Crypto AM writer Jillian Godsil meets Christina Jansen, photographer and artist who forged a special bond with one of the world’s greatest ever athletes

Childhood…

Christina can change accents at will. When first met, it is the clipped London tone not out of place in Kensington, but as we chat, she dips into a Devon brogue of her childhood with ease and then flips into her mother’s Liverpool scouse accent. She has a natural ability to inhabit all variations with charm.  

Her surname gives away her nationality, her Dutch father and language skills. At ten years of age she arrived in England with her mother and brother with no English language to settle in Devon. It was a culture shock in more ways than one, as they quit a large family home in the Netherlands for her auntie’s council house in South Brent while her mother searched for a suitable home.

Christina’s mother, Marion, was capable of many things, especially innovation. A familiar family story goes that her nan was speaking to a neighbour, bemoaning about the fact they had a bit of trouble and that ‘Marion read books’ and it was said ‘she suffers from her imagination.’ As a result, Marion was taken out of school early despite earning a scholarship to a local art college. She worked for C&A Modes to help support the family at the time.

Despite this less than promising start to her career, Marion went on to attend secretarial college and then moved to Holland where she began life as a translator and ended up writing for the Donald Duck magazine for Disney. When she returned to England, she also followed her passion into drama and became a frequent stalwart for local theatrical groups often playing the leading part and moreover bringing the young Christina onstage in a related role.

Her mother also turned to writing, poetry in particular. Christina has one poem, a personal reflection of her mother’s love making, framed on her wall. Marion speaks of being ‘washed up like shipwrecked sailors on the shores of passion spent.’

In later years, Christian, as a professional photographer, was commissioned to capture the mood for the cover for a new version of The Joy of Sex but when asked to frame the contends, Christina declined. Maybe another time, she smiles.

When Marion died, three years ago, she had a cardboard coffin on which the family wrote or painted their tributes. As a keen supporter of CND, she had a red bowler hat which was placed on top of her coffin with the handwritten message ‘requesting it be placed (here, sic) thanks a bunch my loves Marion,’ taped to the side.

So how could Christina turn out into anything but ordinary?

Christina mixes the absurd with the real. She speaks about the funeral and the coffin and the bowler hat. She made traditional Dutch apple tart. Sometime later, the undertakers returned with her ashes.

“There was an awful lot of ash.”

In an inspired move they planted a cherry tree using the ash as a nutrient base and now each spring on her mother’s birthday they are rewarded by a great swathe of cherry flowers.

Photography…

Christina’s relationship with her father was difficult but they stayed in touch when she left Holland. While his talent continued in her she not follow him into photojournalism. He was a famous photographer back in the day and so her gift of the eye must have been in the blood.

If Marion’s ‘trouble’ had been in reading, Christina’s lay more in the arts.

Christina was encouraged to follow her passion but found she was being pushed by Academia into graphic art, an area she did not want to study. Instead she enrolled in a unique art course which offered multiple strands, allowing students to gradually focus on their best artist subject. Increasingly, Christina moved to photography as her chosen career and passion.

“My final thesis was based on visual image and written word and one day I want to convert it into a book.”

Modelling…

As an attractive woman when she first arrived in London many people suggested she look at modelling. Pocket money was the attraction but an early visit to a modelling agency uncovered the more unsavoury side to the industry.  She was greeted by a large man with gold jewellery dripping off his fingers and asked to present her bottom. A glance around at the images on the wall confirmed that she was in a glamour modelling establishment and Christina beat a quick exit.

She found other more traditional modelling, some live and some photographic, and while she did not enjoy either it gave her a very strong sense for what it was like to be on the other side of the camera.

“I’m not a tree, I would say to some photographers, give me guidance on what you want.”

This experience continues to be helpful in turn when she talks with her photography subjects, putting them at ease.

Ironically her first professional gig was to include inanimate objects or rather architecture. The Hanley City Museum in Stoke on Trent commissioned Christina to record 1920s buildings, some of which were being demolished in the path of progress. Many of her images recorded car parks or building sites which diminished her interest.

London of the 80s had much more to offer. She fell into a TV comic crowd and dated Ade Edmundson briefly. It’s hard to remember how shocking the Young Ones and Comic Strip were at the time, breaking barriers in humour and sensitivities. A recent outing for Edmundson in a recent Netflix series called Cheat could not be further from his younger anarchist self. It was a different time and while Christina was firmly a photographer, she did not capture any of their antics on film, it would have been too invasive in those days.

London was also the home of music and advertising and Christina was headhunted by jingle writer Jonathan Hodge – he of the mars a day fame jingle. She was put in charge of the jingles business for major music production company Zomba which she ran successfully for three years.

She had been doing stills photography on the side and had many connections in the film world. She was even doing hand modelling. As a result of her commercial stills photography she got the call that was to change her life. It began as a simple job, to come to the Directors International film studios to photograph an athlete.

Float like a butterfly…

The athlete/boxer was Mohammed Ali. It was 1986, he was retired from boxing but his stature was still huge. He was 44 and should have been at the prime of his maturity, except for moments when his physical weakness and onset of Parkinson revealed itself. Christina had no idea as she travelled to the studio in Fulham that the next two weeks would upend her world in ways that could never be imagined at the time.

“To be honest, while I knew who he was and had watched him as a child while he was still called Cassius Clas, I had no idea of the man himself.”

Ali was witty, funny and full of energy. He liked to regale Christina with his quotes and learning. He was charming and attentive; when he spoke with someone he really listened. He treated everyone the same, whether they were princes or paupers.

“But sometimes he tired. His energy levels just flattened, and he would become quiet.”

When Christina arrived in, he often called her his movie star, which makes her smile still.

“He liked to talk about his philosophy in life, he wanted to inspire people, to use his fame to help others. He’d say things like if you reach for the moon – you might end up next door, but if you reached for the stars, you get to the moon.”

Christina remembers his love of joking too. He loved making people laugh, making them smile. His humour was infectious.

Of his puns had him asking people to name his worse fight. He would then answer his own question saying it was with his first wife.

Ali was known for his love of women, and a sense of hope over reality saw him marry five times, but his two-week flirtation with Christina was more like a teenage wooing, it was just hi having fun.

“At the time I was flattered by his attention and his interest. We connected on a cosmic level outside of his fame. We were just two people who enjoyed each other’s company. Looking back, I feel the enormity of the connection but then, it just felt relaxed and comfortable. It was very innocent.”

In many ways, this was Ali all over according to Christina. He reached out to people, gave generously of his time and made everyone feel special.

Christina remembers meeting a British Telecom engineer on the shoot. Turns out he was a huge fan who wrote to Ali some years prior saying he had saved up his money to visit Louisville. Ali said come on over and when he arrived the star struck fan was invited to stay in Ali’s house for the entirety of his two-week vacation. They became firm friends and Ross travelled the world afterwards to see him. Coming from Newcastle to London on this occasion was a doddle.

Ali gathered people to him and he treasured them.

His openness often threw up some unusual connections. Ali was in London to do a commercial promotion for a powered milk product called Primo, which in turn was part owned by Bob Guccione, the then owner of Penthouse, science fiction fan and porn king of America. This was one of his first moves into commerce following his retirement.

Christina ended up having dinner with Bob’s son Tony who was in town and the rest of his family. They hung out for a bit but after Tony took her shopping for his shoes on the Kings Road and to see the Karate Kid II, she knew it was time to part ways.

Also present on set was Larry Kolb, the reluctant British spy – anyone could turn up and frequently did.

For two weeks Christina enjoyed the mayhem of the shoot, the fun of working with Ali, and the eclectic people on set. Before the end of the week, Ali composed a poem for Christina.

Love is the net where hearts are caught like fish

And then he went back to America, leaving her with a wonderful set of photographs.

Christina kept his pictures. She filed them away, they were personal she felt, and she did not want to sell them and felt protective towards him. She did convert one print into a postcard which gained a certain traction.

It was almost 15 years later that her next interaction happened. A local Muslim gym in St John’s Wood wanted to host an exhibition and asked Christina if she had any more images like her postcard. Suddenly the event bloomed and the opening night attracted local boxing stars and the paparazzi. Other galleries requested copies and her images were hosted later as part of an exhibition in a Soho Art Gallery that carried her other work.

“I felt I’d arrived.”

The London Olympics and Ali’s 70th birthday were colliding and Christina wanted to host an exhibition that would also raise money for charity. Everything near the Olympic Stadium was already booked up and eventually she found an amazing founder, owner and boxing fan in Lance Forman and his famous Smoked Salmon Factory – just across from the stadium. Other more well-known names had scouted the factory as a possible exhibition venue but Lance chose Christina and Ali.

“I did a cold call to Lance and read him Ali’s poem – about the fish.” The magic was too much and David Bailey had to find another venue.

Ali’s brother Rahaman and his wife flew in for the exhibition as Ali was originally unable to attend. The exhibition included images of Ali from 13 different well known photographers and artists and was named In the Rings with Ali.

It was a huge success – although not without its stresses. It was the first mainstream exhibition that Christina had curated. Afterwards, Lance wrote a book called Forman’s Games about the underside of the Olympic logistics.

“I learnt a lot on how not to run an exhibition which I put to good use with the second private viewing coinciding with the opening of Paralympics. We got ex-boxer Michael Watson to do the honours which was amazing.”

Michael Watson was knocked into a coma after a fight in 1991 with Chris Ubank; in the 21 one years that followed he learnt to walk again and even completed the London marathon and was called upon to be the Paralympic Flame Bearer at the 2012 London event.

“It was an inspired choice and an honour to have him attend as guest of honour.”

As it happens Ali did travel to London for a glamourous charity event shortly afterwards at the V&A museum hosted by Bob Geldolf. Christina rang Ali’s wife and arranged for Rahaman to see Ali at the event. Christina attended with Rahaman and his wife.

“We finally got to see Ali but he was not well. We left shortly afterwards.”  

Christina remembers they stopped for a drive through McDonalds in Camden on way home. It was the last time Christina was ever to see Ali.

“I was invited to the funeral in 2016 but sadly I couldn’t afford to go.”

Boxing was to remain part of Christina’s life – like a thread. A chance meeting with British heavyweight John Conteh threw up more connections. Turns out he was born on the same Liverpool street as her mother. He agreed to open an art show for her also. Other boxing and art exhibitions resulted including one supported by the Chelsea Football Club and opened by young amateur Joe Joyce, nicked named the juggernaut. Around the same time Christina was introduced to Boxing Futures, a charity that supports disadvantaged young people, using boxing training as an engagement tool.

Christina has supported the charity on a number of occasions and pre COVID had planned a major boxing art exhibition in the Great Hall at the Houses of Parliament, this unfortunately has been put on hold until after the lockdown.

As a result of COVID, lockdown and the pandemic. Christina was forced to go online for work and started looking at other digital opportunities. Then it turns out that the most popular online phenomenon of the 21st century, digital art and NFTs, were about to connect Christina and Ali again almost 40 years later.

“It’s hard to know where to begin. Like everyone else I’d been watching the crypto world explode both in terms of the price of Bitcoin and the rise of digital art, but I never thought it would apply to me.”

Christina is referring to the growth of digital collectables.

NFTs, or Non Fungible Tokens, just might be the next gateway drug into all things crypto. NFTs address the critical issue of a digital asset being unique – ensuring provenance and ownership while removing the problem of counterfeits. In essence, NFTs are used to create verifiable digital assets.

The term NFT first broke into crypto consciousness when the game CryptoKitties went viral and almost broke the Ethereum network back in 2018.

Some of the best known use-case examples of NFTs are for digital art and collectables – where provenance and uniqueness are vital – and where communities are active. WAX is one of the more popular blockchain where this is all happening.

For Christina, it means taking a big step into the unknown, but she is holding hands with Dublin based dMerch, a specialist NFT agency that helps businesses, artists and individuals penetrate the NFT market. Christina is creating an exclusive set of digital collectibles using her photographs of Ali from 1986 – some images of which have never been seen before.

The collection of 35 prints have been created into 6 varieties and bundled in two sets of packs, one holding 5 NFT prints and priced at $20 and one holding 20 and priced at $50. The series is geared towards collectors who would like the opportunity to own a digital copy of one of Christina’s prints. Holders of the rarest digital items can also claim a physical copy of one of the prints.

The series will be launched on the WAX blockchain in July, and available on the most popular marketplaces for buyers around the world. WAX is known for its low cost of transactions and also for being one of the only ‘carbon neutral’ blockchain protocols. Keep an eye on the WAX.io website and also dMerch.io for announcement details.  

“The objective was to work with the team at dMerch and make a series which was inclusive and not price prohibitive for the NFT communities. Another major factor was using a network which was not harmful to the environment, you hear all sorts of stories about how much resources are consumed with some of these projects.”

NFTs represent a paradigm shift for photographers and creatives who may be sitting on valuable art and works which the world would like a piece of! NFTs give the chance for new recurring revenue streams for artists, creatives and businesses.