The Obscure

The title of this piece is the Obscure after the book about Jude Fawley by Thomas Hardy.  The image is also printed on the text from a 1917 edition.  There are lots of reasons for this but the main one is if you don’t have an education, you are screwed.

the obscure

I’ve never read all of Jude the Obscure despite the fact that Thomas Hardy is one of my favourite writers. It’s just too bleak and sad. Even Michael Winterbottom’s film with Christopher Ecclestone and Kate Winslet is too much for me to sit through; poverty, siblicide, suicide all under the gaze of the unforgiving lemon sucking Victorian establishment.  But I know a lot about this book because it pivots on the the desire for education.  I cannot begin to imagine how my life would have turned out without the access to education I had.

The first work by Hardy I ever read was Return of the Native for A level English at night classes having screwed up royally first at secondary and then art school.  Very early on in the novel he introduces his heroine standing on top of some ancient earth works, stock still until she turns and scuttles away as other people approach to build a bonfire. He places her alone in the landscape, adrift, at odds and Eustacia Vye spends the rest of the novel being pretty objectionable, but given her circumstances it’s hardly surprising.

Eustacia’s options are even more spartan than Jude’s, he just wants to study and his access to formal study is reliant on a background very different from his own. Nevertheless, he teaches himself classical Greek and Latin but his biology gets the better of him and he ends up marrying someone he really shouldn’t have. Had he been rich, nothing could possibly have stood in his way, but he isn’t, so he can’t. He doesn’t want an education in order to get a job in a bank, he just wants to be a scholar. But although Jude’s tragedy is in part due to his inability to get a place at Christminster, he is also crushed by his passionate, destructive and blinkered pursuit of what he thinks is worthwhile.  Eustacia’s position is more binary, she is half Italian and thus foreign and weird and she’s a she.  Jude could have contented himself with being a smart fella in a crap job and maybe with a lucky break he could have met some progressive types and found a place for himself.  Eustacia can marry an idiot who chucks a perfectly good job away in order to get closer to nature thus rendering himself and his wife to a life on the breadline, or become the mistress of a cad.

So far, so Victorian.  In Hardy’s hands the Return of the Native despite it’s rigid social and religious framework is still a good read, the descriptions of the countryside are cinematic, the inflections, accents and dialects are rendered in a way that makes the believable and even in a weird way quite current.  I recognize the stark contrast between being rural poor and unable to escape and and affluent incomer who can be comfortable. I grew up Malvern, a very pretty place where there was also real hardship and poverty that the casual observer would often find incomprehensible – you must love it there, such a beautiful place – .  Despite it’s hippy dippy reputation, Malvern had its problem people and Malvern being Malvern didn’t treat those viewed as outside the social acceptability paradigm in a fair or equitable manner.  Ask ‘Super Chav’ and ex-resident Cher Lloyd about the joys of being other in South West Worcestershire.

If anything this is the core of what I find most appealing about his work; that even under a vast shared sky, there is an implacable order that education can circumvent (unless you find a powerful allay), but that in order to get that education, far more so now than when I was an undergraduate, your chances, access and ability to use that learning is predicated on the luck and affluence of your family.

Education has been the making of me and lack of it was in part the cause of my father’s idea of failure.  I have chosen to live the way I do in order to learn, in order to have, in order to make but also always to take care that the things that I was working towards were realistic.  He chose to make other sacrifices in order to give us his family a nice life.  His awareness of his own failures with education propelled me into making sure I was protected as best I could from the impact of the outside world on my internal peace of mind.  To keep me cushioned from the vagaries of the job market and to get me as close as I possibly could to achieve the things I dreamed of.   His name was Graham Simon (1926-1979) and he encouraged me to dream.

The aye’s have it

I was on my way somewhere yesterday and I saw this.  There is something more powerful about the crude the scratching out of the eyes of a human form in an image than most other forms of alteration.

A photo posted by Tina Rowe (@tinarororo) on

Thinking about it, I reckon most forms of interference with the eyes turns things sinister with immediate effect.

Sarah Koponen‘s image of George Bush, although powerful, lacks the creepiness that the other two images have.  This image appears to me to depersonalise the president, more a criticism of the role in general.  It isn’t creepy, it seems a little contemptuous of it’s subject, but mostly it seems to be showing him as foggy and insubstantial.

Of course defacing faces isn’t new and it isn’t just political.  Many of the remaining medieval church paintings in England have undergone various assaults and the faces are the areas that seem to suffer most damage.

While I was writing this post I did a bit of searching around the idea of defacing portraits and came across the work of Caroline Jaine who has what I think is a rather superb group of portraits here: un-portraits

The Thin Black Line and the Broad White One.

I went to a talk between Lubaina Himid and Paul Goodwin at the Whitechapel Gallery last week.  They discussed three exhibitions she had worked with in the 1980s: Five Black Women at the Africa Centre (1983), Black Women Time Now at Battersea Arts Centre (1983-4) and The Thin Black Line at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (1985).  It was illuminating and more than a little  depressing.   One thing that got wedged in my head was how the exhibition at the ICA, deeply symbolic in a conduit between the big art stuff (ironically very small artworks by Richard Tuttle) and the bookshop, had been reviewed by Waldemar Januszczak who dismissed the exhibit as ‘angry’.   That is the same Waldemar Januszczak who I recently had a short Twitter exchange with on the subject of the Oriel College Rhodes Must Fall campaign.  He saw the idea of taking down the statue as censoring the past and likened the people who wanted to remove the object to the Taliban.  He called me idiotic for saying the comparison is idiotic but, regrettably, he didn’t answer my question as to whether it was also censorship for some post communist countries to have taken down their images of communist leaders and other socialist inspirational types.  I guess he was busy.

Anyway, at the moment, the admittedly entertaining Januszczak, is striding about various locations for his programme  The Renaissance Unchained  with what frequently looks like an empty suitcase (ha!) banging on about the marvels of  northern european painting sculpture and architecture that has been buried under the italian big beasts when it comes to discussing the art of the Renaissance.  He has a point.   I too love the intricacies of Durer’s Roller’s Wing and Cranach’s Adam and Eve, I’m glad he gets to push the viewer in their direction.  The thing is he is a determined revisionist and that rankles because of his obdurate approach to Rhodes’ statue which as far as I’m concerned has no aesthetic value whatsoever as it’s main purpose seems to be to make people  walk beneath the feet of the person who funded an important scholarship, placing no emphasis at all on the fact that this is a statue of someone who could be described as a founding father of apartheid.


Black Portraits II Revisited NYC Feb 2016

Last year I wrote about seeing the Lynette Yadiom Boakye exhibition, Voices After Dark at the Serpentine Gallery and the huge effect it had on me.  My responses to the exhibition had been the cause of a small spat between me and another associate at Open School East because I found it really difficult to explain what it is like to be in my skin, with my experiences to stand in a gallery surrounded by unglossed images of black people.  The spat was interesting because the conversation rapidly shifted from being about me and my experience to being about him not being a racist.  I know he isn’t a racist, it never crossed my mind to think he could possibly be a racist.  But he is white and I know a lot about the emotional lives and experiences of white people and when it comes to art, well, until last year my entire art education has been about the preoccupations, proclivities and perversions of, for the most part, white men.

And then, Qiana Mestrich tweeted about the Black Portraits II Revisited conference in NYC and I booked my place, bought my ticket and spent the most fantastic two days listening to presentations and reflections from the Florence conference last year which I dearly wish I could have attended.  The presentations began with the executive director of NYU Florence describing her own arrival in La Villa Pietra and her responses to the two Blackamoor statues flanking the door to her office that had lit the touch paper.   From there on I was taken through a historical overview of the black body in the arts via a myriad of contexts and a multiplicity of practitioners from a contemplation about Giovanni Moro a 16th Century Florentine actor/writer/musician; the possibilities of humanising through photography and the work of Gordon Parkes; reflections on migration and refugees, the experiences of black people travelling abroad from the USA freed from segregation by the willingness of the Europeans to put commerce before prejudiced when it comes to restaurant seating; a terribly moving account of abstraction in art illuminating the chaos of suicide for someone who had little time for awkward art; a corrective account of Ota Benga who was housed in a monkey cage in the Bronx zoo eventually released only to end his own life in despair; the exploitative nature of the American penal system that charges inmates $200+ for a staged family photograph; a fictionalised description of the taking of a photograph of captured Ethiopian women; notions of passing and the price of passing on the individual (boom) ;  objectification; fictionalised accounts that illuminated real and terrible incidents; reasons for travel and exploration of other cultures; ornamental blackness;  Betty Davis – no not that one, this one;  and while we are talking female musicians, obviously Missy Eliot; Berry Gordy insisting that the lyrics in Motown songs could be heard and properly understood; the use and abuse of melisma in current popular music; Aftofuturism;  a female Cuban documentaryist who managed, somehow, to work with a group who abjured women; a fascinating panel of artists who all seemed to use, in some way or another the camera.

That isn’t everything, I met some wonderful people especially Jacqueline Johnson who introduced me to Marilyn Nance and between the two of them, they seemed to know everybody.  What I need to do now is to start to synthesise this into more coherent thoughts around the panels I saw and heard.  Ultimately the best thing I took away was the knowledge that I was given privileged access to a whole world of art practice that I knew precious little of and this access has given me more confidence to explore my own preoccupations through my medium of choice without needing to explain that I am not calling someone else a racist just because I want to talk about living in my brown skin.


An attempt at writing undermined by the inability to things into words

Writing is hard sometimes.  I have been wedged in a corner, a tight corner, since the end of my study at OSE unable to garner words into sensible order although my head is popping and fizzing with ideas that melt away as soon as I go anywhere near any kind of word receptacle.  At work, I’m trying to write a report/proposal that will make everybody’s life easier especially mine, but a week, a bloody week, has gone past and it is still a stuttering mess of nothing much.   So I am giving up on ideas and writing about something I saw because at least I can reflect on that.

Yesterday evening, I got off the bus and did a bit of shopping and was coming back to where I live and I could see a man with a toddler on his shoulders looking down at what I initially thought was another toddler on the floor.  As I came up to them it became clear that it was a crouching woman.  Getting even closer I could see she was in distress.  The man put the child down but he didn’t really do much to comfort her.  Then I heard her.  She wasn’t crying, she was wailing, but a weird kind of wail, really despairing, not terribly loud, but keening, jarring and upsetting and it pulled a thread to my own personal dressing up box of misery.  I had walked past by then, but I couldn’t just do that so I turned and said are you ok, do you need any help?  The man looked at me and said something to the effect of no, we are fine.  So I turned and walked away.  A couple coming after me also asked the same and were rebuffed, so they didn’t linger either.  I could still hear her, or I thought I heard her as I unlocked the door to my building and I felt guilty for doing so little.

Do you need any help? Of course she needed help, she was wailing.  So why did I take the word of the man who looked more embarrassed than concerned?  Both him and the boy just looked like pitiless gate keepers and I acquiesced to their, their what?  Ownership? She remained hunched up on the floor.  She wasn’t being stoical, nor was she letting rip, but she also wasn’t indulging in any stiff upper lip either.  She was in distress and it was being forced out of her mouth and written on her face.  The sound she was making only has one meaning and the shape of her features accentuated it.  Why did I say do you need any help?  Why didn’t I say, can I help? Can I get you anything?  Why didn’t I insist that this is the sound I recognise, you don’t make that sound for the hell of it, it’s not like an infant on a bus shattering and restoring the ambient noise.  She was a well dressed adult completely capable of stringing a sentence together, explaining what was happening and even making suggestions as to how to alleviate this pain but so consumed by some feeling so unpleasant she was reduced to making a noise.  And yet the boy and the man spectated.

Of course I’m judging him, perhaps she is given to bouts of howling.  Maybe she’d just received terrible news that had completely floored her and she’d rebuffed his attempts to console her;  perhaps she is a spoiled petulant idiot who had this time her bluff had been called and she’d been left to cry it out.  Why not?  Even in the dark it was clear that she was well looked after, a small slender, well dressed woman with beautiful dark, shiny wavy hair.  She wasn’t one of the shattered messed up humans who patrol Church Street stoically requesting cash for a bed for the night, they are far less likely to show such raw emotion.  Whatever the reason, there is no way I can know because I took him at his word and left.  And being honest, I know I was applying my own template to her situation because I do know what it feels like to make that sound.  I’ve been distressed enough to howl in the street and so overwhelmed by awfulness of my situation as to render passers by invisible.  I have long-standing and intimate knowledge of what it is like to feel helpless, abandoned and incapable of fixing things myself.  The sound she made was the vocalisation of those feelings, a song of misery and loneliness.  And yet, I  took the word of the person not in distress and went home and now I’m sitting here more than twelve hours later writing about it because I cannot write about anything else.





11 Minutes

This is the title of a novel by Paul Coelho.  In this novel he writes about a prostitute who learns about the sacred nature of sex and meets an English man who introduces her to the delights of sado masochism.  It’s always the English who do that.  I haven’t read it, I have only ever tried to read one of his books and I didn’t get through it. He’s one of those writers that you get recommended especially after a particularly bruising breakup.  It’s all very spiritual.  Bleakly depressing.

11 minutes is also how long it takes to develop a roll of Pan-F+ in Rodinal at 1:50 at 20C.  I find that a lot more comforting.  Mixing the one shot, pouring it in the developing tank, agitating for 30 seconds and then three inversions every 20 seconds.  Standing in my bathroom, tipping the tank and looking at the packets of time counting down on my phone.  It is a bit like meditating, except at the end you get to see a negative.  When I try to meditate without chemicals, I end up thinking about all sorts of crap.  It is not in the least bit relaxing.



Performance 14 November 2015

My work has recently been around the subject owning the image and dictating what the camera shows, the performance was a way to include other people in the process, so I got my audience to turn on their torches on their cameras make their mark on the film.

Making patterns

Making patterns

Making Patterns

Making patterns

Making patterns

Making patterns

Developing the film

Developing the film

OSE performance

This is what me made

Test Shot for OSE Performance

Test shot.

Cue Credits

The show is up at Open School East, there is only one more full day to go, then it comes down and that’s that, I’m done with artschool, in a less ignominious manner than in 1980, but just as done.  I’m tired, I have been feeling sick for a couple of weeks and I have had a headache since September.  Apart from that, actually no, there is no apart from that.

Have a song from the 1970s that isn’t related really , but it is kind of cute and a mighty fine performance from Johnny Mathis and Denice Williams.

Oh look, squirrel

Deleted Custard Pie scene from Dr Strangelove

Stanley Kubrick directing the deleted custard pie scene from Dr Strangelove from the BFI site .

This past two and a half months I have been mostly thinking which is a nice way of saying having ideas and doing absolutely nothing with them. This is a problem because I have a hell of a lot of things to do in a relatively short space of time, I have deadlines. Douglas Adams used to say something about loving deadlines and the wooshing sound they made as they went past. I envy that, I cannot be so sanguine about a deadline  even one like: that’s a nice idea, write it down in the next 10 minutes or you will completely forget everything about it except that it was a good idea. I tend to act as if it were a death sentence and I try to make the most of every little thing that happens in each moment other than the gaping maw of doom ahead when I should be rolling up my sleeves and getting on with the matter at hand.

It isn’t just the inability to get started that causes this. It is the smack in the face as soon as my fingers touch the keyboard or I mix the developer or open up a sketchbook. My prose is like an essay by an 8 year old, my lovely negatives produce prints that look flat and uninspired, my drawings have jittery meaningless lines that neither relate to my current state of mind or the thing I am supposedly working towards. So I go an make a coffee or stay put and watch a little bit of Netflix and the next thing I know I basically hate myself for dragging my heels and start looking for full time work in industries I am morally programmed to despise.  This is not helpful.

In May I took some pictures of Tim Andrews as part of his lovely over the hill project and it took me until a week and a half ago to finish them properly. I knew exactly what I was going to do the moment he walked into the studio despite the fact that up until that moment I had intended to do something else.  The images came out exactly as I expected and I was very pleased but somewhere along the line I had a crisis of ego that was as profound and distracting as the custard pie pie fight at the end of Dr Strangelove and I just couldn’t bring myself to make the piece. Every time I looked at the ten prints on instant Fuji film I felt a mixture of guilt and anguish. Each passing week made me feel worse. A month ago Tim himself mailed to ask how things were going and I reeled off a compendium of other stuff that I had been doing but to be honest was not sufficient to prevent me from completing his portrait too.

Anyway. I got it done and now I am floundering in the ocean of my what currently seem unrealistic promises about my final show.  It is weird. I know the processes I will use and I know why. I have laid the groundwork for the images I want to produce and have spoken to other people who will be able to help me though I even managed to contrive to stand one of the most important contacts up at one point. But if I do an audit of my actual actions towards the final thing, well, basically I have seen all of Better call Saul and Bojack Horseman Season one in the past month.

I wonder where it comes from. It is too easy to say it is about confidence. I am a confident  photographer, I am for the most part in control of my chemistry, my drawings tend to make real the notions in my head. I can write, just not to order. A friend advised me to keep writing about stuff and thinking things through. But that is easier said than done. I know it isn’t laziness. In fact if I were to personify it I would say it is like an ex who is a charming good looking wastrel who you are still a little bit in love with despite the fact they only ever turn up late at night when they are either a bit drunk, randy and/or broke, you just know opening the door is a complete waste of time, but you still do it as otherwise you’d be on your own.

Not Over the Hill

Tim Andrews being exceptionally patient.

words fail me

Quick opinion poll: which one of these statements is true?

a) Barack Obama is the first black president of the United States of America or b) Barack Obama is the forty fourth white president of  the United States of America.

If you answered a,  he’s mixed race so he’s not exactly black per se, so perhaps you should go to the back of the class and try to work out if answering a makes you a racist.  If you answered b, you should probably get your eyes tested as that is a very weird kind of colour blindness but for now, go to the back of the class and sit next to the possible racist.

Representation matters because people identify with each other.  If you come from a caste or group that is persistently represented in a negative, patronising, belligerent or subjective manner seeing that group you identify with presented in the manner most missing is going to do something to you and last Sunday Lynette Yiadom-Boakye ‘s exhibition Verses After Dark did exactly that to me.  I had gone on the recommendation of Anjalika Sagar who  I had a tutorial with the Friday before.  This tutorial was without a doubt the most thought provoking and interesting tutorial I have had in my time at Open School East.  Having a discussion with another woman who shares some of my experience around the subject of race and art was – I really lack the vocabulary here – great.  But it was seeing the exhibition that did a chaotic series of physical and emotional things to me and I am still working my way through them. 

Later, I tried to explain it to a fellow associate and I just couldn’t do it without resorting to lumpen phrases like, it isn’t possible for you to understand this…  This got the kind of standard liberal response to things that tickle at issues around racism which is to get really defensive at the merest suggestion that a person without, ahem, pigment, cannot understand or empathise with something that a non white person knows inside out.  This might make you think here we go again and I’d say you are kinda right if this is a post about racism but it isn’t.  It’s about being represented and not needing to qualify this representation and if issues around genes are mired in the middle of it, there is absolutely no reason to shoot the messenger.

Clearly, blackness, or more specifically, darkness, matters.  Lack of representation in places of power is all the more acute if you one day find yourself standing in a gallery where the only representation on the wall is of non-white people who you find it easier to identify with than the entire collection in the National Portrait Gallery; if you find your self in an exhibition that represents people who are absolutely not white and the theme is not about war, AIDS, fundamentalism, Ebola, female circumcision, gun crime, drugs, gangs, poverty whatever, it’s going to do something to you.

So there I was in an establishment that seems easily distracted by the shiny stuff that (pale) oligarchs and arty hangers on shimmer around in.  In the midst of portraits of black people, big portraits, some of them truly beautiful portraits in muted palettes, except for the sudden reds and greens and yellows was disorientating.  I have never been in a gallery of any kind anywhere in my entire well travelled life and seen anything like it.  Certainly I have seen exhibitions that are beautiful, impressive, thought provoking and enlightening,  lots of exhibitions about the black experience, for the most part  captured by people who cannot properly share it (and I am not criticising this work); I genuinely believe that  Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse deserved to win the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2015.  Still the Serpentine exhibition made me feel a little shaky, a little strange and incredibly elated in a manner Subotzky and Waterhouse’s work could never do.

I’m not talking about racism in the terms that I encountered it growing up, the casual under estimation of what I was and what I could ever be,  the vile taunts, the absurd and insulting ‘we think of you as being like us’ statement that was proffered as if it were a benediction.  That was just ignorance but what I  realise now is that ignorance was underpinned by an undeserved feeling of superiority that should have been interrogated and if it had been perhaps I would have a more subtle vocabulary to discuss it.  As despite the inescapable fact that Barack Obama is 50% white, his blackness somehow carries more weight and this is because of representation and it took some un-glossed representation to really hammer that point home.