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Artkrush: The video work you're presenting at São Paulo (Dome, 2005) features a small Afghan child as the central protagonist. Why did you choose to depict a child?
Lida Abdul: Children who live through war are simultaneously blessed and cursed because as children, they're surrounded by realities they don't fully understand, and therefore they're protected a bit. But there is a threshold past which they are psychologically damaged, and so many Afghan children are. Their lives are spent in the street, and from a very young age, many of them have to deal with survival. I continue to be amazed at how resilient some of them are. So I wanted to use children because in some sense, they represent a kind of fantasy world. They are willing to forget a little to move forward - something their parents' generation is unwilling or incapable of doing. There is a playfulness to the way I saw so many of them deal with the threat of violence; I was shocked by it, but then I realized that that was their way of disarming the potential for violence around them.
From: <http://www.artkrush.com/mailer/issue44/#interview>

For me Lida Abdul's commentary on her film Dome raises the question of whether there is a correct response to a work of art. While the artist's remarks are carefully worked through and I can sympathise with them, my initial reaction to Dome jettisoned Abdul's careful balance of rational and fantasy elements in favour of a more personal and sensual take on this work. What Dome instantly evoked for me was a very strong childhood memory. When I was three years old I was left alone in a room in which a new carpet had just been fitted. This was in the mid-sixties; the house was modern and had large windows. The newly installed carpet featured a bright swirling pattern in many colours and there was no furniture in the room. I spread my arms out like helicopter blades and stared down at the carpet as I twirled around and around and around. Watching the colours meld into each other as sun poured in through the windows was extremely satisfying. I felt very happy; the memory still has a psychedelic warmth and intensity to it. Even if the boy in Abdul's film isn’t feeling the same level of primal and joyous self-absorption I experienced in that empty room in 1965, he is clearly turning because it is pleasurable.

I found the disparity between the emotions Dome stirred in me and the way Abdul spoke about her work curious. There is a gap – although not necessarily an unbridgeable one - between her downbeat observations on the psychological damage war has inflicted on Afghan children and my feelings of pleasure. But before I return to this and for reasons that will shortly become apparent, I'm going to take a detour through a small part of my mother's drug-fuelled bohemian life. I have never been to Kabul but my mother spent a winter in the Afghan capital during the sixties, and this rather than the various histories Abdul's work more specifically invokes is what springs most immediately to my mind when I look at Dome. Let me briefly set the scene. My mother Julia Callan-Thompson arrived in London from south Wales in 1960 and became a showgirl at Murray's Cabaret Club in Beak Street; by the time she left the Smoke to live in Paris at the end of 1966 she was addicted to heroin and she struggled with drug problems until her death back in London in 1979.

My mother and her boyfriend of the later sixties - a painter called Bruno de Galzain – had already made plans for an overland trip to India when they met a woman called Felicity Jade Redmill at a dinner party in Paris. Among those also present at the gathering held to honour painter Patrick Betaudier was the American poet George Andrews, whose tome The Book of Grass: An anthology of Indian Hemp had just been published. Redmill had left London for what she thought would be a week or so of cultural activity in Paris with her friend Simon Watson Taylor, who specialised in translating French surrealist literature into English. Over a course or three of dinner, my mother and her boyfriend found they got along fabulously with Felicity and suggested she visit them in the Paris suburbs.

On 17 November 1967, a day or two after the Patrick Betaudier dinner, Redmill had a drunken row with Watson Taylor at La Fenetre Rose, a happening-cum-rock concert at the Palais des Sports. The event was publicised under the headline Paris Freak-Out on page three of the underground newspaper International Times dated 17-30 November 1967. Here one can read that it was a promotion organised by the London impresarios Alan Dale and Tony Townsend and showcased rock acts such as Spencer Davis and the Soft Machine. IT also reported that alongside a massive light show, Jeffrey Shaw and his Plastic Circus would bring miles of tubing from Amsterdam with which to fill the venue. The Exploding Galaxy dance troupe was also booked, as was a Malcolm Tillis fashion show.

Had this all-night shindig taken place a little earlier in the decade, it was the sort of event my mother wouldn't have missed for the world; she even lived conveniently close to the Palais des Sports. But after cohabiting with de Galzain for more than a year my mum was completely focused on 'inner experiences' and her lover's quest for a mystical marriage with the divine force that permeates the cosmos. Having abandoned Watson Taylor after their drunken row, Redmill decided to visit my mother. She and Bruno took Redmill's arrival at their door as a cosmic sign. Over food and a great deal of drink they explained to Felicity they were about to embark on an overland trip to India and persuaded her to go with them. They travelled in a car belonging to an American called Mike. In the boot was a painting Bruno had been commissioned to produce for a gallery in Bombay and one of the purposes of the trip was to deliver this canvas to the dealer who'd requested it.

My mother had saved up money to spend on the trip and since Felicity left Paris with virtually no cash, Julia paid for her food and whatever else she needed. The driving was shared between Mike and Bruno. According to Felicity, Mike was a man of no consequence; my mother and Bruno had elected to travel with him as a matter of convenience since he had a car and wanted companions to share the joys and expense of motoring to India. The car broke down in Kandahar, where the radiator froze and then burst. My mother, Bruno and Felicity, bussed it to the Afghani capital of Kabul. Mike was left behind and even his surname is now lost to me. There was a commune in Kabul whose members included a number of people my mother and Bruno knew from Europe. When the three weary travellers arrived at the rambling house their friends occupied on the outskirts of the city, they were made most welcome. The facilities were extremely primitive but they were among fellow heads.

Already resident in the commune was an American woman called Mary O'Berne, who'd come up to Afghanistan from Goa to buy cannabis. Large quantities of pot were readily available for low prices in Kabul, and since many hippies considered it superior in quality to that sourced elsewhere, it was an ideal commodity for enterprising countercultural types to trade in. O'Berne had more money than most of those on the hippie trail, so there was inevitably an entourage who travelled in her wake, cadging whatever they could get. Bruno immediately hit it off with Mary and began an affair with her. It is difficult to tell how much this was a matter of expedience on his part. De Galzain was anxious to redeem the payment he'd been promised when he delivered his canvas. The painting's journey by bus from Kandahar had already proved fraught. O'Berne owned a car and this was what was needed to transport Bruno's art speedily to its intended destination. Once Mary had scored the wholesale supplies of dope she'd travelled north to source, she headed to Bombay and Goa with Bruno, his picture and the hash. My mother being left behind was a part of the travel arrangements agreed between O'Berne and de Galzain. Fortunately, Felicity was still with her and there were other friends about. Less fortunately, opium as well as cannabis was readily available and cheap.

When my mother wrote home to my grandparents from Kabul on 21 January 1968, she glossed over the emotional turmoil she’d been going through: " …here it's snowing, the town is completely encircled by mountains - the sun shines almost every day but at night everything freezes. Myself and a girl from the West Indies called Felicity have found ourselves a job teaching the locals how to dance to pop music, we had hoped to show them the latest dances but they're more up on rock and roll, Buddy Holly and Elvis etc. We get about £2 a day for about 3 hours. For here that is a lot, about £10 in England, so we're all living well. We've found a big old farm type house with about 10 rooms, 2 bathrooms, 3 kitchens, lots of outside sheds and a big garden, all for about £6 a month. I'm learning to ski and doing lots of outdoor activity in my spare time..."

My mother put a subtle spin on things for the benefit of our family. By the time she reached Kabul her savings were exhausted and facing the prospect of an extended stay in Afghanistan it became expedient that she earn her keep. Rather than teaching people to dance, my mother and Felicity were working in a bar as Go Go dancers. The venue at the top of the five storey Spinza Hotel supposedly catered for foreigners, but since it was winter the small audience for the skimpily clad girls from London was entirely local. Although Felicity grew up in the West Indies, she’d been born in England and sent to St Kitts to be looked after by her maternal grandmother when her parents split up. The music my mother and Felicity gyrated to was old fifties rock and roll, novelty tunes and even standards sung by crooners - not exactly the sexiest of then available dance materials, but two exotic European girls were enough to keep the patrons happy. They would arrive at the hotel wrapped up against the hard winter weather and take a bath before changing into their flimsy stage outfits. On top of cash payments, they also received a hot meal when they'd finished dancing. Conditions in the hippie commune providing my mother and her friend with beds were spartan and the comforts they enjoyed at the Spinza Hotel were highly prized.

Clearly an episode from my mother's life story and an early childhood memory of my own were not things Abdul could have known her work would spark in me, but this is what Dome most immediately evokes when I look at it. When I briefly spoke to Abdul at the Illuminations opening she appeared intrigued by the fact that my mother had worked as a dancer in Kabul. However, even if her reaction to what I said about Dome when we met had been less generous than it in fact turned out to be, I don't think that would necessarily invalidate my understanding of the work. To answer in a roundabout way the question raised at the beginning of this piece, the more a viewer brings to a cultural artefact – including personal associations - the more they take away from it. My mother's time in Kabul forms a very small part of the rich and complex history that Dome points us towards: for me both the work and this history are about joy, wonder and endurance as well as – probably more than – destruction and devastation. If I was writing as an art historian my response to Dome might be considered inappropriate since my job would be to lay out the formal qualities of the work and describe its reception. But most of us are not professional art historians and while it can be interesting to consider what an artist intends to communicate through their work we should avoid getting too hung up on this. Indeed what Dome subjectively sparks in each of us constitutes an important part of its poetry.

Next piece: Save The Last Dance For Me?

Previous piece: Art Is Dead, Burn The Museums Baby!

Level 2 Gallery Project

The Real Dharma Bums (on the beatnik frenzies of Julia Callan-Thompson & Bruno de Galzain)


colour field by Stewart Home
This piece is a response to the Lida Abdul work "Dome" included in the Illuminations exhibition. For further information go to Level 2.