A few of my paintings with be showing at the #BrynmillCoffeeHouse over the festive period. The people at the Coffee House have weathered a bit of misfortune recently, their very large beautiful plate window at the front was broken by a thief who made off with two small charity boxes. They stayed open and cheerful throughout the disruption and a new window is in place. You will notice from the photos that I was able to return and add a third painting in (hence the change of clothes).
I am an arm-chair revolutionary. I shout at the TV and radio and lot and disagree with a lot that is going on in UK politics at the moment. However, in the UK, that’s no big deal. Its quite normal, in fact. However, in most countries around the world, free speech is a luxury and political comment or protest can be extremely dangerous for artists and their families. Badiucao (巴丢草) is a Chinese political cartoonist, who lives in self-imposed exile in Australia. The young artist, like Banksy, hides his identity with a pseudonym. Badiucao is an alias and he also hides his face by wearing a mask at public exhibitions of his work in Australia and the West. The reason for this secrecy is that his work is very provocative and much of it champions human rights causes. In China having strong opinions can land you in prison or at best under house arrest. I was ignorant of his existence until I heard him being interviewed on the radio (BBC World Service) last week.
He built his reputation on social media, though he pulled out of Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, when it began to be heavily censored, and now ranges energetically across platforms, including performance art space and galleries. This year he painted, in Melbourne, in Hosier Lane, a double full-length portrait of Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo, with his wife Liu Xia, just before the human rights activist died in prison on July 13. Liu Xia is currently under house arrest.
Badiucao uses satire and pop culture references to get his point across. He often manipulates archetypal images from Communist Party propaganda to make subversive political statements. His work has been used by Amnesty International, Freedom House, BBC, CNN and China Digital Times; and has been exhibited around the world. Although he lives most of his life outside of China, he says that means he has a better understanding of events inside China because he has full access to uncensored media and the internet.
His cartooning technique also borrows from printmaking, he says, and from an older generation of Chinese propaganda. He favours black and red: “China’s complexion … iron and blood”.
Dictators and autocrats famously have no sense of humour and can’t stand being laughed at. President Xi Jinping is no different and cartoon images of Chinese leaders are banned in mainland China. One popular image Badiucao uses is that of Winnie the Pooh, whom apparently has more than a passing resemblance to the Chinese President.
He says “It’s not hard to become a political cartoonist from China because there are only five or six others” — the best-known being 44-year-old Wang Liming, who draws under the name Rebel Pepper and also had to leave China. Wang now lives in the US.
His political work has come at great personal cost. Badiucao has recently given up his Chinese citizenship after he gained Australian citizenship as China does not allow its people to hold dual citizenship. Although he’s out of reach of the Chinese authorities he is still very protective of his identity in case the authorities turn their attention to his friends or family in mainland China.
Its hasn’t gotten any easier being a dissident artist. Badiucao was due to have an exhibition in Hong Kong, but it has been called off after threats made by Chinese authorities. His show was part of events examining free speech in Hong Kong since the 2014 pro-democracy “umbrella” protests. Badiucao had also been due to take part in a question and answer session at the opening alongside pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong and members of Russia’s feminist protest band Pussy Riot.
The Hong Kong is a “special administrative region”, and although Hong Kong’s system of government is separate from that of mainland China, it is clearly not immune to threats from Beijing. The cancellation comes as a timely illustration of the claims by pro-democracy activists that Hong Kong’s freedoms are being eroded by mainland China.
“I am essentially a painter of the kind of still life composition that communicates a sense of tranquillity and privacy, moods which I have always valued above all else.” – Giorgio Morandi.
“The challenge for an artist is always to find your own way of doing something.” Tom Wesselmann (pop artist)
Once upon an time artists were regarded as skilled craftspeople. The purpose of their work was to glorify God and other religious subject matter. The Renaissance changed all that and in Protestant Europe, in the Netherlands in particular, painters had to find new wealthy patrons.
Some artists, like Vermeer, painted beautiful domestic scenes and other painted lush and abundant still lives. In a time before photography, the still life painting was a status symbol. A way of preserving one’s riches in a visual medium. Long after those flowers had wilted and died, the painting was still on the wall of the patron’s house.
Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with still life painting. I think I associate the painting of still lives with the art I did at school. I suppose it’s because I like the outdoors as a subject as well as lots of natural light. Here are a few examples from long ago. The first two on the left are done in oil pastels and the fruit with bottle was done in acrylic paint.
I have usually only painted still lives when I have been stuck indoors because of bad weather or winter darkness. It has been very gloomy and wet here lately, So I have been playing around with still lives as a subject matter but I have been dissatisfied with the composition of the pieces I did.
I eventually decided that my view point was too high up. Maybe the problem was that I didn’t know what I wanted from these paintings. Giorgio Morandi was interested in the relationship between the objects in his paintings. Tom Wesselmann’s pop art evoked the wealth of the USA consumer society and drew on the language of advertising.
I liked the utilitarian plainness of the enamel plate, cup and the white tea pot but my objects looked a bit lost on the table. In the end, I decided that my canvas was too big and the viewer wasn’t connected to the objects in the paintings. I needed to be closer and lower down. So I have now come down in scale and view point and toned down the colour, a lot. I ditched the fruit.
It seems to have done the trick. I feel closer to what I am painting. I find that whites against white background are surprisingly interesting (this is coming from someone who loves bright colours). I like the clarity and simplicity. Painting like this is very challenging for me. You have to be very precise and there’s no where to hide. So perhaps I am coming round to Morandi’s “sense of tranquility” after all!
I always admire imagination and creativity. Political protests usually are ignored by the media unless they are spectacularly massive or particularly eye-catching. Remember the anti-Trump “Pussy hat” protests of January this year? Of course you do, they had a “thing”, those pink hats that made the protest eye-catching.
So I particularly enjoyed reading the story of the latest work of a Berlin-based Collective, called Centre for Political Beauty (Zentrum für politische Schönheit -ZPS). This group of activists and performance artists say they want to expand the notion of what art is. They “blend performance art and politics to end political apathy.” Their projects are always linked to civil disobedience, acts of resistance and participatory engagement with the public. They set out to provoke a reaction. They go to great lengths get one too.
Their latest work is a replica of the country’s national Holocaust memorial. So what? Its where they built it that’s genius. They built it outside the cottage belonging to Björn Höcke, one of the leaders of the nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) as a protest. Björn caused outrage earlier this year with a speech in which he described the memorial in Berlin as a “monument of shame” and called for a “180-degree turn” in Germany’s attitude to the Second World War… This laughable policy of coming to terms with the past is crippling us.” (Funny, how that raised arm in the photo of Mr Hocke is so different from those in the “Pussy Protest”)
Philipp Ruch, one of the organisers of the protest, said the protest group had secretly begun renting the property next door to Höcke’s house in the village of Bornhagen in Thuringia, ten months ago, in response to the controversial speech. Then overnight on Wednesday this week, the activists erected 24 massive concrete columns outside Mr Höcke’s cottage. Ruch said: “The Dresden speech, which ignores any serious argument about the annihilation of six million lives, may have shaken us more deeply than anything… we are slower than the media, but we are also more thorough.”
“He will now have to deal with the fact that he has neighbours who don’t consider the Holocaust Memorial a ‘monument of shame’, but who try to remember what had happened, to prevent it from happening again. We are doing our neighbourly duty” Ruch said. “We hope he enjoys the view every day when he looks out the window!”
The installation is intended to send a daily reminder to Mr Höcke about the horrors of the Holocaust in which 6 million Jewish people were murdered. On the Centre for Political Beauty’s website, the collective said Mr Höcke should show contrition by “falling to his knees” in front of the memorial (see below for a really good example of how to do it).
The artists launched a crowdfunding campaign in order to keep up the protest action for at least two years, and reached its initial goal of €28,000 (£25,000) by mid-morning on Wednesday. It is now hoping to raise €54,000 to maintain the installation for five years. Asked for his reaction to the protest, Mr Höcke said he would respond “at another time”.
Twilight is one of those words that sounds like a contraction of two longer words – like fortnight used to be “fourteen nights” or Goodbye used to be “God be with you”. The word has Dutch and Germanic origins. It was first used in England in the 14th century and probably is a contraction of “Tween” and “Light”- meaning light between, or half light. In Welsh, “cyfnos” means dusk, twilight but “gwyll” also refers to dusk, gloom, twilight. There is a very good Welsh language crime drama (Welsh Noir as they call it) called “Y Gwyll” (Dusk). There is an English language version (same actors, and storries but dialogue in English) but they changed the title to “Hinterland“. I much prefer the Welsh language version (click on the link to watch a clip here with English subtitles). Dusk suits the brooding nature of the landscape and the story lines much better, I think.
Dusk is a strange part of the day. It does not last long. It happens in the morning as well as the evening but it’s twilight in the evening I particularly love, especially in winter. The sky rapidly slips from light blue to a wonderful mauve before becoming darkest blue of night. The strange soft mauve glowing light is caused by the sun even after it has dipped below the horizon, as the sun’s rays are reflected from the atmosphere. A few minutes pass and lights are switched on indoors against the fading light but curtains have not yet been universally against the cold winter night. Just like Dylan Thomas’s “starless and bible-black” night in Under Milk Wood.
The “Old” Romantics were born in very uncertain times. They flourished towards the end of the 18th century and lasted until the middle of the 19th Century. They were a lot like us. They valued experiences, feelings and the individual. They loved wild places and were fascinated by the past, especially medieval times. The Romantics had plenty to say about the contemporary world, especially politics. The world they lived in was changing fast; everything was up for debate thanks to countless wars, revolutions and technological change.
With their emphasis on feeling they were born protestors. With their emphasis on emotion, their paintings were very dramatic and still speak to modern audiences. They painted very large paintings. Paintings so large that it was hard for the viewer not feel immersed in the scene too.
When Gericault exhibited his huge work, “The Raft of the Medusa”, almost 200 years ago in Paris it attracted a lot of strong comment, both good and bad. The painting was a self-conscious act of political protest. The painting depicts a moment just before the rescue of the 15 survivors from the wreck of “Meduse”. It had taken almost 2 weeks to rescue them after their ship had sunk and in that time they had been forced to cannibalism. The event became an international scandal, in part because its cause was widely attributed to the incompetence of the French captain. The Romantics’ Protest Art still resonates today. Gericault’s’ Raft has spawned many homages over the years from Asterix the Gaul to Britain’s Banksy.
Protest Art began long before the camera was invented but I believe that a painting can still have a greater impact than a photograph ever can because of the emotional resonance it can bring to the subject matter. A painting that is an act of protest is all the more powerful then that artist does not normally deal in political themes.
Consider Robert Capa’s photo of an air raid in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War alongside a photograph of the aftermath of the German bombing of Guernica. Capa’s photo conveys deep anxiety (with the mother looking up at the sky) and the carnage in the second photo is ugly but essentially still.
Now, look at the horror of Picasso’s massive painting “Guernica”.The painting was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country village in northern Spain, by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italian warplanes at the request of the Spanish Nationalists.
Here, despite the fact the painting is monochrome, horror is very real. Very present. Prominent in the composition are a gored horse, a bull, and flames. You can feel the limbs being torn by the falling bombs. Like the Romantics, Picasso made his painting on a massive scale so its message could not be easily ignored. It is huge, standing at 3.49 meters (11 ft 5 in) tall and 7.76 meters (25 ft 6 in) wide. As early as 1968, Franco, the Fascist Dictator responsible for the bombing of Guernica, had expressed an interest in having Guernica come to Spain. Franco clearly did not understand the message of the painting but he knew enough to know it was a great work of art. However, Picasso expressly refused to allow this until Spain was a republic again.
Picasso’s Guernica has also spawned a host of homages.
This final image is a Chinese political cartoonist, Badiucao, whom I will be writing about in a future blog.
My mother tells me many people don’t use clothes lines or washing lines any more. They use tumble driers, instead. They must have big electricity bills. What better way to dry your washing that using good old fashioned solar power? In the early modern period people just laid their clothes out on bushes to dry. The word “clothesline” wasn’t used until the 1830s. Presumably, increasing urbanisation meant that things like bushes or even rocks were no longer available to dry clothes on!
Following on from my last post about Swansea Elysium’s open studio event this weekend, just gone. Elysium provides affordable studio space for artists. The building which also fronts onto the High Street used to be an Iceland freezer food shop downstairs. Today that’s where Volcano theatre hang out and perform. Upstairs there are two floors of over 50 artists’ studios.
Susan Evans and Lindsey Kent have written, designed, illustrated and are publishing their own storybook with Gomer Press. They have also produced their own merchandising and one-off figurines.
Tina Wisby’s Creatory for Crafts (email firstname.lastname@example.org)
Unbelievably, the talented Nazma was only two days into a 2-month residency at Elysium. She has clearly relished the chance to make this space her own. I can’t wait to see what it looks like after 2 months.
Rhian Wyn Stone (email@example.com) I absolutely love her “wire” pieces. She does great figures but also these wonderful wirehouses. Sadly I didn’t get to met Rhian but I noticed a sign she put up that they are for sale and very reasonably priced too.
A great way to see art on your doorstep is to visit open studio events. Often these studios are in the artists’ homes. But not always. This weekend saw Swansea’s Elysium gallery’s 10th-anniversary celebrations. Elysium has grown steadily over the past decade and as well as running a Gallery and two international competitions its provides affordable studio space in 3 city-centre locations for up to 100 artists. This weekend there were open studio events throughout the day in the city centre. Today I am going to share photos from the studios in Mansel Street.
Mansel Street Studios – a set of studios on two floors above a mid-century parade of shops. There was a beautiful wooden staircase. It is home to painters, textile designers, painters and a gnome.
Ann Jordan – Photographs do not begin to do justice to her work. The wall hanging was fabulous – it was massive and luxurious. Originally made for an installation in a lighthouse at Portishead, the flowers were meant to evoke the flowers cast on waters for a sea burial. Very poignant.
The fleece work was also magnificent – the texture and depth of each piece just does not come across in a photo. They were wonderfully thick and woolly; being made up of raw Welsh fleeces from Brecon.
The Crunch is a multimedia poetry magazine –Each issue features a single poet, who has three of their poems filmed and uploaded to our video archive, and joins us for a short podcast. We chatted with Richard James Jones, a very talented poet. Poets he tells us, need quiet places away from the humdrum cares of the home, to come and think and work.
Carys Evans – has a wonderful large studio with windows that reach from the ceiling to floor. She has an exhibition in Cardiff later this month at the Oriel Kooywood Gallery in Museum Place.
Graham Parker – Painter and campaigner. Graham is fascinated by the sea that skirts Swansea Bay but for some reason, it was his paintings of lemons that took my fancy.
Amir A Nejad – his studio wasn’t participating, which is a shame but his stunning portraits lined the corridors.
My next blog will be about the High Street Studios.