This won’t be the most riveting post you’ll read today, so we’ll keep it brief…
Most of my articles can now be found on www.afropean.com, but I am looking at integrating this blog into my new personal website www.johnypitts.com, as a way of showing all the articles I personally write (rather than the articles I edit by other contributors to Afropean). On www.johnypitts.com you’ll find a kind of online resume, with a selection of my photographs, TV work, voice overs and essays all collated on one domain.
As a thank you for reading this rather soulless little update, please enjoy a little selfie I took on a trip to Moscow’s red square during twilight. I like the colours and hope you do too!
The Afropean is a new online multimedia, multidisciplinary journal exploring the social, cultural and aesthetic interplay of black and European cultures, and the synergy of styles and ideas brought about because of this union.
After winning an ENAR Award for a contribution toward a racism-free Europe with our Afropean Culture Facebook page, we hope to build on the work of Erik Kamble’s important Afro-Europe blog, which closed in 2013, and will continue to shed light on art, music, literature, news and events from the Afro-European diaspora, as well as produce and commission original essays and projects.
The Afropean team: Johny Pitts, Nat Illumine and Alice Gbelia
What’s in store for March…
From the forthcoming photo essay/travel narrative ‘An Afropean in Marrakech’ coming soon on http://www.afropean.com
In the coming weeks we’ll have interviews with legendary Belgo-Congolese singer Marie Daulne of Zap Mama, get the lowdown on why French Hip-Hop is still a political force to be reckoned with from UK MC turned-Paris native Apocraphe, and revisit a digital journey down the river Thames, exploring themes of immigration with Caryl Phillips. We’ll look at Arabic Neo-Soul, with an accompanying travel guide and photo essay about Marrakech, get three unique perspectives on what the term ‘Afropean’ means as a cultural identifier, and speak to world record holder and British Nigerian TV Host Andy Akinwolere about Afro-European style. You can also expect news, reviews, and a calender packed with Afro-Europe related talks, calls for papers, exhibitions, events and gigs in our ‘Agenda’ section.
My white friends from Sheffield always mock me…. “He only pulls ’cause of his afro” they say, if I ever get attention from the opposite sex. I’ve shaved it off on numerous occasions to try prove them wrong, but, alas, I’m afraid they might be onto something.
Even past girlfriends have encouraged me to keep it because they think it makes me look ‘pretty’. Perhaps having a huge fro’ is a natural way of what so-called ‘pick-up gurus’ call peacocking: showing off and standing out from all the other male suitors- expressing my uniqueness, demanding the attention of any prospective mates.
At a typical Sheffield bar called ‘Soyo’
I have weird hair; It doesn’t know whether it wants to be white or black. When it is short it is the consistency of what is depicted on old greek statues- waves that break into curls like the riptide of a Hokusai Tsunami. My frilly prose makes that sound more attractive than it is.
In reality the waves are bouncing around all over my head- a whirlpool of wiry springs they can’t be shaped like full Afro hair, but can’t be gelled and styled like European hair, and so I either have to keep it really short or grow it really long.
It’s hard to find products designed for mixed race hair, so since being young it has always looked somewhat messy!
Short doesn’t suit me much, and I’m not the type that can be bothered to visit the barber’s every couple of weeks to keep it neat anyway, so I often grow it out to an afro because it takes minimum effort. I wash it every couple of days, and only comb it out on the days I wash it. It doesn’t look right when it’s too tidy- I’m aiming more for Maxwell rather than Shaft.
Maxwell was the pioneer of the neo-soul fro’ that expressed blackness but also hinted at hippyness
Once, when I was at a stand-up gig, the comedian told a funny racist joke, and had a bit of banter with my friend Andy and I, who were the only black people in the audience. Andy is a full blooded Yoruba Nigerian, with skin as close as it can be to actually being black. “And you…” the comedian said looking at me “You’re mixed-race aren’t you…but you’ve got an Afro which kind of makes you more black”.
Me with my good friend Andy Akinwolere
I’d never thought of it that way, but it’s true- when my hair is short it’s me sort of sitting on the rabbit-proof fence. In the past people have thought I was Arabic, Berber, Fijian, Brazilian, and I even got half-Japanese once. When I grow my Afro though, I’m standing more firmly in the realms of blackness and entering the territory of great pro-black Afro -wearing icons through the ages… Huey P Newton, Angela Davis, Mohammad Ali… Black Belt Jones…
A Fly Brother! Black Belt Jones!
But when my Afro is in full swing, I always have the desperate urge to chop it all off again. When it’s short I miss it, when it’s long I resent it. And why? Because in Europe you can never own an Afro. Once it has grown past a certain length- I’m going to say five inches in all directions- it suddenly becomes public property. You can be on the bus, in a club, at work or at the gym, but there is no escaping the straight-haired clan when they give you that look. A complete stranger will lurch towards you like a zombie with possessed eyes that aren’t making eye contact but focused instead on the space above your forehead, and in almost all instances they’ll touch your hair and say on the breath of an orgasmic release of pleasure “Affrrrrooooo”.
“Oh my GOD It’s SO soft!”
This bothers me, and I’m not the type that necessarily shies away from attention. But why? I found out the reason on one particularly tactile night out when I went home to Sheffield. I played a little experiment on the fifth girl who reached out with the afro- goggle eyes and stroked my hair.
I stroked hers back!
She was attractive, and her hair, falling past her shoulders, was mousie brown and silky soft. There was a brief moment where we were stroking each other’s hair in the middle of a club, as complete strangers, and it obviously made her feel deeply uncomfortable. She looked at me like I was out of my mind and scarpered off. At that moment I knew I had found a perfect antidote to the Afro-touching and also why my hair being touched bothered me: It is because the person touching it didn’t see me, they saw a caricature… a funny plaything..a Furby fro…a big piece of black fluff that reminded them of a cute little animal. That’s why they never asked to touch my hair before touching it- you don’t ask a dog if it’s okay to pet it.
It isn’t just white straight-haired women who cause me to get a trim though, it is also other Afro-topped black men, because if you’re going to rock an outlandish fro, you have to make sure you’re the only fro in the village. Going back to the idea of the peacock- there is no doubt that sometimes my hair has got me good attention.
Afros are cool in the right setting, and to be the only man with an Afro at an art gallery, or a member’s bar, allows one to masquerade as an eccentric creative…a Jean Michel Basquiat-type who is black but earthy and cerebral (I use ‘but’ because blackness and anything remotely complex are often promoted as being mutually exclusive).
I was in Japan, standing out and getting all the attention until this dude behind me shows up and steals all my shine!
This is why there is NOTHING worse than when you have finely crafted a niche only to enter the room and see some other scruffy looking arty black dude with a large unkempt fro’.
Seriously- the next time you see two men with afros in the same room, or pass each other in the street watch their body language. They either:
A: Pretend they haven’t seen each other…
B: Stare at each other with hatred for a few moments and move out of each other’s space as soon as possible or…
C: Get caught by one of their white friends who finds the situation hilarious and INSISTS on taking a photograph to put on Instagram.
This doesn’t happen too often though- A lot of young black men choose razor sharp beards, perfectly crafted fades and severely sheared hairlines. My kind of afro doesn’t always go down well with the black crowd and when I last went to my black hair barber, he took one look at my natty hair and tatty clothes and said “are you looking after yourself John? You look like a homeless person”.
The Derulo look is NOT for me!
I think this obsession with clean lines and fresh ‘swag’ stems from of an insecurity stemming from colonialism. I wonder if the fear of being seen as ‘jungle bunnies’ still lurks at the heart of the black British subconscious, and so we challenge it with neatness and newness.
This isn’t just a black phenomenon- I’ve noticed how my working class white friends from up north get uber preened for a night out in a way that the upper-middle classes of London mock in their self-assured slobbish understated-ness. There are straight men who are plumbers by trade during the day, and at night get their ridiculously low V-necks out to show off waxed chests and salon-tanned skin. Some even have plucked eyebrows.
The cast of Geordie Shore…
It seems that if you’re from a community who have historically been seen as an underclass, you try to clean the metaphorical soot and grease off your working class ancestry by over-compensating on the tidyness. I reckon that whole Geordie Shore/Only Way is Essex aesthetic is born out of a desperation to escape ‘Chavdom’, or what Owen Jones calls ‘the demonisation of the working class’.
Indeed, the clothes we associate with ‘Chavs’ themselves are only worn as a way of trying to show you aren’t poor. I myself used to buy brand names on sale from markets in order to ‘keep up’. But when I left home I started to learn you could only keep up in a race you chose to run all by yourself.
During my so-called ‘Chav’ days. I bought this shirt for £10 and told everybody it was £90.
So, having black ancestry rooted in slavery on my Dad’s side and working class white heritage on my Mom’s, I have often tried to dodge and weave my way through class and race by non-conformity, and my hair, whether left long or cut short, seems to be a good starting point when trying to embrace my dual heritage whilst also attempting to transcend it. Just remember that heavy paragraph the next time you mindlessly reach out to ‘pet’ it then, yeah!? 🙂
“DO YOU WANT TO BE SHIPWRECKED WITH THE CHANCE TO WIN £25’000? CHANNEL 4 ARE LOOKING FOR PEOPLE AGED 18-25 TO SPEND THREE MONTHS ON A TROPICAL ISLAND…”
Only a few weeks earlier, at the same gym (Fitness First in Sheffield), I’d rented out Danny Boyle’s film adaptation of Alex Garland’s Generation X backpacker thriller The Beach from the free DVD library, and knew I had found the answer to all my problems. I’d just decided to quit my studies and, at 18, felt completely lost.
The same year ‘The Beach’ was released, the great travel writer Pico Iyer wrote, in answer to the title of his own beautiful essay ‘Why We Travel’ that ‘We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves’. I felt lost already, at home on a council estate in the north of England, so I wondered if I’d find myself out there somewhere, in the distant tropics.
So here’s where the adventure begins- I called the number on the poster at the gym and, to cut a long story short, a few months later found myself blindfolded on a tiny propeller plane with a group of strangers, being filmed heading towards a dense rainforest on the other side of the world. Those strangers became a family of six, who, throughout three intense months would grow into a colony of 14 for one of the early reality TV shows in Britain.
Headed off on the adventure of a lifetime…
At the time I was at a complete loss as to why I had been selected for the show…what had they seen in me? Looking back I now know that I represented all things Urban, which, at the time, was a byword for ‘black’ (‘A cheeky charmer/ Craig David lookalike’ it said below my profile picture on the website). It wasn’t entirely a cynical choice on Channel 4’s behalf though- I was very much pigeon holing myself as being a part of black UK street culture. This is why I think it is so important for black inner city youth (and indeed, inner city youth of all ethnicities) to try to travel more- How can we ever identify ourselves with anything other than ‘the hood’ or ‘the ends’ if we don’t extend our physical and spiritual boundaries beyond them? I like to think the biggest thing I got from Eden was that I entered it a bad boy, and left a good man, shedding all of the stupid posturing I used to associate with blackness.
Though I had applied for the survival show called Shipwrecked, Channel 4 changed the name that year to Eden, and also changed some of the rules. Each week a new ‘Edenite’, voted on the show by the public, would join our community in a rainforest (instead of a desert island).
Once dropped off by the plane we were driven to a secret location where we could finally take off our blindfolds to begin an overnight trek through the jungle to our little paradise. We got lead into Eden by a portly, bearded man called Billy Bushdog who, armed with a batch of homemade Australian Damper bread and a block of cheese, gave us what would be our last ‘normal’ meal for three months.
Finally, exhausted, the six of us arrived in ‘Eden’
On the last day we each got a disposable camera to capture some memories. I dropped my camera in the creek by accident, so a lot of my photographs had this hazy mystical feel that suited my memories
We had an area for flatbeds and hammocks:
The three original male Edenites, Rav, me and Westley outside our sleeping quarters
A dining room:
And a vegetable patch:
Edenites Wes and Chris tending our vegetable patch…
We even had our own pet dog called Spot:
We also had a few chickens and rabbits, a creek to fish in, cascades to wash in and, if we were bored, a beautiful waterfall to trek to where we once all carved our name into a tree and promised to revisit the same spot ten years later. Our nights would be spent by camp fire, sharing stories, making up songs to sing and obsessing over all the food we were being deprived of. We lived by nature’s cycles- arose at sunrise, judged bedtime by moonlight, and, apart from small rations of rice and pasta, lived off whatever the land gave us.
At its largest our community consisted of 14 ‘Edenites’!
Even though we’d get E-mails once a week from viewers in our ‘web hut’, for a while it was as though the outside world didn’t exist. I remember finding a five pound note in a pocket a few weeks into Eden and laughing at how useless it seemed, there in the heart of a tropical rainforest, where hunting, gardening and rationing were our currency. I felt astounded, stranded for months without power as we were, by the inventions of civilisation- the stuff we take for granted when we have daily access to them, like the tap and the gas stove.
Clionna, pictured here with her back to camera by the stove, was usually head chef.
Another shot of our ‘kitchen’
Our whole day was based around our evening meal- the only meal of the day apart from a small bowl of rice with sugar for breakfast. If it had been raining we’d have to collect wood in the morning, dry it out by the afternoon, prepare a fire and start cooking a rabbit or a chicken at what must have been around 3pm, so that by sunset, at around 7 O’clock, we’d have something to eat.
Dinner in Eden would usually consist of Rabbit with rice soaked in rabbit broth and perhaps some Swede if we’d managed to yield anything from our garden. The food situation got so bad that myself and Rav, who you see in the photo here opposite me, once waited until all the other Edenites had left the table to eat the bones of a chicken carcass!
I’ve never felt hunger like it. All the regular day to day thoughts most people have… about bills, career, relationships, sex, future ambitions etc, were all replaced by food, and we were trapped in the agonising limbo-land between needing to talk about our obsession and knowing that talking about it would often make us hungrier. I dreamed of food. Of drowning in the most sickly chocolate possible…Mars Bars and Chocolate cakes and an Australian dessert called Lamington.
The week’s leader got to sleep in the relative comfort of the ‘leader’s hut’ – You can see how skinny I got towards the end of the show…”
I remember thinking it was incredible that back home people could just go to the store and buy whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it. I told myself I would do it every day when I got back. Sometimes, if we had a little bit of sugar left over, we’d burn it so it caramelised- a rare treat! Such was my need for sweetness, I once ate 20 orange flavoured vitamin C tablets (a supplement provided by the production company) in a day, a provision that quickly got taken away from us when they found out we were abusing them.
Because of our lack of nutrition, I noticed nothing grew. I shaved my hair off in the first week and it stayed short for the duration. I didn’t need to cut my nails once in three months. I lost so much weight so quickly, I still have a couple of faint, silvery stretch marks on my backside.
After three months in Eden I weighed just 9 Stone (I’m 6ft tall)
They say that when you go away for a long time, you never make it all the way back- that a part of who you were stays on tour forever. This has never been more true in my life than when I left Eden. In three months I lost two stones in weight (I was only 11 stones when I started!), learned to swim (A fellow Edenite was a swimming instructor- thank you Clionna O’Conner!), learned my first few basic guitar chords (thanks to our resident guitarist Christopher Dean…though I’m still not ready to hear Travis’ ‘Sing’ again, which was on heavy rotation on ‘Eden FM’). I built fires, fought chickens, caught Eels, killed leeches and almost got killed by mosquitos…. okay perhaps that’s a bit dramatic, but I did catch a mosquito-born disease similar to malaria which laid me out for two weeks (Ross River Fever). I had a hangover so bad that to this day I still can’t drink red wine and, for the first time, I learned to exist without my Mom doing everything for me.
I didn’t end up winning the £25 grand (which mysteriously got reduced to £10’000 when we did the show) and was voted third (out of 14). In the end though, the show wasn’t really about ‘winning’ – the goal was the journey, which essentially became a rite of passage.
Rav & Timo outside their bachelor pad!
Much like my fellow Edenite Rav Wilding, what I ultimately got out of the experience was a kickstart into a career that has defined my twenties and provided some incredible moments I’ll never forget. That I would go on to work for every major broadcaster in Britain (Channel 4, Sky One, BBC, ITV and MTV) over the next ten years is something that the lost 18 year old I was at the gym couldn’t have even begun to comprehend…So onto part two of the story…
The Edenites with former presenter and T4 commissioning editor at the time Andy Peters…
This year (2013) I found myself back in Australia shooting for the BBC (…but actually getting paid this time!) and took a week’s road trip in a little camper van after filming, all along the East Coast from Brisbane to Sydney, and realised I would pass through the tiny Taree airport where the little plane dropped us off, and where my life on the small screen first started over a decade ago.
Just before setting off to try to find Eden I bought myself a ‘Lamington’ – a traditional Aussie desert everybody on Eden used to obsess over when we were hungry. We got them as a treat once on the show and because we were so hungry we thought they were the best tasting things in the history of history!
I had just spent a couple of days dossing out with a bunch of surfers in Byron Bay, and decided it was time to go back to Eden. I bought some provisions to take into the jungle, even managing to persuade the local bakery to bake me a batch of the damper bread Billy Bushdog gave us (despite it not being on their menu). I was all set to go when it suddenly occured to me I had absolutely no idea how to get there. Luckily I remember being given a leaflet by one of the crew when Eden finished, for some accommodation near to the filming location.
‘A’ marks the spot!
I called my Mom who dug it out, typed the address into my satnav and hoped for the best. I’d called the numbers on the leaflet and nobody answered, sent various E-mails which all bounced back, and I was concerned about the accuracy of the location. As I came off the highway there was a small rocky road and the sat nav told me I had reached my destination, but it wasn’t Eden.
A fresh batch of delicious Australian ‘Damper’ Bread’ from Byron Bay’s 24/7 bakery…
I followed the road past old derelict farms that looked like something out of the horror film ‘Wolf Creek’, and for about 5 miles it was lined with rusting tractors and the rotting carcasses of broken down trucks. I was losing light, too, and started to think about heading back. But slowly something started to feel familiar…the trees became taller and slimmer, and there was a musky scent of damp wood and evergreen leaves in the air.
At the edge of the rainforest…
People take photographs of a place to remember it, but nothing stirs the memory banks like the smell of a place, and though I’ve been to a few rainforests since, the smell of this particular jungle transformed me into that teenager I once was, embarking on his first true adventure. So, encouraged by the sensory overload I carried on as the rocky road began to disappear into a dirt trail leading into a shadowy forest. I splashed through a couple of deep fords, disturbed a herd of cattle and nearly knocked over a Joey until I came into a clearing with an old house.
It was so quiet and isolated that when I pulled up to the drive the cackling gravel under the wheels of my car seemed clumsily conspicuous. Suddenly an old woman with white hair appeared and asked how she could help. Her name was Dr Mary E White, a famous paleo-botanist, conservationist, author… and also the owner of the land I had just trespassed on!
The lovely Dr Mary E White
After apologising for arriving unannounced, I explained to Mary who I was and that I was searching for ‘Eden’. She was very warm and friendly and said that she had bought the place ten years ago, and vaguely remembered somebody mentioning some sort of ‘movie’ once being filmed there. “If you follow the creek just behind those trees it will lead you to the place I think you’re looking for” she said “there are a couple of wooden structures that were here when I came, but it’s getting too dark now, stay the night and go in the morning”. She lead me to a larger building a little further down the path and said I could stay in one of the apartments. She brought me some sausages, eggs and tea for me to make breakfast with in the morning.
I slept and had strange dreams about leeches and Huntsman spiders then, at about 6am, was woken up by the same ridiculous sound I remembered hearing each morning all those years ago in Eden- the monkey-like shrill of laughing Kookaburras.
And suddenly it all came back…the whole rainforest was alive- Kangaroos hopping about all over the place and the Kookaburras joined in their dawn chorus by another mysterious bird song that sounded like zapping lasers.
I followed my nose through the trees, still darkened, but highlighted slightly by the chalky colours of twilight, and hopped on stepping stones over a creek I immediately recognised as being the very creek I used to fish for Yabbies (crayfish) in over ten years ago.
The creek leading to ‘Eden’ 2013
On the other side of the creek there was a faint hint, or rather, an idea of a trail, which I followed until the trees opened up into a clearing of tall grass that, low and behold, was the place I once knew as ‘Eden’ and, for a brief moment, I was a teenager again. Every experience, every disappointment, every achievement of the last ten years evaporated and I was back to being a lost young man who was about to find himself again. I’d forgotten about that guy…but the smells, the sights, the colours conjured him up for a split second and when he disappeared moments later I don’t know if I felt relieved or sad. I suspect a bit of both.
The Creek we used to wash our clothes in.
The first thing that extinguished my former self was the landscape of Eden. When I was there it was a neat clearing that had been organised into a settlement, but all that was gone. To my left was a collapsing collection of wooden slats losing its battle to the jungle- covered in vines and weeds… Shit! HUT CAM! This wreck was once a little shed where we could go to have some time away from the group and vent our frustrations privately.
Hut Cam 2013
Hut Cam 2013…with a tree growing inside it!
To my right, a larger structure falling to one side and rotting from its foundations. I waded gingerly through the hip-high grass (I knew, having seen them all first-hand first time around, that this section of rainforest was home to the deadliest snake in the world, the Australian Brown, as well as one of the most poisonous spiders on Earth, the funnel-web). Eventually I got to the entrance of this wreck where I saw the only evidence of what it once was… Some dirty old white ethernet cables laying on the floor. Yep, this used to be our nerve centre…our once a week connection to the outside world that we called WEB HUT!
Web Hut 2013
Old Ethernet Cables in Web Hut 2013
Further on and there was absolutely no trace of our dining area or the roofing that kept our food dry during torrential storms, or of the two sleeping quarters that housed flat-beds and hammocks. The only thing left to suggest accommodation was some upright trunks acting as stilts and holding up some slats of wood…This was once the most luxurious structure in Eden, which we called the Leaders Hut.
Remnants of the leader’s Hut 2013
Seeing that all the small traces remaining of our existence in Eden were not long for this world unsettled me, but when I made my way out of the clearing and into the other side of the rainforest, a further ten minutes along the creek, I felt completely haunted. The Cascades, where I learned to swim, and where I washed every morning hadn’t changed a bit, and it was then that I realised the cascades were a lot less flimsy than anything our humanity had created. It had been there before Eden, before I was born even, and was there after Eden, and would be there after I die no doubt.
Westley, Lee and I at the cascades in 2002
I made an hour long trek through the rainforest to the waterfalls, surprising myself at knowing how to get there and once again, nature was the winner- the falls were exactly how I remember them. I stayed a while, soaking it all in one last time, because I had to be in Sydney to drop off my camper van by the afternoon.
I looked up at the tumbling water and as I turned around noticed a tree with some vague markings in it. Could it be? I got closer and made out the letters C…L..I… Clionna! One of the Edenites! Above that I saw Timo, the Finnish breakdancer who joined us three weeks into the show, then Kez, my first love and girlfriend on Eden and then, beside hers, my own name… ‘John’. That’s who I was then, just ‘John’, but because two Johns had applied for the show they called me Johny P. I looked closely at the letters, scrawled raggedly in the bark and realised that it was a signature of my youth- I saw the engraving as ‘John’, the directionless teenager signing off. And you know what? It felt comforting to think that I’d left that guy in such a beautiful place! Eden had at least preserved a trace of who I once was.
Timo, ‘tha freaky finn’ & I at the Waterfalls 2002
Me in Eden 2013!
Here is a song that my fellow Edenite Timo Laurila and I would sing jokingly to pass the time in Eden, tapping our throats to make the warbling sound…A song which represents what Eden, and my return to it, was all about…
This weekend, after picking up an ENAR Foundation Award in Paris for the Facebook page Afropean Culture (Woo Hoo!), I spent some time with my good friend Chris and his lovely (& expecting!) lady Naj at their home near the 13th Arrondissement. In between hours of musical indulgence (Chris is a dope Emcee who also goes by the name of Apocraphe and is now deep in the French Hip-Hop scene) and some incredible home-cooked meals inspired by the Ottolenghi cookbook Jerusalem (the stuffed aubergines are incroyable!) I managed to peel myself away for a brilliant exhibition about one of my favourite styles of design at the Cite de l’architecture.
Before I talk about the exhibition itself, let’s go back…waaaay back…back in time…
Art Deco first came to my attention in that strange quiet of a weekday afternoon. In those rare, peaceful hours when all the noise makers (children, teenagers and young adults) are at school or work.
I would have been 11 or 12, experiencing the difficult transition into secondary school playground politics (School yard politics, sorry- ‘playground’ is SO primary school), hence grades 7 and 8 were the years I enjoyed least and probably pulled the most sickies. Then, with my Mother and Father at work, I’d be sent to my Grandma’s house where I’d enter the glorious world of Bourbon Creams, cheap dandelion and burdock ‘pop’ and daytime television.
I’m not sure why so many women of a certain age love watching murder so much, but the enduring memory of my Nan is sitting on her settee, half-heartedly pretending I was sick and letting her spoil me rotten (with treats my Mum and Dad would have forbid), then settling down to watch the likes of Columbo, Jessica Fletcher and our favourite detective of all…Agatha Christie’s arrogant Belgian genius Hercule Poirot. For me it was a relaxing respite from the pressures of school in the warm embrace of my lovely Nan, who didn’t care what brand my trainers were, and for my Nan a break from the mid-week boredom and some quality time with her youngest Grandson.
Poirot was set when my Grandmother, born in 1920, would have been a little girl, and I didn’t know then that the aesthetic and mood of the roaring 20’s that I loved so much was called Art Deco. From the haunting whirl of Christopher Gunning’s saxophone in the opening theme, to the bold lines and elegant geometry depicting billowing black steam engines and shadowy criminals on the hoof, I was immediately spellbound by the stylized landscape in which Poirot operated.
Whilst my Nan existed in the same time and space depicted in the Agatha Christie drama, Poirot’s world of Art-Deco decadence was light years away from her lower-working class experience in the industrial English city of Sheffield. But it seems the word ‘Industry’ is key to understanding Art Deco, and why it came to fruition around the time my Grandmother was born. In fact it was the ‘Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes‘ or ‘International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts’ of 1925 that gave Art Deco its name, and is widely credited as the birth of the style in global consciousness.
The shapes, textures and colours were a direct response from artists and engineers, to the brand new technologies (many of which born from the advancements in World War 1) re-appropriated for the zeitgeist of the times…the automobile was now affordable to the general public, Albert Einstein won the 1921 Nobel Peace Prize for his ‘discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect’ leading us another step closer to the use of electricity commercially, and motion pictures were captured with sound for the first time. The 20’s were indeed ‘roaring’ and a new visual language needed to reflect this great age of travel and technology. Put simply: in the 1920’s, you had to be modern.
Despite it being years before people like my Nan would enjoy the new inventions that inspired Art Deco, they nevertheless played their part in the development of them, and in many ways industrial cities such as the one my Nan grew up in (Sheffield) were the foot soldiers of Art Deco… casting its steel, smelting its iron, and cultivating its taste for bold edges that lead the movement away from the frilly realism of Art Nouveau.
Whenever I visit home I walk amongst the old industrial quarters of Attercliffe and Darnall, where you can still hear the dim clanking of mysterious machinery, holding on to the old trades. Here I see a kind of Art Deco-carcass: the sans-serif fonts of old signs on abandoned factories, the circular iron pumps, valves and engines preserved as trophies of a golden age or left to rot as evidence of its demise- but in its day, this was the kind of industrial functionality the form of Art Deco followed.
An old factory in Sheffield. Photo by Tim Dennell
Perhaps it’s because I’m from a post-industrial city then, that Art Deco resonates so much. Sheffield may not come with the glamour or luxury usually associated with the style, but the sharp angles, perfect circles and solid materials are shapes and textures I recognise from the years of industry that still lurk in the collective consciousness of the city I grew up in.
So onto what I found out at the exhibition…
I knew Art Deco was influenced somewhat by Cubism, but what I didn’t know about before was its strong connection to African Art. I own a book of work by the legendary Deco poster artist Paul Colin, and I was struck by how the form of his work depicted black people. Some images bordered on the offensive…black characters, all big lips and simplified features, but in many of his posters I felt he’d captured a certain elegance of form missing from previous depictions of the exoticised ‘black other’.
Many of his classic posters were produced shortly before the likes of Aime Cesaire initiated the Negritude movement in Paris, whose ideologies would help to unravel pseudo-anthropological ideas at the time about black people being less than human. Before Negritude though, artists had begun to set the stage for multiculturalism through their music, sculptures and paintings.
Colin’s posters, after all, were advertising clubs like the Bal Negre, where black musicians entertained a fashionable Parisian in-crowd, and where black men and white women (and visa versa) would dance together unashamedly. It was the era of Josephine Baker and an appreciation for African aesthetics as being at the height of elegance, so it was no surprise that the modern stylings of Art Deco came to fruition around the same time as this new wave of multicultural meetings, and would be used to describe them in the arts.
But the connection to black culture runs deeper. The art dealer Paul Guillaume, who traded African masks in the early 20th century said, in 1926:
“At the Great Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris, the predominance of the negro motif was obvious among the really new and distinctive notes in interior decoration. The trends in the design of modern furnishings, posters and newspaper advertising show that this motif was introduced in every area of delicate and applied art…The most important lines of influence were a clearer understanding of the nature of design in every discipline, and in particular the possibility of applying negro sculpture principles to a resurrection of artistic traditions that had been considered dead. We could almost say that there is a form of feeling in it, an architecture of thought, a subtle expression of the deepest life forces that have been extracted from negro civilisation and introduced into the modern artistic world”
So here’s to Art Deco, movement and multiculturalism…to Paris and Poirot, to my Yorkshire Grandmother Ruth Stewart, to Africa and, above all, to the coming together of people and ideas across races, cultures and generations.
For more Information about the 1925: The Year Art Deco Dazzled the World at the Cite de l’architecture, Paris, visit here.