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January 21, 2015

Book Review: John Lennon The Collected Artwork


It might be hard for those who didn't live through the arc of John Lennon's life to understand the impact this one man had on people around the world. Coming out of the darkness surrounding the end of WW ll and the paranoia of the 1950s, The Beatles were a breath of fresh air; a sound of hope and new possibilities. Today their songs from the early 1960s probably don't sound overly rebellious, but taken in the context of the times it was something new and liberating. Sure there was other pop music at the time, equally good if not better, but they managed to capture the imaginations of young people around the world like few others.

However, it wasn't just the music. Part of their appeal was the irreverent humour they projected in their of public appearances. While they all shared this characteristic, Lennon's humour and comments always seemed to have more of an edge to them than the others. This came to a head with his off the cuff comment about how The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. While this caused the type of backlash you'd expect in certain quarters, burning of Beatles' records, condemnation by fundamentalist Christians (sound familiar?) and warnings of "he better not show his face around here", it did nothing to affect their popularity around the world, proving Lennon right in his assessment.

While many of today's pop stars and celebrities have carefully cultivated images for public consumption, Lennon's public persona was his true face. Mischievous, sometimes caustic and often opinionated, what we saw in his appearances and heard in interviews was who he had always been. You only need to glance through a new book, John Lennon: The Collected Artwork, from Insight Editions, for proof. For the book contains artwork he created from his childhood onwards, and even in some of those earlier drawings we see manifestations of each of those characteristics.
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For those who didn't know, before Lennon was a Beatle he had attended the Liverpool Art School. Although he was unable to complete his studies as his music career took off, he continued to sketch and draw for the rest of his life as time allowed. Glancing through the book the first impression is of relatively unsophisticated line drawings that appear to range from doodles to sketches or cartoons. But upon closer examination you realize the looseness of style was a deliberate choice. One only need look at some of the detailed backgrounds in the work to realize the time and effort which were put into each drawing.

In his text for the book Scott Gutterman makes an effort to put the illustrations into not only a historical context in terms of Lennon's life, but also points out how they reflect on the way he looked at the world. While the first of the book's seven sections is paintings and sketches from his early years, the chapters are not in chronological order. Instead, they have been arranged to give us a sense of who Lennon was as visual artist, and what he attempted to accomplish with his work.

Most of the chapters' titles are self explanatory: "Self Reflection" (chapter 2), "Observations" (chapter 3) or "John With Yoko" (chapter 6). But chapter 4, "Japanese Translation Drawings", is different. After the birth of their son Sean, Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono would make frequent trips to visit her family in Japan. Not only do the pictures in this section depict Lennon's attempts to learn Japanese, they also reflect his study of sumi-e, a traditional Japanese style of pen and ink drawing.
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The work in this section, and many of the pieces created in the years following reflect this new influence. However, we also see why he would have been attracted to the form. For while there are distinct stylistic differences; the lines are more definite and these drawings don't contain the same amount of detail as others, it's still a natural extension of the line drawings Lennon had been doing previously. On a more personal level, the new style of drawing also reflects the changes he went through during his retirement from 1975 to 1980 when he took time off to raise his new son. There's a stillness to them indicative of the changes he underwent transitioning from rock and roll star to his life as a house husband and father.

While Lennon will always be more remembered for his music than his output as a visual artist, the work contained in this book gives us a different view of him as a person and an artist. They may not be the most sophisticated pieces of art, but each of them reveal something of his nature. Whether his sardonic view of middle class values in the work "Squares", or his love for the simplicity of his domestic life through the depictions of his family in the last years of his life. Most impressive is how much he's able to communicate with a few strokes of his pen. It's like he was able to channel his passion or emotions through this very narrow conduit and have them show up on the page where we can all appreciate them.

Of course there's the question of whether or not we'd be seeing these works of art if he weren't John Lennon. The answer is probably not. However, that does nothing to diminish this book's importance as a record of Lennon and his life. Those who knew his work as a musician, or knew anything about him when he was alive, will be reminded of those things they admired in him. Whether or not the pieces will have the same appeal to others is uncertain, as in some ways you'd have to have experienced Lennon the person and musician to fully appreciate them.

John Lennon: The Collected Artwork is a beautifully packaged and presented book. The reproductions of his art are as good as those you'd see in any collection of this kind and the accompanying text does a good job of explaining their history and background. Lennon will always be best known as a musician, but this collection of his artwork provides a fascinating look into a different facet of an intelligent, opinionated and original mind. That alone makes it worth owning.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as John Lennon: The Collected Artwork)

June 18, 2014

Book Review: Spirit Quest by Bob Mackenzie and Sharlena Wood


Over the years humanity's relationship with nature has become sort of twisted. On the one hand we admire the beauty of a spectacular sunset or soaring mountains yet we also think nothing of destroying the atmosphere with poison gases or the water table with toxic waste. Further distorting our view of the world around is how we've come to believe nature is okay as long as it knows its place. Let it interfere with our lives though and all of a sudden it becomes an act of God or some sort of natural disaster. When did we become so self-centred as to believe tornadoes, earthquakes and tidal waves are something to be taken personally? These storms would have happened regardless of our presence.

To be able to see nature as something which exists independent of humanity is not something many of us are able to accomplish. One of the ways we have of bringing ourselves closer to nature is through the work of writers and artists. There's something about seeing things through the lens provided by somebody else's work that gives us a clearer perspective on the world we live in.
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The new book Spirit Quest, published by Dark Matter Press, from poet Bob Mackenzie and visual artist Sharlena Wood is a fine example of how the arts can give us a new appreciation of the natural world. The two artists have created a series of complimentary works; Mackenzie's poems recount visits to Canada's Rocky Mountains in Western Canada he took as a child while Wood's paintings bring the passion and wildness of the region to life.

Wood has not attempted to illustrate Mackenzie's poems. Instead what she has done is provide us with images which capture nature's untamed essence. In some ways they serve as contrasts to Mackenzie's poems of the human experience of nature as seen from car windows, camp sites and family vacations. It's almost as if the two have combined to show us how the world looks from both perspectives. Mackenzie's highly personal childhood remembrances, which say as much about the warmth of his family life growing up as they do about nature, are the ring side seat to the natural world while Wood pulls us right into the wild unchecked beauty which cares nothing for our opinions.

In his poems Mackenzie recreates the impressions of the Rocky Mountains he formed as a child through the filter of his adult memory and opinions. Remarkably he manages, after the passage of time and experiences, to still convey the sense of wonder and mystery they must have instilled in the younger version of himself. In "no visible means", a poem describing mountain sheep's apparent ability to defy gravity in clinging to mountain sides, we see a perfect example of a child's awe filtered through the mind of an adult. "this space overtakes me/as no book ever can/here the gods can be felt/and I feel very small".
Bob Mackenzie Poet.jpg
While the sentiments expressed are the amazement a child would feel at seeing the mountains and their sheer size, the vocabulary is decidedly adult. However, the combination of the two is highly effective as it allows us to remember the awe we felt as children when confronted with something beyond our comprehension. By showing us this world through the eyes of his younger self Mackenzie is able to depict nature as the raw force is can be. There's never the impression that it was put there for his family's enjoyment; it exists, is seen and described without editorializing or judgement.

The same can't be said for the occasional outside interlopers into Mackenzie's private world of family and nature. The occasional glimpse we receive of other humans isn't exactly flattering. In the poem "Bears" he describes the interaction between the bears in Banff National Park in Alberta Canada. "tourists come here to meet bears/brown bears so cute in daylight/at night fear bears in the dark/approaching their lamp lit tents/bears are in the camp at dusk/stalk between tent and washrooms/watch campers creep out in fear/make shadow art with their paws". The message we receive is that the majority of people seem to hold fast to the tried and true human opinion that nature is alright in its place, but it needs to know its place.

As Mackenzie uses words to describe the world of the Rocky Mountains in an attempt to capture their magical and wild spirit, Wood's visual creations for the book take us even further into the wild abandon of the region. From stark black and white images which express the power that can be found in the austerity of naked woods in winter to wild uncontrolled swirls of colour which wash across the eye, her work constantly reiterates the theme that nature exists for itself, not for our pleasure. There is a raw power to her work which sends shivers down one's spine as it captures the naked energy of both the mountains and the land around them.
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Anyone who has seen the Rocky Mountains anywhere in North America can't help but be reminded of the fact we are only a small part of the world around us. Most of us go through our lives in a sort of un easy co-existence with the natural world. We live in controlled environments where the rains and winds are at most inconveniences to be avoided and wild life is limited to the birds and small animals in our backyards. Spirit Quest is a reminder that the natural world exists in of itself without care for our concerns or worries. We are all that small person Mackenzie describes in "no visible means" whether we know it or not.

The poems and art work in this book do a masterful job of bringing both the natural world and human interaction with it to life. By showing the world through the eyes of himself as a child poet Mackenzie helps us rediscover the awe it can inspire while Wood's paintings remind us of its sheer unbridled power. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but on this occasion pictures and words have combined to create something which speaks volumes to any willing to listen.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Spirit Quest by Bob Mackenzie and Sharlena Wood)

March 10, 2014

Book Review: IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub


I guess it's appropriate blockades have gone up again on the Tyndengia Mohawk reservation in South Eastern Ontario Canada as I begin to write this review. Here in Canada the First Nations people are usually out of sight and out of mind unless they manage to capture the media's attention with some event which inconvenience the population at large. While the fact the majority of them live in conditions equivalent to the destitution most in the developed world equate with the poverty of the developing world should be news enough in itself to keep them in the papers on a daily basis, we only read about them when anger and resentment over conditions reach the boiling point and spill over into angry protest.

Last winter's Idle No More grass roots movement pushed First Nations issues into the spotlight temporarily, but the government has done its usual good job of simply ignoring, it understanding if they say nothing the media will soon move on to something else. Canada, and by extension North America, aren't unique for their mistreatment and ignoring of the indigenous populations whose lands we now occupy. Around the world, from the South Pacific to the High Arctic, indigenous people are marginalized, starved, pushed off what little land we leave them and generally continue to face bleaker and bleaker futures while nobody seems to give a shit. We give them the worst land available and then pollute or steal it when we discover natural resources beneath it ripe for exploiting.

However, a grassroots collective of writers, activists, visual artists and musicians from indigenous communities around the world have started taking advantage of the communications tools offered them by the Internet in an attempt to get the message out. The Fire This Time (TFTT) has been facilitating the bringing together of musicians, poets and lyricists from indigenous communities around the world via their web server. Individuals can upload music tracks, songs, poems and beats for others to download and create new songs with. These dubs are then released on TFTT's record label, Indigenous Resistance (IR). To date 29 recordings featuring music from The Solomon Islands in the South Pacific to Brazil, mixed by artists from India to North America have been issued. This year they have also released something a little different, the book IR 30 Indigenous Visions In Dub, a collection of writings and images which have provided the lyrical content and visuals used in many of these recordings.
Cover IR 30 Indigenous Visions In Dub sm.jpg
A number of years ago I had reviewed one of the earlier recordings on the IR label, but somehow or other I lost track of their releases over the years. Which is what makes this book all the more interesting and valuable. For the texts they've selected to include not only deal with the major themes and stories from the indigenous world they've been trying to cover over the years, they also bring the words of some of the more insightful minds among indigenous people together in one volume.

Like the recordings the words gathered in this book come from all parts of the globe. They've included lyrics/quotes from musicians from the Solomon Islands (Tohununo and Pesio), stories about an incident which occurred in Brazil where an indigenous man was burnt alive by four wealthy youth (who received only minimum sentences), articles exploring the ties between the indigenous people of North and South America and African Americans, and quotes from two of the most interesting minds among the North American indigenous population, architect Douglas Cardinal and musician/poet/former chair of the American Indian Movement (AIM) John Trudell. While the story of the murder of the Pataxo Galdino in Brazil is sickening in the way it reflects the indifference of the Brazilian population at large to the indigenous peoples whose land the Portuguese stole it makes valuable reading, if only for the contrast it provides to how we normally see these people. Instead of being gaudily dressed props for pop stars' photo opportunities, these are flesh and blood people barely eking out an existence in some of the biggest and roughest slums in the world.

I have to admit while the points about there being common cause between the situation of African Americans and indigenous people through out the Western hemisphere are valid, some of the attempts to tie their spiritual practices together did stretch my credibility. To my mind the writer was making the same assumption far too many do of believing there is a universal "Indigenous" belief system, when not only would you find radically different beliefs among each nation, but from village to village within the same language group. However, there can be no denying the writer's points about the intermarriage between the two groups or the fact many indigenous populations in North and South America share many of the same physical characteristics of African Americans - the indigenous people of Puerto Rico for example.

To my mind the most fascinating readings in this book are the quotes from Douglas Cardinal and John Trudell. Cardinal's words on the nature of power and the way women are treated are stated so matter of factually it makes you wonder how anyone could act any differently. On women he sums things up very succinctly, "One has to state that all the premises that men have of women are basically wrong and you start from there. Even the language is wrong". He uses the same directness of language in his discussion on the nature of power, "I have learnt...that the most powerful force is soft power, caring and commitment together. Soft power is more powerful than adversarial or hard power because it is resilient".
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Trudell's words resonate with a different kind of power. He is someone who knows the power of the mind and the power of words (The FBI once referred to him as one of the most dangerous men in America simply because of the power of his oratory). In a poem quoted in the book he speaks out against the frameworks of European society imposed upon his people as being the instruments of their destruction. Why should he support purported democracy when all it has done is make of his people (along with African Americans and women) second class citizens who are treated like chattel? "We live in a political society/Where they have all power/by their definition of power/but they fear the people who go/out and speak the truth".

Trudell summation of his oppressors attitudes is spot on. Why, if they believe themselves to be so powerful by their own definitions (money and societal position being the two we value the most) are they so scared of those who speak out about injustice and the poverty of the few? Are they afraid people will see how insubstantial their claims to power truly are?

Our governments give occasional lip service to the plight of Native Americans and Canada's First Nation's people, but their policy of doing nothing and hoping the problem goes away has now become official. New acts passed in both the Federal legislations of Canada and the US are designed to ensure the numbers of registered, or status, indigenous people decline to the point where they can take back the reserves and reservations because there will no longer be enough "Indians". Yet anyone who dares speak this truth is called paranoid and deceptive. Who in fact are the more paranoid and deceptive - the ones cynically trying to get rid of "The Indian Problem" or the ones who are the subject to these draconian laws? (For anyone interested in reading about these new acts I recommend Thomas Kings's The Inconvenient Indian)

From the Sahara Desert to the Australian Outback, the rain forests of Brazil to the tundra of Siberia, the Black Hills of Dakota and northern Alberta Canada indigenous people are seeing the land promised them by treaties gradually stolen away from them. What lives they've been able to carve out for themselves in this post-colonial world are gradually being eroded and destroyed. Their culture is appropriated and turned into a commodity, they are depicted as stereotypes not humans and more and more government policy is being directed towards their destruction as distinct societies.

One of the few means at their disposal to remind people they are living breathing cultures is to find the way to speak with a unified voice - one that is loud enough to be heard around the world. Through their record label IR, TFTT is doing its best to provide the opportunity for those voices. IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub gathers together some of the most powerful words and images used during the creation of the label's 29 recordings in a single volume as an intense collage of ideas and visuals. It offers a far different perspective on indigenous life around our planet than that offered by either governments or your New Age book store. Isn't it about time you read the truth?

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub)

February 12, 2014

Book Review: Hijos de la Selva/Sons of the Forest


In the early part of the 20th century photographer Edward Curtis was funded by American businessman J. P. Morgan to undertake the extensive task of making a photographic record of Native Americans across the United States. While some of these photos are undeniably powerful and poignant, the motivation behind them of creating a portrait of "a vanishing people" resulted in him either doctoring the photos or dressing them up in "costumes" in order to eliminate any traces of so called civilized influences. While this does nothing to diminish the quality or scope of his work, when compared to the work of genuine cultural anthropologists or ethnographers, it does call into question their historical authenticity.

This becomes especially obvious when comparing his work his contemporary, the German ethnographer Max Schmidt. While Schmidt's work has languished in obscurity for years, its now been brought to light again through the publication of Hijos de la Selva/Sons of the Forest by Perceval Press. Edited by Viggo Mortensen and with text provided by scholars Federico Bossert and Diego Villar, this book not only reproduces many of the photos Schmidt took among the people of Paraguay and Brazil, it also goes into detail about his background, the philosophy upon which his work was grounded and how this differed from the more Eurocentric (or Amerocentric) approach taken by others working in his field at the time.

The book is divided into two parts; Bossert and Villar's essay on Schmidt, his work and its philosophical and academic underpinnings and a selection of digital reproductions of his original glass plate photographs taken of the peoples of the Brazilian and Paraguayan Amazon basin. Mortensen, Bossert and Villar, with help from people at the Museo Etnogafico Andres Barbero of Asuncion, Paraguay where Schmidt's original photographs are archived, began work on this collection back in 2009. In his introduction to the book Mortensen explains how after they had made their initial selection the original glass plates were shipped to California for digitalization and that the book's objective was to be a mixture of an academic appraisal of his work and an artistic appreciation of his photography.
Cover Hijos de la Selva:Sons of the Forest sm.jpg
I have to admit the academic part of the equation gave me some concerns as I've been removed from the world of academia for close to thirty years and have memories of reading works which sucked the life out art. So I was pleasantly surprised upon reading the essay composed by Bossert and Villar to find it informative but not the dry as dust type of thing I had grown accustomed to reading years ago. Firstly, and most importantly, they placed his work in its proper historical and cultural context by going into both his background and the academic environment surrounding ethnography in his native Germany in the late 19th and early 20 centuries.

After they established a context within which to place Schmidt's work, they proceed to delve into his actual explorations and study. We learn about his first trips into the Amazon basin and his initial contacts with the indigenous peoples of the region. Here the author's have gone right to the source for their information as they quote substantially from Schmidt's extensive and exhaustive diaries. Unlike what was usual for the times Schmidt travelled simply, accompanied only by two guides and a mule. While this left him more at the mercy of the environment than was usual the impression I received from reading was it made him far less threatening a presence then any of his predecessors.

While the writing and descriptions of Schmidt's life and work were fascinating my understanding suffered from a lack of knowledge of South American geography. This is not a complaint directed towards the work's authors, rather a warning to anybody reading this they should make sure they have a good atlas or map of the region to hand. In fact reading Bossert and Villar's essay make one wish there were more written about this fascinating man who took it upon himself to make a record of the isolated people of the regions. For after 1929, he retired from his position at the Berlin Museum of Ethnography, and moved to South America where he continued his work independently.

While the academic part of the book makes for interesting reading, and gives us knowledge of the person behind the lens, for me it was the pictures making up the second half of the book which were most intriguing. For not only have the photos been reproduced, so have Schmidt's original captions and explanations. Unlike other photos of this type I've seen, most obviously Curtis', Schmidt's images not only tell you who the subject is and where they were taken, they often give you details of the person or the situation depicted. As a result these are real people, not some idealized, romantic version of the "nobel savage".

Even more intriguing is how Schmidt makes no effort to disguise any modifications his subjects might have made in their behaviour or dress due to contact with the outside world. As a result we see the rather odd juxtaposition of an image showing children in uniforms attending school next to images of naked adults going about their business. While they might have been taken among different people, it shows us their's was a world in transition. To our eyes the pictures might depict a life minus the comforts of civilization we can't imagine living without; primitive and deprived. However, when compared to images shot on the reservations and tribal lands of North America at the same time, these people don't have the same aura of defeat or loss about them as their northern counterparts.
Adelina Pusineri:Viggo Mortensen:Diego Villar:Federico Bossert sm.jpg
Which isn't to say they weren't under threat from civilization. As the text points out even in the 1920s and 1930s industrial expansion in the form of rubber tree tappers were making inroads into indigenous territories and killing anyone in their way. However, the images in the book also show people who still hadn't been defeated or overwhelmed. We also see from the photos how their geographical location made it far easier for them to avoid the advance of civilization than people in North America. Schmidt's accounts of the difficulties involved in travelling to where most of these people lived confirm the isolation depicted in the images.

However, all other considerations aside, the images are also a testament to Schmidt's skill and artistry as a photographer. He seems to have had some sort of innate ability to put his subjects at ease as the photos come across as a mixture of those one would see in a family album and documentary style shots of people going about their daily business. While that might not seem like a great accomplishment to us today with digital cameras, remember he was shooting glass plates which required a great deal of preparation and set up. It was very hard to be unobtrusive with the kind of equipment required for taking these kind of photographs, yet even in the obviously posed pictures there is very little of the formality we've come to expect from this era of photography.

Before reading Hijos de la Selva I knew nothing of the life and work of Max Schmidt, little of the study of ethnography and almost nothing about the people of the Amazon Basin. While one book can't, and this one doesn't claim to be, a definitive work on these subjects, it introduces the reader to them with intelligence and compassion. The carefully prepared essay gives us both an academic and personal history of Schmidt and places his body of work in its proper context so we can fully appreciate the significance of the accompanying photographs. Even more important, as far as I'm concerned, the book makes clear how Schmidt, unlike so many of his contemporaries in the same field, saw his subjects as fellow human beings, not just objects of interest to be studied. An example many of us could stand to learn from even today as indigenous people the world over still struggle against various types of stereotyping.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: Hijos de la Selva/Sons of the Forest)

January 30, 2014

Book Review: Dreams Before Extinction by Naeemeh Naeemaei


It's hard for us in the West not to have misconceptions of what life is like in countries where our perceptions are shaped entirely by what we read in the media. This is especially true of those countries which have attempted to isolate themselves and their populace from what they consider our corrupting influence. I have to admit I have my own prejudices when it comes to Iran. Having seen and read first hand accounts from those who have managed to either escape or smuggle out footage of things which have happened in the country over the last few years hasn't helped. (If you've not seen the documentary The Green Wave about how the unrest in Iran during the Arab Spring was shut down so brutally you should) Then there's the fact I'm also against any kind of theocracy, no matter what form it comes in.

All of which probably makes me as guilty as the next person at being surprised to find out individuals within Iranian society share many of the same concerns we do about the state of the world. With all that we read about the country's political and religious systems it's hard to believe we can have anything in common with those who live and work in such a society. At least that's what we tell ourselves. But why should we be surprised to read that Iran has set aside over 10% of its land for wilderness preservation and species conservation? Did you even know there was an non government organization known as the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation? I didn't.

Like any modern industrial state with a growing population, the major environmental concerns facing Iran are those caused by humans - habitat loss due to human encroachment and pollution and over hunting leading to extinction. It's these concerns which compelled Iranian artist Naeemeh Naeemaei to create the works gathered in the new book, Dreams Before Extinction, just published by Perceval Press. The works were first displayed at the Henna Art Gallery in Tehran, Iran in 2011.
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In his forward to the book, "A Call To Conscience" Kavous Seyed-Emami, Executive Director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, writes about the important role artists have in raising the public's awareness regarding the issues facing wildlife. "Artists have the ability to connect to a general audience on an emotional level and thereby promote awareness of the need for nature conservation". In her comments on her work and what she hopes to accomplish with it Naeemaei is even more specific, "I want to make some changes at least in my own people about their behaviour with regard to nature and the environment. Even for just a bit."

Even a cursory glance at the images in Dreams Before Extinction bear out Seyed-Emami's statement and impress upon the viewer the sincerity of Naeemaei's intent. For while each of the images features either an endangered or extinct species from the region, it's how they are presented which makes the work so powerful. Instead of merely showing them isolated from humans, Naeemaei has created work which forces the viewers to consider the animals as part and parcel of their own world.

She has also made sure the works have social and cultural links to the people they are intended to reach. Many of the pictures have features in them which would be instantly recognizable to an Iranian, and maybe even an Islamic, viewer. While this might be a little bit of a barrier for those of us who aren't familiar with Islamic iconography or Iranian/Persian folk tales, not only has the artist included explanatory notes with for each painting, the publishers have provided us with a comprehensive introduction to the work, "Silence of the Leopards" by co-editor Paul Semonin.

In his introduction Semonin not only provides us with information about the significance of certain details Naeemaei has included in her works, he places her work in a familiar context by comparing it to that of the late Mexican artist, Frida Khalo. Those who are aware of Khalo's work will know the majority of them were highly personal statements about the painter's life and her relationship to the world. By pointing this out to us, and comparing Naeemaei's inclusion of herself in these works to Khalo's self portraits, Semonin reinforces the personal nature of the art in this collection. Khalo would occasionally turn herself inside out on canvass, showing us her internal physical damage. Naeemaei, by including herself or a family member in all these pieces creates the same sort of intimate connection, but with the body of the world instead of her own.
Capsian Tiger by Naeemeh Naeemaei sm.jpg
By making no distinction between herself and the creatures she represents, by giving them the cultural and social characteristics most of her audience would recognize as those belonging to humans, she says these are my family. One of the most powerful pieces in the work in my opinion exemplifies this perfectly. "Caspian Tiger" is an image of this extinct species (last one died in 1959) surrounded by what are obviously women in mourning. The tiger bears bleeding wounds just under his ear and on his visible rear haunch. Two women are huddled together in the foreground, prostrate and holding each other, one leans on the tiger's back hiding her face in the palm of one hand and the last kneels in front of the tiger, head bowed as if in supplication and holding his face in her hands.

While the artist's note about the painting is heartfelt and beautiful ("The last one was killed in 1959, but there was no funeral and no one cried. I don't know where his tomb is to put flowers on it. I can only wail and mourn his passing in my own way") it's only by reading Semonin's introduction we'll understand the real significance of what we're looking at. For Naeemaei has drawn upon a famous painting depicting the martyrdom of the Third Imam of the Shi'a faith for her work. The original painting shows a group of mourning women gathered around the Imam's white horse who bears wounds identical to those seen on the tiger. In Iran there is a national day of mourning for this figure from their religious history. By depicting the Caspian Tiger in this manor Naeemaei, equating his loss with that of such a revered figure, she is telling her audience there should be no difference between the grief they feel for the Imam and the tiger.

Each of the paintings in this book are of equal potency. They make bold statements about how there should be no separation of the species and stress the artist's personal connections with the world around her. One of my favourites, "Silence of the Leopards", shows her in a stand off with a shepherd and his flock while she acts as a shepherd for a flock of leopards. In her comments she says how on the surface it would appear the sheep would be the ones who are in trouble, but the reality is the leopards are in the most danger. Over grazing by ranchers is destroying leopard's habitat, and the more sheep encroach into the wilderness the more their chances of survival are eroded. It's a beautiful juxtaposition which plays on people's perceptions of what is harmless and what is dangerous.

In the West we see Iran as a country of oppressed people whose lives are defined by the very narrow interpretation of a religious code. While there is some truth to this, it does not prevent people from having the same concerns about the world as we do, nor from finding ways to express what they are feeling. In the paintings collected in Dreams Before Extinction Naeemen Naeemaei expresses some of the most strongly "worded" and passionate pleas for the preservation of animal life you'll ever see. These aren't just depictions of endangered creatures, these are images which confirm the intrinsic bond between humans and the species we share the world with. When an animal species dies out it should be as great a calamity as the death of a human, that its not shows how far we have fallen.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: Dreams Before Extinction by Naeemeh Naeemaei)

July 8, 2013

Book Review: Let's Start a Pussy Riot Curator Emely New, Edited by Jade French in collaboration with Pussy Riot


On February 21 2012 members of the Russian feminist performance art group/collective Pussy Riot put on an agit-prop performance in a priests only section of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Accused of religious hatred, two of the members of the group, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnnikova are now serving two year sentences for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred in separate penal colonies - forced labour camps by any other name. A third member of the group, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was also arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment, but her sentence was commuted to probation.

The defendants were held without bail from the time of their arrests in March 2012 until their trial on July 30 2012, an indication of how the course of justice is being perverted in this case. The trio claim their performance was not an act of hatred agains any organized religion, rather a protest against the increasing ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia's President Putin. Considering how immediately after their performance in February the Church called on the government to make blasphemy a criminal offence, and it was only after this a criminal case was opened against the band, they have a point.

In Russia, the charge of "hooliganism" is used as a catch all for prosecuting unapproved behaviour. The final indictment of the three women for what was only a one minute performance ran to 2,800 pages. Its rife with statements condemning their blasphemy and corruption of Russian moral values through the importing of feminism and the idea of gender equality. One group, The Union of Russian Orthodox Women, went so far as to warn the population these ideas would inevitably lead to gay overpopulation and Russia vanishing from the world map. The only stumbling block for conservative commentators in their condemnations is the Russian language lacks the equivalent of the slang word "pussy". Which meant television viewers were treated to the site of priests mouthing the word vagina and "mad vagina" as a substitute for Pussy Riot.
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As the Russian government of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church attempt to turn back the clock to the dark ages, groups and individuals within and outside of Russia have begun the process of trying to secure both Alekhina and Tolokonnikova's release through actions and fundraising activities. One of these fundraising projects is a new book being published by Rough Trade Books called Let's Start a Pussy Riot. As the title implies this is more than just a project to raise funds for the two women still incarcerated, its also a celebration of what the Pussy Riot collective stand for.

Artists from a variety of media and gender have all contributed samples of their work which either reflect support for the cause of feminism or are expressions of their own liberation as individuals not willing to be defined by anyone else's idea's of who and what they are. At issue of course is the continued assault on women all over the world in a variety of situations and circumstances. Whether women being raped as acts of war, subjugated for reasons of religion or just treated as second class citizens in general through the roles their society's designate for them.

In Russia, the United States and other countries feminism is being denigrated as being against the values of respective societies. Who's values? What are they based on? Why are one group of people allowed to stipulate values specifically designed to control the behaviour of another group of people? What gives anyone the right to designate one gender identity more acceptable than another? When we are dealing with something as benign as gender and personal identification what do values have to do with the issue anyway? It's not as if whether a person is gay, straight, bi, female, male, heterosexual, transgendered or whatever is going to affect anyone else's life. The state should take issue with what people do, how they treat others, not who or what they are.

These basic inalienable rights, the right to be yourself, are what each of the artists in this book are defending in their own way. Call it feminism if you wish, but the reality is the fight isn't about equality for women, the fight is for equality period. The fight isn't about women wanting to act like men or becoming men. It's not about gays and lesbians wanting to take over the world and corrupt our youth. No it's about accepting each of them for who they are and letting them be themselves no matter what role they want to play in society as individuals.
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The work in this book has been donated by artists, male, female and transgendered, who are concerned with the issues raised by Pussy Riot. They are concerned at the way simple human dignity is being denied people because of their gender identification. From an essay and interview with Antony Hegarty, lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, the opening and closing court statements of the three members of Pussy Riot, to contributions from Peggy Seeger, Yoko Ono, Peaches and an amazing variety of artists from across all media and styles, each in their own way are starting a Pussy Riot. Their work will make you think about the issues the collective raises in terms of gender equality and feminism in particular and why the notion that feminism is something whose time has come and gone is a dangerous lie.

Some might be offended by some of the images in the book and not understand what they have to do with the topic at hand. However, you have to remember feminism is about reclaiming control of one's own identity and the freedom of expression that goes with it. The point of this book is to show support for the women arrested and to defend creativity as a means of both protest and an expression of ideas. On page eight appear the words "Call For Action" and they are followed on page nine by a brief explanatory poem/manifesto explaining what the book is about.

"Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a celebration:/A celebration of freedom of speech,/of visibility, of not taking our own situations for granted/Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a creative response:/culture and creativity to form our activism and inform our minds./Writing, painting, singing our opinions in order to get our message heard/Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a call for action:/To use what we have at our fingertips to fight/To show support for those brave enough to speak out/To challenge injustice through dialogue and conversation/To create a response that can say something larger than ourselves."

Supposedly freedom of expression and speech are one of the keystones of democracy. Art in all its myriad forms is humanity's purest form of expression as it allows us to express ideas and emotions realistically, metaphorically and symbolically in ways that stimulate thought and conversation. Once anyone starts to try and limit the means of expression through control of content they are putting limits onto what we're allowed to think and talk about.

Let's Start a Pussy Riot, in supporting the right of a group of women to express dissent, is more than just a book about the rights of women and gender equality. Its an expression of support for everyone who has the courage to stand up and be heard in the face of those who would keep them silent. While the money earned from sales of the book will go towards helping pay the costs of trying to secure the release of the members of Pussy Riot still in labour camps, in spirit it supports every artist around the world.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Let's Start a Pussy Riot - Curator Emely New, Edited by Jade French in collaboration with Pussy Riot)

December 26, 2012

My Ten Favourite Reads Of 2012


As another year winds down we folk who review things bring out our lists of those things we deem the best of the year gone by. Realistically these lists are of no real value to anyone as they're incredibly subjective and reflect the views of the person writing them and nothing more. However, they're fun to put together and a good way of reminding yourself there were somethings of quality released along with the dross.

For all the claims people make about traditional publishing being in trouble or a thing of the past, there were a number of quality books released from various houses. While the news of the proposed merger between Random House and Penguin Books generated more doom and gloom predictions regarding the traditional book industry, authors are still writing and presses are still printing. Unlike previous years where I was hard pressed to find enough books to fill a top ten I could easily have filled 15 places. Oh and none of the books were self-published.

Of the books I read published in 2012 the following were the ones to leave the strongest impression. Some are from big publishers while others from small presses but no matter who published them they all made my life more interesting. For all the modern technology at our disposal and the ever increasing options available for amusing ourselves, I'm still happiest curling up with a great story. Nothing anybody's invented yet comes close to stimulating the imagination or taking you out of yourself for hours on end. You don't need any special tools or appliances to experience a book - just your mind, enough light to read by and you're off.

William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an by Michael Muhammad Knight. Continues the author's examination of the various manifestations of Islam in America. In this book he looks at those members of the Beat movement of the 1950s who claim to have embraced Islam and tries to find ways in which he can relate to them. Another fine work of scholarly introspection on the nature of faith and religion and the history of Islam in America.

Tough Shit: Life Lessons From A Fat Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith. Smith is irreverent, rude, crude and probably offensive to any number of people. However, he also has more to intelligent things to say about the nature of art and what it takes to be an artist than any of his contemporaries. Scatological and brilliant in equal measures.

Throne Of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. For those who are tired of lily white fantasy heroes and swarthy villains battling in worlds based on Western myths this book will be a wonderful tonic. A great story filled with wonderful characters set in a world filled with djinn and other beings from Middle Eastern/Northern Africa mythology. First book in what promises to be a great series

The Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity Edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray. A wonderful anthology of quirky, sometimes scary and often funny tales about how the fae are getting by in the modern world. Whether a transgendered werewolf living in the East Village in New York City or the Unseelie Court running a chain of discount department stores (putting a glamour on their "greeters" so they can get through a shift without killing anyone) they're doing their best to blend but not always with the greatest of success.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North America by Thomas King. It's the land stupid. Not really a history of Native people, more a history of what's happened since Europeans came to North America. They wanted land and had to figure out what to do about all those people who were already inconveniently living on it. King recounts the various methods used to separate the indigenous population of North America from their land. From massacres to removal the policies may have changed over the years, but the goal still remains the same today - get those Indians off the land they aren't putting to "proper" use.

Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore. The art world will never be the same. One of Moore's best books in years is set in Paris during the late 19th century. The impressionist movement is taking the art world by storm, and its various artists are being targeted by the mysterious colour man and his beautiful accomplice. This wonderfully wise and comic tale is part mystery and part exploration of the nature of art. Populated by a mixture of fictional and some colourful characters from art history Moore's latest shows why he is one of best comic writers of his generation.

Forge Of Darkness by Steven Erikson. What do you do for an encore after writing a brilliant ten book epic fantasy series? Why start writing a new series set in the first one's pre-history of course. After bringing The Malazan Book Of The Fallen to a successful conclusion, Erikson hasn't wasted any time in finding new aspects of the universe he co-created to life. Equal parts fascinating and frightening, readers of the previous series will run into some familiar characters, but in totally new circumstances as he delves into the history of the enigmatic Tiste Andi, worshippers of Mother Dark. Another brilliant piece of world building from this master story teller - Erikson is the gold standard against which all fantasy work should be measured against in the future.

Except The Queen by Mydori Snyder and Jane Yolen. The number of women writing fantasy seems to be few and far between these days. (I don't count the romance novels with vampires and werewolves they call paranormal romance as fantasy - Harlequin with fangs doesn't fantasy make) Mydori Snyder and Jane Yolen have always been two of the best and this latest co-authored offering shows why. Not only do they have splendid imaginations they can also weave a wonderful web mixing the exotic and the mundane. Their talents are on full display here as they tear the fabric between our world and fairy allowing them to intermingle with startling results.

Blood and Bone by Ian C Esslemont. While Steven Erikson delves into the past, Ian Esslemont continues to recount events occurring during the time of the Malazan Empire in the world they created together. Here Esslemont takes us to a part of the world which up until now has been shrouded in mystery. A dark and dangerous continent ruled by strange magic and haunted by a cataclysmic past is the sight of a convergence of a variety of forces. Will history repeat itself or can those involved manage to find what they're looking for without destroying themselves and the continent in the process. A great adventure filled with characters who will both frighten and delight you.

The Art Book: New Edition by Various Editors. One of the great pities about North American society is how we've managed to make the fine arts inaccessible to the majority of the population. What great works of art we have are stashed away in galleries which seem more designed to intimidate than welcome most people. Even when collected into books they are out of most people's reach due to cost. The Art Book: New Edition not only provides readers with the chance to see quality reproductions of great works of art at a remarkably affordable price, it does so in a far less intimidating manner than any other collection of its kind. While art historians might be put off by the work being arranged in alphabetical order according to artist's name, the rest of us can revel in the joy of seeing examples of modern and medieval art side by side. With each piece accompanied by a short explanatory note explaining the significance of the work, this book serves as a great introduction to the wonders of the visual arts.

(Article first published as My Ten Favorite Reads Of 2012 on Blogcritics.)

September 28, 2012

Book Review: The Art Book: New Edition Various Editors


When I was attending university there used to be these things called survey courses. They provided an introduction to a subject without going into a great deal of depth giving students enough information to let them decide whether they wanted to investigate the subject further. They were commonly used in Art History departments as a means of introducing students to a particular period. So you could take survey courses in everything from Gothic to Modern art.

While I understood the purposes these courses served academically I also found them boring. I mean who wants to spend week after week looking at paintings which all look the same? I like Impressionism as much as the next person, but there are only so many I want to see at once. If I'm going to look at paintings I would prefer to see as wide a variety of work as possible. Juxtaposing art by different painters from different eras may not make great sense academically, but I think it would be a far more interesting way to introduce somebody to the world of art. The contrasts alone would at least keep them intrigued as to what they might see next.
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All of which explains why I'm a big fan of Phaidon Press' The Art Book: New Edition scheduled for release October 1 2012. Containing over 600 full colour reproductions the book offers readers an opportunity to experience art from the Medieval period to the work of contemporary artists. However instead of organizing them by era, genre, style or any of the other ways this type of book is usually laid out the work is listed alphabetically by the artist's last name. Which means you have the opportunity to see paintings side by side with ones that probably wouldn't normally be hung in the same building let alone on the same wall. Some might find that unsettling but I think it ensures each new work is a surprise and keeps you interested and on the edge of your seat. Tell me when's the last time you heard anyone say that about going to an art gallery or opening up an art history text book?

Now of course these aren't just random samples of various artists plunked down into a book. There's been careful consideration given as to which artists are represented and the paintings chosen to represent each artist. No one editor or curator is listed as compiling this book. Instead it seems like the entire editorial staff of Phaidon Press was involved in the process. In the video clip below Amanda Renshaw, editorial director of Phaidon talks about how The Art Book came together.

Of course the paintings aren't just baldly placed in the book with no word of explanation. Each one comes with a brief biography of the artist, a description of the work, what the artist was attempting to accomplish and, as applicable, something about the period or movement the work represents. As some of the terms used in art history aren't ones most of us are used to hearing in our day to day conversations, the editors have also included a complete glossary of terminology at the end of the book.
They've also included a complete index of all the painters in the book and a listing of the galleries where the original works are hung, installed, displayed, or the means by which they now can be viewed. The last in that list is important as some of them were transitory in nature or too large to be contained in a building. Examples of this include; Francis Alys Paradox Of Praxis(pg. 14) which involved the artist pushing a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it gradually melted, Marina Abramovic's The House with the Ocean View (pg. 4) an installation piece where the artist lived in the gallery for twelve days in three specially designed rooms elevated on platforms and Weiwei Ai's monumental sculpture Template(pg. 8) found outdoors at a German art festival.

However the majority of the works are at least traditionally housed, if not traditionally displayed, in galleries. But that's the beauty and diversity of the visual arts. They can be so many different things to so many different people. Just by looking through this book at the way tastes in style, form, and subject matter have changed down through the years is an indication of the way artistic expression has evolved. From the religious paintings of the Byzantine and Medieval periods which were completely flat and lacking in perspective to the introduction of the horizon line and depth of field in the Renaissance. Of course events don't follow a sequential pattern in this book, but in some ways that makes the way the art of painting evolved even more obvious.

Just seeing Salvador Dali's Lobster Telephone (pg. 136) side by side with Charles-Francois Daubigny's pastoral landscape, The Lock at Optevoz (pg. 137) tells you just how much the world of art can change in less then the hundred years that separate the creation of the two works. The same could be said of any two pages in the book, although not all of them are so extreme in their differences. Although the differences between Frans Hals Young Man With A Skull (pg. 240) painted in c1626/8 and Richard Hamilton's Pop Art collage Just What is it That Makes Today's Homes so Different, So Appealing? (pg. 241) from 1956 come close. On the one hand is a fairly standard 'Old Master' type portrait of a young man holding a skull while on the opposing page the artist has arranged a variety of imagery cut from contemporary popular magazines to form the interior of a living space. Of course with nearly 400 years separating these works perhaps it's not so surprising to find such radical differences. However, I wonder if Hals could have ever imagined a time when someone would have created art without using paint or brushes?

That's what I find so wonderful about The Art Book: New Edition. Aside from containing a wonderful collection of art work from almost every tradition imaginable and covering nearly a thousand years of human history, it encourages the reader/observer to use their own imaginations. You can't help looking at the pieces and comparing them to whatever is on the adjacent page no matter what it might be. While this sort of process might be off putting to some purists, for the rest of the world it will delight and astound you to compare Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat(pg.140) of the neo-Classical school of the late 18th and early 19th centuries with the cubist influenced Stuart Davis' Egg Beater No. 4 (pg. 141) from 1928.

Maybe it's something of a stretch to think people will be able to find common ground between two such wildly divergent examples of the visual arts. However, by simply placing the works in alphabetical order by artists' last names, the editors of The Art Book: New Edition give readers the opportunity to form their own opinions on the merits of each based on the work, the explanatory text accompanying it and free of the constraints of classification. While it's true no work exists in a vacuum, the pieces selected make enough of a statement on their own to ensure they can stand on their own two feet. At the very least, like the best survey course, readers might find themselves discovering something new that they wish to explore in further depth. That in itself makes this book an invaluable resource for any household.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Art Book: New AdditionEdited by Various on Blogcritics.)