I loved this. A fat slab of a book with pages to keep me deep in the story for days. Enough of a story that me — being out of practice with reading lately — couldn’t keep straight all the characters and peoples and factions and histories. The last novel I read like this was Saladin Ahmed’s brilliant Throne of the Crescent Moon, which seems very unlikely to be getting a sequel, as he’s off doing mad words for comics these days — which, for anyone who remembers his long Twitter dives into Golden Age comics, is probably his true home anyway.
Cairo, Djinn, the Ottoman Empire, Iraq, Iran, Central Asia, the Amu Darya, Afghanistan, East Turkestan (yes, I know that last one is awkward), Islamicate worlds where Europe sits far on the fringe, barely mentioned beyond the first chapter where it is already an “away, over there”. This was one on my list, along with a number of other authors, as part of an irregular, waxing and waning effort to read science-fiction and fantasy by non-Anglo-American women and non-binary authors. As usual, no idea where I first saw it, possibly the monthly New Reading list on io9, or maybe on the Twit. Well, I failed with the non- bit, cos S.A. is a white cisgender USA-ian.
I read G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen a few years ago, and (from memory) thought it slipped into awkward orientalism, and there’s a tendency for white converts to Islam (I kinda prefer to say ‘returning to’, but for the Anglo-American lot ‘convert’ is more apt) to be hella strict in going for Arabic, Sunni derivatives, like that’s the only Islam there is, and wrapping themselves up in a holier-than-thou Hijab. Fam, Islam don’t gotta be like that. S.A. doesn’t rock a hijab. Truth, when I saw her name, I thought, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and I live for the day that one ever writes sci-fi or fantasy.
S.A. spent time in Cairo, has done the study, speaks clearly about understanding her place as a white American woman writing Islamic fantasy and history, and her acknowledgements were filled with names that would know what she’s writing about. All that, plus interviews I’ve read with her, plus just how she wrote this story before I knew all these details, I believed it. It brings me a small joy for a story to begin with such unremarkable inclusion of Adhan call to Fajr (that’s the call to dawn prayer, or Sabah namazı), to have Islam so fundamental to a story — not as signifier of whatever white culture wants to denigrate, but a mundane thing which is lived in the world daily. It’s her debut, and frankly a banger, so I’m going to refrain right here from the usual high-class and bourgie criticism-ing I do — except please print it on better paper stock, she deserves so much better. Oh! And it’s the first of a trilogy. I’ll probably have read this again before the second part comes out.
A couple of years ago, I was at a conference in Berlin, Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation. The last speaker was this trans woman punk from Italy, whose proposal for some kind of anarchist feminist utopia included slamming Islam and conflating it with terrorism.
This was followed by question time, which was kinda awkward ’cos everyone heard what she said and I was sitting there cursing and fucking under my breath. So I got up and returned the slamming. To which she replied with, “Oh, I was talking about ISIS, not all Muslims.” More muttering from me to those I was sitting with, “Nah, you said Islam, we all heard you, we know what you mean, and I’m not touching that reply of yours.”
After the conference, a friend of Ms. V.’s came up to me, he said, “Have you seen The Taqwacores?”
It’s the last Friday of Ramadan. A month ago I had no intention of doing this. The Friday evening before Ramadan started, I had a chat with myself, something like, “Just do the first day, you don’t have to do the whole month, just the first day.” “Awww but Sahūr, Frances, it’s at 230am, and Iftar’s at 930pm.” “Ok, so just have breakfast when you usually do, and then go till İftar.” “But that’s not Ramadan.” Can you hear me whining? I was whining. “You do what you can, that’s all. If that’s what you can do, even if only for one day, that’s what you do for that one day.” “But—” “Just one day, babe, just the first day, just for your Gran, that’s all.”
One day turned into another, into a week, into two, into a month. And here I am at the last Friday of Ramadan. Still here, still doing what I can.
This isn’t a post about why I do Ramadan, or how I do or don’t justify not doing it strictly — which for some is the same as not doing it at all. I know why I do it, just as we all have our personal reasons for doing it. I know who I am and where I come from.
Islam is a fucking surrender.
Knowing that you don’t run the show, staying mindful of it in everything you do.
Take your hands off the wheel. See how it feels.
Islam isn’t about ayats and hadiths, and niches, and lamps.
It’s about us. All of us.
Allah’s too big and too open for my Islam to be small and closed.
I’m so Muslim. I am so Muslim.
I can say fuck Islam.
You know Imam Husain said,
“He has no religion, let him at least be free in his present life.”
All the Victoria & Albert Museum. Well, all the mediæval stuff. That I could find. Plus some renaissance stuff, and a couple of other nice pieces. Masses of art from a Sunday afternoon with the awesome Jennifer Evans for company. Shared hangover also. In the sun in the courtyard garden. Romping the halls and galleries.
I saw: half of Level 0; less than a third of Level 1; a bit under half of Level 2; not much more than a quarter of Level 3; nothing of Levels 4 and 5; dunno if Level 6 even exists. All that in five hours until I got kicked out. I get booted from museums at closing time like most people get booted from bars, pubs, and clubs.
I missed: The brilliant Würzburg St. Maurice wooden statue because … I dunno. Was the room closed? Did I think there was nothing in the next room? Like many museums, incompleteness is a reason to return, to the city and the museum.
Best thing: It’s free! Blimey! So was the National Gallery. What kind of witchcraft is that where museums are free? Other best thing: It’s organised by material as well as chronologically. Which is frankly awesome. Another best thing: It was packed. And I mean packed. They must get millions of visitors a year. Yay, art! (Good estimate based on a single day, Frances: 3.5 million in 2015.)
How many photos did you take, Frances? A shade over 300, including captions. And how many have you blogged? This is the bit that always embarrasses me when I’ve finished editing them all: 111. The number’s kinda like an objective remark on my tendency towards excessive fun. I mean it’s not like I’m banging heroin anymore, is it? Museums it is, then.
I took another diversion through the Asian Collection again before heading up one of the many sets of stairs to Level 2. More mediæval art. I was kinda committed to it at this stage, as much as I wanted to go off at random. I could have spent the whole day on the ground floor, working my way through the Asias. One thing I really liked here, and I reckon it has a lot to do with both the museum being free to visit, and London having a far more confident mob of people from more recent-ish immigration backgrounds — even the Mayor, the most awesome and we can all agree pretty bloody fine Sadiq Khan, son of a Pakistani immigrant bus driver — was so many people were not the default white / northern European I see in Berlin museums. Plus I find it entirely awesome when I see groups of young guys running around the Middle East, South Asia, and Islamic collections getting really excited about the pieces cos they identify with them and see themselves or their history in them. This is something I genuinely miss and struggle with in Berlin, the monoculturalisation and paucity of the rest of us in — I don’t know exactly what to call it — in mainstream German/-ic culture. It feels to me that in London at least (despite the white nationalism of Brexit and all) immigrants of any generation are Londoners / British / not sure the most applicable appellation here, but you get what I mean, in a way I feel the comparable groups in Germany are not and perhaps will never be allowed to be. I miss that confidence and feel in Berlin being an immigrant or just somehow being marked as an outsider means keeping your head down, constantly scanning in case whoever walking towards you on the street is going to bring one of the so many forms of bullshit with them.
I was also thinking, as I plundered the Level 2 mediæval stuff, that it might be time to properly go eastwards and indulge my enthusiasm for Islamicate and Persian art as much as I do old European stuff.
There’s a couple of pieces here (The Adoration of the Kings, images 1 and 2; Descent from the Cross, images 9 and 10) are only details because I couldn’t photograph through glass. One of the most spectacular pieces is the wooden altarpiece by (probably) Giovanni Angelo del Maino and Tiburzio del Maino (images 3-7). This is simply extravagant and endlessly intricate. The detail is in the crush of the public arrayed along three levels and decreasing in size as they move higher and further back. The three crucifixes stick like masts high above the mass, the flanking pair bowing outwards in the emptiness, a forest of spears, halberds, and pikes at their feet. Lower left, the first figure above the predella is a woman breastfeeding. There’s children everywhere. In the predella itself, the central panel is the Adoration of the Shepherds, which I saw a lot of in London.
Plenty of other beautiful pieces. The Dish with a Couple and an Inscription by Workshop of Giacomo Mancini I loved because it’s secular, and one of the first pieces I saw that went this way; Plate with Three Graces by Workshop of Maestro Giorgio because it goes into Greek mythology; the various Virgin and Childs all of which so different from each other. The out of that and into Cast of Judith and Holofernes, from the original by Donatelli. It’s in the Simon Sainsbury Gallery high up on a plinth, suitably brutal and awful.
Up to Level 3. I spent a long time in the Materials and Techniques sections, a lot of design in metal, glass, enamel, porcelain, silver. I didn’t photograph much; there was far too many pieces to even think coherently about. Even with a full day I doubt I’d get through everything. Two to three days would be probable. So I finished with stained glass.
There’s a brilliant, small piece, Christ as the Man of Sorrows, with the Imago Pietatis, what I call a Bynum (because of her work, Wonderful Blood), Jesus literally dripping blood and filling a bath with it, the objects of his torture arrayed around him. I’ve never seen this subject on glass and despite being from the mid-1600s, it looks like it belongs three hundred years earlier. Then lucky last, The Adoration of the Magi by (possibly) Master of the Holy Kindred, another work massive and far above me (so it’s a little distorted from straightening it out). And shortly after I got kicked out. Out into the late-afternoon sun, onto a bus and see London pass by for an hour as I northwards home.
Speaking of massive altarpieces, here we go. Level 1 of Victoria & Albert Museum, the ground floor entrance, lofty, airy ceilings and art stretching up to them. It’s a bit like the Bode Museum for scale of art and architecture. Unlike the Bode, it’s packed. People are promenading like it’s life’s greatest accomplishment to wander around mediæval art. Which it is.
I’m first taken by The Troyes Altarpiece. We’re getting into very Late Mediæval / Early Renaissance here, and it’s not the most virtuoso altarpiece I’ve seen, it’s in limestone so the finesse possible in wood isn’t here, but it has a solidity and depth, like exaggerated perspective between the foreground and background figures. It’s not even especially large compared to The Brixen Altarpiece, which is so huge it’s impossible to look up at without seeing converging lines. Because photographs turn everything, no matter how big or small, into objects of the same dimension and all scale is lost, my head is about level with the heads of the four saints in the predella of The Brixen Altarpiece.
There were also several works I couldn’t or didn’t photograph, either because they were under glass, or I was too hasty. The Brixen Altarpiece was only one of many similarly gigantic altarpieces; The St Margaret Altarpiece was another. An especially fine Northern Germanic piece of a saint I rarely see, and certainly never with her life and torture so disturbingly depicted. This was made around the same time as The Brixen Altarpiece, yet shows the style that continued to develop north of the Alps, distinct from the Renaissance in Italy.
And then there’s Andrea della Robbia’s The Adoration of the Kings, also around the same time and from Italy, in tin-glazed terracotta, and very much committed to Renaissance and even anticipating the Baroque. I think this is one of the V&A’s more famous pieces, and it’s gorgeous in real life. It exemplifies the character of the V&A collections. They’re concerned with materiality; the works on display emphasise the diversity of choice of materials, of techniques, of aesthetics, making the museum as much a place of science and technology as art.
Last piece in these rooms, Perino del Vaga’s The Raising of Lazarus I mention because I realised I’m attracted to works like this fresco, or some of the preparatory sketches or unfinished works (I’m thinking of Pieter Brueghel’s De Aanbiddung der Wijzen here) where there’s a softness and visible exploratory process.
From there, I went into the Cast Courts, where I knew I had no hope; the V&A had been playing with me up to then. It wasn’t quite Louvre scale of tiny people in epic architecture, but for sure reminded me of it. So I got lost trying to find the sculpture corridors, completely missed the St. Mauritius sculpture in the last room (I still have no idea if I was inattentive or if it wasn’t open), turned around, got lost in acres of the Asian collection (Persian miniatures are my thing and I almost put the brakes on the rest of my mediævaling for this and the Islamic collection), found the Raphael rooms—he’s really not my thing, I think people like him because they confuse their fascination with a kind of seductive, transfixing blandness for the sublime, a lot like how people do over the Mona Lisa—the altarpiece was impressive the way the megalith is in 2001—also not Raphael but the ‘Master of the Centenar’ (possible German painter Andrès Marçal de Sas)—sometimes I wish museums put multi-level viewing platforms (with binoculars) in front of these towering pieces, but that’s just because I love smearing my nose right up against the art. Then I’m off up the stairs to Levels 2 and 3.
Enter via the Tube. Any city where you get off the subway and there’s a direct entrance into a museum is a proper city. The Victoria & Albert Museum, or V&A was on my, ‘probably worth a quick perv’ list, but I had no idea what I was in for. Six massive floors of art, pilfered from around the world? Oh, yes! I turned up on a very sunny Sunday with Jenn, both squinting with a bit of a hangover. She works in the British Library, in the Asian and African Reading Rooms, full of stuff from the Dunhuang Buddhist caves — something for my next visit to London. We spent at least an hour not budging from the lawn of the courtyard before going down into mediæval land.
The rooms of the Medieval & Renaissance 300 – 1500 collection is quietly spectacular. What distinguishes V&A from other museums I’ve visited is how they understand the inseparable history of art and design. In Berlin’s Staatliche Museen you get paintings in the Gemäldegalerie, sculpture in Bode Museum, and arbitrary divisions putting a bunch of pieces that are too 3-dimensional to be painting but not enough to be sculpture in one or the other. By looking at the materiality of the works (and I’m thinking of Caroline Walker Bynum’s Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe here) there’s not such a need to force arbitrary categories (though I’m aware the National Gallery is also full of altarpieces as paintings), and we get works in ivory, metal, wood, glass, stone, and any combination of these that seemed appropriate to the artist. Further, there’s a seamless flow from Early to High Middle Ages, where frequently I see Early split off into more archæological contexts, and High as art proper.
Many of the early works — from around 400 to 1100 — are small pieces in walrus ivory, with stone becoming more prevalent in the 1100s, and highly competent techniques in all materials developing in the following couple of hundred years. One of my favourite shifts happens with International Gothic, where the flat, verticality of bodies suddenly burst into movement, things flourish and flow everywhere as if caught in a fresh breeze, and the public begins to appear in the picture: individuals, groups, crowds arrive to fill the vision and comment on the main action. And I can’t choose between this or the styles they supersede. Or rather seem to swing between. When I look at The Deposition from the Cross (image 3) or Fragment from a Deposition (image 9), both from the mid-late-1100s, and compare them with The Symmachi Panel (image 1), Front Cover of the Lorsch Gospels (image 2), and Panel with the Adoration of the Kings (image 15) from 400, 800, and early-mid-1100 respectively, all from variously Germany, England, Italy, Spain, I see a shifting back and forth between ideas of representation that don’t strictly propose progressive development or evolution — at least maybe until the Late Middle Ages.
I mention those pieces also because I find them beautiful and even strange, like the popping eyes of Panel with the Adoration of the Kings, or the intricate opulence of the Tabernacle (images 4-8), which looks like it should unfurl with mechanical glory. One of my favourites is the small Portable Altarpiece (images 27 and 28) by the Master of the Louis XII Triptych, in painted enamel on copper, which the V&A describe at length. My photos are more faithful to the original, but still don’t do service to the sublime colours, shadows, movement. I also love the Tapestry (images 29-31), because it depicts a woman “in fashionable dress undertaking a spiritual journey … she finally enters a convent” and I imagine it’s the story of Hildegard of Bingen or Mechthild of Magdeburg. As well, it’s an entire work of art devoted to a woman’s life and story, which is something I love mediæval art for.
Master Bertram’s Triptych with Scenes from the Apocalypse (images 32-37) is frankly scary bonkers. The V&A have an excellent article on the decision whether to clean the altarpiece — in fact their entire journal archive is worth losing a week or two in. I’m not sure why Jesus has a green-black face, but that’s what he has. There’s so much to see in this triptych, it’s worth opening the images and scrolling around their vastness.
As usual there were plenty of pieces I didn’t or couldn’t photograph (even really good lighting and presentation doesn’t mean a photographable work will result), plus this was only one half of one floor and I had no idea how overwhelmed I was going to get. Up the stairs and into Level 1 for more mediæval awesomeness.
Despite my hostility to labels, be they social, cultural, medical, legal, it’s obvious that most people define and reduce people only to labels and categories. And knowing that I can appear to those people as not belonging to those categories they desire to annihilate, and thus seem to be “one of them”; and knowing that despite my own definition of self being seldom and very much ambivalently on those terms — terms which are some of the least interesting parts of me — nonetheless for them this is what I am, this is all I am.
So this is me putting my arse on the line and being counted:
Here’s one more woman, here’s one more bi, here’s one more trans, here’s one more queer, here’s one more — as they like to say in Germany — of Muslim immigrant background.
Because even though I want to have a private life, and don’t want to be the object of public scrutiny, and I’m afraid of the discrimination and dehumanisation that comes with being such an object, for many there isn’t this choice. And irrespective of the fact I am not public about this, I’ve nonetheless had to live through it, live through being this.
Because my grandmother was Muslim and Turkish, and every time I see another Muslim woman treated like shit I think of her, of that being done to her.
It’s not an easy exhibition to see — I went twice and both times felt well deeply disturbed at humanity during and after — and not an easy exhibition to blog about. I took around 350 photos, half of those of the lengthy captions, and cutting the 175 potentially bloggable images down to a feasible 87 meant diverging from the coherent narrative of the exhibition. So there are gaps; only seeing the exhibition or buying the hefty catalogue can give a proper account. And giving an account, firstly I need to thank Boris Nitzsche in the press department who arranged my visit and for me to take photos, as DHM special exhibitions are camera-free zones.
Secondly: a content warning. The exhibition contains images and documentation of genocide. Some of my photos are of this and of people who were murdered. I back-and-forthed with myself constantly over whether to include these images at all, but it felt like an erasing to only write of this and not include them. Yet these people who were murdered have no say in how they are represented, indeed for many if not all the only photographs and documentation of them ever made is of their suffering and death. And unlike the Jewish holocaust, it was only in 2015 that Germany officially called their extermination of the Herero and Namaqua in German South-West Africa (Namibia) genocide, yet still refuse reparations. Besides that genocide, massacres and atrocities were commonplace in all of Germany’s colonies.
Besides the difficulty in choosing which images to blog, there was the issue of context. This exhibition has it. All of the pieces require context, and it’s a first for me to say an exhibition was not lacking in this regard. Most of the images or image sets had at least a paragraph accompanying the caption giving the work a frame of reference. Additionally, exhibition sections and sub-sections all had long introductory texts and frequently booklets. And then there was the audio guide, which would turn a three-hour visit into a full day endeavour. There was a massive amount of work put into preparing and translating this. And with this need for context here also, I’ve been struggling with what to write, to explain what these images are showing.
While there are plenty of works of art, this exhibition primarily functions as a documentation of history, and in this art is turned to further the purposes of propaganda and imperialism. There are very few paintings, but coinciding with the arrival of film photography gives an abundance of photographs throughout the colonial period. The central piece for me is not art. It’s nothing much to look at. A large, hardcover parchment with a mess of red wax seals pinning down a red, black and white thread forming columns on the left sides of the facing pages; to their right, a scrawl of signatures. This is the General Record of the Berlin Africa Conference (image 33, below) on February 26th, 1885, signed by the state representatives of the 13 European nations (and the United States) formalising the dividing up the continent of Africa into colonies.
The German colonial empire: German West Africa, now Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Guinea, Central African Republic, Ghana, and Togo; German East Africa, now Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda; German South-West Africa, now Namibia; German New Guinea, now Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Northern Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, and Samoa. Prior to the German Empire, there were Brandenburg-Prussian colonies from the late-1600s til early-1700s; Habsburg colonies of the 1700s in Ghana, Mauritania, Bénin, the Caribbean and Americas, Nicobar islands; and concessions in China in Tianjin, Jiaozhou, and Yantai. By the standards of France or Britain, Germany was a minor player, coming late to the party and lasting barely thirty years (excluding merchant companies prior to the conference, which began in the 1850s). I listed all the colonies and current nations, some of which became colonies of other empires before achieving independence so it would be clear what is meant by German colonialism. It is a daunting list. But it helps to be reminded the extent of European colonisation: All or nearly all of the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Pacific. It requires less space to simply list the few countries and regions never colonised.
January 26th was Invasion Day, what the National Day of Australia is properly called, marking as it does the arrival of the First Fleet. In the discussion of colonies, whether German, British, or other, I noticed the onus was on providing evidence genocide or systematic massacre occurred; lesser-known colonies with comparatively lesser-known histories seemed to get the benefit of the doubt in wavering between did it or didn’t it happen. So German South-West Africa is now unequivocally, officially the site of genocide. Yet the same practices occurred in all of Germany’s colonies to some degree — as if genocide has degrees. Rather than have to prove this in each individual case, it seems more honest to say the fundamental aim and purpose of all colonies wherever they were was and is extermination.
I don’t have a transition into the less grim aspects of the exhibition, so I’ll bash on.
Photographs and biographies of multiethnic marriages, and of couples and families living in Germany back to the mid-late-19th century; Portraits of figures as far back as the early 1700s who came to Europe often as slaves yet went on to study and have careers and lives in Europe — even when they remain morally unadmirable, like Jacobus Capitein who defended slavery. Post-World War II, it’s notable how involved East Germany was in anti-imperialism and solidarity with what was then called the Third World. Afro-deutsche in West-Berlin, and Black History Month in reunified Berlin.
I’m not sure I’m doing this justice. It’s an extremely relevant exhibition, one that the museum have done a careful job of preparing and presenting, and one that both times I visited was packed. It’s a little too massive for me to be able to make coherent thoughts or criticisms about. Perhaps my primary criticism or question is of what value it has. Germany is adept at regarding its past and admitting guilt. Yet Germany’s awareness in specific instances does not seem to easily translate into understanding the repetition of behaviour or thinking in others. The ongoing struggle for recognition and compensation in Namibia is the most obvious example, but similar valid claims in other former colonies are far less likely to make even that progress. Indeed, would likely provoke a racket in Germany of the “Just how much do we have to be guilty for?” kind. Which is the point: The inability to see the unbroken line between the racist ideology of Kant and other still esteemed German philosophers, 19th century imperialism leading to genocide in the 20th century in colonies and then across Europe, the current failure to accept Germany is already multicultural, and the increasingly pervasive anti-Muslim / anti-brown people rhetoric.
While the exhibition is about Germany’s own colonial history, and I’ve been talking specifically about Germany, as that signed and sealed document demonstrates, all of Europe was involved, and Europe along with all the former colonies remain infected with this ideology. Each country in Europe has its own unique variation on this identical form of white supremacism. I would like to hope for an exhibition in a hundred years where this 500 year chapter of European history and its effect on the rest of us is forever closed, but I suspect we’re not going to make it.
An addendum: I bought and read Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out a couple of months after seeing this. In part it documents the inter- and post-war eugenics, sterilisations, and removal of children from their mothers in Germany, something the exhibition didn’t cover, which made me question what I wrote above about the ‘careful job’ done in presenting Germany’s colonial history. It seems even now, some history is less amenable to museum exhibitions and curators than others.