Cultural Highlights of 2015

1. Play of the Year: The Divided Laing (Arcola Theatre)

Written by Patrick Marmion / Director: Michael Kingsbury

Patrick Marmion’s The Divided Laing took an electric tour across Laings ideas and life journeys. The play asks hard questions about reevalutation RD Laing’s insights: to what extent has the system absorbed his radical ideas? “Is there no place for love in your system?” asks Laing at a point in the play we see future language in a face-to-face dialogue with present-day Laing. “Love needs to be practical” his future self replies. At another put we see Laing undergo a section, prognosis and diagnosis.

Whatever his evaluation for his use of his clinical work for NHS and private practice, Artistic interest in RD Laing shows no interest in waning. In June 2015 we saw, artist Dee Sada at Cafe Oto curating a event called RD Laing 50 based on celebrating 50 years of the experimental psychiatric institution The Philidephelpia Association in Kingsley Hall in London’s East end. Sada has produced a series of sound piece inspired by iconic patient Mary Barnes. Interest in the event was buzzing. Luke Turner made a documentary video installation that features the Becks Future prize recently. RD Laing has a solid inspiration presence amongst the arts community as any icon of “theory” with the continuum / Verso publishing contract — showing archive films in artist-run spaces. It feel as though Marmion has his ear to the ground of these artistic explorations.

Alan Cox played an Laing with all the rock n’roll charisma and, the superb written monologues gradiosity of Lear on the Heath. The performance of Mary Barnes and David Cooper were also laugh out loud funny — especially forays into the LSD surrealism. The company Setting Out Theatre should also be commended for their ability to evoke so many arena of the mind and psyche, past, present future. Working together with Marmion, they firmly put the issues around psychiatry and public mental health at the very centre of how we conceive of politics, rebellion and ultimately, love.

2. Exhibition of the Year: No Colour Bar: Black Art in Action 1960–1990 — Guildhall Gallery (10 July 2015–24 January 2016)

Installation of Walter Rodney Bookshop recreated in Guildhall Gallery

The 6 month exhibition at London Guildhall gallery No Colour Bar showed us that the Black arts movement could simply be a better way of doing things. Curated around a recreation of the Walter Rodney bookshop — a radical publishing hub formed by Black activist couple Eric and Jessica Huntley- this truly felt like art connected to the urgency of the streets, the decolonising supplementary school and the wider transnational movement for Black consciousness. The curator Makeda Coaston adopted a non-hierarchical approach, treating book covers and written correspondence, flyers, record covers and posters, on the same axis as works of art. Here was the swamp of new migrants invoked by Thatcher answering back in a riot of paint, sculpture, Bogle L’Overture press graphic designs and oral history. Here was retrospective of alternative British art canon of Sonia Boyce, Chila Kumari Burman, Sokhari Douglas Camp, Keith Piper, Eddie Chambers, Frank Bowling and Aubrey Williams and the social and political forces that shaped them. The exhibition was a rich opportunity to see the sensuality in sloganeering could enrich an anti-racist stance. This was an archival show with the fire of life, the air of authenticity and the buzz of new generation of conscious people of colour in the arts pushing the struggle onward.

2. Event series of the Year: Talha Ahsan poetry readings as a free man — Keats House as part of Oranges of Revolution tour / Bosnia Genocide remembered / Reclaim Diwali

This year saw the first public poetry readings of my brother Talha Ahsan since his freedom from his brutal and unjustified 8 years of detention without trial and extradition to the United States.

His nationwide Justice campaign led by myself as his younger brother, was to be shortlisted for a Liberty Human Rights Award, noting the significant and innovative use of poetry and the arts in the use of campaign. Talha’s presence in the outside world had been kept alive, even when he was transferred to solitary confinement in a Supermax death row prison in the state of Connecticut. His words were read by luminaries such former Children’s laurette Michael Rosen and upcoming stars such as playwright and poet Avaes Mohammad at an anti-racist festivals. Novelist AL Kennedy who wrote very movingly of their correspondence and was later to be his defence witness by writing to the US judge. At a #WelcomeHomeTalha rally last year outside the home office, Artist Taxi Driver Mark McGowan read Talha’s love sonnet to Theresa May, the Home Secretarary who extradited him. The Home secretrary decisions provoked widespread accusations of double standards of racist double standards (due to blocking the extradition of white hacker Gary Mckinnon who suffered from the same medical diagnosis). Alongside, Gary Mckinnon, Babar Ahmad, TV Shack founder and computer studies student Richard O’Dwyer and Christopher Tappin — the case and their family Justice campaigns were in the media circus and headlines. This led to noted outcry at the overstretch of United States intrusion into British sovereignty, even among staunchly pro-Atlanticist Conservative MPs such as Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab who were amongst the 2003 US-UK Extradition treaty harshest critics.

Talha’s prison poetry booklet. Purchase here

The media frenzy was now dead. Talha’s first poetry reading was at Keats House in leafy Hampstead on a Sunday afternoon. The curator of the event poet Clare Saponia as part of her Oranges of Revolution book tour moved the event next tour to the larger library space. Whilst billed as part of a political line-up by reading Talha next to agitprop poet of the picketline Chip Grim and readings about the Arab Spring and anti-capitalism, The Birds could be heard chirping. Talha came to the podium in an anonymous and understated manner. No introduction was given to his case or what he had endured during his incareation due to Talha’s insistence for his work to stand as merely good literature, irrespective of his suffering. One of the longer poems The Nude in a short set of 3 poems was composed whilst in two years of an isolation cell, noting the poetry of a graffitted sexualised doodle by a former cell occupant. Despite the abuse and horror that Talha was subject to, he was empathetic, sensitive and softly-spoken. Whilst Talha had been publishing poetry since the days of Liz Berrys youth poetry zine Anarchist Angel as a teenager, this was Talha’s first ever public poetry reading. No one had noticed it was American Independence day.

His next poetry presence was at a special 3 hour event on the importance of remembering the Bosnian Genocide on the main stage of London Rich Mix where the premiere of Assed Baig film Forgotten Genocide was held. Talha read a poem called Slobodan Bastards — a point-blank poem on the war crime of systemic rape committed by Serb forces against muslim women in concentration camps in the 1992–1995 war. This poem has previously been banned by the prison HMP Long Lartin despite the objection of his creative writer tutor Pat Winslow. This poem was sandwiched between Hodan Pankhurst reading of poem by refugee women from the genocidal war and a monologue from New York playwright Karen Malpede extracted from her play The Beekeepers Daughter based on the rape war crimes by Serb forces, acted by Pakistani soap star Alia Butt. Again Talha was introduced merely as poet among poets rather than a victim and survivor of an injustice.

Free Talha Ahsan campaign event with Hamja (left) and Avaes Mohammad (right) reading Talha’s poetry

Talha next significant set was at the Reclaim Diwali event bring together forces across faith groups and ethnic opposing the disturbing state of affairs in a BJP-led extreme right-wing India. Tribute was paid by the presenter Sonia Mehta of South Asian Womens Creative Collective to Talha’s campaigning family and his resilience against a State abuse. Talha read his love sonnet to Theresa May exuding warmth and ripples of laughter through the room. More poignantly for the purpose of the event was the unpublished prose poem Otherstani invoking a national identity without borders in a world locked in genocidal murder based on borders. The poem was influenced by the short stories Sadaat Hasan Manto such as Toba Tek Singh as allegories of the madness of partition-era violence. To close his set, Talha read his most well-known poem This be the Answer about the relationship between a prisoner and a guard. The poem was described by Catholic peace activist Bruce Kent as the best poem about the power of faith in prison. In introducing the poem, Talha thanks his supporter in the crowd many of whom has written to him in prison or supported our family during the ordeal. My brother reminded the crowd that whilst religion misused could be a force for diviseness, it could also be a force for peace, strength and community-building. The crowd was mesmerised in silence.

Lets hope we will see more Talha on the poetry circuit in 2016. Plans are for a new book of poems or anthology of writings by other writers who supported the campaign in 2016. This year Wasafiri magazine awarded a prize to short story writer Uschi Gatward for her short story based on his return home called My Brother is Back. Despite the needless disportionate cruelty my brother and our family at the hands of a callous British and American security state, Talha words still has the power to fill a room with love and humanity

4. Performance of the Year: Confirmation (Battersea Arts Centre)

Written and performed by Chris Thorpe

“Part Henry Rollins, part Simon Russell Beale, part Liam Gallagher” — Thropes performance

One of the best plays on white-supremacism by a white man. Confirmation joins a literary tradition of white authors from Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing to JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians of turning the gaze of one’s own white privilege into the mirror. Confirmation was a charged and confrontational monologue based on a dialogue between white liberal and white nationalist, exploring the psychological concept of Confirmation basis. Minor Threats hardcore anthem Guilt of being White played through the PA system with Thorpe 80 minute monologue on a troubled whirlwind where no one could escape the storm. Part Henry Rollins, part Simon Russell Beale, part Liam Gallagher — Thropes performance was at time as buzzing as a punk gig, boxing match, King Lear monologue and pub piss-up talk all in one. I recommend the transcript to everyone. Confirmation has more disturbing resonances in the age of the blogosphere, digital media tailored to one’s identity and social media tribes where Confirmation basis orients our world.

Part of Battersea Arts Centre superb Taking a Stand theatre season showing us the true value of the fringe and contemporary political theatre. The play debuted at Edinburgh last year, but premiered in London this year. The building recently has suffered a high-profile fire. The burns in the ceiling were visible during the performance. Nobly at the end, note by the end of the performance by Thorpe to help rebuild the institution through donations. The BAC was the perfect home for such a play — demonstrating what a loss it would have been if the fire had destroyed the venue.

5. Poetry Book of the Year: Ecoza — Helen Moore

Helen Moore has delivered her second collection of poetry Ecoza — published not by a poetry published like her debut Hedge Fund and other Living Margins was by Shearsman, but by a permaculture publisher. TheTS Eliot Award has been called out for rarely looking outside the world of the four established publishers as the largest contemporary poetry prize the — Bloodaxe, Faber & Faber, Cacarnet, Cape — Helena latest collection is reminder precisely why we should.

Moore, hailing from Somerset, has described herself as an anarchist and communist activist. This is a poetry collection of crisis and imaging beyond the crisis — a call for Earth Justice.Her work shows how to rethink the language of within consciousness of government, industry and the Gaia Earth spirit. The language weaves Science-fiction visions, with Constable landscapes, the advertising slogans, legal terms, prayer and social media, heightening our sense of responsibility and emergency for the Earth. The collection is split into four section structured In the complex mythology of William Blake, Albion is the primeval man whose fall and division results in the Four Zoas: Urizen, Tharmas, Luvah and Urthona. — giving the collection a prophetic weight. This is not sentimental nature or scientific materialist rationalised nature. Poems like A History of the British Empire in a Single Object and Cabinet of Curiosities also made me think there was a parallel between Moore’s work and the thinking in contemporary curating of new curatorial models where objects uncover hidden narratives.

Her second collection made me fundamentally rethink the structure of the world — what is nature and the natural, how we name things and we order them, the masculine and feminine, the future and past of the Earth itself. This was a new aesthetics of deep ecology, with the social consciousness of fracking and climate change, interwoven into the poetics. John Kinsella described the collection as “milestone” work of ecopoetics — I wholeheartedly second that. A visionary, almost pantheistic, radically important work.

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