Category Archives: thoughtful

lecture

I used to lecture for a living, teaching art and film. I have given it up for now, focusing on writng and creative work but periodically I do give lectures. I did one yesterday at Central St Martins and it was really fun! Really stimulating discussion too.

I did not record the lecture but here is a short 15 min podcast recording of a lecture I did at the IF Project, a kind of ‘free university’ in London, on ‘how to interpret visual art’

http://podacademy.org/podcasts/how-to-interpret-visual-art/

me90s

[me giving a lecture – actually no, its a Halloween event a few years back]

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the ‘POW!’ power of Colour: Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy

A few weeks ago I managed to have a free day to go down to the Royal Academy on Piccadilly to see the Abstract Expressionism exhibition. This is an absolute massive exhibition, and apparently it’s the first time all of the major abstract expressionists of been brought together in one place in London since the 1950s

Information about the exhibition:
https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/abstract-expressionism

The show was huge, and it was honestly too much take in at any one time and the only thing I really came away with in any important sense was an extremely overwhelming sense of colour. Yet that’s enough for me. I’d never really thought about the abstract expressionists as revolutionists of colour but indeed that’s exactly what they were. In their hands colour, that includes the monochrome of black and white, takes on a completely new aspect, completely new from the whole history of painting. Yet their sense of colour is also deeply embedded in the ancient history and tradition of painting. It was so exciting; I really wasn’t expecting this.

Okay I’ll own up, actually never liked abstract expressionism. Thing is, I never saw any of it. There’s very little of it in Britain, where I had my creative education and certainly there wasn’t any of it in Vancouver where I grew up (NOT an art city, tbh). I saw glimpses here and there: the occasional Jackson Pollock in the (excellent) Seattle Art Museum and a Motherwell at the Tate Modern, but I had never seen them brought together in any meaningful way and I’d certainly never seen a sufficient number of them to really get strong sense of what these artists accomplished.

Instead, like many people, what I really saw was a whole lot of derivations and simulacra of copies that vaguely remembered resembled abstract expressionism at a level far below pastiche – adorning the walls of banks and institutions. That is, washes of bland colour designed to create a soporific and unchallenging atmosphere away from the intellectual/emotional engagement invited by figuration. How lame; how horrible, who on earth would like abstract expressionism if this is what they think it is?

Luckily I grew up and started to engage more meaningfully with it. It was an interesting trajectory, Rauschenberg led me to an interest in the earlier abstract painters which led me to an interest in Motherwell which led me to bit by bit more than appreciation for abstraction, although (until the RA show) I still completely rejected people like Barnett Newman.

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Mark Rothko, no name, 1969, at Museum of the University of Navarra
[By Mika58 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44153557%5D

Simon Schama’s Power of Art opened my mind up to Mark Rothko. Yes I admit, before Simon I actually thought Rothko was boring. Pretty, but boring. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with Schama’s emotive take on Rothko but it certainly engaged me to look at the paintings differently and spend a lot more time with them at the Tate. I grew to love them. I think it’s not necessary for art critic or an art historian to necessarily be “correct” (boring!) but to engage and inspire and then I can just make up my own mind. (Thanks Simon Schama and Waldemar Januszczak!)

So, the exhibition: as I said, the thing that I came away with was this sense of being completely assaulted by colour. The way in which the colour appears and doesn’t appear in these paintings is completely fascinating and absolutely absorbing. The greatest experience for me was understanding finally, something I’ve never been able to understand from looking at any reproduction or matter how high quality. Which is that Jackson Pollock was an incredible, delicate, sensitive colourist. His colouring is on a level with the greatest Renaissance painters, and with my personal favourite colourist John Singer Sargent. Okay how can I compare Jackson Pollock to Fra Angelico or John Singer Sargent or Titian for example? Because of the way in which he lays the colours on the canvas, the combinations, the way moves the colour into shapes, the way the eye follows the colour across the canvas. See, amazing. I’m really hoping to find some kind of book or article on Jackson Pollock as a master colourist and his relationship to the tradition of colouring.

BUT, you have to go see the paintings in the flesh to get any of this. NO reproductions can offer a real sense of the colour. Sadly.

Colour is the most interesting subject in painting, although relatively not that much written about it.

Now of course in terms of my own research, this brings me to think about what was going on in cinema at exactly the same time as the Abstract Expressionists were doing these incredible things with colour; of course! colour cinema in the 1950s! the successes of Technicolor and so forth! the development of blazing new film stocks and the evocation of a whole brightly coloured world, fantastical and seductive! Haven’t got any conclusions about this now … it’s all going on in my head but it’s really interesting … stay tuned.


Mark Hudson’s review in the Telegraph

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/abstract-expressionism-royal-academy-review/

Januszczak’s review in the Times
http://www.waldemar.tv/2016/10/abstract-expressionism-the-show-of-the-year/

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reading about seeing

 

goodbook

 

reading this, “Eye of the Beholder: Jan Vermeer & Antony van Leeuwenhoek and the Reinvention of Seeing”
Loving it..

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Eugène Delacroix exhibition at The National Gallery – first thoughts

WomenofAlgiers

[Women of Algiers in their Apartment (French: Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement)  1834 oil on canvas Eugène Delacroix; source Wikimedia Commons. Picture is in the Louvre]

The National Gallery’s Delacroix exhibition is billed as ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’ which means that there’s not as much Delacroix as one might like. It’s more focused on seeing the great “Romantic” painter as a profound influence on the ‘Modern’ artists, such as the Impressionists and post-Impressionists. There are some interesting relationships made, especially with Renoir, who seems to have learned a lot about colour from Delacroix but Renoir had more, new paints to have fun with, thanks to industrialization.

One thing s that is particularly intriguing is the linking of Delacroix to Kandinsky. The final picture in the show is Kandinsky’s ‘Study for Improvisation V’, painted in 1910. The fascinating thing that links these two artists is their development of ideas about colour (expressed in Delacroix’s Journals and in Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art). This would be a great show in its own right, but it’s not really discussed here. But I doubt that Delacroix specifically influenced Kandinsky at all. I mean, Kandinsky no doubt saw Delacroix’s work in Paris and no doubt was impressed but – so what?

I do have a big problem with the way Art History is often done, as a linear progression of “influences.” Influence happens all the time, and it’s not linear. People see (and hear) stuff and this finds its way into their work. Of course it happens, but sometimes I wonder if the art history approach (at least as it is offered up in exhibits like this) is a bit too reductionist.

I found myself really impressed with Delacroix’s paintings of North Africa. Painted (deliberately) long after he’d seen the places, these are vibrant with colour and movement. ‘Women of Algiers in their Apartment’ (above) is particularly glorious. Delacroix avoids the overt exoticisation seen in some of the works by his “Orientalist” followers, notably Theodor de Chasseriau, whose work is featured here.

This was just my first visit to the show, and I’ll go again so maybe I’ll have more thoughts. I want particularly to think about how Delacroix’s imagery is repurposed in cinema.

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AHFM: Parajanov and “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”

ART HISTORY FOR FILM MAKERS

IMG_20160206_232824342Sergey Parajanov’s first major film, and the one he considered to have started his career is SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS made in 1965.

Parajanov was a painter as well as a film maker, and it shows in his films.

SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS is loosely based on a story by the Ukrainian writer Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky (1864 – 1913), who wrote about life in traditional isolated Ukrainian villages. Shadows is set in the remote Carpathian region of the Hutsul people and features their sumptuous textiles and folk art in the production  design. Parajanov’s treatment of the story is less ethnographic than mythic. Although there is a wealth of detail in the film, and the life of the pre-communist peasants is shown as hard (de rigueur in Soviet portrayals of pre-revolutionary life), Parajanov gives the film a sense of timelessness that underpins the story of love, loss and grief and vengeance.

But it is Parajanov’s sense of visual storytelling that is most striking.

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Leading sheep in the mountains, converging lines and use of different shades of white

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The extreme close up, especially with the subject eyeballing the camera, is little used in western cinema, but does appear in Soviet film making, and in Soviet still photography.* It does not occur in portrait painting until the 20th century, although Gustave Courbet got pretty close here with this self portrait:

256px-Gustave_Courbet_-_Le_Désespéré_(1843)

It’s an aggressive shot: either aggressive to the subject, being “in-his-face”  – or aggressive to the viewer, having the character’s face shoved into one’s own. It refuses distance. Very effective when used cleverly. Parajanov makes much use of this kind of shot in the film.

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Another type of shot Paranjov uses that we might find unusual yet evocative is the very high angle shot. Quite a bit of this film is shot from a very high angle. Here the massing of the sheep contrasts with the more isolated figures of the people, who are arranged in quite a rigid line. The film does contain religious images and symbolism (such as crosses and crossed sticks, lambs and so forth) but the way they appear in the film offers much more than just religious symbolism, as can be seen in the shot above. Here we see humans trying to assert their humanity, their ability to form lines, and the sheep just mass randomly. The red spot in the middle is brilliant, it’s like a heart at the centre.

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Parajanov’s use of framing is really interesting. Many scenes are shot framed by something (a window a tree, crossed sticks, etc.). Here we see the people enter the courtyard, but it’s shot for above so it’s actually framed by the roof above and below. [sorry this one was shot with instagram]

Abstraction is another very important artistic element that Parajanov brings in to the film and I suppose it is one of the main things that got him in trouble with the Soviet authorities (that and the rampant pagan-Christianity that’s presented). He uses two principal techniques to attain abstraction:

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Above, he uses distorted reflection, to liquefy the image, render it insubstantial and constantly eluding clarity of vision. The use of colour (hard to see here, but tones of blue, red and brown-gold with spots of green).

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Movement. He moved the camera quickly as the characters also move quickly. The result is a gloriously-coloured blur, an abstract image that nonetheless manages to convey the feeling of what’s happening in the film: a celebration.

From a ‘story’ point of view, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors might not be everyone’s cup of tea. It has all the necessary story elements but like an opera, the story is only the skeleton on which to hang the main event. If you’ve ever seen La Traviata, you’ll know what I man. The story is hokey, awful (even the Dumas novel is practically unreadable). Yet every time I’ve seen it I’ve cried like a baby by Act II. And not just me. Last time I went  to Traviata, people were in floods, a woman behind me was actually howling with grief. Why? Because Verdi’s a brilliant composer, and his music forces you to feel.

In Shadows, the main event is the visual, the art.** Shot by cinematographers Viktor Bestayev and Yuri Ilyenko, it is the visuals that carry the film’s emotion and passion. Production design was by Mikhail Rakovsky and G. Yakutovich, with costumes by Lidiya Bajkova. This team created a convincing yet dreamlike evocation of Ukrainian village life.

Some of the film was shot on location and some was shot at the Dovzhenko film studios in Kiev.***  Aleksandr Dovzhenko was Parajanov’s mentor. I think that it’s Dovzhenko’s amazing film Earth that links Parajanov, Dovzhenko and Tarkovksy. Although Earth is in some ways a standard Soviet film (it’s about the process of collectivization of agriculture and the hostility of the ‘Kulak’ landowners to the soviet), Dovzhenko actually transforms it into a film full of mystery and spirit.

Shadows of Fogotten Ancestors isn’t Parajanov’s best known film, that honour goes to The Colour of Pomegranates. My personal favourite is The Legend of the Suram Fortress which I wrote about in Art History for Film Makers. But Shadows is a good introduction to the director’s style and concerns, and it’s an interesting first step in the development of an extraordinary body of work where style and story converge and create superb film art.

 


Folk art and folk culture

Russian and Ukrainian folk art is powerful and distinctive and was actually encouraged and supported during Soviet times, which is why a fair bit of it has been preserved. The great History painter Surikov tried to depict the colour and visual style of Old Russia.

640px-Vasily_Surikov_-_Боярыня_Морозова_-_Google_Art_Project

[Feodosia Morozova by Vladimir Surikov – Wikimedia Commons]

Some painters tried to capture the remnants of peasant life on the cusp of the Revolution.

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genre paintings by Boris Kustodiev [Wikimedia Commons]

Parajanov’s film in many ways adheres to the Soviet celebration of folk culture, but since this rendering is devoid of the redemptive power of class struggle or any foreshadowing of Sovietization it got the director into trouble.


 

READ MORE ABOUT THE FILM

IMDB

excellent essay on Earth by Dovzhenko with a link to the film


 

*Carl Theodore Dreyer uses it to devastating effect in The Passion of Joan of Arc

**I rewatched it with the subtitles off and that was better.

***I really need to make a pilgrimage there one of these days

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reflections on the death of an artist

Somehow, without realizing it, there’s a melancholy feeling in the air … and it’s not just winter casting its grey shades

It is because of the passing, the artists who are slowly but inexorably passing … and they are missed

It feels like a silent but steady rhythm of passage, first one then another, a succession of moments of sadness

it’s so difficult to confront mortality; the mortality of others, and the inevitable mortality of ourselves… yet there it is

I’m thinking now about the artists who gave us all so much, gave me so much

there have been great outpourings of grief, and rightly so, for the famous artists who touched millions of lives, who transformed whole societies, who changed history

but I feel just as sad and bereft of the passing of those who meant something to me personally. Whose bands I saw over and over again; who I shared a beer with; whom I saw working hard, so hard, at being an artist, playing music night after night for me and my friends. They too have made history.

I’m not necessarily talking about people who I am/was really close friends with. I’m just thinking about all of those who I knew and saw playing, whose music shaped me, formed me and made me the person I am. And I’m really, really grateful to them for that.

The idea of making music as giving, a huge outpouring of something transcendental, just continually giving to us… it’s kind of mind blowing. That these men and women night after night just picked up guitars and played for us. Sacrificed so much of the benefits of ‘ordinary’ life in order to give us this huge limitless bounty of art… amazing. To listen to them and feel all the pent up emotion, anger, joy, grief and adrenaline pour out of me and disperse into that incredible, vast shared emotional space that is art… I can’t express my gratitude.

It’s funny but it’s when faced with the loss, that I realised how much we have been given. How lucky I am to have lived in a time where all of this was possible.

So I suppose what I really want to say is, before it’s too late, a belated THANK YOU to all the artists whose music built my youth and made me grow. What a great thing you did. What great people you are.

gibson

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Titian and me… art history and cinema

book

on the left you’ll see my new book ART HISTORY FOR FILM MAKERS which hits the stores later in February. It’s a gorgeous imprint, I’m very pleased to see how high quality it is – lovely paper, great full colour images.

On the right is a book about the wonderful painter Titian, one of the pioneers of ‘cinematic painting’. I want to recommend him and his fantastic works.  I didn’t write this book but I wrote about Titian in ART HISTORY FOR FILM MAKERS  and am writing about him in my new book.

Below is an example of what’s in the book. This is a discussion of matte painting and cinema and the extraordinary production design of Alfred Junge in Black Narcissus. This film (directed by Michael Powell) was set in the Himalayas and is very convincing – despite the fact it was all filmed in a studio in London. A beautiful film.

book2

Bacchus and Ariadne, by Titian

and this is Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian. I love going to see it in the National Gallery

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David Bowie – Heroes

 

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Berlin Remnants of the Cold War 2012

Like many people and all of my friends, I’m sad and upset and unsettled by the death of David Bowie.

I was not a ‘fan’ in the usual sense of the word, but I think in some sense we are all Bowie fans – those of us who value creativity, progressive ideas, humanity. His music expressed all of these and more.

I love many of his songs but the one that touches me most is Heroes. The sentiment of the song is wonderful – “We can be heroes, just for one day” – and indeed we can. The music is soaring and dramatic and makes me shiver.

But also, the song expresses for me what it was like to grow up in that strange time  called the Cold War. The song spoke to me then, as it does now, of living in the shadow of politics and folly yet being able to rise above it, and love and live.

The song (and his 3 Berlin albums, Low, Heroes and Lodger) are my favourites … but can you have favourites among such a stupendous output by such a mercurial, creative, restless genius?

In any case these albums made me want to go to Berlin, and in time I did and it stays one of my favourite cities. I suppose he kind of put the city on the map for someone like me, living  in the depths of Canada… it came in to my consciousness as a place… this was probably good for Berlin, for the people there not being forgotten.

I’ve had Heroes on loop for 2 days now.

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The black subject: ancient to modern

The black subject: ancient to modern
Tate Britain Saturday 21st of February

This symposium, which in only one day tried to cover the appearance of the black subject in art from ancient times up to modernism, was a gathering together of interesting recent research, given by compelling speakers. It is unusual for me to attend a symposium or conference and not feel bored at least part of the time. I am happy to report that at no point did I find myself thinking “why on earth did they put that on for/” or “who is this person and how can they have the nerve to stand there talking like this?” No, this was a timely, well-organized and utterly fascinating day.

Part of the appeal was just the absolute necessity of this discourse. I have written on a number of occasions* about the invisibility of the non-white artist, and the working-class artist, but I haven’t really talked much about the invisibility of the nonwhite subject. Actually, it was exactly this issue that brought the whole problem to my attention: the invisibility of nonwhite subjects in paintings. I wondered why, despite the plethora of images of black subject in advertising, when it comes to fine art, contemporary artists don’t go there. Then I realized that that’s not it: the problem rather is that the contemporary artists who do make those pictures are much less visible than white artists.

banana

A large part of the symposium was dedicated to “finding the black face” in art history. Although this might sound a bit odd, I believe that it’s a necessary act, and one that really needs to be done more. And when I say done more, I mean addressed within the education / Museum situation. For example, in the late medieval and early Renasissance, it was common for at least one of the Magi to be depicted as a black person. Why not actually draw attention to this and make it talking point within a museum display? There are many depictions of white people with black servants, but this offers a possibility to broaden out the art historical discussion. This point was made by the curator Jan Marsh, who helpfully provided a useful list of images of paintings of Black subjects in British art institutions.

DIDO ELIZABETH BELLE, SUBJECT OF AMMA ASSANTE’S DRAMA ‘BELLE’

I think at the root of it all is probably the fact that we still labor under a misconception which probably comes out of the 18th century. The 18th century saw the rise of industrial capitalism, of which slavery was the first development, fueling the money that was then available to build factories and develop technology. This obviously meant that the black population of Britain, particularly port cities would’ve increased and the availability of black servants would’ve increased also. Hence the depictions in art.

The 18th century also gives us something else: a kind of whitewashing of the history of the ancient world. Thanks to the Hellenistic endeavors of Johann Winckelmann, we have a picture of the ancient world which is largely white, as white as the marble statues and temples of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Except that this is not true at all. This whitewashing of the ancient world, extends quite laughably to our visual image of it, the white marble image of Aryan perfection. Except that we actually know now that the ancients painted their statuary and all of their temples. I refer you to the brilliant book Chromophobia by David Batchelor for more on this classical legacy.

The Greeks did have a concept of barbarians and Greeks, but this is not based on race. The Romans, on the other hand, didn’t have any racial ideas whatsoever. Their distinction was whether you were Roman citizen or not, and whether you were free or not. Once you had freedom, it didn’t matter what color you were. Roman hierarchy was not racially based. Going along with that was the fact that the and Roman world, the Mediterranean, was conceived as being the entire Mediterranean, not just the North Mediterranean. The ancient world included Africa. People from Africa, certainly North Africa and also Ethiopia, existed all over the ancient world, traveling, trading, working, fighting. Graffiti from Egyptian soldiers sent to man Hadrian’s Wall attests to their disgust at British weather. Some things will never change.

And there are some ancient works of art which never get mentioned at all, such as the marvelous, splendidly realistic Fayuum portraits made in Roman Egypt. These were funeral portraits, made during a person’s life, to be used in attached to the sarcophagus after death. Recent scientific analysis has proven that the portraits, which show dark eyed, dark skinned people, appear to be of ethnic Egyptians, not white transplanted ‘Romans’. Once again, the concept of ‘Roman’ is not racial. And those portraits would have been made by Egyptians.

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However, once we have a concept of the ‘wonderfully white’ ancient world, and the Europe sanitized of all nonwhite inhabitants, we then get a completely different perspective on the reality of black presence in Europe. Yet, any kind of historical sense makes it clear that could never have possibly been true. Even a casual glimpse at trading patterns across Europe would make it clear that there was a constant two-way traffic between North Africa the Middle East and much further beyond. It is probably true that, then as now, urban areas were more diverse than rural areas, although even that may not be the case. William Mulready’s 1835 painting The Toy Seller shows a black peddler selling toys to a white mother. Although we can’t take the painting as any kind of documentary piece, it does seem to indicate that the rural world was not quite as ‘bleached’ as we pretend.

Of course, the first thing we have to admit is that the actuality of slavery, forced us into a black and white thought dichotomy. The dichotomy of black / white, dark / light existed probably forever, but was not necessarily attributed to human beings. Because in the Mediterranean region and Persia (where Manichean beliefs about dark and light developed out of Zoroastranaism) people usually aren’t specifically black or specifically white, but have different degrees of pigmentation.

So, having spotted the black faces in the history of European art, what next? Actually, the answer was provided right at the very beginning of the symposium. The artist Kimathi Donkor discussed his own work as a painter, which interrogates mis/representations of black subjects in Western art history. His current research is on the the representation of Andromeda (according to Ovid’s story, an Ethiopian princess) who is usually portrayed as white. What’s really important about Donkor’s work is that he’s one of the few recognized figurative painters active in Britain today who portrays black subjects.  Yes, that’s exactly what I said: one of the few. I became familiar with his work Toussaint L’Ouverture at Bedourete, a powerful and strongly cinematic depiction of the Haitian revolutionary hero. I was really impressed with this painting, a remarkable piece in the grand tradition of history painting and, I think, a very important work.

One of the problems with art history, of course, is that with very few exceptions such as H.O. Tanner,  the one doing the representing is white. It’s only in the 20th century that we start to see a trickle of representing being done by black artists. But even those are largely invisible in terms of European modernism. One of the most stimulating presentations, which is saying something in a day full of stimulating presentations, was by Prof. Partha Mitter. Discussing the work of Jamani Roy. I didn’t know anything about Roy before but what Mitter talked about was the idea of alternative modernisms. I’ve always been interested in this, the idea that modernism has been interpreted purely from Eurocentric perspective, which if you think about it is absolutely ridiculous. Especially when you think about how the architects of modernism were themselves completely influenced by Eastern philosophies; one of the things most noticeable in the recent Matisse exhibition was how influenced Matisse himself was by Moroccan visual culture. This limited approach to something as universal as art-making leaves out Egyptian modernism for example, as well as the whole of Latin America, Africa and Japan. The art market may reward the Eurocentric interpretation of modernism, but why should we?

The symposium didn’t really address the subject which I left wondering about, which is how to get all of this fantastic research into the broader public discourse. Where are the art history television programs that present this art history? Where are the non-white artists in the major prizes, and television portraits such as “what artists do all day”?

It is necessary, but not enough simply to spot the presence of black people in art history. We need to see them in contemporary art as well. We need to encourage and support artists who want to depict their reality, black subjects. Because these black subjects are part of our reality. The faces of our history, our neighbors, our friends, our families. Donkor’s work is significant and necessary, as is the work of artists such as my colleague, the London-based Egyptian painter Nazir Tanbouli.

The commercial demands of the art market does not seem to be interested, which is their prerogative. After all, they’re mainly interested in buying and selling, whether it’s arms or paintings. But once again, I have to say that we need to examine how and why the criteria of the art market is so accepted completely uncritically, not only by our media but sadly, also by the curators and critics, and those who are supposed to be nurturing our art tradition and building our artistic legacy.

—————

presenters were:

Kimathi Donkor, Michael Ohajuru,  Temi Odumosu, S.I. Martin,  Michael Fisher, Caroline Bressey, Florian Stadtler, Jan Marsh, Gemma Romain, Roshan McClenahan and Partha Mitter,  hosted by David Dibosa  and Sonia Dyer.

 

* Previous articles I wrote on this:

https://blog.gillianmciver.org/2015/02/10/another-circus-of-the-elite-or-the-whitewashing-of-a-nations-culture/

Art and Invisibility

Dis-membered from the Art World

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alone vs lonely – hmmmm

holy cow, not only is this profound but it’s SO well written.

“She wants to be alone”
by Rhian Sasseen

http://aeon.co/magazine/society/where-are-all-the-women-hermits/?utm_source=Aeon+newsletter&utm_campaign=b4b23fcb2a-Weekly_newsletter_February_202_20_2015&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_411a82e59d-b4b23fcb2a-50705013

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