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Installation View. Photo: Stephen White

Installation View. Photo: Stephen White

I’ve always liked Sarah Lucas. I both envy her clever creative wit and admire her ability to piss a lot of people off just through honest artistic communication. To offend meaningfully can be an inert skill in itself, often misused and derided by many but undoubtedly a significant catalyst in the creation of conversation, dialogue, debate and sometimes venomous expulsions. Tracey Emin, whose very name has become a dirty word among some cliques, is a contemporaneous example of this type of artwork; honest, too honest for most, but her works are the results of sad and poignant catharsis, sifting chaotically and urgently through the memories of a troubled childhood and beyond. Sarah Lucas, although addressing similarly taboo notions of sex and society, does so with far less heart-rending effect. Her works intend to provoke, flinging an upturned middle finger at critics and misogynists. Viewing them feels a bit like how I would imagine watching the Sex Pistols live would; a vicious, funny but unsettlingly serious piss-take.

Lucas’s recent retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery placed many older, familiar pieces alongside her current offerings. Well-worn but still fabulous classics such as Au Naturel quietly stole the thunder of recently completed wall prints, but in general the work continues with the subject matter and treatment she became famous for in the 80’s and 90’s during her time as a key member of the YBAs. Lucas treats her materials as punk musicians treated their lyrics; their presentation harsh and biting but ultimately forcing you, the recipient, to confront uncomfortable representations of a very everyday thing: sex, sexuality, the human body (or in the punks’ case, political and societal affairs).

Au_Naturel, 1994

Au_Naturel, 1994

It’s interesting what still makes us gasp today. In a tale as old as time (even beauty & the beast were at it in the end) it’s still sex which raises eyebrows and fuels the raging psychotic fury of Tea-Party loons, with half a second of nipple at the Superbowl inciting the blisteringly outraged complaints of half a million Americans. So despite our entirely natural urges and the booming global porn industry indicating that perhaps we should just give in to this one, it’s still, amazingly, a prime subject to ignite controversy. In some pieces Lucas uses skulls and teeth to represent the vagina, tapping into a commonly held belief that men are in fact afraid of it and highlighting the fact it is rarely positively portrayed. She’s certainly not the only person to call attention to this, feminists across the world have been saying it since the 60’s and actress Evan Rachel Wood recently made a similar complaint about public attitudes to the vagina following the editing out of a scene from her new film in which her character received oral sex “Accept that women are sexual beings, accept that some men like pleasuring women,” she said. “Accept that women don’t just have to be f**ked and say thank you. We are allowed and entitled to enjoy ourselves”. Facebook reactions to my sharing the artwork of avant-garde artist Casey Jenkins proved to be similar, consisting of a surprising (to me at least) mix of disgust, shock, anger and hilarity at the use of the vagina in art. Lucas challenges and mocks our repressed and discriminative stereotypes of sexuality through often brutal parody. Teeth as vaginas; scared of it now? A huge wall of penises; shocked yet? She cleverly references the insulting colloquialisms of popular culture with objects such as fried eggs and kebabs, transforming the slang from verbal to visual. Through forcing us to confront images which may embarrass us or which address negative stereotypes through distasteful representation, such as the sloppy fish for a vagina, she desensitises us to the very ordinary reality of our own bodies. Her less explicit works continue to explore sexuality, with humour abounding in pieces such as the headless self-portrait, which I at first took to be a balaclava, the exposed nipples staring brazenly at the viewer like the squinty eyes of a post-party raver.

Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992

Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992

Self-portrait

Self-portrait

My trip around the exhibition concluded with overhearing a fellow visitor whisper ‘is she a lesbian?’. I was (perhaps naively) surprised to hear this as her sexual preference had not even come close to crossing my mind, although the fact it came up at all serves only to hammer the point she is making about sexual stereoptying and association. Because although her work deals with this topic, it is not, unlike Emin’s work, primarily concerned with the emotional aspect surrounding sex, or even about relationships in any way. It is almost primeval in its exploration of our sexual selves and speaks to me virtually exclusively about social stigma and attitude. The day a carefully situated kebab fails to cause offence is the day our society will have finally learnt a valuable lesson. But what would Lucas teach us then?

Cornelia Parker - Unsettled 2012 - 2013 Wood found on the streets of Jerusalem, wire Dimensions variable

Cornelia Parker – Unsettled 2012 – 2013
Wood found on the streets of Jerusalem, wire
Dimensions variable

Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas – Einstein

To many, she is the creator of the infamous ‘exploded shed’, a phrase which certainly elicited a knowing (and generally approving) head nod when explaining to friends where I spent my Saturday afternoon. But Cornelia Parker’s work is far more than a sculptural gimmick and her latest show at the Frith Street Gallery (not actually on Frith Street I can attest, after much traipsing around in hellish London heat), is testament to her insightful exploration of the physical and intellectual societal framework we inhabit.

Entering the gallery, I felt initially triumphant that I had not caved into my clawing instinct to give up and head home, after a difficult journey through central London in summer heat, riding a wave of nauseous hangover and unable to locate the gallery address. This feeling of success began to ebb away as I looked around and concluded instantly that the place must be mid-renovation; piles of wood, exposed concrete floors, until I noticed that the planks of wood were floating. Magic. Or so it seemed until I put on my glasses and saw the wires. My initial reaction, however, sums up in many ways the beauty of Parker’s works; the simple magic of her pieces stun me in the way pure maths might a rocket scientist. Concise, honest, her work is delicate in form even when robust in material. The utter beauty is in the restraint; not lifting the wood high from the floor (perhaps 2 inches) she causes your brain to become confused. Peripherally the planks are standing on the floor, but a direct glance reveals they are suspended. The wires of course show it as not being truly levitational, but their linearity actually only add to the illusion, visually driving the planks further toward the floor and contrasting the horizontal of the concrete over which they hang. It was only after a circuit of the gallery that I discovered the intended meaning behind the work (although I enjoyed it just as much without knowing); the wood was collected by Parker in Jerusalem, a traditional holy land often blighted by war and poverty, the material bringing back with it the stories it holds and the scenes it has witnessed. Broken wood also representing the life cycle, it speaks to me of mortality and family ties.

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Actually, quite a lot of Parker’s works strike a chord in me not unlike fear. By pointing to childhood games, particularly alongside the previous work, she pokes an inquisitive finger into that inherent terror most human beings hold in the depths of their belly, that of their own insignificance in the wider viewpoint when set against the vast backdrop of Time. Our fragile mortality. Her casts of pavement cracks remind me instinctively of Rachel Whiteread, but although the similarity in process links them, the point seems entirely different. While Whiteread casted ’empty’ space, provoking questions about spirituality, matter, physics, materiality, Parker’s work casts the space around, above and between. It produces a version of the real thing, a bit like an off-centre shadow. Her floor pieces are impressions of the streets below our feet, inspired by her love of childhood hopscotch; the brushed metal material making them seem both delicate and dense at the same time. Again, their minimal suspension from the floor has an arresting effect, with the shadows cleverly cast and mirroring the idea that the object itself is a metaphorical shadow.

Cornelia Parker -   Black Puddle (Rhoda Street) 2013 Black patinated bronze 109 x 118 x 6 cm

Cornelia Parker –
Black Puddle (Rhoda Street) 2013
Black patinated bronze
109 x 118 x 6 cm

Above and adjacent to the floor works are hung what appear at first to be abstract paintings. Peering closer I think myself to be initially wrong and conclude they are mixed-media collages. At the end, reading the guide text, I discover I was wrong again. They are in fact close-up photographs of the exterior of a prison wall. An investigation into cracks, they complement beautifully the linear language of the other pieces, and continue the theme of enlivening seemingly banal spaces. Taken shortly after a maintenance effort to fill widening holes, the images record the layman’s version of Parkers’ method; the filling of cracks for safety management is suddenly transformed and presented to the viewer as abstract expressionism.

Cornelia Parker - Prison Wall Abstract (A Man Escaped) 2012/13 12 x Digital pigment prints on Hahnemuehle Photo Rag 308 gsm 76 x 60 cm 82 x 65.2 cm

Cornelia Parker – Prison Wall Abstract (A Man Escaped) 2012/13
12 x Digital pigment prints on Hahnemuehle Photo Rag 308 gsm
76 x 60 cm
82 x 65.2 cm

Beautifully linked, visually understated, metaphorically loud and aesthetically sublime, I thought the show couldn’t get much better until I concluded with Bullet Drawing (Crosshairs) 2013, a set of geometrically- inspired pieces constructed with melted down bullets thinned and threaded through paper. With their offset mirror image again evoking the shadow, the works have a distinctly sexy aura and made me feel both exhilarated and utterly Zen looking at them, a very Kubrick moment occurring as I considered how their striking and magnetic simplicity seemed to relate both to our most basic primordial origins, with also a distinct nod towards the space age; purity, clarity, the future, the past. A captivating journey covering mathematics, geometry, architecture, structure, material and power; Cornelia Parker’s new work is a must-see.

Cornelia Parker – Frith Street Gallery. Until 27th July 2013.

Cornelia Parker - Black Path (Bunhill Fields) 2013 Black patinated bronze 340 x 250 x 9 cm

Cornelia Parker – Black Path (Bunhill Fields) 2013
Black patinated bronze
340 x 250 x 9 cm

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Cornelia Parker - Pavement Cracks (City of London) 2012-2013 Black patinated bronze 206 x 152 x 9 cm

Cornelia Parker – Pavement Cracks (City of London) 2012-2013
Black patinated bronze
206 x 152 x 9 cm

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ALL WORKS COURTESY THE ARTIST AND FRITH STREET GALLERY, LONDON
PHOTOGRAPHY: STEPHEN WHITE

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Well I suppose everything is relative. The London art scene’s definition of ‘affordable’ is not quite the same as say, that in Dartford, where poundshop purchases would usually fit that description ie. affordable teabags, affordable hair conditioner. A £300 piece of artwork is the antithesis of this idea of affordability. However in terms of the average art collector, £300 is seen as very reasonable for an original piece. Indeed, having £300 disposable cash to purchase an object purely for aesthetic purposes would, I imagine, propel you instantly into the upper half of the new BBC-approved class categories. An essentially middle/upper class occasion, the art fair always reminds me how many very well off people there actually are in the near vicinity. I often assume that most people there will be like myself, treating it as an exhibition, enjoying the spectacle but unlikely to have saved up enough over the year to warrant even a small purchase. Of course not. The Cannes couples are intentionally conspicuous, swishing winds of material, throwing around their bright lipstick air kisses and desperate-for-attention eye contact, while the old money look down their expensive glasses for a decent investment for little Edward’s future inheritance. Screaming cliches I admit, but I’m not actually playing it that hard, I witnessed both stereotypes myself and I was only there an hour. I don’t mean to suggest this is the majority of guests, of course there are many simple voyeurs who, like me, don’t have money to spend but instead gaze longingly at the works. It’s interesting to watch how this type of visitor is mentally weeded out by the gallery salespeople. You watch their eye movement, clocking each visitor as a potential sale, drinking in their attire, demeanor, money to spend? I feel myself get quickly passed over with a pleasant smile. Thank you – Next!?

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The politics aside, I got 3 free glasses of wine and a very enjoyable walkaround whilst an inhabitant of the huge marquee at the Affordable Art Fair in Hampstead, which in fact presents an intriguingly wide spectrum of artistic styles within a well laid out area. Unlike Frieze, the venue is not too huge, about right I’d say. I left feeling I’d seen enough but had I wanted it there was indeed more, though not enough to make me feel as if I was really missing out by having to depart for my long journey south. Both the size and reputation of the event ensures that it nuzzles comfortably in the centre ground between Frieze and The Other Art Fair; Frieze being an achingly commercialistic haven and The Other being attractively village fete-like. The Affordable Art Fair, although organised and sold by gallery, retains a sense of collaboration, it lets you feel as if you could, and in fact I did, (despite their wily shark senses) have a discussion about the works with the reps. It feels more coherent than The Other, but without entirely losing it’s charm to the business end. The works I saw crossed the spectrum; from intricate pencil drawings to large oils to delicate watercolors and lots and lots of sculpture. Animal and mythological sculpture seems to be having a bit of a revival and the ripples of Damien Hirst’s controversial Tate exhibition can still be seen reverberating through contemporary art – I saw more than a few circular butterfly creations. Prints are certainly in vogue, the retro attraction of old art-deco railway posters styles can be seen time and time again running through modernistic versions and the bold simple techno-graphics seen in popular humour posters of the sort which adorn student’s walls also populate many an art fair partition wall. An evolving installation takes place in the entrance hall involving young women getting covered in beetroot juices whilst tying beets to taut vertical pieces of string (it all seemed a bit dark but I didn’t get to read what it was about), and it’s a shame there wasn’t more installation-style works like this, or at least a bit more evidence of departure from traditional media.

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Seated Old Spot - Ostirelli and Priest (£660)

Seated Old Spot – Ostirelli and Priest (£660)

Adonis and the Boar. The Hunt - Antonio Lopez Reche (£3995)

Adonis and the Boar. The Hunt – Antonio Lopez Reche (£3995)

But although art is slowly becoming more accessible to the everyman/woman, it is still very heavily dominated by the non working classes. Money undoubtedly plays a huge part in this; galleries may be free but taking children out for the day isn’t (travel/food etc.), families without unlimited funds are being priced out of living in London and those who live outside can’t afford to come in. Many more working class people can just about afford to buy art nowadays in comparison to past eras and to many like myself £300 is just about do-able, but affordable? Not for most of the people I know. Yet the works continue to sell, and not at all sparingly. Public arts and funding may have taken a beating in recent years thanks to David ‘we’re all in it together, oh except you, and you and you’ Cameron, but the private money is still there in abundance, just squirrelled further into the little niches of what society we have left. The popularity of the Hampstead incarnation of the fair has grown year on year since 2011, with visitor numbers up to 18,500 in 2012, but a continuous increase in sales could also be seen as somewhat astonishing in this current climate. Recession? What recession?

Jockey and Horse - James Stewart (£3750)

Jockey and Horse – James Stewart (£3750)

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:amp Post - Near the Louvre, Paris - Helaina Sharpley (£895)

:amp Post – Near the Louvre, Paris – Helaina Sharpley (£895)

Idle Hands - Antonio Lopez Reche (£3550)

Idle Hands – Antonio Lopez Reche (£3550)

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Blue Tomato - Vasso Fraghou (£1175)

Blue Tomato – Vasso Fraghou (£1175)

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spitziges gelb 1986/1990-13 - Sigurd Rompza (£1900)

spitziges gelb 1986/1990-13 – Sigurd Rompza (£1900)

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Heavenly Bodies 3# - Peacock - Louise McNaught (£495)

Heavenly Bodies 3# – Peacock – Louise McNaught (£495)

A perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string and cotton-wool are factors having equal rights with paint

From my own experience, it is rather rare to find an artist (and certainly not an art critic) who has no preconceived ideas of what is art or what is not art; what is good art and what is bad art. I have always felt this to be an indulgent delusion, an often defensive reaction to the simple fact that art is subjective and that contesting this is usually an attempt to force control, system and structure upon the art world. And it works. Just as we used to have the salons, the grand tours, now we have journalist critics, art fairs, the Turner prize. The art establishment is considered by most people to be an authority on art. They have managed to convince a whole populace of the notion that they know best. Not so. It is an impossibility. As with the spoon, there is no right or wrong. I do have some limited experience on which to base this; after spending long hours in lectures and discussion groups at university listening to my art history tutors regurgitate the opinions and thoughts of many others before them, I soon realised that this staid and elitist subject was actually mostly, how do I say this…Bullshit. I’m not sure what I was expecting really, and I don’t doubt my experience there enhanced my writing skills, but it did feel intrinsically snobbish and narrow-minded. The same snobbery I hear from many an ‘educated’ person and repeated back in acceptance by the ‘ uneducated’ ie. non-academics who have been conditioned to believe artistic experience is reserved for a select group of people which doesn’t include them. The belief that to appreciate art you need to know about and/or be able to produce art, is perpetuated throughout the art establishment; trickling down from the publicly educated directors of organisations such as the Tate and National Gallery, and despite the valiant efforts of some to broaden the boundaries of inclusion. Unfortunately, the roots of these attitudes are mired deep in the dusty old vaults of The English Class System and its partner in crime, Entitlement. To cut them at the source requires more than even a barrage of well-meaning education programmes.

This ranting tangent does in fact have some relevance to Kurt Schwitters, who was himself something of a non-conformist, challenging the traditional status of paint in a way many would have seen as blasphemous for an artist. The Nazis certainly saw it this way, branding Schwitters ‘degenerate’ and forcing him to flee his native Germany in exile. Through developing the Merzbau (a large sculptural installation first constructed in Hanover, then re-explored later in Norway and the Lake District; utilising the very structure of a house as part of the work), Schwitters developed a term to describe his artistic practice and beliefs: Merz. Essentially Merz encompasses the basic principles of what I also believe – that is, it is not only traditional techniques which can produce works of art; objects all around us are both art materials, art medium and art pieces in themselves. Instead of using line for line, he used materials and objects to convey their own qualities in accordance with his requirements; wool to express softness, metal to communicate line, and specific arrangements of 2D materials which denote areas of space, in a manner reminiscent of Richard Hamilton.

Merzbau (Teilansicht: Grosse Gruppe), 1932© Sprengel Museum Hannover. Pro Litteris, Zürich

Merzbau (Teilansicht: Grosse Gruppe), 1932
© Sprengel Museum Hannover. Pro Litteris, Zürich

Picture of Spatial Growths - Picture with Two Small Dogs 1920-39 Image courtesy of Tate

Picture of Spatial Growths – Picture with Two Small Dogs 1920-39 Image courtesy of Tate

A large proportion of Schwitters’ work is made from collages of used paper elements from his own, or other people’s, lives. It makes sense. Why should art be a copy of life? Why not made from life; life as it has been lived? After leaving Germany for Norway in 1940, his work flourished as he started construction of two new Merzbau’s, but not for long. As the Nazis advanced across Europe to Norway, Schwitters decamped yet again, this time to Britain, Edinburgh to be precise, where he was promptly classed as an ‘ enemy alien’ and sent on to an internment camp on the Isle of Man. Despite the incarceration, a modest silver lining became apparent; the camp allowed, nay even encouraged, the pursuit of the arts. Whilst at the Isle of Man, Schwitters engaged in prolific production, using whatever materials he found laying nearby. The results tell a story, a lesson in imagination and creativity. Pieces made from old newspapers, painting on linoleum; the things most people would class as rubbish and yet Schwitters could see their potential for expression and their uses as communicators of formal aspects. Pieces of seemingly random ephemera are actually carefully placed and thoughtfully chosen, such as in Half-Moon, where a pink flamingo takes centre-stage but conversely, it’s semi-translucence suggests it’s presence as negligible. After being released from the internment camps after 16 months and with over 200 works completed whilst inside, Schwitters moved to London in 1941. His later works begin to move away from the sharp lines of paper and wood, and towards the suggestion of a fascination with the curve. In a lively dialogue between the canvas and the forms protruding form it, he began to move further and further outwards from the flat surface, eventually going so far as to leave the canvas altogether and produce freestanding sculptures. At this point, Schwitters is encompassing all aspects of his work at once; painting (of which he produced many traditional representative pieces, sometimes to make a living, sometimes as artistic practice), sculpture, and his own unique marriage of the two.

doremifasolasido c.1930Private collection. Image courtesy of Tate

doremifasolasido c.1930
Private collection. Image courtesy of Tate

Untitled (Opening Blossom) 1947© Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderne, Paris / DACS 2012. Image courtesy of Tate

Untitled (Opening Blossom) 1947
© Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris / DACS 2012. Image courtesy of Tate

In 1945 Schwitters moved to the Lake District and began working on a new Merzbau. Continuing the semi-sculptural collage techniques, he began working on a wall relief, incorporating nearby objects and intending to extend the work throughout the abandoned house in which it began. Sadly, his death at this point meant that the installation was never completed, but the subsequent efforts to transport it and the battle over its purchase, denote the importance Schwitter’s work has to many people. As for me, anyone who challenges the traditional closed-mindedness of the art world is as close as you’ll get to a hero in my book.

Untitled (Quality Street) 1943© Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hannover, Sprengel Museum Hannover and DACS 2012. Image courtesy of Tate

Untitled (Quality Street) 1943
© Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hannover, Sprengel Museum Hannover and DACS 2012. Image courtesy of Tate

All images are by Kurt Schwitters

Schwitters in Britain is showing at Tate Britain until 12th May 2013. See here for more information.

If you’ve strolled down Exhibition Road lately you will likely have noticed the series of strange vertical forms rising up like alien beings from the uniformity of the newly landscaped area. Tony Cragg’s sculptural series for the London 2012 Festival are particularly intriguing if, like me, you happen to just spot them on passing. The first form caught my eye at about a quarter of the way down the hill, with the Serpentine Pavilion still fresh in my mind. Throwing off in my direction sharp beams of the late summer sun from its silken metal, it appeared at once from post-modern camouflage to stick out like a sore thumb. Once seen, I couldn’t stop looking. There seems to be some human fascination with this type of form, reminiscent of flowing liquid and molten metal. A slideshow of related scenes from various films clicked instantaneously through my memory: T-1000 in Terminator 2, Water Tentacles in The Abyss, the playful material in Flubber and the time travel liquid tubes in Donnie Darko – a strange mix, but all in some way reference our preoccupation with this malleable, elongated form.

Ambling further down the now part-pedestrianised famous road, I continued to muse upon the possible origins of this fascination when I came suddenly face to face with a different, but undoubtedly related object. This brushed bronze incarnation is certainly less flashy, seeming to reference the traditional museum history of the area, as opposed to its mate, firmly rooted in modernism. Bringing to mind the human element rather than sci-fi film history, its top section resembles two large sculptural carved heads, almost African in style. It is imposing; powerful and dramatic.

A few more steps down the hill and we meet work number three. By now I realise there is more to come, but how many remains a mystery. Retaining the element of the vertical lift, it propels skywards, as if reaching to an invisible hand. Through perforated metal it takes a pear shape as its base form, discarding the previous undulatory style and instead projecting arching limbs. Like an alien dancer the piece is infused with movement, your eye drawn back and forth; darting through material and void, along horizontal and then vertical contours.

Piece four returns to form. Again in brushed bronze but as a decidedly more abstract structure, it embodies the rippling curves but is a wall rather than a tower; instead of leading you invitingly upwards, it blocks the way with an element of menace. In the centre sits a small void, a peephole through to what lies behind, as though mocking your instinctive desire to see beyond it. The edges, suggesting a darker element, often finish in vicious points rather than continuing the flowing lines, perpetuating the sense of sharp and impenetrable.

I move on. The fifth and final work is reminiscent of Damien Hirst, the presentation of the pinnacle of adoration. Sparkling in gold finish and immense in mass, it sits adjacent to where Exhibition Road crosses Cromwell. A point of high foot traffic, where the sculpture’s relative perceived importance is proven by the surrounding tourist throng. Ironically, rather than dazzling me, it reminded me instantly of excrement – Gary Hume’s The Shit flashed into my memory, similar in form but here swathed with gold.

Gary Hume – The Shit, 2009

Perhaps Cragg intended this interpretation, a comment on our money-obsessed society? Maybe we are meant to be unsettled by towering shiny stainless steel and bronze shapes then finally, just as we get used to these strange beings, we see one clad in that very thing we worship above all else. Gold. Whether it is a shit or not, it’s still gold. A valuable gold shit. Suddenly these works spoke to me about public delusion and political misinformation. Corporate robbery dressed up as benevolence, slavery masquerading as philanthropy. In the midst of the tourist crowd, clamouring for the gift shops, I can’t help thinking that all that glitters may not be gold…