The Redemption of the Land

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Alligator Head Foundation offices

Gleaner column 17/1/18

“There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there. These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.” Psalms 104: 25-30

The new year has dawned like a tsunami, rearing high up in the air and threatening to overwhelm us with its ferocity. As it sweeps us along it spins and twirls us about and the trick is to stay afloat somehow, anyhow. The coldest winter up North, the wettest December in these parts, climate change seems to be ushering us along with a firm but clammy hand.

The message is clear, we have to stop our clueless meddling with the environment we inhabit. The redemption of the land is something the Bible talks about quite a bit. Yet for a country proud to proclaim its Christianity far and wide Jamaica has not distinguished itself through its environmental policies or its relationship to the sea.

Over the weekend I attended a powwow in Portland about the redemption of the ocean, another crucial element of our ecosystem. Organized by Francesca von Habsburg’s Alligator Head Foundation the meeting brought together a range of skill sets to think about the problem of ocean conservation and how to make it more of a priority in local agendas.

Von Habsburg’s intention is to create a space where solutions can be found and thinking changed about our stewardship of the ocean. Her internationally renowned TBA21 Academy, run by Markus Reymann and once devoted to ambitious and daring visual arts projects, is now offering its substantial resources towards creative solutions to regenerating and nursing the oceans back to health.

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Holding framed picture is Markus Reymann, to his right Francesca von Habsburg and next to her in blue is Dane Buddoo


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Baby mangroves being cultivated

Mere ocean literacy and consciousness is no longer the goal as young people are aware of the need to shepherd natural resources. What is needed are avenues to transform that consciousness into change. Art is still central to the program but art as a lens through which to view environmental issues and a powerful tool to produce socially and politically conscious works.

The TBA21 Academy has already spearheaded three voyages in the Pacific Ocean, twinning artists with scientists to come up with insights into ocean conservation and care. Portland and Jamaica have a central place in the scheme of things because of von Habsburg’s lifelong links to the country. Alligator Head was where she learnt to swim on summer holidays with her father Baron Thyssen.

Around the coast near Alligator Head von Habsburg has created the East Portland Fish Sanctuary, now headed by Dane Buddoo, formerly of the University of the West Indies.

According to von Habsburg “Science provides the knowledge and art creates empathy so this is the first bridge we are trying to create. The second one is bringing a wide range of people with different skill sets together to create a new ecology of thinking. From a very young age young people are taught that they have to specialize, if you don’t specialize you won’t have a career they’re told, but we want to break down those walls.” What has been added to the mix is entrepreneurship and finding entrepreneurial solutions that are creative.

Finding solutions to such vast problems requires collective thinking von Habsburg believes so there are three pillars to the project. The first is science as manifested in the creation of the fish sanctuary and its labs; the second is culinary, creating a restaurant on the property which will feature healthy food, using local produce from farmers in the area and also exploring options from the sea—edible seaweed and other algae.

The third option is art programming. “Artists are the antenna of the world today. They are the ones who see many topics that maybe fly by the radar of journalists. We are so saturated by media, the role of media seems to be to keep us all in a permanent state of shock and horror. If we don’t read about some horrible shithole comment that Trump’s made, it’s something else,” says von Habsburg.

Well, as Ezekial 34:2-4 says, “Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured.”

It’s time to learn from the shepherds and grasp this opportunity to use the resources offered by TBA21 and the Alligator Head Foundation.

Modern and Contemporary Indian Art by Saffronart

A look at Saffronart’s autumn auction of Modern and Contemporary Indian Art.

A few days ago the sumptuous catalogue to Saffronart’s latest auction of modern and contemporary Indian art arrived. The Auction started today and ends tomorrow at 7.30 pm Indian time and 10 am Eastern standard time. Chock full of classics by some of the biggest names in Indian art, the catalogue not only features lavish full-colour reproductions of the artworks being auctioned but also rare photographs of the artists themselves along with biographical and sometimes critical texts on each one. It’s amazing how visual artists might become household names, but with one or two exceptions, MF Husain for instance, their visages remain unknown to us.

Paintings on view at the Delhi preview of the Saffronart Modern and Contemporary Art Auction

One of the stars of this auction for me is That Obscure Object of Desire by MF Husain pictured below. It truly is one of the best Husains I’ve ever seen. Wish i could buy it. It’s estimated at US$220,000 – 280,000 but at Saffronart Auctions works always go over the estimated value, sometimes by quite a margin.
Update: Winning bid $222,012, Rs 1,17,66,636  (Inclusive of buyer’s premium)

That Obscure Object of Desire by MF Husain

Throughout his artistic career, M.F. Husain has been enamoured by the idea of ‘cinema’ and everything it stands for. The artist’s own associations with the genre range from his early days in Mumbai as a cinema billboard painter and the personal friendships he forged with directors like Roberto Rossellini, Ingmar Bergman and Pier Paolo Pasolini, to the several films that he made himself, including ‘Through the Eyes of a Painter’, which won him a Golden Bear at the 1967 Berlin International Film Festival.

It is not surprising then that several of Husain’s works are influenced by films and actors that moved him. The title of the present lot, a monumental painting that recalls the scale of the billboards Husain used to paint in Mumbai, has been borrowed from a 1977 film directed by the famous Spanish director Luis Buñuel, whose surrealist and almost abstract imagery Husain greatly admired (Saffronart Catalogue):

Falling Figure with Bird by Tyeb Mehta

The most expensive work in the auction is by Tyeb Mehta. Estimated at between US$1.5-2m barely an hour or two into the auction it’s already at $1.3m. Who knows where it’ll end up? Update: Winning bid, $1,817,000 Rs 9,63,01,000 
(Inclusive of buyer’s premium) Below I’ve excerpted a couple of paragraphs from his bio in the Saffronart Catalogue:

Born in Gujarat in 1925, Tyeb Mehta’s artistic career spanned several decades, styles and media. Mehta’s first forays into the world of art were as a budding cinematographer and film editor in the wake of the Second World War. Later, in part because the communal rioting during the partition of the Indian subcontinent considerably circumscribed his activities, he turned to painting, enrolling at the Sir J.J. School of Art, which was close to his home in Bombay.

Given his experiences during Partition, human manifestations of violence, struggle and survival came to hold deep meaning for the artist from a very early age. Recalling an episode from his early twenties, Mehta says, “There were elements of violence in my childhood…One incident left a deep impression on me. At the time of partition I was living on Mohammad Ali Road, which was virtually a Muslim ghetto. I remember watching a young man being slaughtered in the street below my window. The crowd beat him to death, smashed his head with stones. I was sick with fever for days afterwards and the image still haunts me today” (Tyeb Mehta: Ideas, Images, Exchanges, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2005, p. 340-341).

Another beauty is the painting below by Arpita Singh. It’s estimated value is US$120,000-$150,000. Let’s see what it sells for when this auction ends tomorrow. Update: The bids didn’t reach the reserve price and the painting remained unsold. The same happened I notice with Jitish Kallat’s works in this auction. Could this indicate a slight fall in value of the work of younger contemporary artists?

Summer months by Arpita Singh

From the Saffronart Auction catalogue:

Arpita Singh’s paintings are informed by and address the multiple histories she has witnessed and narratives she has played a part in developing, ranging from the personal to the national. Additionally, Singh’s body of figurative work frequently draws on the private and public lives of women like herself, and on the external events that act on them. Like these lives, her dense, multilayered canvases defy any single interpretation.multilayered canvases defy any single interpretation.

Reviewing the New York show in which the present lot was first exhibited, critic Holland Cotter observed that “The psychological and the political merge in paintings by New Delhi artist Arpita Singh. So do everyday life and allegory, expressionism and ornament, historical sources from Bengal folk painting to Marc Chagall, and a formal approach that is at once unassuming and hard-worked, gauche and poised” (The New York Times, October 3, 2003).

A Few of my Favourite Posts/Essays/Tweets

Picks from my weekly archive of favourite articles, blogposts, tweets and random texts and images including articles on or by Arundhati Roy, Andrew Ross, Hazel Dooney, tweeting and Tunku Varadarajan

Arundhati Roy: Photo taken from

A few days ago @Arundhati_Roy tweeted the following:

Men have become the tools of their tools. – Henry David Thoreau

There were many retweets (RTs) and responses to Roy’s update of her timeline with Thoreau’s dry observation; there was one brief rally that aptly illustrated the essence of Thoreau’s  point, and being Twitter, did so with economy:

but is there any escape from that ? asked @sreecube.

certainly not with an iPhone 4 came the answering stop volley from Roy, irrevocably staunching the conversation. One-love.

Novelist and  political critic Arundhati Roy recently came in for some sledgehammer criticism from a reviewer in The New Republic: The New Republic excoriates Arundhati Roy as a ‘reactionary’ tweeted @harikunzru; others also remarked on the harshness of the critique lobbed at the petite activist and writer.

Titled ‘The Reactionary’ the review of Roy’s latest book Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers aimed to take apart the Indian writer’s ‘assault on democracy’, and what it called the ‘righteous hyperbole’ enlisted in her often cogent critique of the free-market capitalism-sponsored ‘democratic’ rituals we live daily. There have been many times when i’ve thought Roy has gone overboard in the tone and strategy of her critical project  but she remains one of the most active voices raising questions and casting doubt on our ‘corporate present’, as Andrew Ross neatly terms the contemporary obsession with ‘enterprise’–literally the zeitgeist of buying and selling–to the detriment of true democracy.

Her Twitter bio playfully proclaims her outlook:

I’m bored with globalisation. You can see it in my face. I, alone, am Moral, lest, Moral-Less, More or Less. Amor, alas…

I’m deliberately not linking to The New Republic article in this post because i don’t see why i should promote it; you can google and find it if you really want to read it.  Roy is obviously hitting her mark if the conservative mainstream US media find it necessary to use such demolition tactics. Go deh Arundhati!

In the rest of this post i’m going to share links to some excellent articles i came across last week.

Taken from Digital Inspiration

First there was I Tweet, Therefore I Am, a New York Times magazine article about how tweeting changes you, how it alters the way you look at things but also the way you present yourself to the world; Twitter as performance. It reminded me of the frustration i felt some months ago when trying to persuade a friend that she needed to get on Twitter asap if she was interested in promoting the research she was doing. “Oh, i’ll just get my assistant to do it for me,” was her response. Do you send your assistant to the gym when you want to get fit i asked, after which i relapsed into silence, because i didn’t have the words to describe the range of effects Twitter has on one. Well this article makes the argument i would have tried to make, while adding several insights really worth sharing. Read it if you’re interested in exploring the new ‘ways we live now’ (or the way some of us live now, i should hastily add, having no desire to incur Arundhati Roy’s wrath here).

Then, if you don’t know him already, let me introduce you to Tunku Varadarajan, who writes for The Daily Beast. “What Does Julian Assange Want?” asks @Tunku inviting us to ‘shower the attention-craving, vainglorious “truth-seeker” with our contempt’. According to Tunku “Assange is the founder and prime mover of WikiLeaks, a shadowy, show-offy little outfit that last week unloaded into the public domain vast quantities of classified American military intelligence stolen from the vaults of the war in Afghanistan.”

Bob Englehart, copyright 2010 Cagle Cartoons

In intent and tactic the article is trying to do just what the New Republic critic attempted with Arundhati Roy. It’s just that Tunku is far more adept at it, and ultimately more convincing i think:

These latest leaks weren’t, of course, Assange’s debut on the world stage. This episode was preceded by “Collateral Murder,”  his own Breitbart Moment, when he infamously edited the leaked video of a gunship attack by U.S. forces in Iraq to make it appear more damnable. How is that different from the editing, by Andrew Breitbart, of the clip of the lady from the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the NAACP meeting? The New York Times wouldn’t touch anything Breitbart was peddling, but it gave Assange, who professes not to know where these documents came from, the full Pentagon Papers treatment.

In What’s the big deal about Blogging? Amit Varma, the author of India Uncut, recounts his own engagement with the medium of blogging and its impact on his life:

Over the last seven years, blogging has changed my life. As a medium, it has offered me opportunities I did not have as a mainstream journalist. It has broadened and deepened my perspectives of the world around me. It has sharpened my craft as a writer. It has introduced me to ideas and people I’d never otherwise have known.

I discovered Varma, along with most of the other Indian bloggers and Tweeters, in the wake of the attack on the Bombay Palace hotel in Mumbai a couple of years ago. He is also the editor of the opinion section of Yahoo News India where this post appeared.

Andrew Ross

In The Case for Scholarly Reporting, prolific documenter and critic of American culture, Andrew Ross, writes a really engaging account of his search for a voice and orientation as a public intellectual who has tried to marry ethnography with investigative journalism in his practice. In the process of mapping his own trajectory Ross also fluidly sketches the movement in leftwing scholarship over the last few decades and the history of the field of American Studies.

. . . it took me a long time to work off the habits of my training and find my own voice as a practitioner of scholarly reporting—the genre in which I have come to feel most comfortable. There were particular obstacles in the path. I had been trained, first and foremost, as a “reader,” alert, above all, to decoding the secret life of words. This meant that I was not a very good listener, especially to the spoken testimony of others.

By the way Andrew has written about Jamaican culture and music in his 1998 essay “Mr. Reggae DJ, Meet the International Monetary Fund in which he describes reggae as “the sound of cultural justice worldwide”. The essay documents the rise of ‘cultural’ reggae, and speculates on its emergence at that particular moment. In the process he disproves Ian Boyne’s thesis that it is a clutch of star-struck University of the West Indies academics who’ irresponsibly’ promote dancehall and DJs by focusing benevolent analytical attention on them. But more on all that in a post on the subject at some later date.

A Hazel Dooney watercolour

In a really good post on copyright, new media and artists’ rights blogger Barney Davey republishes a blogpost by Australian artist Hazel Dooney, one of the most outspoken writers i’ve come across. Dooney who blogs frankly about her life as a successful artist operating without a backing gallery, her fragile psychological states, her admission to a medical facility and her escape from it has useful knowledge to impart on how and when to assert one’s copyright in a world mediated by the internet. As Davey says:

I believe what Dooney is stressing is important and that we cannot avoid assessing the reality of how digital media and our interconnectedness truly have changed everything. What was will never be again. Facing what is and making it work for you is the only reality and only way to make headway in the shifting paradigms we face. Sitting still is not the answer. The famous Will Rogers saying hold’s up well here. “Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there.”

And finally a really funny one: 5 things you should know before dating a journalist:

We don’t take shit from anyone, so don’t lie to us or give a load of bullshit. We spend all day separating fact from fiction, listening to PR cronies and dealing with slimy politicians. If you make us do the same with you, you’re just gonna piss us off. And don’t think we’ll be quiet about it. We’ll respond with the vengeance of an Op-Ed page railing against society’s injustices — and we’ll enjoy doing it.

Just tell us the truth. We can handle it.

Hope you enjoy these picks from my weekly archive of favourite articles, blogposts, tweets and random texts and images.