Monday, February 22, 2010

Percy Lovegrove's memoir "An Auld Cockle Picker" hits Sweny's, Lincoln Plance

This morning, Wendy, of Sweny's arranged a display of Percy Lovegrove's fascinating memoir "An Auld Cockle Picker - The autobiography of a well-travelled man" in Sweny's Chemist on Lincoln Place. Percy's wonderful book spans from finding himself orphaned in County Laois in the 1930's, to Dublin where his future wife, Abbey School of Ballet original Doreen Cuthbert taught him to dance, to the trans-African railway and Kikuyu land in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion, to his work with Coras Trachtala in the 1960's and '70's, when Ireland was but an inchoate brand on the international market, and beyond. Why not drop in to Sweny's and have a look for yourself? They're awfully friendly, and you can also buy old-fashioned sweets of all varieties. Watch this space...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Gukunda the Gorilla

Just thought you'd need to see what we were looking at in the previous post - gorillas! This is Gukunda, one of Diane Fossey's Sabyinyo group of Gorillas, peering through jungle trees (trees! see below!), in Virunga Volcano Park, somewhere around the Rwandan/Ugandan border.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Salgado in the Mist

I was at "D'Relish" fundraiser for Theatre @ The Plough on Saturday night, and had the good fortune to hear Eugene O'Brien's fantastic tale of his encounter with William Burroughs while in his early 20's. This reminded me of my chance encounter (it's all about chance encounters really isn't it? Though in my experience they are often about pretty much nothing except maybe the fact that we all happen to be alive on the planet at the same time), with the world's greatest photographer in the Rwandan jungle a few years ago. My mum has been at me to post this story up on my blog (OK Mum, this is for you). Then, out of the blue, today Tim Jarvis, who was with me on that trip gave me a ring. Do you think that was a sign perhaps to post this story? Do you think any thing is a sign? Of anything? Are we just giving the universe too much credit for having intelligence? Or any meaning at all? Anyway, this is a nice story, and was a great day, and a rather funny encounter with one of the greatest genius-photographers walking the same earth as us...

Salgado in the Mist

It was pitch black that Sunday morning as we left Kigali for an exclusive 7.30am date with Diane Fossey’s mountain gorillas. It was expensive too, at $375 US each - this poor freelance journalist would have been left twiddling her thumbs in the Rwandan capital for the day, had Moya & Tim not generously paid for the ticket (thank-you!).

Moya, ‘mystical voice of Clannad’; her husband and manager Tim (and off-duty photographer); Jerry, documentary maker; and PR guy Ultan piled into the van. I hopped in up front with the driver. The roadside soon came alive on our epic journey to the National Volcano Park, where Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo meet, with women appearing and disappearing mirage-like out of the dark into our headlights. Kigali-bound, they were transporting wares on their heads, with all the grace and poise of top models.

We were, frankly, too bleary-eyed to contemplate how one decade earlier, during the genocide we were warned not to mention, this Goma road bore the greatest stream of refugees in Africa’s history. In mass exodus, people fled for their lives, struggling with all the worldly possessions they could carry on their heads, children at their side, desperate for a safe place. Ten years on, the same road was being steamrolled with fresh smoky black asphalt from Germany.

The sun rose suddenly, revealing surprisingly lush Rwandan hills crammed from top to bottom with abundant vegetation: eucalyptus and banana trees, potatoes, avocados.

As the Virunga Volcano Park neared, Moya made sandwiches in the back of the van. Blood sugar levels rose, and the whole world began to take on a wondrous hue.

Once we located the hard-to-get Gorilla HQ, ‘Francois’ our guide, put us into a group of six – us, and one rather pale figure in safari attire from Brazil.

Francois who had worked closely with Diane Fossey, and features in Gorillas in the Mist (we were told later that night), sported a flamboyant skinny purple and yellow hand-knitted scarf wound around his neck a la Dr. Who. Oozing an air of unquestionable authority, he instructed us (we were now standing in a tight circle), to introduce ourselves to the group. Though with the exception of the stranger, we all knew each other, we obeyed without question. ‘Hello, I am Sebastiao from Brazil’, pronounced the unknown man.

Tall-ish, thin-ish, and getting on in years, in hindsight (now that I know who he is) Sebastiao was self-effacing under the brim of his safari hat. Was it a Tilly Endurable, I wondered, at the time. He wasn’t at all swarthy and agile – which was how I imagined Brazilians to be. What brought this unlikely Brazilian here all that way? Was it a ‘trip of a lifetime’ – the fulfilment of a life-long ambition to see the mountain gorillas, inspired maybe by Sigourney Weaver in that movie? Why had he made such a long journey, and all alone? There was something about him, something I couldn’t put my finger on. He was serene maybe, and knowing.

A five-strong ‘military escort’ brandishing serious guns - (well the $375 had to go somewhere), flanked our posse as we headed towards the nearby jungle. All at once we found ourselves surrounded by volcanoes, as promised – : Karisimbi (‘white shell’); Bisoke; Sabyinyo (‘big teeth’); Gahinga; and Muhabura (‘the guide’).

Heading inwards from the clearing into dense jungle undergrowth, we checked our cameras were loaded. I had been frantically photographing in Christian Blind Mission clinics and hospitals for four days now, and felt the weight of documenting the trip. My first photographic assignment, I backed up my brass-bodied manual Nikon FE, with a digital Canon powershot, going for quantity and leaving nothing to chance.

But this was our day of rest. Any photographs were just for fun, so I had left my digital camera at home. I loaded a 1600 ISO film I wanted to experiment with since a trip to India ten months previously. It was originally for sunrise over the Ganges. I was a bit concerned that 1600 was too fast for how bright the Rwandan morning had turned out. Within though, under the thick canopy of jungle greens, it was darker. Unknown to me, Sebastiao was also using a 1600.

The sight of him loading himself up with all sorts of amazing photographic equipment distracted me from the pursuit of gorillas. He screwed mini-tripods onto cameras with massive telephoto and zoom lenses. Later he would balance them on his shoulder and chest. A fascinating photographic machine dangling over his right shoulder prompted me to scurry up beside him (I could resist no more), and comment

‘Nice camera! What is it?’

‘It’s a new format camera, a 45 mm – the shots are wider.’

I took a good long look at it. I then gleaned he was working on an eight-year photographic project called ‘Genesis’, being shot all over the world. So this wasn’t just somebody who had been saving up all his life to come and see Diane Fossey’s Mountain Gorillas after all. I enquired whether he had found a publisher for it yet. As we progressed inwards perfect French, Spanish, and English wafted from his direction as he spoke to others. An international spy on the brink of retiring after a lifetime of international espionage? Now my imagination was really running away with me. I found myself involuntarily eavesdropping, in the noble effort of putting the pieces of this jigsaw together. One sibilant surname did float through my head – alliterating quite poetically with his Christian name. Salgado. As quickly as it surfaced though, I dismissed it. Preposterous!

Penetrating deeper into the jungle, we found our ‘Groupe Sabyinyo’ gorilla-family of nine. As if following an unwritten rule-book, in silence, everybody began elbowing everybody else out of the way in an attempt to capture these dark, magical and, to me, unphotographable beauties. Nonetheless, in a kind of silent dance around these hirsute spirits, we navigated the space around each other, to get up close and personal.

Francois our guide pulled me out of the throng behind which I tended to cower (far too polite), and propelled me to the front. We were the Gorilla paparazzi. Uninhibited by us, the beasts stretched out nonchalantly and scratched their privates. Francois’ hand landed on my shoulder – a hand I felt I could trust completely. I followed unquestioningly, as, turning me around, he gently pushed me in front of… a massive gorilla!

Just as ‘fight or flight’ kicked in, Francois deftly lifted my camera out of my hands, pointed it at me, and click! Terrified, I heard the din of footsteps drawing nearer behind me. What was I afraid of? They are peace-loving vegetarians. Sure enough it was just Gukunda reaching up for another delicious branch of bamboo. I regained my composure and smiled. Click! The last on the reel. It was the nearest I ever got to a me Tarzan you Jane moment. Moya jumped apologetically in for her photo opportunity with Gukunda: ‘Hope you don’t mind, I just saw you getting yours and had to get one too’… Of course I didn’t mind.

Unsure how exactly to metre for dappled jungle undergrowth, I proceeded in good old ‘hit or miss’ style, switching next to a 400 ISO roll.

Our fellow-photographer’s gear kept its hold on me. He sure looked like someone who knew what he was doing. I was glued to the way he positioned himself for a photo – balancing, crouching, lunging. And clicking. We all seemed to be part of an impromptu choreography, dancing around the gorillas, elbowing each other out of the way quasi-courteously but firmly, with unspoken (definitely no speaking allowed!) contact improvisation, configuring ourselves around each sighting. I was surprised to find myself sneaking a couple of surreptitious photos of the Brazilian stranger moving in on his subjects. The sureness, and almost invisibility of how he moved. There was something about him.

All too soon Francois pointed to his watch and signaled that our precious hour with the Sabyinyo’s was up.

Emerging out of the dark thicket of jungle canopy back into the clearing, I caught up with the stranger once more. Knowing it was the last chance to get to the bottom of this story, I struck up yet another casual conversation, I let my stride synch with his, as we headed back towards our starting point. I heard how he had just arrived directly from photographing the ecological wonders of the world in the Galapagos islands to photograph down down down into the volatile Niyragongo crater, and at the astonishing lake below.

‘The colours must be amazing’, I responded to his vivid description. ‘Red, glowing and radioactive?’

‘Yes – but I only photograph in black and white’.

‘Only black and white?! But there are so many amazing colours – especially in lava. Did you ever think of using colour?’

Peering at me from under the brim of his Tilly hat he smiled in Buddha-like fashion before uttering:

‘There are many colours in black and white’.

I smiled back, thinking ‘wow’ – really?

(Apparently I have a terrible habit of saying "wow" too much. But I'll allow myself to be wowed by this one).

‘Well I would definitely use colour for lava!’

Eventually after quite a detailed photographic chat, on the intricacies of how difficult it is to photograph gorillas as they are so dark (Sebastiao agreed, ‘very very hard to photograph’), and it’s hard to get any detail, and the light is so tricky, and comparing ISO’s of film (we both used 1600 – did I mention that?), I enquired:

‘Do you mind me asking you your surname?, I’d love to look out for your book on the internet when it comes out.’

‘My surname is Salgado’.

Salgado. He confirmed it. We were in the presence of a living legend.

‘What?! Sebastiao Salgado? You are Sebastiao Salgado?! Oh my God! Wow! Amazing! We look at your books in my photography class at home in Dublin! I can’t believe you are here with us. Like – don’t you photograph (ok this is embarrassing, but it’s true, I said it), trees? Didn’t you have an exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Trinity?’

‘Trees?’, he responded. ‘No not trees. But I did have an exhibition in Dublin, and unfortunately I could not make it over for it’.

By now the others were waiting for me impatiently for me in the 4WD to go back to Kigali.

I listened to Salgado.

‘My wife and I love Ireland’, he smiled serenely, ‘and have visited many times.’ They are based in Paris. He had been airlifted by a UN helicopter up to the summit of the Nyiragongo with a team of 12 including a military escort. They camped out there for three days, while he took his multi-hued black and white pictures. When he was done, the UN helicopter found them again by Ground Positioning System to airlift them back to base. He was there as UN and UNICEF Ambassador.

I needed to share this with the others, whose impatience was getting all-too tangible. So I called Tim Jarvis over and introduced him to my new-found friend as ‘also a photographer. Tim, this is Sebastiao Salgado!’. ‘Wow’ grinned Tim, ‘you’re kidding! Sebastiao Salgado – really? Your books are amazing, particularly the one about the gold mines in South America (Tim had all the right references of course. He didn’t ask him about trees).

‘So what’s your plan now, what’s next?’, I enquired, keeping the conversation going after the miraculous revelation.

‘Tomorrow I will be here again, photographing the gorillas’, divulged the world’s most famous photographer of humanity on the move, ‘and the next day, and the next…’

Salgado, the Nelson Mandela of photography is one of the most extraordinary human beings you could ever hope to run into in your lifetime. Let alone to photograph Gorillas with him in the jungle on a day off from your first ever photography assignment. In the meantime, I've gazed, mouth agape, at this economist turned photographer's staggering opus - his immortalisation of humanity on the move across our planet. Not a tree in sight. Well maybe a few in the background – occasionally.

The inscrutable universe had spoken, through its Gorilla mist.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Riverdance 15th Anniversary

Reflecting on the 15th anniversary of Riverdance, The Show, I'm just remembering this funny and informative one-hour radio show I did with producer Bernadette Comerford on RTE Radio One talking to musicians Robbie Harris and Kenneth Edge; and dancers Michelle Buffini, Michael Pat Gallagher and Joanne Doyle on how Riverdance changed their lives in On the Road With Riverdance. Sounded like they had a lot of fun touring the globe from the USA, Europe, China, New Zealand, and Japan to Mexico, first class. A long way from damp and musty Irish dancing halls! Must look for a copy of the actual show again, can't find a podcast right now. And also, to give immense credit where it is due, Moya Doherty kindly sponsored the research for my book, Irish Moves - so Riverdance certainly had a very positive influence on my life too. So, in brief (there's so much to be said about Riverdance, but I'll save that for another occasion), Happy 15th Anniversary to Riverdance. It's nice to have had a personal connection to a monumental Irish cultural phenomenon of the twentieth century.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Loving the Artistic Justice in Colin Dunne's Olivier Award Nomination

I'm absolutely thrilled to see the artistic justice (I sometimes wonder if this exists!) in Colin Dunne's nomination for an Olivier Award for "outstanding achievement" in his groundbreaking and touching solo performance "Out of Time". It's even more poetic that the Olivier Award nomination coincides with the 15-year anniversary of Riverdance, signifying how far Colin Dunne has moved his artform on since he took over as lead dancer from Mr. Flatley in 1995. In this 2003 DANCE MAGAZINE feature I wrote on Colin, who was at the beginning of a massive and scary artistic odyssey into his own practice, he was performing "Trading Taps" (which he choreographed with Tariq Winston) at Radio City Music Hall. It was quite an adventure for me, I'll tell you, rubbing shoulders with the Rockettes when I walked through the stage door there to interview Colin up in a Radio City rehearsal room. (The things we take for granted!). From this vantage point, seven years on (it has been a long, consistent journey, full of integrity and stick-with-it-ness for Colin), it's poignant that I clued into the fact that Colin spoke then "like an artist in the middle of some risky and as yet unspecified work-in-progress". Well - that "work-in-progress" has culminated in "Out of Time" - and his Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Outstanding Achievement. There's a lot more to be said (and indeed I have written a lot more about his artistic journey already), but I'll leave it at that for now. Watch this space! Keep watching this artist! Congratulations and well deserved, Colin Dunne.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Re:Public at Temple Bar Gallery & Studios - Mick Wilson Happening in the Window.

Just after news about some drastic Arts Council Cuts to Temple Bar Gallery & Studios (as well as shocking cuts to other Arts Organisations, for example our only Clown-based theatre company Barabbas - how can this be?), Mick Wilson (Dean of Gradcam), gives his scheduled talk "Dead Public 1" on Death, Politics, and Public-ness in the window of the Gallery, on the set of "Re:Public" (curated by Daniel Jewesbury). Outside the gallery window, the random public, as you can see from these images, including a few Italian rugby supporters, are rather intrigued by Mick's audience, a "public" on tiered seating on display in the gallery window. What's to become of us? A good kick off to Gradcam Conference "arts research: publics and purposes" throughout Dublin, click here for more info. Among the bewildering line-up of talks and events by a myriad of interesting artists, I'm looking forward to the Dublin Bikes extravaganza - Aisling O'Beirn's "Boom or bust by bike: an alternative city tour" - and to Sylvia Loeffler's 'Dead Public 2' talk on Dublin Graffiti: "Mapping the Blind Spots: A Multidisciplinary Investigation of Visual Waste Products in Public Urban Space' next Friday... (& a lot a lot more, just haven't digested it all yet - it's Sunday. Better hurry up though, as it's booking out).

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Experimental Podcast from Sweny's Chemist, Lincoln Place on Joyce's BIrthday

Today, February 2nd is James Joyce's 128th birthday, and Sweny's Chemist on Lincoln Place are running a special event to celebrate. I called in to Sweny's for a chat with Brendan Kilty, and happened upon a story from Niamh O'Farrell in the Storytelling snug, and a song by Noel O'Grady, in the Swindow. It's a friendly, welcoming place of "spontaneity and serendipity" as you can see by the fact that my book Irish Moves ended up in the Swindow, basking in the reflected light of Westland Row - "Canyon of Culture", as Brendan Kilty calls it... Listen here (or just copy & paste into your browser):
to story, song, dreams, and Happy Birthday James Joyce (well, he's dead obviously, but seen as he wrote "The Dead" no harm in marking his birthday with a podcast, I figure)...