“Africans in America” probes questions of identity and nomenclature

(K. Brent Tomer),

THE label “African-American” wasn’t in Ghada Amer’s vocabulary when the artist arrived in the United States in 1995. Born in Egypt, she spent her formative years in France, where “we never learned it in school.” Living in Harlem—a predominantly black neighbourhood, and once a hub for those relocating from the South—a racial confrontation caused by Ms Amer’s olive skin caused the artist to declare: “I am the real African-American!”

The exchange illustrates the complexities of the term and the myriad ways in which people identify with it. “Africans in America”, a two-part exhibition at the Goodman Gallery Johannesburg and the Johannesburg Art Gallery, unpicks its geographical, historical, cultural, political and economic associations further. Liza Essers and Hank Willis Thomas, the curators, have been wise in shunning a didactic approach, arranging the show instead around the biographies of the artists, each of whom has a “very deep personal connection to Africa and America”. 

The dozen artists featured have all tread a different path. Brendan Fernandes was born in Kenya, moved to Canada with his family…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC “Africans in America” probes questions of identity and nomenclature

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Rabih Alameddine’s new novel explores the ordeal of remembering

(K. Brent Tomer),

NO ONE who lived through America’s AIDS epidemic 30 years ago can forget its seemingly endless deaths and anguish. Yet Jacob, a poet originally named Ya’qub, then “Jake” in San Francisco’s gay Castro district, has spent decades trying. When a drone strike hits his mother’s ancestral village in Yemen, all the pain comes rushing back. Jacob’s tormented wrestling with the opposing forces of memory and oblivion occupies one long night in a psychiatric clinic in a parable as intense and affecting as the Biblical story of Job.

Rabih Alameddine, a Lebanese-American author, intends the parallel. His latest novel is a morality play in which Satan and his son Death face off over Jacob’s soul. At issue is an age-old dilemma: which is better, remembering or forgetting, the pain of recollection or the escape of oblivion? Death, a black-bereted cynic who tips cigarette ashes on Jacob’s floor, cites Jose Luis Borges’s tale of “Funes the Memorious” to argue that forgetting is necessary. But Satan, or Iblis in his Muslim incarnation, a redheaded wisecracker who claims to be Jacob’s dearest friend, argues for a radical…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Rabih Alameddine’s new novel explores the ordeal of remembering

The iconography of Fidel Castro

(K. Brent Tomer),

FIDEL CASTRO, Cuba’s communist former dictator, died on November 25th 2016, aged 90. After a bloody revolution in 1959, he ruled his country with an iron fist until 2008, when his brother Raúl replaced him as president. The imagery of Mr Castro—particularly his beard and green fatigues—has long stood for socialist rebellion for many—but not all. In the hours after his death, Danilo Maldonado Machado, a Cuban graffiti artist and dissident, was reportedly detained by authorities after spraying a simple message on a wall in Havana: Se fue (“He’s gone”).

It seems the regime that Mr Castro installed still understands the power of propaganda. It tightly controls all aspects of the media, even the walls of public spaces. Political slogans (particularly “Patria o Muerte”—“Homeland or Death”), combined with arresting visuals, quickly became a rallying cry from the government to its people after the revolution. Dissenting voices, such as Mr Machado’s, are quickly scrubbed away. And Mr Castro’s face has also…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC The iconography of Fidel Castro

Kaija Saariaho, opera’s prima donna

(K. Brent Tomer),

KAIJA SAARIAHO’S artistic genesis was inauspicious. Born to a metal worker and home-maker, she received no musical encouragement from her parents. As a child, she composed secretly in her bedroom; aged 11, she read about Mozart and concluded that she was destined for inadequacy. She was the only female composition student in her class at the Sibelius Academy in the early 1970s; professors told her that pretty girls shouldn’t write music. She was advised by a teacher to repeat “I can do it” in the mirror several times a day.

Thankfully, she persevered, and her eclectic training has helped to shape her trajectory as a composer. Ms Saariaho is now regarded as one of the most successful of her generation, admired for her luminous, brilliantly crafted orchestral scores and thoughtful stage pieces. In December, the Metropolitan Opera presents her “L’Amour de Loin” (“Love from Afar”): the first work by a female composer shown at the house since 1903. 

The themes of love and death in “L’Amour” are, on the surface, conventional operatic fodder—it follows a medieval French troubadour smitten with the faraway…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Kaija Saariaho, opera’s prima donna

The delightful absurdity of “Nice Fish”

(K. Brent Tomer),

IT IS a well-known chapter in theatre history. When “Waiting for Godot” was first performed in Britain in 1953, audiences were mystified. Theatre critic Bernard Levin wrote that Samuel Beckett had written “a really remarkable piece of twaddle”. The now-canonical line from the play—“nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful”—was met with a jeering “hear, hear!” from the stalls. Peter Bull, who was playing Pozzo, claimed that his experiences of war were trifling in comparison with the “waves of hostility”, “mass exodus” and “audible groans” of the first performance.  

With its aimless central characters, off-kilter dialogue and gleeful disregard for the conventions of plot, critics have compared “Nice Fish” —a collaboration between prose poet Louis Jenkins and thespian-cum-Hollywood-star Mark Rylance—to Beckett’s absurdist magnum opus. The Guardian, commenting on the play’s original run at St Ann’s Warehouse in New York, claimed that “if Samuel Beckett were to resurrect just long enough to script a couple of episodes of Prairie Home Companion, the result might resemble…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC The delightful absurdity of “Nice Fish”

Changing tennis’s scoring system will make for less exciting matches

(K. Brent Tomer),

Tennis’s scoring system has long been known for its quirkiness. Your first two points are each worth 15, but not your third. You need to win two sets to triumph in most matches—except in the men’s singles at the four “grand slams”, which are best-of-five. These sets are typically decided by complex tiebreaks—but not in the deciding sets at Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the French Open. And every unit of a match is completed only when one player builds a two-point advantage.

The “win-by-two” nature of tennis is a big part of what makes it exciting, since it prolongs the climax of each contest. Yet it has increasingly come under fire as the sport aims to become more media-friendly by shortening its matches. A decade ago, two rule changes—a winner-takes-all point at deuce and a ten-point “super-tiebreak” instead of a deciding third set—were introduced in second-tier doubles competitions, with the aim of abbreviating them.

You could be forgiven for missing the…Continue reading

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The strike that brought immigrant women into Britain’s working class

(K. Brent Tomer),

A DIMINUITIVE woman in a sari and buttoned-up cardigan stands with her right arm aloft in triumph, as a long line of police holds back crowds of people lining a terraced street. This eye-catching photo (below) captures Jayaben Desai, a strike leader, being cheered by thousands of supporters during the strike at the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratory in Dollis Hill, northwest London that began in August 1976. 

Workers, mainly Indian women and men, walked out in protest at exploitative and demeaning treatment such as being coerced into working overtime and having to ask to use the toilet, and sought to form a union. Desai led the strike. Her photo takes pride of place in “We Are The Lions”, an exhibition commemorating the dispute’s 40th anniversary at The Library in Willesden Green, half a mile from where the strike unfolded. The title comes from an altercation between Desai and her boss, who said he was not running “a zoo”. She replied: “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. In a zoo there are many types of animal. Some are monkeys who dance to your tune; others are lions who can bite your…Continue reading

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How Indians triumphed in America

(K. Brent Tomer),

The Other One Percent: Indians in America. By Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh. OUP USA; 355 pages; $34.95 and £22.99.

IN THE early 20th century just a few hundred people emigrated from India to America each year and there were only about 5,000 folk of Indian heritage living in the United States. That was more than enough for some xenophobes. A government commission in 1910 concluded that Indians were “the most undesirable of all Asiatics” and that the citizens of America’s west coast were “unanimous in their desire for exclusion”. 

Today Indian-born Americans number 2m and they are probably the most successful minority group in the country. Compared with all other big foreign-born groups, they are younger, richer and more likely to be married and supremely well educated. On the west coast they are a mighty force in Silicon Valley; well-off Indians cluster around New York, too. “The Other One Percent” is the first major study of how this transformation happened. Filled with crunchy analysis, it exudes authority on a hugely neglected subject.

India’s diaspora is vast, with…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC How Indians triumphed in America

The latest craze among Indian readers

(K. Brent Tomer),

A never-ending procession of stories

WHEN the world’s highest-earning novelist launches his new thriller in January, his co-author may not be familiar to Western fans. James Patterson, an American crime writer whose estimated annual revenues of $95m dwarf even those of Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling, sometimes joins forces with local writers when he sends his investigators abroad. “Private Delhi” will be his second murder mystery with Ashwin Sanghi, a novelist from Mumbai who is far better known among Indian readers for his contribution to popular mythological fiction—one of the most remarkable, but overlooked, publishing stories of the past decade.

In the age of Patterson, Potter and “Game of Thrones”, Indian authors have brought their own special flavours to the table: mass-market fiction based on reinterpretations of the two great Hindu epic narratives, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Canny authors enlist ancient fables of gods and heroes, of rival clans, gigantic battles, perilous quests and fearsome ordeals as a way of unlocking the crowd-pleasing genres of mystery, fantasy and historical…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC The latest craze among Indian readers

You tell me that it’s evolution?

(K. Brent Tomer),

IN 1866, the founding statutes of the new Linguistic Society of Paris included this curious ban: “The Society will accept no communication concerning either the origin of language or the creation of a universal language.” Darwin had published “On the Origin of Species” just seven years earlier, and he was intrigued by the parallels between linguistic and physical evolution. The society, with Catholic leanings, wanted none of it.

For more than a century afterwards, little was learned about the evolution of language—even though evolution had become the standard explanation for nearly all biological phenomena, whether physical or behavioural.

Today, the debate is lively. But there is still no consensus on how, when or why language evolved. There is hardly even the barest agreement that it evolved at all, in the sense of having been the specific product of gradual natural selection.

One figure who initially also kept mum on this subject was Noam Chomsky. For decades the towering figure of modern linguistics refused to be drawn into theorising about how language arose, arguing that although it must have arisen by evolution in some…Continue reading

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