The art of activism

This arresting print by the young South African artist Nandipha Mntambo uses cowhide moulded to fit the human body to -
'challenge and subvert preconceptions regarding representation of the female body ... to disrupt perceptions of attraction and repulsion'.
Part of a diptych titled Mlwa ne Nkunzi, it is one of the exhibits in Life Less Ordinary at the Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham. This exhibition uses photography, performances, videos and installations by young artists to look at how race-based dynamics continue to shape society in post-Apartheid South Africa.

Earlier this year I discussed William Goldman's wise words that -
'the difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment either tells you lies or tells you comforting truisms that we all know already, and art tells you uncomfortable things that you perhaps don't want to hear, truths that you may not be comfortable to hear.'
We live in a time when the boundaries of art and entertainment are being shamelessly blurred. So it was quite a revelation to view an exhibition curated quite expertly by Anna Douglas with the express objective of making the viewer uncomfortable. While visiting Life Less Ordinary I was struck by the use of the term 'visual activism' to describe the art on display, and I wondered who the parallel activists are in classical music. Musical activists of the past are easy to identify, and Britten, Tippett and Shostakovich are just some of the names that spring to mind. But who are today's musical activists in the moral, rather than stylistic, sense?

One candidate for the role of musical activist is the little known composer of the Spiteful Prelude With A Grenade Splinter. Croatian born Josip Magdić wrote this memorably named prelude for piano during the Yugoslav conflict in 1992 to highlight the brutality of war, and the photo above shows him standing in front of a Sarajevo apartment block damaged by Serbian artillery fire. Other examples of Josip Magdić's musical activism are his organ cycle Dominus Conterens Bella /The Lord Who Crushest Wars (1994) and War Picture Postcards of Sarajevo (1993) for piano which portrays the fate of the war-stricken the city.

There are mentions of a Sony CD (SK 66619) of Josip Magdić's music, but I can no trace of it in the catalogue. But fortunately we do to have both the Spiteful Prelude With A Grenade Splinter and War Picture Postcards of Sarajevo in transcriptions for organ played by the composer on an Ad Vitam CD which is also available as a download from iTunes.

In fact the Ad Vitam CD is a work of musical activism in its own right, as well as an extraordinary expression of music and place. It was recorded in the cathedral of Sarajevo in the bitter winter of 1994 during the siege of the city, and the producer Jean-Yves Labat de Rossi brought his recording equipment into the city through the famous tunnel dug by Bosnian volunteers to allow food and humanitarian aid into the city.

The CD is simply and movingly called Sarajevo, and also contains choral works sung by the Trebevic Choir of Sarajevo which was made up of Croatian voices supplemented with those from the warring states of Serbia and Bosnia. The photo above shows the Trebevic Choir returning to Split airport on their way home to Sarajevo in December 1994.

That is the sleeve for Sarajevo above. The story of Ad Vitam records is here, contemporary music in Albania is here, and the embers of chaos are here.

* Writing this post brought back many personal memories. What was then Yugoslavia was my summer pasture of choice when I was a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Dalmatian coast was cheap, hot, hospitable, totally undeveloped, and Tito's benign dictatorship presented an alternative to patronising the hated regime of the Colonel's in neighbouring Greece. I have many powerful memories of Yugoslavia before it was devastated in the name of national identity. These include time spent in Split, where the photo of the Trebevic Choir of Sarajevo was taken, and on the surrounding islands. I remember reading Sartre on the terrace of a disco on the island of Hvar and watching a sunset of indescribable beauty while Led Zeppelin played outrageously loud on the sound system. Pretentious and self-indulgent? - yes, most definitely. But probably no worse than spending my vacations watching what passes for coverage of the arts on TV today. Now please can you hand me my bus pass?

Header image via Art South Africa, other images from Josip Magdić's website and Sarajevo CD booklet. The costs of attending Life Less Ordinary were paid by me. I bought Sarajevo in the shop of the Cistercian Mother House of Citeaux in France. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Garth Trinkl said…
Pliable, in this autumn season when the buses of Washington, D.C. are plastered with sidings celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Fall of the Berlin Wall (paid for by the German government) and the Berlin Philharmonic is offering a free, world-wide viewing, on-line, of Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic performing Brahms’s Symphonies #3 and 4 (‘paid for’ by the Deutsche Bank Group – timed to coincide with numerous state-inquiries into the awarding of banking ‘bonus’ payments after banks were bailed out this and last year with taxpayer money), it is good to see one music writer in a thousand remembering Sarajevo – and also Pančevo, Kragujevac, Bor, and Novi Sad. Thank you. You’ve earned more than a free bus pass for your cultural and environmental work the past several years.
Pliable said…
Garth, thank you for that.

For my part I am delighted that someone else noticed the Deutsche Bank Group/Berlin Philharmonic link.

You've preempted my post asking what Tom Service will write in the self-righteous Guardian about the link between the Berlin Phil and the Deutsche Bank.

But I guess Tom Service will be too busy talking the Berlin webcasts up for the BBC.
Garth Trinkl said…
I certainly hope that I haven't pre-empted your Berlin Phil and the Deutsche Bank post!!

Or next time should I limit my comment to ... "ooooh ... what a cunning little vixen!! -- which was my "animal spirits" response?
Civic Center said…
"Reading Sartre on the terrace of a disco on the island of Hvar and watching a sunset of indescribable beauty while Led Zeppelin played outrageously loud on the sound system"...sounds like heaven actually. I'd call it youthful sensory overload more than pretentious or self-indulgent.
La Cowntessa said…
Love that Goldman quote. Thanks for sharing it -- I'm going to appropriate that in an ongoing argument I've been having.

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