Wednesday 19 December 2018
What Would You Take?: a perfect exhibition
It all came together so swiftly and perfectly. Writer Frances Stonor Saunders had the idea of asking 12 people living in Britain today what single object each would take into exile. Some were from families which had included refugees in the past; others had been in just such a situation more recently. Following on from the idea of his Saja Lugu book and exhibition - 100 Estonians, volunteers from all walks of life, each photographed twice to celebrate their country's centenary as an (intermittently) independent state - Kaupo Kikkas (pictured up top with Frances and below; all What Would You Take? images by Jamie Smith) spent time with each of the subjects, made 12 portraits and a dozen complementary photographs of their hands holding or carrying their chosen objects.
I saw the pairs of images in the perfect little book produced to accompany the exhibition before I went along for the launch last Tuesday. So I was especially moved by how Kaupo had placed his 24 photographs within the L-shaped 12 Star Gallery of Europe House: first the hands, and then, round the corner, their owners, caught with such naturalness and dignity that it was clear an artist had been at work.
One special charm of opening night was to be able to meet many of the subjects and have plenty to talk about. I never did quite manage to collar Claudia Roden - delightful and approachable as she undoubtedly seemed - to tell her how grateful I was for finally discovering the recipe for muhammarah - walnuts, roasted red peppers and pomegranate molasses plus - in her Book of Jewish Cookery after reeling from it the first time in an Armenian restaurant in Beirut.
But I did get to talk to a delightful Lebanese lady, writer Hanan al-Shaykh, who reminisced about her friendship with another great photographer, Eve Arnold - here I seem to be doing the holdy-forthy to her and Frances -
and briefly to Ryad Alsous, whose story is perhaps the most poignant. Professor of Agriculture at Damascus University, he left behind his beehives and factory, which used to produced ten metric tons of honey a years, all destroyed by Isis, and brought with him to the UK his bee-smoker (pictured below with Thomas Heatherwick's choice of his frugal grandmother's silver-plated spoons.
Ryad now produces honey from native black bees in Huddersfield. 'People say that they are aggressive, but I don't agree, and I'm encouraging others to set up hives with them. When I'm with my bees, I listen for their advice on how to make a home'. His honey was there for sampling - I just missed it, having talked for too long to so many people - and his wife serve up delicious hummus (the secret is to soak the chickpeas in warm water).
We also had music from Nigeria-born Maurice Ijahmo (and I bought one of his CDs). There was an eloquent speech from Frances, and a shorter but very beautiful and sincere one from Kaupo, who says he's never felt such warmth at a launch before. If you want to know the other stories, you'll have to hurry along to the 12-Star Gallery any time during the day this week, or after Christmas and the New Year up to 5 January (check opening times). The booklet with the poignant texts will be there, too, if you hurry. Clearly there's a future for this timely compendium to travel, and to be augmented; but as it is, and where it is, it seems as perfect as it can be.
Hopefully there's a future for the 12 Star too. But whatever happens, the new House of European Art (HEART) will be there in virtual or actual form. Its first project was realised in October with the award of the Hubert Butler Essay Prize.
Butler, the Orwell of Ireland, one of the greatest of all essayists - I've written about him here before - was, Professor Roy Foster (pictured below in the first of two photos by Roger Way) noted in his eloquent introduction at the Irish Embassy, 'unnervingly prescient about questions of religion, national identity and the fractured histories of Central and Eastern Europe, no less than Ireland...Time and again, his questing intelligence probed the question of borders, and what they signified...It seemed to the judges of the first Hubert Butler Essay Prize that the topic of borders within Europe was of pressing relevance, and also carried an appropriately Butlerian resonance. '
Nigel Lewis, the winner out of over 30 entries (picture below on the right with Irish Ambassador Adrian O'Neill, one of the two runners-up, Victoria Mason and grand-daughter of Butler Cordelia Gelly), is ambivalent about competing ideas about Europe, but he is clear that 'the EU, like the EEC before it, has been defusing Europe like an unexploded bomb left over from World War II'. It is our only hope against that bomb being reassembled. Read the whole text online here. It was also printed in a booklet thanks to the generosity of Juliette Seibold.