Kokoroko: “It’s not a sequel, it’s a different story”

With a new album on the near horizon, the eight-piece band shares insight into their journey and new sounds

Photography by Vicky Grout

Likely a familiar name to UK dwellers and even those living further afield, Kokoroko is an eight-piece London-based band that’s gone from strength to strength in recent years. Fitting the bill of the old saying “like music for my ears”, the band is indeed something that anyone will be happy to hear as it fuses Jazz and Afrobeat into a harmonious merging of rhythms, improv and honey-dripping melodies. Fronting the band is Sheila Maurice Grey – vocalist and trumpeter – who plays alongside her musical family: Yohan Kebede (synthesisers and keyboards), Cassie Kinoshi (alto sax and vocals), Onome Edgeworth (percussion), Tobi Adenaike-Johnson (guitar), Ayo Salawu (drums), Richie Seivwright (trombone and voals) and Duane Atherley (bass, synthesisers and keyboards). And honestly, it’s important to think of them that way – a group of kins who each share different interests and insights. Because when they come together, no matter their differences or likeness, the music is what binds them. Below, in anticipation of the launch of their new album Could We Me More, set to release in August, I chat to the band about their journey and what we can expect from their new sound.

I’d love to hear about how you all met.

We all met at different times and in different places. Clearly we all met for a reason, though! That reason is something we’re still exploring.

To those who haven’t heard your music before, how would you describe it?

Dopamine. 

What are you all like as individuals, do you all share the same music interests and taste? 

We all have different music interests and taste, I think that’s the special thing about the band – it’s taking the things that make us individuals and marrying them together as a celebration of who we all are and where we come from.

As an eight-piece, what’s it like being part of such a big group? What’s the dynamic like?

It’s amazing. When you find one person jarring, there’s another seven people to talk to, ha. Working and playing in a big group is amazing, but it also has its challenges. This includes learning how to allow space for others as well as figuring out where you fit into the equation of a song. It sharpens you as a musician, and forces you to simplify and revisit the essence of the craft, which is songwriting.

You’re currently on tour, which sounds incredible! Where did you play, are you teasing out your new album?

We just finished an incredible run in the Netherlands and Belgium, with highlights being two sold out shows at Paradiso in Amsterdam and Ancienne Belgique in Belgium! We appreciate the love we get shown all over Europe and we’re looking forward to the France leg of tour next week! We might play a new song here and there.

We’ve been teasing bits of the new album and reworking some classics that kind of tell the story of why and how a band like us exists. 

Speaking of, can you share some details about your new album? What can we expect to hear, and how does it compare to your previous releases?

Our album is a reflection of where we are at in our creative process; it’s an honest album in every sense of the word. Expect to hear mistakes that capture the essence of the song better than perfection could. 

The album is a moment of time captured, similar to our first EP. It’s hard to compare them – they’re from a very different time and a very different place. I think we would all encourage people to try to be present when listening to the album or any album, rather than listening comparatively. It’s not a sequel, it’s a different story.

Can you pick out a couple of favourite moments from the new album and talk me through them?

We Give Thanks was special; it’s a song that really captures the energy of the band. It was amazing to watch Sheila step out of her comfort zone, being adventurous with the way she sang while also paying homage to the 70s and 80s Afro rock/psychedelic bands that paved the way. Another moment is the outro to Somethings Going On; it was the last thing we all recorded together in the studio and the energy in it perfectly sums up the weeks we spent together writing and recording the album. I think a favourite track might be Good Times, I’m torn between that one and Home.

Is there a certain feeling or emotion you’re hoping to evoke from the new album?

There is no specific feeling or emotion we are trying to evoke, we just want people to connect with our stories. Different people will connect with different things and that’s something we’ve learned from each other. That’s the exciting thing about creating something – it kind of takes on its own life as soon as you let it go. We all have different favourites!

What’s next for the band?

Hopefully to start working on another album, a film maybe; some people want to delve deeper into fashion. We are quite ambitious as a collective ha, but basically whichever medium allows us to express ourselves in the best and most fulfilling way.

An Hour with Jean-Michel

Photographer Richard Corman reflects on his brief acquaintance with Jean-Michel Basquiat, culminating in a set of unpublished photographs shot in a New York studio during the summer of 1984

Although still somewhat of a cult figure at that time, I was definitely aware of the unique canvas of Jean-Michel Basquiat, as his poetry, painting and culturally poignant vision moved so many of us at the time. When I stepped into his studio on 57 Great Jones St., the room was a swirl of people, creative energy and smoke, and Basquiat was submerged and almost invisible in a corner, taking it all in.

I think by nature, Basquiat was extremely vulnerable, and he wore that sensibility on his sleeve. Yet I remember feeling his curiosity, his intensity, his anger and his honesty in his eyes as his body language shifted from frame to frame. I placed him in front of grey paper in order to remove him from the surrounding confusion and to create a simple setting where I would hopefully see a piece of his humanity. I think I was more of a voyeur on that day than a director – I did not want to interrupt the process.

As with most photography, and mine in particular, I leave it up to those viewers who look into the eyes of these portraits to determine their own truth about the man, the artist, the genius. I have tried to create a portfolio that was indicative of that moment in time with an individual who, in many ways, is more relevant today than ever. With the world in such confusion, we need the honest voice of a dreamer like Basquiat.

www.njgstudio.com 

Instant Stories: Wim Wenders’s Polaroids

Clare Grafik, curator of a new exhibition of Wim Wenders’s photographs, talks to Port about the director’s creative vision, connections between art and technology, and the Polaroid aesthetic

Valley of the Gods, Utah, 1977, Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

When Clare Grafik, the head of exhibitions at the Photographers’ Gallery, discovered that the Wim Wenders foundation had recently unearthed boxes of Polaroids that had been untouched for thirty years, she was immediately inspired. “If we work with an artist who is already well known, we’re interested in asking what part of their oeuvre is less familiar. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t even know what the Polaroids are like, but I want them.’”

Wim Wenders, the celebrated director of Paris, Texas (1984), is best-known as a filmmaker, though his photographs of large-scale, panoramic landscapes have also been widely exhibited. For Grafik, Wenders’s unassuming collection of Polaroids, amassed over nearly twenty years, represented a completely new direction for the artist. “He’s such a polymath, his creative vision is so versatile. It’s very unusual, I think, to be able to move between different mediums…  I think he’s genuinely carved out quite an individual voice in each.” 

On the Road to New England, 1972, Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

In the intimate gallery space hosting Instant Stories: Wim Wenders’ Polaroids, over 200 photographs have been subtly framed on the walls, grouped under poetic, evocative titles: ‘Alice in Instant Wonderland’, ‘A Man Named Dashiell’, ‘Looking For America’. “For Wim, the process of collating the images moved from being a visual to quite a diaristic experience,” explains Grafik, and the chapter headings dictated the structure of the exhibition. ‘Alice’, for example, refers to Wenders’s early film, Alice in the Cities (1974), about the wanderings of a young European man in America, who becomes obsessed with photographing the strange things he sees.

Dennis Hopper, Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

Shortly before filming Alice, Wenders was given a prototype of the Polaroid SX70 which would become so prominent in the film. Making the film was also Wenders’s first experience of America; he had arrived, like many Europeans, with preconceived ideas of the landscape. The exhibition section ‘Looking for America’ depicts Wenders’s outsider’s gaze, taken to an extreme as he scouted for locations. The section details his “disappointment at not finding what he had in his mind”, Grafik says. This disillusion was, however, a key part of the process. “What I enjoy about Wim is that he’s got a centre of gravity to his vision, which allows for those cracks in the iconography. He’s in no way an idealist about these things.”

By an unknown photographer, 1971, Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

Wenders considered the restrictions and informality of the Polaroid – it’s limited technological abilities, and inability to take panoramic pictures – to be a breath of fresh air. “The way people treated the Polaroid wasn’t burdened with history in the same way as a medium format camera, there was no expectation that you would create great art works with it, unlike film,” Grafik explains. “The idea that Polaroid was like a toy, was really freeing for him.” 

New York Parade, 1972, Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

Printed on a wall in the exhibition is an excerpt written by Wenders from Instant Stories, the book published by Thames & Hudson which accompanies the exhibition.

It was a little magic act each time – nothing more, nothing less.

I don’t think I’m romanticising when I allege

that Polaroids were the last outburst of a time

when we had certainty, not only in images.

We had nothing but confidence in things, period.

Self Portrait, 1975, Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

After 1984, Wenders returned to shooting with film. The Polaroid had served its purpose. What made him decide to just stop? I wonder. Grafik pauses. “I think for Wim, there was a period when Polaroid did just what he needed it to do,” she says thoughtfully. “It provided exactly what he needed at that point, and then it just didn’t work for him any more. At some point technology moves on and continuing it would seem somehow a conceit.” 

Sydney, Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

Wenders may not have considered his off-the-cuff images as art at the time they were produced yet, since then, as an art form the Polaroid has been wholly legitimised. Will photography considered equally ephemeral in 2017, such as selfies on Instagram, feature in exhibitions thirty years from now? “That’s a massive question!” Grafik laughs. “It’s open as to whether the taking of imagery now functions in the same way as photographs taken in the 70s were. There’s the practical question of archiving: how these images are archived, whether they even should be. It’s hard to say what will exist thirty years from now, what visual culture will mean to us.”

Instant Stories: Wim Wenders’ Polaroids, will be showing at The Photographers’ Gallery until 11 February 2018

A Town Called Alligator: Brandon Thibodeaux

Port speaks to photographer Brandon Thibodeaux about his book In That Land of Perfect Day, which traces the lives of ordinary people in the Mississippi Delta and reflects on themes of faith, family, pride and perseverance 

Left: Mississippi 662, Duncan, MS, 2012; Right: Sno Balls & Ice Cream, Duncan, 2015

In June 2009, five months after the inauguration of President Obama, Texan photographer Brandon Thibodeaux arrived in a town called Alligator, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, broken and confused. His relationship of eight years had just ended following a lost pregnancy, work was unsatisfying and he found himself drifting. “I didn’t feel as though I was producing something that was me,” he tells me early one morning on the phone from his home in Dallas. “So I began to sort out what inspires me, what I could look for as a personal project.”

With an academic background in international development, Thibodeaux had spent several years photographing rural communities in Mexico. Meaningful connections with people had been hindered by Thibodeaux’s poor Spanish – “I used a lot of hand gestures” – but it gave him the idea to immerse himself a similar project closer to home. So, with the Mississippi Delta virtually in his back yard – a region where he understood the social dynamics and, crucially, where he could communicate with the people – Thibodeaux embarked upon a project documenting the people of the area which would last for the next eight years“That first weekend in the Delta was marked by a Father’s Day sermon at the church in Alligator. It felt like one of those serendipitous moments where you go, ‘I’m in the right place, this is where I need to be.’” 

Left: Nut and His Buck, Alligator, MS, 2012; Right: President Obama, Mound Bayou, MS, 2012

Published earlier this month by Red Hook Editions, In That Land of Perfect Day – the first monograph to result from Thibodeaux’s study – presents a snapshot of everyday life in the Mississippi Delta. Depicting towns like Alligator, Mound Bayou and Bobo, it tells the story of rural black American communities in the Obama era, as well as documenting how Thibodeaux’s relationship with the various communities developed as he spent more time in the Delta.

I ask how people first reacted when he showed up in town, asking to take their picture. “With a mixture of scepticism and wonder,” he tells me. Sometimes exchanges with people were hopeful and uplifting, and at others “the opposite would happen, somebody would say ‘What are you doing here? Look around, you’re the only little white kid with big glasses, you don’t know a soul.’”

Left: Mini, Shelby, MS, 2016; Right: Three Cousins, Alligator, MS, 2014

In an attempt to de-escalate these situations, Thibodeaux began to keep prints of his photographs in his back pocket, that he would pass around when he met people. “They’d go through them, and often at some point they say ‘Where’d you meet my uncle?’ or ‘That’s my cousin with his first deer, you took that picture? It’s on his wall at home.’”

In such small communities, word of Thibodeaux soon got out and he found himself invited along to family gatherings and special events to take photographs. “It’s a wonderful thing to walk into someone’s bedroom and see your photograph hanging above their bed, or neatly packaged in a draw in their closet so cigarette smoke doesn’t damage them,” he says.

Though creatively validated and emotionally moved by these encounters, Thibodeaux is careful not to romanticise, reminding me that “for every wonderful story I have about the Delta, I have an equally dark and distorted one.” His photographs do, however, represent a conscious departure from preconceived, often media-driven, ideas about the region. Men are seen posing with stuffed deer heads, but also proudly with their small babies. “If you ask an American, ‘What is the Delta?’, they think of cotton fields and blues music,” explains Thibodeaux. “That shouldn’t be forgotten, but in this case I felt that the experience of people living there today shouldn’t be overlooked either. In a sense, this is a testament to them.”

Left: Obama Time, Memphis, TN, 2012; Right: Alex and A’Miracle, Duncan, MS, 2009

In order to forge a genuine connection with their subject, the photographer will highlight the things they have in common. I ask Thibodeaux about the challenges of this approach in the American South where racial tensions, especially in recent years, have been volatile. “You try to establish a relationship you can build a foundation on, so I didn’t immediately spotlight the obvious difference”, Thibodeaux says. “Race was never the first topic of conversation.” Despite their differences, they would bond over commonalities such as faith or relationships, “like any human would.”

“I can’t say that I wanted to confront racism directly in this project, or necessarily race, but what I wanted to confront was our understandings of racial and regional identity”, Thibodeaux continues. “So with that maybe I am confronting racism, to some degree, but I’ve always felt that the best tools we have against racism are knowledge and empathy – which in turn foster understanding.”

Left: Switch for My Cousin, Duncan, MS, 2009; Right: Cat Nap, Duncan, MS, 2012

The inauguration of President Obama in 2009 presented mixed feelings. Thibodeaux was driving around the Delta with a young man about his age, when he asked him directly,“What do you think about having a black President?” The response was telling. “It does not make a difference in my life, what the colour of this man’s skin is.” On another occasion, whilst taking a portrait of the oldest man in the community, Thibodeaux saw a portrait of Barack Obama resting on his side table. “It was a quiet image, but it speaks so much about the time in which we were living,” Thibodeaux said. “His presidency was both one of hope and one of scepticism.”

During Thibodeaux’s last visit to the Delta, Donald Trump’s leadership campaign was in full swing. A rumour had been circulating throughout town that, if Trump were to be elected, he would make them all slaves again. “No matter how unlikely or improbable this idea – what does it say about the vulnerability of the mind?” Thibodeaux says thoughtfully. When I ask about the responsibility of photography in the era of Trump, he tells me that “given the events of the time, it’s a very dangerous thing the media does, in which it creates this very simple narrative of us against them. That in itself sows seeds of hate and retribution, or overlooks the fact that the world is far more complicated than that.”

Left: Choo Choo and His Bible, Alligator, MS, 2012; Right: Backflip, Duncan, MS, 2011

In That Land of Perfect Day intelligently conveys the multiple shades of this ambivalence, and possesses the quiet, self-contained dignity of a genuine connection wrought between photographer and subject. This mutual respect is indicated in how often Thibodeaux shoots his subjects looking directly into the camera: demanding to be seen, to be reckoned with; a portrait of a region caught between optimism and scepticism.

 

In That Land of Perfect Day is available from Red Hook Editions, Brooklyn

Into the Woods with Noma Bar

Taken from the latest issue of Printed Pages, It’s Nice That catches up with graphic artist Noma Bar to discuss artistic responsibility and his idiosyncratic office

If you go down to Highgate Woods in London today, you might be in for a bit of a surprise. Among the dog walkers, the frazzled parents searching for their kids and the forestry workers making sure that the ancient woodland is being preserved, you might, if you look carefully, find one of the most prolific artists and illustrators working in the UK. Highgate Woods, all 28 hectares of it, is Noma Bar’s ‘office’. Everyday, come rain or shine, the graphic artist is there, somewhere, armed with his notebooks and pens, working through ideas that will appear in their final forms in newspapers, magazines, as part of a campaign or a gallery.

“You won’t find me drawing the flowers or the trees,” says Noma with a chuckle. “I’m not here to react to the seasonal changes or the landscape. I need the energy and the contrast to what is happening in the city.” We are sat by his current ‘desk’ that is hidden away from a footpath. It is here that he works, pen in hand, only leaving for meetings in the city or to go home and turn his ideas into the thought-provoking, inventive and sometimes controversial work he is famed for. It’s Nice That has joined for an afternoon to see the sights and learn more about Noma, his background and art. Our interview occurs soon after he has released Bittersweet, a “mid-career retrospective” with Thames and Hudson – a mammoth five volume box set that splits his portfolio thematically between: Life DeathPretty UglyLess MoreIn Out and Rough Smooth.

Noma’s work has been exhibited and published extensively responding to subjects ranging from war crimes to online porn. Over the course of his career his images that playfully tackle these far ranging topics have become known for the juxtaposition within the imagery and his mastery of negative space and block colour. “When you see my work, you wouldn’t think it was created in the woods,” says Noma thoughtfully. “I like this contrast.”

His work is adept at condensing complex subjects into simple images that belie the depth of thought and endeavour that goes into making them. His work for the GuardianNew York Times and other bastions of the old media establishment has seen him deal with the topics that informed the names of each section of his new book with apparent ease. “There isn’t one way to do it. There’s something in me that wants to strip things down. No one knows the pain and sweat that goes into making each work,” he explains. “It’s like being a musician or a dancer. You might see the sweat on the stage, but you don’t see everything that has gone into it. I’m not crazy about showing that process, I want to keep things for myself. Theres a lot of deleting and starting again.”

Whatever the brief, be it a commercial client, a publication or a commission for a charity or campaign, Noma’s belief in his responsibilities is resolute. “As designers we have power. If I can use my pen to say things, to affect and change realities, I will,” he says firmly. “It’s like a singer writing a song. If I work for someone like Cancer Research and can attract someone to donate to the cause through a poster, that is my contribution. It’s another voice. It can be a powerful thing.”

It’s not only the more overtly emotive works that embody this thinking. Noma has been called to produce portraits of countless faces over the years. It’s something that endlessly fascinates him and his sketchbooks are full of faces he has seen on his travels in the woods, around the capital and further afield. “Taking iconic faces and working into them is fun,” he says. “It’s deconstructing them to the extreme. The power lies in taking on something that is already iconic. I am taking the icon and breaking the icon. An average, normal, beautiful face is more tricky to draw.” Among the film stars, politicians and royalty he has to depict, one face returns more than others. “I get a lot of Hitlers. People don’t like that I draw Hitler. For me, drawing Hitler is provocation whatever the message is. It’s something that I am dealing with and it is a bitter pill. Hitler is fun. Challenging is fun.”

The challenges come thick and fast, and as Noma gathers his thoughts and records them in his sketchbook, sat among the foliage in the woods, he can never truly anticipate the response an image will generate. Controversy has followed his overtly political works – be it a Time Out cover that merged the image of Big Ben’s clocktower with an representation of anal sex, or a piece about George Bush and the Iraq war that saw “countless emails and letters questioning why I did it”. It’s Noma’s storytelling abilities that get him to his final ideas. “I didn’t choose this. It’s just something I can do,” he says. Noma can reduce the graphic nature of a topic without losing how profound the message it is, or place something in the mainstream media that might be too difficult to convey in another way. “I have a name now, people come to me to solve problems. I wouldn’t do what a photographer would do. I can say things about, say, sexuality and bring fun to sex. Or I have done really serious briefs covering topics like rape, war or paedophiles. There is no harm in what I am doing visually. I enjoy doing this work.”

The dualities within Noma’s work mirror his life. This fascination with the essence of the story and a translation of this into a beautiful and profound image is a struggle on which he thrives. In the spirit of Bittersweet I ask him to try and sum himself up in two words. He pauses, furrows his brow beneath his ever present hat, then smiles: “Always More!”

Photography Jack Johnstone

This is an excerpt from an article published by It’s Nice That in August 2017, and features in the latest issue of Printed Pages

Massimo Vitali: Disturbed Coastal Systems

The Italian photographer discusses scouting locations, the politics behind his work and the changing status of Europe’s beaches

Massimo Vitali is known for his large-format photographs of crowded beach scenes. A former photojournalist and cinematographer, Vitali has committed the second half of his adult life to travelling across the globe. “At the beginning of the season I look up places to shoot,” he says. “Sometimes people I know will talk to me about new locations, sometimes I will want to go back to places I’ve been before.” It’s this tradition of visiting and re-visiting beaches that has reinforced his idea of them as places of perpetual change. “If you really wanted, you could go to the same beach for twenty years and every year it would be different,” he explains. 

“When I first started taking pictures, beaches had no connotations. They were places where people could not think about anything, and be totally at ease.” Today, the same beaches are still holiday destinations, he says, but they are also the troubling backdrops of the European migrant crisis. For Vitali, an artist who has spent the last two decades documenting holidaymakers along the coastlines of the continent, as well as further afield, the beach has become a looking glass into the heart of the lives of Europeans. Of the current political climate, Vitali notes: “There is a vague sense of doom.”

New work in the Italian photographer’s current exhibition at the Benrubi Gallery in New York, Disturbed Coastal Systems, was primarily shot on the beaches of Portugal, where over a million Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees first set foot on the shores of Europe. Vitali continues to look at the tension between the human habitat and the natural world with his latest photographs. Throughout the images, man-made saltwater pools and concrete piers break up natural scenery and hint at ways coastlines are occupied.

While at first glance Vitali’s photographs can seem almost saccharine, on closer inspection there is an unexpected depth beneath the bubblegum colour palette – something that feels both timeless and fleeting. “I try with my pictures to be in the middle, in the middle of something that is not long lasting, like walking on a thin line between what is already there and what is changing all of the time.”

Disturbed Coastal Systems is on show at the Benrubi Gallery in New York until 17 June

 

Radical Fragrance

For Geza Schoen, founder of the cult fragrance label Escentric Molecules, blurring the boundaries between art and chemistry is key to innovation

Geza Schoen, the 48-year-old German founder of the cult fragrance label Escentric Molecules, does not talk much like a traditional perfumer. He dispenses with the airy, time-worn Proustian associations when describing scents, preferring to talk about the molecular components instead, and sounding more like a chemist in the process. One in particular, an aroma chemical called Iso E Super – which was developed in a laboratory in 1973 and appears in the background of many great perfumes – would become the genesis of the minimalist Escentric 01 and Molecule 01: fragrances launched by Schoen in 2006. “When I smelled Iso E Super for the first time I noticed why I had preferences for certain fragrances: they all contained a big chunk of it,” exclaims Schoen, who recalls giving the scent to a friend to wear in the 1990s that resulted in women chasing him down the street. “That’s when I realised it had a super power.”

Schoen’s idea was to propose two fragrances in homage: one with an unprecedented 65 per cent of the molecule blended with a handful of other notes, and the second even more radical interpretation to contain only the molecule in its purest form. Though his unique proposition was initially met with resistance, it soon became a word-of-mouth phenomenon on account of its animalic, woody, velvety and sensual qualities. “Molecule 01 is to perfume what Bauhaus is to Baroque,” says Schoen of his decision to challenge the traditional scent paradigm of combining synthetics with natural products, by simplifying the process to just one ingredient. “I wanted something cleaner.” 

Schoen has made a habit of always thinking outside the box, saying, “For me it’s natural to do things differently.” Born and raised in Kassel to parents who were both teachers, Schoen’s fascination with smell began when he was a teenager; he would get samples of perfume in the post, writing to fragrance companies asking them to send him their wares. By the age of 16, he could identify hundreds of different perfumes. “The sense of smell is still the most important sense we have, and the most fascinating.” Starting out training and working at the international fragrance manufacturers Haarmann & Reimer (now Symrise) for 12 years, he left after becoming disillusioned with how corporate the industry had become. He moved to London in 2001 to create a scent, Wode, for the London design duo, Boudicca.

The fragrance came in two versions: Scent and Paint, with the latter packaged in a silver spray-paint can that doused the wearer in a deep blue pigment similar to that which the ancient British queen, Boudicca, wore into battle. This was the start of a number of esoteric projects Schoen has worked on that push the boundaries of what can be achieved with fragrance, like Paper Passion – a scent that smells like a Steidl book and comes packaged in one. He has also conceived a series of fragrances made in tribute to smart women called ‘The Beautiful Mind’, and worked with artists such as Wolfgang Georgsdorf, for whom he made 64 odours for Smeller – an ‘olfactory organ’ that spectators can play like a piano to make aromascapes. 

But it’s with Escentric Molecules that the fullest expression of his scent philosophy remains, that of stripping things back “so that it’s very plain and very linear but it still smells great”. With its minimal packaging and unisex fragrances, Escentric Molecules is a modern concept that resonates with the times. “I think gendered fragrances are outdated,” he declares. “These days, people are changing their fragrances as often as they would change their jeans or their sneakers.” While scent 02 starred ambroxan (a key ingredient of ambergris), and for 03 the centrepiece was vetiver, Schoen recently launched series 04 with the sheer sandalwood molecule Javanol at its heart. He speaks of its “psychedelic freshness, as if liquid metal grapefruit peel was poured over a bed of velvety cream-coloured roses.” He amplified the fizzy grapefruit top notes in Escentric 04 with pink pepper and juniper, for an extra shot of freshness with a rose core, and base notes of balsamic ingredients. According to Schoen, using Javanol was challenging because “more than any other chemical I’ve used before, it gave direction to where the fragrance had to develop into.”

More than 10 years since launching his brand, Schoen is still enjoying playing at the boundaries between art and chemistry. “It wasn’t really my goal to change the perfume world,” he says. “I just wanted to make a fragrance for myself and my friends to wear.”

The Escentric Molecules 04 collection launches 25 April 2017

This article is taken from Port issue 20. To subscribe, click here.

Lead photography by Giles Revell

Julian Schnabel: New York’s Renaissance Man

Port meets the Brooklyn-born artist, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, father and man about town during an afternoon at his home and studio Even if you don’t know who lives there, the home and studio of the painter Julian Schnabel is a familiar sight for denizens of downtown Manhattan. As the West Village stretches out toward the water, a pale pink tower rises out of blocks of low apartment buildings and townhouses. This is Palazzo Chupi, a residence that Schnabel designed and built in 2009, so called after the nickname of his second wife, Olatz López Garmendia. The structure, with its stepped-back floors, curved windows and arabesque arcades, resembles a cross between a modern condo and a medieval castle in Convivencia Spain. 

To visit Schnabel, one must first make a procession through Palazzo Chupi’s imposing wooden doors on the ground floor and into a tall, dark elevator that features a wall-size mirror, pointed ceiling and a woven bench, in high Gothic style. The doors open on to a sudden mirage, or so it seems: a room of billowing red velvet curtains, stone tiles and enormous paintings covering every available patch of wall – the domain of a deposed monarch in exile perhaps, or one of the best-known and yet least-understood living artists in the world.

Two summers ago, Schnabel was visiting the cemetery where Van Gogh is buried, in Auvers-sur-Oise, to the north of Paris. ‘There were these rose bushes with these pink roses, and there’s this black wall around the cemetery that had little white stones in it,’ he says. The scene provided the impetus for some dozen paintings, which hang, stately, at Pace, like a room of Monets at the Museum of Modern Art, pre-historicised. ‘There’s a work ethic in these paintings, a paintedness that is a very old-fashioned way of being a painter.’

The grandeur of Schnabel’s current surroundings and the Pace exhibition is all part of the artist’s carefully cultivated mystique. As a representative icon of 1980s New York City painting, in all its excesses, and the mascot of the neo-expressionist wave that preoccupied painters at the time, these days the artist is famous for being famous. The New York Times called him “the carnival man of contemporary art” as far back as 1982. Schnabel and his several ex-wives and art-world model girlfriends, and his now-adult children – son Vito and daughter Stella – have been mainstays of the society pages ever since. 

Another factor has increased Schnabel’s public notoriety. He leveraged his fame into Hollywood as well, tapping friendly actors and funding films with his own fortune. The results, movies like Basquiat (in which Bowie plays Warhol) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, display a unique visual sensibility. A new film project will explore the life of his most recent inspiration, Van Gogh, succeeding his paintings.

Yet Schnabel’s new rose period presents a mystery. These are quiet, contemplative paintings, more introverted than anything Schnabel has done in decades. What happened to the bad boy of the 80s, the builder of pink towers, the unrepentant enfant terrible of the art world?

Schnabel’s salon, the room where I meet him, is hung with paintings from the various phases of his long career: an autobiographical solo exhibition that continues throughout his home, hung between eclectic artefacts like a toreador costume and a Chinese idol. In the kitchen is an inchoate work from the 70s, a dark canvas fixed with shelf protrusions and painted with wandering lines, somewhere between neo-expressionism and Arte Povera. Two of the more recent series much in evidence are the ‘Navigation Drawings’, maps with sweeps of thin, translucent paint; and the ‘Goat’ paintings, in which a photograph of a stuffed version of the titular animal is set against a swatch of 19th-century wallpaper and daubed once more.

The rose pieces represent another turn. Schnabel reclines on one side of a long couch and I sit in a throne-like chair beside it, positioned like a therapist to his patient, but the painter gestures for me to sit with him. He eases back further. ‘I want things to be able to be different and address other things, rather than make the same thing over and over,’ he says, gesturing at the work around him.

When talking to artists, there are certain patterns that emerge, no matter what kind of work the artist makes, no matter how famous or obscure they are. One is that they don’t like to be tied to their influences, even if they are undeniable art historical reference points. Hence Schnabel’s dismissal of my initial suggestion of Cy Twombly as a comparison for his rose paintings. Schnabel is a fan of the late painter, whose play between figuration and abstraction his own work echoes, but Twombly’s flowers aren’t his favourite, he says. 

Another reality of conversations with artists is that any attempt to describe their work to them will inevitably fail. This constant falling-short brings to mind the paradox of trying to interpret art in the first place: the experience of viewing it is never the same, nor often remotely similar, to the process of making it, of having your nose up to the canvas and your brush in the paint. The piece often doesn’t mean to its viewer what it means to its creator. ‘You’re doing something and people are all around you, but they don’t see what you see and they don’t know what you’re doing,’ Schnabel says. 

It’s this gap that the artist hopes to represent in his film about Van Gogh, now that he has put an end to the rose series, he says. He can let the audience in on the process of art-making from the painter’s perspective, even as the characters in the movie remain distant from it. Showing the reality of Van Gogh’s life and work seems to be a way for Schnabel to reconcile his own fame with the fact of his ongoing artistic practice, though his own career couldn’t be more different than the post-Impressionist’s – Schnabel has sold far more than one canvas in his lifetime. 

‘The movie’s about painting. Van Gogh as a human being has been highly mythologised; his death and his ear have been mythologised. It would be nice to make a movie about a guy everybody thinks they know about, but maybe they might be surprised,’ Schnabel says. Over the course of our conversation he pauses for longer and longer moments, either fighting sleep or diving into an inner landscape, imagining the work to come.

By this point, the long afternoon has overtaken the city, the sunlight is starting to dim, and Vito’s living room is hushed and enclosed, an unreal space filled with the living detritus of culture. The roses, to offer up my own paltry interpretation, are an effort to seek solace in the rush of time, a way to begin to find a place in history, if there is one to be found. That the blooms the paintings depict will fade is inevitable, but Schnabel has captured them, to set against every image of every flower that will ever be made by an artist. Here is his enduring offering. 

‘Painting seems to last a long time. It’s a wonderful refuge. The painted world is a place where you can reside outside of the world of everything else,’ Schnabel says, and pauses for the longest time, reclining flat on the couch, eyes closed, searching for something internal and then coming back up with it, a vulnerable twinge in his voice communicating a universal ache. ‘In there, there’s a great freedom. Obviously, there’s this crazy relationship with eternity. It’s a denial of death.’

This article is taken from Port issue 20. To subscribe, click here.

Photography by Michael Avedon
Styling by Dan May

 

 

 

 

 

Everyday Africa

Behind the powerful photography project challenging stereotypes about the world’s second largest continent

It was back in 1985 when the MJ-led supergroup, USA for Africa, released their charity single, ‘We Are The World’ – a song that raised in excess of $63 million and a shining, totemic example of mid-80s cheese. But with lyrics such as: “send them your heart so they’ll know that someone cares / And their lives will be stronger and free”, the song is equally symbolic of something far more insidious and hard to define.

“I remember seeing commercials as a kid on the television and seeing a kid with flies all over his face, with a voice saying ‘For 50 cents a day…’,” explains Austin Merrill, co-founder of the Everyday Africa photography project. ‘We’re not trying to say that people don’t need help—people need help everywhere, in London and New York they need help too—but we’re saying that there’s a lot more to it than that. News informs these cliches, but so do movies, music videos and commercials, and have done for a long time.”

Everyday Africa was created in 2012 by writer Austin Merrill and photojournalist Peter DiCampo, who shared a growing annoyance with the Western stereotype of the continent as a place rife with poverty, disease and war, and not much else. Now, the project is being published in book form by Kehrer VerlagEveryday Africa: 30 Photographers Re-Picturing a Continent.

Afro on purple. Silhouette of my daughter. Accra, Ghana. @africashowboy

“It started as a reporting assignment,” Merrill says. “Peter DiCampo and I were in the Western Ivory Coast to report on the ways that the country was moving on from a decade of civil war, but we realised that we were reporting on much of the same things that you always hear about from that part of the world. It was frustrating for us because we’d both lived in that part of the continent for several years, and felt that there was more going on than just crisis. So we began using our cellphones to take photographs of everyday life, as a way of telling that side of the story.”

She’s my girl, he said proudly. Dembara, Senegal. @hollypickettpix

Operating primarily through Instagram, the project aims to shine a light on the day-to-day reality of the 1.2 billion people that live there, while underscoring their diversity and individualism.

One of the most exciting things about the project is that, through social media, it is able to connect with people of all age groups. “We have to understand each other a little better,” notes Merrill. “I think it’s possible by reaching out to kids and getting them to see these countries as places that are not exotic, but where people live normal lives.”

Two women and their cell phones in Lagos, Nigeria. @andrewesiebo

The photographs featured in Everyday Africa are taken by a community of thirty photographers from around the continent. Some of the pictures feature scenes of disease and destitution, but, crucially, they sit next to pictures of ordinary life. “If you grow up with a more realistic perception of what people and cultures are like, then you might have a better way of thinking about the world, a better way of thinking about how countries should interact, how people should interact,” he continues. “There are a lot of ways that this could ripple outwards.”

Everyday Africa: 30 Photographers Re-Picturing a Continent is published by Kehrer Verlag

@everydayafrica

The Story of Slow TV

How filming a seven-hour train journey launched the Slow TV movement and became a Norwegian broadcasting phenomenon

Bergensbanen – minutt for minutt / photograph by Rolf Sørensen
Bergensbanen – minutt for minutt / photograph by Rolf Sørensen

During an ordinary lunchtime in 2009, a colleague of mine came up with the idea for a radio programme to mark the day of the German invasion of Norway in 1940 – a programme that would go through the whole night, reporting from the right place, the exact times and so on. It was a good idea, but couldn’t be made as it was only a few days before the anniversary of the invasion. But we kept sitting there having lunch, seeing which stories we could tell over a long time. It was the centenary of the Bergen Railway, and that was the suggestion that stuck. 

It’s a very slow train and takes seven and a half hours. One of us suggested filming the whole thing and putting it on TV, and we all laughed. It could have been one of those ideas that you have after a few drinks and forget about the next day, but it kept coming back to us. We called our commissioning editors and said that we wanted to make a documentary that would be ‘minute by minute’, and they didn’t know what we meant. They laughed with us when they understood.  

 

The original railway programme was a four-camera production. We occasionally talked to the passengers, and we had a presenter and a lot of archive footage, but otherwise it was just the train. It’s telling a story, but a story that’s happening without us, as TV-makers, colouring it in any sense.

The key thing is the unbroken timeline, which means that everything is there – the boring parts as well as the interesting parts. This means that you, as the viewer, have to decide for yourself which bits are interesting. That’s why people find different stories in the programme, and why people watch Slow TV in different ways; some just lean back and have it as a nice picture on the wall, like a big window in the living room, and other people sit on the edge of their seats, genuinely curious.

Bergensbanen – minutt for minutt © NRK
Bergensbanen – minutt for minutt © NRK

When we did the next project – the coastal ship – we filmed live over five and a half days, and had the advantage of people talking about something that is happening in real-time. The live element has become a very important part of Slow TV. I think it’s important for the viewer, as a kind of contract, that this is happening right now, that no one has taken anything away. It’s also important for the viewer to know that something could happen. It most probably won’t, but it could, just as in life. That’s why you carry on watching.   

Despite some perceptions, this is not watching paint dry. At the heart of all the stories that we’ve made is a story worth telling. Maybe a story connected to Norwegian culture, or a journey, or a subject that many Norwegians can relate to. When you find that story and tell it in a fascinating way, then you have the power to help show people what’s important and what’s not. By broadcasting a crazy programme on prime-time television, you’re telling the audience this is something worth watching. If you choose the right subject, and you’re brave, then people will respond. 

Interview by Caolan Blaney