Feeling shy, but darned if I’ll show it

Kikuyu child

I took this photo while we were out on  Kenya’s highland farms looking for smut infested napier grass. You can read the full story HERE. This little boy was torn between wanting to know what we were doing on his farm, and not wanting to talk to us. I love the nonchalant drape of his arm on the fence post.


Go here for more bloggers’ compositions in response to the Daily Post photo advice: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/rule-of-thirds/

Horsemen of the Maghreb: the Berber

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They call themselves i-Mazigh-en ‘the noble people’ and they have inhabited western North Africa for at least 12,ooo years. Or as the 8th century Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun put it:

“The men who belong to this family of peoples have inhabited the Maghreb since the beginning.”

This might be mythically ‘true’ but scientific enquiry has produced other scenarios. For instance DNA tests show that i-Mazigh-en have common traits with the Sami reindeer herders of Scandinavia. They seem to have arrived in North Africa from the Near East back in the Mesolithic era, in other words before the development of agriculture. Over the millennia they have absorbed many different ethnic groups, including Neolithic farmers, Romans and much, much later, the Bedouin Arabs who began to invade the Maghreb from the mid-600s AD  and, in the process, largely converted the Berber to Islam.

The name Berber appears first in Roman accounts, and probably derives from the Roman habit of calling non-Latin speakers barbarians. (At least this is the sort of thing my Latin teacher used to tell us). The ancient Berber kingdom of Numidia (202 B.C. – 46 B.C.) once extended along Africa’s western Mediterranean seaboard including territory that is now part of modern day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Numidia’s border effectively cut off Roman Carthage from the African hinterland, which may explain why the Romans were set on annexing the kingdom. During the last two centuries BC,  Numidia became highly Romanized, at different times serving as either a Roman province or a client state.

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Today the are  some 9 million Berbers in Morocco,  4 million in Algeria as well as significant populations in neighbouring countries. Most Berbers are farmers. They grow wheat, barley, fruit, olives, nuts on lowland farms and graze their flocks of  goats and sheep  in mountain pastures during the summer months. They also keep mules, oxen, camels and horses for  work and transport.  Then there are the nomadic pastoralists. These include the Tuareg of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, who though sometimes seen as a separate people, in fact carry Berber genetic markers that suggest they may be members of the founding Berber population.

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These photos, however, were all taken in rural Morocco, somewhere on the road from Marrakech to Fez  (Atlas mountains in the distance). Again they come from G’s slides of his overland trip, and they show a traditional Berber performance of the Fantasia, known locally as  lab el baroud  “the gunpowder play”. On this occasion village people were commemorating  the  25 years rule of King  Hassan II (1929-1999), but the Fantasia can also mark the conclusion of wedding celebrations, and other seasonal festivals.

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The performance harks back to past days of warfare, mimicking the charge formation by Berber and Arab desert riders. It hardly needs me to say that the synchronised charge, followed by the firing into the sky of antique muskets or muzzle-loading rifles, requires great riding skill. The horses also are especially bred and selected for the purpose. Lab el baroud has become the equivalent of a martial art. Each region in Morocco may have several fantasia groups or serba, amounting to thousands of riders nationwide. The 19th century image below shows how little has changed, at least at the time when these photographs were taken.

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Édouard Detaille painting : Fantasia de Spahis (1886)

But in other ways, Berber culture has moved on. Well, it has and it hasn’t. Make up your own mind with this performance of desert blues from the Tuareg band Tinariwen.

Frizz’s Tagged ‘H’

Three bees, two bees, one bee, gone bees?




There have been worrying reports this week that wild bumble bees are now catching  deadly diseases from domesticated honey bees. Numbers are declining  across Europe, North America, South America and also in Asia. You can read the Guardian article about the situation HERE. Then there are problems with pesticides that halve bees’ capacity to gather pollen. Last month the Guardian reported that:

“A two-year EU ban of three neonicotinoids, the most widely used insecticides in the world, began in December, following research that showed harm to honey and bumblebees. The neonicotinoids are “systemic” pesticides, being applied to seeds so that the chemical spreads within the plants. Over three-quarters of the world’s food crops require insect pollination, but bees have declined in recent decades due to loss of flower-rich habitat, disease and pesticide use.”

You can read the rest of the article HERE.

One thing is certain, without bees we will start going hungry. But if this is all too depressing, here’s a view of our Much Wenlock garden taken last summer where there were in fact very many bees. So for all of us who think that winter will never end, take heart. Summer will come again.


Weekly Photo Challenge: threes for more trios

@guardian @guardianeco

Looking for Smut on Kenya’s Highland Farms

For those of you who read my recent post Valentine’s Day Runaway this is one of the things Team Farrell got up to next; it had a lot to do with smut. And no: it’s not what you think.

Rift Valley from Escarpment

Smallholder farms on the Great Rift Escarpment, Kenya


For most of the 1990s we were based out in Kenya, where Team Leader Graham, food storage expert and all-round fix-it man, was one of several  British scientists running a crop protection project alongside Kenyan scientists at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL). This work was funded by DFID, Britain’s Department for International Development, which in turn is of course funded by British taxpayers.


Most of Kenya’s farmers are women. Their efforts feed their families and feed the nation.


Many of the project’s programmes of work were done on farms, and involved helping farmers to devise their own research methods for controlling the numerous pests that attack their crops both before and after harvest. Since just about every Kenyan, from the President down, is some kind of farmer, or has a farm in the family, this was an important project, and just about everyone was interested in the outcomes. (Next time you are buying French beans or mange tout peas in the supermarket, look where they have come from. Much of this kind of produce is grown under contract on small farms like the ones below.)


A typical farmstead in the Kenya Highlands north of Nairobi. The volcanic soil is very fertile, but also susceptible to erosion.


Today Kenya is undergoing a massive hi-tech revolution through the proliferation of cell phone and computer technology, but it still relies on agriculture for survival. When you discover that only 15% of Kenya’s landmass has enough rain or is fertile enough for arable production you may begin to see the scale of the problem for a nation that is only now beginning to industrialize. There are of course the big multinational outfits that grow wheat, coffee, tea, flowers and pineapples, but most of the food that Kenyans eat is grown on thousands of tiny farms, many less than an acre in area.

Escarpment lane

Gathering Napier Grass from roadside plots to feed ‘zero-grazed’ dairy cows. Most farms are so small that cattle are kept in small paddocks and their food is brought to them: yet another daily chore, along with gathering cooking fuel and attending to children and fields.

Kikuyu lane with woman carrying napier grass

Furthermore, most of Kenya’s farmers are women. Providing most of the the country’s food, they are in every sense the backbone of the nation. They stay in their rural homes, tending the crops and bringing up the children while husbands work away to earn extra cash to repair homes, buy fertilizer, educate their children and fund small business enterprises.

These men usually head to the cities where they work as security guards, clerks, hotel staff, house servants and drivers. Most take their annual leave at harvest and planting times so as to be back on their farms to help with the year’s most arduous tasks. So however you look at it, everyone in Kenya works very hard. Certainly in the nineties even most professional Kenyans believed that owning a plot of land to work at weekends was an essential insurance policy in a nation with no social services.


Most of the milk from smallholder’s cows is sold to provide cash to pay for children’s education and medical bills. While primary education has been free over the last few years, there are still expensive books and uniforms to buy, and secondary education is not free. On this farm the owner is also using any disposable income to bit-by-bit replace his timber farm house with a good stone house.

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So back in 1998, as part and parcel of protecting Kenya’s agricultural production, Team Leader Graham invited Nosy Writer (me) to accompany him on a fact finding mission around the farms north of Nairobi. We were on a quest to plot the incidence of SMUT, a fungal disease that was affecting Napier Grass, an important fodder crop. Most smallholders kept a small number of dairy cows because the selling of milk provided a valuable supplement to their income, helping to pay for school fees and medical expenses.

Most farms are too small to include pasture and so the cows are ‘zero-grazed’, that is, kept in small paddocks and their fodder (mostly Napier Grass) brought to them. This grass, if well-tended, grows into huge perennial clumps that can be cut at intervals. It can also be usefully grown on vertical banks to consolidate field terraces, or wherever the farmer can find a space, often on roadside verges. However, once smut gets a hold, the plant will gradually weaken and its food value decrease. Not only that, smut spores blow on the wind, and infect other plants. The only remedy is to root up the infected plants and burn them.

Graham and Kungu delighted to find smut on Waiyaki Way

Nothing pleases plant pathologists more than to find a nicely diseased plant. After a morning spent searching for smutted plants out on the farms, Doctors Graham Farrell and Jackson Kung’u are amused to spot a case back in the city. Here it is on a highway verge near the National Agricultural Research Laboratory in Nairobi. Smut lives up to its name and turns the flowering stems a sooty black. The fungus gradually weakens the plant and reduces it in mass and nutritional value.


My job on the smut quest was to hold the clip-board and the other end of the measuring tape while we sampled farm plots. Our third, and  most essential team member, (in fact he was the real team leader) was Njonjo. He was the one who heroically drove us up and down the hilly Kikuyu lanes that had recently been ravaged by torrential El Nino rains.


Rift lane after July downpour

As well as being one of NARL’s top drivers, Njonjo was himself a farmer, and so had a vested interest in getting to the bottom of the smut infestation. Since Graham’s Kiswahili was a bit rusty, and many of the older farmers preferred to speak Kikuyu, Njonjo provided them with on-the-spot lectures on what they should do with their smut-infected plants. He also talked our way onto every farm, where we welcomed in with huge courtesy, despite arriving uninvited.


Njonjo and Margaret the farmer. She was busy making compost when we arrived on her farm.

Kikuyu farmer and sugar cane

This farmer was so grateful to be told about his smutted Napier Grass he presented us with some sugar cane. We also came home with chickens, maize cobs and bags of pears


One of our tasks on the farm was to sample farmers’ Napier Grass plots to see how far they were infected, and to what extent the affected plants had lost mass. Njonjo organised a team of unemployed lads to help with the sampling.




Before the cell-phone revolution of recent years, farming information was hard to come by. Here Njonjo delivers his Smut Lecture to an impromptu gathering of smallholders who have spotted our arrival in their district and want to know what we are up to.


And here are three good reasons why Kenyans work so hard…

Kikuyu schoolboys

…education, education, education.

© 2014 Tish Farrell


Gorilla Guards in Virunga


I’ve been rifling through the Team Leader’s photo file again, and trying not to wish I had taken these shots. As I said in an earlier post about the Congo, Graham went on an Africa overland trip a long time ago. He calls this era TBT – Time before Tish. He knows that I am deeply aggravated not to have visited all the countries he travelled through back then. Still, it means that you and I can at least enjoy these glimpses of one of the world’s most magnificent creatures.

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These photos were taken in the Virunga National Park, in the north east corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They were taken in peaceful times. Tragically, in the last few decades since the Rwandan genocide of 1994, this vast park has become a haven for armed militias. (The background to this situation is covered in the Congo post).  By 2008 it looked as if Virunga, one of the most  bio-diverse places on earth, had been destroyed. But since then the park has been restored and much of this is down to the brave Congolese rangers who continue to risk their lives to protect the wildlife, including nearly 500 mountain gorillas. Parts of Virunga are even safe once more for tourism.

Virunga ranger

Photo: Gorilla.CD  Virunga National Parks official website


The Gorilla.CD site is the best place to go for up-to-date reports on the Virunga National Park and its gorillas. Also see their gorilla blog for more fantastic pictures. And take a look at the fund-raising projects which need everyone’s support. Some one hundred and fifty rangers have been killed by militias. The most recently reported attack was in January this year (Virunga National Park Ranger Killed in DRC). Gorilla.CD has a project to support the rangers’ widows and children.

And yes, I did say it: tourism in this area is being revived. It takes place in part of the park where there is no militia threat. The Virunga National Park (3,000 square miles) is run by the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature and is a UNESCO world heritage site. May be one day I will go there too.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Frizz’s Tuesday Challenge: tagged ‘G’

Valentine’s Day Runaway


Friday February 14 1992 was the day I ran away to Africa. I was finally fleeing a marriage with too many guns in the closet, and much else besides. And I was leaving behind home, possessions, an aged father and three much loved labradors. The springer spaniel, though, I would not miss. The little beast was demented and I wished the husband joy of her.

At the time of departure I had very little money, and I had left a legal aid solicitor to handle my divorce. (With guns in the closet I discovered that such matters are swiftly expedited). When I boarded the airport bus in Wolverhampton bound for Heathrow all I had with me was one canvas grip stuffed with some summer clothes, and a small cabin bag containing paperbacks, my Olympus-trip, a mini cassette player and Joni Mitchell’s Night Ride Home. I also had an Air France ticket to Nairobi and a stash of anti-malaria tablets.


Long ago at Mzima Springs – the way I was then…


I was off to be with the man with whom I was smitten, an entomologist working out in Kenya on a three-month contract to control an introduced crop pest, the Larger Grain Borer. I knew little about him, and still less about my destination. Years before, in a frigid Scottish university, I had written a masters thesis on the socio-economic relations between Mbuti hunters and Bantu farmers of the Congo. I had never been to Africa, nor wanted to go there. I had read too much about forest buffaloes, ants and yaws in the Ituri Forest to find the idea appealing. I was not the sort of person who craved adventure or who had travelled much. I was a museum researcher and an armchair anthropologist. When I set off from rural Shropshire on that dank and gloomy day, it was to meet up with the flesh-and-blood man who had sent me the plane ticket. I did not expect to look out of a plane window somewhere over Somalia, and fall in love with a continent.

It was un coup de foudre as the French say. Ludicrous and nerve-shattering. Perhaps I should not have flown Air France, (although with hindsight I have to say it was one of my best flights ever). But as we approached Nairobi the condition only grew worse. It seemed there was a plane jam at Jomo Kenyatta International; the 747 could not land. Instead, it circled and circled Mount Kenya. I could not believe it: this god’s eye view of the vast exploded volcano presented to me again, again, and again. Then, as a final flourish to this extraordinary entrée, we made our descent over the green highlands of Kikuyuland, the smallholder farms so lush from the short rains.

Those landscapes fused onto my retina, bedded in my cerebral cortex, and I was changed.


My man in Mombasa – the way he was then…


When I finally met G at the airport, he seemed like a stranger. I noticed that his hair needed cutting and he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt with an oddly tropical look, this when I had only known him in the thick jumpers and anoraks so essential for surviving winter in rural Shropshire. It was a disquieting discovery to see that I did not know him at all in this landscape. As he drove me into the city I gazed out at the plains bush country around the airport, found myself blinking at the crowds and traffic chaos in downtown Nairobi. Someone had turned the colours up: it was all too bright, the road reserves dazzling with pink bougainvillaea, yellow cassia trees; the bright clothes and brown faces, the white smiles. When I arrived at the Jacaranda Hotel in Westlands I was still in tourist mode. I thought I had come to Kenya for a couple of months at most. Neither of us could have guessed that we would not live again in England for another eight years, or that our Africa journey had only just begun. And so yes, to thieve a line from Ms Brontë, and one so apt for this Valentine’s occasion – “Reader, I married him”; I married the man who bought me a plane ticket to Africa. How could I not?

napier grass on the Rift

Kenya’s highland farms in the rains

© 2014 Tish Farrell


Carnations, Crooks and Colobus at Lake Naivasha

On Kenya’s Farms

No way back from Africa: the road to Hunter’s Lodge



Weekly Writing Challenge: My funny Valentine for more bloggers’ stories. The ones below especially caught my attention:

Waiting on a Word


Words We Women Write

Yellow Peril? Some Cut and Thrust Tactics on Kenya’s Matatus

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Going down the Great Rift


Meet the matatu, one of Kenya’s 24,000 privately owned and operated mini-buses. They are the country’s main form of public transport, taking 12 million Kenyan commuters to and from work each day. It can often be a grit-your-teeth-and-hope-to-live-to-tell-the-tale form of transport. The decrepit state of some of the vehicles, reckless driving and overloading are  frequent causes of the country’s large numbers of road deaths.

Government attempts to regulate the industry regularly stall. But whatever their shortcomings, there is always a matatu to be had, and their fares are relatively affordable. They provide the only means for many traders to transport their goods to market.

In fact you could say that matatus are an example of free market enterprise at its most vibrant/rampant – depending on your stance. This is especially true in the country’s capital Nairobi, now home to 3 million souls and counting. The competition to secure key commuter routes across the unregulated urban sprawl can be cut throat. Matatu owners hire young men as drivers and touts, and since they earn a cut of the takings, the inclination to make the maximum return from every journey, and to beat competitors  to the queue of waiting passengers, can lead to hair-raising practices. ‘Undertaking’ or cutting up on inside lanes and pavements is a particular Kenyan driving style. When we lived in Nairobi there were also anguished  letters to the local press from matatu users, saying how they had been physically ‘kidnapped’ by touts, forcing them to ride a particular bus when the did not want to.

And not only that, when it rains, the fares go up.


Matatu stop in Westlands, Nairobi


These two photos of yellow matatus were taken in the late ‘90s and are bit old hat when it comes  to the exterior paintwork. But even back then many buses were mobile art galleries. In recent times a vehicle’s ‘look’  has become part and parcel of the competition war. Owners commission the hottest young graffiti artists to paint their matatus’ livery.  The expectation is that a well ‘pimped’ vehicle will up the takings. And this is the vibrant side of the matatu business. It is creating employment opportunities for educated and creative young Kenyans who finish school but cannot find work. They have a lot to say for themselves and considerable flair. Their style is increasingly sophisticated and western influenced. Go matatu spotting and you will soon grasp what is trending in popular culture and political opinion.

Photo: Cheki.co.ke


Then there is the loud music, especially hip hop. This is another ‘on board’ feature designed to attract and secure clientele. The touts say it brings in the beautiful girls and stylish guys, and is all about creating a cool atmosphere.  Needless to say, the Kenyan Government has also attempted to ban the music, but enforcement is another matter.

The intense competition for business has been taking the matatu in other directions. Over 1,000  Nairobi matatus have recently gone high-tech. Commuter journeys from the city suburbs can take up to 2 hours, so providing free wi-fi has been proving a significant draw. Vuma Online was launched last April by Kenya’s biggest telecom company, Safaricom. Now passengers can pass the time stuck in the capital’s notorious traffic jams on their smart phones – checking emails and watching the news. People with particular views of what goes on in African countries may be surprised at the particular sophistication of this commuter facility. They shouldn’t be. Kenya is the East African hub of telecoms interconnectivity. This is the country that has pioneered the M-Pesa mobile phone money transfer and micro-financing system that is now facilitating so many small businesses.

But enough from me. If you want a flavour of what city life is like for ordinary Kenyans, take a look at these two short films.

Ailsa’s Travel Theme for more yellow entries besides these that caught my eye:

Melissa Shaw-Smith

Travel Words

Figments of DuTchess


The Changing Palette

Photos by Emilio

In Looking Glass Land in Kensington Gardens: Anish Kapoor Revisited


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Yes, this is me in the hat, snapping myself inside Anish Kapoor’s wonderful C-Curve installation. To see more of the C-Curve go HERE and join me in Looking Glass Land.  And yes, this was just an excuse to show again this brilliant piece of public art – the kind that invites you in makes you part of the picture.

Related: Object, subject, object: who cares when it’s this much fun

Weekly Photo Challenge: Selfie go here  for more self portraits.

Errant Muse? But there’s still life at the allotment


I’ve posted this photo of my last summer’s allotment produce to prove something. I thought it might be a good antidote to my dreary state of writing stuckness. (And may be yours too). For one thing it shows conclusively that if I can’t get to grips with the several novels now backed up in brain and filing cabinets, then I can at least produce beautiful vegetation. (In season of course). Most of it is edible too, although I would not recommend the zinnias. Marigolds are fine however – in salads and as herbal tea. Excellent for the immune system, or so a herbalist friend tells me.


I sometimes think my allotment life is a metaphor for my writer’s life. Sometimes I think  it’s the other way around. This reminds me of the great Welsh poet, R S Thomas. In my post about him the film link shows him, in his elder years, out bird watching on the Welsh coast. Speaking to camera, and with a wry smile, the Nobel nominee says he is supposed to be a poet, but that when the poem is going badly, then he is a birdwatcher. Likewise for me, when the writing stalls, then I am a gardener. I am mostly a gardener.


The common ground between growing and creating is obvious: seasons of  productivity followed by dead times when the creative flow seems to be, well, DEAD. This is the natural order of things. I know it. And so I am forgiving when it comes to the garden. I do not expect it to grow things in December and February (or at least not much). But when it comes to writing, I fret, fume and grow ever more despondent with myself because the ideas in my head cannot be rendered, as I would like them, to word, to screen, to finished work.  And I do not forgive this. I consider it a grave fault.


Yet I know, too, that good growing and writing, require a fertile medium, one that is well turned and appropriately nourished. You need plans and timetables, while remaining open to alternative courses of action. You also need the right medium for the job in hand. All this takes time: years of learning, of preparation, and the application of improving strategies. You have to understand your ground from the inside out. And that brings me to another essential condition – good drainage. And  in my home town poor drainage is a problem; both brain and allotment, then, are equally afflicted. They are not free-draining. But at least I know how to improve the soil. Grit is good.


In the absence of creative flow, ungoverned gathering of new material can start filling the gap. This in hopes of finding a  spark, some fresh inspiration to jump start the writing. The activity can of course have its good points. You may indeed find the very thing you need. Besides which, well rotted down and aerated compost improves content and structure for any future cultivation. On the other hand, ever growing stagnant piles of poorly decomposing matter simply overwhelm and add to the stalled flow problem. In other words, there comes a time when you simply have to give your brain a rest, leave the compost heap to rot down, and allow the period of dormancy to run its course. The hard thing is to keep faith during this process of seeming inactivity; to believe that you WILL recover and complete the works you began.

That wonderful woman, poet and Jungian psychoanalyst, Clarissa Pinkola Estés has some very heartening things to say about this. In her autobiographical exploration of the nature of story, The Faithful Gardener, she says that new seed is faithful, and that it roots most deeply where the ground is the most empty. In The Creative Fire she also says that everyone is an artist even if they have not lifted a brush to the canvass or opened a new Word file (I paraphrase). Finally she tells us that the only thing you need to create is to get out of the way.

And so in a bid to get out of the way, I leave you with some summer marigolds. Before your eyes they are passing through their natural cycle from bud, to falling flower to newly forming seed head. Perhaps if we stare at them long enough, absorbing all that very creative orangeness, we stalled creators will ‘hear’ what they are telling us.


© 2014 Tish Farrell


Frizz’s Tagged E  Go here for more ‘E’ stories



Bright Fields on Llyn: windows in time, mind and space and other stories from Cymru

Onwards and upwards…the big New Year ‘do-over’

Object, subject, object? Who cares when it’s this much fun…




It was a brilliantly cold December day and we heading for the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens when when we happened on this marvellous magic mirror. We were already in fantasy-mode too. We had just been questing in Kensington’s Enchanted Palace exhibition, wherein the State Apartments had been filled with mysterious installations that told serial tales of seven princesses who had once lived in Kensington Palace. Many of the stories were hauntingly sad, and the last of these, Princess Diana’s, very much skated over. And so, despite the grandeur of the place, and the wonder of the installations, we were left with disturbing cobwebby feelings that made me think of finding wicked fairies in the attic. It was good to step out into the icy air and  regain some sense of reality.

But then look what happened…?


Wandering through the wintery park, we collided with this piece of optical wizardry – sculptor Anish Kapoor’s C-Curve – a highly polished steel convex-concave mirror. It turned out to be one of four magnificent pieces making up the six-month 2010-11 exhibition put on by the Serpentine Gallery in conjunction with the Royal Parks. Sadly, the exhibition is over, but you can have a retrospective view and see a short video at this link:

Anish Kapoor: Turning the World Upside Down



But the great thing about the C-Curve was the huge enjoyment it was giving to all the passers-by. Public art at its very best. You could walk right up to it. You could watch yourself do silly walks and upside-down too. You could hug your partner and grin inanely at your reflections. It made you, the viewer, the subject of the work. It inspired you to explore the landscape with fresh eyes as reality became a multi-layered spectacle and wonder. It was thus a resplendent antidote to palace fantasies and wicked fairies in the attic. What an artist is Anish Kapoor.


And finally for a different interpretation of OBJECT. Here is Anish Kapoor and friends in the official Amnesty International’s video objecting to human rights abuses. Gangnam for Freedom. Go for it…



Weekly Photo Challenge: Object