Charm kills art and I fear it has murdered in Addis Ababa

I was recently rewatching Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited when a friend of mine, who is on a one-year writing fellowship in London asked whether he should move house to Oxford so that he could commute to London for his classes. Oxford, which is a city that I enjoy and like, is ever associated in my mind with charm. As in walking its cobblestones always yields the thought of how charming it is. Yet this I suspect is not what Oxford is at all, its charm is a velvet glove worn over a monstrous self regard which like all malign things that are English is hidden by a facade of good manners and prettified surface.

In any case, here is what the character Anthony Blanche says to Charles Ryder, a modestly famous artist of famous country houses played by Jeremy Irons: “I warned you. I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm. Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.”

This charm is what I have been seeing in many of the galleries I have visited here in Addis Ababa. The artists seem captive to a desire to please and delight, and little more, so that canvas after canvas, all somehow avoiding the world the artist lives in, become like a giant lie that soothes so that it can sell. Charm, in addition to being a facet of personality, is a magic with dangerous, hypnotic qualities. Who would want to hypnotize if not for the purpose of some sort of harm? Charm as magic in the hands of the pleaser and delighter, the artist who avoids honesty, who steers clear of controversy at all costs, recruits him into society’s ruling army of dissemblers. In fact the dictator is more honest in his manipulations and betrayals than is the artist who paints little cute flowers as tanks roll by in the streets.

It was not until I met Richard Onyango (old NYT review) in Nairobi this past weekend that I was able to recognize what I had been seeing in so many galleries here. Onyango’s art is the practice of honesty and it shines through. His life with Souzy Drosie is captured in all its pain and frustration and happiness. His painting of a KBS bus evoked in me such a powerful memory of a day in which death missed me by an inch and ploughed its tons of metal into a schoolboy who was standing less than two meters from me. Onyango does not charm, he delights and challenges and makes me feel that I must be more honest in my writing, and yes, to be a bit dramatic, in my living as well.

(Btw, here is another great quote from the Brideshead Revisited series. This time by Father Mowbray: “But yesterday I got a real eye opener. The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what’s been taught and what’s been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn’t know existed.”)

Fernando Botero and Abu Ghraib


Fernando Botero is showing his incredible new paintings of the Abu Ghraib torture scenes at the Marlborough Gallery in New York. You can see more of them at

Hornsleth: Danish Artist and Ugandan Village


I have just stumbled into Mr. Kristian von Hornsleth, intrepid Danish artist known for audacious works such as the Fuck Me Daddy Bikini and his generally dark view of the art world and art lovers (see his poem, ‘FUCK YOU ART LOVERS.’)

Now his war against global capitalism and consumerism (take a look at his Fuck You Art Lovers dildo) has moved to Buteyongera in Mukono district, a small village north of Kampala, Uganda. The project was to give 108 villagers pigs and other farm animals if they agreed to legally add Hornsleth to their name. Each of the villagers has now been issued a national Uganda ID card showing their new Hornsleth name and their photos holding this ID are to be works of art exhibited around the world.

In five years, the plan is to paid five thousand villagers to become Hornsleths. (Read more here) A Ugandan colleague tells me that newspapers in Uganda and government officials have lambasted the show – calling it a neo-colonial plot – while the new Hornsleths, in possession of their newfound animal wealth, have been largely supportive.

All I can do is laugh. This is the funniest art project that I have come across since I tried making one in my high school art class and failed miserably. Kristian von Hornsleth cannot be satirised, he is already satire. I actually think that this project is doing exactly what art is meant to do which is to provoke.

Kristian’s intention ‘to show in his work the dirty way of global capitalism and confront it with the humane and ethic thinking of his art.’ The work’s ‘political meaning’ as his website puts it is to highlight the depredations and manipulations that Africa suffers at the hands of global capital. But its real thorn, the real controversy is in the willingness of the villagers to change their names and the reactions by their leaders. As the website expresses it, the new Hornsleths are so removed from the world of (Danish/international?) art that their profiting by taking on the name of a ‘worldwide famous artist’ is so ‘abstract for them that they neglect the implications.’

Predictably from the rafters of the Ugandan politician came the howl of condemnation, the singed racial pride, the invocation of anti-imperialism. From the villagers will be silence and emails like this one quoted enthusiastically on

‘hello Hornsleth,
you havedone a wonderfull job in Mukono district and am from wakiso district from a vertain village called Nkowe. But can you please do some helping in my village so that we can be rescured out of poverty that my people are facing now. I am a student of makerere university doing a Bachelors Degree in development studies.
Roger M___’

The email says it all assuming that it is a real email actually sent by this Roger whose representations are truthful. The development student at the national university, as hopelessly addicted to donor monies as so much of Uganda seems to be – ready to prostrate himself in whatever fashion in return for ‘development’ which is the result of an externally driven, handout based process. The ‘fight against poverty’ such a constant refrain, the poverty itself so biting and unrelieved by hope from any other direction other than government and donor.

While Roger thus pleads, his State Minister for Ethics and Integrity, Dr James Nsaba Buturo comes from the other end of the spectrum with a dose of national pride. Or at least that is what he believes it to be: “The government cannot allow such a project to continue. This man owns a cult and he is a homosexual. His agenda is not good for the country. He uses obscene language and has no respect and kind words for God. As soon as he arrives in the country, police will catch up with him to investigate his activities,” he says. This happens just a few days before he is cited by the press for misappropriating government funds. Yes that’s right, the minister of ethics and integrity accused of stealing government funds. (Makes you wonder what documents are on his desk: in the in-tray lies and theft while the out-tray carries truth and virtue?)

The comedy, because you have to laugh not to cry, becomes even more hysterical when you consider that this same minister who would have the project closed down serves a government that receives over fifty percent of its budget from countries like Denmark where Kristian von Hornsleth hails from.

So the circus wheel turns. Hornsleth who thinks he is exposing global capital is instead revealing a lot more than that, more than the ‘ignorance’ of the villagers to the art world. He is actually drawing the lid on the painful contradictions on Ugandan/African nationhood, the absurdities buried in our ideas of citizenship and development and leadership.

More could be said on this subject and in fact it will but first I must consider yet another of Kristian von Hornsleth’s worthy projects, namely Futilism. As in the Futilistic Society which is based on the manifesto that this philosopher, artist and architect has written. Hornsleth has declared war on ‘boredom, routine, institutions and traditions’ and this is a struggle that will be waged so that its result, hopefully when you the bored reader have taken in the ‘blinding clarity and a hazy overload’ of his words, will be to reach into chaos and darkness and away from what is meaningless and futile.

Isn’t it all quite wonderful?

On a Further Reading

Parselelo Kantai on the contested territory in writing and acting on history in Kenya, and the recent spate of books by white, western intellectuals decrying the oppressions suffered by Kenyans of various stripes under British colonialism.  One of them, Caroline Elkins (author of Britain’s Gulagreviews Adam Robert’s The Wonga Coup, the story of a failed 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea led by British mercenary Simon Mann and part-financed by Mark Thatcher, former British PM Maggie Thatcher’s son.  Binyavanga Wainaina generously provides barbed pointers on How to Write About Africa – to hilarious effect.  When African Americans visit Africa, why are they considered white by some Africans?  James Campbell’s Middle Passages is a historical narrative of two centuries of African American journeying to Africa. 

In Kenya and Africa, the Christian church has grown by leaps and bounds.  What is behind this hunger for transcendental truth?  Kenyan missionary Patrick Mukholi sets out to save heathen souls in Oxford, England.  If you’re a man, it turns out that the cut could save your life.  And now there are queues outside the surgery room after studies suggest that a circumcised man is 60% less likely to contract HIV than his uncircumcised counterpart.


‘Arrest me not,’ Mel Gibson telleth the centurion, ‘for I owneth Malibu. And thou lookest a bit Jewish unto me.’ Sayeth the centurion, ‘Tell it to the procurator.’

What do George Galloway, Five-Fingered Betty and Erica Jong Have in Common?

George ‘Gorgeous’ Galloway with his overly orange tan, shiny suits, ‘indefatigable’ love of the spotlight and praises for Saddam Hussein is not my usual cup of tea but that man can do an interview. There is little that is better on TV than to watch Galloway tear a hapless interviewer to bits. Watch this clip on Sky News.

Earlier this morning I run across a brutally delicious review of Erica Jong’s latest effort ‘Seducing the Demon’ which I probably will not read after such a flaying. When in primary school, I would save my lunch money and buy a used book every Friday at a small used bookstore in Hurlingham (which I recently discovered still plies its trade.) It was there – at the age of ten if I remember right – that I came across Jong’s Fear of Flying. I was initially attracted to the title with its promise of airplanes and pilots. But as I flipped through its pages I came across the sex: fevered ‘zipless fucks’ that roused me to no end. And for some years afterward, while the book was in my possession, the pages with the sex scenes were worn from continual reference. It delivered almost as good value for the money as Nick Carter, the spy whose third testicle was a mini-nuke, or Slocum the gunfighter.

Some years ago, as my mother was turning fifty, and, I think quite scared if her frequent laments were any indication, I bought her Jong’s Fear of Fifty. My reasoning was that the book must surely be about life continuing after this watershed, perhaps even of a life that is more sensual and satisfying. She never did tell me what she thought of it and I had forgotten my gift until I came across this review in the Atlantic Monthly. The gift I fear may have plunged her into an even greater depression. What is it do you think that explains such narcissism which seems to be the almost inevitable destination of baby boomer writers?

The mind being what it is, my remembering reading the Fear of Flying inevitably casts me to the (embarrasing) subject of self love. Or to five-fingered Betty as I heard this relationship with the self referred to when I got to college in the States. The former (or perhaps still-going-strong Marxists) at Spiked, the UK online magazine, have been taking dead aim at the ‘politics of self’ or politics emptied of all content except the narcissism that Erica Jong seems to exemplify. Frank Furedi in an essay on ‘Europe’s very first ‘Masturbate-a-Thon’ event’ shreds the state’s outing of five-fingered Betty. The very same Britain that is today celebrating masturbation as the ultimate self love was a hundred years ago gripped in a hysteria that it was responsible for the weakening of their empire as it presumably had the Roman one…

Baby talk is good or back to writing

Continuing on with what has become a frequent – and to me quite enjoyable – exchange on the religious roots of nationalism and many forms of social cohesion, I received an email from BK below that continues where the last post on ‘Let us get back to belief shall we? Again. And memory in writing’ left off.

From: BW

I am thinking that the way we have learned to act is often related by what we read into the symbols that make up written language. That is, Noah is ‘real’ because he can be referenced with some consistency in many places. If I am in Muranga in 1902, Noah is realer than the Kariuki who I have heard lives in Molo and is my cousin – because the reports of him are inconsistent. If we are conversing about Noah, and disagree, I can remove my bible and show; and you remove yours. And we continue to argue – and may or may not reach a consensus – BUT, we have spent time training each other to read similar things into the Noah situation. If we do the same thing about Kariuki, immediately afterwards, we find, soon, that we cannot go far – for I believe one thing based on my interpretations of what I have heard. And you another based on your own interpretations. Our sources and emphasis may be vastly different. So for me, the heart of the growth in the importance of the bible was in its writenness.

Even when most people could not read, there were those who could and could translate or explain it to others. This power of writing, among many others, is allows people to make contracts with greater consistency. If somebody is far removed from you in the way they choose to perceive life and measure the value of physical things, it makes transactions difficult. But a text around which is a measure of consensus allows for both parties to gauge their transactions – and come up with a close result.

Belief – and faith come in because your imagination, which has much power to mimic organisms and the ‘flesh’ and interactions of living – can now solidify reality removed from present action, by constant reference to characters and situations who can be measured against your imagination, so your imagination becomes closer to the reality of the present eye.

“Noooo. You lie. Noah never lived in a fish.”

In the absence of television or radio the daily reading of the bible can make biblical characters have sustained narratives more ‘real’ than distant friends; than yourselves even, in any past. Instead of peppering examples from remembered clan transactions, it becomes more efficient to provide examples from the ‘living flesh’ of biblical relations – because they are now more real than the past.

From: MMK

Nice. That is the thing, the written word creates a canon whether it is the one that forms the basis of a nation or merely the ‘rules’ around which the interaction between cousins can be mediated as you say by an external, ‘neutral’ storehouse of experience and thought. The Bible is THE founding text in so many places, not only of nations but I think of families as well. Just a quick look at some of the stuff that Adrian Hastings and David Aberbach have to say:

Adrian Hastings: For the development of nationhood from one or more ethnicities, by far the most important and widely present factor is that of an extensively used vernacular literature. A long struggle against an external threat may also have a significant effect as, in some circumstances, does state formation, though the latter may well have no national effect whatever elsewhere. A nation may precede or follow a state of its own but it is certainly assisted by it to a greater self-consciousness. Most such developments are stimulated by the ideal of a nation-state and of the world as a society of nations originally ‘imagined’, if you like the word, through the mirror of the Bible, Europe’s primary textbook, but turned into a formal political philosophy no earlier than the nineteenth century and then next to canonised by President Woodrow Wilson and the Versailles peace settlement of 1920.

‘Religion is an integral element of many cultures, most ethnicities and some states. The Bible provided, for the Christian world at least, the original model of the nation. Without it and its Christian interpretation and implementation, it is arguable that nations and nationalism, as we know them, could never have existed. Moreover, religion has produced the dominant character of some state-shaped nations and of some nationalisms. Biblical Christianity both undergirds the cultural and political world out of which the phenomena of nationhood and nationalism as a whole developed and in a number of important cases provided a crucial ingredient for the particular history of both nations and nationalisms.’

David Aberbach: The Hebrew Bible, though generally seen mainly as a religious document, has also provided models of secular national identity. A number of biblical motifs have been revived in modern cultural nationalism: for example, the importance of moral regeneration, attacks on internal and external enemies of the nation, and the unification of disparate groups despite geographic dislocation. The Hebrew Bible also anticipates various forms of conflict in modern national identity: between the individual and the group, chosenness and egalitarianism, the narrowly national and the universal. In the two centuries after the invention of printing, the Hebrew Bible in vernacular translation had a decisive influence on the evolution of nationalism, particularly in Britain. The Bible was essential in the culture of empires but also, paradoxically, inspired defeated, suppressed and colonised people to seek freedom. A number of modern national poets, notably Whitman and the Hebrew poets Bialik and Greenberg, adopt a free verse neo-prophetic mode of _expression. The Hebrew Bible can, therefore, be read as the archetypal, and most influential, national document from ancient times to the rise of modern nationalism.

From: BW

What I am thinking is that your memory needs your imagination to create scenarios; not just new ones but to keep what you saw, heard and experienced fresh and fleshy. Left on their own, the imagination would take control of the memory and run anywhere with it. But, because you share memories with those you live with – and sharing these is central to all your dealings with everybody; they keep you close by sharing back. But this is inefficient because if you are all affected by some sudden outside event or act your memories could all be rearranged – because all memories are a present take on the past. If the present changes dramatically, the past will get rearranged too. And when people gather to renegotiate the memories, it becomes a battle of the dominant, the charming, and the witty – not of the one closer to the events as they happened. Writing made people’s relationships consistent – it offered a third party storage that could always be referred to keep the centre in the same place. So the loss was shifting centers – centers had been shifting for ages…..

So the monopoly is not Christianity to make modern nations. It comes from not Christianities ‘marketing’ of Israel; or the Judeo-Christian innovation of the 20th century nation-state. Sanskrit, King James English – same thing: a fixed centre of’ reality’ could exist for the first time; and the citizenry would now ‘radiate’ to the ‘fixed’ centre and measure themselves against it – and measure the value of things against. This made durable empire – and even more durable citizenry later. So first church is the centre of mediation; of ‘reality building’ and when it is realized that this ‘system can transfer, school becomes where consistency is transmitted. Church was dangerous because power automatically transferred from the military warlord families who controlled Europe, to the pyramid of religious transfers, the priests had more power over individuals than anybody else. The only immovable thing was the black and white of the text; and power became vested in whoever could build consensus most widely around a text that claimed to represent their interests…..who could ally their power, their ideas around a text that could represent it.

So now we gather, completely gaseous against the solid reality of the text. This is what a court case is: all can shift. Fact, history, evidence, perception and future depending on how you can persuade the text. This is a parliament, an exam, a bank form, a text book, a census. A person: a corporation is simply a person composed of nothing but texts; texts talking to texts and people coming to them to mediate reality.

So. A company is realer than a person. You can track everything; and measure everything. This is a person you can do business with from anywhere in any language and you have better trust that he will deliver your maize more than you trust your brother to deliver your maize. There is no inconsistency that a company can provide than cannot be measured – it has no mystery; and mystery is what we have been trying to abandon all along. How come religious epiphanies do not call people to destroy markets or trading monopolies or access? We are all able to believe that a company will behave predictably; we are able to be completely ‘secular; with it – even at the most fever-pitched time. If you kill the Tutsi shop-owner, the shop becomes colorless and a perfectly able to immediately become Hutu.

The mystery of the motivations of those Tutsis: the hidden negotiations; the suspicious genes: unchangeable, unseeable, the larger part of a person is invisible; and so the imagination of the enemy cannot be limited when drastic action is requested….there is not human way to measure the size of their threat, and so in a competition for power, the fastest disseminators of a compelling reason or strategy can win easily.

We are coming to worship the text; it has proven larger and more solid than God. You can make your text, your own one, to fit reality. But where only the bible continues as the overarching text – the war is over who owns it.

From: MMK

Is it the poppers? Is this what they do to a brain: make it spew out surprising and provocative ideas? If, as you say, memory is always new, contingent on circumstance and need, then it requires nothing as much as it does the imagination. But then I started to wonder at how differentiated are the imagination, memory, reality, the written/codified word. Take the imagination for instance which I think is sitting at the heart of your argument. Aristotle argued that the imagination is a kind of phantasm, a mind picture almost, that fused together the inputs of the sense organs. Then the modern era in the form of a Descartes followed mostly in his footsteps thinking of imagination as that which allows us to take chaotic, jumbled sense data into coherence. Hume went further: the imagination through its ability to bundle and categorize sense data leads to the use of specific words for specific impressions. Words then become a part of our empirical interaction with the world and it is this process, this joining of the mind and body that I think we call reality. Because of a shared commonality of experience in regard to sense data – for example when a Stone Age band gets chased by a woolly mammoth – there is probably a drive to standardize words. Our baby world with its constant revolutions of paradigms, perceptions and interpretations becomes a narrower, more externally agreed-upon interpretation of the physical world expressed in words.

The drive to codify develops through songs, children’s stories, etc. It gets to the point when a founding book – often a dictionary written to translate the bible into a vernacular language according to Hastings – which demands that the author choose one word and eliminate another. Language, which can vary wildly even within short distances, becomes standardized and the bible with its narratives popularizes this version of language.

Our imagination meanwhile is getting fed with an infinite amount and variation of sense-data but eventually has an ever more finite and pre-agreed store of words with which to represent a coherent picture when it can form it – it seems to me that words then curtail possibility if you think of it as an infinity of perceptual or interpretive choices. Then comes Kant who goes argues that yes, the imagination is an associative tool but that it is limited to templates that exist in the mind before the ‘entry’ of any sense data. But he has no accounting for where these formats come from; he thinks they are a mystery, a matter of the human soul – God perhaps? He too spurns the odd and perhaps impossible to communicate possibilities of perception and interpretation that we had as non-speakers of a public language but does so more reassuringly by assuring that the source of this limitation is not of this earth, not limited by the senses. I only partly go with Kant as far as the mystery of the soul, which sets me up later to conceive of a basic and essential human drive to be the need for transcendence and of our unavoidable need for a god. (But you, and correct me if I am wrong, have a strong desire to eliminate this god/heaven/beyond the grave thing from the way you conceive of human interaction with the world outside us.)

My question really is whether the imagination can ever see us beyond the sense data of the physical world. Can we as writers conceive of it as a ‘wild’ zone of creativity that is unruled or at least unruly? If so, then it offers the possibility of creating concepts or categories or a paradigm that did not exist previously. It is out of this hope of possibility that I believe the desperate refutation of death, which after all is completely confirmed by our sensory input, emerges; the need for life after death. Surely we need not tax possibility when the imagination as a picture of ‘reality’ allows us to manipulate and operate such that we are able to build systems and methods that prolong life or at least make it more profitable and comfortable. I am possibly being slightly jumbled when I say that the store you set on the memory and imagination as ways of negotiating reality does not go far enough in accounting for the element of possibility and the uses to which human beings put it. As the text becomes God, it narrows possibility. By codifying language so relentlessly we get further drawn into a conception of the world that is ever more empirically based (see the argument between creationism and evolution.) Yes, the text tends toward the solid as you say but we seem to fight this process all the way even as we use it to operate better in the world. Why else would the genocidal killer view his victim as you say, unchangeable and unseeable? Where does the act of killing lie: with the text or with an imagination unhindered by the limitations of standardized interpretations of sense perception?

AB&H Dictionary: Is History a god?

Late last week, I visited the Public Records Office in Kew Gardens here in the UK for some archival research. The building – which is pictured above – feels and looks so much like a church that I suspect many visitors feel impelled to speak in hushed tones once they drive into the compound. After a few hours of browsing the records, I was struck by how common phrases regarding history’s opinions were: History will judge; it will absolve; condemn; favor; and even love…

This topic came up at my dinner with English acquaintances who regularly rub shoulders with their countrymen in high office. One of them revealed that the frequently issued media warnings of ‘History condemning’ one politician or the other are actually felt as a weighty moral judgment on a personal level. I tried to imagine a Kenyan politician suffering sleepless nights worrying about History’s judgment (maybe for ordering commando raids on a newspaper) and found it impossible to believe that it would even count as a mild concern. So let me suggest this: History in these Isles is a kind of god who influences behavior and condemns or praises with the Historian as priest or prophet. By contrast, for us in Kenya, and much of Africa, academic (written and stored) history is mostly an act of ideological recovery that attempts to break away from the European orbit (‘We are human too’ it says; ‘we also had kings and queens’; ‘look, here are the records of how badly you treated me’). It seems to me to be purely reactive, especially since most of our historians’ obsession with the history that they are trying to erect is merely a rebellion against the history as deity that they encountered in the Makereres and the Cambridges.

The PRO contains public records that span an unbroken period from the 11th century to the present. It is this mountain of paper, which of course represents an exceedingly small proportion of the human actions that occurred during those 1000 years that looms over today’s official actions. Its foundational assumption is of a linear progression, in which every (super)man has a role to play ushering a trans-generational narrative onward, higher, toward the end of the world (a heaven or a hell.) As has increasingly become the case, everywhere I look and much of what I hear in this most secular of societies is deeply religious; this being the case as well in socialist systems that retained the very same sense of an unerring march toward an end-point. How else could one justify such teleology when a truly secular system of intellectual inquiry would I think more accurately regard history as characterized by discontinuity, rupture and lacking in an inherent direction?

What of those who have ‘no history’ in the sense that their archives only carry records spanning a couple of hundred years, if that, and even the efforts of the oral traditions investigator yield little knowledge of life a few centuries ago? How fitting it should be that it is in the very societies lacking the massive backlog of records that religious feeling is at its most intense. Perhaps all those prayer sessions in Jeevanjee Gardens and in the thousands of Kenyan churches are about building a history and even a nation. ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…’ says the book of Genesis rushing onward to the creation of the world, of man and eventually of the nation of Israel which has been the idealized model for Christendom’s nations.

Whether indeed we Gentiles can graft ourselves into this history is supported by the epistle of Paul and Galatians which promise that Kenyan Christians can in fact become a ‘new Israel’. Perhaps this is why when I visit my grandma’s digs in Nyeri I encounter frequent signage on churches and roadside posters proclaiming a New Israel to be at hand. These in the context of history as a narrative with its spiritual beginnings and endings (parallel – and so perhaps inspired by – the birth and death of the individual) imply that the popular history of Kenya mostly exists in the charismatic and not bureaucratic-rational realm. Why I am saying all this? To merely suggest that the drive and the need for history in Kenya has found biblical soil to be more fertile than the archive and furthermore that this is what history has always been about anyway.

(I may also have written this post because I wish this to be so, so that I can stay out of the archives:-))

BTW: If you are not a Eastern European mercenary leading commando raids on the Standard Newspaper, and therefore frown on such antics, please send an email to State House Kenya ( expressing your opposition to the events of recent days. Also, take a look at a great post in Thinker’s Room on the subject.

Dr. Roland Returns to Breakdown Riga’s Art Nouveau Architecture

A few months ago, after I had visited Paris, my cocky little pronouncement on IM Pei’s glass pyramid was taken to task by my friend, the redoubtable Dr. Roland, who wrote an entertaining and thought provoking post on the symbolism and ideas in architecture. A couple of days ago, fresh from Riga, I asked him to breakdown that city’s art nouveau buildings. And as his style, he has returned to show that architecture is not just ‘a story of bricks and mortar, but one of a people.’ If you know an architect in an African city, please invite them to comment about their city’s style here.


I would love to give you a long dissertation about Art Nouveau but I don’t know much about it. Add to it the fact that I don’t care for the style very much and you see perhaps why I don’t know much about it. I will give you what I have and let your readers add to it and do their/your own analysis.

I’ll start off with an excerpt from A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals by Spiro Kostof.

“Most everyone agrees that the Art Nouveau started in Brussels in the early Nineties with Victor Horta (1861-1947), and it aspired to that obsessive goal of modernism, freedom from the past. Its signature was a florid, sinuous line suggesting organic growth, the burgeoning of plants. Metal membering, thin and pliant as it was, served the style well, and the frank use of iron now entered domestic architecture for the first time… In the salon of Horta’s Hotel van Eetvelde in Brussels of 1895, we can observe how these supple Art Nouveau filaments swirl about like tendrils, weaving together walls, ceiling, and supports… …the structural and the decorative live inseparably. The other reference would be the to late Gothic—the skeletal élan, the transparency, the flicker of ornament. All this, involving as it did an endless round of individualistic, custom-made invention, did not recommend the Art Nouveau to the functionalist wing of modern architecture.”

We can see that Art Nouveau emerges at the turn of the last century. The first question one should ask is partially answered by Kostof above. Art Nouveau should be considered as part of the modernist movement — but a movement whose rules had not been set in stone. The leading modernists of architecture – such as Mies van der Rohe, the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius etc. – were still in their infancy. The great ideas of the left — Marxism, socialism, futurism — still retained the freedom to be vibrant and unrestrained. No dogmas had set in yet. Art Nouveau reflects this. Only later would architecture refine itself and develop the “form follows function” idea that many of you know so well. As you know, many movements develop organically and some explorations become dead ends. While I think it would be too harsh to call Art Nouveau a “dead end”, it clearly did not emerge as the leading form of modernism that you all know today.

Implied in the description above is the idea that Art Nouveau was merely “decorative”. There is the idea that the style was just that, a style and nothing more. It seems to have no more import than to look…pretty. Its organic nature of “tendrils” and “the burgeoning of plants” did not link itself to any deeper movement towards environmentalism or ecology, none of which had yet emerged. Understand also, that the great ideas are such because they link themselves to other great ideas in different fields so as to create an even greater whole. I will leave you to see that Renaissance architecture, which is great in itself, links to Renaissance art, which, in turn, links to Renaissance sculpture and so on. Modernism in architecture links to Modernist art, Modernist music, sculpture, literature, philosophy and so on endlessly. This process reveals how we are able to create the great ages of mankind as the great people in any individual arena are dealing with the same central set of ideas. A modernist poet will always be able to talk to a modernist architect since they both have the same philosophical frame of reference. Unfortunately, Art Nouveau has little of this. It goes only so far as a “look.” Having not been planted on the rich soil of a deep philosophical idea, it has little to grow on and remains mired in the past as an early 20th century “style.”

[Here’s an insider’s tip. If you want to cut someone’s artwork to pieces without sounding vindictive, just call the work “decorative.” This is one of the worst insults you can give to someone’s artwork without actually sounding insulting. It is a left-handed compliment. In the same line you can say that someone’s work is “pretty.” That cuts. Although, when one says that Art Nouveau is “decorative” it isn’t so much an insult as it is the statement of fact that has been proven out over time. Also, we must state here that our arts need not always be laden with philosophical weight all the time! Imagine how horrible it would be to have Beethoven’s 5th as dinner music! (too heavy) Or Wagner! (way to heavy!) Would you be able to work well if your office had Picasso’s Guernica on the wall? Sometimes you need some whimsy, something light.]

Well, the above was just a little introduction to a style that I know little about. Remember how I analyzed architecture in the “Pei” essay. That was all about the shape and form of architecture and how you and I relate to it. Please use this type of analysis in your own interaction with it. Remember the questions we asked: big, small, skinny, fat, heavy, light etc. Most importantly, use these elements of analysis to make your own statements about architecture whenever you see it. This is one art form that we all MUST interact with. How does the building you are sitting in at this moment make you feel? Is it organized well/poorly? Come to your own conclusions and own your feelings. Make the interaction less and less of what I tell you and more and more of what you actually feel when you walk into a building. Try this exercise. Compare and contrast two buildings of the same type. I guarantee that all of you will do this when you decide which house to buy or which apartment/flat to rent. Does the building have a small entranceway that explodes into a huge central atrium? How does that make you feel? Does the house have a huge/small entertainment area? What does that say about its owners? In many art forms we are supposed to ask what the artist means by this or that so that we might have the correct interpretation of what he’s trying to do or say. In a certain poem or music you might be told that perhaps the piccolos and flutes represent birds. Not so in architecture. The feeling is much more visceral: no one needs interpretation when walking into St. Paul’s in London, you can’t help but feel it. Sure you may need some help with the little things such as crenellation, entablature, the type of columns, etc. But you have every right to own your feeling about a building, a space. No one can tell you that you are interpreting it wrong,that’s the beauty of architecture. Buildings must be made to serve people who know nothing about architecture and may be quite illiterate. Look at Gothic architecture in the Middle Ages. The architects had to elicit the proper feelings from peasants who could not even read or write, people who didn’t know the first thing about architecture. It was the architect’s job to bring the unwashed people into the cathedral and make them feel the awe of the stained glass window, the lofty spire, the glory of God, the peace and tranquility that was required for the religious purpose. If the architect was not successful in achieving this response he could not shrug his shoulders haughtily and say, “You are interpreting it wrong.”

Now that you have begun the process of analyzing the shapes and forms that you encounter, you can simply add a few questions as I have asked above of the who, what, where and when as it relates to the building. This is just a little sugar on top and should not affect your feelings about the building. As with everything man does, architecture is not just a story of bricks and mortar, but one of a people.

Now I must ask you for some insight, Kima. Here’s where you have the opportunity to do the analysis you have asked of me. Here are the questions:

1. What is the history of Riga? Have they always thought of themselves as unique? Do they think of themselves as Baltics? Sort-of-Russians? Almost-Scandinavians? I know that they were once part of the Prussia of Fredric the Great, which was quite proudly nationalistic and German. Do they feel this? Do they feel the need to separate themselves from Russia and make artistic statements of independence? Do they struggle to be less Russian? I know that many even in Russia acknowledge that “real” Russia is Kiev, whereas Moscow was created in an effort to be more western. Is this right? Does Riga reflect any of this? What is the character of the Rigan soul?

2. What is the immediate history of Riga? Did they have a mayor at the turn of the century that really wanted to make a statement with his city? Architecture is important for this. Look at Barcelona. All it took was an Olympics meet and a Frank Gehry designed museum and BOOM! All of a sudden Barcelona is hot. Next comes the whispering campaign, “Barcelona is hot now,” and all of the accoutrement follows—internet cafes, new nightclubs, and, of course, thousands of new, upscale shops. Could it be that Riga was trying to develop something like that 100 years ago?

3. Invariably an idea will catch on in some places more than others. All it takes is one professor of architecture at the local university who, maybe, was brought in from Brussels who espoused the style and taught it to several students that could have made the difference. Maybe there was a “Rigan school” of thought in architecture.

4. About this time Lenin was starting to make noises next door. How did this affect architectural choice? Were they trying to make anti-communist statements?

So now I will turn your request onto you, my brother, will you please tell me the story of Art Nouveau architecture in Riga?

Are the Lovers of Harry Potter Narcissists?

This is the question that Spengler asks in an Asian Times review of the latest Harry Potter installment – Half Blood Prince (which incidentally I hope you buy using the link to Amazon on this page…)

Spengler has this to say to those such as myself who love the Harry Potter series:

“It may seem counter-intuitive, but complacency is the secret attraction of J K Rowling’s magical world. It lets the reader imagine that he is something different, while remaining just what he is. Harry (like young Skywalker) draws his superhuman powers out of the well of his “inner feelings”. In this respect Rowling has much in common with the legion of self-help writers who advise the anxious denizens of the West. She also has much in common with writers of pop spirituality, who promise the reader the secret of inner discovery in a few easy lessons.”

Read on the for rest of this fascinating review: Spengler

Live8 and Emmanuel Jal

On Saturday July 2nd, Live8 concerts will be held in ten cities around the world. They will feature the biggest and most famous names in pop. Performing in London, at Hyde Park, will be the African Children’s Choir, Annie Lennox, Bob Geldof, Coldplay, Dido, Elton John, Joss Stone, Keane, The Killers, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Ms. Dynamite, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Razorlight, REM, Robbie Williams, Scissor Sisters, Snoop Dogg, Snow Patrol, Stereophonics, Sting, Travis, U2, UB40, Velvet Revolver. What jumps out at me instantly is that none of these artists is African. On Wednesday night, I happened to catch up with Emmanuel Jal – a young Sudanese rapper and currently the hottest act in East Africa – who was performing at the Ritzy. It turns out that he was publicly invited by Fran Healy, the lead singer for Travis, who had been in Sudan to “see the plight of Africans for himself”. Healy, who has stoutly defended Bob Geldorf against charges that the Live8 is nothing more than a careerist prop, promised Emmanuel that he would be part of the line up at Hyde Park tomorrow night. But this will not be the case. Emmanuel told me that Geldorf had informed him in no uncertain terms that he could not participate. Only artists who had “sold more than 4 million records” would get on stage Sir Bob informed young Emmanuel.

A former child soldier in war-torn Sudan, and a strong talent, Emmanuel should be what Live8 is all about. His debut album, Gua (‘Peace’ in his native Nuer language), ‘fuses staccato rapping in Arabic, English, Kiswahili and Nuer’, and is an incredible piece of work.

This is what Live8 has to say about itself:

“This is not Live Aid 2. These concerts are the start point for The Long Walk To Justice, the one way we can all make our voices heard in unison. This is without doubt a moment in history where ordinary people can grasp the chance to achieve something truly monumental and demand from the 8 world leaders at G8 an end to poverty. The G8 leaders have it within their power to alter history. They will only have the will to do so if tens of thousands of people show them that enough is enough. By doubling aid, fully cancelling debt, and delivering trade justice for Africa, the G8 could change the future for millions of men, women and children.”

But of course the concerts or the Long Walk to Justice or the pledges of aid or debt cancellation have nothing to do with Africans and poverty. This is all about a self obsessed, cynical use of suffering to prop up fledgling pop careers for those like Geldorf; cynical political machinations by the Blair types who understand that there is much mileage to be made from ‘helping Africa’ when they are deeply unpopular on other fronts; and an aid industry that has become hopelessly addicted to living high off the proceeds of suffering. If only that snot nosed boy with a Kwashiorkor-distended belly and perhaps a couple of bullet wounds knew how many people he feeds, clothes and houses in luxury. If only he knew how much aid he has given to the washed out, mediocre types who clamour to help him.

In all the major concerts, there will be few if any Africans on stage. The closest thing to one in London will be Snoop Dogg who was brought in at the last instant to add a dash of colour to the proceedings. Then there will be the African Children’s Choir. These are kids from the nKomazi region on the northern border of South Africa. We are told by their founder, Ray Barnett, that AIDS is devastating their villages, that they are all orphans and that “their story is that of so many children in sub-Sahara Africa.” The purpose of their attendance will be to show the world the plight and hope of all African children.

I have no doubt that they are quite talented and all that, but they are not going to be on stage as artists. They are a project. Just like Africa and Africans are projects. We have long since shed any vestiges of human independence and ability and have become walking sores, diseases and killing machines according to our ‘friends’. Emmanuel or any other African musician must not be allowed to perform in front of the hundreds of millions who will be tuned into the concert broadcasts. For that to happen, it would be revealed that in fact Africa has minds, opinions and a life outside the beggary and misery that is the staple food of the Geldof types.

Fisticuffs, Bitterness and Fame

I have just got this sudden craving to watch black and white talkies; anything with Lauren Bacall or Elizabeth Taylor, who in case you were not schooled became a celluloid goddess after her performance in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’. I dare you to consider going through with a marriage proposal after watching that train wreck of a film!

The other evening, while weighing whether to endure the guilt of procrastination or completing two overdue dissertation chapters, I decided on the former and turned to the TV in the hope of catching some good old Jerry Springer. If you have ever wanted to feel blessed, brilliant, loved and morally upright, I highly recommend an hour of Jerry ‘take care of yourself and each other’ Springer. Unfortunately, there was nothing to appeal to such base tastes. However, I did came across a late-night screening of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. And was soon riveted by the emotional disintegration of Jake La Motta the boxer character played by Robert De Niro. The film is two hours of cringe and is based on the true story of La Motta who was a middleweight fighter in the late-1940s and early-1950s.

From winning the world championship with the kind of ferocity that only comes from deep issues, La Motta starts throwing fights, brutalises his wife, sexually exploits minors, takes to heavy drink and finally ends up as a washed-up grossly overweight stand-up comic at an obscure nightclub. All the while De Niro is matching his character’s weight gain and you can see him literally falling apart physically and psychologically. The film has all the elements it takes to make the ab&h list of celluloid fame, fisticuffs, bitterness and fame. And of course it is about boxing, a subject that has long fascinated me to the point that I am in danger of being one of those old men whose constant refrain will be, “I couda been a contender son, then your momma done gon an gotten herself pregnant…”

So a few days later, I am doing my little pre-summer jogging routine and I start daydreaming that I am wearing a hoodie, running with a grim determination to win an upcoming title fight. Before you can say “snap out of it”, I am at my laptop doing a Google search for boxing gyms in the neighbourhood. And behold, there happens to be one a mile or so away. So what other option did I have but to inquire about joining in the hope that at 34, the gym owner would run his bleary eye down my library ravaged body and spot the savage beast within.

And that is exactly what the elderly and laid-back – to the point of unconsciousness – owner of the Fitzroy Lodge did. His sceptical eyes took me in, concentrating to my surprise not on my bulging with skin, bone and blood vessels biceps but on my ever so slightly protruding belly. With what I hoped was a tone implying that I had banged heads with the toughest of them but did not wish to call attention to a dark past, I announced that I was there to “work out.” He extended his hand in greeting and I shook his dry palm with what I hoped was a squeeze that would let him gauge a hidden strength that I imagine must be someplace in me even if its stayed well hidden all these years. And no, don’t you dare suggest that my hands gained their hard grip hanging out with five-fingered Betty in boarding school. But this is a digression that is not to my advantage.

The gym was tucked away behind a line of FedEx delivery trucks, under an unused rail-track giving it the slightly seedy, industrial atmosphere anyone who has watched Rocky associates with such ventures. Inside, the ubiquitous and much described in every boxing story was an overpowering smell of sweat, chalk and leather. I was in: the first step to a fight in Las Vegas’ Caesar’s Palace ring!

The room was dominated by two boxing rings occupied by bouncing, jabbing, parrying, shuffling pairs. They looked clumsy to me, I could already tell that they were not going to match the athleticism that saw me into the Lenana School rugby team all of fifteen years ago. Heavy bags hung from the low ceiling like big, red fruits that had somehow managed to make a roomful of men angry enough to whack at them with varying degrees of violence. From all the boxing sagas I had read, and my lifelong fascination with the Kinshasa fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, I knew that ‘working the bag’, as the latter did so famously, is an art form of controlled aggression and playacting since you must visualise an appendage-less opponent who looks like a red, squat four-foot long sausage hanging from the ceiling.

Standing out from the crowd of young, mostly white males was a thin black woman who was bouncing clumsily from foot to foot with a kind of crazed energy as she tried to pummel the bag under the watchful eye of the whole room. You could tell right away that everyone was intensely conscious of her presence and I wondered whether I would come in for the same attention – perhaps even a challenge to spar with a brutal customer who would try and ‘blood’ me. These impressions were brief since our walk across the room to the office was all of thirty feet.

To be continued … my ego can take no more writing for now. I must save the triumph or the agony for later; my chapters are calling for some loving attention.

Blam! And You Thought You Knew Architecture (I.M. Pei)

One of my best friends, Roland, recently sent me a response to a cocky little email I had sent him awhile ago just after I had visited Paris for the first time. On seeing I.M. Pei’s famous glass pyramid in the Louvre, I pronounced it Mitterrand and Republican France’s middle finger to the monarchism of Louis XIV. Roland’s eye saw more, so much more that I have been driven to sharing his email below. I think it is the most illuminating, learned and madly enjoyable critique of an architect’s work that I have ever read.


I’m in the middle of writing another little ditty to you and then I see that you are (or were) in Paris. I didn’t know you were going and if I did I would have written this for you before you left. Actually this is over two years old. I should have given it to you before I saw you in March 2004.

You wrote me an e-mail long ago with your observations on French culture and particularly I.M. Pei’s (pronounced “Pay”) the Louvre. You saw this stark modernist thing sitting right there and it caught your attention. You thought it was Chirac’s gigantic F___ you to France’s past. Not quite. Please be seated for the following lecture on modern architecture of I.M. Pei presented by noted architectural historian Dr. Roland. Exams will be on Tuesday.

Good afternoon. (ab&h, if you continue to throw those spitballs, I will be forced to send you to the headmaster’s office!) Today’s lecture is about the modernism of I.M. Pei. First we will discuss Pei’s use of modernism in the pyramid in front of the Louvre. Contrary to what one would think of at first glance, his pyramid is not an affront to the 2nd Empire style architecture of that portion of the Louvre. What is going on here is what you may have heard in art called “comparison and contrast.”

Let us look at form and break it down. This area of the Louvre is an interior courtyard surrounding the pyramid. What is the characteristic of the style of the buildings? They are all 19th century additions in a very ornate style, very richly and heavily decorated. What is the characteristic of the pyramid? It is a modernist style of steel and glass whose lack of texture suggests smoothness. You see? Highly textured versus smooth. This is the type of thing that is done to highlight the differences and bring out the uniqueness of both qualities. One contrasts with the other, not for the purposes of embarrassing the other or to say F.U., but to bring each other into greater relief. Next, we can see that the older building, being built of stone, is opaque. In contrast, the pyramid is made of glass. This highlights a juxtaposing of solidity, weight, permanence against transparency and light. The old buildings stand proudly on the ground pronouncing their import. The pyramid introduces a new subterranean level, which we must consider. The old buildings invite us to go up into them, but create clogged traffic flows that mess up the vista of the plaza and make it less appealing. (I can remember being accosted by little ragamuffin Gypsies constantly running up to me trying to sell/steal something, which took away something from the experience. Please excuse any bourgeois condescension here.)

The pyramid invites us to acknowledge the previously unconsidered subterranean and directs traffic flows down into it. Here the pyramid provides an accent to the composition that forces us to look at the old buildings again and concentrate on what their architectural statement actually is. In turn, the old buildings force us to look at the pyramid and ask more questions about it. Never does the pyramid function by itself, or overshadow the older buildings. As I said before, it “accents” them. It doesn’t call attention to itself for its own purpose, but only in serving the purpose of the composition as a whole. Now that the contrast between the old and the new has forced us to look at the pyramid more closely, even as we have just looked at the Louvre itself more closely, we delve to a different level of analysis.

We notice that the pyramid is built in a modernist style. But wait a minute, the pyramid is a very ancient form, in fact, the most ancient form of architecture. So we have an old form in a new style—again, contrast. Now let’s add the Louvre to the mix. Isn’t the Louvre supposed to the old building? But wait, again! The pyramid is harkening back to a form that’s older than the building that’s supposed to be the “old” one! Once again we have contrast. That which is really an old form is actually the newer form in this composition. That which is the newer form is, in many respects, the older form in the composition. In this way the two forms dance back and forth, never really allowing us to rest—never allowing us to take them for granted and constantly creating the slight tension that provokes passion, thought and interest.

Now for the coup-de-grace—context. Ask yourself which civilization does the pyramid bring to mind. Egypt, of course. Who in the modern world brought Egypt to Europe? That’s right, the French. One might say that they brought Egypt into their ongoing conversation about civilization, mankind and his origins known as European thought. But Pei asks us to think about this one minute. Is France really bringing Egypt to Europe or has Egypt brought civilization to the world? Who’s old? Who’s new? So is the Louvre really introducing the pyramid to us, or is the pyramid introducing the Louvre to us? Who’s the Daddy here?

Now look at the above and see all the different ideas. Note how they juxtapose—jumping back and forth. The “old” building is really the newer form. The old form is in a newer style. One is solid, the other opaque. One is above ground, the other primarily below. The “old” buildings, facing the pyramid, are really the newest additions to the Louvre. Once again, we are not allowed to rest, get complacent and be comfortable.

Now let’s look at two other places where Pei has used the same tricks. And you should know both of them because they both are in Boston! You’ve seen them a million times. One of these you (should) know very well!

The first is the John Hancock building in the Back Bay section of Boston. (Feel free at this time to do a Yahoo image search for “John Hancock Building” and “Boston.” Find a pic of the building plus Trinity Church at various angles (more). The John Hancock building is also a design of I.M. Pei where he had to deal with the relationship of a modern structure to an old one. The square footage requirements for the design were great, making the building outsized for the neighborhood. How did Pei handle this? First look at the site plan. He made the floorplan into a rectangle instead of the usual square (or something like a square). He then took his rectangular floorplan and turned it sideways to the neighborhood that might be most offended by its size, Back Bay. In so doing, he turned the skinniest side to them making the building almost disappear. Think of a person turning sideways instead of being seen straight on from the front. This works so well that you don’t even feel the presence of the building when walking in the square. (Normally buildings of this size hover over you and make you feel as if they are about to fall on you.)

This, of course, leaves us with a flat, broad side on the other two sides doesn’t it? Its mass couldn’t be avoided right? Well, what he does, instead of trying to hide its mass, is to use the whole side like a huge mirror. What does the mirror reflect? Trinity Church. Trinity Church is the main attraction in the square. That church was designed by H.H. Richardson and is a very important work that exemplified the now famous “Richardson Romanesque” style. Pei knew that this is the very thing tradition-conscious Back Bay people would want to protect. He knew that their first fear was that this new monstrosity would overshadow their precious church. So he made the entire building defer to the older church. He mirrored the whole building. It was quite fortunate for him that this style was “in” at the time. This allowed the building to step itself back in importance (Size usually conveys importance. This is why so many artists paint large paintings. A small painting of the exact same subject would not fetch proportionately as much. But I digress…)

Anytime anyone looked at the building, all they would see is the church, despite the building being hundreds of feet taller and thousands of square feet larger than the church. Which direction does the huge mirror face? It faces downtown, where a large number of people who would be interested could see it. Do you see the same contrast used at the Louvre? Something large and important must not be large while something small is to be made all he larger because of how it is handled. There’s that juxtaposition again. By deliberately not calling attention to itself, it, by turns, calls attention to how well placed it actually is and how well it works within the environment, which just might call more attention to it!

Next consider texture. Once again, the new building is smooth and the old building is ornamented. One building is highly textured and the other is like several sheets of smooth glass.

The church is heavy in its Neo-Romanesque styling yet the larger building seems as light as air. Now look at a picture taken from the base of the Hancock. Notice that the mirror now, no longer reflects the church, but the sky. One really has to look carefully to see whether you are looking at the sky or the reflection of the sky in the uppermost mirrors. The fact that it is 800 feet tall and mirrored makes the top of the tower virtually disappear. This also makes the tower seem much lighter and less likely to feel that it is oppressively leaning over you.

See the same contrasts? Light/dark, big/small, stone/glass, heavy/light. Now criss-cross them. Make the heavy thing seem lighter than the smaller thing, which should seem lighter by comparison, etc. Use that to highlight the differences, not obscure them.

What’s the next example, which as I said, you should know well? Any guesses? IT’S The Christian Science Plaza in Boston! Pei also designed this and it was the first thing I thought of. I know that you didn’t pay to much attention to CS and all that stuff pertaining to it, but I thought that you would at least catch that. Yes, Pei did the church plaza and he used the same tricks here as you saw in Paris and at the Hancock building aforementioned. (Please open picture now) If you can see the old Mother Church is in the Neo-Romanesque style and the Extension is Neo-Classical, you have identified the two “old” elements of the design. Can you find the contrasting new element? It’s not just the new buildings—it’s the pool. Yes, the pool functions as the same type of element in the design as the Hancock tower does a few blocks over.

While interesting in and of itself, it creates a soft reverse image of the “hard” and formal buildings on the plaza. I’m sure you will find a number of pictures of the plaza at night with its pool shimmering and all the lights lit. Notice the columns in the formerly named “Colonnade” building. Notice the repetition used to create a rhythm, drawing the eye all the way down the plaza. Note that the newer buildings could overwhelm the older ones but they never do. They are brought down a couple of notches on the grandiosity scale so as to allow the churches to continue to capture the center of interest. Please look for the same ideas and their various uses in other areas in this design.

This concludes our lecture for today. Remember, you exam is Tuesday. I think you now can supply your own critique from here on as it is 2am and I’m getting tired.

Dr. Roland

Professor of Pencil Sharpening

The Matrix Redux: The African Version Scene IV

The preceding Matrix Redux posts are in the April archive: Scene I, II, and III.

I really dug the movie. Especially the party scene in Zion which was a real kick and reminded me of the overly conscious cool of Brooklyn, New York.

I lived in Brooklyn for a few years and loved the Fort Green neighbourhood before it was taken over by mousy types from the backwaters of Iowa. In the good old days, it was filled with the kind of deliciously pretentious and yet cool kind of black person that I have come to refer to as an RRRR: Range Rover (driving) Rasta Revolutionary. This is a very particular type of young black person who has often done quite well professionally and yet is profoundly uncomfortable with his/her privileges and as a result tries to project a kind of progressive, left, revolutionary, mystical – you get the meaning – identity.

By day he works in an investment bank and by night soulfully spouts Sufi poetry. He can often be heard in coffee shops and funky lounges holding forth in angry tones on the subject of the ‘Man’ and the ‘System’. As the rare beers from Fiji – bottled in fair trade wooden bottles – flow, he is often to be heard making a never-to-be-achieved plan to become the next Malcolm X.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate such contradictions and loved my neighbourhood all the more for them. RRRRs, for those who do not know, are also known as The Senegalese. They are not actually people from Senegal though they are likely to speak of Goree Island with a painful catch in their voice; will have gone to FESPACO in Burkina (if you don’t know what that is, you are not Senegalese) and have a CD collection full of Youssou N’dour even though they do not understand a lick of what he is singing. Dreadlocks are preferable, yoga sessions compulsory, deep I-am-trying-to-find-me vibes seep out of every pore, while a trip to Salvador da Bahia in Brazil is always on the cards.

The Matrix post below is bit short, but I just run out of steam as I was going along. To return later, I hope.

Scene IV

Tree-Hugger Smith: The great Mzee. We meet at last.

Mzee: And you are?

Tree-Hugger Smith: Smith, Tree-Hugger Smith.

Mzee: You all look the same to me.

Tree-Hugger Smith: Why are you so angry? Have you ever paused to consider aid’s beauty, its genius? It converts poverty and death into wealth and purpose. I remember when you were a young Boi; you could have been The One.
Hear me, Mzee, I’m going to be honest with you. We seek title over African wretchedness. Your problems are now ours; they became so the moment we started solving them for you, which is of course what this is all about. Ownership, Mzee, ownership. All power emanates from contestation, from crisis: your problems, our power. Look out that window. You had your time. The future is our world, Mzee. The future is our time.

Mzee: You’re empty.

Tree-Hugger Smith: I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This Africa, this reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the futility, the misery. I feel saturated by it and scared of it and yet it calls to me. Everytime I stop at a traffic light, I cannot help but wonder if one of them will ‘jack’ me. Whenever I pick one up at Gypsy’s, I cannot stand the clash of my desire to grind them into my bedsprings and the fear that their diseases will grind me six feet under. I can taste your misery and every time I do, I fear that you shall somehow take it away from me. I hate you and I owe you nothing, NOTHING!

Mzee: Quick Boi, re-read Fanon and Conrad – with courage this time. Smith is Mr. Kurtz re-made for our age. He is ‘… an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else.”

Tree-Hugger Smith: Boi, are you listening to his ravings? I warned them, I told them over and over again, but they would not listen: never send a black man to do a white man’s job.

Mzee, left arm held rigidly at his side and the right pointing ahead so that it appears like a sword, charges toward Tree-Hugger Smith. His left arm makes a ponderous upward stab toward the already-dodging torso of Smith who focuses his attention to it. Smith is a blur of speed, head toward the offending arm, his face a rictus of fury. For a split second, his attention drifts from Mzee’s right arm which now starts a fast chopping motion to Smith’s vulnerable neck. The impact makes a heavy, meaty sound and Mzee’s arms cross, momentarily making the sign of the cross. It is the classic movement that accompanies the killing stroke that the matador applies to the bull in the corrida. Mzee’s momentum keeps him travelling forward and he slips behind and away from Smith. First blood has been drawn; Tree Hugger Smith now feels the measure of Mzee’s resources of anger and skill. But inside the red mist of his pain and rage he has detected a frailty in Mzee, a weakness disguised under layers of a righteous anger that cannot be sustained for lengthy periods.

Without Boi, Mzee will lose and so it is that both foes almost simultaneously turn toward him.

More coming up …

(c) MMK

The Matrix Redux: The African Version Scene III

Tree-Hugger Smith: As you can see, we’ve had our eye on you for some time now. It seems that you’ve been living two lives. In one life, you’re (Peter) Kamau wa Njogu, program officer in a respectable human rights NGO that is considering getting into the Maasai land thing. You fly to conferences monthly and write frequent proposals to the Swedes. The other life is lived in sullen resentment, where you go by the alias “Range Rover Driving Rasta Revolutionary”, or Boi.

Boi: How dare you, who are you to talk to me this way? I care, I really do…

Tree-Hugger Smith: Be patient, listen. You are exhausted with the futility of it all; the savages just won’t listen. They are so power hungry and corrupt and act in such bad faith, and they are so tribalistic. You have decided that there will be no global revolution, so you instead make grand personal gestures: a kind word to the security guard, and extra dollar or two to the gardener, “keep the change” to the waiter, and yoga on Saturdays. Does anyone understand how draining it is to make a $70,000 per year while partying in Porto Allegre and reading all that postcolonial theory to spout (impressively) at parties? Both of these lives have a bright future, Boi, they sustain my work here.

Boi: You can’t scare me with this Du Bois double consciousness stuff, by implying you know me or even worse by suggesting in your snide way that I am that part of Fanon’s post-independence bourgeoisie, which “…is not engaged in production, nor in invention, nor building, nor labor.” I know what’s up; I know that I am a part of a global progressive movement. Besides, who are you to question me when we are supposed to be in this fight together?

Spoon boy: Do not try and justify aid. That is impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth.

Boi: What truth?

Spoon boy: There is no aid.

Boi: There is no aid?

Spoon boy: Then you’ll see that it is not the aid that’s bad, it is only yourself.

Tree-Hugger Smith: Did you know that the aid conferences held every week in a different city are meant to design a perfectly sustainable way to reduce African suffering to acceptable levels? Where none suffers to the point of extinction? Why don’t Africans get in line with NEPAD, agree to our dream for them? Frankly, it has been a disaster. They do not accept the programs in their entirety. Decades of development have been lost. Perhaps we lack the programming language to describe the world we are building for you: sustainable indigence. But I must admit that as Europeans, and here I include my African schoolmates at Harvard who are colleagues, we define our reality through African suffering.

Cypher: Jesus. What a mind-job. It just sounds to me like you need to unplug, man.

Mzee: Boi, you should be listening to Smith. I’ve seen a white aid worker burst into tears at the sight of a dead elephant and a winner of the Nobel Prize literally hug a tree… I’ve seen plenty that would boggle your African mind if it were free. People working for the aid industry have imbibed entire libraries and yet refuse to recognise the prison they guard. Men have expended entire intellectual and moral clips at them and hit nothing but hot air, yet their greed and blindness is still based on a world that is built on rules. Because of that, they will never solve your problems or own your victory.

Boi: For real Mzee, you’re starting to scare me.

Mzee: What is real. How do you define real? Are your little activist campaigns drawn from the African’s political body or are they impositions that even when positive ultimately rob him of his ability to shape his universe? Are you spouting global revolution only to rob the African of his revolutions? There is the world that you know and then there is the one that will one day exist. You will not birth the real, Boi, the world of tomorrow; you are merely a shadow, unreality, and a farce. Africa is to be delivered to her independence by that crude, tribalist, ignorant, poor, hustling, reactionary person who exists within a multitude of political communities that will burst into a thousand instances of violence and cooperation as they seek primacy and purchase. You will be swept away by this process because the anchor of aid that makes you so powerful today will make you irrelevant tomorrow.

Boi: AI? You mean my role in aid is artificial and doomed to failure?

Mzee: You are part of a consciousness that spawned an entire race of African servants: western liberalism of the right and left kind. We don’t know which of the two are winning. But we know that they are born of the same parent, that they would have Africans at the receiving end of their wisdom and would have us build our world in their image. At present, the left types, like Smith, are far more dependent on our misery and it is believed that they would be unable to survive the pouting and posturing that Africa’s allows them to adopt as they pretend to continue the revolutionary traditions of socialism. Since the world wars, when their brethren chose nationalism over revolution, they have been content to yoke us with their lifeless dreams – provided they are in charge.

Boi: No. No, Mzee. Don’t.

Mzee: There are conferences, Boi, endless conferences where Africans no longer think. For a long time I wouldn’t believe it, but then I attended a few aid meetings, engaged in cocktail chatter and considered how you came to this juncture. I listened as dead political categories were brought to life, heard the excitement caused by a post-modern political philosophy that chooses to obfuscate where clarity of thought and expression is required to inspire political action. I realised that they had lost their faith but none of their childish self-indulgence. Smith is part of a Western generation that is determined to thumb its nose at its parental authority (corporations and old white men: The Man) and uses our misery as its proxy and paycheck. Boi, I must tell you the truth: your attraction to ‘power to the people’ rhetoric, love of Bob Marley, Sartre and your vacations in Senegal are part of a new phenomenon: African flower power.

Scene IV coming up soon, watch this space…

Rock-star economics are not helping poor Africans

Franklin Cudjoe, a friend of mine from Ghana who I met in London last year, recently wrote an op-ed for the Daily Telegraph whose sentiments and analysis matched mine so closely that I begged him for a copy to put on this blog. The absurdity, nay madness, of rock stars holding forth on Africa’s crises has driven me to distraction. Not only are the solutions they advocate – increased centralisation of governance and begging – completely futile, but the fact that I am supposed to get teary eyed with gratitude sickens me. Poor Africa, isn’t it enough that you must endure war and poverty without being subjected to mediocre, over-the-hill rockers come to save you?

I think Franklin says it effectively enough though. Read on.

Personal view: Rock-star economics are not helping poor Africans
By Franklin Cudjoe (Filed: 18/04/2005)

Have you purchased your obligatory white band? Did Sir Bob Geldof send you an e-mail recently, reminding you to ogle his celebrity colleagues “clicking” away on television? Did you join the all-night vigil at Westminster Abbey to shiver in the cold and “wake up the government” about the need to “make poverty history”?

This year, the UK’s “development” charities have joined hands for a high profile campaign which claims that politicians have an unprecedented opportunity to eliminate poverty in the run-up to the G-8 meeting in July.

Rock stars and charities can be powerful advocates for good causes, and they generally have good intentions – but in many cases their lyrics do not genuinely rhyme with the silent hum of the very poor they seek to protect. Their economics are just plain wrong. They ignore history, peddling the misguided belief that poverty, famine and corruption can be solved with foreign aid, debt relief and other policies that have already failed Africa.

One pillar of their current campaign is to eliminate farm subsidies in western countries, a noble goal which indeed would help to achieve a level playing field for agricultural producers around the world. Yet this view is rife with hypocrisy: the same organisations promote subsidies (what they call “fair trade”) for farmers and businesses in poor countries to shield them from the effects of competition.

Coldplay frontman Chris Martin has said that Ghana’s rice, tomato and poultry farmers need to be protected from cheap imports. Yet the problems of Ghana’s farmers lie elsewhere: they and other entrepreneurs are stifled by punitive tax regimes and the high cost of capital, not to mention our disarrayed land tenure systems which lead to low crop production.

Neither Mr Martin nor fellow celebrities have mentioned these problems: they claim that the world’s trade regime is “rigged” in the name of “free trade”, harming poor countries like Ghana and benefiting interest groups in wealthy countries. The only solution, they say, is to protect local economic interests.

If we did ban rice and tomato imports, just how would we feed ourselves? Ghanaians depend on rice as a major staple in our diets, yet local production caters for only 30pc of the rice we consume.

Subsidies to local producers also mean fewer choices for consumers. The average Ghanaian has suffered because of shoddy goods made locally by protected industries that do not face any competition. Who can blame consumers for buying higher quality and less-expensive foreign goods?

Indeed, some savvy Ghanaian businessmen have helped both local farmers and consumers, for instance by providing locally produced rice in packages that ensure the rice isn’t stale when it reaches the consumer. Similarly, other Ghanaian entrepreneurs now collaborate with their Italian counterparts to produce tomato paste brands with Akan names, Ghana’s widely spoken language.

Protection for local producers also means that African countries trade very little with each other, as illustrated by the World Trade Organisation’s 2001 statistics. Africa’s share of intra- and inter-regional trade flows to western Europe alone was 51.8pc, while it was a paltry 7.8pc within Africa.

Development charities loathe international agencies such as the IMF and World Bank – many people would agree though that dealing with these agencies is like playing with loaded dice. They have empowered our politicians to engage in shady liberalisation deals, where international contracts are rigged to favour their cohorts with fat kickbacks.

Such agencies have often advocated ill-conceived policies in the name of market liberalisation – while they simultaneously push foreign aid and flawed development strategies onto us. Even the average Ghanaian knows that these “reform” programmes have achieved nothing other than to enable our bureaucrats to procure gold-plated Mercedes for themselves and their cronies.

But the real problem is not the IMF, World Bank or “rigged” trade rules. The problem lies with us as Africans and especially our leaders, to improve our own wellbeing, and to encourage economic growth through political and institutional reforms.

The solution to all that ails us is not aid, debt relief or “fair trade”. It is to adopt institutions to harness the entrepreneurial spirit that exists in every African country, to enable Africans to trade with each other and anyone else in the world.

Establishing property rights would be an important first step; an effective, transparent and accountable legal system is another. Combined with respect for private property and the rule of law, these broad reforms would encourage entrepreneurship, trade, innovation and even environmental protection because they empower people – rather than the politicians.

As our economies grow and develop, people will be able to afford better technologies, clean water, superior energy sources, better healthcare, and insurance. But one is unlikely to hear such ideas from rock stars and development charities.

While these high-profile campaigns continue to blame western countries for our poverty, they simply give our own politicians more excuses to delay badly needed institutional reforms. Poor Africans would be far better off without rock-star economics.

• Franklin Cudjoe is director of Imani. He will speak at the Global Development Summit in London on June 28

Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Debate Starts to Sound Academic

I have been fascinated and excited by the debate that Binyavanga Wainaina started with his letter protesting Ryszard Kapuscinski’s depiction of Africa and Africans throughout his career. His foil is Remi Raji of the Nigeria PEN Center who writes with erudition and intelligence, arguing that Ryzard’s participation in a PEN event in NYC should not be “muzzled”. The rest of the debate or discussion if you are a diplomatic type can be found on the sidebar and on this post – always reading from the bottom upward… Read on and let me know what you think.

Hi Binyavanga,

Let me take off from your other “confession” and say that it is necessary to look here, beyond the immediacy of the present affliction, that is the subject of our mutual but different concern, the cause of this unplanned dialogue: Kap? It is important to look beyond the Kap phenomenon and perhaps look inward and ask, where are “we” in the share of ideas of power, or rather, in the power of ideas. Here we tug at a very serious issue of the collective, that is the “African condition” (I am not sure if this is the forum to deliver so many pregnant worries, pains and aspirations); and I can only add that the current rule of such species as the likes of Kap, in the media/culture wars, and many others before him, is the unfortunate result of incapacitations, inflicted and self-inflicted, strewn all over the continent.

Saturday in New York has passed but many other Saturdays in America, Europe, and Australasia will come… We will continue to witness such viral claims of journalese pretending as great literature, at the expense of a race, the othered members of humanity whose nights are still inscrutable and mysterious to behold? We will continue to witness these and other ignominies because our own system of challenge is not coordinated, because the apparatuses of state are wont to turn the other eye, and because the continental intelligentsia has been isolated and denied any significant play in the course of the re-definition and redemption of the State; our skepticism will multiply but will not count if we fail to speak at the right fora and opportunities. What for instance is the African Union without its programmatic punch? And what is a Diaspora divided against itself? The inflation of such blighted imagination as Kap’s did not start in a day, and will not end, suddenly. It goes a long way. But if you don’t believe in “the free-flow of ideas”, how can we make sense to one another? I hope that this journey is not taken in vain. Sincerely,


Hi Remi,

I must say I am enjoying this conversation. Thank you for your insights, and willingness to take this journey with me… Another confession: the secret gagger in me wants him tied and bound, but I know this to be futile and unhelpful. Why does the instinct to gag rear its head?

Because any African knows the particular flavour and danger of his kind of language. It is responsible for many deaths. It is the language that seeks to justify your incapacity, to distance your humanity from his centre. Now, much of what he says, Remi, and this is where the threat of Kap is at its most dangerous: that even though a twelve year old African would laugh at some of his propositions, the very nature of his language is compelling to the exact person he wants as a readership: the liberal European, American who has never been to Africa, and who has deep inside him, built by the ideas of Conrad and Blixen and CNN and countless made for television Dramas, an idea that Yes the African is indeed a strange being, maybe even a child who needs a firm (but loving) hand.

Ryszard Kapuscinski is the intellectual leader of this community, who, sadly (and if his writings were only about affecting the minds of Europeans, I do not care) have a huge effect on our lives. Now. A large part of the history of Africa has been decided by a well-armed and powerful Europe, with a well-armed and compelling ‘way’ of seeing us that justified their actions. Talk to any Reuters or AP journalists based in Africa: Ryszard Kapuscinski is their guru. They put out news that dominates the coverage of the continent to the rest of the world….and their primary source to ‘understand our minds’ is Ryszard Kapuscinski.

So back to PEN. By asking why they invited him, I was not suggesting they gag him – his books are widely available in mainstream bookshops all over Europe and America. Penguin love him, and publish him. But, there are many great writers. What I ask is, Why Kapuscinski?

Is PEN America’s open-mindedness so open that they would invite a known and racist and bender of well-documented fact to their most important event? Where the ‘select’ are called?

How are we to read this? Am sorry. I find it hard to believe that the effect of PEN’s action will be an ‘exposure’ of his falsehoods. What they have done is to ‘validate’ his point of view: to say that there is Meaning and Good in his body of work…and any criticism that comes from such an event will simply show that there is another side to a writer who has already been certified as a “great truth teller’ by PEN themselves…

Whatever happens in New York, he will add to his CV, and get better and bigger book-deals, and have more ‘authority’ than he had before… I wish I believed in the inherent free-flow of ideas that would suggest that, as (you say) the Yoruba say: “A lie may journey for twenty years, soon Truth will break its spell, in one day”.

In these days of spin and the power of one broadcast to reach a whole world, the truth is that it is those closest to the nerve centre of ‘the broadcast’ who will impose their truths on the rest of the world. This is how KAP got to his lofty perch. This is the method that will keep him there. Salman Rushdie, a man I thought had quite a good nose for bullshit says this about KAP:
“Kapuscinski’s writing, always wonderfully concrete and observant, conjures marvels of meaning out of minutiae.”

(Binyavanga Wainaina)

Hi Binyavanga,

I believe we are reaching an interesting point about the phenomenon I choose to abbreviate as Kap. And for that I will be brief. No, I have not suggested that we should not “protest” what others (including ourselves) write about “us”: on the contrary I am saying that when we do so, we should understand the difference between monologues and dialogues. I personally care less about what Granta and Mr. Harding have to say about their own “product”; and of course, I do not speak for PEN America but I do know that Pen’s charter does not approve of any intent to “gag” the other. Rather, it is in a forum as the one you’re attending that the truth can square up to lies and distortions. As the Yoruba say, “A lie may journey for twenty years, soon Truth will break its spell, in one day”. The simple fact that a Wole Soyinka would “share” the same arena with Mr. Kap will tell you that the symbolic day is nigh…

So there, I read, I write, and I teach writing. And I will be delighted to read your novel about this new experience!

Remi (Raji)

Hi Remi,

Thank you for your response.

I write for a living. The question of representing the world I come from is, of course, uppermost in my mind. All I am saying is that I find it difficult to understand why Ryszard Kapuscinski should be speaking at Pen’s gathering this week. The truth is that Kapuscinski occupies a central role in the minds of many (including the PEN American centre). In their minds he is “one of the world leading writers”

It is this that has got him the invitation to New York, to share a strange with people like Wole Soyinka, and Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie.

Of course we will continue to write. But are you suggesting avoiding protesting what others write about us, simply because our writing will ‘replace’ them? That is not true. Conrad is as influential now as he was then … and Ryder Haggard is still in print…is still available in AFRICAN libraries…

The very act of inviting him validates what he stands for and has written to readerships and literary communities who seem not to know better. Jeremy Harding is familiar with Africa, having lived there and he thinks Ryszard Kapuscinski is the ‘Greatest Intelligence to Bear Upon Africa Since Conrad.’

So here I am. In his writing the man insults me, the continent I live in; manufactures facts, and makes sweeping racists statements about the nature of ‘my mind’ – turning the African Mind into some sort of below-the-line not quite human (for a human to be of self-criticism makes him not human I think). He can publish this boldly, without editors cringing (in Granta!)

It is important for us to speak to falsehood and to speak loudly. I do not see the logic behind an argument that says that one’s only response should come from one’s writing.

This is all taking place in 2005, in a conference organised by a ‘culturally’ sensitive, progressive organisation supported by many open-minded and intelligent writers from around the world….

So I am maybe trying to understand PEN America’s reason for inviting him: that maybe everybody’s voice should be represented? Even the unreconstructed racists? His short and snappy sentences?

Or the larger truths he has brought out that make his Victorian attitude towards race somehow palatable?

Is there not, somewhere, a line drawn?

I am asking is it possible that now, a hundred years after Conrad, after years of Achebe and Soyinka, somebody can get away with saying:

“The European mind is willing to acknowledge its limitations, accept its limitations. It is a skeptical mind. The spirit of criticism does not exist in other cultures. They are proud, believing that what they have is perfect…”

Is this how PEN promotes ‘understanding between cultures?”

How very progressive!

I must write a novel about it!
(Binyavanga Wainaina)

(From Remi Raji)
“…Having ‘sympathy’ for Mr. Kapuscinski suggests that he has ‘lost’ something – is the ‘victim’ of something- whereas the truth is the victims are those he chooses to distort with his pen…”

Thank you for the response. This is exactly my point, if I must say it in another way. Mr. Kap has indeed “lost” something that all explorative writers should cherish: the ability to see a part of his own world in the prism of the world he tries to portray, and he’s in fact the victim of his own loss or inadequacy. And this is why many would not agree that the writer here is an expert on African issues.

Those he chooses to distort with his pen are not without their own writers and chroniclers, and therefore the point is for us to have the chance of contending with several perspectives (of facts and lies, naming and mis-naming, of fiction written as truths…) on the same subject. The same continent that fired the “truthful” imagination of Rider Haggard, Joyce Cary and Joseph Conrad is the same one which propelled the “fictional” world of Achebe, and of Ngugi, la Guma, Armah, Ba and the rest.

It is good to see through the media game and the wars are so contentious, but then, you can’t stop the subjectivities of some kind of writer by merely saying it; as a writer, you have to out-write him, the same way a generation of African writers has done with considerable success. Yes, I am not too skeptical about this bit, because I know for every one racist there are eleven anti-racists to give one hope, for now and for the future.

Remi Raji

The Matrix Redux: The African Version Scene II

Scene II

The continuation of Scene I of the Matrix; The African Version. The first scene can be found in the March archives. Enjoy and could someone please teach me how to link stuff!!

Mzee: The aid industry is everywhere. It is all around us. You can hear it every time words like sustainable, indigenous, governance, NEPAD, Humanity and wellness are used, or phrases such as fair trade, me-time, evils of globalisation and capacity enhancement. You can see it on every 4×4 with a logo on its door, in the raw tuna salad and the cocktail of diet coke with a dash of St. Petersburg vodka ordered by the healthiest looking person in the most expensive bar you know. Missing that, you can see it when you turn on your television: it is a declaration issued at a giant conference in Porto Allegre, Monterrey or Beijing; there, you are told, a consensus on your future has been reached. You can feel it when you go to work…just before you are downsized, when you listen to politicians now perfectly arrayed into government, opposition and civil society. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

Boi: What truth?

Mzee: That you are a slave, Boi. Like every African you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.

Boi: Okey dokey… free my mind. Right, no problem, free my mind, free my mind, no problem, right…

Mzee: This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You follow the baby-boomer flower leftists in their attempt to foist their failed revolutions on you: the story ends, you develop some African capacity, give micro-credit loans to gutsy women you admire, rage at Starbucks, and believe whatever Tree-Hugger Smith wants you to believe. Open your eyes and you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

What is aid? Control. Aid is a liberal generated dream world built on the vision of an individuality that is universalised in the image of Smith. It is an attempt to extend a legal and moral code that is everywhere similar. It is contemptuous of the political life of the African, believing as it does that he does not possess one. In the final analysis, it is the vulture that uses African misery as an orientation of its identity: they must be seen and see themselves to be good. Distress is the balm on the wound of a liberal nihilism that everyday rots further as Smith battles to reach for goodness at no cost to his privilege. It seeks control in order to change an African into this.
[Holds up a Mojito cocktail and a picture of a laughing child in a refugee camp]

Boi: No way. No way. This is crazy. But I know Fanon by heart and I am down with the people.

Mzee: I didn’t say it would be easy, Boi. I just said it would be the truth.

Boi: But…listen, I have to think about it all. You’re heavy man. Besides, I have to rush; I am meeting Tree-Hugger Smith in a few minutes so I’ll ask him what the deal is.

Scene III coming up soon, watch this space…

Ryszard Kapuscinski: Binyavanga Replies to Nigerian PEN Centre

(Binyavanga’s reply to Remi Raji of the Nigerian PEN Centre)

I agree. Mr. Ryszard Kapuscinski has a right to believe and write what he wants; and so ‘gagging’ him makes no sense to me. What is important is making our own voices clear about how we see our world.

I am far more skeptical than you are about his motives, and have less sympathy. His frequent manipulation of generally acknowledged fact signals to me one who chooses to bend reality to suit his preconceived notions (or notions he wishes to perpetuate). I do not believe his distortions to be the well-meaning exoticisations of a ‘naive’. With each book his boldness has become more apparent…

It has become a great tradition in literature and in the media to make careers over reporting on the ‘unknown’ – mostly because one can avoid the kind of upfront criticism and scrutiny one gets from reporting from within one’s source country – to the same audience…

Having ‘sympathy’ for Mr. Kapuscinski suggests that he has ‘lost’ something – is the ‘victim’ of something – whereas the truth is the victims are those he chooses to distort with his pen. And those who buy into his ideas and perpetuate them, and decide how to see Africa, based on his eyes…

The pen is a powerful thing…

Many thanks,

Binyavanga Wainaina

Kapuscinski: Nigerian PEN Centre Replies to Binyavanga

Dear All:

Thank you for bringing this to specific attention. There is indeed reason to shudder at some of the statements credited to Mr. Kapuscinski about Africa and cultures “other” than European, but these things are not new. He has been pinned to the memory of Mr. Conrad but I doubt if his energies or talents are close to the name. However, the invitation extended to Kapuscinski should not be considered a great source of alarm or terror the way I understand it now: it is his writings that must be given equal space and challenge as the writings of other authors who are Africanists or Afrocentric. Of course, there are ranges of Afrophobia, Afropessimism, and Afrophilia which you can’t gag or sanction, but which we have to deal with for, I predict, another half of a century. This is why I consider the statement of Mr. Dickson Migiro to “gag him” (itself sounding as a Conradian quip in “Heart of Darkness”) unnecessary and out of tune with the real spirit of free expression.

I have scanned through one or two interviews granted by Mr. Kapuscinski, in search of references to Africa, and have come to some preliminary understanding of his mind-set. He was fascinated by an idea of an imagined, monolithic African eldorado; he had the rare opportunity of contact with moments and places in the real Africa, and soon the subjective fascination of the writer blurred the objective sense of the journalist in him. In short, he is a factionist and sensationalist. For this, we need not ask for the guillotine but sympathise (if not challenge) with his too-familiar colonial opportunism.

Asking for a “fatwah” is to invite cheap and further popularity to the reprehensible imagination. What’s left? Let the true Africanist with an informed view of Africa talk back to the likes of Mr. Kapuscinski wherever they are. Talk, not gag.

Remi Raji
— Nigerian PEN Centre

Kapuscinski: Binyavanga Wainaina’s Rage in Manhattan

Dear Friends,

I am in the US, on a reading tour and just found out that Ryszard Kapuscinski will be speaking at various fora in New York City starting on Saturday the 16th of April 2005 – invited by PEN America.

(Read this extract from the PEN Charter:)

MEMBERS OF PEN should at all times use what influence they have in favor of good understanding and mutual respect among nations; they pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel race, class, and national hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in the world.

I have read with astonishment the lies Ryszard Kapuscinski peddles about Africa – and his growing ‘authority’ on African issues. He has been called by Jeremy Harding of the Evening Standard:

“The Greatest Intelligence to Bear upon Africa since

His books are widely read by Development types; are recommended to journalism students all over the world; the big news networks encourage their correspondents to read Kapuscinski to understand the ‘African mind’. He is a one of the most influential sources of reference for Aid workers and policymakers on Africa. He often speaks about the continent to people who make serious decisions about us.

And he is a fraud. A liar. And a profound and dangerous racist.

I urge you all to forward this to all concerned African and writers you may know; and to email a protest to PEN International and any and all media, blogs and literary publications you may know…

I have the following emails of Pen International offices in Africa and around the world. I do not know which will be most effective. If anybody needs to contact me my US telephone number is: 202 390 6216

I suggest we bombard them all with a protest.


Binyavanga Wainaina,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

Reviewers Expose Kapuscinski’s Falsehoods

John Ryle in the Times Literary Supplement


“In this mode of writing – the tropical baroque style – nothing can be ordinary or familiar. Everything is stretched and exaggerated the opposite of home. As Kapuscinski has himself written elsewhere of South American baroque. “If there is a jungle it has to be enormous… if there are mountains they have to be gigantic… if there is a plain it has to be endless… Fact is mixed with fantasy… truth with myth, realism with rhetoric.” The direction of his blurrings and inventions and exaggerations becomes clearer in the light of this inadvertent self-criticism. Africa is a continent without bookshops, he avers. Its rulers are illiterate. Its inhabitants are prisoners of their environment, or of their bloodline. They are afraid of the dark. They live on milk. (Who knows? They may have heads beneath their shoulders too.) Thus Europeans can never really understand them; they can only marvel at them. With the last suggestion we are approaching the true nature of Kapuscinski’s enterprise. It is an outgrowth of the one historical experience that the inhabitants of this hugely various continent do have in common with each other: the experience of colonization (or military occupation) by European powers. Despite Kapuscinski’s vigorously anti-colonialist stance, his writing about Africa is a variety of latter-day literary colonialism, a kind of gonzo orientalism, a highly selective imposition of form, conducted in the name of humane concern, that sacrifices truth and accuracy, and homogenizes and misrepresents Africans even as it aspires to speak for them. “

Aleksandar Hemon for the Village Voice

April 19th, 2001,hemon,24106,10.html

He seems to have also mesmerized the editors of Granta, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books, which all published lengthy excerpts from his book, oblivious to or uninterested in the underlying proto-racist essentialism that ultimately casts a shadow on The Shadow of the Sun.

Kapuscinski’s stated ambition is not to write “a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there.” He is careful to say that Africa is “too large to describe,” adding, “Only with the greatest simplification . . . can we say ‘Africa.’ In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.” In an early chapter entitled “The Structure of the Clan,” Kapuscinski acknowledges that “in all of Africa, each larger social group has its own distinct culture,” which is why “anthropologists never speak of ‘African culture’ or ‘African religion, ‘ knowing that . . . the essence of Africa is its endless variety.”

But Kapuscinski is no anthropologist. In the face of his own feeble disclaimers, he quickly plunges into making generalizations about “the African.” For example, “The European and the African have an entirely different concept of time,” he announces early on. Africa might not be a single conceptual unit, but “the African” somehow is. “Let us remember”—he writes—”that fear of revenge is deeply rooted in the African mentality.” “The African” to Kapuscinski seems transcendental and trans-historical, even when he acknowledges the horrors of the slave trade, which “on the psyche of the African . . . left the deepest and most painfully permanent scar: the inferiority complex.”

“The African mind” is largely defined by its difference from “the European mind,” a difference that has metaphysical consequences: “In Africa, the [Christian] notion of metaphysical, abstract evil—evil in and of itself—does not exist.” The difference is deeply rooted and practically unalterable: Kapuscinski seems to agree with an “elderly Englishman,” a longtime resident of Addis Ababa who believes “the strength of Europe and its culture . . . lies in its bent for criticism. . . . Other cultures do not have this critical spirit. . . . [They are] uncritical in relation to themselves . . . [laying] the blame for all that is evil on others.” “They are,” seethes the elderly Englishmen, “culturally, permanently, structurally incapable of progress, incapable of engendering within themselves the will to transform and evolve.” For Kapuscinski, as for the Englishman, the real difference and disparity between races is in “the mind,” rather than skin color—he fumes against the racism absurdly based on skin color, and would probably be shocked if told that his obsessive listing of essential differences is essentially racist.


Saturday 16th April 4:00–5:30
Where: The New York Public Library, South Court
Auditorium: 5th Ave. & 42nd St. (Enter on 5th Ave.)

Confronting the Worst: Writing and Catastrophe (SOLD OUT)
Svetlana Alexievich, François Bizot, Caroline Emcke, Philip Gourevitch, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Elena Poniatowska; moderated by Susie Linfield


700–9:00 pm
Where: The Town Hall: 123 West 43rd St.

The Power of the Pen: Does Writing Change Anything? The twentieth century was a long quarrel between those determined that the answer should be yes and others who feared that the writer’s engagement in the world would diminish art without improving politics. The goal of this evening is not to answer the question but to find the words with which we can begin to think it through.

The New Yorker hosts an evening of readings by Margaret Atwood, Nuruddin Farah, Jonathan Franzen, Ha Jin, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Salman Rushdie, Shan Sa, Wole Soyinka, and others; introduced by David Remnick.

Samuel Fosso, Africa Remix 10 February – 17 April 2005

Untitled - Click for more info

Untitled, 1998

Is there such a thing as African art? Africa Remix answers

Behind the mask

by Mark Irving (The Times Online, January 15, 2005)

Naive, primitive? African artists have outgrown these labels. Why haven’t we?

The centre of the contemporary art world is, as we all know, London. It’s also New York, Berlin, Los Angeles, Shanghai and many other places because contemporary art doesn’t let geography get in the way of a marketable commodity. But it’s certainly not Africa. When did you last hear of an African artist — one working in Africa — making headlines? This is both weird and sad, when you consider that 100 years ago artists such as Picasso and Dérain “discovered” that African culture could offer something new and vital to the avant-garde.

Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907, one of the 20th century’s most important works of art, owed as much to Africa as it did to the artist’s revolutionary vision. The problem is that just as a major season of events showcasing contemporary African culture opens in the UK, with related exhibitions in Germany, France, Japan and the US, our view of African art remains, for the most part, shaped by the stereotypical cultural references — totemic masks, shields, ritual semaphores — that intrigued Picasso and his peers. For them, the value of this “primitive” art lay in its supposed authenticity, in the open window it gave to man’s inner world.

In the contemporary art world, however, sophistication and irony are what count. Authenticity is something that art gallery press releases might splash into the mix, but it is rarely the leading theme. In this context, an artist’s work being “authentic” is a synonym for untutored, possibly ugly, certainly naive, but you would never hear people admitting to this. Yet somehow, when it comes to contemporary African art, we find similar terms used by the curators and collectors who have organised and lent to these exhibitions.

“There is a certain innocence about art produced in Africa, although this is changing with the internet,” says Jean Pigozzi, a Swiss entrepreneur who owns one of the largest collections of African art. “I’m impressed by the directness — the brushworks, the narratives that are evident. But there are so many double meanings in the paintings and work. There’s a lot of subtle humour running through it,” says Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the venue for a large show of Pigozzi’s collection this month. “Overall, there is a great sense of involvement in human issues, less formal, self-conscious detachment,” says Roger Malpert, senior curator at the Hayward Gallery, where Africa Remix, the largest exhibition of contemporary African art seen in Europe, opens next month. You would be hard pushed to find these glowing words being used to describe work shown by any of the leading dealers of contemporary art.

Does this mean that art being produced in Africa and in the West is judged according to different standards? And if it is, does this matter? “As an artist born in Africa, but with no urge to bear the burden of the African artist,” the artist Hassan Musa wrote in 2000, “I know that the only opportunities open to me to present my work outside Africa are of the ‘ethnic’ type, where people assign to me the role of ‘the other African ’ in places designed for the kind of seasonal ritual where a certain kind of African is ‘in favour’.

“It is a situation which is not lacking in ambivalence, and which gives me the impression of being a hostage to this strange machine that integrates African-born artists into the world of art, while at the same time shunting them off into a category apart. What, then, are these expectations of European aesthetics that encourage Europeans to invent their own version of African art? It is an African art that Africans never see, because it is often produced in Europe for those Europeans who collect it, exhibit it and make it an object of aesthetic reflection.”

Pigozzi, who since starting his collection in 1989 has made it a rule to collect only work by living artists working in the sub-Sahara, disagrees. He says that he has learnt a lot from Charles Saatchi about collecting art and sends his curator to find and nurture talent on the ground in Africa.

But Pigozzi collects only work by black artists, even though Africa is home to artists of many races. “South Africa is too European,” he says, insisting however that there is “no compassion, no social or political motivation” to his collecting. He refuses to lend his collection to ethnographic museums as he considers the distinction between fine art and ethnographic artefacts to be crucial, although I find it one that’s difficult to make when confronted by some of the works in his collection, since some employ materials, forms and symbols that seem familiar to the ritual objects you would find in any ethnographic museum.

While African artists now make the Turner Prize shortlist and photographs by Africans Malik Sidibe and Seydou Keita are hot property, art by other African artists working with clay, straw or supermarket rubbish is perhaps less widely appreciated. The irony is that in the hands of artists such as Antony Gormley, Joseph Beuys or Thomas Hirshhorn these materials are used to produce work that is readily accepted as artistically valid.

The art market sets the true test of what the art world thinks about contemporary African art. “It’s not significant now in sales percentage terms, but in the long term it will be,” says Ray Hughes, a leading dealer in the field based in Sydney since 1992. “I think so much of international art — produced by the Goldsmiths colleges of the world — is cannibalistic, about art eating art,” he says, referring to the Chapman brothers’ most recent exhibition, which lampooned McDonald’s with a series of painted wooden sculptures that mimicked traditional African artefacts. “In Africa, they find a way of embellishing their lives and customs. It has a real purpose,” Hughes says.

Prices for contemporary work from Africa are beginning to rise, and major museums are starting to buy. The British Museum’s £23,000 purchase in 2003 of two of the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s massive cloths made from bottle tops is one example.

“The world has become a bit more open about African art. There was a time when African artists would say ‘thank you’ when included in a show. Now they can dictate what they want in an exhibition,” says Simon Njami, the co-curator of Africa Remix. “The show will force people to address the idea that ‘those people are so poor, they have other things to deal with than art’. As long as we are human beings, we have to deal with pain and poetry, and Africa should not be limited to just fighting against poverty.”

Africa Remix, Hayward Gallery, London SE1, Feb 10-April 17 (020-7960 5226;


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