Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Art Heals: Plain Vanilla


Among the side-effects the current pandemic produces in our lives is a lack of choices.  For too many, this is a serious consequence that results in poverty, hunger, possibly eviction, learning disruption and much more.  For some of us, this lack of choice is simply an inconvenience, but even so, piled on top of isolation, too much negative information, bad weather and the like, it can have a deleterious effect on people’s already shaky mental health.

I spent a lot of time living in Africa and Asia, as well as in the Middle East.  In those days before the internet brought the world’s products to the door, my choices were constrained by availability.   For most of that time we lived, in the parlance of the international community “on the economy.”  This meant learning to adapt our desires to the local products we found in the markets and on the shelves of local stores.  Forget brand names and forty different kinds of cereal.   We were just glad that the Blue Nile grocery in Cairo delivered fresh aish to our apartment.

Today a visit to the local grocery or the Amazon marketplace reminds me of those take-what-you-can get days.  Safeway’s cleaning products shelves are all but denuded every time I check.  Amazon tells me that disinfecting wipes are not available, and a shipment of plastic gloves will arrive in October if I order in the next five minutes.  Instacart wants to substitute copier paper for toilet paper.  (I draw the line there.)

Truthfully, I’ve never really cared about having lots of choices. I’m a creature of habit and don’t love making decisions, so I eat the same cereal every morning, buy the generic, store-brand whatever whenever I can.  And since childhood, I have always chosen vanilla when we went to 31 Flavors.

Little did I know that was the most exotic choice I could have made.

I recently learned that vanilla is an orchid!   Having grown up in an environment where orchids were really big pink floppy things you wore on your wrist on prom night, I was introduced to the beauty and rarity of orchids by Belgian friends who collected them, and later learned to love them in Thailand, where they abounded but were no less rare and expensive for that.  Associating those fragile blooms in any way with vanilla never occurred to me.

For me, vanilla came in little brown bottles at the grocery and was spooned into cake mixes where I also added an egg to make me feel like I was actually baking a cake. (Please no comments on my baking skills, or lack thereof.  I already know.)

But of course, that was artificial vanilla.  Now I know that vanilla is a precious, exotic and rare spice. The vine of the vanilla orchid was cultivated by the Aztecs.  Until the mid- 19th century, Mexico remained the chief producer of vanilla, due to the difficulty of pollinating the flower. Each flower produces only one fruit pod, achieved through pollinating the blossom.  It seems that the orchid is hermaphroditic, carrying both male and female organs, separated by a membrane.  A certain kind of bee, living only in Mexico, is able to penetrate the membrane and pollinate the flower.  The vines were transplanted to Europe and French overseas colonies, but without the bee, which did not thrive outside Mexico, the vines did not fruit.  Enter a brilliant 12-year old boy named Edmond Albius, a slave on the French island of RĂ©union. He figured out how to hand-pollinate the orchid in 1841, using a simple method involving a beveled sliver of bamboo and his thumb.   Unbelievably, this method is still used today.  As the flower lasts just one day, imagine how labor intensive it is to pollinate and produce the pods containing the tiny black seeds that are real vanilla.

Ok, so my ongoing case of covid-curvature of the brain has brought us to this point.  Our present lack of multiple choices offers us the opportunity to examine the choices we can make and appreciate them in new ways.  Something gained from nothing is really something.

Amr Mounib gives us a flower.  Not vanilla, but just as special.  Art Heals.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Art Heals: Reading Matter

An interesting aspect of getting older is that in some respects my eyesight is getting better.  I find I must take off my glasses now, to read.  Of course, this results in endless frantic searches for said glasses whenever the phone rings or the water kettle whistles.  Reading is the only thing I can do without my glasses on.  No, I take that back.  I can also bathe. Much cleaner now.
Anyway, the glasses thing is not a problem, as I spend a lot of my time reading.  I always have, even as a child.  I used to walk to a bookstore near where we lived when I was in grammar school, an old fashioned  dark-walled store redolent of paper and ink and real cloth bindings, where I spent my allowance and  birthday money amassing a huge collection of Modern Library classics. (The Modern Library series of well-made, affordable reprints of the classics started in 1917, published by Boni and Liveright, later taken over by Random House.  The ones I bought had a pebbly buckram finish and featured at least 376 titles.  Other editions varied a bit, but ultimately over 1,000 separate books were published.)
These books, while affordable to a 12-year-old girl, (they cost under $2.00, and my allowance was 25 cents) were also substantial and beautiful, each hardbound cover a different color but sharing identical typeface and colophon. How magnificent they looked, arrayed on my bookshelf, organized by color as soon as I had a sufficient quantity. I read them all, creating sets as soon as I found a writer I liked—Trollope, Jane Austen, Dostoevsky (really) and my favorite, Shakespeare. (This came in useful in high school, as I had to pass a mandatory swimming test and only got through it by repeating dialog from Much Ado About Nothing as I swam the required number of laps.  Beatrice and Benedict were my ideal romantic couple at age 14.  Go figure. As Louisa May Alcott said, “She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain.”) 
These volumes graced shelves in my various homes for more than 50 years. When I moved to my 3-room apartment, I donated them to the scouts.  Lack of space has forced me to rely on a Kindle now. With it I can hold several thousand books in the palm of my hand, and when I wake in the middle of the night, go to the “store” and instantly buy any book I desire.  Of course I miss the smell and look and feel of “real” books, but time, and life, moves on, and I am particularly grateful to be able to read old favorites and discover new ones during this pandemic, when I rarely leave my apartment.
I have never had so much time to read since the long summer vacation days when I was 12.  Reading takes me out of my head and into someone else’s. That is another way art heals.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Art Heals: Curating and Collecting Art

Recently I was on a Zoom discussion with the scholar, art collector and founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi and the Palestinian artist Samia Halaby.  Preparing for this, I decided to think about the ethics of curating and collecting art.
I think curating and collecting art are two versions of the same effort: creating visibility and value for artistic endeavors. As curators and collectors, we have a grave responsibility towards not only the makers of art but also to the consumers of art.  In many ways we are gatekeepers, able to open doors for artists by our choices that can impact not only the daily lives of artists, but also influence the reception and significance of the artist’s message.  This is particularly important in the world of Arab contemporary art. Opportunities for major Arab artists to exhibit, and sell their work both in their home countries and in the diaspora have increased in recent years (sadly, often because events like war and refugee crises have raised awareness in the global north through media interest).  But despite the increasing proliferation of art fairs such as Sharjah and Art Dubai, to say nothing of the Art Basels of the world, and the inclusion of some Arab artists in major museums and galleries in the art centers of New York, Paris, London, Berlin, representation is still limited for emerging and mid-career artists.  Digital media has greatly helped in this regard, as artists are increasingly able to sidestep the gatekeepers and take their work directly to the public. But not all artists are digitally savvy, nor do many have the global contacts to increase their visibility to the point where they are invited to participate in prestigious local and ultimately international exhibitions.  And often, artists, especially those living in their home regions, have been denied visas to attend and lecture at the very international exhibitions to which they were invited to participate.
New forms of artistic values have disrupted older forms of value creation—successful artists today are often more focused on the international market and its needs.  Yet today it is more important than ever for Arab artists to have their voices heard. Visibility is primary. This is where curators and collectors are crucial. 
For my part, curating must animate opportunities for new perceptions.  This means creating conversations, contextualizing new work within the spheres of art practice, historical reference, and biography, collaborating with the artist to give both voice and direction to their vision, and providing a corrective to changing strategies of culture. I try to foreground artists that tell alternate stories of difference.  Do you need cultural references to enjoy a work of art?  I think art, especially Arab art, can be both global and local, drawing upon the visual history of Palestine, for example, which may be new to some viewers, while being emphatically present in speaking their truth about their concerns in a universalist manner.  Both representational and abstract art can fulfill this role.
Collectors form a vital partnership in this endeavor.  In this regard, the phrase “all politics is local” applies to art in a big way.  The House of Medici supported “local” Italian artists by commissioning and collecting their work, ultimately leaving it as a legacy to the world.  As wealthy Arab collectors increasingly enter the marketplace for international works of art, and major international museums open branches in Arab countries, it is important that they support and collect work by the many outstanding Arab artists in the region and the diaspora.  Such collections can seed much needed scholarship and art criticism. These three things—exhibition opportunities, scholarship and serious criticism form the legs of a sturdy platform for the visibility vital to sustaining and growing contemporary Arab art. Great collectors collect with two eyes—one on the past, the historical perspective, and one on the future, elevating the important work that artists do, helping to foreground its significance, and preserving its moment in time, and its timelessness.
One last thing, which I think applies to curators, collectors and museums alike.  Edward Said said “Solidarity before criticism means the end of criticism.”   Our criteria for exhibiting and collecting must include measurable standards of the highest quality in judging artworks.  That is the only way to honor both artists and the art they create. Art Heals.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Art Heals: Just One Thing

I took one of my longer weekend walks recently, poking about downtown DC, peering into, but not entering, restaurants and shops.  Most were still almost empty of people, despite the recent permissible re-openings, and the very visible signs proclaiming 60%, 70% off items inside.  I’m sorry about this, as retail and restaurants, especially the smaller, locally owned kind, do need customers. But I am not yet ready for the indoor experience, and I see that many of my fellow DC’ers seem to feel the same way. But for me, there is one interior experience for which I am eager to make an exception: going inside a museum again. 
I know that experience will be very different from the easy-breezy pre-pandemic days.  One of the things I loved about most museums here was my ability to pop in and see Just One Thing.  Unlike in other museum-heavy major cities, many of ours are fee-free (thanks, fellow taxpayers). Often, I would be writing or working or thinking about some art-related subject and have a compulsive urge to go and look at a particular painting or sculpture.  Wasn’t there a huge Frank Stella piece on the wall above the staircase to the second floor of the East Wing?  What was the exact wording of that Barbara Kruger statement covering the floors, walls and ceiling downstairs at the Hirshhorn?   With so much available to me for free, I could afford to take out a membership in a couple of the private museums, like the Phillips or the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and pop in there too, for my Just One Thing.  And then there were the gift shops. Oh my, fun bits and bobs with an artsy vibe, cool artist-made jewelry and books and catalogs galore. Add in air-conditioning, a small restaurant, public spaces perfect to rest my feet and people watch, and of course, bathrooms!  There was nothing more I needed in the world.  Most of them even served those cute little bottles of wine in the lunchroom.
For the moment, all this is just a memory, as I stalk past the shuttered entrances, making do with a few al fresco sculptures and the occasional bench in the Enid Haupt Garden.  But soon, hopefully, the museums will reopen, on a limited basis.  But the spontaneity of my Just One Thing will be gone.  Entrance must be preplanned, with timed tickets only obtainable online, as they were for the blockbuster shows that used to be all the rage, (most of which I missed because every time I went online, I was too d…late and all dates were already taken, despite my trying at midnight on the first day!) To digress yet again—I for one will not miss those blockbusters, impossible now thanks to Covid crowd control measures.
But like with everything else Covid-related in my life, I will adapt. Just One Thing will never return, but maybe it will morph into Just One Museum, and my time there will be more precious than ever because of all the pre-planning that will have to precede it.
In the interim, here is an old film about the creation of the East Wing.  You can hear the voices of I.M.Pei, Henry Moore and Alexander Calder!  How cool is that?   Here is Calder's mobile and Moore's sculpture, made for the NGA. Art Heals.


Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Art Heals: Slippers

Depending upon where you live, I imagine many of you are, like me, still staying at home most of the time.  By now, many of us have chosen a default position when it comes to garments, and footwear. (We are not talking about the default position called supine-on-couch.)  Having grown up with a German mother for whom cleanliness was not next to godliness but rather somewhere considerably more altitudinal, I was used to taking off my shoes before entering the house.  Things changed when I entered high school. Tiring of being the shortest person in any class, I discovered high heels (well, kitten heels).  I rode my bicycle to school in those heels, truly resented my gym teacher for making me take them off and pranced around my room as a living sociological meme (see: Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life). “Les chaussures, c’est moi.”  Much later, I moved to Thailand, where negative cultural associations with shoes obliged everyone to leave them outside the entrance of homes, shops, temples; practically everywhere.  (Mind you, this did nothing to alleviate social status via expensive footwear—on the contrary, everyone studied the labels on the insole of every shoe parked in front of the hostess’s front door.)  But because it was hot, and silky teak floors were the rule, bare, well-pedicured feet or, for men, really nice socks (no holes) took the place of any indoor footwear.  Back in the USA, I returned to my shoe obsession (thank you DSW), and rarely took them off before bed. 
Enter the altered state of consciousness I call Covid-brain.   While my mental health demands that I put on real clothes every day (things with buttons and zippers), I can’t bear to put on shoes. Shoes make me sad—they make me want to go outside and hear the clip-clop of my high heels purposefully prancing around some museum or shop or reception, sitting down to cross my legs and admire the sculptural shape and pattern of uppers and spikes. So, slippers.  And, thanks to Covid-brain, when I stare at something long enough, “hello, fuzzy feet” (see ref. supine-on-couch), I want to get to the (dusty) bottom of it.  10,000 years ago, some frigid-toed fashionista wore a platform slipper made from woven sagebrush bark (ecology, anyone).  Around 3000 BCE chic Sumerians wore slippers made from animal skins.  Phoenicians introduced design, from red dyes, perfumed leather and bling.  “Babouche” slippers were worn by Arab nomads, and later became the preferred shoe in the Arab world, as the slip-on style made it easier to shed them before praying.  From ancient Rome to modern day Japan, slippers became the polite way to cover unsightly feet indoors.  16th century traders brought the idea, and most importantly, the embellishments to Europe, Spanish and Italian crafters took over and the fancy slipper became the chosen footwear of the aristocracy.  And of course, the bourgeoisie was soon to follow (early knockoffs?).  So-called evening slippers in embroidered velvet became a thing among men-of-leisure after being introduced by that fashion-plate Prince Albert (hubby of Queen Vicky). Now, pink puffs, glass slippers, Uggs (Australians never wear them outdoors), variety for every taste and fantasy.
My slippers are developing a hole in the sole.  The same hole in my soul from this locked down, shoeless world I inhabit at the moment.
Here are some blinged-out traditional slippers from Tunisia, and some handmade ones in Venice, luxury goods provider to the world in the bad old days. Works of art, both.  Art Heals.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Art Heals: Walking

I  have just discovered that in my semi-quarantine,  I share space (well, head space) with the greats.  To wit, Nietzsche, Thoreau and Simone de Beauvoir (you go, girl).  What do we have in common?  Walking. These thinkers were traipsers, strolling or ambling or moseying along on a daily basis.  According to Thoreau
“ I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend  four hours a day…sauntering through woods and over…hills and fields.”  Four hours.  Um, I did read that he also walked to his mother’s house every day from the woods for meals, so I guess he had a  little more time on his  hands than most of us. But still, it is known that walking releases dopamine and serotonin and lowers cortisol, creating a chemical cocktail that fuels creativity.  Problems get solved as you pace, ideas blossom as you ramble.  For some, walking is integral to the religious experience.  The rituals of the Hajj involve walking.  Pilgrims and modern-day seekers of truth walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain, finishing at least 100 km of its 780 km length in order to receive a compostela, the certificate stating you completed the pilgrimage.  (A shorter Good Friday pilgrimage from Santa Fe, New Mexico (28 miles) also draws thousands of walkers.)  I have a dear friend who walked the Spanish one,  fighting blisters and fatigue; she  told me it was one of the most important healing moments of her life.  For me, walking was never a part of my life until recently, and then, the healing part meant stopping for a meal or a glass of wine along the way.  Having sold my car upon my decampment to the city, I found myself on moving feet more often, but public transport was my friend, and I hardly had time to walk as a pastime—it was utilitarian, a way to get things done.  Enter Covid19.  Time became an endless dark tunnel with few exits toward the light.  Take it, spend it, waste it,  it was there all the time.  I had a lot of time.  I also had back pains from sitting in my uncomfortable chair hunched over this laptop, and the gym in my building was closed. (Who am I kidding here—I never went the gym.)   As the disembodied heads of humans swam in front of my eyeballs, I began to long to see other body parts –arms, legs, feet.   Shoes!  I wanted to see shoes.  So off I went, creating a 5-pm ritual of an hour’s  walk in my neighborhood.   I read that walking outdoors improves your mood more than doing the same on a treadmill (dreadmill, in my lexicon) because of the healing effects of nature, but being an urban girl,  I found the trees and flowers merely a backdrop to the more interesting aspects of my walk—the outfits!  Sadly, for me, as the weather warms, sartorial splendor devolves into semi-nudity (don’t they get sunburn,  or bug bites?) but of course sometimes a truly noble specimen of humanity passes by, compensating for the lack of clothing.  And there are still arms and legs and shoes for me to examine, and yes, pass judgement upon.  Aside from all these delights, I began to notice that my thought processes seemed to be following my feet; a brisk walk supported crisper thinking.  I began to get ideas! Poetry in motion does not only describe dancers, it is a metaphor for the way movement stimulates the  mind.  The better I felt, the longer the walks got.  Four hours happens on a regular basis now.   I am still stuck with making the meals afterwards, though, having no Mrs. Thoreau to free up my time.  But hey, as I said, I have lots of time.
Adnan Charara,  wish he were walking with me.  Art Heals.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Art Heals: Fathers

I have a little collection of penguins. Glass, wood, porcelain.  You know how that goes—you  buy one and a friend sees it and suddenly everyone is giving you penguins until they take over your bookshelves and eventually find their way into a box at the back of the closet.  But whenever Father’s Day comes around, I think about penguins.  One in particular,  the male emperor penguin. After the female of the pair lays her egg, she passes it to the male, who balances it on his feet, tucked under a pouch of skin, to keep it warm in the Arctic cold.  The female then leaves to forage for food.  Father penguin stands with that egg on  his feet for up to 64 days.
I think about this because my favorite memory of my late father is, when I was little, maybe about 6 or 7,  he would place my feet on his feet, and dance with me.  Music was informal in our house.  My father played what we called the mouth organ, which I later learned was a harmonica, loosely translated from the German.  His prized possession was a record player, that played the large format LPs. Every Christmas and birthday a new record would appear.  Italian and German popular songs, later in English (“Volare” was a big hit), musicals.  We would take it with us on our annual vacation from Chicago to a cabin we rented every year on a small lake in Wisconsin.  There  my dad would play music while he made gnocchi and ravioli by hand in the kitchen; I rounded up the kids my age from neighboring cabins to watch and assist in kneading the dough amidst clouds of flour. 
As I grew older, I spent less time with him—he worked long hours and had a 2-hour each-way commute.  I later learned that he put in the extra hours in order to get the Christmas bonus and various productivity awards, which were used to buy us holiday gifts.  During high school and college summers, he got me a  job at his company, and we commuted together.  My mother was talkative, especially in the morning—my dad and I were taciturn, not speaking at all during breakfast and the morning car ride.  But the afternoon  ride home was lively, as we discussed the doings of the day.  The company was located in the south side of Chicago, and provided my first introduction to African Americans. (I later learned that all my black supervisors in those years had been promoted to their positions by my father—black supervisors being a rarity in those days.) The office I worked in had about 50 desks, each occupied by a woman with an electric adding machine rapidly calculating strings of numbers all day long.  Rapidity was valued, and  I tried my best, but in my zeal I  blew up the  machine, setting the paper tape on fire.  The next summer I was given a different job. By now my dad had risen in the company, and had  access to the Executive Dining Room.  Once a  summer I was allowed to invite one of my co-workers to dine with him there. (I later learned that along with promoting African Americans, he also integrated the Executive Dining Room.  And many years later, he told me about the prejudices he himself had to overcome, suspicions about his accent and his Egyptian background.)  He really wasn’t a talker, especially not about himself.  Later when I moved away, when I would call and he answered the phone, there was a quick hello and then “I’ll get your mother.”  But we had good talks in the car when he picked me up from the train, and later from the airport.  Maybe he remembered the commutes.   I have lots of other great memories—parties in the yard where he recreated the Nile river and the pyramids,  an every-year birthday cake he baked that was a hazelnut torte with seven layers, each fragile section spread upon the bottom of a springform pan. 
Every father-child relationship is unique.  Every father expresses himself  in his own way.  But each balances his  children on his feet as best he can.  Happy Father’s Day.

This is Father and Son, by Zahi Khamis.  Art Heals.