Monday, 7 December 2015

Meet the Queen Mothers of Ghana: taking back their power and driving change in Africa

  Dogkudome Tegzuylle I, Pognaa (Queen Mother) of Lyssah /Credit:Nyani Quarmyne

This summer, we spent a couple of weeks with some truly amazing women in Ghana. They are the Queen Mothers – women who recently reclaimed their ancestral power and are now taking leadership roles in their communities. There are some 10,000 Queen Mothers in villages and towns across the country. They form a remarkable, but little known, network, bringing tangible social and economic development to the country and the continent.

Thanks to a grant from the European Journalism Centre, we (a filmmaker, photographer, TV producer and myself) were able to spend time with Queen Mothers in Lawra Traditional Area, a vast, rural territory in the upper western corner of the country, and in Ho, a town in the Volta region. We wanted to see how Queen Mothers worked at grassroots level. We found strong, warm, charismatic women who managed to accomplish so much with so little.  I often think of them…

And for a more immersive experience, watch our multimedia "The Formidable Queen Mothers of Ghana".

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Gallery Olympe de Gouges in Paris honours women's rights pioneer

Olympe de Gouges Gallery/credit: Veronique Mistiaen


These red letters  (in French) on a large poster in the window of the new art gallery rue de l’Odéon in Paris 6th stopped me in my tracks.

I read the poster: it was about an avant-garde woman who cherished freedom and opposed discrimination, violence and oppression in all its forms.  And she wrote the remarkable “Declaration of the rights of woman and the female citizen” in 1791. Her name was Olympe de Gouges.   I am ashamed to say that I didn’t know her.

Intrigued, I stepped inside. The lovely gallery’s manager, Victoria Otero, told me that Olympe de Gouges was a political activist and one of France’s first feminists. Although she was born in a modest family, she found her political voice by writing an astonishing number of pamphlets and posters that she freely disseminated around Paris.  Her pamphlets promoted bold, new ideas, such a total equality between sexes, female emancipation and abolition of the death penalty and slavery.  Ahead of her time, she was guillotined for her ideas in 1793.

The Olympe de Gouges gallery was conceived by a French entrepreneur whose offices were in the old building where Olympe de Gouges lived - on Servandoni street near St Sulpice Church, in the heart of the historic 6th arrondissement. To pay tribute to her,  he not only placed a commemorative plaque on the façade of his building, but decided to open an art gallery a few steps away. 

Olympe de Gouges's house/credit: Veronique Mistiaen

New in the golden triangle of Parisian galleries, the gallery Olympe de Gouges wants to “reinstate Olympe de Gouges,  talk about this woman too avant-garde for her time and pay tribute to her strength and convictions,” says Otero.

The gallery features artists who, like Olympe de Gouges, have a critical view on our contemporary world, fight against all forms of inequality and are not afraid to take risks.  As the art market tends to favour men, they also want to provide a space for women artists.  Exhibitions change monthly, which allows the gallery to showcase a wide variety of artists from all over the world.

Until November 11, the gallery featured the Sino-Irish artist Mia Funk. One of her most famous – and controversial – piece, "An Audience with the Queen" (Price Thames and Hudson 2010),  shows the British monarch and Lucian Freud seated naked on a couch sipping tea and eating Pot Noodles.  The work was meant to be exhibited in Dublin for the Queen’s first state visit, but  had to be quickly taken down following protests.

Their November exhibition will focus on immigration with Marc Bellini, a French photographer artist of Corsican origin, who through herbarium photograms traces the routes of migrants to Europe.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

On International Day of Peace, Brussels' landmark becomes Manneken Peace

On International Day of Peace this Monday, September 21, Brussels turns its famous landmark, Manneken Pis, into Manneken Peace.  

Manneken Pis is a tiny 17th-century bronze fountain statue of a little peeing boy. Locals love him and have many stories about why this statue was erected.   They celebrate festivals and draw attention to causes dressing the little boy in one of the 900 costumes his has acquired over the centuries. 

To mark International Day of Peace, CNAPD, a Belgium association of youth and educational groups for peace and democracy, will dress the Manneken (little man) in a bespoke peace outfit inspired by school children’s and students’ drawings.  More than 200 youngsters submitted drawings of pacifist outfits for the little boy and the best were integrated into a costume by a young designer.

On September 21 between 9 am and 2pm, members of the public will be able to admire the Manneken Peace, share a pintje (a pint) and if they feel inspired, propose their own creation around the theme of peace – a song, a poem, a drawing, a video etc.

In addition, during the week, 125 Belgian localities will fly a peace flag and call for the abolition of nuclear arms.

Each year the International Day of Peace is observed around the world on 21 September. The General Assembly has declared this as a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Translating Global Refugee Movement to song


Listen to this unusual, fascinating and deeply moving experiment: four decades of global refugee movement translated into a three-minute music video. 

Brian Foo, a New York City-based programmer and visual artist who calls himself a 'data-driven DJ,' has generated this song using refugee data from the United Nations from 1975 to 2012. 

"The quantity, length, and pitch of the song's instruments are controlled by the volume of refugee movement and distance traveled between their countries of origin and asylum," Foo writes in a blog post, explaining the methodology behind the video. 

“The song composition is entirely algorithmic and is composed of the following building blocks: 
• Each year between 1975 and 2012 correlates to a 4-second segment in the song. 
• The annual global aggregate volume of refugee migration controls the quantity of instruments playing. The higher the volume of refugee migration, the more instruments are added to the song. 
• The annual average distance of refugee migration controls the duration and pitch of the instruments. Longer distances yield instruments that play longer and lower-pitch notes (e.g. long distances: , short distances: ). 
• The annual amount of countries with 1000+ refugees control the variety of instruments playing, where the more countries with 1000+ refugees, the more variety of instruments are playing in the song.” 

Foo decided to limit the song to these four components and not add additional context, such as the reasons for displacement, civil wars, invasions, coups, elections, as he believed it would add too much complexity. He wanted “the listener to intuitively and viscerally experience the sheer volume of displaced populations and the distance they travel from their home country.” And you can really feel this: the song starts gently, then sweeps you along and makes you dizzy as the numbers of refugees grow.

Four seconds in the song correlate to one historical year. In 1975, which is the first year of Foo's visualization, there are about 1.6 million world refugees. Fifteen years later, the number of world refugees has increased by 900 percent and the refugee movement has become truly global. 

 His song was largely inspired by The Refugee Project, an interactive web project and map of refugee migrations since 1975. For more context behind some of the numbers for each year, go to The Refugee Project website and click through their interactive temporal map. And for more information on Foo’s song, click here

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Another Day Lost - Mapping Syrian Refugee Camps

Another Day Lost: 1,579 days and counting.../Installation by Issam Kourbaj
If you live in London, make sure to see the haunting installations by my friend, Syrian-born, Cambridge-based artist Issam Kourbaj, evoking the plight of his fellow Syrians in refugee camps scattered all over Syria and neighbouring countries. The installations are part of London-wide festival, Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture, between 11th July and 26th July. 

Taking the title of a Fairouz song, these five installations by Kourbaj are inspired by and based upon refugee camps. Each installation is constructed from imagined camp waste products, such as educational material, books and medical packaging, and is encircled with a fence of 1,579 burnt matches. The matches, which increase in number over the course of the exhibition, count the irretrievable days since the Syrian uprising (15th March 2011).

Another Day Lost: 1,579 days and counting.../Installation by Issam Kourbaj

By repurposing discarded materials and extinguished matches, Kourbaj laments not only the loss of time, normality and everyday life for Syrians everywhere, but also the poor quality of life experienced by his compatriots in their displacement. The installations are scattered around central London, in a pattern that loosely relates to the diaspora of refugee camps that have arisen in the countries bordering Syria over the last four years.

" I am counting the days since the uprising; it is more than 1500 days and I am still counting. My homeland, 'the country formerly known as Syria'* is torn apart; its cities are turned to dust, millions of my fellow Syrian families, women and children are daily forced to flee this largest humanitarian crisis in the world.

Though life continues in refugee camps throughout the region, with the help of many generous organisations such as UNHCR and MSF and others, the displaced millions now bear a lasting trail of visible and invisible scars caused by the conflict, the separation from their homeland and the scars of permanent loss.
Over the last four years, I have witnessed from this painful distance the way these vulnerable human beings are waiting in makeshift shelters they call home, and I fear for their lives are on hold and many are becoming citizens of a tent. "

Kourbaj was born in Syria and studied art in Damascus and St Petersburg, before settling in the UK. He currently teaches at the University of Cambridge, where he is Lector at Christ's College. Since the 2011 revolution, Kourbaj has been making work based on the horrors of the war in Syria, raising awareness and money for projects and aid in Syria.

The catalogue of Another Day Lost is on sale at each location, with contributions by Nabil Almulhem, Paul Connerton, Tarek Fustok, Kevin Hart, Martin Johnson, Tim Knox, Issam Kourbaj, Louisa Macmillan, Polly Markandya, Bill Norris, Eva Schmitt, Eckhard Thiemann, Laurence Topham, Gonzalo Vargas Llosa and Lucy Winkett. Proceeds will go to MSF and UNHCR. You can also donate to these charities directly, as well as to preorder artworks to be made out of these installations after the exhibition finishes.

 *As described in The Economist, "Syria's civil war: The country formerly known as Syria" (23rd February, 2013).  

Another Day Lost: 1,579 days and counting.../Installation by Issam Kourbaj

Conversation with the artist St James's Church, Piccadilly Wednesday 22nd July 6:30–7:30pm Issam Kourbaj in conversation with curator Louisa Macmillan at St James's Church, Piccadilly (free, no booking required, donations most welcome)
St James's Day celebrations St James's Church, Piccadilly Sunday 26th Julyfrom 1pm Members of the public are invited to join in the deinstallation of one of the camps, with opportunity to buy some of the artworks, as part of the St James's Day celebrations at St James's Church

St James's Church
197 Piccadilly, London W1J 9LL Mon–Sat 9am–6pm. Sun 1–6pm
10 Golborne Road
10 Golborne Road, London W10 5PE Mon–Sun 10am–6pm
Goethe-Institut London
50 Princes Gate, Exhibition Road, SW7 2PH Mon–Fri 8:30am–7pm. Sat8:30am–5pm
Heath Street Baptist Church
84 Heath Street, London NW3 1DN Mon–Sun 10am–6pm
Central Books
99 Wallis Road, London E9 5LN Mon–Fri 9am–5pm. Sat 11th July 9am–5pm

-->Supported by: Goethe Institute, St James's Church Piccadilly, Heath Street Baptist Church, Central Books, Cambridge School of Visual & Performing Arts

Friday, 19 June 2015

The dark side of Michelangelo’s white marble

Credit: Andrea Ribolini

--> I had never seen anything like this: from the air, the marble mountains in the three valleys of Torano, Miseglia and Colonnata around Carrara in Tuscany look as though they are covered in snow. From close up, the high vertical faces and giant benches of the open cast excavations look like gigantic white cathedrals in a moonscape. This is the world’s largest marble field, formed in the Apuan Alps over 200 million years.  It is breath-taking. 

The marble mountains have been mined continuously since the Roman times: they provide the whitest and most sought-after marble in the world.  Michelangelo selected stones for his iconic David and Pietà statues there, and countless of other artists across centuries and continents have been bewitched by this stone. The cathedrals of Florence and Siena, St Petersburg’s Hermitage museum, the Marble Arch in London and Washington’s Kennedy Centre are all made from this celebrated marble.

For centuries, the marble has been the backbone of the region’s economy and its pride.  But now, globalisation, market forces and new excavation techniques have turned into a curse. An irreplaceable stone is being undersold, most of the small workshops where marble was carved have disappeared, a rare craft is dying and the environment is wrecked. 

Credit: Andrea Ribolini

Credit: Veronique Mistiaen
This is a business with a yearly turnover of between €700 and €800 millions, but the only beneficiaries are a few powerful families and businesses, while the town is blighted by the side effects of excavation – especially the dust and flooding. Despite its extraordinary natural resources, Carrara, a town of 66,000 inhabitants, is one of the poorest in Tuscany and one of the most heavily indebted in the country.

You can see the story I wrote with Chiara Briganti, an academic, painter and native of Carrara, for Newsweek here.

It was a slippery and complex story, which took us several years to research. It was nearly impossible to find official figures on basic facts such as the number of people working in the quarries and marble industry, the volume of excavation, the value of the stone and so on. The more we learned, the murkier the story seemed to become. It felt like all information around the marble industry was kept as nebulous as possible, so people wouldn’t look too closely. And as locals say, “when someone doesn’t want you to look too closely, it’s usually because the mafia is involved.”

Credit: Andrea Ribolini

During the few years we reported on the story, we could clearly see the terrible toll mining was exacting on the mountains: peaks were chopped off (although quarrying is prohibited above 1,200m), the shape of the mountains irreversibly altered, the water sources contaminated, the river white and swollen with marble debris.

As an outsider, it was hard to understand why the city allowed this level of reckless excavation to happen and why citizens didn’t  boot them out of office. Everyone I asked, always replied: “This is Italy” – meaning that a combination of corruption, inertia, respect for traditions and fear of the marble barons and the mafia maintained the status quo.

Lately, though, a growing number of locals, environmental groups, academics and artists have united under the banner of “Salviamo le Apuane”  (Save the Apuan Alps), organizing rallies, petitions and demonstrations – and they are gaining momentum.  But whenever they seem to be achieving some success, it is taken away…

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

#OwnTheMedia: Positive News Becomes Global Media Cooperative