(An Ipswich Arts Blog)
I actually haven’t seen any of Steve McQueen’s feature films (the others being Hunger and Shame) although I like everything I read about them, and about him and his rise and rise from Turner Prize winner to Oscar winner.
Artist and Suffolk resident Maggi Hambling has seen 12 Years a Slave, or as she’s prefers to describe it, “that frightful, boring slave film.”
She made those comments in a recent University Campus Suffolk Q & A event. This tied in with the university’s annual fundraising art auction to which Maggi has been a frequent and generous contributor.
The response from most of her audience was to laugh loudly, perhaps with embarrassment, perhaps with approval; probably a mix of the two. No-one challenged her words and her interviewer (UCS Head of Fine Art, David Baldry) moved the questions on apparently untroubled by any offence she may have caused.
Jason Haye is a Fine Art student at UCS and was the only black person present at the event. He’s written of his reactions on his own blog here which can be broadly summed up as shock at Maggi’s words and disappointment at the response of his colleagues.
There’s also coverage of the controversy on the website Garden of Freedom here and I’d advise reading the comments below this piece which include some interesting contributions from Segun Lee French, who I’m assuming is the writer of Eastern Angles’ current touring play, Palm Wine and Stout.
Both the above links include audio of Maggi’s words so you can make your own mind up about what she said and why. What sparked my interest in the story was its parallels to an experience of my own at another Ipswich arts event, also with a UCS connection.
I used to be a regular at a monthly Ipswich poetry gathering where a decent turnout would meet to read their own work or favourite work by published poets. The atmosphere had always been very welcoming with compliments rather than critiques the normal protocol.
The last time I attended a member of staff from UCS was there for the first time. I’d met him before at another poetry event and he’d come across as friendly enough, and not a bad poet on the limited evidence I’d seen.
On this occasion he read a poem he claimed was written in memory of young Fusilier Lee Rigby, who was viciously murdered in cold blood in Greenwich on the afternoon of May 22nd last year. The poetry reading took place only a few weeks after the murder but the poet still got the month and time of day of Rigby’s death wrong.
His reading was preceded by some unpleasant and aggressive remarks about ‘Muslims’. The poem itself included equally objectionable lines about the nature of Islam and its part in Lee Rigby’s murder, one of which was a lame play on words combining Mohammad with ‘mad’.
When the poet finished reading he received a warm round of applause, although I should add that not everyone in the crowded room heard all the poem or its introduction. At this point I objected to the remarks made before the poem and in the work itself. Awkward silence followed and the next poet was quickly called forward.
During the evening’s half time break, several people spoke to me to express their support and the following week I also received several kind e-mails along the same lines.
E-mail correspondence with the event’s long-time organiser was a less positive experience: a deluge of double-talk and an improbable semantic interpretation of the poem that re-wrote it as a noble tribute to the fallen soldier that no-one who’d heard it properly could possibly take seriously.
I considered taking the matter to the police, to report as a hate crime, but gave this idea up in the face of little enthusiasm among others who had been present, and I sympathised with their reluctance. Some had connections to UCS and the poet himself; others didn’t wish to direct more publicity to such material.
I considered publishing something about what had happened, to put it on public record at least, but was specifically asked not to do so by one person who’d been badly hurt by the poem (and hope they’ll forgive me for doing so now). So I did nothing.
I’ve never been back to the monthly readings and had mostly put the evening out of my mind before Maggi Hambling, of all people, brought back those memories, although it was her audience’s reaction that most recalled my own brush with bigotry.
But Maggi’s right to say what she did – however dumb or unfunny – does not negate the right of her audience to question her words, which surely some of them must have wanted to do. Quite the opposite. Her bluntness demanded a response in kind.
The same goes for those who applauded the poet’s vitriol when many of them knew that brickbats and not bouquets were what he deserved.
Defending freedom of speech is admirable. Failing to challenge speech that encourages ignorance and prejudice is indefensible.
When political debate has been colonised by spin and the mainstream media feeds on its own droppings like factory-farmed fowl, the arts should lead the way in encouraging the expression of vigorous and original opinion, to be met by an equally vigorous and opposed response.
As William Blake wrote, “Without contraries..no progression.”
If some wish to use public arts events to spout bile then let others get up, stand up, and wash it away with a burst of rightful anger.
Don’t just sit there and laugh, or clap. As Maggi Hambling might say – that would be so fucking boring.