:: Article


By Christiana Spens.

Shola von Reinhold and Christiana Spens


Shola von Reinhold, LOTTE (Jacaranda Books, 2020)

Just over a year ago, I met Shola von Reinhold for the first time. I had gone to meet my friend Joe at an art exhibition somewhere on Argyll Street in Glasgow, mainly for the presumed free drinks, and he had brought along Shola as well. They greeted me with the warmest, brightest smile, a hug, and I think, a giggle. They were wearing midnight blue velvet and pearl earrings. Casually dazzling. Though we didn’t stay longer than a few minutes at the exhibition, preferring to go for tapas instead, I often think of this meeting, and all those subsequent nights out, now that we are all so stuck indoors. Shola is one of those perfectly charismatic people it seems impossible not to notice — not only notice but immediately adore — and so their work on invisibility and active erasure due to racism (both historic and contemporary) is especially prescient, intriguing, sad. Erase all this: why?

The now postponed Glasgow International, which would have just finished, was going to be focused on the theme of ‘Attention’. We were all looking forward to a series of over a hundred exhibitions in the city that would have looked at issues relating to who and what we give attention to in the art world (and the world beyond) and why. Which people have been pushed aside, rendered invisible thanks to the racist, classist, sexist, ableist decisions and attitudes of others? Who should we be paying attention to? What should we be seeing? What are we being shown instead? How can we change our own perceptions? For a project that would have been so enlightening and innovative, it seems cruel that these exhibitions have, too, been made invisible thanks to the pandemic. Shola’s book launch would have been a few weeks ago, too. As Glasgow shut down and these wonderful creative projects about making visible the long-suppressed were also, therefore, shut down, the points that they made (or in the case of the festival, almost made) were underlined, though, in this sad irony.

I was lucky to hear Shola read their work (not LOTE but another story, a winner of the Desperate Literature competition 2019) at the Edinburgh Festival last summer, and caught a glimpse of what a book launch of their new book might be like. Wearing a lace veil draped over a velvet suit, navy heeled patent boots and again, the warmest of smiles, they stood in front of a mostly white audience and told a story that was both decadent and moving. Decadent in the sense that its narrator sought pleasure in life — a life philosophy, it turns out, can be quite radical in its own right — and moving because, in subtle, beautiful prose, we gleaned an immediate insight into the nuanced difficulties of having to navigate an overwhelmingly heterosexual, patriarchal, fetishizing white world as a queer, black person. I was moved to laughter as well, though: every other sentence in Shola’s writing is peppered with witty affronts to this absurd situation, these absurd people.

In LOTE, published by Jacaranda as part of their #Twentyin2020 initiative to publish twenty books by black British writers this year, this incisive, pointed, dazzling project continues.

Following Mathilda as she cuts her own path through a typically racist, classist, sexist art world to find out more about her own erased cultural heritage — the queer, black and female artists and writers who were ‘forgotten’ — we are brought not only onto an intellectual journey, but into a way of being. From the very first sentence, we are captivated — as we find out Mathilda has been transfixed by the cultural figures that the rest of the world forgot — and brought into a world that allows, in its fantastical and decadent ideas, descriptions and ways of seeing, a state of mind where escape from those crushing social structures is genuinely possible. In art exhibitions lately, there has been a lot of talk about ‘the immersive’ artwork — a show in which viewers are made to feel as if they are somewhere else, effectively — which is, in a way, the defining feature of a novel. In LOTE, more than in any novel I have read lately, this idea of immersion, or rather, of escape, seems to be true and also, as an idea, interrogated. How can we escape the social structures and attitudes that trap us? How can we relate to other individuals who are also escaping these structures, in their own ways? Do we have to leave each other to be free?

There is so much to think and feel, as we follow Mathilda from an unpaid role in a national archive (where she steals ignored photographs of ignored black artists and writers from the 1920s), to an acerbically described pseudo-communist cult somewhere in central Europe, as she investigates the black modernist Hermia Druitt, who had moved in the same circles as the Bright Young People (whom she adores). She both pursues a life of pleasure and escape, on one level (via secret societies and substances), and the methodical reinstatement of this obscured black artist. These two pursuits are, it turns out, entwined: how can there really be a life of pleasure and freedom when so much of who Mathilda is has been erased? Can she ever be happy or free if her identity is contested, incomplete, colonized? The pursuit of happiness requires the freedom to know and reinvent herself and those who came before. That is a radical pursuit, for Mathilda. The aesthetic life, when the forms of beauty and history pursued are ‘unconventional’, so-called — when blackness is beautiful, when black artists are visible — is sadly still a radical proposition.

Mathilda is a brave, heroic radical, then. She reveals the mind-numbing absurdities of the people she encounters, and the absolute necessity to pursue and preserve the ‘decadent’ life, consequentially. Stealing champagne becomes an actual necessity. This philosophy is woven into every line of the 450-page book; to read LOTE is to see the world differently, intoxicated by promise and humour. I am not one to underline things in books, usually, but I found myself marking out favourite sentences: “Rain fizzed white on the ledge like soda water,” for instance, as Mathilda looks out of the window. Later, when she notices a picture of Hermia Druitt in an old photograph:

All three posed in a befittingly exaggerated Mannerist style, as if each occupied the panel of a triptych. The two on either side flaunted heraldic robes, whilst the central woman wore emblazoned pieces of armour over a fine mesh of chainmail. She had on a coronet, around which her hair was brushed into a commanding nimbus.

Beyond photographs taken for colonial documentation, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen a photograph of a Black woman, or man, from this era, with hair this texture, that hadn’t been ironed or lye-straightened. Certainly never in such a setting. An excruciation of coil and kink, for it made me ache with jealousy and bliss. In a chain-mailed hand she clutched a champagne coupe like a holy grail. The other palm was angled just a bit away from the lens, fingers arranged in an obscure saintly message, but at the same time holding a cigarette.

Von Reinhold presents a vision of the world that asserts the queer and black aesthetic codes at the heart of movements that have long been assimilated into white, heterosexual worlds, their origins and influences obscured. The Bright Young People were not only white, and the ideas of decadence, freedom, hilarity that they are famous for do not exclusively belong to them either. Von Reinhold, via Mathilda, frees them. By imagining, they manifest them; by reading, we do, too.

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of reading LOTE is realizing how absurd it is that anyone should have to fantasize about knowing more about their own cultural heritage. That seeing and being seen remains such a privilege. Those who have been obscured and continue to be obscured should be seen. They are there, have always been there, but as a society we are still blind. LOTE gives us sight, but more than that, it creates a thorough, methodical blueprint for learning to think, feel and see differently, not only for a fairer world but for a freer, more beautiful one.

What was beyond doubt by the time I got back was that a new Transfixion had arrived in the form of Hermia Druitt, the woman in this photograph. This was confirmed by the sensations: flashes from Arcadia. Moonlight, of a kind, sighed up and down the tube of my spine, but above all, that indescribable note which accompanied all my Transfixions was present: humming beneath the high fine rush — probably not dissimilar to holy rapture — was an almost violent familiarity. The feeling of not only recognising, but of having been recognised.

I remembered, as a Philosophy student, reading about Hegel’s theory of recognition. When we truly recognize another person, we have obligations to treat them a certain way, as a free and equal person. If someone is not ‘recognised’ — if through racism or sexism or homophobia they are not recognized, or seen — then they are condemned to psychological dissonance, a sense of incompleteness. To not recognize, particularly on a widespread social scale, is to harm, to dehumanize. Recognition, according to Taylor (1992) is a “vital human need”. To ignore, however passively or accidentally, is to deprive.

While Von Reinhold reveals all of this, and with a marked subtlety and humour, they also show the underlying existential crisis that is the consequence of living with the legacy of racism and its obscuring of cultural heritage. Is it possible to keep escaping, to go from one transfixion, one project, to another? Is it possible to live in a dream? Why must recognition — a vital human need — ultimately be a dream, a figment of the imagination? Can the vision manifest beyond the book?

Von Reinhold asks these questions of us, but also, in a way, reclaims some sense of invisibility, of being hidden; being obscure becomes, for a moment, a form of exclusivity rather than mere abandonment. It is something desirable. This novel, about desiring these things, is joyful and winning, despite the world it is situated in. Our perceptions create our reality, and so in a subtle way Shola has changed everything. I read LOTE and was transfixed. I felt the “the high fine rush… the violent familiarity,” as they put it — the feeling of recognizing and being recognized — but also the sense of a world opening up, which is new to me. Things I have not seen before. And that, especially when stuck indoors all day and night with lockdown, seems not only a radical act but an altruistic, kind one, too. We all lose out when we do not see what should be celebrated and adored; I feel lucky to have known this book and the world it contains. 

Dr. Christiana Spens is a writer, artist and academic based in Glasgow. She is the author of several books, most recently The Portrayal and Punishment of Terrorists in Western Media (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and Shooting Hipsters (Repeater, 2016). She writes regularly for Studio International, Art Quarterly, Prospect and others.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 20th, 2020.