HERE’S TO GAP YEARS: singer songwriter and Courtauld student Marie Naffah talks about her year out


A level results.  Less than a handful of letters that can make you go:





(*These weren’t my grades, I promise.)


You may have bagged your chosen grades and packed your bags- ready to roll straight out of school, on into university. Sorted. You may be staring at some unwanted, isolated letters, having loaded your school portal three hundred times on a dodgy Wi-Fi server, only to find out that the future you thought was yours, well, isn’t.

BUT DO NOT FRET. Here is why a gap year was one of the best decisions of my life:


With an entire year, I was able to research internships that really interested me. I contacted several companies, and landed a 3-month placement at Palazzo Strozzi, in Florence. Not only did it fill some space on the old CV, but it also allowed me to experience the business world of curating and marketing, giving me a clearer idea of things I’d perhaps like to do after university.


Travelling is arguably one of the most significant reasons why one should consider taking a gap year. It’s a perfect time to see and do things you have never done before, and perhaps may never have the time to do again. I did the Art History Abroad Summer Course of 6 weeks. I joined the course not knowing anybody, but from day one I was fully immersed with the 19 other like- minded students and the fantastic tutors. Starting in Rome and ending in Venice, passing through places including Naples, Siena, Florence and Verona, we were able to skip queues of the Academia, eat where only locals would eat and continuously develop such an enthusiasm and appreciation for the profuse amount of art that Italy has to offer. And that’s only 6 weeks. As a musician, I toured around the UK and travelled to Paris, playing shows and building the foundations of an international fan-base. I was recently named MTV’s Unsigned Artist of 2014, and I look back on my gap year as a crucial turning point for my career.


You can take your well earned break from exams and really research the course you want to do.


From climbing mount Vesuvius in Naples to playing one of the most magical shows of my life in Montmartre, Paris, one thing I learned was, on a gap year, you can say yes to everything.


I got a job in a café, I ran my own music night – do what you want but you’ll be thankful for some dosh!


For the first time in your life you can be totally selfish. I made a list of everything I wanted to achieve and just went and did them.


Forgive me for ending on a very cheesy one, as I try to avoid the ‘I found myself on my gap year’ cliché. But whatever you choose to do, your Gap Year can teach you a lot about yourself. You roll your eyes , but trust me, it’ll stand you in really good stead for the future years.



“Live life as though nobody is watching, and express yourself as though everyone is listening.” Nelson Mandela’s enduring symbolism, by AHA alum Helena Roy

That Nelson Mandela’s influence is so pervasive is evident not just in the way he changed South Africa. Beyond that isolated period of history, it spreads from Hollywood, through galleries and music, to the streets of Johannesburg. From Clint Eastwood’s soaring film ‘Invictus’ to the eminence Mandela gave Henley’s poem by reciting its mantra of self-mastery to fellow prisoners on Robben Island, the strength of his values have gained extensive prominence in the creative arts.

His death is quite obviously a painful loss. The world has lost a statesman valued internationally for his humility and inescapable relevance to justice and freedom, and South Africa has lost its most beloved son. But the blow of his absence is softened by the fact that he was already an icon. The morals he represented transformed him into a symbol of kindness, modesty, forgiveness and reconciliation. The views he propagated have an unbeatable international following that will inevitably continue. Refusing to be classed by any label thrown upon him – be it as a criminal, judged by race or nationality – he became a universal icon in every sense of the phrase.

Murals and street art of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Soweto and Cape Town in South Africa

Street art blends Mandela into the very construction and bustling, heaving life of South Africa; it shows the history of the country not through architecture, but through urban mural. His image spreads from the streets of South Africa to squares on London; outside Parliament he serves as a constant reminder to the inevitability of defeat unjust government must face.

The statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square, London

At a time when the ANC and Mandela were taboo in South African media, songs inspired by South African music spread worldwide. ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ remains the epitome of exploitation of popular music for powerful political purposes. The very act of singing when mere mention of his name was banned, was itself a peaceful, delighted expression of opposition to persecution and solidarity with divided South Africans.

The album cover for 'Free Nelson Mandela' (1984) by The Special AKA

Photographs of him capture the reality of his fight and act as proof of his message. In the National Portrait Gallery, photographs of a young man reasoning and challenging can be found from 1962; of an elderly statesman ever-conscious and proactive from 1997.

Mandela by Michael Peto (1962) and Jillian Edelstein (1997), in the National Portrait Gallery, London

Mandela has been, and remains, an intense creative symbol because the life he lived was so vibrant, poignant and real. Almost uniquely, the fact that this symbolism is backed up by reality strengthens the message in a way no myth or legend could, and thus ensures its enduring popularity among the creative. Mandela symbolised freedom and equality – but proved their worth by living his life for them, rather than asserting their value by analogy.

With thanks to the National Portrait Gallery, Wikipedia and ADN for pictures.

‘Vermeer & Music: The Art of Love and Leisure’ at the National Gallery, by Lucy Speelman

‘If music be the food of art, play on’ – Rachel Campbell Johnston, The Times

Painting is traditionally seen as an art concerned only with the visual and the aesthetic, and similarly, music is considered a solely aural medium.  This exhibition, however, attempts to prove that the two are inextricably linked, and to demonstrate how this phenomenon is evident in 17th Century Dutch art.  By including rare musical instruments, a visual link is created between these objects and those in the paintings, and viewers are also reminded that the creation of these fine, intricate instruments is an art in itself.


'Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life' by Harmen Steenwyck (National Gallery)

The first room, entitled ‘Music as attribute and allegory’ explores the connotations and symbolic significance of music when depicted in art.  Music was a popular and important theme in Dutch art, and it carried a wide range of associations.  Since there was no recorded music at the time, music was an art of performance and could be used to denote transience.  The presence of musical instruments in Harmen Steenwyck’s ‘Still Life: an Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life’ symbolises human knowledge and the pleasures of the senses, but the work is dominated by a skull, an obvious symbol of death.  Frans van Mieris the Elder’s ‘Self Portrait of the Artist, with a Cittern’ demonstrates the dialogue between painting and music: since music was considered to be the more sophisticated of the two, it was often referred to in an attempt to raise the status of the sitter.  The works of the first room engage well with the works of the second, which feature musical companies and festive galleries.  The poignant contrast between instruments being played and lying still emphasizes the change in atmosphere that music can bring to a work.


'A Young Woman seated at a Virginal' by Johannes Vermeer (National Gallery)

The third and fourth rooms also form a cohesive dialogue, this time on the quantity of musicians in each work.  The works in the third room all feature ‘intimate duets’, and they explore the role of music in developing romantic relationships, and the metaphor of music as harmony.  Music provided a channel of unsupervised communication for young men and women at the time, as it was one of the only activities that did not require a chaperone.  These works contrast well with the solo musicians featured in the fourth room, who either appear lost in solitude or open to participation.  Vermeer’s ‘Young Woman seated at a Virginal’ looks out to the viewer, inviting them to join her in a duet by picking up the viola de gamba that lies suggestively in the foreground.  The inscription on the virginal in Vermeer’s exquisite ‘The Music Lesson’ (Royal Collection) translates as ‘music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow’, emphasizing music’s emotional power and importance.

'The Music Lesson' by Johannes Vermeer (Royal Collection)


An informative aspect of the exhibition is the focus on the technical aspects of Vermeer’s work, which gives visitors an interesting insight into his inventive methods.  Extreme close-ups provide an opportunity to see in precise detail how Vermeer achieved certain effects, like dappled sunlight on hair, or the wood-grain appearance of instruments.  Scientific examination explains how the underpainting and surface layers react, and how physical traces of Vermeer remain, in brush bristles and even a fingerprint or two. The display emphasizes the importance of close, scientific examination of artworks and opens up this area of research to the public.


The exhibition is however, not without fault.  It successfully expresses how music was an integral part of 17th Century upper class life in the Dutch Republic, but there is no coverage of music-making scenes featuring peasants and the working classes, which is a pity.  Vermeer himself completely neglected these figures in his oeuvre, but they appear frequently in works by his contemporaries, such as Jan Steen.  Visitors may also be disappointed, as I was, in the lack of works on loan from external sources.  Nicholas Penny (director of the National Gallery) did state previously that the exhibition was intended to be based around works in the gallery’s permanent collection, but I must admit I was expecting, after paying £7 (with no concession option for students), a little more bang for my buck.  The underlying intention seems to be to gain publicity and profit from the loan of the Kenwood House Vermeer.

'The Guitar Player' by Johannes Vermeer (Kenwood House, on loan to the National Gallery)


That being said, the exhibition is evocative, informative and clearly laid out.  The inclusion of live music performed by the Academy of Ancient Music is also a bonus if you visit at the right time, and the element of multimedia is quite effective and refreshing.  The exhibition presents a striking contrast between stillness and movement, between silence and sound, just as Vermeer aimed to do all those years ago.


For more information please visit the National Gallery’s website.

The Exhibition continues until 8th September