Muses: Grace and Anger in Kara Walker’s work.

Black and white are the primary colors artist Kara Walker uses. Shadow and light. Negative and positive space. Her tableaux are made of black paper, and they are silhouetted against a gallery’s white walls The archetypical imagery she uses–sordid scenes from slavery. The wild-haired pickaninny, the scheming Southern Belle, the oblivious Good Master, the slave’s body in chains… Referents are classic children’s books, the mythology of the Antebellum South, and black memorabilia. It’s work that is never kitsch or twee; it’s dangerous and graceful at the same time.

Kara Walker 1

Walker’s work dismantles the Master’s House with the master’s tool, to borrow a quote from Audre Lorde.

Golliwogs, Black Pete and screaming cakes: Linde and the African grotesque

Blackface, the act and art of caricaturing African skins and features, is a practice that won’t die. It lives on in the fashion industry and advertising, where outrageous imagery and shock are important selling points. The figure of Black Pete in the Netherlands—Santa Claus’ slave—persists in their Christmas traditions, though many people say that Pete is “black” because of soot. In Britian, Golliwogs are beloved toys and many people are unaware that ‘gollys’ are slightly altered minstrel figures. Blackface, dolls, mammy figures—all serve to send the message of the undesirability and the alieness of the black body.  Are we even human?

blackface-netherlandsblackface1

There are now several artists who have attempted to reclaim these racially charged images. The most controversial of these is the Swedish artist Makode Linde. His most (in)famous work was performative. A red velvet cake was formed into the shape of the Hottentot Venus and decorated with black fondant icing. The artist served as the grotesque cake’s head, and every time someone took a piece of the blood-red cake, he screamed.

Linde art
The purpose of this performance was to highlight the issue of female genital mutilation. It was lurid, and many critics thought it trivialized the plight of these young women, something I agree with. The piece was disturbing and problematic, but it was also confrontational. The cake was set up in an art gallery, and there are many pictures of well appointed white folk laughing at the horrific spectacle. I go back and forth about whether this work is the ultimate trollery or a multilayered thought-provoking piece.
I have checked out Linde’s other work, and it uses grotesque images of black faces and juxtaposes them in European settings. In one, Queen Elizabeth (the current one) stands next to a man defaced with Golliwog-like features. The same face appears on the head of a classical Greek statue. What draws me in also chases me away. Here, Linde’s work is more slightly nuanced. It is still very unsettling and has the subtlety of a Julie Traymor production.
I play with black grotesques and archetypes in my own work; I think what I do with them is less ambiguous than Linde’s work. For instance, my story “Catch Him By The Toe” riffs on the Sambo story. These horrible images, archetypes, tropes and stories are a part of our heritage. If the fashion industry can use them, we have a right to use them as well.

Muses: Arthur Rimbaud, Cosmic Vagabond

Arthur Rimbaud’s brief meteoric rise and fall as poet is the stuff of legend. His writing career spanned five years and ended abruptly at 21.

Rimbaud

His poems are more like incantations. Violent, mystical, always transforming itself–he thought words were like alchemical formulas. Poems were portals to both Heaven, Hell and all between. He created a new alphabet that reflected hidden energy of language. Illuminations, his final work, eschewed poetic form; they are prose poems full of  sacred and profane images in an opiated language that hints of an otherworld.

New review of Bereft

Critic Amos Lassen says of Bereft,

There is no happy ending here and I doubt there ever will be if we do not live up to our responsibilities to make the world a better place for everyone. I suspect that there is a lot of the author’s own life here but even if there is not, I believe we can all agree that we do not yet live in a world that is free of racism and homophobia. It is surprising that we have to be reminded of that. If we do have to be reminded, I am glad that it is Craig Gidney’s powerful and beautiful prose.

Read the whole review.

BOOK REVIEW: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

All of the reviews I’ve read about A Stranger In Olondria talk about it being about bibliophilia, that is, the love of books. The love of books certainly does run through the novel, but I actually think it’s more about spirituality—with the written word being the locus through which transcendence is achieved.

stranger in olondria cover

The form the novel takes is the bildungsroman: a novel about the initiation of a youth into the wider world. Jevick is the son of a prosperous pepper merchant, a tyrant of a man who has two wives and controls a plantation on a tropical island. When it becomes clear that Jevick’s older brother is unfit for inheritance, Jevick is trained to be his father’s successor. A tutor from the distant, northern land of Olondria is hired, ostensibly to teach young Jevick the language and customs of that land in order to be a competent trader. But the tutor instills in the boy a love of the written word and an obsession with the exotic land.  Jevick eventually travels to Olondria on his first routine trade trip, and—very much against his will—becomes literally haunted by the ghost of Jissavet, a young woman and fellow islander he met on the voyage from the Tea Islands. Ghosts, in a heretical Olondrian religion, are considered angels, and those who communicate with them are living saints. When Jevick’s haunting becomes public knowledge, he is placed under arrest and becomes the unwilling pawn between two religious factions.

In spite of this fairly complex set up, the novel isn’t about politics. The narrative form is that of the memoir, or its even more antiquated cousin, the philosophical romance. Jevick’s narrative meanders, often interrupting the narrative flow to quote poetry or bits of Olondrian philosophy. It’s slow, and richly descriptive—a marked difference  the often breakneck pace of other fantasy novels. At times, the book becomes a travelogue—kind of like the books written by John Berendt (e.g., Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). Because of this solemn quality, the magic and the world-building is organic and believable. Other times, it has the elegiac melancholy of Hermann Hesse’s novels (particularly Steppenwolf and Siddhartha). The land of Olondria is a character. The country has a Mediterranean feel, in its fauna and cultures. The imaginary religion borrows from Hinduism and Egyptian mythology with a dash of decadence, resonant of the Greek mysteries.

The novel’s ending is ambiguous; no magic ring is recovered or kingdom conquered. Rather, Jevick, and Olondria itself, are spiritually changed. A Stranger in Olondria is a richly rewarding experience for those who love prose poetry and non-traditional narratives. Sofia Samatar’s debut novel is a fine exemplar of bibliomancy.

What I’m listening to: #BlueHawaii, #StillCorners, #JohnGrant, #Colleen

Blue Hawaii: Untogether. Floating, dreamy technopop that reminds me of Bjork’s Vespertine–with a touch of eerieness.

Blue-Hawaii-Untogether

Still Corners: Strange Pleasures. Melodic dreampop full of hooks, with a dash of electronic. The mood is hazy. Think Beach House meets Mazzy Star.

Still Corners

John Grant: Pale Green Ghosts. Grant’s awesome baritone and killer lyrics drift over music that’s a blend of electronica and folk-rock. Truly wonderful songwriting and enthralling performances.

John Grant

Colleen: The Weighing of the Heart. Multi-instrumentalist Cecile Schott’s first foray into vocal music. Pastoral post-rock with references to classical minimalism. Meredith Monk and Julia Holter are touchstones. Quite beautiful.

Colleen