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‘Kumulipo Variations’ & Otobong Nkanga’s ‘Taste of a Stone’ (Oct – Dec 2016)

15 Oct

otobong-nkanga-taste-of-a-stone

As part of Otobong Nkanga’s exhibition The Encounter That Took a Part of Me at Nottingham Contemporary (Oct 15 – Jan 15) I’ll be performing a series of readings from the Kumulipo Variations, as featured in both the book and audio versions of Exotica Suite in 2015. The performances are scheduled on October 16 and October 23 at 3pm, on November 2 at 5pm, and on December 14 at 5pm. They take place in Gallery 1 at Nottingham Contemporary, where Nkanga’s Taste of a Stone is installed. (A programme of other responses to Nkanga’s work, from artists including Rebecca Lee, Panya Banjoko, Michael Pinchbeck and Nathaniel Mann, is set to thread through the full run of the exhibition).

Kumulipo Variations is grounded in the folklore of a parallel history where Hawaiians established a settlement in London during the 1780s and many Britons converted to Polynesian religious beliefs. Within this fictional context, the text suggests a hypothetical English translation of The Kumulipo made at some point during the first half of the 1800s. The Kumulipo itself is an epic Hawaiian creation myth, an oral account of the formation and history of both the natural and human worlds. The text as we know it today is usually credited to a figure named Keaulumoku, a near-contemporary of Kamehameha I. This known version is also dated to the few decades immediately preceding first European contact, when James Cook’s ships arrived in Hawaii during a festival dedicated to the god Lono in 1777, but much of the content is almost certainly older.

The Kumulipo‘s actual first full translation into English was made several decades after the entirely fictional one included in Exotica Suite. It has a very particular importance in the history of Hawaii’s colonisation, having been made by Queen Liliuokalani during the 1890s while under house arrest for her opposition to the coup that imposed a new constitution, disenfranchised native Hawaiians and annexed the islands into a territory of the United States under the control of an oligarchy of American landowners and merchants. Liliuokalani’s translation appeared in 1897, around a year before this formal annexation was finalised, and her intention was to reassert Hawaii’s political autonomy by presenting The Kumulipo, an account of her culture’s origins, to the wider world. Another, more scholarly, English edition was published by Martha Warren Beckwith in 1951.

While the 23 paragraphs of the Kumulipo Variations exist in an entirely fictional parallel history, then, and are also both partial (focusing on the earliest sections of the oral text) and at times divergent from their source, they are purposefully grounded in these earlier real translations, and hopefully draw some additional layers of potential meaning from their oblique relationship to the actual historical record. Not the least point of interest in writing these variations, for me, lay in the weaving of a potentially rich new perspective through the fabric of British folklore at a time when historically illiterate propaganda against immigration and cultural exchange was (and remains) dangerously influential.

The ecological vision found in the Hawaiian Kumulipo, with its proposal that all life begins in the sea and is interdependent, strikingly pre-dates and anticipates modern scientific and evolutionary perspectives, placing the wider issues the text hopefully raises into a useful dialogue with the botanical, geological and colonial themes explored by Otobong Nkanga‘s work. It’s also good to have this opportunity to perform the complete 20 – 30 minute cycle of Kumulipo Variations, as it is a text designed to be heard as well as read. The form adopted for this fictional translation merges Biblical cadences, the assonance and repetitions of Hawaiian chant, and perhaps the occasional hint of some particularly idiosyncratic David Attenborough nature documentary voice-over.

Exotica Suite & Other Fictions

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Shell-Ears and Tin-Ears (from ‘An Imaginary History of Musical Polynesia’, 2015)

19 Dec

 

Shell-Ears and Tin-Ears

(after ‘War Between Short-Eared and Long-Eared Tribes’, Easter Island)

The tin-eared people were the rulers and they inhabited the big skyscrapers, gated estates and apartment blocks in the most expensive suburbs and cities.

The shell-eared people lived on the poorest land in the small overlooked places, or in the cold shadows cast by the big buildings that belonged to the tin-eared people.

One day, the tin-eared people wanted to build another big skyscraper for themselves on shell-eared people’s land, so they put out a call:

“Come and help us clear these poor lands and make them better,” the tin-eared people said. “If you do this, the land will be improved and the shell-eared people can live there more comfortably.”

But the shell-eared people knew the tin-eared people’s tricks. They knew that the moment their lands were no longer poor they would be taken from them and they refused to do the work.

Then the tin-eared people cleared the land themselves and, angry at having to labour even for a day like shell-eared people do for all their lives, the tin-eared people now said they were building a big complex of luxury apartments for themselves on that land which belonged to the shell-eared people.

And the tin-eared people took the land from the shell-eared people, and built their big complex of luxury apartments there, and then they left them all empty, for the tin-eared people already had apartments and houses and could not live in them all.

While the tin-eared people were building the luxury apartments that no-one needed, they heard the shell-eared people singing and playing on musical instruments in their cramped huts while sitting around their fires, and before throwing them from the land, the tin-eared people said to each-other:

“These sounds will make lots of money for us if we can take them from the shell-ears and sell them to our own kind to play in their cars and offices.”

So before they drove the shell-eared people from their land and away from even the cold shadows of that empty luxury apartment block, they sneaked inside all the shell-eared people’s huts and took away their drums and guitars, their marimbas and flutes.

Only when the tin-eared people had done all this did they drive the bulldozers over the huts and pour the concrete over the places where those shell-eared people’s huts had once stood to erase all trace of them and make it appear they were never there, as they always did.

There was one woman who was very unusual in this story, for though she was born shell-eared she had married one of the tin-eared people in her youth. Now she was full of regrets, for she had found her husband could not respect her because she lacked a tin-ear.

But this same woman had also once been known among the shell-eared people as a great musician, so some of the business associates of her tin-eared husband came to her with all those stolen musical instruments and asked her to play them, as no tin-ear can ever be a true musician.

This woman now knew what the tin-eared people had done to the shell-eared people’s huts, but she played a short song on each of the instruments her husband and his associates handed to her anyway, hoping that the tin-ears she lived among would one day listen and hear something other than the sound of money rattling in every part of the world.

For the truth, as this woman knew to her heart’s cost, was that where shell-ears can hear music, tin-ears can hear nothing but the sound of money rattling in every part of the world, alive or inanimate.

When birds sing, shell-eared people hear the conflicts and courtships of wild nature or a promise of dawn, but tin-eared people hear only the money rattling in their feathers and meat or locked away inside all the timber of the trees those birds make their nests in.

When there is conversation, shell-eared people listen and hear the voices speaking and the words being said, but tin-eared people listen for nothing but the money rattling in a person’s business connections and appearance or locked away in their personal possessions and bank accounts.

When there is music playing, shell-eared people hear its sounds and textures, its harmonies and rhythms, its meanings and shifting atmospherics, but tin-eared people hear only the money rattling about in the infinite numbers of ways it can be wedged into slots on radio and TV or make terrible adverts for things not even other tin-eared people want 4% more effective with some demographics.

This was what this woman’s husband now proved, for hearing his wife play one beautiful song, he only heard money rattling in its slow and languid movements, thinking that it might be made simpler and more cheaply then sold to help other tin-eared people relax after they had spent their days listening for more things to get money rattling out of, which was indeed exhausting.

And hearing his wife play a song full of all the suggestive and snaking rhythms that no shell-eared person could possibly hear without remembering fleshy pleasures and dancing to it until they sweated and became delirious, the tin-eared husband could only hear the money rattling in the possibility of making a cheaper version and putting it on a keep-fit CD to sell at garages.

It is the way of this world that for tin-eared people, who can only ever hear money rattling in everything in this world, alive or inanimate, there is only one distinction that counts among all the sounds, the only subtlety a tin-ear can distinguish that a shell-ear will rarely notice.

For a tin-eared person, money rattles in different directions, so if a tin-ear hears money rattling into his tin, he is pleased and delighted, and he will congratulate himself endlessly. But if he hears money rattling out of his tin, he grows quickly resentful and his mood becomes dark and vicious.

Even so, after all this, or perhaps because of all this, the tin-eared people are still the rulers, and they still live in the biggest skyscrapers and office blocks of the most expensive cities, and the shell-eared people still live on the poorest land in the small and overlooked places, among all the cold shadows cast by the big buildings made for tin-eared people by other tin-eared people.

It is true that the shell-eared people still have drums and guitars, marimbas and flutes, and they are sometimes played, but even when silenced these sounds are suggested by all the noises of the world that made them and are still heard in that world by the shell-eared people, though their hearts might break at what the recognition of these noises conjures and stirs within their bodies.

Perhaps this war between the tin-eared people and the shell-eared people will continue indefinitely.

Or perhaps the shell-eared people will notice that they greatly outnumber the tin-eared people and turn on them, and after great bloodshed leave only one alive, as a reminder to themselves of the cost of inaction should the tin-eared ever again win the upper hand over the shell-eared.

Or perhaps, as that shell-eared woman married to a tin-eared husband hopes, the tin-eared people will learn to listen and hear again, for it is said that their ancestors once heard as the shell-eared people do, before this strange affliction that made them hear only money rattling in every part of this world, alive or inanimate, took them so far away from their own selves and senses that they came to consider any state other than their own an illness to be punished and cured.

Whatever comes next between the tin-eared people and the shell-eared people is not yet known, for the tale is now ended and my page falls silent as this world never will.

Buy Exotica Suite & Other Fictions (Shoestring Press, 2015)

 

Exotica Suite & Other Fictions (Launch at New Art Exchange, July 10, 2015)

20 Jun

Exotica Suite & Other Fictions will be out on July 10th, via Shoestring Press for the print publication, and as a full length album, also titled Exotica Suite, on CD from July and as a vinyl LP in 2016. The recordings feature some of the written texts sampled, remixed, re-edited and performed with music by Paul Isherwood, best known for four acclaimed albums made with The Soundcarriers, most recently Entropicalia (Ghost Box, 2014). The launch will also premiere a cycle of related short films to which the recordings act as soundtracks. It’s all scheduled to take place at at New Art Exchange on July 10, between 6 – 9pm, free but booking via Eventbrite is strongly recommended.

Exotica Suite & Other Fictions

BOOK PUBLICATION CONTENTS & BLURB:

Exotica Suite begins with an Easter Island creation chant in the style of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell and an imaginary Polynesian colony in England in the 1780s then takes in a series of tall tales featuring Hawaiian musicians. Other Fictions fabricates occult histories in Nottingham caves and embarks on a labyrinthine sea voyage with the body of a late Hawaiian King. Now gathered in one place for the first time, the various forgeries, stories, false lectures, misleading anecdotes and other writings in Exotica Suite & Other Fictions are the flip-side to Black Glass: New & Selected Poems, also published by Shoestring.

Exotica Suite simultaneously exists as a vinyl LP and audio CD made in collaboration with the musician Paul Isherwood, best known for his work with The Soundcarriers.

“…spins a web that oscillates between the fictional and non fictional and encourages us to reflect on how we navigate the past and how this could affect all our futures.”

Katherine Wood on Marine (2013)

Book Contents:

Part One: Exotica Suite:
A Creation Fragment from Easter Island
An Account of the Hawaiian Colony in England (1790)
The Kumulipo Variations
Four Hula Songs for the Goddess Laka
The Sorceress
An Imaginary History of Musical Polynesia
(i) The First Musician
(ii) Joseph Kekuku Between Two Worlds
(iii) Sol Hoopii Finds A Sack Of Souls
(iv) Arthur Lyman’s Marimba Calms Pele’s Rage
(v) Shell-Ears And Tin-Ears
Invocation to Sun Ra (1914 – 1993)

Part Two: Other Fictions
Marine: A Story in Eight Objects
A Marriage of Styles
The Disappearances
The Peel Street Codex
The Nottingham Medlars
An Edible Alphabet
Fabricated Archives
Spirit Wrappings: Some Notes on the Rashleigh Jackson Family Collection
A Mandinka Song: Theme & Variations
Disturbances
The Enigma of Robert Holcombe
Convulsive Beauty: A Fabricated Lecture
Twelve Non-Specific Sites

The Sorceress (1955) Latino Graphics E

Exotica Suite LP/CD Tracklist:

Side 1:
The Hawaiian Colony Ballad I
Creation Fragment
Altar Prayer For Laka
A Hula for Laka (For Link Wray)
The Hawaiian Colony Ballad II
The Sorceress

Side 2:
Ankle Bracelet
Flute Interlude
Kumulipo Variation
The Hawaiian Colony Ballad III
Subliminal (Invocation to Sun Ra)

Questions of Identity: Donelle Woolford, E.A. Markham and Robert Holcombe (2014)

7 Jun

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume IV (The Prodigal Son by John M Swann ARA) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume IV (The Prodigal Son by John M Swann ARA) [undated]

I came across a link today to the news that the Yams collective  had withdrawn from the Whitney Biennale over the inclusion of work by a fabricated black female artist, Donelle Woolford, whose life and work are purportedly the creation of a white, male academic, Joe Scanlan, working with actresses. A polemic by Eunsong Kim and Maya Isabella Mackrandial, implicitly endorsed by the collective, and explicitly endorsed by other exhibiting artists, makes a powerful case. As with many fabricated artists currently in circulation (whose numbers, since 2010, have included Robert Holcombe himself) I’d been following the fictive career of Donelle Woolford mostly out of a straightforward curiosity about how (and why) others pursue the making of work under fictional identities. One point of interest was that in this instance, while the fabrication itself didn’t seem particularly compelling, the possibility that Woolford was not, in fact, Scanlan’s creation, fronted by actresses, but potentially the fabrication and creation of those actresses, Abigail Ramsay and Jennifer Kidwell – both involved with the project for many years – who were in fact using Scanlan as a front to manufacture Donelle’s physical artworks while they handled the performative elements…well, that possibility was compelling. Thinking parafictionally, this not only seemed possible but pretty much essential if the project were to mean very much at all beyond the banal points about authorship, race and gender it makes when taken at face value.*

Donelle Woolford: Avatar (2007)

Donelle Woolford: Avatar (2007)

Since November, these questions about Woolford and her highly ambiguous play on identity have became of somewhat more particular interest. After exhibiting at the Nottingham Castle Open in 2013, Robert Holcombe received the accolade of a new commission from New Art Exchange, which meant he’d be making a new work in the context of a venue where the questions of identity already implicit in the project (indeed, the very ability to choose an identity) required deeper consideration. Mainly focused on issues of class and post-war British history – what Fabricated Archives had defined as his ability to bring about “a distancing from the present and an estrangement of the recent past” –  Holcombe’s is a parallel history, grounded in the actual but unrealised potential of the real one, then deployed as a means of countering claims that ‘there are no alternatives’ to our present state. This construct is now entering a context where willed suspensions of reality and, by implication, re-writings of the very real struggles factored into the construction of identity, are likely to be questioned.

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume II (St Paul's From The River by Henry Dawson) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume II (St Paul’s From The River by Henry Dawson) [undated]

For that reason, I’ve been grateful to my colleague at Primary, Kashif Nadim Chaudry, not only for his bemused comment on hearing about the commission (“What colour is Robert Holcombe?”) but for several conversations since, in which questions about how we might be responsible for a real identity, while challenging those identities imposed on us from outside,  might all be navigated and addressed. I’d very deliberately conceived Holcombe to be of a similar profile to myself (white, male, raised in Midlands/Northern factory and mining towns, Methodist upbringing, working class) but displaced in time: he’s of my grandfather’s generation rather than mine, though my grandparents imagined as having had some of the opportunities my own never did. The decision to keep his profile close was pragmatic (I knew this world well enough not to need research to make it convincing) but perhaps also unconsciously linked to some felt responsibility to an actual identity.

E.A. Markham: Living in Disguise (1986)

E.A. Markham: Living in Disguise (1986)

Within that, however, are other threads and influences that I’m fairly sure I hadn’t been conscious of at the time, including the fact that I spent several years studying in Sheffield with E.A. Markham whose own career was marked by the adoption of a series of fabricated identities. Markham spent much of the 1970s and 1980s Living in Disguise (his collection owning up to these ‘other persona’ works used this title in 1986) most notably as a younger generation Black British poet, Paul St Vincent, and as a feminist poet, Sally Goodman (“She is Welsh, is young, is white, is blue-eyed, is blonde; is very much, in a way, like me”, he wrote of her). His personae appear to be responses to a feeling that voices and identities are malleable, and extending them extends our own understanding of others. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the licence to be other than oneself granted by Markham (the responsibility, even) had one source in Sheffield, though the link made by James Proctor between Markham’s use of “play and personae with his interest in Anancy, the trickster Spider-god of African and Caribbean mythology” just complicates things further.

That said, another thread leads back to that mythology, by way of a very formative work (a work that will, I think, be a touchstone for anything produced at New Art Exchange). This is the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952). I first stumbled on a copy (for ten pence) in a sale in the unlikely setting of Heanor library at the age of nine or ten and still regularly re-read it today. To those who know Heanor, this area of South East Derbyshire, and their reputations, the place where I spent much of my first decade has long been notorious as a stronghold for the National Front, the BNP and (currently) the likes of UKIP. That Tutuola’s book turned up there, and opened these other possibilities – the kind of possibilities that led, ultimately, and in very indirect and tangled ways, to working with E.A. Markham, making the work of Robert Holcombe, and thinking about the issues raised by the fabrication of Donelle Woolford – is almost too neatly poetic.

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume III (The Legend of the Martyr's Well by George H Boughton RA) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume III (The Legend of the Martyr’s Well by George H Boughton RA) [undated]

Today, I don’t remember how I visualised the characters in The Palm Wine Drinkard in my head that first time I read it: did I even know the book was Nigerian or understand what that meant? What I do know is that I fully immersed myself in its story, and identified with its characters, even as I almost certainly failed to understand any of the book’s real context or meaning. In the same way, whatever my own take on Holcombe’s work might be, and whatever framework I construct around it to facilitate that meaning, there is a near inevitability that it will, eventually, escape that context and be seen as it is, just as ‘real’ works invariably lose the cultural and temporal contexts that define them and find themselves read against the grain of their makers’ specific intentions. Any parafictional project is ultimately founded on the belief that shifting the context changes and extends the work’s meaning and such work aims, however briefly, to make itself appear real, to conjure a mirage or hallucination even as its fabricated nature remains explicit. What happens when our fictions escape those framing contexts might be largely out of our control, but remains our responsibility.

Amos Tutuola: The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952)

Amos Tutuola: The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952)

Note: *I have no idea if this is the case or not: it’s entirely possible (and wouldn’t be the first time) that a project had been oblivious to its own potential, or had been made for banal or spurious reasons.

Writing Objects Part III: Masks and Masking (Primary, June 4, 2014)

5 Jun
Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington

For the third and final Writing Objects session at Primary, using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s Multiple points in this crude landscape, we looked at the various forms that masks can take and the even more various ways in which masks can be deployed in the creation of texts. Strictly speaking, a mask is a physical object that covers all or part of the face, from behind which the wearer looks out. Technically, this means no text can truly be a mask. But in a more expanded sense it’s clear that in the different personas we project in our choices of clothes or accessories, our movements between behaviour at work and in private, our editing of images and interests to represent ourselves on social media, we all, in practical terms, use masks.

To give a sense of how this kind of masking can operate, we watched an excerpt from Forced Entertainment’s recent re-staging of 12am: Awake and Looking Down (1993), a durational piece in which, as the company themselves explain: “five silent performers endlessly reinvent their identities using stacks of cardboard signs with which they name themselves, and a store of jumble-sale clothing (coats, dresses, suits, anoraks, trousers, pyjamas) from which they dress and re-dress…”. The minimal resources and suggestive capsule descriptions on the cardboard signs bring to life a range of archetypal characters in their wider imaginative contexts and suggest multiple potential narratives.

The tones of voice, degrees of intimacy and formality we adopt for different email correspondences (personal and professional, with close friends or casual acquaintances) serve a similar function to Forced Entertainment’s cardboard signs in presenting a shorthand for different aspects of ourselves in different contexts and situations – some close to our real selves, others almost entirely fictional. Even in supposedly pure self-expression, we tend to highlight insecurities to win sympathy or strengths to seem more capable and attractive. Paradoxically, an actual mask might distance us from this kind of everyday self-consciousness and liberate us to explore other possibilities.

Leonora Carrngton: Self-Portrait (1937)

Leonora Carrington: Self-Portrait (1937)

In Leonora Carrington‘s short story, The Debutante (1939), a mask plays a role in the narrative but the text itself masks autobiographical content behind the appearance of a darkly surreal fairy-tale. The characters, a young girl and a hyena, represent the constrained and liberated sides of Carrington herself, who wrote it at the age of 22. A raw 16mm film version of The Debutante by Ric Warren, made in 1994, illustrates Carrington’s point that the human face acquired for the hyena is little more than a skin, a civilised veneer covering the hyena’s true face. This is – visibly and significantly – a mask. Only when the hyena gleefully reverts to her authentic mask is the girl’s own potential revealed.

In the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola‘s novel The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), there is an early scene in which the narrator follows a handsome gentleman at the market. At first, he is consumed by feelings of inferiority: why can he not be as handsome as this gentleman? Yet time passes, the market winds down, and he sees the gentleman leaving another piece of his own body at each stall he passes, until he is finally exposed as a floating skull with no body, no arms or legs, no skin or skeleton, not even a face of his own. His substance is borrowed, rented by the hour on the market. As a metaphor for consumerism, the sale of identity and appearances, it’s a remarkably prescient passage.

Perhaps the unsettling quality of masks, exploited in many films, including Georges Franju’s Judex (1963), relates to this sense that appearance and reality can no longer be matched or trusted. A mask can erase or expose us, free us from responsibility for our actions or to express what is forbidden. A mask can also break habitual frames of reference. The Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa used his various literary personas in this way. We concluded the session with an excerpt from Jan Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky (1971). This neatly drew together threads from all three sessions: everyday objects are performed, Lewis Carroll’s incantatory poem is recited, and the film’s political meanings are both blatant and ingeniously masked.

Twins Seven Seven: Amos Tutuola (c.1964)

Twins Seven Seven: Amos Tutuola (c.1964)

 

Notes from session one, looking at actors as objects and objects as actors, are here.

Notes from session two, looking at incantation and ritual, are here.