Monday 4 September 2023

The power of Needlework: How Embroidery is Helping South African Women Tell Their Stories

In her artwork for the project, Christine Leputla depicted victims of domestic violence fleeing their attacker

By Puleng Segalo, University of South Africa

In June 2020, three months after South Africa entered the first of a series of hard lockdowns to slow the spread of COVID, the country’s president Cyril Ramaphosa described men’s violence against women as a “second pandemic”.

In the first three weeks of that lockdown the Gender Based Violence Command Centre, designed to support victims of gender-based violence (GBV), recorded more than 120,000 victims. Also in its 2019/2020 crimes statistics, the South African Police Services indicated that an average of 116 rape cases were reported each day.

While South Africa’s GBV crisis is not new, it was exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, which made the perpetual challenges faced by many women and gender non-conforming individuals hyper visible.

This visibility sheds light on the reality that the home is a complex space where care and violence can co-exist. Women can feel simultaneously safe and in danger in their homes. All of this happens behind closed doors, often robbing women of a voice to express their fear, suffering and pain.

That affects more than just individual women: GBV is a collective, structural challenge. When women are violated at homes, it affects familial relations, productivity at work, and overall societal functioning.

I am a psychologist who wanted to harness the power of visual artistic expression to highlight the multi-layered ways in which gendered violence is woven into everyday encounters. To do so, I turned – as I have done in previous research – to embroidery.

As I have written in my previous research into the role of embroidery in empowering women’s storytelling, for this current work, I drew again from this methodology to visually tell the narrative of GBV in colourful and creative ways, paying attention to moments of encounters where those who perpetrate and those against whom the violence is perpetrated appear in the same frame. The visual artwork invites the viewer to witness. The hope is that beyond the witnessing is a call for action.

Everyday violence

An embroidery depicts a woman with blue hair, her eyes wide and frightened and her mouth covered by another person's hand
Evelyn Twala’s embroidery communicates fear and pain.

Beyond making visually appealing artwork, needlework has always been a useful tool to tell difficult or unspeakable stories. Through depicting their lived experiences of gender trauma, women can have an outlet for their pain. While their embroideries serve as a canvas for the outpouring of pain, loss and trauma, their work also tells stories of hope, resilience and resistance.

For this research I worked with the Intuthuko women’s collective. The group consists of 16 Black women based in one of the townships (these are historically Black urban residential areas) in Ekurhuleni in the Gauteng province. GBV in South Africa continues to affect Black women disproportionately, a reality rooted in history as well as in present systems.

The idea with this project was to let the visuals do the talking. So we did not focus on personal experiences, but an overview of the many ways in which GBV shows itself in our lives. I was part of the group and also contributed in making an embroidery piece. This allowed me to shift from being just a researcher and spectator to becoming a contributor in the process of thinking, reflecting and making. It was a collaborative endeavour where we came up with themes as a collective and then each focused on a particular theme for the making of the embroideries.

During the process of making the embroideries, we would share stories of how GBV constantly affects our communities, reflecting on the need to use these embroideries as a form of awareness raising, tool for community dialogues, and to challenge the patriarchal system that has rendered the world unsafe for women.

The aim was to highlight the multi-layered ways in which gendered violence is woven into everyday encounters. We sought to engage the ways in which creative meaning could be made of GBV in our communities – and how the challenges facing our society because of gendered violence could be given attention.

Perpetual fear

The embroideries depict a society where fear is manufactured, created, and produced by patriarchal and unjust structural violent systems. This in turn leads to women living in perpetual fear; they cannot feel safe within and outside of their homes.

Through our artistic visual depictions, we expressed how GBV creates a sense of women being regulated and controlled, and of not entirely owning their bodies.

Some embroideries featured women being violated and robbed in public places, reduced to kneeling down for mercy. The artworks highlighted women’s sense that the streets are not safe and that they are never sure whether they will make it back home safely.

An embroidery depicts a male figure groping a woman in a street alongside some houses. She is raising her hand to object.
Angela Mangte’s artwork captures women’s sense that they are not safe in the streets.

Feeling unsafe and in a constant state of fear makes it difficult for many women to exercise their agency: when society is structured in ways that make women victims, patriarchy prevails.

Staring reality in the face

These embroideries are not just pieces of visual art. They are a challenge to the viewer to stare the violence in the face with the hope that they will be compelled to reflect and to act.

The embroideries have been displayed at an art exhibition where the public could attend and engage with the pieces. We also produced a multilingual visual booklet which is being used in the women’s community and schools as a tool for opening up dialogues on GBV.The Conversation

Puleng Segalo, Chief Albert Luthuli Research Chair, University of South Africa

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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Monday 28 August 2023

Travel: Champagne is Deeply French ~ but the English Invented the Bubbles


By Garritt C Van Dyk, University of Newcastle

In 1889, the Syndicat du Commerce des Vins de Champagne produced a pamphlet promoting champagne at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, claiming that Dom Pérignon, procurator of the Benedictine Abbey of Hautvillers from 1668, was the “inventor”, “creator” or discoverer" of sparkling champagne.

“Come, Brothers! I drink stars!” is the famous quote often attributed to him.

The story of a blind monk having an epiphany, accidentally happening upon the secret to effervescence, was seductive. It combined divine revelation and French winemaking expertise to produce a national symbol deeply rooted in the French landscape.

However, the truth is slightly different. Dom Pérignon did contribute to improving the still wines of the Champagne region, but he did not discover effervescence – he was trying to get rid of the bubbles.

Jean François de Troy’s 1735 painting Le Déjeuner d'Huîtres (The Oyster Luncheon) is the first known depiction of champagne in painting. Wikimedia, CC BY

The champagne myth

The expo where the champagne myth was propagated marked the 100-year anniversary of Bastille Day and is best known for the debut of another icon of French culture, the Eiffel Tower. The Pérignon story gained traction at the same moment these other symbols of nation-building reinforced the uniqueness of French culture and history.

The basis for the myth can be traced to a letter from Dom Grossard of Hautvillers Abbey to the mayor of Aÿ, in the heart of the Champagne region. Grossard claimed that Pérignon had perfected the method for making perfectly white wine from pinot noir grapes (blanc de noirs), pioneered the technique for effervescence, and championed the use of bottles and corks.

Only the first of these claims is true. At the abbey, wooden stoppers and canvas soaked in grease were used to seal bottles, and French glass was too weak to contain the pressure from effervescence. A bigger problem was that French winemakers – and consumers – considered bubbles a fault, a trick to distract the drinker from bad wine.

Prominent French wine merchant Bertin de Rocheret advised a client who inquired about sparkling wine:

effervescence obscures the best characteristics of good wines, in the same way that it improves wines of lesser quality.

Bubbles, bottles and corks

The method for effervescence, strong glass bottles and the use of corks all came from England in the 17th century. English consumers imported wine in barrels from France because bottles were taxed at a higher rate than wine imported in bulk.

The wines often deteriorated during the journey across the channel and once opened, they oxidised quickly, developing an unpleasant flavour. To improve the taste, consumers added honey, syrup made from raisins or sugar. The additional sugar content caused a secondary fermentation – and effervescence.

In 1662, Christopher Merrett, a founder of the Royal Society, published a paper titled “Some Observations Concerning the Ordering of Wines”, in which he described the method for effervescence:

Our winecoopers of latter times use vast quantities of sugar and molasses to all sorts of wines, to make them drink brisk and sparkling, and to give them spirits, as also to mend their bad tastes.

To produce sparkling wine and retain the effervescence, three things are necessary: bubbles, strong glass bottles and corks.

Merrett’s method provided the fizz, and corks were already used in England for bottling cider and perry. Strong glass in England was a by-product of a prohibition on using wood in industrial furnaces, decreed by King James I in 1615.

Timber was too valuable to be burned for glassmaking, reserved for building ships for the merchant fleet. Using sea coal, English glass furnaces reached higher temperatures and produced stronger glass. These bottles could withstand pressure (as much as a car tyre) without bursting.

Statue of Dom Pérignon at Moët et Chandon. Wikipedia

The paradox?

The only ingredient the English lacked was wine, prompting French wine historians to refer to their contribution as “The English Paradox”. How could a country with no winemaking tradition pioneer the technique for effervescence? The “paradox” label, however, only makes sense if the traditions and standards of French winemaking are presumed to be superior.

Bound by tradition, French winemakers were unwilling to contemplate a fault as a desirable innovation. Driven by necessity, and without any winemaking rules, English consumers were free to experiment.

But necessity was only part of the equation – English culture did play a part in the success of effervesce. Reserving timber for the English fleet made for stronger glass, and cider and perry production provided corks to seal the bottles.

The French champagne industry now claims effervescence was not invented, but is a natural product of the soil and climate in a strictly defined region.

Natural fermentation does produce some fizz, but rarely enough to pop a cork without the intervention of a winemaker. The emphasis on nature reinforces the exclusivity and unique geographic attributes to distinguish champagne from all other sparkling wines.

A more complex history of the origin of effervescence challenges preconceptions about national identity, even in matters of taste. This does not diminish champagne’s luxury status, but it does reveal the influence of cultural traditions on innovation, and the many influences that pave the way to novelty.The Conversation

Garritt C Van Dyk, Lecturer, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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Monday 21 August 2023

Interested, Curious and Empathetic, Michael Parkinson Helped Bridge the Gap Between Australia and England

AAPImage/Network Ten

By Lea Redfern, University of Sydney

Michael Parkinson demonstrated the art of the good interview night after night. He practised deep listening, giving his interviewee his full attention, but he was always aware of the audience. While he was asking questions on behalf of the audience and advocating for the audience, he always had the person he was interviewing as his focus.

As host of Parkinson (1971–82 and 1998–2007) and Parkinson in Australia (1979–83), he was a big presence on Australian TV. He was television the whole family could watch together, never unsuitable for children.

We may not have understood everything, and some references went over our head, but as children we could watch Parkinson with our parents. I remember as a young person regularly watching him and hoping the interview would be funny that week.

There were times you knew it was going to be hilarious. When Billy Connolly or “our” Dame Edna were going to appear it was a must-watch.

Whoever the interviewee, Parkinson brought out their stories, their observations. He gave them space to share engaging stories and never stepped on a punchline. Although humour was a draw card for the audience, there was space for pathos, too.

Finding the shape

Parkinson was an interviewer of great skill. He could be a presence, but never pull focus from the interviewee. He was deeply empathetic, and always in control of the interview.

The form of the interview was always satisfying: he knew how to draw a narrative through the length of the program. When interviewing three people at once, he knew how to be fair and have a balance between everyone and their stories. He made this appear effortless.

From 1979 to 2014 he frequently worked in Australia across the ABC, Channel Ten and Channel Nine.

For a generation of ten pound passage immigrants, he represented the best of the old country: he was never patronising, never spoke down to people, and helped to bridge the gap between Australia and England. He was able to bring us the best of British and Australian interviewees alike, affirming Australia’s international standing in the arts and culture.

When speaking to Australian politicians, sports stars and actors he was always deeply interested and deeply curious. He could reflect us back to ourselves without any of the cultural cringe so evident in the media of the time. The affection Australians felt for him is shown in the diminutive “Parky”.

An authentic voice

Born in Yorkshire in 1935, Parkinson didn’t attend university, starting his career working for newspapers straight out of school. It was perhaps this start which aided in his plain speaking common sense and ability to talk to ordinary people. You got the sense he could speak to anybody. There was no putting on a persona; he was always authentically him.

Today, this authentic self is seen in many of our best interviewers. We know how important it is curiosity and authenticity drive the interview – Parkinson was doing this decades before others recognised its importance.

When I started in radio, I looked towards Parkinson as the gold standard. I admired how he was able to draw people out and reveal so much of themselves. He demonstrated how the media could go beyond the soundbite.

So much of the media of the time was about context-free news and current affairs journalism. Although his interviews were with celebrities, he showed people might share more of themselves and the world if they’re given time and space to speak. Parkinson gave us a fuller, richer sense of the people he spoke to.

His legacy in Australia can be seen in people like Andrew Denton, Richard Fidler and Sarah Kanowski – long form interviews driven by curiosity.

Some people have been describing Parkinson’s death as the end of an era, but his legacy will live on. When we look at shows like ABC Conversations, and so many longform podcasts, we find curious interviewers who, like Parkinson, build a relationship and find a connection with an interviewee. A soundbite might show up on TikTok or YouTube – but you have to do the longform interview to get there.

Perhaps one of the best demonstrations of this was Parkinson’s interview with Ian Thorpe. In the 2014 interview, Thorpe came out publicly for the first time, and spoke about his depression and use of drugs and alcohol.

Without the relationship Parkinson was able to build over the course of the interview, it is doubtful Thorpe would have felt comfortable to come out in the same way. Parkinson was always interested in giving people the opportunity to reveal themselves.

That Thorpe felt Parkinson’s show was a safe space to come out says something about the tenor of his relationship with his interviewees and his place in Australian culture.

There for the audience

His few missteps seemed to be with women. As I grew older, I realised he was a man of his time, as was made obvious in his awkward interviews with Meg Ryan and Helen Mirren. In these interviews, his occasional awkwardness around gender is writ large, and the interviews go off the rails. He fails to develop his famous rapport and adjust his approach in response to their discomfort.

But given the length of his career, the rarity of these missteps is still impressive. His geniality and quiet generosity came across night after night, for decades.

What defined him more than anything was how he was inclusive of his audience. No matter how complex the ideas or how smart the person he was interviewing, the audience was brought along with them. He was there on our behalf, and able to ask the clarifying questions without worrying about his own ego.

He represents an age of Australian and British relationships in a way that is truly singular and his interviews are artefacts of that age. He was an interiewer who stood out for not having to stand out, and the delights and possibilities of the long-form interview are his legacy.The Conversation

Lea Redfern, Lecturer, Discipline of Media and Communications, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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Monday 7 August 2023

Travel: The Strange History of Ice Cream Flavours – from Brown Bread to Parmesan and Paté

Noblewomen eating ice-cream in a French caricature, (1801). Gallica

By Lindsay Middleton, University of Glasgow

English Heritage is now selling what it calls “the best thing since sliced bread” at 13 of its sites ~  brown bread ice cream, inspired by a Georgian recipe. The announcement of the flavour mentions several more outlandish Georgian flavours trialled by English Heritage before it landed on brown bread, such as Parmesan and cucumber.

English Heritage is not alone in its efforts to beguile visitors with historical treats. In Edinburgh, the National Trust for Scotland’s Gladstone’s Land features an ice cream parlour linked to the dairy which stood there in 1904. The property sells elderflower and lemon curd ice cream based on a recipe from 1770, and visitors can go on several food-themed tours.

While brown bread ice cream, praised for its caramel nuttiness, may be a more familiar flavour to contemporary eaters than other historical offerings, the iced delights eaten in Britain in previous centuries took a huge variety of flavours and forms.

Agnes Marshall, the authority on ice cream during the late 19th century, published two cookbooks specifically about “ices” (1885) and “fancy ices” (1894). They included flavours from an elaborately moulded and coloured iced spinach à la crème, to little devilled ices in cups.

Illustrations of ice cream in the shape of pineapples and doves.
Some of the different ice cream designs made by Agnes B. Marshall. Dominic Winter Auctioneers

The latter consisted of a chicken pâté spiked with curry powder and Worcestershire sauce, egg yolks and anchovies, which was then mixed with gravy, gelatine and whipped cream, before being frozen in decorative cups and served “for a luncheon or second-course dish”.

Earlier texts contain even more outlandish flavours alongside the typical, sweet offerings.

French foodie Monsieur Emy’s L’Art de Bien Faire les Glaces d’Office (1768) has recipes for truffle, saffron and various cheese-flavoured ice creams.

The history of ice cream

By the time Marshall was publishing, ice cream was far more accessible to the public than in earlier centuries. Prior to the 1800s, ice was collected from frozen waterways and stored in underground ice houses, largely restricted to large estates with the necessary land, wealth and resources.

From the 1820s, however, ice was imported to Britain from Europe and then the US and stored in ice wells and warehouses. The importation of larger stocks of ice reduced costs, while simultaneously, innovators were designing apparatus for mechanical freezing.

A black and white advert for. round turn handle ice cream maker.
An advertisement for Marshall’s patent freezer from 1885. Robin Weir

It would be a long time until ice was easily produced within the home, but cheaper ice made ice cream more readily available and implements were devised so it could be made at home. Both Emy and Marshall’s cookbooks depicting ice cream makers and Marshall’s patent freezer enlisted the same freezing technique as Emy’s Sarbotiere et son Seau (pot freezer and bucket).

Ice and salt were placed around a bucket, within which a custard or water mixture was stirred or rotated until it froze. Marshall’s innovation was the shallow pan, which gave an increased surface area for faster freezing. Equipped with such a freezer (and perhaps Marshall’s patent Ice Cave, for storing the ices), middle-class housewives could produce ice cream in their own kitchens.

Ice cream and leisure

Ice cream is well suited for engaging visitors at heritage properties today, not because of the history of how it was produced within the home but because of its holiday connotations. Whether it is a “99”, an “oyster” enjoyed at the beach, or the nearing jingle of an ice cream truck, ice cream has clear cultural and emotional links to recreation and enjoyment. This was also true in the past.

In 19th century Britain, street vendors (many of them Italian immigrants) began selling penny licks, or “hokey-pokey” from stalls or carts in the streets. In contrast to the immaculately-moulded delicacies in Marshall’s cookbook – which required the purchase of several pieces of equipment – this ice cream was to be enjoyed while out and about. It was also cheap, as implied by “penny” in the title.

Customers would purchase their ice upon a glass “lick”, eat it and then return the lick to the vendor for reuse. With growing numbers of seaside resorts and the rise of the leisure industry over the 19th century, ices were enjoyed while on holiday or daily excursions and at public events like exhibitions or fairs.

Colourful postcard showing colourised picture of children surrounding an ice cream man.
Children surround an ice cream vendor in 1909. Wiki Commons

It is the portability of ice cream, as well as its culinary appeal, that has led to its lasting place in our leisure time – a delicious treat that can be enjoyed, one-handed, as part of a larger experience. The act of eating ice cream prepared from a Georgian or Victorian recipe therefore connects today’s visitors to a long tradition of enjoying ices recreationally.

While heritage properties are unlikely to embrace the more unsanitary ways ice cream used to be eaten, serving up historical recipes gives visitors a chance to savour a new sensory layer of the past. That taste can be linked into larger histories. From ice cream, we can learn about technological developments, changing attitudes towards sanitation, global travel, the availability of ingredients throughout time, trends, fashion and leisure habits.

Delving into the history of food – from the tins in our cupboards, to a cup of tea, or an ice cream at the beach – can bring new perspective to both the past and the present.

Lindsay Middleton, Food Historian and Knowledge Exchange Associate, University of Glasgow

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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Monday 24 July 2023

Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution is Insightful and Beautiful; a Reminder of how Anglo-American our Conception of Modern Art is

Nicolas Muray, Frida Kahlo, Bench #5, 1938. New York, USA. carbon print, 45.5 x 36cm; Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican 20th Century Art and Vergel Foundation. Copyright: Nicolas Muray Archive. Cover picture of Natasha Gelman by Diego Rivera, 1943. 

By Catherine Speck, University of Adelaide 

Frida Kahlo devotees, this is your show. There are her paintings aplenty, photographs of her by Imogen Cunningham through to Edward Weston, and film imagery of Kahlo and Rivera as the happy couple.

But there’s much more to this exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia than a Frida Kahlo love-in. The context for the exhibition, aptly titled Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution, is set in its first gallery.

There, decked out in the colours of the Mexican flag, snippets of historic film footage are on view. They set the scene for Mexico rooted in its colonial Spanish-European past, its 1910 revolution and transition to a democracy.

Unknown Artist, Frida and Diego with Fulang Chang, 1937, gelatin-silver photograph, 12.7 x 10.16 cm; Throckmorton Fine Art, New York.

The newly formed Republic of Mexico ushered in a raft of reforms in the 1920s conducive to cultural growth and valuing its indigenous cultures.

This is the backdrop to a high point in Mexican avant-garde art by Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and a host of other modern artists in this exhibition.


Each gallery is a dramatic set for paintings, photographs, murals and moving images.

Architects Grieve Gillett have employed wall colour and shape to craft viewing spaces that induce a dramatic engagement with the paintings, such as Rivera’s hyper-real anthropomorphic Landscape with cacti (1931).

Installation view: Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; photo: Saul Steed.

His paintings compete favourably with Kahlo’s. His scenes of the everyday include Calla Lily vendor (1943), showing two traditionally dressed young girls nursing their gigantic basket of lilies.

Diego Rivera, born Guanajuanto City, Mexico 1886, died Mexico City 1957, Calla lily vendor, 1943, Mexico City, oil on board, 150.0 x 120.0 cm; The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation.

It is emblematic of the shift away from academic subject matter to traditional Mexican art and folk culture which creates a new sense of national identity and pride – known as “Mexicanidad”.

The cultural vibrancy of post-revolution Mexico fostered the production of modern art by artists including Guatemalan/Mexican Carlos Merida.

Carlos Merida born Guatemala City 2/12/1891 died Mexico City 21/12/1985 Variation on an old theme 1960, Mexico City oil on canvas 89.0 x 65.5 cm Private collection L/FK/1-30.

Merida’s vibrant black and bronze abstract shapes dance across the canvas in Variation on an old theme (1960).

Another is Rufino Tamayo, whose inversion of volume and playful approach to representing depth frame his oversized subject in The Diner (1938).

Rufino Tamayo born Oaxaca, Mexico 25/8/1899 died Mexico City 24/6/1991 The diner 1938, New York, New York, United States of America oil on canvas 60.3 x 45.1 cm Private collection L/FK/1-150.

These are just two of a host of fabulous modern artists on view whose work is not sufficiently known outside Mexico: a reminder of how Anglo-American our conception of modern art is.

Enigmatic self-portraits

Kahlo was an extraordinary woman. Her enigmatic self-portraits such as Self-portrait with monkeys (1943) have an undeniable ability to draw in the viewer, her introspection transferring itself to her audience.

Frida Kahlo, born Mexico City 1907, died Mexico City 1954, Self-portrait with monkeys, 1943, Coyoacan, Mexico, oil on canvas, 81.5 x 63 cm; The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation.

She suffered polio as a child. She then had her sights set on a career in medicine when it was thwarted by a shocking bus accident, followed by long periods of rehabilitation.

As a consequence, she took to art.

This well-known story tends to frame her as an artist, and may well explain why her stunning self-portraits – always of her upper torso – convey a singular strength and determination as in Self-portrait with red and gold dress (1941).

Frida Kahlo, born Mexico City 1907, died Mexico City 1954, Self-portrait with red and gold dress, 1941, Coyoacan, Mexico, oil on canvas, 39.0 x 27.5 cm; The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation.

She presents herself as exotic, wearing the indigenous Tehuana dress of her ancestors as both a personal and political statement, while the long skirts disguise her misshapen polio-affected legs.

Her paintings transcend her disability, so while the re-creation of her four-poster bed and bedroom within the exhibition is a homage to her determination, it is unnecessary.

The point about her disability could have been made more gently by the photographs in the space.

Juan Guzman, born Cologne, Germany 1911, died Mexico City 1982, Frida at ABC Hospital holding a mirror, Mexico, 1950, Mexico City, gelatin-silver photograph, 24.1 x 19.0 cm; Throckmorton Fine Art, New York.

Artistic vision

The exhibition is testament to the vision of two emigres, Jacques Gelman and Natasha Zahalka who settled in Mexico City.

Gelman came from Russia via Germany and France; Zahalka from Czechoslovakia via Singapore. They met and married, and from the 1940s began collecting and commissioning work from this exciting period in Mexican art.

It is their collection on view, supplanted by some photographic loan work.

Diego Rivera, born Guanajuato City, Mexico 1886, died Mexico City 1957, Portrait of Natasha Gelman, 1943, Mexico City, oil on canvas, 115.0 x 153.0 cm; The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation.

The Gelmans come to life in the exhibition: both Kahlo and Rivera completed portraits of Natasha.

But more interesting is Gunther Gerzso’s Portrait of Jacques Gelman (1957).

This shows a diminutive patron embedded in an abstract field of shape and colour, testament to his love of the avant-garde.

Gunther Gerzso born Mexico City 17/6/1915 died Mexico City 21/4/2000 Portrait of Jacques Gelman 1957, Mexico City oil on canvas 72.0 x 60.0 cm The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation L/FK/1-161.

An insightful exhibition

Between 1923 and 1939, the Mexican government employed artists to paint murals to foster a sense of national identity.

Two of Rivera’s murals valorising the working class are photographically reproduced across large wall spans to convey the intensity and power of his imagery.

There is a delightfully intriguing side to this exhibition in Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura’s video Dialogue with myself (2001).

He is well known for appropriating the persona of key artists from art history such as Van Gogh, Vermeer and Manet or their signature artworks.

Here, he performs as Kahlo, dressed in her distinctive clothing, while playing the piano and conversing with her.

Perhaps, in these conversations, he is drawing out the inner self Kahlo so perfectly controls in her portraits.

Installation view: Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; photo: Saul Steed.

This is an insightful exhibition, beautifully curated by Tansy Curtin who weaves around the drawcards Kahlo and Rivera to present the breadth of modern Mexican art, situating it in its political and cultural context.

The exhibition catalogue with its fold-out Rivera mural is an indispensable aid. But it is the inspired architectural design complimented by wall-sized imagery of the murals and the artists’ studio and courtyard that lifts the images in the exhibition to another level to make it a wholly immersive viewing experience.

Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution is at the Art Gallery of South Australia until September 17.The Conversation

Catherine Speck, Emerita Professor, Art History and Curatorship, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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Sunday 16 July 2023

Computer-Written Scripts and Deepfake Actors: What’s at the Heart of the Hollywood Strikes Against Generative AI

AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

By Jasmin Pfefferkorn, The University of Melbourne

For the first time in 60 years, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) are simultaneously facing off against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

The key points of contention? Working conditions, adequate pay, and the increasing encroachment of artificial intelligence (AI) into their professions.

The use of AI in the film and television industry isn’t new. Many common post-production techniques use AI technology in special effects, colour grading, animation and video editing.

Not only was the Lord of the Rings trilogy a defining moment of the early 2000s, it also illuminated how AI could be used in film production. The Battle of Helm’s Deep features computer-generated AI armies to create one of the most memorable scenes in cinematic history.

But in the current strike, the specific concern is a subset of AI known as generative AI. It is crucial that an equilibrium is reached between protections for creative professionals, and the application of generative AI as a useful tool.

Remind me, what is generative AI?

Like all AI, a generative AI model is fed existing data (content), using algorithms to process this data, identify patterns and produce outputs – such as an image or a piece of writing. What is significant about generative AI is the capacity to undertake the so-called “learning” process relatively autonomously and to generate original content.

Many of us are most familiar with generative AI as the technical process that gives us increasingly sophisticated deepfakes.

The now infamous image of Pope Francis wearing an oversized puffer jacket? Courtesy of a 31-year-old construction worker using the AI image generator Midjourney.

Generative AI has taken off in the mainstream through companies such as Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, Meta and OpenAI. The latter is now infamous for its large image model Dall-E and large language model ChatGPT.

So what is happening in Hollywood?

Hollywood workers have valid reason for their unease. The fear is AI will not only be used for supporting technical jobs such as colour grading or adding characters in the far background, but it will also replace creative jobs.

For both the WGA and SAG, there is also a legitimate worry that entry level jobs (such as writers’ assistants and background extras on sets) will be largely replaced by AI.

This would significantly reduce opportunities for people entering the workforce to gain necessary expertise in their craft.

With the staggering improvements in each ChatGPT iteration, screenwriters have also been grappling with the possibility they will be sharing creative control over scripts with large language models.

Questions arise around how these works would be attributed, who or what would be given credit, and consequently how payment would be allocated.

These unions aren’t entirely against the use of AI. The WGA has proposed a model for human-AI collaboration where generative AI could produce early versions of a script which human screenwriters will then refine. But many experts and industry professionals see this proposal as alienating writers from the creative process, repositioning writers as copy editors.

One of the most dystopian scenarios to be put on the table by big studios has been termed “performance cloning”. This involves paying background actors a one-off fee to scan their likeness. This likeness can then be owned and used by companies in perpetuity.

While creating a regressive payment model, it also raises issues of consent: what happens if your AI body double is used in a way you would never agree to?

It’s also a question of copyright

With generative AI, consent is closely bound together with issues of copyright.

Comedian Sarah Silverman is currently suing OpenAI and Meta for copyright infringement. She alleges their AI models were trained on her work without her consent, and were consequently able to roughly reproduce her comedy style.

That her oeuvre is part of the machine learning dataset is unsurprising. This dataset encompasses billions of data points – essentially all that has made its way onto the internet.

Though generative AI is said to produce original content, a better way to view this content is as a remix. These models regurgitate what they have been trained on.

If they become foundational to the film and television industry, the originality of our cultural products is up for debate.

Streaming services have already primed audiences in the algorithmic curation of taste. Generative AI extends this existing trajectory. If studios become overly reliant on these technologies, chances are the “new” content offered to us will only echo what has come before. It may even move us further away from equality in representation, with the bias of these AI models well-documented.

We need collaboration without exploitation

As workers fight for industry regulation to ban the replacement of humans by AI, it is important to reiterate this is not a call to ban the technology outright. Generative AI has already been used in valuable and compelling ways in film.

An early example is David France’s 2020 documentary Welcome to Chechnya, which explores the persecution of LGBTQ+ people in Russia. France did extensive post-production work using AI, producing synthetic voices and superimposed faces to protect his subjects’ anonymity while retaining their humanity.

The question at the heart of copyright – how we balance protecting the rights of creatives with the openness needed for cultural production – resurfaces in this context. We need regulatory measures that enable creative collaboration with generative AI while ensuring creative workers are not exploited to further centralised power.

In June, the Directors Guild of America won protection against being replaced by AI tools in a new labour contract with producers. The hope is that protections will be extended to screenwriters and actors.

Otherwise, in Hollywood, AI might just steal the show. The Conversation

Jasmin Pfefferkorn, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Culture and Communication, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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Tuesday 11 July 2023

In Greta Gerwig’s Barbie Land, the Matriarchy can be just as bad as the Patriarchy

Getty Images
Katie Pickles, University of Canterbury

Spoiler alert: this review contains plot details of the film.

At last – after the hype and advance mass-merchandising – the Barbie movie is here. Part spoof, part action fantasy, part Barbie doll virtual museum, it’s a full-blown product placement experience – but ironic as much as iconic.

The movie sets off feeling like a post-pandemic party. It’s an opportunity to be frivolous after a time of adversity, and to reclaim the pink of life – especially, perhaps, for fun-starved Gen Z. Given Barbie first appeared in 1959 as a baby boomer’s plastic mini-mannequin, dress-up fashion doll, that’s real inter-generational reach.

But to early critics, the doll evoked the mass production of white, American tween culture. To feminists seeking women’s liberation, Barbie symbolised a culture that objectified women, treating them quite literally as living dolls.

All this is captured in the first part of the film, where “Stereotypical Barbie” and “Just Beach Ken” are brilliantly brought to life by Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. The film playfully toys with the long history of Barbie debates, subtly feeding into the backstory.

Just as impressively, no expense has been spared on set and accessory design. Watching the actors breathe, think, move and play like dolls is hilarious and spooky.

Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel and creator of the Barbie doll, on her creation’s 40th birthday in 1999. Getty Images

Of course, real people playing dolls might suggest those feminist fears have been realised. Except for the fact that Barbie Land in this film is an empowering matriarchy, full of dreams coming true, and where the dolls are leading perfect lives of substance.

Unlike real-world America, there is a woman president. Equity, diversity and the acceptance of all body types are on display. All of which support Barbie manufacturer Mattel’s claim to create the dolls as “role models” for women’s advancement in a changing world.

And then the aspirational matriarchy starts to malfunction. Stereotypical Barbie develops bad breath, flat feet, cellulite and a fear of death. A leak in the portal to the Real World means dark and crazy drawings by that Barbie’s owner are having a voodoo effect. She must travel there to sort things out.

‘I am Kennough’

The movie turns dark, with tag-along Ken discovering patriarchy in the Real World and taking it back to Barbie Land. With Ken largely invisible in the film’s merchandising and girls-night-out launches, we’ve been set up for the surprising plot twist.

Gosling proceeds to own the screen and make this the Ken Movie. He rejects being “just Ken” and instead acts, dances, prowls and flexes to steal the show. (He calms down later, accepting that Barbie does not want to be his girlfriend.)

An appendage no more, it is Ken, not Barbie, who whines about blonde fragility and every night being a girls’ night, and who now sings of seeking to push women around and take them for granted.

This is where the movie is at its most profound. Ken, not Barbie, is the victim of sexism. As Barbie has flourished, Ken has been left behind. Kens are the objectified, excluded second sex.

There are echoes here of the American feminist Susan Faludi’s writings. In the early 1990s, she saw feminism as being defined in a sign hoisted by a little girl at the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality march: I AM NOT A BARBIE DOLL.

By the end of that decade she described the betrayal of the American man, and a crisis of masculinity. Emasculated men, she wrote, were left behind in the wake of women’s progress. But as the inhabitants of Barbie Land discover in the film, matriarchy can be just as damaging as patriarchy. Better to mix pink and blue to make purple instead of them competing.

Irony at every turn: Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie at the European premiere of Barbie in London. Getty Images

Rejects save the day

Writer-director Greta Gerwig and her collaborator (and husband) Noah Baumbach feed the dichotomy of being “for” or “against” Barbie. But they ultimately render that debate history.

Enter Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) and Alan (Michael Cera), outcasts and rejects of Barbie Land, who want “nobody in the shadows”. These are the real heroes who save the day, deprogramming the brainwashed Barbies. It is one more layer of irony in a film about a doll once accused of brainwashing girls.

Indeed, when Barbie cries at one point about being ugly, providing irony within irony, narrator Helen Mirren steps in to suggest that Margot Robbie was probably not the right actress to cast to make that point.

By the end of the film, Barbie has become real and ordinary. Replete with genitalia, she liberates herself from her plastic-fantastic dream world – without Ken – to live in the unruly real world. In a full circle, the doll becomes human.

So, must women’s empowerment come at men’s expense? The historian of patriarchy Gerda Lerner once addressed this very question. She said the idea was an outmoded construct that

no longer serves the needs of men or women and in its inextricable linkage to militarism, hierarchy, and racism it threatens the very existence of life on earth.

As in the finale of Gerwig’s film, Lerner’s feminist vision was for everybody to stand in the sunshine. In a world emerging from COVID and grappling with the general grimness of war and climate change, Gerwig’s Barbie is both an exuberant opiate and a comment on the state of global feminism.

Perhaps most ironically, however, it may signal market saturation for Barbie. Surely this must be her peak moment, a massive last hurrah, after which the doll and all she has represented for over 60 years recede into history. Then again, Hollywood loves a sequel.The Conversation

Katie Pickles, Professor of History, University of Canterbury

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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