Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Fashion, art and politics

Phnannatiq. LFW 2017

As I write, London Fashion Week is in full swing, it started last Friday and it will involve the usual frenzy of runway shows and also, increasingly so, fashion installations. I see the latter as part of the 'artification of fashion', artification being a process whereby heterogeneous things and events come to be seen as art in the cultural imaginary.  But fashion installations are also a way to counter the lack of support provided by the British Fashion Council to emerging designers and as such they are a political statement. The London Designers Collective was founded to help emerging designers and, increasingly, the designers that belong to the Collective tend to eschew the runway presentation and opt for more imaginative ones, at the same time pairing the installation to a pop-up shop. It is 'guerrilla retail'.
But let's proceed in some order. Let's begin with the artification of fashion, something that needs to be considered as distinct  from the immediately political statement of the installations presented by emerging designers.  I believe the artification of fashion as such is  linked to the rise of fashion museums and the popularity of fashion exhibitions which unmistakably signal an interest in fashion as a cultural phenomenon.  From here it’s only a short step to declaring fashion an art form. 
Fashion museums have tended to be design oriented, in other words, applied art or craft museums, in the tradition of the Victoria &Albert Museum  in London. But neat categories such as fine and applied art become blurred when august establishments such as the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose mission is ‘to present significant  works of art across all times and cultures’  happily mix fine art and design, mounting, to date, forty-six exhibitions either exclusively about, or inclusive of, fashion

Gustave Caillebotte.  From the Impressionism, fashion and modernity. Metropolitan Museum 2013

Alexander McQueen, forever the precursor of newer trends, and a well established designer, embraced the format  of a fashion installation when he presented his Voss collection in 2000, in a disused bus depot in London. According to his biographer Andrew Wilson,  Voss was  “ a fully formed art installation that interrogated attitudes towards beauty and ugliness, sex and death, sanity and madness”. It featured towards the end, a large nude model, Michelle Olley, in a dark box  breathing through an apparatus, in a tableau inspired by the 1983 photograph ‘Sanitarium’ by Joel Peter Witkin.  Olley subsequently wrote of the experience that she represented, in McQueen’s imagination, the death of fashion and beauty, reflected back at the viewers, who earlier had been staring at their own image through a two way mirror, before the models wearing McQueen’s clothes began to emerge, unable to see their audience and walking on the other side of the space demarcated by the mirror. It is a disturbing and rather controversial image. To my mind it begs the question of why the death of fashion and beauty would be represented by a large model? In a milieu such as that of fashion, in which size certainly matters, I do not see McQueen's choice as being felicitous.
Whether you agree that fashion is art or not, there is definitely a common ground between current ways of presenting fashion as an installation and visual art installations as such.  Indeed the runway show as seen during Fashion Weeks is now deemed by many designers to be  boring to watch.
Fashion designers today are seeking other ways to present their work, going beyond a conventional trade show, something that can offer a fuller sensory  experience, in which location, sets, clothes, styling and models come together to offer the opportunity to view the clothes more up close,  paying greater attention to the way they are structured and  the details of craftsmanship,  and  giving further meaning to the concepts that inform a collection. They are also, as mentioned earlier,  seeking ways to counter the politics of the fashion week,  supported in London by the British Fashion Council.

Striking here a personal note, I can say  it was really interesting for me to participate in the fashion installation  by Phannatiq on 17th February this year, coinciding with the start of LFW . The installation was combined with a pop-up shop at 44 Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum, in a building which formerly housed an oriental art gallery (I remember it quite well, as my university was only a couple of streets away). 
Phannatiq is the label created by Anna Skodbo, a Norwegian designer now based in London. She always has unconventional models, including hijab models, as some of her wraps can be turned into hijabs. I worked with Skodbo in the autumn of 2016 for a Vogue UK online shoot and I was delighted to be part of the installation, which was also combined with a photoshoot, again for Vogue UK online. I shall post images nearer the time.
The inclusion of hijabs at fashion shows is very important, politically, going beyond issues of identity. 
We live in very troubled times, where political choices inform more than ever all our life decisions. Only yesterday I joined the lobby for the EUs right to stay in the UK, following the hard Brexit bill presented  by the May government, which when debated in the Commons, most disgracefully, had all amendments, including that guaranteeing the  right to stay for EUs already in Britain, rejected by all MPs. Now we are waiting for the House of Lords to review the bill. The lobby was to put pressure on MPs, and also the Lords, not to endorse a hard Brexit that would leave Britain in chaos.  
The lobby coincided with the anti-Trump demonstration in Parliament Square, with thousands of people asking the government not to extend to President Trump the honour of a state visit, opposed through a petition signed by over 1.8 million people. This too was debated in Parliament yesterday afternoon and many MPs seemed 'to be pouring scorn on Trump' (as the Guardian put it) even though the government is adamant that the state visit will go ahead. 

Phannatiq installation LFW
You may wonder why I am discussing all this in a post that is after all about fashion. I am making the point that fashion is waking up to the need to make political statements. At NY Fashion Week fashion creatives came together to make the video statement "I am an immigrant" in the wake of the controversial travel ban of President Trump, which incidentally caused a British muslim teacher on a school trip to be removed from a US bound flight as an undesirable (and he was not from any of the seven states mentioned by the now legally challenged ban, only 'guilty' of being a muslim) . 
Acclaimed Indonesian muslim designer Anniesa Hasibuan presented her second hijab fashion collection in NYC with models who were immigrants or second -generation children of immigrants. Hasibuan however tried to avoid making any direct comment on the ban, saying that her fashion is aimed at muslim women, thus endorsing a political statement of identity and avoiding any direct confrontation with the Trump administration. Nevertheless, her show seemed to be a statement about immigrants. Or not?

At the photo booth, Westminster, in support of OneDayWithoutUs and the 3Million. Dual national , 100% European

Fashion is important to our lives. So it is important to make it our own and use it to make statements. In my view fashion cannot ignore politics, it is totally entwined with  it, it is up to us whether we use it actively or passively. 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Dual nationality and bargaining chips

From my FB profile 
On 20th of February EU Nationals in the U.K will go on strike and will lobby to have some clarity on their position in post-Brexit U.K, something that neither the Government nor the Labour opposition have yet offered. No amendments of the Brexit White Paper re the position of EU Nationals were voted in Parliament last week, thus giving substance to the notion that no one really seems to care. Three hundred and twenty two MPs voted against guaranteeing pre-Brexit referendum EU Nationals the right to stay in the UK. Scary. EU Nationals are painfully aware of being turned into bargaining chips.
Me holidaying in Spain Photo by Martin Robinson

Everyone is welcome to support them on the 20th, even though when I read or hear comments about it being 'an excuse for fun and frolics' I honestly despair and feel that really, deep down, EU Nationals are no longer welcome in an increasingly chauvinistic UK. The Home Office has been sending an inordinate number of  'prepare to leave' letters to EU Nationals which have caused tremendous havoc and upset. It will not stop now.

Holidaying in Spain. Photos by Martin Robinson 

I am one of a handful of EU Nationals living in UK who, years ago, when it was completely unheard of, applied for naturalisation and thus obtained a British passport. Everyone thought at the time that my doing so was somewhat bizarre and frankly needless. I had very specific reasons for wanting to do so, I just had no other choice but at the time I would not necessarily disclose my reasons to everyone, I would simply say that, as I lived in Britain, I wanted to go by the book and after all 'you never know, just in case, a British passport might be useful'. Those words took on a chilling meaning on the morning of the 24th of June. But here I am getting ahead of myself.

I can reveal why I needed a British passport, it's no big deal. I married and divorced a non-British  and non-EU National in the UK, but my British divorce was not recognised as valid in my country of origin, Italy, though my marriage was, as I had been foolish enough to register it - I was not obliged to do so and should not have, but I knew no better, one always believes that marriage is for life. It would take several more years before the EU legislated in favour of recognising divorces across the Union. Following my divorce, I had sole custody of my minor son but Italian law required I should obtain permission from my (ex) husband every time I wished to travel with my son and even to obtain a passport for myself. That was frankly too much for me to take.  I did not like it at all especially since my divorce had been a very acrimonious one and I basically had to beg my ex-husband to grant me permission and it was not easy. A way out of this impasse was to get a British passport for both myself and my son which I could do, as I had been in the UK and in employment, for over ten years. Later, when my son reached the age of 18 I no longer needed anyone's permission to renew my Italian passport so I went back to the Italian consulate and got my Italian passport back. It felt good. By then I was one of those people with dual nationality, recognised as lawful by both Britain and Italy - some countries do not, so I was lucky to be in such a position.

Following the Brexit referendum I have been very aware of the plight of EU Nationals in the U.K. and could not help feeling that had it not been for the circumstances I have just related I could have easily found myself in the same position as many others are now, namely, in  a limbo. Thus I wholeheartedly support the EU Nationals cause and have even written to my MP who unfortunately happens to be Jeremy Corbyn, someone who so far has shown he frankly does not care much about the EU Nationals in UK and is quite happy for them to be turned into bargaining chips.

Lately,  I started researching what it actually means to have dual nationality (or dual citizenship, the two are distinct legal notions but in practice they are the same) and have discovered that strictly speaking British citizenship can be revoked, when someone has dual citizenship, 'for the public good'. I quote here the full paragraph from Eudo about the categories of British citizenship. There are:

(1) Those who are British citizens by birth and do not have another nationality [and] cannot have their citizenship removed.
(2) Those who are British citizens by birth or naturalisation and are dual nationals. They may have their citizenship removed if that is considered conducive to the public good.
(3) Those who obtained their citizenship by naturalisation who are not dual nationals so that deprivation will leave them stateless. Their British citizenship may be revoked if:
1. It was obtained by fraud, false representation, or concealment of a material fact; or 
2. They are considered to have acted in a way which is seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the UK and there are reasonable grounds for believing that the person is able to acquire another nationality.

An immigration lawyer, keen to minimise the anxiety that EU Nationals currently feel, rebuked me for daring to ask publicly  about circumstances for revoking citizenship, categorically stating that it ain't going to happen and this revoking of citizenship can only be expected to hold true solely in the case of proven criminals and terrorists. But knowing that in principle it could happen, as this 'public good' is indeed a vague concept, totally unsettles me. The whole issue of EU Nationals in the U.K is deeply political. In practice someone holding dual citizenship and who is British by naturalisation is not quite the same as a British person holding only British citizenship, who cannot under any circumstance be stripped of their citizenship or they would become stateless. A person holding dual citizenship cannot be stateless, by definition.

I do not wish to engage in any scaremongering but I would always carefully consider all eventualities. 'Against the public good' is an elastic concept. If until now it has been interpreted as referring to terrorist activities, it could also be stretched to mean burdensome on public money. Now, at a time when Britain is going through a major crisis concerning an underfunded NHS operating beyond capacity someone might come up with the idea that denying EU Nationals in the UK the right to avail of  the NHS without paying for treatment might help to save much needed money. And who is to say that naturalised EU Nationals might not have their citizenship revoked on the basis of 'public good'? Or that they may not be asked to give up their EU member state nationality if they wish to be or keep their British one, in some twisted schadenfreude? Three hundred and thirty two MPs showing they really do not care about EU Nationals in Britain is frankly scary. Do, if you will, get angry with me for daring to mention the unmentionable but the Britain we live in is no longer the tolerant Britain I once knew, loved and respected. Politics is a dirty game and yes, EU Nationals in the U.K are no more than bargaining chips. Dual nationality could well not make that much difference, after all.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Spain and Stella

Photo by Martin Robinson. Model: me

It's been a great end of January and beginning of February for me, with the BBC Woman's Hour interview on 2nd Feb about being an older model, together with older model Saga competition winner Dulcie Andrews - I am such a fan of Woman's Hour and being on it was a dream come true. Then I visited  Spain, where I modelled, last Friday,  for Martin Robinson's art workshop in Rojales, near Alicante - I am a regular now, have been going there since 2009! and then I had some fun being a tourist, travelling to Valencia for a day trip with overnight stay.
Valencia is delightful, truly enchanting. I will have to go back as I could not see everything I wanted to see, especially the City of Arts and Sciences.
But being in Rojales was also great fun, I witnessed on Sunday the reenactment of the historic battle between the Moors and the Christians, over ownership of the ancient  bridge of the town, and it was wonderful to be reminded of the rich history and tradition of this city and seeing it being kept alive so enthusiastically.  I even managed to fit in  a visit to the beach - but it was too cold to swim -  and on to an amazing spot, El Cau, rocks and caves brightened up by local sculptors with a range of art works.
El Cau Photo by Martin Robinson
Valencia was a real surprise, absolutely stunning. I am a great fan of Spain, I have to admit of being partial to it, I feel very much at home there. I am clearly not the only one to feel that way. There are many  expatriates over there, especially Brits, and, understandably, the Brits in Spain are very worried about the consequences of Brexit. They are seeking some reassurance and clarity on their position but have not yet been told what is to become of them. Meanwhile some of them are trying to sell up, though the value of their homes has gone down. Many wonder whether they can really return to England, what with the state of the NHS.  They do not know whether they will continue to have medical assistance while in Spain. It is all a very big mess.
Anyway, what I loved about Valencia was its rich mudéjar art.  The mudéjar  is an art style and a culture which flourished between the 11th and 16th century as a meeting point of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, with mutual influences. I had encountered it in Seville and found it in Valencia too. I walked around the historic city centre marvelling at the beauty of the buildings, from the stunning Ayuntamiento to the Lonja, a UNESCO Heritage Site, the House of Silk, with its incredible pillars, where the silk traders operated in the 15th century.

And while I was taking in all this history, I got news of being featured in Stella , the weekly supplement of The Telegraph, as one of the eight top silver models of the moment.  It was kind of weird, but definitely very pleasant.

From Stella
Now I am back in London, feeling a bit cold.  I keep on thinking about the British expats in Spain. What does the future hold for them? What does it indeed hold for the many  EU citizens living in the UK? It is an interesting contrast. Most British expats tend to be older people, the EU citizens in Britain tend to be young people and  most of them are working and contributing to the economy. It is indeed a big question mark.
As the song goes, que sera, sera.