Monday, 24 June 2013

Elitism for all

Eszter Szabó, Our Lady, 2012 (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

And suddenly, in less than a week, there were three different posts on Facebook, written by three different people, referring to three different situations, but with a common underlying question: cultural elitism.

First, cultural programmer António Pinto Ribeiro criticized poet Herberto Helder's publisher who announced that the poet's latest book would be a unique and limited edition. He considered this to be an offensive marketing campaign, an arrogant decision, little dignifying for all those involved. Someone commented that this was probably the poet's option – feeling uncomfortable for becoming very fashionable and wishing to turn his books into less accessible objects. António Pinto Ribeiro reaffirmed his criticism (read the post here).

Monday, 17 June 2013

Guest post: "I come from here", by Zeina Soudi (Palestine)

I met Zeina Soudi last month in Lisbon, thanks to Laurinda Alves. They´re the managers of Dialogue Café in Ramallah and Lisbon, respectively. In two hours we managed to talk about a number of issues, but what particularly caught my attention was Zeina´s quest for her identity. Born in Lebanon of Palestinian parents, she first visited Palestine as a Jordanian national.  It took her another 10 years to obtain a Palestinian ID. The question "Where are you from?” was always difficult to answer. Although the Palestinian context has, naturally, its own specificities, various parts in her narration will strike a chord with many of us and raise our awareness regarding issues of culture, identity, roots, ‘us’ and the ‘other’. mv
In Zeina Soudi´s passport.
“Where are you from?” was a question that I was asked a lot when I was younger. It was a question that confused me for years and I couldn’t answer without having to think about it. Usually the answer was a muddle. You see, I am the product of third-culture kids. I was born in Lebanon and lived in Malta and Cyprus till my late teenage years before moving to Jordan. I am a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian origin. But at that time I had never lived in Jordan or been to Palestine. Palestine was just a fantasy land that my parents talked of and I saw on the news. So being a foreigner in these countries, the question “Where are you from?” was a question I always dreaded being asked, although it should be one of the simplest questions anyone would have to answer.
My journey to affirm and reaffirm my identity took a lot of twists and turns, confusion and restrictions; starting with the question “Where are you from?”.
I spent my last two years of school in Amman, and even though I did get a sense of belonging, there was still something missing. There was a little part of me that I still needed to find to feel complete. So after I finished school, I decided to go to Palestine alone and enroll in university there. This decision was going to be the start of a very difficult journey. This was in 1997.
As you know Palestine is still occupied. And going there means I had to have a permit from Israel which proved to be more difficult than I ever imagined. When I finally got the permit the first time, I made it half way through the borders, but was denied entry at the Israeli borders. When I questioned why, they replied “For security reasons”.
Security reasons? How much of a security threat can I be by going to university to major in English Language and Literature? That didn’t matter to them. They stamped “Entry DENIED” on my passport and sent me back to Amman. These 2 words on my passport changed the course of my life. I was only 18 years old at the time. It wasn’t until years later that I would find out why I was such a ‘security threat’.
I came so close yet still far away. It reminded me of A Letter to His son by Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani:
“I heard you in the other room asking your mother, 'Mama, am I a Palestinian?'. When she answered 'Yes', a heavy silence fell on the whole house. It was as if something hanging over our heads had fallen, its noise exploding, then - silence. Afterwards...I heard you crying. I could not move. There was something bigger than my awareness being born in the other room through your bewildered sobbing. It was as if a blessed scalpel was cutting up your chest and putting there the heart that belongs to you...I was unable to move to see what was happening in the other room. I knew, however, that a distant homeland was being born again: hills, olive groves, dead people, torn banners and folded ones, all cutting their way into a future of flesh and blood and being born in the heart of another child... Do you believe that man grows? No, he is born suddenly - a word, a moment, penetrates his heart to a new throb. One scene can hurl him down from the ceiling of childhood onto the ruggedness of the road.”
But I didn’t give up so easily. And I tried again and again until I got a permit and finally went to Palestine.
Architectural draft of the, under construction, Palestinian Museum, which will be dedicated to the exploration and understanding of the culture, history and society of Palestine and the Palestinian people. Read an interview with the museum director here.  
I was slowly learning how many different identity cards us Palestinians are forced to have.  And these different identities determine which road to take or city you can go to. For example, I wasn’t allowed to go to Jerusalem, where I am originally from. We Palestinians are forced to be separated and categorized according to where we are from and the color of our identity cards.
After the second Intifada broke out, I decided to stay in Palestine to finish my degree; that’s when I became an “illegal-alien” in my homeland and spent 8 years in an open air prison, unable to travel for fear of being permanently denied entry to my homeland. I was persistent on planting my roots here, just as my parents, grandparents and great grandparents did. Even though it felt claustrophobic at times, and I felt like giving up, I finally got what I wanted. I affirmed my identity on paper. I took my right to a Palestinian identity card, and I became “legal”. This was my way for resisting this injustice. This was my way to affirm my identity. This is probably why to the Israeli occupation I was a security threat.

And here I am still today, sitting at home in my living room, with all my friends, all different colored ID cards, different passports, those who were born in Palestine and those like me raised in different countries. We all walked a different path in life. But we all have one thing in common, we are all persistent. We all refuse this injustice. We all refuse to be categorized. We all wake up every day and say NO to the occupation.

And at the end of the day, when somebody asks me “Where are you from?” I can easily say: “I Come From Here”.

Zeina Soudi is currently managing the Dialogue Cafe in Ramallah. The Dialogue Cafe is an open video-conferencing network that brings people from all walks of life, around the world, together to exchange ideas, knowledge, and experiences, dealing with different cultures, societies and traditions. Zeina previously worked in NGOs dealing with human rights and social development, as well as projects dealing with Palestinian Art and Culture. She started out her career as an English teacher.

Monday, 10 June 2013

How do you take your El Greco?

Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
When I enter a room in a museum and an El Greco is hanging on the wall everything stops around me. There´s no noise, no movement, just me and him and silence. In a couple of museums where I was caught by surprise, as I had no idea they had an El Greco in their collection, there was even more: it seemed that I suddenly stopped breathing, I felt a weakness in my legs.  He´s one of my favourite painters. He´s also a Cretan , who left his homeland and carried Byzantium with him wherever he went and never signed his works in a language other than his own.

I´ve seen El Greco on a number of occasions and under different circumstances: blockbuster exhibitions at the National Gallery in Athens and London, very busy rooms at the Louvre or the Metropolitan or in Toledo, a quiet corner at the Phillips Collection in Washington or, more recently, a big room almost to myself at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. Which was the best experience? All of them.

Quite a few times lately I came across comments of both museum professionals and museum visitors in general who complain that museums are not what they used to be.They feel that they cannot have what they call “a true experience” because they´re packed with visitors. They are longing to be alone with the art and they are very critical of this new museum where everyone is welcome even though he/she might not even be there for the “right reasons”. I do understand  people who seek a specific environment of peace and intimacy when visiting. But I become very worried when they seem to think that museums were made just for them (and should remain that way) and when museum professionals back these positions.

Museums need to provide for all sorts of people and needs. When aiming at diversifying their audiences, there is always the question of how to do it without allienating existing ones. It´s not easy in any case and it becomes even more difficult when they are busy and popular museums. There are visitors who know more and visitors who know less; visitors who want to learn and visitors whose first aim is to have a good time; visitors looking for intimacy and visitors ready to queue for hours and visit an exhibition in the company of hundreds of others. Different needs, different objectives, but none more legitimate than another, I would say.

A friend sent me the other day Brian Cohen´s article How to visit a museum. Although I don´t share his views as to what museums represent (or should represent) in the cultural life of those who visitem them, I can see that he´s a visitor who knows very well what he´s looking for and I enjoyed very much reading his advice for people who wish to tailor their museum visit to their needs and interests. Museums could probably adopt the idea and advise their visitors with regards to quieter times and days, suggested or alternative routes, etc. (some already do). Museums should be open and brave, they should acknowledge their visitors´ different agendas and try to orientate them in their quest. Most of all, they should make it clear that no visitor is more welcome than another.  

Back to me, a museum visitor like many others, I take my El Greco any way it comes. I love the intimate encounters, those precious moments when I can have him all to myself and I can stop and look and feel as much as I want. But more than once already I had to share him with many-many more people, I had to queue and wait patiently for my turn to stand in front of a painting, feeling a bit pressured by the next person in line. It´s all part of the ritual. I knew it would be that way and I also enjoyed the feeling of community, of shared pleasure and enjoyment. I love quiet museums and I love busy museums. I love museums.

Still on this blog

More readings
Are blockbuster exhibitions worth queueing for?. Interviews with Miranda Sawyer and Charles Saumarez Smith in the Observer (12.11.2011)
Blockbuster art: good or bad? Interviews by Emine Saner in the Guardian (25.1.2013)

Monday, 3 June 2013

Guest post: "'The Fairy Queen' in South Africa", by Shirley Apthorp

I met Shirley Aprthorp a few months ago in a conference in Lisbon. At that time, I heard her speak about young people in South Africa filling a 6000-seat venue in order to participate in a national opera contest (a “dying” art form, some say…). After that, we stayed in touch through Facebook, and there I could follow all the preparations for the presentation of Purcell´s The Fairy Queen in Johannesburg and Cape Town. In this post, Shirley writes about the love for opera among South African school children; about Umculo, the music organization she founded; and about her conviction that South Africa has a huge role to play in the future of opera as a meaningful artform for the whole world. mv

The Fairy Queen, Umculo 2012/2013 (Photo: Neil Baynes)
The address was scrawled on a crumpled scrap of paper: “The Dome”. Johannesburg traffic is daunting at the best of times; all the more so if you are running late for an important event. Arriving finally, I ground my teeth in frustration. Why had I not asked for more exact information? The Dome towered in front of me, a vast building. How would I ever find a high school choir competition in such a complex? Anxiously, I hurried for one of the doors, only to be waved inside with a smile. I was in for a series of shocks.

Inside, the Dome proved to be one enormous indoor stadium. It was packed to the rafters with black children in uniform, waiting eagerly for the first session of the annual high school choir competition to begin. It was a boys-only session and the set piece was the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhäuser. Soon after came solo and ensemble sections, where tenors tackled an aria from Ascanio in Alba, sopranos sang the “Queen of the Night”, groups of four gave more than passable renditions of the quartet from Cosi fan Tutte.  And so it went on. The 6,000-strong audience watched them with utter attention, gasping in unison if a note was missed, leaping up to cheer in four-part harmony if a coloratura run was particularly well-mastered. Six thousand black teenaged opera connoisseurs in one place at the same time, most of them from communities well below the poverty line - could this really be happening?

“Well, yes”, responded one of the organisers apologetically. “Actually we have 10000 finalists here, but the stadium only fits 6000, so we have to organise attendance in shifts.”

The Fairy Queen, Umculo 2012/2013 (Photo: Yasser Booley)
And this is only the tip of the iceberg - these are the select few who have made their way through regional and provincial finals to take part in the coveted nationals.

Choirs competing in national competition must sing a range of set repertoire, from traditional African songs through new compositions on themes of HIV-AIDS to Schubert, Mendelssohn and a wide range of opera repertoire. You can travel to the furthest-flung township or informal settlement in the country and find 15-year-old Paminas and Taminos, hear Verdi and Handel and Puccini from soloists too young to drink or drive.  For a European raised on endless complaints about an aging opera audience, it is nothing short of a revelation.

Literally hundreds of thousands of South African teenagers sing opera and many of them dream of singing for a living, like 28-year-old Pretty Yende, who recently made her debut at the Met after a series of international competition wins and a stint at La Scala; like Luthando Quave, making a name for himself at the Met and in continental Europe; like Sunnyboy Dlala, now in the ensemble at Zurich’s opera house, or Pumeza Matshikiza, one of the stars of the Stuttgart Opera, or Njabulo Madlala, winner of the 2010 Kathleen Ferrier Award. 

Home-grown singers from South Africa are just beginning to grab international attention; yet the entire country currently boasts only one full-time opera company - Cape Town’s - which itself struggles to survive in a post-Apartheid context that does not see that kind of cultural funding as a high priority. The by-whites, for-whites support offered by the Apartheid government to its regional opera companies set a dangerous precedent and not even the extraordinary passion of its disadvantaged communities for the music of opera is enough to turn the current tide.

Umculo (Photo: Yasser Booley)
As a South African, born into a “struggle” family of anti-Apartheid activists, I had grown up as an exile in Australia, only coming to know my home country and extended family as an adult, after the advent of democracy in 1994. I had moved to Germany, where I was coming to know the international opera circuit well through my work as a music journalist.  The discrepancy between Europe’s opera life - well-funded, highly-skilled, and cynical - and South Africa’s - largely unfunded, seldom musically literate, yet extroardinarily passionate and talented - bothered me immensely and, eventually, pushed me into founding Umculo.

In Xhosa, the language of the Western Cape, Umculo means both music and reconciliation. Our organisation draws together an international team to work with gifted young South Africans from disadvantaged communities, providing access to opera, skills, opportunities and international links. From our launch in 2010 with an international music education conference, a festive choral concert broadcast internationally on ARTE TV and a collaboration with Venezuela’s El Sistema, Umculo has grown to the point where it presents fully-staged opera productions for a new audience of Township teenagers, who in turn participate in Umculo workshops.

Umculo works on the social fault-lines of South Africa’s complex society.  Its productions use music theatre to address tensions between races, socio economic groups, nationalities, language groups and age groups.

(Photo: July Zuma) 
Our 2012/13 production of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, performed in both Johannesburg and Cape Town, is built around a choir of thirty 14-18-year-old singers from the disadvantaged community of Kraaifontein, between Cape Town and Stellenbosch. Vienna-based conductor Warwick Stengards, German stage director Robert Lehmeier and dramaturg Laura Ellersdorfer worked with South African costume designer Thando Lobese and lighting designer Michael Maxwell, young South African soloists and an orchestra which brought together top international and local professional musicians with members of the South African National Youth Orchestra.

Umculo’s team members work on a voluntary basis and projects are run on a shoestring budget. Funding from the Hilti Foundation, the Goethe Institut and private donors enables our organisation to realise its projects, but significantly more funding will be needed for Umculo to become a full-time, sustainable organisation.

We are moved and motivated by the transformation of the young participants, by the passion, enthusiasm and excellence of our performers, by the ease and excitement with which our new young audiences are taking to the experience of opera performers, and by the social impact of our work. Umculo believes that South Africa has a huge role to play in the future of opera as a meaningful artform for the whole world.  We do all we can to further that vision.

Shirley Apthorp was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and emigrated to Australia with her immediate family at the age of two.  She studied music at the University of Tasmania, Hobart.  During her studies, she began writing locally and nationally about music; upon graduating, she embarked on a career as a freelance music journalist.  A Churchill Fellowship and grants from the Australia Council, Arts Tasmania and the Goethe Institut took her to Europe in 1994; she has lived in Berlin since 1996, reporting on music for the Financial Times (UK), Bloomberg, (USA), the Australian (Australia), and numerous music magazines.  She founded Umculo in 2010.