The colonisation of the spirit

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Art, Colonialism, Creativity, Gods, ZambiaLeave a Comment

Forceful ideas

There are occasions when something is said or written that strikes you with real force. A discussion between Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy over African artefacts in European museums did just that for me. It’s a topical subject right now. Emmanuel Macron is talking of the repatriation of African artworks to their homes in Africa. Way back in 1991, I was invited to a seminar about the preservation of cultural property in Livingstone, Zambia, organised by Grazyna Zaucha. I personally argued for cultural exchange and interchange as essential for human creativity, which preserves human autonomy and freedom. I saw this as a sharing of ideas both visual and actual which benefit us all and I questioned the value of an art object over its maker which I saw might enrich institutions, not culture.

The spirits have fled our culture

The image shows a cardboard box divided into 3 floors. The bottom floor contains Egyptian mummies and human bones. The middle floor shows a crowd of staring visitors to the museum. The top floor illustrates by squiggles and paper spiral the departing spirits leaving the museum
Departed Spirits. Ruth Hartley’s concept box based on the idea that museums contain funerary objects and bones from which the spirits have fled while the visitors become objects themselves.

A few years later I was on a short course at St Martin’s School of Art. We visited the British Museum and were asked to make a 3D object in response to that experience. I am still very proud of what I conceived, crude as it was. I made a cardboard Neo-Classical Museum filled with dead bodies, tombs and valuable golden objects and I showed that all the spirits, all the ghosts, all the meaning had fled away from the building. I was thinking specifically of the Egyptian tombs and other funerary exhibits at the time. I’ve always enjoyed museums but that day I felt that Europeans valued objects more than ideas. We look at statues, stained glass, and painted walls and no longer experience the spirits they were made to evoke. While colonisation is what humans have always done and will continue to do whether they colonise place, space, race, ideas or the ether, colonisation is a blind, blunt, brutal power grab that simply cannot understand what it colonises. This is why this action by France is so important for Africa and for us all.

Learning from Zambian artists

The most important thing I learned in Zambia from Zambian and African artists, was that “art” is not the stone, the bronze, the canvas, the ink, or the physical object. Art is what happens when someone interacts with the art, the act, the music, the dance the word, and with the artist’s evocation of the spirit. Art is the spiritual experience that happens in the spaces in between the art and its audience. Performance is the evocation of the other rather than the physical which occupies a liminal space that exists in time. It’s one that can only be occupied by the spiritual, the metaphysical, the ephemeral and the ineffable. I worry that today some Zambian artists may lose this understanding and only make art for money. I do know money is needed – I too, make nothing from my art and books! I need you – I need readers. You are my reason for existing.

As Sarr says, – an artefact is not just a material expression of something. For Africans, these objects do not signify the material world. For them, the world is material and spiritual. Some of the artefacts were made to witness the invisible world. It’s very interesting to compare the vision and the conceptions of what are artefacts and what are not.

The Shades of the Ancestors

It’s gratifying to discover that one’s instincts about art, culture, and spirituality are understood and shared by other thinkers and creators. I am working on a children’s story about two Zambian kids who are sent on a quest to a museum in Europe by the Shades of their Ancestors. They have to find a mask that is needed for a rain festival because without it the spirits cannot come. They must bring it home to their village. The theft of important ritual objects from Africa continues as I write.

Museums are wonderful and important

Don’t get me wrong. Museums matter. Museums change and increasingly curators are committed to preserving not just the physical object but the spiritual subject too. I learned so much from my visit to the Quai Branly museum of African art in Paris. Many years ago I visited the Livingstone Museum. Two things struck me with force. One was the small amount of money paid to Zambia by the colonial company who acquired its copper mines. The other was the living spirits testified to by the curators, that danced around the ritual objects kept at that time in the museum basement.

Heavy books, light books, eBooks and my books

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Apartheid, Bookbinding, Books, Colonialism, Creativity, Politics, Promotion, Publication, Reading, Reviews, Songs, Storytelling, Writing, Writing Process2 Comments

The books of my childhood

When I was a kid, few of us had bookshelves of children’s stories at home. There were fewer books for children and they were solid tomes. I was lucky. My mother took me to the only public library, the Queen Victoria Library in Salisbury, Rhodesia. It was a remarkable 50 year-old building, but that was of no interest to me. I wanted to go inside to the rows of greyish-green hardback books in the children’s section and find a book I hadn’t yet read. Remembering that library and those books didn’t make me feel sentimental, but it did explain why writers like me face huge difficulties in finding readers right now, in 2019.


eBooks and digital publishing

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a technophobe. I love my Kindle and the enormous library it transports so lightly across continents whenever I fly. I love the fact that someone I’ve never met, at the other end of the planet, can discover my book in the cloud and download it in a twinkle of time. I find it exciting that my books are space travellers with audible voices – Read More and Comment …

Tall stories, true stories, lies, fiction, facts and truth-telling

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Apartheid, Books, Family, Poetry, Reading, South Africa, Storytelling, The Love and Wisdom Crimes, The Spiral-Bound Notebooks, When I Was Bad, Writing, Writing ProcessLeave a Comment

Writing fictions, memoirs and versions of my truth

In the last few months I have published three books.

The first is a novel, the second is a book of poetry, the inspiration on which the novel is based and the third is a memoir.

They are – The Love and Wisdom Crimes

A coming-of-age adventure story about a young white woman who discovers that in apartheid South Africa, it is dangerous to love a revolutionary and a crime to love someone black.

The Spiral-Bound Notebooks

Poems from southern Africa that inspired The Love and Wisdom Crimes.

When I Was Bad: A Memoir.

I recount my first year in London as an exile and the unmarried mother of a mixed-race child in the Swinging Sixties.

Writing these three books challenged me in ways that I didn’t expect because I had to engage with the truth of the stories I tell.  It was a fascinating aspect of writing that I imagine all writers have to consider. The close relationship of these three books to each other and to me certainly focussed my mind on the delights Read More and Comment …

Words, the power of words and the work of wordsmiths

Ruth HartleyBooks, Creativity, Gods, Politics, Power, Writing, Writing Process, Zambia2 Comments

“For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

Words and editing

Rain Queen with children in tree

Makemba, the Wise Woman of the Garden with Chipo and Chibwe in the Rainforest. There is a Rainbird, a Honeyguide, and bees in the fig tree. Ruth Hartley

I’m engaged in a major rewrite of my children’s book The Drought Witch. It’s an exciting task expanding a children’s picture book into a novel for 9 to13-year-olds but the interesting work is in the editing and paring down of my words to make them work well. This major commitment is keeping me fully occupied at the moment. I love the way Ursula Le Guin describes writing so she can speak for what I aspire to do. I have been mentored by Sandra Glover, a successful children’s author and consultant arranged by Cornerstones Literary Agency. It’s a good experience and my book is taking shape well.

Chipo and Chibwe, school-children, make a perilous journey through the heart of modern and magical Africa to save their parents’ farm from drought and climate change.

A writer is a person who uses words carefully

Ursula K. Le Guin

“A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art Read More and Comment …

Lily and the baby that is the colour of love

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Displacement, Human rights, identity, Migration, Race, Racism, Songs, Storytelling, The Love and Wisdom Crimes, Writing2 Comments

That song about Lily, the pretty migrant from Djibouti

This is a photo of Waris Dirie, a woman who had a real experience similar to the mythical Lily and who is a campaigner against FGM

Once again on Tuesday evening, the Krama Singers rehearsed the Pierre Perret 1977 protest song about Lily, who came to France in a ship full of immigrants ready to collect garbage in Paris. It’s a song I’ve grown to love as I’ve grown to love France – though I also see its faults! You can listen to Lily here! I have added the English translation below.

“She loved liberty so much, Lily,

She dreamed of fraternity, Lily,”

It reminded me of how I felt when I first arrived in London in 1966. This is the setting for my memoir, When I Was Bad.


Dreams and Realities

Street seller of Eiffel towers in Paris

Banksy mural in Paris about migration

Lily thinks that in the country of Voltaire and Hugo everybody will be equal, but Perret points out that on Debussy’s piano one white note is worth two black notes and that’s quite a difference.

Lily finds that hotels only welcome whites. She unloads crates, does all sorts of dirty jobs, and yells out “Cauliflowers for sale!” against the background noise of immigrants working jackhammers.

Lily is smart. When she is called Snow White by racists Read More and Comment …