Amsterdam, Brussels, Global, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Marseille, Moscow, Paris, Rome, Sheffield, Stockholm

www.afropean.com: A new Afro European Culture Magazine!

Afropean.com: A New Afro-European Resource

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 www.afropean.com

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.

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London

Street Photo: ‘New Europe’

© Johny Pitts Photography 2013

© Johny Pitts Photography 2013

For a few months I’d been toying with the idea of shooting some photographs in Baker Street tube station. I was interested in capturing the old Victorian details that evoke Sherlock Holmes, the vintage lettering left from the turn of the century, the doors that read ‘private’ and the dusty crevices that had preserved the identity of the oldest underground network in the world.

I noticed that a lot of the advertising space had been left with really old adverts, blacked out by pieces of tape so that they weren’t still helping to sell any products that weren’t paid adverts.

I saw a poster of Michael Palin’s ‘New Europe’; a documentary and book released in 2007. Palin is one of Britain’s national treasures, and I too am a fan, but when I saw his advert and the young black Londoner walk past it, I saw an opportunity to comment not only on new European identities, but also the lack of black writers in the pantheon of great travel writing.

It’s important we don’t write off the great European minds who produced such brilliant buildings, and created such a clever infrastructure, but it is also important to make room in our ideas of just who a European is, for those people who might not exactly resemble the historical figures we’re taught about in school, like Sherlock Holmes, for instance.

Europe is a diverse and constantly changing continent, and we need to embrace that.

It’s elementary, my dear reader!

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Global

Happy New Year from North Africa!

Light

I would like to explain why I haven’t updated the blog for a little while. I’ve been in the lab scheming away on developing the website www.afropean.com into an online magazine, and building a team around the magazine to take off from where the brilliant Erik Kamble left us with his Afro-Europe Blog which sadly closed down last year.

I can’t say too much more, but I will keep this blog running as a place to post all my own essays and photographs from the website, which should launch mid- late February.

Another reason I’ve been digitally absent recently is because for New Years’ I visited what may well be the Afropean capital of the world, Marrakech. I wandered dusty souks, trekked through the scorching desert and climbed the Atlas mountains to bring you a unique Afropean guide to a city where European, African and Arabic culture blends seamlessly. A full article complete with photo-essay is coming soon!

Speak soon, and Carpe Annum- seize the year!

Johny Pitts 2014

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Moscow

Street Photo: Patrice Lumumba University, Moscow

© Johny Pitts Photography 2013

© Johny Pitts Photography 2013

Searching for black culture in Moscow was difficult, until I found the People’s Friendship University of Russia on the outskirts of the city, where this photograph was taken. Here West African students inhabited stark communist- era buildings. The connection between Russia and Africa is very much a Soviet one, as cold-war links were forged and alliances made with the likes of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who the university was once named after. That its name was changed I think signifies ties that are being severed between Russia and Africa, and the growing resilience African students are currently facing from the country’s Slavic communities.

You can read an in-depth chapter about my time in Russia in my forthcoming travel narrative/photo essay ‘An Afropean Odyssey: Travels in Black Europe’

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London, Sheffield

On Having an Afro in Britain…

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'

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!

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

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

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!

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!"

“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.

Bitch!

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!

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!

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...

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.

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!? 🙂

...And that goes for you too, pigeon!

…And that goes for you too, pigeon!

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© Johny Pitts Photography

© Johny Pitts Photography

As you enter the Sacre Coeur from place St Pierre, you pass Ghanaians selling West African bracelets, Romany gypsies begging, French musicians strumming…various communities all trying to get hold of your Euros. But when you reach the top of Paris’ ‘sacred heart’ you are treated to the incredible skill of Guinean footballer Iya Traore, doing kick ups whilst climbing a lamp! No need to guess where my Euros went!

Paris

Street Photo: Iya Traore

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Paris, Sheffield

Art Deco & Africa

Art Deco & Africa, 1925

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.

© Johny Pitts Photography

© Johny Pitts Photography

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.

Art Deco painting by Tamara De Lempicka

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

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’.

Art Deco Poster advertising the 'Bal Negre' by Paul Colin

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.

Josephine Baker Poster by Paul Colin

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”

West African Style Mask

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.

Nan

For more Information about the 1925: The Year Art Deco Dazzled the World at the Cite de l’architecture, Paris, visit here.

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