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Collecting - The Object is Exorcism

The first and last issue of one of the most important little magazines of the sixties, edited and published by Ira Cohen from Tangiers. In Cohen's brief editorial statement he notes that the magazine is named for the ecstatic dancing and possession trances of the North African sect of the same name, and concludes that "The object is exorcism."

Published on 07 Dec. 2015

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By Adam Davis


The first and last issue of one of the most important little magazines of the sixties, edited and published by Ira Cohen from Tangiers. In Cohen's brief editorial statement he notes that the magazine is named for the ecstatic dancing and possession trances of the North African sect of the same name, and concludes that "The object is exorcism."

Reading Gnaoua almost fifty years later, it is striking how the work in these pages, produced by a number of hands, forms an almost seamless whole. Whether it be via cut-up or drugs or possession or linguistic manipulation, the writers in Gnaoua share a preoccupation with purposeful derangement to exorcise assumed literary forms. In his autobiography Harold Norse would say of his first cut-up piece included here, Sniffing Keyholes, that "I felt like I had broken through semantic and psychological barriers." The assembled magazine becomes a talisman of literary and social exorcism, and as such it makes a surprising appearance in one of the most iconic photographs of the sixties.

Each item in the Daniel Kane photograph of Dylan which graces the cover of Bringing it All Back Home appears to be carefully curated, and the symbolism of each has been obsessively debated by record junkies in the years since. Gnaoua seems to have a place of prominence. It presides over the scene from the mantelpiece, and, along with Sally Grossman's red dress is the focal point of color for the composition. It is a powerful symbol for an album in which Dylan would distance himself from the folk scene and the protest songs of yore and strike out in a new and more personal direction.

The writing in Gnaoua is uniformly strong. As well as excellent work by William S. Burroughs and Michael McClure it also prints for the first time Brion Gysin's essay "The Pipes of Pan", about the Master Musicians of Jajouka- an essay that would lead to the 1968 recordings of the group by Brian Jones. But the highlight for me is J. Sheeper's strange and beautiful manifesto Style - a work that demands to be reprinted. (I am indebted to David Abel for tipping me off that J. Sheeper is Irving Rosenthal). In this piece Rosenthal states that "The feelings books contain are real. Books should be covered in skin if you don't believe me." Gnaoua inaugurated a tendency to create the printed object as a shamanistic talisman, and laid the groundwork for the beautiful experiments with woodblocks and handmade paper which Cohen would later undertake with Angus Maclise in Nepal under the Bardo Matrix and related imprints.

Cohen, Ira, ed. Gnaoua No. 1 [All Published]. Tangier: Gnaoua, 1964. First edition. 8vo. 103 pp. Offset printed and perfect bound in fuschia wraps illustrated by Rosalind. William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Jack Smith, J. Sheeper, Marc Schleifer, Mohammed Ben Abdullah Yussufi, J. Weir, Stuart Gordon, Tatiana, and Alfred Jarry. Wraps faded, heavily at the spine, which shows some old tidemarking; corner crease to one internal page; very good. SOLD.

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Posted on Spineless & Stapled, presented here by permission of the author. Pictures: Spineless & Stapled.

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