London Diary – The Feminist Wire

London Diary

It’s a chilly spring weekend in London, although the cold this time of year is not unprecedented, and tourists by the busload descend on Piccadilly and Trafalgar. I spent the past Saturday with a friend, traversing miles of the capital from Mayfair to Hackney and back again.  On the return journey, past St. Martin in the Fields, we heard the amplified voices well before we’d reached the center of the Square just beneath the imperial statue of Lord Nelson that seems to preside over the roar of all that traffic. But stopping a moment just outside the pit, we were quickly disabused of the idea, according to the outward signs, that this was just another momentary and haphazard formation of world denizens. The motley array of young women that we were confronting—in neon hair, thickly beaded and sequined tops, skirts almost at the level of the navel, high boots and wraps tossed, willy-nilly, over arms and shoulders, sometimes tied at the waist—had purposefully come together for a London version of “Slut Walk,” a political initiative described in the pages of TFW some weeks ago by Ulli K. Ryder. All the speakers we saw (and most of the demonstrators) were young women, strong voiced and emphatic in their insistence that sexual abuse is neither sexy nor consensual and that in fact it constitutes a crime. Imagine this scene replicated on both sides of the Atlantic, and what we have hold of is probably the West’s first international movement since late winter 2003 and the transatlantic protest, from Toronto to New York to London, against the Iraq War, when millions took to the streets of the metropolis to oppose their respective governments.

But the appeal of the “SlutWalk” is that it is sending a message to civil societies directly and to governments indirectly as the context through which the former unfold—in other words, there is at the moment no formal space that would define, or discriminate the transnational function of non-governmental expressions of protest and discontent, nor do we have any idea now how such a transaction across national borders and distinctive cultural/linguistic claims might actually work; for example, if thousands of women march in New York and as many in London and Madrid, then what strategies of pressure and recognition would be available to them in order to effect changes of public policy at the level of the nation-state? The example that we well remember is that the international demonstrations against war in Iraq were met with such silence and indifference that we would be justified to think of their reception as an early version of “shock and awe” in the reverse.  I, for one, was flabbergasted by the utter persistence with which the governments of the United States, Great Britain and Spain pursued their military ends in the very face of millions of their citizens who opposed them.

That millions of nationals can be ignored does not mean that the manifestations of discontent with the state are useless—they are even working across large swatches of the Middle East right now—which dismissal would be a cynical reading of the matter, but, rather, that we currently need and do not have a caucus or lobby of interests that operates transnationally to advocate for policy change. (NGOs have no equivalent of the United Nations, for instance.) “SlutWalk,” the newest kid on the international block of protest, reminds us of this imperative concerning a problematic that is so vital to our human and social well-being. The style of the protest announced its “situation specificity” to our age—“Cunts 4 Justice” shocks the sensibility of 60s people—as are my companion and I— on a few levels, but such signs represent the kind of “in your face” attitude that matches the continuing barbarity of sexual violence against women in an international key. It is as if one were saying, “Ok. We’ve tried to be inoffensive, and it hasn’t worked. Now, let’s see what happens when we use undeniable bluntness, even bad manners.”

As a reflection of the woman’s need for dignity everywhere, how can these demonstrations ring out so loudly that the “walk” of the “slut” is rendered a human campaign for justice? Or more precisely, what levels of response do we need to awaken in order to make it so?


Photo by David Adjaye

I’m not sure I’m reading this right, but here is a scene that took Shakespeare off my mind and what lessons we might glean from the Shakespearian canon in relationship to the Miliband brothers (Ed and David), both Labour politicians, and the political rivalry/bad blood broken out between them. What would our transatlantic writers and critics say about this?

One of the impressive instances of what I would call the “new museum” space of various venues from Toronto to Detroit to London is located in this city’s east end at Rivington Place; designed by David Adjaye and housing a small library named in honor of Stuart Hall, the Institute of International Visual Arts, popularly known as Iniva, and in cooperation with Autograph ABP, brings together several functions—community activities, exhibit space and archives—on five storeys of easy access that is at once intimate and public. To achieve the most fluid passage between art and the everyday world, indeed to restore artistic access to the world of the everyday, seems to have been the driving inspiration of Iniva’s creators.

Over the last few years, I have seen a couple of exhibitions in this space, most recently the past Saturday, when, at separate ends of the center, I saw, for the second time, Hilton Als’s and James Allen’s “Without Sanctuary,” on the one hand, and Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s “Mortal Coil: Eros and Diaspora in the Photographs of Rotimi Fani-Kayode,” on the other.  But what stuns me now is that I only realized that I had been looking cock-eyed (or two-handedly, let’s say) only after the fact, only after we were leaving the building. “Without Sanctuary,” an exhibition that has also produced a book, is well-known to American audiences as a photographic elaboration, adopted from actual post cards, of lynching practices in the United States from Florida to New Mexico and right across the heartland of the U.S. southern interior, from South Carolina to Missouri; I first saw “Without Sanctuary” at Detroit’s Charles Wright Museum of African-American History in the early 2000s, if memory serves, and it was effecting then and according to the tension that my body felt on Saturday, no less so today, nearly a full decade later. In fact, my colleague literally could not stomach the exhibit, so raced through it to take a seat by the exit and wait for me. Upon entering the space, the observer is very quietly warned by an exhibition guide that what he or she is about to experience is going to be “graphic.”

There is no descriptive apparatus that is really adequate to capture what we see in “Without Sanctuary,” as words actually disappear and die on the threshold of thought as one travels through. It is hard to describe frisson, but the tremor comes close, an almost scandalous involuntary agitation in the deepest recesses of one’s interior about which he or she can barely speak; in fact, observers tend to be silent at the other end of “Without Sanctuary,” and I know why.

Then suddenly, one is on the ground floor of Iniva, looking at the most erotic photographs of black male bodies since Mapplethorpe’s work; these gorgeous tints and shades, poses, postures and maskings, shot and stylized by the gifted Yoruban photographer, of singles and pairs of male figures, often playfully mimic the wildest of human imaginings: in one stunning and humorous instance, a single figure, self-doubled, strikes a classical artistic pose, in this case, of a mythological inscription—a satyr, more specifically a Bacchante, plays a harp-like instrument, juxtaposed with its “twin,” sitting on its “tail,” which actually turns out to be the model’s right foot, choreographically poised beneath his buttocks! (Somewhere in my memory, I have seen the master painting or sketch of a Bacchanalian scene on which this parody is based, or I’ve seen a prior approximation of this shot that has been “revised” and “corrected” for contemporaneity.) The other cluster of images that one brings away in the memory from “Mortal Coil” is the project named the “Golden Phallus,” shot of an actual penis, spray painted in gold. That an individual penis here “loses” its flesh and, therefore, its limit is driven home by the artificiality and intrusiveness of a bit of paint; especially obvious as another medium of expression, plopping itself down on a photographic surface rather than a painterly one (or is that a kind of literary joke here?), the spray paint lends the individual or “local” penis a stillness of erection and monumentality that Phallos implies as a symbolic gesture.

Now my question, after all, is whether or not the curator(s) of these exhibits quite realized what he or she was setting up by placing these photographic projects side by side. In any case, we cannot assume less, but must also say that this stark confrontation of sacralized and demonized representations of the black male body, as these are also measured by their distance from reality and realism, makes me uncomfortable, uneasy, but is that indeed the point? To disturb one’s peace? But in this case, why? The lynchers also played with black male genitalia—in fact, it was the route to making the black body sacred, or that meeting ground of attraction and repulsion. Should we conclude that the way one views this juxtaposition very much depends on how he or she is situated with regard to the historical, not the racial?

Update:  Autograph ABP organized and curated both exhibitions referred to in this writing; though Autograph ABP shares a space with Iniva at Rivington Place, London, Iniva had no hand in putting up the exhibits.