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Wednesday
Dec182013

on food and survival

Apartheid-era prison diets on Robben Island

Watching the archival photos of the sharecroppers and tenant farmers of Gee's Bend during the 1930s it is obvious how thin they were.  And when Mandela was released, he too was terribly thin, and stayed so.  What did they all eat?
There are many images available of this typed-up sheet of the specifications for 'Coloured/Asiatic' and 'Bantu' food allowances posted in the museum that is now the Robben Island Gaol. Clearly everyone takes a photo of it in shock. None of these racialised words exist anymore, but the intent is clear.  

I calculate that Mandela existed on 700 calories a day and Ahmed Kathrada on perhaps 750 calories a day for 27 years.  These are generous calculations, not taking into account the quality of the food.  Neville Alexander was released in 1974 after ten years on Robben Island and wrote a dossier on conditions there, Robben Island Prison Dossier 1964-1974 published in 1994.  The food conditions are in Addendum Seven, p137.  How did they survive on a diet so nutritionally bereft of value?  Evidently the metabolism slows, organs shrink, many die.  

For Alabama, I quote Harvey Levenstein writing about Depression conditions in Paradox of Plenty, part 12, 2003:   'In Alabama sharecroppers scrape by on their historic diet of the three M's: meat (fat salt pork), corn meal, and molasses.  Shrivelled gardens stop producing green vegetables and fruit is but a memory.  When rations run out before Saturday payday, people simply go without eating.'

Those shrivelled gardens had been root crops and greens: the slave tradition had been leftover plant material – turnip and beet tops, dandelions and collards, discarded cuts of meat, plus, if allowed, foraged food, none of which was available to the South African prisoners. 

The monotony of the food on Robben Island must have been appalling, as were the three M's.  Would this mean one never cared much about food again, or would it mean that with prosperity one ate all that one could?  It could go both ways.

Thursday
Dec122013

Gee's Bend women

Right.  Having spent most of the morning watching various Gee's Bend videos, have found this absolutely beautiful one on vimeo posted by the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.  It says it all. 

28 minutes long.

THE QUILTS OF GEE'S BEND from Souls Grown Deep Foundation on Vimeo.

 

Wednesday
Dec112013

piecework processes

Lorraine Pettway, born 1953. Medallion work-clothes quilt, 1974, denim and cotton/polyester blend, 84 x 68 inches.

This is a quilt made from work clothes.  Rather than linking the image to the original site, it is linked to a larger image where one can see the size of the squares that make up the colour blocks.  Blue chambray work shirts (usually from J C Penney, but Sears did them – each brand slightly different in detail and fabric) faded to this pale sky colour in the sun, leaving darker patches underneath the pockets and at the bottom of the sleeves which were usually rolled up.  They disintegrated across the back and at the elbows.  The pieces in this quilt would have been from shirts patched and mended until they could be mended no more, leaving the tails, the cuffs, collars and pockets.

Like any sort of piecing activity: dry stone walls, broken tile mosaics, quilting, each piece in the pile of material becomes intimately known for its colour, its shape, its peculiarities that allow it to fit into a greater whole.  Each piece is considered, set aside, reconsidered elsewhere, set aside and finally used in precisely the right place. In this process all the pieces become characters in the larger narrative that is the quilt, or the wall, or the floor.

This is also a process whereby the weak, the broken and the otherwise unuseable become strong.  Worn out fabric, easily torn, is stitched through a cotton batt layer to a backing cloth, so that it has no stress on it: strain is taken collectively by the batting, the stitching and the backing.   

What these pieced surfaces look like is an entirely different discussion.  Of course each piece is chosen and placed to make a beautiful surface.  But it is not by design, rather it is by detail at the scale of the fingers and the needle, and this is where the Gee's Bend quilts part company with modern quilting as supported by the contemporary quilting industry of patterns, books, new 'vintage' cottons, fat quarters and all the rest.  

I would say, not being an African-American from Alabama with a history of slavery, poverty and the church, that we could read these surfaces as conversations between each piece of fabric and the woman assembling and stitching the pieces.  And like conversations they are unpredictable, idiosyncratic and emotional.  They switch direction mid-stream, they are sometimes angry. They can sooth and they take a long time.   

Loretta Pettway, born 1942. "Lazy Gal" -- "Bars," ca. 1965, denim and cotton, 80 x 69 inches. All images: Tinwood Media

Tuesday
Dec102013

Gee's Bend quilts

Pearlie Kennedy Pettway, 1920-1982. "Bars" work-clothes quilt, ca. 1950, denim and cotton, 84 x 81 inches.

Gee's Bend, Alabama: a small community in a near-oxbow of the Alabama River, originally the Gee cotton plantation, settled in 1816 with 18 slaves.  This had increased to about 150 when slavery was abolished, and most became sharecroppers still working for the landowner.  Its isolation was grave: a ferry and a single road in, during the Depression it received assistance from the Red Cross and the Resettlement Administration which eventually purchased the plantation, re-renting it to its tenants who in the 1940s were able to purchase their plots.  Because of its historical, cultural and social isolation, it has been much studied as a community: its music, its speech and its quilts.

Much has been made of the quilts.  During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the Freedom Quilting Bee was formed which sold quilts outside Gee's Bend – difficult as the ferry had been eliminated to make voter registration in nearby Camden hard: by land it was an hour's drive. Ferry service was only restored in 2006.  

The quilts received critical attention almost immediately; they were exhibited, documented, they appeared in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, at the Whitney and the Smithsonian and they've been on US Mail stamps.  It's a big deal.  Despite having done a slew of quilts in my time and collected a number of African American strip quilts from my time in Texas, I only heard about the Gee's Bend quilts on a BBC jazz program  (you can no longer hear it but the playlist is there) about the Jaimeo Brown Trio whose music is based on the Gee's Bend quilters' spirituals that they sing as they quilt.  

When I looked up the quilts, many of which feature on the Smithsonian site, I also found a much-repeated critical stance on Gee's Bend quilts, this one typical: 'There's a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making, writes Alvia Wardlaw, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts [Houston].'

Once again, we have something with its own history, economics, traditions and modes of production likened to abstract art.  Because it looks like abstract art doesn't mean it is abstract art.  Perhaps to an art historian, this comparison of visual similarities was once the foundation of some sort of taxonomy, but today?  I don't think so.  Wardlaw, above, likens the 'improvisational range of approaches to composition' to the same range of approaches found in abstract painters of the same era: mid- to late-twentieth century.  This doesn't add credibility to the quilts; it does outline the way that art curators seek to legitimise work outside the tradition of western painting.

The quilts need no legitimacy, they are themselves.  For this, the Smithsonian essay is good.  It doesn't bang on about how abstract they are because they have spoken to the quilters themselves, who recall things such as Martin Luther King's visit, adding bits to a quilt that is too small, great-grandmothers sold for a dime (not the quilt, the great-grandmother), picking cotton and okra, and sewing a quilt out of your father's work clothes after he died, to remember him by.  

None of this is abstract at all. And nor are the patterns.  They are determined by the size of pieces of fabric to small to use for anything else.  This is an art of poverty, where nothing goes to waste.  Anything less like the economic system that is the art world would be difficult to find.  

In 2007 two quilters filed a suit against dealers who had claimed to own the intellectual property rights to pre-1984 quilts and had used photographs and quotations to promote sales.  The case was dismissed, but it indicates a certain degree of ongoing exploitation of labour, just at a more decorative and sophisticated level. 

Rachey Carey George (born 1908). Work-clothes strips, c. 1938. Denim (wool trousers, mattress ticking, cotton). 82 x 72 inches. The Collection of the Tinwood Alliance.

Sunday
Dec082013

Johnny Clegg and Savuka: Asimbonanga, 1987

This video was made before Mandela was released from prison.  From 1964 to 1990, the only image in circulation was from before the Rivonia trials — this is the one used in the Clegg video.  When he was released and appeared on the tv walking through the crowds, I couldn't even recognise the young face in the 72 year old man.  The suppression of his appearance had been utter and complete.

And then, later, in 1999 in France:

Asimbonanga
Asimbonang' uMandela thina
Laph'ekhona Laph'ehlikhona
Asimbonanga
Asimbonang' uMandela thina
Laph'ekhona Laph'ehlikhona
Oh the sea is cold and the sky is grey
Look across the Island into the Bay
We are all islands till comes the day
We cross the burning water
Asimbonanga
Asimbonang' uMandela thina
Laph'ekhona Laph'ehlikhona
Asimbonanga
Asimbonang' uMandela thina
Laph'ekhona Laph'ehlikhona
A seagull wings across the sea
Broken silence is what I dream
Who has the words to close the distance
Between you and me
Asimbonanga
Asimbonang' uMandela thina
Laph'ekhona Laph'ehlikhona
Asimbonanga
Asimbonang' uMandela thina
Laph'ekhona Laph'ehlikhona
Asimbonanga
Asimbonang' uMandela thina
Laph'ekhona Laph'ehlikhona

Saturday
Dec072013

Youssou N'Dour: Xale

from Set, Virgin Records, 1990

Xale : Freedom

Thursday
Dec052013

Nelson Mandela

18 July 1918 - 5 December 2013: a twentieth century life, in all its cruel outlines, and where this turned out to be training for political grace.  

1966: Mandela sits and sews inmates' clothes in the yard of Robben Island prison

Tuesday
Dec032013

William Klein, irrepressible

This came out in 2012 as a BBC program.  It is long, perfect for watching, as I did, while a snowstorm rages, drifts, beats at the windows.  Like, alright already. Yes it is winter. 

Never quite realised how influential Klein was until this film. His images were everywhere at one time, in magazines mostly: they taught us all how to compose a photograph, and probably a lot more, just about life.

Friday
Nov292013

Steven Holl, Knut Hamsun Centre, 2009

Steven Holl, The Knut Hamsun Centre. Presteid, Hamarøy, Norway 1994-2009A slightly tilted box, sheathed in tarred wood, based, according to Holl on Norwegian vernacular of wood stave churches, sod roofs and windows placed to receive low sun.  Conceptually, the skin peels back in places for staircases, windows, tiny decks: tiny lesions that humanise an uncompromised, black three-storey building.

There is, of course, controversy.  Hamsun (1859-1952) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920; he is known as the father of the modern novel for his use of such things as flashbacks and fragmentation, his plain prose, his love of nature and beauty.  He gave his Nobel medal to Goebbels and was a member of Quisling's National Unity Party.  Quisling delivered Norway to Germany, more or less.  This has compromised Hamsun's literary legacy.  

The Hamsun Centre opened on the 150th anniversary of his birth.  He had a hard childhood, much poverty, little schooling; his first book was Hunger in 1890, written in straitened, but for Hamsun, normal circumstances after he returned from an itinerant turn around the American midwest in the 1880s.  With the success of his novels he bought a farm in Nordland, married, had a family and continued to write.  As Jonathan Glancy wrote in his review of the Hamsun Centre 'The Nazi episode poisoned this well of beauty.'
Although Holl claims that a museum dedicated to a single writer should contain everything, good and bad, just the existence of a Hamsun Centre enrages many Norwegians and particularly the Simon Wiesenthal Centre which, evidently, has been fierce in its attack on Norway for validating Hamsun's life.  

Glancey found the building beautiful, complex and unsettling, appropriate to the contradictory life that was Knut Hamsun's.  The site is beautiful, the story both tragic and frustrating.  How, we think, can anyone have gone so terribly wrong as to support Hitler.  Yet the Germany of Hamsun's youth was the European centre of culture: of music, literature, history, philosophy; he was a germanophile, Norway was a colony, Nordland was a distant periphery.   Not only did the Nazi episode poison Nordland's well of beauty, it poisoned Germany. This is a terrible narrative to try to encompass with architecture if architecture is supposed to take sides, which if it did, would no longer be architecture but some form of 3-d propaganda.

I can't speak about the building as I haven't seen it, other than in drawings, models and photos.  It seems brave: the little details that cling to the black box are like flies: fragile, annoying, but also clean.  I'm interested in black buildings right now, and this was one of them.  The more I look at it, the more necessary it is that it is black, not because this is some sort of Norwegian barn vernacular, but because it is a building that holds great social and political tension, and has to bear the weight of twenty-first century vengeance.  The blackness will be re-inscribed when Hamsun is taken up by Brevik and his ilk.

Steven Holl, The Knut Hamsun Centre. Presteid, Hamarøy, Norway 1994-2009

Wednesday
Nov272013

Terror Háza, Budapest, 2002

Attila F Kovacs, Architeckton RT, architects. House of Terror Museum, Budapest, Hungary, 2002. photographer: Janos Szentivani.

The Terror Háza in Budapest, where 'terror' is the same word in Hungarian.  The building was used by the Arrow Cross Party (National Socialist) in WWII, then in the postwar soviet sphere, headquarters of the State Security Department, ÁVO.  With both, the windows were either covered, blocked or painted over: a literal signalling of secrecy and opacity. Is this the first necessity of security systems – that detention, interrogation, torture and homicide be conducted without windows?  Evidently.  

The colour black is indubitably connected to such darkness, and not for nothing is there a whole collection of associated sites and actions: black ops, black sites of secret extraordinary rendition, black projects – rogue, but sanctioned, secret but documented, somewhere.

The Terror Háza, a museum about fascist and communist regimes, is a member of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience; the building was bought by the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History; the exhibition hall and the treatment of the outside is by Attila F Kovács, who painted it black, embedded ceramic miniatures of victims at eye height around the base and added the cornice — what?  brise-soleil?  an extended plane that casts the word terror over each façade: a complex reading because it uses sunlight, light, enlightenment to cast an inverted shadow over something already historically shadowed. The word cast is not hopeful, despite the sunlight, it too is dark.  

There is ongoing protest and negotiation in Hungary about the proportion of exhibits and thus blame given to communism over fascism.  Which was worse?  It depends on who you are.  Or were.  Similar debates, angry and hurt, are conducted in our War Museum in Ottawa and the Imperial War Museum in London: was Bomber Harris a war criminal or a successful strategist?  Terror is a tool of war, whether hot or cold, civil or revolutionary, used by all sides.

Tuesday
Nov262013

tough form

Bas Princen, photographer. Cooling Plant, Dubai, 2009

Aaron Rothman, in Landscape and Illusion, writes that in Bas Princen's images 'buildings take on the morphology, presence and muteness of mountains'.  This particular piece has all the presence of a giant meteor flung from space to the glassy ephemeral surfaces of Dubai. It is a building, but it is also an image, and the particular mise-en-scene with the indigo jumpsuited workers, the heaps of rubble, the dirt road — could be cut out of the Khyber Pass – places the cooling plant as a hinge between making something and looking at something, specifically the towers of the super-rich in the background.  The towers need this plant, the plant needed the workers; that bit will soon be erased.

Monday
Nov252013

Wayne Thiebaud's San Francisco

because it is just so beautiful.

Wednesday
Nov202013

Wayne Thiebaud: Dark Country City, 1988

Wayne Thiebaud. Dark Country City, 1988. Soft ground etching with aquatint and drypoint 21.9 x 32.2

There is something so geological about Thiebaud's view of the city: buildings and roads are like shards of rock, as vertiginous as cliff faces.  These are drawings where the x-axis has been multiplied by 10, the unbuilt landscape is mysterious — an enormous clamshell holding itself to itself, the road is both brave and intimate: a tremendously exciting place to live, as San Francisco is.  Thiebaud introduces a powerful scale with which to identify one's place in this city way beyond the vocabulary of urbanism.  The city is like a Krazy Kat mesa: a figure in the landscape that one lives up against.

Tuesday
Nov192013

krazy landscapes

George Herriman. Krazy Kat. Ink over pencil with scraping out and paste-on, June 8, 1941. ©1941, King Features, Gift of George Sturman to the Library of Congress

Monday
Nov182013

more Thiebaud

 

Wayne Thiebaud. Heart Ridge, 2011. Hard ground etching with drypoint. 12 x 9 on 17 x 13. Crown Point Press

No surprise then, that he says Krazy Kat was always an influence. 

Wednesday
Nov132013

more sandwiches

Wayne Thiebaud. Club Sandwich, from Delights, Crown Point Press, 1964. etching on paper plate: 4 x 4 7/8 in. (10.2 x 12.5 cm) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of Mr. Frank Lobdell, San Francisco

Tuesday
Nov122013

sign making

Bottom of the Cup Tea Room, New OrleansThis beautiful sign comes by way of Ginger at Deep-Fried Kudzu, a huge site of folk art, material culture, food, landscape and buildings centred on Alabama, but also on the South in general. 

Friday
Nov082013

sign painting

Kenji Nakayama's hand.

Kenji Nakayama, mechanical engineer, shoe designer, artist based in Boston, here.  Detailing and lettering of great exuberance. 

And below, a vimeo trailer for a well-discussed film on American sign painters.  For something so fundamental to the look of America, the painters are a near outlaw lot. Well, maybe that is the point.  Lose the signwriters and lose that nostalgic, hand-made quality that used to characterise the States, but increasingly ceases to do so.

SIGN PAINTERS (OFFICIAL TRAILER) from samuel j macon on Vimeo.

 

Thursday
Nov072013

how to write a well-proportioned letter

&! Art of Signwriting, 1954

&! Art of Signwriting, 1954

Tuesday
Nov052013

hands, doing things

How to make Bread from The Joy of Cooking, illustrations by Ginnie Hoffman and Beverly Warner, 1931

Everyone has always heard that Andy Warhol was an illustrator, originally, of shoes and cookbooks.  I was convinced my old Joy of Cooking was done by him, but it turns out these disembodied hands in Juliet Greco sleeves were actually done in 1931.  Somehow I don't believe this date.  These hands are so like Warhol's in Amy Vanderbilt's 1961 cookbook, below.  Nonetheless, such drawings are both clear and bizarre: what the hand needs to know about making  bread, or rolled sandwiches.  Pinwheels these were called.  Just a couple of years later the Velvet Underground was formed as Warhol's house band.  

In American Masters: Lou Reed, rerun on PBS on the weekend, Reed said that Warhol had a levelling eye – politicians, stars, soup cans – all were treated the same. This determined indifference is the ultimate democracy: the line drawing of two hands cutting the side off a loaf of bread means nothing other than cutting off the side of the loaf.  It isn't a cleverly-shaped baguette or a whole grain loaf — it appears to be an unsliced wonder loaf.  These hands don't even have sleeves.  The bread board has no perspective, neither does the loaf; there are no crumbs.  The knives, the long pin and their blunt attacks on the bread are both clumsy and sinister.  I find the drawings both wry and amusing.  They are unarticulated, but not inarticulate.

How to roll sandwiches from Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Cookbook, 1961, illustrations by Andrew Warhol

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