Monday, 28 July 2014

Art and Punishment

Sit in at the Palace of Justice, May 15, 2014. Photo: Tarek Alghorani.
Photos of active citizens speaking up against a morally and legally wrong incarceration.

The sit in took place in Tunisia for the immediate release of the blogger and human rights figther, Aziz Amami, who had been arrested two days before.

It was his second arrest, the first one coïncided with the onset of the revolution, at January 6, 2011, and the focus on him is thus manifestly politicial of character.

Sit in at the Palace of Justice, May 15, 2014. Photo: Tarek Alghorani.

Since 2011 a new constitution is in place in Tunisia. Still, it is a matter of transitional justice, as Tarek Alghorani has aptly put it, and the road to instigate new institutions is not to go in the wrong direction, but to be as open as possible and dare do, what has not been done before.

Case in point, was Aziz Amami eventually freed for the second time, but prison takes it toll. The one, who is released, is a person who has experienced too much of the abuse, authorities can afflict on their citizens.

All of this came to mind a month later, when a member of the Swedish parliament belonging to the extreme right-wing party, Sverigedemokraterna (i.e. "Swedish Democrats"), Margaretha Larsson, brought up an artwork during a debate on the protection of children. The artwork in question was a mural by Carolina Falkholt, who had depicted the nether parts of a woman. Beautifully rendered with the psychedelic reminiscences from the 1970s that are typical of Falkholt's oeuvre. It can be seen here. I shall not show it here and now, simply because the debate has nothing to do with the particular work. It was just the excuse.

Margaretha Larsson sets her own stage by making a rather threadbare move. She declares, how, since all are oh, so politically correct, only politicians are able to speak up, and so makes herself a spokesperson to put it politely, or rather an oracle as the voice of freedom, and thus turns the table to what she actually brings up. The debate is of course in Swedish, and I apologize to all non-Swedish speaking readers:

In short, Margaretha Larsson reasons as follows:

1. Children must not be molested

2. This is an artwork, which molests

3. Children should not be exposed to such an artwork

Oh, no wait, this was what she concluded:

3. The Artist ought to be imprisoned

Per Marquard Otzen, Erasmus meets Erasmus, February 2, 2008:
Erasmus, the half-learned of the play Erasmus Montanus by Holberg from 1723 arguments
that his mother cannot fly, stones cannot fly. Ergo: His mother is a stone.
- at least primitive as it was that one was correct as argumentation goes.

One heck of a broken syllogism. The conclusion ignores the two premises and runs along in its own direction. In other words, it is not about the children, nor is there any interest in discussing, what art can do or mean to us. The conclusion is a threat without substantiation.

And threats have no part in the pattern to a democracy.

We have a politician claiming, how she is not allowed her personal opinion; that the very fact that she have to give reasons for her claim on punishing the artist is proof of her lack of freedom. To this we can add that she defines herself as the protector of the innocent, which is a dangerous path in that protection is the very reason given each and every time for censorship in a dictatorial regime.

The role of Erasmus Rotterdamus is in this case taken on by Lars Ohly from the left-wing party Vänsterpartiet, underlining that neither she nor he are of papal authority; not answering to the laws of man. Art is outside the question of punishment. We welcome the provocation, art brings us, as part of the tolerance of democracy. If we deny ourselves that, our very democracy is at stake.

Sit in at the Palace of Justice, May 15, 2014. Photo: Tarek Alghorani.

In front of the Palace of Justice,
photo published May 23, 2014,
Photo: Zwewla.

In the meantime Zwewla is still awaiting possible legal action in Tunisia for painting graffiti on the need of social awareness, on the situation of the young, on unemployment, on poverty and all the rest that should remain hidden according to those in power to create a change.

As for Margaretha Larsson's party, they saw the writing on the wall - pun intended - and immediately stated that her proclamation had no affinity with the line of the party.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Patriarch Goes Ashore

The dark, heavily-built man as if he is literally carrying the weight of all he has seen on his shoulders is forced to leave his ship, when mine-wrecked in Drammen, Norway 1945. The animation is part of the documentary The Captain's Heart by Simon Bang on the life at sea of his maternal grandfather.

On D-Day this year the Danish wartime sailors in foreign service during World War II were acknowledged for the very first time. The British Queen, Elizabeth II, who hosted the service, was quoted for saying "About time!". The sailors at home did their bid too, leaving them grieving about what they had been through and concerned if they had done the right thing. Below are Simon's own words, with English translation in italics.

Simon Bang: Screendump from The Captain's Heart.
- click on the text to see the clip.

By Simon Bang

”Kaptajnens Hjerte” er en film om min morfar. Han opholdt sig på havet gennem 50 år. Som kaptajn på et fragtskib, sejlede han gennem to verdenskrige, havarier, storme, bombninger og miner, og gik først i land, da han på dramatisk vis, under Castros revolution, sejler den sidste last sukker ud af Cuba i 1959. Han var patriarken, der ofrede sig, men ikke beklagede sig over de omkostninger det havde, at stille sig til rådighed, ej heller med livet som indsats.

Han var med til at skabe velstand i de lande han sejlede fragt til, men velstanden blev til sidst hans fjende. Der var ikke længere brug for folk med hans egenskaber; stædighed, kæft, trit og retning. Velfærdssamfundet på godt og ondt, havde ikke længere brug for patriarker.

Simon Bang: Screendump from The Captain's Heart.
- look at that side of the ship, wrecked and yet with such a presence of power.
It is masterfully drawn.
To this we can add the animated detail of setting off into the fiord
by stemming the hand against the ship.

"The Captain's Heart" is a film about my grandfather. He was at sea for 50 years. As a captain of a cargo ship, he sailed through two world wars, he was bombed, he met with accidents, storms, and mines, and he finally went ashore in 1959 after having dramatically brought the last cargo of sugar out from Cuba during Castro's revolution. He was the patriarch, who sacrificed himself, but never complained about the cost of being at hand, risking his own life.

He helped create prosperity in the countries to which he brought goods, but prosperity eventually became his enemy. There was no longer any need for someone of his capacity; Stubbornness and demanding strict discipline of his men. For better or for worse, the welfare society no longer had any need for patriarchs. 

Simon Bang: Screendump from The Captain's Heart.

I filmen iscenesætter jeg, som animationer, de afgørende øjeblikke, der skabte og nedbrød min morfar. Gennem arkivklip, hans private dokumenter, interviews med hans to døtre og min årelange research, folder jeg historien ud. Filmen er stadig under færdiggørelse og den evige kamp om den sidste finansiering.

Herover et eksempel på en animationsscene: Min morfars skib er blevet minesprængt i Norge i januar 1945, og ligger brækket midtover i fjorden. Han må forlade skibet et øjeblik, for at meddele rederiet om ulykken. Jeg har tegnet både animationer og baggrunde.

Simon Bang: Screendump from The Captain's Heart.

Through animations I stage the decisive moments that created and destroyed my grandfather. I have unfolded his story by combining the animations with archival footage, his private documents, interviews with his two daughters, and an insight gained from years of research. The film is still in its finalizing stages and the eternal struggle of covering the expenses of it. 

Above is an example of an animated scene: My grandfather's ship has been struck by a mine in Norway in January 1945 and has broken in two in the fiord. He must leave the ship for a moment to inform the company of the accident. Animations and backgrounds are all by me.

The clip and stills are shown courtesy of Simon Bang and must not be reproduced without his permission.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Official Unseen

A world map of the countries in which the death penalty is still in use, is a revelation of the nature of the ultimate type of punishment: It is a political act. 

The death penalty may be explained as a statement or a measure taken, depending on the country's need to hide or create a mise-en-scène, but it is first and last a show of power. No clearer underlined than when the neighbouring democracies sees no need to exercise judicial murder.

The point was made all the more poignant when an execution went utterly wrong in Oklahoma in April of this year. The convict Clayton D. Lockett was injected with a drug, which did not end his life directly, nor did it pacify or lessen his agony. He went into cramps, trying to fight off the pain for 43 minutes. No footage of it has been leaked. If we had seen, what took place, we would have seen the barbarism of the act. No matter the crime committed in the first place, it is each time a new crime taking place.

But when film and photos are forbidden, we have the cartoonist. And Mikkel Sommer made a drawing, which is impossible to look at. Impossible in the good sense: 

Mikkel Sommer, Politiken, June 19, 2014.
- do click on the drawing to see all of the detailing

This is death by deliberation. We only need to see the one hand to have the full picture figuratively speaking. And what a hand. Each muscle is tightened to a violent angle, the blue veins are drawn like ornaments running all the way through unto the explosion of the red fingertips.

This is no less a homage to Daumier, the grand master of cartoon art. His heritage is present in the intricate use of the line, as well as in the demonstration of injustice. Daumier worked at a time when he would include the judge, the courtroom and probably the corrupt defense counsel as well. Mikkel Sommer has condensated their entire scenery to the cuffed handwrist.

On a lighter note this is one of a handful of drawings we have seen from Mikkel Sommer in Politiken the past months with the hope that this is just the beginning. Politiken is a paper, which has defined itself since 1884 through its cartoonists. We still remember the names of those editors in charge under whose wings the cartoonists were given free reins, resulting in cartoons, which have changed, developed and defined Danish cartoon art. The late Tøger Seidenfaden was the latest of those who dared. It is now time for his successors to make their first moves cartoonwise...

The drawing is shown courtesy of Mikkel Sommer and must not be reproduced without his permission.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

"Through abstraction we became human"

- and was given the ability to grab and solve complex problems, in the words of Saad Hajo.
Which he exemplified in the one word oppression, in Arabic قمع :

Saad Hajo, Förtryck / Oppression, May 24, 2014.

Three short lines and a ring in ink along with ripples added to the black contour and before us we have the impact of the said noun.

Word versus image is a discussion as old as our attempt to systematize the world around us. With a tendency through history to group the image with nature, as something right there to be seen with our eyes. As opposed to the word, proclaimed to be a product of civilization, artificial and thus with a tendency to be of higher ranking.

As opposed to... let us nurture the opposition since it embodies the solution, according to W.J.T. Mitchell, whom we have quoted before on this blog. Mitchell has challenged the compulsion to see words and images in political terms, as he calls it, making it a struggle for territory for the one or the other. His solution is to not resolve anything. Nor there is any need to negotiate a peaceful settlement. The struggle carries the fundamental contradictions of our culture into the heart of theoretical discourse itself, to quote Mitchell. The point is not to heal, but to see what interests and powers the counterposing serves.

Which is exactly what we have before us. Oppression is by its very definition a power struggle in which the result has been reached. There is a winner, but it is a case of two parties. Oppression crumbles and loses its power without the nether one.

So by adding that nether one, Saad Hajo has metamorphosed what was originally a noun into a verb.  This is the dynamics of oppression, a process, which is as violent as it is a coldly calculated structure. A process if cultivated for a longer period of time may lead to an uprising from the suppressed, which are the exact words we keep hearing from the Syrian freedom-fighters.

All of it here at once to be seen and to be imagined. Through one word/image we have the full framework for understanding the situation in Syria, how it was not at all a sudden idea, but was stemming from a long history of suffering. It was time to reclaim the dignity.

With dignity of the oppressed as another layer incorporated into just the one constellation, it is time to return to Saad Hajo's own words: 

Listen, man, when you laugh of abstraction, it means the angry animal 
within you is laughing aggressively at the human you have become".

The cartoon shown is courtesy of Saad Hajo and must not be reproduced without his permission.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Outcry of the Unvoiced

Sulafa Hijazi, Untitled, 2012.

- I don't know what you mean, what are you talking about?

Sulafa Hijazi asked back in Copenhagen a few weeks ago at the presentation of the anthology Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline.

She was being asked if she missed doing art for art's own sake?

Her reaction was magnificent. She not only flatly dismissed it, but treated it as nonexistent, the idea of seeing art as separated from life and especially our passions.

Sulafa Hijazi, May 24, 2012.

Her drawings are painfully silent. What at first sight seems to be a surface of calm is a nightmare of pain without a voice. No one calls out, each being incarcerated in the prison imposed on him/her. They are all trying to survive on whatever they can and going to pieces in the process. The bluish-grey-green tints add to the noiselessness of the pain, the colors chosen reflect the lack of lustre in the Assad rule, in the words of Sulafa.

To this she adds the texture of dotted skin or a sharp highlight, through which the bars of oppression shoot though the picture plane, penetrating the already afflicted figure, and this is not even the central focus of the motive, indicating sufferance as the basis of life in the Assad regime. To all drawings have been added the effect as if drawn on crumbled paper.

Sulafa Hijazi had to leave Syria by the end of 2012, and the dates beneath each drawing states when it was first published on the social media, in this case Facebook. With one exception, the ones shown here were all drawn while Sulafa was still in Syria where she chose to work digitally, making it easer to disguise and erase her work, if needed.

Sulafa Hijazi, The Birth of Birth, May 15, 2012.

Life and the lack of it is intertwined, giving life and the taking of life: The violence of the Assad regime is resulting in a world in which men gives birth to the next generation of weaponry. Sulafa Hijazi has given us the image, which may become the very icon of the Syrian struggle for freedom.

And not just that, she has even given us another, the image of what it means to flee in trying to reach for freedom.

The drawing below was made on the other side of Sulafa's own escape. She has told, how she for five months following it suffered from "disconnected memory". The drawing is a reflection on freedom, as in freedom from something, that something which turns out to be too strong, impossible to escape, to which end she deftly portrays the mental state through the body:

Sulafa Hijazi, Asylum, April 4, 2014.
- From a Western perspective I cannot help seeing
the Mediterranean as the symbol of the Western passivity,
making it a sea of death demanding its heavy prize on life.

"Inside Syria, people live as prisoners inside a huge cell. Once we try to escape from there, we discover that we are still inside", in the words of Sulafa Hijazi herself.

Sulafa Hijazi, May 24, 2012.

Sulafa Hijazi employs mathematical structures of symmetry, repetition, and mirroring, giving them symbolical substance such as being locked in upon oneself in an eternal repetition, i.e. the double prison of losing oneself by never being able to break out. It has resulted in one of her most beautiful drawings. 

The clarity of the soft blue, the intricacy of the composition. And the embodiment of human life.

Sulafa Hijazi, June 15, 2012.

The artworks shown are courtesy of Sulafa Hijazi and must not be reproduced without her permission.

The quotation above is from: Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud (eds), Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, London: Saqi Books 2014.

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