Home Where Home Is Not, at Glasgow Women's Library and Platform

Interregnum n.1 , laser cut puzzle bricks, cork and wood, by Sogol Mabadi, 2018 / Photo Credit: Iman Tajik

Interregnum n.1, laser cut puzzle bricks, cork and wood, by Sogol Mabadi, 2018 / Photo Credit: Iman Tajik

By Sara Bellini:

Home Where Home Is Not is the brilliant title of an exhibition that combines the works of two Glasgow-based artists, jointly organised by the Glasgow Women’s Library and Platform. Sogol Mabadi and Birthe Jorgensen, both born outside the UK, explore the concept of ‘home’ in a context where people move freely and their identities are shaped by their multiple homes. 

Both Platform and Glasgow Women’s Library are arts centres involved with the local community and aiming at fostering creativity and making art accessible to everyone. The exhibition includes wood sculptures, sound art and installations and will be open until 3rd August in both locations. Admittance is free. 

As part of the exhibition, on Thursday 18th the artists will talk about Languages of Belonging with Amanda Thomson, visual artist and author of A Scots Dictionary of Nature. On Sunday 21st writer and director Julia Lee Barclay-Morton will give a performative tour of the exhibition in both locations. Check the websites about opening times and event tickets:

Glasgow Women's Library
Platform


Everything I Didn't Find in Vancouver

Painting by Jase Falk.

Painting by Jase Falk.

By Jase Falk:

Warm light and wanting circle in through my earbuds. Patterned question marks and safety lights line the aisles of the plane. I’m missing you already as you write poems and drink matcha in Winnipeg. We weren’t steady in our love then and we aren’t now either, but in this distance and exchanged letters it felt like there was a growing—we wanted there to be a growing.

I stepped off the plane, my gender caught up in tangles of hair. The way you used to run fingers through the knots and listen to the slow hum of my heartbeat pulling up through veins traced down the length of my forearms taught me the meaning of safety. A latticework of language formed the shape of us. I needed shape to myself; had I no shape to myself? Years passed through me like how grandma used to whisper stories while the world slipped by, our cups of tea shimmering to its beat, leftover paska bread, eggs dully cooked, yokes a disintegration of yellow in the pan.

Float through Vancouver like a ghost; spectres of me dance down alleyways in graceless imitation of you. I’ve always envied the way linen hangs differently on your shoulders, like soil grew and wove it there. No lack of confidence in your cursive. My stumbling into coffee shops, penning words like you penned down words. My wanting you bore such resemblance to my wanting to be you. Your letters gave me form like the inside of my bones.

Flashes of red and yellow as I travel through the underpass. Loud sigh of my bicycle break’s un-oiled song. This city’s grid is not interrupted by muddy water. I kept peeking over the boardwalks on Granville Island only to see faint ripples of my face return.

Drift back from apartment on Davie street to wet lines and rainbows sliding down Commercial Drive. All is queer at night, but in the day we hide ourselves. All is poured out here, but back home I hide myself.

Night of fairy lights, soft guitars paired with words falling petal-like on the small crowd bundled up in wine stained blankets. There is a kind of softness that knows how to cut out space in a world which does not want it. I’m all broken open up in tasseled fissures. Never knew words that could work their way through such a thicket of skin. Afterwards, a woman shares her smoke with me. We talk by the fence while groups of warm bodies move aglow like candle light nearby. I hope to find identity. I don’t quite identify. Her words cluster and form hickeys above my collar. She knows but doesn’t say. I know, but don’t know how to say. I told myself I would not serve, but here I am passing wine amongst loving faces under porch lattice, vines carry their long bodies down to play on our shoulders. We are graced. We sing grace though we don’t know it. Don’t know who we’re singing to as wax spills over tablecloth, the light almost out. She would have asked for a kiss goodnight, but saw my unknowing for she had known it before. Warm arms fasten body to ground then fall away like the smell of rain carrying me into the night.

Your wanting spurts out in a phone call, alone with its uncertainty. I change my flight and leave a week early. The seat buckle tightens around my waist and the flight attendant asks “sir, would you like a drink?” I gather question marks from around my feet, tattoo them onto skin. You curl loose fingers around my shoulder and don’t know me. I grow into you—toss my questions in the messy corners of your room. Return the fullness of myself; put this body in motion. We tangle into one another, we still don’t have the right words, but brush chalk dust off and name each other till we find a stillness. Vancouver listens, patient in the distance, for anything to awake in the absence of its cedar.

***

Jase Falk is a non-binary writer who spends time in archives daydreaming of cedar trees and different futures where we have a chance. You can find them on Twitter here.

The Fabric of Place: Yinka Shonibare's The British Library

The British Library, 2014, by Yinka Shonibare, Tate Modern 2019 © Yinka Shonibare. Photograph Oliver Cowling, Tate. Purchased with Art Fund support and funds provided by the Tate International Council, the Africa Acquisitions Committee, Wendy Fisher and THE EKARD COLLECTION, 2019

The British Library, 2014, by Yinka Shonibare, Tate Modern 2019 © Yinka Shonibare. Photograph Oliver Cowling, Tate. Purchased with Art Fund support and funds provided by the Tate International Council, the Africa Acquisitions Committee, Wendy Fisher and THE EKARD COLLECTION, 2019

By Sara Bellini

It was 2014, during what ended up being my final months in England before leaving for good. In my attempts to deal with work-related stress I started taking day trips to escape central London, and it was thanks to two of these trips I came to know the work of Yinka Shonibare.

Without knowing it at the time, my first encounter with his art dated back to my very first week in the country in 2011. His work Nelson's Ship in a Bottle was on display on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, with its colourful sails made of the artist's signature Dutch wax fabric. The fabric (and the meanings behind it) would be the detail that stuck with me during the years, while the photos I took got lost in my poorly managed digital memory.

Dutch wax fabric visually identifies West Africa, including Shonibare's parents' native Nigeria, where he also lived as a child before moving back to the UK to study. What I didn't know about this textile is how complex its ties with colonisation, globalisation and identity are.

Dutch wax fabric takes one of its names from the Dutch merchants that started mass-producing it in the late 19th century, when it was first introduced to Africa through naval commercial routes. Their model was batik, a wax-resist dyed cloth from Indonesia, a Dutch colony until 1949. The initial purpose of the merchants was to break into the batik market with cheaper fabrics, but they couldn't compete with the original hand-made prints. Meanwhile the African market was prospering, driven by ex members of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army in Indonesia who had returned to the Dutch Gold Coast in West Africa. Other European countries started making Dutch wax fabric and eventually local companies developed more African-inspired patterns. When African countries gained independence from their former oppressors after WWII, African wax print had interwoven its role into various African communities, especially in the West, enriched with local meanings and customs.

This is how we get to a British contemporary artist, born from Nigerian parents who had moved to the UK in post-colonial times. Shonibare explores all these themes in his works: (post-)colonialism, multiculturalism, history, identity.

The two exhibitions I saw when I was still living in London were at Royal Museums Greenwich and the installation The British Library at Brighton Museum. The British Library is a room lined up with bookcases where each book is covered in Dutch wax print and their spines carry the names of immigrants and children of immigrants that had made contributions to British culture. A computer was available to explore the library and find out about Zaha Hadid, Hans Holbein, Noel Gallagher and more famous and less famous names.

At the beginning of April 2019, Yinka Shonibare's work The British Library was purchased by Tate Modern. Another work from the same series, The African Library, is on display in the exhibition Trade Winds at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town until August 2019.


Do writers need a nationality?

Photo: Chris Gilbert

Photo: Chris Gilbert

By Vesna Main:

I am a Croatian writer. At least that’s what I was called in recent reviews of my debut collection of short stories. As a writer trying to find an audience, believe me, I am pleased that anyone would write about my work, but I baulked at this apparent identification of me, a writer, with a nation. Yes, I was born in Zagreb and lived there until my early twenties. Does that make me a Croatian writer?

I write in English. I write in English because that is the language I fell in love with when I first read Shakespeare. I write in English because that is the language I know better than any other. Does that make me an English writer?

I have lived in Europe and in Africa. Now, after almost four decades in Britain, I am fortunate to be able to divide my time between England and France. I feel comfortable in both countries because I appreciate their respective cultures, by which I mean their art and literature. But I do not belong to either.  In fact, I have never felt a sense of belonging to any country or nation. WG Sebald’s narrator in Vertigo speaks for me when he says that when it comes to nations, it is best to be associated with ‘none at all’. Similarly, Virginia Woolf writes that ‘as a woman I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.’

I am proud to be a citizen of the world, one of those eternal wanderers, Ahasueruses of this world who, as our Prime Minister asserted, sending chills down our spines as her words echoed Nazis’ view of the Jews, are citizens of nowhere. In fact, I am puzzled by narratives of belonging. For me, the story of Odysseus is a happy one, but not because the hero returns home safely to Ithaka, rather because, as the Alexandrian Greek poet Cavafy teaches us, ‘Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey’. It is the journey and the wandering that matter, not the return home. After all, I don’t think of home as a place, or a geographical region. Therefore, it can be anywhere and nowhere.

When it comes to literature, the love of my life, I feel closest to contemporary European writing, particularly French and German and, if pushed, would admit to their influence on my work. In fact, it is this sense of not belonging to a nation or a country, this sense of strangeness, I would argue, that feeds my writing. My alienation brings about my voice, my perspective on what I write and my relationship with the language.

So, what is it, I wondered, that is supposed to make me a Croatian writer?  What is it that makes most people insist on a label of nationality? Is it simply a shorthand to enable communication? Or is it an expression of a belief that everyone ought to belong to a nation and that those who do not are somehow morally deficient and untrustworthy?

As serendipity would have it, while in my teens, struggling with The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, I came across a phrase by Ignatius Sancho, an eighteenth-century freed slave, born to a captured West African woman on the notorious middle passage, and later a resident of Westminster. Writing a letter to the author of the novel, his friend Laurence Sterne, Sancho remarked that he didn’t wish to express an opinion on a particular political issue since he was ‘only a lodger…and hardly that.’ The words accurately described my own feelings about the place where I was born and where I grew up. Despite my comfortable middle-class existence and a loving family, my home felt temporary, a place that I knew I was bound to leave. But Sancho’s words made me understand I didn’t have to belong; it was fine to be a lodger, free of national allegiance, free to choose a culture, a country, a language and, by implication, an identity. Katja Petrowskaya, whose first language is Russian, writes in Maybe Esther, a wonderful text written in German, that we should not be ‘defined by our living and dead relatives and where they resided, but by means of our language’.  And in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, Stephen Dedalus claims that ‘nationality, language, religion’ are constraints. He vows to ‘fly by those nets’. I vowed the same. While nationality was not an issue for me – my passport was only an aid to help with international bureaucracy – I flew ‘by the net’ in choosing to write in English, a language I was not born into. This choice, deliberate and voluntary, resulted from my determination not to be trapped or pigeonholed in a particular historical and cultural context. I wished to construct my chosen identity by rejecting those I had been saddled with. As Thomas Bernhard writes, ’we can leave our place of birth if it threatens to suffocate us’.

My alienation from what was reckoned to be my native country, and from my fellow nationals, extended to everywhere and everyone. I have never been anything but a lodger in all the places I have ever lived. There were only occasional moments, fleeting, like a dream, existing more in time than in space, when I glimpsed the possibility of home or the recognition of something familiar, such as where I found myself face to face with another human being who shared my passion for a painting or a text. I felt at home when in Zagreb a sculptor friend, Ivan Lesiak, took me to see Andrei Rublev, soon after my seventeenth birthday, or when another friend, years later in London, introduced me to the work of Chris Marker and we watched La Jetée. I was in ‘my own country’ at those moments with the people who shared my interests. And here I am reminded of the words of the poet Ezra Pound, who was displaced in more than the usual sense, and who writes of being ‘homesick after my own kind’, or feeling ‘wistful for my kin of the spirit’. Similarly, Robert Walser writes that ‘one belongs in the place one longs for.’

At university, in Zagreb, in love with Shakespeare, I had a brief fantasy that his country was my imaginary home. That notion was soon dispelled when as a postgraduate in England, I felt lonely and lost outside my privileged enclave of Elizabethan studies. However, far from my displacement bothering me, I remembered the words of Sancho and I accepted my alienation as part of who I am. But I also learned not to disagree with the old ladies on city buses who started a conversation and said that I must be homesick. In their eyes, only a monster wouldn’t miss their country. There would have been no point in my telling them I aspired to Roderigo’s apparently derogatory description of Othello as ‘an extravagant and wheeling stranger of here and everywhere’.

If you still feel I should belong somewhere, I have good news: as I have been suggesting, I have at last found a country, an elusive, attractive place which obsesses me, which fills my days with meaning, which I love and where, for the first time, I feel ‘at home’. I write. Writing is my country. It took me a while to find an entry point. I feared becoming lost, if not expelled in shame, labelled a failure. Worst of all, I didn’t have a language in which to write since I had stopped reading in Croatian, my first language, many years ago. At the same time, I didn’t dare write in English. Eventually, twenty years ago, I threw caution to the wind (I could always fail better, as I learned from another displaced writer) and embarked on a life-long journey. Like every journey, it has its challenges, its wrong turnings, pleasures and frustrations, and it often brutally exposes my shortcomings. But I carry on.

My fellow nationals are other writers, some published, some toiling in patient obscurity. I have chosen to belong with them. And if you ask me whether I miss this country of writers on the days when life intervenes, yes, absolutely, I do. I am ‘normal’, after all.

My favourite writers of the twentieth century – who include Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, WG Sebald and Gabriel Josipovici – are lodgers too, displaced in one direction or another. Not belonging exclusively to the literary tradition of their birth countries, whether or not resident there, they operate in the space created by the difference between the native and the foreign, between the established, the dominant, and the predictable on the one hand, and the alternative, the marginal, the unforeseen on the other.

None of the characters I create in my novels or short stories is me, but I share with them their sense of alienation, the feeling of being citizens of everywhere and nowhere. What guides the lives of the protagonists of my short stories, what makes them ‘belong’, is a passion. An ex-prostitute dedicates herself to helping young women escape her former trade; her work is driven by a deferred maternal instinct, a wish to protect the daughter she lost to adoption from the fate of her own youth. An elderly man pursues his obsession for collecting books until they literally squeeze him out of existence. A woman bakes all day, hoping that somebody will turn up to share her cakes and pastries, but ends up carrying them to the park for the ducks. A concert-goer recognises the face of a man sitting next to her as a face from her memory and cannot bear the thought that she will never see him again.

It seems appropriate that The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, the text that exiles the reader to a position of permanent uncertainty, led me to Sancho who, in turn, made me recognise my status as a lodger. More than a hundred years after Sterne’s death, Nietzsche still considered him ‘the most liberated spirit of our time’. I wonder what the novelist would have made of our Prime Minister’s strictures about citizenship.  

This from a Croatian writer.       

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About the author:

Vesna Main was born in Zagreb, Croatia, where she studied comparative literature before obtaining a doctorate from the Shakespeare Institute in Birmingham, England.  She was a lecturer at universities in Nigeria and the UK and has worked at the BBC She has written articles, reviews and short stories for daily newspapers and literary journals.

She has had two novels published. A collection of short stories, Temptation: A User’s Guide, was brought out by Salt in 2018 and you find out more and order direct from the publisher here.

She lives in London and writes in English, her second language.