ATM’s and bad pavements

Internet super intergalactic highway is really little more than a goat track here. I’ve only been here 74 hours. Five of which were consumed with two separate visits to the internet shop, this is my first log on. My skin and body may love the humidity and heat. Laptop certainly does not. Laptop says no, a lot.

I’ve also left my cash card in the ATM, twice, and the first time, a smiley, English-speaking cashier promptly opened the whole machine in front of me and fished it out. The palpitations (I never carry emergency cash) lasted minutes, as I realised there’s a chaotic flexibility here that will take some learning. A mish mash improvised jazz tune: sexy and exciting but alarming too.

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Baptisms on the beach:

Photo by Solange Dos Santos (Copyright Solange, reproduced with permission)

Rewind: It’s been a bumpy landing. Lucky I’ve had a cushion strapped to my arse. I nearly didn’t get here. The plan was to leave Tanzania, take a bus North six hours to Nairobi, and fly to Mozambique. At the Kenyan border on Monday a pudgy Rottweiler masquerading as chief immigration officer didn’t believe me when I said I couldn’t lift my suitcase. (This time it wasn’t laziness, but a torn back muscle, provoked by a month of moving house, stress, a third floor flat with no lift, tax returns and two unfortunately placed boils). My grimacing caused him to beckon me to a side office, shouting across the 20 yards of the freshly constructed immigration office.

“You give me your passport. COME HERE INTO THIS OFFICE”.

Something about his booming, his swagger, spoke to real fear, and I quietly refused, saying “I’m frightened”.

“You disobey me? Right. I deny access to Kenya. You cannot come in. I deny. I will, and I can”.

This wrangle went on for over an hour, three times the driver of the shuttle bus scuttling off to plead with him, me increasingly tearful and panicked. Finally he relented, after a very public speech, in front of the entire immigration queue and his staff:
“You come to our country to escape your shitty weather. I’ve been to your country, and USA, your immigration treats us like this, they disrespect us, they humiliate us, they deny us access; when you come to our country, our beautiful sunny country, you will respect us, you will understand that we can stop you coming in, and we will.”

Snivelling, I agreed, and apologised collectively for all the bad decisions, racism and colonial humiliation that the British gov has inflicted on countless immigrants. I think he had a point, I wish I hadn’t been his punch bag. And wasn’t such a blatant misogynist. A million theories about global affect collapsed into that one moment. I wondered how much worse it would have been if I was a black Tanzanian woman. I thought about borders, and what charged places they are: sites of countless dubious transactions, sexual, financial and illegal.

At Nairobi airport on Wednesday I found the head of immigration and explained to her what happened.
“Ah, him, Colonel Gitangi, he’s leaving this Monday. He’s being sacked. We’ve had too many complaints. Did he get any money out of you? Did you get a receipt for your visa?”

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Maputo water collection

Photo by Solange Dos Santos (Copyright Solange, reproduced with permission)

This morning, here in Maputo, I woke to peacocks crawing below, the drip of heavy rains and the gentle swish of the ocean a few metres away.  After a marathon 19 hour sleep on Wednesday. A wealthy important friend who is probably isn’t a good idea to name – met me at the airport. VIP treatment meant we were actually last to be seen, and we drove back to her house. By a combination of lengthy and not very interesting twists, D now lives bang next door to the presidential palace. She is a Russian-trained ballerina, a musician, a singer, has stories of singing with Miles Davis and dating Marcus Miller in New York.  She pulses with regret that  the idealism of her father -a V V VIP indeed, has been evicted by opportunists, kidnapped by consumerist and nepotistic greed.

Salazar’s fascist legacy. Photo by Solange Dos Santos (Copyright Solange, reproduced with permission)

A rich-hearted, global amazon, she is a bundle of contradictions, and co-ordinates the major arts festivals here. Everywhere we go she is recognised, greeted with warm smiles,  with her dreadlocks, her warm eyes, shoddy cheap car and expansive Buddhist heart is a threat to the order of things.  On the pot-holed, dense, complicated streets of Maputo she’s also hugely liked, evidently, and even after two days, it’s like hanging out with a female musical Jesus.

Her house- my home now for a few weeks whilst I settle in- is a beautiful modernist space of sharp lines, light, marble floors, ebony sculptures and well-made wooden cabinets. I have a bedroom overlooking the ocean, my own bathroom, and the whole top floor as a study.  There is no tv, radio and internet is patchy. I will get a lot of writing done. It’s in the equivalent of Knightsbridge, or Whitehall. But looks more like Tottenham. There’s a Soviet block next door, a crumbling homage to failed promises.

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Water banter

Photo by Solange Dos Santos (Copyright Solange, reproduced with permission)

I start on Monday at the university. Apparently, I am teaching the MA journalism course I designed on foggy nights in London two years ago. There have been no responses at all in five months to the Dean of the university. Asking for basics- what language will I teach in? Are there laptops and internet connections? How many students per class? He was laughing and jokey as we arranged to meet at 9am on Monday. He’s not worried, so I won’t be either.

There’s little choice but to identify the flow, and go with it. In the mobile phone shop Sandy, takes my recently broken phone (I left Tanzania and it promptly fizzled, symbolically burped and died) and offers to fix it as a black-market job. He flips open google translate and we talk across the ether. My Spanish is a sort of salve, but I must learn Portuguese, fast. I understand but I am dumb.

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Photo by Solange Dos Santos (Copyright Solange, reproduced with permission)

I know very little: it is ridiculous how little I understand. I know that there are two competing economies- one where a 250 gram bag of coffee costs ten pounds in the Spar rammed with South African imports. And a fresh pineapple, or three mangos, sixty pence on the street. There is a free newspaper plastered on the street walls every day, and a thriving media scene. Every night, sharply dressed snake hipped jazz musicians thrum their tunes in clubs across town. Gustave Eiffel built his prototype for the tower first here, a strange Wonderland-esque tin house too hot for anyone but Catholic nuns, who finally agreed to stew inside it.

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Photo copyright Thembi Mutch

There are no street signs, the only landmarks the incredible, brutal, fascist architecture of Portugal’s dictatorship. This is photographer’s heaven. If you are rich. The grid streets are heaving, small stalls, everything from bras, rat poison, single eggs and one CD on sale. The typefaces are lost in some swirling 50’s timewarp.  There are few expats in evidence, none on the streets at all; I am possibly the only mzungu in town who doesn’t own a 4x 4, and who walks. Riding a bike, or motorbike, is suicidal. The driving protocol, like the politics, seems to be unfathomable, dangerous.

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Photo copyright Thembi Mutch

This is a hard, messy place, second only to Ethiopia with the visible poverty… too many young skinny people sitting bored on street corners. Not malevolent or idle, but unemployed. but there is art, music, sharp suited-booted hipsters and graffiti everywhere, and people are obviously, openly very kind to each other. This is the only place in the world a person has chased me and handed me back my cash card after I left it in the machine. The only place where the cashier in a small store walked with me 200 yards in the rain to find a tuk tuk and negotiate the correct price… there are glimmers of colonial Portugal- in the bread, the unbelievable dilapidation….

Here, faith makes sense. I am frightened, often, though I can’t say why exactly. I feel my English-ness fighting for recognition: and I’m comforted by public assertion of the importance of queuing and politeness.

 

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Real sound

 

Photo copyright Thembi Mutch

For now, my biggest problems are finding a map of the city. Internet is too crap for google maps. And accessing foreign currency. And repairing my phone so I have whatsapp again. I must leave the country every month (my visa is only 30 days) and must pay $80 dollars each time I return. It may end up being a blessing, but it certainly means I’ll get to go back to SA and Nairobi on a regular basis.

A rhythm will emerge, it always does when it’s above 30 degrees in the shade.

Gloat gloat.

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Berlin Biennale: genius or the luxury bleating of the youthful super-elite?

 

(This article was first published in The Conversation, June 28th 2016,)

The Berlin Biennale is an event which encompasses the whole city. The venues are pieces of art in themselves: the former headquarters of the East German Council (ESMT) is a confident, brutalist sixties building, now an expensive business school. The modernist, glass-fronted Akademie overlooks the historic Hotel Adlon on one side, and Potsdamer Platz on the other.

Inside, I’m completely overwhelmed. We get communicative capitalism, hyper-individualism and supra-nationalism, all illustrated via conceptual art. There are lightboxes, gym workouts, racetracks, opportunities to contribute to blogs, interactive apps. There are narratives that speak to the blurred line between commerce and domesticity (we’re all potentially uber and Airbnb customers now), and endless thanks to the sponsors.

We get rammed spaces and murky videos or spangly ad-art-verts with no real starting points, which are hard to actually see. There are no paintings, or sculptures made of clay or stone. No craft. No people talking about getting water, food, education. Just ironic nods to things created by polymers.

Is this a zeitgeist that I’ve just failed to miss? Or are these (first-world, young, privileged) artists radical visionaries, and recognising something that in years to come will be obvious? I am still wading through the press material four days after I’ve arrived, but there’s little to suggest a global conversation. As someone who has spent half of my adult life in the “Global South” and is obsessed with its representation, I am looking for those voices.

Dragging me down

The DiS Collective. Courtesy 9th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art/sabine reitmaier

Isn’t less more? “The Present in Drag” – the title of the 9th Berlin Biennale is a reference (by the Manhattan, 30-something curators DiS collective) to the confusion of “our” present state. Lauren Boyd, one of the DiS collective, is adamant that despite the dominance of European and American artists:

We are interested in the globalised issues in Berlin … the city itself is globalised around global real estate, gentrification, the tourism, migrants and refugees.

That much is true. Berlin, like almost all European cities, is being hollowed out by gentrification while becoming more expensive. But the assertion that “we” are all living in the same global narratives and that our present is incomprehensible, immaterial, driven by algorithms, is very problematic.

There are a few artists who seem to make comments on real, material issues. GCC collective, based in the Arabian Gulf, makes the connection between supply chains, oil and global ideas. They have created a large running track, surrounding a stationary mannequin mother in traditional dress “healing” a small child. They also show videos of the office of the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Dubai ruler who has appointed a minister of happiness – and whose desk here doubles as a ping pong table. The work critiques the twin rise of an Arab “happiness industry” of personal healers and self-help, alongside the idea that personal happiness is a prerequisite of a high-producing capitalist, consumerist economy.

Compassionate, difficult, honest

The other artist who makes work that isn’t, in plain speak, so “up itself” is Turkish artist Halil Altindere. Inside the glass-fronted modernist building, the Akadamie in Berlin, the video Homeland is being played. It shows a Syrian rapper describing his journey from Turkey, and there are re-enacted scenes in an old airport and people tumbling off trains in Berlin central station.

A still from Altindere’s Homeland. Courtesy 9th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art

It is impossible to tell what is news footage and what is staged. Refugees in well-cut clothes looking middle class and powerful, are given a voice. They tell us how they do enjoy currywurst now (a sanctified German sausage dish) but also want citizenship papers. The video is edited with scenes from a luxury yoga retreat, people sit in meditational repose. “Only observe” the subtitle cuttingly tells us. Altindere’s work is compassionate, linear, difficult, honest.

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In a country of 3.5m Turks, and an enviable attitude to refugees, Berlin is a place where tolerance is normalised and there’s a great deal of human goodness. Not much of the exhibition acknowledges this, although there is a stunning work where the themes of lost intimacy, disconnection and impotence are beautifully dealt with: Alexa Karolinski and Ingo Nierman’s Army of Love is a powerful and clever comment on this. It is a video of a naked woman nursing a baby. Other people crowd around her, and a disabled, naked man is caressed by able-bodied naked women.

Karolinski and Nierman’s Army of Love. Courtesy 9th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art

So there are some stand-out moments, but the Biennale is supposed to be a place where all artists can push the boat out, and take risks without the tedious constraints of needing to sell. Perhaps, though, that is making them so comfortable they have little of interest to say? German art critic for the Magazine “Art”, Ute Thon, says:

The artists, so called Digital Natives, are caught up in their technical/virtual worlds, fluent in managing algorithms and motion capturing technology but not very inventive when it comes to using these tools to create real change, real emotions, real disruptions.

Global silence

One group able to do this is the South African art collective CUSS. They have created Triomf, a reference to a (real) South African super mall in Soweto, an equalising and generous offer for Black South Africans to consume, in an equal – but different geographical – space to their richer friends. Triomf is a small shop complete with flickering neon light (a reference to the increasing power cuts in South Africa) in which one TV and some beer can be bought.

CUSS make their point in a stripped version of a Soweto mall. Courtesy 9th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art

CUSS wants to address the new pan-African rhetoric that is being created by a highly visually literate youth, to engage with a consistently developing new aesthetics which that rejects the stuckism of older generations, who they say, relied too heavily on the same dialogues.

What this Biennale confirms for me is that talk of a “global conversation” has to be much more inclusive and more material. There are significant – the majority actually – chunks of the world, including East and Southern Africa, where the concerns are not the digital blurring of boundaries. Their issues are pretty quotidian: marriages, babies, falling in love, getting a bank loan, or the day’s grace a trader gets to move unrefrigerated fish to the nearest town.

There is another marked divide: where are the sympathetic critiques of people? The pieces of work that celebrate the craft, music, inventiveness, jokes, wordplay, resilience, beauty, sensitivity, communalism, humour and imagination of people everywhere – Benares, London, Sao Paulo, Dar es Salaam, Pnomh Penh – these are missing.

Is Simon Denny’s work a luxury? Courtesy 9th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art

It is a luxury to be able to devote money and time to an artwork which describes the intricacies of bitcoin and its role in the (heavily modernised, global North) financial system, as Simon Denny does. But other concerns are more fundamental. Will a hospital get built when the proposed pipeline happens from Uganda to Tanzania? Will trafficking and trading laws be made more coherent to better protect the girls and young women who disappear when they cross the borders out of Syria and Turkey?

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Artist Simon Denny looking at a 3D reconstruction of himself. ( copyright Thembi Mutch)

 

One of the important roles of public spaces – museums, Biennales, fesitvals – is to relocate the conversations, to reorganise our expectations, and to avoid cultural ventriloquism. There are many people who are interested in the concerns of a small, parochial, youthful elite. There are others who – like me – want to see the Global South talking for themselves more, and explaining the humanity, teamwork, the depth of understanding that we experience there.

The compassion, skill and sensitivity of Middle Eastern photographer Tanya Habjouqa – whose work over five years, has shown Palestinians finding incredible ways to love, relax, resist, play, have babies and exercise – offers an eloquent illustration of this. Her work is so interesting precisely because it resonates around the world. She has exhibited across the Middle East, in Europe and America and got an absurd number of Facebook conversations to “prove” that she is getting it right. She is not, sadly, at the Biennale.

The DiS Collective want us to be disturbed, stateless, confused about what is an advert and where the art stops. They are trying to tap into our annoyed and anxious contemporary state – one where there are no clear reference points. But that is not how many of us actually feel.