Cultural Alzheimer’s and other essays
“Strangely, the recent past, when re-examined through photography, can sometimes seem more distant than the distant past.” This phrase appears in an essay republished in this collection of writings by and about Osi Rhys Osmond.
He originally appeared in a book of photographs documenting life after coal in the Afan Valley, a fitting subject for Osmond, who was himself a product of the South Wales coalfield, born in a family of miners from the Sirhowy Valley, north of Newport.
It shows how remote post-industrial Wales can seem, left behind, stripped of the vitality and life that filled those miners’ valleys of England, Ireland and beyond.
One became the very icon of Welsh, for example, in the art of Polish exile Josef Herman whose most fertile years as an artist came to live and work within the mining community of Ystradgynlais, explored here in the essay “Carboniferous Collisions”.
Present with defiance
But paradoxes can, by their very nature, be true when formulated as their inverse. The recent past re-examined through a photograph can sometimes seem less distant than the present.
The same goes for the photograph of Osi on the cover of this anthology: arms crossed on the ocher background of one of his paintings, face in a firm but not fierce attitude,
He seems to emerge from this image, not only present with defiance, even if he died in 2015, but visionary even, resolutely turned towards the future.
This was palpable at the launch of this book in Llansteffan, the coastal village where he made his home, in the vibrant student artwork that was honored with an award in his name, and in the life-size reproduction of the cover. of the book. photo that surveyed the proceedings from the back of the room, directing its gaze into the viewer’s eyes with a gaze that seemed both inviting and challenging.
The challenge of the title essay, ‘Cultural Alzheimer’s’, is to recognize the very remoteness of Wales’ recent past, and that we cannot make a nation out of fragments of buried memory.
The coalfields of Osi’s youth are gone, the winding mechanism dismantled, their heaps laid out for recreation, and I write this near the north quay at Llanelli, not so long ago crowded with vessels carrying copper and tin to the far reaches of the globe, today filled with paddle boarders and swimmers training for triathlons.
“Now that the physical evidence of our past disappears,” Osmond writes, “our present, like that of the Alzheimer’s disease victim, is one of confused distress.”
Much of Wales’ past has been erased to make way for leisure and tourism, reshaped in ‘a sort of post-industrial botox’, but that very fact seems a threat to everything that distinguishes the country’s identity and its inhabitants, where “outsiders enjoy their breathless leisure in full view of a declining society.”
If this vision of erasure and dilution represents the book’s challenge to Wales’ sense of identity, then the invitation from this seemingly disparate collection of essays, articles and reviews, is for us to counter the confusion and decline with a clarity that comes from the eclectic: from the outside as well as from within, and from imagination and creativity as well as from politics and economics.
Rather than counter the loss of cultural memory by turning to a reductive and exclusionary nationalism of blood and soil, Osmond seeks to synthesize respect for the ancient language and culture of Wales (perhaps best seen in “Coracles and Cromlechs”, a beautifully written psychogeographical meditation on a stretch of ancient pilgrimage route), with outward-looking internationalism.
“One of the main causes of our cultural Alzheimer’s,” he writes, “is our inner estrangement – we don’t know our own country, our history, or the other language. We will have to refuel our memories and allow the Wales affair to move us forward, and not remain dazed and confused.
His models for doing so include Italy’s trans-vanguard, or the Baltic states reclaiming their history from the “dead hand of Soviet occupation”.
Poignantly and presciently, a preview of the 2007 Venice Biennale offers particular praise to the Ukrainian pavilion, which “proposed an inquiry into transculturalism in the face of globalization… asking the questions the equivalent of which we dare not ask — What is that ? to be Ukrainian? Who are the Ukrainian people? Where are the Ukrainian people?
To the question “Who are the inhabitants of Wales?” Osmond offers an answer in the essay “Development from Within.”
Reflecting on the issue with Cardiff’s taxi drivers, often immigrants from places with a more brutal experience of being “contested minorities entangled in the power games of larger forces”, he notes that “they seemed often better informed of our dilemma than many of our uprooted natives”; they are proud that their children learn Welsh at school and see the UK as representing a distant bureaucracy, often coming to embrace a Welsh identity alongside, rather than replacing, that of their home country .
Many quotes from the book that I have used so far in this review contain the words “we” and “our”, and I have found myself becoming more and more comfortable with the use of these inclusive pronouns, although I am also an immigrant, but only from Y Hen. Ogledd of Yorkshire, in part thanks to Osmond’s powerfully inclusive vision:
“After all,” he insists, “you don’t have to be an Apache to be an American, and not being a Griffiths or a Llewelyn shouldn’t be a barrier to feeling at home here.”
Any collection, especially of journalistic and occasional writings like this, is bound to contain elements that make time slip into irrelevance, but if anything, this volume serves to show that Osi was even more relevant and fair than he would have dared to hope.
In his vision for the future of Wales, written just ten years ago, he suggests adopting a new name – Cambria – for the ‘incipient nation’ he envisions growing up and leaving the ‘no even a particularly good home” of the Union, believing that “Cymru and Cymreig are sadly troubling to some of our English speakers only”.
Yet a resurgent pride in an inclusive sense of identity symbolized by the national football team “C’mon Cymru!” The catchphrase and enthusiastic adoption of “Yma o Hyd” as an anthem in its traditional folk rendition of Dafydd Iwan, and in the drill rhythms of Sage Todz suggest there was no need to be so coy about Cymraeg frightening the English-speaking natives.
If I made this collection of artist articles sound like a political tract, it is because politics, society, culture and ethics are seen here as woven through Osmond’s aesthetic sense, as an artist, writer, critic, documentarian and indeed sometimes politician (he was a county councilor and stood for parliament) and so imbue this book which achieves, although superficially a latch of ephemera , to present a coherent polemical whole.
Osi was first and foremost an artist, and so it is indeed most often to the arts that he turns to explore the social, cultural, political and economic challenges facing Wales, writing about the Italian artists, Halloween in America, the art of quilting, or, memorably and wittily, the unique culture of small Wales coaches and their characteristic liveries, “engaged in a spectacular and spontaneous cultural crusade, entirely of creation of their owners”.
Besides warmth and wit, there is also often a sharpness where needed in the critical tools he uses to explore the cultural landscape.
In “Creator or Mocker? Trends in Contemporary Art,” he takes a skeptical look at the conceptual turn in art that either bypasses the creative process altogether or results in art that requires a curatorial apparatus of explanation before audiences can begin to approach him.
“To have doubts”, he laments, “is to be stuck in the past” and welcoming the “return of the painter”, he observes eloquently that “artistic practice strives to appear inclusive by surreptitiously refining its exclusivity”.
Here is an artist who has spent many years teaching in the foundation course at Carmarthen College of Art, harnessing the coal of craftsmanship and talent, steps from the refineries of academic critics and guardians of attribution grants.
Yet he is never content to throw out the bath water: in “Irony Politics and Beauty”, he makes a powerful appeal to arts and crafts that could be a manifesto for our troubled times: “the power transcendental of the beautiful and the neat banishes the hopeless irony of our time, and illustrates the possibility of “making worlds”, and worlds much better, in a positive response to our current catastrophe.
Near the end of the volume is a piece delivered to the 2014 National Eisteddfod in remembrance of poet, writer and fellow teacher Nigel Jenkins just months after his death and less than a year before Osi’s.
He recalls (in Welsh, with an English translation also provided here) their journeys together through “the past and present wonders of Wales, the smallest continent”.
These two giants of Welsh culture left us too soon, but in this volume and the accompanying anthology of Jenkins’ essays, damned to dream, published last year, ‘The H’mm Foundation’ provided a pair of thought-worthy guides to those important figures of our recent past who provided so much insight into how we might reverse our cultural Alzheimer’s and create a better future.
To obtain a copy of Cultural Alzheimer, you should email: [email protected]
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