Sunday, July 31, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Gothic Classic

As America's most famous painting celebrates its 75th birthday, Keith Laidlaw looks at how Grant Wood's homely masterpiece became such an important - and parodied - symbol in the U.S.

It is a painting that seems, at first glance, to be an unlikely cultural icon for today's America. First exhibited in 1930, Grant Wood's imaginary couple in 19th-century Iowa are drab, old-fashioned and austere, more like traditional, Northern-European Presbyterians than citizens of a country about to define our modern age. Even the painting's name, American Gothic, invokes the dark horrors of the old world rather than the bright hopes of the new (although it actually refers to the architectural style of the wood-panelled house in the background).

But the pair also appear stoic and hardworking, and can be seen to represent a rigid mid-Western conservativism that, from the pioneers to present-day Republicans, has become America's dominant moral force. In a new book about the painting, Steven Biel notes that the painting, even more than symbols such as the Stars and Stripes or Statue of Liberty, has "helped create American identity" by giving it a white face and "locating" it in a generic middle ground of classless Middle America.

Wood always maintained the painting was intended as a celebration of the simple folks it portrays, although many critics allege it is a sneering caricature. Whichever is true, the other images shown demonstrate that it is parody which has really cemented the painting's iconic status.

'American Gothic' by Steven Biel (£13.99, Norton) is out 22 August

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Really Wild Show

Minstrels have travelled across Nigeria for generations, providing entertainment and selling traditional herbal medicine. And, by including hyenas in their act, this entrepreneurial troupe is laughing all the way to the bank, says Keith Laidlaw. Photographs by Pieter Hugo

Entertainers, charlatans, musicians, animal wrestlers, snake-oil salesmen, fighters, drug smugglers, magicians, extortionists... it's hard to find the right words to describe Abdullahi Amadu and his family of wanderers. Indeed, "family" probably isn't quite the right word either - a concept that is far more loosely defined in this part of the world.

The men describe themselves as minstrels or performers, and they certainly cause a stir when they walk into town with their animals in tow, attracting a crowd as soon as they appear. All they have to do is pass a school for classes to be cancelled as the children run out to follow the men around town for the day instead.

Contrary to what we may imagine, wild animals are a rarity in the south of Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. Hyenas and snakes in particular create a mixture of fascination and fear among the largely urban-dwelling locals. Quite apart from their size and natural ferocity, hyenas are thought by many to be attached to the spirit world. This is because the genitals of male and female hyenas appear virtually identical, engendering a popular belief that they can change sex at will. Snakes also have a powerful mystical symbolism in a culture whose dominant religions - Islam and Christianity - often play second fiddle to traditional beliefs and superstitions.

A typical performance will start with one of the men being "attacked" by his hyena. Then, once the man has fought and beaten the animal, the monkeys - often dressed up in mini soccer kits to represent famous footballers - appear by flik-flakking their way into the crowd and then "asking" for money by holding out their right paw (Islamic influences mean using the left hand to give or receive here is forbidden).

The show mainly serves as a sales pitch for the various charms and potions the men make. The reason they can handle wild animals safely, so the story goes, is because they are protected by the potency of their muti or magic, and this power can be bought. If any onlookers remain unconvinced by the men fighting off hyenas, which unbeknown to the audience have been rendered docile through a combination of beatings and drugs (indeed, the muzzles the animals wear are largely for effect), then large, poisonous rock pythons are produced to persuade them further.

Photographer Pieter Hugo first became interested in the group after seeing an image of one of the hyena men on a news website. Hugo, a South African photojournalist, has a particular fascination for people who are marginalised from mainstream society, so he set off for Lagos to find them. When he eventually tracked the group down in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, he discovered a group he felt were something akin to new-age travellers. "They don't strike me as corrupt," he explains. "They're just having a good time."

After spending over a week with them, Hugo says they spend much of their free time drinking malt and getting high on a cocktail of marijuana and less familiar but seemingly more potent concoctions. Then, as the sun goes down in the evening, they engage in a ritualised form of fighting common among their tribe, the Hausa, one of Nigeria's three main ethnic groups.

But along with drug-abuse and the hint of extortion in their performances, this troupe are implicated in more serious criminal issues. Before Hugo caught up with the group, a local newspaper had reported that two of the men had been shot by police following an armed robbery. However, the men deny this version of events, saying instead that their comrades were shot attempting to run a roadblock without paying the police one of the bribes that are part and parcel of everyday life in Nigeria. The truth, like so much here, is unclear.

With over 200 languages and endemic corruption, Nigeria is a place that is both cultured and anarchic, and also very difficult for Westerners to understand. Indeed, Nigeria is a very good example of how little most of us know about Africa as a whole: it has a similar land mass to South Africa, boasts a population three times as big and has a far poorer economy. Yet, contrary to what we might expect, in Nigeria literacy rates are higher, life expectancy is longer and, perhaps most dramatically, HIV infection rates are around a quarter of those in the country's richer relative to the south.

So, while we may see superstition and cruelty, the men in the group see things very differently. Amadu's family has lived this way for generations, and the magic they sell seems real enough when they are risking their lives trapping the animals in the wild, or on the rare occasions when the hyenas turn on their handlers for real. As for questions of animal cruelty, this is simply a subject few have even even considered in this part of the world.

And, while these men are largely welcomed for the entertainment they provide and services they sell, we cannot say the same about the way we treat our own travelling populations. Perhaps, to paraphrase Nelson Mandela, the way a society treats its travellers is a reflection of its character.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Pump Action

With young Lycra-clad girls and not a charcoal briquette in sight, these certainly aren't your average garage forecourts. Keith Laidlaw discovers a place where petrol stations don't need Nectar points or free mugs to tempt in the customers.

Standing on the forecourt of your local petrol station, waiting for your car to drink its fill of unleaded, you might have noticed the odd booth-bound attendant or two staring vacantly at you. Normally acne-ravaged youths, quietly contemplating how they ended up in this world of button pushing and polyester clothing, it's hard to imagine that their job could ever be sexy. Even in the US, a land that is defined by the romance of the open road, and where the car is king, the traditional image of the pump jockey is a fairly unappealing mix of dirty dungarees and the reddest of red necks.

In Rio de Janeiro they have other ideas. Brazil is a country synonymous in most people's minds with passion and sex, and here even the garages have a little extra glamour. Nine out of 10 drivers are male, so perhaps it should be no surprise that many petrol stations boast attractive young women manning the pumps. And, in suburban areas where competition is fierce, practical garage overalls disappear in favour of more revealing outfits.

Adding further fire to this heady mixture is the Brazilian government's latest efforts to cope with ever-inflating international oil prices by promoting the use of cheap alcohol as fuel. OK, so maybe the four-star ' ethanol coursing through the pumps isn't exactly what you'd serve up during a romantic meal, but surely the fumes are bound to have some sort of intoxicating effect on the Latino passions of customers and staff alike.

But the locals don't see it like this; indeed most barely notice the girls at all. This is a culture where many jobs are split by gender, so women pump petrol just as they work as maids or receptionists. And where there are young females working together, skimpy outfits are rarely far behind. But the cheerleader-style uniforms are more girl band than stripper, and are far less offensive than the type of calendars often found pinned up in UK garages. Indeed, the defiant teenage stares or carefree smiles of the girls photographed here say more about the politics of age than that of gender.

In a way, what is strange is that this phenomenon hasn't spread wider. Even in countries such as ours where car use is less gender-biased, the cars themselves are still seen as a resolutely male territory; they are boys' toys. We may think that feminism has wiped out such sexist ideas, but one glance at the blonde 'pit-lane lovelies' who grimace their way around any motorsports event or car show would soon disabuse you of that notion.

It could be argued that a balance could be struck by creating separate women's forecourts. In the 1980s Athena poster shops created a whole sub- genre of female erotica based around garage workers, so there's no reason why we couldn't also have hunky guys flexing their muscles in cut-off denims on the forecourt - at least in the summer months.

But, should any of us ever cast a baleful eye over that barren wasteland of pumps and anonymous cars and wonder if the whole thing wouldn't benefit from a bit more colour, a bit more pizzazz, a bit more sex appeal, we can console ourselves with the thought that at least garage attendants in Britain don't requiring tipping.