BOOKS 

Soho Reads

Khanif Koreishi - Suburban Buddha


LAAF Reads

LAAF Reads its Uncle

Uncle like in the brother of my father. More on Mahmoud Saeed and The World Through the Eyes of Angels and his other books coming soon.

This particular copy of the book was bought at Blackwell's, Oxford, where they had two more titles of Mahmoud Saeed.


Review coming soon


My Surreal Twin

Nadia Choucha

I met Nadia Choucha for the first time at the launch of the second edition of her book Surrealism & the Occult at the Autumn Equinox, 31st of October 2018, held at the Freud Museum.

Choucha is a striking looking woman, with extremely unusual and attractive features. These are combined with an intense presence and commanding glance. She is the most magician-like looking wo/man (short for woman and/or a man; in other words a human being) I've ever seen, bearing in mind that I have been to all sorts of magician, wiccan, mysticists gatherings, local and international.

Else to say I've seen plenty of people who have the ambition to belong to themselves whilst influencing the world (influence, not influenced). But it is Choucha who looks like she is actually doing it.

There is nothing quotidian or common about Choucha. Nothing in her looks similar to anything I have seen elsewhere. Her hairdo doesn't fit in any category, nor her clothes, despite being black. Nothing in her speaks of any category or social stereotype. Yet she is not weird or scary. She is somehow homely-alien and very natural.

Choucha's command of language is equally extraordinary. At all times she speaks as though she is reading a previously written, well researched, meticulously elaborated, finely edited script. It's as if she has had a video preview of our encounter, made notes of my questions and worked laboriously on her answers. She speaks smoothly, with great erudition, with no hesitation and with all the possible punctuation that exist in English. When you read Choucha's answers in the interview (see Books subpage), please try to imagine and believe that this is exactly how she speaks.

For our second encounter Choucha chose Mirth, Marvel and Maud, Walthamstow, presuming that on a week-day afternoon the spacious pub would be empty and quiet. What we actually found was a DJ playing dance music to a crowd of crawling toddlers and a sea of screaming mothers. Hence, the interview couldn't be recorded. "How very surreal", said I and spent two careless hours in Choucha's lovely company leaving to her all the work on writing down the answers of my questions once back in Scotland.

This second meeting left me with the vivid impression that "Nadia Choucha and I, we are surreal twins; so similar, that we have nothing in common".

And here are some of the markers of that Similar/Nothing in Common Surreal Twinhood:

- Both our fathers are Iraqi / Hers Assyrian Chaldean Christian; mine Arab Sunni Muslim. (To be honest the fact that her father was Iraqi cought me completely unprepared, as neither her name, nor her looks hinted such a possibility to me. Having in mind that a) I am not alienated from the Arab community in general, and the Iraqi community in particular b) I have worked and am still working with different minority groups within the Arab community in general, and the Iraqi community in particular. As I told you, there is nothing common about Choucha).

- Both our mothers are "not-exactly European"/ Hers Scottish; mine Bulgarian (never mind that for the time being both countries are EU members). Geographically viewed: Her mother is from the extreme North-West; mine from the nearly extreme South-East (with Greece being the proper "extreme").

- Both our mothers were "high-fliers"/ Hers working in the UN; mine in cancer research

- Her surname is Choucha/ My parents used to call me Chouche or Choucho, until I had a child. Once I had my son they started calling me by my name, while calling my son Chanchoun. (I forgot to ask Choucha what her surname means. Most Middle Eastern names have a meaning. As for Chouche, Choucho or Chanchun, I have no idea either).

- We both grew up with books, as both our grandfathers were booksellers/ (There must be an antithesis to this point too. I'll have to ask her)

- We both had teenage rebellion/ Hers - breaking with religious upbringing and education by going into art, magic and drug experimentation. Mine by breaking with a secular upbringing and the Islamist school, situated in a communist country, I was attending (the sole option to learn Arabic at the time) and by auto-initiating my baptism into Eastern European Orthodoxy at the age of fourteen. With the whole affair being kept secret from my parents, and with my thirteen years old friend posing as a God-Mother.

 

I told you : Similar to the point of nothing in common.

 

The two hours spent in the light of Choucha's presence, and specially the perfection of her verbal expression, left me rather distraught: "Iva", I told myself, "You need at least 20 more years reading English before writing another word!"

After realizing how traumatizing the idea of 20 years non-writing is I pitied myself "Ok, at least a year".

But as we all well know, good intentions don’t last long and the usual bad habits take over.

And here I am, pass the Winter Solstice, already writing.

 

27 December 2018

"Surreal and Occult Arts in the Time of Austerity" an interview with Nadia Choucha author of Surrealism & the Occult

LAAF : Which was the first for you art or the occult?

Nadia Choucha: Books! My introduction to both art and the occult came through books so it was at the same time.

I grew up in a family of booksellers – my grandfather, mother and aunt were all booksellers – so I became curious and spent a lot of my childhood and adolescence reading widely which helps develop the imagination. My Scottish mother introduced me to traditional fairy tales as well as the classics of British children’s literature which feature magical and mythical themes, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass or C.S. Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ series of books (which were also illustrated). Later, I discovered that Lewis Carroll and his fiction was amongst the many inspirations for the surrealists.

At the same time, I was raised in the Chaldean faith, which is the eastern branch of the Roman Catholic church, and regularly attended mass and communion which is ritualistic and sensual, with images, fragrant incense and music to raise the conscious mind towards a higher spiritual realm. My grandmother’s house was also full of replicas of religious paintings. The Catholic attitude towards religious images is that they are there to help you connect with the spiritual realm beyond the material world – they are not just for decoration, or to quickly glance at and forget. You must ‘activate’ the image by your attention, focus and love and thus your understanding will gradually deepen over time.

As a result of my upbringing, the connection between images, magic and spirituality seemed obvious and natural. When I was 12 years old, I came across a book about the surrealist artist René Magritte, and I immediately felt a sense of recognition and connection to the art, because it represented something mysterious and magical, even though I couldn’t put it into words. It is no coincidence that the greatest surrealist artists come from Roman Catholic countries and regions such as France, Spain and southern Germany, because they shared this Catholic attitude towards the spiritual potency of images and also had something to fight against in order to produce their own form of art.

I had rejected Roman Catholicism in my teens so began to explore alternative spiritual traditions and that resulted in me reading about the occult tradition. I also became interested in surrealism which used blasphemy and taboo against the Roman Catholic church as they had grown up in that tradition and as I learnt more about the surrealists, began to see connections between their ideas and some of the occult ideas I had been exploring.

René Magritte, L'Aube a Cayenne

René Magritte, The Subjugated Reader

Laaf: What is the story of your book Surrealism & the Occult?

NC: My first ambition was to become an artist so when I left school, I went to art college. However, I felt bored and impatient because I was not interested in the type of art being taught which was quite traditional, based upon observation and realism (such as life drawing and landscape painting) and the tutors expected you to follow their style and tradition. I wanted an intellectual challenge so I decided to change to studying History of Art at university, where I was finally able to explore the ideas and art of the surrealists in great depth, which I found inspiring and exciting.

 

My final year dissertation was called ‘Surrealism and Magic’ which became the foundation of the research for my book, Surrealism and the Occult, which I began writing after I graduated. I chose this subject because I could detect many magical and occult ideas in surrealism yet there seemed to be very little written about it at the time.

 

I had the impression that my tutor was not keen on my choice of dissertation topic because I was focusing on magic and occult theories. These theories were not considered to be a suitable subject for university study because they were considered to be ‘irrational’ and outside the academy. This was before the serious study of esotericism and occultism ideas in academia, which did not begin until about the late 1990s with departments and courses being established at the universities of Paris, Amsterdam and Exeter. I had an unorthodox approach because I wished to see the world through surrealist eyes rather than be an ‘objective detached observer’ which is the traditional academic approach. I immersed myself in surrealist practices and attitudes to have access to their worldview. For example, I travelled to Paris and visited surrealist locations, wandered around flea markets like they did and read the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud who had inspired them. I wanted to discover the ‘marvellous’, as defined by the surrealists.

 

After I graduated in 1989, I sent a copy of my dissertation to Mandrake of Oxford, which was then a small occult publisher with just a few books on their list, and they told me if I could continue with further research and expand the dissertation into a full length book, they would publish it. Mandrake put me in contact with Gavin Semple, the Austin Osman Spare researcher and writer, while I was investigating Spare and the surrealists’ approach to automatism to compare their methods. Semple then introduced me to Kenneth Grant, the occultist and executor of the Spare estate and we corresponded for a few months. He provided me with information on the British surrealist Ithell Colquhoun who had joined his New Isis Lodge in the 1950s and also about Frieda Harris, who had designed a tarot pack with Aleister Crowley in the 1940s. So my book began from a foundation of academic research and then there was input from discussions with contemporary occultists. I wanted to understand the occult worldview, which is what made the book so unorthodox to the art history profession. I think the book was original because it took an academic approach but also examines the subject from the occult perspective.

 

The book was well received in the occult community and it was published in an American edition by the occult publisher Inner Traditions in 1992, and then translated into Czech in 1994 by a publisher called Volvox Globator in Prague. However, there was little response from the academic or art community. I applied to study for a PhD in surrealism and was accepted but did not receive funding. I was also unsure of whether I wanted to pursue a career in academia for various reasons. I then drifted away from surrealism and returned to making my own art before developing a career as a book editor. In the last few years, there has been a renewal of interest in both occultism and surrealism which led to a new edition of my book coming out in 2016. I have also given several talks on the subject in galleries, museums and bookshops, whereas in the early 1990s, it was only to occult groups and societies. Now there are people from diverse backgrounds who are taking an interest in the subject, not just occultists – for example, artists, scholars, psychotherapists, writers, musicians. People seem to be more receptive to these ideas at this moment, which is a time of political turmoil and rising fascism, comparable to the 1930s when surrealism was developing and expanding.

Austin Osman Spare, Aida

Austin Osman Spare, Elemental Materialisation

Do you practice art, divination or magic?

NC : I have practised both art and magic at various times in my life. As I mentioned above, my original ambition was to become an artist but I got bored with traditional art. By the late 1990s I returned to art by experimenting with film, video and photography, creating installations with video projections and mirrors. This allowed me to play with the representation of space and time as I was exploring issues around identity, memory and metaphor. I did not fit in with the current trends of the art world at that time (which was all about ‘Brit Art’ such as Damien Hirst) and I also needed to earn a living so I abandoned art again, to work in publishing as a book editor.

 

As for magic, I have always been interested in exploring different states of consciousness and have tried meditation, lucid dreaming, and also experimented with a variety of drugs to attain altered states of consciousness and perception. I found magic mushrooms (psilocybin) induced states of mind which I can only describe as magical – the mind seems to merge with the environment and external events seem to reflect a pattern of signs and coincidences. I attended a pagan magic mushroom festival after finishing university and I met a stranger there by chance who introduced me to Mandrake of Oxford, leading to my book being published.

 

While I was doing research for my book, I experimented with what the surrealists called ‘objective chance’. This is about encouraging chance events and encounters by maintaining an open attitude and interpreting events and signs to create internal, magical narratives. I experienced numerous coincidences and chance encounters as a result of this and it reveals a fundamental principle of magic – that which the mind focuses on will eventually manifest in the real world. I believe magic can cause transformation both objectively and subjectively – it can influence events in the external world and it can also dramatically change the perception of something so it can acquire a new aspect. The unconscious is like a field of potential and if you can access it, can result in change. The surrealists attempted both objective and subjective transformation by encouraging chance, or by representing estrangement, which is to transform the perception of something which is familiar. They revealed that magic operates on the threshold of categories, the objective and the subjective.

 

I have experimented with magical techniques and practices over the years, for example, making sigils, Wiccan rituals, ayahuasca ceremonies and so on. However, I have never formally joined any occult order or group – when I first moved to London in 1990, all the magicians I met were involved with Golden Dawn Thelema groups or Kenneth Grant’s Typhonian OTO. I found the rituals involving robes, incense and so on appeared too religious and traditionalist and reminded me of the Catholic mass, as well as the fact that it all seemed to be dominated by white, English males so there was little diversity. I find chaos magick interesting, which is a postmodernist, contemporary approach to magic and divination, where different techniques and systems are used but without an allegiance to one single system. I also think computing and technology has a place in contemporary magic and divination and can reveal aspects of the mind as they can be used as tools for altering perception. I value my independence of thought and I am a naturally solitary person so I do not feel the need to join any particular group, even though I have friends who are magicians or witches and value their perspective.

Steffi Grant

Steffi Grant

Man Rey, Monument à D.A.F. de Sade

Your personal Holly/Unholly Trinity?

NC: My personal unholy trinity would be the same as for the surrealists – the church, the state and the family. These are the forces of conservatism and repression and they exist to maintain patriarchal authority and social control. The surrealist movement began partly as a response and protest against militarism and fascism and it rejected those repressive institutions and their values. So for me personally, that would be the Roman Catholic church whose conservative, patriarchal values I rejected, Britain which is a decaying, post-imperialist, corrupt state, and I have not had a family as I refused to compromise my freedom.

 

Peret Insulting a Priest

NC: For my personal holy trinity of art, they would all need to be surrealists but this is a difficult question to select only three. I would include Max Ernst, because he is one of the great intellects and pioneers of the surrealist movement. He produced a phenomenal body of work based upon his own personal mythology which he built from psychoanalytical theory, alchemical and magical techniques and symbolism. I would also choose Leonora Carrington because she fought against her family and her social class to escape (at a time when it was very difficult for women to be independent) to become a highly original artist and writer. And for my third choice, Pierre Molinier, a lesser known surrealist whose work I have become increasingly interested in lately for its transgressive qualities and who deals with sexual taboos.

Max Ernest, Men Shall Know Nothing of This'

Leonora Carrington, Untitled

Pierre Molinier, DantéBéa

NC: With regard to three personalities from magic, I would choose Ithell Colquhoun, another British surrealist who I consider to be a magician first who used art as part of her practice. I think she was a brave, pioneering and freethinking woman. I admire the work of the filmmaker Kenneth Anger, who took a modern approach to magic and applied Crowleyan ideas to cinema to create something new and original. And finally, the third magician would have to be Austin Osman Spare, who was able to blend magic and art to create a stunning body of work which was far ahead of his time. I would say all these figures have in common is that they took occult ideas and reinterpreted them to make them contemporary. This is important, otherwise, occultism simply becomes embedded in tradition and becomes empty and conservative.

Ithell Colquhoun, Self-portrait

Kenneth Anger by Bobby Beausoleil

Austin Osman Spare, Self-portrait

At your talk at the lauch of the second edition of Surrealism & the Occult (Freud Museum, 31 October 2018,) you said that the more oppressive the political climate became prior World War 2, the more overtly the Surrealists moved towards occultism, could you expand on that?

The Magician, Dali Tarot Deck

NC: James Webb’s books The Occult Underground and The Occult Establishment influenced how I perceived the concept of the ‘occult’. Webb described mystical and occult thought as ‘rejected knowledge’.

He described how artists and writers in the 19th century sought out this rejected knowledge as a means of political protest and rejection of the Establishment.

I believe the surrealist approach to the occult can be seen in this framework, as they consciously sought out the ideas which society had rejected as a means of criticising society.

When the surrealist movement began in the 1920s, they adopted a Marxist political stance and became aligned with the French communist party. So their use of occult material and techniques was to produce art and writing which had a revolutionary goal and to criticise the rationalism of the establishment (the state, the church, the family). However, the communist party became suspicious of the surrealists’ motivations and tensions increased.

By the 1930s, Stalinism had made communism appear authoritarian and repressive, leading to many surrealists abandoning communism and turning gradually more towards myth, then magic which offered a freedom of the spirit.

When World War 2 began and the fascist Vichy regime came to power in France, many surrealists were exiled to America. Because of this social dislocation they were unable, as refugees, outsiders and immigrants, to become politically active in their host society so they turned inwards to seek alternative means of expression. During war and social upheaval, expression of political opinions and political activism becomes dangerous. So the occult, with its hidden symbolism and its means of encoding secret systems of thought, became stronger and more pronounced in the surrealist movement, culminating in the 1947 exhibition in Paris which featured overtly esoteric themes about initiation and the occult symbolism of the tarot.

Could we say that "the political climate in 2018 is more oppressive" than in 1991, so that the notion of occultism is now more acceptable on the background of "mass disillusionment" (Brexit, Trump, Putin, Climate Change etc); similarly to what have happened after WW1 and prior WW2 and provoked the creation of the Dada and Surrealist movement as you finely describe in your book? If not this then what, in your opinion, are the factors that have expanded the borders of culture, so that it might include "the occult" in its borders, be it on the periphery?

NC: I believe James Webb was correct, that occult ideas emerge during periods of rapid political and social change.

This is evident if we look at, for example, the period following the French Revolution when the institutions of the French state collapsed and this led to an occult revival in France during the 19th century, which provided inspiration for the surrealists decades later. People become interested in occult ideas when there is uncertainty and flux as they offer a means of navigating the unknown.

At this moment in time, we are living through a period of enormous political, economic and social change due to climate change, globalisation, the fascism of Trump and Brexit, so we can see the renewed interest in both the occult and surrealism within this context. When the future is uncertain and it feels as if we are at the mercy of unknown forces, the occult, which deals with the unknown through symbols and images, and enhances intuition and interpretation of signs, can seem a valid response to chaos.

 Are you writing a new book now? Future plans?

I have been overwhelmed with interest in my book in the past couple of years and it seems to have reached a wide, international readership so I have decided to return to surrealism and am currently researching a book about the surrealist tarot.

Many surrealists designed their own tarot packs and there was also the collective pack of cards, the Jeu de Marseille, which a number of them designed while waiting to escape into exile during World War 2.

The tarot is an interesting topic because it is tied in with the surrealist view of chance and opens up interesting concepts around fate and divination, yet nobody has written a book about this. I am also considering another book on surrealism and its relation to magic and occult theories – in the past decades there has been a lot of new research and new publications but there is still more work to be done on the relationship between surrealism and occultism. I also recently returned to Scotland after almost three decades in London and have become interested in local occult traditions.

I recently submitted an article on the occult-influenced Scottish film director, Donald Cammell, for publication and hope to do more research in the future on 20th century occultism in Scotland at a later stage.


ДРОМОМАХIA

Book by Robert Levi.

Will be launched at Book Cafe London, Walthamstow

5 pm

Sumday, 9 December 2018

 

An invented word serving as a title, Dromomaxia sounds to me like the name of a disease derived from ancient Greek where "dromo" means "road" and "maxia" describes the megali obsession with travelling. A difficult disease of which LAAF is a chronic sufferer. For the author and dromomaxia's blacksmith Robert Levi though it means "Struggle with the road".

Is it the contemporary, Bulgarian version of Kerouac's On the Road?

Those who master Bulgarian will read and see.

The launch is ran in Bulgarian language too.

A review of this this book should be ready at some point between January and February 2019 - in Bulgarian language


Occult Politics in a Time of Chaos

A revue of this event that took place on Tue sday, 4 Dec 2018 at  The October Gallery is coming soon.


An interview with the author Nadia Choucha is comimg soon

I wait. You wait. We all wait.

The long awaited interview with Nadia Choucha, author of Surrealism & the Occult will be available by mid December 2018