Political Artworks

“Otis” Kanye West, Jay-Z

In class, we talked about the extent to which art can incorporate political elements and still be considered art. Hiphop is an entire genre of music, or art, that can be purely political yet well received, especially by young audiences.

Perhaps the reason the young generation often react to these “political artworks” is because thy are able to sympathize with the themes woven into the beat. Jay-Z’s reflections are based on his own experiences growing up in Brooklyn, much like Marjane Satrapi’s illustartions of her childhood in Persepolis. Whatever kinds of neighborhood or reformation, good or bad, are still fragments of their own society, and the illustrating characters growing up in those environments are a political statement.

The medium of these statements, in this case art, allows for a connection to be established between the artist and the audience as well. I cannot recall the exact source, but I once heard of this definition for art:

“Art: A focused work/process that holds a purposeful intention by the artist to elicit a tangible feeling influenced by the artist; this transcends from the superficial point of view, to the abyss of human emotion.”

Art is like a cloud of ambiguity that rains emotions onto the human mind. It is often difficult to compose the exact words to describe one’s reaction to a piece of panting or music. However, the young generation who dwell in the cities re often caught under their own cloud of ambiguity anyway. In a place where your senses are overfed with colors, sirens, and street lights, anything other than a properly constructed sentence channels smoothly into their minds.

Honing in on Violence and Killing

It is undeniably true that Graceland is absolutely chalk full of scenes of violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, death, and war.  The scenes of sexual abuse are especially shocking, in addition to the description of the genocide and the bodies which seem to cover the land. Though these are of critical importance, I also noticed another instance of violence/cruelty/abuse throughout Book 1 of the novel.  Every few chapters there seems to be a situation in which one of Elvis’ friends is killing an animal for food.  This seems an innocent enough act, especially when this animal may be the only source of meat they have for weeks, but it is the way Abani goes about describing these scenes each time they crop up.

For example, on pages 180 and 181 Elvis is talking to Hezekiah about the upcoming Christmas holiday and what his family will eat for it.  The boys talk about the possibility of killing a goat and then a chicken.

“‘So what do you say about de goat?  Have you never killed on before?’” 

“‘No,’” Elvis said.”

“‘What of a chicken?  At least tell me you have killed a chicken.’”

 “‘One,’ Elvis said in a voice that betrayed the freshness of the memory.  Having caught the chicken, he had grasped it firmly by its wings and laid it on its side, trapping both its legs and wings under foot, al the while following the instructions Aunt Felicia was shouting at him.  Lifting its neck tenderly, he plucked a few feathers to reveal its pulsing pink neck.”

…”‘I don’t want to kill anything.’”

‘”Sometimes we don’t have a choice.’”

Each time Elvis has a discussion like this with one of his friends he finds the same thing–he does not feel comfortable killing animals for food.  He hates seeing the struggle, the slow death, the visible pain which the animal is going through.  Hezekiah claims that, “Sometimes we don’t have a choice,” and I think this statement says a lot.  This seems to be how much of the book is set up due to the environment of poverty, political unrest, and drug/alcohol abuse.  Poverty and severe political unrest, sadly, can lead people to do things that they normally would not do.  Acts that would typically be considered sinful and unheard of suddenly become acceptable because there is no other choice.  You do what you must do to live to the next day.  I think these scenes in specific help us to have a better understanding of Elvis.  Elvis has not only witnessed horrible physical and sexual abuse his whole life (in addition to death, murder, etc), but he has been victim to both.  I would imagine that Elvis feels hypocritical or just sheer guilt when faced with the task or idea of killing a living animal when the choice to NOT do so is plain and clear.  I think where most boys his age use violence and acting out as a means of growing into their manhood and the culture in which they live in, Elvis strays away because he has had his fill and knows that there are other ways.  I can imagine that harming a living entity would trigger the surfacing of memories of he himself being physically abused by his father, uncle, etc.  I think these scenes, interspersed throughout Graceland are there so that we as an audience may see how Elvis is different from the rest.  Violence has defined his life, therefore he chooses not to define himself by violence.

Violence: An Extremity of Reality

“Elvis watched a young girl, no older than twelve, pick up a stone and throw it at Jeremiah. It struck him with a dull thud, and though she lacked the strength to break skin, the blow raised a nasty purple lump. That single action triggered the others to pick up and throw stones. The combined sound was sickening and Jeremiah yelled in pain. There was something comically biblical, yet purely animal, about the scene.” (225)

Chapter 21 opens with a scene where Elvis and Redemption witness a brutal mob lynching a man named Jeremiah, who allegedly stole money from another man. The mob circles around him, throwing rocks at him, calling him a thief; Jeremiah’s neck is hanging on a tire, claims he is not a thief, and begs for mercy.

Chris Abani’s Grace Land physical and sexual violence: both in graphic detail, and merely mentioned or implied. The previous passage is an example of Abani illustrating a scene that illustrates brutality and blood. This particular scene was one of the first times when Elvis, who is only a boy in his adolescence, is exposed to severe violence. His way of describing it as “comically biblical, yet purely animal” can be inferred that the young boy is shocked and unsure of how to properly react. He understands that there is something wrong in what is happening, yet the scenery is displaced from  his sense of reality to the point where it grazes humor.

When Elvis discovers human heads in a cooler which he though he would find beer, he was too shocked in make an audible reaction:

“The overheard light came on as Redemption opened the door, and Elvis staggered back in disgust. He tried to shout, but nothing came.” (237)

I believe that Abani’s intent behind these scenes are in order to project the moral and ethical dilemmas surrounding adolescence. The novel is set in post-colonial Nigeria, particularly centered around Elvis who dreams of escaping the  ghettos and its culture. The violence, graphic and implied, is likened to a punch to a punch in the gut. We observe Elvis being affected by the graphic violence, while the readers ourselves are affected by the implied violence. We cannot help but stop in disbelief; we hesitate to accept that the young girl in secondary school will be slaughtered as a “spare-part” for the organs they were transporting.

“Ys, dose children will arrive in Saudi alive, den, depend on de demand, dey will harvest de part from den. Fresh, no damage, more money for all of them.” (243)

Abani raises the question, “how does violence influence a child’s future?” Elvis is inevitably affected, perhaps scarred. How will he mature? What will his sense of reality be? Violence is an extremity of reality, and distorts the direction of his compass.

Violence on the Street

Elvis gives the impression that parts of Lagos are unsafe, sometimes merely hinting at, other times out right describing, public and private violence. In the beginning of the story, he discusses the set up of the road and bridges in the city, focusing on the people’s ignorant use of them. The citizens do not use the bridges; rather, “pedestrians dodged between the speeding vehicles” (Abani 56). As a result, Elvis tells us that a minimum of ten people die crossing the street every day. He depicts it as a violent, gruesome way to die.

Elvis leaves little to the imagination when describes the bus running over yet another person that had been originally hit by the car in front of it; Elvis tells us, “subsequent cars [finish] the job” of killing the pedestrians (Abani 56). The image of scattered dead bodies in the road, mutilated by cars, buses, and trucks, fills a reader’s mind, and it brings a much more somber tone to the story. The idea of a violent, painful, realistic death grounds the novel, forcing readers to reflect with Elvis on both the importance and brevity of life. In Elvis’s own words, “Why do we gamble with our lives? … why not even the odds [between life and death] a little?” (Abani 57).

At this point, Abani is making a much more important statement about life in the city, saying that no part of life is certain for anyone. A passenger on the bus describes it perfectly, saying that “life in Lagos is a gamble, crossing or no crossing” (Abani 57). It is a harsh and somewhat depressing reality, but it is one that people in Lagos, aside from Elvis, have no trouble accepting. Elvis pinpoints exactly that, the blind acceptance of life, as “the trouble with this country” (Abani 58). But, despite the violent deaths and ignorant people, Elvis has one positive (albeit sarcastic) comment about the situation: “At least they take away the bodies” (Abani 57).

Physical Violence as a Drastic Cultural Difference

Physical violence in Chris Abani’s Graceland is used to display a distinct cultural difference between Lagos and America.  In class on Tuesday, we discussed the scene in which Elvis confronts Sunday about the murder of Godfrey (pgs 187-189).  It is plausible that Sunday regrets his decision to murder Godfrey in order to save the family name, but it also demonstrates how in Lagos an act of murder is viewed as the only option to avoid a tarnished reputation.

In further readings, we see that physical violence is once again the answer to solving problems.  When the citizens of Maroko hear of being bulldozed by the government, they decide to create a physical human barrier.  When the police arrive to begin the process, we see an miniature war develop.  While the citizens are uniting to support Maroko, the police decide that the simplest way to stop the chaos is by shooting the citizens.  “The shot silenced everyone and brought one of the laughing men down…Confused, other policemen opened fire,” (pg 270).

The police were well aware that the citizens were trying to support Maroko, yet they knew that their gunshots would prove a point.  In Lagos, gun shots symbolize power.  In my opinion, Abani emphasizes how powerful physical violence to show the readers just how different Lagos culture is to American culture.  In the novel, moving to the states is seen almost as a “safe haven,” an escape from the poor, violent environment of Lagos.  Though murders happen often in America, they do not seem to be as casual as they are in Lagos.  That being said, Abani does an excellent job in making the readers question their ethical standards.  We are forced to recognize the difference between the two cultures and question America: do we really live in this “safe haven?  Or are areas of the United States just as physically violent as Lagos?


Sexual Violence: A Harsh Reality

In his novel Graceland, Chris Abani includes many violent scenes containing both physical and sexual violence. One of the most violent scenes in the novel thus far occurs when Elvis’s uncle rapes him in a local chapel. After his cousin Efua discovers Elvis on the floor of the chapel, he explains that he attempted to tell his father about her rape. She simply replies, “’grown-ups do not believe children. Are you cold?” demonstrating the harsh reality they live in where rape can exist without punishment, while there is not anything the children can do about it (p.199). Efua’s question “are you cold” reflects the kids’ hopelessness by demonstrating both of their helplessness; she is trying to aid Elvis in the only way she can, but they both understand that neither of them can really do anything. She may not be able to change their situation, but she can help him in the short-term by getting him warm and cleaned up. The children’s resignation that they cannot change the status quo illustrates to the reader the desperate circumstances in which they live. This quote serves as a reminder to the readers that they cannot understand what it is like to live under Elvis and Efua’s conditions. Using details to force readers to be present, Abani does his best to portray the reality as it is, without adding unnecessary sentimentality.

During class, we discussed how Abani had stated in an interview that he did not want his books to be overly sentimental; he wanted to focus on telling the story. In a situation such as the memory of Elvis’s rape, there is a clear benefit to making the language concise and specific. Rape does not need any emotional adjectives to convey the trauma, it is simply understood. By writing with dryness and precision, such as Efua’s conversation-changing question “are you cold,” Abani underscores how flowery language is not necessary, because it would demean the experience by reducing it into poetic words. Abani uses this scene to validate the reality of the novel, and the severity of the characters’ struggles.

Examination of Moral and Ethical Implications

The depictions of both physical and sexual violence can be seen throughout this book in varying degrees of graphic detail. These scenes may be included in the novel for many reasons.  However, I believe that the biggest issue that these scenes attempt to uncover is that of the ethical and moral implications of the time.  Perhaps a scene where the novel can be seen trying to attempt to answer these implications is found on page 237.  At this point in the novel, Elvis has decided to open one of the coolers he is transporting.  Elvis soon discovers that he is not only transporting people but also decapitated human heads and human organs.  The details of this scene are very graphic, including a description of the second cooler as holding “several organs, hearts, and livers” (237).

When Elvis finds out a few pages later why exactly they were transporting both the live humans and the various parts of other humans, he is disgusted.  This entire chapter of the novel is very graphic and full of physical violence.  I think that this scene is very important as it leads Elvis to think about the moral implications of what he has been doing with his life on the road with Redemption.  Elvis was very shaken up from this whole ordeal and remained silent as he stared out the window.  However, as much as he tried to not think about it, Elvis “kept seeing the heads in the iced cooler” (242).  This scene, among many others, allows Elvis to look at the bigger picture of what he has been doing with Redemption and leads him to feel guilty.  This sense of guilt is aroused by Elvis’ examination of the moral and ethical implications of all the things he has been doing with this new life he has been leading.  More than just Elvis, these scenes lead readers to think about these implications as well.  I could not help but imagine what life was like in Lagos at the time that this story is supposed to be taking place.  The graphic details of all the different scenes throughout, lead me to think about the lack of justice in the lives of these people. Are these people truly being given the opportunity to live as the free willed and autonomous humans they inherently came into this world as? From the scenes of physical violence seen throughout the novel, the answer to this question seems to be a definite no.

Bollywood Censorship

In general, censorship in India raises issues around what we as Americans consider freedom of speech. While there is freedom of expression in India, the understanding of it is much different than ours. Because of their history, the Indian Constitution places heavy restrictions on content in an effort to maintain the social and religious harmony they have achieved. The 1952 Cinematograph Act passed, placing further constraints on Indian Bollywood films than the Indian Constitution already did.

Just like films here, there is a rating system to guide viewers to appropriate material. In Bollywood, the ratings are as follows: unrestricted (U), unrestricted with parental guidance (UA), restricted to adults (A), or restricted to a special class (S). The government’s Central Board of Film Certification assigns rating based upon the amount of violence, promotion of drinking, drugs, or sex, and rate of criminal activity in the film. If a producer is asked to change his film to accommodate the rating system or if he disagrees with the assigned rating, he can appeal, but generally the board does not waiver. Films that were restricted to adults (rated A) were shown on television, but a recent law now prevents an A film from being certified for TV because “[modifying films for TV] was not a part of the Cinematograph Act.” The decision caused an uproar among the Indian people.

Before India gained independence in 1947, the country did not have such strict laws governing censorship. Now, however, a Bollywood film must not have French kissing (in fact, kisses are generally not lip to lip), nudity of any kind, or drug use. In fact, as of August 1, 2005, Bollywood films became completely smoke-free. Any “touchy political subjects like religious or ethnic violence” are impermissible, particularly if the film criticizes the current ruling party. Further, the films are judged inconsistently and vaguely; a judgment that may ring true for one film may differ for another. It depends heavily on “how the theme is handled by the producer.

The films are not only censored by the official censorship board, but by the actors themselves. It is called “self-censorship” because some actors will not film a certain way or scene. The example given was that while some on-screen kisses are permissible by the official board, some actors will refuse to film it, censoring themselves.

In all, Bollywood films are censored. Scenes are cut after films are produced based upon the judgment of a censorship board. Furthermore, an actor may refuse to film a scene, providing a form of self-censorship before the officials begin assigning a rating to the film. The rating system is close to that of Americans, but an adult film will no longer be modified for television broadcast.

Bollywood vs. Hollywood: What is our perception?

My presentation tomorrow will be discussing Bollywood: Indian Cinema.  Being that Salman Rushdie’s book Midnight’s Children will be released as a movie within the next few months.  This movie will be released worldwide in late October or November.  While the premiere of the movie has been a hit in various places around the world, such as Toronto, Canada or in England, my research shows that India is one of the countries that did not agree to show the film in their country.  Below are some of the articles pertaining to this conflict.

“It is indeed strange that a film about India based on a book written by an author who has an Indian origin does not get a single distributor in India,” (Staff 2012).  As an American, we may struggle to understand why India refuses to distribute the movie.  According to Dibyojyoti Baksi, writer of the article “Midnight’s Children has no takers in India,” (Hindustan Times) claims that Indians may be afraid of what the movie has to reveal about their political history.  In the India Today article titled “No takers for Deepa Mehta’s ‘Midnight’s Children,’ “industry insiders feel that sections of the political fraternity may deem it too volatile for the audience,” (India Today 2012).

Some Indian’s struggle to see this perception, as they feel that citizens may be overreacting (Please view the YouTube clip below).  Is it wrong for Indian’s to feel this way?

Initially, I think it is important to keep in mind that Bollywood films were initially shown to educate the people of what was happening in their country.  Hollywood films, in opposition, are usually used for entertainment purposes and are not always accurate representations of what American life is like.  That being said, I personally can see how the film may be offensive, as this is revealing to the world a distinct view of Indian politics.  At the same time, it is difficult for me to truly understand why Indian’s are so offended, as I am neither a citizen of India nor have any awareness of what political struggles the country has had to work through.  If a film was released that presented America’s government in a negative way, though, because of one person’s ideas, I would be hesitant of the release, as well.

This all ties back into the ongoing discussion of perception.  As someone who has no experience or awareness of what India life is like, it is incorrect for me to argue against India’s choice to not distribute this movie.  While many may feel that they are over reacting, I feel you are not entitled to judge this decision unless you are someone who has experienced living in India.  Our perceptions are often biased because of our origins and lack of awareness, and opinions often clash because we forget there is life outside of the United States.  We are all humans, but we do not know what life is like in other countries, so how are we supposed to understand their perception?

Video Clip:

Midnight’s Children No Taker’s in India









The Division of Bombay (and of Saleem?)

Understanding the history of Bombay’s late partitioning offers us insight into why Saleem believes he will die by falling to pieces, as he feels indefinitely linked to his country.

Saleem’s connection with India continues after their simultaneous birth. Feeling linked with the newly independent country, Saleem takes ownership over any transformations India goes through, such as when he starts an anti-Gujarati chant, which he believes makes him “directly responsible for triggering off the violence which ended with the partition of the state of Bombay” (219). Although all Saleem did was recite a taunting he had heard in school, he finds himself “directly responsible” for an event that would have taken place anyway. Saleem’s kinship with India extends even to his demise, as Saleem fears that he will crumble into pieces, which parallels all of the partitions India endures.

While India faced many divisions, the city of Bombay originally did not, thus making it an urban center filled with numerous religions, languages, and social classes. Geographically, Bombay is naturally divided as it consists of seven islands. However, this physical division fostered many independent cultures while still promoting positive interactions such as shipping and trading. Although Bombay was a place where people could come together, Saleem’s narration illustrates how the differences in language and religion were strong divisive forces. The “partition of the state of Bombay” that Saleem mentions references the 1960 division of Bombay State into the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. The dominant language in Bombay was Marathi, not Gujarati, which is why the city itself became part of Maharashtra instead of Gujarat. Saleem worries that he will fall victim to excessive division like his beloved India.

Notice the contrast between natural India and the booming urban center of Bombay (now Mumbai)

Some helpful links: