Book review entries
January 26, 2006
- Fashion Show and One World Party.
- Not rated
The One World Week Fashion Show and the One World Party provided Warwick’s numerous and lively international societies with an opportunity to showcase traditional costume and forms of dance from every continent in the World in a dazzling celebration of their country’s heritage, however these performance were by no means flashbacks. In fact most societies seemed equally proud of their country’s transition from the ancient to the contemporary world. The striking visual contrast this created between the past and present not only drew attention to the transitions in visual culture but seemed to highlight the changing conceptions of sexuality and gender.
This issue particularly pertinent when the host announced before the Carribean Society entered, that we were about to witness a “celebration of the African woman”. And as the curvaceous beauties ascended the stage exotically swathed in vivid print cottons, bare feet and enormous fabric headdresses I could see why: they were luscious, graceful and strong, and the men who escorted them performed various romantic gestures with religious reverence. And in fact this presentation of a flower or kiss on the hand became a motif of the evening; sometimes aloofly rejected and sometimes shyly accepted by women of every nationality.
However this mood of passionate piety was swiftly banished by the next set of African models, who strode onstage in underwear dripping with diamonds and feathers, concealing the bare minimum of brown bodies which were more western looking in figure and toning. Their carnival dance captured the thrill of celebration but lost the sensuality of sway to frantic movement. Finally the last group of models arrived and as chest shaking gave way to hip gyration both their costumes and attitude turned from flamboyant to garish, whilst their partners turned from from pilgrims to pimps. Indeed, the gangster rappers who accompanied them, similarly sporting the all the bling of ball, regarded them with cool indifference. Even when the women wound their bodies down and brought clawing hands to rest, with their heads, at groin level, their brazen sexual display was rewarded with little more than an arrogant nod of the head in time to the music for the benefit of their male audience. The very same models who had stood, a few minutes earlier, with these men at their feet offering them roses, were now were on their knees before them.
This same radical transformation in the dynamic power between the couples occurred in almost every performance. In fact, as if to emphasize this, the injected tributes to modern films intended to provide “multicultural” interludes in the society acts stood as pertinent testimony to a new model of relationship. James Bond, Austin Power, Sex in the City, Moulin Rouge all exhibited women defining themselves through dress and movement as objects of a new male type of fantasy. In place of the mysterious, adorned jewel, symbol of a precious demure femininity, were confident, playful, violently seductive women, conscious of the male gaze, and responding to it. The affected indifference to being watched displayed by the woman of the past seems to have transferred gender and is now more characteristic of the new male. A simple three second movement from kneeling and standing conveyed so much more than sexual energy, intentionally or not, this opposing positions signified a new perception of gender.
The fact that these shows drew audiences of over three thousand people many of whom have no outside interest in fashion or dance proves that they expected these costumes and routines to be invested with meaning beyond the aesthetic. Indeed, the changes within and differences between national costume and dance reflect political, economic, religious and social developments and values. They are a code to be deciphered. The conjunction, for example, of tea dances and parasols with the sharp suits and a call on a flash mobile followed by the exchange of money proudly acted out by the Japanese Society unsubtly alluded to their technological and financial superiority and the growth of their mafia which makes Japan a superpower today. Similarly, and perhaps in deliberate opposition, after a traditional Russian knee kicking dance, a group of thugs in beaver hats violently kicked a man covered in a old-fashioned patterned cloth before the soundtrack proclaimed “we’re not gangsters, we’re Russian”: a most elusive message. Farewell heritage? Who knows.
However without attempting to extract unintentional political messages, the divisions produced by dress and dance which undoubtedly operate according to new categories, do expose new and universal sexual politics. Whilst we were enthralled by the sway of the Sri Lankans, the coiling arms of Asians the jumps and high kicks of American cheerleaders, and head-down shuffle of Japanese, the Salsa stamp and whirl of Latin nations as we were also entertained by the culturally indistinguishable chest popping, shimmying, arm punches and of all their modern counterparts, although they did blur into one after a while. However the walk down the catwalk was the most revealing aspect of the performance. Where the modesty of slow, gracefully executed movements create a profoundly alluring impression, the grind and strut of the modern women is one of exhibition: a subject of social perception, although ironically it is often considered as a symbol of dominance.
However, I am by no means suggesting that the diversity of past tradition has given way to cultural uniformity because although the audience was wowed by the sumptuous silks and bindies and bangles of India; the bold checks of wide sleeved Kimonos; the burgundy fans and pearls of Italian opera wear and the huge pink bows enclosing the waist of the mini Malaysian ladies, this variety seems to have been replaced by a new set of clearly distinguishable costumes: the skew-wiff caps and bright vests of the streets, chains, denim, lace and leather of the clubbers, gangster basket ball shirts and sparkling studs, grunger hoodies, sharp business suits, designer chic Manahlo Blaniks and more. So perhaps we are not becoming One World but simply one with a new currency of cultural difference: clothes and moves no longer based in race or religion but on class money, education and power.
January 24, 2006
- OWW Forum Talk: Crisis Management
- Not rated
One World Week Forum Talk: “Crisis Management: Crisis Becoming Chaos”
Saturday 14 January 2006
Dr. Scilla Elworthy, Director, Oxford Research Group (ORG)
Ms. Charlotte Lindsey Curtet, Deputy Director of Communication, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Mr. David Woollcombe, President, Peace Child International
Dr. Maja Zehfuss, Department of Politics, University of Warwick
“I believe that young people are the future.” Says Mr. David Woollcombe, the adult at the lectern in front of us, and we all nestle down in cushy lecture theatre chairs, looking forward to an evening of ego massage. We were not disappointed. ou couldn’t help but feel smug as David, Scilla and Charlotte recounted inspirational anecdotes about the wonderful foreign aid and education projects led by compassionate, intelligent youths like ourselves. In fact when Scilla announced how “thrilled and honoured [she felt] to be amongst [us] this evening” she gazed at us with such admiration that I didn’t doubt it. After all, she continued with conviction, we invest our hope of a world free from conflict, “in you: the future generation here in this room”. We all beamed round at each other proudly and I began to feel that by simply by being young and present at this lecture surrounded by belief and enthusiasm, that I was already making a difference. However by the end of David’s story of the One World Moon, which symbolically demonstrated human unity through the image of us “all looking up at night sky and see the same moon”, my self-satisfaction had turned to nausea. And following the fifth or six gushing thank you for having been invited, my confidence in the speakers was starting to wane. It was not restored in the conclusion by the patronising reassurance that we didn’t have to “wait for adults and governments to tell us to act”. Really? Did he think this talk was organised by “adults” by which one must assume he means professionals as opposed to students? Did he really think we lacked encouragement or initiative? Everyone in the room had come on a Saturday night to attend a talk about conflict resolution. We were already sold, to find out how to make use of our commendable tolerant multicultural attitudes, not to be patted on the head for them.
However, regardless of David’s condescending phrasing, his point, is undeniable: young people do need to become interested and active in shaping their future and if the aim was to stimulate such motivation then it would have succeeded. However it was pitched at the wrong audience. The talk outlined much of what we already knew about international conflict: that they are inevitable in modern society, that they are incredibly difficult to resolve due to the combination of religious, political, economic and personal factors and that they are ultimately caused by the ignorance which breeds fear and hatred. That education is the best preventative strategy is hardly a new idea, yet I clung vainly to the hope that they might be leading to the part where they tell us how we can put our education to good use. It never came.
What these guest speakers seemed to be missing was that they were talking to Warwick University students, a fifth of who, (but probably more than half of this audience) are from international backgrounds, and are for the majority respectful of if not friends with foreign students. Even if you miraculously managed to avoid speaking to someone from another country, unless you barricade yourself in your room for the duration of One World Week each year, it is impossible to avoid encountering foreign culture. Cultural Forums, Arts and Sports events replace all usual ones and each day, dedicated to a different continent, bring the sights and sounds of all its countries to the campus. “Does that mean the union will be full of foreigners and fabric all week” moaned one of my less enthusiastic friends in the lead up. ‘Fraid so. You cannot step foot in union without being bombarded with the smell of Shisha and candy floss, the sounds of Asian music and clacking dancing sticks. The outside world is literally thrust in your face by people in traditional costume. Even at other universities these speakers might have visited, they must have encountered a similarly open-minded student body because that’s what university is about: meeting new people of different class, race, religion, and who are studying different academic disciplines, through the enforced intimacy of living together. It is interaction with each other which makes us confront our prejudices, not words on a page or in a lecture.
This is why the section of the talk in which audience members shared their own experiences and efforts at conflict prevention schemes was the most useful part, because it provided concrete examples of what we could do. Admittedly the talk illuminated the scale of the problem: I was shocked to learn that the money our government spends on conflict resolution is a less than one percent of that spent on civil defence, however it didn’t provide direction or solutions. So here’s an idea for next One World Week: a forum with each other, and without “adults”. We might achieve something
Better still how about we use the money which many of us spent on gap year holidays supposedly to “foster cross-cultural understanding and friendship” (Concordia- voluntary work camp organisation) to improve the “cross-cultural understanding and friendship” of the people who need it: those who are fighting and dying over it. Concordia’s right, we can promote peace through understanding and we do need to start with the young, but although it might take more than a story about the moon to convince an indoctrinated Cambodian child that this sworn enemy is as human as he is, or that he shouldn’t revenge the death of his ancestors, on the ancestors of those who killed them, it would be infinitely more useful than giving an privileged European twenty-something an opportunity to show off their languages and make exotic foreign friends. Countless organisations exploit the good intentions of this educated, rich generation of students, but Scilla, David and Charlottle, leaders of the genuine charities “Peace Child International” and “The Red Cross”, had a chance to intercept that, to harness these good intentions by recruiting us to action. An opportunity which was sadly wasted.