Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Transcending the barriers between literature, art, music and fashion, the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the foremost intellectual voices in the United States today. In this excerpt from issue 22, she speaks to Catherine Lacey about pop, politics and the 45th President. 

Printed shirt and trousers PRADA

The restaurant is nearly empty. It’s an emptiness that exposes a sense of dread lurking in an otherwise bright spring day. People in suits, tunics, athleisure and burkas are streaming through the adjoining hotel lobby but here the only movement is of a member of staff, diligently preparing for an absent crowd. It is 2018 and this is the capital of the US. Even when ordering lunch, it is impossible to forget how close we are to a ceaseless squall of depravity and impending doom.

The omelette, we are told, cannot be altered. So be it. Apologetic and star-struck, the waiter beams at the renowned novelist and public intellectual, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and cannot help but gush, “You look wonderful today.” Indeed, Adichie looks wonderful because she always looks wonderful. A commanding presence, she is one of those rare writers with a refined style both on and off the page.

Adichie is certainly the only person to both win the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) and serve as the face of a make-up campaign – No 7. She is absolutely the only writer whose speech has been sampled in a Beyoncé single. Every aspect of her comportment is magnetic, a magnetism that is exceedingly rare among accomplished writers, who are often better read than seen.

Printed dress PRADA

To encounter a person of grace and eloquence in this particular era, in this particular city, only heightens her effect. Yet Adichie also has an unfettered, ebullient charm – she curses freely, laughs with abandon and has a sly, infectious grin. “The past month,” she confesses, “I was in Nigeria eating and laughing and not doing anything useful with my time.” She has the cheery disposition of someone who just returned from a holiday, but I recognise a distant introversion in her eyes, the novelist longing for another world. “I rationalise this by saying I’m absorbing material.”

Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus was set in postcolonial Nigeria and dealt directly with her home country’s turbulent political history, while her second, Half of a Yellow Sun, tackled the Biafran War. Each won awards and acclaim; Chinua Achebe declared Adichie to be “endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers”. Then, in 2007, on her 30th birthday, she got a phone call from the MacArthur Foundation.

“I was in Lagos. I was just about to go out with friends who were taking me to dinner, and I got the call. I was like, ‘My life is made!’” She pauses, and stares out the window a moment. “Did I actually even know…?” In fact, she had to google the specifics of her new ‘genius grant’: a half-million-dollar prize and a crowning validation from the American intellectual elite.

Checked cotton shirt and floral lace dress MIU MIU

After earning her bachelor’s degree in Connecticut in 2001, Adichie went to Johns Hopkins for her Fiction MFA, even though she had already completed her first novel, Purple Hibiscus. “I wasn’t necessarily a good member of the workshop… I hardly went to class because I couldn’t wait to get back – I had created this thing in my little studio apartment.” This little thing turned out to be Half of a Yellow Sun. “It was so emotionally draining. I cried… Days would pass and I wouldn’t shower. I wouldn’t pick up my phone.”

With two acclaimed novels under her belt, she was named a Hodder Fellow at Princeton, and then made the unlikely choice to earn a second master’s degree in African Studies at Yale. Why? “I went because I wanted to learn. It was really very simple. I remember thinking there’s so much I want to know about precolonial Africa. And I didn’t just want to read books, because I’m lazy.” Eyes widen at what seems to be self-effacing hyperbole, but she insists it’s true. “I felt like I needed some guidance. I needed to know what books will illuminate this part of my history.”

Checked cotton shirt and leather coat MIU MIU

One of these books, in fact, was her second novel. “I had to sit there in class and try not to roll my eyes at their… analysis.” Outside of class she was struggling to find time to write her third novel, Americanah. “I kind of thought I would be able to write as well but it turned out to be disastrous for my writing. I was quite miserable.” Eventually she did find time to work, and, satisfied that Half of a Yellow Sun was “a book that I really felt my ancestors wanted me to write”, she felt free to loosen up as a writer. “I was no longer feeling this sense of being the dutiful daughter of literature and that I wanted to follow the rules. You know what? I felt I had earned the right to write a terrible book.”

Adichie, a self-avowed perfectionist and child of a “proper Igbo” household, seems to accomplish everything she sets out to do, but she failed, at least, to write that “terrible book”. Published in 2013, Americanah is an irreverent and biting commentary on race in the United States, but also a love story that spans decades and continents. It’s both serious and sexy, hilarious and profoundly sad. Adichie has called it her “fuck you” book, and it said “fuck you” all the way up that year’s bestseller and Top 10 lists, awards in tow.

This is an extract from issue 22 of Port, which hits newsstands on 19th April. To subscribe or pre-order, click here.

Photography Mamadi Doumbouya Styling Dora Fung Stylings editor Sabina Vanegas Makeup Mali Magic Hair Alaina Stevens

Jules de Balincourt: Precision and Abstraction

Franco-American painter Jules de Balincourt ruminates on abstraction, utopia and the accessibility of art, at the opening of his latest exhibition

Another Divided Island, 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

If contemporary art is frequently found to be conceptually obscure, exasperatingly self-referential or weighed down with lofty ideals, then the vibrant works of Brooklyn-based artist Jules de Balincourt may be just the antidote. With nothing more new-age than oil on panel, he has produced paintings that project a powerful radiance from within an abstracted haze. Imposing landscapes inhabited by roaming communities, each work is arrestingly aestheticised in a way another artist might find beneath them, but De Balincourt owns it. “Art for me, it always was about beauty and seduction at a certain level, the first thing that draws you to art is to be pulled into it, seduced by it.” He hurriedly adds, “but it can’t just be sugar-coated sweetness, I need an edge or tension or… I like the idea of these paintings standing at a crossroad where it could go either way. I like to leave that suspense.”

If Queens Ruled 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

De Balincourt was born in Paris, although from the age of nine he was raised in Malibou Lake, California. He has stated in interviews that he doesn’t identify as either entirely French or American, although with France recently voting in Macron over the far-right, populist Le Pen, it is clear that his mind is very much focused on the troubled and divided times facing the United States. It is almost a year since Trump’s inauguration when I meet him at the installation of his new show, They Cast Long Shadows, at Victoria Miro in Mayfair. Perched on stools in the main gallery, we are surrounded by these new works, and he gesticulates energetically whenever he seeks a point of reference.

Troubled Eden 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

The show is an accumulation of activity from only the past few months, although this is in fact an arbitrary marker. “It’s just a continuation of what I’ve always done in some ways. There’s never a big drastic shift… I consider each show like another page in the same book.” De Balincourt is very precise about his process, if only to articulate its imprecision. Each painting is begun in abstract until, floating in the brushstrokes, “I find something to grasp onto and it eventually becomes figures.” These little populations in turn create a landscape from the floating impressionistic forms by transforming their surroundings into a coherent space. It is unplanned and instinctive, and de Balincourt eschews the use of photography or preliminary sketches. “I’m always working intuitively and unconsciously, I’m interested in my own self-discovery through making this work.”

This approach has informed the show’s installation process too, “I’m interested in the free-associative elements that come up when two completely different images are juxtaposed but I know they still somehow relate.” For all their chance origins, De Balincourt’s landscapes are highly expressive and their metaphorical power leaves them steeped in narrative potential.

Big Little Monsters 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

The island, a recurrent motif for the artist, who is also a keen surfer, has unfixed and shifting applications. In Island People the pastel pink island is an ‘Edenic comfort zone’ or a sanctuary where people freely congregate. In Divided Island, however, a gathering perches on one island and stares across a channel to another larger land mass that recedes into the distance. It speaks of islands that are insular and isolating with a resonance that is at once timeless and timely, as de Balincourt confirms – “it’s a subtle jab at Brexit”.

His work has long toyed with a tension between the utopian and dystopian, although he admits, “I think my work, when I was younger, was a little bit more direct. Now I push myself to delve more into the unconscious, the abstract, the intuitive and see what comes up.” This is inevitably influenced by real world events, which have recently loomed in the minds of many. “The real challenge under the Trump administration is how to confront the current situation at all… I don’t really know how to address it directly but I know that subconsciously I am concerned about what’s happening in America.”

Repeated Histories 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

In his recent move towards greater abstraction, de Balincourt has found avenues to address those issues. Even the most obvious work, Repeated Histories, in which a robust orange-faced man directs a small accusatory finger towards a row of black men, makes use of abstracting techniques such as repetition and distorted scale to reflect real power structures. Other works in the collection take a softer approach, and one that is distinctly undogmatic. The art is deliberately accessible, with de Balincourt entirely unconvinced by the social or political impact of art that he considers “convoluted and hyper-conceptual… completely wrapped up in a hermetically sealed corner of the art world. My work is in a weird way a resistance to that pretentiousness and elitism,” he stares intently at a canvas across the room before turning to me with a grin, “but then again, you know, I’m starting to sound like a Trump supporter.”

Cave Country, 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

De Balincourt’s work seems simple, yet strikes to the core of a complex conversation. In these dreamy worlds, at least, the utopian defeats the dystopian and de Balincourt announces, “I wanted to be optimistic. I wanted to still give hope.” At one point he gestures towards Cave Country, a large canvas in which a deep crevasse of hot oranges and warm pink cuts into a turquoise rock to house a crowd seeking refuge. He pauses carefully before declaring, “I like to think of it as a place away from the chaos of the rest of the world.”

They Cast Long Shadows is at the Victoria Miro Gallery until 24 March 2018.

In My End Is My Beginning: The Thames Estuary

Port speaks to photographer Nadav Kander about his latest exhibition, exploring the desolate and moving landscapes of the Thames Estuary

Water I part 1, 2 & 3 (Shoeburyness towards The Isle of Grain), England, 2015, (C) Nadav Kander, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

My grandmother would tell me stories of how, as a child, she watched the great cargo ships pass along the Thames at Greenwich, having crossed hundred of miles from all corners of the Empire to find their berth in London. To visit the same spot today is to see a completely different river, a strangely empty space in the centre of an ever growing, ever more bustling city, the river now only populated by the occasional river bus, unable to accommodate the vast modern ships and their demand for deep water ports.

Downstream, past Tilbury and Gravesend – once gateposts to the city, now quietening county towns – the river widens and stretches out to the sea. As in the city, the traffic from what was once the busiest shipping lane in the world has all but disappeared, but here the level, featureless marshland and mud flats lining the Thames are only inhabited by dormant industry and crumbling Victorian forts. This is where, in the fog and half-light, the photographer Nadav Kander has been working intermittently since the Summer of 2015.

Time II (All Hallows towards Canvey Island), England, 2015

Over his now long and celebrated career, Kander has gained much recognition for his portraiture, such as for his subversive image of the then president-elect Donald Trump for the TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year cover in 2016. Formally uncluttered and sensitively lit, Kander’s portraits of actors and architects, artists and politicians are at once instantly familiar and completely alien, the sitters arrestingly meditative and still, dislocated from the cluttered circus of public life. It is this sense of meditation, of stillness and ultimately of time, that plays an essential part in Kander’s latest series, Dark Line – The Thames Estuary, currently exhibited at Flowers Gallery in east London

“The Estuary has always been a mystical place for me,” Kander tells me on the phone from his studio in London, the day after the exhibition’s opening. “It’s such a bleak and interesting place. There’s a sense of the history there that sits on your shoulder when you make a work like this, a sense of Man’s grit and toil, the loss of love and life, and everything that was once so rich in that river.”

Water VI (Hadleigh Ray towards Yantles Creek and The Hoo), England, 2015, (C) Nadav Kander, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

Indeed, while Kander’s atmospheric, gloomy images are unpopulated – human activity only hinted at through an abandoned, half-flooded pill box or the shadow of heavy industry on the horizon – this is a series that is centred on humanity and its relationship with its environment. The Thames, once the central artery of London, connecting the city to the world, host to Romans, Vikings and ships from ever further reaches of the globe, has only recently fallen quiet – it is this eerie and uncanny emptiness captured by Kander that is so compelling.

The exhibition also features a film, presented in the same elongated portrait format as the photographs (inspired by Chinese scroll paintings), that shows Kander lying in water from the Estuary, alternately rising above and descending beneath the surface. Set to a gently throbbing music by the German-British composer Max Richter, the film develops the artistic themes of the photographic work, evoking the tide and the cycles of life that predate the use of the Thames by humans, and that will continue long after it.

Horizons II (All Hallows towards London Gateway Port), England, 2015, (C) Nadav Kander, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

Dark Line forms part of a wider body of work concerned with water that began artistically with his series on the Yangtze river in China, which received the Prix Pictet prize in 2009, though Kander traces his fascination with water to an experience he had as a child. “When I was six years old I got my first pair of goggles and went swimming. When I turned away from the shore, to see the sand sloping away into blackness, I was terrified,” he remembers. “I ran straight out of the water. I had recurring dreams about that well into my 30s, but it was not so much a fear of the water but a human condition to fear the unknown.”

This – our very human, very primal response to large bodies of water – is the wider and more instinctive attraction of Dark Line. There is a sense of the infinite, both in the endless horizons and in the unceasing, slow moving water which, as Kander says, can inspire fear and melancholy as much as it can a sense of beauty and destiny. “Ultimately it’s much less a documentary work about the Thames Estuary and more a fantastic metaphor for ending and widening and renewal,” he explains. “I think it was T.S. Eliot who wrote, ‘In my end is my beginning.’”

Silt I (Mucking towards Thames Haven), England, 2017, (C) Nadav Kander, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

I ask Kander how he plans to continue to develop his fascination with water, but he cuts me short. “I don’t feel my work with the Thames Estuary is finished yet. Being so connected to London, there’s something personal to me in this project. I definitely want to stay here, for now anyway.”

Dark Line – The Thames Estuary runs at Flowers Gallery at 82 Kingsland Road, London, E2 8DP until 13th January 2018.