Crushed Yams and Pizza!

On the "Global(e) Resistance" exhibit at the Pompidou; Uighur poets exiled abroad; and the death of jazz bassist Gary Peacock

Last week we checked out Global(e) Résistance, an exhibit at the Pompidou Center in Paris that attempts to respond to worldwide protests against racial and social injustice. It showcases more than sixty artists from the “Global South”—including Vietnam, Francophone Africa, South Africa, Palestine, and Japan—and it’s been promoted aggressively around the city. At bus stops and métro entrances, we’ve been seeing a striking poster featuring prints by the Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo, which incise in woodblocks slogans from recent protests: 

NOT IN MY NAME

WE ARE ALL IN EXILE

DON’T SHOOT

TORTURA NUNCA MAS

PLUS JAMAIS ÇA

ASSASSINO 

AM I NEXT? 

Barthélémy Toguo’s slogans exhibited at the Pompidou

The text is plain, stencil-like, all-caps, white against black like chalk on a chalkboard. Unmarked by geographical clues, detached from the people who chanted them, the slogans frame human solidarity as a unified act. Pompidou displays not only the prints but also some of the original wooden stamps, all hand-carved in Cameroon. Toguo has said that by cutting words into faceless wooden busts he intended to echo how prisoners and slaves are marked and branded.

Installation view: Barthélémy Toguo: Urban Requiem, Galerie Lelong & Co., New York, 2019. © Barthélémy Toguo. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York. https://brooklynrail-web.imgix.net/article_image/image/23844/collins-toguo-1.jpg?w=800&q=80&fit=max

If Toguo creates a singular thread connecting these global movements, the exhibit as a whole lacks such vision. One moment you’re staring at an eerily lit photo of a 7-Eleven in Thailand, taken on the night of the coup d’état in May 2014; the next, you’re thrust into the slums of Bogota, Colombia, reading peasants’ stories of dispossession written on jute bags or woven into alpargatas. Walk a few more steps and you’re at a bench covered with metal spikes, an example of hostile architecture—public spaces designed to prevent the homeless from sleeping.

Marcos Ávila Forero, Alpargatas De Zuratoque Costal. Photograph: Albert Wu  
Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Back to Back.        Photograph: Albert Wu

Taken together, the pieces, most of which were created after 2000, reflect the fragmentation of our multimedia zeitgeist. An enthralling music video by the Turkish artist Halil Altındere follows a young Syrian refugee rapper as he journeys to Germany; elsewhere, an installation by the Propeller Group, an art collective based in Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles, puts you inside an enclosure bounded by four screens. At first, the figures surrounding you seem to be brainstorming a TV commercial for a large corporation, but soon you realize they’re working on creative ways to “rebrand”communism.


Sometimes, though, the curation seems lazy, or rather absent. What connects protests in Benin, South Africa, and Singapore, other than the fact that these places are Not Europe? What distinct historical and political problems face these artists? There appeared, to us, to have been little attempt to connect different forms of resistance, as though it were enough to strew archival materials—a Jean Genet interview about the Black Panthers, a sketch of the intellectual networks of pan-African thought—throughout a single gallery space, more or less at random, then call it a day. (We came across the Genet piece near the bathrooms.)

What would a more thoughtful curation have looked like? Perhaps Khalil Rabah’s haunting, hyper-realistic statue of a Palestinian refugee could have been in closer conversation with Lofti Benyelles’s Reinventing Calais, in a room called Displacements, 2000-2020. Or an exhibit of Vietnamese rubber—a symbol of French colonial oppression—could have been paired with a painting of an abandoned movie theater in Senegal, in a section named Francophone Decolonization. A well-placed wall text concerning African-Asian solidarity against colonialism would have pointed us to the global ambition of decolonization movements, and in turn pushed viewers to consider how our antiracist movements today tend to assume an American racial context. [1]

Cheikh Ndiaye, Cinéma ABC, Dakar, 2015, from his website
Thu-Van Tran, The Red Rubber, #2, 2017.

Global(e) Résistance did succeed, however unintentionally, in capturing the disorienting experience—the cacophony, the unruliness, the whiplash—of mass protest. There can be a whimsical and playful side to demonstration, and we wish the exhibition had done more to capture it. But we loved Turistas, a project for which Ivan Argote, a Colombian artist living in Paris, dressed statues of conquistadors in indigenous ponchos. As debates continue over whether to tear down monuments to enslavers and imperialists, Argote shows how we might “create pluralistic landscapes,” in the words of Thomas Laqueur, as an alternative to simple demolition. 

Turistas: Don Garcia, 2012. The Colombian artist Ivan Argote dressed up statues of conquistadoras in indigenous ponchos.   Photograph: Albert Wu. 

Argote also leads what he calls protest workshops with four- to eight-year-olds all over the world. In Benin, where protesting is forbidden and punishable by law, Argote hoped to teach children what protest looks and feels like. He had students paint their dreams on old cardboard boxes, gave them bullhorns, and marched with them across town. (The city of Cotonou made a special exception for these kids, who were not protesting against anything in particular.)

The Colombian artist Ivan Argote leads what he calls “protest workshops” with four to eight-year olds all over the world. Here, Argote works with kids from Benin. From Ivan Argote’s website http://ivanargote.com/selected-projects/article/activissime-cotonou-2019

It’s impossible not to take delight in the footage he presents of the workshops: 

“What do you dislike?” he asks. 

Lundis!” says one. “Légumes!” says another. [2]

“What do you like?” 

Les mardis!” [3]

“I love Tuesdays, too,” he agrees. 

Argote shows the children how to make signs with paint, how to draw pictures of what they love and want. When they gather for their march, he asks the group, “What do you want?” 

They chant back: “Crushed yams and pizza!”  

“It has to be a little funny,” Argote says of his approach to working with kids on art and politics. He has said that he wants them to learn how to make “joyful demonstrations,” and in its mix of art, humor, protest, and community work, his work helps us imagine how we can interact with the world in a time of hopelessness.


[1] As Frantz Fanon wrote, “The great victory of the Vietnamese people at Dien Bien Phu is no longer, strictly speaking, a Vietnamese victory. Since July 1954 [the conclusion of the Geneva Agreements], the question which the colonized peoples have asked themselves has been, ‘What must be done to bring about another Dien Bien Phu? How can we manage it?’ Not a single colonized individual could ever again doubt the possibility of a Dien Bien Phu…” 

[2] Mondays! Vegetables!

[3] Tuesdays!


Reading of the Week

Michelle recommends Joshua Freeman’s “Uighur Poets on Repression and Exile” in NYR Daily:

I’ve been following stories of Muslim Uighurs incarcerated in China. Over one million people, including children, have disappeared from society without trial. They’re coerced to produce products like cotton, to renounce their religion, and to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. Women are sterilized, in a process that has been described as demographic genocide. 

I was aware of all of this, but until reading Freeman’s essay I didn’t know much about what it’s like for Uighurs abroad. Uighur Muslims have no way to reach their families back home. Say you left China to study in France: just texting your mother puts her in danger. The Chinese government uses families as leverage, so they can threaten to put your mother in jail if you don’t come back—unless you hide that you’ve left in the first place. Foreign states sometimes cooperate with the Chinese government, helping it identify who is abroad. As Freeman writes: 

Even for Uighurs who are physically safe in the diaspora, the emotional toll of the last three years has been unrelenting. Many are completely cut off from their families and friends back home, where receiving so much as a text message from abroad can easily bring the Chinese security services knocking at a Uighur family’s door. As a result, many Uighurs abroad have little or no idea how even their immediate family and closest friends are faring amid the mass internments. Nearly every Uighur in the diaspora has experienced the pain of finding that loved ones in their homeland have blocked their text messages, fearing state repercussions.

Freeman, who translates Uighur poetry, writes that it captures the “pain of exile, the ambiguity of survival, and the bittersweet duty of memory.” In his essay we meet poets such as Abdukhebir Qadir Erkan, who left China to study in Egypt and had six poems drafted on a napkin by the time his plane landed, and Muyesser Abdul’ehed Hendan, who now lives in Turkey. I especially loved this poem by Hendan, written from the perspective of a woman whose husband has been taken to the camps: 

Now time will not run forward,

it will walk heavy like a turtle

with love pushing from behind.

And: 

He was like me,

he could see.

He was like you,

he could read.

He was like them,

he could speak.


Tune of the Week

Albert recommends “Bouncing with Bud,” from Whisper Not, by the Keith Jarrett Trio:

I was very sad to learn that the great jazz bassist Gary Peacock died on September 4. I’ve been a devotee of his since high school, when I would take hourlong bus rides to Taipei to get my jazz fix. The bus dropped me in front of Tower Records in Taipei’s “Eastern District,”  then the most cosmopolitan and bustling area in the city. Right around the corner there was a stand that sold delicious rice rolls, filled with fried dough and pickled vegetables, for less than a dollar. 

I first heard Peacock at the recommendation of a piano player at a Taipei jazz bar, who told me to check out the Keith Jarrett Trio. I remember agonizing for a while—ECM albums cost twice, sometimes three times as much as albums on other jazz labels—but after saving up for a couple of weeks I finally splurged and bought Whisper Not, which I chose mostly because it contained two discs. 

From the opening tune, “Bouncing with Bud,” I was hooked. I loved the way Peacock comes in after Jarrett’s opening arpeggios to anchor and propel the groove. I took up jazz guitar for a decade or so starting in college, but if I could do it all over again I’d learn the bass. (Maybe I’ll make baby P. live out that particular dream?)

I’m lucky to have seen Peacock in person four times. In 2003, I saw him play with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette—the two other members of the Trio—at Carnegie Hall. They were on fire that night; the crowd didn’t let them leave. They ended up playing five encores, maybe more. It’s probably the best live concert I’ve ever attended.

Ethan Iverson has a great rundown of Peacock’s early career and his contributions to the jazz avant-garde. I’ve come to love that stuff, especially his albums with Paul Bley. But whenever I put on “Bouncing with Bud” it brings back such specific sensations: the monochromatic aisles of a brightly lit, now nonexistent Tower Records; the crunch of fried dough; the smell of a recently sanitized bus that still couldn’t hide the musk of Taiwanese humidity; the feel of the groove where you could make a slit to slip the shrink wrap off a CD’s jewel case. But most of all I remember the exhilaration, the possibility of spiritual release, that came when I pressed play on the long bus ride home. 

This 2007 All About Jazz interview with Gary is a gem. Here he is on his daily creative routine:  

I follow a practice that I've done for about ten years. I go through an actual daily practice of greeting the instrument, positioning myself with the instrument, paying attention to my posture, my breathing, the texture, the feeling of the instrument... Sometimes that takes seconds, sometimes it takes five minutes. Just getting a physical-sensory connection. The next thing is when I actually start playing, I don't lose that physical connection. To be completely aware of the sound that I'm playing and also what my feelings are about the sound of the instrument. Just paying attention. I don't try to do anything about it necessarily, but I just play, letting it be there. I might be playing an arpeggio or a melody, but basically the attention is on the sensory-emotional aspect of my playing. And then I let it go.

You're always a beginner. If you always wake up in the morning and realize, “Oh my God, I'm just a beginner!,” then you're in a really good place. If you wake up in the morning and say, “Oh, I've got that handled, I can do anything I want.”—hmm, I don't know.

AAJ: What did you learn from playing with Miles Davis?

GP: Listening became part of my body. Sometimes Miles would be playing and he'd stop in the middle of a song and turn around and look at me. The first couple times I thought, “Jeez, I must have fucked up.” After a while I realized that he was listening to everyone around him. I saw that when Miles would stop playing, what he stopped playing would be finished by Herbie [Hancock] on piano. That was a real opening for me. Another thing that was particularly good for me was a playfulness. There was an enormous sincerity in the music and sometimes a complete lack of seriousness. 

What humility! I love that he greets his instrument as if it were a breathing creature. And although he’s undoubtedly the master of his craft, he finds comfort rather than terror in thinking, “Oh my God, I'm just a beginner!”


Overheard in the Kuo-Wu Household This Week…

Albert [to our baby]: Where are your tomato pants?


Next Week’s Newsletter

In our next newsletter you’ll find a conversation with Edwin “Zakee” Hutchison, who was recently released from San Quentin Prison after serving twenty-one years for a nonviolent robbery. We met Zakee when we were teaching at San Quentin through the Prison University Project, the only college degree–granting program in a California prison. Zakee spoke to our students this summer about how he learned to be free inside prison walls, how he cried when he ate his first orange in two decades, and what he hopes to do now. We loved talking to him, and we’re sure you’ll love hearing his story too. 

Zakee was incarcerated under the notorious Three Strikes Laws enacted by California in 1994. This New York Times piece mentions his release. To learn more about the laws, check out Matt Taibbi’s report in Rolling Stone, which shows how people have received life sentences for crimes such as possessing 0.14 grams of meth and stealing $2.50 worth of socks.

Our next newsletter also shares a bit of what we’ve been teaching in our first week of class. Thank you for reading—we’re grateful. See you next week!

With love,

Michelle and Albert