Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Portraits

Pieter Hugo
Open Eye Gallery, Wood Street (30th May - 5th July 2008)

The exhibition of African portraits by young white South African photographer Pieter Hugo displays a keen eye for composition and a high level of technical skill, yet he seems to lack a critical faculty for engaging with the world he tries to capture.

The first selection - from his 2002-05 project 'Looking Aside' - is a case in point. The viewer is presented with a series of faces, each of which belongs to someone with the medical condition Albinism. So although the features look like those one might typically expect to see on a 'black' person, the subject is literally whiter than 'white'. This is mildly interesting the first time, because of the contrasts on display, but seems less significant with every subsequent example. Perhaps, since Hugo grew up in the dying days of the South African Apartheid system, it seems more relevant to him, but this is little more than photographic wordplay. 'White' though the people may literally have been, they would still have been denied basic democratic rights under the Apartheid system. And besides, it is now clear that social class is the dividing line in the 'new' South Africa, as black politicians run the economy on behalf of the majority white elite, enriching themselves in the process.

'Judges' (2005) is even less absorbing, being is at is a few pictures of some black judges from Botswana, kitted out in full court regalia, superficially looking out of place in those colonial uniforms. The photos were apparently taken during the closing months of the longest-running court case in the country's history, when a group of Kalahari Bushmen and women won the right to stay on their land, defeating the Botswanan government and the De Beers diamond company. Since judges rarely find against the profit motives of multinational corporations, the story is far more significant than the pictures, which completely fail to be worth a thousand words. Are they supposed to look wise and dignified, because they ruled by two to one that the government was acting unlawfully in evicting people from a reserve conceded by Britain in colonial days? Maybe, but the government is finding ways around the ruling anyway, so like the rest of us, the judges are naked underneath the vestments of power handed down by the old regime.

'The Hyena Men' (2007) is the final part of this exhibition, and depicts a family of 'minstrels' from Nigeria. The group travel from town to town, selling herbal medicines and performing with their hyenas, snakes and monkeys. In some images, the humans seem to treat the other animals like part of the family, riding with them on motorcycles for example. In others, they are kept on a chain. Again, Hugo seems to be mesmerised by an apparent contrast, this time between familiarity and domination. But it is a contrast that is easily explained - the hyena men cannot allow their animals freedom because they make a living off them.

The camera does not lie, it shows us a fragment of objective reality, viewed subjectively. But in choosing that subject, the photographer reveals something of his or herself. On this evidence, Pieter Hugo is still grasping for explanations of the world with its apparent contradictions and anomalies, and views Africa like a somewhat detached tourist might. Society is riven by contrasts and contradictions, though these are more than skin deep. But Hugo is only in his early thirties, so he has time on his side.

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin (1937-2008): "smiling down at us"

A legendary comedian has died. If you don't know his stuff, he was a bit like Bill Hicks. They were both really pissed off guys, they both told a lot of truth on stage, and because hardly anyone tells truth on stage, it was fucking hilarious. Here he is talking about death.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

New Nerve Magazine Examines Migration

The new edition of Nerve - Liverpool's grassroots arts and social issues magazine - is out, and this time the focus is on migration. Merseyside readers can pick up a free copy from local cafes, cultural venues, libraries and News From Nowhere. Here is my editorial, and the contents.

We Are All Migrants!

On 1st April this year, BBC reported that 'foreign' migrant birds were no longer returning to their native countries, and were 'threatening native birds' because 'they eat all their food'. The invaders had to be caught and 'forcibly repatriated'.

Of course, this was an April Fools' Day joke. But why is it funny? Firstly, because bird migration is seen as being natural; beyond human borders. Secondly, because we would never consider goldfinch or siskin as rivals, in the same way that many people think of human migrants. Birds migrate to this country every year, and are welcomed. Workers and refugees come to this country - the fifth richest in the world - and are scapegoated for our social problems.

In fact, study after study shows that overseas workers are net contributors to the nation's wealth, meaning there should be even more to go around. So the problem isn't migrant workers or asylum seekers, it's the people at the top, who make unimaginable amounts of money off other people's work, and the governments who will not provide decent services.

At Nerve, we reckon it's well past time that we welcomed all newcomers to this land just like we do with our feathered friends. An important first step is to reach out, get to know people, see what they can offer you and what you can offer them. So this issue of Nerve is dedicated to the truth behind the myths, migrant voices, and migrant art. After all, the human race originated in Africa, so we are all migrants!

Migration Myths
Asylum system exposed
The leaving of Liverpool
Out of Africa
Liverpool stories of the invisible ones
Radical route through the city
1919: The murder of Charles Wootton
The human cost of dawn raids
Rambling to revolution
Putting the I into Immigrant
Editorial...Poetry...Music and Art Profiles
Full index of Nerve 12

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

2001: Asylum seekers go on hunger strike over appalling conditions in Landmark flats

On 11th June 2001, asylum seekers began a hunger strike against the conditions they faced in flats owned by the Liverpool Landmark company.

The government had contracted Liverpool Landmark to provide accommodation to six hundred asylum seekers, who they housed in two Everton Park tower blocks. The company had bought the tower blocks from Liverpool City Council, after they had deemed them 'unfit' for tenants. So this was perfect for Liverpool Landmark: they had purchased the towers at literally a knock-down price, and won a government contract to put asylum seekers in these appalling conditions.

The mainly Kurdish asylum seekers had faced terrible hardship and repression in their states of origin, but many were skilled in political organising. Support from local campaigners saw media interest grow, and following a fire on the top floor, the police and fire brigade used their influence to make the government close the flats and rehouse the asylum seekers. A small victory had been won, but the systemic problems remain.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Merseyside Claimants Action Group launched

Wednesday's leafleting session outside Hordan House in Birkenhead may have been a small event, but if the anger expressed against the dole is anything to go by, it could be the start of something big.

The Merseyside Claimants Action Group is modelled on groups like the London Coalition Against Poverty, who successfully combine casework with legal but disruptive action - things like turning up at Job Centres en masse and refusing to leave until problem claims are sorted.

Anyone who has dealt with the dole know that getting the money to which you are legally entitled can be like getting blood from the proverbial stone, to say nothing of the other ways job centre workers harass claimants. With the government stepping up attempts to force even the sick and disabled into low paid work, and a recession apparently on the way, it's way past time for a bit of working class self defence.

I had one conversation in particular which illustrated why this action is needed. It was with a mother whose young daughter has been intimidated by the Job Centre system, to the point where she feels afraid to collect the money she needs to survive. Not surprisingly, the mother was frantic with worry. The system is set up to make us feel isolated, and guilty for taking a tiny part of what has been stolen from us by the capitalist state. It is by acting together in solidarity that we can and must stand up to the bullies, and take what should be ours.

If you want to get involved with our group, please email merseyclaimants@yahoo.co.uk, or write to Merseyside Claimants Action Group, Next To Nowhere, 96 Bold Street, Liverpool, L1 4HY

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