Jean-Marie Borgeaud at the Ariana Museum

It is the last days of a pleasant, long Indian summer. The late October air is cool and crisp; the sun is watery-bright. I walk up the long gravel drive to the imposing musée Ariana. The reception, as always, is polite and helpful. Once again, a surprise awaits me at Switzerland’s principal ceramic and glass museum: Jean Marie Borgeaud’s “Terre au Corps” exhibition. If you think that ceramics is somehow light on impact, visit this exhibition and be prepared to change your mind.

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The centrum of the “Terre au Corps” exhibition

On meeting Jean-Marie Borgeaud, I note a ready, boyish smile. He looks one-hundred per cent art teacher. He talks quietly and evenly. He is tolerant of and listens to those of lesser talent. His life-drawing classes in Carouge are popular. He lives, works and breathes the human form; he uses ceramics to lay it bare, in both anatomical and visceral senses. His work comes from the gut and appeals likewise. Unsurprisingly he is considered a leading contemporary ceramicist meriting such an extensive exhibition – taking the whole basement level – at the Airiana. The startling variety of work covers nearly twenty years; I find the sad, the grotesque, the tragic, the touching, the primitive and the very beautiful.

Already in the centrum of this exhibition, my senses start to fragment.

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“Couple” 2006, Stoneware, low-temperature woodfiring

The centre-piece is, at first glance, simply a couple embracing. I walk around this work. There is drama off-stage. With eyes lightly closed, he seems to be assessing some mental weight with that left hand. With his right hand, he presses her against him.

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“Couple” 2006, Stoneware, low-temperature woodfiring

By contrast, she seems anxious; devasted even. Her lips rest lightly on his shoulder. Her gaze is distant. Something has befallen her and therefore something has befallen them. Jean-Marie Borgeaud has created an ambience of palpable disquiet within the couple but with the certainty that whatever the storm, he and she will ride it out together.

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“Mandula” 1997, Stoneware, low-temperature woodfiring

Many of the figures in this exhibition have faces that are clearly African or Asian. Next to “Couple” is “Mandula.” I hope Jean-Marie Borgeaud forgives me but the hands held up in submission and the black residue from the firing on the skin of this Asian man leaves only one word in my mind. Hiroshima!

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“Clothilde,” 1998, Stoneware, low-temperature woodfiring

These works are life-size. I try to imagine how they are shaped and then fired. The technical challenges must be considerable. Perhaps I can visit the Borgeaud studio sometime?

In a far corner of the exhibition, I find Clothide. She waltzes by herself. Has she lost her partner, Mandula? They are from the same era.

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Untitled and undated. Stoneware, low-temperature woodfiring

Perhaps these masks tell of the reunion of Mandula and Clothilde in some fragmented after-life?

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Untitled, undated

Not all Jean-Marie Borgeaud’s work is dedicated to the notion of “couple” nor does he confine himself to stoneware and low-temperature woodfiring. He also works with ceramic glazes. Behind “Couple” in an alcove, is an untitled blue-glazed piece. The bust is clearly of an African woman. Beneath her is a horse’s head. The glaze is pleasingly cracked. The blue is vivid. The whole is mesmerising.

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The Arikara room with “Arikara,” 2012, Manganese clay

The wing of the exhibition that houses “Arikara” is testament to its bold lay-out. He, Arikara, stares at me from the far end of a subtly lit room. He is Asian, naked, squat and ferocious.  Ranged on his right are gaily coloured ceramic piles of entrails. In parallel, aligned on his left, like the bounty of some ghastly massacre, are skulls. The form of the skulls are primitive in the extreme: neanderthal or australopithic may be. The feeling of age and decay are accentuated by fissures and crumbling. If you do not feel disquiet in this room, you are a tough nut indeed!

However, within the line of bizarre, cracked, grotesque skulls is the jewel of the exhibition.

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From one of the skulls, a person emerges. The mask-like maxilla and orbits are burst open by the swelling of a sublime, smooth and young face. It is a novel experience to encounter a work that generates both revulsion and hope in equal measure. It is an image that stays with me for days.

Other visitors chat quietly. I wonder if they are moved and gripped by these works as I am. I climb the stairs and walk out through the Ariana’s massive dark oak doors.  I have difficulty marshalling my thoughts. I am dazzled and disorientated more by the exhibition than by the sun.

Fear and loathing in…… Switzerland!

As I write this blog post a United States health official announces another ebola case in Texas. Fear. There is the first talk of a flight lock-down to and from West Africa. President Barack Obama says the risk of an outbreak of ebola in the United States is “extremely low.”

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I hear there is an outdoor exhibition in Plainpalais organised by Geneva city council. It documents how the foreigner – read: immigrant, legal or illegal – has been depicted in Swiss political posters. It distracts me from this morning’s gloomy news. I am welcomed by a clever image playing on the Swiss flag and inequality. The posters dating back to the 1920s are both fascinating and alarming. I come to understand that a section of the Swiss political community consistently cultivates fear of the other with ingenious design concepts. This article is about the posters and how I see them as vehicles for political messages. As a general rule, I try not to express my own political views (even though I find some of the posters offensive!)

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The principal means of depicting unwelcome foreigners is by indicating their darker skin. According to this 2007 poster, the worst case is that they might en masse gain Swiss citizenship. The designer here has created a notion of multi-racial greedy-grabbing of those all-too-accessible Swiss passports. The darkest hand is particularly clawing.

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The same politicians really do not want others – especially if the others are muslims – bringing their culture to Switzerland. In 2009, the “Minarets debate” swirled about the limits of multiculturism. A black burqua-ed woman is clearly associated here with those black threatening minaret – missiles awaiting for their deadly countdown. The whole resonates with daily news of fundamental islamic terrorism.

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In most countries, displaying this 2007 poster would most likely end in a prison sentence. It is more than controversial. Kindly and innocent white sheep kick a black sheep out of Switzerland with a view to ensuring Swiss people more security. The furrowed brow of the black sheep indicates not surprise but his intent to get back in.

Fear generates loathing. Haven’t these people heard of Allport’s scale? Gordon Allport was an American psychologist who in the 1950s wrote about the nature of prejudice. He described a five step scale of prejudicial behaviour. At step one is “antilocution” – saying bad things to or about people of a minority. At step five on this scale is killing these same people. Come to think of it, maybe they have heard of Allport’s scale! This is just too awful to consider.

Let me emphasise that racial discrimination is not alive and well in Switzerland. The political parties responsible for the posters above are hotly opposed by the majority.

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This 2004 anti-discrimination poster is also included in the exhibition. It is effective probably because, in my mind, it is so cute. I love its United Colours of Bennetton recall. The babies are looking up to a united brighter future for their generation in the arms of a soft and cuddly nanny Switzerland.

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The issue is not new as shown by this poster from 1922. I can’t help being amused by image of the six steroetypical foreigners crossing the border into Basel where gold coin is lavished upon them. A multi-tasking black cat hisses at them and rings a warning bell. In parallel, Swiss people – presumably working in Germany just over the border – are kicked out of their homes.

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A poster from 1974 warns Swiss citizens that their nice stable economic pyramid should not be supported by “invited” labour. The immigrant labourer remains “invited” as long as he can be marked out by dark skin and thick mustache.

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In 1983 those hoping to induce fear of the foreigner show cute traditional little old Switzerland about to be mugged at home by a black – note the skin – youth – note the trainer with frayed lace. The poster also implies that attempting to keep foreigners out is a hopeless task! Any viewer who disaproves or disagrees of the poster is clearly one of the ambivalent grey citizens in the background.

I can’t help reflecting on the unlikely juxtaposition of messages I receive from the news and from these posters. The President of the United States – with darker skin – calms fears about the spread of the loathsome ebola virus. The City of Geneva reminds us that some Swiss politicians clearly aim to stoke fear – and loathing – about people with darker skin. Thanks, Geneva! I know which I fear most!

Paul Bonner’s Mutant Chronicles

We’re on a road trip through Scandinavia. It is July. The sun is already high and hot as we breakfast in Copenhagen. Josi and Sari chat about what they will do and see today. I already have a plan. I am meeting an Englishman: and no ordinary Englishman! 

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Paul Bonner, the famous fantasy illustrator, has replied to my contact email and, to my surprise, has invited me to visit his home. “Why are you so excited to meet him?” asks my daughter who knows my passion for fantasy land (and who adores Littlest Pet Shop and My Little Pony.) “Well…” I explain “I feel I grew up with him. He shaped my interests, pastimes and imagination as he did for millions of people my age.”

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Paul greets me warmly. His handshake is firm. He is not the way-out character that I was expecting. Does this guy’s head really house such an incredible imagination? I register the privilege of entering his personal universe. I see his illustrations for real. He shows and then gives me a book of his work. Mind-blowing! Unsurprisingly, his studio is decked with Asian masks, animal skulls, anatomical posters and model dinosaurs.

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The painting Paul is working on is part of his Beowulf project. It is everything I would expect. A battle-hardened viking-dwarf with drawn sword enters an underground cavern with trepidation. Huge, slithery, spiney, wall-hanging monsters await him. Fantastic fantasy! This is why I wanted to meet Paul.

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A beautifully crafted, grotesque and mischievous goblin has pride of place in his studio. It stops me in my tracks. The attention to detail is just remarkable. It looks like it could spring to life at any moment!

Mutant Chronicles Rulebook

In the 1990s, a company called Target Games (now Paradox Interactive) was working on a series of games set in a dieselpunk, sci-fi universe called Mutant Chronicles. This was before the digital age; it involved a collectible card game (Doom Trooper), three board games (Siege of the Citadel, Fury of the Clansmen and Blood Berets), a tabletop miniature game (Warzone) and a role-playing game (Mutant Chronicles). The cards and booklets required illustrations. Paul, a trained illustrator, was offered the job.

Paul’s muscle-bound, weapon-wielding heroes brought the avatars of me and my friends to life. His imagination fed ours. He seeded and cultivated our fantasy worlds; we could envisage them, step into them and so play out our roles within them. We wanted to stay engaged. We had an insatiable appetite for new avatars. Did his visual depiction of these other worlds and the hundreds of unlikely protagonists ultimately influence the writers?

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Paul gives a modest shrug, but as an avid fan of Mutant Chronicles, I have no doubt of the two-way relationship between the writing and the illustration of the game. In fact, a reboot of the role-playing game is in the making, and British publisher Modiphius Entertainment has on Kickstarter promised that the 3rd edition of the “amazing techno-fantasy game” will “reveal never before seen parts of the Mutant Chronicles universe alongside the existing fantastic images by Paul Bonner.” I cannot wait to hear what my friends will say!

Paul’s remarkable career grew from a fascination for Tolkien and Scandinivian fables. No wonder then that he admits to his major influence: the paintings of John Bauer, Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Ivan Shishkin. But then after a holiday walking in Scandinavian forests (probably, I suspect, hoping to glimpse a troll for real) he simply decided to stay and make Copenhagen his base of operations. 

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Two hours slip by too quickly. I have made a new friend. In addition, I was able to offer something in return: I advise Paul on how to set up a Facebook page to share his work with fans and friends. Being the master illustrator he is, it is no surprise that his new page already has over eight thousand followers. I cannot help thinking that they would all love to step into Paul’s personal universe as well. I eventually leave and can see that Paul is keen to get back to work. But before you leave this post, take a look at some more of his incredible illustrations. Talk about skill and imagination!

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