Shrien Dewani on the first day of his trial at the Western Cape High Court. Photo: Getty
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Shrien Dewani is on trial for murder, not for his sexuality

The young British businessman is accused of orchestrating the 2010 murder of Anni, his wife of just two weeks, in a spectacular hijack committed in Cape Town’s township badlands.

High on the wall of the South African courtroom in which a British man is being tried for the murder of his wife hangs a relic of a previous era.

An ornately carved wooden crest, with a unicorn and a lion rampant, and beneath it that curious motto of the British establishment: “Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense” (roughly translated from Old French as “shame on those who think ill of it”).

That Britain’s royal coat of arms is still displayed in courtroom two of Cape Town’s High Court is most likely due to the debt of honour South Africa’s legal system owes its English progenitor.

But crest’s old-fashioned imprecation to trust in the righteousness of those who act on our behalf is one that, to my mind, could be as hopelessly out of date as the colonial attitudes which once subjugated this beautiful country.

For the past two weeks I have reported for various British media outlets on the opening skirmishes in the murder trial of Shrien Dewani.

Dewani, as some readers are likely aware, is the young British businessman accused of orchestrating the 2010 murder of Anni, his wife of just two weeks, in a spectacular hijack committed in the township badlands which fringe this stunning city by the sea.

To my mind, the most significant evidence we’ve heard in Dewani’s trial so far has been the witness testimony of a local gangster who – in return for a discount off his prison sentence and, perhaps, the prospect of more to come – claimed that Anni’s murder was her husband’s idea.

But beyond this there is one theme, above all others, that has dominated both court proceedings and the media’s coverage of it: Shrien Dewani’s sexuality.

Briefly, Shrien Dewani is bisexual.

“I have had sexual interactions with both males and females”, a statement read into court on Dewani’s behalf declared on the trial’s first day.

“I consider myself to be bisexual. My sexual interactions with males were mostly physical experiences or email chats with people I met online or in clubs; including prostitutes [...]

“My sexual experiences with females were usually during the course of a relationship which consisted of other activities and emotional attachment.”

Dewani’s admission prompted lurid headlines, both in South Africa and elsewhere.

The confession was interpreted by legal experts as a clever move designed to take the wind out of the prosecution’s sails by conceding as true that which they might claim Dewani denies – and also by challenging the court to disagree with the proposition that a person’s sexuality should have no bearing on his or her guilt.

But if Shrien Dewani had hoped sexuality might disappear as a theme in this trial, he will have been sorely disappointed.

On Monday this week, the trial heard from Simon Johnson, a perky young British man from the gay dating website Gaydar – a website, Johnson claimed in court, for which “privacy is of the utmost importance”.

The court didn’t hear whether Johnson had been compelled to give witness evidence or whether he volunteered to do so, but what he told the court might seem at odds with this claim to privacy.

Shrien Dewani, Johnson explained, had been a member of Gaydar for six years at the time of Anni’s death. His online nickname was “Asiansubguy”. He described himself as “a single gay man” and “passive sub guy” who was looking for a “dominant active guy”.

The court heard more detail about Dewani’s sexual predilections, much of it likely to be extremely embarrassing to him. But that, I think, is enough for now.

What on earth, I wondered as listened to Johnson’s patter, has any of this got to do with murder?

The Gaydar man had an answer. He confirmed that, according to the website’s records, Shrien Dewani logged into the site once on the day before Anni’s death and three times two days afterwards.

Okay. But what did he do online?

Unfortunately, that Johnson couldn’t say. This information was not retrievable from the site’s servers, he explained. But it was possible, he conceded under cross examination, that Shrien Dewani may simply have used Gaydar to send or receive innocuous emails.

Things got worse on Tuesday.

Mark Roberts, from Britain’s National Crime Agency, appeared in the witness dock to explain how he had, at the South African police’s request, searched a laptop computer once used by Shrien Dewani.

The computer’s large disc size meant Roberts hadn’t been able to sift through all the data it contained, so the IT expert used keywords to filter his search.

Roberts searched for the names of various people, places and websites which he thought might yield incriminating information.

He also searched for the words “gay, fetish, rubber and water sports”, he explained in court.

Just as I was wondering what forensic point Roberts and his South African taskmasters hoped to achieve using these search terms, prosecutor Adrian Mopp moved on to what was clearly meant as the meat of Roberts’ witness evidence: a cache of 53 sexually charged emails sent to Shrien Dewani from an unidentified “an older man” over a year before Anni’s murder.

There was a moment of breathless anticipation on the court’s press benches as we waited for these emails to be read into the court record.

But before they could be, Dewani’s barrister Francois van Zyl was on his feet, complaining that they were irrelevant to the case against his client.

Yes, they may be from one man to another man, van Zyl argued, but so what?

“Mr Dewani communicated with a third party about the situation in which he found himself”, prosecutor Adrian Mopp countered.

“He was confused about whether to get married or whether to come out....the man expressed a conflict within himself”.

“And what does that prove, motive to kill?” a clearly doubtful Judge Jeanette Traverso fired back. “I am sure that’s true for many, many people, including people in this court”.

The judge’s putdown was brutal, but Mopp wasn’t finished.

It wasn’t the fact that Shrien Dewani was gay that was important, the prosecution lawyer explained to the court, but that he had described himself, at different times, as being either gay, bisexual and straight. Which one was true?

Then came the kicker: a succinct explanation of the binary way in which Dewani’s prosecution appeared to me to understand the complex realities of human sexuality.

“A bisexual person is attracted to both sexes”, Mopp informed the court. “A gay person is attracted to one”.

Judge Traverso rejected the prosecution’s attempts to introduce the email evidence, ruling that the messages were of no relevance.

Having flown half way across the world to give his evidence, Roberts, the IT expert, was sent back home to the UK.

But the issue of Dewani’s sexuality is still unlikely to disappear from this trial. The court is expected, in the coming weeks, to hear from “The German Master”, a male prostitute Dewani has admitted paying for sex.

As for the relevance of what the Master has to say, that we shall have to see.

Shrien Dewani’s murder trial is still in its early stages and has yet to hear some of the most important evidence against him. He could be convicted of his wife’s murder, in which case concerns about his private life will, most likely, be the least of his worries.

But Shrien Dewani could be found innocent. If that happens he may have good reason to be angry, not just at the police and prosecution service that would have falsely accused him of a crime he didn’t commit, but for the needless airing of the most intimate details about his private life – secrets he will never now be able to hide.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.