Malachi sat down just on time –
The last hideous light went off, the remaining voices fell away, and the wall became a fabulous, luminous portion of sky. All marmalade billows and craquelure cloud.
“Observe now the scene at hand. It is a rooftop scene. It is a scene…”
A minor combustion, and then, throughout the basement of the Centre for Historical and Contemporary Arts: blackness.
“…of no known order. Of no order. No type. However, we are not without poi-”
The voice was sucked out of the air.
As the hideous lights came back on, the operator announced to the audience that the glass chimney had exploded and that this did sometimes happen with with magic lantern projectors. The burner had been too hot, or something to this extent. Everyone was secretly delighted. But, Malachi thought, also secretly disappointed it had not been something much worse.
The operator fitted a replacement chimney and again the lights went off, again the wall converted to sky.
There was a movement, a palpable wilting of shade back there, as the operator ducked to adjust a separate instrument. Something at his feet. Then the voice – the one from before – rose up. Dithering and metallic. It came, Malachi thought, from a phonogram, or some other obsolete device –
“Observe now the scene at hand. It is a rooftop scene. It is a scene of no known order. Of no order. No type. However, we are not without points of reference, or at least…”
The wall revealed a roofscape scene. It was lined by a sheet of mist, or yet more cloud. Intimations of pinked limestone and dull quilted bronze, the occasional jutting through of turret and spire, the silhouette of a large dome further back, and here and there through patches in the mist, hints of a busy medieval town. At the centre however –
“…at the centre, however, a rooftop garden emerges, Babylon in miniature…”
Potted fruit trees, flowering vines and various plants wreathed the scene. The back of the roof garden was walled, where it converged with another building, and this wall was thickly coated in flowers.
“…if we observe this rooftop garden more closely…”
The lantern operator shifted the slide so that a close-up of the garden section of the painting now dominated the wall. There was an elaborate stone bench, next to which was –
“…a statue, carved from black marble or onyx perhaps…”
A diminutive peacock perched upon the bench near the statue, its unfanned tail feathers cascading onto the ground. Its feathers were in outrageously unpeacockish hues. No iridescent blues and greens but instead various yellows specked with fleshiest of pinks, like some once voguish dessert.
The slide shifted again and then again showing other close-ups, roving over every scrap of the painting as the accompanying voice contemplated everything,
From the birds –
[Close-up of a small group of doves nesting around a cupola]
“…this small flock is not as delicately rendered as some areas, but the section is not without its own delicacy….”
[Close-up of one of these birds – so close it is a series of smudges with a glassy, well-articulated eye]
“…What is it thinking?…”
To the fruit –
[Close-up of the stone bench on which lies a piece of fruit, the outrageous peacock is cut out here]
“…and upon that carved stone throne is a purple fruit. If we consider this miscoloured pomegranate…”
All was delivered in the same rapt tones.
All this ponderous contemplation, and yet, Malachi thought, the voice barely mentioned the central figure: the ‘statue carved from black marble or onyx perhaps’, or the attendant peacock.
[The whole painting in full again. It is dominated by the expanse of cloud above, the sheet of mist below, and pierced by the rooftop garden]
The voice finished simply with a reference to the possible location,
“…an Italian town, such as Ascoli Piceno or San Gimignano…”
And then it was over. The lights snapped back on and the scene gave way to wall.
The operator gave a talk about the history of the magic lantern. This particular “experience”, he told the audience, this combination of phonogram and magic lantern was initially conceived over a century ago, by a German magic lantern company, for the purpose of at-home lectures. Every month a slide and a record would be sent out to subscribers. But it was also used by missionaries to convert the pagan masses. He gestured to the audience.
The audience laughed.
The audience then got to ask questions.
Malachi realised there was to be no discussion of the painting itself.
He waited to approach the lanternist afterward and asked the name of the painting.
“Well,” the lanternist said. He was wearing an approximation of Edwardian attire. More Victoriana really. “I’m not sure about that.” Then he explained that many of these paintings had been manufactured, as it were, for the sole purpose of the magic lantern lecture series. Several of the images in the early at-home lectures were marketed as newly discovered paintings that had hitherto been in private collections for numerous years. That said the majority are real. He had chosen this one today because the slides were especially well detailed. Good for demonstration purposes. He didn’t know much beyond what the recording had said.
Despite every imaginable attempt to plunder some wave of nostalgia, to play up the quaintness, the heritage-factor – such as the lanternist’s uniform – it had been an undeniably magical experience. With the lights on Malachi could see the lantern properly. It was a beautiful device, elephantine in shape, with fine gilded legs.
Malachi was livid.
He thought of the statue in the painting; it had scarcely been mentioned.
Malachi thought of the statue, carved from black marble or onyx perhaps.
Malachi took the lift upstairs to the gallery restaurant where he met Henry, whose uncluttered figure made him feel absurd. The way Henry stood up to greet him was something like an equilateral building on the move – and this could be quite stressful. But fortunately, Henry never seemed to mind in the slightest about the way Malachi stood up or sat down, which was as decoratively as possible.
“How was the show?”
Henry placed his white and convincingly architectural hand on Malachi’s gloved one. The gloves looked like shorn tapestry – there was an antelope and some mellowed pears. Vines curled up and around the fingers, and so on.
Malachi spoke about the peacock and the black statue.
Henry snatched off the glove, and examined for a moment, expressionless, not the glove, but Malachi’s hand.
[A hand in smooth matt onyx]
It was the sort of silent little routine he liked to do now and again.
“Well you know,” Henry said at last – Henry was the co-coordinator of the Centre, but hadn’t coordinated the event Malachi had just attended – “Weren’t these things recorded centuries – well, decades – ago? They definitely weren’t up to much with all that then. Probably didn’t know what to make of it.”
“Then what about the peacock?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Well, darling, they could be quite heavy handed with allegory back then: It was an African peacock. And the statue represented someone of probably West African descent. Clearly the painter meant something by it.”
“You should look into it,” he said. “I can help, we have all kinds of resources here…”
Now Malachi laughed and took off his other glove.
“No, seriously. If it’s a real painting I can get Margot to look at it; she’s a specialist in Renaissance shit – I’m presuming it was actually Renaissance-
“Oh but listen, that reminds me. Remember the Old Master yesterday? One with the huge black and gold frame – heard from Jenny Holt it’s fake. Well, an 18th Century reproduction. Thinking of selling it off to a smallish commercial gallery or something before it’s too late. Had to do it before. No gilt sans guilt. You know, it’s not really allowed because of public funding – otherwise it’s legal, we’re not trying to pass it off – Margot won’t be happy though so we’re just not saying anything.”
The echo and clatter of hoof upon concrete.
A goat must have escaped. What a din. A dissonant sort of sound that entered Malachi’s eardrums and turned his teeth to metal. It was Digital-Pastoral Month on level three of the Centre, and alongside a major exhibit of traditional pastoral painting, they had invited a contemporary art-duo to display.
“Renaissance painting rooftop garden”
“Renaissance painting with statue on roof garden”
“Roof garden black statue painting”
“Fake Renaissance paintings”
“Renaissance painting black statue peacock”
It was not until Malachi tried, “painting of black renaissance figure with peacock”, that the image came up. Why that particular entry managed to bring it up, albeit after several pages into the search, he could not say.
It linked him to a website where the image was rather small, lacking the detail of the projections he had seen, but he could make out both the statue and the peacock.
The black power sign was at the bottom corner of the page, and of every page on the site, like a watermark. No, it was not quite the same as a black power sign. There was a large jewel ring on the little finger.
The website belonged, Malachi gathered, to a singer from the late seventies. A disco artist he had never heard of called Semiramis. There was a page which briefly described her career and a music video from the period. In this video she wore a glorious brocade power suit with matching cape attached to the shoulders and waded on platforms (made from what looked like slabs of amber) through a flooded studio. Her afro – powdered white – was combed out around her head into a labyrinthine nimbus. An excruciation of kinks, Malachi thought, for they made him ache with envy. (His hair was too short for that). The water was lit so that it shone pink. The painted backdrop was of some classical and probably mythical site. The video ended with the camera zooming into her fist, on which was the same kind of ring as on the webpage motif. It glinted into the camera lens until everything went bright blue.
All in all quite divine, Malachi thought.
The rest of the website was dedicated to her various historical interests. He returned to the page about the rooftop statue painting. Semiramis related here that it is “unknown whether the painting was real or manufactured simply for the purpose of the magic lantern lecture.” That said, she believes it to be real “considering the immensity of detail and strength of style. The surface cracks are of the kind seen on other medieval paintings and would be too difficult to replicate.” She went on to describe the accompanying audio lecture as “totally inadequate, and all the more curious because there was initially a different recording intended for the lantern show. She has tracked down as many of these as possible and also reproduced them. This earlier recording is a “historical gem” because it is surprisingly insightful, sensitive even, in terms of race, for the time. One could purchase through her site a digital version of the lecture as well as almost any other format including the original medium of phonogram record and magic lantern.
A sample of the original lecture was available. He clicked on it. The voice was different to the one he’d heard that morning.
“Observe now the central figure. The scene is clearly an allegorical scene. It is an allegory of the Lotus Eaters transplanted to Renaissance Italy, much in the way Renaissance painters such as Carlo Crivelli staged annunciation scenes in their own, then modern, cities.
The garden is a beacon of artifice at its best. A celebration of it even. It is a moral justification of Ornament of the kind that has almost been scrubbed out of the realms of art and society in our part of the world…”
The equipment arrived. Phonogram and magic lantern. They came before the slides and record and so he practised setting up the lantern. It was nowhere near as powerful as the one which had been used at the Centre. It threw out an anaemic beam. He had to block up the windows with cardboard, and then throw the curtains shut over them, even at night, to get a satisfactory effect.
When the record and slides came he had a little trouble figuring out the phonogram. It was a sleek black object, cylindrical with a mother-of-pearl-looking horn. He had secretly used Henry’s card details to pay for it.
Finally he set up the lantern, turned out the light, and the image came up at once, projected onto a makeshift silk screen.
There was the distinctive scent of paraffin in his room, and he worried about the ventilation.
Malachi wound the phonogram up.
It was an unusual voice. Dislocated not solely by the metallic wail of its current medium, but in some more fundamental way. It took him a while to listen to what it was actually saying. He had to catch up to the right place with the slides –
[Close-up of the oddly hued peacock. A range of yellows – almost gold, but in the end not; also pink]
“Now observe the peacock near the central figure. The peacock is indeed a curious scrap of Renaissance symbolism, with two meanings, if not more. One for the church and public, another for the artist and outcast. A kind of anti-heraldic cant. Now observe…”
[Close-up of the black statue. Its lips are red and must be carefully encrusted with slices of ruby or another gemstone. Perhaps they are enamelled. Its eyes are also coloured. And the ornate curls of hair have been delicately wrought]
“…The scene is an allegorical scene, as mentioned in the introduction. The allegory concerns this specifically: Alongside the various choirs of angels – cherubim, archangels, thrones, seraphim and so on – there was also a choir known as the luxuries. It is, of course, only by way of medieval apocrypha that the luxuries came to be associated with the more famous Abrahamic winged messenger, and it is also possible to find them equated with other divine heralds such as the Greek Iris and Hermes, or the Assyrian genii.
“The luxuries were often described as having skin like black marble and parti-coloured wings that far outstripped any peacock. They wore resplendent robes and jewel-encrusted slippers. Where we consider angels to be spiritual messengers we might well think of the luxuries as sensory ones, communicating to the aesthetic aspects of the soul.
“It has been said that it was the same luxuries who 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 lips were something like ruby they also stained their lips and nails and cheeks that colour with the juices of the lotus fruit.
“When dull Odysseus looked upon all this he was horrified. 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 act of adornment.
“It is possible that the Greeks wiped the people they called the Lotus Eaters. Herodotus situated them in North Africa. Others West.
“The luxuries are the primordial lotus-eater. Indeed, they were thought to have vanished with the Lotophagi until they reappeared one day in a town in order to bequeath The Book of the Luxuries. But they were soon mistaken for wicked spirits, for demonic tempters, and sealed inside a pillar.
“There was a woman who was known to visit this pillar frequently having seen their ill-treatment from her rooftop. It was also on her rooftop that a strange flower grew one day, 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 lotus garden upon her roof and spent her days in idleness and luxury, cultivating her senses…”
Malachi messaged Semiramis using the contact form on her website.
She wrote back in minutes. She was thrilled to hear of his discovery of the painting. Wasn’t it fascinating? She supposed it was pure chance, Malachi’s finding out about it – the magic lantern demonstration could have used any number of surviving lantern lectures.
“I have an aversion to – a horror – a horror! – of straight lines. The volute – now the volute is divine: the sinuous line, the serpentine line, 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 they call it – is the secret salvation of us all.” She had coloured said hair with a fine nacreous substance. She was dressed in a similar fashion as she had been in the music video and looked quite the same age. She still wore the ring. It must have been forty years ago. Though it was, Malachi supposed, hard to tell: her skin had been adorned with some kind of translucent substance, similar to that on her hair.
[A face in black marble, or onyx perhaps. An opal lacquer]
“We are, you know – fundamentally ornamental creatures. Especially the likes of us. But even the Greeks must at one point have realised that. They called the universe “Kosmos”. Kosmos meant ornament, decoration, surface: cosmetic. Like makeup. Like rouge. They wore rouge you know: the Lotus Eaters…Yes, they made it from the lotus fruit which also stained their lips…They also stained their nails…and hair…and smudged their cheeks with it…They were the arch-decorators of myth. 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. Long after the Greeks and the Romans, Kant, Winckelmann all the rest damned it for being cosmetic. They embarrassed our ancestors for adorning themselves in beads and tattoos; they’re still at.
“‘Inessential ornament’, they called it. Ha!” And then she rose melodramatically and pretended to stare out of the window, though it was dark, as if she thought he could not see her looking at him in the reflection.
Her voice was clearly the same as the one on the record Malachi had purchased from her website. He had listened to it multiple times. It hadn’t been obvious from her music video, but now he had heard her speaking, it was undeniable. Yes, she had faked the whole thing. Malachi admired her instantly.
Now, as she moved back across the room, he wanted to ask her about the record. About why she had done it. Though he sensed a certain innate fabulousness in the action, he still wanted to know more. Just as he was about to ask, she began speaking again.
She told him she required sixteen hours of sleep a day and had to go to bed now. But before she went she insisted he had a look through her collection.
As her bedroom door shut he found himself alone with what turned out to be a vast collection pertaining to black European arts. Probably the largest of its kind. Various portraits lined the walls. Piles of drawings and manuscripts. Here he saw unseen photographs of Jeanne Duval, and drawings of that forgotten pre-Raphaelite model, Fanny Eaton; and over there were drawings of and by Richard Bruce Nugent. He leafed through masterpieces penned by undiscovered black modernists and looked at Etruscan cameos featuring mythical queens he had never heard of, goddesses long neglected, with physiognomies that would be considered distinctly unclassical.
Here was the diary of a “Moorish” courtier of James IV. He read a little. November 1589. Several fellow moors had attended the Scottish king’s wedding in Norway. Some as guests, like the diarist, and some as musicians, and some as dancers. At the king’s wish a few had danced in the snow, almost naked, because he thought the sight of their bodies against the white would look splendid. They had perished of pneumonia, the diarist finished.
And with that, utilising the same reckless abandon of a white teenager who, on first seeing Ophelia, fantasises about their own death, Malachi imagined that he was one of these dancers, perishing of pneumonia.
“I shouldn’t have done it, but I couldn’t resist, every year – once a month if I’m truthful – I use them,” she said as he helped her to her room.
The sound of a certain kind of porcelain teacup clinking against a certain kind of porcelain saucer sent her to bed for days, shivering with euphoria.
She took Egyptian Blue Lotus extract and jell capsules containing minute doses of gold or silver. She also dined on clear broths of innumerable ethereal tints. One might mistake all this for homoeopathy but it was in fact the System of the Luxuries, she told him. It was supposed to fine-tune one’s aesthetic senses. “It works,” she said, “Clearly!” waving her hand, as she shivered into bed.
On such occasions he would go through her collection. “Sort it out. Order it!” she had told him one evening. And so he began working for her, unpaid.
She suggested he sit and observe the statue painting daily, whilst listening to the recording, so that when she was not there her voice often was.
As a matter of fact, nothing pleased him more. The painting continued to enchant him. As did the record.
[Close-up of a statue in black marble or onyx perhaps]
“…Observe now the figure…”
He had since learnt, without her knowing, that she distributed them, these fake records, wherever she could. Passed them off to antique dealers. Sometimes just smuggled them into antique shops. She had them printed up by a company that specialized in recreating phonogram and vinyl records. This was only a small part of a grand project which she’d been working on since the seventies. Forged manuscripts, historical details. But also real things. All for public dissemination.
[Close-up of a decorative room. Paintings, bibelots, a large dressing table, a magic lantern, a phonogram]
“…Malachi observes the house. Its tremulous occupant is in bed again having just been shown recently discovered nineteen-thirties footage of the once-celebrated black British singer, Evelyn Dove, on the internet that had escaped her attention. Malachi takes a few things from the drawers and sits before that magnificent dressing table. First he braids his hair in whorls and dips the ends in that nacreous water. He colours his lips the precise Lotus Eater red, bedaubs his cheeks, swallows some Egyptian Blue Lotus supplements. And yes a little pearl powder shaken in sherry to activate it, and one of those jell capsules with the gold flakes suspended in it…”
[He takes with him a Louis XVI dagger, just in case, and goes for a sublunary stroll, keeping to the river, to the spot he had been aware of for some time. The other young men are unperturbed. In fact, after a while they speak to him. They laugh at his getup but admire it too. Too off-putting for this sort of thing though, they tell him. You won’t make any money. He has been here before.
Eventually, however, a car polished like black atrium glass slides by and he gets in. The dagger, he remembers, although called a Louis XVI dagger, is purported to have belonged to Alessandro de Medici. Malachi doubts he will need it]
[Close-up of two figures in the same decorative room. Figures rendered in black marble, or onyx, or perhaps obsidian]
“Now observe the room. It is a magnificent room. Jewel-like. In it sits a mellowed disco queen and her mesmerised princeling. Both are also jewel-like.
“They are probably discussing Pushkin’s great-grandfather. Particularly, they would be concerned with the exact manner in which he strutted through the velvet avenues of Peterhof Palace.”
[As they chat away something passes over Malachi and he feels the need to set up the magic lantern]
[Close-up of Malachi’s half illuminated face]
[A face in black marble or onyx perhaps]
“Now observe him gazing up at the lantern image on the wall. And observe Semiramis. She is narrating to him instead of the record. She is delineating some new history of the Lotus Eaters she must have been researching…”
[Close-up of the statue in the garden]
“As the statue close-up comes up on the wall he realises it is not a statue at all. Nothing could be more obvious. The eyes; the lips. She, or he, is wearing robes, coloured luxurious robes which clearly aren’t made of stone. And likewise the skin, though radiant, though comparable to fabulous materials, is obviously flesh. Black-brown flesh. Ornate curls.
“Malachi wonders how he possibly could have missed it. He is horrified and he also shivers with ecstasy. He has to lie down.”
“The Lotus Eater stirs. Outside, rain fizzes white on the window ledge and dances on the pavements like soda water. Then the rain falls differently, glossing the streets into a state of lamination. The sky is all marmalade billow and craquelure cloud. He goes down into the town and passes an impossibly black dog – a whippet – it trips along like a nimble black hole. He strides through a loch of umbrellas and granite and concrete. He halts by the door of the Institute. He removes his gloves slowly before entering.”
[Close-up of a figure in black marble or onyx perhaps, passing a threshold]
“So Jenny looked into it,” Henry said, “Turns out it’s probably real. Can’t find out where the original painting is though. But we had a look at the statue section you mentioned and we think it’s probably just a merchant or something. European. White. They would have just used black stone because that’s what they dealt in – as a merchant. That’s what Jenny thinks anyway. I agree.”
“What recording?” she said quietly? “I don’t think I know what you mean, mein liebling.”
“Your recording. The one you made.”
“Made?” she said.
“Yes, the one…”
She got up, as she had before, and looked out of the window, though it was dark, as if she thought he could not see her looking at him in the reflection. But this time he noticed her eyes bore straight at him, fully conscious, as they had before.
“That,” Henry said, “is fucking hilarious. Can’t believe you met her.” Malachi had told him in an uncertain moment, about the record and Semiramis. After he realised he would never be invited back. “Jenny said she found the website too, just yesterday. Must be the same one you found. Yeah, turns out she really is a decaying old disco singer. Had a short-lived career. Supported Sylvester once or something. Anyway, she got involved with the Black Panthers – the British equivalent of them or whatever and then just lost the plot. Started hounding galleries telling them they were hiding significant works by Medieval African artists and all that. She’s been at it for ages. They genuinely thought she was going to blow up the National at one point.
“Turns out we had a random delivery a couple of years ago. An anonymous donation – we do get those sometimes, and they’re legit – anyway it must have been from her. Well we got it out the archives yesterday – hadn’t had time to look into it, probably wouldn’t have for a year. But it’s the same portrait. As the one you’ve been looking into. Probably a forgery. Definitely, if it came from her. She could have got anyone to do it.” He placed a hand on Malachi’s gloveless one.
“Whatever happened with that other painting?” Malachi asked, “The one you wanted to sell?”
“Sold it of course.”
“Margot the Centre co-coorindator”
“Margot Phillips the Institute for Historical and Contemporary Arts contact”
Malachi sat down just on time.
He remained motionless, still surprised they had allowed him in.
A new painting was being incorporated into the Centre’s permanent collection. It was humungous. Much larger than he expected. Some restoration had been done. How strange to see it solid, rather than coloured light projected on a wall.
They have admitted that it is real. They did not mention what it might be, what Malachi thought it was and Semiramis had known it was – they will only be pushed so far. They will only take so much. They are presenting a united front. (This front has a shape and texture.)
And indeed, they announced the title, since there wasn’t one already. They have called it The Statue, one of them says. It is a statue of a stone merchant. Here Henry looked at him. They were not scared as Malachi thought they might be.
They were all exquisitely smooth, bright and cubic.
[They are all smooth, bright, cubic]
Shola von Reynolds is a Scottish-Nigerian writer and recent graduate of the MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow which was completed through the Jessica York Writing Scholarship. Shola remains in the city working to the completion of LOTE, a debut novel, and was named Scottish Emerging Writer 2018 by Cove Park. Shola writes around race, ornament and gender, has written articles for AnOther and i-D, and is also a Scottish Review of Books Emerging Critic. @socialmedea_