Hannah Garrard is a nonfiction writer and youth worker from Britain, whose writing focuses on community narratives.

After graduating in English Literature from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in 2005, she taught English at the Carolyn A Miller School when it was still on the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana. From here, her concern for refugee issues, specifically the state of ‘statelessness’ for young people, developed. Upon returning to Britain, Hannah worked with the Gateway Protection Program; assisting young refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and completed her youth work training.

She has written for literary journals Newfound, Literary Traveller and Going Down Swinging on topics ranging from the poetry of separation concerning the DMZ, and the controversial US nuclear-weapons base in South Korea which has destroyed the local community of elderly sea-women.

Hannah is currently delivering youth work in rural communities in Norfolk and studying for an MA in Biography and Creative Non-fiction at UEA, where she is researching and writing her first book about Liberia and the Buduburam refugee camp.

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Hannah Garrard is a nonfiction writer and youth worker from Britain, whose writing focuses on community narratives. 

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Freer than the wind – the art of Ai Weiwei

Straight by Ai Weiwei

Straight by Ai Weiwei, at the Royal Academy, London. David Hodgson under a Creative Commons Licence

I could still hear the cacophony of purchasers in the gift shop as I got down on all fours to inspect Ai Weiwei’s first installation in the Royal Academy in London. Bed (2004) arrives as a series of fluted corrugations carved into ironwood unravelled across the length of the room. Made from beams reclaimed from destroyed Qing dynasty temples, Bed is an enigma you must study close up in order to locate its logic. Like an unfastened necklace, it displays China’s border as a three-dimensional line. If it were a map of Colorado, Bed would be a cube. Ironwood’s grain is sometimes deep brown, like dried blood, or pale like honey, and its rings are barely visible, as are the joins rendered by Weiwei’s workforce of skilled carpenters to fit this puzzle together. China’s topography is knotty and convoluted. Bed is almost too daunting to hold in the imagination as a single idea. But I get the impression that this is the map’s purpose. This is Ai Weiwei’s China.  

When Ai Weiwei was a boy growing up in the decade of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, there were no artists, only ‘art-workers’, whose skills were deployed to make propaganda posters: portraits of a radiant Mao casting beatific beams of light on Chinese men and women, who salute their leader as they toil in the field or gather in the home. Subsequently, Bed is more than an impressive sum of its composite parts; it is a showcase of China’s traditional craftsmanship that has survived the rise of mass manufacturing, deployed this time for art’s sake.

In the sculpture room is a grass lawn made from marble, each blade finely honed. In the middle sits a life-sized child’s buggy, uncannily authentic and eerily empty. The marble is chiselled with such practice that it falls like fabric. On the periphery of this centrepiece are more marble sculptures of modern objects including Surveillance Camera (2010), pertaining to the scrutiny Weiwei’s studio in Beijing is still under. There is an atmosphere of disquiet as visitors move around the objects, as if they themselves are being watched. These pieces are symbolic of the human rights abuses Weiwei has been subjected to, at the hands of the State Council: first monitored and tracked by private investigators (he was followed whilst taking his baby son for a walk in the park, hence the buggy on the lawn), then put under house arrest during the demolition of his Shanghai studio in 2010. The following year he spent 81 days in solitary confinement under the auspices of the Chinese State guard.

Politics and art have always had a problematic relationship, in the sense that the latter feeds off the former. When art submits to politics, art is propaganda. And when their union is palpable, the reproach loud and clear, art is renamed activism. Weiwei, however, is in pursuit of a bolder demand: could the State Council ever surrender to the critical messages integral in his artwork? Can his artwork change the world?  

The exhibition’s biggest gesture in its call for change is Straight (2008-12), a room dedicated to the children who perished in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In the middle of the space are thousands of rebar rods Weiwei and his team collected from the wreckage: cheap steel that the State Council used to build China’s schools. His team hammered each snarled rod back into their original – straight – forms. The school buildings and their occupants stood no chance in an earthquake, and it was Weiwei’s quest to expose the State Council’s failure to protect its children that first got him into trouble. The scene I remember from the footage playing in that room is of a small, dust-covered body being given frantic chest compressions by a rescue worker. Was this too much information?

Western culture likes its modern art to house big ideas with brevity. John Ruskin, the Royal Academy’s founder, said just as much: ‘Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them.’ When it comes to culture, European audiences expect to do some of the work themselves – an expectation that might be interpreted as arrogance. Ai Weiwei is frequently criticized for the lack of ambiguity in his work. But the impression I get from Weiwei’s exhibition is that there is simply not enough time for ambiguity. Only artistic confrontation on a titanic scale can match the magnitude of the problem: the human rights abuses that he declares are still pervasive in China. Coincidentally, Weiwei’s exhibition overlapped with President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK, which opened up further dialogue on China’s human rights track record.  

Depth is not about subtlety in Weiwei’s work, but bound in the atavistic nature of the raw materials he selects to speak out on modern China. Weiwei goes down through time in order to confront us with the present. Tradition and antiquity – those deep notions we hold so dear and build cathedrals of culture to – are violated by Weiwei on such a grandiose scale that he draws us into each turn of the sculptor’s tool: a marble lawn, a ton of tea, an exquisitely rendered map made of temples.

Ai Weiwei’s artwork is efficacious in its immediacy, and it is the skill in the execution of ideas that keeps visitors lingering there, contemplating each riddle. Each piece is an investigation of scale; he makes something colossal in both idea and form, from manifold minute deeds. It is an attention I think John Ruskin would approve of. ‘He who takes no interest in what is small,’ Ruskin said, ‘will take false interest in what is great.’ Had the schools been made with equal care and attention, 5,335 children might have survived the earthquake.

Weiwei’s father was Ai Qing, a renowned Chinese poet persecuted by the Maoist State and forced to work in a labour camp emptying latrines as part of his ‘mental re-education’ – thus Weiwei was born into punishment. Qing criticized Communism through his writing, the State persecuted in him in return, and so the Chinese authorities have continued their tradition by attempting to suppress the will of Ai Weiwei. His father’s poem The Wall describes the futility of the State’s pursuit to control its individuals, who seek to question their authority:

   How could it block out
    A billion people
    Whose thoughts are freer than the wind?

No place for slogans as the world remembers 9/11

Tourists at the 9/11 memorial

Tourists take photos at the 9/11 memorial in New York. Rebecca Wilson under a Creative Commons Licence

After complaints by the public, the 9/11 memorial museum gift shop removed a cheese platter in the shape of the United States from its souvenir selection. Purposeful only for banal helpings of cheddar, visitors declared it a vulgar excuse to reap commercial benefit on the back of the terrorist attacks. Tickets to the memorial museum cost $15-$24, and help fund the centre’s $63 million budget – along with maudlin black hoodies and tacky toy ‘rescue dogs’ that have survived the inappropriate-gift cull.

After browsing the museum’s website and bizarre gift shop, I decided not to visit it when I went to New York in July this year. Content to walk around the World Trade Center plaza instead, I sat in the shade of the newly planted oak trees that offer respite from the city’s unyielding heat. Where the towers once stood, sunken waterfalls plunge towards the centre of their foundations into an abyss. A pale mist is carried by the breeze, and cools those standing at the edges, contemplating the scene. The names of the dead cut into the brass flanks that mark out the waterfalls invite quietude, despite the chatter of the crowds and the dull roar of the city that does not let up.

In a year that has seen the centenary of World War One, it feels pertinent to interrogate the nature of public memorial spaces and events. What role does symbolism have in remembering? Is an anniversary a suitable time to cross-examine history? And since many museums are unfunded and must create revenue, who sets the barometer of taste when it comes to gifts?

Symbolism sells – Che Guevara’s face is universal – and it also unifies. But a symbolic act and a symbolic logo have different ends. The latter is material, often commercial and at best speaks shorthand for an idea: red poppies for remembrance, and white for peace. A symbolic act, however, such as a candlelit vigil or a minute’s silence, makes a case for change in the world. It is the gathering of people that gives it potency.

US author Joan Didion wrote, acutely, of the silence that fell across New York in September 2001 in her lecture ‘Fixed Opinions or the Hinge of History’ given at the New York public library; it was as though, disconcertingly, the litany of new US flags that hung from windows in Manhattan said all that was needed that week. Symbolism spoke volumes: of a renewed and unnerving patriotism that had befallen the liberals of New York. She wrote of the silencing of those who spoke up to cross-examine the events – as if analysis was somehow akin to justification of the act. Those who used their platforms to warn the world of the opportunism that Washington would wield to justify its own political gains were deemed traitors.

It was not the silly cheese platter that I found maddening in the 9/11 online gift shop but the slogan on the t-shirts and hoodies:

In Darkness We Shine Brightest

Slogans are reductive. They short-circuit discussion. Hoodies emblazoned with mawkish refrain have no significance in conjunction with terrorism, except to silence critical thought. And history, so it does not duplicate, demands dialogue and inquisition.

In impulsive hands silence and symbolism are easily abused. Cheese platters are harmless, really. What must stay on the surface are the questions that are shaped in the stillness we reflect in – questions that must be asked loudly and clearly to a world that is listening.

After walking around the World Trade Center plaza alone for a while, my friend (an American) and I met by one of the waterfalls and marvelled at the jarring spectacle that was taking place before us: tourists taking photos of themselves or with partners, all over the plaza. Auto-grin faces, fingers held in that ubiquitous V. Two young women approached us – no older than 20 – and asked my friend to take a photo of them. The majority of their lives had been lived in a post-9/11 world, and the event was already a gimmick, a tourist attraction to pose in front of, and I wondered if pointless slogans on hoodies were somehow to blame. My friend reluctantly agreed to take the picture and the women clutched one another, checked their hair and set seductive smiles. The camera clicked, and recorded forever this incongruous scene. 

Of book thieves and bribery

2014-06-18-liberia-590.jpg

© Hannah Garrard

Thieves have smashed a hole through the wall of the library at the Carolyn A Miller School in Payensville, Liberia. They took the school’s two computers, passing them through the person-sized hole, protected by the cover of darkness in this un-electrified neighbourhood. But they left the school’s scant collection of books and this surprises me, because they are expensive in Liberia. A set of Grade 4 books costs $50 – a month’s rent. Karrus Hayes, the founder of the school, has nailed a block of wood across the hole. Daylight seeps through the cracks, illuminating the near-empty shelves.

Karrus Hayes started the school in 2003 on the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana with a $50 loan and the use of a church hall. A decade since he started his project, the school is still one of a few non-fee paying schools in Liberia that educates up to 12th Grade.

Karrus’ school seeks to solve the dual problems of corruption in education, and delivering quality teaching to Liberia’s poorest young people; state schools only educate up to 6th Grade, are under-resourced and are often closed due to staff shortages. But Liberia’s textbook crisis is holding Karrus’ school, and its students, back.

‘Star Longman is the only book store in Monrovia that gives people the means to education. They have to get the books from Ghana and the US to Liberia, which makes them so expensive,’ Karrus explains. This bookshop is the only glass-fronted shop I have seen in Monrovia; others are crumbling, concrete-block and tin-roof arrangements with names such as Lucky Business Centre and Looking Good Barbing Salon hand-painted in dazzling colours. The owner of Star Longman keeps her stock of textbooks locked behind glass cabinets, out of reach from thieves. The titles are enticing: Women’s Empowerment in Post-war Liberia, and Mapping West Africa. Answers to Liberia’s development questions are screened off, available only to the wealthy élite.

Theft is a big problem in Liberia. As Karrus and I walk back from the school through Paynesville’s Red-Light market, a boy of about 10 approaches us with a selection of well-thumbed textbooks fanned out in his arm. ‘Hey, how much is this book?’ Karrus asks. It is $5. Karrus hands it back and signals the boy on. ‘When you see some guy selling books in the street for a cheaper price, it means that they are stolen.’

Many of Carolyn A Miller’s students spend their afternoons selling items at Red-Light market after school has finished and I recognize a few faces in the crowd. A 10th-Grader is winding a wheelbarrow piled high with jeans around the puddles, and a female student sells soft drinks from a large tin bowl balanced on her head.

In 2013, some 25,000 school leavers sat the University of Liberia entrance exams, and every one of them failed – a stark indication of the deteriorating school system. Consequently, corruption in education has become a common feature.

Integrity is the foundation of the Carolyn A Miller School’s values. ‘Some teachers today ask students to give them money for good grades. So students don’t take the whole thing seriously,’ Karrus tells me. ‘Everyone is seeking money, and teachers are not giving out what the children need.’ I ask Karrus how he tackles bribery in his school. ‘I go to all classes and give them my numbers and say “if any teacher asks you for money then contact me”.’

Liberia has remained peaceful for over a decade since its 14-year civil war ended, but protracted conflict has de-skilled the country and its infrastructure is weak and reliant on outside resources: Chinese contractors are rebuilding the road from Monrovia to the country’s mineral-rich interior.

‘We have the gold mines, we have the rubber, we have iron ore,’ Karrus stresses as we pick our way over the grey pools left by the monsoon. ‘We have all these things – but the most important thing we have is the kids. We have human resources. When everyone is educated, we can discover what is underground. But if we don’t know the value, it cannot help us.’

Knowledge is expensive here, but without it the cost to Liberia is even higher.

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