Wednesday, 8 February 2017


The world is becoming “more violent, and violence is occurring in surprising places”, says a recent report by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Some 3.34 billion people, or almost half of the world’s population, have been affected by violence over the past 15 years, according to the report. But many regions have also known violence for decades, if not centuries, and the arts have particularly borne witness to the issue.

In the Caribbean, writers and other artists are known for portraying societal violence in their work, and this depiction is now increasingly the subject of scholarly research.

Véronique Maisier, a professor at Southern Illinois University in the United States, is the author of a compelling book titled Violence in Caribbean Literature: Stories of Stones and Blood, and she discusses the topic in the following conversation with Jamaican writer Alecia McKenzie.

A.M.: What was the motivation for researching and writing “Violence in Caribbean Literature”?
V.M.: My interest in Caribbean literature started in 2000 when I first read [Martinican writer] Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Texaco. I found Chamoiseau’s novel to be challenging but also beautifully written, and fascinating. After reading it, I wanted to know more about Caribbean writers and cultures, and once I started reading novels by Simone Schwarz-Bart, Maryse Condé, Michelle Cliff, Edwidge Danticat, and Jamaica Kincaid, I could not stop. I realized early on that their narratives all emphasized the daily struggles of their protagonists. Most often, the characters had to contend with extreme poverty, and resorted to violence in order to survive, to express their frustration, or to reject an established order that had cruelly failed them. Other times, violence was triggered by jealousy, madness, prejudices, and resulted in murder, rape or domestic abuse. Whatever the causes, tensions were rarely absent from people’s interactions in Caribbean novels. A few years ago, it dawned on me that several of the novels I had read had in common a scene in which a protagonist grabbed a stone, and threw it at someone - a friend, an outsider, a child, a teacher. I decided to work on a comparative study of these scenes in order to look more closely at the violence that I had noticed in many Caribbean texts.

A.M.: Is violence more of a topic, theme or trope in “Caribbean” literature than in other regional writing, and, if so, could you summarize some of the reasons for this, according to your research?
V.M.: I think that violence is especially present in Caribbean literature because of the historical forces put in place since the beginnings of the diverse cultures that constitute the Caribbean region today. Caribbean societies were born out of the extermination of the local populations, followed by the kidnapping, forced relocation, and slaved labor of millions of Africans, in turn followed by the indentureship of many thousands of East and West Asians brought to the Caribbean region after the abolition of slavery.  Populations with different cultures, religions, languages, ways of life, etc. were brutally forced together to inhabit a foreign land where they would be denied their humanity for several centuries. As a result, contemporary Caribbean societies have inherited numerous divides from the past - divides based on race, on economic status, education, gender, religion or politics - that express themselves in the numerous examples of violence found in the literature of the region.

Professor Veronique Maisier
A.M.: In the book, you discuss common historical events as well as differences among Caribbean nations. Regarding violence, what were the commonalities you found across the region?
V.M.: While there are many cultural and political differences among Caribbean nations, I found that there were quite a few commonalities in the scenes of violence that I examined. For instance, the attackers were all young individuals, typically teenagers who were rebelling against the authority of an adult or against a perceived injustice. Except for one case of violence that had clear sexual undertones, the acts of violence were perpetrated against persons of the same gender as the attacker. The attacks took place abruptly but resulted from tensions that had been building up for months. Blood was drawn in each of the incidents, and the consequences of the attack were grievous for the victims while the attackers remained unscathed and safe from reprisals (with the exception of Merle Hodge’s young boy who was sent to the Orphanage as a result of his actions). Not surprisingly, the stone was the weapon of choice for the young attackers who did not have any resources to acquire more advanced weaponry, and who reacted swiftly, with whatever was close at hand, to what they perceived as an immediate threat. 

A.M.: Do writers from different islands treat violence in different ways?
V.M.: Writers might have different experiences with violence depending on where they live but I do not think that this necessarily translates in a different treatment of violence in their novels.  Violence is a universal concept. While personal experience may vary - and sometimes even for writers from one neighborhood to the next, a general understanding, and empathy tend to level out differences based on geography.  It is more likely that writers treat violence in different ways depending on their gender, age, political views, or ideology rather than based on their country affiliation. In my opinion, a writer’s treatment of violence has less to do with geographical origin than with life experiences, even though I realize that those can be tightly connected.

Poster for the film based on Zobel's novel.
A.M.: Regarding the historical aspect, how do earlier writers deal with violence in their work?
V.M.: That is a difficult question to answer in a few words. Violence in the works of earlier writers appears under control, contained within the text. There is plenty of violence for instance in Télumée Miracle [by Guadeloupean writer Simone Schwarz-Bart] or La Rue Cases-Nègres [by Martinican writer Joseph Zobel]. The treatment of violence in these beautiful texts, however, seems somewhat conventional, as it follows the classic construction in which the reader is led to feel sorry for the victim(s). Recent writers are more challenging in that regard; they question the positions of victim and attacker, and generally speaking they make things less “cozy” for their readers. What I find fascinating with many recent writers is that the violence is found at the level of the text itself. It is present in the language - with the creolization of the colonial language, for instance - and in the very structure of the text - with the polyphonic approach, the orality, the rejection of literary conventions, etc. With some books, the violence becomes textual, it disturbs the text, and is felt by readers who get closer to being participants than mere observers.

A.M.: Does the theme cut across different genres - poetry, short stories, plays, novels?
V.M.: Yes, the theme of violence cuts across different genres, and can be found in poetry, short stories, plays, novels, and we can add songs, films, paintings.

A.M.: Do you think that there is now a movement towards gratuitous violence in some works?
V.M.: I am not sure. I am not aware of such a movement but that does not mean that it does not exist. In the Caribbean novels that I have read, violence is never gratuitous. There are violent characters who hit, hurt, and abuse other characters for the flimsiest of reasons or for reasons that might appear gratuitous, but I do not think that it was the authors’ intention to write about violence for the sake of violence or as a marketing tool to appeal to a certain type of readers.  In my readings, violent acts that appear unjustified remain a way to express one’s anger, one’s frustration, or one’s powerlessness. I admit that one of the most disturbingly violent scenes I have ever read was in [Jamaican-born writer] Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven, when Christopher massacres Paul’s family. On the one hand, that scene very much pushes the limits of comfort with its horrific details, and raises the question: “Was such a graphic description necessary?” On the other hand, in the context of Cliff’s portrayal of Jamaican society, the scene is an essential precursor of Jamaica falling into extremely violent political turmoil, as exemplified in Christopher’s gruesome descent into madness.

The cover of Michelle Cliff's novel.
A.M.: What do you hope readers (and writers) will gain from your book?
V.M.: I hope that readers might gain an understanding of the various elements at play in the violence found in the context of contemporary Caribbean societies. In the book, I try to explain why the situation can be so volatile today in these societies, and I hope to show that, given certain circumstances, violence becomes not only unavoidable but also understandable. Understanding does not mean condoning. While one cannot condone violence, one should understand its components, its mechanisms in order to be able to find ways to remedy it, and to defuse it. I would like to encourage a compassionate reading of the victims, but also of the attackers, and to recommend an awareness of the injustices faced by members of society who are wronged for reasons of race, gender, age, poverty, sexual orientation, lack of opportunity or representation, as well as an awareness of the dangers inherent in a society where such injustices take place.

(Violence in Caribbean Literature: Stories of Stones and Blood is published by Lexington Books.)

For another version of this article, please see INPS / IDN news agency:

You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Wednesday, 25 January 2017


The First World Festival of Negro Arts, Dakar 1966: Contexts and Legacies is an engaging historical volume and also the “first sustained attempt" to provide not only an overview of the event mentioned in the title, but also of its multiple legacies, according to publisher Liverpool University Press.

Edited by David Murphy, professor of Postcolonial Studies at Scotland’s University of Stirling, the book focuses on the "Premier Festival Mondial des arts nègres", or FESMAN, that took place in April 1966. The festival drew thousands of artists and performers from across Africa and the African diaspora to the Senegalese capital, with luminaries such as Josephine Baker, Aimé Césaire, Duke Ellington, Wole Soyinka and Mighty Sparrow among the headliners.

The goal was to bring together leading intellectuals and artists, and FESMAN did this even as it played out against the backdrop of the Cold War, with the United States and the former Soviet Union jockeying for influence in Africa.

Initiated by then President Léopold Sédar Senghor, the festival showed the world the wealth of African art and culture, and people got a clear taste of the rivalry between the superpowers of the era, as the Soviet Union sent a steamship to Dakar with about 750 passengers who participated "alongside" a large American delegation, underwritten by the U.S. State Department.

More than 50 years later, this publication is aimed at helping readers to better understand FESMAN’s impact as well as the ‘festivalization’ of Africa that has occurred in recent decades, says the editor.

Murphy writes, for instance, that the many legacies of 1966 include the series of “mega-festivals that would follow over the ensuing decade”.

He and other scholars examine the festival from a number of different perspectives, shedding light on questions such as: what did it mean to cover the event as a journalist and what was its “legacy in black popular magazines”? How did the organizers go about “staging culture”? How important is maintaining and protecting archives on cultural history and on such singular events?

This is a volume for those particularly interested in postcolonial studies, but it will also appeal to readers who just wish to know more about FESMAN and its role in various movements.

For an earlier SWAN article about the festival and a related exhibition, please see:

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Wednesday, 4 January 2017


Someone once said that the best kind of music is that which makes you joyful and melancholic at the same time.  If such is the case, then Cape Verde’s national music - the morna - might be the perfect sound for the new year: eliciting happiness for fresh beginnings and sadness at some of the dire events of 2016.

The cover of Mornas de Cabo Verde (Lusafrica)
A recently released compilation, Mornas de Cabo Verde, evokes this swing between moods and the spirit of the times, even as it inspires admiration for the artists’ talents. Produced by the Lusafrica label which launched Cesária Évora’s career, Mornas features the late “barefoot diva” as well as earlier and contemporary singers.

The music resembles Portuguese fado, but “its accents are rough and heart-rending”, as Lusafrica puts it. Morna has its own characteristics and “probably comes from lament, a style of singing brought from Angola by slaves”.

Listeners will find that the album fully captures these songs that convey “a sadness full of hope”, starting off with Ildo Lobo’s poignant Nós Morna and quickly moving to Évora’s eternally sublime Miss Perfumado - which was the title of her best-selling 1992 album, and of a successful single.

The tracks also highlight the gifts of other singers such as Lura, Nancy Vieira, Zé Luis and, of course, Elida Almeida – the 23-year-old powerhouse who is regarded as Évora’s heir apparent, although their personal styles are very different. (For more on Almeida, see:

Almeida’s contribution, the plaintive Mar Sagrado, comes from her debut CD, and prospective listeners should be warned that the vocals might bring on an inexplicable urge to weep, while the instrumentals simultaneously make one want to dance. But then, that is the dual nature of the morna, and of this album.


The morna also appears on the latest work from Angolan artist Bonga, aka José Adelino Barceló de Calvalho. Recados de Fora (Messages from Elsewhere) is his 31st album, and comprises Angola’s traditional semba as well as Portuguese fado.

Bonga in concert.
Bonga lives in Portugal, and the album was “quietly” recorded there, in Paris, and in the Cape Verdean port city of Mindelo, says label Lusafrica.

“In Mindelo ... all members of the African-Portuguese community of musicians inevitably meet one night or another on the island of São Vicente,” adds a label spokesperson 

“This is Cesária’s hometown, and it takes pride in its many excellent musicians, including the guitarist Bau and Chico Serra, who both feature on the album.”

Along with Bonga’s gravelly voice and sharp lyrics, the compositions boast excellent backing vocals, infectious percussion, brass, flute and particularly the dikanza – a segment of grooved bamboo scraped with a stick. Producer Betinho Feijo orchestrates the whole with a “light touch”, but the turbulent history of Angola comes across in Bonga’s critiques of globalization and declining solidarity, and in his message of non-violence.

Bonga's Recados de Fora (Messages from Elsewhere)
The singer, now 73 years old, started life as the son of a fisherman, became a successful athlete, and then had to go into exile after working in support of Angola’s independence from Portugal. The story goes that he used various pseudonyms and carried messages between pro-independence groups who opposed the then regime (the country achieved sovereignty in 1975).

He permanently took on the name Bonga in 1972, and recorded his first album in the Netherlands that same year, Angola 72. Its leading song Mona Ki Ngi Xica contained lyrics that were deemed seditious by the Angolan authorities and a warrant was issued for his arrest, forcing him to continue on the move.

Bonga lived in various European countries and settled for a time in France, where he met many other artists who had fled military dictatorships, according to biographical accounts. He made his second album, Angola 74, with musicians who had escaped brutal regimes in South America, for instance.

The early songs were uncompromising, in politics and artistry, and the same can be said of those on Recados de Fora, even with the danceable tunes such as Tonokenu and the title track. But the morna stands out in the compilation, as Bonga returns to a part of his roots with Odji Maguado, a performance in homage to the influential Cape Verdean songwriter B. Leza. This is a song that Évora made popular in the 1990s, and Bonga does it justice in his own way. 

For more information about the albums: 

Sunday, 4 December 2016


Rumba in Cuba, the beer culture in Belgium and merengue in the Dominican Republic are among 33 new elements inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, from a total of 37 nominations.

The selection was made during the 11th session of an Intergovernmental Committee that met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2 (see previous SWAN article).

The inscription of rumba came shortly after the death of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro on Nov. 25, giving the timing added significance. The music and its related dance have been an important aspect of Cuban culture since the late 1800s, growing out of African traditions, and later supported by Castro's revolutionary government.

A group of "rumbers" in Cuba. (Photo: M. Hernandez)
According to UNESCO, Intangible cultural heritage includes oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and various practices concerning nature and the universe, and the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

Community involvement is an important aspect of all this, and Belgian political representatives expressed delight at the inclusion of the country’s beer-drinking tradition, alongside the other elements on the List.

Rudi Vervoort, Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Region, said: “The beer culture is something Belgians are proud of, something that has been a part of our society since time immemorial, and which has garnered international appreciation. I hope that this recognition will contribute to encouraging Belgians to share our beer culture throughout the world with even more pride.”

The Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity now numbers 366 elements and “shows the diversity of this heritage and raises awareness of its importance,” UNESCO stated after the meeting.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016


Many people know of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, which include structures such as China’s Great Wall and Tanzania’s Stone Town of Zanzibar - “places on earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity”; but fewer perhaps know of the UN agency’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

A snapshot of Belgium's beer-drinking culture.
(Photo: Stephane Radermacher)
This is an international register of cultural practices that are important for communities, in both traditional and modern ways, and 171 UNESCO member states have ratified a convention to safeguard such customs.

For ten years now, since the convention came into force in 2006, UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage Committee has met annually to choose nominees for inscription on the List, and next week members are meeting in Ethiopia to focus on traditional songs, rituals, celebrations and, in one case, beer drinking.

According to UNESCO, Belgium has put forward its beer-drinking culture for inscription on the Representative List, stating that “making and appreciating beer is part of the living heritage of a range of communities throughout” the country.

“It plays a role in daily life, as well as festive occasions,” says the Belgian application. “Almost 1,500 types of beer are produced in the country including by some Trappist [monk] communities.”

A group of children "rumbeando".
(Photo: National Council for Cultural Heritage, Cuba)
The submission from Belgium is among 37 requests for inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (ICH), with others including rumba in Cuba, the Tahteeb stick game in Egypt, yoga in India, merengue music and dance in the Dominican Republic, a festival in Nigeria, and traditional wooden-boat making in Norway. 

“An essential criterion for the list is community,” said Tim Curtis, a cultural anthropologist and chief of UNESCO’s section on ICH. “The community voice takes precedence over the expert voice in this area.”

The Representative List so far numbers 336 inscribed elements and aims “to enhance the visibility of communities’ traditions and knowledge without recognizing standards of excellence or exclusivity”, says UNESCO.

Curtis told SWAN in an interview that another key aspect in the consideration for inclusion on the List is the “inter-generational transmission” of the custom.

Artists entertaining participants at Nigeria's Argungu
international fishing and cultural festival.
(Photo: A. Olagunju)
“As well as a historical or traditional function, it should have a future role as well,” he said. “I see it as an approach to heritage that is forward-looking, something that tends towards continuity.”

The Committee, meeting from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2 in Addis Ababa, comprises the representatives of 24 of the countries that have ratified the convention, and its members will equally examine five nominations for inscription on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

Among these are Portugal’s Bisalhães black pottery manufacturing process, whose future is “under threat” because of waning interest; and Uganda’s Ma’di “bowl lyre music and dance”, one of the oldest cultural practices of the country’s Ma’di people that is considered at risk - mainly because younger people think it “old-fashioned” and the materials used come from species that are currently endangered.

UNESCO said that the Committee will also examine issues concerning intangible heritage in emergency situations caused by conflict or natural disaster. It will “envisage safeguarding measures that can be applied in such cases and consider the role intangible heritage can play in restoring social cohesion and supporting reconciliation”, the agency said.

Merengue musicans in the Dominican Republic.
(Photo: Ministry of Culture)
Curtis explained that the Committee will furthermore look into the creation of “a monitoring instrument” to measure the convention’s impact and the progress achieved over the past 10 years.

“The real impact of the convention is whether countries are setting up programs to protect intangible heritage,” he said.

The fact that 171 “state parties” have ratified the convention at such a fast rate does show some commitment, according to culture experts, but there has to be action at the national level as well, even when it is practitioners of the custom that submit it for inclusion on the List.

Belgium’s beer-drinking culture was submitted by its German-speaking community, on behalf of all three of the country’s language groups, because “beer-drinking is an integral part of Belgian culture”, said spokesman Dirk Vandriessche.

“It’s really about the culture, and not about beer, and it is important to make that distinction,” he said in a telephone interview. “Every festivity is with beer.”

While this culture has long had hosts of admirers and seems at no risk of being swallowed up by modernization, other customs and practices - such as rumba - may need greater support and recognition, especially because of their traditional importance.

“Rumba in Cuba, with its chants, movements, gestures and music, acts as an expression of resistance and self-esteem while evoking grace, sensuality and joy to connect people,” says the Cuban submission.

It adds that the music and dance are associated with African heritage but also feature elements of Antillean culture and Spanish flamenco, reflecting significant historical movements. – A.M.

You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Saturday, 12 November 2016


By Dr. Claire Oberon Garcia

Black people in the United States have long known that we live in a divided nation, and that the fault lines of these divisions lie along what previous generations called “the color line.” These fault lines are both material – the neighborhoods where we live, the segregated schools we attend, the employment we attain – and theoretical: how we interpret the world we live in and our place in it.

A cartoon by high-school student JDC.
African Americans are profoundly aware of how race inflects every dimension of life in our country, and while many Americans of all backgrounds celebrated the election of the country’s first black president eight years ago, it has been clear that his election, rather than demonstrating how far the US has come on the racial front, the upsurge in anti-black behavior and sentiment that marked the years since Barack Obama’s election has shown how far we have yet to go. As CNN commentator Van Jones said as he viewed the electoral map on election night turning steadily red for Republican votes, “This is a whitelash.”

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States is white Americans’ definitive response to President Obama: a rejection of any legacy he may have tried to leave, and a repudiation of the forces that brought a black man to the White House after more than 400 years of African American presence in America. An overwhelming majority of white Americans chose a man who spent a lot of time and money trying to prove that Barack Obama was fundamentally unqualified as president on the level of the most basic criteria: citizenship. White Americans wanted their country back, and now they have it.

Even before Trump’s victory, I was frightened and dismayed that his candidacy had brought to the public sphere the barely submerged racist and misogynistic discourses that have become even more virulent in the wake of successes of civil rights and feminist activism (characterized by Trump and his followers as burdensome “political correctness”). Of course there is talk of “healing divisions” in US society. But these divisions aren’t mere policy disagreements, but incompatible narratives about the value and rights of human beings.

Race, Ethnicity and Migration Studies professors
Dwanna Robertson and Michael Sawyer
help college students understand and contextualize the
U.S. Presidential Election. (Photo: C. Oberon Garcia)
What to do in light of the resounding decision by millions of US voters to either ignore or malign the humanity, the citizenship rights, the sense of belonging, and the American Dreams of African Americans, Muslims, LGBTQ, women, and the disabled? The message that US voters sent loud and clear on 8 November (despite the fact that Hillary Clinton seems to have very, very narrowly won the popular vote) was that certain people do not belong, and the people who voted for Trump are willing to build literal walls and use language and stereotypes as figurative walls to keep these “Others” out of white, patriarchal spaces.

In the days following Election Day, social media was full of first-person accounts of people of color and LGBTQ citizens being taunted, and students, especially Latin and Muslim students, being bullied by white students. Spray painted on walls in various places were racist slogans and messages such as this one in Durham, North Carolina, on Nov. 9: “BLACK LIVES DON’T MATTER AND NEITHER DOES YOUR VOTES”.

Very quickly, the feelings of shock and rage among those in the US who feel frightened by and vulnerable under a Trump presidency developed into resolve. Thousands took to the streets in several US cities, chanting “Love trumps hate,” “Not my president,” and the perennial, “The people united will never be defeated.” Meanwhile, political leaders on both sides of the aisle, following the leads of President Obama and vanquished Secretary Hillary Clinton, spoke of “healing divisions” and “coming together.”

But how is it possible to “come together” when these divisions are marked by very real differences in values? When one side thinks that unambiguous racism is unimportant and disconnected from issues such as Supreme Court appointments, and the other side distrusts a candidate who has hundreds of supporters who sport t-shirts emblazoned with racist slogans and who chortles about his adventures in sexual assault? President-elect Trump’s characterization of all black citizens as terrified inhabitants of urban jungles, decades of disrespect for women, racialized maligning of immigrants, and other campaign rhetoric that sent his supporters into an avid frenzy confirms a long record of his denying the basic humanity and rights of people who are different from himself: people who are not white, male, wealthy, and powerful. But Trump is just one man, albeit as of the third Monday in January, 2017, one of the most powerful in the world. More terrifying to many Americans are his supporters, from his picks for positions such as Attorney General to the children of his voters who tell their classmates to “Go back to where you came from!”

Dr. Claire Oberon Garcia
Freshly wounded and fearful for a future that seems an all-too-familiar throwback to a shameful past of overt expressions and policies crafted to protect white supremacy, it is tempting to succumb to a feeling of panic, or dream of an escape to a personal Zion. Trump’s election is clearly a reaction to the hard-fought struggles and yet unfulfilled dreams of civil rights and feminist activists. Succumbing to panic and despair will threaten the very real gains that the US recently has made in becoming a more equitable and just society.  It is clear that those who don’t see themselves in Trump’s vision of the United States must unite, collaborate, and resist on the political front.

But we also must remember that when the humanity of individual or groups is violently assaulted, that we have the power of art. Toni Morrison, in an essay written for The Nation magazine shortly after George W. Bush’s election, noted that in times of violence and chaos and despair that “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” 

We must not interpret calls for “unity” and working as “one team” as calls to make peace with people, attitudes, and policies that strip people of their humanity and fundamental rights. If we truly want to heal our nation and the world in which it plays such a major role, we must confront our differences and affirm our collective humanity. Art, particularly writing, as Morrison notes, has the power to do this in unique ways. Through the shared medium of language, we are reminded that we are all in a web of community together, whether we like it or not: Americans share one nation but belong to many, as we all live together for better or worse on one irreplaceable planet.

The United States was already experiencing a racial and cultural nadir: Trump’s election puts the official seal on it. It seems as if white people and people of color live in parallel realities, and that one narrative simply can’t encompass the multiple truth of lived experience. But moments of crisis force us to articulate who we are and what we value. Just as in the period after the Civil War, perhaps the battles between the two Americas – white and “Other” – and the attendant suffering and loss will help us at least talk about how we might forge a more perfect union for the 21st century.

Dr. Claire Oberon Garcia is a professor of English and Director of the Race, Ethnicity and Migration Studies Program at Colorado College in the United States.

Thursday, 20 October 2016


By Dimitri Keramitas

France’s fourth Viva Mexico film festival celebrated contemporary Mexican cinema with a series of screenings and panel discussions this month, highlighting topics such as climate change and the relationship between film and the visual arts.

A scene from Calle de la Amargura.
The festival presented a diverse programme, with a strong social interest, attracting French and Mexican academics as well as Mexican filmmakers and actors. The screenings at the Luminor theatre, in a central area of Paris, included both fiction features and documentaries.

One of the event’s most notable films was Calle de la Amargura, directed by Arturo Ripstein and written by his wife Paz Alicia Garciadiego (the couple also led the festival’s master class).

Ripstein has been one of the pillars of Mexican cinema for decades. It’s something of a family affair: his father was an important film producer, and now his son is also a filmmaker. Calle de la Amargura is set in a poverty-stricken neighborhood (the English title is “Bleak Street”), and depicts the struggles of a group of its more marginalized denizens.

Based on a true story, the film deals with the accidental – or negligent – homicide of two midget wrestlers, twin brothers Alejandro and Alberto. They got mixed up with a pair of prostitutes who tried to ply them with drugs, not realizing that the dose to knock out a normal adult would result in an overdose for a much smaller person.

Marginalized characters in Calle de la Amargura.
The film, shot entirely in black and white, spends much more time with the two prostitutes than with the wrestlers. Adela and Dora are both middle-aged and find it hard to make a living, especially when having to turn over a large part of their earnings to their exploitative madams.

As in French director Jean-Luc Godard's renowned movies about prostitution, the “oldest profession” here becomes a symbol of capitalist exploitation. Ripstein films the life of the street with unrelenting harshness, to the degree that we might think the movie is an exercise in miserabilisme—wallowing in poverty.

But like Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, Ripstein’s model, the director adds something more to the depiction of poverty. Not the surrealism of Buñuel, but a sense of artifice – the street looks like a theatre set, though completely realistic, especially as the camera glides along it like an inquisitive drone. The actors also bring a theatrical touch to their roles. The result is a subtle unreality that suits the theme of destiny, the sense that we’re all players in a cosmic game.

A shot of the 'bleak' street in Calle de la Amargura.
Other motifs enrich what might be a rather dismal march to the doom of the two pairs. There’s a curious emphasis on clothing and masks. Dora is outraged when her husband prostitutes himself with young men, wearing her clothes. On the other hand, the husband doesn’t want her to touch his magician’s costume.

The midget wrestlers wear decorative masks, like many wrestlers in Mexico, but they never take them off. Adela’s mother, an elderly woman used as a begging prop, often puts a cloth over her face. When the prostitutes arrange a tryst with the wrestlers, they cake their faces with make-up. The surface artifice becomes an existential second skin, dissimulating a suffering soul, a desire for self-invention, or perhaps an inner nullity.

More uplifting, or at least more human, is another theme, that of relationships. Every major character, no matter how unprepossessing, is significantly linked to at least one other person. These relationships tend to be difficult, even parasitical, but they lend genuine spirit to the characters.

Director Arturo Ripstein.
Adela, who exploits her elderly mother, takes care of her needs and comforts her. Dora has a teenaged daughter she spoils even though her maternal love is unrequited. She also has a strange, desperate intimacy with her shiftless husband.

Likewise the two brother wrestlers are bound by blood and physical particularity, and both are inextricably tied to an overbearing mother who’s a religious fanatic. The most crucial relationship of all is between the prostitutes and the wrestlers, who seem to enjoy their rendezvous with each other, before it turns into an appointment with (to quote the 2016 Nobel literature laureate Bob Dylan) “a simple twist of fate.”

Beautifully filmed by Ripstein and wittily scripted by Garciadiego, Calle de la Amargura looks unflinchingly at harsh social reality, but also at a mystery somewhere beyond it.  (Distribution: Oscar Alonso Festivals)


A scene from Mr. Pig by Diego Luna.
The other films in the festival (which is now moving to French cities such as Avignon, Bordeaux and Lille) include: Los Bañistes by Max Zunino and Sofia Espinosa (Best Film award at the Guadelajara film festival); La Delgada Linea Amarea by Celso Garcia (winner of several prizes in Mexico, Latin America and Europe); Résurrection by Eugenio Pulgovsky (jury prize at the Internacional Ciné Medioambiental Festival); Tempestad by Tatiana Huezo, about two women struggling against oppression; Plaza de la Soledad by Maya Goded (official selection at the Sundance film festival); La Région Sauvage by Amat Escalante, a self-taught filmmaker who has won prizes at Cannes; Me Estas Matando Susana by Roberto Sneider; I Promise You Anarchy by Julio Hernandez Cordon; Mr. Pig by Diego Luna (Best Narrative Feature, Dallas International Film Festival); and Somos Lengua by Kyzza Terrazas (Winner of prizes at FICUNAM and the Festival de Cine Mexicano de Duarngo). There was even an animated film, Las Aventuras De Itzel Y Sonia by Mario Fernanda Rivero (winner of the Best Film prize at the Cinema Planeta Festival).

Dimitri Keramitas is a legal expert and prize-winning writer based in Paris.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016


It’s being billed as the largest exhibition devoted to Mexican art in at least half a century, and the impressive show now on at Paris’ Grand Palais does feel like a landmark event.

A billboard announcing the exhibition.
Titled Mexique 1900 - 1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Orozco and the avant-garde, it features Mexico’s most famous artists as well as those less known, and gives a historical perspective of the Latin American country through its art.

The more than 200 works on display trace “a vast panorama across modern Mexico, from the first stirrings of the Revolution to the middle of the 20th century, complemented by a number of works from contemporary artists,” say the co-organizers (France’s Réunion des  musées nationaux-Grand Palais  and Mexico’s Secretaria de Cultura, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Museo Nacional de Arte.)

The scope of the exhibition and several other events featuring Mexico over the next months in France reflect the much-proclaimed strengthening of diplomatic ties between the two countries.  On a state visit to France, Mexican Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu Salinas attended the official launch of the exhibition on Oct. 4, a day ahead of the public opening.

While she held talks with her French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault, the bilateral consultative body known as the Franco-Mexican Strategic Council (CSFM) also met to “formulate proposals for cooperation”.

A visitor reads up on Diego Rivera's La Molendera.
This massive exhibition can thus be seen as furthering diplomatic links, unlike in the recent past when relations froze over the row concerning a French citizen that Mexico imprisoned for her alleged involvement with a kidnapping gang (she was subsequently released).

That spat caused the Mexican government to pull out of the 2011 “Year of Mexico” cultural festival, resulting in the cancellation of some 300 events scheduled in France.

But all that now seems firmly in the past. The current show follows the blockbuster exhibition Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo: Art in fusion, presented in Paris from October 2013 to January 2014, and it, too, is a visual feast that will entice viewers.

The exhibition’s curator Agustin Arteaga Dominguez says that Mexique 1900 - 1950 offers a “fresh new look” at the “limitless Mexican art scene” of the first half of the 20th century. This was a period known for the Mexican School of Painting and its “most prominent” movement – Muralism.

A view of Diego Rivera's Rio Jurchitan.
Viewers get to discover the celebrated works of “Los Tres Grandes” (The Three Greats), as the most influential muralists were called. Their names – José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera – are familiar to art buffs, as they defined the era following the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 with their extraordinary and controversial creations.

Through the works of these artists and others, the exhibition “aims to demonstrate how the Mexican Revolution, as an armed conflict, laid the groundwork for a new national identity,” the co-organizers state. “The artistic creativity in the years following the Revolution [which claimed thousands of lives] had an ideological aspect. It employed media other than easel painting, including muralism and graphic design.”

Before viewers get immersed in the art of Los Tres Grandes and their portrayals of workers’ struggles, societal violence and other subjects, the show starts with an exploration of how the artists drew inspiration from both international movements and  the “collective imaginings and traditions of the 19th century”. This comprises paintings created in the 1800s and early 1900s, depicting notable individuals, nudes, street scenes, and landscapes .

Kahlo's The Two Fridas attracts a viewer.
Organized over two floors of the vast Grand Palais, the exhibition also includes a section on “strong women” – female artists who seized their “place on the artistic stage”, as the revolution “opened the way to many new possibilities and encouraged women to contribute to the economic effort”.

Most visitors will be drawn immediately to the iconic work of Frieda Kahlo, even though the organizers caution that her “towering presence … should not conceal a wealth of extraordinary artists such as Nahui Olin, Rosa Rolanda or photographers like Tina Modotti and Lola Alvarez Bravo”.

Indeed, Olin’s striking painting of lovers (Nahui y Lizardo frente a la bahia de Acapulco) occupies a prominent position in the exhibition, but one still can’t help being entranced by Kahlo’s The Two Fridas, her first large-scale work, or by her Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, created shortly after she divorced the unfaithful Diego Rivera.

Another section looks at the production from artists who went against the ideological tide of the times and presents the abstract works of Gerardo Murillo and Rufino Temayo, among others, while the final part of the exhibition shows “A Meeting of Two Worlds: Hybridation”.

In the presence of The Greats: Jose Orozco's
La fiesta de los instrumentos
Here, visitors learn the role that Mexican artists in the United States played in avant-garde movements and how, on the other hand, foreign artists influenced and were influenced by the local scene when they moved their studios to Mexico.

One drawing that stands out in this meeting of worlds is that by cartoonist Miguel Covarrubias titled Harlem and used for the cover of Vanity Fair in 1939.

But the images that will probably stay with most visitors are the vivid, immense murals by Rivera – such as Río Juchitán,  the last one he completed – and by Orozco. The latter’s La fiesta de los instrumentos has a powerful, mesmerizing energy that sums up the whole exhibition. - Text and photos: A.M. / SWAN

"Mexique 1900 - 1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Orozco and the avant-garde" runs until Jan. 23, 2017.

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