Anniversary of Russian Revolution Part II: Dostoevsky’s Demons in London

 

“Nothing and ever was more unbearable for a man and a society than freedom,” Dostoevsky.

 

Dostoevsky’s play “Demons” ( also known as the Possessed) put on in the atmospheric old church , St Leonards, in Spitalfields by the Split Moon Theater company also joined in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in London.

It is referred to as Dostoevky’s “prophetic vision of the Russian Revolution and the bloodshed that followed ( which we saw ample evidence of at the Tate Modern exhibition see previous post) .

 

“The Demons” is based on a murder in 1869 of a student Ivanov by his co-conspirators and the subsequent trial. The satirical play is set in a provincial town with a cell of conspirators testing radical ideas, at that time, of nihilism. We had bizarre jumps from political speeches, to mad murmurings of a demented wife, to a bourgeois matchmaking and a love affair all centering around a  “gentleman” of the town,  Nikolai Stavrogin, who is also drawn into the conspiracy.

I found this explanation online, but could not find who wrote it:

 

” I realized that the characters weren’t the demons. They were the possessed. The demons that possessed them weren’t little red men with horns and goatees. They were much more terrible. Some of the minor demons: ignorance, vanity, conceit, lust, and indifference. The real bad asses though, were ideas like atheism, socialism and nihilism.These ideas consumed and blinded normal human beings such that they acted evilly.”

 

You can read the whole novel here, even just dipping in gives you a sense of the brilliant satire.

Here is a description of one of the conspirators who was eventually murdered in the play. It gives the flavor of Dostoevsky’s sardonic views on politics:

 

“Shatov had radically changed some of his former socialistic convictions abroad and had rushed to the opposite extreme. He was one of those idealistic beings common in Russia, who are suddenly struck by some overmastering idea which seems, as it were, to crush them at once, and sometimes forever. They are never equal to coping with it, but put passionate faith in it, and their whole life passes afterwards, as it were, in the last agonies under the weight of the stone that has fallen upon them and half crushed them.”

 

What was thrilling about the production was that we went from one space to another in the theater. ( At night it appeared considerably more atmospheric, crumbling, and even frightening). We started seated in the nave, then went up stairs to a second room, one part was staged on the balcony opposite us. We followed the cast around from one space to another.

Also included dance, avant-garde off beat lighting and events, Dada really.

 

Albert Camus admired this play enormously and restaged it in the 1950s.

 

The church itself is a site that dates back to the Romans and even earlier as a sacred site.  Then there was an Anglo Saxon church replaced by the Normans. (We encountered this sequence over and over in England)

St Leonard is a patron saint of prisoners and the mentally ill. In Tudor times a Theater was build nearby and Shoreditch became the first English theater district.

 

Shakepeare premiered some of his early plays here

 

 

Here is a trailer that evokes the eeriness of the performance.

 

https://vimeo.com/235538305.

“Red Star Over Russia”

 

 

Art and Politics are everywhere in London at the moment. Whether it is the Imperial War Museum’s Art of Terror, the Migration Museum, an entire wing devoted to Art and Society at the Tate Modern, Red Star Over Russia at the Tate Modern, or the audio tour “The Darks” describing the former prison at the site of the Tate Britain, there has never been a time when socially engaged art was more prominent here

 

And that doesn’t even count the events in honor of the anniversary of the Russian Revolution such as Pussy Riot’s immersive evocation of the prison system in Russia or the play by Dostoevsky The Demons (The Possessed),  creatively performed in a crumbling church in Spitalfields.by Split Moon Theater.   In addition, there are references to Brexit in the play Albion by Mike Bartlett and the troubles in Northern Ireland in Jeb Butterworth’s play,The Ferryman.

Whew. Where to begin. I am fortunately spending nine weeks in London and feeling quite overwhelmed with so much to write about. I have submitted two articles for publication on the Imperial War Museum exhibition and the Migration Museum, so I will return to them in a separate post

 

In honor of the100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the extraordinary collection of David King is on display at the Tate Modern in “Red Star Over Russia.” It includes the history of the Russian Revolution from the last days of the Tsar to the death of Stalin. The variety of visual materials stunned me, ranging from postcards, journals, banners, and informal photographs to the famous fotomontage designs of the late 1920s. Altered photographs have heads cut out as they are declared “enemies of the state.” This is only a small selection of King’s collection of doctored photographs ( or of his collection as a whole) , first published in 1999 as The Commissar Vanishes. Grim mugshots of people, ranging from Lenin’s associates to peasants, who were executed in Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s fill the center of one gallery, together with each of their biographies. On loan were some of the huge paintings sanctioned by Stalin in the socialist realist style.

 

 

The historical trajectory of the exhibition starts in the end of the tsarist era passes through the 1905 revolution, World War I and the Bolsheviks in 1917 to the oppressions and murders of the late 1930s through the nightmare of World War II when posters endeavored to create nationalistic fervor as the Nazis invaded ( and after Stalin had executed 25,000 high ranking officers between 1937-41)). It ends with the post war era of continued nationalism until Stalin’s death in 1953: we see him lying on his deathbed.

 

 

The moments of change appear vividly in the arts displayed. We could see the photographs of the earliest revolutionary sculpture that did not survive, because it was made in plaster, giant sculptures in public places, then the thrilling development of a new vocabulary for a new society in photography, design, film, painting, printmaking and all other media.

 

 

 

 

One room included a few of the now well known  visual artist partnerships of that era: Valentina Kulagna and Gustav Klutsis, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Vavara Stephanova, El Lissitsky and Sophie Lissitzky-Kuppers. The last two pairs designed photomontage displays and magazines throughout the 1930s.

 

 

Gustav Klutsis was executed, but many visual artists survived, although disillusioned and compromised. We saw angled abstractions and upright realism by the same artists juxtaposed on a single wall.

Musicians such as Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokovie also survived the purges with careful accomodations. Shostakovich  was attacked for being too avant-garde, but managed to create his fifth symphony as a sop to Stalin, with more traditional musical reference points. (I was fortunate to hear this symphony the same day I went to the exhibition. The drums were regular, loud and repeated, they could be a parody, a warning, or a military march. Mahler’s soothing rhythms dominated one whole movement; Bach and Beethoven as well as Handel permeate).

 

David King’s life long obsession as a collector was to rescue Trotsky from visual oblivion. Stalin had not only exiled him and had him assassinated, he obliterated his face from every photograph and destroyed his books throughout the USSR ( event today he is not acknowleged). King resurrected him through his personal sixteen year search for images of Trotsky. He wrote a photographic biography of him in 1986. Three black and white film clips in “Red Star” gave us Trotsky at meetings giving speeches, bringing him back from visual obliteration in the story of the revolution inside the Soviet Union.

But of course Trotsky’s ideas have lived on continuously outside the USSR, in the books he published such as Literature and Revolution, 1925. In the late 1930s as Stalin systematically executed the founding fathers of the Bolshevik revolution, as well as hundreds of thousands of others, far away in the US Trotsky became the alternative to Stalinism for some members of the Left. His memorable positioning of art, culture and intellectuals in general as the vanguard of Revolution is certainly the heritage of the early days of the Bolsheviks and the 1920s when artists were spreading the ideas of the Revolution across the massive USSR.

In the exhibition we see the vanguard of culture from the earliest monuments erected to Lenin and Marx, the agit prop trains, the banners from the far East encouraging the new society, the posters calling on Muslim women to uncover themselves, and much more. The sweep of the material is dazzling and at the same time intimate. We  see rare photographs of Stalin’s wife (who committed suicide), we experience the exuberance of the artists, we witness the nightmare of the purges. Above all, we think about the terror of an insane leader with too much power.

The emotional roller coaster of the exhibition echoes the joys and horrors of the USSR itself in the 20th century.

Hanaa Malallah Part II 2017 Ten Years Later and Thirty Years Ago

 

I met Hanaa Malallah in 2007, just after she left Iraq under duress. At that time I wrote a long blog post  about her work which I link here.

 

Here I am in London again, ten years later, and, very fortunately, Hanaa is having a solo show. She is currently based in Bahrain as an associate Professor of Art at the Royal University for Women there.

She is teaching art and theory. Hanaa has a Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Painting with a thesis on “Logic Order in Ancient Mesopotamian Painting. ” ( I remember visiting the British Museum with her in 2007 as she explained the meaning of the Royal Game of Ur to me.)

While a young artist and professor in Iraq she stayed in the country through the Iran/Iraq war ( 1980-1988) and the Gulf War ( 1990 91). She also stayed during the period of severe sanctions during the 1990s, when she was unable to travel, and supplies were limited in every way. During that time she immersed herself in historical Mesopotamian art as a crucial reference point in her work.

 

The present exhibition  “From Figuration to Abstraction” at the Park Gallery in London is both fascinating and unexpected. A friend of hers in Baghdad sent a selection of her work from primarily the 1990s to London. So the current display includes those works.

As we stood in front of them, she said that each one represented a major show that she had in Baghdad . Many works were looted from her home in Baghdad after she fled the country. Her work also hung in the Modern Art Museum in Baghdad, which was looted. A team of artists and curators have recovered some of those hundreds of works in street markets, but many hundreds are gone, and the museum itself is now a shadow of its former self. Many of the works are in storage, and the museum has no funding. Only 200 works are on display out of the original collection of 8000, 7000 of which were looted.

 

So we have four early self-portraits. Here is one of them from 1989  that reveals an intelligent and probing and perhaps tragic person.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The  next fascinating surprise is the 1991 painting called The Guard.

 

A face with piercing eyes looks directly at us: he is a museum guard at the National Museum of Iraq. He is shown between two mesopotamian sculptures, one seems to look at him, as though the artist is suggesting a direct communication between the ancient stone statue and the contemporary Iraqi.

 

 

 

 

Half lost under abstract brushwork is a second statue, a seated figure, perhaps Gudea of Lagash. I am giving you details of the lower right hand corner of the painting as it descends into increasingly complex abstraction and brushwork

 

Keep in mind that this is the same museum that was looted at the time of the 2001 invasion of Iraq.

In this single painting we start to see the artist’s connection to the history of Mesopotamian art as well as her stunning technical facility.

 

Sketch of Alwarkaa Wall Temple Artwork 1991 also  pays homage to a hugely important site, also known as Uruk in Mesopotamia.

We see in the detail meticulous geometry interrupted by a scarred surface. We all remember the horrendous pillaging of the National Museum during the ignorant American occupation of Baghdad. In 2006 a report recorded that 10,000 objects were still missing. We know that the dysfunctional Iraqi state is not protecting its ancient sites.

 

Donny George, the heroic director of the National Museum, himself had to flee at the same time that Hanaa left in 2006. He personally managed to recover almost half of the antiquities stolen during the disastrous American invasion. He died of a heart attack at age 60 in Toronto Canada. I was fortunate to hear him speak at the College Art Association as well as to meet him at an exhibition of Iraqi art in New York City.

 

Other works by Hanaa are works from the 1990s that emphasize pattern. This is an example from 1993 and a detail where we again see the way in which the regular pattern is interrupted by the black dripping form in the upper left. The geometry is based on ancient symbolism, the black shapes look like an invasion. 

Here is a detail of another of these pattern works that from 1999

 

And 2002, not long after the war started and the museum was looted. We experience both her deep commitment to the historical symbolism of Mesopotamian art and her sense of tragic loss as her homeland and its art is destroyed.

 

In addition there are several paintings from the 1990s that reflect the result of sanctions on Iraq’s artists. One 1993 work is composed of bus tickets,

 

another scraps from the street.

 

Many other types of work appear in the show, showing Hanaa’s willingness to experiment, meticulous pencil marks that suggest counting, colored squares , patterned works based on ancient references.

For me, The Dawn, 1995 was the most dramatic. Smaller than many of the other works, we see a series of carefully constructed compartments made from canvas, overlaid with energetic black and white paint strokes that suggest violence.  This is a detail.

Last we have Signs 1999 where the blackness is almost covering the underlying details referring to ancient symbolic patterns. 1999 is before the great catastrophe, but it feels predictive to me.

 

Hanaa’s work is also included in the current exhibition at the Imperial War Museum called Age of Terror: Art Since 9/11.  I will be writing about that exhibition next.

 

Art and Bombs

 

 

Part I

Phong and Sarah Nguyen Break into Blossom 2017 with Justin Shaw

As our horrifying President falls for the bullying of North Korea with threats, I am revisiting some important art work that addresses the topic of nuclear war and nuclear pollution. In Seattle, a current exhibition at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific Experience called “Teardrops that Wound: The Absurdity of War” gives us stunning references to the bomb by descendants of survivors.

“The undetonated bomb is half sunken and surrounded by fallen cherry blossoms.”It is inspired by a chapter in Phong’s book “Einstein saves Hiroshima.” Phong imagines “icons of history make a different choice” it suggests a far different outcome from the death and destruction of dropping the bomb

Yukiyo Kawano Sad Tale of Tanuki


Yukio Kawano suggests the imaginary creatures of mythology in this “Little Boy” created from kimonos from Fukushima sewn with the artists own hair.

 

Part II History

 

2001: PLUTONIUM, MARCH 28, 1941,

Ann Rosenthal and Stephen Moore addressed this topic for many years and in many formats. They visited the sites of the tests, of the development of plutonium in Hanford Washington ( now being touted as part of the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park) and they went to Japan to the cities where the bombs were dropped.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a review I wrote of their work from 1995. It is still important today “Nuclear Bombs, Nuclear History and Postmodern Politics”  first published Reflex Magazine, 1994 – 1995, Seattle ( I cut out the postmodern politics section, but you can read it on my website)

 

After a burst of attention following the television “docudrama’ simulating the aftermath a nuclear attack “The Day After, (aired by ABC November 1982) and the disastrous accident at Chernobyl (April 25, 1986) nuclear power is currently “out of fashion” as a publicized subject for political art. But as the risk of nuclear components in the hands of terrorists continues, as do the health hazards of its production and storage, nuclear power is still an issue and a presence that we cannot afford to forget.

 

The recent (1995)uproar in Congress and among veterans’ groups over an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the dropping of the bomb reveals, atomic bomb history and nuclear power is still a carefully edited story. Ann T. Rosenthal and Stephen Moore in their installation  have produced a reminder, in response to that same anniversary, of the ongoing presence and dangers of contemporary nuclear power as well as a roadmap of that edited history.

 

“Infinity City” overlays and juxtaposes cultural artifacts in many media as a metaphor for the multi-layered and ambiguous presence of atomic and nuclear power in our lives and in history. It avoids the predictable quick hit cliches-there are very few mushroom clouds and they are small, encompassed in other imagery. The emphasis is much more subtle. It asks us to use our intellect as much as our emotions.
The exhibition has several parts.

The first part, “Tricity Trinity” marks a US map with the atomic triangle, the Pentagon, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Invoking the latter are blown-up blue line prints of tight rows of the lethal, leaking waste storage tanks at the Hanford Plutonium Plant. The waste tanks are paired with the orderly suburban houses of nearby Hanford, Washington, a community built after obliterating the preexisting community.

 

The second part of the show “Eternity Ignored” includes manipulated photographs of the abandoned runways at the military base at Tinian Island in the north Mariana Islands (halfway between New Guinea and Japan).

An eerie antithesis to a South Sea paradise, the wide, empty runways have small signs landscaped with flowers that mark the deep pits used only once, for loading the huge atomic bombs Little Boy and Fat Man onto B 29 planes. The site is striking, according to the artists, for its lack of historical documentation, its air of a military ghost town. That sense of the horrific transformed into the trite and the obscure is captured in their understated images.

The third part of the exhibition is titled “Target Japan.” It includes paintings invoking Japanese scrolls that overlay an aerial photo of Hiroshima Ground Zero with the very young men of the crew of the B 29 and the current Peace Park at the site.  . . .

Marking the back of the exhibition, and metaphorically casting its presence over the entire show, is a full scale black outline of Little Boy.

 

But for Ann Rosenthal and Stephen Moore these objects are only a point of departure. They are hoping to generate awareness, questions and even activism. On a table are books such as “Nuclear Culture”, “Missile Envy”, and “The Day the Sun Rose Twice”, as well as clippings about the current health problems from the plutonium production plant at Hanford. A news article details an exuberant Tri Cities near Hanford as the recipient of huge clean up funds that are ensuring the economic survival of the city for years to come.

 

The artists want to not only reach people with the subject, but give them possibilities for expressing their feelings within the exhibition itself. They provided an area for adding a work of art or a written statement. One such piece was by a Japanese student who remembered, in a stirring drawing, the shock of visiting the Hiroshima Peace Museum as a child.

 

Residents of Eastern Washington State commented that they have relatives who are downwinders from Hanford, relatives who helped build the bomb, relatives who fought in the war.

 

Most believe that dropping the bomb ended the war and saved lives. These responses add more layers to the cultural history of atomic and nuclear power and make the exhibition more effective than the use of a more controlled, didactic approach.

 

The artists have on ongoing involvement with the subject. They believe that “the atomic bomb changed our whole perception of reality and the future.” In 1982 they created several performances in Los Angeles as part of a group of six artists called UNARM. The group focused on the death and horror from just one nuclear detonation and sought to “raise the public awareness of the irreparable consequences, both physical and psychological, of the folly of nuclear proliferation.”

 

. . . . .

Rosenthal and Moore communicate by undermining a simple and dominant cultural myth – that American technological brilliance solves problems, wins wars, and of course “makes everything all right.” Underlying it is our knowledge that technology is actually destroying the planet both physically and psychically, in the microcosm and the macrocosm. Infinity City presents fragments of the invisible presence and history of the largest and most obvious psychic and physical manifestation of that destruction and of the misplaced values of our culture, atomic and nuclear energy.

 

Note: This article was written in 1994. The project continued for many years. Stephen Moore died in 2006, but Ann Rosenthal continues to be actively engaged with opposition to nuclear weapons.

See Ann’s own discussion of her work.

 

Part III “It is Heavy on my Heart” (2002)

Artist’s Statement Gail Tremblay

Gail Tremblay Lung and Diaphragm Tumors in a case of Epithelial Mesithelioma with embedded sound

 

“I first became aware of the effects of nuclear pollution on reservations in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when I began reading about rising cancer rates on the Navajo reservation. Because piles of radioactive dust and rock (tailings) from uranium mining had never been cleaned up by the corporations who did the mining, people living in areas on the reservation where the mining was done were suffering from the health problems associated with long term cumulative effects of radiation exposure.

 

Next, I heard about the effects of the Nuclear Testing of Atomic Bombs in Nevada on the health of the Shoshone peoples there. Then I heard about the negative health effects on Yakama and Coleville people caused by radioactive emissions and spills from the power plants at Hanford Nuclear Reservation where the earliest reactors were used to enrich uranium and create plutonium for the first nuclear bombs.

 

During the long period of the Cold War when several countries were testing nuclear weapons, people around the Arctic were exposed to large doses of nuclear fallout, and I began to hear stories about the health effects on Inupiat and Inuit peoples. Because indigenous people in all these places hunt and/or fish and gather local plant foods also exposed to radiation, native people concentrated much higher rates of radiation in their bodies than many non-native people in surrounding areas.

 

People who lived a less tradition life style and bought food in grocery
stores that was shipped in from less contaminated areas would still suffer from health problems, but generally there exposure levels were lower unless they grew and raised their own food.

At the same time, the U.S. government supported corporations like General Electric to develop Nuclear Power Plants, and this policy generated an incredible nuclear waste problem. U. S. officials eventually decided to look to reservations to create Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) facilities to house that waste while a permanent storage facility was built.

During the 1990’s, large amounts of money was paid to several tribal governments to do feasibility studies. When people in the various tribal communities being studied learned that their reservations were being considered, movements to stop MRS sites from being built divided communities into factions where large numbers of people didn’t want to risk radioactive contamination if an accident occurred. The U.S. government targeted reservations because they are by treaty sovereign nations and U.S. citizens in surrounding communities and states have no control over them. Many communities are still feeling the negative effects of this U.S. policy in their relationships and on their lives.

 

Current U.S. nuclear policy calls for building a permanent storage facility at Yucca Mountain, a place where much of the early testing of Atomic Bombs was done. Yucca Mountain lies on an earthquake fault and both the Shoshone people and millions of non-Indian citizens of the state of Nevada oppose this policy. Current U.S. Nuclear Posture Statements also call for the building of new nuclear power plants that will create more nuclear waste,the development of new, small nuclear weapons for use in “limited” nuclear wars, and the testing of these new weapons. One wonders how many more people
will suffer from rising cancer rates, birth defects and other health
problems related to nuclear pollution if such a policy is implemented.

 

Such policies are dangerous for all people on the planet, not just future enemies of the United States government, the only country to use nuclear weapons in war. But for people in indigenous nations who are most likely to be impacted by future mining, testing, or waste disposal, current nuclear policy statements are plans by the U.S. government to commit more, possibly genocidal, international crimes against humanity. It is immoral when a government endangers the right of peoples in nations inside their boundaries
to a healthy life practicing their traditional life ways on this planet,
Mother Earth, who has sustained life for countless generations. In the face of such policies, it is time for all Americans to stand up for the health of the planet and the health of all the beings on it. One needs to think about rising cancer rates among friends and relatives and to chose leaders who will make policies that are not quietly killing the people one loves.
Decisions that are not good for people being born Seven Generations in the future are bad decisions. No one should choose leaders who make bad decisions.

Gail Tremblay

Deborah Faye Lawrence: A Strumpet of Justice tells it like it is

 

 

 

In the window of Bonfire Gallery in the Panama Hotel, we see DeeDeeLorenzo (the artist’s alter ego) crying. She wears her signature flag dress, but now in somber dark shades, as she surveys the shambles of disheveled flags around her.

 

That sadness sets the tone for the cries or even screams in “Strumpet of Justice.”

In the title piece a determined female, plays an accordion emblazoned with a heart in the midst of  stars in a blue field, cut from flags. According to the artist, “a strumpet is a slovenly woman, a strumpet of justice puts aside lovelinesss in her efforts to change the world.”

 

We are immediately immersed in resistance on every wall as we enter the Bonfire Gallery. Flags surround us, but these flags do not wave in loyal patriotic gestures. Rather they speak to the artist’s strong message of opposition to what is happening in the world.

Lawrence has included some of her more crucial older works, particularly her two part Assassination Day Trays 2004 which recalls a personal experience on the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Leonard Peltier Tray 2000 “honors the Native American activist who has spent most of his life in U.S. prisons” as the artist explains.

 

Also about Native Americans, American Amnesty Tray declares amnesty for white people by Indians.

 

But many of these works are recent or even just created in response to our current horrifying political situation.

 

Several themes appear repeatedly including feminism, concern for the planet, corporate exploitation, gun fanaticism, and manipulation of language. Sometimes the artist defiantly exposes evils, such as the ongoing destruction of the planet by corporations.

In Targeting the American Dream, 2011 * shown here in a detail) the target painted on the elk dominates a landscape littered with corporate logos and set in a centrifugal arrangement of flag stripes.

 

 

 

See How We Are, 2011 echoes the simplistic children’s book Dick and Jane but what we “See” are Corporate Logos everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

On the theme of feminism, Eighty Words, (2014) declares that no matter how many crude expressions insult women, they still defy them all with an exuberant energy and solidarity.   Under the Banner, 2014 documents the many ways that a woman’s body can be occupied by corporate poisons.

 

The manipulation of language, always a favorite of the artist appears in Original Pledge, which documents the sources of the Pledge of Allegiance as written by Ralph Bellamy, a utopian thinker of the 19th century. Revisionism explains in detail how documents and prinicples have been “rewritten to the advantage of dictators,”

 

Finally, intersecting with her opposition to gun fanaticism is the manipulation of the second amendment which Lawrence spells out ( literally and figuratively) in two works on gun fanaticism, Open Carry 2016,  ( detail above) and NRA Sweepstakes. 2016.

 

But without question, a small recent work hits the nerve of our present moment most precisely. Called Ear Wax, it depicts a large ear on a yellow ground. The text around the outside describes the “overabundance of orange ear wax” that came out of her ear which is explained : “Fact: My body’s special defense system protects me from the foul deceptions which issues relentlessly from D.C.”

This work captures our bodily nausea and horror as we observe the arrogant and wanton efforts to destroy everything that we hold precious: our planet, our bodies, our diversity, our freedom, our basic belief in opportunity and health care for all. But as the Strumpet of Justice, Deborah Faye Lawrence, tells us, we can and must resist in every way that we know how. Pick your issue and get involved! We cannot afford to withdraw or give up. Our future is on the line.

Thank you Deborah for your inspiring work.

 

Immigration: Hopes Realized, Dreams Derailed The exhibition,the poetry and the music

 

 

Spaceworks Gallery Tacoma, June 20 – August 17, 2017 M – F 1-5

950 Pacific Ave. #205
Tacoma, WA 98401

(Entrance on 11th St.)

Third Thursday until 9PM. Multimedia Program August 17

Entrance Shot by Scott Story, Bioluminous, all photos with astericks by Scott Story

INTRODUCTION

Only one mile from this gallery, in the toxic, industrial zone of Tacoma, the Northwest Detention Center, holds hundreds of detainees in a warehouse. Run by the for-profit corporation GEO, the government (that is us) pays more than 100. 00 for each bed occupied each night. The detainees do all the work of the center for $1. per day. They are treated like criminals, but they have committed no crimes. Crossing a border with correct visas is a “malum prohibitum” wrong only because the law prohibits it, not because it is morally wrong. (malum in se). It is a civil offence. People who have crossed borders without papers are escaping violence, and simply seek to support their families in safety. To get legal papers in Mexico or in the US is virtually impossible. The DREAM act first supported by President Bush in 2005 provided the crucial “path to citizenship” but it failed in the Senate in 2010.

 

But behind these facts and statistics are the personal stories of mothers, fathers, children, aunts, uncles, grandmothers and friends who live in fear every time they wake up in the morning, but resolutely go to work, care for their families, and maintain hope.

Children’s drawing created in response to question How have immigration laws affected you at a May Day booth organized by Susan Platt and Raul Sanchez

Children live in fear. Youth live constricted lives because they lack social security numbers, drivers’ licenses, even library cards. The Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has given some of them a way forward, but the program can be cancelled at any moment.

At the same time, the deportation of parents make orphans and exiles of thousands of citizen children every year. Here is a pyramid of anxieties as illustrated in the book by Luis Zayas Forgotten Citizens, Deportation, Children and the Making of American Exiles and Orphans. The illustration is by researcher Joanna Dreby.

 

Hardworking families saving money from two or three minimum wage jobs lose it all to an unsavory lawyer. Savings for a college education goes to enable a deported father to return to his home and family. The vivid book by Roberto Gonzales Lives in Limbo Undocumented and Coming of Age in America describes these events as he follows children into young adulthood.

Eduardo Trujillo performing his poetry*

But there are also success stories, stories of resistance, of defiance, of courage. These are even less reported in the media, more frequently stories we don’t hear.

Installation*

 

“Immigration, Hopes Realized, Dreams Derailed” suggests some of those stories of courage, of defiance, of perseverance, of hope and dreams, as well as including the dark side of immigration, most specifically here in Tacoma, at the Northwest Detention Center itself.

 

Ricardo Domingez poster at entrance*

The artists, poets, activists, and musicians in this exhibition and programming shed light on our current immigration policies, its damage to individuals and families, its injustice, its corporate roots, its absurdities and the courageous individuals who resist.

 

We include painting, sculpture, drawing, collage, glass art, film, photography, and video as well as poetry, music and spoken word. The works range from heartfelt to playful, from interactive to informative, from poetic to didactic. The artists, poets and performers include undocumented immigrants, former detainees, current detainees, DACAs, college students, self- taught artists, and professional artists.

 

 

 

THE ENTRANCE

At the entrance to the gallery, you see a painting by Blanca Santander, Esperanza Abandonada (Abandoned Hope)  depicting a doll impaled on the other side of a barbwire fence. Its poignant image of a child who has lost her beloved doll, crossing the line into another place, a child who has left behind childhood, familiar languages and culture, as well as a life close to the land, speaks directly to the hardships of fleeing home to enter an unknown place.

 

Tatiana Garmendia 3 Joses ( center) and A Green and Peaceful Neighborhood ( left and right) 2017*

In an alcove just to the right is the installation of the work of Tatiana Garmendia. Pale pencil portraits and texts  drawn on distressed handkerchiefs honor three generations of men in her family: grandfather, father and son (her brother).  We feel the tearing of family as the artist distressed the surface of the handkerchiefs. Her pale writing and drawing on the white background suggests holding onto a disappearing memory.  But she brings them to us through her poetic invocations.

 

The handkerchiefs are framed on both sides by embroidered doilies mounted on drone shots of a suburban neighborhood. On each doily the artist carefully embroidered brief searing references to a nighttime raid based on her own experience in Cuba, but as she states, “it can happen anywhere, anytime. Geographical differences and generational distance between persecuted groups vanish in light of human suffering.”

Maria de Los Angeles Undocumented 2016

Indeed, this emotional trauma is echoed in the drawing in the main gallery by

Maria De Los Angeles, “Undocumented,” in which we see a family trying to protect themselves and resist an invasion by ICE officials who spout off nationalist clichés. De Los Angeles, an artist who is undocumented, bravely explores the nightmares of detention raids in her work.

Maria de Los Angeles Holding Everything Up, 2016

She also honors those who work in her small drawing Holding Everything Up:  a man and a woman balance on a ball, as they struggle to support a floor that holds up oblivious party goers.

 

The VIDEOS

 

The video viewing room includes several videos, two by Tatiana Garmendia.

Tatiana Garmendia Still from video Border Crossing

In Border Crossing, 2015, the artist lies almost naked face up, with eyes staring, as we hear a partially coherent series of phrases “the mouth of the border has nothing to say; my border is a mouth; you crossed with nothing to say; why did you cross my home,” and many more variations on these words taken from Reza Mohammadi’s poem “You Crossed the Border.”  The motionless body is spotlighted from above, as though a surveillance airplane has found her.

 

Viewing the Unravelling*

Garmendia’s animation The Unravelling, 2017 functions as both a prose poem and a visual journey that dramatically tells of her father’s arrest and her mother’s grieving.

 

https://vimeo.com/122589913

Detention Nation an activist artists’ collective based in Houston, present their installation Sin Huellas (Without a Trace), through the video by Brenda Cruz-Wolf. Sin Huellas recreates the inside of a detention center, with lined up bunk beds and toilets conveying the complete lack of privacy in these facilities. Videos, letters and artwork document the horrifying day-to-day experiences of detainees.

The Wall, by Hide and Seek Productions, is an animation of a grandmother and her grandson fleeing a flaming city, and their struggles to survive and escape a refugee camp next to a wall.

Finally, Think Like a Scientist: Boundaries, gives us the photographer Krista Schlyer who spent the last seven years documenting the environmental effects of the U.S./Mexico border wall, and biologist Jon Beckmann, who studies how man-made barriers influence the movement of wildlife.  The video combines animation and film to highlight the huge ecological impacts of a dividing wall on animals that traditionally migrate through this border territory.

 

INSIDE THE GALLERY

Clarita Malla left, MalPina Chan prints on wall, Pavel Bahmatov central display*

 

Inside the gallery, we immediately face the stunning work of Pavel Bahmatov, purses, boxes, and other objects, created when he was detained in the Northwest Detention Center(NWDC). Using ramen wrappers and dental floss, Bahmatov weaves together objects of great beauty. He speaks of alleviating the immense boredom of detention by making these objects. Bahmatov was abruptly moved to the Dalles in Oregon this spring. He is currently at a County Jail, an even worse environment that the Northwest Detention Center.

Detail of hats by Clarita Malla*

Currently in the NWDC Filipina Clarita Malla creates woven scarves and hats as her ongoing separation from her family and her grandchildren endlessly stretches from one hearing to the next, from one month to the next.

MalPina Chan A Nation of Immigrants in Pursuit of Happiness, 2017(left) and Underneath it all, we are all the same, 2017 (right

MalPina Chan, in her subtle layered works, speaks of the hypocrisy of our policies compared to our rhetoric, as well as pointing out that “we are all the same” in a dramatic count of the bones, organs, and amount of water in every human.

 

Deborah Faye Lawrence Game of the Occupied States

Deborah Faye Lawrence’s intense bright red “tv dinner tray” collage Game of the Occupied States, (“Buy and Sell from Coast to Coast”) provides a chilling image of a police state with surveillance towers punctuating a border fence around the whole country. Criss-crossing the country are tanks, soldiers, and transports run by prison companies.

Janice LaVerne Baker, Immigration, 2014

Janice La Verne Baker quietly conveys the anxiety of confrontation with immigration officials,

while Arni Adler speaks to the same subject in Ushering In ( above right) and the Welcoming,( above right) painted in direct response to outpouring of protest to the “muslim ban” that the current administration attempted to introduce in January.

Devin Reynolds’ bold paintings provide an historical as well as a humorous reference to the unavoidable fact that racism underlies the entire subject of immigration, from the first white settlers to the present day.

Pam Orazem*

Pam Orazem amusingly caricatures the power games of the manipulators of immigration policy.

 

Andrea Eaton’s silkscreen print Guadalupe Garcia,

 

and

 

Marilyn Montufar*

Marilyn Montufar’s photograph Dani (one of a series following Dani’s life) both refer to women who face the challenges of deportation. Montufar’s small portraits on glass pay homage to two of the many women who have lost their lives in Juarez, Mexico as they attempted to make a living at the maquiladora factories on the border.

Christian French INS Game*

 

Christian French invites us to play a board game. He suggests the constant back and forth of the Naturalization process, with one step forward, and two steps back. The original of this work is embedded in the floor of the old INS (Immigation and Naturalization Service) building in Seattle, that has been transformed into artists’ studios. The fact that that center included Naturalization whereas the Northwest Detention Center serves, with only a few lucky exceptions, as a way station to deportation, tellingly exposes the shift in our policies to increasingly draconian approaches.

David Long painting mural*

 

David Long’s

mural partners

with our video “Sin Huellas” (without a trace). He gives us the words of the Hunger Strikers demands at the NWDC. We see the terrible conditions the detainees are subjected to when we read this letter. None of their demands have been met.

Nearby the writings and drawings by children created in a May Day project with Raul Sanchez and myself in 2016, speak loudly to the trauma of immigration policy as it strikes the young.

   

Ricardo Gomez created a group of sculptures from found shoe shine boxes. As we open each box, called Portrait of a Migrant, we see our face reflected back from a mirror inside.  We all migrate, he says, we all move from one place to another, adjust to new cultural contexts.

In Two Sides of the Wall, he simply placed a saw diagonally across a labyrinth game, with workers made from Lego pieces on each side.

 

The interactive poster, Where do your ancestors come from? Invites us to add our own information going back four generations.

 

 

 

Last, Gomez in collaboration with Angie Tamayo assembled the Mi-gra-tion book in a flip flap format, here embroidered by a Woman’s Collective in Oaxaca. Migrants tell their stories. As we “flip-flap” through the three part texts and photos, we hear shared experiences in many voices.

There are two groups of work in the exhibition First there are selections from the 2012 Migration Now portfolio (organized by Justseeds/CultureStrike).

Installation Migration Now*

Viewing Migration Now*

The Migration Now portfolio created by nationally known artists includes reference to many aspects of the immigration crisis, including corporations profiting from the detention centers and the devastating impact of immigration policies on indigenous peoples, families, children, LGBTQ, and Muslims. Some confront the environmental catastrophe of the wall, reinforcing our video Think Like a Scientist: Boundaries

 

Migration Now Portfolio artists, sponsored by Justseeds /CultureStrike: Lalo Alcaraz, Santiago Armengod, Felipe Baeza, Jesus Barraza Melanie Cervantes, Raoul Deal, Emory Douglas, Molly Fair, Art Hazelwood Ray Hernandez, Nicolas Lampert, Josh Mac Phee, Dylan Miner, Oscar Magallanes, Colin Matthis, Fernando Martí, Oree Originol, Favianna Rodriguez, Roger Peet, Shaun Pete Yahnke Railand, Julio Salgado, Silfer and Janay Brun, Meredith Stern, Mary Tremonte, Erik Ruin, Kristine Virsis, Ernesto Yerena

Viewing Arni Adler and student portfolio

Second there is the group of posters by Beverly Naidus’ students from the class “Art & Global Justice,” at the University of Washington, Tacoma. Here is a selection of them

Cassandra Green My Dream was an Illusion

Josephine Green Fenced In

Leni Reinwald

Karla Gonzalez La Jaula D’Oro

Krystal Hedrick Practice Resistance

Art and Global Justice Project artists, taught by Beverly Naidus, artist/writer/activist and associate professor of interdisciplinary arts, UW Tacoma: Diana Algomeda, Fazeema Bano, George Camacho, Emily Clouse, DA James Christian Flores, Karla Gonzalez,  Cassandra Green, Josephine Green, Ryan Hanley, Krystal Hedrick, Natalie Lawrence, Wesley Scott, Carolyn Reed, Levi Reinwald

 

POETS MUSICIANS ACTIVISTS  

July 20

Smokey Wonder, hip-hop free form DJ, Mr. Wonder seeks to unify today’s music with that of the past, creating interesting and unique sonic compositions glo’d up with scratches, beat juggling, mixing, and blending techniques to rock the party.

Ricardo Gomez, Associate Professor at the University of Washington Information School, and faculty affiliate with the Latin American & Caribbean Studies Program and the UW Center for Human Rights. He specializes in social dimensions of the use (or non-use) of communication technologies, especially in community development settings. He will be presenting selections from migrant stories included in Fotohistorias, and Mi-gra-tion.

 

Eduardo Trujillo, passionate refugee who seeks for a way to bring peace of mind to those incarcerated and or in fear of deportation. Eduardo brings hope to people through music and spoken word.

David Garcia, artist from Walla Walla, writes multicultural poetry to express his ideas and to give hope to people.

Raúl Sanchez, bilingual poet, an interpreter, translator, a 2014 Jack Straw Fellow, Poetry on Buses judge, a TEDx participant, human rights advocate and a mentor for the PONGO program in the Seattle Juvenile Detention Center

Maiah Alicia Merino, Mexican-American Indigena writer, writes poetry, prose, short stories and plays.  Maiah weaves culture, language, present and past to bring vibrant characters to life–speaking life into the shape of the stories.

Marcus Berley, poet, has written a dozen volumes of poetry, mostly in the short, simple style developed over the centuries in China and Japan.  For the past 5+ years he has worked professionally as a psychotherapist, primarily with children and adolescents.

Anna Bálint, poet, is the author of Horse Thief, a collection of short fiction spanning cultures and continents and two earlier books of poetry. She recently edited Words from the Café, an anthology of writing from people in recovery.

Here is Scott Story’s vimeo about the performance evening.

 

August 17

Tello and the Invisibles. The new song or La Nueva Cancion, of Latin America is a musical movement that has its roots in folk music and expresses the concerns, hopes and struggles of the people. It is music with a social message. Not necessarily protest music, but music that speaks of love, hope, justice and equality.  La Nueva Cancion is the voice of human rights. It is music by the people for the people.

Maru Mora Villalpando, Bellingham, Wa, Bellingham, Wa, is community organizer, founder of Latino Advocacy, member of the National Campaign Not One More Deportation and co-founder of NWDC Resistance

Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Ph.D. is the author of several collections of poetry, including the recently released The Runaway Poems, addressing the epidemic of runaway youth.  The daughter of immigrant farmworkers from Durango Mexico, Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs has represented the United States abroad as a Chicana poet, in several countries.

Marcos Martinez is Executive Director of Casa Latina, a worker center in Seattle, WA. Casa Latina serves immigrant Latinx day laborers and domestic workers through employment, education and community organizing. Marcos formerly served as Executive Director of Entre Hermanos, a nonprofit Latino LGBTQ community. Before moving to Seattle, Marcos spent 20 years working at community radio KUNM in Albuquerque, NM.

Rocio Lopez, daughter of Angelica Guillen, is reading poetry by her mother. Angelica Guillen, Professor of Composition and Literature, Skagit Valley College: 1992-2010. Cesar Chavez Human and Civil Rights Award in 2010.  Her heartfelt poetry comes from her life experiences as a Campesina for 18 years, working in Skagit Valley fields while living in a migrant labor camp outside LaConner, WA and her lifelong experience as a Latina woman.

 

Zhi LIN: In Search of the Lost History of Chinese Migrants and the Transcontinental Railroads

 

As we enter the exhibition “Zhi LIN, In Search of the Lost History of Chinese Migrants and the Transcontinental Railroads,” we face a large scale pale ink drawing of a wide railroad track that recedes rapidly into the distance in an empty, desolate landscape with the title “Golden Spike Celebrations-Chinese Workers’ Vantage Point of Andrew J. Russell’s Champagne Photo Site 2008.” Here we see the drawing with the artist posing in front of it.

 

In the drawing, there is no one in sight. And that of course is the point.

At Promontory Point Utah, on May 10, 1869, the transcontinental railroad connected the United States from one coast to the other. Andrew J. Russell memorialized the event in his iconic photograph “East Meets West at the Laying of the Last Rail.” In the photograph two engineers hang off the facing steam engines holding bottles of champagne, as the leaders of the two railroad lines shake hands.

 

The  Chinese workers who constructed the railroad from California to Nevada are nowhere to be seen.

 

Every summer that event is re-enacted. Every summer the exclusion of the Chinese workers continues.

 

The backbreaking work by Chinese Migrants in subzero winter storms and blazing summers, hacking tunnels through solid rock in Donner Pass, working twice as fast as other workers, losing their lives in the hazardous work and through the vigilante murders of those who stayed on, all of that history had been expunged, deleted, unrecorded.

 

Zhi Lin, Professor of Art at the University of Washington, has spent many years unearthing scanty records and material remains, as he followed in the workers steps and empathized with their experiences.

 

He thought carefully how he could make their history come alive. He did not want to simply create imaginary realistic portraits. The result is this extraordinary exhibition.

 

“Zhi LIN, In Search of the Lost History of Chinese Migrants and the Transcontinental Railroads,” ranges from almost abstract paintings that unscroll across long walls to tiny ink drawings.

Entirely filling one wall, a video projection of a slow moving steam locomotive moves toward a facing locomotive The engines stop with enough space for two engineers to hang off the front, as they clink their bottles. But in this film, we see the engineers from the back. Zhi Lin photographed the reenactment in 2014 from behind the trains. His film has the title “ ‘Chinaman’s Chance’ on Promontory Summit: Golden Spike Celebration 12:30 PM 10th May 1869, 2014.

The engines are in the forward plane of the film space, creating the effect of sitting directly on top of the 5 tons of rock ballasts, the supports for railroad tracks. The rocks are piled on the floor of the gallery space. Looking closely at the stones, we see names written in red. They suggest a giant graveyard for the Chinese workers with the materials of the construction of the track. But the names repeat over and over. The artist wrote the few names of Chinese workers that he found in railroad pay records, but he believes even those names, supposedly of leaders of groups of workers, were actually made up nicknames.

 

The film lays out the facts:

“During road construction, several thousand of [the  Chinese workers] were badly injured and disfigured, and at least 1,300 lost their lives.  The dead were never counted, nor have they been memorialized. From shallow graves along the roadbeds, some 12,000 pounds of bones, about 1,200 workers, were gathered and shipped back to China.”

 

Chinese migrants, originally drawn to the US by tales of golden mountains, often ended up working in mines. Their incredible work ethic and skill soon led them to be recruited for the excruciatingly difficult job of digging tunnels through solid rock in the Sierra Nevada what Charles Crocker, an owner of the Central Pacific Railroad referred to as “bone-labor.”

 

Lin forced himself to re-experience the conditions of these workers by revisiting the sites of their labor in the same weather conditions in which they worked:

“I descended deep valleys and icy tunnels, crossed rivers and streams, climbed snow hills, cliffs and summits, walked on flat-burned campgrounds and along railroad tracks and paid tributes to Chinese graveyards. I made a special trip … facing the winter elements.”

His delicate ink drawings of these sites ironically adopt the romantic approach to landscape practiced in Europe. This work (above) has the title “Railway Tunnels on Donner Summit, California – A Rectification to Albert Bierstad’t Donner Lake from the Summit” ( see Bierstadt below) which romanticizes the view and obscures the tunnel.

 

The next chapter of the story, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, triggered vigilantes to expel the Chinese from communities in the Northwest and California, from Tacoma in 1885, Seattle in 1886 and from hundreds of other towns where racists burned entire neighborhoods and even massacred hundreds of people.

To honor these nightmarish tragedies, Lin turned to very long narrow almost abstract painting with titles like Snowstorm on the Cascade Summit Switchback” and “Sunset on Cascade” 2016. These intricate works on Chinese paper combine woodblock printing and painting; the closer we look, the more we see.

Lin anchored the abstractions with found objects and shapes as references to the vanished workers such as the frog fastenings on their jacket, or the ghostly outline of a worker carrying a pair of buckets on a long pole on his shoulders

First we see the large hieroglyphic, calligraphic drawing which suggests a figure, then the stunning gestural detail and finally the layered abstractions of the background.

 

The last component of the exhibition focuses on Tacoma itself, and the horrifying expulsion of the Chinese on a cold rainy day in November of 1885, driven out by hundreds of vigilantes, armed guards, including even the Mayor.

 

For this topic, Lin created a more traditional scroll in scale and style depicting the 197 Chinese workers, their elders and their children as they struggle down Pacific Avenue, on the way to the Lakeview Railway station.

 

In addition, small ink drawings meticulously record the details of the expulsions and subsequent burning of Chinatown. One drawing is inscribed in part: “Elderly and sick Chinese rode on the wagons, the rest followed on foot, wrapped in blankets, carrying possessions on their backs. Some Chinese walked barefoot on the muddy road, and many cried.”

 

Another states, “The station master sold 77 tickets to the Chinese who could afford the train to Portland. Others were loaded on boxcars on a freight train next morning. For several days woebegone Chinese could be seen walking south along the tracks. Among the Chinese, two elderly people died from exposure.”

Lin pursued detailed research to create these works and captions. In the exhibition we can glimpse one part of his research, a map that marks the Chinese businesses and homes in pink, prior to their destruction.

 

Lin’s training in both Eastern and Western art techniques and conceptual thinking enables him to draw on every style, and transform it to tell this story, so crucial to changing our understanding of the history of the US.

 

Congratulations to the Tacoma Art Museum for supporting the painful exposure of a part of the city’s history that had been forgotten. The exhibition continues until February 18, 2018. It is accompanied by an thoughtful and fully illustrated catalog.

Margaret Fuller 1810-1850-From Transcendentalist Philosopher to Investigative Journalist

 

 

 

**Last week, as I gazed out into the ocean at a sandbar just offshore from Point O’ Woods, Fire Island, I found it hard to believe that on July 19, 1850 Margaret Fuller, brilliant member of the Transcendentalist circle, feminist, and journalist, drowned there as her sailing ship lay aground in a raging storm.

 

I was standing on that beach because my brother, Alexander D. Platt, had organized Margaret Fuller Day in Point O’Woods to honor the memory of this extraordinary woman. The guest of honor was Megan Marshall who won the Pulitzer prize for her book Margaret Fuller A New American Life.   In addition we heard from two speakers on “Margaret Fuller’s 1844 Journal and its Unfolding Stories,” Finally we had a lively presentation on the shipwreck itself and the shortcomings of rescue techniques in 1850.

 

In these presentations, Fuller emerged as a pioneering feminist, philosopher, and journalist at a time in the 1830s and 1840s when women had little freedom to speak, write, or even think for themselves.Fuller planted the seeds for radical women in Boston that led to the feminist movement in the United States which began in earnest in 1848 at Seneca Falls.

 

Why did she drown off the coast of Point O’Woods?? Fuller had sailed from Italy where she had been reporting on the Italian revolution (note how extraordinary that fact alone is),  had fallen in love with an impoverished radical count, and had a baby out of wedlock. Fuller  was a radical women who ignored social mores, believed in the equality of the sexes, and pioneered fearlessly in everything she did.

 

 

But the sailing ships of the 19th century were fragile in the face of wild storms and to be shipwrecked was usually fatal.

 

She, her lover (possibly her husband) and her baby all drowned in the shipwreck caused by the incompetence of a substitute captain ( the captain had died of smallpox shortly after the departure from Italy.) The ship was a sailing ship, (steamboats  cost more and she was impoverished), it carried a marble statue by Hiram Powers of John Calhoun commissioned by the city of New Orleans and other marble. The marble cargo meant that the ship could not get off the sandbar where it had run aground, and it was gradually torn to pieces by a storm.

A few crew members swam ashore, the captain’s wife came ashore on a specially rigged line (as in Homer’s Life Line, a more organized version of that process) , but Fuller refused to leave the ship, her baby and her lover, she did not know how to swim. They all drowned. Meanwhile on shore scavengers ignored the stranded people and collected the ship’s cargo. At that time no manned lifeboats existed on the shore. (The image above is imaginary and apocryphal, reducing Fuller to a passive traditional woman.)

But the main story is Margaret Fuller herself and the context in which she developed. She was blunt, outspoken and brilliant at a time when few women spoke at all.  Her brilliance was the direct result of her education by her father, who taught her from a precocious age, and her own self education. She went from studying Latin at the age of six to exploring conditions for women in prisons as a journalist in the 1840s.

 

Margaret Fuller stood out among the free thinkers who congregated in Concord Massachusetts in the late 1830s and 1840s around Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was a dazzling presence among the men of the Transcendentalist circle, all of whom, had women to support them.

 

Thinking it would give us insights into that Transcendentalist circle (wonderfully described in Susan Cheever’s book American Bloomsbury) my husband and I went to an exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library “This Ever New Self, Thoreau and His Journals.” The exhibition honors the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth.

 

What we learned is that Thoreau is the polar opposite of Margaret Fuller, suggesting the breadth of the transcendentalist movement. He was an introvert who spent a lot of time alone, looking at nature, recording its changes, supported financially most of the time, by the money of other people, as well as in his personal needs by his mother. Fuller was an extrovert and a single woman.   She had to support herself, and frequently she was supporting her family as well.

 

Still, before returning to Fuller, I want to mention that as a writer, I loved the Thoreau exhibition, even though he had little to do with Margaret Fuller.

 

The exhibition outlined his interests and his politics. Coming from an elite Harvard education, as did Emerson (but not Nathaniel Hawthorn or Bronson Alcott), Thoreau took the transcendentalist resistance to conventions the farthest, he shed all social expectations, almost all possessions, and  spent much of his time observing and recording the details of the natural world.  But he shared his amazing knowledge as a teacher ( Louisa May Alcott as a young girl was his pupil and had a crush on him), and,  in his well known writings.

 

The central idea of the Transcendentalists was that nature is the source of true spirituality, more than any God constructed by organized religion. But humans fail to recognize their mystical connection to nature in their distraction with material possessions. Emerson first developed this in his essay on Nature in 1836.   But Thoreau went much further in his immersion in the minutiae of nature itself. As a result of his detailed observations of birds, flowers, trees, insects and so much else, his journals are a useful reference today as climate change eliminates so many species, and the dates of seasonal blooming changes radically. (See Walden Warming, Climate Change comes to Thoreau’s woods, by Richard B Primack)

 

At the same time, he participated in the world. The exhibition highlighted Thoreau’s fervent defense of John Brown (an odd campaign for the peaceful men of Concord, which Susan Cheever finds horrifying and based on their naivete) , his disdain for a government that justified slavery, his assistance on the escape of slaves to Canada.

 

Another section addressed his knowledge of the indigenous people of Concord, the Wampanoag. He learned their language, he discovered their artifacts, he respected their beliefs. Indeed his perspective on nature is much closer to indigenous beliefs in the continuity between ourselves and the natural world, than that of the Enlightenment in which we are the conquerors of the natural world.

 

As a writer, I was most excited by his process: he  walked about with small scraps of paper on which he made notes, he then transferred these to a journal, from that journal he excerpted for lectures, and edited sections for books. (I kept thinking of my own utterly disorganized journals that hopefully no one should or will ever read).

 

Although Fuller of course knew Thoreau in Concord as she spent more and more time there with Emerson, as the editor of the

literary/philosophical magazine the Dial in 1840-42,  her main focus was philosophy, words, ideas, thoughts, literature, writing and above all conversation and social connections in the most positive sense of substantive friendships. She and Emerson had an intense relationship, although probably not a sexual one. ( as was also the case with Nathaniel Hawthorne).

 

She invited many women to contribute to the Dial, and wrote fervently on the equality of men and women ( see below).

 

As a critic, I particularly appreciated her writing on criticism, in this passage showing both her acerbic wit and her sharp insights:   “Essays, entitled critical, are epistles addressed to the public, through which the mind of the recluse relieves itself of its impressions. . . . Or they are regular articles got up to order by the literary hack writer, for the literary mart, and the only law is to make them plausible… Critics are poets cut down, says some one–by way of jeer; but, in truth, they are men with the poetical temperament to apprehend, with the philosophical tendency to investigate”

 

In other words to be a good critic you need to be a philosopher, poet and observer. I like that idea.

 

Most of the Transcendental group were entirely broke, most of the time. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had inherited money from a young wife who died young, supported almost everybody.  Fuller edited the Dial without  pay – she supported herself with occasional teaching and “conversations,” held at a bookstore run by Eliza Peabody, another feminist and first female publisher in Boston. These all female conversations among the intelligentsia of Boston became a strong foundation of the suffragette movement.

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that Thoreau submit a piece to the Dial. Fuller rejected it with caustic words   “the thoughts seem to me so out of their natural order, that I could not read it through without pain. I never once felt myself in a stream of thought, but seem to hear the grating of tools on the mosaic.  “

 

Fuller had to make a living, so she boldly moved on to New York City to be the first female journalist for a major newspaper, invited by Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune. She pioneered front page stories on orphan asylums and conditions in women’s prisons.  She convinced the newspaper to send her to Europe to cover the 1848 uprisings there and that is how she came to be on the sailing ship Elizabeth, after reporting on the Italian revolution. Thoreau himself went to look for her lost manuscript about the Italian revolution, but he came back without it.

 

But in the end, going to the beach at Point O Woods, a stunning expanse of uninterrupted ocean ( very different from our rocky cliffs and steep forests here on the west coast), all I could think of was how close to shore the sailing ship went aground, only 50 meters and how incredible that Margaret Fuller and her family drowned there, with scavengers standing on the beach.

In Point O Woods, a gazebo was erected in honor of Fuller, (the dynamic women’s committee wanted a library, but the men of Point O Woods only approved a gazebo. It washed out to sea a few years later.

 

 

But there are other memorials to Margaret Fuller in Boston and Cambridge, as detailed on this blog.

 

Her greatest monument though is her own writing. Women of the Nineteenth Century, expanded from her 1843 essay in the Dial advocating equality of the sexes “The Great Lawsuit: Man vs Men, Woman vs Women.” She was way ahead of her time in suggesting that “there is no wholly masculine male and no purely feminine woman.” Her letters reveal her deep friendships in My Heart is a Large Kingdom, her book Summer on the Lakes in 1843 on her trip on the great lakes (going on steamers from one place to another) marks a particular time and again her perceptions are far ahead of her contemporaries.

 

She describes staying on  Mackinaw Island where Chippewa and Ottowa tribes “are here to receive their annual payments from the American government. As their habits make travelling easy and inexpensive, neither being obliged to wait for steamboats or write to see whether hotels are full,  they come hither by thousands and those thousands in families, secure of accommodation on the beach and food from the lake. ” There follows a rant on the iniquities of so called Christian traders who offer the Indians rum in order to take advantage of them.

 

My local public library even had Life Without and Life Within, Reviews, Narratives, Essays and Poems, published by her brother in 1895. In it I found her review of Frederick Douglass’s newly published autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass published by the Anti Slavery Office in Boston, 1845. “It is an excellent piece of writing and on that score to be prized as a specimen of the powers of the black race, which prejudice persists in disputing. We prize highly all evidence of this kind, and it is becoming more abundant.”

 

Fuller,  like all the Transcendetalists, immersed herself in German philosophy, and classical literature,  but she moved on to address the world as she saw it in the 1840s, a world of inequalities, of slavery, of exploitation. She courageously opposed in her life and in her writings, the oppressions of traditional social and religious practices and the repression of women.

 

I wish she were here today with her incisive writing. We need her fearless voice to address the ignorance and hypocrisy of our current leaders as they celebrate escalating oppression in the guise of “freedom.”

 

** I have been away from this blog since February because I had knee surgery.  I am still not going to large exhibitions, but here is my modest return.

Kerry James Marshall Maestro and Shaman

 

Kerry James Marshall. A stunning retrospective exhibition at the Met Breuer featured room after room of his magnificent paintings, filled with magnificent people who are very black, blacker than real African Americans to the point of being confrontationally black for a white museum audience. These black people are how white people see black people, all one shade of darkness, an absence in the landscape, a trope of fear, a criminal, a threatening presence. Black person coming? Time to cross the street.

 

But wait. These black people are simply living their lives, they are living in the housing developments that were built to provide a utopian future for impoverished people. The developments had lawns and playgrounds. The city has public parks to play in. That was enough wasn’t it? As in my photograph taken not far from the North end of Central Park in New York City, these were “wonderful communities”. So what are these people doing?

 

They are enjoying life, they are walking hand in hand, they are riding bicycles, they are celebrating Easter. But who are they looking at? Usually, not each other. Or if they do look at each other, their eyes also seem to look out toward us at the same time, as in the Wentworth Gardens painting “Better Homes, Better Gardens”. They seem on guard, as though these pastimes are somehow going to be taken away at any moment. They are frozen, not moving, not joyful, not relaxed. They live in the grip of a dream of life, a life free of surveillance, crime, dirt, broken elevators, overflowing washing machines, petty thieves, poverty, gangs, children who die, husbands who vanish or get shot, wives who die. No, none of those aspects of life are depicted here, but they lurk just under the surface.The surface paint patterns, suggesting overgrown flowers or fountains slightly out of control, are more like graffiti or something more generic, simple defacement.

 

Children have dates on them, the date of their death.

 

Fathers dig holes – are they graves? The lid of a picnic baskets becomes a shield. These people are striving for life, they are taking what is offered as much as they can, but it can disappear any minute. And the disappearance is because of who these people are staring out at, outsiders, white people, police, drug dealers. Invisible in these paintings, next to these ordinary people trying to live their lives, are all those threats. These are Kerry James Garden Series.

 

In his retrospective, racism, darkness, fear, death lurks behind every single painting, sometimes obviously, sometimes more subtly. Marshall honors African American as well as white heroes, he memorializes those who have died in the cause of freedom for slaves, or former slaves. He knows his history, and he honors those who died such as the Stono Group ( a little known slave uprising in 1739)and Nat Turner, much less lionized than the white John Brown.

 

Nat Turner with the decapitated head of his master shakes up a white viewer. We are used to dead “others” or historic long time ago dead, but here is a white “master” from the US decapitated by an uprising slave! Wow.

 

But Marshall confronts other prejudices. He gives us love. We white people do not think of African Americans as enjoying love amongst themselves because we are obsessed with their sexuality as a threat to us. The black white divide has always “swung” on that fear. Marshall not only gives us loving couples, he gives us eroticism, black naked women and men, he gives us romance.

 

Last he gives us art, he gives us art history, he brilliantly quotes our most famous historical icons, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Edouard Manet, Diego Velazquez, not to mention more recent artists. He quotes styles, plays with decoration, minimalism, text, staging.  Much is made of his painting in the catalog for the Breuer exhibition. On and on they write about the paint, the paint, the paint. And the art historical references, and the contemporary references, almost always to white artists, as though that will legitimize the work.

 

But the central theme of Marshall is to correct an absence. Absence of the black body as subject, as human, as living, as romantic, in the history of art, in museums, in our lives. And the underlying sea of references, about which we could go on layering ideas all day, are the celebration of African religions, mysteries, symbolism, right on equal footing with all those nice white guy quotes. The integration of these two worlds is what Marshall seeks. ( This is the only mystical work included in our press images)

 

Part II

It was absolutely amazing to me that all the experts writing repeatedly in the catalog about the importance of A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self 1980 never mentioned that it gives back to the white gaze what we see as white people, which is caricature, shadow, teeth, eyes. That is the reason for the title.

We do not see the person, the humanity, the complexity, the dignity (as suggested in the Charles White painting above, Marshall’s most important mentor).

 

The painting is  significant not as a portrait, but as a manifesto, an absolute expose of prejudice. Marshall’s black on black paintings of “invisible man” based on the Ralph Ellison book as he has said repeatedly, emphasize that inability of white people to see black at all as anything other than one single dark place. But as you look harder into these paintings many details emerge, subtleties, nuances. That is what we white people all need to do. (Notably our press packet included not a single one, the self portrait came from the internet)

 

In  Untitled (Studio), as Helen Molesworth points out, the artist is absent. The models are present, the act of making art is present. The wonderful vocabulary of references and styles is present.

 

The artist is present in the “untitled” portraits of artists, but again we see the caricature of white prejudice, the traditional portrait format is exaggerated, large torso, direct gaze, holding a giant palette, an irrefutable presence; but behind lurks a paint by numbers canvas. If we cannot see humanity in African Americans, we cannot see the enormous subtlety of their art either. So he gives us the artists and the paint itself, because we can understand that (and understand we do, endlessly reveling in those piles of paint on the palettes, wow, look, see, paint). And of course the artist had a lot of fun painting these works as well.

 

Marshall is a subtle, brilliant trickster. He has duped white eyes into looking at our own fears of darkness, with stunning paintings that elevate the humanity of the African American experience for us to see, embedded in delicious colors, textures and drawings, dizzying arrays of styles, all of it simply at the service of seducing us into actually seeing that African Americans are real people.

 

That is why Marshall is unique. Dozens of African American artists have presented African Americans in film, photography, painting, sculpture ( as seen for example in the 1994 exhibition “Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art- note the omission of the work “black” from the title, although that is what the show exclusively presented). The Whitney held it just before Marshall emerged in the late 1990s. The work is subtle and sophisticated, in some cases, perhaps we can say it is cloaked, as in the work of Lorna Simpson for example, with all those backs and fragments, no faces.

 

But to what extent did white eyes face their own prejudices in looking at that work. Not at all. In fact often our expectations were reinforced when we saw criminals or large black sexual organs.

 

Marshall  leads us in through art history. He allows us to wallow in our old fashioned, comfortable modernist references. Look, there is Manet’s cat, or there is a skull out of Holbein!!! Flat paint samples play with space!!! But as we wander through these references, we cannot avoid the people, the life, the layers of experiences

For that reason, certainly, the two paintings of the  beauty parlors: De Style 1993 and  School of Beauty, School of Culture 2012 are the greatest gifts that Marshall has given us. They allow us white people into a place that is almost a sanctuary of black power, on a par with church (which he does not represent, although spirituality appears often). And as we roam through it, we white people suddenly realize we have never been here before, and we actually do not belong here. But we can acknowledge that here is real life, real culture, real people. And it is the white ideal that in the end is a mirage, an odd phenomenon, as the small children point out in School of Beauty. Here people really are living their lives on their own terms. No one looks out.

 

 

Benny Andrews: The Bicentennial Series predicts America Today *

Liberty ( Study for Trash no. 6) 1971 oil on canvas on painted fabric 78 x 39 3/4

In one of the most potent images in Benny Andrews Bicentennial Series from the 1970s, the Statue of Liberty sucks a lollipop as she sits on top of the stump of a dead tree. Naked men wearing only an army helmet and boots support the stump on a wagon.

 

Trash, the mural, in collection of Studio Museum, Harlem

 

 

In a final full scale mural, Liberty leads a succession of carts, one carrying a “war bitch,” as the artist describes her, and another, a giant penis topped by flowers.

 

Puller ( Trash Study no. 1,) 1971 oil on linen, 18 x 11 7/8″

Several men, one of them a convict in chains, strain to carry everything off to the garbage dump  “Trash,” is one in a series of murals by Benny Andrews painted during the years leading up to the Bicentennial in the early 1970s. His dark vision could have been painted yesterday.

 

On seeing excerpts from his Bicentennial series at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in January, I was stunned with the forcefulness of his comments on the abuses of our American institutions. Today, as we struggle against the escalating wave of white supremacist policies from Washington, D.C., they speak to us directly.

 

During the early 1970s Benny Andrews created BIG paintings as he put it, to provide his own perspective on the 200th anniversary of the Nation. BIG because the mainstream white artists at that time were working big, and he believed his work would stand beside them. He saw that preparations for the Bicentennial were devolving into clichés for African Americans like slave cabins, and great people, he knew there was more to the story than that.

 

He himself had grown up in a sharecropping family, picking cotton, and he followed an incredible journey, with the support of his family, to become a trained artist based in New York City. But he never forgot his roots in Georgia, the people he knew from his childhood, the strength of the people around him, their creativity, and their perseverance.

 

The vivid series of paintings, drawings, small studies and large works include six themes: Symbols (1970), Trash (1971), Circle (1972), Sexism (1973-74, War (1974),Utopia (1975).

Strummer (Study for Symbols), 1970 india ink on paper 18″ x 12″

His first large work, “Symbols,” paid homage to his roots. In the recent exhibition, we saw drawings for the large finished work now in the collection of the Ulrich Museum at Wichita State University. His spare linear style is as elegant as Ingres. For this first work, he went back to Georgia and sketched his home, his family, a bride and groom, musicians, and in the center of “tree of life.”  It appears to be children playing in the tree, but it also seems to be people “hanging” from the tree, clearly a reference to lynching. Nearby two people carry off a dead child.

Since Andrews family has mixed black and white heritage, but all were considered African American, he frequently suggested racial mixing. Even people who are white in his paintings reference his African American community in Georgia.  The artist pairs ordinary life, ordinary people, and nightmarish events; a semi-white man sits in judgement in the final “Symbols” mural, on the right. Andrews may be referring to an overseer, or a mixed race business man, his ambiguity is intentional.

 

He worked in dozens of separate sketches that he then puts together in a larger composition based on multiple panels. In “Symbols,” the space is complex as the imagery pushes forward or recedes into the background,  based on strong diagonals that terminate at a tree in the center. In later murals his figures seem to float in an indeterminate space, sometimes framed by viewers, or encircled by odd faceless people.

Collection Studio Museum Harlem Photo: Adam Reich

 

Trash(1971)  is full of anger and sarcasm. He painted it during the Attica prison uprising. By this time Andrews had already founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, demanding Black curators and artists in New York Museums, but more important than that, he founded the first prison art program in the country. He was outraged at the failure of American institutions and Trash hauls them off to the junkheap, pulled by both a prisoner and another black man.

 

Liberty ( Trash Study no. 2) oil on linen 32 x22″

In the exhibition two studies presented just the Statue of Liberty, as she is disintegrating, in one (Study no 2 for Trash) she sits on top of a globe with the USA facing out, black and white people reaching out to encircle it and underneath propping it up are again the naked military indicated with hats and boots. These self sufficient paintings stand on their own. Also in the exhibition was “the Puller” the man hauling the trash wagon with the Statue of Liberty, braced against the weight. Behind him a black shadow echoes his silhouette.

Composition #9 for Trash, 1971 india ink on paper 24″ x 18″ /

Use of shadows is a crucial device in Andrews, they reinforce his imagery, creating a shadow layer, much as blacks experience their lives in a white world.

 

oil on twelve linen canvases with painted fabric and mixed media collage 120″ x 288″

Circle Study no 33 1972 india ink on paper 12×18″

The mural “Circle” , the only one included in the exhibition, fills one wall of the gallery. Sketches and smaller paintings fill the walls nearby. “Circle” focuses on a bed on which a black/white person sits impaled, his heart carved out and rising above him as a watermelon lifted by an odd pipe like shape (in earlier sketches it was a stove).

 

Around this tragic figure stand a circle of people both black and white who shake their fists, look horrified, or sit passively in chairs, as the torture unfolds before their eyes.

Tied and helpless, the man on the bed reminds us today of torture inflicted on prisoners in detention, but here the reference is certainly to the tortures of simply living in the US as a dark skinned man. Andrews is the visual partner to James Baldwin who lays bare with words the torture and injustice of living in the US for people of African descent.

Andrews uses fabrics glued directly on the canvas. Thus the bed is stained and dirty made with old cloth, the head is bandaged in an actual sheet/bandage, a dirty cloth wrapped around his genitals like a diaper. That physicality paired with fantastic imagery, a personal surrealism, that relies on the grotesque to warn us of dark realities, penetrates our hearts; the physical additions to the canvas, assembled from found objects and discarded dirty materials, strike into our eyes and into our souls, they rudely speak of poverty, of suffering.

 

Sexism Study no 24 1973 oil on canvas with painted fabric collage and rope 96 x 50 1/2″

Another work in the cycle “Sexism” appears in the exhibition with several large works. At the entrance to the exhibition we are immediately confronted by a figure covered in a tent like sheet. She appears to be rising from a bed, but she is still caught in the strings held down by odd detritus.

 

Sexism Study no 8 1973 oil on linen 24 x 22″

Another strange work Sexism Study no 8 appears to be a penis man holding an instrument of torture and wearing strange clawlike shoes. He looks like a rapist with primitive tools. This particular image did not appear in the final large mural

 

War Study no 3 1974 oil on two stretched linen panels with painted fabric collage 35 x 49 x 1″

War Study no 1, 1974oil and graphite with painted fabric collage 34 x 25 x 1 1/4″

“War” for which a large work was never completed, is featured in two poignant collage paintings,  one with a young man dragging a dead body. In  “Poverty,” a man with a pink bag tied over his head suggests torture and the impossibility of escape.

Poverty Study no 1-a for War 1974 oil on linen with painted fabric collage with rope 100 x 48 x 2″

Finally, Andrews created “Utopia”, but because he could see no redeeming feature in humans, he created a fantasy landscape without any people.

Utopia Study no. 8, 1975, oil on linen with painted fabric collage 40 x 60″

 

Along with his very large mural scale works, and his smaller collage paintings, Andrews draws, and draws and draws.

 

 

In this exhibition, these delicate linear studies for the larger works populated by strange creatures or bizarre settings, create a constant dialogue for us with the final murals giving us insight into his thinking. Frequently, he includes shadows for his outlined figures, suggesting even in the briefest encounter with paper, the shadow world still haunts his every move and that of every person of color.

 

“Surrealism can get out hand real fast, but then the black experience is so ridiculous that surrealism is the best way to express it. I’ve seen the same kind of work coming from prison artists. To get through an oppressive real life, the artists have to live a fantasy life. ”

— Benny Andrews

 

With the draconian new immigration expulsions declared by a president who has no restraints, the dark shadows are following every vulnerable person, whether they be transgender, disabled, young, old, latino, African American, Asian, Muslim, homeless or poor.

 

  • all works Credit Line: Estate of Benny Andrews/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
  • “America Today” is the title of a mural cycle by Thomas Hart Benton painted in 1929 including both the roaring 20s and references to the poverty of the Depression. It makes a telling comparison to Andrews work in its exuberance and celebratory atmosphere that features workers of all types.