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Can a good artist be politically active?

 

How do you combine politics and a successful live show? The transgender artist Anohni offered the beginnings of an answer on July 6th at the Paris Philharmonic.

Anohni on stage. 

 

It’s a risky one. Attempting to express political and social opinions at a successful live show… how do you avoid the pitfalls of self-righteousness and populism in the face of a concert crowd? Two artistic formations provided diametrically opposed answers.

 

On the one hand you’ve got cult trip-hop band Massive Attack. In February they denounced a society based on consumerism, liberalism and the fate of refugees in a concert of efficient protocol. It was all about numbers. The number of children killed in the recent refugee crisis set against the figures of the stock exchange streamed by on giant screens. The message was simple, simplistic even. The good on one side, the bad on the other. Support in the concert hall was unwavering. And the music? Pretty lazy to be honest, but who cares, Massive Attack’s audience were fully won over back in the 90s.

 

Then you’ve got Anohni. Two days ago the transgender artist whose magnificent voice put the group Antony and the Johnsons on the map, offered the Paris Philharmonic a brilliant and generous alternative to typical political meetings. It was a direct hit. On stage, just like on her album Hopelessness released in May – the most beautiful so far in 2016, the English artist challenged a range of issues from drone attacks in Afghanistan to the global hypocrisy on climate change, from Obama to the widespread camera surveillance. 

 

 

A giant screen hung above the stage projecting close-up images of women formulating the words sung by Anohni. The artist doesn’t pretend to be a spokesperson for minorities and the disinherited; she quite literally gives them the chance to speak. 

Anohni on stage. 

 

But the stage presence was quite different. It’s no secret that the person known as Antony Hegarty a few years ago has had a very complex relationship with her own body. So when she arrived on stage and for the entire concert, Anohni was dressed in a loose tunic giving her the allure of a Jedi bathed in an energetic light show. Her face was covered with a black veil. Only the movement of her hands gesticulating to the music proved her physical presence was real.

 

It could all have been perceived as coquetry had she not already artistically sublimated her anxieties and loathing. But this refusal to fully appear was all about shifting the focus. A giant screen hung above the stage projecting close-up images of women formulating the words sung by Anohni. An elderly Native American woman, a mature black woman, appeared one after the other, rendering the artist’s political, desperate and galvanising words universal. Anohni doesn’t pretend to be a spokesperson for minorities and the disinherited; she quite literally gives them the chance to speak.

 

 

“The idea that my voice be embodied by Naomi Campbell in the video takes the song to a whole new level of universality. It’s no longer just my words, but a universal discourse carried by an icon of femininity. It means that my voice can be embodied by anyone, anywhere.” Anohni

Anohni’s Hopelessness cover.

 

In the video for Drone Bomb Me (directed by Nabil with Riccardo Tisci as artistic director) Anohni had already called upon the services of Naomi Campbell. She told us, “The idea of my voice being embodied by Naomi Campbell in the video takes the song to a whole new level of universality. It’s no longer just my words, but a universal discourse carried by an icon of femininity. Naomi also brings her own power and innocence to the song. Her performance is impressive. I like the idea of my voice being an independent entity, separate from my body. It opens interesting creative perspectives because it means that my voice can be embodied by anyone, anywhere.”

 

Above all this mise-en-scene successfully makes the works more nuanced. Onstage Anohni is fired up and furious as she intones “I am sorry”, while above her a young woman weeps heavy tears. Sadness and fury blend to express a complex and moving human condition, a world away from the short cut sensationalism of mere numbers. The damp eyes of all the invited personalities said much more than any figure or statistic ever could.  

 

 

Affirming the truth is always going to be better received that opening complex issues. But that’s the role of the artist. 

 

 

Even better she allows everyone, according to their sensitivity and willingness to see what they want to see. It’s a revolt against the egotism of men. A belief in a better future… Of course there were some who left mid show. Apparently even more walked out in other cities. Asserting simple truths is always going to be better received that opening complex issues. It’s also undoubtedly because the subtlety of the world’s approach and the human soul plus the poetic power of Anohni requires a bit of effort. But the best things in life are worth it. 

 

 

Hopelessness by Anohni (Rough Trade Records). Available.

 

 

By Thibaut Wychowanok

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