How to get the most out of your gallery visit
How do you feel about visiting an art gallery? Do you go for pleasure, for education, self-improvement or to socialise? Or do you avoid them and feel that art is just not for you? Many people feel uncomfortable just stepping over the threshold of a gallery, whether it’s a huge and majestic Victorian building or a temporary white box as cutting edge as they come. Maybe you just nip in for some quality cake and a clean loo?
If it’s pleasure; at the appreciation of human-made beauty, the vision and talent in expressing it to us, the viewers, does the act of viewing the art actually engender a feeling of joy inside you? Can you express that joy in an environment where you’re frightened your shoes will make too much noise on the ancient marble floor? This may come more easily to the introverts among you, savouring the silence and opportunity to have your own private encounter with a beautiful painting and the mind of the artist. What about the extroverts among you? Can you express that joy when you’re trying to quietly cross that marble floor or tentatively pad across the carpet? Perhaps you’ve gone for self-improvement purposes. If so, it could be a little easier to gain some satisfaction from spending your precious time, as you add to your bank of cultural capital. Or you might simply appreciate the respite from a frantic life; a chance to feel solemn, silent and dutiful, like in a Presbyterian church or libraries of old.
Or do you prefer the ‘cocktail party’ setting of a smaller gallery, and relish jumping into the intellectual debate with passionate, quirky artists discussing cutting edge contemporary art? Or do you worry that you don’t quite understand, that commenting at all will mean missing the mark with an inane comment, or worse, unwittingly become part of an experimental performance piece? Does it feel like forced intimacy, standing awkwardly with your wine glass at smaller events, where you feel expected to say something worth ransacking the smaller, more homely silence of a white-walled box? Uneasy at a sense that the artists might be observing you observing their thoughts made manifest. Do most of us realise the extent to which we have been trained to behave in prescribed and acceptable ways as we enter these environments?
I’m just as ambivalent about children making noise in libraries as in art galleries. I want to hush noisy children so I can concentrate on reading in our shared space, but perhaps I’m only resenting their freedom because we had to be quiet, back in our day. I’m glad they feel free enough to express themselves; perhaps they’re part of a budding, enthusiastic pre-school book group. Just not when I’m there. I relate to their childlike state in a way, as I seem to have something resembling a middle-aged onset of ADHD, where sitting still or concentrating for long periods is difficult, but I generally manage for others’ sake. I can’t bring myself to raise more than a whisper in a library, but, bloody hell, in other settings, I want to join in with the conversation, in an almost ‘repressed Tourette’s’ type way. I want everyone to join in. If I’m honest, generally I want all hell to break loose and it to become one big carnival. Politeness and shyness merge with bourgeois norms of behaviour in high arts settings, hell, even cinemas, and it drives me to distraction. British audiences are expected to refrain from moving their bodies or making any noise during a play, except for polite applause or perhaps a hastily wiped tear. Partly because in an urban setting, the audience are the maligned or tolerated ‘public’, rather than friends and acquaintances, and the British are still the last nation on earth to embrace a messy and unnecessary display of emotions. Unless it’s splashed across a wall or screen or stage and safely at a distance. Perhaps the tots in the library are leading the way forward after all.
We seem to edging back toward the boisterous interaction of Shakespeare’s audiences in theatre settings, and it’s becoming increasingly acceptable, even necessary, in visual art environments. Accompanying a school group to the National Gallery is much more engaging and fun than going alone. I learned more about the secret symbols embedded in paintings in an hour than I have in years. We could take over the space and not worry about annoying anyone else or depriving someone more deserving of the leather couch. If art galleries went the way of museums with hands-on activities, even for adults, or just meeting or watching artists at work it would make you feel part of the place and stay for longer. There’s a wee gem of an exhibition currently showing at the oft-overlooked Inverleith House in Edinburgh’s Botanical Gadens; yet another collaboration of poetry and art that both delights the senses and delivers an deep message. The gallery space is warm and welcoming for all ages, this time with quiet opportunities for children to allow nature to inspire their creativity.
There are huge debates about why certain ‘demographics’ are less likely to visit British art galleries. Mostly between people who are not from ‘those demographics’, who, in awkward terms, display some imaginative ideas of what, for them, constitutes ‘the other’. Some of it is simply a ‘perception problem’, that art galleries are for the white and middle-class, and indeed, there is often a very real psychological discomfort for certain people in places that are not, perhaps in small but significant ways, welcoming to all. Women artists, working-class artists and artists of colour are still underrepresented, marginalized and ‘othered’ by curators and board members who are not from these backgrounds, partly because of the narrow understanding that results from stultifyingly homogeneous social and professional networks. As talented artists and their works suffer unduly from the lack of exposure that they deserve, whether through tokenism, pigeonholing or downright exclusion, some important conversations about history and society are also being omitted from the mainstream art world. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of ‘cultural capital’ is often used to explain why the intellectual elite, reared on a steady diet of high art from childhood, frequent and feel at home in high art institutions, which generally cater to their particular interests. Content, and how and by whom the content is curated, of course, can also be key, and is currently the subject of heated debates. http://www.voice-online.co.uk/article/black-people-dont-go-art-galleries.
With major prizes going to women artists of colour recently, notably, Lubaina Humid’s 2017 Turner Prize win, and Barbadian-born, Glasgow-based artist Alberta Whittle claiming the 2018 Margaret Tait award, this no doubt encouraged the new director of Glasgow International to hold a variety of exhibitions, talks and performances by artists of colour. This was particularly welcome in the wake of Transmission’s Gallery’s funding recently being unceremoniously cut by Creative Scotland. The decision was made despite Transmission receiving high acclaim for their work and social impact by the very same organisation. The artist-run institution, founded by Glasgow artists in 1983, has continued in its radical tradition to encourage important conversations, particularly around Black art and artists, gender and sexuality; pushing boundaries and inspiring new ways of thinking. One of these artists is Camara Taylor, exhibiting at GI this year. Seeing as this is exactly the raison d’être of contemporary art, this has been a massive blow to both the artists and Scotland’s modern art scene. https://frieze.com/article/why-did-creative-scotland-defund-storied-glasgow-art-gallery-transmission
One of the exhibitions I attended at Glasgow International was ‘(BUT)..WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT WHITE SUPREMACY? which included powerful live performances to a rapt, multiracial audience. https://manystudios.co.uk/syfu/ Sometimes the conversations that result might be unsettling for some people forced to reflect on and reframe some of their most cherished or simply unconscious beliefs about their own history and identity, but that’s precisely why art must make space for them.
The fear of ‘wasting time’, is a real one. Whether you’re hustling on the breadline, trying to make ends meet with three dead end jobs, or hustling as a CEO of an investment bank, the risk of wasting time aimlessly wandering around a gallery that doesn’t immediately serve your needs, is not one you are going to take. Even the visitors don’t like to waste too much time. Various studies have shown the average visitor spends 30 seconds in front of a painting, perhaps a masterpiece that has taken decades to complete, with careful patronage from a house of aristocrats or royalty. It’s rather like gobbling up a beautifully cooked and arranged dinner in 5 minutes flat. But, hey, don’t stay there just because you feel you should. The gallery will be gaining extra points for a steady stream of punters anyway. But why might you want to go to a gallery in the first place? What do you expect to gain from going? Seeing as most other arts, from novels to songs, involve story-telling of some kind, perhaps the emotional connection can’t be had easily without knowing something of the back story. Of the artists, the time, the place, the emotional state they were in during the period of creation and who else and what else they may have been responding to. I’ve been doing some research into Scottish historical figures and how their personal stories relate to wider themes, and it’s been exciting to spot them in both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery, and realising how just how limited and misleading the information plaques very often are.
Big galleries are free, open, not demanding of a special invitation. You can stay as long as you like. In theory, it is entirely democratic, as it’s yours to share during opening hours. Yet, for many people, it doesn’t feel that way. The National Gallery in London changed their stairs at their entrance because apparently people found them intimidating. Do you like the majesty of columns and chandeliers or does going into these buildings, with architecture that stems from a tradition of an entrenched class structure, make you feel like you don’t belong there? Temples all over the world have stairs. Even the Christ statue in Rio has 220 steps… Ordinary people make the pilgrimage. Yet how familiar might we find the surroundings, let alone the people, of Oxford University if we haven’t gone to a top public school? How at home might we feel in the Houses of Parliament? The Vatican? Do we need to feel a sense of belonging? Does the beauty elevate us or oppress us? Edinburgh is well known for its snobbery, and tribal groupings easily coalesce around ‘low’ and ‘high’ art. Neu Reekie! is a local arts organisation that loves to mess with this dichotomy, and enjoys taking over otherwise solemn spaces like the National Galleries with an irreverent mix of poetry, music and animation, creating an atmosphere that’s a little freer. http://www.theskinny.co.uk/books/events/neu-reekie-does-titian-national-gallery-of-scotland
Collective (www.collectivegallery.net), a contemporary art gallery that’s been based in Edinburgh since 1984, has recently made the heights of Calton Hill its new home. It states emphatically that a major part of its mission is to be the friendly face of contemporary art precisely in order to encourage dialogue. Accessibility is its watch word; extending itself to offer an experience welcoming to all, adapting the trails to the site and the exhibitions to accommodate visitors who are blind or partially-sighted. I’m sure with advances in technology, visiting an art gallery as a blind person will be just as fulfilling as for a fully sighted person https://www.rnib.org.uk/blind-artist-launches-genuinely-audio-visual-art-exhibit-aid-talking-books.
However, a couple of years ago, I excitedly stumbled across their temporary gallery, in use while the painstaking restoration process was being finished, but I was left to my own devices in an exhibition I found bewildering and incomprehensible. I had no idea what I should ask the assistants to help me understand, and instead was happily distracted by the incomparable view of the city which in itself gave me the sense of elevation I needed. I hope Collective put their money where their mouth is for their relaunch later on this year, because their relaunch is a very impressive and ambitious project. They hope to create a visitor experience that encompasses not just contemporary art but heritage and science, having restored Playfair’s original observatory from 1818. They’ve put a great deal of effort into letting visitors choose the level of freedom or support and guidance that they might need and are hoping to create a space where people feel especially welcome, relaxed and inspired to observe their own reactions and engage in dialogue with others.
And of course, this should perhaps be the main point of creating, funding, and visiting contemporary art in the first place. The thoughts, conversations and debates that follow from experiencing and being affected by the art; the blending of the unique personal resonances that each viewer has due to their mood, life history and hopes for the future. I’m always interested in the ways one might catch something of the possibly ephemeral responses, solidifying them for just long enough to transmit a spark to the next along the circuit of new ideas, filtering through and co-creating a change in the zeitgeist. Or this is perhaps too much like pinning down a butterfly, for no one can foresee where or what a thought or word might spark. The Sunday lunchtime poetry events that accompany the Royal Society of Artists annual exhibition have recently drawn me back again and again, to look at the artworks through someone else’s lens. The poems have been written in response to selected artworks, and the events allow time for questions and discussion about the themes that emerge. https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/art/art-review-the-rsa-annual-exhibition-2018-royal-scottish-academy-edinburgh-1-4739530 Fortunate to attend the private viewing, I enjoyed reading Raman Mundair’s powerful poem accompanying a short film by Pernille Spence/Zoe Irvine. However, I felt rather rootless wandering around the vast exhibition alone. Returning to their poetry events and sitting next to the artworks has given me the time, space, comfort and company to enjoy the exhibition’s varied works in much greater depth.
Often people are simply afraid they will have nothing to say, or won’t have the required background knowledge to make comments that are informed enough without feeling embarrassed. Part of this perhaps stems from the fact that our hierarchical education system lays down very early whose ideas carry the most legitimacy and weight. What if we fully integrated both democratic dialogue and art into mainstream schools in the UK like Paolo Friere advocated, or alternative schools like Krishnamurti schools do? Rather than relegate it to a separate, second-class subject? If children’s ideas were treated with more respect from the beginning, and a constructive and ongoing dialogue was encouraged in the classroom, we might have a generation of learners who, as Sir Ken Robinson would say, are not afraid to make public ‘mistakes’.
In the meantime, the risk of appearing foolish or wasting precious time can be mitigated by friendly gallery staff, and creative ways to engage the viewer, without doing all of the ‘work’ for them. If, as a punter, you’re still a little unsure, here’s some handy tips to make the most of your experience. At least let people know they can have an exhibition list for basic information about what they are looking at. If people have some background knowledge of an artist and painting, or their sense of curiosity is piqued with the help of a friendly assistant, they might just spend longer than 30 seconds in front of it…come and see it again..read about it online..discuss it..respond to it artistically..maybe even buy it!
By Lisa Williams
Six years ago when I landed in Scotland, dragging my two reluctant children from their idyllic childhood on the white sand beaches of tiny Caribbean islands, we were hard pressed to find any community or events in Edinburgh that resembled anything they knew. Enjoying the novelty of our new community, we threw ourselves into traditional folk nights, attended ceilidhs, learned a couple of Scottish dances and even grew to appreciate bagpipes. But there was always a yearning for some Caribbean colour and vibrancy, to hear some bass played to the point where the walls shook, and to not always feel like an ‘exoticized or misunderstood minority’. We held parties where Scottish friends came, but turned the music down, or off, or put on the music that they were familiar with. There was the occasional reggae night in Edinburgh where I didn’t worry in the least about being the first or only person on the dance floor; the music was enough. Soca, the energetic, fast-paced, modern form of calypso that you hear at a Caribbean carnival, was nowhere to be heard, except for our Saturday mornings cleaning the kitchen at home. Scotland is only home to about 3,000 people of Caribbean descent. Glasgow has the lion’s share, even after the mass exodus of a Caribbean community in the late 1960’s after land was cleared for development of the railways. And yet, Scots role in the Caribbean has been huge over the centuries, ironically in this case, including a hefty contribution to the development of Scottish Rail by a Scottish plantation owner compensated for losing his ‘property’ after Emancipation. Yet, fairly rapidly, over the past five years or so, awareness of our shared cultural heritage is coming to the fore, across the spectrum of the arts.
There are some regular, well established reggae nights, mainly run by Scottish men, such as Steve Messenger with his monthly night at the Bongo Club. Reggae Got Soul is a mix of reggae and soul run by two Scottish guys, one of whom, Jeremiah, was part of the very first reggae soundsystem in Edinburgh; both sets collaborate with a Jamaican MC Ras Istallion to add some authentic Caribbean flavour. Jeremiah is a true lover of reggae, also being an artist whose work forms a tribute to reggae legends across the years. His Facebook page, Original Jeremiah, has a solid following across the world. The Gambian community in Edinburgh love their reggae too, and DJs such as DJ Gadda and DJ Jobiz are building their own following, most recently with a Thursday night at new club La Vida. Well known DJs occasionally make an appearance. Seani B, the best known dancehall DJ in the UK, with his weekly show on Radio 1 Xtra, threw the afterparty for the MOBO awards in Glasgow in 2016, hosted by Glasgow Reggae. David Rodigan, responsible for introducing reggae to a huge audience in the UK over the past few decades, is even making an appearance on November 3rd at Cabaret Voltaire.
The real power of reggae, however, is in live music shows, and the inspiration and feeling of togetherness and upliftment the singers give their followers. Glasgow, with its choice of venues and home to party lovers, at least, can pull some of the heavyweights from time to time. I’ve made pilgrimages to Glasgow to see various acts like Chronixx, Protoje, and sadly missed a few like Toots and the Maytals, Aswad, Misty in Roots and up and coming Raging Fyah. They are in small, intimate venues like the Rum Shack or the O2ABC, which means you can often get the chance to dance at the front of the stage or even go backstage and have a chat. In Edinburgh, it’s still a rare treat to get a well-known name, but the Wee Dub festival brings live acts like Macka B and soundsystems like Channel One out of London. Occasionally legends like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry drop into a sold out crowd, populated by Scottish diehards of all ages.
Soca, however, in the absence of a sizeable Caribbean community or an annual Carnival, is still very much a niche market. I stumbled across a fantastic soca fitness class in a church hall, run by Lee-I John from St.Lucia, with his carefully designed Caribbean counterpart to Zumba, that I am still koping that he will take nationwide. The Jazz and Blues Festival have brought Caribbean bands from Trinidad, the Bahamas and Martinique to take part in their street parade along Princes Street. I took great pleasure in joining in with the costume making and dance workshops, and dancing along Princes Street with the Junkanoo Commandos. It was truly a highlight of 2014! But there are few DJ’s around, like DJ Yemster of Dundee, who are masters at delivering a high-energy mix of soca, dancehall and conscious reggae in a perfect party blend. On November 2, DJ Yemster will deliver his set as part of an evening’s entertainment showcasing Grenada, with a screening of Vanishing Sail at the Granary in Leith. The crossover comes when you include arts from the Spanish Caribbean, namely Cuba and the Dominican Republic; not exactly shared heritage with Scotland, but definitely worth a mention as a growing presence of dance and music from these islands in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
However, this lack of awareness of contemporary Caribbean music and dance may be about to change. Project X is a network of dance teachers from the African-Caribbean community based in Glasgow. ‘Through workshops, performances, artistic opportunities, discussions, screenings, a symposium and more, they platform contemporary and traditional dance forms whilst broadening perceptions and representation.’ (www.projectxplatform.co.uk) Part of their work involves going into schools and working with the pupils. This autumn, as the founder of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association I was part of Claudius’ England’s Reclaimed Territory, bringing Caribbean culture into schools in Scotland with the aim of the pupils beginning to recognise the many historical links between the two regions. Claudius England, a Jamaican gospel-dancehall singer, collaborated with the rest of the Jamaican team; Heidi Bryce, an artist and dance teacher who works with Project X, and a ‘jerk specialist’ chef, Clive Birch, who, as a trio, immersed Portobello High School for two days in the sounds, scents and moves of the Caribbean’s most globally influential island. Although the S1 pupils were at first hesitant about moving to the unfamiliar rhythms of Jamaican music, by the time the two days were up, even the boys with a serious image to protect were up on stage, joyfully dancing along with their principal, in a way that the school had never seen or anticipated. Dance, music and food were used as a vehicle for the pupils to connect with Caribbean culture, and be encouraged to do their own research into the far-reaching historical links between Scotland and the Caribbean, learning about and ultimately moving past the ugly reality of centuries of slavery, of which the Scots played a huge role.
This legacy is now just coming to the forefront, as Scots acknowledge their hugely profitable role in the slave trade. The Empire Cafe, set up by Scottish writer Louise Welsh and architect Jude Barber was a pop up cafe in the Briggait in Glasgow to form one of the cultural activities alongside the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Poetry, art, drama and music were all commissioned to explore the history of the Scottish role in the slave trade. One of the events that stood out was Emancipation Acts, produced by Graham Campbell (our first African-Caribbean councillor in Scotland) and his partner Anne McLaughlin, former SNP MP. Staged in four acts around Glasgow, it was a fabulous piece of theatre, staged in four areas of Glasgow connected with the slave trade, including a graveyard where many Glaswegian merchants lie, and finishing in a joyful celebration of African culture by the disaporic community in Glasgow outside the Museum of Modern Art, the former holiday residence of a wealthy plantation owner from Glasgow, tipped to be the future home of Scotland’s Museum of Slavery. Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a Jamaican professor, historian and activist gives much of his time to educating the Scottish public on the history of slavery, and the response is invariably slightly shocked, but very positive. Scottish historians like Tom Devine and Stephen Mullen among others have also been doing some deep investigations over the past decade to bring this formerly hidden history to light.
As part of Africa in Motion film festival’s summer internship programme, ‘Reviving Scotland’s Black History’, I went on a Black History walk with St.Lucian historian Marenka Thompsom-Odlum https://www.africa-in-motion.org.uk/blog/from-grenada-to-glasgow-curating-with-own-experience-by-elizabeth-williams/ who shared a wealth of knowledge about where much of Glasgow’s wealthy merchant families had made their money, by showing us street names, paintings, sculptures and gravestones around the city. She has been on the lecture circuit during Black History Month, and along with other historians, is working hard for all this fascinating research to be known, and eventually be part of the school curriculum in Scotland. The undercelebrated history of soldiers from Caribbean ex-colonies who fought for Britain in both World Wars was brought to our attention by Selena Carty of Black Poppy Rose www.blackpoppyrose.org during a fundraiser I held for Haiti after hurricane Matthew in Glasgow in November 2016 with acts like Ladies of Midnight Blue, Hannabiell and Yillis, www.hannabiell.com a Jamaican-American and Dominican Afro-Latin percussion, brass and mbira duet. www.hannabiell.com Again, the members of the audience from Scotland were shocked not to know about this history, and keen for more information.
Sometimes this history has been brought to us through music and art. Brina is a world reggae artist currenly based in Stirling, who has brought the historic link with Scotland to us through her music project, Jamaica Sings Robert Burns, www.jamaicasingsburns.com. An album with covers of Robert Burns classic songs by top Jamaican artistes alongside Brina, including Ken Boothe and Addis Pablo, and she has sung several of the songs from the project at Celtic Connections and other platforms in Scotland. The project began after facts emerged about Burns trying several times to board a ship to Jamaica to work as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation. Most Scots I talk to about this now seem to know about it, which means the formerly hidden history is starting to ripple through the national consciousness. Graham Fagen, a Scottish artist, has used both genres to explore our shared heritage. Graeme has been working with Caribbean artists for the past few years, and recently the National Portrait Gallery held a video installation of a collaborative version of the Slave’s Lament by Burns with Sally Beamish, the Scottish Ensemble and reggae singer Ghetto Priest. www.grahamfagen.com
The fine and conceptual art scene in Scotland has a variety of artists of Caribbean background working and collaborating with each other. One of these hubs for artists of colour is Transmission Gallery, www.transmissiongallery.org an artist-run space in Glasgow that hosts some very fresh and interesting work from a range of young artists. One of the committee members is Alberta Whittle is a conceptual artist and curator from Barbados, based in Glasgow, doing some groundbreaking work with creative strategies employed to question the authority of postcolonial power. www.albertawhittle.com Eddie ….
Caribbean culture is tentatively beginning to become part of the mainstream arts programming in Scotland across the genres. Theatre, film and comedy are the areas that could still do with a boost, but as interest in and understanding of the Caribbean grows among Scottish audiences it will no doubt come in time. The Edinburgh Book Festival and poetry events and festivals have a growing platform for writers of Caribbean background, no doubt partly due to the recognition given to two poets from the Caribbean, both recent winners of the Forward Prize, Kei Miller and Vahni Capildeo from Jamaica and Trinidad respectively, both of whom taught at the University of Glasgow for several years. Neu Reekie put together a Jamaica-themed evening at the National Portrait Gallery in 2015 with Brina performing alongside Selena Godden and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, and the Scottish Poetry Library www.scottishpoetrylibraryh.org.uk under the directorship of Dundonian Asif Khan has expanded its repertoire to bring Caribbean poets such as Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison. The new Outreach Coordinator Hannah Lavery is of Jamaican-Scottish background, also runs the Coastword Literary Festival in Dunbar www.coastword.co.uk and will no doubt continue to diversify the programming content. This year’s Book Festival included writer Zadie Smith, and Guyanese poets Grace Nichols and John Agard. The Edinburgh International Festival in collaboration with the British Council put on a fantastic cross-genre event called Fire Down Below which had a cross-section of academics from literature, art, poetry and publishing to discuss modern pan-Caribbean identity in a post-colonial context. The day before had a lecture by Jamaican-British artist, curator and art historian Eddie Chambers www.eddiechambers.com at the National Portrait Gallery, and who is now living part-time in Edinburgh who will doubtless be an influence on Scottish cultural policy. He’s the author of numerous books on Black British identity as it relates to music and art, such as Roots and Culture: Cultural Politics in the Making of Black Britain.
Caribbean film is beginning to have a platform this year as part of Africa in Motion Film Festival, which is a ten day festival spanning a range of venues across Edinburgh and Glasgow, including the Filmhouse. www.africa-in-motion.org.uk Two events are part of the Reviving Scottish Black History Programme. On November 1, there will be a screening of two films, as part of an event The Transatlantic Slave Trade Acknowledged at St. John’s Church in Edinburgh; 1745 (Scotland) and the Crying Conch (Haiti) which explore slavery and its enduring legacy including a debate with historians Geoffrey Palmer and Stephen Mullen. However, important as slavery is to explore, Black History needs to expand the narrative with something more positive. This is why I chose to curate a screening of Vanishing Sail on November 2 in Leith, www.vanishingsail.com a documentary about the legacy that Glaswegian shipwrights left in the tiny island of Carriacou, which forms part of Grenada. It’s a beautiful story of a dying craft, kept alive mainly by a single family in the village of Windward, known in the area for its Scottish cultural connection through fiddle music and a dominance of Scottish surnames and ancestry. We are linked in so many ways, and I hope that the arts in Scotland can continue to explore the connections with the Caribbean as time goes on.
Tickets for Vanishing Sail here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/vanishing-sail-film-dj-yemster-after-party-tickets-38382083846
I’ve only ever seen Dundee from across the Firth of Tay on the northern coast of Fife, a bedazzling apparition of tall buildings & hill-slopes linked to Fife by magnificent works of bridgeneering. So, it was with much enthusiasm that when the Dundee Literary Festival dropped into my inbox, I’m like to the wife, lets go darling. She was like, ‘I’ve heard the Malmaison is a really nice hotel, & that Broughty Ferry’s got a gorgeous beach.’ Parking up by the Agacan on Perth Road on an unusually balmy October day, I was met with a tiny city with gigantic ambition, architecturally & of course, culturally. We would be experiencing two slices of the pie; a rendition of The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, & a talk on a recent book-publishing sensation, Nasty Women, by three of its authors.
The Raven is one of my favorite poems, first published in January 1845, which by 1909 had attracted the attentions of Arthur Bergh, who created a popular-at-the-time but long-forgotten ‘melodrama,’ synchronising piano to Poe’s words. The performance was duly presented by Ken Murray (recital) & the University of Dundee’s Director of Music Graeme Stevenson on piano. Murray is a trained singer, & at times you could hear the lucid creak of him wanting to break out into melody – like a captive lion sticking its nose out of a cage – but managed to tame this natural beast & deliver an ambrosia-spurting, vowel-booming rendition of the Raven in his thick Scots accent. The music is charming & intelligent, opening at a pensive pace then keeping up with the more dazzling moments of Poe’s astonishing wordplay as the reciter descends into madness. As a performance, it was unquestionably excellent, but I couldn’t help feel that Arthur Bergh had tainted somewhat Poe’s original poetic chaunt. There is a certain hypnotic & thunderous rhythm to the poem’s mechanics which were all but wiped out by Bergh, as if he was painting over an original classic with art decor blocks of paint.
It was now time for a potter around Dundee, checking into the luxuriant Malmaison, our room looking out high over a busy Dundee street. Back in the city we wandered about for a bit, finding an atmosphere full of stress-free geniality. I also rather enjoyed getting my photo taken with a Desperate Dan statue. My grandmother used to get me the Dandy & the Beano every week, published & printed here in the city by D.C. Thompson. I remember the day as a 13 year-old when I said to my gran could I now get Roy of The Rovers & 2000AD instead, as I felt I’d grown out of the Beano. But still, for many years, I kept those paper relics of my youth in the bottom of my wardrobe at my grandmas, & would occasionally flick through them for nostalgic pleasure. Back in Dundee 2017, after Perth Road’s Braes for a beer & then The Tonic for nachos, me & the wife returned quite giddily to nearby Bonar Hall, the heartbeat of the Literary Festival on the University campus.
The audience for the day’s second installment had swapped a tad elderly bunch of appreciatives with a mainly female group, where shocks of pink hair flashed by ladies of demure countenance. They had gathered for an hour or so with Becca Inglis, Jen McGregor & Alice Tarbuck; who like Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia presided over our gathering, relaying their essays cooked up to order by virgin publisher 404 Ink in order to respond – through intelligent & therapeutic literature – to the brutally nonsensical & inane sexism of Donald Trump. Beginning as a tweet, the rise of a book called Nasty Women to prominence has been a 21st century, social-media wonder, & was already a cleverly hyped sensation before it was launched on International Women’s Day this year. By August it was the biggest selling book at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Chaired ably by Zoe Venditozzi, the three authors we were presented (out of a dozen or so in the book) all read extracts of high quality writing, followed by Venditozzi’s mutual dissemination of their work & some interesting audience forum questions. A classic example of the brightness of Venditozzi’s intelligent moment-melding came during Jen’s explanation of how she learnt more about what was happening to her body from internet forums rather than underfunded gynecologists. ‘When I was a teenager you had to write to Jackie,’ chirped in Venditozzi.
It is true that we live in a world of sexual inequality, & Nasty Women seems to have given a voice to much of the brush-under-the-carpet stuff of femininity; the embarrassment of depression, the disempowerment of natural instinct, the bone-density decreasing risks of contraceptive injections, & so on. The high point was identifying the disratification of the female ability to give birth, but not to have the choice of sterilisation until they were 30, to deny private agency over one’s own body. The low point was when the words ‘most men aren’t rapists‘ came out, suggesting something like an 80-20 split – rather than the 96 percent of all likelihood given figures of rapeline calls & those that go unreported. I think ‘vast majority’ would have been more accurate. Overall, however, a fine & emotion-provoking hour & the production of Nasty Women holds an especially important relevance to the age, when in a recent interview with The Mumble, Alice Tarbuck stated, ‘it’s more important than ever to hold the truth to account in the midst of sensationalism and international political turmoil.’
Reviewer : Damian Beeson Bullen
Main Photography : Matthew O’Donnell
The Belonging Project is a creative writing project that has been running throughout Scotland over the past year. Set up by two women, Marjorie Lotfi Gill, a writer, Poet in Residence at Jupiter Artland and Wigtown Festival, and Heshani Sothiraj Eddleston, a photographer, both of whom are Edinburgh-based but had experience of fleeing from war in Iran and Sri Lanka as children. The project, funded by Creative Scotland, began with just a small remit of workshops that exploded by demand into 130 hours, as the StAnza Poetry Festival commissioned work in schools across St.Andrews.
Workshops for the public were in a range of beautiful, inspiring and accessible venues, art galleries like the National Portrait Gallery, libraries like the National Library, the Scottish Poetry Library, and Glasgow Women’s Library. Also, most interestingly, in a huge variety of community spaces and with groups like Shakti Women’s Aid and the Maryhill Integration Network.
Each two hour workshop, led by the warm and welcoming Marjorie, coaxed the participants into sharing personal stories and feelings through poetry and short pieces of prose. There was no pressure to share, but in a safe and welcoming environment, everyone did. Amazingly touching and beautiful work was read around the table, over countless cups of tea and Marjorie’s trademark tin of delicious home-made flapjacks. Word prompts, responses to poems, objects and photographs triggered creative writing on themes of belonging, family, assimilation, journeys..sharing stories of Scottish childhoods in remote places and moving to the city, and others, leaving husbands, and parents and homelands.
It’s the diversity of participants that marks this project out as innovative, thoughtful and far reaching. Diversity is a word often bandied about without actually effecting full inclusion and equal opportunity, but this project is the real deal. We have such a wonderful opportunity at this time in Scotland to build a multi-cultural society in a pro-active way, developing and promoting the benefits of multiculturalism as part of the school curriculm and beyond. The Belonging Project helped to integrate many newcomers into Scottish society, giving a voice and a feeling of belonging to recent migrants and refugees.
Two performance poets from Australia, Luka Lesson and Omar Musa took us into new territory in the serene environment of Jupiter Artland. Standing in front of modern sculptures against a backdrop of yellow rape fields and blue skies, they inspired us with their electric and powerful oratory, and gave us the opportunity to directly respond to some of their poems. Being of Greek and Malaysian heritage themselves, they were able to share with us their ideas of best practice working in the arts in communities in multi-cultural Australia.
It’s vital that art and culture organisations establish links with all sectors of society; health, care, education and media, and this project did this extremely effectively. Sessions were held directly in prison communities, and links made to reach people with mental health issues, domestic violence survivors, migrants, refugees and LGBTI groups. It was very important to Marjorie that someone who had had the experience of being a refugee lead the workshops, even though it was difficult for her to have to keep retelling her personal and traumatic story many times over.
Many of the participants wrote poems based on distinct Scottish traditions and language, and there was a palpable pride in reclaiming expressions of identity that were suppressed for many years. As the project grows it will expand to include more rural and traditional communities. This project has great scope to preserve and reimagine what is culturally distinct about Scotland and gives it its strong identity. Many of the workshops included the relationship with the landscape and our deeper emotional connection with the area. Scottish Book Trust are going to fund a larger project in schools in St.Andrew’s with wrap around material for children to instigate positive conversations about journeying and belonging with their families and discover more about their ancestors and local communities.
StAnza is also keen to continue the project because none of the children in the classes in St.Andrew’s had ever been exposed to anyone with the experience of being a refugee or ever had a discussion about it before. Discussions that are so important to have in this current climate of instability and change due to Brexit, independence, and the migrant crisis. A project such as this has huge potential to expand country wide and year round, with art that can grow out of the connection to land and local communities and traditions, helping to cut the flow of brain drain to London and beyond.
The project was fortunate to use prestigious and elegant venues, all part of allowing people to feel like they belong to established power centres of art and culture in Scotland and have a link to the past. Using spaces like the National Portrait Gallery has attracted completely new visitors to the building. Part of decolonising these spaces of power and elitism came through debates over which parts of society are reflected in the choices of displays within the gallery. Each venue stimulated different ideas and changed the quality of the work and it was fascinating to be able to listen to and respond to work from other types of groups.
There was a public reading at Glasgow Women’s Library that also shared work of refugee women from the Maryhill Integration Network. Marjorie read work at the Wigtown Book Festival and a group of us from various backgrounds and cities read a selection of work at the Callender Poetry Weekend in early September.
Successful community arts projects like this one combat isolation and create relationships of cooperation and voluntarism, bringing the power back to communities and taking pressure off public sector services like mental health, schools etc. At its simplest and most powerful, one of the single greatest results of good art should be to stimulate our human sense of empathy as we explore our similarities, leading to many benefits to society as a whole.
In the words of a poem by Tommy Olofsson, used as a prompt in the workshops:
Let’s be the same wound if we must bleed
Let’s fight side by side, even if
The enemy is ourselves: I am yours
you are mine.
Reviewer : Lisa Michel Williams
Hello David, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
I was born and brought up in Glasgow, went to Glasgow University where I studied English and French then went down to Oxford where I wrote a D.Phil on an obscure 18th century Frenchman. During my time as a graduate student in Oxford I also worked for a year teaching English in Paris. Since then I’ve worked in a variety of Universities including Swansea and Salford. And since 1990 I’ve been back in Glasgow teaching first French and now Creative Writing at the University of Strathclyde. I live with my partner, Eric, in Mount Florida near ‘the home of Scottish football’.
When did you first realise you were a poet?
My grandfather was the Scottish poet, William Jeffrey (1898-1946). I remember my gran, Margaret Jeffrey, telling me about him when I was a child and maybe that subconsciously confirmed something in me. I don’t think there was any kind of ‘road to Damascus’ experience though. I just started writing (very bad and very long) poems as a teenager and have never really stopped. Writing poems that is…pace the ‘very bad and very long’!
A Family Portrait
After she had died in childbirth,
Anne Nisbet’s husband, John Glassford,
first tobacco lord of Glasgow,
turned to the family portrait in his living room
and dug paint out of the weave that made her face.
Taking a piece of sourdough bread
he cleaned the vacant spot
then had the artist affix his third wife’s
head to Anne’s still serviceable torso.
She did not leave entirely
and tells me how she never left
the mansion’s orchard, stood
for centuries among the shades of apple
trees and leaves that whispered in the modern city’s
traffic, gazing in through absent windows
towards the place she knew the portrait had been hung.
But I could go, she said, stand before it and wave
back the dust, coax her features from shadows
that once had lips, a smile, a gaze directed at her husband.
And I could point too at the little black slave,
Josiah, whose face a later hand
had darkened further into drapery and a hollow
space whose emptiness echoed with a city’s shame.
Once he ran away: in a brown freeze coat
and a blue waistcoat, with little Scots
or English. He was described as ‘knockneed’
and just fifteen. Their lineaments linger
in the flakes, the scalings and blisterings
of time, remembered now and then
by ghosts like us before we fade
as well and the cities change again.
Which poets inspired you at the beginning & who today?
When I was at school I developed a crush on T.S.Eliot. Then I moved on to Auden for a while. My English teachers at Glasgow Uni really opened my ears to the wonderful poetry of the Renaissance and 17th century and I have an abiding love of Andrew Marvell, John Donne and Henry Vaughan. I keep going back to Marvell in particular, one of the most musical poets. In French, Ronsard was also important for me, as were Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Valéry and Francis Ponge. Rimbaud especially. If I had any moment of ‘revelation’ when I kind of saw a way forward for myself in terms of my own voice and identity as a poet it was in Paris in the late eighties when I read Rimbaud alongside Whitman and the Portuguese poet, Eugenio de Andrade. Quite a lot of prose-poetry came out of that combination. Today, these same poets remain with me. Others have joined me along the way, too many to mention them all of course but among the older generations in no particular order: Hugh MacDiarmid, Iain Crichton Smith, Edwin Morgan, Thom Gunn, James Merrill, Derek Mahon, Douglas Dunn, Michel Deguy, Yves Bonnefoy, Josée Lapeyrère, Rilke, Lorca, Jorie Graham, Elizabeth Bishop, Les Murray, Barry MacSweeney, Zbigniew Herbert, F.R. Langley…I read a fair amount of non-fiction and get as much inspiration there as from poetry. Derek Jarman’s cinema was also a major influence.
What compels you to create a poem?
There’s no set pattern or set of circumstances. But a need to clarify something to myself initially: this needn’t take the form of an idea or even an emotion or combination of the two. Maybe it’s more a need to clarify, to give shape to particular sensations and intuitions that say something about what it’s like to be alive now, in the present moment. Then the attempt to communicate this experience to others in ways they may be able to relate to. Poetry can be a way of finding out about the world but it can also be a kind of conductor of being. I think it’s taken me a long time to -only partially- understand the latter dimension.
What does David Kinloch like to do when he’s not being poetic?
My tastes are fairly ordinary. I work a lot and much of that is not about poetry at all but about communicating stuff to others and helping to make organisations and events of one kind or another happen. Otherwise I listen to a lot of music, mainly but not exclusively, classical, although there I think there is probably some poetic stuff going on in the background. I also love to travel. I love big foreign cities although in recent years I’ve spent a lot of time walking in the east neuk of Fife. Family and friends are essential. Oh, and I like boxing or slamming big heavy leather balls onto the floor of the gym.
You are currently the professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. How are you finding the job & what enthusiasm for poetry do you find among the students of 2017?
The job is quite demanding. We have a lot of creative writing students and not very many colleagues to teach them. As I’ve got older I have come to really enjoy (most) of the teaching I do and regard it as probably the most important aspect of my life. I used to think it was the poetry. That’s still important to me but it’s trumped by the pleasure of being able to pass on my own enthusiasms and knowledge. I’ve grown to enjoy it more as I’ve become more experienced.I find the students mostly very open-minded and receptive. Many tell me quite frankly at the start they’ve ‘never understood poetry’ but then it turns out half way through the course that quite a lot of them do write poetry and that gives us a good place to work from.
We saw the pelicans nesting on the lamposts.
Little bits of bad luck
spilled from their pouch-mouths
and drifted among the traffic,
catching smoking drivers by surprise,
making them swear. The pelicans
swore too: great barks
like belches seeking a nose.
The pelicans looked comfortable
and lonely. Ignored by everyone
they were the cause of everything:
the way the cycle lanes interrupted
the bridge which opened up
the pea-broth, iron-clad canal;
the way the right way went crooked
for us to the station so we missed
our train back to the dull resort.
You have just released In Search of Dustie-Flute with Carcanet. How are you finding working with one of the country’s leading poetry presses?
I’ve published books with Carcanet since 2001 and am grateful for their advocacy. They’ve allowed me, mostly, to shape my own books and given me the freedom to experiment when I need to. That’s something I value enormously.
This is your fifth book with Carcanet. How has the evolutionary process as a poet been in this time?
Well, it’s actually my fourth with Carcanet. My first book was published by Polygon in 1994. Evolutionary process? That’s a very hard question to answer briefly though it echoes a question Stuart Kelly put to me at the book’s recent launch at the Edinburgh Book Festival. He suggested I started off as rather a baroque, expansive poet and had become more ‘honed’. I think he meant maybe I’ve just stopped writing such long, bad poems! It’s about listening with your inner ear, about finding a specific pitch or tone in terms of form and music. In terms of subject matter, I tend to write less about sex and more about art these days. Which is -sadly/thankfully- maybe just part of the ageing process. Actually, having just said that I think am going to have to try and reverse that particular evolution!
We crouched among the men with guns; silence
paused. Then, we smelt the air lightening
—a bouquet of ozone up from the port—flinched
at the sudden crash of sealed-up doors.
And stood again to crane and jostle
as the figures paced through the forum.
First, a slave girl, black as a shining moon.
Two statuettes of boy kings holding hands.
A gladiator spearing a vanished enemy.
A satyr. A Zeus. A discus thrower.
A sphinx as crippled and slow as us.
A stone maiden carrying a jar
full of the incense of spring meadows.
At night, we followed their procession
to the harbour and an ancient ship
where mist or a kind of gauze
wrapped and stowed them carefully.
The sea yawned like a snake.
The captain we could not see
cried like a bird and cast off.
In the morning all was gone.
And we knealt again.
What are the stand-out continuous themes running through your work?
Loss. All of my books are about loss of one kind or another. Although I try to wear the elegiac cast with humour. After that it would be sexual orientation, gender and ekphrasis (or writing about art).
What is the poetical future of David Kinloch?
To my surprise I’ve started to write a play so maybe I am about to evolve into another creature altogether.