NAME OF ARTIST
CREATIVE CULTURE & ARTIVISM / ISSUE 13
panta issue thirteen
Issue 13 / 2018 EDITORS IN CHIEF
Charlotte Specht & Guille Lasarte COLLABORATIONS & ADVERTISING
Mario Rueda firstname.lastname@example.org COPY EDITOR
Charlotte Kench PROJECT MANAGERS
Sophie Smeets & Juliette Antoine PROJECT ASSISTANTS
Salomé Kalonji & Giorgia Tronconi CONTRIBUTORS
Roxanne Goldberg, Aaron Glasson, Dominoe Farris, Isa Ijpelaar, Elfy Scott, Olamiju Fajemisin, Laura Schleder, Mirthe van Popering, Emma Brown, Lydia Veljanovska, Horta Do Rosário, JOS*, Camille Charlier, Ekanem Ebinne, Oliver Dougherty FEATURING
PangeaSeed, Alun Be, Pepper Levain, Hayfaa Chalabi, Songhoy Blues, Louis Masai, Opashona Ghosh, Akasha Rabut, the bomb PRINTER
MEDIALIS Offsetdruck GmbH Heidelberger Str. 65/66 12435 Berlin, Germany PUBLISHER
Book a Street Artist Taborstraße 4 10997 Berlin, Germany email@example.com www.bookastreetartist.com ISSN 2509-842X www.pantamagazine.com firstname.lastname@example.org
Cover photo of Ryan Burke by Pepper Levain Inner cover illustration by Opashona Ghosh
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Letter from the editors
(we wish that was us pictured below but it's not, it's Zebra Katz shot by Pepper Levain)
Here we are at issue thirteen, a number that sometimes gets left out of elevator buttons and airplane rows; skipped over and missed as if it didn’t exist. Which, rather ironically, only seems to end up drawing more attention to it. Well, we certainly weren’t going to miss out on the opportunity to savour all of the curious influence surrounding the number thirteen: unlucky to some and auspicious to others. We’re going to go with the latter, especially when so many of the artists featured in this issue have managed to wrest hope from the clutches of despair and misfortune; which, on the
other hand, is not so much a matter of luck, but of perseverance. The reality of nuclear weapons is much easier to turn away from than to face headon. Not to mention the devastating rates of animal extinction, the ravages of addiction, the rise of violent extremism and melting polar ice caps... but that doesn’t mean these things don’t exist. In the face of these vast and complex issues, these artists, filmmakers and musicians certainly didn’t wait around for luck to come – they decided to take it into their own hands. And so, we present you with the thirteenth issue of PANTA. It’s a lucky one.
Walking on Thin Ice Get to know PangeaSeed, the international non-profit working at the intersection of art and the environment.
Born from Exile The story of Songhoy Blues, a Malian desert blues band that emerged in exile amidst the occupation of their hometown where music was banned.
Pepper Late-night queer scenes and luminescent drag queens as seen through the lens of artist Pepper Levain.
Raw Nerves Emerging artist Hayfaa Chalabi strikes a nerve with grisly illustrations that grapple with war, addiction, sexual violence and corruption.
Plight of the Bumblebee British painter Louis Masai is taking the plight of endangered species into his own hands, and his bees certainly have their work cut out for them.
Acid Rave Palette Opashona Ghosh’s electric illustrations converge at the intersection of race, gender and sexuality, and function as part of the artist’s own ‘Cocoa Butter Propaganda’.
Edification A surrealist journey by photographer Alun Be chronicling Senegalese children in scenes of labour, play and cultural exploration.
My Birthday Cake Our psychedelic chef takes us on a sugar-induced trip through his eighties childhood.
Deep down in New Orleans Photographer Akasha Rabut shares her photos of the rapidly disappearing subcultures of post-Katrina New Orleans.
The Bomb to End All Bombs Acclaimed film producer Smriti Keshari puts you in the centre of the bomb, a visceral film installation designed to blow your mind.
walking on thin ice PangeaSeed, Sea Walls and giving oceans a voice Words by Roxanne Goldberg Photos by Dominoe Farris & courtesy of PangeaSeed
In June 2017, eighteen artists from across the globe gathered in Churchill, Manitoba, a town on the Western shore of the Hudson Bay where, during the fall months, the population of less than 900 is eclipsed by that of migrating polar bears. A long-time destination for arctic researchers and a select set of eco-tourists willing to brave the forty-five-hour train from Winnipeg, the isolated city is an unlikely location for a mural festival. However, it was Churchill’s floating cakes of melting ice, polar bear tracks and tales of out-of-season blizzards that devastate the railway and quarantine the town that made it the ideal location for ‘Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans’, the PangeaSeed Foundation’s signature event.
Opposite: Mural by Onur in New Zealand / Photo by Above Below Photo
Artivism & Street Art / PangeaSeed
PangeaSeed has been hosting a series of public art events since 2009, with the latest instalment taking place in Churchill. The eighteen walls that were painted along the Hudson Bay have become part of a much larger collection of over 300 murals completed especially for these events, including works by some of the biggest names in street art, such as Cryptik, Fintan Magee, Hueman, Alexis Díaz and Faith47. From Beijing to Bali, Colombo, and Cozumel, the international non-profit has consistently worked alongside communities that rely on the health of the ocean and have already begun to feel the impacts of climate change. Unlike other festivals, which might fly artists in for a few frenzied days of painting, Sea Walls extends the paint party into a several-day-long ‘activation’, during which artists participate in cultural excursions and host youth workshops. This way the local community can learn, not only from film screenings and panel
discussions with scientists and other experts, but from direct engagement in the creative process as well. “The spaces and communities really feel like they are being activated by the projects,” says PangeaSeed’s creative director Aaron Glasson. This often rings true in quiet towns such as Churchill. As one of the artists participating in the Sea Walls activation in Churchill, Canadian artist Mandy van Leeuwen can attest to this. She was touched by how a Churchill resident driving by on a quad offered to contribute beadwork to her mural. Entitled ‘Footprint’, the mural features four sets of shoes standing along an icy precipice: a pair of squaretoed colonial-style boots, modern fur-lined snow shoes, Manitobah mukluks, and a pair of untied lace-ups over where the snow has receded (presumably a result of climate change). Polar bear tracks can be seen trailing off into the background. The timeline-like mural poses a tough question about a fast-approaching reality: with ice melting beneath our feet, where do we step next?
PangeaSeed's creative director Aaron Glasson shot by Dominoe Farris
Artivism & Street Art
Left: Installation in Churchill by Pat Perry Below: Mural in Cancun by Lauren YS
The beadwork wasn’t the only contribution from the local community. Residents asked to help paint the background, others provided tools, and according to van Leeuwen, the artists received an endless outpour of cheer and support from passers-by. In her words, “the daily connection with so many [people] made this project feel so authentic to Churchill,” as it was also essential for “the enthusiasm of creating a vision for the collective voice of Sea Walls.” Community engagement is the bastion of PangeaSeed, founded almost a decade ago by Tre Packard on the principles of Sustainability, Ecology, Education, and Design – the pillars making up the acronym ‘SEED’ in PangeaSeed. ‘Pangea’ refers to the supercontinent surrounded by a single ocean prior to the formation of the seven separate continents that we know today. It now serves as a metaphor for global unity with the oceans and with each other, and as a key tenet of the foundation’s community-based art programs. Packard founded PangeaSeed while he was living in Japan, where he worked as a photographer documenting illegal wildlife trade in Asia. He was shocked by the frequency with which sharks, twenty species of which are endangered, are inhumanely killed to satisfy the demand for shark fin soup. Apparently, it’s been a delicacy since a 10th century Chinese emperor used the dish as a demonstration of power, thus becoming a major driving force for shark depopulation.
From bottom-left to top-right: Mural in New York by Aaron Glasson Mural in New Zealand by Pat Perry Mural in Miami by Onur & Wes21 Photos by Above Below Photo
It was during his search for activism opportunities that Packard felt discouraged by what he found: organizations that seemed either too conservative or too militant in their messaging and objectives. He identified a need for activism in a language that engages and motivates the generations set to inherit the ramifications of climate change. This is when he began organising art exhibitions in various locations around Asia; working with artists from near and far to bring attention to local oceanic issues. A key moment in the development of Sea Walls came as a result of a mural that Glasson painted in Sri Lanka in 2012. The mural addressed the overfishing of manta rays and was received by the local community with a level of support and optimism that neither Packard nor Glasson had witnessed in their gallery shows. “Historically, activism has often embraced art as a tool, but I think artivism is different in that art is the primary method of engagement,” Glasson says of the power of murals and artivism more generally. “Done right, a piece of art can transcend age, language and culture in ways that other forms of communication and activism can’t.” The PangeaSeed team concluded the only way the organization would successfully engage a wider public was to bring art out of the gallery and into the street. Two years later, the first Sea Walls activation was hosted in Cozumel, Mexico.
Done right, a piece of art can transcend age, language and culture in ways that other forms of communication and activism canâ€™t.
Artivism & Street Art / PangeaSeed
As an activist organization, PangeaSeed is successful by any metric. The foundation acknowledges the vital role seaside communities play, not only in the wider environment, but also in the global economy. The organization speaks to and works closely with local scientists, government officials and residents, learning the unique ways in which sustainability, education,
Opposite above: Aaron Glasson shot by Dominoe Farris Opposite below & this page above: Works by Kai Kaulukukui
ecology, and design initiatives can address issues specific to the community. In many cases, lasting change is effected through both policy and grassroots movements. PangeaSeed is further successful in creating a community of artivist ambassadors who leave Sea Walls activations impassioned about ocean conservation. They go on to enact further change in their own communities, often beginning with a fresh consciousness or new focus in their respective art practices. Hawaiian artist and PangeaSeed ground operations manager Kai Kaulukukui, for example, finds himself dreaming about and painting more aquatic life since becoming involved with the foundation. Calling himself an “ambassador of aloha,” Kaulukukui says, “PangeaSeed has re-opened my eyes to examine my own habits and daily practices.” It’s the small things, such as asking artists to collect the caps of their spray cans to be recycled at the end of the event, that end up having a striking, cumulative effect. Referring to Sea Wall’s motto, van Leeuwen says, “From the time I had at this festival, I am feeling motivated to use [topics of ocean conservation] and highlight these issues in the way that I can, through painting with a purpose.” Similarly, Glasson maintains that, “[PangeaSeed has] driven me to take a stand with my work.” Ultimately, it seems that one of Pangeaseed’s biggest achievements is the fact that local residents and participating artists continue to advocate for oceanrelated issues once the Sea Walls activation has packed up: leaving the murals behind as striking visual reminders as well as important talking points for residents and tourists to ‘break the ice’, so to speak. ∆
edification a series by Senegalese photographer Alun Be Words by Elfy Scott Portrait of Alun Be by Isa Ijpelaar
When one thinks of Dakar the mind may quickly draw to the iconic Dakar Rally, a formidable – yet sometimes fatal – challenge for thrill-seekers and the certifiably insane motoring through arid land. This is perhaps fitting as an analogy for how the Western world obstinately depicts modern Africa at large: a wild and perilous place that should be traversed as quickly as possible, preferably on a big, hulking engine. For Senegalese photographer Alun Be, however, Senegal’s capital is a place rich in artistic fascination and all the trappings of Africa’s burgeoning tech scene; you can find it cradled on the West coast of the continent, between Mauritania and Guinea. Be is well aware of the
city’s turbulent past as a way station for the American slave trade and ground on which various European colonial invaders competed for trade dominance from the 15th century onwards. But in his mind, Dakar is mostly just the home of his father; a place that’s easy to navigate and to illustrate the intentions of his art, and a place he knows so intimately that he didn’t even cast before he began pursuing his latest portrait series, Edification. “It was the first time I worked without doing a casting. It was more personal; I needed to put more love [into] what I did. I knew what I wanted to shoot, but didn’t know who,” he explains. “Sometimes, it’s good to let go.”
The product of a global education, Alun Be was originally trained as an architect, and he identifies his culture as one scattered across the globe; strung somewhere between France, the United States and West Africa. After turning his eye to portraiture and street photography, it wasn’t long until he was commissioned by UN Women. Empowering the Women of Senegal is a series of striking, personal and powerful depictions of Senegalese women. These intimate portraits are far from the poverty-stricken faces to which Western eyes have become accustomed; they are the faces of determined, capable and financially successful businesswomen. As a natural optimist, Be aligns this positive outlook with the dawn of Africa’s promising tech boom. Edification is a surrealist journey that chronicles Senegalese children donning virtual reality goggles in scenes of labour, play, and cultural exploration. Be only featured local children that he happened upon in the streets of Dakar: “I would meet the right child there, and be able to capture. It worked: there’s one photograph with the cape, like superwoman, and all I had was the cape and the VR glasses. She had these vibrant clothes, with blue and yellow, all the colours of superman. Perfect!” he recalls, “It was not planned, just a surprise.” At first glance, Edification could be mistaken for a Westernised escapist fantasy for these children; wistfully glancing their way into the reality of a modern world beyond their grasp. Only, on closer inspection will one glean quite the opposite: “In one of the photographs, there is a little boy on a boat. That’s [the kind of ] boat that immigrants take [to get to Europe],” Be explains. “The truth is, these people risk their lives, and once they get to their destination, they realise life is a lot tougher here in Europe than it was back home.” In fact, many are now travelling the other direction, setting their sights on Africa for future growth and opportunity.
“Africa is at a critical point right now, I wouldn’t say it’s getting modernised – that already happened. But I do think the world is getting Africanised,” Be explains. “What I mean by that is that everybody is coming to Africa for opportunities.” Whilst the media gaze is typically drawn to the development along Africa’s East coast in countries like Kenya and Rwanda, Senegal is making quiet and substantial gains in the technology sector. Along with the consistent discovery of oil reserves off the coast, Senegal is set to see an economic boom that will
hopefully drive its entrepreneurs and ambitious tech investments to success. From Western Europe to West Africa, Alun Be’s extensive experience of living in both regions has served as the lens through which his unique insights are put forth. As it dismantles the misplaced Romanticism of relocating to Europe, and the West’s wild misconception and underestimation of African realities, Edification centres on Senegal as a quiet achiever at the forefront of its own technological revolution, and the next generation set to lead the way. ∆
Photography / Alun Be
Portrait of Alun Be
PEPPER late-night queer scenes through the lens of artist Pepper Levain Words by Olamiju Fajemisin Portraits of Pepper by Laura Schleder
t was an unsettlingly warm late January afternoon when I hurried along one of East Berlin’s most iconic Stalinist streets, Karl-Marx-Allee, to meet veteran PANTA contributor Pepper Levain. Iiwas well aware that she had been contributing to the magazine since its seventh issue, and was not only intimidated by that fact, I was also being dwarfed by this particular boulevard’s iconic and wonderfully conservative USSR era buildings, and as I skipped along I wondered what was going on behind those towering walls and dark windows. Incidentally, it is Pepper’s photographs that provide me with the curious insights that I so crave: through her lens, we are granted an intimate look into the late-night queer scenes tucked away across Europe and America. As her broad portfolio unveils some of the mystery surrounding queer and drag scenes, it also serves as documentation of her own journey as an artist, filmmaker and queer woman. Pepper has no adverse agenda; she seeks not to shock her audience, nor to ridicule or sensationalise her subjects. Her work provides those that consume it not only with a voyeuristic insight into the creative side of the global queer scene, but into her desire to capture the individuality or ‘humanness’ that lays at the heart of each person. Given her intrepid spirit, I was lucky to have found myself in the same city as the artist at a time she considered it her base. I couldn’t help but keep glancing up at the portrait of the freckled American performance artist Tarren Johnson, who watched over us as we spoke across the kitchen table. Johnson’s kind gaze seemed wise yet vulnerable, and the candid moment appeared to be caught with the warm grain of a film camera. “I like the aesthetic of analogue photography much more. Digital kind of freaks me out because you generate large amounts of images to choose from so easily. Working
on film is like meditating, being in the moment and focusing sharply on what you’re doing there.” Shooting with film allows Pepper to create a nostalgic and evocative quality in her images, reminiscent of the last decades of the 20th century and the ‘Golden era of drag’. “I’ve always had a desire to find the energy and soul of those days: the seventies, the eighties – real punk and wildness,” she asserts. “I’m looking for people with whom I share a certain desire, regardless of their appearance. I feel connected to people that are brave and stand out.” Finding and documenting these subjects has been the result of Pepper’s many travels. Moving from one English-speaking country to the next has left her with an incredible grasp of the language, as well as an unmistakably transatlantic accent. Pepper was born in Düsseldorf and embarked on her first big adventure at just seventeen years old. “I had a small amount of money saved for my escape, but it was barely enough for a flight out,” she recalls of her trip to New Zealand. The ‘escape’ was driven by complications both at home and at school, as well as having suffered with depression throughout her midto-late teens. “We never had much money growing up. My mum raised me single-handedly, and I can’t thank her enough for that. But I had some real issues with my radical Catholic father, and I simply had to leave.” After a short stint in Northern Ireland, she moved to Brighton to study performance art. This is where she met Alexander, who would later become known as drag queen alter ego, Lydia L’Scabies. “We worked on my degree show, Runway of Milk and Honey: The Trivial Disaster of Being for six months, developing seven morbid characters together,” Pepper recalls. “The show was very dark, super loud, funny, over-the-top and very drag. Alex told me many years later that Lydia, his drag alter-ego, was born during this time.”
Above: Alexander Ostojski & Carlotta Drinkewitz Opposite page, from top-left to bottom-right: Unknown (NY Voguing Battle), Jason Summerfield, James St. James, Eugen, Slater G. String, Carl Illinworth & Luke Harris, Svetlana Stoli, Venus Vendetta, Lydia L'Scabies, Nicholas Gorham, Crystal Osbourne, Danski Bilinski
Model Melanie Gaydos
Finding solace and ease in photography was a very happy accident for Pepper. After being awarded a film-writing grant from an art school in Cologne, she went to New York, where her tryst with photography started as part of research for the film. It was never part of her plan to be a photographer. “I wrote about the people I met and took Polaroids because I wanted to catalogue who I encountered.” Pepper’s entire creative career thus far has been a journey, one that she summarises as ‘seeking comfort in the uncomfortable.’ “Sitting alone on a plane to an unknown place is freedom to me,” she says. “In New York, I didn’t know a single person at the beginning, and felt like a total freak going to parties on my own, but I put on a look and found my people pretty soon.” Ultimately, it was getting out of her comfort zone that has led to a greater sense of self and belonging, or as she puts it: “growing into yourself is the best thing that can happen. Going to New York really saved my ass!” It was in Brighton, when deciding on an artist name for her first show, that she adopted the name ‘Pepper’. “Ever since I was a child, I wanted a genderless name,” she says. Her chosen name pays homage to Pepper LeBeija, an icon of the mid-20th Century New York drag scene and the incidental star of the 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning. The film documents the culture of drag balls and competitions in New York during the eighties, and the safe and transformative space that it provided for many disenfranchised, often poor, gay, and transgender African-American and Latino people. This was during a time when even walking down the street could prove fatal. “I find the voguing scene very empowering and inspiring... [it] expresses a desire or longing for something that I think we all carry within ourselves.” Although the origins of ‘voguing’ and popular expressions such as ‘throwing shade’ are rarely attributed to their rightful drag queen creators, the influence of ball culture on the mainstream has been significant and lasting, albeit overlooked. Pepper’s lens is drawn to the costume, confidence, and community that she found in these scenes. Across her extensive body of work, the portrayal of confidence – which is crucial to ball culture – is something that seems to unite her subjects.
Right: Photographer, make-up & visual artist Ryan Burke shot in New York Page 34: Monroe Lilly & Unknown Page 35: Scarlet Envy Pages 36-37: Pepper
Photography / Pepper Levain
Pepper’s work centres on performativity, bodies, and explorations into identity and ambiguity. To make it in the drag world, one needs to possess a certain level of poise and prowess. LeBeija said it best: “New York City is all wrapped up in being LeBeija.” It was diving into the queer nightlife scene that allowed Pepper to gain confidence with her own sexuailty. “I’d always admired strong, beautiful women… it definitely took me a while to realise I was gay. I had my first kiss with a girl in New Zealand,” she recalls. “I love female shapes and energies, so to me the drag scene is like a wonderful femme party with glitter on top.” However, as Pepper notes, “[the] nightlife is not only glamorous, the drugs especially… bring a lot of destruction,” when recalling the recent loss of her friend. “Living with Dylan, a beautiful trans woman, and one of my first friends in New York, was like having the big sister I always wanted. We partied together and she taught me how to properly put on my ‘look’ with make-up... she was my friend, mentor and muse, and it’s very painful she’s gone.” The importance of the friendships formed in the scene is testament to its inclusive nature, which not only encourages self-expression, but thrives on it. “People create so many definitions and borders to feel safe in this messy world. Of course, we’re far more than the labels we put on ourselves,” she argues. “We have an
impact on each other – whatever we do. So we need to look after who’s next to us, and make each other feel safe, appreciated and loved.” Costume and theatricality are wildly important to many of Pepper’s more stylised shots. On the flipside, an absence of clothing can say just as much. Pepper’s work centres on performativity, on bodies, and explorations into identity and ambiguity. “I don’t think the main question is whether I merely identify myself as male, female or otherwise… it’s a question of how I’m positioning myself in a broader, shared world context and what I stand up for.” At first glance, Pepper’s portraits appear risqué, audacious and somewhat explicit. Initially, her work seemed to be a behind-the-curtain peek in a New York drag bar. Having sat down with the woman behind the lens, it’s now very clear to me that this documentation is the unifying of like-minded people across the world and across decades. Not only does Pepper’s imagery pay homage to the iconic days of the scene in which she found home, but to the ‘humanness’ in each of her subjects – celebrating their desires, and lively penchant for creative self-expression. Her first experimental short film, PARADISE 3000, is set to be released this year. ∆
Raw Nerves Interview by Giorgia Tronconi
The characters of Hayfaa Chalabi’s illustrations are suffering; stripped bare down to their flesh, blood and bones. Worn by corruption and mindless consumption, these grisly, ant-ridden figures drag us to the dark side of humanity for uneasy contemplation. Chalabi’s experiences growing up in Iraq and moving to Sweden have been fundamental to the young artist’s exploration of power structures, and subsequent works that depict the torment of war survivors, the harrowing reality of women’s sexual oppression, and the devastating nature of addiction. Chalabi has chosen not to shy away from the issues we would rather not look at. In fact, she uses these series as a tool for raising awareness and promoting positive change, and has co-opted storytelling as a powerful means of bringing stereotypes and societal dysfunction into question.
Illustration / Hayfaa Chalabi 43
Giorgia: When I first saw your work, it instantly reminded me of Grosz and Kirchner’s Expressionist paintings. Could you tell me about your artistic development and influences? Hayfaa: I am in my final year of studying Fine Arts & Visual Communication and I’m highly inspired by Expressionism. I would say I’m more influenced by Grosz than Kirchner, as I find his approach to the Dada movement and new objectivity more appealing. However, my ultimate inspiration in terms of imagery and narrative comes from artists like Francis Bacon, who were influenced by both Surrealism and Expressionism. I have always been interested in visualising social issues, and I’ve found illustrations and the series format especially suitable for my cause. What are the advantages of the series format? I believe in the power of storytelling as a way of provoking change; the series format gives me the chance to explore several aspects of the same subject. It introduces an element of evolution to the story and enables me to show how a specific problem can develop, rather than a static reflection. This is how I invite the viewers into a world that they can engage with on different emotional and moral levels. Your work deals with a wide range of contemporary issues, from war and gender roles to consumerism. What brought you close to these themes? Living in the Arab world as a child and moving to Sweden as a teenager allowed me to clearly witness the stigmas that influence human behaviour in both environments and thus question them. This pushed me to reflect upon power structures in general, no matter where I am. My works are thus the result of what I lived and what I experience now as an Arab woman living in the West.
Blood, flesh and insects recur very often in your series. Why is that? They symbolise both violence and something that is rotten; just like the situations I draw. I use these elements to have a stronger impact on the viewers and hopefully, to provoke their reaction. The world you portray is dominated by corruption and suffering. Do you believe there is room for a positive shift in society and if so, how do you think art can promote this change? It is because I believe in our potential, as humans, for problem-solving that I draw corrupt scenarios. Part of changing a situation is exposing it; starting a discussion and taking a stand. I believe art can bring more empathy towards ourselves, animals and ultimately, each other. Depicting how extreme consumption can cause violence helps us reflect upon the fact that luxury comes at the expense of others’ survival. Embracing a man’s surrender after having survived war helps us question the stereotype of women being victims and men being violent. Visualising how oppressive some societies’ definition of gender roles and sexuality can be helps us understand the victims of this situation. I saw on your Instagram account [@hayfaachalabi] that you often like to accompany your illustrations with poems or quotes. Poems and words are a great source of inspiration to me, especially ones from Arab female authors. They add significant value to my storytelling as they help me make a statement upon the role we [Arab female artists] are said to have in both the West and the East. I also believe they are of high importance to spread, because they are a great example of how Arab women deal with conflicts by refusing to fall under the ‘victim’ stereotype; using art to resist instead.
Part of changing a situation is exposing it; starting a discussion and taking a stand.
Illustration / Hayfaa Chalabi
Are you working on a new series at the moment? I am currently working on my graduation project, which revolves around the story of three women resisting the Islamic State in the city of Raqqa in 2014. The series will challenge the stigma of Arab women’s role in conflict areas and propose a new narrative around Arab female resistance from households to frontline. Your series In The Name Of Modesty deals with the sexual oppression of women. What are your thoughts on the growing international interest in this cause? As a feminist, I am very happy to witness a rising discussion around what women everywhere in the world struggle with. From sexuality to gender identity, women were always asked to postpone the discussion, as it was never ‘the right time’. However, I believe no social change can occur when we avoid talking about the obstacles faced by half our society and affecting the rest of it. In The Name Of Modesty uses an extreme approach to reflect upon sex without women’s consent and to criticise the oppression on women’s sexual freedom and choices. The final scene of your series A Terrorist Diary? was particularly unsettling: it shows the main character lying on the floor next to a blood pool and a TV in the foreground. Can you explain it? A Terrorist Diary? questions the concept of surviving war and whether not dying in war really means surviving. The last piece, ‘Evacuation’, depicts what is left after a conflict: the bathtubs (symbolising the graves of the victims in the previous scenes) have been cleared out, and all that is left of the population is now a TV screening the massacre of war. While the unplugged cable stands for the detachment of some people in front of war’s brutality, the blood reminds us of the actual consequences of the conflict. Moreover, the body of the main character is much bigger here than in the previous illustrations of the same series: this way, I wanted to emphasise the emotional load he has to burden as a survivor of war.
Have you ever considered turning your series into animated shorts? I am thinking of creating short animation videos of my series to add words and sound to the images, which I believe will help me strengthen the emotions I aim to awaken in the viewer. Hopefully in the near future. ∆
Born from exile
Thinking of Timbuktu, an ancient city tucked between the sands of the Sahara and the Niger River, one might envision dusty roads and silent desert dunes. However, there is a distinctive sound that emanates from the Malian desert; proud and gripping, and surprisingly familiar. It is argued that Timbuktu is the birthplace of the Blues. Moreover, up until recently, the nearby town of Essakane was the site of the worldfamous Festival au Désert, or ‘Woodstock of the Sahara’, where nomadic communities would gather to celebrate with song, dance and poetry. Everything was to change in early 2012, as separatists seeking autonomy for Northern Mali seized control of the country’s largest northern cities, effectively splitting the nation in two. The rebels began to clash with the Islamist extremist group that initially backed their move for independence, culminating in a trail of destruction, terror and death. Violent forces envenomed every aspect of life, including music, which was buried alive and banned, in keeping with strict Sharia law.
the story of Songhoy Blues Words by Mirthe van Popering Photos by Emma Brown
Music / Songhoy Blues
Silencing Mali’s music meant more than killing bare sound, it meant the silencing of histories, denying the voices and lifeblood of the community. Musicians received death threats, their instruments were burned, and the majority of them fled – along with 350,000 refugees – to government controlled areas in southern Mali and to neighbouring countries. In a strange twist of fate, it was a path not dissimilar to this that would lead to the inception of the now globally acclaimed Malian band Songhoy Blues. Three of the band’s four members fled from Timbuktu to Bamako, Mali’s southern capital. They met whilst playing traditional Songhay music in a refugee camp, preserving and sharing their stories in exile and bringing the people of the torn-apart nation back together. A Bamako-based drummer joined the collective and Songhoy Blues soon hit Bamako’s clubs, gathering a large and diverse following. Today, their narrative resounds throughout the world. We spoke with lead singer Aliou Touré about the band’s formation in the midst of exile and insecurity, the unifying power of their music, and sharing their story against all odds.“When you take music away you take the soul of the country away,” Aliou explains, over the phone. It’s why he refused to be silenced. Whilst international military forces pushed back against the extremists, Songhoy Blues and fellow Malian musicians used songs as their ‘weapons’ of resistance.
Wherever you are in the world, and however divisive the politics may be, people will always find a way to gather around music.
“We bring the music, the culture, the good energy, and we talk about the history and what’s going on,” he says. Raising their voice through music, the members of Songhoy Blues continue the legacy of the ‘griots’; traditional Songhay storytellers who transmitted history through music and poetry, and created cohesion between the Malian people. “Our story is much more important than the music we’re doing, because our music is basically coming from that story,” Aliou says, “and that story is coming from a situation we have to think about and try to make better.” Despite the tragic circumstances that led to their formation, it is the twist of fate that Aliou has chosen to focus on: “Everything happens for a reason. Maybe Songhoy Blues was born
just to [be able to] talk about that situation around the world.” Their message is, above all, one of reconciliation: “After all of that bullshit happened – war, shooting – we were just wondering: what about telling people how important it is to live together, even if you are from different religions, even if you have different skin colours, even if you are from different cultures?” For the band, cultural diversity is a cause for celebration: “Every single thing in this world has been mixed by something else,” Aliou says. “It’s like the curry you eat, the taste of different flavours, of spices, put together to make a better sauce – that’s how everyone needs to get together.” The band’s emphasis on unity and inclusiveness is also reflected in the rich mélange of musical influences that have gone into creating their unique sound. Their Spotify playlist of the songs that inspired their album Résistance captures some of these flavours: from Iggy Pop – with whom Songhoy Blues collaborated on their track ‘Sahara’ – to renowned Songhay musician Toumani Diabeté, The Alabama Shakes, Fatoumata Diawara, and even Daft Punk. “We don’t have a specific influence,” Aliou explains. “It’s so mixed; a kind of cocktail. You can hear everything from rock ’n roll and blues, to reggae and hip hop. That’s the way we want to make music: our music is for everybody, and through it we want to speak to all.” Music is a crucial tool that enables them to write and share their own narrative, in all its complexity. Whether it be moving between joy and grief – or going through both at the same time – the absurdity of war, or the ability to carry on with life as normal, their music holds space for the intricacy of contrasting experience.
When you take music away, you take the soul of the country away.
Music / Songhoy Blues
“When people listen to our music, it seems like happy music. When they read the lyrics and [learn about] the background, it’s like, ‘Oh, this is about something sad’ – but it’s full of energy,” says Aliou. “That’s the paradox, because after everything people said about Mali, about the situation, people in Mali still have that good energy and that joy for life.” Whereas media representations of Mali maintain the image of violent and intolerable conditions, Aliou says this is far from the truth. “When you land in Bamako right now you will see that all the clubs and bars are full all the time. Everyone is partying, everyone is enjoying life like in Berlin, like anywhere in the world.” It’s like the African proverb, he adds, “One tree falling down makes more noise than the growing forest.” Instead of continual emphasis on acts of terror and division, it is the coming together of people that is needed: “The things the media talk about are not right, it’s not the real face of the country. You will see all the ethnicities – the Tuareg, Bambara, Songhay – everybody coming together around the music. That’s the real picture of Mali”.
It is this picture of Mali that Songhoy Blues will continue to share with unabated passion as they tour the world, dissolving cultural borders on their journey of unification. Theirs is a story of human connection and joy for life in a world threatened by violent extremism. It is a story born from the sudden silence of a desert city, that speaks to the freedom that all humans deserve. “When you are touring around the world you see problems everywhere, not just in Mali. There are terrorist attacks all over the world: London, Paris, Berlin... everywhere.” The struggle against radicalism is not a distant problem, it’s at our doorstep, and as Aliou would attest, the best way to resist is to bring people together. Wherever you are in the world, and however divisive the politics may be, people will always find a way to gather around music and around art, and to celebrate life together in peace. Today something is happening in northern Mali: a far sound is slowly rising again from the desert dust, growing louder as it travels home at last. Slowly but surely, as music returns to Timbuktu, a reborn city resumes its heartbeat. ∆
Plight of the bumble bee
“Do you feel that as an individual you’re in a position to take my message on and embrace it, and do you think that the art I’m creating is a good platform to socially converse with people about these issues?” It seems the roles have reversed in my interview with British painter Louis Masai, and with the shoe firmly on the other foot, he is the one asking questions. Why? Well, as it turns out, the multidisciplinary artist is incredibly determined when it comes to raising awareness of the devastating plight of endangered species. With the prospect of 50% of the Words by Lydia Veljanovski planet’s species going Photos by Horta Do Rosário extinct by 2050, it’s no & courtesy of Louis Masai wonder that he wants to make sure he’s effective in doing so when lives, quite literally, depend on it.
58 Painting & Street Art / Louis Masai
asai isn’t just asking questions, he’s working to be part of the answer as well. Having always loved painting rare species, it was upon realising that ‘rare’ was more or less synonymous with ‘endangered’ that he decided to embark on what is now a fully-fledged artistic career that is solely dedicated to giving a voice to the voiceless. Masai paints animals whose fates are threatened as a result of corporate greed, mass ignorance and inaction. The endeavour to give a voice to endangered animals has taken Masai around the world; from Malawi to Brooklyn, East London, the Andes, and beyond. However, despite his tireless efforts to bring these messages of ecological conservation to every far-flung street corner, Masai isn’t keen on calling himself an activist. “An activist is someone of elevated importance, which I don’t think I am, or some hippy in a tie-dye shirt, and I’m not that either,” he insists. “I’m just a real person doing real things about something I care about.” Regardless of the label, Masai has been relentless when it comes to furthering his message. Ultimately, he considers himself a storyteller. “Who is going to speak up for a rhino, a cheetah, an elephant or a bee?” he implores. “They can’t communicate. You can’t go to them and ask them how they’re feeling or if they’re pissed off [that] their brothers and sisters have been wiped off the face of the planet.” As Masai’s practice evolved into a ‘call to arms’ on behalf of the world’s at-risk species, there is one creature in particular that has accompanied Masai on his travels
and is now a defining and uniting feature across his ever-growing body of work: the bee. As part of his ‘The Art of Beeing’ project, Masai’s large and colourful paintings of the tiny insect deck the walls of various cities across the world; refusing to be ignored, squashed, or swatted away. The world’s bee populations are under threat and, whether we like it or not, this affects every last one of us. According to the UN Environment Program, “of the one hundred crop species that provide ninety per cent of the world’s food, over seventy are pollinated by bees.” That said, Masai uses bees across his body of work not just to bring our attention to their plight, but to their innately cooperative instincts and behaviours. He considers their presence in his work as part of a “call to action [for] humanity to be more solidified as a community,” and to counter extinction as a global issue with global ramifications. In recent years, Masai’s depiction of endangered animals – from the yellow-legged frog to the island fox – have started to take on a toy-like appearance. Partly as a means to appeal to younger generations, and partly as a visual metaphor for what is yet to come. “If a species is dead and gone then what’s left of it?” he asks. “Toys, relics, souvenirs, photographs, documents… that’s it.” Accompanying these toy animals are the humble worker bees, tirelessly sewing their patchwork bodies together; preserving and caring for them. Again we’re reminded that this is a collective issue, suggesting that if each of us make a small contribution and work together, we might be able to repair and restore nature’s rich tapestry.
60 Painting & Street Art
Don’t be fooled by their teddy bear-like appearance; Masai is not attempting to ‘mollycoddle’ the delivery of an urgent message. Although there are often small messages that accompany the murals (i.e. ‘Only 15,000 jaguars remain in the wild’ and ‘Coho salmon: endangered since 2005’), Masai believes that preaching is counterproductive, bordering on reverse psychology. Much in the way that “if someone tells me to use blue, I’m not going to use blue,” Masai insists that he’s against explicitly telling others what to do.
He’s aware of the potential to be written off as just “another eco-warrior, tripped-out, middle-class white person telling me something I don’t need to know.” He prefers to garner public interest by letting his art speak for itself, so that he can raise the profile of these animals in a way that’s nuanced and worthwhile. Whilst painting in the public domain can be effective in terms of exposure, it is not without its limitations. Nonetheless, the ephemeral nature of street art is synonymous with Masai’s message: just like his subjects, these paintings could be here today and gone tomorrow. The same goes for vandalism, which he considers, in light of his training as a fine
artist, part of a contextual framework. “If someone ‘bombs’ over my work, they are adding context to the reason why I’m doing the work in the first place,” he explains. “There are only so many of these species left, and they’ve just gone and destroyed my painting. They are part of my art now. They’ve just highlighted the fact that the destruction is destruction by humanity.” An ironic extension of this metaphor came into play last year when McDonald’s used Masai’s work in an advertisement without his permission. For the artist (a vegan), this was not only an extension of his contextual framework as it applied to destruction at the hands of corporate greed – this time, a line was crossed. After his complaint was met with widespread support, the fast food chain removed the video, and despite encouragement to take legal action, Masai was not interested. “Why on earth would I want [their] money?” he queries. The exploitation of street art is somewhat inevitable in Masai’s eyes, or as he puts it:
Not wanting to ‘preach to the converted’, Masai wants to target the everyday person on the street instead.
“Painting in the public is free and everything that is free, some capitalist will [eventually] take advantage of. End of story.” However, one of the advantages of street art as a decidedly public platform lies in the opportunity to wield social media as a tool to connect with an even wider audience. Masai documents his artworks for his 18,000 Instagram followers and often writes hashtags on his murals to take the discussion from the wall to the web. The egalitarian aspect of street art appeals to him, for he’s able to reach a diverse audience. Not wanting to ‘preach to the converted’, Masai wants to target ‘the everyday person on the street’ instead, who might then take a photo of his artwork, upload it to another public domain, and make it accessible for people all over the world. That said, Masai isn’t entirely convinced of social media’s potential as a positive force for change. “What are the side effects? We are losing our ability to communicate,” he maintains, quoting a marked increase in anxiety, decrease in empathy, and a lack of contact with the natural environment as some of his top concerns. Moreover, he is alarmed by the cult status of celebrities taking priority over serious world issues, something which his work has dealt with in the past. His Last of My Kind series documented critically endangered birds with reference to deceased musicians.
64 Painting & Street Art
Ultimately, Masai’s work is concerned with the continuous promotion of enduring issues, not just the sensationalisation of short-term ones. Causes are often approached with mass virility, then dropped for the next big thing. “I grew up in the eighties knowing the rhino was critically endangered and needed urgent attention. Thirty years later it is even worse off. Why has nothing been done about it? The generation that was my age when I was being told about that are now being told about plastic. If in thirty years time, we’re still not doing anything about plastic use, we’re screwed. That’s not a joke.”
Louis Masai 65
It is with the future in mind that Masai persists, and he has chosen to focus on the capacity for positive change in the face of looming devastation. What drives him is the belief that “once you dip into information, you cannot unlearn it.” Whether you encounter his work on the street, on social media or in a gallery, his message has succeeded in reaching you – it’s what you choose to do next that matters. “The point of what I am doing is to light a flame,” he says. “Once that flame is lit, what are you going to do to pass on the ignition?” Taking cue from his beloved worker bees, this storyteller sure has his work cut out for him: cross-pollinating his message around the world, and creating buzz for the voiceless and the vulnerable. ∆
.his year I turned thirty-five. My mom is in Mexico and I’m in Portugal, so she wasn’t able to make me a birthday cake like she used to when I was a kid. She could recreate any figure you’d ask her to; be it for a wedding, a birthday or any other event that required a special cake. When I think back to my childhood, I always think of food, cartoon characters and toys. More specifically, I remember the weekend breakfasts my father used to make, back when he was the number one pancake maker of all time (he doesn’t know how to cook anything else), and when my mother would make clove and cinnamon syrup to go with the pancakes. During the week, my breakfast before going to school would be toast
with marmalade and melted gouda cheese, and papaya or banana with sugar and lemon – de puta madre! In the afternoons, my mom would bake us chocolate and almond cookies, crispy honey cookies, or cakes with colourful icing. Sometimes we would go with her after school to her favourite baking goods store, the famous ‘WILTON’! Seeing her there was like seeing a kid at a toy store – she’d walk out with a stack of cookbooks and a bunch of utensils for manipulating sugar, chocolate and all kinds of cake toppings. I think my parents realised that my favourite drug was sugar – which is now so despised by this new generation of health freaks that are ruining perfectly delicious and indulgently sweet recipes full of colour and flavour!
68 The Psychedelic Chef
So, to celebrate my birthday this year, I wanted to recap my favourite things from the eighties. My sister and I used to play Michael Jackson records and dance all afternoon, and on weekends I’d watch cartoons, filling my brain with colour, action and worlds created by the people who gave that decade so much personality. He-Man, Thundercats, Silver Hawks, Flash Gordon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Astro Boy, Mazinger Z, Volton… puta madre! Quiero llorar! In short, the eighties smelled like action figures smeared with colourful icing, dancing to rock and wearing a belly shirt with a Thundercats logo. My aim for this recipe was to personify my childhood in a cake. Instead of taking a character from one of the comics I mentioned, I starting drawing my own with cartoons playing on YouTube in the background and listening to those special effects that are so characteristic of eighties cartoons: futuristic bullets in caveman times. I melted candy to make a multi-coloured cream… not exactly gourmet, but vibrantly good. I made an orange
sponge cake and decorated it with fondant and lots of colourful shit (the brighter the better). I never thought it’d be so fun to make an action figure cake. I wish I had a time machine to travel back to March 24th, 1983, and auto-gift myself this cake from the future. In the end, I ripped his head off and made him vomit coca-cola flavoured gummies. I ripped out his brain and dislocated his arms. Then I bit off his hands until all he had left were pieces of his fingers. What else can I do with a mutilated super hero’s cake body? I was his creator, so I had every right to destroy him! I got drunk off the sugar and the next day I had a hangover and didn’t want to go to work.
INGREDIENTS Orange sponge cake
- colourful icing - food colouring - assorted hard candy and jelly beans
1/2 cup butter 2 cups refined sugar 2 eggs 2 cups wheat flour 2 teaspoons baking powder - 1/2 cup of natural orange juice - grated orange peel
1 L milk 1 vanilla pod 7 egg yolks 1 full egg 150g sugar 50g butter 85g wheat flour orange flavoured hard candy
M E THOD Orange sponge cake
Depending on the size of the character you want to make, you can make one or two orange sponge cakes and then use a sharp serrated knife to shape the cake the way you like. Preheat the oven to 180ºC. In a bowl, beat the butter and sugar with a whisk at maximum speed until it turns a pale pearly colour. Add the 2 eggs one by one and continue beating the mix while slowly adding the flour and baking powder. Add the grated orange peel along with the orange juice. Grease and flour a baking pan and pour the mixture in. Bake for 45 minutes and then stick a toothpick in the centre of the cake to check if it’s ready. If it comes out dry, then it’s ready. If there is still wet batter on the toothpick, let it bake for about 5 more minutes.
Now you need to use your imagination and dedication to create your own character. Use a spatula or scraper to cover each piece of the cake previously shaped with the knife. You can use the pastry cream inside the cake to create textures and you can add colours using the food colouring. Use a brush to paint over the icing for more effects.
Acid Rave Palette Words by Juliette Antoine Photos by Camille Charlier
Opashona Ghosh’s vibrant portraits are loaded with symbolism, bursting with colour and evocative of the ‘rave flyer’ aesthetics that inspired them. Joyful though her pop palette may appear, there are intimate meditations on outsider experiences to be found amidst the vivid colour contrasts and other-worldly figures.
Illustration / Opashona Ghosh
Using an acid rave palette is my attempt at reclaiming pop art and rave art, to talk about pop catastrophes that no one wants to talk about.
Moving from Calcutta to London at twenty-five, Ghosh’s newfound love of rave culture would prove fundamental in the development of her art practice, or in Ghosh’s words: ‘Cocoa butter propaganda empowering queer femininity in an acid rave palette.’ Ghosh’s layered engagement with what she calls ‘Pop Catastrophes’, such as mental health, gender expectations and colonialism, stem from her experiences as a queer woman from India living in the UK. We were lucky enough to catch up with the artist in Berlin to talk about what it was like to find herself surprisingly at home amidst London’s queer nightlife; the importance of self-representation in countering stereotypes, and subverting traditional gender roles. Having felt like an outsider throughout various chapters of her life, whether it was in Calcutta’s rigid patriarchal system or at London’s Central Saint Martin’s School of Communication Design, Ghosh found a sense of home amongst London’s queer nightlife. “My LGBT family knows the struggles I’ve gone through. I know a lot of people who’ve had to live two or three lives, and the moment they come out is so beautiful... there’s a sense of immediate trust.” It was these spaces that gave Ghosh the sense of community and freedom she needed to express her sensuality; free of the unwanted stares,
and the intensely male gaze she endured back home. This gaze is challenged and obscured by Ghosh, who sometimes omits the eyes of her subjects and centres on the experiences of queer women, often at the expense of male pleasure. It was also her encounters and experiences within the scene that became crucial to the development of her visual identity as an artist. Ghosh began creating rave flyers and posters in collaboration with clubs and musicians such as Andy Blake, Mr Assister, and the all-female techno collective, SIREN; combining bright pop colour with the kinds of recognisable symbolism seen in eighties and nineties rave flyers. Her approach to these promotional posters began to evolve, as Ghosh saw the potential to challenge the misguided notion that the rave scene was exclusive, dark and threatening. In addition to these collaborations, Ghosh’s work and aesthetics began to tackle a wider set of issues. “Using an acid rave palette is my attempt at reclaiming pop art and rave art, to talk about pop catastrophes that no one wants to talk about,” she explains. By ‘Pop Catastrophes’, Ghosh is referring to contemporary disasters brought on by imperialism, such as cultural appropriation and the persistence of normative occidental standards.
Illustration / Opashona Ghosh
One of the central ‘Pop Catastrophes’ that Ghosh tackles in her body of work revolves around India’s painful colonial past, and the extent to which India’s consciousness is under its influence today. Her work reflects on the division between her Indian homeland and her European ‘playground’, as she calls it, and the impacts of Western misrepresentation and stereotyping. In fact, this has been a preoccupation of Ghosh’s work since the very beginning of her artistic endeavours, as Ghosh refers to an earlier drawing of a young girl with an Elizabethan collar around her neck. “This one was about a certain confusion growing up; there was a deep desire to be what our colonists were,” Ghosh explains. Cornered by the offensive and two-
dimensional Western stereotypes of Indian women, Ghosh came to know and assert the importance of self-representation. “I feel like they’re catering to the Western idea of what India might be,” she says, and “if you don’t identify with this stereotype, then you’re the only other alternative: a geek.” Shedding light on the internalization of Western standards and negative stereotypes was a major step in slowly rooting out misplaced desires, and carving out her own ‘cocoa butter propaganda’ in response. Dakini, one of Ghosh’s ongoing series, challenges the portrayal of female sensuality as passive and submissive by putting female pleasure, power, and a decidedly female gaze forth for our contemplation.
Dakinis were portrayed as demons that fed on human flesh, taking on the form of attractive women.
‘Dakini’, Ghosh explains, is Sanskrit for ‘sky-dancer’, and it is often used to describe the female embodiment of enlightenment. In Medieval Indian legends, however, Dakinis were portrayed as demons that fed on human flesh, taking on the form of attractive women in order to seduce men to the unknown and have sex with them until they were drained of all blood. Ghosh explores this two-fold interpretation of Dakini in one of her works in the series, ‘Dakini1’, which depicts a faceless, half-naked woman kneeling on a white bed as she receives oral sex from a freshly decapitated head. Ghosh explains that the bloody weapon beside the head is a symbol of Hindu Goddess Kali, the destroyer of evil forces, and a figure that bestows liberation.
Illustration / Opashona Ghosh
In this illustration, Kali has scared off the demons of masculinity. “It’s not evil though,” Ghosh insists. “Look at how calm and relaxed she is about chopping someone’s head off. She’s making masculinity work for her; getting pleasure out of it... and he seems to be enjoying it!” In doing so, Ghosh has given new meaning to the traditional depiction of Dakinis in Hindu Symbolism. Could it be that these women are figures of enlightenment and fearless, sensual threats to the submissive and exoticized stereotypes of Indian women? Perhaps the most compelling proof of Ghosh’s lasting commitment to ‘empowering femininity in an acid rave palette’ is her ongoing series All About My Mother. Indeed, putting her past under the microscope has led Ghosh to revisit inherited memories of femininity. “I am the first in my family to have proper education, and experiences that my mum and grandmother could not have. And in a way, I feel like all the women in my family live their lives through me – that’s very exciting.”
The power of the women she depicts is grounded in their combination of strength and vulnerability, a union Ghosh has been better able to grasp by exploring the lives and memories of women before her. “My mother represents a very beautiful and conflicting combination of weak and strong, soft and hard, beautiful and dangerous.” The complexity of her characters is conveyed by the incongruity of their activities and the scenes they are set in. She refers to the illustration depicting a woman walking with knives in her body: “She’s got knives in her, but look! She’s still walking, and she’s fearless about the challenges that come her way, with no inclination to stop.” In another, a woman sits, stabbed in the heart and flies infesting the wound, yet she is casually smoking a cigarette; seemingly unaffected by the lethal stab. The vulnerable state of her characters is by no means a proof of their weakness, but rather a symbol of their strength and resilience. Ghosh makes an art of observing dualities and using them to subvert our expectations. As the artist
herself has said, the use of eye-catching colours and pop aesthetics is a way of ‘tricking’ the viewer into a seemingly joyful, carefree universe, to start conversations about the kinds of ‘Pop Catastrophes’ that still carry stigmas and taboos. “One image is not just one story,” she says. “It’s a mix of very conflicting feelings. There’s a duality in each of them. Maybe I’m just trying to find ways to draw out the feeling of liberation, of oppression.” Ghosh maintains that she has felt like an outsider throughout most of her experiences, something which has ultimately fueled her desire to put forth an alternative, technicolour world in which she can see herself reflected and represented. It is through the confluence and contrast of subversive symbols, the centering of female pleasure and strength, and self-representation and faceless ambiguity that Ghosh resists the male and ‘Othering’ gazes that have conditioned our perceptions of gender, race and sexuality. As Ghosh knows all too well: complex information in a single image is essential to any piece of effective propaganda. ∆
Deep down in New Orleans Interview by Ekanem Ebinne
Akasha Rabut has been photographing the rapidly disappearing subcultures of the streets of post-Katrina New Orleans for the last eight years. From the urban cowboys of Southern Riderz to the allfemale motorcycle gang called Caramel Curves (to name a few), her photos chronicle the festive street culture that has given New Orleans its vibrant reputation. Weary of the double-edged role her photography has played in the lives of her subjects, Rabutâ€™s lens rides the compassionate line between showing them off to curious outsiders and fighting the negative effects of increasing tourism.
Akasha Rabut 83
Photography / Akasha Rabut 85
Ekanem: Tell me about your name, Akasha. Akasha: My parents were hippies, a family of artists. It means ‘the wisdom of the infinite’. I hated it as a child. The other kids would make fun of it. But when I was in college, the mature part of my brain realised it’s a gift, not a curse. I teach high school in New Orleans now and when I see students get picked on, I have a lot of compassion for them because I was humbled and grounded by that experience. What’s it like for you, as a photographer, to teach high school in New Orleans? Even though it’s the birthplace of jazz, music and arts are under-taught in the school system in New Orleans. After Katrina, public schools got replaced by these charter schools that are run like businesses. Many kids were displaced by the hurricane and were held back or even missed years of school. Some kids have a lot of talent, but can’t verbalize what they’re doing. So I talked to the program director about getting talented students on a direct career path to the arts. We created a scholarship program and I also brought professionals in from New York and San Francisco to teach them different creative skills. What has your career path been like? How do you get paid for your work? I got a BFA in photography from the San Francisco Art Institute. Then I started doing documentary work, self-funding my own projects. Meanwhile I worked for five years digitally scanning negatives from the archives of the historical loans collection at a museum. I did commercial and fashion work in NYC for a while, but it didn’t feel good to me. In 2015, ESPN and National Geographic contacted me to contribute photos to their ten-year anniversary coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Now magazines contact me, offering to pay me to reshoot old series about New Orleans.
How do you approach your subjects in your photography? I do the opposite of what I learned in art school. I get very emotionally attached and spend a lot of time with them. Sometimes I show up without a camera. I want to relate to them as people and become friends so I can hear their story. How did you meet the Caramel Curves, for example? I’m always on the street. New Orleans’ street culture is unlike any other. There’s Second Lines, Mardi Gras, and Super Sunday in the spring… and every Sunday people go out to show off whatever special thing they’re into – like men with snakes draped over their shoulders – looking to meet other people who are into the same stuff. I first saw Tru and Love, two of the members of Caramel Curves, on the street – on their cycles – one Super Sunday in 2013, and just started talking to them. They invited me to their Monday meeting at Coco’s (one of the founding members) nail salon. The Curves usually come out in the spring, when New Orleans weather is balmy and everything smells like citrus; we met when all of the magnolia trees were in bloom. They come from all walks of life and range from early twenties to late forties. I don’t think any of them knew each other from high school. They met through the motorcycle world and the streets of New Orleans. When I first met them, I had never seen a woman on a motorcycle, let alone a group of women, and let alone a group of black women. They inspire women to break boundaries. The city is Republican and racially segregated, so for New Orleans it was a big deal, and part of bringing feminism to the city. Then the horse riders, I also met on the street and they took me on their rides.
Photography / Akasha Rabut 87
Akasha Rabut 89
Has there been a dark side to that attention? I feel like some of the attention from the Caramel Curves series was the inspiration for other exposure, like reality TV shows. A lot of reality shows have a keen interest in the city, and it doesn’t always have a good outcome. I’m not the gatekeeper of New Orleans street culture but I get e-mails from documentarians who want to come and see the Caramel Cycles. It feels like I’m commercializing and contaminating their culture. I ask myself: ‘Am I the right person to be doing this? Am I part of the problem to have access to the culture bearers and then have photos published that attract tourists who may eventually push out the very culture they’re coming to see?’ I’ve gotten protective. Sometimes I feel like I want to keep my photos under my bed so they can only be found after I die. Back when I was working at the Historic New Orleans Collection scanning negatives from the sixties and
seventies, I saw many of Michael P. Smith’s photos of Second Lines and jazz. Compared to what I saw in those photos, now I see so many more photographers from out of town on Super Sunday; getting in the way of the Mardi Gras Indians so they can’t even do their dances the way they want to. I feel like I should direct photographers on how to act right. I want the money to come into the city, but not at the expense of the culture being destroyed. How do you counter the negative effect of the attention your work draws in? I share photos back with the people. Many of them haven’t held a photo in their hand because of the digital age. So I gave the Caramel Curves print photos that they can share tangibly, to show to other people. They seem to feel recognized by that and by the magazine articles that came out of it.
Photography / Akasha Rabut
How do you participate in the culture you photograph? I tend to hang back and try not to get in the way. I really like moving around quietly. I’ll engage with people when it’s necessary, but for the most part I just like to watch. When I first started the Caramel Curves project I was terrified of motorcycles. The Curves eventually got me on a motorcycle, and I usually ride on the back, which is called ‘backpacking’. I haven’t been spending that much time with them lately so when I run into them it’s usually pretty exciting. Now anytime I see a Caramel Curve we greet each other with a big hug. In fact, I just shot the wedding of one of the Caramel Curves members last night, as a gift.
What motivates you to continue taking photos here? The resilience of the people of New Orleans and how they’ve done so much with so little. I want to document the beauty of this place, the people, their colourful patterns and their way of being. I also want to document the shift in the town’s residents, because I don’t know how long the culture will be here before the people who are creating it get pushed out. After Katrina, the city was rebuilt very suddenly, and so many tourists started to come. With no Airbnb regulations, the housing crisis is getting worse. Soon the city will become Disneyfied; a place where people are always watching instead of participating. I want to capture the New Orleans culture before it’s gone. ∆
Words & photos by Charlotte Kench Additional photos provided by the bomb
Acclaimed film producer Smriti Keshari puts you in the centre of â€˜the bombâ€™; a visceral film installation designed to blow your mind.
s b m o b ll a d n e to
94 Film Installation / the bomb
t’s fair to assume that the term ‘Duck and cover’ doesn’t mean to millenials what it means to the generations that came before us. We all know the symbol for peace, but do we know that its design comes from the semaphore signals ‘N’ and ‘D’ for ‘Nuclear Disarmament’? We grew up being able to take for granted the fact that human brain cells are able to regenerate, but with no notion that it was the atmospheric effects of nuclear bombs that made it possible for scientists to carbon date our cells and tissues. We picture trigger-happy presidents with their fingers on the button, but we never imagine the potential for detonation as a result of the malfunctions and mishaps that lie beyond their control. From the Cold War to Global Warming, the millennial generation has grown up in a political climate largely free of the urgent threat of the world-destroying weapons that many nations still have at their disposal; that is, until recently. Given the rising tensions between the US and North Korea, our fear and curiosity is at an all-time high, much like the Google searches for ‘How to Survive a Nuclear Attack’ in April of 2017. Although it’s unlikely the search results would have suggested we duck and cover – and as futile as this old method seems in retrospect – the sad reality lies in our profound lack of knowledge and engagement when it comes to the nuclear weapons that govern our fate. There are roughly 15,000 known nuclear weapons in the world today (approx. 2,000 on ‘high alert’), and nine countries that are known to be in possession of them. However, it’s difficult to gauge a sense of the immediacy with facts and figures alone. How are we to engage with the abstract and terrifying prospect of nuclear war when it is essentially ‘mansplained’ to us in clinical terms and technical jargon, masked in bombastic political rhetoric, or worse: via twitter threats? Thankfully, Indian-American film producer Smriti Keshari is keenly aware of this frightening
predicament. Her documentary, the bomb (2016), is here to ignite a generation caught in the crossfire of old wars and deterrence without the impenetrable language that has kept us at arms-length from the arms race for so long. Keshari decided to challenge the conventional filmaudience relationship with an immersive experience completely devoid of the kinds of didactic narration one might expect for a documentary that chronicles the history and legacy of nuclear warfare. “Language has the power of both keeping people in knowledge, and also keeping them away from it,” Keshari maintains. In fact, it was after reading Command and Control (2013) – the work of fellow director and producer of the bomb, Eric Schlosser – that Keshari was left feeling sad and angry about it: “Sad because I couldn’t believe this reality of nuclear weapons, and angry because I knew nothing about it”. Following this watershed revelation, Keshari began to research, and was concerned to find that the further she went, the more obscure things became. “When you start going deeper and deeper into nuclear weapons, everything from the language to design, to the command and control systems... more and more it begins to turn you away, or turn you off”, she says; “It’s a system that’s kept in place so [that] people only know what they’re meant to know”. After reading Schlosser’s book, Keshari was able to bring two distinct questions into focus: “How can you create a deep, emotional, visceral understanding of nuclear weapons?” and “How would a subject matter stay with you longer if we changed the method of seeing it?”. Dismantling the esoteric jargon around her subject would require a greater emphasis on imagery, and so, Keshari and her team dove through roughly 500 hours of footage: “government testing footage, news footage… about thirty percent has never been seen before [it was] given to Eric during research for his book.”
Opposite: Smriti Keshari
Nuclear weapons cannot coexist with human ex
xistence. One will eventually destroy the other.
Film Installation / the bomb
However, it’s not just rare footage setting the bomb apart as a groundbreaking documentary. Keshari decided to put audiences at the centre of the film’s action as well. “For quite some time, I’d been thinking about this idea of putting people inside of a film and challenging the one-way, one-directional experience,” she recalls. “I wanted to form that same emotional connection that I had after reading Command and Control for others, in a visceral and immersive way without ‘telling’ them,” says Keshari. As the bomb tours the world, attending various film festivals such as Seoul’s DMZ festival, the Berlinale and the Sydney Festival, it continues to evolve in terms of installation setup and audience interaction. When it was first screened at Tribeca Film Festival in New York, the film was projected onto 360 degrees of floor-toceiling screens. Three audience members fainted during the performance. “In New York and Glastonbury, we had eight screens surrounding the audience with The Acid in the centre. You were inside the film; it was haunting and unsettling,” Keshari recalls. “We recently performed it [on a single screen] as part of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo,” she says, which was seen by the very leaders of Norway that voted against nuclear disarmament resolutions in a recent UN General Assembly. Given the current tensions, dropping us inside the harrowing world of the bomb couldn’t have come at a more pertinent time. the bomb is not so much a film as it is a fully immersive hour-long art and music installation. It’s Dr. Strangelove meets Koyaanisqatsi meets rare and restored footage and intricate animation; all of which is accompanied by a fifty-five minute live score, written and performed by electronic music quartet The Acid. Driving the pace and atmosphere of the film is The Acid’s mix of hypnotic and haunting soundscapes, such as ‘Marching’, ‘Modern Propaganda’, ‘The Bomb – Theme I’ and ‘Clean’.
Ry Cuming’s ethereal vocals echo and sail over the pulsating bass and entrancing loops typical of prolific British DJ Adam Freeland; merging and dispersing in a breathtaking play of tension build up and release. It’s safe to say that despite being able to watch the bomb on Netflix, nothing quite compares to seeing it live. However, Keshari reassures us that “no matter how you experience the bomb, it certainly feels like something that happens to you, versus something you passively watch; each part of the bomb – whether it’s the film, the music or the 360 live build – was created so it could be, individually and collectively, bold and poetic.” Miraculously, the bomb has achieved a level of accessibility befitting the urgency of its subject matter. By dismantling the barriers of language, and submerging the audience in a wordless trance of sound and vision, Keshari has found a way to effectively portray the futility and devastation of nuclear warfare without talking us through it. “Oftentimes, [when] we start talking about nuclear weapons and it so quickly becomes about the countries – but it’s really about the machines,” she maintains, “These machines were created and designed to do one thing and one thing only: wipe out human existence.” Inspired by the ‘Astronaut’s Overview’ (the revelation that astronauts are said to have upon their first look back at Earth from Space), the film opens with footage of our planet. “All of the borders, maps, lines, war and religion… none of that is prevalent when you’re all looking at the same thing,” she insists. As the stewards of our planet, it seems that words have largely proven fruitless and divisive, and a barrier to shared understanding. If only we could ship our world leaders out to space to consider Earth from afar, to see that they’re all taking aim at the same thing. At least we’ve got the bomb until then. ∆
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PANTA is an independent magazine that celebrates creative culture and artivism around the world. It features the work of emerging artists an...
Published on May 22, 2018
PANTA is an independent magazine that celebrates creative culture and artivism around the world. It features the work of emerging artists an...