Wednesday, 23 November 2016

What is missing from GuardianJakartaWeek and similar

Kemang Apartments, The rooftop pool, South Jakarta

If you are a Guardian reader you will probably know about  Guardian Cities and the fact that this week from 21st to 25th the chosen city is Jakarta.  Opening with  a few engaging articles on the megalopolis and with an invitation extended to readers  to contribute images, I got really excited and then regretted I was no longer in Jakarta, where in 2015 I spent three months, from September to December, researching Indonesian fashion - not my first visit to Indonesia, I should add, but definitely my longest stay in Jakarta. But the disappointment did not last long  because I  decided to contribute to the instagrammed flow of images anyway and retrieved some of my pictures from last year, making it clear I was no longer a temporary resident of Jakarta but I still wanted to share my love/hate relationship with this city which I now miss terribly, but whose horrendous traffic drove me totally mad, please excuse the pun. And Guardian Cities  liked one of my images on Instagram!
In case you have not seen the call to contribute here it is:

"Jakarta is quite a flat city: there aren’t steep streets or hillside neighbourhoods. So where do you go to get a great view over the city? Share your photos of your favourite views in Jakarta and where you can see them from. You can share pictures on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #GuardianJakarta or Whatsapp us on +447881337758."
Me at JWF 2016

I interpret 'view' quite broadly and among my pictures there are some to do with fashion as well as some taken on the rooftop of  buildings in Kemang, where I was based.  What is, after all, a view?

Inside the Batavia Cafe, Old Batavia
I enjoyed reading the Guardian articles, especially the one by Elizabeth Pisani, author of the excellent  Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation. Yet Pisani  was apparently annoyed by the Guardian headline given to her article by the editors which she thought was a mismatch with the content of her piece. Thus she immediately wrote another article  and swiftly published it online, What you can't say in the Guardian . She is at pain to clarify that - I quote -
"the world can continue to ignore Indonesia because, despite the screeching of para-religious “mass organisations” and the machinations of their political puppeteers, the country’s leaders and most of its citizens understand the art of compromise. I believe that the nation will continue to manage the balancing act of democracy successfully. Thus, no major meltdown. Thus, no headlines in the global media, and no great demands on international attention. Sometimes, (other people’s) ignorance really is bliss".
Maybe I am dim, but I can't see why the Guardian headline is so offensive.  For one thing the world had better not ignore Indonesia because of its important role as a business partner - a country with so many million people, how could it be ignored?
Am I being too simple?
Pisani's point was political and she somewhat resented the attention the Guardian is giving to Indonesia for reasons that are not immediately apparent. I have been wondering why now, I must confess. But truly I don't think the headline was particularly offensive nor did it sound sinister. It said - again I quote -
"the world can’t afford to ignore this diverse archipelago any longer – its eager and savvy democracy, big workforce and brightening outlook demand attention".
I  don't get Pisani's point. It's not as if she has been censored by the paper. As she says herself the article is just as she wrote it. So what, then? This whole controversy will remain a storm in a teacup, for me. Maybe Pisani wanted to write the headline herself, but it is a well known fact that the editors of a paper advocate to themselves the privilege of writing headlines.  They are paid to do it.
Fashion Show, Jakarta, Dec 2015

Anyway, Pisani's views and the Guardian's ulterior motives aside, I think that even though right now everyone is quite worried about the outcome of the Ahok's blasphemy case to the point that it is even thought there might be a coup when the planned mass protests take place on Friday - but I believe this is mere  alarmism -  I also  think that there is something in particular from Indonesia that ought to be paid attention to.  That something is  fashion.  Here I do not necessarily mean 'hijab' fashion which seems to have become the only fashion made in Indonesia that is worthy of overseas attention, as the acclaim won by Anniesa Hasibuan  at the recent New York Fashion Week seems to demonstrate (and, equally,  the questions it raised).
As I have said elsewhere, Indonesian contemporary fashion design is dynamic and aimed at a global urban wearer. With  its roots in the textile tradition of batik, ikat and songket making, and the attempt of a great many Indonesian designers to integrate sustainability, through making clothes that eschew fast fashion production and consumption, the designs are aimed at  women and men whose ethnicities, ages, and cultures are as diverse as could be,
 In other words, hijab fashion is but one of its expressions.

The designs rely on sartorial skills imbibed from the Italian, French and British ‘schools’ of fashion design, combining classicism with avant-garde married to a distinctly Indonesian aesthetics, with fabrics sourced from the time honoured tradition(s) of artisanal textile production, in combination with other contemporary materials, mixed in innovative and surprising ways.
Yet not much is known about Indonesian fashion, apart from a (politically motivated) overly attention to hijab fashion.
The fashion world is extremely ethnocentric. This is why the NWFC (Non Western Fashion Conference) came into existence in 2012 "with the goal of disrupting the persistent euro- and ethnocentricity in fashion studies. NWFC operates within a new fashion paradigm".
I cannot but welcome initiatives such as this.
As for the interest of Global Cities in Jakarta, I do hope it will go beyond predictable views of Betawi folklore, dukun (already featured) and maddening traffic jams. How about viewing the  creativity in design and fashion that is concentrated in Jakarta, from initiatives ranging from  Fashion First to other fashion displays?
That too is a 'view'.

Fashion installation at Fashion First, Dec 2015

(If you search in the archive you will find the entries in this blog entitled From Jakarta #1 to #12  narrating my experience of the city and its fashion)



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Monday, 14 November 2016

No Body's Perfect...but everyone is unique

Photo:BBC4
No Body's Perfect is a documentary recently screened by BBC4, with acclaimed photographer Rankin and artist Alison Lapper, whose nude, pregnant, limbless body was sculpted by  Marc Quinn and displayed in Trafalgar Square until 2007, becoming a famous and for some, controversial, landmark.
The documentary follows four people who have great problems in accepting themselves  and in seeing themselves as unique individuals, all  because of some physical condition that modifies their appearance, in the case of  three of them,  and in the case of the fourth one,  because of her body dysmorphia which compels her to see herself as ugly and repulsive, a totally unrealistic self image.
Rankin has the task of  taking  photos of these four people, in his London studio. The idea is for them to see themselves with fresh eyes and discover their inner beauty and character.  Lapper is there to provide moral support, as someone who has had to fight her own battles to come to terms with her difference.  She is a most inspiring role model.
Rankin is  a gifted portraitist, a modern Rembrandt, perhaps. His moments of reflection in the documentary reveal great  honesty.  The unease felt by most people when confronted  by the artfully photoshopped  images of high fashion models and celebrities in the media is to an extent also due to him and other people in his profession.  Rankin is aware of being 'part of the problem' in his role as  photographer of those very people whose flawless images exacerbate the extreme sense of inadequacy experienced by the likes of Alana, the teenager affected by body dysmorphia.  Taking part in this project thus has a redemptive quality for  Rankin who is able to tap into the healing property that  photography, as an art form, can definitely have, bringing out the uniqueness and the beauty of each individual subject, through striking, well lit, well composed, portraits.
Rankin talks about  the selfie culture emphasising  the sense of sameness and artificiality that it engenders. Selfies and portraits could not be further removed from one another.  A portrait is an honest representation of yourself in your uniqueness, a selfie is often so doctored through filters and almost codified body poses, that it is rarely an honest portrayal of an individual, it is instead an attempt at making oneself the same as all others.

self portrait AlexB
I, for one, really dislike taking selfies, even though in my work as a model I am often asked to cast through selfies and velfies (video-selfies), which I dislike even more. I used to take self portraits and that was a completely different thing. I might begin again.
I watched the documentary with great interest and found young Alana's plight quite heart rending. I felt extremely sorry for her and even more for her mother yet I could not help feeling somewhat irritated. Honestly, in a world in which so many people struggle to survive why is this girl spending all her time looking at herself in the mirror? Something is seriously wrong here and I cannot put my finger on it, I realise body dysmorphia is a mental  illness, but are we turning it into something bigger than it is?
I am also confused by this idea of body perfection, as this has changed over the centuries, perfection  seems to have different meanings to different people. For me a perfect body is the trained body of an athlete or of a dancer, with well developed muscles and, particularly in the case of dancers,  the ability to move gracefully and with ease. It's a body one achieves through hard work, often overcoming physical imperfections. I  remember reading an interview with the sublime ballerina  Natalia Osipova who confessed that  when she first started at the Bolshoi she could not jump. “I was not very tall, and not perfectly proportioned – not the prettiest body.  If I wanted to achieve something, I had to improve my technique, and she [Marina Kondriatieva] forced me to work on it.’
This is so inspiring, truly. She did not beat herself up for not being tall and with the longest legs. She worked on what she had and developed an ability to almost fly.

Natalia Osopova as Giselle. Photo: Alistair Muir. Reblogged

No body is perfect but you can certainly work on yours and achieve 'perfection' if you work at developing its potential. Were I a teenager I'd rather focus my energy on developing the ability to jump with the ease of  Natalia Osipova then try at all cost to turn myself into a copy of the latest celeb in the news.
It is a matter of balance.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Here comes Rasputin

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden , London
I went to see Anastasia, the ballet by Kenneth MacMillan at the Royal Opera House, on a very cold Guy Fawkes night, when people were out and about to watch firework displays and to take part in the Million Mask march. In other words, bad traffic in Central London.
I went specially to see Eric Underwood in the role of Rasputin, I am a fan of the Royal Ballet soloist turned part time model (elsewhere I wrote he was a principal, but the programme I bought lists him as a soloist, ballet has a rigid hierarchical structure).
I was not the only one there to see Underwood, the woman sitting next to me had come for the same reason. Underwood, a phenomenal dancer,  is making ballet more accessible to communities that would not usually engage with it, deeming it as a wholly white upper middle class art form. As a ballet lover, I feel ballet ought to be appreciated by all, thus I applaud Underwood for being a fantastic dancer and for being a role model (no pun intended). I was also keen to see Federico Bonelli, he is another talented ballet dancer hailing from Turin, Italy, like Roberto Bolle. In fact, Bonelli substituted Steven McRae who was indisposed. Some audience members were disappointed at this last minute change.
We had  stalls circle right seats, which was not as bad as I initially thought, though being on one side meant that occasionally we would not be able to see the action on upstage left (and we could not see the black and white film that was projected during act III, footage of the Romanov).
I had never seen Anastasia before. It is a ballet based on the story of Anna Anderson who spent her entire adult life purporting to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of the last Tzar of Imperial Russia. She claimed she had survived the summary execution by the Soviet soldiers through the help of a faithful officer and had escaped to Germany where she was found wandering the streets of Berlin in a state of confusion. She was then admitted to an asylum. After a rather eventful life which brought her fame (or infamy, depending on how you view it), she was finally proved to be an impostor in 1984, following a DNA test, which some discredited as having been tampered with.

Grand Duchess Anastasia circa 1908, photo Library of Congress as reproduced in the programme, ROH
Anna Anderson/Anastasia had many supporters  but many more enemies. Not everyone believed her and many were keen to unmask her as a fraud. She was not a fraud as such, she was a woman affected by mental illness. One feels sorry for her and her mental confusion. Anna Anderson genuinely believed she was the Grand Duchess.
MacMillan was inspired by her story, after seeing the film starring Ingrid Bergman and went on to create the ballet. I always feel ambivalent about MacMillan, his ballets have wonderful moments and then there is much which leaves me rather mystified.  I love The Prince of the Pagodas for example, even though it is far too lengthy and could have done with a cut or two. Anastasia is frankly two ballets into one, and there are very long intervals too - good for the bar, someone said, and in the last act a few people in the audience were, shock horror, as act III is the most dramatic one, nodding off, having had a glass too many.  Which makes me wonder why some people bother to go to the ballet and spend £ 60 on a seat when they could drink somewhere else.
But yes, Anastasia could have been condensed into a long one act ballet giving much greater prominence to act III which is about the confusion experienced by Anastasia and which was so superbly danced by Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna Anderson, Eric Underwood as Rasputin and Thomas Whitehead in the role of Anna Anderson's peasant husband.

Rasputin circa 1910, Photo Library of Congress as reproduced in the programme, ROH.
Rasputin is a key character in MacMillan's ballet. MacMillan turns him into a haunting figure, a symbol of decadent Imperial Russia, a devilish schemer. It is as if the confusion that tears Anastasia/Anna apart in her reimaginings, is caused by him, he becomes her mental illness. Underwood is superb as Rasputin, even though physically he is much taller and imposing than Rasputin ever was. According to those who met him, Rasputin was a scrawny, somewhat ugly man whose power was in his eyes and the way he held his gaze, as well as in his hypnotic voice, something which is lost in the ballet for the audience cannot see  the dancer's eyes nor hear the dancer's voice, but Underwood has such a presence, through sheer stillness and through his tall figure he can convey the essence of Rasputin. For two long acts he simply stands, occasionally lifting a few ballerinas - my companion and I were a little disappointed, we wanted to see Underwood  break into a dance even though we fully understood that this was the interpretation he had to give to the character to bring it to life.  Then in act III he dances and in his movements, deliberate and intense, he becomes  the haunting figure that exacerbates Anastasia's mental confusion.  He is the darkness of Anastasia's mind.
I loved act III and all the performers were absolutely amazing, throughout the whole ballet, the dancers of the Royal are such wonderful professionals, they never disappoint. Young Rory Toms in the role of the hemophiliac Tzarevitch Alexei was absolutely charming.

St Petersburg in winter. Photo by me

But Anastasia as a ballet does not do it for me. I find Rasputin is a fascinating, most intriguing and very complex character and I am not entirely happy at the way MacMillan somewhat stereotypes him. Mystic, faith healer, charlatan, womaniser, drunkard, sharp, astute, power hungry, adored and also despised by women and men, Rasputin remains one of the most enigmatic figures in history, a Siberian peasant who established an intimate connection with the Tzar's family, especially the Tzarina and the Tzarevitch and was then brutally assassinated. Underwood through his stillness and the intensity of his performance is able to inject a little of Rasputin's mystery into MacMillan's annoying eminence grise in act I and II, not to mention the sheer power of his dancing in act III and this is quite an achievement.
Rasputin's story, however, remains untold.