Deciding that a bit of optimism is required in the face of the many setbacks on the house-building front, I ventured out today in search of fabric for making window-blinds. Feeling a little disloyal to my neighbour Ahmed, the proprietor of Afrique Fabriks (I wonder whether the sign painter refused to do Cs), I ventured down Ridley Road Market to see what was on offer from his competitors.
I surveyed the designs on a stall run by two guys who seemed to be, perhaps, Bangaldeshi, although their produce was mostly imported from Ghana (whither it is, of course, usually imported these days from the Netherlands although historically this was from Manchester) and picked out one that i rather liked with a design of birds. Whilst I was pondering, a very angry African lady arrived and started yelling at the guys running the stall. It seemed she had paid a deposit on some fabric that had still not been supplied. Whilst they shrugged impassively, she became more and more furious and turned up the volume, showing no sign of giving up. She was very close indeed, and one my reasons for going out at that particular point had been to escape the combination of drilling, hammering and Polish radio in my own home, so, to avoid feeling deafened, I decided that the moment had come to pay and depart.
At this point, another African customer at the stall asked me what I planned to use the fabric for. I explained it was for window blinds and said how much i thought children would like to wake up in a room with these cheerful little birds lit from behind by the morning sun. At this point, the angry lady suddenly turned her attention to me. ‘These are for wrappers’, she said, ‘this is an insult’. As the full import of the scale of this insult sank in, she repeated it over and over again, ‘this is an insult; these are for wrappers; this is an INSULT; THIS IS AN INSULT!’. I stood my ground. ‘As far as I’m concerned’, I said, ‘it isn’t an insult, it’s a compliment. This is a beautiful design. What could be nicer than having it up at the window where everyone can admire it?’ (I didn’t labour the point by adding ‘and see what beautiful things come from Ghana’, burdened as I am with the terrible knowledge that the designs are created in Europe for the African market, albeit most probably using African ideas). The woman who had originally asked the question at this point started nodding vigorously. Obviously the last thing she wanted was to be caught in the middle of this row, whatever her private views about whether or not it was an insult. There was a temporary lull.
Deciding that this outcome constituted a draw, which was the most I could hope for, I went on my way thinking, as I find myself doing so often these days, ‘only in Dalston…’.
It is interesting, and i suppose says something nice about London culture that this woman felt empowered to tell me that she thought it was an insult. I suspect if I were a tourist in Ghana trying to make a similar purchase nobody would confront me that way. But it is also somehow depressing that the knee-jerk reaction to any transgression of any cultural boundary is to suppose it to be an insult.
I am made more uncomfortable in contemplating all this by the suspicion that a lot of my dislike of postmodernism (both as an intellectual approach and as a system of aesthetics) is rooted in a rather similar reaction. Hoist by my own petard? I have been wearing clothes made of African, Indonesian, Thai and Indian fabrics (mostly brought back by travelling aunts) since the 1960s and also listening to what is now called ‘world music’ almost as long. Appreciation or insult? A brave attempt to step out of an imprisoning aesthetic box or patronising neocolonialism?
In the current issue of Granta (which I was reading in the bath this morning) there is a short piece by Hari Kunzru reflecting on identity in Pakistani art that touches on issues related to this dilemma. I quote the opening: ‘We hear a lot – perhaps too much – about ‘identity’ in relation to South Asian art. Whether it is national or personal, this elusive quality is often seen as the primary concern of South Asian writers and visual artists, to the exclusion of all other aesthetic categories. By contrast, those who can lay claim to sufficient whiteness or Westerness are presumed to be the unreflective owners of secure but troublingly authoritarian identities whose dismantling is the proper task of progressive artistic practice.’ Hmm.
- with all best wishes for happy holidays and a peaceful 2018 December 11, 2017
- Not such good work, Matthew Taylor July 11, 2017
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- The future of work January 29, 2017
- Universal basic income and women’s liberation January 22, 2017
- The key criticisms of basic income, and how to overcome them January 22, 2017
- Not in a shy way January 21, 2017
- Best wishes for 2017 December 14, 2016
- How global IT companies screw up your daily life – another example December 2, 2016
- All that suffering. For what? November 24, 2016
- The end of the middle November 9, 2016
- Being got. Or not. October 29, 2016
- Varieties of xenophobia July 5, 2016
- A manifesto for hope June 29, 2016
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- The hardest nettle to grasp June 24, 2016
- 6 Reasons for Brexit June 15, 2016
- So what sort of state do you want to be in? June 10, 2016
- A lightning conductor for anti-neoliberalism June 8, 2016
- Expats, migrants and the global division of labour January 29, 2016
- Ellen Meiksins Wood – her importance to me January 15, 2016
- Happy holidays December 19, 2015
- If passengers were the commodities December 8, 2015
- The road from Damascus September 5, 2015
- The creativity of bar tenders August 11, 2015
- Intellectual jamming July 25, 2015
- Uber and under May 18, 2015
- Wisteria April 22, 2015
- Rung sweet rung April 7, 2015
- More on the Citizens Income – a quick update February 14, 2015
- Environmental challenges in the inner city February 8, 2015
- The importance of the minimum wage January 7, 2015
- Left and right libertarianisms: where will we swing next? January 7, 2015
- The income tax taboo January 5, 2015
- Don’t attack the baby boomers January 1, 2015
- Corny seasonal greetings December 13, 2014
- An unconditional citizen’s income December 12, 2014
- So what’s wrong with tax credits? December 11, 2014
- A workhouse without walls December 10, 2014
- Everything must go June 6, 2014
- Submission May 31, 2014
- Spring March 9, 2014
- Wishing you a fruitful 2014 and happy holidays December 19, 2013
- Weeds April 14, 2013
- 1963 – the great unbuttoning January 6, 2013
- Starting the new year with a bit of decay January 4, 2013
- you’ll never know unless you try December 18, 2012
- Happy Christmas, Corporations! with love from George Osborne December 6, 2012
- Size Queens, consumption work and the unpredictable paths that ideas travel November 7, 2012
- Found Art (or the delights of negative entropy) September 1, 2012