Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Origin, The London Craft Fair, 2009

I didn’t expect to be assailed by the scent of lavender when I got to Origin, but I was – well it is a craft show after all - and a nice lady called Maxine Sutton has very obligingly, understood what craft is really about and made lavender bags and tea cosies, handsomely printed and sewn up like children’s sewing kits. They really are the business and the best bit is that the lavender bags have biologically in/accurate hearts printed on them. The heart design is the sort that shows valves and arteries but the shapes are traced in leaves in flowers. Brilliant!!

So Origin begins with a hint of the village flower show while being, unmistakably, a glitzy urban trade fair – a bit kitsch, a bit snazzy, a bit – well very naff at times – but proud. This is what works so well with this year’s selection, it seems much more certain of its own identity, much more confident than it has in the past. Industry is present but not dominant, it’s part of the process in conversation with the handmade or individually designed. This year’s ‘interventions’ use the ancient uber-craft discipline of basket weaving, - but this is post-modern basket-weaving, forget physiotherapy. I’ll write more about them next week, once they’ve had time to develop. Gone are the dark recesses containing ‘art’ as though it was something mildly unpleasant deposited under a lamp post. Origin, in short, has ‘come out.’

Jewellery, textiles of various sorts and ceramics dominate. There is a strong flavour of pink, lacy, girly feminine, - it’s a bit in yer face at times, splendidly tasteless, but a VERY welcome relief from the tedious thudding masculinity of ‘pure’ studio craft. Origin is altogether more promiscuous than it was: round the corner from the lavender you know there’ll be a bit of expensive cheap perfume. Someone made jewellery that looked like chocolates and presented then in pink sponge like fairy cakes. Ludicrous but very very effective.

Consistent with the extravagant cavorting of ceramics the other side of London, (in the Temple of the Applied Arts,) Sevres porcelain was a strong flavour in this year’s ceramics selection. Excessive, absurd, I’m not sure I really want to see it again, but it was fab just this once. See Kate McBride, Timea Sido,(second picture from top), and Jo Davies, for instance. At the extreme end of this is Jasmine Rowlandson – the Donatella Versace of UK ceramics. It looked tailor made for the Dubai market to me, but should do well here is she can reach the various diasporas to whom it will undoubtedly appeal.

This is not to say that ‘old fashioned’ studio ceramics has turned tail and fled. All of the above is ‘old fashioned studio ceramics.’ But somehow there’s more ceramic and less studio – its less noble peasant and bit more whorish – halleluja. A nice bit of anagama firing or similar would have provided a good contrast, but that kind of approach to making was conspicuous by its absence. It’s a relief not to see grizzly stoneware, but the swathes of pink gold and frills will pall very soon if its not balanced out with something a wee bit calmer. You cant live on marshmallows alone.

Chris Keenan, The Guardian Angel of Celadon Coated Tableware was there, representing ‘proper pottery,’ and also proving that celadon can still be tableware, it doesn’t have to be deconstructed to be desirable. Sue Nemeth’s Middle-European, folk-pottery inspired mould-cast porcelain, (picture top), brought all the strands together - very proper pottery, while also very pretty, feminine without being fetishistic, graceful, and very much her own vision.

Week one was seething with visitors within the first few hours of opening. That morning, Deborah Carre of Carreducker had received a Selvedge award. Now the presence of these shoemakers is something of a triumph. It’s a been a long time coming, The crafts Council, for decades, would have nothing to do with them. Not ‘pure’ enough apparently. But they, the CC, have now embraced design and collaborations with industry, so, with a bit persuasion from various people no doubt, shoemakers are at last allowed in. Carre’s stall looked magnificent. She had a case showing the tools of the trade as well as collections of beautiful hand made shoes. It was the proof positive of the confident, trade fair approach, a convincing exposition of craft as an industry in itself.

Belly Dance Congress, September 2009

Middle Eastern dance, popularly known as ‘bellydancing’ suffers from all manner of image problems in the West. Firstly, ‘Middle Eastern dance,’ as such, doesn’t exist. There are hundreds of different kinds of dance and, although you will hear people speak of ‘Turkish’ dance, ‘Egyptian’ dance and so forth, it should be understood that these various ways of dancing are really more associated with regions than national borders and even more strongly associated with culture - culture shaped by communities – by their language, religions, occupation, history and relative mobility.

Dance Migration
The extent to which various population groups have migrated, and also the extent to which they themselves have acquired new populations and influences, has had as great an impact on dance as it has had on language, religion, cooking and all other forms of social and political discourse. Thus the traditional, folkloric dance of the Egyptian Camel herders of the Nile region, ‘Saidi,’ for example, will be categorically different from the ‘Mwahashat,’ an Arab/Andalucian court dance. Technically though, they’re both Middle Eastern dances or ‘bellydancing.’ To add to the confusion, they may share some characteristics depending upon exactly which Arab population it was which colonised the Andalucian region of Spain and when.

Restaurants and Cabaret
Bellydancing, in the West, is often considered to be an embarrassing episode in dodgy restaurant at best and, at worst, a form of strip tease. It certainly counts as ‘cavorting in an unseemly manner in public,’ whichever way you look at it and it’s almost always considered to be amateur. So professional dancers in this discipline have their work cut out. Not only do they have to dance better than anyone else if they’re going to have a ghost of chance of being taken seriously and getting paid for what they do, they also have to ward off the prurient interest, entice those with a genuine interest in dance and then, after all that, create opportunities to perform. That bellydance has never, to my knowledge, received any public funding, also speaks volumes, especially when compared with other kinds contemporary dance.

Orientalism and Authenticity
Further complications are added by those who consider the whole business to be an exercise in post imperial Orientalism of the most insidious kind. True this would have to come from someone largely ignorant of the history and culture of the dance and somewhat naïve politically but it shows what serious exponents of this dance are dealing with. If it's 'authenticity' you're looking for, you may need to look elsewhere - if not, take a look at the last video on this post featuring Fifi Abdo dancing at a wedding surrounded by christmas decorations in Egypt. If that doesn't disrupt every last vestige of concern with the 'A' word, nothing will.

From Hollywood to Hip Hop

In the 20th Century, Cinema, especially Hollywood had a huge influence on the Urban dancers of Cairo and Cairo duly returned the favour to Hollywood and particularly to 1970s American pop. Ballet seems to creep in all over the place and I have no doubt that Hip Hop is mixing it up a storm with Saidi and a tinge of Flamenco somewhere – London probably – or Surrey – that beating pulse of the Bellydance Universe - Oh yes! For it was in deepest, darkest Surry that we convened in sequinned apparel to shimmy, camel and undulate our way through three glorious days of sunshine and dancing.

What Happens at a Belly Dance Congress
Bellydance Congress sets aside all these anxieties, raises the calibre to the heavens, and summons the assembled deities of the dance to come and show us the real thing in all its variety and complexity. Congress brings in the megastars from all over the world and devoted fans and students who came from as far afield as the USA and Russia to attend master classes, workshops, and take a once in a lifetime opportunity to see some of these people perform.

Classes and Stars: Leyla Jouvana
I attended two three-hour classes with Leyla Jouvana, one on layering of techniques and moves and the other on dancing with two or more veils to a mixed ability class. I did a technique class, also three hours, with Caroline Affifi, a tabla solos class – that’s dancing to a solo drum - with Kay Taylor and I had the exceptionally good fortune to be facilitating a class with Randa Kamel. In principle I was facilitating one of Leyla Jouvana’s classes as well, but she did not teach in a way that required it so I was able to do the class in full. Jouvana (Germany) and Kamel (Egypt), are major stars and rarely in this country so the opportunity to do their classes is a rare, extraordinary and invaluable privilege. Jouvana’s rigour and attention to detail accompanied by careful, precise explanations make her an exceptional teacher. She is accompanied by her husband, Roland, on the drum, so the music is always exactly as she needs it.

Randa Kamel
Kamel’s class, the one that I facilitated, was for dancers in grades 3 and 4 and I know from experience that these grades at international level are much higher than is appropriate for my experience. ‘Facilitating’ in this instance means that I had to ensure that the rows of dancers in her class were rotated regularly so that everyone had a chance to be at the front. Even now, remembering being at the front of her class, so close to her that I could see clearly every move that she made and exactly how she did it, brings tears to my eyes, it’s a chance I don’t really expect to be repeated and I shall not forget it soon. Hers was not an easy class to follow and many of the students clearly struggled in spite of my best endeavours to ensure they could all see, but the truth is, many were just not up to the level she expected of them.

The Mighty Fifi Abdo
This year’s Bellydance Congress was dominated by the legendry presence of her Imperial Highness, (massive drum roll), her Royal Magnificence, the Astounding FIFI ABDOOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Gasp. Now I get it. Now I understand why everyone talks of this woman. I talked at length in this post about the problems that Bellydance faces in the West. One of the results of this is that we now have a collection of dancers, excellent dancers, who produce highly polished performances, virtuoso displays of technical perfection. And, yes, they make you gasp, but after a while of seeing one after another after another of these displays, one can start to lose the will to live. The intense focus on technique really can be a bit soulless and where you have a dance whose exponents often rely on cabaret to build up experience, it seems we lack a demanding dramatic repetoire that might serve as a training ground for evolving performance dancers.

The Horse, The Hurricane and a Touch of the Divine
Fifi Abdou whirls through all this like a hurricane. Her dance has a kind of roughness and raw edge to it which is wholly unexpected. She struts about on stage like she owns not only the stage but the audience too. She tosses her mane like some demented dervish horse and twirls and shimmies simultaneously punctuated by deep bowing twirly things – we call them ‘breaks.’ No one dances like this without close attention to detail and careful learning in the early years, but technique, practice and training alone will not bring it either. She’s an immensely expressive, intimate dancer, bold and brash in her gestures, there’s almost a touch of aggression, but combined with her own unique equine grace it all results in an electrifying stage presence and performance.

East & West: Cross-Cultural Encounters - The Conference

St Andrews

View of ST. Andrew's looking out over the harbour

I’ve always been a bit suspicious of Art History. When I was still at school and also when I went to Art School and the early 1980s, Art History was about the lives of painters and about ‘brush strokes.’ ‘The Renaissance,’ meaning the one that took place in Western Europe, was deemed to be centred in Italy, specifically Florence; this Renaissance was the back-bone of the subject. All other parts of the History of Art were somehow attached to or related to this time, place and collection of work. I still love Florence and I love what I learned of that time, but I’m very happy indeed that History of Art has become something else entirely, as East &West: Cross-Cultural Encounters eloquently demonstrated.

Orientalist Painting In Poland
The papers in this conference took me into corners of the history of the art that I didn’t know existed. I had no idea, for example, that Polish artists in the 19th Century were producing Orientalism in paintings every bit as rhetorical and absurd as anywhere in France or Britain. However, the underlying narrative, according to Ana Chruscinska, was predicated on Poland’s political situation, particularly its loss of independence, which prompted artists at that time to deploy the Orientalist imagery as a metaphor to describe Poland’s own subjugation.

Ana Chruscinska: Myths about the inhabitants of the Arab World as depticted in 19th Century Polish Oriental paintings

Hungarian Ottoman Woodcuts And Mock Battles

Also examining a nuanced relationship to imperialism and its imagery, AnnMarie Perl discussed the relationship between Hungarian and Ottoman artists during the Ottoman period when Hungary formed part of that vast empire. Far from being divided along cultural and ethnic lines, she argued that there was a well developed cross-cultural transfer which substantially unsettled the idea of an ‘authentic’ Ottoman aesthetic and genre. All this was discussed through book illustrations – wood cuts - and mock battles – yes Mock Battles –the Reenactment Society is not, after all, one of the more outré and eccentric inventions of Middle England, but was a major source of entertainment in the Ottoman Empire and documented in woodcut illustrations. Marvellous!

This, I discovered, was what I loved about Art History. It’s the weird little details which seep through and which tell you so much about the period. I was envisaging Hungarian and Turkish or Armenian or Greek artists dining together in each others houses and swapping tabards and swords before gadding off the local tea house to get uproariously drunk and party it up a storm in the street staging a mock battles till dawn when they’d be rounded up by the district gendarme for being drunk and disorderly and sent home to sober up.


Dr. Seung Jung Kim: The Beginnings of the East-West Dialogue: An Examination of Dionysiac Representations in Gahdhara and Kushan-Mathuran Art

Original Copies

Authenticity, as you might expect, was a dominant theme of the conference and it waltzed into view with Princess Akiko’s paper on the gentle art of reproduction. Her focus was on the repros of Japanese artefacts in the British Museum. Konstanze Knittler talked about ‘Famille Noire’ - a very weird-looking kind of porcelain that I’d never heard of – with a very intriguing story attached. It seems that hundreds of wealthy collectors have collected thousands of pieces of black porcelain believing them to belong to a much appreciated part of Chinese porcelain history – the Kanxi period, (1622-1722), and that this ‘famille’ turns out to be the bastard progeny of another period entirely – late 19th Century – Perish the thought!! This, along with Princess Akiko’s paper, neatly encapsulates much of what the conference discussed, namely, who’s to say what’s authentic and what if the reproduction is really more interesting than the ‘original’ ?


Dr. Claudia Clare: The Artist and the Coup D'Etat: A User's Guide to Exhibiting Ceramics in Politically Unstable Situations

Seen Through The Lens
The lens – the fiendish camera – popped up every so often. It began the conference and ended it – in a way – and it appeared in the middle cleverly disguised as paintings by Jackson Pollock. This was about a group of Japanese artists - the Gutai group, based in Osaka in the 1950s. They are widely thought to be influenced - almost formed really – by Jackson Pollock and that their work sprang out of and responded to his as an homage. However Natalie Roncone’s paper showed that what they were responding to was not Pollock’s painting or his writing but to a collection of photographs by Hans Namuth of Pollock ‘in action,’ published in a 1951 issue of ‘Art News.’ In other words their ‘homage’ was predicated on someone else’s interpretation and mediation of Pollock’s work.

Dr. Luke Gartlan: Portraying China's 'Character': Baron von Stillfried's Portfolio of Shanghai Photographs

Confusing The Image
This first appearance of the camera was in the Keynote speech by Dr. Luke Gartlan, about a collection of 19th Century photographs of ‘life’ in China which failed to attract buyers and was quickly abandoned. Gartlan argued that the main reason for this was that this album of, let us say, ‘images of China’ did not meet or in any way match the image of that country that the Western consumer expected. He compared it to similar albums made by the same photographer, Baron von Stills, of Japan which sold in their thousands. They look remarkably similar. And that’s the rub. They weren’t supposed to. China was considered an, ‘unpaved, dirty, stinking,’ place, quite different from the elegant, stylish exotic Japan. The Western Consumer duly turned up its western nose and refused the offering.

Shirly 2

Shirley Bahar: A War Within: The Westernized Performance of Israeli Artists

Had We But World Enough And Time…
This is such a tiny bite of what was really a feast of careful, passionate research and lovingly honed knowledge. There were papers on consumers of Manga, on queer masculinity and nationalism, (possibly), in Japanese / (American?) photography, on masculine self reflexivity in Israeli film, on 18th Century Chinese court paintings, on Graeco-Roman representations in Kushan Buddhist art, on contemporary Chinese calligraphy, on Orientalist bookcovers in contemporary Western publishing, and on a kiln maker and designer of production methods in the Leach pottery, by name of Matsubayashi Tsurunosuke, who’s immense contribution to that pottery and, by implication, to British studio pottery, has been largely written out of the history. All of this was served up with delicious food, sunshine and a fabulous beach in one of the most beautiful towns I’ve seen in years. My thanks to the organisers, to my fellow participants, and to Ana Chruscinska and, (again), the conference organisers, who made the final lens-based contributions by providing all of the photographs on this post.

Dr. Shinya Maezaki: A Legacy of Matsubayashi Tsurunosuke in St. Ives: Introduction of the Art of Japanese Ceramic Making to British Studio Pottery

East & West: Cross-Cultural Encounters, Introduction


School of Art History, St. Andrews University, 11th and 12th September, 2009.

The Railway Station In A Field

On the East cost of Scotland, sort of southernish by Scottish standards, there’s platform in the middle of a field with a metal bridge slung a bit carelessly over the top of it. That’s how you get from the train, which just about remembers to stop for a minute or two by the platform, to the road. Otherwise you’d just tumble straight into the field. This windswept, lonesome, soulful looking place, something between Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, is Leuchars. It’s where you get off to go to St. Andrews.

St. Andrews - The Town

St. Andrews, just five miles or so down the road couldn’t be more different. Home to one of the oldest universities in the world, - founded in 1413 – it is busy, thriving, wealthy beyond its modest size, and astounding beautiful. The town is the university and the university is the town. Shops, restaurants and hotels rely on the busy-ness of academia and on the achingly beautiful coastal landscape for their incomes - its other industry is tourism, especially tourism related to golf.

Chance Encounter
So, imagine my surprise, when stepping carefully off the train in Leuchars, and looking around at my fellow travellers, I spot a woman who, I decide, must also be coming to the conference, and accordingly invite her to share a taxi. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Forough’ she says. ‘Crikey,’ I’m thinking, ‘what are the chances of that?’ I spend all summer in London in the company of Iranians, I come to a very very small town in the east coast of Scotland, whose railway station is 10 miles away in the middle of a field, and the first person I meet is Iranian.

Dont Forget To Switch Off The Lights
Later that same day, I venture into town to the beating heart of the university, and find the New Arts Building where I plan to register for the conference. Almost every name on the conference list is Iranian. ‘What the hell’s going on? Is there anyone left in Iran?’ Then I read the title to the conference programme, ‘Historiography and Iran in Comparative Perspective.’ Ok, so I’m about to gate crash someone else’s conference. But seriously, is there anyone left in Iran? – they all seem to be in Scotland.

Market Street

Filed Under History

But you see, it’s not so surprising. St. Andrews and its quaint medieval Scottish streets is also home to the Institute for Iranian Studies. It’s cunningly hidden in the History department, not, as I thought, in The School of International Relations – although there you will find the intriguing Centre for Syrian Studies. I have to say, a bit of Syria and a bit of Iran, a chunk of unusually interesting Art History mixed up with bits of Armenia, Georgia, The Caucasus – all based in Scotland, near Edinburgh, but in St. Andrews, sounds like my idea of Heaven. Surely I could squeeze myself in somewhere…