Thinking Big: Pondering on anarchy and futility

The world according to Zhivago Duncan

The world according to Zhivago Duncan

‘All is futile’ laments Solomon in the Bible and its all “pretentious crap” agrees Zhivago Duncan in Christie’s and Saatchi Gallery’s Thinking Big. So nothing new through the passage of time then! Futility along with anarchy seems to be the big story in Thinking Big. In spite of the haunting beauty of Erick Swenson’s Untitled (2004), the visual poetry of Kader Attia’s Ghost (2007) and the comedy of Zhang Huan’s Donkey (2005) you can not escape this unrelenting message of futility and anarchy. As an exhibition Thinking Big is either an expression of a bored society or a world in despair for its existence. Either way this exhibition is a scary story garnished with the occassional visual gem.

Detail of Jon Pylypchuk's image of anarchy.

Detail of Jon Pylypchuk’s image of anarchy.

By Depo Olukotun

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This picture reveals a 1000 words of fallacy

Former President Clinton on a mission to Africa but look in the circle to the right.

Former President Clinton on a mission to Africa but look in the circle to the right.

A picture of former President Bill Clinton accompanying an article he penned reveals the contradictions, futility and fallacy of intervention and western philanthropy in Africa. The double-spread picture of the former president in the September 30 2013 issue of Time Magazine that inadvertently reveals an uncomfortable truth, seems innocent enough at first glance. However, fresh from submitting an essay on the use of photographs by NGOs in Africa and immediately after looking through a photo-essay on mental illness sufferers in Haiti, my emotions were high and my eyes were sharpened for misaligning detail.

The misaligning detail of this picture is not the central image of President Clinton flanked by two females who are not his wife and daughter, but hidden in the periphery of the frame. On the edge of this picture we see why Africa continues to remain on the crutches of western intervention and showman philanthropy. We see to the right, of a beaming President Clinton, an image of a suited man either detaining or shoving a boy of about six or seven years old, to the side. This image for me says a lot and it is not the same thing the former US president is saying in his article that accompanies the image.

What this picture says concisely is that Africans are getting in the way of posterity. We are being told here that Africa is a tool to be used for the purpose of perpetuating western legacies. This boy and his peers in this image should be at the centre of this picture alongside and surrounding Bill Clinton and not forced to the edge. I do not think it is far fetched to label these children the future of Africa and hence, as seeds of hope, they should be focused on and nurtured rather than suppressed. What better way to blight the future of a continent than to render the hopes for its future hopeless and make them feel worthless?

Vilém Flusser, the philosopher and photography theorist, talks about how our imagery can uncooperatively reveal hidden truths. This picture has waywardly told a thousand words that differ from the thousand words the former US president was hopping to present. The picture in question is full of euphemisms and anecdotes of uncomfortable truths, however the image of a suppressed African child and its allusion to a continuously incapacitated maligned continent is just one of them. In making this observation and drawing these conclusions I am not sending out an invitation to contest and justify, this is simply an expression of the hope that we can stop and ponder.

By Depo Olukotun

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Naughty by nature: Art by Alexis van El

It is easy and hence forgivable to be misled by the look of Alexis van El’s sculptures. Yes the inspiration for the sculpture van El refers to as “bookforms” or metal books is nature, but not from what might seem like the obvious aspects of nature. The look of van El’s bookfroms is inspired by tree bark fissures to be exact. In essence van El’s sculpture illustrates how nature replicates itself in looks and characteristics across its various aspects.

Triptych 1, metal sculpture by  Alexis van El

You can get closer to van El’s sculptures and allow nature to drive your imagination wild at the Espacio Gallery’s Elements of Art. Van El is one of a group of artists exhibiting in Elements of Art, which is on until Tuesday 16 July 2013. Espacio Gallery is on the culturally vibrant end of London’s Bethnal Green Road, that’s Shoreditch to those in the know.

By Depo Olukotun

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Outsider Art: How artists left the backdoor open

Will Gompertz laments “sculptures and paintings that should have no connections with the formal history of art” are all over the place and this at the 2013 Venice Biennale no less! His explanation for this phenomenon is that this is “a reaction against the increasing commodification of art”. I would echo Gompertz’s tone of disdain but I do not wholly buy his explanation. My suspicion is that professional artists have been unwittingly complicit in this high profile entry of what Gompertz labels “outsider art”.

Venice Biennale

Art, not without the complicity of those within the artistic discipline, has shifted focus from communication and polished execution to expression. By expression I mean this current trend of creatively baring your soul and revealing your inner person and the association of these elements with purity and being real. Expression in art has become dominant at the expense of communication and execution. Ideally all three plus a host of other elements within the artistic discipline should be equal partners within an artist’s repertoire. It is easy to identify the absence of execution, for example, in a work. You can be sure execution has failed when a member of the viewing public quips: “I could do that! In fact my 5 year old can do that!” In valuing expression over execution many artists belie the serious and considered thought process that has gone into their art.

In many cases expression coupled with the arrested state of conception has led to misconception. A lot of misconception in art has come about by many getting the wrong end of the stick with regards to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and the misunderstanding of, for example, Vincent Van Gogh’s madness. Yes Van Gogh was mad but his artistic practice was not therapy, in fact according to the presentations of the respected art critic Robert Hughes, he of The Shock of the New fame, Van Gogh painted in his sane moments and not in the midst, or because, of his dark periods. However for many, due to a misunderstanding of Van Gogh, therapeutic art equals baring your soul, which in turn equals pure and honest art. Van Gogh painted because he wanted to be an artist and not because he was mad. He was all about the discipline of an artist.

Within the discipline of artists is the remit to; communicate a serious message, show us new ways of doing things, reveal novel ways of seeing the world or doing all of the above simultaneously. In the process of doing any of the above, that an artist reveals a bit of herself or himself is inevitable and undisputed. However the belief that art is all about a biographical rending of the soul has to be questioned. Furthermore the idea that anyone, in all their psychotic glory, with the audacity to reveal their inner-self can simply wander onto being an artist needs to be challenged. Going forward it is either artists stake their claim at the centre of culture and society as practitioners of a discipline or they loose their relevance along with the validity of their profession and education!

By Depo Olukotun

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Nollywood: A fresh alternative to Cannes and Hollywood

You say Cannes Film Festival, I say Nigerian Film Week Paris; you say Hollywood and I say Nollywood; ‘Tomayto’, tomato, lets agree on two things. Neither Cannes nor Hollywood represents the diversity out there in the world and not all of us are interested in being shocked, we would rather have something fresh. By fresh I mean; intriguing stories about the realities out there seen through the eyes of protagonists who actually exist out there in a world many of us would find alien. Well, for something fresh beyond the frames of Cannes or Hollywood, step forward Nollywood Week Paris. Nollywood is so named because it is seen as Nigeria’s answer to Hollywood and is reputed to produce 2,000 films annually.

If you love film but feel jaded by the clichés of Hollywood or the empty ostentation of Cannes and you happen to be in Paris between Thursday 30th May and Sunday 2nd June, then give Nollywood Week Paris a try. As you sink into your seat to take in a Nollywood film, by all means come bearing a popcorn bucket filled with expectation in one hand other but in the other hand go for a beaker fizzing with open-mindedness. The framings of Nollywood films are unwittingly unwestern; an unavoidable authenticity demands this. The film camera might have been invented in the West but while a Hollywood film can take or leave a troupe of actors busting into song and dance, a Bollywood film is almost incomplete without seemingly spontaneous lyrics and choreography. Similarly a Nollywood film, through the eye of the same film camera, will deliver what might seem like far fetched stories but are actually based on strange but common truths. The acting might also seem strange or colourful, but there is just no dampening that Nubian exuberance especially when it comes to something as expressive as acting. This heady mix of exuberance and authenticity is what Nollywood Week presents in a polished format.

Visit the Nollywood Week Paris website and whet your viewing appetite with the trailers of the films to be screened at the festival. Even if you do not have plans to attend the event these trailers might just open your eyes to the alternative world of Nollywood. The site lists the full program of events for the four-day fest and all the social media paraphernalia you need to get acquainted with Nollywood. Happy viewing!

By Depo Olukotun

Related article:
Nollywood goes to Paris

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There will be an art defiance with or without finance

Contrary to the UK’s culture secretary Maria Miller’s “economic impact” presentation, the arts are not all about economy, finance or money. The arts if forced into any sort of mainstream frame or requirement will simply defy any impositions and reinvent it self. The arts have a history of defying conventional powers, establishment and the mainstream. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is one such example of defiance that pops up when we look down the annals of art.

As a youngish photography student almost a decade and a half ago, I found inspiration in the paintings of Caravaggio, and not in the greats of photography like Henri Cartier Bresson. I perceived photography, as being all about light, and Caravaggio for me was the master at depicting light. Fast-forward 13 years later, as a not-so-young History of Art student, I realised I was lucky to have the art of Caravaggio to inspire me back when I was studying photography. From the annals of art history I found out that those with the means and power during his time were determined to keep Caravaggio’s art from view and obliterate his name from the art history books.

However, try as they may, and luckily for me, the powers could not keep Caravaggio down. Stories reveal Caravaggio to be a bit of a headstrong son-of-the-proverbial. Likewise, his art has proved insuppressibly. In one of his mad moments Caravaggio the temperamental artist, the story goes, threatened to give fellow papal painter Guido Reni a damn good hiding. The reason for this threat was that Reni was supposedly imitating or, according to Caravaggio, stealing his (Caravaggio’s) style of painting. Caravaggio’s unique way of enforcing, what we today call copyright is not lost on us here. Caravaggio need not have bothered threatening Reni, according to the art historian Francis Haskell, the papal powers of the time were not particularly keen on Caravaggio’s style anyway and were prepared to rescind their backing of the hotheaded painter.

The presence and reverence of Caravaggio’s art today is an example of how the arts can innovate, morph and flourish in the face of adversity. Caravaggio’s paintings were part of the collection to grace the first of what we today call art galleries, thanks to Vincenzo Giustiniani (13 September 1564 – 27 December 1637). Out of the rejects of the Counter Reformation papal church, which included Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew and the Angel (1602) Giustiniani created what was to be the first of new and secular cathedrals to art. Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew and the Angel was unfortunately destroyed in the World War II. With regards to Caravaggio’s art what was the papacy’s trash turned out to be Giustiniani’s treasure, becoming one of the most revered art collections in art history. A good fraction of Giustiniani’s collection of paintings, which remained intact for over 200 years, today forms part of the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

It is thanks to the concept of “art galleries” kicked off by the likes of Giustiniani that visitors to the City of London walk across the Millennium Bridge from St Paul’s Cathedral to that other cathedral, Tate Modern to worship at the foot of art. Giustiniani’s offering constituted an alternative for talented artists such as Caravaggio, which the Counter Reformation papacy sought to censor; granted being hotheaded probably did not help the nutter that was Caravaggio. This shows one thing, that establishment is not all-powerful and can be sidelined. The likes of the Tate Modern, the British Museum; where Ms Miller gave her speech, and the V&A; which she sites in her speech are today’s establishment and have the means and infrastructure to make the case of their “economic impact” on the UK macros economy. But what about the entities lower down the art sector’s food chain, the artist-led galleries and studios for example. For these lowly players even if a Giustiniani, who was well connected and establishment by the way, does not come along they will still do their thing. The human need for expression does not hang around for perceived right conditions.

In the face of a lack of finance the arts will stage defiance. Buenos Aires provides an example of art scene doing its own thing and creating its own opportunities and conditions. On a recent trip to Buenos Aires, excursions to the city’s established galleries were positively uninspiring. I am assuming that years of oppressive governments and the censorship and elitism that comes with the territory contributed in no small way to the sanitised artistic output I came across in the city’s established galleries. My perception of the art on display was not unique to me but was shared with my fellow traveller who had a distinctly different approach to art and tastes to me. We need not have bothered with the likes of MALBA rather we should have just walked the streets of the city. The city of Buenos Aires is an open-air cathedral to street art so much so that there are bus tours dedicated to this genre of the city’s art. The establishment galleries have effectively been sidelined.

If stories of Caravaggio and Giustiniani prove too distant in the past, and Buenos Aires too geographically distant or too insulting to some (cue the recent death of Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War) then how about our homeboy Banksy. Being incognito and subversive has not stopped Banksy leapfrogging from street art scene to auction house. I defy any advertising or trend prediction tool to have forecasted that phenomenon. The lesson here is this, those with the urge to, will express themselves with or without the means and support that this government chooses to provide. Whatever this government is prescribing has not and cannot be bottled and dispensed. Prescriptions would only result in a sanitised art scene, which would quickly be sidelined. Whether or not this government becomes a footnote in the annals of art chronicling the British art scene’s fall from grace and eventual reinvention depends on if the government revisits its ‘economy of the arts stance’ or not. Come what may, there will be art defiance with or without finance.

By Depo Olukotun

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A Global History of Religious Prudes

The obsession of religion with sex and its derivatives, chiefly, nudity is not a preserve of the Muslim or Arab parts of the world. This is an obsession the Christian West also shares. In the example of the Catholic Church we see an obsession that goes way back in the church’s history. Just like the Qatari Greek nude statue story the Catholic Church’s example of the obsession with sex and nudity plays itself out in the arts.

Greek Statue

Was this the offending statue, hence detail of only the upper section?

The Qatari censorship story draws a parallel with no less than the world famous Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Rome. The story from the art history annals goes that in his now world renowned Last Judgement fresco, on the altar wall of the chapel, Michelangelo depicted nude men with exposed genitalia to the horror of the papal powers of the time. To add insult to the injury of the powers, Michelangelo refused to cover up the naughty bits, setting precedence for the Greek minister of culture, Costas Tzavaras, in the Qatari censorship story.

Detail from Michelangelo's censored Last Judgement

Detail from Michelangelo’s censored Last Judgement

Religions obsession with sex in the West continues today, witness the turmoil of the Catholic Church and the Church of England’s distraction with gay Bishops. Hence before we laugh and point at the Qataris we must remember that we are just as guilty in the practice of equating sex with morality. The Qatari/Greek statue story is all just a little bit of history repeating.

By Depo Olukotun

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