The sound and colour of an authentic African voice

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Art, Art Process, Colonialism, Learning, Nuanced Thinking, Racism, Slavery

Slavery and Slavers, Black and White and Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B

A young black woman naked from the waist up sits on a bed and looks at herself in the mirror. She has an iron collar and chain around her neck and a number fastened to her clothes.

Racism or critique? … One of the installations in Exhibit B at the Barbican.

A similar debacle to the recent Whitney event mentioned in my previous post, took place in London in September 2014 when a South African artist, Brett Bailey, showed  Exhibit B. Did Bailey want to make the descendants of white colonists and  slavers think about their historic involvement in this history of slavery and abuse? Was it a forum for debate about current practise of slavery? Was it about race? Was it only white people who were slavers and black people who were slaves? Protestors said that it degraded black people so it was closed down.  Bailey answers his critics in this Guardian article.

 

Inside my skin: ‘white’ Madam and ‘Black’ art.

I posted about Exhibit B in my blog  Surviving Monsters where I quoted Tim Minchin, an intelligent comedian  who says:

“A famous bon mot asserts that opinions are like arse-holes, in that everyone has one. There is great wisdom in this… but I would add that opinions differ significantly from arse-holes, in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined. We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat.
Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege. Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.”

Nuanced Thinking

Nuanced thinking is needed when we consider the banning of Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B. Like many of those writing about it I haven’t seen it. I have read  the arguments however and they are important to me and my art. Dividing the world into black and white is plain silly because the world is not divided into simplistic opposites and never has been. Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B raises questions for artists and humans with both thin skins and thick hides of whatever shade they are on the outside. Art is supposed to shake up ideas and not fix them into one position.

The Single Story – one point of view – fixed or authentic

I am also impressed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on the dangers of a single story. She explains it here:

Read More and Comment …

Grenfell Tower

Ruth Hartleyjustice, Regulation, Society, Truth2 Comments

Grenfell Tower burning against the night sky above the city, one side is completely aflame

Grenfell Tower on fire

Smoke

rushing

skywards

screaming

swirling

burning

blackening

poisoning

roaring

roiling

sprinkling light spreading debris sparkling

fire-wrapping the homes flaming

flaming the living core fire-wrapping

fire-wrapping the furnace of families flaming

flaming choking the children fire-wrapping

fire-wrapping blinding the babies flaming

flaming closer to the crying fire-wrapping

fire-wrapping the people who perish flaming

flaming suffocating the souls fire-wrapping

fire-wrapping searing the skins flaming

flaming shriveling the hopes fire-wrapping

fire-wrapping the black skeleton tower flaming

shaming blaming underneath blaming shaming

Mail-ing shaming blaming Mail-ing

lying regulation stuff “get-stuffed” stuff regulation lying

underneath ha-ha ha-ha “get stuffed” ha-ha ha-ha underneath

ash and cinders cinders and ash

Ruth Hartley

19th June 2017

This poem is about the people who lived in the tower. Underneath it lies the refusal to make good fire regulations and a willingness to blame the victims. I do, however, want to honour those men and women of the fire brigade who undertook the desperately dangerous task of saving people’s lives and will always remember with grief and agony those they could not save. You can read about their experiences by clicking on the link above.

 

 

 

Do writers and artists think about the colour of their skin or what is inside and outside it?

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Art, Art Process, Racism2 Comments

The body of a young black man in a coffin. His face is beaten beyond recognition. His head rests on a halo-like pillow. there is a red rose at his waist

Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket,” a 2016 painting in the 2017 Whitney Biennial MATTHIAS KOLB 12355 BERLIN / Collection of the artist

Right and wrong writing and art

My last post had some very interesting comments made about it. I also had follow-up by email and I was sent this NBC News article from the USA which contains a quote that seemed very important for me personally. Thank you to those who sent and forwarded this article. Here’s the quote but the whole article is worth reading. I thought that the most valuable contribution to this debate was made by Lisa Whittington and the least useful was made by the person blocking the painting instead of talking to the artist.

 

 

 

A portrait split down the middle - the left side shows a handsome black adolescent in a neat shirt. The right side shows him naked, his face pulped and his eye missing. The background is blue on the left and dark on the right

“How She Sent Him and How She Got Him Back” (2012) by Lisa Whittington Courtesy Lisa Whittington

“Art professor Dr. Lisa Whittington, a Black artist who has created two paintings of Emmett Till, says she doesn’t have an issue with a white artist taking on the difficult subject matter, but questions Schutz’s perspective in making the painting.”

“I would ask her, why she did not paint the Emmett Till Story from a white woman’s point of view? Is there nothing that as a white woman that she would want to say? Especially in recently knowing that the woman who accused Emmett Till has admitted that she lied. Where is the artwork that represents her lies?” Whittington said. “The two men who lynched Emmett? Where is the artwork about them? Does she have nothing to say there?”

Whittington continued, “As artists—responsible artists—we are to speak and to document history. We are to tell about life from our point of view from where we stand.”

This story made me once again question myself in relation to my own work. Must a white artist limit themselves to their own culture or their guilt and wrongdoing in relation to other cultures? Who says that this must be so? History? Culture? Society? Can I explore injustice and oppression as I assume Dana Schutz intended to do, only if I have the identical experience? This post has become so interesting, complicated and long so I have decided to split it into two and carry on with the ideas it raises next week as well. I hope that you’ll want to read it and to comment on it. Next week I’ll start with the Brett Bailey Exhibit B. which you can see below. I did want to ask readers what they thought of Dr Whittington’s suggestion to Dana Schutz. Should Schutz respond as a person or as a white-skinned person? Does she have to identify as a perpetrator? Does she have to ask for forgiveness for herself or the whites who killed Emmett Till? How do Germans face up to the Holocaust or South Africans to apartheid? These are some of the questions I want the characters in my next book Hannah’s Housekeeping to face. I don’t know the answers. Read More and Comment …

Is White Writing Black, Right Writing or Wrong Writing?

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Politics, Race, Storytelling, The Tin Heart Gold Mine8 Comments

To the left of the painting are several African workers in a garden in the hot sun. To the right in the shade is a white woman with a young girl laening on her shoulder

Detail of African Garden, an oil painting by Ruth Hartley 1980

Writing black and white people, men and women, good and bad.

This is a rewrite of post on Marginal Scribbling that contains some complicated ideas that need thrashing out with other writers and readers. I intended to repost this anyway but it seemed more relevant after the launch of my novel The Tin Heart Gold Mine because I was asked by Nick Inman how I, as a white writer, wrote Black or African characters. My original post, written in response to a Thought Leader article in the South African Mail and Guardian, raised some of the issues around that question but the answers aren’t straightforward. It’s true to say that I hesitated at first about writing about black characters out of personal and political sensitivities and experiences. I then decided that even if the plot was about skin colour or racism, I was writing about people first and what they think and feel, so I simply went ahead.

Is White Writing wrong?

The South African writers who inspired me to write questioned racism and white superiority, Alan Paton, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, André Brink and J M Coetzee, opened doors onto new perceptions and empathies. They continue to illuminate the road to change. They were writers, not white writers.

The world, however, has changed enormously since the end of apartheid. Identity politics concern us and I too have to ask myself who I am and who I am writing about. Writers who write about people different from themselves are questioned as to their motivation and authority. That may be as it should be. We want to hear an authentic voice. Do we also want to prescribe limits to a writer’s imaginative and creative abilities?

Somerset Maugham says

Well, by an ironic coincidence, my latest book club read is  The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. Maugham, the novelist, is a character in his own book but says he can’t write American characters because they are foreign to him and therefore known only from observation. “You can only know them if you have lived them . . . if you are them.”1  In his view, even Henry James failed to create an Englishman after living in England 40 years. I have also heard arguments that a man can’t create a realistic woman and vice versa but in today’s world is it possible to leave out one gender completely or write a book in which there are not people of different skin colours?

Intuitive leaps

If writers don’t make their intuitive leaps into other states of being and other worlds then we’ll never understand each other. Read More and Comment …

Photo Children

Ruth HartleyFamily, Marriage2 Comments

A row of chairs sit below a row of transparent family photos lined up on a wall marked by the stains made by the removal of previous photos. The eyes of all the people in the photos are lined up so that one can see the family resemblances between the children and the photos of their parents as children

Installation of House Ghosts 1996

I don’t change

but the photos of my children

grow younger all the time.

My children are ageless too

but their recorded images

alter every year

The photo children become thin or fat

They wear braces or smiles,

spectacles or scowls.

Their hair is straight or curled,

but in their present flesh

they are constant.

My heart holds them so,

As my eyes hold them loved.

Note on the photo of the House Ghosts installation for Cambridge Open Studios

One day I moved some pictures from my dining room wall and saw that there were faint marks around the places they had been. This stirred my heart. I thought of removals and changes and the germ of an idea for this installation was born. I made transparencies from the photos of myself and my husband and all our children and framed them so that the marks on the wall behind could be seen through them when they were hung up.  There were many emotions stirred up by this installation. Every home, every house has ‘ghosts’ in it even when the same people live all their lives there – the ghosts of themselves as young, as infants, as adolescents. What I also found as I looked at the photos were the genetic ‘ghosts’ that haunt us in the physical appearance of ourselves and our children. This was also an homage to my family that was riven by divorce that year 1996.

Cambridge Open Studios is a wonderful idea started by people I knew there many years previously. Artists exhibit every year in their own studios or homes and the organisation coordinates with a catalogue and maps. I took part for many years till I left Cambridge and took part in the Artists Network Bedfordshire Open Studios.

 

All the world’s a wedding

Ruth HartleyMarriage13 Comments

A man and woman in evening dress holding champagne glasses by the front door of a ruined chateau in a bed of nettles

Ruth and John among the nettles Photo by Marianne Pascal http://www.mariannepascal.com/

What is a Marriage?

Marriage- a formal agreement between two people – the ceremony in which this agreement is made – the state of being married.

Wedding – a marriage ceremony.

Women and men are equal in law and in marriage.

“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time,  made new” Ursula K Le Guin The Lathe of Heaven

 

 

A man and woman holding champagne glasses stand in front of a tower with a tree shadow on it

Ruth and John in the shadow of the 12th century tower. Photo by Marianne Pascal http://www.mariannepascal.com/

What makes a marriage?

Love – chemistry, biology, hormones, culture, social conditioning, need, divine and genetic input woven throughout our being. A strong feeling of deep affection. Passion.

Comfort – help, kindness, relief, ease, consolation

Trust – a good marriage is based on trust as are all good human relationships

Intimacy – closeness – sex.

Time – all the years of the past, present and future.

 Who is married?

Helpmates – supportive and critical partners.

Companions – those who travel together.

Lovers – people who look at each other

Different people – people who do not know each other.

A couple in evening dress with champagne glasses in front of a ruined chateau.

Ruth and John and the ruined château of lost dreams. Photo by Marianne Pascal http://www.mariannepascal.com/

All marriages are mixed

You can share the same pillow but not the same dreams.

“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages”. Friedrich Nietzsche

“To keep your marriage brimming with love in the wedding cup, whenever you’re wrong, admit it; whenever you’re right, shut up.” Ogden Nash

“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” John Steinbeck Travels with Charlie: In search of America

 

What is essential for a couple are good friendships – those they each have and those they share with other people. Here’s a toast to our friends.

Families are complex and changing. Marriage makes individuals into families. Love, generosity, and kindness make them function.

Here’s a toast to our families.

The lovely, but ruined chateau in these photos is in our village on the banks of the Adour River. We live in a cottage nearby. Marianne took these photos.

 

Storytellers, readers, writers and reviews

Ruth HartleyReviews, Storytelling, The Shaping of Water, The Tin Heart Gold Mine, Writing2 Comments

A brown vase with pale pink roses to the left of a young girl with dark hair engrossed in a book her fist on the page and her head propped on her other hand a brown coffee mug in front of her

Painting by Ruth Hartley of her daughter reading at the breakfast table 1980

We are all storytellers. We are all readers. Some of us are writers. Not all readers write reviews but all writers need reviews and even bad ones mean that we have been noticed and read. In this post, I am going to tell you in a 4 short paragraphs, about 4 books that have given me great pleasure and that I recommend. Afterwards, I will briefly say how writing changes the way I read. I belong to an enjoyable book club and while readers never agree on all the books, the best books do get approved by most.

I, Carmela  Clara Villanueva

Cover shows a young girl in a flamenco dress with castenets

Cover of I, Carmela

This is a cracking read. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s fast-paced, funny, a little sad, interesting and the heroine is a feisty, passionate young woman who is determined to never give up in her search for love.  I recognised the locations and felt I knew the people. It’s set near Toulouse in France. Carmela is Spanish. I read it in Perpignan where I saw an exhibition about the Spanish Civil War – that is the background to Carmela’s identity. Spanish refugees like Carmela’s grandfather crossed the Pyrenees to this part of France. It’s a story about mixed-up people, in a new-age, mixed up place told by Carmela as she tries to straighten up her life and her old lovers.

The Ginger Tree Oswald Wynd

Cover shows a Japanese painting of two carp behind a net pattern

Cover of The Ginger Tree

I picked up this book with reluctance expecting a historical romance about Japan. I was stunned and seduced by the story. It is a romance, but not a conventional one. It’s a love story about Japan that starts in China. It is a love story about two people who have only sex in common because their cultural backgrounds are so different. Read More and Comment …

My story, is it a memoir, an autobiography, or a novel?

Ruth HartleyGraphic novel, Storytelling, The Tin Heart Gold Mine, Writing Process4 Comments

The image shows a long knitted road with drawing fastened to it of the samewoman at different ages

My installation, Surviving Monsters at Peleyre Gallery, is not about me but about the journey through life.

What is my novel?

“How much of your novel is an autobiography?”

It’s a good question to ask a writer.

A good question

It was asked at the launch of The Tin Heart Gold Mine, but it’s not a simple question to answer. I immediately wanted to ask the other writers there what they thought. It’s easier to answer this question sideways by referring to other authors and other books. I’ve just finished reading The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd. I loved the book, but, as a writer, I wanted to ask Wynd how he arrived at the main character. Did he know someone like that? Did he research the character? Was she entirely imagined? Was she a female version of himself? How many genders, generations, epochs and eras and cultures must a writer experience before they can write about it? How fictional can fiction be?

Fiction, non-fiction and autobiography

There are many ways in which the writing of fiction differs from the writing of an autobiography. To complicate it further, both fiction and autobiography have many differing and shared elements that go into their construction. What they have in common is that they are both constructions – artificial and invented structures for telling a story. Writers construct these inventions – story nests if you like – from their own breast feathers, lay their eggs in them, incubate them, hatch them by chipping at the shells and then feed their story babies with half-digested regurgitations from their own bodies. Read More and Comment …

June Gadsby — author of 24 multi-genre books

Ruth HartleyCreativity, Storytelling, Writing7 Comments

June Gadsby smiling

June Gadsby

This post is to introduce my neighbour, the writer June Gadsby. We have known each other for over 7 years and June has been a kind and supportive friend. June and her husband have lived in this small corner of rural France for over 20 years and her lovely home and garden have hosted many pleasant gatherings. What is very important for me, is the creative drive that we all have, the need to express ourselves and tell the stories that really matter. I do enjoy contributions and comments from writers and readers which can be shared on this blog and I am delighted to post this article about June. Writing 24 books is a tremendous achievement.

A writer all her life

June Gadsby has been writing all her life, but it took a series of lucky coincidences to see her published. Read More and Comment …

Writing and selling The Tin Heart Gold Mine

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Promotion, The Tin Heart Gold Mine, Writing6 Comments

Writers need to sell books

Writers write – rather than talk about what they write – but the current publishing market forces us to become Independent Authors and acquire self-promotional skills entirely different from writing. The idea of a book launch for The Tin Heart Gold Mine gave me sleepless nights, but, nevertheless, we decided to hold the event at the Cafe du Centre in Gascony. It’s a great place for a meal and served our large party a delicious fish and chip supper afterwards.

Book launch and promotion

Ruth sits at a table of which are spread copies of her new novel The Tin Heart Gold Mine

Ruth at the launch of her new book. Photo by Geraldine de Haan

Claudia sitting at Ruth's right opens the discussion at the launch of Ruth's new book

Claudia introduces Ruth and her new book The Tin Heart Gold Mine. Photo by Geraldine de Haan

I did, however, enjoy the book launch. I was surrounded by friends and among them was a number of writers. Both together made the evening pleasant and interesting. My friend, Claudia, facilitated the evening raising the points that she thought would interest my readers.

She suggested that we discuss the autobiographical elements in my novel, something all readers are curious about and something I promise I will enlarge on in another post.

It’s relevant as my protagonist Lara, in The Tin Heart Gold Mine, is an artist like me. We also talked about southern Africa where I have spent most of my life. Africa, as I pointed out, is not one country, but a vast continent of many different countries and peoples.

Claudia also raised the question of Lara’s development to maturity and her relationships with Tim and Oscar, two very different characters.

Nick asked how I write about black and white characters without mentioning skin colour. It’s an important question and will get a separate blog post. It’s an idea I had started to explore in my post on Surviving Monsters. Read More and Comment …