arts and design

On my radar: Courttia Newland’s cultural highlights

Courttia Newland was born in 1973 and raised in west London. After an early start in music, he turned to writing fiction and published his first novel, The Scholar, aged 23. Eight more books followed, including A River Called Time, which came out earlier this year. Newland has written eight plays, beginning with Estates of Mind, which was first staged in 1998, and with Steve McQueen he wrote two episodes of the TV series Small Axe, broadcast last year. His new collection of speculative short stories, Cosmogramma, is published by Canongate on 28 October.

The Trees
Photograph: Graywolf Press

1. Book

The Trees by Percival Everett

I’ve been reading loads over lockdown, and one standout is this really cool mix of satire, surrealism and literary crime thriller by my favourite writer of the moment. When a series of murders takes place in Mississippi, the police are intrigued to find a second body at every crime scene – a boy resembling Emmett Till. But every time they arrive at the morgue, the body is gone, only to turn up at the next killing. Everett is really good at tackling big ideas and making them fantastical. He gives me courage and makes me feel a little less alone with all the crazy ideas I have.

2. Gig

Thundercat at We Out Here festival

‘Makes you think of Jimi Hendrix’: Thundercat. Photograph: Naomi Omokhua

My wife and I went to We Out Here, the festival run by Gilles Peterson, and there were so many highlights, many of them from the UK jazz scene – and this big one from the US. No one knew that Thundercat was coming, but he was mind-blowing, one of the most amazing live performances I’ve seen in years. Now I’ve seen him live, I think he’s a musical genius. The way he plays bass – flawlessly, and even faster than on record – makes you think of Jimi Hendrix playing guitar. His fingers were just GOING.

3. Art

Lubna Chowdhary

Artwork by Lubna Chowdhary.
Artwork by Lubna Chowdhary. Photograph: Copyright the artist

I came across Lubna Chowdhary’s work just a few weeks ago, when I went to her show at the Peer gallery in Hoxton. I was absolutely blown away. She does lots of work with ceramics, almost making them look like textiles. I love the colours – very bright reds and blues and yellows. They’re beautifully crafted, full of vibrancy and life and emotion, and you really want to touch them. Everything feels organic, like it’s alive, which I thought was really strange – I’ve never had that feeling with art before.

4. Play

The Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner

Leanne Henlon and Tia Bannon in Seven Methods Of Killing Kylie Jenner at the Royal Court.
Leanne Henlon (left) and Tia Bannon in Seven Methods Of Killing Kylie Jenner at the Royal Court. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

This play by Jasmine Lee-Jones at the Royal Court theatre in London was just brilliant. A really surreal, dark story, it follows Cleo, who has cut off contact from the world but has a lot to say about Kylie Jenner, the cultural appropriation of black women’s beauty and the trials of being dark-skinned. It was very much from a contemporary black London perspective. I started off writing that kind of thing, but I could never do it now – I’m too old and way out of date. But I like the fact that Jasmine Lee-Jones can do it so authentically.

5. Exhibition

War Inna Babylon, ICA

War Inna Babylon: The Community’s Struggle for Truths and Rights at the ICA, London.
War Inna Babylon: The Community’s Struggle for Truths and Rights at the ICA, London. Photograph: Tim P Whitby/Getty Images for Institute of Contemporary Arts

This was a seriously comprehensive look at the black British community’s fight for truth and justice, curated by [the racial advocacy and community organisation] Tottenham Rights. It had lots of archive films, the highlight of which was an extensive breakdown of the independent Mark Duggan inquiry. And it had really detailed information on the history of Broadwater farm and the riot in the 80s. There was just so much information on black British history that I hadn’t encountered before. I went shortly before it closed and it’s one of the best things I’ve seen in ages. I think it needs to be made permanent.

6. Film

Ballad of a White Cow (dir Behtash Sanaeeha and Maryam Moqadam)

In Edinburgh for the book festival in August, I took the opportunity to go to the film festival, where I saw the UK premiere of this Iranian movie. It’s about a woman whose husband is executed for murder, and how she tries to clear his name and rebuild her life in the aftermath. She’s got a deaf child, and no money, so she’s just trying to survive as well. It’s a beautiful story of family, love and grief, and it’s got awesome performances by Maryam Moqadam (who also co-directs) and Alireza Sani Far. It’s an understated masterpiece and I can’t stop thinking about it.


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