Some years ago a curious thing happened to our family and to some other families within our community. I was reminded of this just yesterday whilst looking at some photographs.
Cynthia taught our sons the piano, she taught a good deal of children in and around the village, she didn’t live in our village, she lived in a slightly larger village just a few miles from where we still live. Our youngest son displayed all the characteristic signs of the recalcitrant boy who couldn’t find any enthusiasm to practice on our piano, he gave in, but went on the learn the guitar and form his own band, writing and recording music (well at least to his and his generation’s ears). Our eldest son though stuck with it. He didn’t manage to pass grade one, but retook it and then, seemingly, sailed through grades two through five. He practiced, he enjoyed it, we all knew he was never going to be a concert pianist, but he and we got a lot out of it.
Then one day a new family came to the village, from Yorkshire I think, certainly from a long way away. They checked around for a piano teacher as their daughter had been successful at various grades and wanted to continue. They happened on Cynthia, who, as she did with all students to her music school, welcomed their daughter with typically open arms.
It was soon after the next set of exams that things changed, we had a message from the new people that they didn’t think something was right, that things weren’t all they should be about the way in which the exam had been set up. How, normally their daughter normally sat her exams in a place set up for it and they seemed concerned about the certificate that showed their daughter had passed the exam.
Cynthia you see, invited the examiner to her house, she had done so for years, in fact about the same time as our son had failed his grade one. Cynthia felt, as she explained to us, that the homely environment would be more conducive to the children sitting the exam, they wouldn’t feel so nervous, they would know the piano and they would know that Cynthia was in the next room should anything go drastically wrong. But nothing ever seemed to. Cynthia seemed able to get the same examiner each time and that would also help the children to relax and perform to their best abilities.
But the newcomers were insistent, despite a little nervousness regarding upsetting an established village custom, they convinced me to try and organize a meeting of the parents of the children that went to Cynthia. The meeting was well attended and the newcomers, haltingly at first, started to describe their concerns. About the use of a house and not a building set up for the purpose of music exams. About how the certificates were delivered and most curiously about how the certificates were drawn up.
The temperament of the meeting turned from a tolerant listening to these newcomers, to one of wonderment and then puzzlement. Yes, there was something wrong with all of that. How could it be that there was something wrong about the way Cynthia had taught our children to ply the piano, after all they could all play, but we started to look at the certificates, and then the dawn started to rise. We saw that these documents had obvious flaws, that the compiler of the certificate had made basic spelling and contextual errors and had used typex to correct them and wasn’t that letraset? Sometimes not even correcting some of those very basic mistakes, dates were wrong amongst other blindingly crass errors. The collected parents all started to look at previous as well as current certificates, realizing that not only had the certificates been concocted probably by Cynthia, but that we, as parents, hadn’t noticed anything wrong. That these certificates were valueless, that the Cynthia Garvey piano school was a sham.
I agreed to go and see Cynthia, but by the time I had met with her the news had broke. BBC Oxford had the story and it even made the Daily Telegraph – it must surely have been a slow news day. She was repentant, the school stopped operating, she moved away leaving her son (who had been the forger of certificates) to live with the aftermath. The children either gave up the piano, or like our son retook their grades with a bona fide teacher – he passed grade five again and then, because it was all going to get serious gave up.
This curious episode came to mind when I looked at Cristina De Middel’s “The Afronauts” at the Deutsche Borse Photographic Prize 2013 down-selections at the Photographers’ Gallery, and it didn’t make me feel any better that I had found a link to my past. I also wondered about the emails (previously faxes) , that I seem not to get anymore, whereby a Nigerian or some (supposedly) other sub-Saharan countryman would try to con me by saying they had millions to give me if only I would give them my bank details. That the supposedly sub-Saharan emailers were actually Russian (apparently) or some other gangster organization in country a long way from the dark continent, matters to me now only in the context of the installation on the fifth floor in Ramillies Street, W1.
It is with a sense of amusement now, that our family look back on that event with Cynthia, after all our eldest son learnt to play the piano, he can still turn his hand to some tunes nearly a quarter of a century later.
My ruminations on the past came to the fore after reading the letter from “Dr. Kabunda Kayongo Ministry of Technology. Which was addressed to “The Director Ministry of Technology” Middel’s ‘humorous’ part invention regarding Zambia’ failed moon shot program(me)! The ruinous grammar, the riotous typing invites the reader to pour not a little derision on both the text – when deciphered – and the idiocy of the project therein described.
I wonder about a few things when confronted by this body of work. I wonder why Middel chose Zambia to be the butt of her joke, why not Portugal, after all the Spanish have been using Portugal as butt for all their ‘stupid neighbor’ jokes for centuries, much like the English do with the Irish, or the Swedes with the Norwegians or the Sjaellanders to the Jutlanders, the red rose to the white roses. Would Portugal have been a better choice? Perhaps to nuance a re-flamed interest in the conquest of a new Other world, another Magellan setting forth across the uncharted domains of mid twentieth century space? Perhaps the Portuguese weren’t stupid enough. Perhaps they were too like Middel, not Other enough. Ridicule is a poor form of wit, and this is what I felt about this work, sure it has the surprise of originality, the originality similar to that of the Jackass generation. Africa doesn’t need this type of attention. Afronauts! What part of this story is told in a positive vein? We are invited to laugh at the subjects, the impossibility of their quest, that it isn’t or was never real is beside the point. That she states in her interview with Sean O’Hagan that the model she was looking for needed to be ‘African’ seems to sum up so much – not Zambian? Not Ethiopian? Not Egyptian? Not Afrikaans? African – apparently our perception of ‘African’ is of a big black man looking at us with attitude! And the biggest job on the project? Spending two days on changing a street light bowl into a helmet! Here’s the video of all the finalists with O’Hagan where she seems somewhat boastful that the Nigerian Space Programme have subsequently been in contact. And that she has shown her work in South Africa – though she doesn’t say which work or when or where.
Cynthia, might have misled her charges, but she never ridiculed them, never set them up, never laughed at them. Middel, thanks perhaps to the throng following Parr’s speculative punt at Arles last year, is surely laughing now, with the prospect of another £30,000 added to the cache of a ‘rare-book’, a re-invented conceptual artist, author, perhaps now considering which key to set the opera “Zambia in Space” in – or perhaps that should be “Africa in Space”. Well she can’t ask Cynthia, she’s passed on.
Whether there is a scintilla of substance in the ‘back-story’ concerns me very little, after all there are a million pipe dreams in the world that come to nothing, as there are dreams that were never intended to come to anything. This work though now is a beacon that, if ever there were a need to focus attention on, attracts the viewer firstly to a “warmly structured and humorous” body of work that has every possibility of confirming many prejudices that are institutionalised in western society.