Category — Culture
Tobacco Road , Erskine Caldwell’s 1932 novel
My Life: Writing, Not Reading …
This previously unpublished interview with the late literary lion Erskine Caldwell by Charles Hayes took place in 1986, about a year before Caldwell died. It is one in a series of interviews with artists, writers and musicians that Hayes undertook in the ’80s exploring the creative process and various hurdles the subjects had to overcome along the way to becoming established in their respective fields.
By Charles Hayes
Place: Paradise Hills, Arizona
Date: September 24, 1986
This interview was conducted with Erskine Caldwell whose novel, Tobacco Road, was turned into the 1941 movie, also called Tobacco Road.
Our conversation took place at Caldwell’s gated community home in Scottsdale, Arizona, outside of which was neither a Bentley nor Mercedes (which I saw in the neighborhood). Caldwell’s wife guided me through the gates in an old Chevy. We spoke while he labored to breathe through plastic tubes connected to a portable oxygen cannister. Caldwell had about half a lung left and knew he was not long for this world. He reflected on having had only a minor education, learning to write by way of experience, and the obstacles he had to face as a writer, including times when he had to eat rat trap cheese. At the time of my visit, Caldwell was on his fourth wife, the very hospitable and helpful Virginia Caldwell. One of his previous wives was the photographer Margaret Bourke-White. This interview is one of the last interviews he gave. He would die a year and a half later, in April 1987.
EC: Will you state your premise, again, so I will know what we are talking about? You’re doing what? Researching a book?
CH: I am doing research for a book.
EC: This is ah, a thesis or … ?
CH: … a book…
EC: Did you attend the University of New Mexico?
CH: I’m going through that (grad school) now.
EC: So, what is your theme?
CH: I want to be able to present materials that writers and artists like yourself, whose works have to do with hardships that they’ve gone through, as a way to tell us something about the creative life or creating thinking, you see?
EC: What is the title?
(His wife enters the room, “Your son, Jay, is on the phone.”
CH: that’s okay.
Mrs. C: It will be one minute.
CH: That’s fine – I’m used to it.
EC: What is your title?
CH: Pearl in the Mud
EC: What kind of people are you talking to?
CH: Besides yourself, Lucas Foss the conductor, Edward Albee the playwright, Louise Bourgeois, the sculptor, and others… Some are not famous.
EC: That can be the best kind because when people get famous they think they know everything!
CH: Yes, I would like to talk a little about this issue.
CH: If you get tired, we can stop, I have about 15 questions. Let’s see, personally I was impressed by the resolve with which you moved through your hindrances. When young, before American Earth, before Tobacco Road came out and you said various things in your autobiography, Call it Experience, such as “For 10 or 12 hours a day I wrote always with a dogged determination regardless of hardship.’ That was when you were in, ah, Maine. And…you said: “I was to break down the resistance of Scribner’s,” the publisher. I’m wondering about that, it seems you had this resolve to get there.
EC: Well, its hard to describe [trembling, feeble tone\ in a way because, ah, you see I was handicapped early in life…. I did not have an education, went to high school for two years, and that as a total of, ah, three years and before (that) lower school. Then I went to different colleges. I went to a small college in South Carolina, which I didn’t like: Erskine College. So, I got out … and made it to the University of Virginia, which I did like. After that, I was able to go to the University of Pennsylvania summer school, which also gave me a big life, but my personal education came out of the University of Virginia even though I never graduated. But, I achieved what I wanted to get, all right, as if I had to struggle against the tide, against the odds, because I didn’t have … what might have carried me to higher levels… higher intellectual levels, and so forth.
So, I was not at all capable of higher intellectual life. My life consisted of how life, the life on the bottom, the life of the people who were poor because when we were growing up, we were surrounded by people in poverty, and so I had no great ambition to be anything but a chronicler, a conveyer of other peoples’ lives by interpreting their existence to my eyes, the way I saw it, not as … anybody else would see their lives, necessarily, but as their lives revealed to me that basic struggle of human existence, spiritual, educational, medical…all kinds of things.
People who were poor were also in poor health. You can’t have good medical attention if you’re out of money to pay the doctor, so if you had bad health you had a poor empty stomach, you had no great future… So, of course, the panacea for all this … came out of the evangelical religion that was imposed on them. (Not imposed, but) they grasped it because it was the only feasible thing they could get hold on.
CH: Did you feel for those people empathetically at a young age?
EC: Well, you see, I knew them so well because I lived among them, as I was writing in this autobiography over here (points to a large pile of paper on his desk). I used to drive an auto for a country doctor for several summers, for several doctors, so I would be exposed to the mysterious diseases nobody else knew about. But the doctor knew what they were and he could do nothing. I became exposed to those (cough) lives and (cough) yet get into which they were living, so that, ah, influenced me to be sympathetic (hard cough). So my life was in among those people, and not among the elite, not among intellectuals, not about and among the educated, no. It was just among the people that were out in the field, the mills…. That is the only thing I knew.
CH: When you started to write, you started on the newspaper, didn’t you? You started at 18, or so?
EC: Yea, well, I go into that in my autobiography. I started there. I learned it by working as a volunteer, a weekly newspaper, type by hand, all kinds of things like that. Writing social notes, obits, then I graduated up to sports writer, writing about baseball and the small town in which I lived in Georgia; so that’s how I started in newspaper journalism. When I left college the last time, I got a job on the Atlantic Journal, and that’s where I really got started in writing because whatever I wrote, he threw it into the waste basket; so I learned everything I write is not going to be good.
Right, so you know you have got to do it yourself, because you can’t trust other people to help you…
CLH: I remember you did a story during those times, about a guy on skid row, it was “Blue Monday,” and, he, your editor, threw it away. Can you recall any images you had of success or fame before Scribner’s started accepting your work? Did you have images of that? What was it going to be about?
EC: No … No, because I had no great, ah … ego about the whole thing. I didn’t know what I was doing, I just did it, and trust to the future. I had no ambition to be “a writer!” or “novelist!” or anything. The idea was to do what I could do whatever it was, so I gradually gravitated from non-fiction … from newspaper journalist to fiction, because that’s what I wanted – to interpret what I saw through my filter system. And so to me nothing else matters – except just my reaction. Whatever they were, true or false, I had to do it the way it appealed to me, so that’s why I wrote as I did – and wrote 50 books… on that basis, and wrote just what appealed to me. Not what might appeal to a publisher or reader. I care nothing about the reader or publisher, only secondarily. First it has to be appealing to me and so it has to be filtered through my filter. And I don’t want to take advice from an editor….
CH: What did all this do to you? You know, Tobacco Road starts becoming a big hit on Broadway after a while and a lot of stories come out and you are in the papers, you are … what we call Famous. What did that do to you, the Erskine Caldwell who was private, maybe introverted, or whatever? What was the power of that on you? Did that cause a conflict? Public versus personal, who you really are?
FC: Hah! (laughs) You see, I was nobody. I wasn’t anything (chuckles). I was just another scribbler, another writer. I had no conception of myself as being anything other than the next guy. Um, because to me a writer had no great standing… where I was living. As I was growing up, he wasn’t anything to bank on, and he wasn’t anything to raise and he was nobody to look up to. I suppose in certain circles eminence comes from great popularity, or from great fame. But to me that simply didn’t appeal to me. I just wanted to be myself, I had to do it my way.
CH: Well, what happened when certain people early on started to align you with Henry James and Balzac … ‘This guy is up there.” What does that do to your ego and so forth?
EC: Well, you hear in college classes, you hear all these names of people who are said to be famous. Sir Walter Scott, Henry James… It meant nothing to me. I didn’t read ‘em. I didn’t read other peoples’ books. I wanted to do my own books. Ah, I didn’t want to be influenced… I didn’t want to waste my time… Sure I it would have helped me, it would have educated me, ah, but my life, ahh, is spinning away… I couldn’t sit and read a book. I had to write a book! Ah, that was my life. Writing, not reading.
I didn’t know what fame meant! It was so far removed from my existence that it was Nonexistent. In my time, it was several writers I heard about… Well, I was not interested… They could invent kingdoms way up there, out of reach. And, of course make it interesting I supposed, but it didn’t interest me. … As time went on, what I tried to do was to read one book by some master, whomever appealed to me, and one book by a young contemporary… I read a few books, maybe two a year. So, I would read one book by Hemingway, one book by Truit Edison, one by Theodore Dreiser. But they didn’t influence me because they were doing their things and I was doing my things.
CH: Next question, Criticism. Was it Call it Experience in which you talk about early criticism, the first book that Scribner’s published – American Earth?
EC: American Earth?
CH: That’s right…and there was a lot of negative criticism and a lot of negative criticism toward Tobacco Road. In a certain part of the book, you said you had a realization that you no longer had to satisfy the critical establishment. Where one time you began to think there had to be a formula for your books to sell, but then you realized that you don’t have to do that, you’re writing for you and to other people. Now, my questions is, “With that realization, was there a change in your life? When you had that realization… (was it) a kind of therapy? You know, a breakthrough?”
EC: well, you see (cough) when criticism came, I was not interested in it. I probably would have benefited from it, but I always had a theory: there are always two opposing forces in criticism…One is praise and one is damnation. To me they cancel out each other. So, I was not interested in either. Ah…to me, when someone panned (a work), I could accept it. If I read it – I didn’t always read it, didn’t know about it, I guess, but ah… if somebody praised it, I usually didn’t accept praise. Ah, I disbelieved it. Because to me there might be… some element there…some trickery. I don’t know, somebody might think he could achieve success by… praising something. Well, to me that’s false. I couldn’t accept any of that, no more than I could the praise, the condemnation. I guess… outside all that criticism, any book, current or other I’ve done, because once I approve or once I finish or set out a book… that’s the end of it. I don’t care what’s going to happen to it. If it has a good sale, fine…. If it has a poor sale, fine. I accept that. So I don’t expect anything. I don’t accept praise and I don’t accept condemnation. I… I just live above it.
CH: So, do you think that has been basically one of your saving graces, the things that allowed you to have or find buoyancy, where others fell? They identified themselves as a god. In popular music, someone like Elvis is an example. He became a myth, a famous person.
EC: Well yes! You see, the trouble with many young writers is that they get into a corner… they get backed into a corner and the first thing they know they belong to a coterie! A crowd. A self-admiration society. And so they only surround themselves with people who can appreciate them. Outsiders go away! An inner circle… Inner circle, where a lot of writers get into that troublesome thing… that they think they have to associate only with their own kind. I don’t associate with writers. Writers are dull people. I must rather associate with the store clerk. Or bank clerk, or garbage man, or anybody who has a better outlook. A writer is self-centered. He’s so self-satisfied with himself and life, he knows everything, so you can’t tell him anything, so why associate with him?
CH: It sounds like being brought up in your family, you know, a father who was the minister… and the kind of humble surroundings… It sounds like you were helped by your upbringing to prevent this sort of illusion?
EC: Uh huh…!
CH: That can destroy people. The next curiosity I have is to do with nostalgia.
EC: With what?
CH: Do you ever feel you live in a fairly comfortable existence? Do you feel…a desire for those days when you were eating rattrap cheese and bread, and you know, starving in Maine? And Georgia, and New York? Do you feel like you’re missing something from then?
EC: Well, you put it this way… you see, you can FEED on that past! And… you know the pangs of hunger. And, so you say to yourself, “I know what it feels like to be hungry; I used to be hungry a lot. Well, you’ve already experienced that. You know the feeling, so you don’t have any desire to go back and relive that. Not because you feel you have achieved anything or that you’re rich enough or that you don’t have to endure poverty again. It’s just that right now, I have no great ambition to be extravagant. I have a certain level of living, a standard of living – so that suits me. So, I’m not going out to try to make a lot of money … or anything in order to raise the level of my automobiles … So, I don’t have to have a Rolls Royce, I’d feel embarrassed. Ah, I can imagine that, that a lot of people would want one and use it if they had it, but I don’t want one. If it were a gift, I would trade it in for a Chevy.
CH: You have one there (ha ha!)
EC: Ha! Yea. (pause) or a Ford!
CH: Didn’t you say this feeling that you have also happened when you were in that Hotel and the guy ran it who was the writer, and you had to get out of place because it was so swank and you were eating cheese on the floor…. Was this the same feeling of “What in the hell am I doing in THIS place?”
CH: Was that present at the time?
EC: Yeah… I guess so. I used to go back and recreate those things. I’m 83. I’ve lived…. And a lot has happened. And a lot of things have been forgotten. You ask do I want to go back and relive my days of poverty. No. For the same reason that I’ve already done it. Done it in the same way you don’t want to repeat yourself in a book; you don’t want to write the same book twice. You want to but you have different visions; so, I don’t know how to explain my existence now… it’s nothing great. Ah, a lot of people think I’m living on the edge of poverty right here…. Ah, but I don’t consider that. I don’t even consider what the degree is, as to me that’s immaterial. As long as I’m satisfied with what I’m doing. What’s now is revising these galley sheets. After that, I don’t know what I’m going to do. But, ah, right now that’s the only thing that interests me.
CH: Uh, huh…ok!
EC: And… I do have this new cancer. So, that’s something to think about. I’ve had it twice. Now I have this inoperable cancer, which cannot Be operated on! You have to take the chemo.
EC: Injections (cough) So… I don’t know how long its going to last. That’s an interesting thing. I look forward to what’s going to happen tomorrow. Or the next day!
CH: How does that affect your creative life, how does that affect time… things getting shorter, and how does that affect your creativity? It must put you on the ledge between life and the hereafter… How does that affect you?
EC: Well, I don’t know. I don’t think about that enough, I suppose I don’t know how to feel ‘bout it, because, ah, as you know I was raised a Presbyterian….
EC: And the Presbyterian is not too much worried about what’s gonna happen, because its going to happen anyway; so it doesn’t bother me what my troubles are – I know I am going to have troubles, so whatever they are, it’s something I have to lived with. And, I’m prepared to do it. Whatever it is. Because I don’t expect to live beyond another two or three years, anyway.
I set myself as a goal – 85! And my wife wants to raise it to 86 because she wants to be 70 years old before I die. You think she’ll make it?
CH: You might surprise yourself, too.
[Mrs. C (in doorway) I think you might! Its time for your water!)
EC: (to his wife) You will bring me that check to sign?
Mrs. C: All right, I will. Would you like some coffee or tea?
CH: Tea would be nice.
Mrs. C: Or cookies?
CH: Just a little bit of caffeine would be nice.
Mrs. C: Just plain old tea or fancy tea?
CH: That’s all I drink is plain old tea.
Mrs. C: I have every one, from blackberry to sassafras.
CH: O… blackberry…
CH: Well no one knows when they are going, I could go before you and I’m 37.
EC: 37? You are about half way!
CH: About half way, huh? However long my life is, I just want to be able to do it fully, and I think you’re a model in a way… because you live fully. You’ve written, you’ve done what you wanted, you know, and I respect that.
What would you say is the most trying phase as you look back … What do you think … what was the most trying phase, if you can talk about it. The one that had the most obstacles, where you almost gave up. If you can use that term?
EC: Well, you see, these obstacles I consider to be helpful! For example, as I keep saying, I was undereducated even though my mother did teach me almost everything I know (coughs), but I never memorized the definitions of words, that kind of thing, so when it came time to write ‘em out, I couldn’t spell ‘em, and so what I looked for was a word of two syllables, and to me that simplified matters. It helped; it was helpful to me because as I grew older, I found that the best writing is simple writing. Not the most intellectual or educated, or whatnot. Because if you’re going to know what the meanings are, even though I don’t know myself… Even though I look it up in the dictionary, I really don’t know what I’m doing! So, I like to look for a word, the origin of a word whether Greek, Latin, French, or wherever it came from, ah, to see the root. So, for me, that gives the basic meaning of the word that can be simplified. So you don’t have to put a lot of syllables on it. Man is man. Woman is woman. And so on.
CH: How did you deal with the problem of labeling? There are many people out there labeling artists…. You have been labeled everything, more than anybody…. From a communist to somebody who writes burlesque…to a naïve writer that Malcolm Cowley called you, to a surrealist, to ah – O God, everything. How do you deal with this sort of thing, you know, the public image; how the public perceives you? Has that ever been a problem?
EC: Well, I don’t, because you see, that’s part of what I consider criticism.
CH: All right.
EC: I don’t take to criticism. So, I don’t care that the public advises, or thinks… I’m gonna do it my way! So, I’m not much impressed by other peoples’ advice. So I’m not impressed by other people. Sure people have great reputations. Malcolm Cowley has a fine reputation as a critic. Ah, he could not influence me! Not by any means, I wouldn’t consider… followin’ his advice ‘bout picking out certain themes to write about; that would not interest me, but I want to do it may way. I want to pick the theme, not what he thinks is good.
CH: He’s supported you more than a lot of people.
CH: Where does he live, Malcolm?
EC: In Connecticut, like a little of writers. I used to live there myself.
CH: Some people have commented that you have been denied some of the major prizes… like the Pulitzer. They felt that Hemingway and Faulkner got these, that you didn’t. And your reponse was “I don’t really care.” Once I’m gone, it doesn’t matter.” My question is: does it matter? Let’s assume there’s life after death and you can look back, what would you like us to know as far as Erskine Caldwell goes?
EC: Well, I think… ah, some time ago I had some question like that, and I think what I said was, to give an example of what happened at one time. I had a letter from a reader. I don’t know what story they had written about… It was a woman reader who said, “I likevery much…your story about so and so…” (she gave me the name of the character) “because it revealed to me something about my uncle that I had never been able to fathom myself. When I read your interpretation of so and so’s life, that was my uncle!’ And, that was the application that this story had for the woman; it revealed for her something she otherwise would not have found herself if she had to read my interpretation of somebody else’s life. So, that’s about the only answer I can give to that kind of question.
CH: Back to your late 20s, early 30s when you were in the phase of writing The American Earth and you had already done The Bastard then Tobacco Road… and it ends up being a work that – through your own imagination, reflecting, being a mirror for the rough social conditions and economic conditions for a lot of people with whom you were brought up – the sharecropper, etc. My question is: Is there ever more than just mirroring? Can writing therapize and deal with that? Or, is there always a residual feeling of suffering? Because, I’m assuming here that the imagination in ways amplifies, especially when you see so much and you can’t get it out of your writing. Or, is your writing a form of therapy?
EC: Well, it is a result of observing. Result of having to do something yourself, because I always think that how could you write about and describe a human being if you never had seen one? It would be so fanciful. Ah, are you going to make it realistic if you never saw a human? If you were the only being there was, and you couldn’t see yourself, of course, but if you tried to write about someone else, it would be difficult.
[Virginia Caldwell stands in doorway]
EC: What do you have there, Virginia?
CH: Can I help you?
VC: [Brings in tray of cups and cookies]
CH: Are you feeling tired?
EC: We have been at it for about …
CH: For about an hour. I’ve got about three more questions.
VC: (talks with EC about signing checks)
It’s so automatic to write a check and sign it. And that’s an attractive New Mexico style color!
CH: Oh, that’s a Sear and Roebuck! Its incredible what I found for $12.
EC: Oh, Sears has turned out to be quite the store… they have fashion shows.
CH: I didn’t know that, but they upped their quality and their prices, too. They even got new managers in Chicago.
VC: You make him behave will you, Charles?
VC: He wanted to get rid of his oxygen …
CH: Staying on the topic of imagination a moment – there was the psychologist, Carl Jung, who found that going into oneself and confronting imaginary figures can be a tremendous teaching. And, when I read your comments on imagination and characters as they develop and speak, it doesn’t seem like there’s that much difference. They have independence, in a way, they are not just your ego, but there is something else about them. And, I’m just wondering if they have been “teachers”… not only Ty Ty (and Geeter, but are they “mentors”? That may be a hard question.
EC: Well, imagination is a writer’s best friend. If you could not imagine (then) all you’re going to end up with is an encyclopedia of facts everybody already knows; what you’re doing, you’re repeating the facts… you have to go beyond that, you have to interpret those facts in a different way. Ah, I couldn’t by any means…delineate or explain what imagination is, how you get it, and how you use it. I don’t know. I just do what I do. I think most writers do who are imaginative in that sense because imagination is a free flowing thing. I think that’s what they meant when they called it “stream of consciousness” because its unmediated thought; things that come to mind without being urged, without trying to recall because it has to go beyond anything that’s happened… Just like fiction has to be something that has never existed ‘till it is written. Ah, fiction means exactly what it says. It’s fictitious – nothing that exists ‘till you write…. And, that’s fiction; that is something that now exists because you’ve written it. But it never existed before.
So, Imagination is the same thing, it has to derive out of nothing, more or less… Derive… make it realistic… not a dream… it’s not like dreams because dreams are very elusive, they are deceptive. If you try to go back and justify existence of some dream you had, to verify it, you’re gonna find flaws, you’re gonna find great flaws in it that could never have existed. It’s just a dream world. It means exactly what it says, it simply does not exist. Imagination is different, it is [the] free flowing result of, ah, human existence. You apply what has already happened to what might happen. – now, that’s imagination! And, not what has happened. Fiction has got to be something that has never existed. So, your imagination has got to be unique, and should not be denied a writer, that is his best stock-in-trade. If he doesn’t have imagination, what’s he going to do? He might know how to spell… Know how to make paragraphs, but what’s the meaning? That’s the important thing.
CH: Do you see a different …obstacles (today) that were different from when you look at your 30s or 40s…obstacles that were different from then or similar to ones you were or are (still) hitting in your mature years, you’re 60s through 80s? Do certain obstacles stay with you, or do they change?
EC: Well, obstacles always exist in some form. Because they conform to, ah, your current existence, current life and so forth, because… I’m trying to think of an example – of what existed then and what does not exist now; but, for example, Welfare. In my days, there was no such thing as welfare. Now, everybody knows what welfare is and has ambition to go on welfare or something of this sort. In my early life, which is, say, 70 years ago, no such thing as welfare existed, and you had it or you didn’t have it. If you are going to beg… well, go out on the street and beg..
But you wouldn’t do that now, you go to welfare, so it’s a change of existence, a change of style. The obstacles then and now, always differ, no matter what the subject or matter is, it’s going to be different Now, everybody … a lot of people … could not exist or would not exist without credit, borrowing money, credit cards, mortgages… In the old days, it was a feat to be debt-free – if you could manage it. So you tried to own your house, you didn’t want a mortgage…. You didn’t want to have to pay on it. You just wanted to live in it. So, the present generation, the people in their 20s and 30s, they want credit. Well, more power to them… but I wouldn’t want it.
CH: We’re forced to. I’m finding myself forced to. I want to keep away from that kind of thing, but I had to have a Sears credit card to get this car at the Phoenix Airport!
CH: They would not let me pay cash.
EC: That’s right!
CH: I had to have a card, so you are forced to go into hock…. To me, its terrifying because it’s all in computers and people can know about you and it is getting to be a mess. Talking about writers today, I remember one thing I had read, something you commented about, how it’s hard to be a writer today because everything has to be done quickly! The publishers want you do things quick! You have to read quick, and so forth. How do you feel, what would you do, if you were not born in 1903, but 1949? How would you handle this “future shock” that everyone is quick, everyone has to be instant! You can’t reflect anymore.
EC: Well, of course, you can swim with all the blows you get. You learn to do that. You learn to live with your circumstances. It all depends on the era in which you live, because life ten years from now is going to be nothing like it is now. Whether I could cope with it ten years from now, I don’t know (coughs). If I knew 40 years ago what life was going to be like today, I probably would have had a convulsion!
CH: What do you say are the main things in an aspiring artist’s character that are needed to deal with the insanities of today?
EC: Ah, of course that’s where the writer comes in! he should imagine at least what is going to transpire next year. Maybe not ten years from now, but that’s why a writer’s imagination has an opportunity to exert itself If he can foresee tomorrow or the next day or year, Ah, that’s imagination, where the imagination of a writer goes to work. I wouldn’t want to write a novel of the future; I could not envision that far ahead. I could try to write about maybe what is happening today, and it could be of course about, maybe what is happening, and it could be a dated novel, and it would be written in 1986 and so forth and so that would be a 1986 vision, but at least you could apply your imagination to some extent, and sort of foresee… what the architecture of a town is going to look like in years from now. Things like that. You can use your imagination to that extent, but beyond that, I don’t think I could cope with the world tomorrow.
CH: There’s one thing that came to mind as I was driving over here, following your wife here. It has to do with relationships. … about how relationships, marriage, and so on, impact a writer’s compulsiveness, and I wonder how you have dealt with that, if it’s been a problem at all? You know, the kind of intimacy, and so forth. How has that affected you, taken you from writing? Has that threatened you? And how did you deal with that?
CH: With a woman, male – female.
CH: Say you are related to someone like Margaret Bourke White, who is very energetic and so on, what does that do to you?
EC: Yea, yeah! Ah, it all depends on your nature. Some people can, some men can get along without women… to various degrees, of course. But to me it is natural to be affiliated with the female. To some extent, I can understand out here – there are two birds, me and female, they fly together…. I can appreciate that, so for me it is just as natural for those birds to be mated as it is for a male and female to be mated. My… difficulty in life is that I’ve been married four times. That’s not a very helpful… kind of life I suppose to some people. But, it happened to be my life and I lived it that way. I think I couldn’t see it any other way because now, looking back, there are a lot of people I wouldn’t want to be married to, that I had known earlier, then I would not even be intimate with. But, looking back and remembering the circumstances of other people, I say: “Well, I’m glad I’m not married to that woman!” But, I can say, “I am glad I am married as I am today!”
CH: You do have a wonderful wife. I had a college professor in Florida, a poet who said in class one day, “One of the great things about getting older is that you can look back with joy at all the people you didn’t marry!”
Let me put it this way: Okay, assuming that I don’t know what your personal philosophy is about the afterlife… But assuming for a moment that one exists… and the possibility of coming back into life again…. What would you become…a writer, again? Or, would you eliminate that?
EC: Well of course, hindsight is a very ticklish kind of thing to deal with because you could always approve of what you did wrong in the past. Ah, I would rather come back as a writer rather than as a lawyer or anything else. Although there are some of the glamorous professions, like movie actor, all kinds of things, but to me the way I feel about myself, I wouldn’t want to be anything else the second time or third time! I’d have to be what I am.
CH: Would you still type in a cold room in Maine with not enough wood? Would you still eat rat cheese in a depression? Would you still accept the rejections …
EC: Well, you see, those things, when you look back… seem like hardships, but while you are doing them you are so busy living, you don’t consider what they are. Sure, I was cold at night, very cold. But, at the same time, I considered it part of living life itself. So, it was something I didn’t regret, or didn’t disapprove of, didn’t dislike. It was a hardship, sure…
CH: Do you feel that those hardships added to your life as you sit here at eighty three? Do you feel that those were important for your character in terms of who you are?
EC: Well, they give you a lot of stamina! You, you get engrained with stamina. Ah, of course, I could not visualize a life of ease in which you have no hardship. I would not know how to exist because I would be living in a false atmosphere in which you have no troubles – ah, if you had no money troubles, no health troubles, no this, that, and the other … you have to have hardships in order to be impressed with life. Especially as a writer – if he’s not impressed with living, well, what’s he going to write about? So, I don’t say that every writer should go to Greenwich Village and live in a coldwater flat and be emaciated down to 98 pounds – NO! I don’t think that’s necessary. But, if that’s what befalls you, well, you’ll want to do it if you are a dedicated writer.
CH: What do you feel “failure” and what do you feel “success” are?
CH: Success versus failure?
EC: Okay, well, I don’t think that success is necessarily fame. Ah, success might be recognition. Ah, but that recognition his not something that is as important as the fact that you wouldn’t be satisfied without it. It’s something that you think you may have worked for and earned. Ah, and if money comes with it, that’s secondary; that’s not the main point. And if you have recognition, not fame, but if you have recognition, if somebody says: “Well, he’s a pretty good writer!” he’s written some pretty good books!” to me, that’s the ultimate praise that any writer could or should expect…. Now, failure … we are talking about writers’ failure. Its someone, to me, who thinks he has talent or for some reason has… mesmerized himself to the point that he thinks he should be successful. But, not having the talent and the ability, but somebody who keeps on in the face of failure, ah, to the end, and ends up a derelict, to me that’s failure. Now, he might resort to other means of making a living, by writing porno books or something, to exist. To me that is not a successful failure, that’s a premeditated failure. Ah, to do something like that in order to try to be successful, because if you change your philosophy… if you change your ideals… in order to achieve something underhanded, something fraudulent, to me – that is not something successful. It’s a failure.
CH: I think that one of the best comments I’ve gotten on this subject! Seems like you have thought about it. Well, I’m through, if there is anything you can think that we didn’t cover?
EC: Ha ha! Well, I don’t know of anything else I can say, and I don’t know if anything I said was really important. So, it’s whatever you make of it. Because I’m not a great mind. I’m not a great thinker. I’m not a great philosopher. I’m just an ordinary guy.
About the interviewer:
Charles Hayes began publishing poetry and essays in the 1970s and ’80s. His 1978 book, From the Hudson to the World (introduction by Pete Seeger) remains the most complete collection of Native American lore and art (gathered from 17th century Dutch deed books) to date. In the ’80s, Hayes started a book called Pearl in the Mud, which involved interviews with various famous and lesser-known artists, from John Cage and Elaine Dekooning in New York to excellent folk weavers in the New Mexico mountains. A book he funded on student loans.
Concurrent to his book project, Hayes studied Navajo language and earned his MA degree in Art Therapy from the University of New Mexico. Since then, he has become an avid amateur photographer who combines his photos with his writings. Currently, he is “taking the ‘Pearl’ project onward in the form of a smaller book, Ten Women Composers You Should Know.
Previous contributions to Ragazine include interviews with the late John Cage and the very-much-alive Dorothea Rockburne.
November 6, 2014 Comments Off on Erskine Caldwell Interview
Retro Video Club Collection
Retro Video Club
by Fred Roberts
Contributing Music Editor
Today Youtube is filled with video sessions of high definition digital pristine perfection. They are beautiful documents of culture, featuring, as they do, the best of various bands, musicians, performers: The Emery Sessions from my home town of Cincinnati, Hamburg’s Küchensessions, the Furious Sessions in Barcelona, Balcony TV from all around the world. The sessions are lovely and document an important aspect of musical culture, but they are all too perfect, in the sense of digital music to vinyl. Moreover, with HD video a feature of nearly every smartphone and camera, artistic uniqueness is nearly impossible to achieve.
In the midst of these trends, artist Marq Lativ Guther plunges into the past with a project that couldn’t be further from the contemporary idea of digital perfection. Armed with a repertoire of professional video cameras of late ’80s’ vintage, Marq set out last year to document a selection of concerts at venues in Hamburg. The result is an insider’s archive of Hamburg’s subculture: The Retro Video Club.
I first met Marq last year at Gagarin Records’ 15th birthday celebration in the club Westwerk, several weeks after he began his project, discovered that he had taped one of the concerts I’d already seen, a set by Holger Hiller, founding member of the German new wave art band Palais Schaumburg (1980-84). The concert at Golden Pudel Club had multiple layers of charm. Holger Hiller practically grew up in Pudel Club, he told the audience, and for this concert his son had flown in from London to support him on drums. When Marq told me he had prepared a small, handmade, numbered, DVD edition of the evening, with original artwork, it sounded too good to be true.
Since then our paths have crossed at numerous other events and I have became a regular subscriber of the DVD edition. The discs are wonderful memories of the events, but more importantly, many years from now these recordings will represent an important historical document of avant garde culture in Hamburg.
Marq’s art is subtle. It does not overwhelm with visual effects but rather presents the performances in a way that comments and accentuates the live experience. In the case of Mary Ocher’s concert at Pudel Club, Marq demonstrated the compelling presence of the artist by relying mostly on close-in shots during the performance. The mix of Felix Kubin’s set at Westwork on the other hand, using three cameras, supported the psycho-surreal tone of the music. In general the visual dynamic is always there, the camera(s) following the action with intrigued curiosity, drawing the viewer along on a fascinating visual and audio journey.
The selection of musicians in the Retro Video Club represents a cross section of important countercultural acts in Europe today including Adi Gelbart, Eli Gras, Felix Kubin, Holger Hiller, Mitch & Mitch, Peter Um, Tellavision, also Mary Ocher and Schnipo Schranke, captured while still under the status of well kept secrets. A pearl of the collection, and according to Marq, the most requested so far, is the reunion of Palais Schaumburg at HFBK’s 100th birthday celebration. My two favorite concerts of the collection are “L.A. Sued” and “Frau Kraushaar”.
“L.A. Sued” (German for L.A. South) is a collaboration that defies imagination. It includes Ray Buckmiller “Fred & Luna,” who over the years has built up an impressive repertoire of unpublished electronic compositions, the enigmatic “Putzmiester,” who in the early ’80s worked with Brian Eno and engineered the sound of bands like the B52’s, then lived off the grid for many years, and veteran musician Chris Cacavas, one of the founding members of Green on Red, who settled in Germany about twelve years ago. The music they produced that evening at Hafenbahnhof was transcendental. Ray playing as if in a trance, Chris in determined concentration and Putzmiester doggedly bending the strings. They were the three spirits of music. Marq’s cut of the concert alluded to this spirituality by superimposing different camera angles, also a symbolic statement that the music was more than the sum of all its parts. This concert is definitely one of the highlights.
The visual masterpiece is the concert of Frau Kraushaar and the Hairy Girls at Golem, April 10, 2014. Marq himself labels it “the most radical look of all films made till now.” The music is sublime, a concert of Frau Kraushaar’s album on Rough Trade “The Power of Appropriation” in which she interpreted forgotten folk songs from around Europe, sung in eight different languages. Marq’s handling of the recording, probably due as much to the low light situation at Golem as anything else, is endlessly intriguing. Combined with the timeless musical interpretations − guitar (Sasha Demand), stand-up bass (Andrew Krell) and chorus of sirens (The Hairy Girls), the strong personality of Frau Kraushaar announcing the songs, and the near black and white appearance, it feels like an experimental television broadcast out of another dimension, Frau Kraushaar as an alternate Carmen Miranda appearing with her band at Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca, but of another time. At one point Frau Kraushaar alludes to the political situation in Ukraine, adding the feeling of a concert taking place under the sceptre of serious political threats. The video reminded me of sitting in front of an early 1960s’ floor model Zenith TV watching out-of-town broadcasts, but that’s as close a comparison as I can come up with.
On September 8th at Westwerk, Marq introduced the Retro Video Club project to the world, along with a concert by post noise band LXMP from Poland and a showing of Felix Kubin’s concert from last year’s Gagarin Records birthday celebration. A Website is in preparation and Marq is currently searching for a label to officially issue the series. Independent of that, more releases are on the way, including a documentary of Tellavision filmed with four cameras. Marq granted me a sneak preview, and it is going to be incredible. Ernie Kovacs would be proud.
The collection so far:
- Holger Hiller @ Golden Pudel Club (21.9.2013)
- Palais Schaumburg @ HBFK (11.10.2013)
- Gagarin Records 10th Anniversary party @ Westwerk, 16.11.2013 (Peter Um / Adi Gelbart / Felix Kubin). Exerpts and promos:
- Felix Kubin with Mitch & Mitch @ Uebel und Gefaehrlich (3.12.2013)
- Schnipo Schranke @ Golden Pudel Club (29.1.2014). Full concert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=soAKOwyDZ6w
- Mary Ocher @ Golden Pudel Club (29.1.2014). Full concert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGgQeHb6-Ns
- Frau Kraushaar and the Hairy Girls @ Golem (10.4.2014). Concert excerpt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4J8MFOA2B0
- L.A. Sued @ Hafenbahnhof (27.4.2014). Full concert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwypACIUarc
- Eli Gras @ Kunstverein (10.5.2014)
- Tellavision @ MS Dockville (9.8.2014) Bonus Feature: http://www.bostonhassle.com/2014/10/17/fresh-vid-tellavision-betony-world-premiere/
About the author:
Fred Roberts is a contributing editor and music editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us. Photos by Fred Roberts.
October 31, 2014 2 Comments
Grégory Sugnaux :
A germ of doubt into “classical” sculpture
By Jean-Paul Gavard-Perret
Waves, webbing, truncated shapes : Gregory Sugnaux bends and manipulates the volumes – thicknesses and blocks – and disrupts boundaries between outside and inside. Thus the images are never simple or obvious. Corners bring to mind the torn canvases of Lucio Fontana. Sugnaux, with trapezoidal or other shapes, clearly enjoys betraying moderns values by introducing an element of doubt.
Something always upsets the principles of totality end homogeneity.
The artist has developed his thinking through close contact with artists such Daniela Droz, a precursor of relational aesthetics. Gergory Sugnaux likes to undertake partnerships that challenge sculpture’s symbolic authority. The swiss artist uses variations “on the motif” by making openings. With “support-/surface” Vialat invented the disappearance of the frame and provoked crisis in the apprehension of the material delimitations of painting. This stratagem transposed to the scale of a sculpture kills the question of proportion by the modification of constructive and symbolic hierarchies. Plasticity takes over giving the opus a new identity. The critical mission is what drives his work.
That’s why his sculpture thinking is based on a dialectical principle closely linking ethical and aesthetic orientations in a quest for a human equilibrium, a reality-based hypothesis renewed and further differentiated with each new project that creates poetry of reflection.
About the author:
Jean-Paul Gavard-Perret contributes the On Location/France column to Ragazine. You can read more about him in About Us.
October 31, 2014 Comments Off on On Location/France
Re: The Common Core
by Jim Palombo
I just recently made a drive from central Mexico to upstate New York – most likely the last time a trip of this nature will happen for me. In any event, there were plenty of stops and starts along the way and certainly no shortage of thoughts that occurred as the miles passed. In short, one can’t help but fall into a reflective state as places and faces go by.
The day following my arrival in New York, I was reading the Sunday New York Times and was struck by a piece titled, “Common Core, Through the Eyes of a 9 Year Old,” by Javier Hernandez. It was an excellent review of the new curriculum effort for secondary students, one primarily aimed at increasing their critical thinking skills through a modified series of math, English and social studies courses. As an educator myself, I could readily attest to the need for such an effort. Unfortunately, what seemed to be happening more than anything else was a significant amount of frustration and anxiety among the students, teachers and parents involved, particularly in regards to the amount of testing occurring that was meant to measure both the students’ progress and the Core design itself. In brief, and despite the fact that the problem of improving our future citizens’ thinking skills demands a great deal of “work in progress” patience, it seems the initiative is already receiving a failing grade.
Now you might be wondering what my cross-countries’ drive has to do with the reading of this article? Well, the connection is that in reading the article, and still in somewhat of a haze from my mini-odyssey, I started to visualize the Common Core effort in terms of a vehicle, one being driven by “thinking tools” through the chaotic countryside that is American education. Of course along the way, and much like my trip, there would be a myriad of experiences in the offing. In this instance, one would encounter teachers and administrators at both secondary and post-secondary levels, some of whom are well-versed in critical thinking but many who are not. And there would also be the parents, some who are well-versed in critical thinking, but many who are not. And then there would be the overall “general public,” who show no hesitancy in offering opinions at a moment’s notice, yet who also fall into the same “many who are not” category in terms of critical thinking. And finally, there would be the numerous educational and governmental agencies, most of which seem to be suffering from their own gap in clear thinking while continually trying to justify the significance of their existence. In essence, then, this imaginary trip by the Common Core vehicle would be uncovering a slew of “thinking related” shortcomings that reached well beyond the substance of what was actually at focus – shortcomings that coincidentally could well be tied to the frustration, anxiety and impatience being exhibited.
With this image in mind, I began to consider other like journeys, i.e., if similar “vehicles of thought” were driven along other institutional highways, like down the roads of our justice system, or social service processes, or the government, or the military, or the media. They would surely encounter much the same result: people/agencies being upset based on their own shortcomings; people/agencies feeling attacked by something new they really aren’t sure about/comfortable with – in essence people/agencies struggling with doing something (or not doing it) that would make them “think.” In other words, and as the Common Core initiative is doing with the educational process, the systems would be being exposed in more ways than anticipated.
Although I found these parallel thoughts intriguing, I may not have chosen to write about them in an article. However, the next day there happened to be a related piece in the Albany Times-Union, titled “Returning to the beginning for Common Core” by Fred Lebrun. Mr. Lebrun’s focus was on re-examining the pitfalls of the Core effort, especially the rush to put the program into effect in New York. It seemed, especially for the public, that what was occurring in the State provided validation for the assumption that the entire initiative was ill-fated and poorly planned.
The article was well written but, a bit like the New York Times’ piece, it didn’t seem to go far enough in terms of referencing how deep the problems at hand might run, or that a particular “work in progress” patience would be required, or as important, how we might have gotten into the situation in the first place, i.e., what were the motivating factors that fueled our distraction from things like critical thinking and reinforcing our citizenship skills? And this brought me back to again considering not only the Common Core “drive” but also the essence of what the other “vehicles of thinking” trips might uncover.
So the two articles gave rise to this article whose point is that in considering the Common Core initiative, one must be aware that there is simply more to consider. In this light the Common Core experience can be seen as bringing to the surface how change, particularly when addressing deep-rooted issues, should always be considered a long term effort, one that will be riddled with hurdles and one that will be painstakingly intensive and time-consuming. After all, it took us a long time to get where we are today.
And we must keep in mind that the educational arena is not our only area of concern. Despite many well-intentioned efforts most of our social infrastructure (including the public, non-profit and private sectors) is decaying, sagging under the weight of bloated bureaucracies, bloated egos and bloated paychecks, the inconsistencies of policies and procedures, the effects of under or misdirected worker education, and under served clients. And, as with Common Core, we must be willing to absorb the re-tooling tasks, taking special care in not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, especially as it may not be clear as to the substance of either.
As a “last but not least” thought, there remains another important consideration. It appears that with all the problems on our collective table, problems that most of us elders have been part of creating (and continue to perpetuate) we tend at many turns to try to hold the least responsible party responsible for the difficulties we are now facing – the children. In other words it appears that we like to point to them while saying that it’s their turn to take on the concerns of the world. And this is usually done without the requisite acknowledgement of the mess that we have put them in. This of course makes little sense to them, and it also opens the door for them to ask us directly, if by nothing more than intuition, what exactly we have been doing in terms of addressing our own lack of critical thinking skills – the lack of which is much more a part of what’s on our country’s problem-table than are the tests now sitting in front of them.
**The article following Mr. Hernandez’s piece in the New York Times deserves attention. It is titled “Graduates Cautioned: Don’t Shut Out Opposing Views” by Richard Perez-Pena and it highlights several commencement speeches made at the graduations from several of our country’s post-secondary institutions. In short, the speeches all seem to underscore the notion that “thinking,” both on emotional and intelligence levels, is a point of particular importance, something that seems to have gotten lost along our collective way. Comments suggest the need for tolerance of ideas, openness, not being afraid to fail in thinking or in action, in taking a stand and even getting in trouble – all within the context of reaching toward purposes larger than individual gain. So, as with the Common Core initiative, and consistent with what the young college graduates are now facing, the suggestion seems to be that “more” will be required to contend, given what the world has now become. And, hopefully for the better, and hopefully with our legitimate help, they will be up to the task of thinking through what this “more” will actually be. And this certainly spells a special kind of fuel for the “vehicles of thinking” that will need to hit the road on the daunting effort’s behalf.
About the author:
Jim Palombo is politics editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.
* * * * *
August 29, 2014 Comments Off on Politics/Jim Palombo
* * *
by Mark Levy
At the risk of putting you to sleep faster than my essays usually do, I’m going to discuss naps, those precious intervals of sleep during the day favored by the very young and, I’ve discovered, many older people including me. In fact, a recent Pew Research Center survey shows that one out of three adults takes a daily nap. More men do than women.
The Internet is full of advice about the advantages of napping during the work day and how to get the most out of your napping time at the office. Someone even invented an unofficial holiday called National Workplace Napping Day, to be celebrated the first Monday after the start of daylight-saving time each spring. The theory is you need a nap on that day more than any other day of the year to make up for the hour of sleep you missed the previous Sunday morning.
I would use that logic to argue for a nap the day after New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, the Fourth of July, Academy Awards night, Superbowl Day, World Series Day (all seven of them), and even Flag Day for the excessively patriotic.
Of course, not all of us work in offices. Aren’t hospital workers, professional basketball players, and retail sales clerks entitled to a nap, too? If you operated a jack hammer, for instance, I think you should be able to take a short nap every day, which would be a relief not only for you, but for the rest of us within earshot.
Taking a nap during the workday has a number of advantages, the most important one being an opportunity to be more productive afterwards. But if you wake from a nap feeling groggy and grumpy, as I usually do, you might feel productive even if all you do is stumble your way to the bathroom.
Here’s another advantage of taking a nap when you should be working: you can make up for nap time by working late, thereby avoiding the evening rush hour, which is its own reward.
Frankly, though, as much as I appreciate workday naps, I find great pleasure also in napping during the weekend. For most of us, the weekend is for recuperating after a long week of whatever it is we get paid to do. Sometimes I’m so exhausted on Saturday morning, the first thing I do upon awakening is take a nap. That way, instead of merely sleeping in all morning I feel that I’m actually accomplishing something I can brag about on the rare occasion that I’m invited to a party that night.
Napping has been good for my marriage, too. My wife is always concerned about my well being, which is why she pesters me about any number of what used to be pleasurable activities. Lethargy in front of our TV and fried chicken come to mind. Her concern for me has certainly curtailed my unhealthy behavior. But by the same token, her abnormally strong desire to keep me healthy at least until our mortgage is paid off has actually resulted in my getting out of most physical tasks from drying dishes to mowing the lawn to attending those interminable grade school music recitals. All I have to do, after beginning the activity, is clutch my heart and make a funny face and I’m excused from completing the job.
I have to admit, though, I haven’t been successful at ducking all of those so-called concerts. I know what you’re thinking, but the kids’ performances are so dreadful, no one could sleep through them.
I’m in good company as a professional napper. Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison advocated naps. So did Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, and Salvador Dali. And look what they accomplished.
Business people call them “power naps,” which elevates them to something more meaningful than what cats and dogs do at every opportunity. In fact, before the expression, “power naps” became popular, we used to call them “cat naps.”
The Mayo Clinic also thinks they’re a good idea for some people’s hearts some of the time. How’s that for a strong recommendation? Personally, I think that indicates the Mayo Clinic employs too many lawyers.
John Kennedy also used to take naps, or at least that’s what he told Jackie. I really have to hand it to Kennedy. If Marilyn Monroe had visited me at nap time, I’m not sure what activity I would have chosen.
About the author:
Mark Levy is Ragazine.CC’s “Casual Observer.” He is a lawyer, lives in Florida, and is an occasional contributor to National Public Radio where his columns can be heard some Saturdays around noon. You can read more about him in “About Us.”
Illustration by Walter Gurbo. You can read more about Walter in About Us.
August 29, 2014 Comments Off on Casual Observer/Mark Levy
I am a Belgian photographer, Bernard Caelen. My photographic alias is Irving S. T. Garp in reference to John Irving’s novel “The World According to Garp.” There is, I hope, a certain form of analogy between Irving’s style and my pictural universe.
Some models sometimes want to try to get photographed naked. But the fact of showing their body bothers them. It’s not modesty or shyness that holds them from doing it, it is the fear of being recognized by people they know, friends or family. In the series “Portraits Cachés” (Hidden Portraits), the models can be photographed naked and can hide their head in an original way.
In Irving’s books, some worst disasters appear, unexpected, in the middle of sentences, slipped into a description of an common daily life. My photos are recognized by their original and offbeat staging.
Irving S. T. Garp / Hidden Portraits
Links to Caelen’s works:
July 15, 2014 Comments Off on Irving S. T. Garp / Photographer
* * * * *
The Life and Death
of Timothy T. Trout, Artist
* * * * *
by Bill Dixon
I met Tim Trout perhaps twenty-five years ago, while walking the halls of the Fine Arts Department at The Ohio State University, looking for a young Chinese artist I had just met at a group art show in the “Short North” Arts District of Columbus, Ohio. We were in the show together; I had liked his work, and asked if I could see more of it. We’d scheduled a date and time to meet and I’d arrived early, as I almost always do. As I was walking to the rendezvous, I noticed a gaunt, tormented-looking fellow sitting on a table in the hallway. He was studying me, peering over a copy of The Lantern, the OSU student newspaper.
He asked if he could help me find what I was looking for and we fell into a conversation about art. It turned out he was attending art classes at the University on a scholarship. I later learned he worked as a janitor and, therefore, was eligible as an employee to attend some classes for free. He chose art classes. We agreed to meet later when he could show me his art. He tore off a piece of the newspaper he had been reading and scrawled his name, Tim Trout, and his phone number.
My afternoon appointment showed up and I left Tim to his newspaper. I went with the Chinese artist to see his paintings in a location farther down the same hall where I’d met Tim. We had a good chat, but after review, I decided the two paintings in the show weren’t typical of his current work. I was collecting art then, as I still do, but didn’t really care much for these efforts. The prices he had on the ones I did like, back at the Short North gallery, seemed too high, and we never did do any business.
I ran a real estate sales and management company at the time and the mid-Fall quarter was traditionally a slack time. With little to do, I found myself a few days later calling Tim to see when we could get together. He was home, and told me to come on over. He was living in a tiny efficiency apartment above a popular Greek restaurant on North High Street, in Columbus. It was in a largely student-populated area. I found his door, and knocked. The apartment looked like a bomb had just gone off. There was a grubby mattress on the floor, open boxes of food scattered around, dirty clothes, empty bottles and cans, dirty dishes, junk and bags of trash here and there. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a roach scuttling to cover behind a stack of art materials. There were paintings everywhere, too. Some were hung, but most were strewn around the walls, leaned up, or set on top of his modest furnishings, which were mostly discards he’d found over time in the alley behind his apartment.
There was one chair in the room, a dilapidated, unsteady-looking armchair, that also held several of his paintings and a partial six-pack of beer, still held together by its plastic harness. Tim was sitting tailor-style on the floor, and gestured for me to sit down on an inverted plastic milk crate. I did so. We talked for some time. It became gradually apparent that he was either under the influence of alcohol or some other family of drugs, or just plain nuts. It also became clear, after several later visits and the passage of time, that it was probably all of the above. Well, I didn’t have any problem with any of those things. As a child of the ‘sixties, a time I loved, and about which I wrote what I consider my best book, I could deal with all those things. It was old hat for me and I felt right at home in Tim’s place. Alcohol, drugs and insanity? Hey, no problem, dude.
I purchased several paintings that day. Tim was fascinated by violent weather and many of his paintings depicted storms and natural disasters. There also was a little semi-nude, crudely self-framed painting titled, “Bustle.” It was reasonably priced and was the very first piece I bought from him. Loosely composed and colorful, every brush stroke was easily visible, bold and confident. There was no reworking or blending anywhere in the piece. Tim himself was not at all a confident person, however. He was, as a person, conflicted, unfocused and random. His paintings were the exact opposite of his outward persona. You could tell at a glance that he had painted rapidly, but with a vision of the final product in every stroke of his brush and in the application of every color he selected. It was amazing to me, his artistic creations were so totally different than his own outward appearance.
Several weeks later, I watched him paint a piece. It was a much larger work. He set the canvas on a crude easel he’d made from scraps of two by four lumber, and selected the oil paints to apply to his canvas, all in a rush, squeezing them onto his palette as if his life depended on the speed at which he worked. He attacked the canvas! He slashed and lunged at it in a frenzy, and I could see that in his mind, it was already composed as a finished work. It didn’t take him long to complete that vision. He used lots of oil paint, and it would obviously take some time for it to dry enough for him to seal it with damar varnish. He finished in a flourish, and turned toward me. For a moment, he was confident, bold and triumphant. Then he receded into his usual character again, a timid, disoriented fellow, weighted down and transformed by his troubles, doubts and fears.
Over the next few years, I bought more than two hundred pieces from Tim, and still have almost all of them. They’re in a temperature- and humidity-controlled storage facility, until I decide what to do with them, and when. Tim was what current parlance refers to as “high maintenance.” He never knew what day it was, or what time it might be, and as a result, he’d call me at three o’clock in the morning to tell me that he had some pieces that he wanted me to buy so that he could pay his electric bill, or deal with some other personal crisis that had presented itself. Transportation was a major problem with Tim. He called me in the middle of the night once to tell me that someone had stolen his bicycle. He was obviously drunk , or otherwise impaired when he called. The bike was his only means of transportation and obviously very important to him. I got him a replacement and soon after, took it to him. Within a couple of weeks, although I’d also furnished him with a bicycle lock, it went missing. A friend of Tim’s told me that Tim had lost any number of bikes. He’d get drunk or stoned and park his bike somewhere and by morning, forget where it was. I bought him three bicycles before deciding it was a problem I couldn’t fix.
I started arranging art shows for Tim, too. I’d even price his pieces. He’d forget about the show dates, and I’d end up hanging his shows by myself, after transporting his work in my van to the show. When the shows closed, I would haul them back to his place. Sometimes, he’d forget where the show was, and never visit. The extra money that came from sales at these shows didn’t benefit him. He’d drink up the proceeds, or buy various drugs when he had the ability and opportunity to do so. With liver problems or psychological swings, his visits to the hospital increased. It turned out that this wasn’t a new problem, just one I didn’t know about before, and the availability of the extra cash from sales of his paintings just shortened the time between hospitalizations.
Tim eventually acquired a similarly directed girlfriend. As unstable as Tim, she was younger and somewhat healthier, physically. They had met in a bar in the University area. He tried to protect her from her destructive proclivities, but that helped destabilize Tim further. She, like Tim, was also mentally ill, and would periodically cut him with a kitchen knife if they quarreled about something. It seemed that Tim couldn’t help himself and no one else could help him, either, as trips to the hospital became more frequent.
A friend and fellow patron of Tim’s, a professor at OSU, tried his best to help Tim out of his downward spiral, but the situation was hopeless. We kept one another up to date on the situation, but that was about all we could do. Then, disaster! A local bank sent Tim a credit card. He immediately used it to buy a broken-down car. Then, using his new credit card, he took the car to a garage to get it running. He had no driver license, of course, and shouldn’t have had one. Shortly thereafter, he parked the car in a bus stop to go into a bar, and it was promptly towed away. He thought it had been stolen and called the police to complain. Since he hadn’t registered the title, a further mess was created. Then he maxed out the credit card on the purchase of a new radial arm saw and an expensive violin he didn’t know how to play but appreciated its beautiful appearance. He set up the radial arm saw on the floor of his tiny apartment. He told me that “now, he could make his own frames and stretchers, right there in his apartment.” He would fire up the saw at all hours and cut wood that he found in the alleys. Neighbors in adjacent apartments complained to the landlord, who paid Tim, generally a month or two late on rent, a visit. There he discovered not only the source of the noise but a persistent roach infestation and promptly tacked an eviction notice on the door. Hapless Tim was terrified.
Somehow, Tim got reinstated, probably because cleaning out the place to re-rent it would have cost a lot, not including the time it went empty without income and would likely take two years to recoup the losses. The landlord took the violin and and radial saw in payment. But a couple months later, Tim called in the middle of the night to say he needed money desperately. Could I come over right away. He was being evicted again, and wanted me to buy the art he had left, specifying a dollar amount he needed as his price for everything left. He said he was going to stay with his mother in Marion until things straightened out. I drove to Tim’s place the next morning, and bought the last of his art, mostly works on paper. The place was crawling again and I offered to spray, but he told me he had acquired a cat to kill the roaches and was afraid roach spray would kill the cat.
I took the last Trouts to an unheated garage, sprayed, and let everything sit for the winter. I got word a short time later that Tim was dead. He never left Columbus; I suspect he never intended to stay with his mother, that perhaps that she didn’t exist, in Marion, or anywhere else. He’d made it one last time into University Hospital, where he died in his sleep, his suffering over. The last time I saw him alive, he tearfully said he was Jesus Christ, that “he hadn’t asked for the job, but would now have to die for the sins of others.” He showed me a new signature he would use on his art: “t.T.t.,” which would symbolize the three crosses at the crucifixion, and his Christian name, timothy T trout. He also told me his Indian name was “Little Trout,” and that he might begin using that signature on some “special” pieces.
Tim was a splendid artist, but so mentally unstable that unless he was institutionalized and drugged, he would continue to suffer the indignities and torments he experienced as a free man. He was in his thirties, I believe, and had somehow served in the United States Navy, on board ship. He implied the government gave him some sort of monthly income, on which he could survive, but you could never tell fact from fiction with Tim. Neither could he, I suppose. He described the world, on canvas, as accurately as he was able. It was a world of violent storms and unending tragedies, but sometimes, with graceful nudes who emerged from gardens of blooming flowers. I lived in a far different world, and tried to understand Tim’s world to the best of my abilities, as he had tried to understand mine. Sometimes, we both missed the mark. He was a good person, gentle and generous, loyal to his friends, forgiving of those who mistreated him. He was marooned in a frightening, alien world, finding power in the paint brush he used to communicate with his demons, and the small group of fortunate people who understood and appreciated his haunting messages. Paraphrasing Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Each day, do the best you can, and tomorrow, put it behind you.” I think, no matter how things turned out, that was what timothy T. trout attempted to do.
About the author:
Bill Dixon is a contributing columnist to Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.
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July 15, 2014 Comments Off on From the Edge/Bill Dixon
Source: Opening of SCTV, 1981
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The Awareness Vaccine:
A Review of Mitchel Davidovitz’s
Window of Normalization
by Fred Roberts
In 1987, I made the experience of moving to Germany, leaving behind the vast American infrastructure of media, network television, cable TV, early talk radio. I never felt like I was trapped inside a propaganda system but after some months, I noticed that some ideas that for many become unchallenged assumptions, were no longer echoed daily from various sources around me: Americans are special, American lives are worth more than non-American lives, free market capitalism is good, universal healthcare is bad, humanists and communists are evil, the world would be a much better place if our European partners would do everything the President wanted them to. Surrounded by so many divergent perspectives, the world gradually felt more objective. On subsequent visits back to the States, I saw the media from the outside, and much more critically than I had before. It was unsettling to notice how strong the influence of the media was on the general public, how the unchallenged assumptions worked their way into conversations and seemed resistant to rational argument.
Years later, I discovered an insightful work by Norman Corwin published 1983 under the title Trivializing America in which he described how mediocrity was seeping into all aspects of public life, film, television, sports, the public discourse, the election process, etc. etc. He saw it as a real danger to our democracy. We were losing our critical ability, our ability to make informed decisions. If the trends continued, we would no longer be in a position to elect responsible political representatives. In fact, the only predictions of his that have not come true were the optimistic ones. He saw a glimmer of hope in the creation of 24 hour TV news networks, that these could report on substance, giving daily scorecards of how our senators and representatives voted, etc. The book was a wake-up call that went under in the wave of events of the subsequent decades. Gulf war. Clinton impeachment hearings. Y2K hysteria. Theft of the 2000 election. 9/11.
Fast forward to 2014 and a work by Mitchel Davidovitz, Window of Normalization. It is a terrifying snapshot of modern pseudo-reality as formed and reinforced by the visual medium of television. The project is based on a statement by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman:
“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.” (2002)
A compelling aspect of the project is that it begins with a definite idea and follows it through to its logical conclusion. If the statement by Chomsky and Herman is accurate, how could the media pull it off? What Mitchel did was to monitor during a one week period the average amount of hours a typical American viewer would see (34 hours). Out of this 34-hour period he collected a sample of 6500 images, as well as audio samples – in part guided by the expectations of themes described in Manufacturing Consent by Chomsky and Herman and Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges, but also attempting to capture any other recurring themes that became apparent.
Out of the 6500 images, Mitchel grouped a reduced sample into twelve category grids which serve to show exactly which belief systems the mass media support. The results did not surprise me. They matched my impressions of television in recent visits to the States, an idea of a constant state of war. It goes beyond the news, with themes of terrorism working their way into series like Homeland and NCIS, thereby reinforcing the belief of an omnipresent terrorist force that can only be held in check with increased surveillance and security, and ultimately with a curtailment of individual liberties. Witness also TV shows like Castle in which total surveillance is depicted as an effective means to solve any crime.
A five part audio opus complements Mitchel’s visual findings, sound collages which are a nightmarish synthesis of Big Brother and Brave New World. Altogether this is a document of modern dystopia, an endless chain of images, soundbites and conditioning to keep the masses in a constant state of stupor. The real problems, approaching climate catastrophe, the absence of political influence of the 99%, the looting of the resources of our and other nations by out of control financial and corporate entities, will never be discovered by watching the major U.S. networks which only continue the stupefying bombardment, and for each real issue, manufacture and present instead a multitude of distractions.
The one aspect of the work that surprised me is its brevity, a reduction of a week’s television viewing to twelve images and five audio collages. Was there more that could have been captured? Were there positive grids that might have been compiled? On the other hand, the themes are indisputable and the brevity intensifies the frightening idea that maybe this is all there is, that this is the essence of our media today with TV sets everywhere, in McDonald’s, in waiting rooms, often set to FOX news. The accompanying research paper gives an excellent description of the audio and visual components of the project.
To the question of how a manipulation to this extent could be perpetrated, it is seen as the result of the concentration of media into just nine international conglomerates, with a top down consensus of what should be seen. There may not be a literal guideline to show three 9/11 reminders per hour, but the tone is set from above, with hand-picked editors down the line making all the decisions. As such, a study like this cannot prove cause and effect. One might alternatively claim it is a public mood that perpetuates a media giving the public exactly what it wants. Still, the media are in a position to break that cycle but since they do not, it becomes our responsibility to do so ourselves. It would be interesting to do similar studies in countries where the media is more diverse. One thing the study does not address is the question of how effective the control mechanisms are. As protest and dissent do exist, we can thankfully conclude that the mechanisms are not infallible, although they may be effective enough.
Here is the conclusion of the project in its own words:
“The influence of television is massive. Americans, on average, spend 34 hours a week in front of television screens (Nielsen 2013). Through means of cultivation, television is able to literally alter the minds of those who view it. The values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that are presented on television and imprinted on the audience overwhelmingly benefit power structures and hegemonic control over the populace. The propagandist nature of television is quite evident. It is a tool used by the powerful to prevent civil unrest, promote mass distraction, spread lies and misinformation, and diminish and belittle radical thought. Window of Normalization allows the audience to reflect on the current state of the televised mass media system by arming and empowering them with a new perspective and knowledge. With these new realizations, the audience may choose, if they deem necessary, to break free of television’s power, refuse to subject themself to it, and demand a more righteous press, source of information, and means of entertainment.”
The project is documented at http://mitcheldavidovitz.bandcamp.com/album/window-of-normalization. Please have a look at it to judge the findings for yourself. The key to inoculation is awareness. Turn off your televisions and follow the alternative, independent media wherever you may find it. A good starting point is http://www.truth-out.org/buzzflash/ which presents a comprehensive selection of current headlines that see through all the smoke and mirrors of everyday American media.
About the author:
Fred Roberts is a contributing editor and music editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.
June 29, 2014 1 Comment
THE KUMAON IS DEAD;
LONG LIVE THE KUMAON
by Jonathan Evans
From the very start, the trip is tinged with death. I am in India with my wife Beth and my oldest friend Charles to tie up all the loose ends of my twenty-year life in the Himalayan foothills of the Kumaon. The Kumaon is one of the two regions of Uttarakhand, a mountainous state in Northern India. It is bordered on the north by Tibet, on the east by Nepal, on the south by the state of Uttar Pradesh and on the west by the Garhwal region. This state includes the highest mountains in India and the local language is Kumaoni. The local people are famed for their strong independence and bravery.
On the day that we all arrive in Delhi, I receive an email from my sister Kate in England that my younger brother Philip has been found dead at his flat in Hastings. I have been expecting such a call for years; he is an alcoholic and has abused his body terribly for years. We have had very little contact lately but a brother is always a brother and it is nevertheless a shock. Far from the UK or from my home in America, it is news that is hard to really understand or process.
Furthermore, when we arrive two days later at Tara’s Guesthouse above Almora, the Kumaoni hill station, we find the whole family in heavy mourning as Tara’s aunt has just died. The three Tewari brothers have shaved their heads; Tara, the eldest son, is dressed in white dhotis, the whole family is fasting and going to the temple every day for mourning poojas. Death involves an elaborate ritual in these parts and inevitably causes me to dwell on my own loss which I still have not got my head around.
I first came to India in the mid-‘80s and twenty years ago paid for a seventy-year lease on a traditional Kumaoni stone house in a tiny rural village called Ayarpani on the side of Binsar Mountain. For the most part, it has been a happy and magical experience but after meeting Beth and then rediscovering America and relocating to Colorado, I have spent less and less time at the house, our last visit being five years ago. I have had continual troubles with my landlord Than Singh, an old soldier with a great love of rum, and to cap it all, there was a particularly heavy monsoon three years ago when the land above the village, long deforested by the locals in search of firewood, was washed away and much of the village was engulfed in mud slides. My house was damaged and as a precaution, I arranged for my friend Tara to move everything out of the house and into storage at his guesthouse. All my possessions have sat there ever since and the main task of this visit is to sort through them all and to save and ship back anything irreplaceable. It is a sad and rather daunting task and feels like the end of an important chapter in my life. But I have moved on and, in any case, rarely look backwards and have been through this process many times before in a life of constant travel. It is a job that has to be done and I shall feel freer and more complete when it is finished.
So we are staying at Tara’s Guesthouse on Crank’s Ridge, a hill just above Almora. There is a temple at the top and the place got its name in the Sixties when the area became a stop-off point on the Hippie Trail. From Kasar Devi, there is an astounding view of Trishul, Nanda Devi and NandaKotMountains delineating the Tibetan border, some fifty miles up the road and there is a story that there is a hole in the Van Allen Belt above the ridge so that cosmic rays bombard the area. I don’t know about that but Kasar Devi has long been a drug culture destination due to the large amounts of ganja that are cultivated up there. The ridge was a regular haunt for artists, writers and spiritual seekers in the Twenties and Thirties when Tibetan Buddhists like Evans-Wentz (who translated the Tibetan Book of the Dead up there) and Lama Govinda lived on the ridge. Later, the Danish mystic Alfred Sorenson came up to visit the Nehru estate, Kali, on BinsarMountain and then settled on Kasar Devi. Other famous visitors were Bob Dylan and Cat Stephens as well as Allen Ginsberg and his entourage in search of spiritual enlightenment, followed by luminaries like Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and the psychiatrist RD Laing, whose daughter Natascha I have known for years and who came with her father as a child. Backpackers followed and in the past twenty or thirty years, hordes of travelers of all kinds came to visit or live up here as well as party-loving Israelis eager to let off steam after their military service. Water is an acute problem and the community there has long threatened to outgrow the resources of the area so that the area probably could never rival Manali in its popularity. Nevertheless, there has been a string of chai shops and small guesthouses catering to these visitors for decades. This was the first place I ever came to in India and a place that I kept coming back to over the years. The view of the Tibetan snow peaks has always exerted some strange power over me; they float like immense icy white sailing boats in an unearthly sky-blue void. Once seen, the mountains are never forgotten.
Jonathan & Beth Evans revisit their former home in the Himalayas
First view of the Himalayas[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_kumaoni-bridge.jpg]140Jonathan Evans Photo
Kumaoni bridge[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_chota-bazaar_0.jpg]160Jonathan Evans Photo
Chota bazaar[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_jonathan.jpg]170Jonathan Evans Photo
Jonathan Evans[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_beth-on-binsar-mountain.jpg]150Jonathan Evans Photo
Beth on Binsar Mountain[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_alan.jpg]110Jonathan Evans Photo
Alan[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_danu_0.jpg]40Jonathan Evans Photo
Danu[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_tara.jpg]70Jonathan Evans Photo
Tara[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_simtola-eco-park.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Simtola eco park[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_beth-and-charles-in-shimtola-eco-park.jpg]30Jonathan Evans Photo
Beth Evans and Charles in Simtola Eco Park[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_jonathan-and-charles-at-simtola_0.jpg]80Jonathan Evans Photo
Jonathan and Charles at Simtola[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_himalayan-magpie_0.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Himalayan magpie[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_danu-and-his-memsahib-on-their-cell-phones.jpg]70Jonathan Evans Photo
Danu and his memsahib on their cell phones[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_holi-celebrations.jpg]90Jonathan Evans Photo
Holi celebrations[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_holi.jpg]80Jonathan Evans Photo
Holi celebration[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_ayarpani-lady.jpg]70Jonathan Evans Photo
Ayarpani woman[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_in-front-of-my-old-art-studio.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Jonathan in front of the old studio[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_indian-truck.jpg]50Jonathan Evans Photo
Indian truck[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_jonathan-and-tara-at-lalis-guesthouse.jpg]70Jonathan Evans Photo
Jonathan and Tara at Ialis guesthouse[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_khims-guesthouse.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Khims guesthouse[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_mohans-binsar-retreat.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Mohans Binsar retreat[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_view-from-taras-2.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
View from Taras guesthouse[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_view-from-taras-guesthouse-1.jpg]100Jonathan Evans Photo
View from Taras guesthouse[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_my-old-house-2.jpg]110Jonathan Evans Photo
Evanses' old house[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_langour-on-our-roof.jpg]100Jonathan Evans Photo
Langour on our roof[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_local-folk.jpg]80Jonathan Evans Photo
Local villagers[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_my-old-house.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Another view of the house[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_path-up-the-mountain-ayarpani.jpg]40Jonathan Evans Photo
Path up the mountain at Ayarpani[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_nanda-devi-highest-mountain-in-india.jpg]50Jonathan Evans Photo
Nanda Devi, highest mountain in India[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_nanda-devi-2_0.jpg]50Jonathan Evans Photo
Nanda Devi[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_trishul-2.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Trishul[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_traditional-kumaoni-house.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Traditional Kumaoni house[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_pintoo-the-dog.jpg]50Jonathan Evans Photo
Pintoo[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_red-temple.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Red temple[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_shiva-temple.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Shiva temple[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_shivashankar-temple.jpg]50Jonathan Evans Photo
Shivashankar temple[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_yoni-and-lingam.jpg]50Jonathan Evans Photo
Yoni and Lingam[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_walking-by-the-water.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Villager walking by the water[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_the-last-sunset.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
The last sunset
It is spring in the Kumaon and the weather is still unsettled. It rains for two days and we are stuck in our rooms, waiting for it to stop. We are happy to rest up a little after our long trip from Colorado and an uncomfortable car ride up from Delhi. Charles has a bad back and it is good for him to lie around and read. Each night we play Scrabble and each night he loses but, I have to say, takes it with very good grace. But then the rain stops and the sun comes out and it becomes a beautiful hot day. We decide to go out and visit our old friend, Alan. He lives well off the road in a house that he has spent the last twenty years building. We walk up the hill towards the Ridge and then take the short and sharp scramble down to his house. And we are surprised to see that there is a brand new road all the way down to his house now. We find Alan at his house; he is older, thinner and a little frail these days. A Brit who first came here in 1978, he is my age but looks older. We admire his fantastic, still unfinished, house, the great aesthetics of every single detail and its lush surroundings and garden. We sit outside on a rug and look at the mountains, drink chai and, as old friends do, talk of the old times, of people who are still around or dead or gone, of the changing face of the Kumaon that we have known so long. The times have changed, the economy has changed and we have changed. Alan, who is married to an Indian, has a long term resident PIO visa but struggles to get a new British passport. He brings the conversation around to health and aging often and seems lonely and perhaps more morose than he used to be. He lives in Paradise but I feel sorry for him in some ways. The world is moving on around him and it is driving him into isolation. He complains, as he has complained for years, about the standard of work from the Indians and the lack of love and care they put into the details of his house construction. It has been a long uphill struggle to build his house just as he wants it. Perhaps the experience has made him an embittered man.
We decide to take him for lunch and walk up the new road slowly to the main road and then jump on a passing bus to Mohan’s café, now “Mohan’s Binsar Retreat, an off-beat Himalayan Destination”, the sign reads. Mohan is there, welcoming, positive and a lot heavier than the last time that I saw him. The last time I was here, his café was full of dreadlocked Israelis smoking big joints and chillums and although he had built a fine new spotless kitchen, his vision for the future was still a tiny gleam in his eye. The infamous and ubiquitous banana pancakes were still on the menu although his cook had already started to bake chocolate cakes, as if anticipating the next trend. Today, his menu is enormous, we are the only customers and his new veranda is beautifully laid out with exotic plants of all kinds and there is even a small pool. Below are two new houses, solar-powered and with luxury rooms to rent. They cost around 5000 rupees a night while we are used to paying less than a tenth of that price. It is peaceful here with nobody around and we eat good food and drink excellent coffee and look at the endless view. I comment on the hypnotic Tibetan music that he is playing and he burns me a copy of it. The bill is high but well worth it. Alan has trouble walking very far or fast and we take a taxi back down to Tara’s. I feel that Alan, with his old style values, is being left behind but also realize that this is what he has chosen. The times they are a’changin’ on Cranks Ridge and Alan has become an anomaly, a dying breed. In another ten years, there will probably be no one like him — or indeed like me — left. It is the way of the world, a constant cycle of change; one generation is passing on and another starting to make waves.
In stark contrast, Amrita, another old friend, arrives when we are back at Tara’s, sitting out on the balcony and looking at the view. She doesn’t stay long but is wildly enthusiastic about her factory where she grows, processes and sells tulsi tea and various creams and soaps. A rich, high echelon soldier’s daughter, she has never worked in her life until four years ago. I fondly remember her telling me years ago that she wanted to write a book about the area’s natural beauty. I would take photos of views and things that she would point out and dictate to me the text that I would write down. This was a book that obviously never got written! But Amrita is glowing as she talks about the tulsi tea business and how much her sense of self-worth and happiness has grown since she has actually started to work. Of course the Kumaon is changing but that is the nature of life, isn’t it, she says and that is so wonderful. We both agree that the endless crazy traffic is ruining life on the ridge and that the only place to live is well off the main road these days. Amrita laughs and smiles continuously and is happier than I have ever seen her. She invites us to see the factory and to eat with her next week. We walk over Simtola to Chittai one day the following week and see her factory and have a great lunch with her.
Above our room at Tara’s, Binks and Cathy are staying. They are an old English couple who have visited the area for years and are constantly complaining about the changes. The good people are gone, the prices are becoming exorbitant and worst of all, the BBC World Service has stopped its broadcasts and they cannot use their shortwave radio. I agree that it is sad but that the Internet can always provide good impartial world news coverage. But they are luddites and proud of it and refuse to touch any computer. I feel that they are strongly limiting themselves and must feel very isolated from the rest of the human race. They are currently unable to renew their passports in person at any British embassy and are only able to renew on-line. Unwilling or unable to do this, they are forced to go back to the UK to do the renewal. I see that they are losing out at all ends. The Kumaon is changing rapidly and leaving them excluded, whether they like it or not. And outside in the real world, they are always going to feel a sense of disconnection as technology plays a bigger and bigger part in our lives. They are like someone who refuses to put a letter into a letterbox, afraid that it will be swallowed or lost and stand there, letter in hand, waiting for a carrier pigeon or a Pony Express rider or even a native runner with a forked stick to come along and deliver the letter for them. It may be a long wait.
I get news too of our old friends, Don and Helena, a Canadian and an Australian respectively, who have been coming to the Ridge for years. Their world has changed far less than for some of us. They bounce between their two native countries but spend as much time as possible up high in the mountains, in a tiny village called Kati where they live part of every year quietly, going out for treks and keeping themselves to themselves. They are a tough pair, live a very simple lifestyle and will stay up in the mountains until Monsoon. I envy their unwavering faith in nature and their uncompromising attitude towards the world.
All you can carry
Finally, we spend a day dealing with a room stacked high with metal trunks filled with our possessions. It is less traumatic than I expected but still leaves me physically drained and exhausted. We are obviously limited in what we can take and so the house’s three wood stoves are to be abandoned and will no doubt be put to good use by Tara and his family. No problems there. All the kitchen stuff — we had had a well-appointed kitchen — likewise is donated to Tara with the request that he spread around what he couldn’t use. Beth and I go through several boxes of clothes and take anything that we were especially fond of, an old beloved leather jacket, some shoes and boots and our backpacks. I choose ten irreplaceable CDs from a huge collection of music and a few books that I am attached to. We take a round Indian brass table top, an antique kerosene lamp, a few small rugs, some paintings and papers — and that is it. Soon, the few salvageable contents of a large house are piled up against the wall of our hotel room and will be packed up to go down to Delhi with us and shipped to Colorado at the end of the trip. It really feels like a chapter in my life is ended but I am happy that it is done. I have a sense of final closure with my Indian past and it is time to really move on. Things change and that is about the only thing you can count on. And anyway I tell myself, as soon as you let go of stuff, it all comes back to you in some mysterious way.
Holi, the Hindu spring festival, also known as the festival of colours and love, comes and goes. On the final day, when people dress up in white and throw dyes and water at each other, we sit safely up on the roof terrace at Tara’s and watch a crowd of drunken men play like children together in the road below. It is a time for conformism to be put aside and for Indians to dance, drink and let off steam. In India, some things never change.
One morning, down in Tara’s internet room, sitting in near darkness, I read my dead brother Philip’s obituary on Facebook. An old journalist friend and ex-colleague is posting announcements about Philip on his page and is getting a good response from friends who knew him from the old days when he still lived and worked in London. For many years, he was at the centre of the working class struggle in Britain and it was only in the last twenty years when he moved down to Hastings and lost the plot that he stopped being an effective journalist and cartoonist. I add my two cents worth and say that Phil had continued to fight the good fight in the cause of the Socialist Left when the battle was lost and everyone else had given up. His cause was magnificently suicidal, terribly inflexible and probably doomed from the start. My brother was fabulously old school with an enormous sense of humour. When he was young, I remember him laughing all the time. He drew for or wrote sixteen books, he once told me, and his Seventies’ comic strip “Our Norman” in the Socialist Worker newspaper was much loved. But now he is gone and his ilk is dying out. His generation of activists, one of the best, has moved on, compromised or sold out; those that did not were mostly left stranded on the beach of the times after the advent of Thatcherism. A few adapted and are still out there running, knowing what they are running from but perhaps not where they are going. I don’t believe that the current youth has as much integrity, energy or vision as young Phillip always had. RIP Philip, brother of mine.
One morning, we climb up Simtola Hill in front of Tara’s Guesthouse. Simtola used to be a leisurely steep climb with, at the top, an unfinished temple and the remains of what must have been once a splendid bungalow and spectacular gardens, long abandoned and left to almost disappear into the pine tree forest. It was always a slightly nostalgic walk for me and a reminder that all things must pass in the end. But today, walking up the hill with Tara, we see that the whole hill has been closed off with barbed wire and round a corner to be confronted by a high gate and signs that we are entering Simtola Eco-Park and must pay ten rupees to enter. We do so and follow a path further up the hill, pass a small concession booth and chai shop and benches. There are cute signs everywhere like “Hug a Tree” and “Love is the Answer” and the park does not escape a slightly institutionalized air. At the top, the old football field has been turned into a kids’ playground with swings and beyond that, the Shiva temple has been finished finally. It is a sparsely furbished eight-sided building with a couple of small Shiva sculptures and a rather more impressive walkway in.
There are more pleasantly wooded paths to follow and we walk around for an hour before going back down. I cannot escape the feeling that a bit more of the Kumaon has gone — or rather changed forever. And there is no doubt now that this is the way forward for the Kumaon of the future. The old days of the budget backpackers are gone and they will move onto new scenes. Soon they will find the Ridge too expensive for a long stay and the walks and treks too organized for them. As the Indian middle class grows, more and more city dwellers will escape to the mountains and they are not generally looking for a real adventure or primitive conditions at their guesthouses. They are going to come up to look at the incredible views and to take car rides to look at the ancient temples of Jageshwar or the honeymoon lake at Nainital. Almora will soon lose its spiritual connotations and its permanently stoned inhabitants. Services will become more institutionalized and expensive — and with a sense of regret, I have to say “Good luck to the Kumaonis”. Some of the increased middle class wealth will start to trickle down to the very poor locals. And in the end, it will destroy their ancient lifestyles and they will be faced with the 21st century issues and problems like pollution and poor lifestyle that we are facing and dealing with so badly in the west. By that time, I shall be dead and gone so that I shall not care. But for now, there is a certain poignancy about the changes taking place. In the end, all that will be left of this magical corner of the world will be memories and when we all pass on, even they will die.
Visit to the Old House
We save our last day in the Kumaon, before we head back down to Delhi, for a trip out to Ayarpani to see the old house and our friends and neighbours in the little village. Arriving there and getting out of our taxi, I find it all terribly familiar and also strange. My house is taken over by Virinder, Than Singh’s wastrel son, and his family. It looks run down already and has a blotchy paint job. Than Singh is off in Almora for the day, picking up his monthly old soldier’s rum ration and Virinder, who had broken into the house and stolen anything that he could lay his hands on years before, stays out of sight which I am happy about. I am too tired and old for confrontation of any sort. Memsahib Than Singh, our great ally in the household, has died the year before, we are told.
We follow the ancient stone path that runs down to the village from the main road and are soon at our old friend Danu’s tiny house. He is startled to see us but incredibly welcoming and happy to see us and we are soon drinking chais and smoking his awful bidhi cigarettes. Charles gives him a real cigar which he loves. He and his family are the poorest of the poor around here; his house still has no electricity, the rest of the village having recently been connected to the grid, and his wife and he have nothing. They sleep on a bare mud floor and there is no furniture at all in the house. Danu worked for me for years and is the sweetest of human beings with not a bad bone in his body. I slip him some money and make arrangements for him to come down to Tara’s the next day and get bedding, carpets and anything else that he can use in his house. It is not much to offer but the best I can do.
We have collected a gang of children at this point and we all wind our way back up the path to the road. There we run into Rani, Virinder’s lovely wife, and her children, now all grown up. A dog starts to bark and for me, the most magical moment of the whole trip happens. It is Pintoo, Than Singh’s black dog. Seven years before, when Beth and I spent a whole year at the house, Pintoo had been a neglected, wretched, starving puppy, somehow existing on the occasional chapatti thrown his way and we had taken him in, fed him properly and given him love and attention. By the time that we had left, Pintoo was in great shape, strong, gleaming and happy. Beth had lectured the family on dog care and had begged them to treat him well and when we had passed through two years after, he was still doing well. And there he is again, five years later, still alive although a weathered old dog now. He stops barking, curls his mouth back and grins at us! He throws himself on us, absolutely thrilled to see us again after so long. It is a wonderful moment that I will never forget and will always carry with me. He has never forgotten us and will not leave us alone. I am so moved that I choke up and just hold him in my arms. Life doesn’t get any more poignant than this.
We drink more chai with Rani and say fond goodbyes, promising to come back before too long. My last image is of Danu and his wife, standing side by side but faced away from each other, looking at their cell phones. We take the winding path across the road up BinsarMountain and get a good walk in before we go back down and catch a taxi to Tara’s. The experience leaves me sad and emotional and perhaps I am finally realizing that my old life here is forever over. And at the same time, I feel that I am as well known and well loved here as I am anywhere else in the world. I have had an experience that few others from the West will ever have. I have spent almost a third of my life up here in the Kumaon which is quite extraordinary when I think about it and a part of me will always be there whether we return or not.
The following morning, we are up at five am to drive down the long mountain road to Delhi, the Kumaoni part of our trip over. I am too tired and emotionally drained to look back. Beth takes my hand in the back of the car and we get ready for the next part of our Indian trip. Whatever it is to be — and the future is unknowable — it will not be as sweet as the days we have spent in the mountains. But I know that you can never go home again.
About the author:
Jonathan Evans is a batik artist and writer. He and his wife Beth Evans live in Colorado. Previous contributions to Ragazine.CC include:
April 28, 2014 Comments Off on From Kumaon, With Love
Lost and Found
“Like No Other…”
Pamela (Brown) Roberts (1953-1998) became interested in art as a teen-ager, graduating from the highly selective New York City School of Visual Arts. As she would ruefully later say, she learned a lot about art concepts from her formal studies but not nearly enough about how to draw. A true polymath, after graduation she sidetracked into the punk music scene, becoming a well-known regular at CBGB’s, the legendary East Village punk music club. She wrote for Punk magazine. For a time she was Joey Ramone’s girlfriend.
She met and married the noted tattoo artist, Bob Roberts, and upon moving to Los Angeles revived her interest in art. When her twin sister, Kathy, contracted and then died from breast cancer, Pam’s urge to get back into art became much stronger. She immersed herself in learning how to draw and trying out different styles, continuing to do so even after getting breast cancer herself.
Working with growing urgency as she fought the disease, Pam became increasingly adept and increasingly original in her paintings. She began to attract attention in L.A.’s “urban outsider” art community. Her eye for color, her fine sense of proportion, her innate sweetness, and her wit and humor pervade her work, infusing them with qualities that make them stand out. She had several gallery showings, and she sold paintings to a number of celebrity art collectors, including Nicolas Cage and Tony Curtis.
In spite of her advancing illness and the challenges of raising her daughter as a single parent, Pam continued to experiment and grow rapidly as an artist in the last few years of her life. The more her cancer advanced, the more warmth and beauty there was in her paintings, as if in defiance of the deadly disease. Pam died in the Spring of 1998 at the age of 45. In a tribute to her in International Tattoo Art magazine (for which she had been a contributing writer), editor Chris Pfouts wrote: “Everyone who knew Pam was richer for it. She changed people’s lives, and always for the better.” Her generosity, her genuine love of people, her kindness, her feeling for beauty and her gentle wit enabled her to defeat time and pain by creating a body of work so full of humanity that it is unforgettable.
Roberts’ work is included as one of the original member artists in POBA, a virtual cultural arts center that celebrates the enduring and transformative creativity of the arts and makes available the works of talented artists who in their lifetimes left remarkable, but as yet unrecognized troves of outstanding creations. POBA was designed by Songmasters at the behest of the James K. Bernard Foundation to offer a collection of galleries in a range of artistic fields as well as archival resources. Serving both the families and estates of talented amateurs and professionals alike, the site, launched in the fall of 2013, will ultimately feature private vaults, public displays, juried exhibitions, writings, spoken and musical performances, film screenings and more.
For more information: www.POBA.org
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April 28, 2014 Comments Off on Pamela Brown Roberts
Yes, Another Contest …
Okay, here’s The Scoop:
Walter Gurbo, internationally famous for his very long-running surreal-absurd-crazy “Drawing Room” series, recently suggested Ragazine.CC run a contest where authors write up a flash fiction/short story to “illustrate” his art. The first of these pieces appears above. His title: “Bear, Swan, Bomb.” Walter and other Ragazine contributing editors will be the judges. Judges’ decisions are final.
Contest winner’s story will appear in the next issue, published with the art, and the new issue’s art subject.
200 words MAX. Submit in the body of an email (NO ATTACHMENTS). Email: Editor@Ragazine.CC, with THE WRITING ROOM in subject line. Entries that do not meet these unbelievably minimal criteria will be wished away to the nearest cornfield.
Only One Entry Per Issue, Please!
Entry Fee: $5.00. A prize will be awarded based on 1/3 the number of entries received. So, 60 entries, $100.00 to the winner. Simple, yes?
Entry fee accepted through PayPal:
|ENTRY FEE WRITING ROOM|
“Put your hand down.”
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on The Writing Room, with Walter Gurbo
Thukral & Tagra, Science, Mystery and Magic II (superman), 2011
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India’s Art Rising Again
It took two decades, individual initiatives, and an art market boom for Indian contemporary art to finally find its place in the sun.
by Shreya Ray
On the southern edge of New Delhi lies the satellite city of Gurgaon. Once a mass of agricultural land (gaon means village in Hindi), and now the country’s third-richest city, the story of Gurgaon encapsulates several other stories. It tells for instance, of the transformation of a stuttering socialist economy to ‘Asian tiger’; the mall-studded utopia alongside sprawl of slums, telltale to India’s rising inequalities. Gurgaon is the story of decentralization – no longer does power and privilege reside only within the inherited bungalows of central and south Delhi, the noveau riche can buy his way into Gurgaon’s glitzy high-rises. Gurgaon is the story of the outsider who made it big.
Gurgaon echoes the journey of contemporary art. Once confined and crumbling in the city’s power and geographical centre — the culture ministries, fine-art centric art academies – art found new language and resurrection only in the city’s far reaches. With success, came status and the art that was once in the margins, was now in the spotlight.
Fittingly, Gurgaon is home to some of the biggest entities of contemporary Indian art – the country’s first contemporary art museum, and some of its biggest stars. One such entity is GurgaonOne, a towering structure positioned between Old Gurgaon Road – the rundown rustic ancestor to Gurgaon — and Maruti Udyog, the factory of Suzuki, the Japanese car manufacturer that came to India in the early ’90s. Dusty on the outside, and shiny on the inside, this architectural edifice of New India, is also the “office-cum-thinking space” of artist duo Thukral and Tagra, the youngest artists to have taken the world of Indian contemporary art by storm.
Dressed in fitted suits – one all-purple and one white with Jodhpur trousers – Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra reflect on how the position of their building says so much about their art, and indeed the current state of Indian contemporary reality. “The references to pre-liberalised India, the Maruti Suzuki showroom (which represents the start of a new era in the country), and the plush building itself, is the perfect place for us,” says Tagra, through his trademark gold-rimmed glasses.
The office interiors are similarly balanced between this old, changing, and changed India: subtle grey walls, venetian blinds, and wooden flooring, adorned by colourful and quirky artwork by the duo: there’s a wry comment on India’s population problem, tiny cell-phones – a reminder of jet-setting urban India — etched on the wooden floors. When you sit down, you are greeted by the good old Indian beverage: the milky, light brown chai.
It’s been a busy last week for the duo – first an opening of their exhibition ‘Longing for Tomorrow’ at the residence of the German Ambassador in Delhi, followed by a family function in his hometown of Jallandhar, for Thukral. “The two evenings were such contrasting affairs – in one we were being celebrated, in the other, I was asked by an uncle what I did. I’m an artist, I said. “But how do you earn an income?” said my uncle.
From V10N1, Shreya Ray, Art in India, Arken Installation
Thukral and Tagra, portrait[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/tandt/thumbs/thumbs_arken_escape.jpg]00Thukral and Tagra
Thukral & Tagra installation at Arken[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/tandt/thumbs/thumbs_anders-sune-berg-august-2012-096.jpg]10Thukral and Tagra
Thukral & Tagra installation at Arken, detail[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/tandt/thumbs/thumbs_2012-arken_escape_airlines_10.jpg]00Thukral and Tagra
Thukral & Tagra installation at Arken
Last seen, Thukral & Tagra exhibited at the India Today show at Arken Museum in Copenhagen, and before that Centre Pompidou in Paris, Mori Museum in Tokyo, Kennedy Centre in Washington, as well as the Basel Art Fair in 2012. But instead of being offended by his uncle’s question, Thukral recounts the episode with a chuckle, for this innocuous query posed by his uncle, is an essential piece of the India puzzle, a key concern in the work of Thukral and Tagra. Constantly tapping into the interplay between old and new, and the constantly changing definitions of India and Indian, is what informs the work of Thukral & Tagra.
In Longing for Tomorrow, for instance, they use the elitist brand of Meissen Porcelain from Germany trademarked with their brand of irreverence. They married the exquisite pieces of traditional German craftsmanship with Indian imagery with decidedly pop overtones. Every corner of the ambassador’s home has been “infected,” to borrow a word from the official event press release.
A few months ago, Arken Museum in Copenhagen had been similarly infected with their immersive installation. “Centred on the theme of migration, the entire gallery including carpets, chairs, artwork on the walls, pinball machines, and an iPad app were all playing on the notion of migration,” says Thukral. The traditional Punjabi motif of the ‘phulkari’ woven into the carpet mimicked the patterns of an aircraft carrier to evoke the scores of Indians from the Punjabi community migrating to foreign shores. “The entire gallery was a cross between a pinball arcade and an airplane machine,” says Tagra. The pinball, he says, stands simultaneously for, an antiquated machine, as well as young Indians, bouncing around the globe, constantly being pushed in different directions, be it tradition, modernity, religion, or family.
“Art is always a reflection of its times,” says artist Subodh Gupta. “Renaissance Art was evidence of that time. Similarly, the art of today is a representative of people’s lives, times, and artists work as a reaction to that life,” says Gupta, seated on the second floor of his massive studio in Gurgaon.
Subodh Gupta, Untitled (Pot), 2004, Oil on canvas; 168×229 cm
Gupta, one of the biggest names in contemporary art, pays homage to the life of ordinary India using everyday objects like kitchen utensils to form spectacular installations. The utensils remain a recurring ingredient in his works, referencing at once India’s changing economy, the link between rural and urban, (steel tiffin carriers are extremely popular in the takeaway lunch industry, herein also lies a comment on class dichotomy with the tiffin guys serving people in air-conditioned offices).
“These were objects our generation grew up on – now, hardly any kitchen features steel utensils, in fact in urban kitchens, steel utensils have made way for corel and china,” he says. “My work addresses the mundane, but the mundane is an important signifier of its times,” says Gupta, whose personal journey from Khagaul to Gurgaon, echoes that of contemporary art, from periphery to centre. Gupta’s works have flown off international auction shelves – Across Seven Seas sold in 2006 for Rs 4.5 crore, Sunday Lunch sold in 2008 for Rs 1.86 crore, Untitled, a sculpture of family on Vespa sold by Sotheby’s in 2007 for Rs 1.11 crore.
* (A crore is a unit in the Indian measuring system. A crore is represented by ONE followed by 7 zeroes, which is: 1,00,00,000. This translates to 10 Million.(10,000,000). [Wikipedia]. Thus, 1.11 crore/rupees is worth about $178,000.00 US.)
The year was 1999. Much before he became the name that people dropped, Subodh Gupta was a struggling young artist from Khagaul, Bihar, trying to make way in India’s capital. At a workshop for emerging artists in Modinagar, an industrial town on the outskirts of Delhi, Gupta did a performance piece. Smearing mud and cow-dung all over his naked body, he laid down on the ground. The work was reference to his childhood and identity as a Bihari; it was also as well a play on the ideas of pollution and purity — cow dung is considered sacred in Hindu religion and is ubiquitous to the rural Indian landscape (although in urban India — which has shaken off many of its traditions — it is hardly something you would smear on your body).
This was the second-ever workshop for the artist-led Khoj International Artists Association which Gupta, along with 10 colleagues – including artists Bharti Kher (also Gupta’s wife), Anita Dube, Manisha Parekh and curator, now Director, Pooja Sood – had founded in 1997.
The India of the 1990s was a very different place, says Sood. The country had just liberalized in 1991, and globalization, and its allies consumerism and communication were at nascent stages of development. The idea of art itself was very different. “Painting and sculpture were big; at a public debate, the noted painter Anjolie Ela Menon had dismissed the idea of installation art,” says Pooja Sood. “Encounters with international art were limited to exhibitions brought in by the cultural arms of foreign embassies or the Indian Council for Cultural Relations; opportunities to travel abroad came only via personal invitations or scholarships offered by the Inlaks Foundation and Charles Wallace Trust. Public museums were apathetic and the few commercial galleries that existed, extremely conservative. The spotlight was not on India. We felt ‘third world’, isolated, on the periphery,” says Sood, a few weeks after Khoj turned 15, in March 2013.
Khoj was set up as an “experimental art lab” — as founder member Anita Dube describes in the first Khoj catalogue — a place where Indian artists began interacting, and where they could dialogue with artists from the sub-continent, and the rest of the globe. There was also special emphasis on establishing a dialogue amongst third-world artists. Some of Khoj’s earliest workshops had a Japanese artist Fuji Hiroshi spending a week cleaning a sewer to enable goldfish to live, the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera collecting the workshop’s used teabags to make comments on memory and history, or India’s Sheba Chhachhi resurrecting personal stories of abandoned mill workers in Modinagar; Anita Dube’s work on human bones creating a crisis of belief for the Australian indigenous artist Fiona Foley, or the South African artist David Koloane’s paintings contrasting his experience with apartheid. “In these workshops, stereotypes were challenged and cultural differences pried open,” says Sood. The art historian Kavita Singh wrote about Khoj: ‘Outside the market, beyond and before it, Khoj and other artists’ networks set up in the past ten years in India have been a crucially important part of the experience of globalisation in Indian art.’ In the years since, Khoj graduated from its workshop space from the outskirts of the city, to an office-studio space in another peripheral space: the Khirkee extension in south Delhi. Although located in the elite hub of the city, Khirkee itself is inhabited by working class and lower-income migrant groups.
Around the same time as Khoj was unearthing new artistic languages, three media practitioners were also out on similar quests. Monica Narula, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Jeebesh Bagchi – formed the Raqs Media Collective in 1992 at a time “the idea of the artist was beginning to get examined,” says Narula. “It was by the late ’90s that it began to be extended to include wider aspirations, disciplines and media. We ourselves were trying to understand these shifts. With the advent of the internet and of new media art, the conditions of the production of art work came in for serious dissection,” says Narula. Raqs has explored themes of urban experience, the idea of creativity, the narratives of history in their work, over visual, text, sound and architectural media.
By the early 2000s, the experiments of the ’90s were beginning to pay off. The installation – which according to Tagra, even until a few years ago people didn’t respond to, very much the outsider in the world of art – was becoming the new buzzword. Photography came into its own as an art form, as did video. There was also the beginning of performance art in India. “Artists of this generation had succeeded in taking Indian art out of its ‘fine art’ category, into a ‘visual art’ culture, says art historian and curator Alka Pande.
India was changing, and the idea of India was changing. “No longer were we about the exotic, the sensual, no longer were we synonymous with 10-handed Durgas (a goddess),” adds Pande. The Raqs Media Collective, also around this time, began to receive invitations to participate in conferences, workshops and master classes in new media. “The decade from 2000 onwards was a very important one for contemporary art and culture in India. Initiatives like Sarai (the programme run by Raqs), like Khoj, and in the wake of our early interventions at Sarai, other groups, collectives, publications and coalitions in different places like CAMP in Mumbai, Periferry in Guwahati, Maraa and Jagah in Bangalore changed the scene in significant ways. All of these were done without the support of the state or the market, by leveraging grants, mainly from international foundations and networks. This created the climate of openness and experimentation that we see the Indian Art Scene benefitting from today,” says Bagchi, Raqs. In the years following Raqs has showed works in Documenta, the Venice Biennale; as well as co-curated of Manifesta 7, The European Biennial of Contemporary Art which took place in Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Italy in the summer of 2008.
A scene from “Four Looped Videos. India Art Fair, 2012, Delhi (Solo booth, Project 88)”
Suddenly, Indian art was no longer relegated to the South-Asian section of international galleries, it was occupying central space in international art circles, says Pande. In 2002, Pande along with curator Gavin Djantis helped put up the The Tree from the Seed, the first-ever exhibition of Indian contemporary art in Europe, at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo featuring artists who in the years to come would become big-names in the world of Indian contemporary art: such as Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Jitish Kallat, Reena Kallat, Anita Dube, Hema Upadhyay. In 2003, the Louis Vuitton flagship show in Paris opened with an exhibition called Indian Summer. In 2004, The Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth organized Edge of Desire: Recent Art in India, a show of 37 artists encompassing various media. In 2006 Tate Britain started UBS Openings: Saturday Live Mumbai, putting together performances and visuals celebrating India’s vibrant metropolis of Mumbai . In 2007, America joined the club with two big shows of Indian contemporary art in the United States: Public Places, Private Spaces: Contemporary Photography and Video Art in India curated by Gayatri Sinha, at The Newark Museum; and Tiger by the Tail!: Women Artists of India Transforming Culture, at Brandeis University.
This period also coincided with the boom in the art market and art was now being seen as the best investment. “People would buy an artwork work one day, and sell it the next for a killing,” says Pande. Being associated with monetary success also did lots for the status of art and artist.
The periphery found itself at the centre of attention. And in this era, India was found having entered the era of conceptual art and the politics of production. “The artist did not have to make any of his artwork himself or herself, he merely supervised it,” adds Pande.
The Evolution of Praxis
February 2013 might well be the most important month in the contemporary art calendar of India: the country’s first-ever biennale, Kochi-Muziris, in the southern-Indian port town of Kochi is in progress, as is the 5th edition of the India Art Fair. It’s day-two of the art fair and the Speakers Forum, a private ‘invites-only’ enclosure, has a panel discussion in progress. Five artists are discussing ‘Art as Self Realisation – Praxis in an Age of Flux’: the Pakistani artist Rashid Rana, along with the local artists – photographer Dayanita Singh, Sheela Gowda, Anita Dubey, along with the biggest star in the contemporary art constellation: Subodh Gupta.
When Gupta takes to the stage, he points to a screen next to him. The picture on the screen is that of his installation displayed at the three-month long Kochi-Muziris Biennale. An enormous boat carrying dusty utensils, lanterns, an old television set, is suspended on a set of wooden stilts, in continuation of his preoccupation with ordinary objects. Gupta talks about the actual assembling of the piece, and the number of collaborators such a massive structure demanded. The discussion turns to the importance of collaborators, although Gowda makes the point that perhaps collaborators may not be the right word to use for the people who are essentially executors of your idea, cogs in the wheel of a machine driven by the artist.
Gupta’s Kerala boat sculpture exhibited at Kochi-Muziris Biennale
The debate of the word aside, all artists acknowledge the use of collaborators/assistants on their work. For instance, Thukral and Tagra’s work at Arken involved having locally-woven carpets, locally-sourced chairs, an iPad app, all of which were outsourced and their task was that of assembling each of these units into a piece of art. Raqs’ solo show The Great Bare Mat and Constellation”at the Isabella Garden Museum in 2012 Fall had a piece called Drawings of a Conversation – a physical representation of the conversations the three have with each other – a web of lines woven into a carpet by three women in Bulgaria. Pande cites the book The Art of Not Making (2011) by Michael Petry on artists outsourcing production, which mentions Gupta.
In the 1980s, when the artist Vivaan Sundaram — possibly the only one of his generation — started conceptual art, nobody else was doing it, says Pande. “But with increased interaction with international art marked the beginnings of conceptual art in India,” she says. Furthermore, a dialogue with international art has become common occurrence now. Atul Dodiya’s paintings reference Russian constructivists and Picasso, Jitish Kallat’s date paintings echo works of the Japanese artist Onk Wara, and Gupta famously pegged the “Damien Hurst of Delhi” by the Guardian, UK, in 2010 made ‘Et tu Duchamp’, a sculptural take on Duchamp’s mustachioed Mona Lisa, L.H.O.O.Q., made in 1919.
Bharti Kher’s latest solo show in Delhi in Janurary 2013- Bind the Dream State to Your Waking Life—has as its centerpiece, with the same title, a wooden staircase pierced through by two wheels, which says Kher, reminds her of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. “In her piece, both the staircase and the wheels signify movement, but the wheels also interfere with the fluidity of time.” This sort of tension created by contradiction is a favourite trope used by Kher. For the same show she did a set of sculptures called Portraits of Memory, gestural sculptures showing sari-clad women dancing or gesturing – the fluid and translucent sari fabric against the immobility of the sculpture. Kher draws inspiration from the French-American artist Louise Bourgeouis who subverted traditional feminine imagery in her works. Two gigantic mirror works, from her latest show, show shattered mirrors smothered in bindis. The bindi – a dot of colour worn by South-Asian women to symbolize fertility – used by Kher initially as a mere experiment, over time acquired became synonymous with Kher’s work, and is now used by her to reference her own work. This piece too uses the idea of contradiction – the destroyed mirrors, symbolizing bad luck and domestic violence, versus the bindi, almost the maternal, healing touch.
Although now known for these installations that are simultaneously stunning and sinister, Kher started out as a painter trained in London. Only upon moving to India, experimenting over the years, did she increasingly get fascinated by the immense potential of material. Kher’s studio in Gurgaon is where she keeps collecting everything from tea-cups, egg-shells, mirrors and more. “Each artwork is a combination of an ongoing thought, and perhaps some material that is around, but there is no clear answer here. The studio is like a great kitchen in which several things are on the boil at the same time. You plan to make something, but discover there’s fresh vegetable that needs to be used – at the moment for instance, I have just remembered that I have some great clay I need to use fast,” she says.
Individuals vs Institutions
“It’s an interesting time to be an artist in India today – as it has been since its liberalization – yet in terms of institutional support, there is nothing,” says Kher. It’s only this year that the country had its first biennale, and this too, like Khoj, and some of contemporary art world’s most exciting initiatives, was started by an individual, not institutions. “And it had a few glitches here and there, but the art world came out in full support, it was almost as though they were saying we are here because this biennale needs to happen. It reminded me very much of the first Khoj workshop,” she adds.
While government institutions still treat contemporary art as a step-child – there is no museum dedicated to contemporary art in the country unlike Shanghai and Beijing which have about ten each, says Gupta – it is private initiatives that have fostered its growth. In 2008, Anupam and Lekha Poddar opened up their personal collection of contemporary art to the public.
Called the Devi Art Foundation, this is the closest the country has got to a contemporary art museum. The red-brick building situated in the premises of a corporate office – its neighbouring buildings mostly godowns and offices – is the first physical space designed to foster conversations and ideas about contemporary art. “Our hope as a non-profit art space is to allow for ideas and works to grow, unbounded by commercial limitations; an art institution that encourages new ideas and works to be realized and shown, outside the scope of what the market dictates. Every vibrant art culture needs institutions and spaces that nurture this freedom,” says Anupam Poddar. Every year, Devi hosts two exhibitions, alongside a host of talks and lectures, engaging artists, curators, critics, and connoisseurs. In 2010, Kiran Nadar, another private collector, opened the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, with one branch in a south Delhi mall, and another in Noida, east of Delhi.
Simultaneously, a host of commercial galleries showcasing edgy, contemporary art have begun to open up in Lado Sarai, an urban village on the southern edge of Delhi. Lado Sarai- a narrow dusty lane dotted with art galleries– is Delhi’s up-and-coming arts district. After liberalization, the one economic episode that has affected the art world – for the better – is the economic downturn,” says Bhavna Kakar, Founder-Director of Latitude 28, one of the first galleries in Lado Sarai. “Once the economic crisis hit the West, the international art market started looking East, because this was one of the few places people had the money,” says Kakar, who is also Editor-in-Chief of TAKE on Art magazine. To cash in on the interest in India, Kakar, along with other gallerists in the district organize an annual event called the “Lado Sarai Art Night” in which galleries open shows in one evening, with collectors, tourists, artists and art lovers turning the tiny lane a frenzy of activity. This year, Latitude 28 celebrated Art Night with a show on Pakistani contemporary art, at a time when political tensions were rife between India and Pakistan.
Avinash Kumar, “Boys at Food”
The margin is an interesting metaphor to use in context of contemporary artists as margins are what they seem to be constantly playing with. Avinash Kumar, a designer and visual artist says that instead of canvas or colour, his medium is a night-club or discotheque. Combining food and fashion, music and technology Kumar stared the visual art collective called BLOT (Basic Love of Things), and started producing art works as a background to electronic music. Kumar also started the Unbox Festival in Delhi, a festival premised on the idea of creative explosion and collaboration in contemporary art and design. “The idea of Unbox is to meet other people who feel the same way about the nature of art. Art is no longer one-dimensional, it is multi-disciplinary,” he says.
Raqs Media Collective’s curatorial venture in September 2012 was also on similar lines. The nine-month long Sarai Reader 09 – an intriguing concept in which the process of an exhibition coming into being is itself the exhibition – had mathematicians, writers, musicians and theatre persons, doubling up as contemporary artists. Divided into four three-month long chapters – each chapter being a point of departure for a newer set of artistic interventions – the exhibition saw participation by artists living in London, Mexico city and Delhi, says Poddar.
The themes covered include migration, urban life, digitization, and of course, Gurgaon. One of the pieces called Cybermohalla Hub (CMH) is a building prototype covering 3×6 m area is structured entirely by rectangular frames and made in collaboration with Frankfurt-based artists Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Muller. The CMH is a reference to resettlement neighborhoods in the city like Gheora in north-west Delhi and the size of government plots offered (3×6 m): resettlement neighborhoods becoming a presence in a city that is increasingly pushing out its working class population to the margins. Further interventions have all added to the structure: its contents and its exterior. “The idea was primarily to encourage creation and critical thinking about contemporary art. Typically most shows are centred on a theme – this was contemporary art for the sake of contemporary art,” says Sengupta, Raqs. This was also a way of getting ordinary people drawn into the contemporary art dialogue.
In contrast to Raqs approach to creating an environment conducive for dialogue on contemporary art, is that of Thukral and Tagra. “The common man in India doesn’t really care about art or galleries, they just want to go into a mall, and they want to shop,” says Tagra. Which is why, Thukral & Tagra’s intervention on the subject has been rather simple: take art to the mall. Although a vast chunk of their work plays with brands and commercial images, in 2012, they made a dinosaur made of commodities for a collector in the southern city of Chennai, displayed at Phoenix Market City mall. “The dinosaur stands for many things at once – in 20 years, these commodities will be extinct as newer things will keep coming, therefore today’s mall is almost tomorrow’s museum. Then, the museum itself is a dying institution. The lines between mall and museum are blurred, as are art and commodity,” says Tagra. When the work had been installed, the typical Indian-mall scenario played out there: hundreds of people gawking at the structure, incredulous and yet posing with their cell-phone cameras.
Commodity-hungry consumers had no choice but to devour art because there was no escape. When the periphery becomes powerful enough, the centre gets drawn to it, so much so, that you won’t be able to tell the two apart.
(First published in Norwegian for Aftenposten K, June 2013).
About the author:
Shreya Ray is a New Delhi-based writer. She has spent most of the past five years writing about art and culture. In April 2013, she quit her job with Mint, and is fully engaged freelancing. Her website is: shreyaray.wordpress.com; you can reach her at email@example.com.
January 1, 2014 Comments Off on On Location/India’s Art Boom
Kyrgyzstan in Transition
Photographs and Essay ©
by Marsha Levine
Kyrgyzstan, one of the post-Soviet, Central Asian states, is located in the heart of Asia. Landlocked, almost entirely mountainous, surrounded by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China, Kyrgyzstan is not a place found on most Westerners’ mental maps. More’s the pity, not only because it is staggeringly beautiful and culturally rich but also because, as a state finding its way through the post-Soviet labyrinth, it is deeply thought provoking. But to do it justice we need to do more than to redraw the boundaries of our mental maps. In this short photo-essay I am attempting to challenge how we think about such faraway places.
During autumn 2007, I visited Barskoon, a village on Lake Issyk-Kul, sitting astride the Silk Route in northern Kyrgyzstan. This particular trip was occasioned by an opportunity to see ‘traditional’ horse games – at the “At Chabysh” festival. Kyrgyz horse festivals, are similar to those held throughout Central and Inner Asia – for example, the Mongolian Naadam. These events mainly comprise traditional sports, including horse games, wrestling, archery, as well as eagle hunting demonstrations along with traditional music performances, poetry recitations, and sales of craft goods and food.
During my week in Barskoon, I stayed at two guesthouses. My very basic Russian and occasional access to an interpreter allowed me to learn a little about my hosts who belonged to one extended family. Although the people of the Issyk-Kul region are mostly dependent upon agricultural activities, especially livestock husbandry, the adults in my host families had a rather wide range of jobs. One worked in a microcredit office. Another was a mine worker at the nearby Kumtor gold mine. His wife, formerly a school teacher, besides taking care of their children, now managed one of the guesthouses. With other local families they were very actively involved in the restoration and re-opening of the village kindergarten which had closed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although the village does have electricity, indoor plumbing in Barskoon, as in the rest of rural Kyrgyzstan, is rare. Our hosts kept poultry and horses in their yards, rather than flowers. The village streets were tidy but unpaved. The houses were clean and well cared for. The children I saw seemed to be bright and healthy. For all our cultural ignorance, our hosts treated us with kind hospitality. However, there was another side to all this and, ever since that visit, I have been trying to reconcile what I saw with what I heard.
My fellow guests, all Europeans, were also in Barskoon for the horse festival. Most seemed to have been involved in development work in Kyrgyzstan for a number of years. Some worked for international NGOs or were University academics.
From the discussion at dinner, it quickly became clear that, remote as Barskoon seemed to be, it is locked into the world economy – and into the new ‘Great Game’, with East and West jockeying for power and resources. Moreover, surrounded by the breathtaking majesty of the Tien Shan mountains, life here in Barskoon is very harsh for its rural population – and much harsher in villages off the tourist track. I discovered in 2007 that Kyrgyzstan, besides being one of the world’s poorest countries, is on a major route for narcotics trafficked from Afghanistan to China, Russia and Europe, and that both government corruption and ‘clan’ politics ensured that international aid didn’t always reach its intended destination. The picture my fellow guests presented was wholly negative and I had the sense that, as far as they were concerned, the Kyrgyzstani people were subjects rather than individuals.
The western media exploit and exaggerate the distance between the contradictory pictures of Kyrgyzstan. On the one hand, a quick search on the internet throws up a faltering education system, high unemployment, high adult and infant mortality rates, child poverty and failure to thrive, bride abduction, organised crime, ethnic disputes, human rights and press freedom issues, electoral corruption, ethnic tension, environmental degradation, fears of religious fundamentalism and so on.
On the other hand, aside from a very few tourists, most Westerners’ only experience of Central Asia is through the medium of television programmes presented by attractive young Westerners, usually celebrities, who know little about the cultures on display, but who can show off their riding skills. The rural people – with their felt tents and livestock – dress up and, against the vastness of the steppe and mountains, perform for the cameras. It’s all very picturesque and the locals could, for the most part, be living in the Middle Ages. The pictures presented are not entirely false but they are so exceedingly superficial as to be grossly misleading, portraying a passive, static society, disconnected from history and living in the past.
Although neither of these perspectives is entirely false, both are powerfully biased by the media: television, newspapers, and, increasingly, the internet. Taken together, the pictures they paint are so contradictory that it is sometimes hard to believe that they could be referring to the same place. There is little or no attempt to be even-handed or objective. So, why should this be the case? Why should it be such hard work to find information about Kyrgyzstan that does not portray its people either as villains, hapless victims, or quaintly lost in the Middle Ages? I take the view that, consciously or unconsciously, these pictures are designed to serve various economic and political agendas.
In 1980 Edward Said wrote:
“From at least the end of the eighteenth century until our own day, modern Occidental reactions to Islam have been dominated by a type of thinking that may still be called Orientalist. The general basis of Orientalist thought is an imaginative geography dividing the world into two unequal parts, the larger and “different” one called the Orient, the other, also known as our world, called the Occident or the West…. Insofar as Islam has always been seen as belonging to the Orient, its particular fate within the general structure of Orientalism has been to be looked at with a very special hostility and fear.” [http://www.thenation.com/article/islam-through-western-eyes#]
Although Said’s main focus was on western Asia, his words are relevant to Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia in general – including the West’s misjudgement of the nature of Central Asian Islam in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fact is, it suits the economic, political and military interests of the western great powers to see the people in this part of the world as backward, incompetent and corrupt. History is brushed aside, no need to understand the situation on the ground or even to talk to the people. All you need to do is to apply the standard template – dating from the early 19th century – to 21st century Kyrgyzstan, for example, and that is enough. Well, of course, it is not enough. That old Orientalist model was never meant to reflect the reality of the East. Its purpose was to justify the domination and exploitation of the East by the great powers of the time.
When you read this, you might well say: well, that’s a bit over the top. But I don’t think so. My evidence is the disconnection between what I saw and experienced during my short visit to Barskoon in 2007 and what I heard from the local people, as opposed to what I have read and seen in the media – particularly on the internet (in newspapers, internet articles and features, books, papers in academic journals and so on) since then. The world I experienced – as portrayed in my photographs – was quite different from the world I have observed in the media and also, apparently, from that experienced by some of the other Western visitors in Barskoon – even when we were sitting in the same room.
It is not easy to get accurate, up-to-date information about Kyrgyzstan: what with language difficulties, our flawed education systems, and problems obtaining access to information during the transition from the Soviet era to the present – not to mention judgement calls on the reliability of available sources. Moreover, although some useful work has been produced by western scholars, much of the most interesting research has been published by young Central Asian academics, who have benefited from their first-hand knowledge of their country, its people and its past, coupled with the more open education systems they have been exposed to since independence – both in Central Asia and abroad.
An autumnal view of lake Issyk-Kul with the snow-capped Tien Shan mountains in the background.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071101-2871_tobarskoonissykkul.jpg]30Horses and cattle grazing along the road to Barskoon (Kyrgyzstan)
Horses and cattle grazing along the road from Bishkek to Barskoon (Kyrgyzstan). The Tien Shan mountains are in the background.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071101-2878_tobarskoonissykkul.jpg]30The road from Bishkek to Barskoon (Kyrgyzstan)
A beautiful autumn day on the road from Bishkek to Barskoon (Kyrgyzstan). Following one branch of the ancient Silk Route, this road is in the Issyk-Kul lake basin. The Tien Shan mountains are in the background.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071102-2927_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20An elderly Kyrgyz gentleman at the Barskoon horse festival
This elderly Krygyz gentleman is a spectator at the horse festival in Barskoon (near Lake Issyk-Kul). Most of the spectators are locals - men, women and children. However, there are a few visitors, mostly NGO workers.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071101-2860_tobarskoonissykkul.jpg]30Lady tending her roadside shop (Kyrgyzstan)
This Kyrgyzstani lady is minding her small shop. It is located next to lake Issyk-Kul, alongside the road that runs from Bishkek to Barskoon.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071102-2930_barskoonissykkul-ed2.jpg]10Kyrgyz boys and donkeys at the Barskoon horse festival
These Kyrgyz boys and their donkeys are spectators at a horse festival in Barskoon village next to Lake Issyk Kul. Besides horse races and games, the festival has eagle hunting displays, traditional music, epic poetry, crafts and food.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071102-2942_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20Kyrgyz horsemen at the Barskoon horse festival
Horsemen at the Barskoon horse festival. Lake Issyk-Kul is behind them and in the background the Terskoy Alatau (Tien Shan) mountains, capped with glaciers and clouds.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071104-3003_barskoonissykkul.jpg]10Riders at the Barskoon Horse Festival (Kyrgyzstan)
These riders are getting ready for the next horse race of the day in Barskoon next to Lake Issyk-Kul. The snow-capped Tien Shan mountains provide a majestic backdrop for the race.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071104-3088_barskoonissykkul.jpg]10Kyrgyz rider picking up coins from the ground
This Kyrgyz rider has just snatched a weight wrapped in red cloth from the ground and then threw it into the air. This traditional sport is called Tyin Enmei.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071105-3231_barskoonissykkul.jpg]10Owner making sure his horse gets home safely from Barskoon
This horse is being taken home on a trailor, pulled by a 4-wheel drive vehicle, after the Barskoon horse games. He is carefully wrapped in felt for protection against potholed roads.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071105-3238_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20A view of the Tien Shan mountains from Barskoon village, on the shore of lake Issyk-Kul (Kyrgyzstan)
Barskoon village is located on the south shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, just north of the snow-capped Terskoy Alatau mountains, a branch of the Tien Shan range. The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, but the widespread poverty is a huge challenge.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071105-3259_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20Autumn in Barskoon (Issyk-Kul Oblast, Kyrgyzstan)
Two girls are sitting in a Barskoon village lane having a chat. It's a sunny autumn day - almost Idyllic. But, poverty is a real issue in Kyrgyzstan. How much can natural beauty be a consolation?[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071105-3293_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20Kyrgyz boy with male turkey (in Barskoon)
This young Kyrgyz boy is posing the family turkey to help me get a good photo. We are in the yard of his family guesthouse in Barskoon, on the south shore of lake Issyk-Kul.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071105-3305_barskoonissykkul.jpg]30The Barskoon family whose house I stayed in.
This Barskoon family lets rooms in their house to visitors. The wife was a teacher and is now helping other local families to refurbish the local elementary school. Her husband works for a local mining company.
Sitting, as it does, on the Silk Route, the region we now call Kyrgyzstan has always been subject to change – social, political, economic and religious. The most reliable historical (that is, written) records for this region, dating at least as far back as the as the 2nd century BC, depict a world in flux. Between the 6th century and the 20th century AD, the various peoples living in what is now Kyrgyzstan were subject, on occasion, to Turkic, Uighur, Mongol, Kazakh, Kalmyk, Manchu, Uzbek, Russian, Soviet and finally Kyrgyzstani rule. This is all very complicated, partly because of the highly mobile populations inhabiting this region over the past couple of millennia – at least.
Kyrgyzstan, as a geographical entity with fixed borders, did not exist until the 1920s, but the Kyrgyz people, as an ethnic and political entity did exist – in some sense. That is, people whose first language was Kyrgyz, whose customs are identified as Kyrgyz and who regarded themselves and their community as Kyrgyz, have lived within these borders for a considerable period of time. It is often said that the Kyrgyz people originally came from the Yenisei river region of south Siberia. This could be true, but what of the earlier inhabitants of this region, not to mention travellers and settlers following the ancient Silk Route. The history of Kyrgyzstan is both rich and complex; however, during the era of Russian and Soviet hegemony, it was impossible to carry out uncensored historical and archaeological research there. Since independence, a new generation of historians (including young Kyrgyzstani scholars) is finally able to explore the historical and archaeological sources (see Tchoroev 2002). Exciting new work is already coming out of this region.
It is important to acknowledge that Kyrgyzstan is still a multi-ethnic country. About 52% of the population is Kyrgyz and 20% Uzbek, with other minority groups including: Tatars, Dungans, Kazakhs, Uighurs, and Tajiks, as well as Russians, Ukrainians and Germans. Each of these groups has its own story, but all of these stories are somehow connected. Many are connected with the Soviet era, but not all. Such diversity, as well we all know, is a huge challenge whether we are talking about New York, Northern Ireland or Central Asia. In this essay I am focusing primarily on the mostly Kyrgyz Issyk-Kul region.
Even a brief glance at the religious history of Kyrgyzstan reveals a similarly complex picture. The earliest religious practices were animist or shamanist. There is plentiful archaeological and historical evidence that other religions – such as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam – later travelled the Silk Route across Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan, and into China. And Soviet atheism followed. Islam was adopted in stages. The Sunni tradition of the Hanafi school, a relatively moderate, tolerant form of Islam, was taken up earliest and with most conviction, by the settled people of south-western Kyrgyzstan (circa 8th to 15th centuries). During the 12th to the 19th centuries the nomadic pastoralists in the mountainous regions of northern Kyrgyzstan were gradually converted to Sufism, a relatively moderate and mystical form of Islam. Sufism appealed to the nomads because of its generally non-dogmatic, tolerant and syncretic approach, permitting incorporation of non-Islamic religious practices – from animism, shamanism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Christianity. As for some of the more remote parts of northern Kyrgyzstan, Islam was scarcely adopted when it was banned by the Bolsheviks in the early 20th century. Since declaring its independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has been undergoing an Islamic revival under its own terms, reviving Sufi – and other Islamic – traditions that it protected underground throughout the Soviet period.
Sufism is incompatible with the Wahhabi fundamentalism so feared by the West. The expectation that Kyrgyz Muslims would be vulnerable to fundamentalist Islam is something akin to ‘reds under the beds’ paranoia – mostly referable to the Western penchant for backing the wrong – and worst possible – political horse and then being caught off-guard – and terribly surprised – when it all goes wrong. Afghanistan being, of course, the perfect case in point (Williams 2003).
As Botoiarova points out: “Radicalization of Islam, if it ever takes place, will not be because of outside influence, but will be the result of discontent with economic hardships and inability of authorities to build a just society with democratic principles” (Botoiarova 2005, p 102). In spite of all the very real social, economic and political challenges faced by Kyrgyzstan, conditions there are not conducive to fundamentalist Islam.
HERDING DURING THE SOVIET ERA
So, why has Kyrgyzstan’s transition from ‘communism’ to ‘democracy’ been such hard work? As usual, history holds most of the answers. During the 19th century, Tsarist Russia brutally conquered and colonised Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan. The nomadic and semi-nomadic herders were forced off their lands, which were expropriated for settlement by Russian peasants. The herders’ attempts to regain access to their pasturelands were put down with great brutality. These conflicts continued into the Communist era when they were met with forced settlement, expropriation of herds, exile, cultural and religious repression, imprisonment, famine, starvation and so on – a familiar scenario accompanying the policies of collectivisation and de-kulakisation throughout the Soviet empire, especially during the 1930s.
The Soviet economic model was never sustainable for Kyrgyzstan, where extensive livestock husbandry (horses, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, yaks) has been the most important subsistence activity for hundreds or even thousands of years. Kyrgyzstan covers 191,800 sq km, most of which is mountainous; over 94% is higher than 1000 m above sea level; the average altitude is about 2630 metres. About 56% of the total area is agricultural land, of which about 87% is pastureland (Kerven et al, 2011). About 49% of the total area of Kyrgyzstan is used for grazing. In order to maximise the productivity of both herds and pasturage, herders must move their livestock seasonally – in steps, from the lowlands in winter to the high mountain meadows in summer. This kind of extensive livestock husbandry is incompatible with a permanently settled way of life.
Although the Soviet state, in the name of ideology, had been willing to kill millions of its own people; eventually it had to face the fact that, if it were to meet any economic targets at all, the Kyrgyz (and other Central Asian) herders forced onto collectivised farms would have to be allowed to return to some kind of semi-nomadic lifestyle. That is, while maintaining their permanent winter quarters in the lowlands, throughout the rest of the year they would move their herds in search of fresh grazing. It was not a return to their pre-Tsarist lifestyle, but they did succeed in rescuing the dysfunctional Soviet system from itself – demonstrating the herders resilience and adaptability once again (Kerven et al, 2012).
Finally in 1991, dragged down by its failed economic model, the Soviet state collapsed economically and politically. The resulting economic chaos and hardship extended throughout the Empire, except of course for the gangsters and ‘oligarchs’, whose wealth is, even now, hidden in tax shelters throughout the world. I bring this up because we – in the West – do not have entirely clean hands in this further economic disaster. The mass privatization of the USSR’s resources was supported by influential economists from Harvard, MIT, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other internationally important economic institutions (Hamm et al, 2012). It has led to hardship for many and untoward wealth for a few. It has resulted in a new Russian state, mostly known for its corruption, inequality, intolerance and poor human rights record.
Botoiarova (2005, 167-8) describes how the privatization process operated in Kyrgyzstan:
“After budgetary subsidies from Moscow were cut, Kyrgyzstan, which was heavily dependent on center [sic], was severely affected by economic crisis, with inflation reaching 1,200 percent in 1993…. Mass and rapid privatization and ‘shock therapy’ were perceived as the pillars for alleviating the country’s economic crisis. In 1991 the government announced a comprehensive privatization program…. Although, Kyrgyzstan’s privatization program is generally regarded as the most progressive in Central Asia, the implementation of the privatization process was complicated by the weak normative and legal bases and by difficulties in pricing since most of the privatized entities were sold well below value, often at symbolic prices.”
Little wonder then that Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries in the world.
THE NEW ORIENTALISM
My purpose in visiting Kyrgyzstan was to photograph local herders, horses and their way of life. Nothing more. However, in the week I was there I was struck by the disconnection between what I saw and what I heard. True to Orientalist form, Kyrgyzstan was portrayed as a threat, as quaint and exotic, or as a resource to exploit. In Barskoon itself, I stumbled across two examples of the new Orientalism in relation to the Kumtor Gold mine and the “At Chabysh” horse festival itself.
Kumtor Gold Mine
During my short visit in Barskoon I heard nothing about the Kumtor open-pit mine, in spite of its being the world’s second largest gold mine and its situation near the village. However innumerable references popped up as soon as I started researching this essay. Although I only have space here for the briefest outline of a long-running story, I think that even a short discussion of Kumtor is relevant to the basic premise of this piece.
Because the mine, owned and run by a Kyrgyz (Kyrgyzaltyn)-Canadian (Cameco Corporation) syndicate, generates up to 10% of Kyrgyzstan’s GNP, it is seen by some as vital to the country’s economy. However, even a brief look at its history begs innumerable questions about its Canadian management and international backers – including, for example, the World Bank Group, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and the Canadian Export Development Corporation (EDC). More generally, it focuses attention on the role and ethics of international corporations in the development (and exploitation) of the world’s poorest countries.
The Kumtor gold mine is located on the permafrost and in an area of active glaciers, about 4000-4400 m above sea level in the seismically active Tien Shan mountains, a region believed to be especially sensitive to global climate change. It is also close to the sources of the Naryn – Syr-Darya river system which provides fresh drinking and irrigation water to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The mine is located within the area of the UNESCO Issyk-Kul Biosphere Reserve and adjacent to the Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve. The location of Kumtor is so inaccessible and so ecologically sensitive that it’s a wonder that anyone could have ever thought it reasonable to dig an enormous open-pit mine there. However, in such a poor country the temptation to engage in risky behaviour can be very difficult to resist.
The people of Barskoon have personal experience of those risks. In 1998 a truck driving up the valley to the mine overturned, spilling approximately 1.7 tonnes of sodium cyanide into the Barskoon River which empties into Lake Issyk-Kul. The villagers downstream were only notified about the accident 5 hours after it took place and only then because the Russian border guards ordered the company to do so. All the details and statistics connected with the accident are a matter of dispute (Moran 2011, Norlan 2000, Prizma 2012). The most reliable sources suggest that at least four people died in the short term and more later. Over 2500 people were poisoned, of which 850 were hospitalised. Additionally, more than 5500 Barskoon villagers were relocated; crops and tourism revenues were lost.
There have been other accidents connected with Kumtor, but uncovering any details is very difficult. Leaving that aside, the day to day running of the mine results in the release of many dangerous pollutants into the environment and has had a negative impact upon the immediate area, including local glaciers, rivers and lakes. Although Kumtor has had some positive impacts on the local communities – especially as regards employment – in Kyrgyzstan hostility towards the mine is widespread, many people feeling strongly that the Canada based company profits too much from it and cares too little about the health, welfare and environment of the local people (Dzyubenko 2013). Under pressure from the Kyrgyzstani people, with support from various NGOs, in recent years Kumtor has made an effort to behave in a more transparent, socially responsible way. Nevertheless, insufficient funds have been put aside for decommissioning the mine once it is no longer economic to work. Given the geological history of the region and the consequences of climate change, the mine will continue to pose serious risks to the environment into the unforeseeable future.
“At Chabysh” Horse Festival
My second experience of the Orientalist mindset in Barskoon was in connection with the “At Chabysh” horse festival itself. It wasn’t until I had arrived in Bishkek that I realised that the festival was not being organised by the Kyrgyz community where it was being held. Nor was it taking place in the context of Kyrgyz traditions. Horse games are one way in which the Kyrgyz culture celebrates its identity. They are closely connected with life cycle events such as marriage, anniversaries and death. But not at Barskoon in 2007, or in various other locations since then.
The Barskoon festival was organised by the ‘Kyrgyz Ate Foundation’, founded and directed by a well connected French horsewoman-journalist, Jacqueline Ripart, with funding from, for example, the French Embassy, the Aga Khan Foundation, the Christensen Fund (USA), and the Kyrgyz government. Interestingly her name is the only one mentioned on the ‘Kyrgyz Ate’ Foundation website: http://www.atchabysh.org/index.php/lang-en/archivesmenu.html. It credits her with the rehabilitation of traditional horse games, the identification of the true Kyrgyz horse and the revival of Kyrgyz horse breeding. The stated objectives of the ‘Kyrgyz Ate Foundation’ are: “a comprehensive program aimed at preserving and rehabilitating the Kyrgyz horse breed and promoting enhancement of sports and tourism (in particular ecotourism) sectors, and handicraft industry” [http://www.asia-plus.tj/en/news/murgab-district-gorno-badakhshan-host-international-horse-festival].
I was informed that local men felt shamed and insulted that, Ripart, a foreign woman, had taken control of their traditional celebrations. She reinvented the rules to fit her Western conception of the way the horse games should be held. She even decided which of the horses were sufficiently ‘Kyrgyz’ to be allowed to participate in the games. Her lack of sensitivity to the feelings of the local people was simply breathtaking.
The Kyrgyz people have been, of course, holding horse games for hundreds if not thousands of years and, in spite of misguided Soviet attempts to improve local breeds, the Kyrgyz horses are not in any danger of extinction. Though some of their traditional tasks have been taken over by motorised vehicles, horses are still used in everyday life for transport as well as for their milk, meat, hides and hair. Some herding tasks can only be carried out on horseback. Every rural Kyrgyz child rides as if they were born on a horse’s back. Maybe they were. These horses, or rather ponies, are intelligent, sure footed and famous for their endurance. They do not need to be rescued by Ripart.
Reducing the games to an entertainment meant to attract tourists, alienates them from their cultural significance. Such an important change in cultural meaning should not be in the power of foreigners. We are back in the realm of Orientalism here. What Ripart’s actions, if not her intentions, say is that she knows what is right for the Kyrgyz better than they do themselves. That is, of course, nonsense. Her financial backing and social/political connections are what have qualified her to take the central position in the organisation of a quintessentially Kyrgyz event.
Both the corporate values of the Kumtor mine operators and the misappropriation of the Kyrgyz cultural heritage by the “At Chabysh” horse festival organisers are examples of modern Orientalism. The environmental damage resulting from gold mining is quite bad enough, but the misappropriation of cultural resources is no less destructive and raises serious questions about how people with little knowledge of, or respect for, Central Asian cultures can end up in positions of power within these cultures – as in the case of the horse festival and even more strangely the Kyrgyz horse itself.
I have concluded from my research for this essay that Orientalism, as described by Edward Said, still holds sway over most Westerners’ thinking. Said’s work focused on the Near East and Islam, but is much more widely applicable – for example, to Asia and Africa.
Finally, I would like to quote a passage from Said’s Orientalism, in which he reflects upon a comment from the Didascalicon by Hugo of St. Victor:
“The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land.” The more one is able to leave one’s cultural home, the more easily is one able to judge it, and the whole world as well, with the spiritual detachment and generosity necessary for true vision. The more easily, too, does one assess oneself and alien cultures with the same combination of intimacy and distance (Said, 1978, p 259).
Of course, I take full responsibility for all the views I have expressed in this essay. But, I would like to acknowledge help and advice given to me most particularly by: Guljan Kudabaeva, Wendy Lawson and Jarkyn Samanchina. I am very grateful to the Aigine Cultural Research Center for its help with the logistics of my visit to Kyrgyzstan, and to my hosts in Barskoon for their kind hospitality.
About the author:
Marsha Levine’s formal training was in Archaeology (Cambridge, UK) and Anthropology (Barnard/Columbia, NY). However, her research has always been intensely interdisciplinary and has drawn upon zoology, ethology, ecology, history, geography, biochemistry, palaeopathology, etc. With the lifting of the Iron Curtain, her geographic focus shifted to central Eurasia, Siberia and China. Throughout most of her working life she was a researcher at Cambridge University, studying the impact of the horse on human culture and history in the past. However, the contemporary picture has become more and more central to her interests. And, while photography used to play an important role supporting her research, now the tables are turned and the research supports her photography. For more photos and links, see http://www.mlevinephotos.co.uk.
Ludmila Akmatova & Jumamedel Imankulov, 2010 “Conservation and Management of Cultural Heritage Sites on the Silk Road in Kyrgyzstan”. Agnew, N., ed. Conservation of Ancient Sites on the Silk Road: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on the Conservation of Grotto Sites, Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang, People’s Republic of China, June 28-July 3, 2004. Getty Publications. Pages 133-178. http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/pdf_publications/pdf/2nd_silkroad4.pdf]
Ashymov, D., 2003. The Religious Faith of the Kyrgyz. Religion, State & Society, 31(2), 133-8. [http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09637490308277]
Botoiarova, Nuska. “Islamic Fundamentalism In Post-Soviet Uzbekistan And Kyrgyzstan: Real Or Imagined Threat.” PhD diss., Middle EastTechnicalUniversity, 2005. [http://etd.lib.metu.edu.tr/upload/12606058/index.pdf\]
Cassidy, R., 2009. The horse, the Kyrgyz horse and the ‘Kyrgyz horse’. Anthropology Today, 25(1), 12 – 5. [http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8322.2009.00641.x/pdf]
Dadabaev, T., 2009. Trauma and Public Memory in Central Asia: Public responses to political violence of the state policies in Stalinist Era in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Kyoto Bulletin of Islamic Area Studies, 3(1), 108-38. [http://www.asafas.kyoto-u.ac.jp/kias/1st_period/contents/pdf/kb3_1/08dadabaev.pdf]
Fitzherbert, A., (2005). Country Pasture/Forage Resource Profiles: Kyrgyzstan, Crop and Grassland Service, Plant Production and Protection Division, United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, Rome. [http://www.fao.org/ag/agp/AGPC/doc/Counprof/Kyrgystan/kyrgi.htm]
Hamm, P., L. P. King & D. Stuckler, 2012. Mass Privatization, State Capacity, and Economic Growth in Post-Communist Countries. American Sociological Review, 77(2), 295-324. [http://asr.sagepub.com/content/77/2/295]
Jacquesson, S., 2010. Reforming pastoral land use in Kyrgyzstan: from clan and custom to self-government and tradition. Central Asian Survey, 29(1), 103-18. [http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02634931003765571]
Kerven, C., B. Steimann, C. Dear & L. Ashley, 2012. Researching the Future of Pastoralism in Central Asia’s Mountains: Examining Development Orthodoxies. Mountain Research and Development, 32(3), 368-77. [http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1659/MRD-JOURNAL-D-12-00035.1]
For photos of the Kumtor gold mine: http://www.rferl.org/media/photogallery/24922315.html
Norlen, D. “The Kumtor Gold Mine: Spewing Toxics From On High”, Pacific Environment and ResourcesCenter, September 2000. [http://www.nodirtygold.org/pubs/200009%20PERC%20-%20Kumtor%20Gold%20Mine-Spilling%20toxics%20from%20on%20high.PDF]
Moran, R. E. “Kumtor Gold Facilities, Kyrgyzstan: Comments on Water, Environmental and Related Issues: September 2011”, [http://bankwatch.org/sites/default/files/Kumtor-MoranReport-31Jan2012.pdf]
Prizma, “Independent Assessment of the Parliamentary Commission Report, Final Report – 23 September 2012”. [http://www.kumtor.kg/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Prizma-Independent-Assessment-of-Parliamentary-Commission-Report_eng.pdf]
Dzyubenko, O. “Kyrgyzstan sets state of emergency to protect Centerra mine”, Reuters (May 31, 2013). [http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/31/us-kyrgyzstan-centerra-protests-idUSBRE94U0TQ20130531].
Said, E., 1978. Orientalism, London: Penguin.
Said, E. (1980) “Islam Through Western Eyes” from The Nation, Apr 26, 1980. [http://www.thenation.com/article/islam-through-western-eyes#]
Said, E. (2004) “In Memoriam: Edward W. Said (1935–2003): Orientalism Once More”, Development and Change 35(5): 869–879. Blackwell Publishing. [http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-7660.2004.00383.x/pdf]
Tchoroev, T., 2002. Historiography of Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 34(2), 351-74. [http://www.jstor.org/stable/3879832?origin=JSTOR-pdf]
Schmidt, M., (2011). Central Asia’s Blue Pearl: The Issyk-Kul Biosphere Reserve in Kyrgyzstan, in Biosphere Reserves in the Mountains of the World, ed. Austrian MAB Committee (UNESCO). Vienna: AustrianAcademy of Sciences Press, 73-6. http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/SC/pdf/sc_mab_Mountains_Excellence_in_the_Clouds_EN.pdf]
Wani, M. Y. (2011) “Religious Customs, Tradition, and Shamanism in Pre-Soviet Kyrgyz Society”. January-March 2011, Journal Of Eurasian Studies, Vol III (1), 88-94. [http://www.federatio.org/joes.html]
Williams, B. G., 2003. Jihad and ethnicity in post-communist Eurasia. on the trail of transnational islamic holy warriors in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Chechnya and Kosovo. Global Review of Ethnopolitics, 2(3-4), 3-24. [http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14718800308405141]
04 October 2013
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on Kyrgyzstan/Marsha Levine
the PHOTOGRAPHY spot
Straße der Jugend
(Street of Youth)
A photographic work about poverty in Germany
When I first viewed Stephanie Steinkopf’s “Manhattan” I was expecting in seeing photographs from New York City’s most famous borough and not the downtrodden of those living in a nearly vacant apartment complex in a small village outside of Berlin, Germany.
The photographs give insight into the lives of residents in an area of eastern Germany where the promise of prosperity after reunification never was realized. Steinkopf, over four years, was able gain the residents’ trust to photograph very personal moments. Hopefully, the socially concerned photographer will continue using her medium to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Unfortunately the self-published book, in its second edition, is out of print. With luck, another edition is in the works.
– Chuck Haupt, Ragazine’s Photo Editor
…How do people live here 23 years after the fall of the wall? What do the residents wish for? What are their dreams, visions, hopes and fears? What does their everyday life look like? „Straße der Jugend“, „Street of Youth“ is printed on the main road’s sign, leading past Manhattan. It once was to be a road to the future. What future is there here to be had?” …Manhattan: Street of Youth“ offers us an insight into everyday life. These portrayals are the result of ongoing contact with the residents, full of sadness, disillusion, hope and happiness. They are portrayals of life here, of life now, both young and old, of men and women, of being there but wanting not to be, of personal and regional tragedy.
-From Manhattan, text by Jens Thomas
About the photographer:
Stephanie Steinkopf (1978) earned an MA in Ethnomusicology, Contemporary History and Latin American Studies before starting to study photography. She graduated from the Ostkreuzschule für Fotografie in Berlin in 2012. Her long-term project ‘Manhattan – Street of Youth’ won first prize in the Vattenfall Photo Awards in 2012. In early 2013, Steinkopf’s work was presented in several gallery exhibitions, e.g., C|O Berlin, Kunstverein Tiergarten | Galerie Nord, etc. Her work is focused on long-term projects based on the development of close relationships with individuals. Steinkopf is a freelance photographer in Berlin.
Exhibition at Deichtorhallen, Hamburg, Gute Aussichten – new German photography 2013/2014, Febuary 7 till March 23
For the PHOTOGRAPHY spot submissions, please see guidelines at ragazine.cc/submissions/
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on Photo Editor’s Choice / Jan-Feb 2014
Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
Featuring Two Prose-Poems
by Tatiana Olga Rodeiro
with Photographs by Sacha Webley
Organized by Dr. José Rodeiro, Art Editor
“Carnaval in northeastern Brazil marks five days of beauty and chaos. Crowds erupt in the skin of the street, following enormous parades of musicians, dancers, and orixás, (ancient Yoruba divinities originally brought to Brazil by captured slaves). Here, where African, Amerindian, and European traditions have fused and transformed each other, the sacred, the strange, the debauched and the profound all party together. Men dress up as goddesses, women take their clothes off and howl at the stars. And everywhere, little children run back and forth, shouting in wild celebration. I’ve spent the last few Carnavals in Salvador, the capital city of Afro-Brazil, trying to absorb and capture the mystic strangeness that attends this annual event.”
Sacha Webley, photographer, painter, and poet; 2013.
“Whenever excruciating, shocking, or heartbreaking choices, tragic misgivings, cravings, constraints and burdens are evident, ‘Great Beauty’ manifests in great art, as artists quarry those cruel jagged dints and scars (‘soul-blemishes’), resulting from painful and shameful agonizing decisions, dark experiences, suspicions, yearnings, limitations and faults!”
Tara Dervla, critic, in a conversation
with José Rodeiro about Lorca’s duende; 2012.¹
* * * * *
From February 27 until March 5, 2014, the spirit of “Carnaval” will run wild in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, fueling the largest “Street Party” in the universe. In the Roman Catholic liturgical year, “Carnaval” occurs the week before Ash Wednesday, after which begins a regimen of self-discipline, abstinence, fasting and moderation throughout the 40-day Lenten Season, which ends with Christ’s Easter Resurrection. The mad revelry of Carnaval derives from ancient Greek and Roman festivals (i.e., Kronos Rites, Saturnalia Feasts, and other fêtes) — pagan rituals celebrating the termination of winter, as well as spring’s advent.In Salvador, Bahia, “Carnaval” is known for being the most ebullient hot-blooded festival on Earth, demanding total freedom, full-blown self-emancipation, unabashed letting-go, or insisting by any means upon total Rimbaudesque emotional and intellectual release.
To document this distinctive Bahian milieu, Cuban-American poet-dancer, Tatiana Olga Rodeiro, has written two prose-poems, with an array of duende-filled photographs by Jamaican-American visual artist, Sacha Webley. Tatiana’s prose poems describe both daylight hours in Salvador and its nightlife as they capture Salvador’s post-colonial environment. This unique Neo-Tropicalia artistic collaboration reveals Salvador, Bahia, in words and images. In the same way that musicians conceive inimitable signature-sounds, the artists create their own distinctive poetic-visual language. By placing full emphasis on the subject matter, their art avoids getting in the way of their art. As John Keats argued in his letter of February 3, 1818, to J. H. Reynolds, “Art should be great and unobtrusive; a thing, which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle or amaze the soul with overt artistry, but, rather with its subject-matter.” Hence, in this Neo-Tropicalia collaboration where subject-matter dominates, Salvador, Bahia, carries the full aesthetic weight of what is being presented.
* * * * *
Sacha Webley photos of Carnaval in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
Sacha Webley, Carnaval, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/carnaval/thumbs/thumbs_carnaval3.jpg]180Drummers
Sacha Webley, Carnaval, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/carnaval/thumbs/thumbs_carnaval4.jpg]160Women Dance in Street
Sacha Webley, Carnaval, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/carnaval/thumbs/thumbs_carnaval5.jpg]210Clown and Girl
Sacha Webley, Carnaval, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/carnaval/thumbs/thumbs_carnaval6.jpg]200Royalty
Sacha Webley, Carnaval, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/carnaval/thumbs/thumbs_carnaval7.jpg]190Parasol
Sacha Webley, Carnaval, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/carnaval/thumbs/thumbs_carnaval2.jpg]190Christ
Sacha Webley, Carnaval, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
* * * * *
“All this took place; let him who will believe. It took place in Bahia, where these and other acts of magic occur without startling anybody.” — Jorge Amado. Salvador, April 1966
Beyond the wrought iron bars of my open window,
overlooking the port city of Salvador da Bahia,
the isolated ships groaning against their anchors
mirror the barking of stray matted dogs on the creaking docks
and the forsaken souls that wander the cobbled streets of colonialism,
encrusted in a shroud of shadows and the destitute gnawing injustice of hunger.
The Bay of All Saints sleeps before me,
blanketed in votive rose petals and silver fish scales,
strung pearls of constellations reflected, the collected patient hours
of sailors´ lives past, rusting slave chains and the sunken memoirs
of the illiterate, sacred offerings, candles and blood, lost objects,
broken hearts, longing and unborn children swimming, waiting.
The slithering echoes of memory, sailing across the background of centuries, are seeped amongst blades of grass in the forsaken fields of the Lord and the brown barefooted cities of engulfed cries, ravenous cities settled over the secret bones of subversion, buried like black Xangô stones in the brave indignant palms of clenched fists. The vermilion moon rose miraculously again from the bed of coral rocks that cradled the gaping sea of displacement inside you, where you cast your nets of merciful prayers for survival into the Atlantic Ocean, hoping to reach the distant shores of your lost home, so that at last your ancestors might answer your desperate call. May these unanswered tears spilled turn into serpents that swim into the undersea harbor of the Mother of salt waters, where dreams and sorrows are moored within the mercurial depths of her all-encompassing abundance. The white baptismal dress of seafoam adorns her eminence and the moonlight is her crown. The shells she casts mark the fate of our humanity. The moments of life poured from my body of salt and sea water and centuries of evolution and the ancient stories of entangled seaweed strands of DNA, of love and despair. All this as the immortal Atabaque drums echo throughout the hollow humid night of pulsating quiet stars, ringing out like gunshots across the sloping favelas, summoning the forces of the earth, the sirens of the rivers and the spirits of the forest, to awaken the lost Quilombo of memories that sleeps restlessly within the beating heart.
I swam with your daughters from the lively praia of Porto da Barra sprawling with glistening exposed bodies, barefoot soccer and capoeira games, radios blaring popular Axé and Samba-Reggae songs over which scrawny sun-scorched children hustle vending: “Cerveja! Queijo! Picolé! Acaí na Tigela! Coca-Cola!” We swam out to the rudimentary tiny wooden barquinhos lovingly painted bright blues and canary yellow left by the poor Bahian fishermen to toss upon the water until next morning’s catch. There, our drenched bodies swaying like eels above the water, we serenaded you with your ancient Yoruba songs, singing with all the might of our throats on fire and all the bound fibers of our being bursting forth, unraveling into freedom in the sheer moment of beauty as the sun melted into a crescendo of luminescent mango flesh over the enigmatic island of Itaparica. The local fishermen have built you a temple overlooking the water in the neighborhood of Rio Vermelho, for you to protect their vulnerable boats and to bring them in return fish to feed their families: it is a dream intimately anointed in sculptures of mermaids. Always a candle burns for you there. Every February 2nd , the entire city of Salvador proceeds to the shore dressed ceremoniously in white in honor of you, like white crabs instinctively hurrying across the sand, where entire fleets of these tiny fishing boats are proudly filled with an extravagant excess of gifts to be ritually scattered into the depths of the ocean to appease you and to praise you. Millions of roses are handed as gifts to you; they float beautifully upon the water, as gently adrift adornments.
Your waves have combed my hair; you have carried my screams, the letters and photographs of my life. You have fed me and caressed my body, healed my wounds, held my devotion, my anguish, my terror. You have inundated my spirit and borne witness to the greatest moments of joy I have ever known. I have sailed across this world that is yours; you have blessed me a thousand times over. You have bathed my family, you have brought my family here safely across your vast ocean — sailing across generations from Spain and the Canary Islands, off the coast of North Africa, to Cuba and the Americas; you are washed in the voices of my ancestors. My body is made of all the constituent elements of your being and my spirit holds the essence of your divine source. I carry the memory of your tidal rhythms within my own being. You are the primordial source from which my species crawled centuries ago. You were my womb before this life, you will carry me through the ebb and flow of this life as my deepest calling, and it is to you to whom I will return when my body dies. You are the Mother of All: Queen Iemanjá !
Suddenly, the dead, yet windy, voice of Jorge Amado swished through the tuft of a nearby palmtree, swaying, “On the crest of the ocean waves, Yemanjá, dressed all in blue, with her long hair of foam and crabs. Her tail of silver held three different sexes, one white of seaweeds, the other scum green, the third of black powers. With her fan, the abebê, she called up the winds of death. She commanded a fleet of hulls of ships; an army of fish greeted her silently: Oboiá !”
* * * * *
Salvador, Bahia, Brazil at Night
The labyrinthic winding one-way streets of the old original part of the city are impossibly narrow, breeding malignant jeering predators; stewing Hieronymus Bosch-faced drunkards by night, blockaded on either side by the decaying teeth of wary Baroque facades. Rounding the corner — where a blood-glistening obsidian rooster nestled in a ceramic bowl, awaiting the imminent crossing of Exu,
a rabid gang of grey bulletproof-vested armed policia militar encircle a small man;
a forsaken runt of the human litter; just an indignant and diminished alcoholic skeleton, saran-wrapped in cinnamon skin and panting backwater lingo,
who cowers further into his sagging tropical neon swim-trunks, while being restrained and beaten down into unforeseen anguish: a helpless snare, undefended in the end by the puffed-up projection of machismo that he had used his entire life to navigate this fermenting city.
I must pass. . . .
swallowing the palpable panic of my own heightened vulnerability
and the thundering impulse of righteousness and humanity coursing my veins,
I tell myself, “I m only a young woman; I have no say in any of this,”
as I continue stepping forward over heaving piles of dog-eaten trash sloshed in human urine.
There is only one darkness.
To see it, all one needs are human eyes and the cradle of history.
To know it, I have only to uncover the rifts and poisons within my own being.
I know that my fear will only feed this violence.
And, who among us can trace how far back the mind goes
or the depth of the source from which all these thoughts come streaming through — all wise and insane and beautiful with stupidity and refracted light.
To neutralize man, there is only one other possibility of polarity.
It is all I ever had to give. . . .
like the black moist seeds hiding in ripe papayas amid the urgent grace of thirsting hummingbirds,
erupted from the constraints of my ribcage,
dumbfounded and rich, stepping out into the suspended night.
“Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow;”
On the top of my throbbing lungs,
elated and grieving,
“Bloom and grow forever.”
and in this moment, somewhere on the other side of the earth,
the dust of my mother’s strong-boned ancestors smiled at a field of glorious wildflowers, which I will never be able to gather.
I did not look back to see if a hesitant trace of peace that lingered from the imprint of my song — echoing open an aperture in time,
a mantle, through which light might enter, infiltrating
and perhaps slither in through porous ears, soothing belligerent blood, softening clenched fists, sending everyone home for a night’s rest in the plump arms of their worried wives.
Perhaps this man was my rapist with a knife like the crescent moon,
if Salvador had been running on schedule for once,
and my naive song meant nothing to this world
as it bled over ancient cobblestone streets worn down by the forgotten footsteps of slavery and slipped like silent lizards through the cracks where bruised pastel paint peels like fruit skins off the mildewing walls of colonialism.
I do not know, if there will be any windows in prison for him to receive sunlight and the passage of days, or if even that is stripped away solely by the usage of artificial fluorescent lighting. Perhaps this man’s last memory of true light will be the faint twinkling of a distant hanging garden of tiny white mountain flowers, choking on the smog of plastic burning in the lower city, as a foreign girl singing sweetly in a foreign language passes behind an impenetrable wall of shouting, guns and armor, as she walks home to write down ‘his story’ and look out her bedroom window, wondering about the inner story behind all that has happened here.
About the contributors:
Sacha Webley is a photographer, painter and poet living internationally. More of his work can be seen at www.sachawebley.com.
Tatiana Olga Rodeiro is a poet and dancer, born in 1988 in Appalachian Maryland. For the last six years, she has lived in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, where she studied dance at La Escola de Dança da Fundação Cultural do Estado da Bahia. She has appeared on Brazilian TV programs. Her poems, written extemporaneously with little revision, have been published in the Edison Literary Review; The Cultural Journal; Nexus; Exit 13, Solstice, and elsewhere. Her undergraduate degree is from Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado.
Jose Rodeiro‘s take on duende is explored in “What is Duende?“, http://www.duendeart.org/# . He is art editor of Ragazine.CC, and professor of art history at New Jersey City University.
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on The Poetry of Carnaval/Salvador Bahia Brazil