Review: Ways of Dying (1995), Zakes Mda

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This might have been one of the most insightful novels I have ever read. Ways of Dying (1995) is set in post-apartheid South Africa and follows the characters Toloki, a professional mourner, and Noria, his childhood friend.  The plot of their romantic union unfolds amidst the extremes of violence, civil and ethnic unrest. Satire and the carnivalesque are essential tools in the novel to allowing for the play of the political and the aesthetic in the text. Toloki’s journey throughout the novel is both personal and universal as he journeys towards self-realisation and hope, accepting his past and moving into a more hopeful future. Neglected and overlooked by his father Jwara, Toloki ran away from home and since then felt out of place and unable to face his own past. Noria and Toloki’s union reminds one of the romantic nostalgia typical of any novel with a love interest. This, however, unfolds at the backdrop of senseless violence and killing, and overwhelming death which only reinforces the political and social context of the time.

During post-Apartheid, the African National Congress were trying to win the people’s vote as were, were other political parties. There was a lot of black on black violence, black on white violence. Mda, while studying in Yale University in 1991, had heard about the violence when it was reported, he had said in an Oxford University Pressinterview the accounts of deaths he is writing about are real, they are ones Mda, personally, read about in a newspaper, stories of his own relatives that passed away. This from a narratological perspective more of a political protest, both against the controlled media and those that wish for the deaths to not be given the spotlight and narratives that they deserve. It caricatures the way in which the South African media at the time treated the case of death as a passing demise, as apposed to the complex emotional repercussions embroiled with issues of race, colonial history and decades of oppression. It allows for those that were silenced for the sake of political interest to be heard and mourned. For example, the mystery death Noria’s son, which was related to the crimes of the fictional African political party. The innocent death of her son remains the central driving point of the narrative, but when the political leaders speak of his death they call is a ‘regrettable mistake’, privately stating that ‘his son was’ not innocent in the whole matter’, stipping away the honour and respect that they owed to Noria.

Noria’s experience is only one of which the readers are able to experience, where in fact there are numerous accounts of death and raids by different political parties that led to the tragic death of innocent children. Mda uses humour and satirises the war that is feeding into the lives of innocent people and uses the topic of death as a form of extreme, bodily grotesque and a darkly comedic tool to highlight the absurdity of the senseless killing. In doing so recreates the upside down and the carnivalesque world of Mikhail Bakhtin.

Despite the overwhelming satire and caricatures throughout the novel, at the end of the novel Toloki becomes a symbol of hope, as does Noria.Toloki, is in a Bildungsroman fashion, able to ‘draw colourful picture of children’s faces’ and draw ‘children playing marry go-round in the clouds’ and the children were able to ‘identify some of the faces’. They’re the faces of their friends or themselves, what Toloki through his drawing was able to do was to give birth to hope for these children an alternative and merry sense of realism which can continue to be a refuge from the political meetings that robbed them of both their lives and their innocence. The individual story of Toloki’s discovery of himself and his self-worth represents the optimism of discovery towards that nation, it reminds the readers that this time will pass and there is hope for the nation hereafter.

Overall, I would highly recommend this novel, though it would take a bit of background knowledge beforehand before getting into!

 

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Definition of ‘carnivalesque’- a literary mode characterised by mocking and satirical challenge to authority and the traditional social hierarchy. It originated as ‘carnival’ in Mikhail Bhaktin’s Rabelais and His World.

 

 

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The moon of the past, the moon of the present​

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you drifted away into the grains of the sand and the tide of the ocean,

you drifted away to the dirt that we tread on, the scared land unmarked, undisturbed and waiting for a visitor,

you drifted and drifted until i saw that which you saw beaming, brightening and blinding above the horizon,

i see it reflect the past showing me the moments you stared into the blaring moon,

and there i find my consolement and my solace

you drifted away into the hollows of the wind,

but you remain embedded into the etching of the moon, looking back at me,

because the moon of the past remains as the moon of the present.

 

~ baba

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The Philosophy of Boundaries

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There comes a moment, in fact, serval moments in life which makes you question whether you will surpass the boundaries you have extensively set yourself against and cemented in the past few years. There is a romantic understanding of boundaries as being restrictive and unhealthy for the body and mind, but such a thought is even less liberating than allowing yourself to follow you’re the boundaries you put up for yourself. Border and boundaries on a map, wall and ceilings in residential architecture are designed specifically to allow a balance between interiority and exteriority, in order for there to be a level of security without being bound by a void which excludes all forms of creativity. For example, living spaces with the exclusion of wind, dust, rain and crawling animals, provide us human beings space. The definition of space is determined by the limits of flooring and theoretically, paving the entire plot out to a geometric measure, a tangible scale of the space you want to occupy makes it a usable space. The use of space then harbours creativity within one place as opposed to having to deal with the burden of the entire world. In this case, it is possible to see how the bordering of perimeters can allow you to redirect your focus and scope to a more tangible method of processing creativity. Similarly, the boundaries you set for yourself is a means for you in a contradictory and paradoxical sense of having the most freedom of mind you can allow yourself to have. Another way in which this can be understood symbolically is through the works of Piet Mondrian, the Dutch impressionist painter who moved from landscape paintings to abstraction, the shift between the two he describes as being ‘necessary’, he states:

I believe that in our period it is definitely necessary that, as far as possible, the paint is applied in pure colours, set next to each other in a pointillist or diffuse manner. This is stated strongly, and yet it relates to the idea which is the basis:[1]

Having observed his abstract works it is clear that Mondrian was expressing the spiritual meaning behind adding simply pure colours and straight lines to his work, illustrating how boundaries can and are meant for thriving artistically.

 

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Thus, it is fair to say not only are boundaries within our lives necessary but they are the means of our existence through its ability to feed our intellectual and creative appetites. Lastly, the consensus of my argument is not to show how these boundaries should be drawn but why they are important and the journey towards reaching your own personal set of boundaries is when you have ultimately discovered yourself at that moment in time, without ruling out the possibilities of being dynamic and ever-changing.

Inspiration: Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)

  • [1] Quote in a letter to Israel Querido, Summer of 1909; published in the weekly magazine ‘De Controleur’ 23 Oct, 1909; as quoted in English translation, in Two Mondrian sketchbooks 1912 – 1914, ed. Robert P. Welsh & J. M. Joosten, Amsterdam 1969 p. 10

 

Buchi Emecheta- Second Class Citizen

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Not only did Emecheta’s novel unravel the struggles of a migrant who is seemingly ‘homeless’ within a foreign country, abandoned by society and rejected by the only family member she has,  but it also traced the intersectionality of what it means to be a black female living in London. Adah, the protagonist, is in a state of liminality who is fighting all odds to establish herself as a worthy and valued ‘first class citizen’.

The novel was semi-autobiographical but it really resonated with me in a way which made me trace all the discomforting moments in my own past when I was treated differently within the Britsh society due to my social and ethnic background. The novel cleverly shines a mirror towards the ugly truth of society in the way it can have a profound psychological effect on an individual when they start internalising the thoughts of the coloniser in making one feel inferior and hopeless.

Through the realist method of writing, we get an insight into the difficulties of acquiring a job, finding a home while being faced with overt racial discrimination and the loss of a lover. Now that I think about it the thing that attracts me most about the novel is its attention is Adah’s undying passion and fearless rage in pursuing her dreams. Emecheta does not take on the cliched role of portraying Adah as the ‘perfect’ or ‘ideal’ women, as she too is bound by cultural obligations and doubts about her desire to live by the freedom of an independent women.

However, Emecheta has a way of seducing the readers to also become fearless knowing that Adah fulfills her dreams of publishing a book and with the thought of the novel being semi-autobiographical, one could say that we are reading Adahs fulfilled a dream; the Second Class Citizen. Yes, it is very paradoxical in a way, yet undeniably empowering and and full of hope.

Ideological traces in The Girl with the Pearl Earring

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One of the most notable and illustrious pieces of artwork known to man is the Girl with the Pearl Earring by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer of the 17th century. It has proved itself to continuously fascinate its audience in its ability to capture the subtleties of the female form with a contrast in bold yet intricate techniques. The painting itself has become the epoch and staple of the Renaissance period, inspiring many other artists throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Though on the surface the painting offers an aesthetic appeal, it is also cultural artefact which embodies and perpetuates the idealised feminine beauty of the 17th century and it is also an embalm or window into the Dutch empire. It is an example of the cultural practice of using exotic props in order to heighten the intrigue in artwork during the Dutch Golden Age. Karl Marx, a 19th-century philosopher, in The Marx-Engles Reader outlines that ‘ideologies give a false impression of reality’ and that ‘these impression, can nonetheless be analyzed to yield the truth’. Through Vermeer’s painting technique, choice of colours and use of props one could argue that the Girl with the Pearl Earring subtly promotes the exploitation of the colonized world by the western world as a necessary ‘truth’.

Vermeer’s work reveals a version of idealised feminine beauty through his technique. T.F Earle noted in his works Black African in Renaissance Europe ‘to understand the renaissance idea of beauty’ is to understand that ‘pure and shining whiteness was the primary quality in the woman deemed fair by the patriarchist gaze; but if the very canvas where beauty was to be discerned was too dark, the light and harmony of beauty could not be reached’. Vermeer too aims to achieve this harmonious standard of beauty in his works.  Vermeer’s use of light within the painting brings out and focuses on certain features of the model in the painting. The dark background dramatises the lighter colours making the girl seem far paler and whiter than she really is, for example, the dark green and blue background is heavily contrasted with the softer pastel colours, which bring out the model’s pale complexion. The use of intense brushstrokes brings out the models black rounded eyes and her rose-tinted lips, which again is being starkly contrasted with the darker background emphasizes the ‘whiteness’ of her skin. The brushstrokes for her skin is less harsh than the brushstrokes for her clothes, which projects an illusion that her skin is naturally soft, which connotes a sense of youthfulness and purity. All of these techniques are used in order to make the model seem paler in complexion and have distinct features such as rose-tinted lips and rounded eyes, promoting an idealized view of feminine beauty. Through the painting’s fame itself this idealized beauty standard has become widespread, thus it implicitly promoting an ideology of female virginity and beauty as a necessary ‘truth’ by which woman should inspire to.

The props used in the painting are also significant, many artists during the time, such as Jan Van Eyck in Man in Turban used exotic props, which were brought by slave masters from colonised countries. Likewise, Vermeer uses props which were also imported as a result of the global trade. In the historical book Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook, there is an exploration of the roots of world trade and slavery through paintings by Vermeer himself. Brook states ‘think[ing] of the objects in them (paintings) not as props behind windows but as doors to open, then we will find ourselves in passageways leading to discoveries about the seventeenth-century world that the paintings on their own don’t acknowledge, and of which the artist himself was probably unaware’. Brook acknowledges the possibilities of paintings being an example of the colonial discourse, through the artists use of props.  This can be seen in the Girl with the Pearl Earring, the ultramarine blue turban and the cloak which the model in the painting wears, is one of foreign origin. This is because such pieces of clothing were rarely seen in European fashion, the likelihood of the props originating from the Dutch world trade are immensely high. Not only do the exotic props act as a window to the success and far-reaching sense of the Dutch empire, but the blue turban, in particular, reinforces patriarchal views. The covering of the model’s hair in its entirety perpetuates the view that women must be virginal and pure, which can be linked to the colour imagery which promotes a fair complexion. The fairness of the model also has connotations of purity and virtue.

The use of foreign props in Vermeer’s painting epitomizes the power of the ruling upper class in their ability to usurp cultural artefacts, which reveals a colonial discourse. Marx states that ‘society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society’[5], in saying this he is rejecting the social class structure. However, in order to come to the premise of rejecting class structure one must be able to recognise the hidden ideologies. Recognising ideologies within the paintings allows us to reveal to see beyond its aesthetic value. It allows us to appreciate the artist’s skills without being deceived by the ideologies that it portrays beneath its surface.

Review of Soul Of a Nation- Black History Month Exhibition at the Tate Britain​

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Review of ‘Soul of a Nation’ Exhibition at the Tate Modern

 

The ‘Soul of a Nation- Art in the Age of Black Power’ is an exhibition which honours the work of over 70 Black artists who worked in America. The exhibition traces two decades of art since 1963, touching key events which changed black history for everyone, such as the American civil rights movement which birthed productive dialogues between activist and authorial figures. Such an era too birthed a new and creative wave of black artists that used different mediums to configure black power within the art. I was at first taken aback when I saw the event listed on the Black History Month website, the infamous work of Barkley Hendricks ‘Icon for My Man Superman’ (1969) was used as the ‘face’ of the events promotion. Already I had high expectations from an event which deliberately chose to use a highly subversive and empowering image.

The exhibition did, in fact, live up to its expectations, it was undeniably a thrilling experience learning about strong black artists that promoted their own agenda through art. One notable artist was Betye Saar, I was enchanted by her choice to present religious and tribal pieces as the focus of her work. Saar responded to her visits to Haiti after observing religious practices, she wanted to tell the ancient stories of the Haitian people. The very act of storytelling through art is one the empowers and celebrates the origin of the Haitian people, which illuminates their identity; which I think is essential in a post-colonial era.

Though the event was enriching both on an aesthetic level and a political level, one could not help but notice the lack of attendance of black and coloured people within the exhibition itself. One could even say that the exhibition had attracted ‘the typical Tate audience’ which was not a diverse crowd. This may be because of the entrance fee, though tickets were cheaper for students, the elderly and those claiming job seekers allowance, it was still hard to ignore that relative to other exhibitions put on by the Tate Modern were not in fact paid. It is also undying the black and coloured population in the UK are predominantly from the working class background. Keeping that in mind it would seem limiting to close off the exhibition to a ‘tickets only entrance’. It is therefore regrettable that such a profound and intriguing exhibition is not open to all and free for all. One many even ask if the Tate failed their duty to be inclusive?

Despite, the entrance fee, I think that overall it was a very triumphant event. In recent years we have come to see a critique of Black History Month, some say that awareness of black history should be promoted every month rather than in isolation of just a single month. The ‘Soul of the Nation’ exhibition does just that by allowing the viewing time to range from the 12th July 2017 to the 22nd October 2017. Proving that the celebration of black aesthetics goes far beyond Black History Month. Finally, I think it was essential to exhibit the works of Black American artists alone and not on par with Black British artists, for their history and politics are too vastly different and not interchangeable.

 

 

Here’s to a hopeful 2017- Happy new year.

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Under the stars

Travelling as marauders, not knowing it is star that we seek. But one day you see that the shadows were always present lurking near with there will be youth no more, where have the stars run to? You’ll ask. Though they say you realise too late, remember its truly never too late. Till the sun takes the position of the moon it’s never too late. Till the ocean takes the position of the desert it’s never too late. So don’t fret, within incongruity you find the congruent.