Before They Close

I can’t believe that 2015 is almost over!  Since many of you will be leaving soon for other locales to celebrate the holidays, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza or another tradition, I wish you happiness, merriment and peace in this holiday season and in the New Year.  In the holiday spirit, I’ll be taking a bit of a rest, and will resume publishing mid-January.  ‘Til then….

While your intrepid blogger has been active, I’m afraid I haven’t been able to write a fuller review of some of the exhibits I’ve seen, but, in the tradition of the year-end round up, I’d like to offer a few recommendations for shows before they close. 

Over by Lincoln Center the American Folk Art Museum,  is hosting a splendid exhibit “Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet,” featuring over 150 pieces by 35 artists from the Collection de L’art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.  Many of the works – pen and ink, pencil, embroideries, mixed media – are incredibly detailed, highly patterned and very imaginative.  A small but fulfilling show.  It closes on January 10th.

On the evening of January 5th, the Museum will show Bruno Decharme’s film, Rouge Ciel, the story of unconventional artists.  There will also be a talk back with the director after the screening.

Across the way at Lincoln Center, the Library for the Performing Arts has an exhibit about “Alice in Wonderland” in performance and song, which runs through January 16th.  My previous review is here .

At Columbus Circle, The Museum of Art and Design  I caught two excellent exhibits.  Wendell Castle Remastered is a wonderful show of the work of this master furniture maker, designer, sculptor, educator, and acclaimed figure of the American art furniture movement, who deftly merges sculpture and furniture.  The show pairs new works in which Castle combines hand craftsmanship—such as carving, rasping, and finishing—with digital technologies—including 3D scanning, 3D modeling, and computer-controlled milling – with the earlier pieces that inspired them. 

Japanese Kōgei | Future Forward   showcases the work of 12 established and emergent kōgei artists. Kōgei is a genre of traditional artisanal crafts that is associated with specific regions and peoples in Japan.

Figure of a Mother Holding a Child, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th cent.

Figure of a Mother Holding a Child, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th cent.

If you’re at the Brooklyn Museum, the Francisco Oller show, (here’s an earlier review)  continues through January 3rd.  Be sure to leave time for “Arts of Africa, Double Take”  a small but innovative exhibit that pairs African art from the 19th century (and earlier) with works by modern African artists.  The show is grouped around themes such as “The Art of Portraits,” “The Art of Trauma,” “Art that Moves,” which gives it a more nuanced feel than the usual chronological/linear displays that are so often used in museums.  The beadwork, especially on the beaded crowns from Nigeria and the man’s corset from South Sudan are standouts, as are many of the masks and carvings.

If you’re looking for theatre, I’d recommend the revival of The King & I  at Lincoln Center;  if you like dance, An American in Paris   is a delightful show, with some wonderful old songs, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night is compelling.

In the book department, I’m currently reading “The Boy is Gone:  Conversations with a Mau Mau General”  by Laura Lee P. Huttebach.  I picked it up after hearing her speak about her visits to Kenya to understand the General’s story, and make it known to the wider world.  As its title implies, the book recounts the many conversations Ms. Huttenbach had with Japhlet Thambu about his life and his participation in the Kenyan independence movement.  The story is told in Mr. Thambu’s voice and makes for a fascinating look at an episode in African history that has been too often misunderstood and distorted in the West. 

Latin American Classic

La Catrina String Quartet  & Richard Boukas- OLG Dec 5, 2015

La Catrina String Quartet & Richard Boukas- OLG Dec 5, 2015

You can find some of the best music in places you’d never think of.  That’s what I did when I went to a concert earlier this mont at Our Lady of Guadeloupe Church on 14th Street.  The evening’s performance featured the grammy award winning La Catrina String Quartet (LCSQ)  , whose members all hail from Latin America:  Daniel Vega-Albela (Mexico), Jorge Martinez-Rios (Mexico), Simon Gollo (Venezuela, and Jorge Espinoza (Chile).  In addition to playing new works by living composers throughout the Americas, LCSQ also programs existing Latin American works that are rarely performed, and interprets classical, romantic and twentieth century masterpieces.  I had gone to hear the quartet play their version of Chorizinho, by the American composer Richard Boukas (who’s also one of my teachers); it was absolutely delightful; other highlights for me were Gavota by Manuel Ponce, Wapango, by Paquito de Rivera and the Suite del Angel by Astor Piazzolla. 

LCSQ is the string quartet-in-residence at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, where they also conduct outreach programs.  They haven’t announced any NYC dates for 2016, but you should keep an eye on their calendar, and catch them the next time they’re in the Big Apple, or you’re in a city where they’re performing!

West African Art and Photography

Power Figure from the Vili group, 19th cent

Power Figure from the Vili group, 19th cent

If you haven’t already seen the Kongo: Power and Majesty  exhibit at the Met, put it on your list of things to do before January 3rd!  This show has 150 works from 60 institutional and private lenders a wide variety of statues, masks, bells, finials from the 19th century, as well as some terrific textiles from the 17th and 18th cent.  Many of these objects were worn or used everyday, or had religious or ceremonial significance for the Kongo peoples, but they were collected as curiosities by the Europeans.

Perhaps the best way to begin is with the words of the exhibit’s curator, Alisa LaGamma:  “People tend to oversimplify their understanding of Africa, with this cliché that artworks were never created as art per se. Well, we have to redefine our understanding of what art is. Art is the thing that touches, the things that matter the most in our existence, and [what] inspires us to rise above our ordinary behaviors. Here, we’re trying to move beyond an overgeneralized understanding of Africa and Kongo and explain that it’s home to one of the greatest art traditions that exist.”

I would say the exhibition does exactly that.

The Kongo societies lived in what are present day Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Republic of the Congo.   Beginning in the late 15th century there was much interaction between Kongo and European leaders and traders.  In 1491, the Kongo  sovereign had himself baptized João I, and adopted Catholicism as the state’s official religion, fortifying the ties between the regions.

Indeed, at the entrance to the exhibit you’ll find an intricately carved ivory oliphant. This ceremonial trumpet, from the 17th century was a diplomatic gift by King Afonso I of Kongo to Pope Leo X.

Luxury Cloth, 17th-18th century, Kongo

Luxury Cloth, 17th-18th century, Kongo

The textiles in this show are exquisite:  luxury cloths, mostly of woven raffia, with geometric patterns of diamonds and lozenges, as well as motifs such as the endless knot, over and under interlace design, and double knot.  While some of these designs were embroidered, in many cases the weavers employed a sophisticated weaving technique so that the design is raised and the fibres cut, thereby providing texture.  In addition to the cushion covers, take a look at the mpu, or crown hats worn by the chiefs.

Seated Female Supporting Figure with Clasped Hands, Master of Kasadi, 19th cent.

Seated Female Supporting Figure with Clasped Hands, Master of Kasadi, 19th cent.

There’s lots of female power in this exhibit as well, represented by ancestral shrine figures  along with mother and child statues. Those created by the Master of Kasadi often have motifs carved on the mother’s torsos.  There are also images of women incorporated on male leadership insignia, like the ivory staff finials of their staffs of office. Many of the women wear mpu, the crowns of the Kongo male chiefs.  Be sure to read the Met’s blog post of a conversation with musician Angelique Kijo.

Power Figure, Nkisi N'Kondi: Mangaaka, 19th cent.

Power Figure, Nkisi N’Kondi: Mangaaka, 19th cent.

The last and largest part of the exhibit consists of  the power figures or Mangaaka – 15 fierce, mesmerizing male wooden sculptures, created by master carvers – sacred objects in whose eyes and abdominal cavities medicines were secreted.  Carved in response to colonial incursions and the ensuing social upheavals in the 19th century, these  warriors and judges were taken into battle, visited the sick, and settled family conflicts.  The nails and blades hammered into their skin represent a prayer, decision or agreement that was made with the Magaaka.  These symbols of law and order in the Kongo communities were almost completely destroyed by  the European overlords who were decimating their lands – only 20 of them exist today.

There are many other things that caught my eye, such as the  ceremonial drums and bells, as well as the 19th century Kumbe bed panel of 6 seated figures and a dog, which made me think of the famous photograph “Lunch atop a Skyscraper.” 

After this exhibit, you should make your way to the companion show, “Jo Ratcliffe’s Photographs of Angola and South Africa.”    These photos taken between 2007 and 2013 depict the aftermath of the the Angolan CivIl war (1975-2002) and its relation to the Border War (1966-89) fought by South Africans in present day Namibia and Angola.  There are very few people in these pictures, and the use of black and white photography captures the bleakness of the abandoned buildings and landscapes which are often littered with land mines.  These photographs raise important questions about war, occupation, and abandonment.

On the other side of the mezzanine is an exhibit of “Photographic Portraits of West Africa”,  starting in1880 and going through the 1970’s.   Whether group portraits of the local elites or images of individuals, whether taken by professionals or amateurs, all these photos possess a certain formality:  no matter if they’re standing or seated, the subjects face the camera with a very serious expression.  It’s only when we get to photos taken in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s that we see sitters who are more relaxed, even smiling.  Photographers such as Malick Sibidé, Seydoud Keïta and Oumar Ka alternated between using plain backgrounds to make their sitter the central focus, and using backdrops with strong prints and patterns (especially vertical lines), which often provided an interesting contrast with their sitters’ clothing.  Closing the show are four larger scale photos: two of braided hair by JD Okhai Ojeikere, and  two self portraits by Samuel Fosso. 

I recommend seeing these shows before they close on January 3rd.

Artists and the Environment

Ethiopia - Abdou Yassin, 40, a peasant from the Omoro tribe, saw the water rising on its fertile fields following the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the river Gibe in Ethiopia in 2005. The State has not compensated and he had to leave his village.

Ethiopia – Abdou Yassin, 40, a peasant from the Omoro tribe, saw the water rising on its fertile fields following the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the river Gibe in Ethiopia in 2005. The State has not compensated and he had to leave his village.

Now that world leaders have gathered in France for the UN Summit on Climate Change, I thought this would be a good time to look at how the arts are contributing to this debate, specifically around the issue of access to clean water, which is increasingly becoming a flashpoint around the globe.  A few weeks ago I attended a talk at the Maison Française at Columbia by French photojournalist Franck Vogel, who, since 2012, has been documenting the effects of human intervention on water supplies around the world.  In his presentation, Vogel focused on three major transboundary rivers which have, or will have dams which will have negative effects on the water flows in neighboring counties:  the Nile, which passes through 11 countries, and whose water allocation system was determined decades ago, stands to be impacted by the Millennium Dam Project in Ethiopia; the Brahmaputra, flowing from the Himalayas, supplying water for Tibet, China, India and Bangladesh, is the subject of competing dam building projects by  India and China; and the Colorado in the US, the only river in the world that doesn’t regularly flow out to the ocean, due in no small part to the various dams and management systems along its route, and a water allocation system determined decades ago.  Through his  stunning photographs, Vogel clearly shows the effect these projects have had on local populations whose ability to fish, farm, raise livestock or get clean water has been seriously, if not irrevocably curtailed. 

What I like about Vogel’s photos is that they don’t hit you over the head; they shows life as it is.  It wasn’t easy for him to get many of these images, as some of these projects are classified as military installations or are heavily guarded.  He cautioned the audience not to believe everything they see in the papers or on social media, recounting how one government planed staged photos of “activists” protesting a neighboring country’s dam building, to deflect from their own building plans. He also told of how some dam building companies are supplying local populations with opium and alcohol, which renders them addicts and unable to oppose the projects. 

Dulen Mili (35y) is fishing with the traditional net on Brahmaputra river near Modarguri village. The net is oriented to catch fishes going upstream.

Dulen Mili (35y) is fishing with the traditional net on Brahmaputra river near Modarguri village. The net is oriented to catch fishes going upstream.

Vogel’s photos raise the question of whether we’re witnessing folly or ingenuity when we look at various endeavors to remake the deserts so that they support activities that are intensely water dependent, such as the construction of lakes and golf courses in Nevada; growing alfalfa in the Egyptian desert for racehorses, or raising cattle in the Imperial Valley in California.  Through the Transboundary River project, which aims to cover seven rivers, Franck Vogel is using his artistry to raise important issues by documenting the impact that government decisions have on people’s lives.  While he doesn’t yet have a book on this subject, you can find his work on the Nile and Brahmaputra rivers on his website ; his work on the Colorado River was just published in Geo Magazine France .

After his presentation, Vogel spoke with Anthony Acciavatti, who has just published a book “Ganges Water Machine,” which documents the 10 years he spent mapping the Ganges River Basin – since there were no maps of infrastructure in the basin or of the Ganges Canal, Acciavatti had to find a new way of mapping the choreography of the water!

Wooden Bow Harp, Egypt, 1878-1650 BC Metropolitan Museum

Wooden Bow Harp, Egypt, 1878-1650 BC Metropolitan Museum

The Nile River has also inspired a group of musicians to use their talents and instruments to address the sustainability of this body of water.   The Nile Project  brings together musicians from Uganda, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and from Ethiopia, from Sudan, and from Egypt, whose objective is to  “collaborate on music that merges many of their traditions and styles and instruments … [and use] this music to inspire a larger conversation about water and about all the challenges we face in the Nile Basin.”  Another of the project’s goals is to create a network of student leaders who will build a transnational network of youths focusing on the cultural, social and environmental sustainability of the Nile.  You can hear some of the wonderful music of the artists of The Nile Project on AfroPop who also talk about how this project has introduced them to new music forms (different time signatures, different scales, different instruments) and cultures in the 11 countries through which the Nile flows.

For a list of art events around the globe related to the climate change summit, check the website of ArtCOP21