Reading: S. A. Chakraborty — The City of Brass

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.

S. A. Chakraborty — The City of Brass
S. A. Chakraborty — The City of Brass

Gallery

Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Albertinum Galerie Neue Meister: Max Slevogt

Max Slevogt! I’m devoting an entire post to him! And why wouldn’t I when the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’s Albertinum Galerie Neue Meister gave him a whole room? If you go onto their website and have a perv at the virtual tour for Galerie Neue Meister, you see something quite different. Ungrouped paintings, Degas next to Slevogt all over the place. Now, you leave one room having correctly fallen in love with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Eisenbahnüberführung Löbtauer Straße in Dresden and you’re thrown across into North Africa.

All but one of these paintings comes from his trip to Egypt in 1914, and together in one room, what a treat. The odd one out is Bildnis der Tänzerin Anna Pawlowa from 1909, but who cares? It’s Pavlova! I love paintings of dancers! And anyway, she’s dead jaunty in a costume that looks like it’s from Petipa’s The Pharaoh’s Daughter or one of Ballet Russes’ pieces, like Cléopâtre from the same year. And you have to look at her facial expression. Also the brushwork. Closeup, her torso and hips merge into the background without any clear boundary. For an impressionist painter, there’s a lot that resembles expressionism.

All around are these dozen or more works with bright sky and land. It’s not the full set of 21 works, and I’m also not sure I successfully photographed them all, but it’s a rare display. I’m torn a little between liking these too much and the awareness this kind of orientalism came at the peak of European imperial colonialism, after centuries of slavery, and when the colonies of Africa, the Middle East, … all the colonies, Australia, Canada, all of them were sites of genocide. And there’s no way I can look at these works and know how a European audience in 1914 regarded them, whether they saw these people as their equals in some way, or whether it fed and confirmed their belief in their own superiority, culturally, racially.

Not long before this, from 1891 until his death in 1903, Gauguin was in Tahiti. It’s useful to compare the two, their similarities and differences. Both of them seem to have a sympathy for their subjects, but whereas Gauguin’s works are unequivocally those of a person who knew these women (much like I think of Rubens and the person of his Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor), Slevogt’s are more like holiday snapshots, or memories. He never gets close to them, either physically or in the intangible way I see in Rubens and Gauguin. I think you can see this clearly in Bildnis der Tänzerin Anna Pawlowa, it’s staged, she’s pulling moves, giving him what he wants, though he doesn’t really comprehend what a dancer is; it’s his idea of a dancer rather than the person themself. So in Egypt we see ideas of people who when he is absent live lives that have little to do with the tourist who passed them by.

Contradicting all that, to see two muslim women standing side by side, or the interior of a mosque or madrasa during class, or a group of men sitting outside a café, these images are more than what they might be reduced to. They’re representations, and like photographs, like ethnology or anthropology or musicology or … artists also document history and culture and it’s possible for people now to see themselves here, to see their own history.

They’re also mad impressive altogether in one room. Photographs on a blog simply can’t explain that. You walk into a room, leaving Germany, leaving expressionism, and you’re in North Africa. And to put them in a single room without other works to diminish this, that’s very good museuming.

Gallery

Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes — 3: XVIIIe-XXe salles & L’exposition temporaire

The left wing of Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes continues the right’s 18th century works first, more heavy glazing and daylight through uncovered glass. More assembling images from multiple shots. Quite a few didn’t make it. All of the riotous close-ups of Francois-Louis-Joseph Watteau’s La Bataille des pyramides didn’t either. Check your focus, Frances.

We get into a kind of post-mythological orientalism around here. Works like Jules Vincent Rigo’s Le Baptême de Clovis and Félix Auvray’s Socrate détachant Alcibiade des charmes de la volupté play with this, using elements of Baroque art—the theatrical, heroic settings, an indulgence of exoticism, and sliding into the explicitly orientalist in Antoine Jean’s Cheval arabe, when North Africa and the Levant became the subject of an anthropological documentary style of painting.

More Romani in Félix Haffner’s Halte de bohémiens, 1848, then the exquisite rendering of the woman’s clothing in Jean-Victor Schnetz’s Religieux secourant une pauvre pélerine, and then I’m spat out of the permanent collection into the temporary one, Rêveries italiennes: Watteau & les paysagistes français au XVIIIe siècle. Pretty much couldn’t photograph anything here because of dim light, shadows and glare—and no, I have no answer to how to light works that are glazed and dark tones. I do know using un-diffused spots for lighting is idiotic. The exhibition centres around a recently rediscovered work of Watteau, La Chute d’eau and northern European artists’ attraction to Tivoli.

There are goats.

One a Titian, Paysage à la chèvre, and one after him by Anne Claude Philippe de Tubières, comte de Caylus (and that’s the shortened version of his name).

Back into the permanent collection. A small bronze statue by Degas, Femme sortant du Bain, which because it’s him naturally looks like a dancer—which I like seeing in art and make an exception for him despite his right-wing personality and skeevy perving on young girls.

Finally, two 20th century artists from Valenciennes and surrounds, Pierre Bisiaux’s Saint-Tropez and Jules-Henri Lengrand’s Baigneuses. I just like these both, that’s all.

Gallery

Neues Museum: Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung

After a quick clip through the Alte Nationalgalerie’s Impressionismus – Expressionismus exhibition (a museum-touristy afternoon for Ms. V., visiting from VNS-Matrix-land) we headed west to the Neues Museum. This is entirely incomplete. We had less than an hour, were already worn out from the usual Staatliche Museen zu Berlin approach to art (Quantity? Jawohl!) and no fixed plan of what to do once through the doors.

Mostly gawp open-mouthedly at one of the most beautiful—and certainly most haunting—museums I’ve ever been in. As I’m intending to go back and wander the floors properly, this is sort of a note to myself. I no nothing of Egyptology, except any and all messing with Pharaonic stuff leads to visits from the Blackness Outside Time—that includes museum visits. My run through the Neues Museum was largely, “Ooo! Old Stuff! I have no context for these things!” and likely will stay that way for the coming decade (mediæval art has priority). The building is an archaeological monument in itself and I spent as much time photographing that as the objects it encases—objects it was made one with during the last days of World War II.

Reading: Jonathan Strahan (ed.) — Fearsome Journeys: The New Solaris Book of Fantasy

This one I ordered entirely because it has a piece by my new favourite author, Saladin Ahmed, he of Throne of the Crescent Moon, which is extremely likely to appear very high on my books of the year list, and whose Twitter is equal with current Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s for personal enjoyment. Ahmed writes hmm, how to describe? demonic working class Persian sorcerer fantasy. I decided to read him because it’s so rare to find scifi or fantasy that isn’t in the default or implicit white hetero male paradigm, both in content and authorship and immediately wished he’d already more than one work in print.

So, Fearsome Journeys: The New Solaris Book of Fantasy, in which he has a story I’ve just finished. Here’s also how I decided to buy this: 1, 2, 2-1, hmm not sure, 2-2, 3-2, 4-2, 4-3, 5-3, 5-4, 5-5 (ok 2 but one story) (worked it out yet?), 6-5 … ok 6 male-named authors, 5 female-named, and one determinedly non-committal. I mentioned this before with the (disappointing) Iain Banks book, that it’s rare to get more than a 30% turnout of female-named people in any setting, and that’s my threshold for whether or not I’ll buy a book, so a 50%-ish split qualifies as revolutionary.

Fantasy then. I realised as I was enjoying Scott Lynch’s brilliant story that the difference for e between scifi and fantasy is the former I can plausibly imagine being real (possibly why I generally don’t enjoy traditional Space Opera such as Hyperion; there’s scant actual reference to today’s world – though Iain Bank’s space opera (like Excession) does work for me because it’s based on a conceptual culture that is transferrable to this), while fantasy, as much as I enjoy it at times, is really not likely to be a future we evolve to, nor does it often rest on a conceptual world which can serve as a philosophical example for this. Or to put it as I did to a friend recently when being asked what anarchist texts I’d read, I replied that Banks’ Culture was largely responsible for my socio-political musings.

I’m reading this strictly for enjoyment then, with the hope of perhaps tripping over some new authors I haven’t yet heard of who compel me to buy all their works, perhaps even ones who cross blithely between skiffy and fantasy. Two stories in, I’m having a great time, feet propped up, coffee being drunk, stinking cheese on thick German bread being ate, a small stash of fresh figs and dates nearby, windows open letting in the tattered remains of summer. Books! Bloody hell, they’re good!

Jonathan Strahan (ed.) — Fearsome Journeys
Jonathan Strahan (ed.) — Fearsome Journeys

the sound of the people gives me hope

There has not been enough of this in my lifetime.

It’s almost 4am, I should be going to sleep but all I want to do is …

Hosni Mubarak resigns as Egypt prez: Video of Tahrir square first reaction

The Egyptian people have toppled Mubarak, an extraordinary moment, but the regime has not been toppled, not yet.
‘This Is Who Egyptians Are’
Iran: Hope, Joy, Envy as Egypt Breaks Free
Egypt: The Vlog before the Revolution
Egypt: The World Rejoices as Mubarak Resigns
Mubarak steps down. Egypt Uprising wins the first round…
Triumph as Mubarak quits
What next for Egypt?
Where does Mubarak go now? [Updated]
Timeline: Egypt unrest
Egypt: The Moment of Triumph
Twitter: #egypt, #jan25

cairo’s modern dance festival

Walid Aouni, the founder of Cairo Opera’s Modern Dance Theatre has just finished the fifth Festival of Modern Dance, which is loaded with local and international performances, and has just returned after a two year break. Naturally being contemporary dance, some the audience was not happy with the lack of tutus and no simple soap-opera narrative. Al-Ahram had an interview with the director on the festivals successes and failures,

“This happens because audiences don’t always understand the meaning or the message of the work performed,” Aouni explains. “Dance theatre is not ballet, a performance does not set out to tell a tale. Even when it does, as is the case in Joseph Nadj’s adaptation of Buchner’s Woyzeck, for example, it is neither a repetition nor a summary of the plot, but the individual vision of an artist.

“In 1993, the year our company was created, the local audiences had no knowledge whatsoever of modern dance; many identified it with tap-dance or any number of commercial or music-hall genres. In the last eight years they have come to understand the difference.” But do they always like what they see? “They don’t always have to like it, though one does expect them to appreciate the effort that goes into the work and the idea behind it. At first there was some confusion between modern dance and dance theatre, and the difference is in the theatrical part of the performance, which is absent in modern dance. Audiences today mostly understand these differences, especially the younger generation. They’ve learned to appreciate the work itself, however unique — ugly and repulsive, eccentric or beautiful…

“It doesn’t have to be entertaining or amusing, but it does have to be whole, with a strong impact. Its function is to bear a message, be it a positive or a negative one. While the purpose of music-hall dancing is to divert, and the purpose of ballet to fascinate, modern dance and dance theatre are meant to give audiences something to think about. The audiences can learn to appreciate even a disagreeable work intended as a mirror of ourselves or our times.

walid aouni
walid aouni