Friday 30 June 2017

The pre-WWII Vietnamese Anarchist Movement

An extract from my forthcoming thousand-plus-page book, In the Shadow of a Hurricane: Global Anarchist Ideological and Organisational Lineages.

The two leading lights of the pre-WWII Vietnamese anarchist movement represented the two main traditions: Phan Bội Châu (above) the "collectivist" mass line and Nguyễn An Ninh (below) the "individualist" insurrectionists.

The territory later known as Vietnam (Tonkin in the north, Annam in the centre and Cochinchina in the south) was originally Chinese tributary territory, but fell under French colonial administration from 1884, with Tonkin and Annam being placed under harsher rule as protectorates, but the people of Cochinchina given more breathing room because it had the “privilege” of being a direct colony. An isolated and divided people with a long quietist societal tradition under the heels of a dynastic empire propped up by Mandarin administrators and Confucian scholars who initially served Chinese, then French interests, radicalism was late in developing in Vietnam. Radicalism originally emerged in 1898 as the anti-colonial Reform Movement, which was inspired by the Chinese reform movement of that year. But the reformists would soon be challenged by two main anarchist currents, according to Tai: the “collectivist orientation” that was “a component of anarcho-socialism” introduced by students returning from China and Japan; and the “libertarian and individualist strain” introduced from those whose studies had taken them to France. Only recently has the role of anarchism in the Vietnamese Revolution attracted scholarly analysis, despite anarchism’s unmistakable influence on the revolution’s early phase,” Tai noted. According to Dirlik’s Encyclopaedia Britannica article, it was “through association with Chinese anarchists in Tokyo that anarchism entered Vietnamese radicalism.” 

An important figure was the Vietnamese anarchist scholar-turned-militant Phan Bội Châu (1867-1940), Tai’s “pioneer of the Revolution”, who was in Tokyo in the early 20th Century where he “engaged in common activities with Chinese and Japanese radicals.” The “Pan-Asian anti-imperialism of the Chinese anarchists resonated” with his own concerns about the liberation of Vietnam from France. Born in Nghe An in Annam, he was 18 years old when it fell under French colonialism, firing his patriotism and driving him into the arms of a royalist opposition group (despite the fact that from 1885, the French controlled the royal succession). But Phan was soon moving towards radical republicanism. It is not known whether the Russian Revolt of 1905 radicalised him, but in that year, he wrote the influential Viet Nam Vong Quoc Su (History of the Loss of Vietnam) and established the “Eastern Travel Movement” which encouraged Vietnamese students, stifled by the patronising style of French education, to travel abroad to improve themselves. 

The movement successfully relocated a generation of Vietnamese youth to two centres of pre-war anarchism: Tokyo and Paris. Phan himself, then 38 years old, left for Tokyo in 1905 with Phan Chu Trinh, the son of a wealthy land-owner, where they befriended a wide circle of anti-colonial activists including members of the Japanese Socialist Party and Sun Yat-Sen. But Allen said Phan Chu Trinh "broke with Chau [sic.] over the question of Japan’s real intentions toward Indochina. He returned to Vietnam and opened a modern school to teach children of both sexes [presumably inspired by the anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer] and he railed at the French for their hypocrisy. While Phan Chu Trinh attached the French, he also believed that with the help of the French bureaucracy, Vietnam could become a modern society."

Back in Japan in 1907, Phan Bội Châu formed the Constitutionalist Association (Cong Hien Hoi) to advance the anti-colonial cause among Vietnamese exiles, but it was shut down by the Japanese authorities the following year, acting on a French request. But in that year, Phan appears to have gravitated towards anarchism, albeit still flavoured with Vietnamese nationalism, joining the Asian Friendship Association (Ashin Washinkai) – otherwise known as the League of East Asian Lost Countries (Tungya Wangkuo Tungmenhui) – founded by the Chinese exile anarchists Ha Zhen and Liu Shipei, with its paper Tien I (Natural Justice). Back in Vietnam in 1908, a series of anti-tax riots broke out, followed by peasant riots in Quand Nam. The French authorities used the excuse to smash the Reform Movement by arresting scores of its leading scholars including Phan Chu Trinh, and shutting down the Tonkin Free School which had been founded the previous year (presumably by Phan Chu Trinh) and the University of Hanoi which had been founded in 1902. Phan Chu Trinh was sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to life in Poulo Cordone.

Phan Bội Châu was expelled from Japan in 1909 and traveled to the independent monarchy of Siam (now Thailand), the British enclave of Hong Kong and finally southern China. The successful 1911 Republican Revolution in China inspired Phan to move to south China in 1912, where he founded the League for the Restoration of Vietnam (Viet Nam Quang Phuc Hoi) among Vietnamese exiles. Despite the fact that the League was funded in part by a 200 piaster donation from Liu, the League was republican in orientation. But its backers in Cochinchina wanted a monarchy free of French influence, so a pretender to the throne, Prince Cuong De became its figurehead, with Phan as “prime minister” of its government-in-exile, demonstrating the mixed politics of the early anti-colonial movement. Allen claims, without supporting proof, that this meant Phan "believed that a strong emperor with the help of the Chinese and Japanese could defeat the French… His thinking at first was essentially feudal in outlook and aimed at restoring the power of the emperor supported by his mandarins in an independent Vietnam. He had almost nothing to say about the vast economic and social changes brought by French imperialism." But this is clearly untrue because Phan Bội Châu also set up a “League for the Prosperity of China and Asia” to, in Tai’s words, “foster solidarity between China and the colonised countries of Asia, in particular Vietnam, India, Burma and Korea”. On a trip to Shanghai, Phan also joined with fifteen Chinese and one Japanese anarchist in the clandestine League for Humanity (The Goi Nhan Dao Hoi), immersing himself in the anarchist resistance movement.

In 1911, Phan Chu Trinh was released from jail, becoming according to Allen, a symbol of “resistance to the French for many educated Vietnamese”. In 1913, League assassins killed two French army officers in Hanoi in Tonkin and the Vietnamese governor of Thai Binh province – and influenced secret societies and religious sects to attack the French police headquarters in Saigon in Cochinchina. The young French-installed monarch Duy Tan was implicated in a plot against the French garrison in Annam and was promptly dethroned and replaced. Seven League members were executed and Phan Bội Châu was sentenced to death in absentia. In this period, it appears that the French-language edition of Shifu’s Minsheng (The Voice of the People), La Voco de la Popolo, was available to Vietnamese radicals in the country’s north. French entry into the First World War saw the authorities in Vietnam press-gang thousands of “volunteers” into service in Europe, leading to riots throughout Cochinchina. The French claimed Phan Bội Châu was behind the disturbances, further boosting his reputation as the key anti-colonial figure – but 38 League members were executed and 1,000 people jailed. Phan was betrayed in China by a double agent and spent the next three years in a Chinese prison, being released in 1917, the year the University of Hanoi was reopened. 

In August 1917, there was a revolt in Thai Nguyen province, Tonkin, provoked by the brutality of the French résident named Darles who was held responsible for the death by murder or suicide of 670 prisoners in the first eight months of the year. Importantly, the revolt, which was lead by Luong Ngoc Quyon, united both prisoners and French colonial troops repulsed by Darles’ sadism and lasted for three months. Quyon was a former member of Phan’s Eastern Travel Movement who had moved to Japan in 1905, was jailed in south China in 1915, losing the use of both his legs during two years in a tiny cell. The French killed 500 in suppressing the revolt and merely fined Darles a nominal amount for his inhumanity. He was only fired after photographs of him personally torturing a Vietnamese prisoner were published by an opposition newspaper. 

Meanwhile the League had been kept afloat in Phan Bội Châu’s absence by militants like Dang Tu Man and Dan Thuc Hua, but in 1919, Hua left the League, criticising it for its elitism and calling for revolutionaries to, in echo of the slogans of the Chinese anti-colonial May 4 Movement of that year, “go barefoot into the streets and byways and live the life of the common people”. In 1920, Tai writes, Phan published his translation of a Japanese syndicalist work, Inquiry into the True Character of the Soviet Union. But a new generation was coming to the fore and in 1923, former League members regrouped as the Society of Like Hearts (Tam Tam Xa) – otherwise known as the New Vietnam Youth Corps (Tan Viet Thanh Nien Doan) – that Tai maintains was an anarchist organisation based on Liu’s One Heart Society (I Hsin She), a cell-based organisation that cloaked itself in nationalist terms. In 1924, members of the Society of Like Hearts contacted Soviet advisers at the newly-formed, communist-controlled Whampoa Military Academy in China. Armed with explosives acquired from the academy, Society militant Phan Hong Thai, a factory worker, attempted to kill the French governor-general of Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) who was on an official visit to Canton. Thai missed his target, but killed three and wounded two in his entourage, then drowned in the river while fleeing, giving Vietnam its first revolutionary martyr. Thai was later buried near the graves of the martyrs of the 1911 Wuchang mutiny.

In 1923, Nguyễn An Ninh, the son of a small land-owning Reform Movement “country scholar”, returned to Vietnam from France where he had become an individualist pacifist anarchist, and delivered a sensational speech on the aspirations of Annamite youth that inspired a generation. Born in 1900, Nguyễn originally worked as a journalist on the mainstream Courier Saigonnais (Saigon Courier) before studying law at the Sorbonne in Paris starting in 1920 where he joined the communist-initiated “Group of Annamite Patriots in France” and apparently wrote on Vietnam both for Paria (Pariah), the anti-colonial journal of the new French Communist Party (PCF), and for Le Libertaire (The Libertarian), the organ of the Anarchist Union (UA). Writing on the supposed “miracle” of France’s “civilising mission” in Southeast Asia, Nguyễn responded: "What is this miracle? It is a miracle indeed to be able in a short time to plunge a people with an already low intellectual level into thick ignorance; it is a miracle indeed to be able, in such a short time to plunge a people with democratic ideas into complete servitude."

On Nguyễn’s return to Vietnam aged 23, he founded the outspoken anarchist bi-weekly newspaper Cloche Fêlée (Broken Bell), which Tai writes sold 1,500 to 2,000 copies despite its correspondence being intercepted by the French Sûreté security police and its street-sellers being frequently roughed up by police and French patriots.The publisher of Cloche Fêlée was the Vietnamese-French métis Eugene Dejean de la Batie. But despite the paper’s electrifying rapport among the Vietnamese, Nguyễn never converted its support into an organisational base. Still, though it lasted only seven months, its core was refounded in 1925 as the radical journal Indochine (Indochina), later Indochine Enchâinée (Indochina Enchained), which sold 5,000 copies and provided a locus around which the proto-revolutionary Young Annam (Jeune Annam) group revolved. Cloche Fêlée was briefly revived with an even more radical tone in 1925 under the editorship of Phan Van Truong.

In 1924, Phan Bội Châu started talking about refounding his defunct League into a Guomindang-styled party (bearing in mind the Guomindang had been structured under Comintern influence as a Leninist organisation), and spoke to both Chiang Kai-Shek and Comintern agents to this end. But his initiative was stillborn because of the visit to south China of the key Vietnamese communist, Nguyen Tat Thanh (Nguyen Ai Quoc, or “Nguyen the Patriot”) – better known as Ho Chi Minh. A teacher by training, Ho had left Vietnam aged about 20 in 1911, worked for two years as a cook’s assistant on ships plying the Atlantic, settled in London in 1913, moved to France in 1917 and founded the “Group of Annamite Patriots in France”, joined the Socialist Party (PS) as its Indochinese delegate and was among the founders of the PCF. Until Ho was sent to China in the company of Comintern agent Mikhail Borodin, the Bolsheviks had viewed Indochina as a mere province of China, but from that date on, the creation of an Indochinese Communist Party was on the Russian agenda.

In 1925, an organisation called Vietnamese Restoration (Phuc Viet) was founded among more radical League prisoners on the penal island of Con Son, later expanding into Annam and Tonkin where social and political freedoms were more restricted than in Cochinchina. The young student militant Tong Quang Phiet joined Phuc Viet. Then three events sparked the first true national resistance in Vietnam. Firstly, Phan Bội Châu was captured in China and brought back to Vietnam to stand trial. Allen notes that “[t]ens of thousands of Vietnamese followed his trial”. A national hero, his death sentence outraged even the “Constitutionalists” who favoured Vietnamese assimilation to French imperialism. Secondly, the 1926 funeral of veteran reformer Phan Chu Trinh – which Allen notes drew a procession of 60,000 people – sparked mass demonstrations that uniquely united some 15,000 workers, students and activists. Thirdly, in 1926, Jeune Annam, which became the Young Annam Party (PJA), hosted an unprecedented anti-colonial meeting of 3,000 people, and began transforming into a political party, but Nguyễn declined the offered leadership post. He was arrested shortly afterwards. At that time, according to Ngo Van, the anarchist Trinh Hung Ngau – he is described by other sources as a nationalist with anarchist leanings – was involved in Jeune Annam and worked on the newspaper L’Annam (Annam) between 1926 and 1928. Despite the new governor-general of Indochina, the Socialist Alexandre Varenne, commuting Phan’s sentence to an indefinite term under house arrest, popular outrage found expression in a two-year strike-wave that shut down many schools and French-owned businesses. The repression that followed radicalised the youth – with Cloche Fêlée beginning to serialise the Communist Manifesto – thousands of whom went into exile in France, China and elsewhere.

The PJA was rendered impotent by exile, but within a short space of time, four new competing, but overtly revolutionary, organisations developed. In southern China in 1925, Ho Chi Minh, former League member Lam Duc Thu and several members of the anarchist Society of Like Hearts had founded the clandestine Communist Youth Corps (Than Nien Cong San Doan), which acted as the ideological nucleus of the public Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth (Viet Nam Kach Mon Than Nien). Tai notes that Ho “wished to refute not so much the anarchist vision of post-revolutionary society as the anarchist critique of political parties and authority, which undermined his efforts to build a strong Leninist party”. Ho also created a “League of Oppressed People of the East” that Tai writes had members from Vietnam, China, India, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia – an apparent echo of Phan’s earlier League for the Prosperity of China and Asia. In response to the challenge, Phuc Viet in Annam renamed itself the Vietnamese Revolutionary Party (Viet Nam Cach Man Dang) in 1926, while the militants clustered around the Nam Dong Publishing Society in Tonkin founded the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang, or VNQDD). And in Cochinchina, Nguyễn finally embraced organisation, founding, with working class organiser Pham Van Chieu and brilliant technician Phan Van Hum, the anarchist Nguyen An Ninh Secret Society (Hoi Kin Nguyễn An Ninh), which had three guerrilla sections including one commanded by Nguyễn ’s wife Trương Thị Sáu.

With between 700 and 800 members drawn mostly from among peasants, workers and criminals in the outskirts of Saigon, the Secret Society was substantially larger than the Vietnamese Revolutionary Party, but smaller than Ho’s League. In 1927, a Vietnamese section of the East Asian Anarchist Federation (EAAF), founded in China that year, was established, but it is not known which Vietnamese organisations were affiliated: the Secret Society or the Vietnamese Revolutionary Party. By 1928, the League’s Cochinchinese regional structure numbered about 200 members and another 250 adherents of auxilliary organisations – and communism was starting to spread among ordinary workers, who had been largely ignored by all revolutionaries until that point. About 40,000 Chinese “coolies” (general labourers) worked the rubber plantations of Cochinchina where, Tai writes, conditions were appalling and where the savage repression of a rebellion on the Phu Rieng plantation in protest at the death of a worker “gave the Youth League its first crack at enrolling plantation workers into its ranks”. It is not known whether any of these migrant workers had been exposed to the powerful anarchist union organising in south China, centred on Canton. 

Nguyễn discussed merging with the Vietnamese Revolutionary Party, but the old party stalwarts were wary of his extremism, as was the VNQDD to which he took a similar proposal. In 1928, Nguyễn and about 500 members of the Society were detained for questioning, and the following year, he and 115 others stood trial. He received a three-year jail term and Society militants like Phan Van Chieu and Truong Thi Sau kept the organisation alive in his absence. But the repression – and an inability to seize the initiative as Ho had done – would prove fatal for the broader anarchist movement. The League in Cochinchina also suffered a massive crackdown resulting from a police investigation into the party-sanctioned murder of its own regional head, Le Van Phat, in 1928 for forcing a young woman recruit to serve him sexually. Almost a third of the League’s Cochinchinese membership was either jailed or put to flight. The nationalist VNQDD, for its part, was virtually eliminated by the Sûreté following the assassination in 1929 of Hervé Bazin, the Indochinese director of manpower, by a party member who had been refused permission to carry out such an assassination. Hundreds of VNQDD members were arrested and 227 tried, prompting the party to call for a premature and suicidal insurrection in 1930. The insurrection was nipped in the bud and Nguyen Hai Thoc and twelve other party leaders were guillotined.  

Also in 1929, a minority faction of the communist League split off and founded the Indochinese Communist Party (PCI) along Leninist lines, recruiting Tonkinese League and VNQDD members. In Cochinchina, the PCI was opposed by a rival Annamite Communist Party, but eventually swallowed almost all its rivals including many survivors of Nguyễn’s Secret Society – all except Phan Bội Châu’s “New” Vietnamese Revolutionary Party in Annam. Floods and famine in Vietnam in 1929 were met by a refusal by the French to allow Vietnamese relief work, fearing it would allow revolutionaries to raise funds under cover of humanitarian aid. This provoked a series of mass demonstrations across the territory, including the first Vietnamese May Day rally in Nghe An province. At a congress in Hong Kong in 1930, the League, which like the PCI had failed to gain Comintern endorsement, reunited with their now-powerful dissidents under the PCI aegis. This new PCI was finally given the nod by Moscow, but Ho was arrested in China in 1931 and only resurfaced in south China as an active participant in Vietnamese revolutionary politics in 1941, when the PCI formed the “League for the Independence of Vietnam” (best known as the Viet Minh).

Meanwhile the protests developed into a revolt, spurred on by a growing trade union movement, escalated into strikes, peasant demonstrations, riots, and, in Nghe An and Ha Tinh in Annam and Cao Lanh in Cochinchina, the formation of village soviets and peasant militias, the latter of which only surrendered to French forces in January 1931. Most accounts attribute the revolt to “communists” but support in Phan Bội Châu’s home town of Nghe An for his New Vietnamese Revolutionary Party suggests a more complex picture. Nevertheless, the formation of the PCI greatly weakened local anarchist counter-power. In 1933 the anarchist Trinh Hung Ngau was one of the founders of the journal La Lutte (The Struggle), but withdrew after the third issue as he felt he was unable to express his anarchist views within its pages. However, in 1936 a group of 25 Chinese anarchist militants – who had intended fighting in the Spanish Revolution, but were turned back at Marseilles, France – returned to Vietnam and not China, so they established an organisation there. It is not clear whether there was any link between the Vietnamese anarchist movement and the unusual strength of Trotskyism in Cochinchina in the 1940s, the Trotskyist “Left Opposition” (Tai Do Lap) group having been formed in 1931. But Tai notes that the France-based Annamite Independence Party (PIA), formed in 1928 by former Secret Society militant Phan Van Hum, out of which the Tai Do Lap arose, had envisaged a Vietnamese “parliament” consisting solely of syndicalist delegates, not political party delegates. Another wave of repression by the French in 1939 – during which Nguyễn An Ninh was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and 10 years’ exile for conspiring against the colonial regime and inciting a revolt of peasants and workers – followed by the occupation of Vietnam by Japan in 1940, drove all revolutionary factions further underground. Phan Bội Châu died under house arrest in 1940, while Nguyễn An Ninh died in the Pulo Condore prison in 1943 (his tireless wife Trương Thị Sáu went on to become a key liberation movement leader, only succumbing, after two decades of wooing, and joining the Communist Party in 1951).


Saturday 24 June 2017

Showcasing Notes From a Funeral

Notes From a Funeral is a book-in-progress. I'm not sure exactly how it will work out, but it consists primarily of snatches of dreams, snippets of overheard conversations, stolen chats from emails and the internet, and a few brief musings and observation of my own. The title came to me as it seems remarkable to me how many of our conversations seem to naturally have this dark undercurrent, an interstitial subtext about death. It's all very raw and as-it-occurs, so not sure if it will wind up being in this format or be reworked somehow. 


The water moved about, among and between us
Like a cool lick of autumn between our chilled thighs
Your teeth chattered yut-yut-yut-yut
And I mimicked your shiver, our skin goosefleshed 
As you threw your arms around my neck
Your lips purple in the night air, your eyes luminescent like Kali’s
Your black coiled hair like barely-constrained baby snakes
Your bikini midnight blue, but paler, moonlike, underwater
We were breaking the rules: no brown girls in this pool
But our nighttime love breathed and slipped all bonds
Now tonight, I walk the cool slate of my flat, barefoot
A quarter of a century later
Worrying like a forlorn, half-mad desert spirit
Why you never inscribed a book to me.


So this was when I was working in Nigeria. This colleague of mine was telling me about juju and I didn’t believe him so he arranged that I attend this ceremony. He said, ‘There will be a part of the ceremony you can watch and a part that as a white man you can’t be allowed to witness.” I said “OK,” so we went this one night and he introduced me to this ancient woman, I think she was about a hundred, and she was so old she was just one big wrinkle. She didn’t speak any English but she talked to me then drank this kind of liquid, I’m not sure what it was. Then she began to do this dance and at some stage, I shit you not, right before my eyes, she changed into a goat. Now, I am an atheist and I can’t say I believe in this one way or another, but I saw what I saw.


“Can I speak to Salim please?” the lawyer says into his cellphone as Centurion blurs by the Gautrain’s windows. “OK, what are the other lawyers’ names? It must be Hanif then; is he in? OK, then please tell him to contact me regarding the Loren Louw case… El-oh-ahr-ee-en, El-oh-yew-doubleyew. We’re taking his farm from him as he owes us a lot of money.” The lawyer is dressed in dark blue jeans, a checked shirt, brand new rubber-soled brown leather boots. He has been on a continuous stream of calls, mostly in Afrikaans, asking people on the other end of the line whether they are in Croatia or not, and about other matters. This one about the farmer’s dispossession, presumably on behalf of a bank or other creditors, relayed in English, piques my interest. In sitting down, he has allowed his beige coat to fall open, revealing the black handle of a chrome-plated pistol tucked into his waistband. It goes without saying that passengers are not allowed to carry firearms on the train. Reminds me of the Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd, a protest song about an interwar Oklahoma bank-robber with a reputation as a bit of a Robin Hood for redistributing stolen cash to the poor: “As through this world you travel / you'll meet all kinds of men / Some will rob you with a six-gun / some with a fountain pen / And as through your life you travel / as through your life you roam / you won't ever see an outlaw / drive a family from their home.”


Pirate Bill 2 years ago (edited)
Well, it was February 1971 and I was one of the last draftees. I decide to go see the Capitol in Washington, DC before reporting to basic at Fort Knox. I stuck my thumb out in Toledo and before long I was somewhere in Pennsylvania where I ran into this kid who was thumbing around, too. I guess he was about 16 and I was just 18 but you know I was old enough to tote so that made me the elder expert in matters of life and love and all other "etceteras". I don't know the kids name. I suppose I did for a while but, now, all I remember is that he was running away from home because he said his dad was in the CIA and was an intolerable nutcase. We determined that we might find a place to sleep at the University of Pittsburgh and headed there, directly, to try and find a place to crash. From the student union some straight types directed us to a crash pad and on the way this guy with long hair and a beard, driving in an old green station wagon, picks us up and takes us to the address which turns out to be a vacant lot. So the guy with the long hair and the family wagon says, “Hell, you can crash at my pad," which we agreed was a good idea. Turns out the hippie guy (whose name has also long been forgotten) was an artist and had a lot of very cool things in his house, among which was his own grave-marker, fully memorializing his life in everlasting stone, sitting right there in the living room in front of the fireplace. Being a hospitable sort of guy, the hippie fella brings out a grocery bag full of pot and we all proceeded to get stoned and for the very first time I listened to “The Dance of Death and other Plantation Favorites” by John Fahey. I have been a fan ever since.

Billl Ruxton 1 year ago
Don't fall into the trap of overly analyzing His playing, because you'll just get existentially frustrated. LISTEN and enjoy what His genius has given us. Yes, you semi-intermediate fingerpickers can sort-of approximate what he's doing, but you'll never do it as clean as John, because GOD touched Him and only Him in Takoma Park Maryland, right at the edge of the tectonic plate between the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain, where the universe bends dimensions, and Man can only kneel and let one's fingers try to fret the Quantum fingerboard of several dimensions at one time.

Patrick McCluskey 10 months ago
Whoever posted below that John is fine and well living outside Salem, you are a liar. I knew John the last 8 years of his life and played in a band with his manager at the time (Terry Robb) and had many, many interactions with him during that time including jamming with him a few times. He was a beautiful guy with a troubled past. I was given his Martin D1976 (very rare bicentennial guitar from Martin) for YEARS. In fact, I probably wouldn't have had to give it back to him had I not reminded Terry (multiple times) that he gave it to me for safekeeping. I have lots of memorabilia, though. He was an amazing and interesting guy, but he did have his demons. He died living in a fairly dire house, middle of a cold winter with no heat (in Eugene, Oregon) with a half dozen other indigent people (who din't die from exposure), suffering from an obvious emotional problem, after he'd been robbed of everything he had from his ex-wife, Susan. That's what I saw, first hand.


The bicoloured stray dog dances sideways on the beach, its paws a delicate counterpoint timpani to the febrile scuttling of the tiny crab it faces. The moment is pretty, tricky, as the dog matches the crab’s transverse scramble wits its own Lipizzaner gait, catches it in its mouth and bites… death nests coiled in the petals of beauty.


My grandma was the best man I’ve ever met – and I’ll explain what I mean by that. She used to be a regular housewife and just do the cooking and cleaning. She lived on a farm outside of Glasgow and her husband never came back from the war. So within five months she had learned how to raise the entire engine out of the Land Rover, strip it down and how to clean the valves by hand and so forth.



Showcasing Isandlwana - a Love Story

Isandlwana - a Love Story is a multimedia project of mine that includes a written meditation on love and loss, interspersed with paintings (all mine) or photographs (mostly mine) that I have manipulated, plus songs I have written. The blurb for the project reads: 

Michael Schmidt is an awful poet, so this work is a non-poetic stream-of-consciousness journey into his personal experiences of love, hate, loss, and redemption, interspersed with songs he has penned and images he has either painted, photographed or manipulated. It is a forensic meditation into what in Xhosa is called inxeba lenlitziyo, the wound of the heart. He is no Stendhal, no Miller, and no Nin; in fact he’s not sure what he is, being robbed of union at the very moment of illumination. Here, past loves and lusts are blurred together into a singular longing, yet also disentangled for their unique flavours and scents. Here, in a grand circuit from Lisbon to Lyon, Seville to Shobashobane, Faro to Fuentes Georginas, Berlin to Bloemfontein, and Paris to Port Elizabeth, pain and death rotate in satellite of the ephemeral and treacherously delicate uncertainties of sex and love. Here too, faith and apostasy, truth and travesty collide in the integral joy/saudade of the human condition, and his lens zooms from intimate recognition to the obfuscation of incomprehending distance. 

Below is the introduction to the work - kindly edited by former ANC exile Richard Jurgens:


Write what you know, they say, so I’ll write about the dead-veined leaves of days blown into the furnace. Yet how some sparks emerge, unconsumed, undying pinpricks in the Leviathan night. How does one rewind the autumnal DNA to the time when sap surged, not without fear but without respite? The conflagration is passed, after all – and bell-jar butterflies soon asphyxiate, shudder and fall, sighing like Edwardian silk settling in a coffin. I guess the only way is to spiral up with the sparks, those few whose iridescent, irreducible cores are crowned with titanium, and which glower like the eyes of Bengal tigers in the forests of malarial dreams, dead stars burning.



Elvis’ stillborn brother
in his cardboard box he sings
of their souls’ might
two hundred sev’ty nights
when they both were kings

Elvis’ darkling brother
in his old shoebox he croons
of the gods they’d be
his brother and he
before they broke the strings

Never wanted to be famous
never wanted to be born
only wanted to be linked
undivided in dark embrace

Elvis’ changeling brother
with his third eye he spies
a Dravidian maid
his heartstrings she plays
until he all but cries

Never wanted segregation
never wanted to be scorned
only wanted to be twinned
whisp’ring like hummingbirds

Elvis’ monstrous brother
in the lonesome night he howls
for his sweet monster-girl
like a Bedouin bereft
pain shrouded in a cowl

Never wanted to be ground
winnowing of his seed
only wanted to be binary
their harmonics on the wind

Elvis’ lovelorn brother
head a nest of wasps he sings
of their souls’ might
two hundred sev’ty nights
when they both were kings


Friday 2 June 2017

Radovan Karadžić’s Eyes

Picture courtesy Weights & Measures. All other photographs (c) Michael Schmidt

Radovan Karadžić’s eyes are penetrating as they stare out of the canvas, his overlarge pupils swallowing the light, defying the viewer, challenging our humanity. But in a negative of the image, painted by artist Bradley McCallum, the pupils of the man convicted of the Srebrenica Genocide are a vacant bone white.
McCallum documented the International Criminal Court (ICC), and he is in South Africa with his exhibition of paintings of those accused by the court. It is timely given the recent reversal of two African countries’ positions on their relationship to the controversial court: in February, The Gambia reversed its decision to withdraw from the ICC, while South Africa’s High Court declared our notice of withdrawal to be unconstitutional.  
The notices of withdrawal issued in October by Burundi, then South Africa, then The Gambia – with Kenya, Uganda, Namibia, and now Zambia threatening to follow suit – sparked fears that the primary international instrument of holding perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and gross human rights violations to account was unraveling on the very continent that, convinced by President Nelson Mandela, had driven its creation in 1998.
On 7 April, South Africa battled to explain to the ICC in The Hague its refusal to arrest Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir in 2015 for genocide – and now faces possible censure by the UN Security Council for failing to uphold international human rights law. The Institute for Security Studies’ Allan Ngari wrote that the “ICC now has an opportunity to pronounce itself with finality” on the immunity enjoyed by heads of state.
In exploring the balance between humanity and inhumanity in photorealist colour-and-negative diptych in his Weights & Measures exhibition, McCallum has expanded beyond the ICC trials to look at similar processes such as the international criminal tribunals on ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and Sierra Leone.
He has painted former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who in 2013 was the first African head of state convicted of war crimes, committed during Sierra Leone’s civil war, as well as portraits of accused found not guilty, supplemented by photographs of prosecutors, judges, and anti-impunity campaigners – plus an evolving suite of sound recordings of victims’ testimony.
At a teaser launch of the exhibition at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Center, McCallum screened a special message from Ben Ferencz, the last surviving Nuremburg prosecutor of the SS Einsatzgruppen death-squads.
“Weights & Measures has recognised the value of portraits to teach people a lesson,” Ferencz said. “You ask yourself, ‘was this person a mass-murderer?’ You will come to the conclusion that I have, that war makes murderers out of otherwise innocent and decent people.”
The ICC has come in for criticism by legal professionals such as Professor Alexander Mezyaev of Russia, a former defence counsel before the ex-Yugoslavia Criminal Tribunal, who has argued that the ICC acts “as a ‘legal’ tool for regime change, giving legitimacy to the removal of disobedient heads of state,” and aims at creating “a new body of international law which will reflect only the interests of the Western powers.”
A similar sentiment motivated the Zuma government to exit the ICC – yet McCallum stressed at the launch that the charges brought against African leaders before the ICC “were brought by African victims.” McCallum said his work was about more than guilt or innocence, but was rather intended “to open windows to discussions you otherwise might not have” about restorative justice and the fight against impunity.
After viewing the exhibition, Zimbabwean Arnold Tsunga, Africa director of the International Commission of Jurists, condemned the “African phenomenon” of the abuse of positions of sovereign power and even of the democratic process and its institutions to secure impunity for crimes against the people. He cited the cases of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto who he said had abused their posts by playing victim and interfering with the ICC investigation into crimes against humanity charges they faced for the 2007-2008 post-election violence.
In response, one of South Africa’s leading transitional justice experts, Yasmin Sooka, said that opposition to the ICC stemmed from the fact that it was the only court in the world that did not afford incumbent heads of state immunity from prosecution, but she asked pointedly: “Do we identify only with African leaders – or do we support their victims?”

Former Ansar Dine militiaman Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, sentenced by the ICC to 9 years for the war crime of destroying cultural heritage in Timbuktu.

Former DRC Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba, sentenced by the ICC to 19 years for war crimes and crimes against humanity and fined 300,000 Euro for witness tampering.

 Photographic portraits of judges at the ICC in The Hague.

Nuon Chea, former Khmer Rouge Brother No.2, found guilty of crimes against humanity by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and still standing trial for genocide.

 Former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladić, left, and other accused in various tribunals, at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre.

Radovan Karadžić, jailed for 40 years by the ICC for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.