The WGA recently reached out to past-participants of the Edmonton Borderlines Writers Circle to find out a little of what they have been up to since taking part in the program. We were thrilled to learn that the community created through the program is still thriving.
The WGA also had the opportunity to attend “Procession,” the William Kentridge exhibit currently on display at the Art Gallery of Alberta along with some of the Borderlines members.
Below is an update of some of the Borderlines participants’ activities followed by a series of response pieces to the AGA Kentridge exhibit from those who were able to attend.
by Luciana Erregue
Leilei Chen’s house welcomes us with the newest Spring blossoms, gently inviting us to re-acquaint with one another. There is Lisa, Anamol, Julie, Kate, Nermeen and her husband Matthew, Fahim, and his lovely wife, and our warm hostess. We tour Leilei’s garden, where the pear trees and the irises bloom, and then head inside. It is not just the artful arrangement of the food on Leilei’s colourful porcelain and pottery dishes which makes us all feel relaxed and at ease; it is the shared Borderlines Writers Group experience linking us despite time and life commitments. We belong to different cohorts, yet we instinctively understand the role we play in each other’s lives, and the powerful impact the WGA program has had on us all.
As the water — and other drinks — begin to flow, so do our words. How strange, writers talking about the writing life, career transitions, opportunities, travel, family, inexorably following Anne Carson’s words: “If your way of life is writing, then everything that happens becomes a sentence.” Our Borderlines friendships have become more than a few sentences long. Amongst the busyness of life we have managed to also continue producing literature, continuing to engage with the community at large at Poetry Festival readings (Susana, Nermeen, Luciana, Mila), bringing multilingual writing to community organizations like Action for Healthy Communities (Shimelis, Yasser, Lisa, Mila, Leilei, Luciana) delving into the past through historical walks (Kate’s specialty), and art tours (Luciana), publishing works in our primary languages (Yasser, Alma, and Anamol), winning literary awards (Alma) translating (Leilei, Yasser), being accepted in competitive writing residencies and writing programs (Luciana), bringing literature back to our countries of origin (Susana), participating in international literary festivals (Yasser), organizing cultural events for our communities (Mila and her leadership during the Filipino Fiesta), and embarking in graduate and professional programs, in addition to policy writing at government positions (Julie, Fahim, Nermeen).
To borrow from the NGO lingo, what Borderlines Writers Circle and the WGA have been doing is something called “capacity building” inserting artists from diverse backgrounds at the forefront of social change in our city, our province, and ultimately, our country. Amongst other palpable effects of the program, the Edmonton Poetry Festival has now a permanent segment for multilingual poetry, injecting new life into the literature of the city and more of literature into our daily lives. Like Leilei’s garden, where the soil nourishes the pear tree so it can yield blossoms and fruit despite our harsh weather, the WGA Borderlines program has given us the opportunity to continue growing as artists and community connectors in these times of ‘deliverables’ and satisfaction surveys.
William Kentridge “Procession” Exhibit Response Pieces
Death Tango (After Celan)
by Luciana Erregue (Borderlines, 2017)
Black milk of morning we drink you at dusk time
We drink you at night/we drink and we drink.
William Kentridge’s piece “Sweetly Play the Dance” conjures up the ‘specters of history.’ We enter the darkened space from where the sound of a marching band emerges brilliant, strident, accented by drumbeats like thunderstorms. Eight apparently consecutive –yet fully separate scenes of a spectral, carnivalesque march develop against a mainly black and white background, as if someone had the power to erase and re-draw history again and again. People from Johannesburg have told me the background reminds them of the area near the mines. We scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie.
At first it is hard to distinguish whether the parading figures, mostly Black people, are flat figures or three-dimensional. They move joyfully, yet mechanically, as if directed by someone. The drawn head of Janus presides over a danse macabre with three skeletons shaking in unison as they shower. Janus is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, and endings, usually depicted as having two faces. He looks simultaneously to the future and to the past. He commands us to play for the dance.
He calls play that death thing more sweetly Death is a gang-boss. Send her Back, Send her back! The masses at the Trump rally yell when he calls out Ilhan Omar. The parade continues. A white man with a side hair part and a forties style of suit, agitatedly speaks from a lectern, two vintage-looking radio microphones from each side, amplifying his speech. A Black man next to him gesticulates, as if translating to the masses a steady diet of hyperbole. In this manic parody, we are active participants of the last gasps of Colonialism, which, as Homi Bhabha puts it, “Takes power in the name of history, and repeatedly exercises its authority through the figures of farce.”
I dance to the music of Kentridge’s piece.
The cognitive dissonance between what we see and what we hear becomes palpable through our bodies. I am now in my hometown, during carnival. My frilled, red dress with white polka dots goes over my head; next, a balaclava-like contraption with two sprouting antennae. Yes, I am an ant. My mom walks me two blocks and drops me off by “The enchanted fruit basket and the caterpillar” float. There, the organizers prop my friend Erika and I on top of the giant wire basket, in between papier-mache pineapples and peaches. We begin slowly traversing Mitre Boulevard, the street decorated with bunting in green, red, yellow, and blue. We are told to wave alongside our queen. Looking down, our heads covered in party foam, become incidentally decorated with paper streamers and confetti. Running past the float are the ‘comparsas‘ dance squads dressed with sequins, feathers, some men, some women, some men dressed as women. Everybody is in a trance, lost in their own pleasure-seeking world. Everybody laughs and sweats to the drums and the choreography they dictate, a very different rhythm from the drums at military parades during the school year from a few months before.
With the arrival of the military in 1976, there are prohibitions of every kind, the doors of our schools remain closed until dismissal – there are curfews, raids, and kidnappings. But by February 1977 there is carnival in spite of the fact that just like totalitarian regimes from the 1930’s, satire is prohibited, actors and books are blacklisted. I remain perched on the fruit basket after four hours of chaos. I see two masked men, one dressed as a doctor, the other as a patient on a stretcher, running on the street, covered in ketchup sauce. From somewhere the ‘doctor’ pulls chain link sausages and animal tripe like the ones my father cooks on the barbecue every Sunday. People laugh until their bellies go limp, as I look up at the top of the pineapple, and the queen of my float, still waving her Snow White smile.
Some of us walk around the exhibition space, some of us stand, some of us alternate between the two. I focus on a figure carrying a palm leaf, an invitation to go back to celebrate the Easter parade in my town. “Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people,” declares Michael Bakhtin.
Janus meanwhile is hard at work, mingling my past and my present self.
Black milk of morning we drink you at dusk time/We drink you at night/we drink and we drink. We AGA interpreters wear earplugs every time we are in the exhibition space. We spend three hours every day there. As a consequence, I do not “see” the installation anymore. I become desensitized to the screaming man and his sidekick. I become desensitized to the people parading in stretchers, the people carrying cardboard representations of household objects. As if I was watching on TV the incessant procession and displacement of refugees all over the world, I become desensitized to the figures moving solely on foot throughout the dislocated screens. If anything, now I mostly concentrate on the technical details, the sequencing of each film projected on the panels, the correspondences between the sound, and the images, the choreography. Meanwhile Kentridge’s hand is hard at work still erasing, drawing, drawing us in, drawing us out. Displacement, dislocation, desensitization resonates in my life experience, and the lives of some of my fellow workers..
As I randomly scroll through my Twitter feed, Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise appears on the screen. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear/ I rise. In another incarnation, the head of Janus will only face forward.
by Mila Philipzig (Borderlines, 2017)
Each step each choice each …
All trudge leap sway tug faceless to
Death’s dance sweet and mighty.
Kentridge’s Danse Macabre
Choiceless and faceless
Haunting, mesmerizing march
Sweetly play death’s dance.
We all just watch and stare.
by Julie Robinson (Borderlines Program Coordinator)
Burdens. We all carry something. Insecurity, discrimination, scars, loneliness, a chronically ill partner or child, limitations that confront us daily. Shoulders bent, knees straining not to buckle, we shuffle forward.
I grew up with the invitation to “lay your burdens down.” Lay the heaviness at someone else’s feet, stretch your spine, lift your head high, breathe deeply. We sang songs about it. Gospel songs. I am trying not to speak too early of love and yet I find an inherent juxtaposition in art: the beauty of engagement with the world, of self-awareness, of the construction of meaning, together with its weighty resonance. To make art—sculpt, write, paint, dance, sing—is to not be indifferent, is to voluntarily be burdened with care. Care: concern, consideration, attention, attentiveness, thought, regard, mind, notice, heed, interest, sympathy, respect, looking after. ANTONYMS: disregard.
Often, I unburden myself by journaling—placing my concerns on the page. This (en)lightens me. I let go, but I also inch my way to greater understanding. It is one of my support systems like a walking stick in Kentridge’s sculptures. A point of resistance. Journaling is part of my artistic practice, but it is not my art. Creating a poem or a sculpture is to make a pitch for connection. This is why an audience, whether human or spiritual, is important to art. It is one of the ways we walk (burdened) together.
I Hear the Music First
by Ellen Kartz (WGA Staff)
I hear the music first, the brass band – joyful yet melancholic. It resonates through the art gallery’s entire third floor. I haven’t yet seen the exhibit, but am already affected. Even before walking in, Kentridge’s work has power.
I step through the doors into the installation space and the music is overwhelming. Eight large projector screens display a march of silhouetted figures – men dressed in robes, politicians at podiums on wagons pulled by people bent against their ropes, political protestors, skeletal figures pushing intravenous poles, members of a brass band – the continual parade of them moves from screen to screen to screen.
As I watch, I begin to connect the images into a narrative, a history. Some parts I recognize, others simply wash over me. It is building to something, a visceral response, joyful and melancholic like the music, but a fluctuating feeling like the animated background passing in and out of view, a certainty wanting to land.
To generate the background animations for “More Sweetly Play the Dance,” Kentridge “altered, erased and reworked charcoal drawings.” This was intended to “show the changing wasteland of mining landscapes around Johannesburg.”
The video installation is a representation of the Dance of Death, in which Death is personified, a figure summoning people from all walks of life to dance with him to the grave. The message of a Danse Macabre is that death comes for all of us, and serves as a reminder that our lives are fragile.
I remember Death’s dance
when it came for my mother,
my aunt, my grandmother.
I remember the phone ringing
at impossible hours,
summoning our family to vigil,
to wait at bedsides through
more impossible hours, until.
I remember the eulogy
my father gave his sister,
and the words Auntie Marg
shared at Mom’s funeral.
I remember standing up
for my grandmother.
We did that. We spoke for them,
offered them that kind of music.
I remember rain the day my mother died,
and sun across the kitchen table
the morning I heard Auntie Kathy had passed.
I remember my father’s voice
through the phone,
I have some news about your grandma.
To place it all together like that,
the list of things recalled,
I feel the weight of memory,
how heavy loss.
But maybe it’s a weight we choose
to carry, our offering
to bear its burden, until.
William Kentridge – ‘Procession’ on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta until September 15.
by Kate Rittner-Werkman (Borderlines, 2016)
South African multi media artist William Kentridge’s ‘Procession’ arrived in Edmonton in June; courtesy National Gallery of Canada.
And thank goodness it did. This amazing exhibit has three parts. I found his cinematic montage ‘More Sweetly Play the Dance’ both mesmerizing and enchanting. There is a spell cast immediately when one walks into the room. Here multi-sensory compartments fill the air with movement reflected within 100 feet of segregated screens. Yet the optical illusional procession marches by as if on one screen with music amplifying from numerous speakers.
There is seating available, benches at the back, strategically placed chairs of various (intentional) design closer to the massive screen(s) and plenty of floor space between to dance, dream, think and march along with the music and the procession.
Even the children were moving and creating their own sweet silhouettes within the procession’s entourage which includes a skeleton or two, maybe more.
In the Procession’s three exhibit stages, we see Kentridge’s world of moving back and forth between world and universal histories of war, him coming to terms with his boyhood history of apartheid and subsequently its end.
Through this process he creates what I would call, as a bystander and Kentridge newcomer, warm immersible thinkable art. As he shuffles his charcoal silhouette images around thus creating a new history of sorts; inviting us to join in the ‘Procession.’