Saturday, 28 March 2020

A little bit of Arabia in the heart of Paris

Pictures taken at the Grand Mosque in Paris, France last September 2019.

I haven't been to Morocco since 1994, but for a brief moment in time it almost feels like I have left the streets of southern Paris behind and I am deep in the Casbah of Tangier.

According to Mrs McPherson, during WW2 this majestic building was used as a makeshift school for Jewish children, whose families were being sheltered from the Vichy government of Nazi collaborators by Algerian partisans involved in the French Resistance.

As a counter-balance to the intense history associated with the Grand Mosque is the cafe which occupies one corner of the site, where beautiful mint tea again transports me back to a Tangier of the mind.

I simply cannot do justice, at present, to the beautiful intricacy of Islamic design, so I am letting the photographs speak for themselves.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Drawing with Russ Ep.2 - Light and Shade

The second part of our new series of web tutorials teaching the raw basics of drawing that pretty much anyone should be able to master.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Drawing with Russ Ep.1 - "I Can't Draw!"

My first YouTube tutorial, aimed at complete beginners, in which we explore how much you can convey with a stick man.

The Music and Movies of Independent Algeria

This article, like my other articles about the music or films of Venezuela or comic art around the world, is intended as an introduction, a brief overview, of the popular culture of a country that is all too frequently ignored in European countries like my own.

I begin by looking at Rai music.
“Rai” is a form of Algerian folk music which originated in 1920s Oran (in French colonial Algeria, Oran was sometimes known as “little Paris”). At that time the city in the west of the country was a cultural melting pot full of nightclubs, with a large Jewish, Spanish and (of course) French population living alongside the native Arab and Berber population.
Rai music is traditionally sung by the cheb, or shabab (“young”), and the style developed in the poorer, working class neighbourhoods of the city, out of traditional Berber folk styles.
Derb, the Jewish quarter, produced musicians like Reinette l'Oranaise (1918-1998) and Saoud l'Oranais (1886-1943), the latter being not just a band leader but also owner of the original Cafe Oran venue.
A popular female rai singer from the 1940s onwards was Cheikha Rimitti (1923-2006).

Sidi el Houari, the old quarter (like a Casbah) of Oran, sits out in the west of town beside the docks, in an area that used to be made up largely of Spanish fishermen, a population which vastly expanded after 1939 and the fascist victory in Spain. It remains a poor neighbourhood with few transport links even today.
Rachid Baba Ahmed (1946-1995), who often sang in a duo with his brother Fethi, and ran his own record store, was tragically assassinated by Salafi Islamists during the civil war that disrupted the country during the 1990s.

A younger rai musician, Cheb Hasni (1968-1994), whose song 'El Berraka' concerns an evening of drunken sex, like so much rai music a reflection of the lives and social conditions of the people, was killed by the same ultra conservative forces.

An Algerian singer with a far more mainstream pop sound was Freh Khodja, whose songs in the 1970s and 80s often dabbled in funk, disco and even reggae!

The most famous Algerian film in Europe and beyond is probably Z (1968), an Algerian-French joint production which was directed by the left-wing Greek director Costa-Gavras. The Battle of Algiers (1966), an Algerian-Italian documentary about the independence war, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, is also very well known.
I understand that the US military even organised screenings of this latter film for Pentagon officials prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, although it is hard to understand how a film about an indigenous guerrilla war bears any relation to a foreign-backed regime change invasion...

There are a few examples of films made exclusively in the Arab world around this time which still make good viewing today. 
Egyptian director Youssef Chahine's 1958 historical drama Jamila, the Algerian was produced in Nasser's Egypt, clearly out of solidarity with the cause of Pan-Arab national liberation, as the independence war against French colonialism in Algeria was still ongoing at the time this film appeared. 
Chahine's film, with its fast-paced dialogue, focuses on Djamila Bouhired, one of the most important female revolutionaries to emerge during the Algerian independence struggle. Born in 1935, she continues to make her home in Algiers, where she remains politically engaged in a number of different causes including the women's movement, which has sadly seen rather less success in Algeria than the cause of national independence did.
In the post-independence context, Chahine also directed the first Egyptian-Algerian co-production. Le Moineau (The Sparrow in English, or Al-Asfour in its native Arabic) is a political drama set during the Six Day War of 1967. It did not receive a UK release until 2007!

Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina won an award for Best First Work at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival for his war drama Le Vent des Aures (The Winds of Aures), and would follow it with the war comedy Hassan Terro (1968) and the epic Palme d'Or award-winning historical film Chronique des Annees de Braise (Chronicle of the Years of Fire) (1975).

I could go further, outlining the contemporary cultural scene in 21st century Algeria, in particular how the country was affected by endemic corruption and an uprising of ultra-conservative Salafi forces during the 90s, but I will save this for another article, in which I will also talk more about Algerian literature.

A recent book by the French historian Alain Ruscio (b.1947), a contributor to France's longest-running left-wing daily newspaper l'Humanite, may also add some useful context for those wanting to understand more of the country. Les communistes et l'Algerie. Des origines a la guerre d'Independance, 1920-1962 (published by La Decouverte in 2019), examines the role of leftist movements in Algeria in the decades preceding independence.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Anti-war Art

The creation of art that attempts to convey the sterile horror of war has a long history indeed.

Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904) was a Russian landscape painter of the nineteenth century and, for a time, an official war artist for the Russian army. His paintings often reflect his own direct experiences. 
He is often categorised as an anti-war artist because of the devastated landscapes he painted drew closely upon his own direct experiences, and were depicted in his distinctive crisp, unflinching classical realism. These paintings are like a "morning after" image, displaying the sterile destruction of life and civilisation that remains once the heat of battle has died down.

Vereshchagin dedicated 'The Apotheosis of War,' to "all great conquerors, past, present, and to come." It can be found today in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which houses a great deal of his works. 'The Ruins of the Theatre in Chuguchak' (below) can be found in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg.
What makes paintings like these so powerful and disturbing to me is how often images like these have been repeated and recreated in the real world in the century and a half that has elapsed since their creation.

The lifelessness of Vereshchagin's landscapes are echoed by those of the British war artist of WW1 John Nash. The hideous mound of skulls in 'The Apotheosis of War' has been seen in the twentieth century too many times to count, perhaps most infamously and presciently in Cambodia of the 1970s.
In the last century we have seen the power of photography replace painting to convey the reality of war to the public. Think of those photographs of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, who defied a ban on western reporters visiting the cities following the US atomic bombing, described as "a warning from history".
In the twenty-first century independent journalists like the British photojournalist Guy Smallman have produced similarly stark images on landscapes in Afghanistan. 
Others increasingly rely more on video, which can be easily distributed via social media to anyone with an Internet connection. For example, this footage shot by the British independent journalist Vanessa Beeley of Daraa al Balad in Syria I feel captures the same spirit of Vereshchagin's unblinking vision, which bears witness to our own inhumanity.

Today some of the best anti-war reportage is that which is created by the perpetrators themselves, and it is merely left to conscientious individuals to alert the general public to its existence, as US Army Private Manning did back in 2010.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Historietas y Tebeos - Comics in Mexico

Since the Spanish-speaking world covers everything from Spain itself to the whole of South and Central America that isn't Brazil or French Guyana, I am going to focus on the comics of one country for starters: Mexico.

When looking for the roots of Mexican satirical cartoons one place to begin may someone like the nineteenth century political lithographer Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). Posada's influence was of course not just confined to cartoonists but also extended to the wider culture, perhaps most notably to the muralists that emerged after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. 

Figures like Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Fernando Leal, not mention the iconic surrealist painter Frida Kahlo, often referenced some of the same cultural iconography that Posada had popularised years earlier, and they certainly shared similar politics. 

One of Posada's iconic characters

A later artist to draw upon the political radicalism of Posada and the muralists was the cartoonist Eduardo del Rio (better known by his pen name Rius) (1934-2017). "Rius" created satirical comic strips in the 1960s like 'Los Agachados' as well as many books that reflected his left-wing sympathies and critique of the Catholic church, of which he was a member for many years. His 1981 book El manual del perfecto ateo (The Handbook for the Perfect Atheist) even got him excommunicated, while his history of the Catholic Church probably didn't help things either. Its called Pope Puree (which I understand is a kind of play on words of the Spanish term for "mashed potatoes"). 
Rius also carries the curious distinction of being the first author outside of the Soviet bloc to be published by Izvestia.

"Drugs: The U.S.A's Big Business"
(a cover for Los Agochados de Rius)

One of his most widely read books is Marx para principiantes (Marx for Beginners) which helped launch the whole "for beginners" genre.
Rius remained active for most of his life, helping launch the magazine El Chamuco in 1996 with other creators like El Fisgon, although sadly this version of the magazine folded in 2000 before its eventual re-launch in 2007. 

Monday, 3 February 2020

Bandes-dessinees: the Rich World of French Comics

I have always been aware of the respect that the French hold for the arts. More to the point, since learning, in the mid-1990s, that the two most famous names of 1960s U.S. underground comix - Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton - had both chosen independently to emigrate to France, I have also been conscious that this high regard also extends to that form of graphic storytelling and social commentary so frequently dismissed in the English speaking world as "comics" or "cartoons" (I imagine this is because no one has yet coined a more succinct term, meaning the endless confusion with fields like animation and stand-up comedy persist).
Growing up in the UK I found that only a thin slice of French talent was ever translated and published in English. I had heard of the work of the science fiction illustrator Moebius (pen name of the late Jean Girard), for instance, or the humorous slice-of-life cartoons of Claire Bretecher, and of course books like Asterix and Iznogoud figured prominently in my reading habits from a young age (certainly as much as MAD magazine), but that was about it. 
As i grew up and found myself wanting to seek out newer or more different work I soon found that unless you read Heavy Metal magazine avidly (this being the US version of France's sci-fi/fantasy magazine Metal Hurlant, nothing to do with the music genre), there were very few opportunities to find work by French artists short of actually learning some French and going there.
One of the interesting things you find when you do go there is how mainstream the French love of comics and satirical magazines is. It extends well beyond the walls of comic shops, as here you will find that they grace the shelves of most newsagents in the country. It reminds me of that brief renaissance in the late 80s-early 90s when British newsagents's shelves were filled with VIZ imitators.

The reality for UK mass market comics aimed at a more mature audience has consisted for many years now primarily of VIZ and Private Eye (both of which are really humorous or satirical magazines that also happen to publish a lot of comic strips or gag cartoons). This figure at least doubles as soon as you cross the Channel. For every VIZ you have a Fluide Glacial and (periodically) l'Echo des Savanes. For every Private Eye you have papers printed on equally cheap looking newsprint with names like Le Canard enchaine, Sine Mensuel or Charlie Hebdo.
It also impressed me that within just one French comic magazine you find a much wider diversity of drawing styles than I am used to seeing in either VIZ or more kid friendly fare from DC/Thompson. (This is one area in which the long-running science fiction mag 2000ad bucks the trend at least.) 
Perhaps it is just because I grew up with MAD and US underground comics more than Marvel and DC that I feel more invigorated by publishers that do not cultivate a "house style"? 
In just one edition of Fluide Glacial, for instance, I have seen artists as diverse as those with the loose cartoon-style of Fabrice Erre or Edika, to those with the detailed realism of Dominique Bertail.
And that's just on the news-stands. There is of course an equally dedicated array of specialist comic shops catering for people that enjoy longer, graphic novels. Rue Dante, in the area known as the Latin Quarter (on the south side of the River Seine), has long maintained a collection of different comics and speciality stores. Over the years, we have even seen this unique market developed and catered to by a science fiction-themes creperie.  
Almost makes me wish I could speak French more fluently!