Excerpt from LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

LOTE is a literary novel which follows present-day narrator Mathilda’s fixation with the forgotten black Scottish modernist poet, Hermia Drumm. Lush and frothy, incisive and witty, Shola von Reinhold’s decadent queer literary debut immerses readers in the pursuit of aesthetics and beauty, while interrogating the removal and obscurement of Black figures from history…”

You can purchase LOTE from the publisher here.


An Excerpt from LOTE

This section takes place halfway through the novel. Mathilda has come to an unspecified European town known as Dun having applied to a residency purely for the stipend. When she arrives however, she is unable to tell whether it is a theoretical artist’s residency or a corporate business retreat. In the town she meets Erskine-Lily who like her is obsessed with an interwar modernist cult known as LOTE. Members of LOTE believed that the mythological Lotus Eaters were in fact a very real mostly queer proto-communist society located in West Africa and organised around pleasure, luxury and the decorative arts. The founding members of LOTE were the writer and artist (and professional beauty) Stephen Tennant; Hermia Druitt, an obscure Black Scottish modernist poet; Richard Bruce Nugent the Harlem Renaissance writer and aesthete, and the poet, publisher and activist Nancy Cunard.

I demanded Erskine-Lily take me on a tour of Dun, something I’d never properly been given.

At night we swanned all about the town, which had become more palatial, more of a pleasure-ground than ever, amplified by Erskine-Lily’s painting of it as much as my own will to envisage it as such – he seemed to be an astute historian of the place and rendered a context so thrilling I wondered if he was making it all up. This was hard to tell since it was as much a folkloric history as any other. In his company, the town, already a place of alternately consoling and faintly distressing beauty, became an extension of his flat, which was in turn an extension of his attire, physical person, persona.

We visited the square with the grey obelisk.

“This obelisk is where the two so-called angels are said to have been chastised. The town is unnamed in the story, but it says in The Book of the Luxuries that the citizens sealed two winged beings within a pillar. Hermia, Stephen and the other Lote-Os believed this was the very pillar and town. What certainly is true is that the book dates to around the early sixteenth-century and it’s not unlikely a small number of people read and practiced its teachings, as was the case with numerous other contemporaneous mystical treatises. And, as you’ve gathered, Hermia and Stephen sought to re-establish this practice in their own way. There’s a sort of allegory in the book – have you managed to read any of it?”

I told him I didn’t even know there was a translation.

“There isn’t. I managed to get some bits translated. The person doing it lost interest. Then I hired an academic but I could only afford so many pages, including a sort-of-allegory, it’s extremely charming.

“It follows a section on the nature of the Luxuries: Where we consider angels to be spiritual messengers, we might well think of the Luxuries as sensory ones, communicating with the aesthetic aspects of the soul. They are described as having skin like black marble and parti-coloured wings that far outstrip any peacock. They wear immensely gaudy-sounding robes (not unappealing) and outrageous jewel- encrusted slippers (tremendously appealing).

“The book also says these same Luxuries once came to the Lotophagi – the Lotus Eaters – and revealed the lotus fruit to them, showed them how to make wines from it and how to weave and carve innumerable delicacies from its other parts. Ornaments, jewellery, marquetry and so on.

“When the Lotus Eaters beheld the Luxuries, whose mouths were something like ruby, they also stained their nails and cheeks and lips that colour with the juices of the lotus fruit and flower. (Varnish, rouge and lipstick, Mathilda!)

“Of course, everyone knows the Lotus Eaters from Homer. The Book gives another account, saying when dull Odysseus looked upon all this he was horrified. He could not distinguish man from woman. They insulted his sense of goodness, this effeminate people who loved nothing more than to dine upon the lotus and decorate endlessly. To lose themselves in the holy act of adornment, which The Book calls volution.

“The volute, you see, is divine: the sinuous line, the serpentine line, the corolla, the curl, the twist, the whorl, the spiral and so on, are all related in their volution, convolution, revolution. Volution is the essential and irreducible aspect of ornamentation, just as the phoneme is the smallest irreducible unit of sound in language. Locked into each coil, each curl of ornament, just like the coil and curl of your hair, and my hair, darling— Afro hair, as we call it—is the secret salvation of us all.”

He had coloured said hair with a fine nacreous substance.

“We are, you know, fundamentally ornamental creatures. Especially the likes of us. And the Lotus Eaters were the arch-decorators of myth. But even the Greeks must at one point have realised the importance of ornament. They called the universe “kosmos”, meaning decoration, surface, ornament: something cosmetic. Like make- up. Like lipstick! Like rouge. The cosmos is fundamentally blusher. But then the Greeks probably got the idea from somewhere else. They could never stick to it. Which ruined ornament for everyone. Which ruined ornament for everyone. Plato was quite the basher of ornamentalists. He had it in for what he called philotheamones – sight- lovers, spectacle-lovers. Framed them as veritable trash next to his kingly philosophers who loved the true beauty of ideas, not the decorative beauty of the world. Long after the Greek’s seriously puerile demotion of the ornamental, the Romans, Kant, Winckelmann, Hegel and all the rest damned it for being cosmetic. “Inessential ornament”, they called it. Quite hilarious really: if you ever need evidence of someone’s brutishness, it’s deeming ornament inessential!

“They humiliated our ancestors for adorning themselves in flowers and beads and gold and tattoos and braids and jewels; they’re still at it. The universe as decoration, of course, comes from Black people, and the idea survives even after the ransacking and incineration of our libraries and palaces – the same very precise fractal geometry, unknown to Europeans for centuries, can be found underpinning ancient forms of adornment like millennia-old Black hairstyles, but also in the architectural organisation of whole kingdoms, most famously the medieval Benin city and palace.”

“Oh but the allegory! – The Book of the Luxuries says that the Greeks wiped out the people they called the Lotus Eaters and tells us that Herodotus situated them in North Africa. Others West.

“The Luxuries are the primordial lotus-eater. Indeed, they were thought to have disappeared with the Lotophagi until they reappeared one day in a town in order to bequeath The Book of the Luxuries. But they were mistaken for wicked spirits, for demonic tempters, and sealed inside a pillar.

“There was a woman known to visit this pillar, having observed the punishment of the Beings from her rooftop. She returned nightly, whispering to the interior spirits.

“On her rooftop one morning she noted a strange flower, growing from a crevice, something like a lily – or a lotus – but as hard as shell. She plucked this flower and took it to the pillar where she cupped it against the stone and put her ear to it and could hear a form of music inside. The music described a system. In this way, the inhabitants of the pillar dictated to her the Book.

“In accordance with their system she grew a secret lotus garden upon her roof and spent her days in idleness and luxury, cultivating her senses. The End!”

He was vibrating.

“I’m quite devout you know.” “Devout how?”

“Religious! About the Luxuries. I’m a modern day Luxurite, just as She was, some ninety years ago – Hermia.”

I wanted to ask if he honestly, literally, believed in the winged beings. Did he, for example, think they were stuck inside the obelisk right now? I presumed Hermia and Stephen had possessed what amounted to an aesthetic interest in the Luxuries, that their reconstitution of the Enochian Order of the Luxuries (which may never have existed – Griselda had suggested the book was possibly a work of nineteenth century charlatanism) was a matter of taste, and even of principle, but without any serious theism being involved. The great interest in all things occult that sprung up in the period had always seemed largely affected to me, except for some of the post-war talking to the dead: Stephen had grown up in an atmosphere of séances and mediums, his mother often trying contact his father.

The glee Erskine-Lily exhibited as he related the story of the pillar persuaded me not to ask him, just in case. I would not have minded, did not mind. Whereas some individuals’ credulity was entirely off-putting and terrifying, in Erskine-Lily it could never be. Would instead be a corrective to the much scarier fanaticism of the Residents.

No, what was off-putting was the way it reminded me of my own flights of grandeur, which would come when I thought about my Transfixions in the wrong way. It was clear just now that those flights had never stopped. That all this time I had been figuring out a way to augment myself, to mythicise my Transfixions and then slot myself in. And now here it was. They were all part of this, and now so was I. So was Erskine-Lily, who struck me once more as a Transfixion, a living one.

*

On the reverse of a miniature portrait in violet letters.

Erskine-Lily

(Image on frontside: portrait of Erskine-Lily in the style of an oval miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, sporting what might be a silver pinked doublet or androgynous Elizabethan bodice and hooped skirt (the portrait cuts off at the waist); a high collar with a voluminous, gauzy lace ruff that reaches the limits of the image; matching lace sleeve cuffs; emerald earrings; brimmed black sugarloaf hat with a jewelled band, cheeks glazed orchid. On the flat azurite background, a heraldic device depicting a fruit on a branch like a white-pink raspberry, faintly translucent with an opalescent lustre, leaves half green and half yellow, the branch emerges from a cloud; some gold letters below read ΛOTE. This fruit is simultaneously an allegorical device and heraldic as the figure reaches to pluck the fruit whilst gazing towards the viewer.)

Span:

Memorabilia: Obscure aesthete-quaintrelle and amateur painter resident in Dun. Revived LOTE, a minor society of the ‘20s founded there almost a century earlier, said in itself to be a revival of a Renaissance society.

Sensation: Moonlight sighing up and down the tube of the spine, and through hollow bones.

*

‘The Party’: A response

A response to ‘Alexi Marshall‘s ‘The Party’ by Jess Payn.

Alexi Marshall, The Party (2017), Linocut print, ink on Japanese paper
Image courtesy of the artist

and isn’t it odd? for in rooms full of
strangers my most tender feelings
writhe and
bear the fruit of screaming.
— Frank O’Hara


I enter a room where the walls don’t make sense, and there’s a girl with her head underwater in a bath of limbs and lines. There is no colour in this place and there is no third dimension. Someone is staring and the eye contact is between inquisition and indifference: Who are you?

This is The Party. Close up the spaces between thighs, heads, arms and throats. No one is leaving and the room is squeezed and asquint and only getting more full. Everyone else’s eyes are trying to be immune to one another. They’re unmindful of you: this is the enclosure of intimacy, aware of itself as a scene.

I look for her, and she’s down there. Crying tears of boys and men until these sadnesses puddle on the floor becoming a pool and it could be tears or it could be blood (I killed you; this is killing me) but maybe it’s just spilled wine.

Sat on an absent chair, she is blowing fuming faces to the ceiling and their
shapes stick out, telescopic; a snake unfurls by heads and over thighs and
some malevolent or at least mischievous many masked party-spirit sits,
nibbling its nails.

She is coiled around him, fist in the air. Someone is retreating behind a curtain or perhaps he is looking to enter the fray.

Beneath, she is leaning into her eyes: I want my time with you.

This angling that could become a kiss.

But there’s also the full weight of flush flesh slumping on top of fur, cheeks
puffing and eyelids heavy: now astride a dead-eyed fox. Her scratched nakedness makes her a blank siren in the dark.

Upstairs, she’s taking the charade too seriously: I want to be silly, nearing
Halloweeny. Put on a mask: this is she-devil coquettish. Watching the shower tiles with a focused frown, she’s got stuck-on wings, a bedroom of stars and a grainy dusting of ash. That cherub giggling and everywhere there’s black and white paint.

You always have to have something to do at a party, whether it’s performing or hiding. (I’ll try out my wink.) The final detail is a single hand, coy and destructive, pulling the walls apart.


Jess Payn is a freelance arts journalist based in London. She read English at the University of Cambridge, where she wrote her Master’s thesis on the ‘cuteness’ of Stevie Smith, and now reviews for the Arts Desk. Her writing has been published in Splice Magazine and The i Newspaper. She tweets @jess_payn

Find more of Alexi Marshall’s work over on Instagram

‘The Feminine Mistake’ by Giacinta Frisillo

giacinta frisillo
the feminine mistake.
Mixed Media on Canvas Board
61cm x 46cm
2017

In the United States’ poor excuse for a health care system, a ‘pre-existing condition‘ is a medical condition that began before a person’s health coverage went into effect. Before the Affordable Care Act (ACA), colloquially known as Obamacare, was passed into law in 2014, insurance companies were often legally allowed to deny coverage to those with a pre- existing condition – that is to say, those who most needed health insurance in order to afford treatment and prescriptions. As the conservative branch of our government regularly works to break down the tenets of the ACA, the fate of those who most need treatment remains to be seen. 

Amongst those most in need of affordable, reliable, and accessible healthcare are women. The list of women’s reproductive health concerns, as published by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), is lengthy, but many are preventable, treatable, or curable, when healthcare is provided. Clinics, such as the contentious Planned Parenthood, have been able to offer no- and low-cost treatment, care, and counselling to patients. However, as they also provide family planning services and abortion, they are under attack by (mostly) white, cis, male conservative lawmakers who are working diligently to retract its federal funding and close facilities. In 2019, nearly 50 years after President Nixon signed Title X into law, guaranteeing affordable birth control and reproductive health care to women with low income and stating that ‘no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition,’ we are still fighting to retain these rights. Forty-seven years after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision to nationally legalize abortion, that right is in danger of being reneged. In 26 states – to put this in perspective, more than half of the US – women who choose abortion are currently required to undergo ultrasounds and, in 3, are obligated, rather horrifically, to listen to the foetal heartbeat while looking at the image on screen. 

As our right to sane, affordable, and comprehensive healthcare, or lack thereof, seems to be the zeitgeist of all times in the US, feminist artists have long dealt with the subject. Most notably for me, the artist collective Sister Serpents comes to mind, having been birthed as a direct response to the 1989 United States Supreme Court decision allowing for states to withhold public funds to run facilities and hire employees to perform, assist with, or counsel women on abortions. But, as the 1980s now seem ancient history, it’s shocking that art on this subject is anything more than a dated remembrance of the dark ages. Instead, it’s revitalized in all forms. Margaret Atwood has released The Testaments, the sequel to her dystopian and frighteningly possible story, The Handmaid’s Tale this year because, as she put it, ‘for a while we thought we were moving away from [the book]. And then we turned around and started going back toward it’. 

Since the Trump administration took office, I think women have felt the need to band together in protest for protection and support. I have come across many feminist communal arts projects and collectives doing just that. The Exquisite Uterus Project is a notable and ongoing example. The art piece is meant to ‘articulate [the] outrage at recent increased restrictions to women’s full access to good sexual and reproductive health care and growing limitations on our ability to determine our own reproductive choices’. Participants in the project are ‘urged to have fun with it but to consider how our ability to take control of our own personal uterus (and health care decisions) is a very serious and, now, political issue.’ 

While I find Fourth Wave Feminist activism, community, and art exciting, and contextualize much of my own art practice within it, I wish I didn’t find it necessary. As Catherine Morris, curator at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum said about an exhibition called A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism held shortly after the first – and most hopefully only – Trump election, ‘[w]e might have been thinking more about a celebration, and now we have a sense of urgency’. Sadly, and ironically, as this cause is already tired and storied, there is a sense of urgency to do something, to make art, to be heard and listened to. But haven’t we already tried this? Frankly, I’m tired of waging the same war so many generations before me have already fought. Why must I earn the freedom of choice and rights to the body I inhabit when the male gender is granted these rights at birth? Why do those, who are already imbued with rights to their own bodies, want rights to mine, as well? 

As a woman, I am a pre-existing condition. Only I am not covered under the caveat in the ACA currently protecting those in need. And so, the fight continues. 


Words: giacinta frisillo www.giacintafrisillo.com