Late flowering

This text was partly inspired by my experiences meeting older artists, as documented in Winter Fires

Parliament of dreams

Art and wellbeing in old age

[This is the English text of a chapter I contributed to a book on art and ageing called Lang Leven Kunst, which was published on 18 June 2013 in Rotterdam.It’s rather long for a blog post, so to download a PDF of the whole text, please click on this link.]

Everybody knows that human beings now live much longer than they did in the past, and not only in the rich West but across the globe. We know too the reasons for this change: better health care and nutrition, less manual labour, access to education, growing prosperity and so on. We even know the economic and social challenges this ‘long tail’ presents, as humanity’s demographic profile changes. What we do not seem to know is what we should do with our lengthening lives.

Spiritually conscious cultures often associate the last years of…

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Bread and Salt Launch in Utrecht

A few photos from the launch of Bread and Salt/Brood en Zout at De Stadsschouwburg Utrecht on 21 June 2013, all taken by Jaap de Boer. A selection of photos from the two day festival can be seen here.

More from the event, including a recording of Mohan Rana’s poems will be added as time permits.

Bread and Salt published

Bread and Salt, Stories of Art and Migration, was published by Vrede van Utrecht on Friday evening, a part of its final community arts festival. Launch and festival were both wonderful, and I’ll write more about them as soon as I have time. The main thing for now is that that book is available for download here, or in print from Vrede van Utrecht.

I’ve also added all Bill Ming’s images from the book here, with some of his reflections as captions: just click on the images to open up a slide presentation and you can read Bill’s words.

Against Frankenstein

‘Hope today is a contraband passed from hand to hand and from story to story.’

John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook, 2011

Bread and Salt tells the stories of 18 European artists who were born in other parts of the world. Those people have nothing in common except the practice of art and the experience of migration.

They are men and women, aged between under 30 to over 70. They came to Europe from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, India and East Asia, from cities, islands and deserts. They live today in the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Denmark and the UK. They arrived as long ago as 1963 and as recently as 2005. They came as students, refugees and adventurers. They are musicians, sculptors, writers, actors, designers, photographers and more.


They have nothing in common, except the experience of moving from one home, one state, one culture, to Europe, where they have made new homes, art, families and reputations. They have overcome violence and detention, isolation and fear, poverty and hostility. They have remade their lives in courage, rewritten their stories in hope.

Abdoul, Aziz, Bill, Bright, Chien-Wei, Cleverson, Eduardo, Elina, Isabel, Maher, Kaoru, Mahmoud, Mizgin, Mohan, Said, Sardul, Seiko and Zeliha.

They have nothing in common, except their humanity—the common rights and particular gifts that makes each person, each citizen of the European Union, each human being equal before Law and God, whatever we take them to be.

Bread and Salt is an essay. Its methods are literary and artistic; its resources are listening and seeing, reading and thinking. It advances no thesis; it proposes no solutions.

Instead, it sets the irreducible particularity of actual lives against the self-serving simplifications now proliferating in the European public space. Demagogues of every stripe are busy shooting electricity through the butchered corpse of ideologies that some had hoped permanently buried after 1945. Monsters are twitching.

Clive, Colin (Frankenstein)_02Whatever challenges Europeans now face—and they are many and serious—hatred, fear and blame will never help us come through.

Bread and Salt will be published in Utrecht on 21 June 2013 and will be available to download from this site from that date. English and Dutch editions will also be available from Vrede van Utrecht.

Bread and Salt: First words

My old friend Dave and I are doing the final proofs of the English version of Bread and Salt: it will go to print on Monday, for publication on 21 June, in Utrecht. Then we will have the challenge of doing the proofs for the Dutch translation, without a word of Dutch: fortunately our friends in the Netherlands will do the proofreading. In the meantime, in what is becoming a tradition for Regular Marvels, here is the opening section of the book.

Pâine şi sare

ReceptionThey are waiting for us at the top of the path, in front of the museum: the mayor, in jacket and tie, the curator and a few other friends and supporters. To one side stand two young people in Romanian costume, red and black and white, crisp as fresh linen in the pale morning sun. They hold a golden loaf and a dish of salt: pâine şi sare. Handshakes and introductions; then I’m invited to take a piece of bread with a few grains of crystal. A glass of clear palincă and a toast to health and long life.

A hundred yards off, some Roma labourers pause briefly to observe the welcome ceremony, then turn back to repairing the road.

This is Transylvania, the land beyond the forest, where Scythians, Saxons, Magyars, Vlachs and many more have lived successively and together over centuries. After the First World War, the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire lost the territory to Romania, which had sided with the victorious Allies. Transylvania was then home to three principal ethnic groups: Romanians, Hungarians and Germans, each with their own language and culture. Since the revolution in 1989, most of the last have left to claim the right of return as Auslandsdeutsche, Germans abroad, but about 20% of Romanian citizens in Transylvania are still Hungarian.

I came to know southeastern Europe through cultural development work with Belgian and Swiss foundations. Over the years I have visited many villages and small towns in Romania, Albania, Bulgaria and what was once Yugoslavia. Sometimes, we have been three or four visitors to see how the work is going; more often, it’s been just an interpreter and me. But whatever the circumstances, I have been welcomed everywhere with warmth and generosity. Tables have been set with burek, the traditional cheese pie made with filo, and zelnik, its spinach-based cousin; with salami, cured ham and meatballs. Tomatoes and plums have been brought in from the garden, and there has been yoghurt, ‘national’ coffee, black tea and every kind of homemade fruit spirit. And, always, bread.

No one is in a hurry. There are introductions and rituals to be observed as we get to know one another over the course of a morning. There is much to present and explain, and not only what has been achieved through the project. There is a church or a mosque, old houses, an archaeological site, a museum; sometimes the young people perform a local dance or song. It is people’s culture that is being presented, as a valuable gift. Man does not live by bread alone.

And then there is time to talk, round a table in a shady garden, or in the mayor’s gloomy office that hasn’t seen new paint since Tito’s day, to talk and get to know one another a little. It is a human exchange that will linger in the memory.

I am under no illusion, though. This courtesy is done not to me personally but to the donor whose, representative I am, for now. And here, as in other poor places in the world where work has taken me, I am also, and inescapably, a representative of the world’s rich and powerful nations. I have in my pocket a bank card and the European Union’s burgundy passport.

Days later, transferring between flights in Munich, that identity document takes me into a different line, past the returning Gastarbeiters and others hoping to enter the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany, without the protection of a right of return. A bored policeman flips my passport across a scanner, barely glancing at me before sliding it back under the glass. Further down the hall, the line of non-EU citizens has not moved.

Bread and Salt: Stories of Artists and Migration will be published on 21 June 2013, by Vrede van Utrecht. Digital versions, in English and Dutch, will be available for free download from this site from that 22 June. 



‘You cannot understand the migrant if you haven’t heard his story first.’

Gazmend Kapllani

In the course of working on Bread and Salt, I have met 18 artists who have come to Europe from other parts of the world: Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, India and Eastern Asia. They include painters, musicians, and actors, a photographer and a couturier, a silversmith and a poet. They now live in five different countries and speak many European and non-European languages. And their stories as different as that diverse background would suggest. It is those stories that form the heart of the book, which will be published in Utrecht on midsummer’s day.

Telling someone else’s story is full of risks. Getting the facts right is the easy part: what matters is their interpretation. What does an incident mean, to whom and why? So, the final stage of writing has been to ask each person to read my version of his or her life. That in itself is tricky, precisely because it is my version: this is—or at least aspires to be—literature not oral history. So the text has to be what I believe to be true, in the end, though that truth has been shaped in our meetings and conversations.

Happily, everyone has now approved the text. Some have found it unsettling to see themselves through the eyes of another, particularly when the events described were so important in their lives. But they have also spoken of recognition and the value of being heard. A few facts have been corrected; some have added further thoughts or clarifications.

At the same time readers who’ve played no part in the process have read and commented on the text. That has been, if anything, even more searching, as their focus has been on larger questions and particularly my own art, such as it is. Some ideas that have come up that are too profound to influence this book, because I need to think about them further, but they will nourish the continuing evolution of the Regular Marvels series.

For now, the book has moved on, to the design and production stage. It has also gone to the translator who is producing the Dutch version. This is the first Regular Marvel that is being published simultaneously in two languages, so I am also trusting my story to another person to interpret it into another language and culture. Whatever the experience the Dutch readers, it will not be the same as those who read what I wrote, in English. But then each reader creates the text, as the poet Mohan Rana says in Bread and Salt:

‘I believe poetry is not in the words on the paper but within the reader. The reader is the writer of the poem.’

Mohan Rana

Mohan, who lives in England but writes in Hindi, will be giving a lecture on the challenges of interpretation at the University of Oslo this week, with readings of two poems in Hindi, English, German and Norwegian versions. I see the event as an instance of the natural diversity of human culture. But that, of course, is an interpretation.

Making sense

Nightwalking 1I got an email from a Dutch friend, partly in response to my post about waiting for feedback. Margreet wrote about Winter Fires and how reading it had made her feel happy and optimistic about the future, but also about her reflections on what matters in life. Her partner works with people who have sensory disabilities—people who cannot hear or see and therefore whose experience of the world is shaped by other senses: touch, taste, balance, proprioception and others we may as yet not recognize or understand.

One of their friends who lives this experience recently spent the day with them at home, while she was reading Winter Fires, and she wrote about the thoughts and feelings she had about it.

But the reason for writing about that here is that Margreet sent me a link to this film, in which their friend also appears, and which I think deserves to be seen much, much more widely than the 340 views it has on You Tube. It’s called Nightwalking and I won’t say anything about it except to invite you to watch it: it will take less than 15 minutes.

This is what art does, at its best: open us to experiences, feelings and ideas we could not otherwise have and so help us develop our understanding of our own existence, within the limits of our capacities. Art does not teach: it enables us to learn. We all need to make sense, every one of us.

So many questions come out of this film—about the nature of humanity, about dignity and consent, about what we understand is happening, about value, meaning and purpose, about art. Watching people making sense, I think about how I myself make sense. No answers here, but as good a way to spend 15 minutes as I know.

Where We Dream: The Film

My friend Eugène van Erven been documenting community arts for many years, both in his native Netherlands and in other parts of the world. Having provided valuable feedback on the draft text of ‘Where we Dream‘, he’s now written this short piece about Benjamin Wigley’s film, that is an integral part of the work.

Scroll to the end of the post to watch the film: it’s about 15 minutes long.

I have long believed in the combined power of moving images and written words when it comes to documenting cultural phenomena, particularly when they happen in out of the way places. The beautifully produced book and film package ‘Where We Dream’ proves my point.

The film gives a visible face and an audible voice to the many people who inhabit the text and hence makes the story of the West Bromwich Operatic Society even more powerful. It is so much more than an illustrative bonus track.

Continue reading “Where We Dream: The Film”

Wooden shoes

‘Part of how I learned Dutch, was I bought wooden shoes, a very typical Dutch thing. Part of me was  searching for a new audience, so with wooden shoes I had an audience. Everyday when I walk on the streets, people come around and they talk with me – and whenever I go to different offices, people were willing to help me because I wear wooden shoes  Nobody wears wooden shoes. I wore the wooden shoes for three years. Even when I went to the theatre school for auditions, I was wearing my wooden shoes.’

Bright Richards

A recent trip to Rotterdam to speak at a community arts conference gave me a chance to meet some artists who are now living in the Netherlands but have come from other countries. I had some extraordinary meetings with people from Morocco, Turkey, Liberia and Chad and heard about their experiences of making art in their new homes.

Some of the journeys they have undertaken are almost unimaginable to anyone who has lived only in the security of contemporary western Europe. The courage and resilience with which they have established new lives and careers in the Netherlands – in the face of continuing obstacles – is humbling. Here’s the work of one person I met, Bright Richards, who is now producing his own inter-religious theatre programme, ‘As I left my father’s house‘. Aziz Aarab, pictured below, is a writer, comedian and cultural worker.

Thanks to my friends Eugene van Erven and Margreet Bouwman from the Vrede van Utrecht for their support in this project – and to Abdoul, Aziz, Bright, Sai’d and Zeliha for their time and trust.