Book Review: Photographer Tish Murtha’s ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’

The third instalment of a book trilogy via Bluecoat Press reflecting the work of UK social documentary photographer Tish Murtha (1956-2013) is entitled ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’. For those unsure as to what the title and subject matter refers, the jazz bands were marching troupes mainly involving young and adolescent girls, a particular phenomenon in 20th century working class British communities.

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Image from ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved

Mainly focused in the mining towns of Wales, the Midlands and Tish’s own stomping ground of North East England, each band was representative of a particular neighbourhood. Trained to parade with military style precision, clad in colourful uniforms while playing instruments, including drums, kazoos and glockenspiels, the troupes would compete against each other in local and national competitions. The capturing of such a unique facet of cultural expression, would, in turn, become Tish Murtha’s first exhibition, a photographer destined to create a fascinating catalogue of work on the lives and experiences of often forgotten communities surviving on the margins of British life.

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Image from ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved

The book itself is once again organised by Tish’s daughter Ella, who has for the last years dedicated her time to posthumously promote the Tish Murtha Archive. Her introduction in this publication reflects not only the passion for her mission and the pain of her loss (her mother died suddenly in 2013), but also reflects a humanity central to Tish’s own much celebrated work. The photographer portrayed a depth of socio-political awareness involving the sort of sensitivity, humour, stoicism and endurance that only comes from someone who, as both an uncompromising artist and working-class woman and mother, lived in the very heart of the community she reflected.

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Image from ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved

The photographic work collected here is a perfect insight into the world of the juvenile jazz band, from children practising on the waste grounds and in parks, to the formal training of the troupes and final competitions. The images, featuring a world mainly inhabited by girls, give a rare platform to young working class, female experience therefore. The dedication and also bonding of the girls is clearly revealed in Tish’s work. That young women were encouraged to work together and were celebrated for their loud and proud processions, while recognised/rewarded for their skills, was an unusual outlet for youthful female energy.

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Image from ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved

Interestingly however, Tish was not a huge fan of this form of leisure activity herself. The photographer’s own views on the subject matter are reflected in her own words in the book and also perhaps, in the black and white images she conveyed. Tish viewed the bands as too militaristic in nature, reflecting a culture of ‘not stepping out of line’ in areas  in need of working class rebellion against policies of enforced economic and social deprivation. The photographer’s perception of the suppression of children’s individualism and imagination naturally also totally conflicted with her ideas of free expression, indicative of the artist’s own outlook.

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Image from ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved

There is much joy and interest in Tish’s work here, nevertheless, found particularly in the children’s game playing in mock jazz bands, in contrast to the more serious and adult constructed world of training, travelling and judging. In play the children themselves are the creators of the narrative, often with anarchic humour, in opposition to the more sombre world of contrived troupe rivalry in competitions. The photographer cleverly offers us two worlds here, one that is liberated and funny and another that is more restrained and organised. As a reader and viewer, however, we can take so much from both thanks to Tish’s artistic talents.

This book is simply another fantastic opportunity to contemplate the work of one of the best UK social documentary photographers of the 20th century and her crucial reflections of working class life – feel free to see for yourselves.

https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/juvenile-jazz-bands/

‘Marxism will heal the sick’: Frida Kahlo and Karl Marx

Marxism will give health to the sick, Frida Kahlo, 1954 

One of the last paintings Frida Kahlo ever created was entitled ´Marxism will heal the sick` (1954).  Analysis of the painting, however, necessitates an understand of the artist herself, her motivation and personal context within an intriguing life and artistic career, culminating in this work which would be one of her final messages to the world.

Frida Kahlo was born in 1907, into an early 20th century global era of political upheaval, bloody revolutionary uprisings and world war. In turn, the artist´s native country did not escape such instability and in 1910 Mexico was plunged into revolution. Kahlo´s childhood progressed therefore, amid a backdrop of armed rebellion against the suppression of the peasant classes, calls for land reforms and nationalization of resources. The rebels also rejected a European-style cultural template as the ideal, in favour of promoting indigenous Mexican culture. The political fervour and reclaiming of a more authentic national identity not only informed Kahlo´s own political perspective but, in turn, would have a major influence on her later artworks.

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Marxism will give health to the sick, Frida Kahlo, 1954

By the time Frida was twenty years old she had already joined the Mexican Communist Party and here her relationship with Diego Rivera, a painter of revolutionary murals and fellow member of the Party (later expelled), intensified. To describe Rivera as the more politically influential partner, citing the difference in age and experience, is to do Kahlo an intellectual disservice however. Kahlo was from a middle-class family and therefore benefited from an education including a wide range of resources and reading. The artist´s father also encouraged his daughter in gaining full advantage of an education only made possible by the recent admittance of girls to preparatory schools during the revolution. Here the teenage artist was heavily involved with a group of socialists known as the Cachuchas. This small society of young intellectuals were known not only for their adolescent pranks, but also for their sharing of ideas on history, philosophy and the political theorizing of Marx.

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Above: Tina Modotti’s photograph of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, with members of the Artists’ Union, on the May Day March, Mexico City, 1929 to protest for workers rights and to show working class unity.

While the revolutionary events of the era, an informed education, in addition to politically motivated associates, all aided the formation of Kahlo’s Marxist ideals, it was perhaps her personal circumstances that created an extra dimension to her perspectives. As a child Kahlo had suffered from polio, contracting the disease at the age of six and as a result was forced to spend nine months in bed. As part of her recuperation, Kahlo fought back against both her disability and gendered expectations of the era by taking part in sports such as boxing, to strengthen the weakness created by her illness. The artist´s later only partial recovery from a catastrophic tram accident not only heavily impacted on her physically, but also aiding in forming her character and beliefs. Her ability to survive the tortuous aftermath of multiple devastating injuries emphasized her resilience in the face of extreme personal adversity. Both her pain and endurance were also often themes and motifs within many of her artworks, forming an empathetic link between Kahlo and all those who struggle and yet must fight to survive.

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A metaphorical relationship between Kahlo´s own disability and her politics is clearly evident in her painting ´Marxism will heal the sick´. The artist presents a self-portrait in orthopaedic leather corset, as an embodiment of the suffering of the masses under the oppression of US capitalist forces. As the artist portrays herself as gently embraced by the reassuring, god-like hands of Marx however, she is reflected as able to throw away her crutches, promoting an evangelic-like message regarding the healing properties of Marxism for society. Kahlo´s use of symbolism and iconography communicate as if a political poster with rather simplistic reading. The divided ´good and evil´ composition of the canvas with use of opposing and familiar icons of war and peace, in addition to the saintly Marx and the strangling of the US eagle, are clearly illustrating a specific political agenda.  Even Kahlo´s dress and commonly adopted naïve, brightly coloured folk style of painting, reflect the promotion of indigenous arts embraced by the Mexican Renaissance movement, and is symbolic of a cultural identity freed by revolution.

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Having spent decades producing many groundbreaking and what may be described as feminist self-portraits examining the physiological and often painful areas of her own life, from the disintegration of her marriage to her miscarriage, Kahlo`s move to a more overtly political stance was a form of resolution for the artist. As Kahlo´s commitment to the Communist Party grew, so did her wish to create a greater connection between her art and her political beliefs. The artist´s home had been an open house to many radical thinkers and her involvement with Trotsky, who sought refuge there, has been well documented. In the last days of her life she continued to be politically active, demonstrating against US imperialism in her wheelchair, despite the recent amputation of her leg and a deterioration in her general health. Kahlo died in 1954, leaving her painting unfinished. A rousing chorus of The International was sung at the painter´s funeral and her coffin was shrouded in the red flag with the Communist emblem of hammer and sickle.

Frida Kahlo

 

Kahlo, as a woman who defied expectations of sex and sexual orientation, as a Mexican, as a survivor of great personal trauma and disability, knew only too well the meaning of the struggle to be free, an ideal she perceived was embedded in Marxism. Her political beliefs in fact, in addition to her art, her country and her lifelong endurance, defined the artist. Kahlo apparently finally found her own inner peace within the message of her last painting, in which a lifetime of personal pain and political struggle are united. Kahlo’s paintings are famous for their tears, but as her life ebbed away, the painter reportedly said of this work “For the first time, I am not crying any more”.

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First published in Culture Matters, 2018  http://culturematters.org.uk/index.php/arts/visual-art/item/2739-marxism-will-heal-the-sick-frida-kahlo-and-karl-marx