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The heart of the land

I read a post this week (3rd Jan) by Tolu Ogunlesi: ‘Oxfam’s Book of Lamentations’ in which the author makes some observations on, and critical comments about, Oxfam’s latest fundraising campaign advert which concentrates on “Africa’s stunning countryside not hunger”. With respect to Ogunlesi I disagree with some of his criticism.

A distressed Oxfam has since gone ahead to launch its latest Africa campaign, in a desperate bid to shift the world’s attention from African Hunger, to African-Hunger-Backdropped-By-Stunning-African-Landscapes.

That’s, in a nutshell, the story.

It left me a tad puzzled. A w-t-f puzzlement. As in: is Oxfam for real?

Let’s even forget, for a moment, the unforgettable fact that Oxfam has probably done far more than any other organisation in propagating these images.

Let’s focus on something else that struck me about the story: the way blame is being placed squarely on the shoulders of The Images.

Oxfam appears to be saying: Put All The Blame On The Images. Not the people hanging on stubbornly to those images in the face of alternative evidence.

Am I alone in thinking Oxfam’s lamentations suggest a British public that is at the mercy of what they are fed.

Helpless Brits who somehow cannot — despite all their efforts — rise beyond the bombardment of pity-evoking images of Africa,

One might as well rephrase Dame Stocking as follows:

“Oh poor helpless people of Britain, all they’re being fed is harrowing, unhelpful images of Africa. We need to stop that. We need to feed them something different. We need to change their diet.”

© Tolu Ogunlesi

 

As someone interested in rural development and the notions of ‘landscape’ and ‘beauty’, whether ‘wilderness’ exists, cultural ‘ownership’ of land, and so on, I was rather intrigued by all of this, and particularly by the Oxfam ad captions, one of which states:

Let’s make South Sudan famous for its epic landscapes, not hunger.”

But coincidentally, an hour or so earlier on the same day I’d come across a short but deeply personal piece by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian “This land is your land: why landscapes are the most emotional artworks”

 

Landscape is an Elgar concerto of echoing emotion. To walk through a landscape that resonates with your mood or unlocks your memory is a good way to harrow and at the same time enrich the soul.

A bit serious? My father died in November. At Christmas we walked over the golf course where he used to play. It was utterly deserted. Beyond its sculpted green rises a high limestone ridge. A path along a disused railway leads to a silent wood that coats this hill. We walked under brown canopies of winter trees, looking at berries that were red, yellow, black.

We came to the cave that we found in these woods a year ago – a narrow slit in the mountain leading into mossy darkness. In the mouth of the cave we examined green slimy stuff, the goo of life, irrepressibly seething over minerals.

Life fills the woods, invades the very rocks, even in the depths of winter. All these paths are ones I walked with my dad as a child. Here I am walking them with my child…….

………………What landscape art does is tap into feelings we have about places, scenes, space. Simon Schama beautifully captures this in his book Landscape and Memory. So does Poussin in his painting The Arcadian Shepherd. In the Welsh woods at Christmas we stood at the cave’s mouth, listening to the strange drumming of water within. A heartbeat of memory.

© Jonathan Jones

 

I’d mulled over both articles for a few days and decided there was something worth teasing out of them, and so returned to Jones’ piece in The Guardian and in one of those small slivers of synchronicity that are oft sent to tease us, to my surprise I found the Oxfam ad emblazoned across the page top directly above Jones’ article, as one of the various feature ads that ‘flash’ through endlessly.

 

Guardian article and Oxfam ad

Guardian article and Oxfam ad

 

As I stated above I don’t share all of Ogunlesi’s criticisms of Oxfam. I think he is right in some of what he says, but he may have missed the point of the Oxfam ads, but given their woeful implementation that was very easy to do. Like all charities Oxfam’s attitudes must evolve, they need to find new ways to communicate their message and encourage donors to give. And don’t forget that not only must they reach we donors, they must do so in competition with others also trying to prise our hard-earned cash from our pockets. Hence this new approach, which on the surface appears rather facile.

But I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that I think this landscape campaign may just turn out to be a very enlightened one, but at the moment as it currently exists I feel its an idea that is only half-formed and poorly implemented. To really work it needs to bring to the fore the story of why those landscapes are important to the people who live there. Because that may make them important for me too. And that ‘story’ needs to be more than superficial, it needs to explore individual relationships with the land, what the human, cultural interactions with those landscapes are and why we donors should care about the people who tell those stories. That may sound rather abstract so let me try to explain a bit more of what I mean, and ironically I’ll use an example that does not actually portray people.

A little book I came across several years ago profoundly moved me, “Jura, Language and Landscape”. It is a simple volume, slim and unassuming, and I can imagine many ‘serious’ photographers not rating McKay’s images very highly: no long exposure milky water, no dramatic oversaturated skies, no artifice of any sort. In short no “epic landscapes”. But such critics will have missed the point of this work by a mile. This book is very much a labour of love by its author Gary McKay, who has made a photographic record of the landscape of the island of Jura, and spoken with many of the Gaelic speaking local residents, recording and transcribing their personal stories of the landscapes that surround them. As a rule I dislike photography books that willfully ignore the human impact on landscape and in a sense mislead readers, and in so doing, in a Scottish context at least, promote some misguided notion of a ‘highland wilderness'; it’s wild land certainly, but it is not a wilderness. McKay’s images may not be ‘dramatically pretty’ but they are suffused with cultural significance.

Although devoid of any human figures what McKay’s book eloquently imparts is a sense of these ‘empty places’ being filled to the brim with human history. Everywhere exist subtle details of previous residency, the warp and woof in the landscape that creates a rich tapestry from the dreams of life and living, raising families and passing from mother and father to daughter and son the personal stories of being in this place. The title of the book ‘Language and Landscape’ says it all: the two are inextricably intertwined. And in this context the deliberate absence of any individuals from McKay’s panoramic images is for me one of the books great strengths, for it implies that there is something there that is invisible to the ignorant or untrained eye, something that is more important than the presence of one transient human figure. For those who can read the signs and understand the significance as described in ‘the language of place’ there is, quite simply, connection. And as in any country, we who do not speak ‘the language of that place’ need simply ask someone who does, in order to be enlightened.

Scottish MP, MSP and tv producer Michael Russell reviewed the book in the Glasgow Herald and had this to say:

“I am  often  struck by how much that is truly important and original in our country and in our culture is being done by people constantly  ignored by government , and usually neglected by public bodies.  Gary McKay’s extraordinary photographs of the island on which he lives  are not only part of his immense work in making the highest precision recordings of any landscape in the UK but are also heavy with significance in terms of culture, the environment and rural policy.  Combined with the wealth of traditional and local information which he has saved from extinction  they are also at times painfully moving, for they tell us that Jura – along with many other places in the Highlands and Islands –  has become, as the native Americans  put it, a place of  “ghosts with no children”.

What one can learn from the names used by local people to describe their landscape is significant. As McKay notes in his book, the place called Ardlussa is derived from ‘ard’, the gaelic word for ‘a high place, often a promontory’ and ‘lussa’ which is thought to be derived from an earlier Norse word ‘ljoss’, meaning glossy, lustrous or shining. “In the spring or early summer, when the flowers are in bloom along its wooded coastline and verdant meadows, this interpretation seems more than fitting.”  In Scotland local names for landscape features are less often romantic and more usually descriptive, and can often impart significant information about the history or perceived landscape features of a place. So for example we have Achiltibuie in the north west, which is the phonetic pronunciation of achadh uillte buidhe, or ‘field of the yellow brook’, although the local tradition has it as achadh ghille buidhe – ‘field of the golden-haired lad’. And with the knowledge of this ‘history’ as imparted by the ‘language of place’ we may be enlightened about a feature, the brook, that we may not have noticed, or intrigued by the presence of a golden-haired lad, and who might he have been, and why was he here. Either way, we have connected with this place at a deeper level.

I’m not at all sure what ‘connection’ the average viewer will have with the images Oxfam present, given the lack of any real narrative beyond ‘epic’. Much has been written about ‘landscape and memory’, and I can certainly recommend Simon Schama’s astonishing book on the subject, but I’d like to quote a short piece from a paper by Ken Taylor, Research School of Humanities, The Australian National University, Canberra, which although about Asia, is a universal sentiment and I think is very relevant to Africa too.

Landscape and Memory: cultural landscapes, intangible values and some thoughts on Asia

Abstract

One of our deepest needs is for a sense of identity and belonging. A common denominator in this is human attachment to landscape and how we find identity in landscape and place. Landscape therefore is not simply what we see, but a way of seeing: we see it with our eye but interpret it with our mind and ascribe values to landscape for intangible – spiritual – reasons. Landscape can therefore be seen as a cultural construct in which our sense of place and memories inhere. Critical to this has been the increasing attention given to the study of cultural landscapes, even to the extent of recognition in 1992 of World Heritage Categories of outstanding cultural landscapes. The paper explores some of the associated ideas of landscape and memory and how landscape permeates much of our thinking of who we are with some focus on Asia as the cultural landscape idea gains ground in this region of the world.

Any landscape is a condition of the spirit’ Henri Frederic Amiel

But what is ‘landscape’?, and what are its connections with human memory? On the first question I want to quote from two of the mid-twentieth pioneering teachers of landscape study, J B Jackson and W G Hoskins. Jackson (1984, op cit p.8) in his reflections on what landscape is quotes what he calls ‘the old fashioned but surprisingly persistent definition of landscape: “A portion of the earth’s surface that can be comprehended at a glance.” ’ He saw landscape as ‘A rich and beautiful book [that] is always open before us. We have but to learn to read it.’(Jackson 1951). Hoskins (1955, p.14) asserted the significance of landscape in The Making of the English Landscape with proposal that ‘The … landscape itself, to those who know how to read it aright is the richest historical record we possess.’

3 Intangible values and landscape

A common theme underpinning the concept of the ideology of landscape itself as the setting for everything we do is that of the landscape as the repository of intangible values and human meanings that nurture our very existence. This is why landscape and memory are inseparable because landscape is the nerve centre of our personal and collective memories. Notably in this regard are the words of Bambang Bintoro Soedjito (1999), then Deputy Chair for Infrastructure with the Indonesian National Development Planning Agency, who suggested in 1999 that:

For us, the most important expressions of culture at this time are not the monuments, relics and art from the past, nor the more refined expressions of cultural activity that have become popularised beyond Indonesia’s borders in recent years, but the grassroots and very locally specific village based culture that is at the heart of the sense of community. And that sense of community, perhaps more that of the individual has been a strong shaping and supportive influence in times of trouble, through turbulence and now in strengthening a confident sense of identity as we combine heritage with a society opened to the opportunities of the world.

And therein lies my unease with Oxfam’s campaign. We may see the wonder of these landscapes they portray for us, and gasp at their beauty, but that’s not nearly enough. In that sense they are little different from the images used to promote tourism: the ‘come see this, feel refreshed because it’s different and exotic’ approach.

I think Oxfam can take this campaign an important step further and start to explore the personal relationships with these ‘stunning landscapes’ that are at the heart of their campaign, but also crucially, at the heart of the lives of the people who live there. We expect to see named the people who feature in charities adverts, and rightly so, and I would suggest that it is a conceit to omit the names, the local culturally significant names, of the landscapes that are featured also.

It is rather naive to assume that simply having a pretty picture splashed across a campaign will suddenly motivate a donor to care in a different way. The complexity of relationship that already exists with that landscape at a local level is what I’d like to hear about, the surprising ways that people relate to ‘their place’. Discovering that story should paint a fuller picture of that location for me. It should make me want to support that community, as I learn that it is one rooted in familiar soil, with the undulations of their landscape a part of their vocabulary, their voice loud, and which echoes off their own distant hills calling back as confirmation of their presence there.

As quoted above ‘The … landscape itself, to those who know how to read it aright is the richest historical record we possess.’   And for me that record needs to have the voices of the people who live there tell its story for it to have any lasting value. And that story should be the complex one of a community wrestling their own existence from their soil, yes ‘aided’ by my money, your money, but written by them for their children. Aid is not just about food, it should be about supporting cultural development and ‘a sense of place’ too.

Interviewed in the NYT about his book ‘Landscape and Memory’ Simon Schama says:

There is a difference between land, which is earth, and landscape, which signifies a kind of jurisdiction. It always meant the framing of an image,”

And that’s perhaps the problem I have with these Oxfam images, as framed by Oxfam they are beautiful and exotic “landscapes”, but devoid of their inherent and complex human stories they are not “land, which is earth”. The former is about our ‘jurisdiction’ over these places, the latter about roots, physical and cultural, in ‘the soil of our fathers’. And I know which one I, as a donor, would rather support.

 

 

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