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Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century, By Francisco Bethencourt: Book Review

The Independent, Friday 17 January 2014

A survey of racism from across the centuries reveals a phenomenon that repeats itself

Bulgarian benefit tourists, Romanian criminal gangs, the alleged abduction of a blonde, blue-eyed child by Roma: anti-immigrant hostility is more pronounced in Britain than any time in a generation. With it have come a raft of questions about race and national identity that were once confined to the fringes of public debate. Is Britain full? Is our way of life at breaking point? Is it racist to raise such points? And come to that, what exactly does racism mean in a modern, multicultural nation like Britain anyway?

Answers, especially to the last question, often prove elusive. That’s because racism is often treated as a subject too charged, too sensitive to address head-on. It’s easier to see it instead as an ugly but inescapable fact of life, a failing common to all nations when different groups decide they can’t get along. But history also offers examples of societies where intolerance, unchecked, has triggered horrifying consequences.

Ways of Curating by Hans Ulrich Obrist: Why curating is vital part of the arts today: Book Review

The Independent – Friday 14th March 2014
What does it mean to be a curator? Talk of “curating” is everywhere right now, but over-use has left it largely worthless as a term: restaurant guide Zagat “curates” its listings; actress Blake Lively is starting a lifestyle company to help people “curate” their lives; the American Personal & Private Chef Association would like you to know that “chefs are among the most important cultural curators of our time”.
The task of curating used to belong exclusively to the arts. It described the work of the keeper of a cultural heritage; someone responsible for archiving and displaying works in a museum or gallery collection. But as our lives have got denser with information, curating has become a synonym for almost any act of selection. DJs curate music festivals. Social media strategists curate content. Fashion stores sell curated collections of clothes.

Moscow’s New Art Centres

FT Magazine, 15 March 2013

A tour of the hotspots of a creative renaissance that could lift Moscow’s profile as a cutting-edge destination

Despite its weighty historical reputation and the sheer fact of its scale as the second-largest city in Europe, Moscow does a poor job of wooing visitors.

It is expensive, traffic-choked, and can be pitilessly cold, but Russia’s capital is also in the midst of a creative renaissance. In the two decades since the end of communist rule, runaway commerce has been the city’s galvanising force. Now its contemporary art, design and architecture are starting to make the running too, with new arts centres and creative hubs helping to raise the city’s ambitions.

Around 4.5m foreign tourists travel to the Russian capital annually. That’s about the same as Prague, but is a long way behind London’s 15m international visitors or Paris’s 8.5m. Moscow’s city authorities are determined to change that situation and have set a goal of 10m annual visitors by the end of this decade. Reaching that target would catapult Moscow into tourism’s premier league and establish the city as one of the top 10 travel destinations in the world.

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Welcome to Beardlandia

Esquire, September 2012

Facial fluff used to be a signifier of anti-style. Then, a few years ago, men in hipster enclaves around the world threw away their razors and allowed their stubble to run riot. Now beards are everywhere. But this is more than just a fashion statement. The return of face fuzz says much about the state of contemporary masculinity.

After decades of shame; after decades when it signalled a shucking off of libido and a decline into sexless middle age; after decades when it seemed like the exclusive choice of socks-and-sandal wearers, the beard has returned to claim a place of honour among men.

Look about you on the streets of Hackney, Williamsburg, Silver Lake or any of the other neighbourhoods where the image-conscious gather and you’ll see them in abundance. The popularity of the beard has been gathering pace since the turn of the decade. But 2012 surely marks the point when it has
leapt from cult choice to mainstream standard. This is the year we’ve seen beards on the Croisette in Cannes (Ewan McGregor, Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gerard Butler), in catwalk shows (Vivienne Westwood, Casely-Hayford, Gant Rugger, Engineered Garments, Hixsept), in ad campaigns for high street fashion brands (Carhartt Heritage, Urban Outfitters, French Connection, Original Penguin), on the football pitch (David Beckham, Thierry Henry) and in the dugout (Andre Villas-Boas, Pep Guardiola), and on the faces of a multitude of musicians (Will Oldham, Ghostpoet, Bon Iver).

In years to come, when they make movies or write books about this time, the beard will be used as a definitive visual shorthand for the early 21st century, as the moustache is for the Seventies and a pair of mutton chops for Regency England. more

Hip-Hop: So now what?

Esquire January 2012

In the early Eighties, a breathtakingly original new music genre burst out from the ghettos of the Bronx and captured the world’s imagination. Having achieved an unimaginable success, acclaim and influence, hip-hop’s popularity is now in sharp decline, while its globe-trotting superstars seem ever more removed from their audiences. Is their mid-life crisis nothing more than a blip or is it the beginning of the end for the greatest pop-cultural movement since rock ‘n’ roll?

Thirty years ago two singles were released which marked the end of the beginning for hip-hop. The Message, by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force came out in 1982. Although both only charted modestly, they set a new standard in artistic ambition for hip-hop that proved hugely influential. For the nascent music form that rose out of the block parties and housing projects of the Bronx and Queens during the 1970s it was a signal moment. Critics had dismissed earlier releases, like the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight and Kurtis Blow’s Christmas Rappin’, as novelties.

Now came the breakthrough, the  first significant steps from ghetto subculture to global cultural force. In the decades since then hip-hop has established itself as the most exhilarating music of modern times with its stars a compelling presence in popular culture, commanding ten-times-platinum record sales (Eminem), marquee name movie celebrity (Will Smith) and fallen rock idol status alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain (2 Pac, Notorious BIG). In tandem, hip-hop has become the lingua franca of urban youth across the world, its sounds and styles adopted by legions of followers in virtually every conceivable location on the planet from Johannesburg and Tokyo to Tehran and Jakarta. more

The return of right-wing retro

Port, 16 May 2011

Is 2011 a repeat of 1981? Two weeks ago, Britain celebrated a royal wedding with an enthusiasm and patriotic fervour that almost matched the betrothal of Charles and Diana. And today, as then, we can also see a creeping right-wing retro revivalism – an embrace of conservative style, status symbols and values – spreading across British culture.

That’s not to say that 1981 was an inherently conservative year. Sure Thatcher was in power. But it was a time of bitter division: of 2.5m unemployed, riots in Brixton, IRA hunger strikes and the Militant Tendency as a serious force in the Labour party. But if the country was split socially and politically, then it found some solace in the embrace of fashion trends and brands that espoused a traditionalist, un-modern and anti-urban concept of Britishness. This was the age of Laura Ashley dresses and Tricia Guild wallpaper, the Sloane Ranger and the Young Fogey, the Aga as a symbol of enduring tradition. more

The art of protest

Port, 18 April 2011

Can art change the world? Ekow Eshun on the total politics of Ai Weiwei

Politics has been a desperately unfashionable subject in art for the past decade or more. That’s roughly the length of time of the last art boom and it’s telling that the big hitters of that era – among them Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst – produce art that is glossy and expensively finished but which raises few questions or hackles. In its absence of dissonance, a Koons giant inflatable bunny or a Hirst spin painting has become a perfect status symbol for moneyed classes around the world from investment bankers and hedge fund guys to Russian oligarchs and Gulf state sheiks. more

Self-expression

Port, March 2011

Ekow Eshun explains how social networking offers everyone with an Internet connection a curated form of self-expression, and argues that Twitter might one day become our voice of public – and private – record

What does it take to write the perfect tweet? I ask this question in the knowledge that Twitter is hardly short of contributions from the witty, the satirical and the compendiously well informed. But far less is it a repository for the polished, economical prose that’s part of the language of, say good journalism or non-fiction writing. Why? When I raised the subject on Twitter itself recently I largely drew a blank. Most people wanted to tell me that a 140-character limit is the enemy of good writing – as if Hemmingway or Carver or a centuries of Japanese haikus hadn’t made the case for literary concision. On reflection I think the question probably came across as an odd one to ask. Twitter is primarily used for voicing opinion and exchanging information. Worrying about style or form must seem irrelevant or even antique in comparison to addressing the nature of the content itself. more

Ekow Eshun: My Week In Media

The Independent, 8 May 2006

Last week I read …

Between the Prescott stuff, the Football Association’s tussle for Scolari, and Rooney’s foot, it was an enormously entertaining week. All of these have an amazing element of soap opera to them.

The awards ceremony for Beck’s Futures was last Tuesday. This year the critics and the public loved the winner, Matt Stokes. Seeing that reflected in positive coverage was brilliant.

The New Yorker had a travel issue this week. Anthony Lane wrote about how cheap flights have transformed air travel in Europe and he started by booking a 99p trip to a city he’d never heard of. It was about the experience of travel and how it feels in Europe now. Anthony Lane is British, but he and Seymour Hersh have an assurance and perceptiveness with their writing that I never see over here.

Last week I surfed…

A journalist called Neil Boorman is writing a brilliant blog called Bonfire of the Brands (bonfireofthebrands. blogspot.com). He’s built a certain amount of his identity around brands because he’s a style journalist, and it’s turned into an inspired debate about the stuff we consume and what brands mean. He’s building up to a day in August when he’s going to burn all the stuff from his consumer life.

Aintitcool news.com treats Hollywood with the same affection and obsession that European cineastes do French films. It’s enthusiastic about films many would dismiss as popcorn. more

About Black Gold of the Sun

Ekow Eshun understands what it means to be multicultural. Born in Britain but spending part of his childhood in Ghana, he felt caught between two cultures whilst never belonging to either one. In Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for home in England and Africa, he sets out to trace his past in Britain and Africa in the hope of discovering a sense of place in modern life.

The result is an exploration of modern identity that straddles two continents and forces us to understand ourselves in ways that look beyond the colour of our skin. It also proves that we are not always who we think we are.

Black Gold of the Sun was nominated for the Orwell Prize for political writing, 2005.

It was described by The Independent as “ambitious in scope, impressive in execution and wide in appeal, a beautifully written, intellectually vigorous study of belonging.”

You can read reviews of Black Gold of the Sun here, here and here.

Difference unites us

New Statesman 01 August 2005

This has nothing to do with the Blitz spirit, writes Ekow Eshun. It is about a modern society founded on mutual respect

During the past few weeks, as London has endured attack and uncertainty, it has begun to seem to me that another conflict has been taking place – this one between opposing views of the capital itself. On the one hand there is the notion, propagated by the tabloids and sentimentally inclined commentators, that London’s response to the bombings resembled nothing so much as a resurrection of the Blitz spirit – the whole city coming together in a concerted spectacle of defiance and comradeship. As the Daily Mirror put it: “We can take it. If these murderous bastards go on for a thousand years, the people of our islands will never be cowed.”

Against that perception is the idea, asserted by Ken Livingstone among others, that the threats to London have revealed its true character as a multicultural world city, where 300 different languages are spoken by some seven million people, all of them united by a common argot of tolerance and acceptance of difference. more

The view from outside

New Statesman, 14 February 2005

Refugees are a despised underclass, vilified by politicians and the media. But few people choose exile, writes Ekow Eshun. Our hostility only intensifies the pain of displacement

I was halfway through Caroline Moorehead’s Human Cargo when the Tory leader, Michael Howard, placed his advertisement in the Sunday Telegraph calling for a cap on immigration into Britain. Opportunistic politicians who exploit the public’s fears about asylum-seekers are among the minor villains of Human Cargo. Indifferent and cynical as such figures are, they occupy Moorehead only in so far as they offer evidence of how little understanding and sympathy is extended to refugees. Since the mid-1990s, the total number of displaced people worldwide has fallen from 19 million to 12 million, yet during the same period, Moorehead argues, global attitudes have hardened. Refugees have become a despised underclass, vilified by politicians and the media, and defended only weakly by an ineffective aid system. more

Class, drugs and double standards

The Observer, 6 February 2005

Does Sir Ian Blair really think storming lawyers’ dinner parties is efficient use of police time?

Last week Sir Ian Blair vowed to get tough on middle-class drug users. ‘I think there are a group of people in the capital who believe that they are in some way taking harm-free cocaine,’ said the new commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. ‘People think it is OK but I do not think it is OK. We will have to do something about it by making a few examples of people.’

His words were supposed to be a declaration of strength. Instead, they sounded like an admission of impotence. Blair is right: there are some who think recreational cocaine use is harmless. The problem for him is there are tens of thousands of them. The most recent figures from the British Crime Survey showed 624,000 people in England and Wales admitted taking cocaine within the past year and 275,000 said they had taken it in the last month. more

No place like home

New Statesman, 01 January 2005

Writing a memoir – When Ekow Eshun visited Ghana in search of his roots, he was troubled by what he dug up

The BBC’s recent television series Who Do You Think You Are?, in which famous people explore their family history, has delved into some dark places. David Baddiel traced his grand-parents’ flight from Nazi Germany. Bill Oddie discovered that his mother had been wrongly locked up in a mental institution and his grandfather had contracted throat cancer from working in a cotton mill. Both learned that when you go digging for roots, you often come up with something tangled.

I could have told them as much. For the past two years, I’ve been writing a memoir about searching for belonging in England and Africa. As research, I spent part of 2002 travelling around Ghana, where my family originates. I was born in London and, by returning to my roots, I hoped to find the sense of home that had eluded me while growing up in a white country. more

A universal colour

New Statesman, 11 October 2004

Black culture – As the Victoria and Albert Museum launches a show examining black British style, Ekow Eshun wonders if such a thing still exists

Halfway round the array of hats, hairstyles and dresses on display in the V&A’s exhibition “Black British Style”, I realised the contradiction at the heart of the show. “Black” suggests a homogeneous identity defined by skin colour. “Style” is the antithesis of that notion: it is predicated on individuality. The truly stylish define themselves in opposition to the group. Think of, say, Oscar Wilde. Or, for that matter, many of the figures featured in this show. Here are images of rakish young men at blues parties; groups of girls in matching outfits at nightclubs; the drum’n'bass artist Goldie decked out in diamond rings and a mouthful of gold teeth. If all they have in common is the colour of their skin, then the V&A can’t claim to have curated the show at all, but has merely brought together an assortment of pictures and memorabilia. more

Will the verdict be child-like innocent… or child abuser?

The Observer, Sunday 23 November 2003

Ekow Eshun says Michael Jackson presents himself as the victim of a vengeful media

When the world’s most famous pop star stands before a state of California judge in January, he faces the final verdict of a public trial that has lasted for two decades.
The singer is accused of multiple counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child under 14. Innocent or guilty, what will be revealed in the courtroom is the real face of Michael Jackson.
For the moment, with the singer out on a bail of £2 million, it’s still hard to say who he truly is. Not that we’re short of choices. Through the tabloids we have become familiar with ‘Wacko Jacko’ who sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber, dangles his baby out of a window, dyes his skin and shares a bed with young boys. Jackson himself would prefer that we saw him as the real-life Peter Pan, at his happiest riding the Ferris wheel in his 2,600-acre version of Never Never Land. more

From Tarzan to Rambo

Tate Online, November 2003

When I first saw Sonia Boyce’s piece From Tarzan to Rambo, I was aware of a faint itching somewhere at the back of my head. I knew I was trying to remember something but I couldn’t think what. Images from her work stayed in my mind: the Thirties-style pickaninny child; the mohicaned savages in the bush; Boyce’s own face, by turns startled and reflective, sketched on paper and shot on film. A few days later the scratching in my head turned into what felt like a swarm of angry bees buzzing and clamouring for attention. Drawn back to the artwork I started to think about what Boyce had inscribed beneath the surface of the canvas. Two ostensibly disconnected names came to mind: Hegel and Tintin. more

The Rap Trap

The Guardian, 27 May 2000

Dr Dre helped pioneer hardcore hip-hop: violence against “bitches”, the love of guns and fast cars. Now a millionaire father-of-two, he says he’s turned over a new leaf – all that gangsta stuff was just about marketing, pleasing the fans. So who is the Dre of today? And has he really managed to break free from his past?

I’m on my way to meet Dr Dre, and I have a song in my head. It’s called Fuck You, and in it Dre explains, in some detail, how he just wants “to fuck bad bitches”. The streets of Los Angeles glare white in the midday sun. I struggle into the plush recording studio where Dre is working. We talk for a while about his latest album, Dr Dre 2001.

He recorded it, he tells me, because he felt misunderstood. “People definitely had the wrong idea about me. A lot of people were saying I was a mean cat, I disrespected women, a lotta bullshit, a lotta nonsense.” more