Alexander Calder, Aubusson, Bass Strait, Black Panthers, Black Power Movement, Boris A. Kordemsky, Curtis Cate, Edward Parry, Fort-de-France, Frantz Fanon, Genocide, George Bass, Gouache, Indre, James Morris, Jan Morris, Loire, Lycée, Martin Gardner, Martinique, Matthew Flinders, Mobiles, Moscow Puzzles, Saché, Sanche de Gramont, Tasmanian Aborigines, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Ted Morgan, Third World, Truganini, William Lanney
Strangest of all, there existed, shadowy among the ferns and gum trees, a race of human beings altogether unique, different ethnically and culturally from the [A]borigines of the Australian mainland, and living in secluded forest encampments, or along shellfish-strewn shores, unaffected by contact with any other men and women but themselves.
No one knows how many of these original Tasmanians existed when, in 1798, George Bass and Matthew Flinders first sailed through [Bass] Strait and discovered Tasmania to be an island. There were probably not more than a few thousand of them, and since they were nomadic hunters, they had no permanent settlements. The Tasmanians never built a village, let alone a town: generally the only traces they left were the middens found here and there along their hunting routes…
A touching sadness surrounds their presence, from our distance of time. They seem an insubstantial people. Polygamous by custom, they were affectionate by disposition and merry – singing in a sweet Doric harmony and dancing strenuous, hilarious, and frequently lascivious animal dances. But living on the edge of the world, they seem to have been on the edge of reality, too. Their small tribal bands seldom strayed outside their own hunting circuits, and they inhabited a little inconstant world of a few families…
As the white colony grew in numbers and confidence, the original Tasmanians found themselves treated more and more as predators or vermin. The free settlers wanted land, and ruthlessly drove the nomads from their hunting grounds. The shifting riffraff of bushrangers and sealers used the black people as they pleased, for pleasure or for bondage. By the 1820s horrible things were happening on the island. Sometimes the black people were hunted just for fun, on foot or on horseback. Sometimes they were raped in passing, or abducted as mistresses or slaves. The sealers of the Bass Strait islands established a slave society of their own, employing the well-tried disciplines of slavery – clubbing, stringing up from trees, or flogging with kangaroo-gut cat-o’-nine-tails…
…I went to the [Tasmanian Museum] and asked to see [Truganini’s] skeleton, now removed from public show to storage in the basement. They looked embarrassed at the request. Not unless I had a genuine scientific purpose, they said – social science would do. What about an artistic purpose? No, they were sorry: the trustees’ instructions were explicit and artistry did not qualify. But I did not really mind, for though I was professionally curious to see those last bleached bones of a vanished people, in my better self I preferred to leave the old soul undisturbed.
In ‘Calder Made Easy’, Curtis Cate writes about the recent works of the sculptor Alexander Calder in gouache, after becoming famous as the creator of the mobile. Cate visited him at his house in France:
Massive is the word for the house Alexander Calder has built at Saché on the river Indre, a gently flowing stream that empties into the Loire. From the back, as you approach it, the building looks like a low stone barn with a soaring gray roof. But once inside, you are overwhelmed by the sunlight flooding in through the twenty-foot-high slabs of glass; these are mounted on rollers, so that the ‘wall’ can be opened to let in the soft Touraine breeze.
‘Like to see me do a gouache?’ he asked, in a low, gruff voice that he seemed to be dragging up with difficulty from the pit of his abdomen. (‘I learned to talk out of the side of my mouth and have never been quite able to correct it since,’ he once remarked, with customary irony, of his World War I training as an infantry ‘barker.’) Without waiting for an answer, he took a large sheet of drawing paper, stretched it out on a linoleum-covered table, then selected a brush lying across a small forest of open paint bottles. Dipping it into one of them, he drew a bold orange-red circle, to which a moment later he added a Prussian-blue arc that extended outward from the circle like an ear. A bright-yellow disk began to blaze in another corner, next to a black eight-pointed starfish. The colors filled in, he took the rinsed brush and drew an undulating black serpent through the large red circle, than added his signature – a C cut by an inverted V so as to look like an A.
Many of these gouaches, like the ones recently sent to Aubusson, will serve as cartoons for tapestries or carpets. When I asked Calder why he preferred gouaches to oils, he gave me a characteristically laconic answer. ‘With oils you have to wait too long for the stuff to dry.’
In ‘Frantz Fanon: The Prophet Scorned’, Sanche de Gramont (later known as Ted Morgan) writes about the Martinique-born revolutionary and his influence on the American Black Power Movement. He is seen in a 1946 snapshot with his brothers:
It is the process of radicalization that I find fascinating. Take these brothers, brought up in the same Martinican middle-class way, with parents assimilated by the colonial system, the fonctionnaire father and the shopkeeper mother, whose extra earnings paid for the tuition at the lycée in Fort-de-France. There, in classrooms decorated with photographs of Loire castles, Bordeaux vineyards, and Gothic cathedrals, the first three words they learnt were: Je suis français. Frantz Fanon came to understand the spuriousness of this offer of membership in Western civilization, but only after having accepted it. In the first stage of his life he thought of himself as French, even as the evidence that he was not began to burrow into his mind.
When The Wretched of the Earth was published, Sartre wrote in an introduction: ‘The third world discovers itself and speaks to itself through this voice.’ Such has not been the case. Fanon’s is a moving but isolated voice, which has given birth to no Fanonist movement in the third world today. In Africa his books are not widely read. His call for peasant revolutions and a new society cleansed of the dregs of colonialism has gone unanswered. His dream of third-world unity has turned out to be a pathetic illusion.
But prophets often find disciples they did not seek…The ten years since his death have coincided with the rise of militant black groups deeply influenced by The Wretched of the Earth. The Black Panthers are Fanonists in their willingness to use violence and in their belief that they will find dignity through violence. ‘We become men when we have the courage to kill our oppressors,’ the Panthers say, echoing Fanon.