Monday, 13 June 2016

Ryan James Caruthers: Tryouts

Yes. I know. I've been quiet. No words since December!

Ryan James Caruthers: From the Tryouts series
It's June 13th, and as much as I would like to talk about what happened yesterday - I can't. The shooting in Orlando has left me speechless, unable to articulate what I am really thinking, my fears, my anger, my sadness. It's a weirdly numbing mass of thoughts racing through my head, and thus I guess it will be some time until I will hopefully be able to share something on here.

But: It's Monday! And in the past few months I really got into Youtube and the wonderful perkiness of the people on there, and if I learned anything from them, it's to be cheerful, somehow. Let's be cheerful today, yeah? And I've got a thing to be cheerful about: For the first time in a while I am genuinely, genuinely excited about a photography project.
This is quite a big thing, you guys. Because another thing that happened over the last few months is that I decided not to pursue a career in photography, or at least 'not in photography alone'. And one of the reasons for that (and for the awful quietude on here) is that I got increasingly uninterested in, and to some point disgusted by the photography around.

And then this happened. (Of all places, I found it on Buzzfeed! Ssshhhh.) This is Ryan James Caruthers' project Tryouts, and it's eff-ing beautiful. The colours, the angles have a tranquility to them, lending the project a quality both ethereal and very, very real. The projects cuts right down to the bones and tendons of a young man not quite fitting in, a story we've heard and seen so often, and which yet attracts the eye to wander over the hapless, exposed body. It's sweaty and dirty without leaving a mess.
There's a sense of Paolo Ventura's haunting, staged scenes in Caruthers' images, in the red cheeks, the pale skin, the body floating in the swimming pool. But Tryouts doesn't share Ventura's twisted nostalgia, it feels very recent, very now. It is another argument in the discussion of masculinity, gender, sexuality and athletics (the connection of these is scarily demonstrated by everything going on around the Euro 2016 football tournament), and it's an argument which is just, honestly, very nice to look at.

Ryan James Caruthers: from the Tryouts series
So yay! Photography! Exciting! That's my thought for Monday. What a weird thing to come back to this blog with. Sorry for rambling on, and throwing all my thoughts at you pretty much unfiltered. But I just really wanted to share this with you. I hope you enjoy it as much as you do.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Some thoughts on World Aids Day 2015

It's another December 1, and so, hooray, it's World AIDS Day 2015! It's been a mixed year so far. There is a major advance in Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), and a series of really lovely books on the subject. But there is also a steep rise in infections in China (among other places), and a fundamental lack of education and care for young people. And this is just the beginning of the list...
Something that I would personally like to see in the new year is the end of HIV stigma perpetuated by the media. Earlier in November I applied for a research opportunity, pitching a project about the relationship between HIV/AIDS advocacy and the mass media, worrying that the topic might be somewhat stale and overdone, when I saw this:

This is the Sun (UK) on November 11, chipping in early on Charlie Sheen's HIV story, channeling their best 1985-Rock-Hudson outfit. Leaving us to wonder: Why is the media stuck in the 80s on HIV stigma? In fact, the National AIDS Trust found that media coverage on HIV is twice as likely to be negative than anything else. And that's not because we're talking about a not-even-so-fatal-anymore disease. That's because the stories are about gay men, about unprotected sex, or actually, about sex in general, in which regard the medial opinion still seems to resemble a Southern Republican of the Reagan/Thatcher era. Not cool, you guys. 
Echoes of this hate and fear-mongering can be found in this collage assembled by Buzzfeed - a mostly downhearted collection of anonymous (presumably young/gay) confessions à la "I feel like being dead would be better than being HIV+" - or in the latest episode of London Spy on BBC, where an HIV diagnosis is purposefully and unapologetically conducted to discredit the protagonist. 
This leaves us with a heap of work until next December. Wouldn't it be lovely if news outlets, for once, offered genuine advice and orientation for people confused and scared by their diagnosis? If people living with HIV (and not dying from it!) weren't facing forced coming-outs and breaking of their private spheres? If people weren't scared to take their test in the first place, thus risking further infections? 
It's about time to push those media into a TARDIS and bring them to year 2016, methinks!

Please read also:
and the many, many resources found on Twitter. 

Monday, 23 November 2015

Tate Artist Rooms: Robert Mapplethorpe (Aberystwyth Arts Centre)

Self-Portrait, 1980
I have always wanted to be one of the kids. One of those kids that gave Patti Smith's wonderful "Just Kids" its title. It's a tender longing to have seen the wild years of the late 1960s and 1970s, to spend nights and have conversations with the likes of William Burroughs, Janis Joplin and, naturally, Robert Mapplethorpe. But having been conceived a couple of decades to late, I remain as one of the kids who dress in black, turn off the radio whenever Taylor Swift is playing, and nurture their unrequited love for Mapplethorpe by visiting every exhibition they can. 
This month, I had the chance to see his work in the Arts Centre in Aberystwyth/Wales as part of the Tate Artist Rooms tour. And let's be frank, seeing Robert Mapplethorpe's beautiful photographs of his friends and of himself on the wall almost feels like a proper journey through time, and is probably as good as it can get in the year 2015. 

I saw some of Mapplethorpe's work curated by Isabelle Huppert at Paris Photo last year, but didn't find it as poignant or impressive as this year's small retrospective in Aberystwyth. Presenting a fairly small number of images (compared to Mapplethorpe's extensive oeuvre), the Tate cleverly managed to assemble a collection that is comprehensive but not overwhelming, and a nice introduction to Mapplethorpe's work in general. The focus is on the (self-)portraits, with only little room given to his still-lifes, which does wonders for the cohesion of the exhibition.
If you made your way through the display the right way round, it would start with Mapplethorpe's early self portraits, which he would use to perfect his photographic technique, then take you on a expedition through the Hotel Chelsea and Andy Warhol's The Factory, encountering Philip Glass, Keith Haring and Iggy Pop, exploring Mapplethorpe's more thematically constructed projects on the way, to finish on the self-portraits taken towards the end of his life, concluding the trip with a haunting close-up of his eyes. Just like "Just Kids" the exhibition traces Robert Mapplethorpe's life with a sentimental note, but the centre stage is taken by vivid, extravagant characters, be it his many alter-egos or the soon-to-be-famous poets, artists, bon vivants that he captured one by one.
Marianne Faithfull, 1976
They stare back at you, one by one, as you progress through the exhibition. Working a similar trick like Zanele Muholi years later, Mapplethorpes images live of the eye contact made between his subjects and his medium format camera, and consequently, the viewer. The eyes draw you in, image after image, they form the punctum, the first focal point, throwing you into the moment of the pressed shutter, into the situation, turning you into one of the kids, tête-a-tête with Marianne Faithfull. The exhibition's catalogue describes Robert Mapplethorpe's relationship with eyes, somewhat gloomily, in the following way:
"By training his camera on his eyes, and on his eyes only, Mapplethorpe has concentrated on those organs and on that faculty that determined his career. These eyes, sunk into his head and surrounded by lines, are the eyes of a sick man - Mapplethorpe was to die of an AIDS-related illness in a few months' time - but also the eyes of a brave and unflinching man, determined to outstare death."

One exception for me is Mapplethorpe's portraits of Andy Warhol where I always look at Warhol's hands first - at the awkward posture, the long white fingers fidgeting nervously. I love how these images are not controlled to the finest detail, how they encapsulate Warhol's uneasy nature - these photographs show Robert Mapplethorpe's artistry at its finest, his command of the portrait in its truest sense, candidly showing us the person, breaking them open with the camera. My favourite image is of Patti Smith, taken in Mapplethorpe's bare loft apartment. She crouches, naked, ribs showing, holding herself to heating pipes, an earnest stare underneath a nest of dark hair. She looks confident in her vulnerability, not shying away from the camera. It is a simple, but stunningly beautiful composition; the play of shapes and strong lines so beloved (and mastered) by Mapplethorpe stronger than ever. 

Patti Smith, 1976
The real surprise for me at this exhibition was the quality of the prints. Having seen a couple of shows at the Arts Centre and having squinted more than once at badly blown up digital prints in distracting lighting, the original prints acquired by the Tate constitute a lovely change. Some of them dating back to the early 1980s, they are just delightful, as they softly grasp the full potential of black and white medium format film, bringing out every shade in between the darkest black and the brightest white without drowning in either, or, even worse, in a dull grey. The swirling smoke of Robert Mapplethorpe's cigarette is just as marvelous to trace as the faintest outline of Doris Saatchi's shoulders in the gorgeous print of her portrait - let's be honest, we've all seen a version of that image in which she looked strangely decapitated by a sea of black, but not this time!
The plain framing - wooden  frames of a certain prominence - enhances the experience by subtly highlighting the element of symmetry, of lines and forms in Mapplethorpe's work; without taking over or fortifying the rigid nature of the square format which feels lofty, but not restricting here.

Doris Saatchi, 1983
It is by no means a perfect exhibition. The Tate Artist Rooms initiative is aiming to engage new audience with the works of individual artists and consequently, learning and education take priority. Education toolkits are provided on the Arts Centre website and on location, not only providing socio-cultural context and locating Mapplethorpe within a bigger arts history but issuing question and answer sets which are clearly not made for the general public, but explicitly for (young) students. It is presumably owed to this objective that what appears to be a comprehensive retrospective at first is actually missing all of Mapplethorpe's more provocative work, addressing the S&M scene and gay emancipation. Thus it eradicates some of the most pivotal, political work of Mapplethorpe, work which lifts him above being a mere chronicler of his time; and it is also a key element of his own biography missing in a display which claims to be following his life by its set-up. 
Ironically, the S&M part is, albeit swiftly, mentioned in the education kit - so when one leaves the exhibition, having loved the beautiful prints and cherished the feeling of being amongst pop culture giants for a good afternoon, one is left with the mental image of a ten year old, stumbling across two curious letters during his arts homework, innocently typing them into Google... just imagine his eyes. Imagine that boy's eyes.

Andy Warhol, 1983
PS: I actually like Taylor Swift (sometimes), and I don't dress exclusively in black (don't call me Doris). But you get the picture.

All images taken from the Tate/National Galleries of Scotland.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance - which is much better than International Men's Day or World Toilet Day, which shared the limelight yesterday. There is a lot to learn today. There are - sadly - many lives to be remembered and to be honoured today. So head over to your Twitter or Tumblr account of choice and listen what all the wonderful and intelligent trans people have to tell you, or go to an TDoR event near you. It's the least we can all do. 
Remember them by their names. Remember them by how they lived, not how they died. Trans lives matter.
Image via "Sylvia & Marsha" on Facebook
If you are unsure where to start, I would suggest Emma Frankland's blog "None of us is yet a robot".

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Interview: Avram Finkelstein

“If the you and I’s of this world don’t have this conversation and it doesn’t lead to other sets of thoughts...”

It is towards the beginning of this interview that Avram Finkelstein, in his therapeutic geniality, elicits a confession from me: the confession of my frustration. The frustration about the political passiveness of the larger part of my generation, born from the relentless grinding of consumerism; the feeling that collective effort is not really something that seduces many of my peers in any way; the vexation of being cut off from the political effort and achievements of our elders. 

It is no helpful attitude, I am aware, and certainly not a great conversation starter. But Avram waves it aside with a confident insistence: “You may feel balkanised, you may feel like you live in a world in which collaboration is more difficult than ever, you may feel you live in a world in which social spaces are harder to activate but as somebody – I’m 63 – who has lived in many worlds, I feel it’s actually easier in a way. We’re just told that it’s harder. The trick is to not listen. To not listen to that.”

We talk via Skype, and while I am sat in my dark, spare South Welsh living room by a cup of tea, it seems to be sunny on the US east coast. Behind Avram, huge bookshelves tower over him in the bright light, their centre adorned by a Chinese communist poster. Once I can hear a foreign police siren, as if straight out of a Hollywood movie, blaring in the background. Avram seems worlds away from me; but as we talk he draws me in. 

We discuss his work in collectives, from the 1980’s AIDS activism flagship Silence=Death to his recent Flash Collective initiative. He considers the necessity and rewards of interacting with public spaces, and visual and performance art produced within the paradigm of political resistance. We argue the role of the individual in a collective, and today’s problematic historiography of HIV/AIDS. And as we speak, Avram never fails to give me a sense of, ‘You and I, we’re in this together.’ He is eager to hear me out, emphasising the value of our exchange. 

“We share an intergenerational responsibility that goes both ways: For young people to listen – you know, everyone’s back goes up because the assumption is, those old-timers who will tell you how it was and you need to listen. That’s not actually true. We need to listen, to all of the questions, all of the holes in the story so we can help a younger generation understanding all of its complexity while we’re both still here.”

“It’s my thing.”

He laughs when I wonder whether he might be fed up talking about collective cultural production, after all those years. “My entire life is dedicated to thinking about collectivity from a political and grassroots organising perspective, and cultural production. No, it’s my thing. I’m not sick of it. I have a lot to say about it.” He has always worked in collectives. The child of two communist parents, he appreciates the unifying and empowering potential of this strategy: “We’re told that there are intersectional tensions that are insurmountable because capitalism depends on our being balkanised. And any collective endeavour is an attempt to pierce through that.” An endeavour, he is quick to add, that is literally open to everyone who dares it, as long as they leave their ego at the door. 

“Individual identity can sometimes be somewhat antithetical, or emphasising individual identity can sometimes be antithetical to collectivity because the collective experience is really surrendering yourself to the other people in the room. Collectives are organisms, each one is different, each day that organism is different. I feel collaborative thinking is giving, learning when to trust enough to give in to the collective and that is something a lot of people find hard to do, but I don’t think it’s generational.”

Learning processes are essential to him, and if anything, his 63 years seem to be encouraging him. Recently it has been the concept of performativity - “everyone I know currently is in performance!” - that has helped him shine a new light on his work, and approach it from a different angle, and he seems to be enjoying it immensely. His pedagogical initiative, the Flash Collective, enables him not only to pass on resistance strategies to new audiences – varying profoundly in age and profession, from activists to academics – but to discover new ideas, learning new strategies himself from his collaborators. 

“I’ve come to realise the performative nature of the work that I used to consider visual cultural production. So I’ve actually spent time thinking about what performance is and the importance of performance in particular, the ways in which public spaces are performative. So I feel like I have learned more from younger artists than I have from my own peers who have settled ideas about cultural production that are somewhat crystallised.”

“The history of AIDS hasn’t begun to be written yet. But we’re pretending that it is.”

It is this crystallisation, the stagnation, that clearly bothers him. For years, he has been openly critical of what he calls 'AIDS 2.0', the “re-imagining of this historical moment that shuts out the potential for current and future activism”. It is a complacent, and somewhat lazy gaze back on the events of the 1980s and 1990s, pursued by stories such as told in the Academy Awards contender How To Survive A Plague. We’re witnessing over-simplifying, marginalising, misinterpreting attempts to press diverse, complex histories into one glorified historiography, written to suit the taste of late-stage capitalism. Its tale of heroes, complete with “beginning, middle, and end” has a finality to it, a deceptive conclusiveness to which Avram strongly opposes – not alone because it affects one of his most famous works, the ubiquitous Silence=Death poster.

“I think something like Silence=Death is a very funny case study. It’s a cardboard cutout that represents an entire generation of activists, queer activism, AIDS activism. It’s come through the mechanisms of late stage capitalism, it’s come to represent a whole series of ideas.”

The Silence=Death project was founded in 1985 by Avram, Jorge Soccaras, Oliver Johnston, Chris Lione, Brian Howard, and Charles Kreloff, as a consciousness-raising project based on popular feminist models. The six men – three of which previously hadn’t known each other – soon found each other continually debating the politics of HIV/AIDS. Eventually the idea of making a poster was brought forward by Avram, who had gained his political education in the anti-war movement and Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign. The result, with its eminent pink triangle and stark white letters, predated ACT UP by two weeks. Yet it became its most popular embodiment.

“The poster went up literally just two weeks before ACT UP formed. So in the AIDS historiography the story goes that Silence = Death is the ACT UP logo and it represents an entire generation of activism and a whole series of questions. But in fact it was created by six individuals, three of whom didn’t know each other … it was six people who designed that poster. It activated public spaces and it was ACT UP who was responsible for that.”

Avram is keen on pointing out that the Silence=Death poster couldn’t have existed as a product of any other collective. It is the brainchild of six individuals, not of an entire generation: a circumstance that has been neglected countless times, in the effort to smooth it into the predominant, institutionalised narrative. It is a superficial reading, erasing voices left, right and centre: “Communities are made of individuals and I’ve been writing about this in reference to the question of an AIDS historiography – the intersectionality; this very interesting kind of crosshatching of multiple generations with HIV-positive gay men.”

There are stories to be told, viewpoints to be opened. “The history of AIDS hasn’t begun to be written yet. But we’re pretending that it is.” If you ask Avram, he knows where he would start. His voice becomes excited:

“The How To Survive A Plague construction completely obliterates this parallel story that affects over half of the people in the world infected with HIV which has to do with the fact that up until 1991 they weren’t doing any surveillance on women with AIDS. And How To Survive A Plague doesn’t even touch on that. It’s a pretty interesting story: It took hundreds of activists years to get the CDC to redefine, to include manifestations of immunosuppression in women in the definition of AIDS. If I were an activist in 2070, I would want to hear that story, wouldn’t you?”

“I want to create a space for the replacement for the Silence = Death poster.”

“The whole idea of the flash collectives is: I want to create a space for the replacement for the Silence=Death poster.” 

It sounds crass, the way he bluntly throws this statement into our conversation. It breaks with the veneration we all share for that poster, the firm belief that, yes, this poster deserves its place in the museums. But let the words sink in, and they start to make sense, you can sense where Avram is coming from. Isn’t he proud of what the collective achieved, doesn’t he want it to go on? “I end up spending more time speaking against my own work ... because it’s like a doppelgänger, it’s like it’s trotted out to represent a whole set of things, but it’s a set of things that are so deeply institutional and totally ignore a whole other set of things.”

Avram is ready to move on, and he has found a way to return to the nitty-gritty of the Silence=Death Project, without falling for the glory-laden fantasy that the poster has come to represent. His Flash Collective initiative seeks to engage new audiences and activate public spaces by steering away from canonical cultural production, and by employing non-hierarchical, collective strategies in order to reframe social questions surrounding HIV/AIDS, gender, reproductive justice, and only recently, the refugee crisis.

“I want us to figure out what it means and set up whole new set of conversations so that the critiques that brought that poster into being will always be alive, that’s the point of the poster. The point of the poster is resistance. And those are the skills we need to make sure are always alive. That’s what the Flash Collective experiment is about, it’s trying to learn new strategies to make new work.”

Returning to his grassroots origins, Avram now challenges himself and others by forming collectives for only a couple of hours. In the limited time, Tumblr blogs are created and interventions in the public sphere are staged; each collective approaches a subject differently, and Avram is experimenting with “which arrows to draw out of your quiver that are going to be right for that room full of people at that moment”, because there are “a million strategies for collective cultural production”. Restricting the time window is only one of those strategies, but arguably one of the more effective, as he explains:

“The reason why I have experimented with the idea of condensed time frames is to remove a lot of the obstacles that we place in our own way when it comes to complex messages. We’re sort of led to believe that some things are too hard to talk about or too hard to understand and consequently we don’t ever attempt to, but I feel like saying something about social issues is more important than saying nothing. So the condensed time frame is a way of forcing people to going on the record.”

It opens the room to dialogue. A dialogue between the people in the collective – which, as Avram admits, can easily be subject to some tension between the participants –, and a dialogue with the space. When a Flash Collective was invited to contribute to Pawel Althamer’s Draftsmen’s Congress by drawing on the walls of a museum, they decided to challenge the brief. What does it mean to be invited into an established, mediated space like Manhattan’s New Museum, and is it really as egalitarian as it sounds? After all, which audience would behold the spectacle? They ended up producing stickers, claiming ‘This is not a safe space to be queer’, for the museum-goers to take and use. The pockets with the stickers were soon removed by the museum, but as Avram writes on his website, “the stickers are still visible on the streets of New York”. 

“It’s about the ways to articulate complex things.”

The public becomes the pivotal ground for dialogue, a paradigm that the collectives are maintaining since the Silence=Death days. And the dialogue could not be carried without a language. To Avram, the key that opens the door to the public is the familiar, sometimes provocative, sometimes humorous parlance of advertising.

“I feel like advertising vernaculars pose as declaratives but I feel like public spaces are interrogatives. And the key to understanding how to break through or to pierce through complicated subjects is understanding which questions to ask or reading responses as interrogatives. I feel like even when we’re in a public space and we’re saying something incredibly declarative, like to use a Gran Fury thing, “Kissing doesn’t kill: greed and indifference do”, we’re activating that space in the hope of a response, so in fact, what appears to be declarative is a dialogue. And I think it’s really essential to think any work in the public sphere as a dialogue and paying attention to the responses however they’re gaged.”

It makes a full circle, this strategy, twisting something that could not be more consonant with capitalism and consumerism to your own political ends. “[It is] a dynamic practice that is really about resistance’s about the ways to articulate complex things.”

Avram cherishes his flash collectives because it is a way to pass this practice, his knowledge and experience of many years, on to the next generation, and make his voice heard without obliterating others. He is aware that time is precious. 

“You have this very limited period of time where people who were actually there in the beginning are still alive and young people who are completely versed in the complexity of historiography, archives, archival practices and intersectionality and are thinking about all that stuff, they are both alive at the exact same moment and that’s not going to be true forever. So I feel like we share an intergenerational responsibility and this goes back to the collectives.” Again, he calls on the duty of his peers. “It’s sacred ground for us. We lost a lot of people. But that doesn’t mean it’s over. We’re responsible to those people, to help critique the story, right?”

There it is again, this flicker, this ‘we’re in this together’ moment. It feels like he reaches out a hand through the screen. I can only imagine what it must be like to work in a collective with him, to be inspired to come up with something exciting in only a couple of hours, to thrust yourself in the transformative experience of collaboration. It sounds really easy and not scary, not frustrating at all. Let’s sit, and talk, and listen, really listen, and work. 

Avram pauses. In the past hour we sat, I drank a cup of tea, he ran to the bookshelf to find Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto for me, we chatted, we laughed. Now he is serious, almost weary.

“If the you and I’s of this world don’t have this conversations … We’re going to be gone and I don’t want someone else after we’re gone to say ‘this is what it meant’.”

All images provided by Avram Finkelstein.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Photograph: Rudolf Nureyev

Rudolf Nureyev in La Bayadère, Palais Garnier 1974.
Image by André Chino.
The image shows Rudolf Nureyev, the dancer, the lover, the bon viveur: A lone bright figure on a dark Paris stage, his costume as radiant as his face. The performance that night is La Bayadère, Marius Petipa's romantic and exotic classic. 
Having only recently discovered the vast and omnifarious world of ballet for myself - don't worry, I'd rather watch than try the steps myself - I am drawn into the tales behind the perfect little pliés. And, oh my, is the name Rudolf Nureyev rich with stories. Take this image: It's one of those blissful moments in which life imitates (or should I say: is preceded by) art.
Nureyev certainly was the shining figure he presents in the picture. In his androgyny and intensity he quickly became a blazing star once he had escaped the bonds of the Soviet Union. Julie Kavanagh and Joan Acocella describe in detail how he, in his love for tights and self-presentation, set new standards for male ballet dancing.
But there's more to this image than, well, a pretty confident guy in dazzling white tights on a black stage. I was thrilled to learn that the scene depicted is La Bayadère's The Kingdom of the Shades, an opium-driven, hypnotic hallucination of a ballet. Arlene Croce of The New Yorker once outlined its substance beautifully:

"The subject of the Kingdom of the Shades is not really death, although everyone in it except for the hero is dead. It's Elysian bliss, and its subject is eternity ... [it is] a poem about dancing and memory and time."

The scene's theme echoes hauntingly in Nureyevs life. If his life, his world weren't created by hallucinatory drugs, they certainly were shaped by excess, by numerous lovers hidden in the shadows, by a relentless pursuit of fame. And in retrospect one can feel time pressing upon Nureyev - he must have felt it himself, dancing up into his 40s, unwilling to leave the limelight, half-joking about his "old galoshes". The stage, the dancing kept him alive as long as they could, as if to Nureyev death never really mattered - only the eternity in which his name, his work would be remembered. In 1992, shortly before his AIDS death, he, sick and struggling, staged his last ballet on a Paris stage: La Bayadère

This is the third installment of 'The Photograph', a series of pictures that I love, find remarkable or important, and which I will present on this blog on a non-regular basis.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Karolus Naga: Trans Islam

We find ourselves in the midst of a wild bout of Islamophobia that seems to have infected not only a large sum of confused individuals in my birth country (Pegida, I'm looking at you!) but indeed quite a lot of people across all of Western Europe - France with Je Suis Charlie and the Front National, Great Britain with its IS runaways and UKIP, Danmark and Sweden, to name only a very few. The tone is agitated, if not hysterical; the news scream at you with headlines and images, heated over the fire of prejudice and ignorance. In fact, the moment could hardly have been any more poignant when I rediscovered Karolus Naga, and his beautiful project Trans Islam
It's a fresh breeze, this project. Naga has uncovered the life at Pesantren Senen-Kamis, a Koran school for transgender and transvestites in Notoyudan, Indonesia. The classic black and white photojournalistic images are as adamant as they should be: persistently they remind the viewer that religion should be a place of communal joy and peace, and that the Islam is no exception to this. "People will find this place silly and nonsense", Naga quotes Maryani, founder of the centre, in his synopsis; but there is nothing silly in Naga's still, unbiased look. In the accompanying video the ambient noise of the school draws you in, alluring, almost hypnotising, into peaceful moments of prayer and conversation, shared by young and old, lovingly reflected in the calm monochrome pictures.
But Naga's view does not remain in the school; his eye wanders out to the community, to blazing sunshine and rainy streets, into dark alleyways and crammed back rooms, beauty salons and street markets, onto tattooed upper arms, heavy eye lashes, and happy smiles. In its best moments, the project is reminiscent of Christer Strömholm and his amies de place blanche, in their silent appreciation and admiration of vibrant characters, beauty and life itself. It transcends the subject of religion, captured in the title, and opens up to a fragile community. The perils of harassment and discrimination, sex work and self-destruction are not spared from the viewer, but neither are the cheerful faces, the pretty dresses, the guidance, strength and optimism of the portrayed persons. Every now and then a headscarf or a hand raised for prayer will lead you back to the central point of discussion, with the gentle reminder that you should never, ever judge a person solely on their religion, their profession, their appearance. (So deep, eh?!)
I like to imagine all the bigots crumbling when they see this project, slowly choking with their hate of Moslems, people of colour, trans people, sex workers; or possibly their heads exploding over the idea of a transgender Koran school: Diversity within a world religion, who would have thought? Maybe such a project will change some minds. Maybe it just makes the problem worse. Personally, I will hold on to the serenity and joy of Naga's images, and hope that I don't explode the next time I see a stupid headline, hear a stupid word, have to face all this weird hate. Hey, Europe, get a grip.