African Heavy Metal

Botswana is a landlocked country, surrounded by South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Slightly smaller than Texas, and with just over 2 million people, it is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. It is mostly flat and 70% of it is covered by the Kalahari Desert.

It can boast four decades of uninterrupted civilian leadership, and its progressive social policies, and significant capital investment have resulted in one of the most dynamic and fastest growing economies in Africa. In fact, according to the IMF, economic growth averaged in Botswana over 9% per year from 1966 to 1999- and its banking system is one of the continent’s most advanced.

It does have the second highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the world, but it also has one of Africa’s most advanced and serious programs for dealing with the disease. The mineral industry is reponsible for about 40% of all government revenues. It is rich in diamonds, oil, gold, uranium, copper.

It is also rich in heavy metals. These photographs, by South African photographer Frank Marshall, show us members of Botswana’s vibrant heavy metal scene. These images bring to mind infamous images from the 70’s, but the truth is that although these men may have adopted metal music and the look of dangerous outlaw rockers, they could not be more different from organizations like the Hell’s Angels. Botswana’s rockers are seen more like guardian angels. Apart from being passionate about metal music, they sometimes patrol at night and keep the streets safe, with children following them around.  Their heavy metal attire is definitely an expression of macho power, but there is an element of extreme respect and dignity to it. For them, putting on their leather pants and their rocker’s paraphernalia it is like putting on a uniform. There is a strong bond among these men and sense of camaraderie.

Many of them are actually cowboys from small villages and farms, which explains the appropiation of cowboy and biker looks. They also wear symbols of Africa -like animal horns- and adopt names like Bone Machine, Bound By The Moon, Demon, Gunsmoke, Morgue Boss, Coffinfeeder, Venerated Villain, or Apothecary Dethrok.

In a very unique way, these men represent a parody of the heavy metal and the biker culture, both traditionally considered unmistakably Caucasian. At the same time, however, they represent the renegade and rebellious spirit of both, because they are an underground minority, they an anomaly in a country like Botswana, and men on the fringe of their society.

Other sources:

http://edition.cnn.com/2012/06/29/world/africa/botswana-heavy-metal-heads/index.html?hpt=hp_mid

http://www.rookegallery.com/

http://www.vice.com/read/atlas-hoods-botswanas-cowboy-metalheads

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The Spy who loved Media

Spies in movies are suave, drink martinis (well, not martini actually, but a vodka and gin cocktail, called Vesper). They are martial arts experts if they are men; and they are mysterious, speak many languages, are gorgeous and glamourous if they are women. Movies are movies, of course. Reality is much more mundane. A spy could be anyone from a scientist to a teacher; and it could be argued that most embassy employees everywhere are -to some degree- spies, due to the very nature of their job, although their salaries certainly can’t buy an Aston Martin. When caught, spies can be sometimes swapped for other spies, as if they were merchandise. Real spies are also not necessarily very good agents.

The Russian group arrested in the US last year was apparently made up of not very successful sleeper agents. In a highly-publicized swap, however, they were exchanged for accused American spies held in Russia, who were probably not very good spies either. The Russians were flown together, rather unglamorously, to Vienna, before being sent from there to Mother Russia.

This year it has been revealed that the reason American secret services decided to act and arrest the amateurish Russian spies was that one of them -widely believed to be Anna Chapman- had actually gotten a little too close to one of Obama’s cabinet members.

Times have changed, and failed secret agents are not necessarily sent to Siberia anymore. After the 10 men and women returned to Russia, it was President Dmitri Medvédev himself who gave them top state honours, and they even sang patriotic songs with Prime Minister Putin, once an intelligence agent himself. Not exactly old school.

The network, called the Illegals Program by the US Justice Department, is said to have used very amateurish tradecraft, in some cases downright embarrasing. And in fact they were uncovered before they even started doing any serious spying. That didn’t stop the Russian government from receiving them as heroes.

At least one of those spies has become an instant celebrity. Anna Chapman was clearly different from the rest. She actually looked like one of those secret agents we love to see in films. Not incredibly successful as a spy -despite being the daughter of a once high-ranking KGB officer- Anna Vasil’yevna Kushchyenko (the name on her Russian passport) has proven to be more than successful with the media. Not only has she posed as a Bond girl for the Russian edition of Maxim magazine in Agent Provocateur lingerie, she was also hired as an advisor to a Russian bank, she has been appointed a leader of the Molodaya Gvardia, the youth branch of Vladimir Putin‘s political party, she has participated in fashion shows of designers Ilya Shiyan and Yana Rudkovskayaand her name is being used to advertise anything from watches to clothing, beer or vodka. She is writing a book, she has just launched a poker game and an iPhone app. She has even registered her name as a trademark in Russia.

Angelina Jolie reportedly personally requested that Anna Chapman attended the premiere of her 2010 movie Salt, where she interprets a Russian spy. Apparently Angelina’s agents tried to get a hold of Chapman, but were unable to trace her.

International media also seems to love Anna Chapman. Agent 90-60-90, as the Russian press calls her, for example, returned to the US, in the form of nude photos, in the January 2011 issue of Playboy. These photographs were made public by her British ex-husband Alex Chapman.

Also in the US, herobuilders.com has created action figure Anna Chapman Spy Girl “The Predator” and “The Spy I could love”, which are sold online for $29,95. She has reportedly received an offer to pose for Playboy as well.

Is Hollywood next? Wouldn’t it be deliciously ironic to see femme fatale Anna Chapman incarnating a Russian secret agent in the next James Bond film, using all her charm to try to extract secrets from Daniel Craig. Bet Daniel won´t mind.

(If you want to read the original version of the article, The Spy Who Loved Media, including photos)

Silk Thread Martyrs

Omar Joseph Nasser-Khoury is a young Palestinian and one of the most promising young designers to recently emerge from the Arab world. He was born in Al Quds (Jerusalem) and grew up in the Occupied Territories. His work draws its inspiration from a rich tradition of Palestinian embroidery. He combines the motifs and the refined cross-stitching, typical of his homeland, with bold tailoring, to create a unique and very personal interpretation of this traditional heritage. He wants to remind young people in the Palestinian territories of this heritage, and show how it can be relevant to modern life.

Nasser-Khoury’s in 2011 exhibited a collection titled “Silk Thread Martyrs,” at London’s Mosaic Room, coinciding with London’s Fashion Week.

Farmers, fighters, social workers, martyrs and refugees are all sources of inspiration for a collection in which Nasser-Khoury also questions issues regarding gender, duty or social restraints. The permanent presence of death and mourning in daily life and the almost unbearable reality of Israeli Occupation have greatly influenced his work and are also palpable in the collection.

Nasser-Khoury produced the collection working closely with Inaash, a Lebanese non-profit organization that teaches traditional Palestinian embroidery techniques to women living in refugee camps in Lebanon. Inaash’s embroidery project benefits 450 women, teaching them skills that will help them earn a living.

The garments were made with the minimum use of machinery. Most of the embroidery, the luxurious fabrics, the colouring and the dyeing was carried out entirely by hand.

(To read original article in PDF: Silk Thread Martyrs)

About Elegance

Even if we tried really hard, we would not find too many examples of elegance in politics. And I’m not referring exclusively only physical elegance. I mean elegance of any kind. It is almost as if beauty and refinement were at odds with the exercise of public office. I once met a Spanish female politician who spent most of her time travelling around Europe. She had not been to the city center of Madrid in about 3 years, she simply hadn’t had the time, so her husband bought her clothes. You can imagine what her wardrobe looked like.

Among women, Elena Salgado, the former Spanish Minister of Economy and Finance has been a recent notable exception. Christine Lagarde, the sophisticated and stylish managing director of the International Monetary Fund is another. We have Nancy Pelosi. And then, of course, we have the incredibly elegant Queen of England.

It’s not easy to find elegance today anywhere. Back in the early days of air travel, gentlemen had to take off their hats to enter the plane, they served martinis, you had a decent meal. Of course it was not all exactly as perfect as it looks in movies, but still, today we fly packed like chickens, the person next to you might be wearing bermudas and sandals and the whole experience is frequently a nightmare. Somewhere along the way elegance went missing.

Politics today, more than ever, has become a sort of show. We watch carefully crafted speeches, we read news that in part have been scripted as well, we hear and see what they want us to hear and see. Press releases and press conferences frequently frame the debate, journalists are frequently happy copying and pasting. Politicians have learnt the art of manipulating the press and the press will repackage it, throw it at us and we will swallow it in the papers or in the evening news. The media promotes this, of course, because for them reality has to be, in a way, a show as well.

For all politicians borrow from the entertainment business, however, it seems they have not yet learnt that we love well-dressed people as well. There is something about an elegant man or woman that inspires respect and admiration. It is not scientific, but we, for some reason it seems that we tend to lend more credibility to someone who is impeccably dressed. We will more readily associate higher ideas to better-dressed people. We discriminate even if we don’t want to. We want to be seduced.

There are also not that many handsome men or beautiful women in politics. We do have the attractive and charismatic Prime Ministers of Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra, and of Denmark, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, but that’s as close as we get. Maybe Jay Leno is right when he said “politics is just show business for ugly people”.

I have written this article, Bring Back Those Elegant Men, as a reflection on physical elegance in politics.

My latest article is also about elegance, but not in politics. I absolutely loved discovering La Société des Ambianceurs et Personnes Élégantes, a subculture specific of the cities of Kinshasa and Brazzaville in Congo. I found it truly inspiring and quite relevant to any debate on elegance.

Since I’m on the issue of elegance, I would also like to draw attention to three other articles I wrote some time ago. In one of them,The Emperor’s (Funny) Clothes, I take a look an incredibly intriguing politician, Muammar Gaddafi, who was the eccentric ruthless dictator of Libya. The article is not about politics, but strictly about his unique sense of fashion. I also dedicated an article to his famous female guard, who captured the imagination of people worldwide. The article is titled Lipstick and Fatigues.

Lastly, I also wrote a piece about the young Palestinian fashion designer Omar Joseph Nasser-Khoury, one of the most interesting talents to emerge from the Arab world. He combines the motifs and the refined cross-stitching, typical of his home land, with bold tailoring, to create modern designs.