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.