Motzstrasse

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By James Carson:

On a warm autumn night, I ordered a beer at a bar in the Schöneberg district of Berlin. On one of the plasma screens positioned behind the bar, Danny Kaye was duetting with Kermit the Frog. On another, a different coupling was in progress between a half-naked firefighter and a young man with a hunger for a half-naked firefighter. A third screen was advertising forthcoming events: Leather Pride, Halloween, Christmas. Before long, another year would have passed into memory.

In a city freighted with history, Schöneberg carries the weight of the past with a rare delicacy. A few blocks from the bar, the art nouveau U-Bahn station on Wittenbergplatz is a testament to Berlin’s imperial heritage, and to its 19th century transformation from  “a dingy city in a marsh” – as Mark Twain put it – to “ the Chicago of Europe.“

Next to the station, an understated sign displays the names of  Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau and the other prison camps where millions were murdered. Many of them began their hellish journeys at Wittenbergplatz.

Further south, the sandstone city hall of Schöneberg was the location for John F Kennedy’s famous speech, in which – depending on who you believe – the President of the United States may or may not have proclaimed himself to be a jam doughnut.

This well-heeled quarter is an architectural Irish stew. Gründerzeit apartments, sporting preposterously ornate balconies, rub shoulders with plainer post-war facades painted in unexpected flavour combinations of aubergine and custard, beetroot and lime. Modern, glass-fronted hotels share the streets with antique stores, booksellers and sex shops. The famous names attached to Schöneberg are as diverse as the landscape: Helmut Newton, David Bowie, the Brothers Grimm.

It’s in this multifaceted neighbourhood that I found myself on a still, September night. Like many a gay bar from Brisbane to Baltimore, this one had a cross section of clientele: locals and tourists, the handsome and the hopeful, the deluded and the desperate.

A low buzz of conversation – punctuated by the occasional grunt escaping from the darkroom – was overlaid by a soundtrack of Europop. The barman conveyed quiet authority, his burly figure contained by a leather harness that was less of a fashion accessory, more a work of civil engineering.

I was embarking on my second beer when the cops arrived. Two, then four, then half a dozen police officers entered the small bar, and paused to survey the scene. Hello, I thought, it’s somebody's birthday, and I sat back to enjoy the show. I had to hand it to them: they looked the real deal, right down to their off-yellow uniforms and don’t-fuck-with-us expressions.

They fanned out, resting glances on clots of men around the bar. From somewhere, a wolf whistle was followed by a snigger. One of the cops caught my gaze, then released it before heading into the darkroom. The occupants must have thought Christmas had come early.  

Two officers were stationed at the door. One nudged the other and gestured in the direction of the plasma screen, where the firefighter was no longer merely half-naked. The cop’s mate gave a little smirk.

The lights went up, Sophie Ellis-Bextor was cut off in her track and the show began. I looked on as the police did their thing: asking questions, taking names. The years fell away.

During the 1920s, Berlin was a magnet for people in search of the freedom to be themselves. In Motzstrasse, Marlene Dietrich performed at The Eldorado club, where men dressed in lace frocks and called themselves Letty and Countess Marina. A few streets away, Christopher Isherwood chronicled a decade of decadence in the company of Sally Bowles and an assortment of male playmates. Beyond Schöneberg, more than 100 Berlin bars, cafes and clubs welcomed homosexuals, lesbians, transvestites, and any curious souls open to the idea of difference as a way of life.

The new era of tolerance extended to wider society. In print, on the stage and on the cinema screen, gay men and lesbians began to emerge from the shadows. And in medicine, a pioneering physician, Magnus Hirschfeld, attempted a better scientific understanding of homosexuality.

While some regarded Berlin as enlightened, others viewed it as degenerate and perverse. By the beginning of the 1930s more bars were being raided by the police. Names were taken, arrests were made and most bars were closed. A fortunate few, like Christopher Isherwood and Magnus Hirschfeld, escaped the worst. Hirschfeld’s library was an early victim of the Nazi book burning frenzy.

Homosexual men now lived in fear. Affection and affectation became incriminating acts. A gesture or a look could lead to the concentration camp. Once there, inmates were ‘re-educated’, through slave labour, castration and horrific forms of surgical experimentation. Almost two-thirds of the 50,000 homosexual men sent to the prison camps died there.

I approached the barman who was grimly observing the police as they checked ID cards.  “Is it drugs?” I asked, in a low voice. He rewarded me with a look that Berliners hold in special reserve for imbeciles, and nodded towards an ashtray on the bar.

As quickly as they’d arrived, the cops were gone. The soundtrack resumed, accompanied by a chorus of resentment.  

“They made us feel like criminals!” said one aggrieved voice. “Yeah, said another, “You can smoke dick in here, but you get treated like shit for a fucking cigarette!” I’d never answered tobacco’s siren call. It was this that had spared me a brush with the law.

Today, The Eldorado is a supermarket, with a photograph of Marlene Dietrich at the door, and further down the street, the Hirschfeld pharmacy is named in remembrance of an early champion of gay rights. On nearby Nollendorfstrasse, a plaque outside Isherwood’s apartment offers a reminder that these storied streets are where Cabaret was born. And at Nollendorfplatz, a triangle carved in pink marble remembers the homosexual victims of a regime that promised to make Germany great again.

It was business as usual when I returned to the bar the following evening. Except now there was a hand-scrawled note taped to the door:

NO SMOKING – BY ORDER OF THE GOVERNMENT

***
James Carson is a writer from Glasgow. His work has appeared in various magazines, including From Glasgow to Saturn, The Skinny and ExBerliner, and his stories have also been selected for anthologies such as Streets of Berlin, Tip Tap Flat and A Sense of Place.

Wells-next-the-Sea, a poem by Ian C Smith

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I am anxious driving through green England
always moving on, never stopping long.
In Norfolk, an argument east of The Wash
an old man wearing a cloth cap
strokes a horse’s whiskery nose in grey light.

A man, a horse, a cart, a sign.
Yes, she wants to take the ride
but with the reins in her experienced hands.
The old man hears us out, considers us,
before agreeing to a test drive.

He watches.  Scavenging gulls hover.
A merry-go round and round the empty carpark.
I talk her up, a city boy standing close,
clop, clop my praise overflowing.
You’d think she was Clancy’s daughter.

Our high seat might be a magic carpet,
morning air still, few cars, glimpse of sea.
Horse skiving, I ask how she knows the way.
The horse does.  I’m just along for the ride.
Some early shoppers stop, turn to stare.

The old nag’s pace increases.
We must be heading back, she says.
Aren’t you steering?  In control?
Hardly.  Stop waving, you show-off.
She seems happier now, in her element.

The horizon behind, I picture Europe beyond,
my mind fizzing with travel’s romance.
Then the old man, looking lonely, relieved.
He says, I knew you’d be all right,
his words a lighthouse beam of hope.  

***

Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Amsterdam Quarterly, Australian Poetry Journal, Critical Survey, Live Encounters, Poetry New Zealand, Southerly, & Two-Thirds North.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.


See the Light: James Turrell in Berlin

James Turrell, Ganzfeld Aural, 2018; © Jewish Museum Berlin, gift of Dieter and Si Rosenkranz, photo: Florian Holzherr

James Turrell, Ganzfeld Aural, 2018; © Jewish Museum Berlin, gift of Dieter and Si Rosenkranz, photo: Florian Holzherr

By Sara Bellini:

The way we experience space is connected with the way we perceive light. A thick fog, complete darkness, disco lights give a different depth to a place, which in turn influences the way we exist in it and our internal space. Our perception of space and light is what James Turrell has been exploring in his art for the past five decades.

This summer Berlin has the privilege to host two of his site-specific installations, among the many dispersed all over the globe (Roden Crater deserves a read). The first opened at the Jewish Museum in April 2018 and will be open until 30 September this year. “Aural” is part of the Ganzfeld series and consists of a room infused with homogeneous, coloured light. The eye needs time to adjust and the lack of walls or any other object can be disorientating. James Turrell wants to leave you alone with your looking and your awareness of yourself taking in the light. In a space without landmarks, perception is all.

The second installation is located inside a burial chapel in the Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery, in itself a place of significance in Berlin. Located next to Bertolt Brecht’s house, this graveyard is the burial place of the poet and playwright and of other famous Germans, such as Christa Wolf, Helene Weigel, Hegel and Fichte. It is hidden from the main entrance on the Chausseestraße behind the older Huguenot cemetery, and the bricks of the Humboldt University’s north campus are visible beyond the back wall. The church itself was built at the beginning of the 20th century and was renovated several times before the 2015 reopening. The studio of the architect Nedelykov Moreira has worked with James Turrell to come up with a modern minimal design that wouldn’t distract from the light show.

With ten light programmes that change according to the liturgical calendar and fifteen light moods, James Turrell’s installation works closely with the shades of the sunset. For this reason, and because of the late summer sunsets, the light show has different entry times during the year and is closed in July and August. You find yourself sitting in a place that looks like an anonymous church, gazing at the complementary colours of the lights positioned in the aps, transept, nave, narthex and walls, convincing yourself that the glass of the windows themselves must be stained this or that colour, only to change your mind a light mood later. Then you go out in the fading daylight, you look at the sky and for a moment you have the illusion that the neon have permeated your retina. Subjective perception is all.

***

Both shows have limited access so check tickets availability and opening times:
James Turrell at the Jewish Museum
James Turrell at the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof

Mirages: A walk along the periphery

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By Julia Bennett:

mirage noun 1. an optical illusion caused by atmospheric conditions

Air still, heat building during the morning in the summer of 2018. Purple marshes to the right, tinged with sea lavender, to the left the creeks and sandbanks of the interstitial area between land and sea. Stepping out eastwards from Burnham Deepdale, the North Norfolk coast path crosses Deepdale Marsh on a high raised bank. Upturned boats seemingly abandoned to the mud and gulls; a windmill in the distance, unmoving. A sense of desolation averted by the Mediterranean-like heat. A group of paddle boarders drift past: serenely balanced on their boards in the still waters of the English coastal creeks, but clearly not fit craft for the rigours of the North Sea crossing itself. This is the not-quite-land and not-quite-sea border of the rump of England, back turned towards mainland Europe out across the North Sea.

The path itself, built up above the tides, steers a tenuous path between the opposing forces of land and water. The local population of sea birds is well adapted to the equivocal nature of this place: long-legged orange-beaked oyster catchers; a lively assortment of gulls; mousy-brown curlews, elongated toes splayed over the surface, long bills digging deep into the salty mud. Passport-less, curlews travel across Europe. Some stay in the UK over winter, others choosing France or Spain, like elderly British holiday makers spending a few months somewhere warm to save on heating bills. A slight ripple in the creek signals the presence of those bilingual, multi-modal, land-and-marine mammals: an otter, bobbing a furry head briefly above the water. For millennia the North Sea has provided a pathway to the rest of the world, rather than a moat around the castle of England.

Hitting the road at Burnham Overy Staithe the mood changes: the harbour bustles with tourists, boats clamouring for their custom. Zig-zagging through the crowds, the coast path steps out again onto a high bank, this time crowded with people headed to the beaches at Holkam Nature Reserve. Creeks and channels curl into the spit of land like tree roots digging into a rock face, refusing to give way to the clarity of either land or sea. Dunes ahead obscure the view of the beach whilst simultaneously signalling its sandy closeness. Over the dune-summit the land finally concedes defeat and in a long exhalation of breath sends a broad expanse of blue to meet the horizon. Golden sands stretch eastwards as far as the eye can see, a broad yellow-highlighter mark on the map demarcating the island of Great Britain from the continental mainland. Walking now along the shoreline footprints stamp out tribal belongings, temporary tattoos washed away by the next wave. The hot, still land seems to hold its breath and wait. Gradually, Holkam beach broadens out as the land of this corner of England distinguishes itself from the polyglot North/Nord Sea/see/zee. No longer a liminal space between land and sea, mainland and island, the ground underfoot becomes a little firmer and the atmosphere changes.

mirage noun 1.1. An unrealistic hope or wish that cannot be achieved

A couple of miles along, dunes rise again and behind them, a cool, sweet smelling pine wood reminiscent of the beaches of Northern France. The cool silence of the deserted sand-and-pine-needles paths sheltering beneath the trees provides a breathing space away from the spotlight of the hot midday sun. Through the trees, glimpses of colourful painted beach huts presage the arrival of the superior-but-faded grandeur of Wells-next-the-sea. In bright blocks of colour or Breton stripes beach huts are a staple of the traditional British seaside, along with buckets and spades and sticks of rock. But unlike the cheap plastic buckets on sale they are highly desired properties, costing almost a day’s wages to rent for the day, despite being, literally, built on sand.

Emerging from the trees the path skirts a large car park before following the sea wall into Wells-next-the-sea, ironically another mile inland due to the retreat of the sea over the centuries. A mini-train transports those without cars to and from the beach. The sea’s retreat changed the identity of this place. Wells was a busy trading port with Europe in the sixteenth century but is now a slightly upmarket, English seaside town with fish and chips and tacky souvenir shops along the front and a few olde gifte shoppes in the narrow roads heading inland.

The coastal bus service passes through here. It is full of school children at 4 o’clock on a term-time weekday afternoon, with a few tourists and the occasional local. Along this gentrified stretch of coast, the bus travels through picture-postcard villages: red-tiled rooves and Georgian facades, roses around the doors of stone cottages, traditional butchers’ and greengrocers’ shops with names written in antiquated fonts, and the ever-present bunting, flapping gently in the breeze. At first glance this is an image of a corner of England which, much like Wells, has been left high and dry by the twenty-first century. A Disneyfied mirage, hazy in the late-afternoon heat. Isn’t that a ‘Jack Wills’ nestling amongst the tea shops of Burnham Market?

***

Note: Definitions taken from en.oxforddictionaries.com

Julia Bennett is a sociologist who researches place and belonging


Five Questions for... Vanessa Berry

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Interview by Sara Bellini:

We love zines, maps, psychogeography and archives, which is why we really wanted to speak to Vanessa Berry. She started making zines in the 1990s and is the creator of the long-running Disposable Camera, the last issue of which was published a few days ago. Besides making zines Vanessa writes a psychogeography blog Mirror Sydney, exploring “the marginal places and details of the city of Sydney” and in 2017 she also published a collection of essays and hand-drawn maps with the omonimous title.

Vanessa’s work is equally autobiographical and historical, exploring her personal relationship with place and memory as well as the stories that belong to a specific place. In the case of Australia where the pre-colonial memory of the island has been highly disregarded, Vanessa always writes “with acknowledgement of the Aboriginal lands”, reminding us that we should always be respectful of spaces that we share with others and that many others before us have respectfully preserved.

Vanessa’s newest project is a book of essays on place, memory and relationships with animals and the 20th anniversary issue of her other zine I am a Camera.

What does home mean to you?

My connection to the physical environment is strong and deeply-felt and always has been. I attribute this to being a quiet and introspective person, an observer who has always felt a kinship with the environment around me - its objects, creatures, details, changes, daily rhythms - as much as with other people. I do a lot of work at home, in a small and cluttered room amid piles of books and papers, and this is probably where I feel most at home. Although writing is also a kind of home for me, if you see me with a notebook open and I'm writing in it, know that this is when I feel most connected with the world. Perhaps that's what home means to me: feeling connected to where I am, wherever that be.

Which place do you have a special connection to?

My mental map of Sydney is made up of many such places I feel a special connection to. Generally they fall under the categories of anomalies, places of respite and places of solace. In the latter category there's a particular headland overlooking the Pacific Ocean that I go to at times of significance or difficulty. The city's eastern edge is a long stretch of coastline, scalloped into bays and beaches between sandstone cliffs. The approach to this particular headland is a stretch of parkland which rises up to a rocky outcrop. I sit on the grass and watch the magpies which patrol it. A group of them live here, and whenever I am there I see them moving across the lawn, heads cocked, listening for insects under the soil. One time, when I was sitting on the rocks, they assembled in front of me and all started singing, which felt like a gift from them and from this place, which never fails to make my spirit feel lighter.

What is beyond your front door?

Having lived in the same house for almost a decade, this scene is now permanently established in my mind's eye and I could describe it to the utmost detail, however I will keep it brief: a low brick fence with a crooked front gate made of wrought iron shaped into hearts and curls. Beyond this, lining the street, is a row of native fig trees. Directly across from the house is an olive-green metal box a few metres long which I like to imagine holds the street's secrets, but is actually an electricity substation. At the corner of the yard is a hibiscus tree which is often in flower. People like to pick them as they walk past and I don't have the heart to tell them that once you do, the flowers close up very quickly.

What are you reading / watching / listening to / looking at right now?

I am writing this answer on a plane which is flying over a scene below where the land meets the sea in an outline of bays and rivers, and the sun has dispersed to an orange glow on the horizon. I'm listening to the new Gwenno album, Le Kov. Tucked into the seat pocket in front of me is How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee and an issue of Elementum. My watching, for now, is all out the oval frame of the plane window, thinking about the ocean below, the atmosphere above, and how it feels to be suspended in between.

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Hermannplatz

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By Mike Hembury:

Sometimes words fail me.

Sometimes I struggle to put a name to even the most commonplace, the most obvious of things.

I don’t think it’s pathological in my case. But there is a word for the condition: dysnomia.

Curiously, Dysnomia is also the name of the Greek goddess of lawlessness, praised by some as the daemon of freedom and rebellion.

***

My first flat in Berlin was on Sonnenallee, almost at the corner of Hermannplatz.

That was back before Sonnenallee turned into Little Damascus.

Don't get me wrong, I like the way it is now. But I liked it back then too. Loud, dirty, unpretentious. The beating scraggy heart of North-Neukölln.

No-one would ever say that Sonnenallee is pretty. No-one can claim that Hermannplatz looks nice.

It has some "art" these days though. There's a statue in the middle of the square that has two golden figures in a pose you could possibly interpret as dancing. It's a crap statue, only serving to make the place look cheaper than it already is.  

When I arrived back then it was a golden October day. I was due to link up with a friend of a friend, a guy called Harald who lived near Hermannplatz. I came out of the arrivals gate and there was this guy beaming at me. Maybe he recognized me from my friend's description, maybe he was just smiling at everyone. It was 1982. There was no email back then, and we hadn't been in contact before.

I said "You must be Hermann."

He just laughed. "Hermann from Haraldplatz?"

I was a little taken aback. "Sure, I guess so. Or not?"

He stretched out his right hand. Long fingernails. A guitarist's hand. "Harald. Easy mistake. Good to meet you."

We took the bus back from the airport. Changed at Zoo and took the U-Bahn to Hermannplatz. Dumped my stuff at his place and I let him guide me down to the Landwehrkanal, where we sat in the garden of Café am Ufer and drank large bowls of milky coffee.

The autumn sun was warm and the sunlight filtered through the orange leaves of the beech trees lining the canal.  

Everything was new except, strangely, Harald.

He had already acquired a familiarity that maybe should have surprised me, but somehow didn't.

We just clicked. He was like the older brother I never had. I was 21, he was 26 or 27. Still a student, driving a taxi, making music and writing poetry like a real Berlin intellectual.

He knew the ropes.

He was part of a posse of draft-dodgers who had fled to West Berlin from Stuttgart on receiving their call-up papers.

After three months of hanging out with Harald's crowd in Berlin I spoke German with a Stuttgart accent.

***

One time he took out his teeth to show me. He had smashed his jaw in a trampolining accident in his teens, and now had a full set of false teeth which he could hook onto a few remaining stumps in his mouth.

He was a heavy smoker, so his teeth had a kind of patinated ivory quality to them, like you see on the keys of pub pianos.

Harald's flat was a dark, first-floor two-roomer in the rear courtyard of a vaguely slummy Berlin tenement. It had an outside toilet and a boiler over the sink for hot water.

When I asked, on the evening of that first day of my new life in Berlin, where he wanted me to sleep, he just pulled the keys out of his pocket and flung them across the table where we were sitting.

"It's all yours. You take the bed. I'll be upstairs with Sabina."

Sabina was his Lebensabschnittsgefährtin - his 'life phase companion', to use the dry jargon of the times.  

***

The October sunshine didn't last. Winter came quickly, with snow in November. I learned to use the Kachelofen - a big, tiled, lignite burning room heater of the type that have now all but disappeared from the city.

If I had to tell you one smell from those years it would be the particular smell of burning lignite - "brown coal" to the locals - in sub-zero air. Preferably alcohol-fuelled, in the three-in-the-morning snow.

Back then I would wake to the sound of the kids on the school playground next door. Put the kettle on for coffee. Take a trip down half a flight of stairs to the little loo in a cupboard on the landing. Come back and fire up the coal burner. Roll a cigarette, drink a coffee and think what a grand life I had.

No, I'm lying. Even with new friends, Berlin can be a tough place. I missed my girlfriend, who was on a student exchange in Paris. I wasn't suited to living alone. Half the time, I didn't know what the fuck I was doing there.

Harald had become a big part of my life though. Big and getting bigger. One time, returning from a trip to England, I literally leaped into his arms, footballer-style. That should perhaps have rung a few bells, but it didn't at the time.

I was ignorant. Unversed in the hearts of men, and ignorant about myself, and the possibilities within me.

So when Harald took the logical step, and put a name to the obvious, and told me that he had fallen in love with me, I was like: "Ok, so now what?"

I remember him raising an eyebrow. Looking at me, with his dark eyes.

"I mean, what do you want me to do with that information?"

I was cool, detached. Hurtful, I guess, because afraid. My English upbringing hadn’t equipped me with the words to deal with such a situation.

"Is it going to change anything?"

"I guess not."

It did change something though. It changed everything.

We ended up in an ill-advised ménage-à-trois with his latest girlfriend, Karin.

It didn't end well, for me at least, though I think they are still together.

What can I say? I was young and stupid, and still had so much to learn.

Our friendship exploded.

We've lived in the same city for 30 years and seen each other maybe twice, accidentally.

Hermannplatz still has a Harald-shaped hole in it, a scar that troubles me sometimes.

I guess sorry is the word I was looking for.   

*** 

Mike Hembury is an Anglo-Berliner originally from Portland, England, and describes himself as a writer, musician, photographer, sailor and environmentalist in no particular order. He is the author of a novel, New Clone City, and writes a regular environmental column for the online journal The Wild Word. He is also a member of Extinction Rebellion, the Dark Mountain Project and the Climate Cultures network. You can find out more about Mike on his website: mikehembury.org.



Njideka Akunyili Crosby: painting the ‘contact zone’

Njideka Akunyili Crosby   "The Beautyful Ones" Series #6 , 2018Acrylic, colour pencil and transfers on paper 151.8 x 108 cm 59 3/4 x 42 1/2 in © Njideka Akunyili Crosby Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner

Njideka Akunyili Crosby
"The Beautyful Ones" Series #6, 2018Acrylic, colour pencil and transfers on paper
151.8 x 108 cm
59 3/4 x 42 1/2 in
© Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner

By Rachel Kevern:

During her studies at Yale University School of Art, Njideka Akunyili Crosby encountered Mary Louise Pratt’s ‘Arts of the Contact Zone’ (1990), which identifies ‘social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other’. This idea of a ‘contact zone’ is present in all Akunyili Crosby’s work, reflecting the artist’s own experience of feeling a sense of belonging to two distinct cultures. Having left Nigeria in 1999, at the age of 16, to study in the United States, Akunyili Crosby’s work is often autobiographical, depicting domestic scenes of herself, her Nigerian family, and her American husband. The universe depicted in her compositions is, according to her, neither Nigeria nor America, but some other space, the space that every immigrant occupies.

Her pieces are large-scale depictions of domestic life, and combine painting, drawing and photo-transfer techniques. Often, Akunyili Crosby will merge very personal, intimate images with cut-outs from magazines and favourite designers; images that she has collected and stored over the years. In an interview with arts journal The White Review, the artist explained that she usually chooses “pictures that tap into Nigerian culture in the eighties and nineties – popular musicians, iconic album covers, movie stars.” She searches for images that give her “a feeling of recognition”, that will connect her with other people of her generation who grew up in Nigeria through their shared memories. The depth and richness of her compositions defies simple classification and forces the viewer to take a closer look.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby   "The Beautyful Ones" Series #7 , 2018 Acrylic, colour pencil and transfers on paper 152.1 x 108 cm 59 7/8 x 42 1/2 in © Njideka Akunyili Crosby Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner

Njideka Akunyili Crosby
"The Beautyful Ones" Series #7, 2018
Acrylic, colour pencil and transfers on paper
152.1 x 108 cm
59 7/8 x 42 1/2 in
© Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner

Collecting picture became a way for Akunyili Crosby to stay connected to the Nigeria of her childhood, Nigeria as she knew it, which “wasn’t the same Nigeria that [she] was experiencing in the US, in terms of the questions people asked [her].” Speaking to The White Review, she explains that she “became aware that people had no clue, not just about Nigeria but about Africa as a continent”. Her pieces stem from a deep desire to share the Nigeria that she knew with other people, “in a way that felt real or sincere”: “I wanted to give people a glimpse of this other space that they weren’t familiar with.” The paintings are both deeply personal and reflect wider issues of identity, belonging, immigration, and Nigerian culture. Her compositions themselves act as personal, cultural and political ‘contact zones’, forming a space in which different cultures mingle to become one image.

Her first solo exhibition in Europe, which took place in 2016 and was entitled Portals, featured a multitude of doors, windows and screens. In the description of the exhibition, the Victoria Miro gallery notes that these portals in her work function as “physical, conceptual and emotional points of arrival and departure, while in a broader sense the work itself is a portal through which mutable ideas about transcultural identity flow back and forth.” The doors and windows, - as much of Akunyili Crosby’s work - function as gateways to new ways of thinking about multicultural identity and what it means to forge your own space and place in the world.

***
Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s website

Rachel Kevern is an undergraduate at the University of Oxford, studying English literature and French. In her spare time she writes, acts, paints (but not as much as she'd like to), drinks a lot of coffee and reads any book or magazine that she can get her hands on. She has previously been published in The Liverpool Echo, The Warrington Guardian and online magazines such as Flux and The F-Word, as well as running her own blog and being Arts and Travel editor for The Oxford Student, her university's biggest newspaper.



Spring In This Place – a poem by Will Burns

I choose the bee-flies for company today.
Sunlight on beech leaves,
cool sweat in the warm wood,
the blue flowers of the season.
Not numerology or some old painting
I think you might like.
Not a poem I hope you read for signs of life.
I fall hard for this place every day
the way we do for people we shouldn’t.

***

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As part of The People’s Forest project, the poet Will Burns is creating a series of new works inspired by Epping Forest. Over the year Burns is penning a collection of poems, one per season, in part reflecting on the unique nature of Epping intertwined with his own experience of the forest real and imagined – here we have had the pleasure and privilege to publish Will’s poem for spring.

Sunrise to sunset: walking Kolkata

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By Alex Cochrane:

Kolkata has been called a city of furious energy, the city of joy, a dying city. It is teeming, intense, broken and modern, old British empire and a stronghold of Bengali pride and culture. It’s crumbling and developing, wealthy and poor. It’s digested a tragic history but has a unique soul where it’s almost obligatory to have chats, or ada, with random strangers in the streets.

Four am and I’m drifting through a north Kolkata neighbourhood. The streets are quiet, owned by scuttling rats and packs of dogs who strut and bark at my intrusion. It’s their time to own the streets. The night’s storms have slickened the streets and freshened the air.

Figures swathed in cloth sleep on the pavements, on rickety frames, under rickshaws, on mats, on ledges and on carts. Whole families curled up together under tarpaulin shelters, their washing strung out on nearby railings. The poverty is not as bad as it used to be, but it’s still a depressing sight.

The first tram of the day clanks and grinds its way through the still-dark streets. We sit in first class where instructions are written in English, for the old British colonialists. The streets are still silent but there are flashes of activity. The wholesale markets are up and running. We pass through one at the crossroads with huge mounds of coconuts; another has bundles of sugar cane ready for distribution to the juice crushers.  At another crossroads, groups of men stand around, sipping on early morning chai. These are the mechanics waiting for work.

Now the day is getting started - fires are being coaxed into life, figures are stirring, families are washing by the gushing street standpipes. Lights are lit on chai stalls cubby holes, pavement stalls. Power is hijacked from spaghetti junctions of illegal hook-ups. The first of the porters are pulling carts with huge piles of cooking pots. The crows hop about, looking for food and material to build their nests.

Soon it will rev up to full throttle, to the full cacophony of noise and traffic. Soon, along Rabindra Sarani or Chowringee Road, the pavements will be choked with so much trading you’ll be forced to walk on the road. The streets will smell of ghee, spices, urine, overripe fruit, smoke, pollution and incense from the Hindu street shrines. The beggars will rattle their tins and the rickshaw wallahs will ring their bells to attract business.

Since I was last in India, I had forgotten how busy its streets could be. The streets come at you from all angles - broken pavements to trip you, traffic to dodge and open drains to avoid.  The traffic is ferocious and fluid, furiously flowing round the ambling street sweepers with their carts of rubbish. The traffic snarls, beeps and roars at itself. Hawkers sleep, hawkers hustle, hawkers hawk. Conductors shout their destinations from ramshackle colourful buses that bolt off with sudden manic energy. Kids play cricket on a bit of wasteland amongst the tramlines.

Is this chaos intoxicating or overwhelming? In his book, The Epic City, Kushanava Choudhury, explores his ambivalent relationship with Kolkata. “Calcutta”, he writes, “is an impossible place”. When he was a boy he dropped a water bottle into an open drain and watched sink into the dark sludge with a great sense of loss. “Any of us, any time, could fall into the black river that bubbled below the sidewalks of our city and be sucked into oblivion.” This city built on a swamp that compels him to return home from New Jersey to the astonishment of his family.

We walk to the flower market in the shadow of the Hooghly Bridge. Great mounds of flowers are gently emptied out of large sacks. The sparrows descend on the flowers in search of insects. The market is a muddy warren divided into sections for marigolds, roses, leaf. The mobile flower sellers wander off with lines of orange and yellow flowers hanging down from around their neck. They put their hands on their heads to avoid crushing their delicate wares.

Pushing through the marketplace, we emerge onto the ghats where locals are bathing and washing. A man sluices out a row of pools for the birds to drink from.  By the river, a priest is blessing a man. They are crouching down with incense and flowers at their feet. A group of men with shaved heads watch and wait nearby. An air of sadness hangs round for them for this is a ritual of grief for those who have  a lost a parent.

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We catch a ferry. I’m astonished when I see a man latch onto to the tyre on the side of the ferry, surfing with the wash. No-one bats an eyelid. This is why I love India. As the ferry nears the jetty, the man hauls himself onto the ferry and dives into the river, swimming to a jetty with moored fishing boats.

From the ferry, we walk to Kumartuli, the neighbourhood where gods and demons emerge out of clay and mud. It’s a warren of workshops, where statues are lined-up in all the different stages of creation - from crude straw and mud forms to colourful, painted gods waiting for transportation. We stop off to feast on delicious Bengali sweets and pastries.

Back around Park Street, men listlessly sit about or sleep under carts, sit at doorways to dark interiors, waiting for the intense heat of the afternoon to pass. Business has slackened a little but the pavement still offers every service you could need. Have a crumpled shirt? The iron wallah will sort with an old heavy iron heated up by a charcoal burner. Men stand ready with the tools of their trade at their feet - extracting wax from your ears, repairing your mobile, cutting your hair, polishing your shoes.

The evening sun floods the rooftops with a golden red glow as it quickly sinks away. Kites soar around the buildings, scouting for prey. Lizards scamper amongst the flower pots. Then in the last flush of daylight, it begins, the first murmur, then a growing sacred chorus rising and drifting across the city. It’s the call to prayer, the mosques summoning the faithful. As the call tails off, the sun sinks behind the horizon on this city of endless contradiction and its ceaseless human parade.

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Alex Cochrane is based in Glasgow and blogs about exploration, travel, history, historical erotica and other curiosities on his website. You can also follow Alex on Twitter at @alexdcochrane. You can also see more images from his Kolkata walk here.

Edgework Artist Profile #1: Layla Curtis

Newcastle Gateshead, 2005 by Layla Curtis

Newcastle Gateshead, 2005 by Layla Curtis

As part of our collaboration with Edgework an artist-led cross-disciplinary journal and store with an emphasis on place, we are running a series of monthly profiles of the artists here on Elsewhere. Where better to start than with Layla Curtis, founder of Edgework and previous contributor to our blog:

Layla Curtis’ practice has a focus on place, landscape and mapping and often examines the attempts we make to chart the earth, how we locate ourselves, navigate space and represent terrain. 

Polar Wandering, 2006 by Layla Curtis

Polar Wandering, 2006 by Layla Curtis

 Layla’s works include Trespass, an app for iphone which maps an oral history of a northern English edgeland and tempts the user to trespass in order to access the work (and which we featured here on the Elsewhere blog); Polar Wandering, a 27,856 mile long interactive online drawing charting her journey to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey, exhibited in solo shows at New Art Gallery Walsall, and Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast; and Tong Tana, a moving image work made while trekking with nomadic hunter-gathers in the Borneo Rainforest and exhibited at Matt's Gallery, London. 

 As well as featuring in international collections including the Tate Collection and Government Art Collection forthcoming projects and exhibitions include the collaged map The United Kingdom, currently on display in Ideas Depot at Tate Liverpool, UK (until 21 July).

Tong Tana production still, 2012.

Tong Tana production still, 2012.

A documentation of Trespass will also be included in the forthcoming exhibition This Land is Our Land at PAPER, Manchester, UK (curated by Edgework contributor, and PAPER curator Simon Woolham) from 29 June - 3 August 2019. Curtis is currently working on a series of new commissions for Tate shop to be launched later this year.

Layla Curtis on Edgework
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