Stories: eleven aboriginal artists
edited by Anne Marie Brody
(Craftsman House, Sydney, ISBN 905 7041 31 6)
A four-year-old Aboriginal child from Alice Springs says: ‘If I grow up I want to be an artist.’
This innocently ambivalent comment suggests the precariousness of Aboriginal existence – a precariousness starkly reflected in ‘death in custody’ rates and equally depressing health statistics.
But the child’s words also point to a happier story – the flourishing of Aboriginal art in recent years. That is, Aboriginal art that can be communicated to non-Aboriginals. For, as editor Anne Marie Brody explains in her truly illuminating introduction to Stories, the core of the art, the religious ceremony that informs it, remains hidden and protected from white view.
Dazzling, mesmerizing images leap off the pages of this wonderful book, followed by interpretations, commentaries and biographies that are a godsend to the uninitiated.
The book’s title is multiply apt. ‘What’s your story?’ we are told, is a typically Australian conversation opener. As you might expect, the ‘story’ for Aboriginal people is deeply rooted in cultural identity and homeland. Many of the pictures these eleven artists produce tell the stories of their community’s origins. The text commentaries help us decode some of the recurrent symbols: what the dots, lines and concentric circles ‘represent’; while the biographies more literally relate the artists’ own life-stories.
Some of the eleven are ‘big names’ in the Australian art world – Emily Kame Kngwarreye, for example – but their art still belongs in spirit to their communities, as commentator Duncan Kentish found out. While he was buying a painting from artist Peter Skipper other members of the community came to look at the picture and commented: ‘My story’. As Kentish took the painting away they shouted, ‘Goodbye old man!’ It took him a while to realize that they were saying goodbye not to him (he was only 41 at the time!) but to their ancestor who had been evoked in the picture.
There are inevitable question marks around spiritually inspired Aboriginal art entering the cut-throat, commodifying, white art world. But this book does help dispel suspicions of a sell-out, leaving one with a very strong sense that this is art by Aboriginals for Aboriginals. If the creative product has added something to transcultural appreciation, then that’s a stroke of luck. These images can never mean the same thing to Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals but the sheer pleasure they give and their strangely luminous, numinous energy, cuts across cultural barriers far more effectively than many more worthy, wordy exercises.
Above all, though, this is an emotional book. It’s as though these artists are ‘painting for their lives’, for Aboriginal survival itself, and in so doing are celebrating it in a way that vibrates with both joy and sadness.
Contemporary Art in Papua New Guinea
by Susan Chochrane with a contribution by Michael A Mel
(Craftsman House, Sydney, ISBN 905 703 23 17)
At first you might find Contemporary Art in Papua New Guinea a little dispiriting – if you can afford it, that is, at around $70.
To be sure there are plenty of the striking images you might expect from one of the most extraordinary places on earth. But there are also a lot of helicopters in the paintings, tipping death and destruction onto the benighted souls below. The textile designer Marie Ahi, beset by the anxieties of her village, fell prey to listlessness in the town and abandoned her art. Kauage Mathias sees himself, among other things, as a ‘family art business’ flogging instant appeal to tourists.
Then, with the contribution of Michael A Mel, the book is transformed. You understand that the true ‘art’ of Papua New Guinea is present largely in bilas, or self-adornment – a system of self-expression that is yet subtle, adaptive and exuberant beyond the capacity of consumer culture even to imagine. And its endurance must surely rely, at least in part, on the deliberate exclusion of ‘foreigners’ from an understanding of its precise meaning. So there is a limit to what this book can achieve.
Nonetheless, Mel tells the bewildering and moving story of his first encounter with mur – a celebratory experience – in his own village. Hedged around with caveats about an urban élite in search of fake national identity in romanticized ‘village’ life, Mel finally confronts us with a simple truth. Bodies are perishable and not for sale. So, as Westerners perceive it, there is no ‘art’ here at all.
Instead, with a sense of thankfulness and awe, you can absorb the photographic memory in this book and share in the exhilaration of life. I’d say, even at $70, that’s a bargain.
(In the UK both books are available from IPD. Tel: +44 (0118) 956 0080. Fax: 956 8211)
Jump the Gun
directed by Les Blair
This bitter-sweet comedy trawls an unsettling path through Johannesburg’s post-apartheid underside. The winner of several awards in South Africa, it’s unusual in evoking the plight of the city’s working class population, both black and white.
Johannesburg is presented as a frontier town, still heavily divided, but infused with the once segregated population of the townships. Firearms hold the city partly to ransom and the jumble of languages and economic possibilities hold sway. Into the real life setting of blue-collar Hillbrow – once open only to whites – Clint, an Afrikaner ‘sparkie’ or electrician on leave from his job on an oil rig, arrives looking for as much drink and sex as he can get. Lionel Newton plays Clint as an innocent racist abroad, warm hearted, but in thrall to the prejudices of the past. It’s to his credit that he manages to invest dignity and not a little charm into a potentially unappealing character.
Unknown to him, he’s been travelling on the same train as aspiring singer Gugu, played by Baby Cele, who is fleeing Durban for the musically charged possibilities of Soweto. Far more knowing than Clint, she’s armed with an unshakeable sexual confidence and a steely will to succeed. Gugu’s options are squeezed by male privilege, and her relaxed attitude to sexuality masks a calculated assessment of her own worth.
On their way towards each other, both characters come across economic and psychological casualties of the old regime. Not least among them is the voracious, shattered Bohemian Minnie, played with palpable tragi-comedy by Michele Burgers. Ironically, despite social disparities persisting in the new society, it’s the likes of Clint, long absent from Johannesburg and still shackled to the past, who feel marginalized and under threat.
The film holds a candle to some of the unspoken tensions lurking beneath the idealized rhetoric of the rainbow nation. It lurches into parody at times, but for the most part, finds sympathy for the range of strategies people use to overcome their fears.
What’s unusual is that British director Blair, best known for his 1993 film Bad Behaviour, embarked on the project with no previous experience of South Africa and no script. But his preferred working method – improvisation – has clearly paid dividends. The result is an insider’s view of a flawed society, told with a steady sympathy for the underdog and a lack of political partisanship. It’s a striking, flawed, and frequently gruelling piece of work – but one which stays in the mind long after it’s ended.
by Zap Mama
(Virgin 724384281625 CD)
Lagos – Brooklyn – Brixton
by Fuji Dub
(Triple Earth TECD 116 CD)
The first thing that strikes you about ‘Jogging à Tombouctou’ – the opening number to Zap Mama’s third album – is its sheer speed. Half-singing, half rapping, Marie Daulne, the band’s leader, fairly fires the French words out and it’s only a few seconds later that the melodies or the sing-song rhythms of the music actually grab the attention. It is a typical Zap Mama tactic. Now in their seventh year, Zap Mama have specialized in making the sort of first impressions that ensure listeners return for more. With a music drawing from influences which mix James Brown with sounds from Daulne’s upbringing (and subsequent flight) from the former Belgian Congo, Zap Mama’s ambience has always been one which has spanned cultures.
Those links are certainly there to be made, but now, with Seven, the Belgian-based Daulne returns to one of her abiding interests: ancient African and Pygmy music. Written after Daulne upped sticks for an extended sojourn in Mali and Morocco, the album title is significant, referring to the two extra human senses – emotion and the power to heal – of African tradition. Unsurprisingly, the result is a broad-ranging album which resists any urge to over-ornament itself. The sprinting pace of ‘Jogging’ soon gives way to some more sedate rhythms and it’s here that the trio behind Daulne come into their own. English language songs like ‘African Sunset’ and a fine version of Etta James’ ‘Damn Your Eyes’ vibrate with a deep soul ethos as Daulne’s voice makes languid stretches over the songs’ lengths. Some virtuoso performances by guest artists, including veteran reggae man U-Roy and tabla wizard Shankaranarayan, makes Seven a cool, jazzy album, brimming with promise for the future.
Godwin Logie and Dave White – former studio engineers for Khaled, King Sunny Adé, Natasha Atlas and now Fuji Dub – are also engaged in making links. With Lagos – Brooklyn – Brixton their name pairs the slow empty spaces of reggae’s dub music with the faster percussive motions and vocals of Fuji – the choice dance music of Nigeria’s Yoruba youth for the past 30 years. By invoking Lagos in the same equation as Brixton and Brooklyn, Fuji Dub are attempting to pull in the sense of ‘ghetto realness’ that rappers strive for. Setting aside, for the moment, all considerations of realness, the five Fuji tracks thunder along in a convincing fashion.
Actually drum-laden remixes of percussion and Yoruba-language vocals originally released on a separate album, Fuji Time, this is serious stuff for late-night dancing. Even better, it’s all achieved without the appalling ‘exotica’ tag that attends so many cross-cultural releases.
Reviewers: Esi Eshun, Louise Gray, David Ransom, Vanessa Baird
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird
As the latest blockbusters roll off the Hollywood production line, only the technology of movie-making seems important; special effects rule and the more ‘bangs per buck’ the better. Those who despair of such ratcheting trivialization of the medium and look for works with commitment, complexity and perhaps even a notion of social responsibility should take heart. Filmmakers who concern themselves with the lives and struggles of ordinary people do exist, even in Hollywood. Pre-eminent among them is the writer and director John Sayles.
Ever since his first film, the witty and perceptive study of 1960s counterculture The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Sayles has cut his own swathe through the stifling power-structures of the film world. He has consistently refused to trade the right of the final cut for funding, preferring to finance his projects by writing scripts for others and producing a variety of TV and video hack-work. Such independence has meant that Sayles can develop ideas and devise shooting schedules unburdened by the demands of the studio hierarchy. He habitually works with a stock company of actors, fostering a spirit of solidarity and group trust on the set.
John Sayles’ ten films as writer and director have covered a vast range of subjects and styles, from the satirical Brother from Another Planet about a black extra-terrestrial on the run in Harlem, to the savage indictment of corruption in US sport, Eight Men Out. His latest feature, Lone Star is a brilliant multi-layered study of history, racism and personal responsibility. For me, though, the most moving and satisfying of Sayles’ films is Matewan, his 1987 account of a bitter and protracted strike in the West Virginia coalfields.
In the early spring of 1920 the unorganized miners of Mungo County, West Virginia sought to join the United Mine Workers of America. The owners promptly began a lock-out. On 19 May 1920, twelve men were killed at Matewan in a gun-fight in which the local law officers and the strikers faced a group of thugs hired by the infamous Baldwin Felts Detective Agency at the behest of the owners to evict miners from their Company-owned homes.
John Sayles moulds this raw history into a tale of rare power and commitment with all the grit and integrity of a Woody Guthrie ballad. The film is told through the reminiscences of aged miner Danny Radnor who was an idealistic young union militant and Baptist preacher at the time of the strike. The struggle of the mining families of Matewan against the Stone Mountain Coal Company is abetted when an organizer, Joe Kenehan, is sent by the union to co-ordinate the strike and bolster morale. Solidarity is sorely tested when there is a confrontation between the strikers and black workers and Italian immigrants sent as scab labour by the company. In a tense and brilliantly-orchestrated scene, they too join the strike.
The viewer is left in no doubt where the sympathies of the film lie; this is not an even-handed, apolitical piece but a passionate polemic on behalf of the rights of workers to organize. However, the characters are more than agitprop cardboard figures; the script gives them room to live and breathe and engage our sympathies. Just as Sayles’ independent approach avoids the limits imposed by corporate funding, so his directorial style – star-free and democratic – reinforces the points the film is making about the strengths of solidarity and mutual support in this small rural community.
The film ends with the final bloody showdown in which the hitherto impotent forces of legitimacy stand with the miners against the gun-thugs of the coal-owners. Sayles’s use of the cinema cliché of ‘the shoot-out’ is deliberately undercut by his portrayal of the brutal and random nature of the violence. In this pivotal moment, when the bosses’ goons are run out of town and the strike is won, Joe Kenehan, the pacifist who has consistently argued against such a use of force, is killed. As in life, the end of the film is no sort of ending; there were many more strikes in the West Virginia coalfields in the years that followed, some won, some lost. The Baldwin Felts killers continued their bloody mercenary work; the following year they gunned down Sid Hatfield, the Matewan Police Chief on the steps of the County Court House. No charges were brought against them.
It is rare that a cinema-goer leaves the performance feeling part of a continuing battle for progress and justice, outraged by what has happened and determined to fight in the present to ensure a better future. In Matewan John Sayles has given us a workers’ tale which resonates down the years. As the preamble to the constitution of the United Mineworkers Union says:
Step by step the longest march can be won.
Many stones form an arch, singly none.
And by union what we will can be accomplished still.
Drops of water turn a mill, singly none.
Matewan is directed by John Sayles (1987).
Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997