- Producer Ian Brennan truly believes in the democratic power of music.
- Nina Berman blurs the line between fine art and editorial photography.
- Leroy Johnson has lived on the edges of the art world for all his 80+ years.
- Art & Design
- Art & Design
Coming up on Articulate, music producer Ian Brennan believes that cultural colonization by English speakers needs to be regressed.
Ian Brennan: Hundred thousand releases a year in America and zero from the Central African Republic. You expound that out over a ten year period that’s a million to zero, not a million to one. It’s indefensible for anybody that believes in democracy.
Nina Berman blurs the line between fine art and editorial photography. Her images are as compelling as they are beautiful.
Nina Berman: The good picture is when you stand there and you see a scene and you know what you want and you take the picture, and you get something different that you didn’t think of that just kind of crept in, in some magical way.
Leroy Johnson has lived on the edges of the art world for all of his 80 plus years but life in the hinterland has given him his own distinctive artistic voice.
Leroy Johnson: Most of my work one day when they x-ray those bad boys they’ll see that there’s more layers under those suckers than a little bit.
And letterpress and book design artist Marianne Dages uses new and old technology to express ideas that are created through a now almost obsolete industrial process.
Marianne Dages: I believe that as artists we absolutely have the right to work in any medium we choose.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
There is an American record producer who’s helping to bring music from Central Africa to audiences that might never otherwise have encountered it. This, “Please, Don’t Kill My Child,” is from Ian Brennan’s first Zomba Prison Project album, a series of recordings made in a Malawian jail.
The Grammy award-winning producer and concert promoter has worked with the likes of Lucinda Williams, Green Day, and the Vienna Boys Choir, among many others. But music is only a part of who Ian Brennan is. He’s also written extensively about conflict resolution, and, in the past 20 years, has trained more than 100,000 people around the world in violence prevention and anger management. But Brennan doesn’t discriminate between his two jobs.
Ian Brennan: To me, they’re kind of the same thing. It’s all social work.
And with good reason. Brennan’s first job was counseling patients in locked psych units in his native California, all the while fostering his own obsession.
Brennan: What I planned to do from the time as long back as I can remember was to do nothing but play music 24 hours a day, and that’s what I did. And I probably would’ve been hospitalized in today’s world as a kid, because I was O.C.D. about it, about playing guitar. You know, I had this goal that I wanted to have impact but not be famous, and I wanted to make a lot of money and give it to charity. And I reached a certain point in my life where it was clear that I was not gonna have that level of impact, and I wasn’t gonna make a lot of money, but I could still maybe do something.
He wound up doing quite a lot. Together with his wife, the Italian photographer and filmmaker, Marilena Delli, Brennan has traveled the world in search of artists singing in languages yet to be heard on a global stage. And they found plenty. From Rwanda, The Good Ones.
From South Sudan, Wayo, Trance Percussion Masters. Brennan also produced the Grammy Award winning record by Tinariwen, a group of Tuareg musicians from the Sahara Desert region of Northern Mali. And the Malawi Mouse Boys.
In the summer of 2013, husband and wife headed again to Malawi without a clear plan. Two albums later, the Zomba Prison Project is the only Malawian music ever to receive a Grammy nomination.
Brennan: 2000 people in a prison that was designed to hold 340 people, I was willing to make the leap of faith that they had things they needed to express.
Despite being their guiding force, Brennan is conspicuously absent from all the documentaries that accompany his projects.
Brennan: My goal is to be invisible. I will be forgotten anyway, so I don’t think there’s any need for me to be known. And I want to allow people to communicate. I just wanna encourage them to communicate and find the voice that they have within them, and not try to present themselves in a social way that they feel is standard. And that’s generally the obstacle, is that people generally play the music they think you wanna hear, and the music that I’m interested in usually is the music that you almost have to pry out of them or the music they didn’t know was in them. Certainly with the group projects like the Zomba Prison Project, it’s the people on the margins that oftentimes had the most profound things to express, such as the women who represent less than one percent of the prison population but made up more than half of the first album and almost a third of the second record.
AJC: And you really had to drag them screaming to the idea that they could make music.
Brennan: Yes, I mean there’s a history of misogyny in the country, like pretty much everywhere in the world, and they were discouraged from expressing themselves in this way. They had no instruments, they had no support, they were adamant about the idea that they were not lead singers, and that they were not songwriters. But once one of them stepped forward with a song, it was like floodgates opened, and they started lining up and queuing up and they had a lot of songs in them.
World music has become a commodity, and too often a curiosity for Westerners. Ian Brennan is adamant that nobody gets a pass simply for being exotic.
Brennan: The goal is to hold everyone in the world to the same standards, to treat everybody with a tough-mindedness. And so, as much as possible, my concern is finding people that write really good songs, and finding people that have really interesting voices, no matter where they’re from. And I’m not concerned about trying to capture anything or preserve anything, and influences way too complex for that. Academics can do that, and it’s fine, but the reality is is that the best music comes from within the individual. It’s not based on input, it’s not consumeristic. it’s not that, if you listen to the exact records that Miles Davis did, that you’re going to be like him. You will not be like him. You can do everything he did, you won’t be like him. So, it comes from within the individual.
AJC: Will you continue to do these Africa projects and if so why?
Brennan: Well, we’ll continue to do projects wherever we can do them—not just Africa, anywhere where there’s people that are underrepresented. That’s in this country too.
AJC: I was gonna say.
Brennan: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m well aware of the issues here, and I’m just as interested in hearing from people here that are under-heard. But I’m most interested in hearing from people that are singing in languages other than English.
Brennan: Because [there are] a 100,000 releases a year and zero from the Central African Republic. You expound that out over a 10 year period that’s a million to zero, not a million to one. It’s indefensible for anybody that believes in democracy.
AJC: When I hear somebody singing, “Chichewa, Please Don’t Kill My Child,” and I have to listen to try and find and get an understanding of it from the way it’s been sung rather than the words that have been sung. That almost feels more useful than having a literal understanding of it.
Brennan: It is because you are forced to listen to what the person means, not what they’re saying. And if they mean it, it’s very important, so we get out of our intellect and into our heart.
For more than 30 years Nina Berman has been going to places—both literally and metaphorically—where other photographers dare not tread. She’s driven by a need to tell stories that would otherwise go untold. Her images have captured everything from post 9/11 New York, to Afghanistan under Taliban rule, to mega churches in America.
Nina Berman: I’ve always felt like I don’t have a lot of time to waste.
Among Berman’s best known series: The Marine Wedding of Purple Hearts, which together introduced the public to the plight of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Berman: I never wanna repeat what someone else has done. I don’t see the point in doing that, so don’t have that ego that’s like, “Oh yeah, I’m gonna do this and it’s gonna be amazing.” I really want to be useful, like I want my work to be useful in the sense that it shouldn’t repetitive, I shouldn’t just be doing it because it’s the story of the day and so maybe that comes from insecurity, I don’t know, but I pretty much charted my own path for a long time and I won’t do a story if someone’s done it amazingly well. Why? Why would I?
AJC: When we met, I said to you, “Oh, well, you’re not really that scary at all.”
AJC: Can you see how somebody might think that you’re tough from looking at your work? Are you tough? I mean, I shouldn’t be presumptuous, do you think you’re a tough person?
Berman: I think I’m direct, and that sometimes people misinterpret that or see that as a little scary or off-putting. But I think I’m direct about what I feel and think and—
AJC: No, but despite the intention of what you’re doing, you don’t seem angry about the world.
Berman: I think some of my best work comes from that feeling where I’m infuriated, disgusting, absolutely like at my wits end and I have to do something to channel that anger or that alienation. I have to find a way through my photography to sort of get at it. Anger is a great motivator, but when I meet people out in the world I don’t wanna be angry at them.
And it’s the desire to understand her subjects that makes Berman’s images so powerful.
Berman: I’m a good listener, and I’m a authentic listener. Like, I’m not just listening to someone because it’s like, “Okay gotta do this to get it out of the way so I can make the picture.” I truly wanna know. And, you know, for awhile in the ’90s, I was photographing militia, who have been people, like, before the Tim McVeigh stuff, because I was like, “Who are these people? What makes them tick? Like, what am I gonna see?” And I would go to their homes, I would hang out with them. I truly wanted to understand, you know, what they were fearing.
Nina Berman has the mind of a journalist and the eye of an artist, but she calls herself neither.
Berman: I call myself photographer or documentary photographer. I used to call myself a photojournalist, but then all the photojournalists were guys with scarves and lots of cameras, and I didn’t look anything like them. And so I found some other name that seemed to make more sense for me. I’m a good photographer, I don’t think I’m a great photographer, but I keep trying in my life, and so maybe that shows through.
AJC: You say you’re a good photographer, but you’re not a great photographer. But I imagine you’re standing in the setting with a camera and you look at the scene, you know what you want, you get it.
Berman: That’s the bad picture. The good picture is when you stand there and you see a scene and you know what you want and you take the picture and you get something different that you didn’t think of that just kind of crept in some magical way, whatever it was, and then it’s like, “Wow.” Then it’s amazing. And you see that, with digital, that’s less and less able to happen, in a sense, because you can always see and you can always edit yourself, like, right away, “No, I don’t like that, delete, try it again.” But, with film, it was always about the unknowing, the magic, “Did I get it, what did I get? Is there something?” But I think any photographer will tell you, not maybe not a commercial photographer, but any other photographer working in the photojournalism, documentary space, will tell you that the mistakes are the pictures, the things you didn’t anticipate are the pictures that you hold onto most.
Berman revived this magical uncertainty by shooting her latest project on film. Acknowledgement of Danger examines the way in which weapons testing and production has contaminated the American landscape over the years.
Berman: People are comfortable, like “We’re gonna go over there and kill them and poison their country, but we can do that because they really wanna get us, right?” So we’re justified to do all that. But people don’t really know that we poison our own country as well in the process. So I dig up these old stories and look at these places that look sometimes like nothing at all, but have these deep histories.
One example, the Passaic River near Trenton, New Jersey, remains contaminated after being poisoned with unused Agent Orange made for the Vietnam War.
Berman: You can’t eat fish in that river because it’s contaminated with dioxin from the H&R introduction, but there’s no sign telling you that history. Believe me, there’s no sign. And we just become almost, you know, it’s like it’s almost normal, of course you can’t swim in the river.
Berman’s primary tool for the Acknowledgement of Danger project is a Graflex speed graph camera. It was dominant in professional photography from the 1930s through the end of the 1950s, but it’s relative rarity today means that film and developing are hugely expensive. So what’s so special about it?
Berman: So, a lot of people like these filters, you know, their Instagram feeds or whatever, where they can soften up the background. So, you can do that with this camera with something called a tilt, so that you have very small selective focus in one area, and then other parts are out of focus. It gives you super sharp detailed, big fat negative, so if you wanna really see the detail of something, you can have it. You’re looking at grain, film grain, as opposed to pixels which is a different quality. But I think, even more so, it makes you really assess what it is you’re looking at because you can’t shoot 1,000 pictures. And then it’s a kind of novelty when people see it, so they tend to open up and are nicer and see you then as serious, as more serious.
AJC: That’s interesting.
Berman: Oh, the camera is—
AJC: The camera almost evokes a nostalgia in people who have probably never encounter one of these things.
Berman: Yeah, I was just in Indiana, and I was looking at former military bases that are now wildlife refuges. And they, I went during bow hunting weekend, and I wanted to hang out with a couple of the hunters. And the hunters I found were the guys not using the crossbows, which is considered by the purest no-go, too easy, because you’re always pulls and then just go like this. But the old bow hunter guys, so I was like, “Man, we’re going to get along so well”, ’cause I had this old camera, old style film, right? No batteries, nothing, and you guys got the bows. And yeah, so it made a whole different thing, whole different relationship because we both respected the process in a way.
AJC: And that’s there even in the finished images?
Berman: I think just the fact that I got to photograph them, they didn’t turn me down, is there. What people don’t understand about pictures is that it’s the 90% that you do before you actually take the picture, right. That’s where most of the work is.
But long after her work is done, Nina Berman’s images continue to impact the way people think about the world.
Leroy Johnson says he committed to becoming an artist when he was just seven or eight years old. Now approaching 80, he’s never relented.
AJC: Were there times when you wanted to give up?
Leroy Johnson: What?
AJC: Give up painting, give up making sculptures, give up working?
Johnson: If you can emerge from the Johnson family to do what you want… If they didn’t stop you, then nothing can stop you, God bless ’em. So my mother and father, they loved me and supported me, but they certainly didn’t think that art was what I should do, and I certainly didn’t seem to be doing it in any rational way. I’m very fortunate and blessed and whatnot. I’m just lucky I’m obsessed and I work all the time.
But Johnson’s art has never been about reason or paying the bills. He’s a consummate outsider artist: self-taught, little-exhibited, and wholly dedicated to creating art just for the sake of it.
Johnson: Picasso said, “Make something beautiful. Destroy it. Do this many times.” Most of my work, one day when they x-ray those bad boys, they’ll see that there’s more layers under those suckers than a little bit. I like processes. That’s why I like my, this canvas I’m workin’ on now. I’ll take a razor blade, maybe scrape some sections out just so that there’s just like a thin layer there, then paint over, maybe paint the same thing back over it so it has some sort of little bounce. I like mixed media, so I’ll probably attack it, alter on it with oil stick and some other things. I’ll like, maybe glue some stuff on. I don’t know yet, which is what I like. It’s to not know and see what evolves. For me, art is about endless exploration.
Leroy Johnson’s visceral, colorful, and abstract mixed-media works document his personal surroundings and experiences. His 2016 piece Eyewitness memorializes Eastwick, the South Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up.
Johnson: Everybody growing up in Eastwick loved Eastwick. If you look at the literature, Eastwick was probably the most diversified area in Philadelphia. I look back on it now and I realize that I had a childhood that few people have had. I had white and black friends and it was fields to play in. I had—the games we played would cover a mile or something, just racing through whatnot. The airport, when I was a child, when I remember, it was only, like, one story high or whatnot. We used to go there to watch the airplanes. I mean that’d be a date, you know, to go out there to watch the airplanes take off and land and stuff like that.
And that same airport would decades later commission Johnson to commemorate the Philadelphia of his memory with a series of paintings, drawings, collages, and small-scale dioramas.
Johnson: What I wanted to show was that there’s still a few houses out there. You sort of see how close I was to the feeling I got for this. What I was trying to do was—I told them was this: “Like a dream, my childhood memories, I wasn’t trying to be literal.” I was doing things that had feeling and emotion and touch. I respect the African-American vernacular art. In fact, I respect folk artists in general, white or black or red, green, or yellow, [who] use materials at hand and make in a really creative, really make something that’s outside the—
AJC: The norm.
Johnson: Yeah, yeah.
Today, Leroy Johnson remains committed to a relief he came to early in life.
Johnson: If you love reading and art, you’ll never be lonesome and you’ll never be bored. And those are important things to have in this life.
Marianne Dages: I’m very interested in ideas of chance in art and the rote, the process, the activities you do where you’re almost not using your mind, it’s just the hand taking over.
And the unconscious has plenty of time to take over in Dages’ painstaking artistic practice. The heart of her studio is a printing press originally used to create high quality proofs. This obsolete piece of machinery requires type to be set by hand, a task Dages says is more liberating than burdensome.
Dages: The reason I use letter press is because I know my machine. I do feel like I can control what comes out of it, otherwise I could use other print making processes, but this is what I have, this machine which I’m married to in a way, it’s 1,200 pounds, it’s staying around for quite a while, so I will use it whenever I can because having that certain amount of control I can really push the boundaries of what I know it can do. While I do use wood and metal type, the traditional material of letterpress printing whenever I can, I also generate images using computer programs and turn them into plastic printing plates and it’s really what’s been keeping letterpress alive is that option of being able to design something quickly and receive a printing plate in just a matter of days.
AJC: Purists, if they exist.
Dages: They don’t like those.
AJC: No, I’m just they call you names, right? Cause you’re doing everything else right.
Dages: I’m doing it hands-on because I enjoy it. I don’t think there is anything more sacred about it or a hierarchy of values. It’s just something that’s become so ingrained in the way I think and my process, but I believe that as artists we should and absolutely have the right to work in any medium we choose. That’s what keeps me interested, always learning, always trying to get better, always trying to push something forward.