the subject of British art

A young Pynchon was there. In black tie. I assumed he was going to the Oscars. Another man was very silently giving birth to a succession of babies. Then the cat cried for breakfast and I started to lose them. The art dealer came back to me. His heavy shoulders cloaked in a well-worn waxed jacket. His curls of grey hair, windswept from the Scottish highlands, marked him as outsider on the London tube. I’d snuck into his slipstream just after the ticket barriers. He was using a framed artwork wrapped in folds of bubbled plastic to peel the crowd at the top of the escalator. He was big, perhaps 6’3″. But I suspected, as I watched his gaze in the carriage, that this was becoming a disappointment. The knowledge of ageing, what it does to the body. He had refused to sit down. No one had offered him a seat, but as he leant into the vertical hand rail, his shoulder squeezing against the rectangle of protective glass, I felt his body begging for rest. Shortly before Kings Cross, he’d caught my eye. I had looked up from my book; I was thinking about the links between the holocaust and Stanley; and as I returned to the pages on my lap, he mouthed a word. It might have been two. The skin of his face made me think of the weather. He wore corduroys. I didn’t notice his shoes. At Kings Cross, he turned his back and stepped off the carriage. In moments like these, even I start to believe that we should recognise fully that humans do have a sixth sense. He stepped to the side of the platform and turned to wait for me. What’s that you’re reading? I wondered why he felt the need to demand information. I thought of all the women who’d left him. I held up the book. Ah memory, he said. What’s that? PTSD? I explained that it was a little more nuanced than that. He’s a novelist, I said, surprised by the sympathetic tone in which I had spoken. He relaxed. I hate this sort of transport, he said. Lost my licence, he said. Some fucking Scottish sheriff. I wasn’t in the wrong, but I was the one who was punished. I saw him in his cottage, half-drunk bottles of whisky dotted about the place. I’ve been in Kent, he said. I’m an art dealer. He held up the large package he was carrying. Yes, I said, I saw how you used it to push through the crowds. He laughed. It’s worth fifteen thousand. We were walking at a steady pace now, beneath St Pancras. I told him that I’d spent the day in an art gallery, talking about the black subject. Oh, he said, misunderstanding me, you are depressing. The black subject, I repeated, about the presence of black people in British art. Oh I don’t believe in racism, he replied. Nonsense! I had the chance to buy an 1806 oil of a black man in Liverpool. Dressed like a gentleman. In the background, a hunt was galloping past. He was an estate manager. An estate manager. He thought I hadn’t heard and said, again, but in a bark, An estate manager! You see, there wasn’t even racism then. I grew up in Africa. Tanzania, my dear. There was much more slavery between them than anything we could have done. We came to a halt. He was going upstairs to get the night train to Edinburgh. I was going further, deeper down, far underground. He wanted to know what I was doing. Meeting my husband, I said. He laughed. Damn! You’re just what I could do with. His bottom lip was loosening. Hanging, pink, fat and wet. He stepped back. He didn’t want me to turn first. He didn’t want to see my back, and to be confronted with himself. So I held out my hand. I’m glad we spoke, I said. He held down a smile. Yes, well, have a pleasant evening. And he turned. I stood still and watched him and his painting rising higher and higher and higher.


Unfrying an egg

[This review of In the Name of the People has been written by an Angolan man I have never met, but with whom I have shared ideas via internet and other spaces, and who I count as a friend. For those of you who are wondering, he is linked to the MPLA, like so many Angolans, through his extended family.]

Lara Pawson’s humble contribution to demystifying one of the many taboos in Angolan society is remarkable. It is definitely a must-read for those of the younger generation of Angolans who incessantly seek nothing but the truth for their own personal enlightenment.

The book is not only Lara’s quest for quenching the untamable journalistic fire within her mind, it also appears to be a vehicle to allow her to reflect on her own political and ideological beliefs. For Angolans, in particular, she leaves (wittingly or unwittingly) certain clues along her narrative which, when tied together, uncover a deep-rooted malaise that plagues Angolan society to this day. To name a few: the issue of skin color and its perceived importance; the “blue blood complex” which makes certain prominent Angolan families foolishly believe they are superior to others; the perils of self-entitlement that certain individuals possess as a result of their involvement in the national liberation struggle and the civil war which followed (somehow, this links into the endemic corruption and kleptocracy for which Angola is now infamous); the elitism of the “la petite bourgeoisie” whose genesis in the post-independence era is arguably strongly related to the 27 de Maio itself; the blatant inequality that still prevails after 40 years of sovereignty and that keeps widening the gulf between the rich and the poor (the pés descalços).

Of course the book is not perfect. No book is. In her journey hunting for the truth from England to Portugal and finally to Angola, Lara relies heavily on accounts by people who were involved in some shape or form with the 27 de Maio. Some are victims — or survivors — or relatives of the dead. Conventional book reviewers may consider this a weakness — a lack of objectivity. But this is Angola, and to write anything decent and credible about the country is tantamount to unfrying an egg. It is harder for foreigners without access to the higher echelons of the ruling party. Unless you are going to write about how “well governed” Angola is and how extraordinary its much-vaunted double-digit GDP growth has been, all the doors will simply shut on you. There is a good reason why pieces about Angola in bona fide international media are as ubiquitous as the Holy Grail – pun intended.

The inconsistencies and contradictions that stem from the different arguments gathered by Lara are probably what kept her motivated during the years of research. They are probably what encouraged her to keep digging deeper. She cross examines her interviewees very effectively: it forces the reader to stop and think before jumping to any conclusions. This level of self-detachment is not evident in many other books about the 27 de Maio. In the end, it is what makes the book come alive.

Lara is arguably the first author to give voice to the people of Sambizanga. In a book about the 27 de Maio, ignoring their views on the subject is equivalent to writing about football in English culture without ever going to Anfield, Craven Cottage or St. James Park on a Sunday afternoon.

Lara’s witty humour – in typical British style – helps to soften what could otherwise be a very heavy-hearted read. On the other hand, her somewhat overly detailed descriptions of the people she meets, and the sights and sounds she sees and hears, might be tiresome for those who want a faster-paced book. To those expecting a step-by-step chronology of events before and after the 27 de Maio, it might read like a 250-page non sequitur. Simply put, the book is very easy to read if you already have a basic knowledge of the subject, but other readers may find it hard to connect all the dots. They may wish to refer to other works on the same topic as well, such as Purga em Angola (2007), Núvem Negra (2007) and Holocausto em Angola (2008).

When I finished the book, I wondered – just like Lara did – why it is, nearly 40 years on, that discussing this topic continues to be implicitly forbidden in Angola. After all, most of the perpetrators are probably dead anyway; some are living ordinary lives; others may never face trial. So the 27-million-dollar question is: if, collectively, we are still grappling with the self-inflicted wounds from an event as old as this one, then are we not foolish to believe that we have overcome much the other one that ended just 12 years ago? I’m talking, of course, about the civil war.

Plato once said that “only the dead see the end of war”. Developing that a bit, perhaps it is fitting to say that the 27 de Maio is bound to remain alive in the memories of those who did not die as a result of it. There is a strong belief across African cultures that the more people mourn with us, the easier it is to cope with the loss of a loved one. The pain is shared evenly. At some point in time, Angola will have to hold a national mourning for all the victims of the 27 de Maio, regardless of which side they were on. If not, we may never find closure.

For her relentless pursuit of the truth and for her courageous endeavors to finish and publish this book, I would like to thank Lara on behalf of all the Angolans who may find solace reading her book. To end, I will borrow from the Texan folklorist and writer, J Frank Dobie, who gave this tribute to fellow writer John W. Thomason: “In the name of the people who, because of what you created, are richer inside themselves and live more abundantly on the soil they belong to, we salute you”.


is this Spring?

You learn to tell things as they are. You learn to cut back. Minimise to the point of. Lying. Based on what is there in. Front of your eyes. What you saw. Or what they say they. Saw. Or what you heard. What she is. Saying. Cut it back. Though. Time. Time. Timing. Timed. But it did. Definitely happened. It’s only that. Having cut it down that much. It did not happen. Quite like that. Still. Being told is never quite as interesting as having to work for it. The most liberating art — interpret art how you like — is the stuff that makes you work. Forces you to drop. The walls. Bash them down. In. Your brain. It shows you something in a new way. That you didn’t know before. You didn’t know you could think. In. That. Way. You didn’t know this was thinking. Or reflecting. Or imagining. You didn’t know you had an imagination. Like this one. And then there it is. Then. You have to work out. How to keep it. How to — to borrow capitalist speak — grow it. Fertilise it. Produce. It. To flourish. So liberating. Frightening. But liberating. List the stuff that has done. That. Succeeded.

digging in

Without writing about it, the idea is to write about it. Currently unclear on the it in all of this, yet also trying to be less clear. Zooming in to the epicentre then zooming out. And possibly in and out again. Mm. Questions of first versus third person suddenly seem huge and terrifying. Never been encountered before. Here and there. Up and down. Above, below. Followed by deep distrust and disappointment with the clarity of contrasts and that easy jerk of olden days journo style that slips its palm over my eyes whenever I’m not paying attention. The cat is in on this. It talks to her. Perhaps empty out the middle and fill it with a cat-like creature. Give the cat a role. Avoid alien because that’s like the up and down stuff. Pulling and scratching at the obvious. Maybe it is the obvious, so the drive to obscure is, likewise, inevitable. Take away the subject, the aim, the ambition of the idea, and allow the clarity to take the stage. Then the fuzziness will be there only because it’s being ignored. Its presence will become the menace. This feels familiar. How-on-earth…

once, they were united against apartheid

Something something ‘real estate’ something something ‘for the black families’. In a Boston accent. Brogues? Of course. Bald? Ditto. White? You got it. At some point at the turn of the century, pushchairs and prams and shopping trolleys morphed. They became one. Boston man is with a clever, solid, well-dressed couple who have one of these things on wheels, complete with sleeping babe (its head resting in the space that once housed a sheep’s arse). They’ve parked it just far enough from their table so as not to disturb their coffee-chat, and just close enough to the next that, when others come in, and glance about for a spare table, they presume both are taken. Which they are. By a politics of spacing. From two tables and six chairs, they eat green leaves soaked in balsamic syrup and drink coffee. The café is large. Two of its four walls are glass: those sort of thick window-doors that now form the kitchen wall (the one that looks out to the garden) of every Victorian home in Dulwich, Hampstead, Hackney, Kilburn, Brixton, etc etc. You get the picture. ‘Funny that they have a lit-up fire exit outdoors,’ remarks J, looking out, admiring the quality of the large garden. ‘See that curtain?’ she replies. J turns, ‘Yes.’ ‘I feel like I’m in a crematorium, about to be served up as ash.’ J looks and thinks. She says, ‘Do you think everyone here works in publishing? Do you think they’ve all written successful books? Do you think they’ve all been published in the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books and that they’ve all been out with someone who works at the Guardian?’ J gets up. He chooses some music from the juke box. ‘Amazing isn’t it,’ he says. ‘They get a juke box, park it in a corner, give it a label and a hashtag, and it becomes a work of art.’ She gets up. She goes to the juke box. She chooses some music. A kid joins her. He stands beside her patiently. He waits in the way that people wait to touch a coffin with an old friend inside. J tells her not to hog the juke box and she moves away, returning to the table, staring at the pushpramtrolley. The boy at the juke box looks happy. Upstairs, three people are watching a film that captures people at a shamanic ceremony in São Tomé and Prîncipe. A parrot is examining a camera. A fish is dying on a plate. Wheels are turning. J says he wants to leave. He’s humming to the juke box. Ain’t gonna play Sun City.

Spare me, Doris

Politely, one might call this a crisis. Background: I’m reading The Golden Notebook and I’m already feeling ashamed that I’ve not read it before. [‘But I thought you were really into African writers?’ ‘Doris Lessing! You mean you aren’t familiar with all her works? Oosh.’ ‘You call yourself a writer?’] I’ve bought The Fourth Estate edition from 2014, which begins with an essay by Lessing — they call it Preface — which she wrote in June 1971. The good bit is this: she explains that she advises students of literature to choose books by browsing, to pick up books that they are attracted to, to drop them when they bore them, to skip the parts that drag on, and — most importantly for me — ‘never, never read anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement’. Phew. So that’s erased the shame.

But then there’s the bad bit. It goes like this:

… the real history of Africa is still in the custody of black storytellers and wise men, black historians, medicine men: it is a verbal history, still kept safe from the white man and his predations. Everywhere, if you keep your mind open, you will find the truth in words not written down.

Maybe not the truth, Lessing, but certainly a truth. (When does one ever find the truth? I’d argue her on that one.) But it’s the previous sentence that sends me running. Inevitably. I’ve spent several years working hard, pushing and struggling, to write down a certain history of a certain African country. I wouldn’t claim it was ‘the real history’, no. It’s an attempt into a history. An attempt to twist through several versions of that history. But it’s unashamedly written down. (I crossed that out because one of the reasons it took me so long was precisely because of the high levels of anxiety I felt about being a white predator of a black history.) On the page. By me, the white [wo]man whose predations are all hers.

I’ve made so much fuss about the writing of it. About the fact of getting it onto the page. Into a book. A hard, physical thing to be loved, and touched, and covered in glory. I’ve fought hard for it. I’ve defended it all over the bloody place. I’ve even written to a certain bookstore about it, encouraging them to stock it more widely. I’ve delighted when finding it on the main shelves of Daunts. I’ve drooled over emails and Facebook messages from readers, some of whom I know, others complete strangers. I’ve held it and weighed it, smelt it, stroked it, gazed at every square inch of it over and over. The object that is the book — my book — matters hugely to me. It’s proof that the project I set out to do despite the “advice” of so many nay-sayers — ‘Angola? No one will publish that here.’ ‘Get real, girl. They won’t be interested in Angola. They speak Portuguese. It was the 1970s.’ ‘Look, you need to understand that Africa just doesn’t sell.’ ‘My marketing department would laugh me out of the room if I told them I had a book about Angola. You do see that?’ — actually did come off. I pulled it off. I proved them wrong. It’s there now, in black and white, between covers as hard as the trunk of a tree. People can buy it, borrow it, steal it and read it. Reviewers can review it. Judges can judge it.

And then I read this. ‘Never let the printed page be your master.’ Lessing’s advice again, yes. And I’m taking her very seriously. I’ve agreed with a lot of this preface. And then she goes and writes that, and I read it just at the moment when the printed page has become less a master for me than a kind of God. Or a kind of devil. A nightmare. An addiction. Quite a lot like taking ecstasy in the 1990s, including the come-down three days later. I have come to equate the book with the fact of a certain set of momentous and bloody events in Angola. The existence of the book has made concrete the event, if you like. I can see that now. I can grasp the potential damage, the profound danger.

And yet, and yet — for the writer (fuck, how pompous that sounds) I (I mean *I*) must have a defence for all that work — I went out of my way to undermine the book. The book undermines itself, its sources, its evidence. It is always fuzzy, wobbly, unstable. I didn’t seek to write the *real* history of *Africa*. I sought to undermine the attempt to write it by writing it and undressing that writing all the way. It was a project of destabilisation. Destabilising myself. Destabilising the white [wo]man’s historiography project in *Africa*. Destabilising text. Destabilising history.

I may be kidding myself.

Lessing concludes:

it is not only childish of a writer to want readers to see what [she] sees, to understand the shape and aim of a novel as [she] sees it — [her] wanting this means that [she] has not understood a most fundamental point. Which is that the book is alive and potent and fructifying and able to promote thought and discussion only when its plan and shape and intention are not understood, because that moment of seeing the shape and plan and intention is also the moment when there isn’t anything more to be got out of it.

And when a book’s pattern and the shape of its inner life is as plain to the reader as it is to the author — then perhaps it is time to throw the book aside, as having had its day, and start again on something new.


Photography by artist Gali Cnaani
Photography by artist Gali Cnaani