By Ian Birchall
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Jean Genet: Act One and Act Two

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Issue 361

Jean Genet’s life was very different to that of most writers. Abandoned as a baby, he spent his teenage years in a reformatory, became a thief and a gay prostitute and was repeatedly imprisoned. In jail he began to write. Thanks to his literary contacts his masturbation fantasies eventually became bestsellers.

This exhibition celebrates Genet as a playwright and political activist. Alongside exhibits relating to Genet’s life and work are newer works inspired by themes developed by Genet.

The first part is devoted to Genet’s play The Maids, the story of two domestic servants who act out fantasies of killing their mistress. Designed by Marc Camille Chaimovicz, the rooms are filled with paintings, clothing, items of furniture and videos.

The Maids, like all Genet’s plays, focuses on power and oppression. But Genet knew that art alone would not change the world. As he said, “I think the domestic workers’ trade union does more for servants than a play.”

Here too are sculptures by Genet’s friend Alberto Giacometti. Like concentration camp survivors, these figures are naked, colourless and stripped of flesh – but still on their feet. Like Genet, Giacometti saw human suffering – but also the ability to resist.

By the 1960s Genet was famous and wealthy. But much of his last 20 years was spent in support of the oppressed. In 1970 he visited the US and actively supported the Black Panthers. Later he devoted himself to the Palestinian cause. In 1982 he was the first European to enter the Shatila refugee camp near Beirut after the Zionist-inspired massacre, and wrote a powerful account of what he saw.

The second half of the exhibition is devoted to Genet’s political activism. There is a magnificent set of Black Panther newspapers. On the walls are charcoal numbers rising to over 900 – the number of unrealised UN resolutions on Palestine.

A video shows Genet speaking in support of the Black Panthers. He foresees that if the state crushes black opposition, it will move on to Native Americans and then white radicals. And then, he adds savagely, “I hope liberal whites”.

Genet’s work is marked by anger and hate. He never forgave the world in general, and France in particular, for his youthful sufferings. But alongside the hate was always a deep sense of beauty – a recognition that the world does not have to be brutal – it could be beautiful. As he wrote, “The end pursued by revolution is the discovery of beauty.”

This is a fascinating exhibition, though perhaps a little bewildering for those who know nothing of Genet. At least read the Wikipedia pages on Genet before going. But if it inspires a revival of interest in Genet, it will have served its purpose.

Jean Genet: Act One and Act Two is at the Nottingham Contemporary until 2 October.

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