tate; as her writing is what I took away from the exhibition, and which made a far more lasting impression on me.



Excerpts from 'Sweet Nothings' by Marlene Dumas 
(edited by Mariska van den Berg; Tate Publishing)

from 'Why do I write (about Art)'
I write about art because I want to dissociate myself from the tone of most art-writings. I am not impressed by ART neither disappointed, because I never believed in ART as the Big White Hope anyway; or saw artists as larger than life.

a) I don't like pompous, purple prose; rather give me a cruel, cold text, with a touch of evil and a hand full of salt to rub in the wounds…

'Pornographic Tendency'
At the moment my art
is situated between
the pornographic tendency
to reveal everything
and the erotic inclination
to hide what it's all about

I am the third person
observing the bad marriage
between art and life
watching the pose and the slip
seeing the end in the beginning.

Die meisie met die spraakgebrek
says yes but means no.

from 'A Girl for all Seasons'
You - stranger - keep your distance.
I do not seek happiness in fulfilment,
but in the intensity of emotions.
And know that I can never love you
but will always avoid you
to spare you my eyes.

My works bear their names,
like one has to bear one's own history.
Drunk with associations and incest,
contaminated by all kind of illness and prejudices,
deliberatly wounded,
so that they wil not become arrogant
and forget their very innards.