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Piñatas as Art

Photo: Henry Gass/Christian Science Monitor.
Piñata sculptor Alfonso Hernandez in his garage studio in Dallas. He is one of a growing group of piñata makers hoping to transform the industry and get recognition for the piñata as an art form.

When you think of piñatas, what do you picture? Kids’ birthday parties? Long cudgels? Here’s an article about people who want you to know that piñatas can be a serious art form.

Henry Gass asks at the Christian Science Monitor, “Would you take a sledgehammer to the David? A flamethrower to the Mona Lisa? A shredder to the latest Banksy? (Actually, scratch that last one.)

“Why then, some people are beginning to ask, would you want to pulverize a piñata? Alfonso Hernandez, for one, wants you to lower the bat and take off the blindfold and appreciate the artistry of a form that dates back hundreds of years.

“The Dallas-based artist has crafted life-size piñata sculptures of Mexican singer Vicente Fernández and Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas. He wants the public to help turn an industry into art.

“ ‘Piñata makers never treated it like an art form,’ he says. ‘They’re taught to make it fast. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, just hurry up because they’re going to break it.’

“Unsatisfied with the generic mass production that has characterized their discipline for decades, piñata makers are pushing the artistic limits of the party pieces. These piñatas, bigger and more detailed, are made out of wood, foam, wire, and clay, and sculpted to look like beloved icons and life-size low-riders. Some move, some are political, and some even talk. Rihanna is a fan, as are, increasingly, art galleries.

“For generations, the real cost of bargain piñatas has typically been borne by the piñata makers themselves working long, arduous hours for less than minimum wage. By proving that piñatas can be more than just clubbable party pieces, people like Mr. Hernandez hope they can both create art and bring a wider respect and dignity to a craft long viewed as cheap and disposable.

“ ‘It’s been an underappreciated art form,’ says Emily Zaiden, director and lead curator of the Craft in America Center in Los Angeles. ‘Piñatas are so accessible. They speak to everybody,’ she adds. But there’s also a flip side. Piñatas ‘can be about appropriation, can be about, I think, the trivialization of a cultural tradition.’

“A new generation of Hispanic artists, she continues, ‘see how much metaphorical potential piñatas have, and how deeply it reflects their identities.’ …

“There are lots of questions around where piñatas come from. They may have emerged in Europe, or China, or the Aztec era – or in all three independently. There are few preserved, written historical records on the origins of piñatas – another sign of how underappreciated the craft has been, Ms. Zaiden believes.

“ ‘A lot of this work probably hasn’t been collected or preserved in ways that other types of art have been,’ she says. ‘It’s all speculation and oral history really,’ she adds, ‘but that goes hand in hand with the idea that these are ephemeral objects.’

“For centuries, piñatas were used for religious ceremonies in Mexico. Typically built to resemble a seven-pointed star, symbolizing the seven deadly sins, they would decorate homes – and be smashed – during the Christmas season.

“Their religious significance faded over time, and they became the popular children’s birthday party feature. But as the piñata industry commercialized, quality and craftsmanship became secondary to quantity.

“Yesenia Prieto grew up in that world. A third-generation piñata maker, she watched her mother and grandmother create in her grandmother’s house in south central Los Angeles, and when she was 19 she started helping herself. It was a constant struggle to survive, she says.

“ ‘I was tired of seeing how poor we were,’ she adds. ‘My grandma was about to lose her house. And we just needed to make more money. We needed to survive.’

“She describes a week in the life of a typical piñata maker. A four-person crew makes about 60 units out of paper, water, and glue a week. Selling wholesale, they make $600 and split it between the four of them. That’s about $150 for a full week of work. …

“ ‘What you’re seeing is an art form having to be mass produced and rushed because they’re getting sweatshop wages,’ she adds. …

“In 2012, Ms. Prieto went independent from her family, and independent from the mainstream piñata industry. She founded Piñata Design Studio and set to making custom, complex pieces that reflect the artistic potential of the craft.

“They’ve created pterodactyls and stormtroopers. They’ve made a giant Nike sneaker, and an 8-foot-tall donkey for the 2019 Coachella music festival. They made a piñata of singer Rihanna for her birthday. …

“But the need to hustle hasn’t abated, according to Ms. Prieto. They work longer on their piñatas than most makers do – up to 16 hours in some cases – but still struggle to sell them for more than $1 an hour. They’ve been leveraging the internet and social media – posting pictures of pieces as they’re being made, to illustrate the labor that’s involved – and they’re slowly raising their price point. …

“She’s also now reaching out to other piñata makers about forming a co-op. By working together, she hopes, piñata makers can get paid fairly, at least. Artistic quality could also improve. And as people see elaborate, custom piñatas more often, she believes, demand will grow, and pay will grow with it. …

“ ‘There is a shift taking place,’ she adds. She’s seeing piñatas in galleries more often. But ‘there’s [still] a need for us to push hard to survive.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Suzanne and John’s Mom.
Blue skies over Concord.

Have you ever wondered about the blueness of skies and oceans? Maybe people from the dawn of time did, too. Or maybe not. Did they notice that the sky is “blue” before they had a word for the color?

Kevin Loria at Business Insider offers a story “about the way that humans see the world and how, until we have a way to describe something, even something so fundamental as a color, we may not even notice that it’s there.

“Until relatively recently in human history,” he reports, ” ‘blue’ didn’t exist, not in the way we think of it.

“As the delightful Radiolab episode ‘Colors’ describes, ancient languages didn’t have a word for blue — not Greek, not Chinese, not Japanese, not Hebrew. And without a word for the color, there is evidence that they may not have seen it at all.

“In the Odyssey, Homer famously describes the ‘wine-dark sea.’ But why ‘wine-dark’ and not deep blue or green?

“In 1858 a scholar named William Gladstone, who later became the prime minister of Great Britain, noticed that this wasn’t the only strange color description. Though the poet spends page after page describing the intricate details of clothing, armor, weaponry, facial features, animals, and more, his references to color are strange. Iron and sheep are violet; honey is green.

“So Gladstone decided to count the color references in the book. And while black is mentioned almost 200 times and white about 100, other colors are rare. Red is mentioned fewer than 15 times, and yellow and green fewer than 10. Gladstone started looking at other ancient Greek texts and noticed the same thing — there was never anything described as ‘blue.’ The word didn’t even exist. …

“Gladstone thought this was perhaps something unique to the Greeks, but a philologist named Lazarus Geiger followed up on his work and noticed this was true across cultures.

“He studied Icelandic sagas, the Koran, ancient Chinese stories, and an ancient Hebrew version of the Bible. Of Hindu Vedic hymns, he wrote: ‘These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again … but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs … and that is that the sky is blue.’ …

“Every language first had a word for black and for white, or dark and light. The next word for a color to come into existence — in every language studied around the world — was red, the color of blood and wine. After red, historically, yellow appears, and later, green (though in a couple of languages, yellow and green switch places). The last of these colors to appear in every language is blue.

The only ancient culture to develop a word for blue was the Egyptians — and as it happens, they were also the only culture that had a way to produce a blue dye.

“If you think about it, blue doesn’t appear much in nature — there are almost no blue animals, blue eyes are rare, and blue flowers are mostly human creations. …

“We do not know exactly what was going through Homer’s brain when he described the wine-dark sea and the violet sheep — but we do know that ancient Greeks and others in the ancient world had the same biology and therefore same capability to see color that we do. But do you really see something if you don’t have a word for it?

“A researcher named Jules Davidoff traveled to Namibia to investigate this, where he conducted an experiment with the Himba tribe, which speaks a language that has no word for blue or distinction between blue and green.

“When shown a circle with 11 green squares and one blue, they could not pick out which one was different from the others — or those who could see a difference took much longer and made more mistakes than would make sense to us, who can clearly spot the blue square.

“But the Himba have more words for types of green than we do in English. When looking at a circle of green squares with only one slightly different shade, they could immediately spot the different one. Can you?”

Go to Business Insider, here. to see what is meant.

Loria continues, “Davidoff says that without a word for a color, without a way of identifying it as different, it is much harder for us to notice what is unique about it — even though our eyes are physically seeing the blocks it in the same way. …

“For more fascinating information about colors, including information on how some ‘super-seeing’ women may see colors in the sky that most of us have never dreamed of, check out the full Radiolab episode.”

What else don’t we see because we don’t have a word for it? Certain kinds of cloud or qualities of snow? Facial expressions? Clearly it depends on the culture in which we were raised.

Hat tip: Hannah. Thank you for realizing blog readers would like this!

More at Business Insider, here.

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Photo: David L. Ryan/Boston Globe.
First-graders line up for lunch at McAuliffe Elementary School in Lowell.

The city of Lowell, Massachusetts, has been a “gateway city” at least since the Industrial Revolution. Located on two rivers that powered the early textile factories, it has attracted waves of immigrant workers looking for a foothold, or gateway, to America. Today its many nationalities continue to generate a multicultural energy.

Peggy Hernandez writes at the Boston Globe, “One day last fall, Umalkheeyr Cabdi Mahamed, 17, rose at 3 a.m. to make breakfast for her US history seminar at Lowell High School. The junior wanted to share canjeero iyo suugo, a spiced chicken stew with sweet thin pancakes, her mother’s favorite dish and a reminder of the home she left behind in Somaliland.

“Umalkheeyr was cooking out of more than goodwill; her dish was being sampled for this year’s edition of Tasting History, the seminar’s cookbook. She and her classmates — English learners and almost all immigrants — ultimately contributed 59 family recipes and stories about their journeys to the cookbook.

“Now in its fourth year, the Tasting History project has accomplished more than envisioned. In December, the 2020-2021 edition earned a Founders Award from The Readable Feast, an annual New England culinary book festival. That win led to a trial collaboration between the students and Lowell Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services.

Once a month, one recipe has been served as a lunchtime entree option to a student body of 14,387. The students are now teaching the adults.

” ‘I want people to know our culture because we have a lot of cultural diversity here in the United States. If you share your food, your culture, your experience, you’ll introduce them to your country,’ says senior Samantha Segura Marroquin of Guatemala, 19, who last year submitted a Christmas tamale recipe. …

“The trial [has] been a success, and the collaboration will continue in the fall. Some dishes were so popular Michael Emmons, the food service’s executive chef, hopes to include them into a regular lunch rotation. Dishes like lok lak, a glossy peppered beef served with salad from Cambodia, and feijoada, an inky black bean and pork stew served with white rice from Brazil.

“Lowell Public Schools is an ideal setting for this partnership. The student body is diverse: Hispanic (37.7 percent), Asian (27.5 percent), White (22.9 percent), Black (7.7 percent) and multi-race (4.1 percent). At least 50 languages are spoken in the high school. The four cookbooks reflect that range: 42 countries and one autonomous region are represented.

“The cookbooks are the brainchild of Jessica Lander, 34, a creative English Language history and civics teacher. … Lander arrived at Lowell High School in 2015 and, two years later, came up with the cookbook project while leading her ‘U.S. History 2 Seminar.’ The course covers the 1870s to the present, encompassing an era when 20 million immigrants arrived in the United States.

“While teaching immigration history, Lander recognized her students are, themselves, experts on being immigrants. She developed the cookbook as a means ‘to honor their stories and show their stories are valuable, just as important’ as those in US history books. ‘I wanted to use food as a story of migration,’ she says.

“Sometimes students have had to call relatives in their native countries for help with recipes. They learn to explain cooking techniques as well as ingredients others might find unfamiliar. Family tales introduce each dish. Edits go 15-20 rounds. Dishes are prepared at home and shared with the class. …

“When Alysia Spooner-Gomez, the district’s food service director, learned about the win last winter, she urged Emmons to tap into the cookbook because, she says, ‘it would be a waste to do nothing.’

“Emmons, known as ‘Chef Mike’ to students and faculty, joined the district last fall after a stint as a sous chef for Google in California. He was eager to pay homage to the students’ recipes. ‘We wanted to be culturally responsive and take a step into another world,’ he says.

“Once a recipe is selected, Emmons adapts it for scale and financial practicality. Then he takes it to Lander’s class for taste tests. The students are quick to tell Emmons if his early versions fail their expectations. ‘Letting the kids have a voice in the meal is the most rewarding part of this project,’ he says

“Spooner-Gomez prepares in-house marketing with fliers about the student and their dish then shares background on the meals with faculty. Lunch, like breakfast, is free of charge in Lowell’s public schools through a federal program for low-income districts.

“Lander’s students are awed by the results. ‘I’m so excited that a lot of people like it,’ says junior Nempisey Pout, 18, who submitted a lok lak recipe. ‘The important thing is that I share my culture and Khmer food with students from other countries.’

More at the Globe, here.

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Photo: Omar Adel via Unsplash.
The Al-Rifa’i Mosque in Cairo. The city’s redevelopment highlights every kind of culture, from mosques to belly-dancers.

Members of my extended family were in Egypt recently, and judging from the videos and photos, they had a fantastic time. It made me think of an article I saw back in January about Cairo.

Donna Abu-Nasr at Bloomberg CityLab had a report on how the city’s “revival blends ancient Egypt with modern tastes.”

She wrote, “When Egyptian ballerina Amie Sultan decided to go into belly dancing, she raised eyebrows among her friends and fellow professionals. Why switch from an art form that’s highly respected to one that’s often scorned in her home country and the rest of the Arab world?

“Six years later, Sultan wants to elevate a dance focused on shaking hips and torsos in low-end cabarets to the theater. It’s just one of the ways Egyptians are trying to establish a contemporary cultural identity in Cairo that taps into their heritage.

“The renaissance of traditions spans everything from new museum exhibits to artisans integrating old crafts into modern furniture and designers selling handmade jewelry, bags and shoes online. There’s also the redevelopment of buildings to champion Egyptian identity. For her bit, Sultan says her goal is to preserve, document and revive the performing arts. Egypt is the spiritual home of belly-dancing, which traces its roots back to ancient times. …

“Perhaps the most striking example of the cultural resurrection was when 22 mummies were transported through central Cairo [in April 2021] to their latest resting place at the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation. The multi-million dollar spectacle was broadcast live on state television. …

“Some parts of the sprawling metropolis are being refurbished in an attempt to recapture more of the tourism market. … One of those areas is central Cairo, also known as Khedival Cairo in reference to Khedive Ismail, the ruler under whom downtown Cairo was built in the late 19th century. The country’s sovereign wealth fund plans to redevelop the mid-20th century Mogamma building, a hulking government office complex. …

“Private entrepreneurs, like Karim Shafei, 48, have also for years been actively working on restoring that part of town. … The vision that he and his partner, Aladdin Saba, an investment banker, have for downtown is to make it a real city center that reflects Egyptian identity: a meeting point for Cairenes from all walks of life and a platform for innovation and creativity.

“ ‘There’s nowhere in Cairo where tourists can go and experience the contemporary Egyptian lifestyle, unlike many other cities such as Beirut, Istanbul, Paris and New York,’ said Shafei. ‘Today, there’s a big portion of tourism that’s intended to experience a country in its modern form. You want to experience the way cuisine is, the way people live, how they dress.’ 

“One thing that Shafei has noticed is a change in the government’s attitude toward restoration. In the past, authorities would just focus on painting a wall or fixing a sidewalk. In the past year, the discussions have become deeper.

“Sultan, the dancer, has likewise found a sympathetic ear for her project, which she is doing through her company Tarab Collective. When she has approached government officials with her idea, ‘there’s some shock, but then as they listen they actually see that this is a serious project.’ . …

“Belly-dancing has been associated with smoky cabarets where alcohol is served. … It’s also informally performed by people at home, at picnics or celebrations. …

“Last year, Tarab Collective produced a tribute to the golden age of Egyptian cinema and the dance’s divas from 1940 to 1960. It featured 12 performers and premiered at the closing of the Gouna Film Festival in October.

“[Sultan’s] company is also working on setting up an institute to teach the dance, register it with UNESCO as intangible heritage and change its name from one that comes from the French danse du ventre to ‘Egyptian dance.’

“ ‘At the end of the day, this dance represents Egypt,’ she said. ‘It’s how we show ourselves to the world, just like we identify Spain with flamenco.’ “

More at Bloomberg CityLab, here. I know I’ve told you that there was a wonderful belly-dancer at our son’s wedding — with flaming candles in her hair, no less. If I can get into my old computer, I’ll post a picture.

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Photo: The Intrepid Guide.

Don’t you love the way quirky idioms reflect a whole culture? I’ve written about this a few times before. Today I’m sharing what the Intrepid Guide has to say on the subject.

Michelle, the founder, writes, “If you’ve ever tried to learn a language, then you’ll know that translating is not always an easy task. There are over 7,000 languages in the world and just as many words and ideas that get ‘lost in translation’ due to differences in grammar and semantics, or even linguistic complications. When a language fails to convey the essence of a word during translation, the word is considered to be ‘untranslatable.’

“There are many terms that … can give us a glimpse into different cultures and belief systems that help us to understand the people who speak these marvelous languages. 

“English is no stranger to borrowing words from other languages and even inventing new ones like hangry, a combination of anger and hunger because you need something to eat asap. Then there is nomophobia, an irrational fear or sense of panic felt when you’ve lost your phone or are unable to use it. … New words have entered English dictionaries at a fast pace, keeping up with the diversity of the English-speaking world. 

“In spite of this, the English language can’t explain everything so succinctly, and yet there are many other languages that have, in just one word. This comprehensive list looks at some of the most beautiful words in different languages that are simply untranslatable into English. …

“From Afrikaans to Zulu, here are 203 of the most beautiful untranslatable words from other languages.

“Afrikaans: Loskop – Used to describe someone who is forgetful, absent-minded and a bit air-headed. It’s literally means, ‘loose (los) head (kop).’

“Albanian: Besa –  An Albanian verb and pledge of honor that means to keep a promise by honoring your word. It’s usually translated as ‘faith”’ or ‘oath.’ …

“Arabic: Taarradhin  (تراض)Taarradhin is the act of coming to a happy compromise where everyone wins. It’s a way of reconciling without anyone losing face. …

“Bengali: Ghodar-dim (ঘোড়ার ডিম) – Pronounced [gho-rar-deem], this Bengali word is a sarcastic term for ‘nothing’ or false hope. It literally means ‘horse’s egg,’ therefore representing something that doesn’t exist. …

“Malay: pisan zapra – the time it takes to eat a banana. …

“Spanish: VacinlandoVacilando is a beautiful Spanish word which describes the journey or experience of travelling, is more important than reaching the specific destination.”

There’s a very long list of untranslatable Swedish. Here’s the first: “Badkruka – A person who feels somewhat hesitant or doesn’t like to swim in an open body of water due to its low temperature. …

“Tagalog (Philippines): GigilGigil is the overwhelming feeling that comes over you when you see something unbearably cute that you want to squeeze or pinch it. Kind of like when your grandma wanted to pinch your cheeks when you were a child. …

“Wagiman (Australia): Murr-ma – This beautiful word comes from Wagiman, an almost extinct Australian Aboriginal language spoken in Australia’s Northern Territory. It describes feeling around in water with your feet to find something. …

“Yaghan (Southern Argentina): Mamihlapinatapei – The word mamihlapinatapai (sometimes also spelled mamihlapinatapei) comes from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego in Southern Argentina. Mamihlapinatapai is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the ‘most succinct word’ and is considered extremely difficult to translate. Mamihlapinatapai is a meaningful, but wordless, exchange between two people, who both desire to initiate something but are hesitant to act on it. It also can refer to a private but non-verbal exchange shared by two people, one where each knows that the other understands and agrees what is being expressed. …

“Yiddish: Trepverter – Literally, ‘staircase words,’ trepverter is a witty comeback you think of only after it’s too late. 

“Zulu: Ubuntu – The act of being kind to others because of one’s common humanity. Ubuntu is frequently translated as ‘I am because we are,’ or ‘humanity towards others.’ “

More at the Intrepid Guide, here. The selections are pretty amazing. Dip in anywhere. A couple of my previous posts on the topic are here and here.

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Photo: Wikipedia.

The problem with crossword puzzles is like the problem with academic entrance exams: they assume a cultural knowledge common to the creators’ identity groups. An older woman who doesn’t read Harry Potter books is not going to know what a young crossword creator is hinting about owls. Recent Latin American immigrants may never have heard of John Paul, George, and Ringo. And it may depend on your family life if you know anything about Marian Anderson, W. E. B. Du Bois, or Bayard Rustin.

Read what African American crossword puzzle creator Portia Lundie has to say about that at the Washington Post.

“I’m a Black woman who creates crossword puzzles. That’s rare, but it shouldn’t be. … Margaret Farrar, who became the founding puzzle editor of the New York Times in 1942, is credited with popularizing daily crosswords. But despite the impressive distinction, she only published the work of a handful of women.

“That’s perhaps unsurprising in a world dominated by White men; when I published my debut 15-by-15 crossword in the New York Times during Black History Month last year, I didn’t know of any crosswords constructed by Black women in America’s crossword gold standard.

“Before last year, I’d made dozens of 9-by-9 grids, or ‘midis,’ for the New York Times crossword app. I knew that my pop culture-themed puzzles were among the most popular on that platform, but I didn’t know what publishing my first crossword on a major newspaper site would be like — that it would open me up to a wave of subculture criticism.

“When it was announced that the Times would feature a week of Black constructors for Black History Month, there were myriad opinions on popular crossword blogs: ‘I prefer puzzles to be fun, not dry activist treatises that promote political ideology,’ wrote one commenter in response to the word ‘REPARATIONS’ in a puzzle by Erik Agard. …

“Yet, finally, I found some relief. ‘Must admit to knowing very little about Marcus Garvey. … Thanks to crosswords … for leading me there,’ one enthusiast said. When it came to learning the name of a horse racing champion or their jockey, I was more like this last commenter — excited that a puzzle introduced me to something new. This attitude, while seemingly compatible with a love for testing your trivial knowledge, is actually rare in the world of crossword critics.

“The experience came with other revelations. My dad worked for his uncle’s newspaper in Guyana when he was a teen, reading submissions and judging the crossword competition. But he didn’t tell me about his experience with crosswords until after mine was published in the Times. He revealed he was ’embarrassed’ that he wasn’t as good at crosswords when he immigrated to America. Turns out, I was robbed of a chance to learn about crosswords at a young age in part because crossword culture does not encourage learning — rather, it rewards already knowing.

“I ended up being introduced to crosswords in my early 20s while dating a constructor. Of course, I had attempted them before, but no one ever walked me through the rules. [For example] studying words that are used much more in crosswords than real life — words like ‘ESTOP’ and ‘STE’ and ‘ERE,’ which are usually used for their vowel placements. …

“I ultimately used practice, dictionary obsession and occasional cheating to get better. Constructing and cluing my own crosswords made me even better at recognizing the patterns — not to mention, it allowed me to assert my particular voice and trivial knowledge of 1990s cartoon characters.

“But most crosswords, I’ve found, still reflect the majority of creators. Like so many other hallmarks of culture, crosswords as we know them were standardized by a profound woman, yet the authority on language still seems to be in the hands of a few White men. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as a view from nowhere, and I’m glad to play a small role in giving crossword enthusiasts a view from someone who isn’t White, and isn’t a man.”

More at the Post, here.

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Photo: Asortymenta Kimnata.
People are working ’round the clock to save Ukraine’s museum collections.

Everyone is doing their part. You have probably read about groups working to transfer zoo animals from Ukraine to a safer country. In today’s story, we learn what Ukraine’s museum workers are doing.

Lisa Korneichuk at Hyperallergic interviews the founders of Museum Crisis Center on their work to safeguard museum staff and save Ukraine’s cultural heritage.

“Many art and cultural monuments in Ukraine fall victim to Russia’s full-scale invasion along with civilians. [Russian] troops have damaged libraries, churches, and a mosque, and shelled local historical museums in Chernihiv, Okhtyrka, Ivankiv, an art museum, architectural monuments in Kharkiv, and many more. As of this writing, they dropped a 500-kilo bomb on the Donetsk Regional Drama Theatre in Mariupol, where over a thousand people were hiding from the shelling. 

While the Ukrainian governmental institutions are focused on saving the national art collections, local heritage and contemporary art remain vulnerable to the war threat.

“Moreover, museum teams in the region often risk their lives staying in the war zones to guard exhibits. To save overlooked Ukrainian heritage from vanishing, local citizens, cultural workers, and NGOs organize independent initiatives and evacuate art that has fewer chances to survive the war. 

“On March 3, Olha Honchar, director of Lviv museum ‘The Territory of Terror‘ asked on Facebook if there were any funds supporting Ukrainian artists and museums in wartime. She later updated her post: ‘Meanwhile, we start making such a fund ourselves.’ In partnership with the team of the NGO Insha Osvita, Olha launched Museum Crisis Center, a grassroots initiative aimed at helping museum workers in the emergency regions and evacuating artworks. …

“The main task of the center was the rapid financial and organizational support of museum workers, many of whom found themselves face to face with the war and without a means to support themselves. The center has to look for ways to get around long bureaucratic processes to aid those who need it immediately.

Hyperallergic spoke to the Museum Crisis Center co-founders Olha Honchar and Alyona Karavai over Zoom about the balance between legal requirements and efficiency in times of war and their critical stances on international humanitarian institutions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hyperallergic: Tell us exactly what your organization is doing?

Olha Honchar: We have offices in Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv [cities in the west of Ukraine]. We joined our efforts and found more people to launch the Museum Crisis Center, or the Museum Emergency. I coordinate quick support for museum workers in war-torn areas that are under attack. We provide donations for basic things, like food, water, medicine. Many museum workers haven’t received salaries, their expenses increased. Our goal is to ensure that these people can survive the war. …

“We are developing an efficient algorithm for our work because within the bureaucratic Ukrainian system, it’s quite difficult to respond to people’s needs quickly. Everything is designed for a long bureaucracy. But in many regions we are working with there are no accountants, the treasury is bombed, or the culture department is not operating. Therefore, the only way to help is to send money directly on a personal card. Our task is to make it transparent and convince donors that help is received by those who need it.

“The next step will be the reconstruction of museums and infrastructure, but these are large-scale things. At the moment it is crucial to support teams and people so that there is someone to do the reconstruction later.

H: You are also involved in the evacuation of works, focusing on grassroots initiatives and art projects that will be the last to come to the attention of government agencies for cultural heritage.

Alyona Karavai: Or won’t come at all. The other day we met with the Minister of Culture and they said that they were focused on objects that are defined as being ‘of cultural value’ under Ukrainian law, i.e. objects that are 50 years old and older. Their primary mission is to save large national collections. Thus, they are unable to help even the small state museums which they have under their control. Grassroots initiatives and contemporary art are generally beyond their sphere of influence. We [NGO ‘Insha Osvita’] evacuate works from artists’ studios, private collections, and art centers. 

H: How often are you asked for help and do you carry out any selection of works?

AK: There is no selection. We help everyone we can. We’ve received 17 requests for assistance, so far we’ve fulfilled six. One request was from Mariupol, but it was clear that we could no longer help there. There are areas where we are powerless. …

OH: We help museums that we have personal contacts with. Our monitoring team includes museum workers [and] directors of centers, who call each other and gather information about needs. It is very important for us to do this through proven contacts because now there are many suspicious situations, fake news.

“People are afraid to say what they have in museum collections because it is unclear for what purpose this information can be gathered. That’s why we rely on the trusted network and work through the close contacts I have made during my career, including as the director of the ‘Territory of Terror.’ …

H: How do you evacuate artworks?

AK: We have a few volunteers on the ground. There are some people in Kyiv, in Odessa who help to evacuate artworks by buses. We’ve been looking for trucks. It takes a while to find any, we are not a transport company, we have never done that before. There were moments when we found a car and then it dropped [out] at the last minute. The situation on the roads is changing fast. So if we were able to use a route yesterday, it does not mean that we can go there tomorrow.”

More at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Hyperallergic.
The print of Montaukett Indian Stephen Taukus (Talkhouse) is by Shinnecock artist Norman Smith. Seen here at Hildreth’s Whole Home Goods store on Main Street in Southampton, Long Island, New York.

Ever since indigenous tribes experienced First Contact with Europeans, the newcomers’ culture has run roughshod over the folks who had thousands of years of history here. The only positive thing about the way things are in the present time is that we are hearing more about it. You have to bring wrongs to light before you can start doing something better.

From Long Island, New York, Shinnecock tribal member Jeremy Dennis writes at Hyperallergic that his tribe’s “continued presence as a sovereign nation has been slowly rendered invisible by neighbors in the Hamptons.”

Wouldn’t I love to see “land recognition” statements before every Long Island party! And I know some who might be up for it.

Dennis writes, “The people of the Shinnecock Indian Nation of Eastern Long Island in New York State can trace their presence on their land back more than ten thousand years. Shinnecock’s claim is evident through Clovis Projectile Points from the Paleo-Indian Period (15,000–3,500 BCE).

“By 1000 BCE, Shinnecock people and other local tribal communities expressed themselves through clay pottery designs, wood sculptures, and wampum shell/bone beadwork. With the arrival of Europeans, Indigenous artisans incorporated richly colored cloth, glass beads, and blankets into their crafts and regalia. In the early 20th century, Shinnecock artisans loaded their wagons with baskets, caned chairs, beaded moccasins, embroidered table linens, eel traps, corn and herb mortars, duck decoys, wooden spoons, and scrub brushes, and sold them in nearby white communities.

“For thousands of years, and hundreds of years after first contact, Shinnecock artisans and other local tribal communities were best known for their wampum manufacturing and jewelry making. Wampum is manufactured by harvesting and shaping clamshells found only along saltwater sources from New Jersey to the Canadian coastline. …

“After 30 years of contact with European colonists, the demand for wampum waned, and the colonists came to value only Indigenous land and labor. By the 20th century, the historic trove of countless wampum beads, made individually by hand, were discarded — mistaken as gaudy jewelry, as Chief Harry Wallace of Unkechaug in modern-day Mastic Beach described during a public presentation at Guild Hall in 2021. …

“Walking through the East End [of the Hamptons], residents and tourists can find the only acknowledgment of Shinnecock people on Southampton’s Village Seal, which depicts a sole Indian and a mass of Europeans arriving on their boats.

“Following the first moment of contact in 1640, in which Shinnecock’s Sachem Nowedonah and other advisors greeted the English, Shinnecock people were understood as friendly neighbors and vital to European colonists’ early survival and industry. Building trust and friendship with the English quickly turned into the English swindling land from Shinnecock and other Indigenous communities on Long Island. Through deceit, insurmountable debt, threats of violence, and Shinnecock signature forgeries, the Shinnecock Nation alone illegally lost more than four thousand acres of its homeland. With the loss of land came the loss of natural resources, places to live, and means of survival. …

“Since the early 1700s, colonists recognized the real estate potential of this idyllic landscape. … This is why the arts are vital to our survival. We are defiant by sustaining our traditional storytelling, dance, beadwork, and wampum manufacturing, along with newer art forms, such as digital photography, videography, and painting, among many other mediums.

“Despite constant hardships, Shinnecock people have prioritized cultural expression through the generations. Artists such as Charles Bunn, Wickham Hunter, Norman Smith, Edward Terry, Dennis King, and Chuck Herman Quinn have found employment and opportunities as they’ve carried on carving and beadwork traditions, and their artworks and names will live on forever in those objects. Later generations of Shinnecock artists, including Denise Silva-Dennis, David Bunn Martine, and Herbert Randall, have explored self-representation in the arts as a means to challenge the stereotypes and caricatures of Shinnecock people from pre-contact times to the present.

“In recent years, Shinnecock artists have received support and recognition through programs such as the Gather series at Guild Hall and artwork acquisitions. The Parrish Art Museum, for example, now has two photos by artist and photographer Herbert Randall, though they were acquired decades after their original creation.

“For many years, Shinnecock art and cultural objects could be viewed at the Shinnecock Cultural Center & Museum, opened in 2001, on the reservation in Southampton — but the museum has been closed since 2017. … The lack of spaces showcasing Shinnecock art represents a need for new Indigenous-led art spaces and transformation in museum structures and collections to truly represent the East End community.”

More at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Guillaume Armspach.
France’s Culture Pass is bringing more young people into the store, L’Emile’s owner said.

France is experimenting with giving free money to kids to spend on culture. Most are buying media they already like, not high art, but maybe that’s OK.

Aurelien Breeden presents the controversy at the New York Times. “When the French government launched a smartphone app that gives 300 euros (about $348) to every 18-year-old in the country for cultural purchases like books and music, or exhibition and performance tickets, most young people’s impulse wasn’t to buy Proust’s greatest works or to line up and see Molière.

“Instead, France’s teenagers flocked to manga.

“ ‘It’s a really good initiative,’ said Juliette Sega, who lives in a small town in southeastern France and has used €40 (about $47) to buy Japanese comic books and ‘The Maze Runner,’ a dystopian novel. …

“As of this month, books represented over 75 percent of all purchases made through the app since it was introduced nationwide in May — and roughly two-thirds of those books were manga, according to the organization that runs the app, called the Culture Pass.

“The French news media has written of a ‘manga rush,‘ fueled by a ‘manga pass‘ — observations that came via a slightly distorted lens, since the app arrived just as theaters, cinemas and music festivals, emerging from pandemic-related restrictions, had less to offer. And manga were already wildly popular in France.

“But the focus on comic books reveals a subtle tension at the heart of the Culture Pass’s design, between the almost total freedom it affords it young users — including to buy the mass media they already love — and its architects’ aim of guiding users toward lesser-known and more highbrow arts. …

“Teenagers can buy physical goods from bookstores, record shops and arts supply or instrument stores. They can purchase tickets to movie showings, plays, concerts or museum exhibits. And they can sign up for dance, painting or drawing classes.

“Noël Corbin, a Culture Ministry official who oversees the project, said the pass gave France’s newly minted adults a way of looking up nearby cultural offerings — the app has a geolocation feature — and encouraged them to indulge their cultural passions.

“But it also uses incentives to push teenagers toward new, more challenging art forms, he said. … Those include recommendation lists curated by Culture Pass staff members and by popular artists and celebrities, as well as access to V.I.P. events, like a live-streamed concert at the Soulages Museum in southern France and a behind-the-scenes look at the Avignon theater festival. …

“Jean-Michel Tobelem, an associate professor at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne who specializes in the economics of culture, said that it was a laudable effort but that it would largely benefit the mainstream media. …

“There is nothing wrong with pop music or blockbusters, he stressed, acknowledging that ‘you can enter Korean culture through K-Pop and then discover that there is a whole cinema, a literature, painters and composers that go with it.’ But Tobelem said that he was unconvinced that the no-strings-attached approach of the Culture Pass would do that. …

“Naza Chiffert, who runs two independent bookstores in Paris, said the Culture Pass had already had a positive impact on her business. ‘Getting young people who read but who are more used to Amazon or big-box stores to come to us isn’t easy,’ she said, but now she has teenagers in her stores every day.

“Still, some worry that the pass will be a financial windfall for people from privileged backgrounds while doing little to help others expand their cultural horizons. …

“Opponents accuse Macron of throwing cash at young people to court their vote before next year’s presidential election and choosing an unregulated approach instead of funding existing cash-strapped outreach programs, like those run by youth community centers, that broaden access to culture in a more structured way.

“France’s Culture Ministry counters that it plans to introduce the pass to middle-school students, first in a teacher-managed classroom setting, and gradually increasing amounts of autonomy and money, until students reach 18. It also says the pass enables cultural institutions to reach young audiences, which are usually hard to attract, directly on their smartphones. …

“Gabriel Tiné, an 18-year-old osteopathy student in Paris, has spent over €200 from his pass at Citeaux Sphère, a Parisian record store, where he and a friend were thumbing through vinyls on a recent afternoon. … Tiné said he liked the idea, especially the ability to splurge on musical instruments or art classes.

“ ‘I wouldn’t say no to attending a jazz concert or something like that,’ Tiné said, although he added that the app hadn’t enticed him to buy those tickets.”

More at the Times, here.

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Photo: Library of Congress.
Shanghai in the 1930s.

Something worth remembering as the need for asylum in our world grows every year, is that Shanghai accepted many Jewish refugees in the 1930s, where they joined an already thriving community of Jewish immigrants from Baghdad.

And as most immigrants do, these transplants made valuable contributions to their new country. Today’s story is about one such contribution in Shanghai: an unusual ballet.

Susan Blumberg-Kason writes at the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Jews in Shanghai have been the subject of many memoirs and novels. … Kirsty Manning’s The Song of Jade Lily (2018) and Rachel DeWoskin’s Someday We Will Fly (2019) are two recent novels that tell stories of Jewish refugees who fled to the Chinese city, one of the only places in the world that didn’t require papers back then.

“Other books have told of a Jewish community in Shanghai before the refugees arrived. Taras Grescoe’s Shanghai Grand (2016) and Jonathan Kaufman’s The Last Kings of Shanghai (2020) center around Baghdadi Jewish families like the Sassoons and Kadoories, families that arrived in Shanghai a century before the onset of World War II. …

“Judaism is not a monolithic culture, as the different communities in Shanghai before and during the war show. Besides the refugees and the Baghdadi businesspeople, Shanghai was also home to Jews in the performing arts. Very little has been written about their contributions to Shanghai before the Japanese took over most of the city in 1937.

“These contributions centered around two people: Russian Jewish composer Aaron Avshalomov and American Jewish theater producer Bernardine Szold Fritz. …

“Avshalomov left Russia to study medicine in Zürich before the Bolshevik Revolution. … But by the end of the 1910s, he had decided to leave medicine and the US, and pursue a career in music. He moved to Shanghai.

“At the time, customs in this port city were not administered by Chinese officials, nor was it managed by French, British, or American authorities, all of which held local concessions. Because of these loose arrangements, Shanghai became a refuge for anyone seeking a new home. It attracted Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution and Jews escaping pogroms. In Shanghai, Avshalomov worked with other Jewish musicians.

“Bernardine Szold Fritz was a Jewish actress-turned-journalist who fled three husbands before the age of 30, arriving in Shanghai in 1929 to marry her fourth husband, an American silver broker. Born in Peoria, Illinois, she had acted at Chicago’s Little Theatre before moving to New York and then Paris. …

“In Shanghai, Bernardine started a salon, bringing together Chinese and foreign writers, artists, musicians, and actors. In early 1933, she invited Avshalomov and learned that he had written a ballet, The Soul of the Ch’in, while living in Peking in 1925–’26. The ballet had been performed in Portland, Oregon, in the late ’20s, but had yet to be produced in China.

“Suddenly Bernardine envisioned a new project that inspired her to think beyond her living room. She convinced Avshalomov that the two of them together could produce his ballet right there in Shanghai. Not unfamiliar with the dance world, she was friendly with Ruth Page, the American ballerina, and her partner, Harald Kreutzberg, a German pioneer in modern dance.

“Avshalomov’s experience in China — he had already lived there for almost 15 years — and Bernardine’s theatrical background allowed the duo to bring a ballet to Shanghai that would appeal to all arts enthusiasts, both Chinese and expat. Bernardine also tapped into her connections in Shanghai’s financial, political, and artistic communities. She and Avshalomov knew members of the influential Soong family, including Madame Chiang Kai-shek (or Soong Mei-ling) and Madame Sun Yat-sen (or Soong Ching-ling), both avid patrons of the arts. The performance ran on May 21, 1933, at 9:15 p.m. at the new Grand Theatre. …

The Soul of the Ch’in was possibly the first Chinese ballet performed on a grand scale in China. … The event was even more remarkable because the cast of dancers was all Chinese, as were the set designers, dramaturge, and stage manager. In fact, the only foreigners on the crew were the costume designer and the person managing the lights.”

More at the Los Angeles Review of Books, here. There’s a full description of the ballet’s rather wild plot.

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Photo: National Geographic for Disney+/Peter Kragh.
Baby beluga. Belugas are the only whale that can use their lips to form different shapes to communicate.

Many of us pay more attention to oceans in the summer as that is the time we go swimming, fishing, or boating in oceans. It’s the time we suddenly start talking about sightings of Great White Sharks or a deadly Portuguese Man-of-War. It’s when my surfer grandchildren report on huge fish they say are nibbling their feet, probably striped bass.

So today I want to share a story about ocean royalty, whales. It’s from the environmental radio show Living on Earth.

“On Earth Day 2021, National Geographic released Secrets of the Whales, a video documentary miniseries that seeks to unravel the secrets of whale behavior and understand whale cultures of orcas, humpbacks, narwhals, belugas, and sperm whales. National Geographic Explorer and wildlife photographer Brian Skerry joins host Bobby Bascomb to talk about the experience of filming this epic project and the breathtaking complexity of whale societies. …

“BASCOMB: A theme that comes up again and again in this series is culture: that whales have distinct cultures. And not just between different species of whales, but between different pods or families. …

“SKERRY: You’re absolutely right. When I created this, I saw this as a game changer that the latest and greatest science was revealing that these charismatic ocean animals are showing behaviors that are really cultures, not unlike humans. My friend, Dr. Shane Gero, who’s a sperm whale biologist, he defines it this way. He says behavior is what we do, culture is how we do it.

“So for example, most humans eat food with utensils, that would be behavior, but whether you use knives and forks or chopsticks, that is culture. So what we see in whales, you know, you might have a family of Orca that live in New Zealand, and their preference for ethnic food is stingrays. And they figured out how to eat those there. And the ones in the Norwegian Arctic, like to eat herring, and they figured out how to predate on herring. And the ones in Patagonia like seal pups, and they are the only ones in the world who have that strategy. They not only figured out this stuff, which is culture, but they pass it on to their children.

So they are not only teaching their offspring the skills that they will need to survive, but they’re teaching them their ancestral traditions, the things that matter to them.

“Whales have unique dialects. Sperm whales that Shane studies in the Eastern Caribbean, he’s identified about 24 families that all speak the same dialect or language, and they belong to a clan. But they don’t intermingle with other sperm whales that might come into those waters that speak another language. …

“BASCOMB: And during your time in New Zealand with orcas there, there was a moment in the series where you were invited to share in the spoils of their hunt. Can you tell us about that experience?

“SKERRY: I can. This was certainly one of the most extraordinary moments of my career of four decades of exploring the ocean. We worked in 24 locations collectively for this series worldwide over three years. And I had just come from six weeks in the Canadian Arctic and I had about 10 days in New Zealand. I was working with a researcher Dr. Ingrid Visser, who is the orca expert, lives in New Zealand, understands these animals. … We drove three hours to get there, got in the boat, went out, found the orca, they were hunting in shallow water. I got in the water and started swimming towards them. And lo and behold, here is this adult female swimming towards me with a stingray actually hanging out of her mouth. My mind is on overload now, I’m thinking, I can’t believe this. And then she drops it. …

“I swim down to the bottom and I knelt on the sandy floor next to the dead stingray just laying there. And then out of the corner of my right eye, I see this orca coming back, and she swings behind my back, I lose sight of her for a moment. And then she emerges on the left side of my view, she swings around directly in front of me.

“And now we’re staring at each other with a stingray between us. And she’s looking at me and looking at the ray looking at me looking at the ray as if to say, ‘Well, are you going to eat that?’ And when I don’t go for it, then she very gently just bends over, picks it up in her mouth and lifts it up in front of me. And then she turns and begins sharing her food with another member of her family. …

“BASCOMB: This series also documents the formation of a surprising cross species adoption between lost Narwhal, a youth, and a pod of beluga whales. …

“SKERRY: Yeah, that’s a really special situation. … I think it speaks to the empathy and the accepting nature of these beluga whale families. I mean, clearly, they know that that’s not one of their own. But yet they saw this narwhal that was alone, and just made it part of the family. They adopted it as one of their own. And, I mean, how wonderful is that?

“I think this is one of the messages that I’ve sort of taken away. You know, I spent three years working on this. As I’ve processed a lot of these moments that we witness in the series, it occurred to me that I’ve been reminded of things that I already knew, and that is that community matters, that family matters, that the whales make time for each other.

“A sperm whale for example, these are matrilineal societies led by the older, wiser females, they spend most of their life in the deep ocean foraging for squid. Life in the ocean is hard, but yet every day or every couple of days, they make time to come together and socialize. You see them rolling around and enjoying each other’s company, reaffirming their family bonds. And for me to reflect back on this was to be reminded of how important social creatures are, that humans and whales can’t do it alone. We need each other, we need family, we need community, and that that alone can bring us the greatest joy in life.”

Lots more whale cultures described at Living on Earth, here.

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Image: Thumy Phan for
Gastro Obscura.
Among Valentin Vodnik’s efforts to build up the Slovene language in the 18th century was publishing a cookbook, though he couldn’t cook.

The need to preserve languages and cultures grows more urgent as the world becomes more interconnected. But from today’s article we learn that even before we were all connected, there were creative efforts to keep local languages from dying out.

Kaja Seruga has the report at Atlas Obscura.

“Straddling the imaginary border between the Balkans and Central Europe, Slovenia is home to two million citizens united by a common language. But this wasn’t always the case. For about six hundred years, the Slovene lands were the domain of the Habsburgs, with the occasional appearance by the French, Italians, Hungarians, and Serbs.

“The Slovene language — and with it the core of Slovene identity — should by all rights have disappeared long ago, subsumed by the much stronger languages and political powers surrounding it. The language survived thanks to the efforts of many people, from the 16th-century protestants who first wrote it down to the 18th- and 19th-century intellectuals who coaxed it out of the church and spread it among the people. Among their arsenal of weapons: a cookbook, wielded by one relentlessly determined priest.

“Valentin Vodnik was born in 1758 near Ljubljana, today the capital of Slovenia and then part of the Habsburg empire. He was a man of boundless energy, curiosity, and drive: Besides his work as a priest and later a high-school teacher and headmaster, he was fluent in half a dozen languages, wrote some of the first Slovene poetry, published the first Slovene newspaper, and began corresponding with intellectuals in Slovene. Vodnik’s mission was popularizing and elevating the reputation of the language at a time when educated Slovenes mostly spoke German, considering their native tongue to be the vernacular of poor illiterate farmers, unfit for polite society and incapable of expressing complex ideas.

“ ‘I see him as a quixotic figure, someone who didn’t let reality get in the way of his idealism,’ says Dr. Andreja Legan Ravnikar, a linguist focusing on the history of Slovene. ‘He never gave up — the newspaper almost bankrupted him, but he went on to write technical books on everything from mining to midwifery, the first grammar book in Slovene, and the first dictionary.’

“Vodnik was part of the Zois Circle, a group of intellectuals gathered around baron Žiga Zois, a central figure of the Slovene Enlightenment period who poured his wealth into the fostering of Slovene language and national identity.

“After the first book in the Slovene language, a catechism, was published in 1550, written Slovene remained bound to religious writing and was completely disconnected from the spoken language by Vodnik’s time. He saw the dominance of German and strong influences of Italian, Hungarian, and Serbian in various regions as forces that threatened to disintegrate the language into mutually intelligible dialects. …

“As compulsory public education was introduced in the Habsburg empire, the Zois Circle saw their opportunity to modernize and expand written Slovene into other genres.

They were trying to break out of a Catch-22: There was no secular writing in Slovene due to the dearth of Slovene readership, but there could be no Slovene readership until they had something to read.

“And so they wrote — everything from plays and poetry to textbooks and technical manuals — conquering new linguistic territories along the way. Much of this work fell to Vodnik, whose command of the language made him a linguistic role model for his contemporaries.

“Although he was a man of many talents, Vodnik had probably never cooked a meal in his life. Yet, in 1799, he published the first cookbook in the Slovene language, creatively titled The Cookbook. …

“ ‘There isn’t a single traditional Slovene recipe in there,’ says Dr. Janez Bogataj, a leading Slovene food ethnologist. ‘He wanted to educate people and offer them a better sort of cuisine, while also proving that the Slovene language is capable of expressing everything that other languages can.’

“The cookbook’s foreword is half a lecture on the importance of healthy food and half a linguistic manifesto. Vodnik makes an impassioned plea for finding common ground among Slovenia’s disparate dialects: ‘We must find the Slovene words scattered around the land and assemble a pure Slovene language. Experience has taught me that few things don’t have a proper Slovene name somewhere … Why beg words from others when I can find them at home? Are we never going to mend our own language?’

“Vodnik was true to his word: He was a purist, mercilessly hacking away at Germanisms that Slovenes had relied on for centuries and replacing them with local expressions collected with the help of informants from different regions. Failing that, he would turn to old Slovene expressions, or appropriate one from another Slavic language. This was not a case of making up a language — though he did also create a number of words from scratch as a last resort — but of carefully collecting and curating a vocabulary out of an abundance of dialectical words, creating a standard language that all Slovenes could understand. …

“Today, Slovenes speak around 50 local dialects. … But standard Slovene gives us shared words to fall back on, as well as a language used in politics, academia, and literary art. A long lineage of intellectuals worked through the centuries to protect and nurture the fledgling Slovene language, but few were as prolific or as prescient as Vodnik. Not one for false modesty, he signed the foreword to his cookbook, as well as other works, as Vodník, the added accent mark transforming his name to mean ‘leader.’ After his death in 1819 Vodnik became the patron saint of the Slovene language and a hero to the nascent national movement that gained momentum after the Spring of Nations swept through Europe in 1848.”

It’s true that when efforts like this increase nationalism, the results are not always peaceful. Ideally, preserving languages means that marginalized cultures existing in dominant ones can have a rich life of their own and create not friction but appreciation among others.

More at Atlas Obscura, here.

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Photo: Daniella Zalcman
Pele gets ready to play the ukulele, an instrument brought to Hawaii in the 1800s by Portuguese immigrants.

Saving a language, according to a recent article in Smithsonian magazine, involves more than learning to speak it. A language is an expression of a culture, a way of life, and speakers must appreciate all of that if the language is to survive.

Alia Wong writes about a married couple who have been putting in the work to see that both the Hawaiian language and the Hawaiian culture get passed down to new generations.

“Pelehonuamea Suganuma and Kekoa Harman were bright-eyed high schoolers in Honolulu when they first crossed paths, in the 1990s. The two were paired for a performance — a ho‘ike, as such shows are known in Hawaiian. Both teenagers had a passion for hula and mele (Hawaiian songs and chants), and they liked performing at the school they’d chosen to attend — Kamehameha High School, part of a 133-year-old private network that gave admissions preference to students of Hawaiian Polynesian ancestry. Still, one part of Hawaiian culture remained frustratingly out of reach for Pele and Kekoa: the language.

“Over many generations, the native tongue of the islands had been systematically eliminated from everyday life, and even the Kamehameha Schools weren’t able to bring it back. Part of it was a lack of interest — students seemed to prefer learning Japanese, Spanish or French. But more important, Hawaii’s educators generally hadn’t yet figured out how to teach Hawaiian vocabulary and grammar, or give eager youngsters like Pele and Kekoa opportunities to immerse themselves in Hawaiian speech.

“A few years later, Pele and Kekoa found themselves together again. Both of them enrolled in a brand-new Hawaiian language program at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. The two former schoolmates became part of a pioneering cohort that was innovating ways to bring Hawaiian back to life. They helped develop some of the first truly successful Hawaiian language programs throughout the state’s islands. Along the way, they started dating, got married and had four children, and raised them to speak fluent Hawaiian.

“Today, Pele teaches at a Hawaiian-language K-12 school and Kekoa teaches Hawaiian language and culture at the college they both attended. At home, their family speaks almost exclusively Hawaiian. The Harmans are proud of the revival they helped carry out in just one generation. But Unesco still lists the language as critically endangered, and there’s a long way to go before it’s spoken again as a part of everyday life. ‘There’s a false sense of security sometimes,’ says Pele, ‘that our language is coming back.’ …

“For centuries, Hawaiian had been an oral tongue — one steeped in mo‘olelo (story, legend, history). But after missionaries helped create a written version of the language, the local people took to it. They established more than 100 Hawaiian-language newspapers, according to some records. By 1834, more than 90 percent of Hawaiians were literate — up from virtually zero just 14 years earlier.

“Yet these strides in Hawaiian literacy were soon overtaken by efforts to erase Hawaiian culture altogether. American tycoons had also come to the islands, planting lucrative crops like sugar cane and coffee. …

“Outsiders helped to phase out the Hawaiian system of governance. They replaced traditional foods like taro with rice and imported wheat. They started issuing fines for performing hula, the ancient Hawaiian form of dance and expression. And as the 19th century was winding down, the Americans overthrew Queen Lili‘uokalani, Hawaii’s last monarch. They annexed the archipelago as a territory in 1898. By the time Hawaii became a state, in 1959, fewer than 2,000 people could speak Hawaiian fluently. …

“But there were still people left who remembered. Both Pele and Kekoa were close to their great-grandmothers — women born in the early 1900s, who spoke some Hawaiian, even though they were raised to think of their mother tongue as inferior to English. The great-grandmothers were the last members of each family to retain any fluency. …

“When Kekoa was a kid, his grandmother, who passed away a few years ago, used to take him to Hawaiian musical and hula performances. She’d make leis for tourist-targeted luaus, and he’d help her gather and string the flower garlands. ‘I loved going to those events,’ Kekoa says. …

“1997 was the year the Hawaiian legislature mandated a new program at the Hilo campus. It was called Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani, named after [a] woman from an ancient Hawaiian dynasty who was the governor of Hawaii during the mid-1800s. She was a defender of Hawaiian culture — although she came from a wealthy family and understood English, she lived in a traditional grass-roofed house and spoke only Hawaiian. The new program at Hilo had the motto O ka ‘ōlelo ke ka‘ā o ka Mauli: ‘Language is the fiber that binds us to our cultural identity.’

“Enrolling in this new program, Pele and Kekoa spoke Hawaiian as much as they could outside of class to become fluent. They ‘talked story’ with their professors in the hallways. Their teachers hosted little get-togethers every week. … At these gatherings, the students fumbled with the language over card games, with music in the background and snacks on the table. ‘That’s how we got comfortable,’ Pele says. …

“As the Harmans see it, Hawaiian will survive only if people value the culture around it. After all, Hawaiian doesn’t have the same marketing value as a massive international language like Spanish or Mandarin. Hawaiian is a language that describes local geographical features and captures an ancient worldview. … ‘Now we have a generation of Hawaiian speakers, but if we don’t also teach them [old Hawaiian] behaviors and beliefs, that fluency will only go so far,’ Kekoa says. ‘Hawaiian isn’t just a language but a way of life.’ ” More at Smithsonian, here.

And in a related article from today’s Associated Press, note that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe has prioritized Covid-19 vaccine for elderly speakers of Dakota and Lokata languages, here.

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My husband and I are on our own for the first time at Thanksgiving. We ordered turkey takeout, but I did make the apple pie.

I want to avoid perpetuating any Thanksgiving mythology but at the same time write about the enduring appeal of a universal idea — people with differences breaking bread together.

We now know that our traditional Thanksgiving story is both inaccurate and hurtful to descendants of the indigenous people who first encountered the Pilgrims. As you can read at the Christian Science Monitor, here, the New York Times, here, and the Smithsonian, the story of colonial contact is considerably more heartbreaking than uplifting.

This knowledge has been discussed widely for quite a few years now, and yet there are still schools where children make feather headdresses and Facebook friends who post Pilgrims and Wampanoag chiefs holding hands. So what is the appeal, apart from the spin and wishful thinking of conquerors?

Pretty sure it’s the breaking-bread-together part.

I remember my sense of gratitude and privilege (the good kind of privilege) when I was invited to my friends’ Passover seder. How I loved hearing about the words that are said over all the traditional dishes and the history associated with them. I loved learning that I shouldn’t quiz my friend’s father on his WW II experience because “we focus on peaceful topics at Passover.” How else would a person raised Episcopalian gain this interesting knowledge about cultural differences?

Even at non-Covid Thanksgiving meals, you know, we often break bread among differences. Friends regularly say they hope they can keep distant relatives off religion and politics and just focus on things everyone enjoys in common. Because among differences, there are always commonalities.

All of which is my roundabout way of sharing my delight in some unusual combinations of dishes ESL students I know are preparing for Thanksgiving. It’s a merging of cultures.

“For Thanksgiving, I’m going to cook baked pork in sweet and sour pineapple and orange sauce, turkey, Russian salad, and Italian pasta.”

“For Thanksgiving, I plan to cook baked pork with pineapple, cranberry, and ginger sauce. Mashed potatoes and fruit salad.”

“I plan on cooking turkey, rice, pork, and Salut bacalao [Puerto Rican fish stew]. The drink will be Coquito [coconut eggnog].”

“I plan on cooking turkey, potato salad, chicken lasagna, and fruit.”

“I plan to cook turkey, rice, salad, and lasagna. For dessert we will make a brownie and three-milk cake.”

“Our plan for Thanksgiving is to cook a turkey, chicken, rice. And we are going to make a salad.”

Another student told me she usually makes the same things I think of as traditional Thanksgiving dishes but adds corn fritters. This year, she writes, she’s alone and isn’t sure what she’ll make, adding, “The smallest number of people in the home will be best for avoiding Covid-19. I think I’m in the smallest group by myself.”

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Hip-Hop Auction

Photo: Sotheby’s
Salt-N-Pepa’s personal “Push-It” jackets. A portion of Salt’s proceeds will benefit Truth Center Ministries, the Inn (Interfaith Nutrition Network), and Life Camp; a portion of Pepa’s proceeds will benefit Lifebeat and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

I don’t know much about hip-hop, or rap, but I thought it was fascinating that it’s been a part of our culture long enough for a Sotheby’s auction of “historic” memorabilia this month.

As Laird Borrelli-Persson wrote at Vogue, “Until now hip-hop, a global lingua franca, has been in use seemingly everywhere but in auction rooms. That’s set to change next week when, on September 15, Sotheby’s presents its first sale dedicated to the subject.

“The broad spectrum of items on offer — everything from teenage love letters written by Tupac Shakur to graffiti writer Buddy Esquire’s sketchbook — demonstrate that hip-hop has always been a multimedia genre. …

“Though hip-hop is an existing collectible category, it didn’t have an auction ‘home.’ Traditionally, explains [Sotheby’s Cassandra] Hatton, this world has been very focused on specific collecting categories, like cars, jewelry, books, and contemporary art. Hip-hop, she says, ‘is the sum of all of its parts, and if you take a part of it out, it’s not itself anymore.’ …

“ ‘What I think is really important here,’ says [Monica Lynch, former president of Tommy Boy Records], ‘is that the overwhelming majority of the people who are consigning to this auction are the artists and creators themselves, and that they are going to be recognized. … If this expands or brings them a new audience, … that’s a great thing.’ …

“Hip-hop’s influence on fashion is enduring. Lynch recalls being seated at a dinner across from [fashion designer] Karl Lagerfeld in the early 1990s and ‘the only thing he wanted to talk about was TLC.’

“The sale includes items designed and worn by MC Sha-Rock and, spectacularly, Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Push It’ jackets, [also] a number of jackets that were made only for crews or for staff, as in the case of a Carharrt topper with a Shawn Stussy–designed logo made for Tommy Boy employees. …

“Lynch calls attention to the ‘DIY customization’ of many of the pieces, and also to luxury’s ‘strange history with hip-hop.’ (Note Dapper Dan’s Louis Vuitton jacket, circa 1988.)

“ ‘The hip-hop community always adapted,’ she continues. ‘They adopted and adapted. I think Carhartt was pretty shocked when it realized that a huge amount of its customer base was up in Harlem and in the Bronx. Slick Rick was always wearing Clarks Wallabees shoes. I don’t think they were marketing to a Slick Rick, but you know, the hip-hop community took brands that were known with different audiences and flipped them, turned them inside out, and they made them their own.’ …

“The sale will be an introductory experience for some, a nostalgic one for others. Hatton hopes it will be cheering for all. ‘I think something important about hip-hop is that it’s uplifting,’ she says. ‘There are some markets where money is made by making you feel like you’re not good enough, you’re not beautiful enough, or smart enough, or rich enough, or whatever, so the motivation for purchasing certain things is because it will make you look better or smarter or more sophisticated. And hip-hop is very different. It’s very much celebrating who you are and creating something great out of nowhere. That is what to me art is.’ ” More at Vogue.

Forbes reported on how the auction actually turned out, here. According to Jacqueline Schneider, “Five consignors (for lots 12, 36, 80, 81 and 118), with sales totaling $170,226, indicated their intention to donate money to various charities. Sotheby’s itself committed an undisclosed portion of its proceeds to benefit hip-hop programs at the Queens Public Library and Building Beats, a non-profit teaching young people in underserved communities tech literacy and entrepreneurial skills through DJ and music programs.”

At my September 1 post, Hannah commented, “In my anti-racism group one of our members, who studies racism as an academic discipline, has suggested listening –- really listening –- to rap.” I have been trying that.

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