Spotlight: Scandinavia

This weekend starts a 4-day symposium on Scandinavian theatre, put together by Origin Theatre.   So I thought this would be a good time to spotlight Nordic Culture in New York. 

At the Northern Lights Symposium you’ll find free events such as a sampler of contemporary plays for Young Audiences with country-specific readings and video excerpts from all 5 Nordic countries; a roundtable on Cultural Diplomacy; and a staged reading in cultural partnership with, and produced by, Scandinavian American Theater Company.                   RSVP   is strongly recommended for these events

Although Leif Erikson reached North America in 1001, it wasn’t until the early part of the 19th century that Scandinavians arrived New York City, often working  on the docks of lower Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights, Red Hook, Sunset Park and Bay Ridge. While many of their descendants have since relocated to other parts of the country, there is still a vibrant Nordic presence in the Big Apple.  Below are some of the highlights.

Scandinavia House,  the Nordic Center in America, is located in the heart of Manhattan on Park Avenue at 38th Street, Scandinavia House offers art, music and film from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden as well as lectures and staged readings of Nordic plays. They offer activities for families and kids, including language lessons.  Or, you could just grab a bite at the Smörgås Chef restaurant, or stop by the shop and get some Scandinavian goods.  Scandinavia House is also the home of the American Scandinavian Foundation  

In the Scandinavia House gallery, through March 26th is Painting Tranquility – Masterworks by Vilhelm Hammershøi from SMK – The National Gallery of Denmark – a lovely small show by this Danish painter.

Also at Scandinavia House on Friday, March 4th, you can see the Icelandic film, “Paris of the North” a comedy about the relationship between a father and son, directed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurosson.    On March 5th is the Children’s International Film Festival featuring shorts from over 30 countries.

Here are other places where you can find information on Nordic happenings in New York:

The website of the Finnish Embassy   

Finnish Cultural Institute in NY:   The Institute has three principal areas of operation: It runs an artist-in-residency program in Brooklyn, New York; it produces, curates and presents both large scale touring exhibitions and smaller events in collaboration with local galleries and museums in North America; and it develops active collaboration networks with North American educational institutions and organizations within the field of visual arts.

The website of the Danish Consulate

The website of the Icelandic Consulate

Norway’s NYC Consulate’s Facebook page  

Swedish Consulate’s website

You can find traces of Scandinavia at:

The Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre  in Central Park, features productions based on classic fairy tales and offers an enriching theatrical and educational experience for young children. The Cottage is a member of the Historic House Trust of New York City.

Leif Ericsson Park on 4th Avenue and 66th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn  has playgrounds, pass areas and 10 tennis courts. This year, Leif Erikson Day will be celebrated on October 9, 2016

The Scandinavian East Coast Museum is a virtual museum with some interesting facts about Nordic life in Brooklyn  

There’s a Vikings exhibition at Discovery at Times Square (I haven’t seen it so I have no opinion on it).

History and the Opera in Maria Stuarda

Got to see Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda  at the Met earlier this week – a fantastic production! Glad I saw it before it closes on Saturday. One of  his three Tudor queen operas, and based on a play by Frederick Schiller, I found it very engaging – even if the central scene with these historical figures is pure fiction.  The opera revolves around the dilemma faced by Queen Elizabeth I of England, regarding her cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, whom she’s kept imprisoned for 18 years.  Members of the court and aristocracy are divided as to whether Mary should be set free or beheaded, and make their case to Elizabeth, who knows she must make a decision, but also realizes that there could be terrible consequences, whatever she does.  One of the main scenes is an imaginary meeting between the two queens, in which the power play between these two women is vividly brought to life.  Even though the opera ends with Mary Stuart walking to her beheading, I didn’t feel depressed.  The performances were all brilliant. 

Sebastian Noelle in Concert

Sebastian Noelle, Marc Mommaas, Matt Clohesy, Ross Pederson

Sebastian Noelle, Marc Mommaas, Matt Clohesy, Ross Pederson

Caught modern jazz guitarist Sebastian Noelle   last week at the German Consulate, where he played with an international line up:  tenor saxophonist Marc Mommaas   hails from the Netherlands; drummer  bassist Matt Clohesy  is from Australia and drummer Ross Pederson   from the USA (North Dakota).  Sebastian grew up in Germany, and now calls the Big Apple home.  His music is suffused with influences from many cultures, especially western Europe, the Balkans, and Indian ragas (which he’s been studying for the last 10 years or so).

Many of the songs, such as Another Spring, begin softly, with an acoustic feeling guitar, brushes on the drums, slowly building up volume as the bass and sax join in, (the sax blending perfectly with the guitar) then picking up tempo before seamlessly winding down. In his extended composition Rolling with the Punches he used that same motif to great effect to reflect that piece’s title:  a loud, brash, tumultuous opening, then quieter, with the guitar dominating, then slowly louder, more strident with a steady pulse, getting louder, and finishing with an impressive raga sounding sax solo at the end. Home in a Strange Land opened with strong rhythms that made me think of city traffic, hustle and bustle, the instruments playing against each other in quick interludes, burning with their own freneticism, as if mimicking the swirl and hubbub you feel in a place that’s not quite home.

These were just the highlights of their set.  I’m looking forward to hearing more from all these musicians in the future!  Keep them on your radar screen.

Jacob Fugger – the Rockefeller/Gates of the Renaissance

Detail of Albrecht Dürer Portrait of Jakob Fugger - Schaezlerpalais, Ausburg, Germany

Detail of Albrecht Dürer Portrait of Jakob Fugger – Schaezlerpalais, Ausburg, Germany

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk by Greg Steinmetz on his new book The Richest Man Who Ever Lived:  The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger.    I had no idea who Jacob Fugger was until I read a review of the book in the NY Times, so I eagerly went to  hear the author speak at the American Business Forum on Europe.  From his talk and the Q&A, it was clear that Steinmetz had thoroughly researched his subject, and the economy of Europe at that time. 

I just finished the book, which I enjoyed.  Steinmetz is a business writer, which I think gives the story the right tone.  It’s a straightforward account of how one person with a lot of money and hutzpah was able to prop up an empire or two, as Jacob Fugger did for the Holy Roman Empire, the House of Habsburg and the Vatican.  In addition to the money from his family’s textile business in Ausberg, Germany, Fugger also had interests in several European mines and the spice trade, but his influence derived from his ability and willingness to make extremely large loans to kings, princes and the church hierarchy. I was amazed at how some of these potentates – vain, feckless and reckless – managed to stay in power.  Fugger financed wars, trade and the suppression of rebellions.  However, his financial activities sometimes had unintended consequences:  his schemes to insure repayment of his loans to the Vatican, through the selling of indulgences, led Martin Luther to post his 95 theses, igniting the Protestant Reformation.  Fugger took big risks and had some powerful enemies – but his ability to turn setbacks to his advantage is very instructive. As this book makes clear, if you want to know what makes the world turn, forget “cherchez la femme” – it’s “follow the money!”

I think it’s entirely possible that we would be living in a completely different world if Jacob Fugger had made different decisions or if he hadn’t existed.  Even though he lived over 500 years ago, Fugger’s story resonates today.

The Bronx and Africa: A Potent Combination

Having been born and raised in the Bronx, I’m always happy to go back, especially when super good things are happening.   Which is how I came to be at the opening of the Bronx:Africa exhibit at the Longwood Arts Center at Hostos College.  This was a wonderful exhibit of artists from Africa, living in the NY/NJ area, as well as American artists whose work connects to Africa.  Photography was the dominant media, but there were also video, acrylic paintings, sculptures, digital prints  and linocuts. The place was packed, but I got to speak with several of the artists.

Ibou Ndoye with Loabe Woman, 2007 glass painting

Ibou Ndoye with Loabe Woman, 2007 glass painting

Ibou Ndoye, who hails from Senegal, had  two paintings on glass in the show, which he made using a scratching technique.  His depiction of a Loabe mother and child enfolds the cultural differences he’s encountered: while in America, mothers carry their infants in the front of their bodies, in Ibou’s picture, as in Africa, the mother, in traditional  dress, carries her baby on her back, so as to protect her child from danger.  The colors he uses, pale yellow, grey, brown and black, are colors he associates with America, rather than the brighter ones you’re more likely to find in African painting and cloth.  He’s also included scarification on his subjects’ faces, which in African tradition, allows you to know at a glance where, and what tribe, a person is from.  As Ibou explained, “It’s an early form of barcoding.”

Howard T. Cash, Photographer

Howard T. Cash, Photographer

Howard T.  Cash had some great photographs of important Nigerian cultural and political figures from the early 1980’s; it was his photos of Fela Kuti  at The Shrine and the Coronation of Oba Erediuwa  that caught my eye.  I chatted with Howard, and it turns out we grew up not that far from each other! He left the Bronx to study in Los Angeles, then through “Operations Crossroads” studied in Ghana.  He later opened a photo lab in Nigeria; when that closed, he stayed on as a free lance photographer for three years.

Sculptures by Janet Goldner

Sculptures by Janet Goldner


Janet Goldner is an American artist who regularly visits and works with artists in Mali.  She had several small steel pieces, whose strong geometric motifs clearly showed influences of her time there.


detail from Birds Nest by Tammy Wofsey, 2009 Linocut

detail from Birds Nest by Tammy Wofsey, 2009 Linocut

Tammy Wofsey had only two pieces, but they were fabulous.  I don’t see too many artists doing linocuts, and certainly not as large as these works.  I wanna see more.




Monument for the Future we Never Lived (no 3) by Eto Otigtibe, 2016 treated aluminum

Monument for the Future we Never Lived (no 3) by Eto Otigtibe, 2016 treated aluminum


Eto Otigtibe works on aluminum, either painting it or treating it to yield some lovely geometric abstractions.

Thurston Randall had three great digital prints: I’ve got an interview with him in a separate post below.

Throughout the evening, Gambian musician Muhamadou Salieu Suso, delighted the guests with his mastery of the 21 stringed kora.

There’s lot’s more, and the show runs until May 4th.  Make the time to see it.

There are also several talks with the artists scheduled for the coming months;  you can find more information here 

Interview with Thurston Randall, Jr.

Four Warriors by Thurston Randall, Jr, 2016 Digital print on d'Arches

Four Warriors by Thurston Randall, Jr, 2016 Digital print on d’Arches

I got to talk with Thurston Randall, Jr. for a bit after the Bronx: Africa show, thanks to his lovely wife Sharon.  I had stopped to take a closer look at his three digital prints, whose strong, geometric  composition and vibrant colors caught my eye.  He shared some of his thoughts on the artistic process and spoke about two of his works.

Thurston’s artistic talent was recognized early on, earning him a write up in the New York Daily News when he was five.  He continued his studies at the High School of Art & Design, but, seeing himself more as an academic rather than as an artist, he became a counsellor for people with mental illness, a profession he practices to this day.  Nonetheless, he’s always done something artistic.

In his 20’s Thurston began working with the computer program Paint.  He developed his own style which incorporates architectural elements and representational art, overlaid with texture and character, using colors and patterns to create a story that brings it all together.  Thurston doesn’t necessarily have a preconceived idea when he starts a picture:  “On the blank screen, all these elements come together to create a story; the line, color, shape and form create an awareness in the artist; you see something new every time you open up the screen – a new connection between the last color and the next one, between the last line and the next one…  Composing a picture is like composing music – you start with an idea, you hear the rhythm and the patterns which create a narrative.  When its done – when it has all the forms and ideas I could put in – I put on the border.  The story is complete to me, the artist, and I hope it’s conveyed to the viewer.”

“We experience color every day, in food, clothing, skin, eyes and so on … it’s as important as breath.  Color makes us joyful, sad or hopeful; it represents integrity, character, feeling.  You can’t avoid color.  It is powerful – it can transform your mind, your mood.  Color is very important to me.”

“In The Four Warriors the bond between the lines and colors creates the composition; the connection between the elements creates a truth.  The volumes of their bodies varies; with their crowns and spears, they are protectors.  The colors are those of the sun, the day, and midnight.  The borders represent the borders of the country.”

The King and Queen of African America by Thurston Randall, Jr. 2016 Digital print on d'Arches

The King and Queen of African America by Thurston Randall, Jr. 2016 Digital print on d’Arches

In The King and Queen of African America, I ask, ‘who are we as African Americans?’  When I was growing up, the narrative of who we were was that of slaves, Jim Crow, Negroes, then, descendants of kings and queens.  Who are my ancestors?  The only truth I know would be the King and Queen of African America.  In this picture the king is in the center; to his right is his mother; to his left are his wife and son.  Women are the foundation of the kingdom.  The grandmother is the seat of wisdom:  family, solidarity, community and power flow from her.”

You can see Thurston’s work in the Bronx: Africa exhibit at the Longwood Art Gallery through May 4th.

Lunar New Year Podcast

Ken Smith and Joanna C. Lee

Ken Smith and Joanna C. Lee

On February 7th, I got to talk with Joanna Lee and Ken Smith, authors of the Pocket Chinese Almanac (which is covered in a recent post), about the history of the larger Chinese Almanac, or Tong Sing; pre-holiday preparations, and some predictions for the Year of the Monkey, as well as a short lesson on how to say Happy New Year in Cantonese and Mandarin (hint:  its not “gong hay fat choy”).   While Joanna and Ken couldn’t join me in the studio, we did the interview over Skype, which just added to the funky vibe.  Give a listen, and Enjoy!

Lunar New Year Celebrations

Monkey Mask, Bhutan, 20th cent.

Monkey Mask, Bhutan, 20th cent.

Gung hay fat choy!  Yes, the Year of the Red Monkey (4713), begins on February 8th, the start of the Spring Festival.  Celebrated by many countries in East Asia, this holiday is also known as Chinese New Year, Seollal (Korea), Tsagaan Sar (Mongolia), Losar (Tibet) and Tet (VietNam).  Here in the Big Apple, there will be celebrations in all 3 Chinatowns, with parades in Queens on February 12th, and in Manhattan on February 13th.

According to the Pocket Chinese Almanac (article below) “the New Year is a time when families come together to celebrate nature’s renewal.  The elaborate rituals actually begin days before:  cleaning the house thoroughly, thanking the Kitchen God before the evening meal buying new clothes to wear for the new year.  The traditional festival period lasts for 15 days, with the first full moon marking the Lantern Festival, a carnival for young lovers”.

The many Asian cultural institutes in the city will all host activities around this holiday: the Asia Society, the Museum of Chinese in America,  the China Institute,  the Korea Society, and the Rubin Museum  as well as other organizations and institutions, starting Saturday and going through the 15th.  I’ve listed as many activities as I could in the CURRENT EVENTS page.  There’s a lot going on this year!

Capital, Cuxa Cloister, Catalan, ca 1130-40, marble

Capital, Cuxa Cloister, Catalan, ca 1130-40, marble

The monkey is the 9th of twelve zodiac animals on the Chinese calendar, and considered to be quick-witted, charming, lucky, adaptable, bright, versatile, lively, smart.  On the weakness side of the ledger, they are suspicious, cunning, selfish, arrogant, jealous.  The Monkey King is one of the most well-known characters in Chinese literature, and you’ll find him in operas, theatre productions and films.

The Monkey contains the elements of metal and water, which are connected to gold, and wisdom and danger, respectively.  Bottom line for this year:  things will be changing a lot, so be adaptable, and exercise caution when making changes.  Which is good advice no matter what your sign!

Your Chinese Zodiac sign occurs every 12 years.  Yours would be the Monkey if you were born in: 2016, 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, etc., and you would share this sign with Julius Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci, Elizabeth Taylor and Mick Jagger, among other notables.

No matter what your sign, get out and CELEBRATE!!

Chinese Almanac

PCA - Cover Art - Excerpted from "Monkey Riding a Ram" woodblock print, Shandong Province, Qing Dynasty

PCA – Cover Art – Excerpted from “Monkey Riding a Ram” woodblock print, Shandong Province, Qing Dynasty

Last weekend, at the Museum of Chinese in America,   Joanna Lee and Ken Smith  spoke about the Pocket Chinese Almanac,  which they’ve been publishing since 2010. I met them a few years earlier, and have been to their presentations before, which are always interesting and fun. The Pocket Chinese Almanac is an English translation of part of the Tong Sing, the traditional Chinese Almanac, whose roots are in the Imperial Calendar.  But it’s more than a calendar or guide to weather conditions.  As Joanna and Ken note in their introduction:  “The Tong Sing is an expression of cultural memory transcending such categories as modernity and tradition, the original self-help book, and an inspirational guide to channeling positive energy in all walks of life.”

Naturally the almanac starts with the New Year; however, this is no one-day celebration but rather a major week-long holiday in China and other countries in Asia. In addition, many businesses close a week before the festival begins, so people have time to get back home to their villages and prepare, so if you’re trying to get business done during those two weeks, forget about it. 

To properly welcome in the New Year, it is absolutely essential that the house be spotless – like cleaning for Passover – and pomelo leaves are recommended for this task.  Since this is a family celebration, there is lots of food, so its best to prepare as much as you can ahead of time. Because the New Year sets the tone for the rest of the year, large meals on that day are seen as a harbinger of abundance ahead – and vice-versa. One of the traditional foods is sticky rice cakes, which are offered to the Kitchen God, so he can’t say anything bad about you to the Celestial Emperor. And don’t forget to make an offering to the Kitchen God’s wife!

The modern Tong Sing divides the Lunar Year into 12 months; like Western almanacs, it includes sections to entertain while instructing the reader, such as Confucian stories of filial piety, and Wisdoms in Governing a Household.  The Pocket Almanac, which features folk art from different regions in China, focuses on the declarations of activities which may be good or bad for a given day.  While many of the activities in the almanac are rooted in an agrarian society, they are nonetheless applicable to modern, urban life, and the authors have included a notes section to explain some of the terminology.  For example, in the below predictions for the start of the year, “destroying houses/walls – only by destroying the old, can you bring in the new;”  “making fishing nets – originally for fishermen, now applicable for modern-day capital overhauls (perhaps an upgrade on your Internet browser?)”:

(original size: 10 x 12 cm; early 1990s) Fan Zouxin (范祚信, b. 1944) hails from Gaomi County, Shandong Province, a locale that became famous through the writings of Nobel laureate Mo Yan. Since the early 1990s, Fan has created multiple series of papercuts based on the Chinese zodiac, always framing the featured animal with an auspicious Chinese character as background, such as “double happiness” (囍) here. As early as 1995, Fan was recognized by UNESCO for his artistic achievement.

(original size: 10 x 12 cm; early 1990s) Fan Zouxin (范祚信, b. 1944) hails from Gaomi County, Shandong Province, a locale that became famous through the writings of Nobel laureate Mo Yan. Since the early 1990s, Fan has created multiple series of papercuts based on the Chinese zodiac, always framing the featured animal with an auspicious Chinese character as background, such as “double happiness” (囍) here. As early as 1995, Fan was recognized by UNESCO for his artistic achievement.

As to what lies ahead in 2016:  change, change, change, so learn to adapt, and go with the flow.

Joanna and Ken ended their talk with a Ming Dynasty poem, sent by their geomancer, over the Internet.  Here’s the on-the-fly translation Joanna gave:

Don’t worry – remember

The Yangtze River flows for a long time

Throughout all these millennia

how many heroes have died

But in life, you must remember

that despite where we human beings are

The mountains, as well as the sun and the moon

will remain