Sunday, 26 March 2017

Mothers, daughters and Mother's Day

Photo: Elite London Events. Mother of the Bride dress by Juliette Michele Marie Model: me

I do not have a daughter, I have a son. I am very happy to have him, I love him to bits. I only wish I had a daughter when I receive the occasional casting call for a commercial asking for 'real mothers and daughters'. The advertising industry is keen on authenticity, so couples have to be real and 'mothers and daughters' have to be real too, possibly alike. Is it not good enough to rely on acting skills? Oh no. "The wish of the client" is for the genuine item.
But apart from such (sporadic) moments, I never particularly wanted any child of mine to be of a particular sex. I was happy to have a son but I would have been equally happy to have a daughter. At the time it was entirely out of my hands. Possibly in future one will be able to manipulate DNA cells to decide on a particular genetic make up for one's children, including their biological sex,  but that will not be during my life time.  Honestly, I don't think I would be interested in it if it were available. But the point is that it is not, so let's end all speculation here.
However - and I hope I am not sounding  like a total idiot, I do (did) have a mother - we all do, duh! So my experience of the mother and daughter relationship has been as a daughter.
As it's Mother's Day, today I have been thinking about my mother. I sometimes (but not so often, I will admit)  think of her even when it's not Mother's Day.  She died two years ago, at a very old age. She had lost her ability to speak because of a cancer that had spread out to her brain. She was in a pitiful state, death was a welcome relief, callous though it may sound to say so.  That's not the way I like remembering her at all.

But when I try to recall her, it is not so easy. There were moments which I definitely cherish, moments when she was wonderfully caring, but ever since I can remember I had this intense desire  to move away from her, she was too much for me, in ways I am frankly unable to explain. She was a great mother in every possible way, she never did anything awful to me at all, but there was a disconnect between us which became more and more pronounced as I grew older. Eventually, I did move away, to a place I knew she would regard as somewhat out of reach.
 On Mother's Day one is supposed to pay gushing tributes to one's mother. Without in any way wanting to be misunderstood - I loved my mother and am grateful for everything she gave me - it is important to acknowledge that not all women are cut out to take on the role of mothers, that  the mother-daughter relationship is at times very entangled and uneasy  and one which often needs to be healed. There is much ambivalence and tension that one has to learn to let go of, a 'legacy of hurt' that has to be confronted without giving way to recrimination.
There are some good books out there which might help the healing process if one wishes to engage in an exploration of one's own mother-daughter relationship. I have personally found Mean Mothers by Peg Streep very balanced, but there are others.
Perhaps together with the  chocolate and flowers, daughters might want to throw such a book in, as a gift to one's mother, on Mother's Day. Or read it themselves, if their mothers, for whatever reason, cannot be reached.
Happy Mother's Day!

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The idea of han, fashion and nationalism

“We – the Koreans – were born from the womb of han and brought up in the womb of han.”
 Ko Eun

A Korean friend has given me her doctoral dissertation to read. It's always helpful to have someone to read through your work and give you an opinion, prior to submission. In the  days of my own submission I pestered everyone I knew to read at least a chapter. As you will guess, I ended up having very, very  few friends at that point in time ...
I have no expertise in her subject, I am simply reading her thesis  as a lay person. It's really fascinating.  She writes about Korean traditional theatre from a feminist perspective and of course she discusses han at length. Han is a concept many writers have defined as a peculiarly Korean emotion, a mix of bitterness, resentment, realisation of one's own inability to change circumstances and attendant sorrow and despondency. There is also a sense of pleasure in wallowing in han,  indeed han is pleasurable. Moreover, han is linked with women, through Confucian patriarchal rules, and is, many would argue, embodied by them. However, and most importantly, han also encompasses a sense of hope, as writer Kyong -Ni Park has argued. This is  a rather seductive idea, despondency and hope rolled into one.
The word han is very difficult to translate, though I would not go as far as saying that the emotions conveyed by han are totally alien to non-Koreans. Au contraire. A comparison could be drawn with the sense of 'spleen' or la mélancolie of Baudelaire.
Outside Korea people may have encountered han through the hallyu (K-wave) of Korean films, which are fast becoming popular and seem to be imbued with a sense of han down to the music composed for them.
Generally, I am very weary of definitions such as 'quintessentially Korean', I do not believe in national  characteristics, these are constructs, and they are usually stereotypes that completely disregard diversity, in fact they are aimed at flattening everyone out in order to conform to an ideal, positive (or negative) that may be.
In relation to han, I find my instinctive objections to its specific Korean-ness are supported by the views of a certain Korean writer (identity unknown) who, as reported by artist Alida Sayer in her blog documenting her residency in Seoul, claims that 'Korean han is a (Japanese) colonialist invention'. It sounds right to me. Anyone who has read Frantz Fanon's masterly essay The Wretched of the Earth  (1963) on the devastating emotional power of the internalised sense of inferiority of the colonised will nod in agreement.

But the appeal to the Korean-ness of han dominates contemporary Korean culture in all its manifestations, including fashion design and its very sophisticated use of subdued colours and 'naturalness', aimed at  generating a specific visual aesthetics - people do, after all, talk of Han design with reference to Korean emerging practices, using the term han as synonymous with Korean-ness.
Which brings me to the next point: what is the link between design culture and national identity? As we are discussing South Korea, I will quote Yoong Kyung Lee, an emerging Korean designer, who says the following:
"Oversensitivity about identity can be problematic in South Korea and a solution cannot be found by pretending that national identity does not matter; a solution must highlight elements of identity that serve necessary goals. I view this as one of the most challenging aspects of national branding: distilling the vastness of national identity into something that is relevant and communicable to specific audiences". The audiences here clearly encompass non-Korean ones.
I do not think this is applicable only to South Korea. Compare what Yoong says with what  Jess Cartner-Morley writes, in The Guardian, about London Fashion Week  2017 
"The message from this week’s shows was that with Brexit an impending reality, the British fashion industry intends to do as our prime minister instructed, and make the best of it. There is no union jack flag waving in fashion, an international industry philosophically and structurally at odds with isolationism, but this week’s shows crystallised a new sharp focus on British identity. The look for next autumn is arthouse patriotism".

We live at a time when there is indeed a revival of national narratives and of nationalism, sweeping across the globe. Mrs May's rejection of the idea of a 'citizen of the world' in her view equating to being  a 'citizen of nowhere' is symptomatic of a way of thinking that will soon be replete with stereotypes about national characteristics and will require some careful negotiation. 
Enough to make me feel overcome by han (with its incumbent sense of hope).

*** The Conversation which I talked about in an earlier post will now be broadcast on 20th March and will then be available on podcast ***

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Rauschenberg's Inferno drawings

I had been meaning to see the Rauschenberg exhibition at Tate Modern for many weeks and always put it off, then, finally, yesterday afternoon I decided to go. I have to be in a particular mood to go to an exhibition because I dislike crowds but these days it's hardly possible to go to a major gallery such as the Tate and not find other people there, at all hours. I also have to be on my own, if I go with a friend I just don't enjoy it  because we chat and I cannot talk and take in art works at the same time (I usually have to go back).
I was familiar with Rauschenberg's collaboration with Merce Cunningham, the great master of modern/contemporary dance and with dancer/choreographer Trisha Brown. But I did not know Rauschenberg's work too well and had never seen the drawings inspired by Dante's Inferno.  They were a true revelation to me.
I should say, at the outset,  that I have a love/hate relationship with Dante. As a schoolgirl in Italy I positively detested him, his Divina Commedia was constantly being shoved down my throat, 'the greatest work of Italian literature' and so on and so forth. Then with his constant declaring that he was an immortal genius he seemed a little pompous (however, he was right on that one, he definitely had foresight and knew his worth). But the Inferno, in truth, always made me giggle, as Dante's was an extraordinary vision of hell, in which he put all his enemies and dreamt up unbelievable punishments for their sins. I later learnt to admire the Inferno for its undeniable poetry, its moments of  lyricism,  its display of encyclopaedic knowledge, its humour. That Dante's imagination was boundless is a gross understatement.

Botticelli's Divina Commedia drawings, Map of Hell, Google Images
His influence throughout the centuries never  diminished. He was a source of inspiration for many artists,  including Alessandro Botticelli, who drew, between 1485 and 1495,  ninety-two illustrations for each canto of the Commedia, with a strict eye on the topography of hell.  The Commedia manuscript with Botticelli's drawings was discovered only in the 19th century and justly praised as an outstanding work of art.  I count myself lucky to have seen  those beautiful drawings at an exhibition held at the Royal Academy in 2001 (I know, time flies!).
Rauschenberg's drawings illustrate thirty-four cantos of the Inferno, using his own special  transfer technique and populating them with contemporary figures, such as JF Kennedy.  Many an article has been written on why he turned to Dante for inspiration. For Charles Derwent, writing for the Independent newspaper,   Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso parallel  the Freudian id, ego and superego, thus the drawings would bear a link to Rauschenberg's closeted (in the 1950s)  homosexuality. Derwent says, poignantly, that "what marks the "Inferno" drawings as great is not their humour or even their place in art history, but their empathy with pain and instinctive feel for obscurity. They are veiled, encoded calls to redeem the time – to turn mass-produced images into hand-drawn artworks, to de-trash trash, to de-demonise human sexuality."

Poster of Rauschenberg's Exhibition at Tate

Others, such as Leo Steinberg, see them differently. He claims that the drawings were born out of Rauschenberg's relationship with television and its serialization, rather than an interest in poetry per se, and Steinberg points out that references to Old Masters were already present, for example, in the Combines. I do not find this entirely convincing. Maybe Rauschenberg, as Warhol also did, was in the habit of trivialising his artistic choices when asked about them in interviews, in other words, he adopted a dismissive stance.
Karl Fugelso in his 2003 essay on the drawings sees in Rauschenberg's take on Dante a condemnation of commercialism and of advocates of conservatism, which would fit in well with the socio-cultural context of the early 1960s, soon to be challenged by a Pop art in the making.

Rauschenberg, Inferno,  circle 8 The Falsifiers, detail. Own photo 

I just think that Rauschenberg's Inferno drawings are stunning, whatever their motivation and whatever the artist's intent. The exhibition is worth visiting just to see them, even though there is a lot more on display, this being a retrospective of one of the most intense and prolific artists of the 20th century.
So hurry, if you have not seen it, it will end on 2nd April.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

International Women's Day 2017 and 'Mustang'

Phannatiq LFW Feb 2017

It's International Women's Day. I am sure that by now you have read everything about the protests and even the one day strike. I did not work today and   avoided shopping (but I had to buy myself some flowers!) as this had been suggested was a way to demonstrate solidarity with those striking, in that women constitute a good 60% of the overall shoppers.
Appropriately for today, I watched the beautiful Mustang (2015), a film  by the Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven.  It's a film that has received several  prizes and award nominations, in Cannes, in Toronto. It was even shortlisted for an Academy Award. IMDb has included it in the list of films to watch to celebrate International Women's Day and, as I was scrolling through the list,  it caught my attention.
Mustang  is about five teenage sisters who have lost their parents and live with their conservative uncle and grandmother in a village in Northern Turkey. The film  begins with them playing a game with boys on the beach, in which they are carried by the boys on their shoulders, and because of that game they are severely reprimanded by their elders, who interpret the game as being obscene and sexual - the girls allegedly having been  'pleasuring themselves' on the neck of the boys.
As the story develops we see the girls, no longer allowed to go to school,  being groomed for marriage. The youngest, Lale, is the most defiant of the lot and is eager to escape, even learning to drive, surreptitiously, and she is barely ten! She dreams of going to Istanbul, the big city, where her favourite teacher  lives.
Eventually, she manages to get away, together with one of the sisters (two have been married off, another one has committed suicide). The two of them arrive in Istanbul and head for Lale's former teacher's house, where they are comforted. The film ends with that  scene of Lale flying into her teacher's arms.

The story is simple and quite tragic, yet its message is not one of hopelessness. The girls are magnificent, attempting to rebel, yet they are suppressed by a patriarchal society which regards them as inferior to men and unworthy. Traditional mores are oppressive and the girls are, one by one, broken by the injustice of it all, except for Lale, who is determined to win her place in the sun.
 The film is very nuanced in the way it tells its story,  it shows scenes of happiness, of bonding, even at events such as the marriages of two of the sisters, as well as having scenes of extreme violence. The sisters are absolutely beautiful, their long hair untamed, never covering their heads, often not  tying their hair, always defiantly, at least indoors, wearing shorts, even bikinis, rather than the 'grey sacs' their grandmother wants them to  put on. They  play imaginative and poignant  games with each other which betray their extreme longing for freedom - there is a wonderful moment, showing them playing in bed, when they are grounded at home,  and they are pretending to be swimming underwater, catching a seashell which they listen to.
The cinematography is beautiful, so is the acting. Only one of the girls had acted before, but they were all able to dive into the story, giving the best of themselves in their performances.
The film was bitterly criticised in Turkey, where many disliked this portrayal of backward village life and felt it tarnished the official image of a modern, European Turkey. In an interview given to Rachel Cooke, of The Observer, Ergüven comments on the reality of living in Turkey today, under Erdoğan:
"The way he [Erdoğan] speaks: he makes them [women] fragile with his messages, whether subliminal or explicit. There is a certain way, he says, of being a woman: you have to be a mother and at home, and that’s all. When you see a man, you should blush and look down. It’s like something from the middle ages. The subtext is that women are only seen as sexual. That’s why they must cover every inch of their skin. This is dangerous because it generates more violence against them, it makes it OK for men to act like assailants. Rapes happen everywhere, but in Turkey women come out on to the streets to protest because such attacks only seem to echo what the government is saying".
I was immensely moved by this beautiful film. I hope more women, everywhere in the world, will watch it,  savour it and fight against the patriarchal values it denounces.
Happy International Women's Day!

Modelling Phannatiq
(The photos in this post are from a recent LFW event at which I modelled Phannatiq, clothes designed by Anna Skodbo. I love that Skodbo is never prescriptive about what older women should wear, nor does she design for only one size and shape)

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

The Conversation

At BBC World Service with Kim and Mahalia

I went back to BBC House yesterday - only last month I was there for BBC4 Woman's Hour , am I becoming a regular?
This time I was there for an episode of The Conversation a series broadcast by BBC World Service which has an audience of 60 million people worldwide.
I was paired with the dazzling Mahalia Handley, a 23 year old model of Maori/Irish descent now working in the UK and a rising star in the modelling world, one of the growing cohort of plus size/curvy models. With me being an older model, the idea of the programme, presented by Kim Chakanetsa and produced by Olivia Cope, was to have us two discuss modelling from the point of view of models and in particular, models who are not regarded, yet, as being 'mainstream'. Both the 'plus size/curvy ' and 'older/classic' are niche categories, but it is through the work of models such as ourselves that perceptions of modelling are being challenged and reconfigured.
The interview will be aired on Monday 20th March at 13:30 and 21:30 GMT on the BBC World Service. It will also be available as a podcast on the FB page of the programme and on BBC World Service website.
I was delighted to meet someone as vibrant as Mahalia. the conversation facilitated by Kim unfolded quite organically. I will not pre-empt the content of the podcast, I have not yet heard it myself and will be eagerly waiting for it. But one thing emerged from this conversation, something I feel I have not stressed sufficiently in my answers. Models tend to be seen as no more than objects but I would like to reclaim 'agency' to them, in other words I think that far too little attention is paid to a model's abilities to conjure up a feeling, a mood, a character, through her posing. It is this, in my view, that marks the performance of the best models, for a performance it is.
Should we then stop thinking of models as passive women defined only by their being of a particular shape and size, whatever that may be (standards are always changing, something that ought to be remembered, there was a time when a model of colour was a rarity, even more so if curvy and an over fifty model an aberration)? And of modelling being only a passport to glamour, riches and a 'good' marriage, as seen in the case of a handful of models that have ended up marrying millionaires turned powerful politicians?
Just a thought.
(thanks to Grey Model Agency for arranging this)