Monday, October 25, 2021

Totem in Manchester

 Guest blog by Alexandra P. Alberda

Totem Latamat outside Manchester Museum

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter.  Alexandra P. Alberda spent most of her youth in Bismarck, North Dakota, USA. She is mixed race and Jemez Pueblo, which has meant that she has grown up at the thresholds of cultures.  She is Curator of Indigenous Perspectives at Manchester Museum - the first person to hold such a role.

Between October 21st -24th TOTEM LATAMAT was installed on The University of Manchester’s University Place Square opposite the Manchester Museum across Oxford Road. At the Museum, we are proud to host this important work as it contributes not only to our Indigenising Manchester Museum programme, but also to our hello future programme, which is concerned with climate and environmental action. TOTEM LATAMAT was an example of Indigenous action and lived experiences (through QR extra material) that our communities, students, staff and visitors could encounter. Many remarked to me on the beauty of the work and message, and how the materials seemed very important in considering actions we take. 

This installation coincided in a happy accident with the wonderful Corridor of Light celebration, which brings in people and families from across the Greater Manchester area. It was placed next to an audio-visual work by Antonio Roberts called Move Fast and Break Things. Through this event, regular University activity and dozens of prospective student trips on the Saturday, thousands of people viewed or interacted with TOTEM LATAMAT, and I certainly saw at least a couple hundred take selfies with it and read the signs.  Jun Tiburcio’s TOTEM LATAMAT was an important ambassador of Indigenous perspectives on climate crisis/burning and a provoker of conversation.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Totem at the Rollright Stones

 Guest blog by George Lambrick

Totem Latamat at the centre of the stone circle

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter.  George Lambrick is Chair of the Rollright Trust, which administers the ancient site of the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire.

The Rollright Trust was delighted to be asked to host TOTEM LATAMAT at the Rollright Stones for a couple of days on its way to COP26. By dint of a carefully worked out installation, it was possible to place the totem at the centre of the King’s Men stone circle leaving no trace of how it had arrived, thereby enhancing its sense of belonging – which many visitors commented on.   

The stone circle dates from a period about 4,500 years ago when domestication of animals and plants was well-established but before ‘farming’ in the sense of extensive fields and permanent farms and villages was established.  Indeed, it is very possible that the Stones were erected in a still widely forested landscape before increasingly rapid clearance for agriculture in later prehistory (c. 3,000 years ago) led to flooding in the Thames valley as arable agriculture expanded to feed a rapidly growing, increasingly urban population.  It could hardly be a better location for reminding us that in Western Europe we long since went through effects of deforestation for farming which now, on a far greater global scale, are causing even more devastating changes – not just to water land and ecology, but also climate.

The only comparable previous event at the stone circle was a visit by Sir Anish Kapoor’s ‘Turning the World Inside Out’ in 2004 – and this new visitor has been just as impressive, temporarily changing the architectural dynamics of this ancient ceremonial gathering place in ways that draw attention to many of its key characteristics.  The act of placing such a striking, contrasting yet somehow complementary feature at the centre of the circle exactly on its axis from the entrance to the tallest stone makes a profound difference.  The scale of the totem meant it had a presence that was unmistakably significant, one visitor commenting that it made the stone circle’s somewhat inconspicuous entrance seem larger and more significant – not least because the totem was carefully oriented to face the entrance square-on. 

The symbolism of the totem is fascinating in its varied messages.  It was possible to pick up on this in how we placed it, with its more optimistic and hopeful front facing out over the beautiful Cotswolds landscape while turning its back (representing the damage that human development has been done to the environment) on the noisy HGVs and other traffic on the road that passes less than 10m from the stone circle.

Many visitors commented on the cheerful vibrant colours of the totem, which beautifully complemented the more muted but no less varied colours of the 70-odd species of lichens that cover every surface of the stones.  The natural materials of the totem and the unshaped irregular form of the stones also complemented each other, one of our volunteers commenting on it as ‘a real antidote to mass-production.’  Another striking feature of what the totem brought to the site was the sense of life engendered by the movement of the fabric scarf and bamboo ‘wings’ which rattled fiercely in a strong breeze and like wind chimes in gentle gusts.  At one point this percussive effect was complemented by a group of three regular visitors who circumnavigate the stone circle rhythmically sounding a gong and tambour drums as a form of meditation, and on this occasion included the totem in their perambulations.  A player of medieval-style English bagpipes (as reconstructed from illustrations from the time of Chaucer) added another musical dimension.  The combination of colour, movement, sound and smell of the wood (especially down-wind) gave the totem an added sense of liveliness which further enhanced its impact in contrast to the rock-solid stones.  

There is a very long tradition of people placing a wide variety of offerings or decorations on and around the Stones.  During the installation, we were very anxious about forecast high winds and wanted to make the totem even more stable.  As a pragmatic solution, we placed two smallish but heavy stones that we use for a children’s stone-moving exercise on the base as temporary extra contribution, literally helping to make the totem more ‘grounded’ but in a manner suitable to its new setting.  Subsequently an apple was added between the eagle’s talons, and later some hawthorn berries. 

Numerous children visited (including a class from the local primary school) – one child familiar with the Stones, but not aware of what she was about to see coming round the corner, let out a delighted whoop of ‘WOW!’  Also very welcome is the unforeseen effect that the totem’s visit has made to the work of our Trust – several of our Friends group visited with enthusiasm, we renewed and reinforced our connections with volunteers who helped with the installation and removal as well as neighbours who helped keep an eye on the totem overnight.  

Finally, congratulations to Jun Tiburcio for his brilliant and moving sculpture; greetings to the Totonac peoples in making so clear their commitment to the vital importance of safeguarding Indigenous culture and the environment; and a very big thank you to all involved in making this special visit possible. 

Totem in Coventry

 Guest blog by Thomas Ellmer

Totem Latamat outside Warwick Arts Centre

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter.  Thomas Ellmer is Deputy Curator at Warwick Arts Centre, in Coventry, the 2021 UK City of Culture.  During Cop, WAC will host the Change Festival, which is collaborating with ORIGINS for Indigenous programming.  

We were thrilled to welcome Totem Latamat to Warwick Arts Centre and to the University of Warwick campus. Stately yet spooky, majestic and mysterious, Totem Latamat was quickly surrounded by University of Warwick students. The Totem posed for photos, making sure its colourful headdress was nicely lit from above and its environmental proposition was felt.

Students and members of staff were surprised by the sculpture’s scale and moving elements. Now we know what 4.5m in height is.   
“Oh wow, it’ll have its work cut out at Cop26,” said one student.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Totem in Enfield

Guest blog by Ali Istanbullu

YTA's Young Notes Choir welcome Totem Latamat to Enfield

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter.  Ali Istanbullu is a child protection social worker, living in Enfield.  He has worked with refugees in different locations across the Middle East, and for the last decade has been working in a deprived and diverse London borough in the child protection area.

Colossal heatwaves, wildfires, torrential rains, and stronger hurricanes that devastated swathes of land and killed dozens of people across Africa, South America and Europe. The Earth is telling us something and we need to do something about it. Poorest communities are at the receiving end of these devastating effects.  Totem Latamat is a messenger sent by Indigenous people to the leaders in COP26. Totem Latamat is not only a response to the leaders but also it is our connection to the environment and Earth. Totem Latamat is an art with a loud and resonating voice for the most important issues of our day and age. It was a great experience for us to meet this Indigenous Mexican response to climate change en route to COP26.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Totem in Milton Keynes

 Guest blog by Joan Harris

TOTEM LATAMAT surrounded by lasers in Milton Keynes

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter.  Joan Harris was part of the group from Interfaith Milton Keynes who welcomed the totem to Station Square.

I was surprised at how colourful and beautiful the totem is!  The photo in the initial information I had seen obviously showed the totem not finished, so it was a glorious sight against a blue autumn sky. The juxtaposition of the totem against the building project behind it focused the message of nature being dominated by human activity.  The gathered observers raising their voices in song (even in 2 parts in rounds!), is encouraging that we can work together for the good. Thanks to all involved in getting that beautiful symbol and art here to our city.

Totem at Chiswick House


Pupils from Chiswick School encounter Totem Latamat

A guest blog by Ellie Scott

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter. The first post is by Ellie Scott, who is a pupil at Chiswick School.  

Hi, I'm Ellie and on Monday, my friends went to Chiswick House to do a speech about the environment. It was really great meeting the Deputy Ambassador of Mexico, the Mayor of Chiswick and seeing the big totem used to spread environmental awareness and peace. Something I found really cool about the totem was the fact that it was carved entirely out of wood! On our way to Chiswick House, some students and I had to carry a massive pole full of information about ourselves, our nationality and much more! On the way there, it was pretty tiring due to us carrying the pole. Then, we carried the steelpan instruments to the grass from the van they were in, before doing some pictures for the press. Not so long after that, my friends and I said our speeches and introduced ourselves to the Deputy Ambassador of Mexico. What's more, Chiswick School’s steelpan band then played Levitating as a welcome to the totem, before we met the Mayor of Chiswick after a song blessing the totem, from a Shaman. This day was an amazing experience and I loved it.

Quechua shaman Kurikindi blesses Totem Latamat

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Coming of Totem Latamat

The story began back in  March, when we first approached Jun Tiburcio to make the totem. It was clear that this year's ORIGINS was not going to be the same as previous editions, with travel and audience gathering so uncertain. Indigenous people had been particularly badly hit by the pandemic, and this fact was also affecting the other great concern of 2021, the Cop26 summit on Climate Change.  As Greta Thunberg pointed out, vaccination inequality compounds existing divisions between rich and poor, effectively excluding Indigenous voices from the crucial debates in November. As a UK-based organisation working with Indigenous cultures, we felt a deep need to find another way in which their environmental ideas and agendas could be brought to the world's attention. TOTEM LATAMAT is the answer.

Accompanied by a ceremony to give thanks for the life that was being offered, a single tree was felled by Jun and other men from his village back in June. He carved it over many weeks, working with the entire community to shape the tree, to sculpt its intricate designs, to paint it in the magnificent, sun-kissed colours of Mexico. TOTEM LATAMAT is the work of a great artist - and it is also the work of his Totonac village community.

By early August, the totem was ready to move to Veracruz for shipping. It's not a simple matter... but we really couldn't send this by plane: the whole project has to be as environmentally positive as possible. We needed export licences and we're still doing import paperwork. The totem turned out too be too big for the 20 foot shipping container we had booked, so we had to get a bigger one. Then the queue of goods for the ship proved too long, and there was a two week delay before it could be loaded onto the next ship. Finally, on 7th September, it was able to begin its sea crossing.  

The ship stopped in Houston, and then Le Havre. Mid-Atlantic there was another delay that meant the ceremony of welcome had to be put back. Just this morning we heard the departure from Le Havre was 9 hours late, which means the ship will be unloaded overnight tonight at London Gateway. Then it's a question of how long it takes to get through customs. The shippers will drive it across London to Chiswick House, and at last we will meet TOTEM LATAMAT, for the beginning of the UK journey.  

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Une Semaine au Soleil


Nicola Bonazzi and Dominique Jambert in the Cre-Actors workshop

After seemingly endless Covid delays, and surrounded by vaccination certificates and antigen tests, we were finally able to hold the first workshop in the Cre-Actors project, run through our Irish company, in the last week of July.  I couldn't have wished for a better return to the world of live theatre-making: not only were we able to gather in a large intercultural devising group, we were on the main stage of La Cartouchrie, working with actors from the great Théâtre du Soleil itself.  In the image above, you can see Nicola Bonazzi, from the Teatro dell'Argine in Bologna, working in a costume from their legendary production of LES ATRIDES.  We were able, quite literally, to cover ourselves with the great theatrical tradition of this remarkable troupe.  It was deeply refreshing and restorative to reconnect with theatrical tradition, sensing a continuity and a dedication that has survived the rupture.  It was, in the fullest sense, a week in the sun.

The Soleil is famously a company which bases its work in mask; in the traditional forms of Asian theatre and commedia, in which the mask is a sacred object that carries the spirit of a pre-existing character.  While we made little use of actual masks in this workshop, there were costumes involved from the very beginning, as well as music in every improvisation, often used as the stimulus for the scenario.  The workshop leaders, Dominique Jambert and Vincent Mangado, also made use of the framework from THE TEMPEST as a stimulus to creativity, and I suppose that was like another mask - another tradition of theatre to inform our creativity.  

There will be other posts about this week on the Cre-Actors blog, and detailed discussions of the methodology in the project e-book next year.  But at this point, I simply feel a desire to celebrate a return to theatre-making, and to express the joy of being part of the traditions that come together on the Cartoucherie stage.  It is fun.  It is holy.  It is political.  It is community.  

Monday, August 16, 2021

Acropolis / Apocalypse

Flying into Athens, the fires are already visible. We step into 45°. The Metro line from the airport isn't running. Maybe the rails have buckled in the heat.

Ash falls in a hot snow over the city.

In the Acropolis Museum a statue is weeping. She offers an ancestor for Catherine Schaub's lamenting witness - the Libation Bearer. Only last week we were on the stage of the Soleil - battling to grace these whimpering tomorrows with the name of tragedy.

Ash falls in a hot snow over the city.

Our meeting is brief and desultory. We attempt to debate the socially engaged. Some people don't stay beyond the first morning - present only to record their presence. Their cynicism oppresses more deeply than the sun. A moral vacuum. A failure of vision. They fiddle with their phones and cremate the planet with the fuel of their insouciance.

Ash falls in a hot snow over the city.

Today is August 6th. Hiroshima Day. We knew in 1945. In Beirut, 1982, Mahmoud Darwish witnessed this day under a hail of shelling. The vacuum bomb. He longed for coffee and he knew today. The statue on the Acropolis too. Aeschylus, Electra, Oedipus, Tiresias.... We have always known.

The attendance report is sent to the funder.

Ash falls in a hot snow over the city.