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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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Photo: Department of History, United States Military Academy, West Point
The Persian Empire in 490 BC.

Call me naive, but I can’t help thinking that the enmity of governments obscures what ordinary people in a country are like and the value that their cultural history holds for the people of other nations. Consider ordinary Iranians for a moment and some wondrous aspects of their ancient empire.

Eve MacDonald, a lecturer in Ancient History at Cardiff University, writes at the Conversation, “It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering.

“The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia. …

“In the 6th century BC, Iran was home to the first world empire. The Achaemenids ruled a multicultural superpower that stretched to Egypt and Asia Minor in the west and India and Pakistan in the east. They were the power by which all other ancient empires measured themselves. Their cultural homeland was in the Fars province of modern Iran. The word Persian is the name for the Iranian people based on the home region of the Achaemenids – Pars.

“Some of the richest and most beautiful of the archaeological and historical heritage in Iran remains there. This includes Parsgardae, the first Achaemenid dynastic capital where King Cyrus (c. 590-529BC) laid down the foundations of law and the first declaration of universal rights while ruling over a vast array of citizens and cultures.

“Nearby is the magnificent site of Persepolis, the great palace of the Achaemenid kings and hub of government and administration. Architecturally stunning, it is decorated with relief sculptures that still today leave a visitor in awe.

“When the Achaemenids fell to the armies of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, what followed was great upheaval and also one of the most extraordinary moments in human history. The mixing of Persian and eastern Mediterranean cultures created the Hellenistic Age. …

“With new cities, religions and cultures, this melting pot encouraged the rise of a thriving connectivity that linked urban centres in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Syria. … The great city of Seleucia-on-Tigris/Ctesiphon, just south of Baghdad on the Tigris river in modern Iraq, became the western capital and centre for learning, culture and power for a thousand years.

“Hellenistic rulers gave way to Parthian kings in the 2nd century BC and the … Parthian Empire witnessed growing connectivity between east and west and increasing traffic along the silk routes. Their control of this trade led to conflict with the Romans who reached east to grasp some of the resulting spoils.

“It was also a time of religious transition that not only witnessed the rise of Buddhism, but also a thriving Zoroastrian religion that intersected with Judaism and developing Christianity. In the biblical story of the birth of Christ, who were the three kings – the Magi with their gifts for Jesus – but Persian priests from Iran coming to the side of child messiah, astronomers following the comet. …

“The Sasanians ruled a massive geopolitical entity from 224-751 AD. They were builders of cities and frontiers across the empire including the enormous Gorgan wall. … The wall is a fired-brick engineering marvel with a complex network of water canals running the whole length. It once stood across the plain with more than 30 forts manned by tens of thousands of soldiers.

“The Sasanians were the final pre-Islamic dynasty of Iran. In the 7th century AD the armies of the Rashidun caliphs conquered the Sasanian empire, bringing with them Islam and absorbing much of the culture and ideas of the ancient Iranian world. This fusion led to a flowering of early medieval Islam and, of the 22 cultural heritage sites in Iran that are recognised by UNESCO, the 9th century Masjed-e Jāmé in Isfahan is one of the most stunningly beautiful and stylistically influential mosques ever built.

“This was a thriving period of scientific, artistic and literary output. Rich with poetry that told of the ancient Iranian past in medieval courts where bards sang of great deeds. These are stories that we now believe reached the far west of Europe in the early medieval period. …

“Iranian cultural heritage has no one geographic or cultural home, its roots belong to all of us and speak of the vast influence that the Iranians have had on the creation of the world we live in today. Iran’s past could never be wiped off the cultural map of the world for it is embedded in our very humanity.” More at the Conversation, here.

If you’re interested in more about the ancient culture of Iran, try Jason Elliott’s book Mirrors of the Unseen, reviewed at the Guardian, here. A related, equally fascinating, book is Destiny Disrupted, by Tamim Ansary, here. I learned a lot from those books.

P.S. An Iranian-American journalist I follow has been raising funds for healthcare workers in Iran who are dangerously short of personal protective equipment. Click here.

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Image: Sepúlveda et al/ Project INCA, OPUS Programme/ Sorbonne Université
The Pachacamac idol, long thought to be destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors in 1533, was discovered in 1938.

There are those who think they can destroy whatever it is they don’t like if they have powerful weapons, and the brutal 16th century conquistador Hernando Pizarro was no exception. In this story, it was the Incan culture that supposedly needed to be destroyed. Now archaeologists are reaffirming that subjugation can never completely succeed.

Laura Geggel writes at Live Science, “A basketball-player-size wooden idol that allegedly escaped destruction by the Spanish conquistadors is real — but it may not be quite what people suspected. The statue is even older than thought, and may have been worshipped by the people who came before the Inca.

“And belying the grisly lore that surrounds it, the so-called Pachacamac idol was painted with cinnabar, not drenched in blood, the researchers found. …

“The Western world became aware of the Pachacamac idol when conquistador Hernando Pizarro ordered his followers to destroy it in 1533, asking them to ‘undo the vault where the idol was and break him in front of everyone,’ according to historical sources, the researchers wrote in the study.

“The Inca revered the idol, which was thought to possess the powers of an oracle. The Inca housed it in what is now known as the Painted Temple, located in the Pachacamac archaeological complex near Lima, Peru. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Pachacamac was an Inca sanctuary and a pilgrimage destination.

“However, it now appears that the idol survived the conquistadors. In 1938, an archaeologist found the 7.6-foot-long (2.34 meters) idol, which has a diameter of 5.1 inches (13 centimeters), at the Painted Temple. However, no one knew whether this carved wooden artifact was the idol, or something else.

“To investigate, [Marcela Sepúlveda, a research associate at Sorbonne Université in Paris,] and her colleagues did a carbon-14 analysis and found that the idol dated to about A.D. 760 to 876. … This date suggests that the Wari culture made the idol and that the Pachacamac site was important even before the Inca took over, the researchers said.

“In addition, the researchers wondered if the idol had been painted, like other artifacts from antiquity such as Greek temples and statues. One rumor from the conquistadors suggested that the idol was red, possibly from the blood of sacrifices.

“With the permission of the Pachacamac Site Museum, the researchers took the idol out of its showcase at the museum and analyzed it. …

” ‘We were excited to observe that traces of colors were preserved,’ Sepúlveda said. The idol’s teeth had once been painted white while parts of its headdress had yellow pigment, they found. The researchers also identified red, not from blood but from cinnabar, a mercury mineral. …

“Given that cinnabar isn’t found locally, it’s likely that the idol was painted red intentionally, possibly to show the culture’s economic might and political power, Sepúlveda said. …

“[Patrick Ryan Williams, a curator, professor and head of anthropology at The Field Museum in Chicago, said] ‘further analyses could help clarify the sources of these materials, but this is an excellent starting point for understanding the origins of this important idol, which was worshipped for hundreds of years before the Spanish Conquest at one of Peru’s most important early oracle sites.’ ”

The study was published online January 15 in the journal PLOS ONE. More at Live Science, here.

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Photo: The Providence Journal / David DelPoio
Refugee campers line up for lunch beneath a portrait of George Washington at Camp RYSE in Providence. The camp is specifically targeted to cater to refugee children.

I work with refugees and other immigrants as a volunteer in Providence, and I thought I knew about most of the refugee initiatives there. Then along came a Providence Journal article about a summer camp for refugee kids that reminded me I am still learning.

Kevin G Andrade reports, “If you sit down with Jetu Neema in the Highland Charter School cafeteria this summer, you are likely to get a quick and enthusiastic Swahili lesson.

” ‘Jena laka nani? [What is your name?]’ she asked the Journal reporter at Camp RYSE Tuesday afternoon, before teaching him how to respond. ‘Jena langu nina etwa … [My name is…]’

“Though energetic and friendly, as children tend to be, those at RYSE — an acronym for Refugee Youth Solidarity through Education — all have one thing in common. They are refugees from war, disaster or dictatorship all over the world. …

“Tanzania — which has had a relatively stable government compared with those of its neighbors such as Mozambique, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — has hosted many refugees over the years according to Bienfait Jaigado, a 14-year-old junior camp counselor whose family came to the U.S. after escaping unrest in Burundi about 5 years ago.

” ‘I was little, I did not know why we were coming,’ Jaigado said, a common story among campers who knew only that they and their parents had to leave their homes. … ‘I was getting bullied a lot in school [when I immigrated] because of my skin color and … basically because I was new and did not know the language.’ …

“Jaigado said that when he came to the camp as a camper, it was a cathartic experience that made him want to give other refugee children the same opportunity.

‘All I know from my first days in camp is that I felt welcome,’ he said. ‘In camp, people were respectful of my race and my traditions.’ …

“Beginning in 2011 as the Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring Initiative, the RYSE program’s mission is two-fold, to provide a safe space for refugee children and to catch them up on education they may have missed out on due to the chaos of life. …

“The camp includes classes in the mornings that focus on improving literacy and mathematics skills to prepare the students for entering the next grade level. Yet the courses also make sure to incorporate folklore and history from the dozens of languages, cultures, and nations represented there. …

“RYSE also concentrated on hiring support staff from the communities where the children live to offer additional support to the campers and their families.

” ‘We work with translators from the community,’ said Donia Torabian, the camp’s director of family and community outreach. ‘We try to hire drivers from the community … It is exhausting, but it is work that fills your soul.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: J. J. Williams/Public domain
Hawaiian hula dancers photographed in J. J. Williams’s photo studio, circa 1885. The art form was suppressed for many years but is now celebrated around the world.

I was thinking recently that I’d love to learn some new dance forms. I took lots of ballet as a kid, and I keep reading that dancing is good for your health when you’re older. Essentrics, an exercise program I love, has taught me to focus on moves that are beneficial, not contorted. So what kind of dance would be good? Someone I know teaches salsa. Should I try that?

The following article got me wondering if hula might be good for me.

Ligaya Malones writes at Atlas Obscura about Hawaiʻi’s Merrie Monarch hula festival, “arguably the most prestigious event of its kind.

“Every spring, thousands of hula fans descend upon the Hawaiian town of Hilo and line the bleacher seats at Edith Kanaka’ole stadium. Thousands more across the islands — those unable to make it to Hilo themselves — watch live broadcasts on their televisions or computer screens. All these people are showing up and tuning in for the beloved Merrie Monarch Festival, sometimes referred to as ‘the Olympics of hula.’ …

“The three-day competition is part of several week-long events held throughout Hilo, home of Merrie Monarch since 1963. … Much credit is given to King Kalākaua, the last of Hawaiʻi’s kings, for reclaiming hula’s place in Hawaiian society. He was elected to the throne in the 1870s by the Hawaiian legislature, and often hosted hula-filled celebrations, including at his coronation. Merrie Monarch was Kalākaua’s endearing nickname and it is his contribution to hula that the competition honors every year.

“ ‘It’s electrifying,’ says Robert Ke’ano Ka’upu IV, who grew up in Hilo. Ka’upu has participated in the invitation-only competition for the last 30 years as a spectator, dancer, chanter, costumer, and now as kumu hula. … ‘I don’t get excited like this for any other competition,’ he says.

“During the festival, every inch of a performance is scrutinized. Dancers are evaluated and earn points for the way they enter and exit the stage, their facial expressions, posture, costume, lei, and adornment, says Ka’upu. However, the bulk of scoring is placed on the kumu’s interpretation of a song, known as a mele, and how well dancers interpret their kumu’s vision of the performance.

“To assist in deliberations, every competing group provides judges with a fact sheet that corresponds to each performance. These fact sheets, which are due before the competition, explain everything from a mele’s background to the meaning of the lei that dancers wear ‘so [the judges] get a better understanding of what each halau is doing,’ says Ka’upu. He adds that his halau will submit more than 70 pages of fact sheets to the judging panel for the competition this year. Judges bestow high scores to those who best personify technical excellence, and ultimately the expression of Hawaiian identity through chant and dance. …

“Hawaiian culture existed without the written word until western contact, so Hawaiians passed down knowledge orally and through dance. Through chant and movement, hula narrates place; honors goddesses and gods, such as Pele, goddess of fire; celebrates nature’s surroundings, from birds to waterfalls; and records genealogy and human emotion. ‘Kaulilua,’ for example, is one of Merrie Monarch’s most performed ancient hulas. The mele likens a woman to the island of Kauaʻi’s verdant Mount Waiʻaleʻale. …

“As Western influence grew and Hawaiʻi’s fate approached annexation and eventual U.S. statehood, so did the need for local manpower to fuel its new sugar economy. In 1858, missionaries with a keen interest in sugar’s profits pursued legislation to suppress hula even further, citing lethargy in sugar cane fields, promiscuity, and attrition from Sunday service. Records show a code of conduct published in 1859 required a license for ticketed, public hula performances. Yet hula persisted under the mesh of legal restrictions and moral shaming. Hawaiians still danced, particularly in more rural areas where government oversight trickled, missionary presence was scarce, and police all the more so. ‘Hula was never lost,'” says Dr. Taupouri Tangarō, director of Hawaiian culture and protocols at University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.

For more on the competition and for more-contemporary hula photos, check out Atlas Obscura.

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Photos: Niijang Xyaalas Productions
Actor Tyler York performing in
SGaawaay K’uuna. Actors had to learn a vanishing language in order to understand their lines in this film about one of Canada’s First Nations.

We’ve had a number of posts about vanishing languages, languages spoken by few people because younger generations are choosing to (or be forced to) speak a language used more widely. Nowadays it’s usually English that leads to not only the loss of a native language but the way of life it represents. As Brian Friel said in his play Translations, about the Irish language and culture, “it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of fact.”

Dalya Alberge wrote in March at the Guardian about a new film shot in a disappearing language.

“Plenty of films are somewhat incomprehensible, but a forthcoming movie is in a language that only about 20 people in the world can speak fluently. With subtitles, audiences will be able to understand a feature film titled SGaawaay K’uuna, translated as Edge of the Knife. …

“It is in two dialects of the highly endangered Haida language, the ancestral tongue of the Haida people of British Columbia. It is unrelated to any other language, and actors had to learn it to understand their lines.

“The film is playing an important role in preserving the language, its director Gwaai Edenshaw said. He told the Guardian:

‘I know that, if our language is this far gone, statistically it’s supposed to be over. But that’s not something that we’re willing to accept.’

“The Haida are an Indigenous First Nations community whose traditional territory is Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands), an archipelago of forested islands off the west coast of Canada.

“Edenshaw said most of the fluent Haida speakers were in his Haida Gwaii homeland. … He added that the community generally lives off the sea and makes dugout canoes and houses from local red cedars. Noting that their numbers were ravaged by smallpox and other diseases in the 19th century, he said a former population of tens of thousands has dwindled to a few thousand today. …

“More than 70 local people worked on the production, with Haida speakers taking incidental roles, weavers creating the costumes and other craftspeople making props. … It is part of a wider push to preserve the Haida language, including a new dictionary and recordings of local voices. …

“2019 is Unesco’s Year of Indigenous Languages, ‘to preserve, support and promote’ them worldwide. Mark Turin, associate professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia and a specialist in endangered languages, told the Guardian that about half of up to 7,100 languages worldwide were ‘severely endangered’ and would likely cease to be used as everyday vernaculars by the end of this century unless action is taken. …

“He pointed to recent research that shows a correlation between indigenous language sustainability and decreased youth suicide within indigenous communities: ‘Speaking your indigenous language [has] public health implications.

” ‘This film – which I’ve watched and loved – has done something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, using a feature movie as a process of language revitalisation.’

More here.

Actors in a film based on a legend of the Haida people of British Columbia had to learn the Haida language to understand their lines. The movie has subtitles.

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Photos: Viaggio nei Fori
Special multimedia light shows will be enriching Roman history at the forums of Caesar and Augustus until November 11 this year.

Recently, I was talking to the amazing Margaret, who was diagnosed with my sister’s horrible cancer more than eight years ago and has never had a recurrence. She had just returned from volunteering with a Jesuit refugee organization in Rome and showing her nephew the sights of the city. She described how they were given access to a special Mass in the crypt below St. Peter’s Basilica, where recent archaeological testing suggests that Peter’s bones really were buried.

I thought of Margaret and her nephew as I read this article about a initiative to bring history alive for Rome’s many visitors.

Livia Hengel has a report at Forbes. “Rome is a city filled with cultural heritage. Every building, statue and column has a story to tell, but it takes a vast amount of knowledge to piece together the city’s nearly 2,800-year-old history. … Where do you even begin? …

“From video projections cast upon ancient walls and multimedia light shows to virtual reconstructions revealed through 3D visors, technology is being used to help tell the story of Rome in a more concrete and compelling way.

“A large part of this trend can be attributed to the pioneering work of Paco Lanciano, a Rome-born physicist with a passion for cultural communication and a keen understanding of the learning process. Namely: if you make education fun, it sticks. ‘You need to strike a balance between creating something spectacular to hold an audience’s attention while also helping them learn in the process,’ Mr. Lanciano tells me. …

“Together with Piero Angela, a leading Italian television host and science journalist, Mr. Lanciano designed an immersive multimedia visit of ‘Le Domus Romane’ within Palazzo Valentini over a decade ago – the first time technology was used to enhance an archeological site in the capital. During the virtual tour, visitors can see baths, furnishings and decorations brought to life through digital projections that enhance the archeological site without compromising it. …

“After the success of Palazzo Valentini, Mr. Lanciano and Mr. Angela worked together again to create Viaggio nei Fori, two popular shows that cast the stories of Emperor Augustus and Julius Caesar onto the ancient forums each evening during the summer months. These screenings have become a mainstay of Rome’s summer entertainment and are on view this year from April 21 to November 11 2019.

“Now Mr. Lanciano has turned his attention to an even more ambitious project with Welcome to Rome, a 30-minute introduction to the city, through a stirring film and 3-dimensional models of some of the city’s major landmarks. The show begins thousands of years ago when Rome is home to a handful of tribes scattered across its seven hills and takes the viewer on a journey through the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and then finally the present day. ‘It was quite a challenge to synthesize the story of Rome, but the feedback has been very positive,’ ” says Lanciano.

More at Forbes, here.

This summer’s light shows in Rome are available in eight languages: Italian, English, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese. (Gives you an idea of where the city expects most visitors to come from.)

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Photo: Annie Tritt for the New York Times
Muriel Miguel, a founder of the feminist Native American collective Spiderwoman Theater, is considered a grandmother of the Indigenous theater movement in the United States and Canada.

I’ve been interested to read how indigenous peoples around the world are reaching out to one another and starting to benefit from the strength of numbers. One result has been the emergence of international festivals staking out a place for native people in the arts world. I’m late with this story, but I wanted you to know about one such festival. It took place in January in New York City.

Siobhan Burke at the New York Times noted in particular that a grandmother of the Indigenous theater movement in the United States and Canada, Brooklyn-born playwright Muriel Miguel, was scheduled to be “among the 30 or so artists participating in this year’s First Nations Dialogues New York/Lenapehoking. (Lenapehoking is the homeland of the Lenape, the original inhabitants of the area encompassing New York City.) Taking place at multiple downtown theaters, the Dialogues bring together Indigenous performing artists from Australia, Canada and the United States for a week of performances, discussions and other gatherings, beginning Jan. 5. …

“In drawing attention to the breadth of contemporary Indigenous performance — with works spanning dance, theater, performance art and genres in between — the Dialogues are something rare for New York, if not unprecedented. Describing what to expect is not easy and not intended to be. In deciding what to program, the chief organizers — [Merindah Donnelly, an organizer of the series and the executive producer of BlakDance in Australia], the choreographer Emily Johnson, and Vallejo Gantner, the former director of Performance Space — set out to challenge a notion they often come across, that Indigenous performance fits any single description. …

“Ms. Donnelly said. ‘The people making it are Indigenous, but Indigenous is not a genre.’ …

The offerings here — many of which deal with themes of trauma, grief and healing — include Ms. Miguel’s Pulling Threads Fabric Workshop, in which storytelling and quilting serve as tools for mending old wounds. …

“While the tone may be somber at times, there is also much to celebrate. SJ Norman, an Australian artist of Wiradjuri and Wonnaruah heritage, said in an email that the opportunity to gather in New York ‘feels like an honoring of the continued existence of our peoples in the big city, as well as the dynamism and globalism of our peoples, which is absolutely vast.’ …

“A Native Alaskan artist of Yupik ancestry, Ms. Johnson has been working tirelessly to counter what she calls ‘the perceived invisibility’ of Indigenous performing artists, particularly in the United States. …

“One approach to bringing the United States up to speed is an ambitious pilot program, the Global First Nations Performance Network, which will be in development during this year’s Dialogues. … The network also requires, of each presenter, a commitment to undergoing what Mr. Gantner calls ‘a kind of decolonization process.’ …

“Ms. Johnson sees this year’s Dialogues as a microcosm of what the network may eventually accomplish, including opening up international exchange. For the Australian choreographer Mariaa Randall, whose ‘Footwork/Technique,’ [explores] the footwork of Aboriginal dances, a highlight of the Dialogues is the chance to simply talk and listen with peers from around the world.

“ ‘In our countries we can become kind of siloed,’ she said. ‘I want to be able to sit with and see and hear from other First Nations females: what their struggles are, their achievements, and how they continue to keep their culture and their practice together, to keep moving forward, because sometimes it is really hard.’ ”

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Elliott Simpson
“Two Piece Reclining Figure No.1,” by Henry Moore, Glenkiln Sculpture Park in southwest Scotland. Scotland’s government has proposed a policy that, among other things, would give ordinary Scots a greater say in shaping the cultural life of their communities.

What I remember about a trip to Scotland decades ago is Loch Ness, the glowing quality of sunlight in Inverness, how Edinburgh’s castle looms over the city, sheep on the hills, sheep crossing narrow highland roads.

But there is more to Scotland, and now the government is working to give communities a greater say in how the country’s culture is presented to the world.

Christy Romer writes at Arts Professional, “Ensuring culture is fundamental to Scotland’s social and economic prosperity is a core aim of the country’s first culture strategy in over ten years. …

“The draft document outlines plans for a new Government cultural adviser and new funding models for the sector. In addition, it aims to give people a ‘greater say’ in shaping the cultural life of their communities through participatory models of decision-making and community ownership.

“ [The draft strategy says Scotland] ‘places culture as of equal importance alongside other areas such as the economy, education, environment, health and tackling inequality, and values culture for the unique perspectives it can bring.’ …

“One of the major initiatives announced is a new cultural leadership post within Scottish Government, which would be supported by strategic thinkers from the culture sector and beyond.

“This figure would be responsible for joining up thinking across Government and with major stakeholders. They would aim to respond to big societal issues and make culture central to progress in areas such as health, the economy and education.

“Other initiatives include developing a national partnership for culture, which would see the sector work with academics to develop new approaches to measuring and articulating the value of culture.

“Partnership working with businesses, schools and care homes is also seen as key to creating opportunities for more people to take part in culture. The document …  suggests using Scottish Government powers to generate a collective responsibility to support culture in the long term.’ This could involve the National Investment Bank or devolved tax and legislative powers.”

Oh, dear. Already I see trouble ahead. The intentions are good, but that wonky document suggests to me that artists were not involved in the writing and may not be helping much to carry out the policy. Hmmm. I’m wondering if government’s role in a country’s culture should be limited to funding it.

For example, consider what Claire Selvin reported in October at ArtNews about New York City: “With largest-ever allotment for department of cultural affairs, New York City Grants $43.9 million to arts programs.” That’s putting your money where your mouth is. I realize some of the funds may get lost in the bureaucracies of the various recipient arts organizations, but I think I’d rather have them working on the ultimate allocations than a government entity.

More on Scotland at Arts Professional, here.

One of Scotland’s historical highlights is the Antonine Wall, built by the Romans across what is now the Central Belt of Scotland. These ruins mark the northernmost frontier barrier of the Roman Empire.

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Photo: PjrTravel/Alamy
The act of building puppets has long been a form of protest for the Czech people.

Never underestimate the power of the arts to affect the course of nations. In this story, puppets kept the Czech language alive during a period of repression by German speakers.

Jacklyn Janeksela writes at the BBC, “It was thanks to the humble puppet that the Czech nation – and its language – was inadvertently saved.

“In the 17th Century, when the kingdom of Bohemia was under Habsburg rule, the Czech language almost disappeared. …

“When the Protestant court left Prague in the early 1600s, the city fell into decline for almost two centuries. The new ruler, Ferdinand II, did not tolerate non-Catholics, viewing Protestants as a threat to his faith. Czech locals, mostly peasants and working class people, were forced to speak the German language of their invaders. Soon after, intellectuals, who had initially resisted the German language, followed suit. Even Czech actors began to perform in German as an official mandate. Czech became a mere dialect, and would have slipped into oblivion had it not been for some unassuming pieces of wood.

“The act of building puppets has long been a form of protest for the Czech people. Seventeenth-Century wood-carvers, who were more versed in sculpting Baroque seats for churches than human facsimiles, started making puppets for the actors of Bohemia soon after Ferdinand II came to power, as puppets were the only remaining entities that had the right to speak Czech in public places. While the rest of the country and its people adhered to the newly imposed German language, wandering actors and puppet-masters spoke through the puppets in their native Slavic tongue.

“It might seem unlikely that a few hundred puppets and puppet-masters could safeguard a language, especially through a loophole, but the people’s last remaining legacy to their past was tied to the puppet’s strings.

“It’s easy to see why these marionettes have found a home in Czech hearts, and why the magic of puppets continues to permeate the city. …

“In the streets, puppeteers make magic happen. I watched a puppet show in a charming cobblestoned square, where the puppet-master wore the velvety cap of a pageboy, pierced by a single plume that swayed along with the puppet’s movements. He used his puppets to beckon bystanders. Melodic medieval music accompanied the dance of a peasant male and young princess, a Czech love story with a plot twist that favours the underdog, the peasant who wins the heart of a far-fetched royal love.” Read more at the BBC, here.

With minority languages threatened around the world today, it’s worth remembering that a culture and way of life can be preserved through arts like puppet-making. See also my blog post on the historically important role of shadow puppets in Armenia, here.

Photo: Carol J Saunders/Alamy
Puppets have a special place in the hearts of the Czech people. For one thing, they saved the language in the early 1600s when German-speaking rulers prevented everyone but puppets from speaking Czech in public.

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Photos: Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD)
Visitors to the Sidewalk Festival enjoy a µTopian Dinner with Hinterlands performers outside the Mobile Homestead.

Kristina and I were discussing the other day all the different kinds of yoga that are popping up. Suzanne’s friend Liz tried goat yoga. Kristina had heard of knitting yoga and laughter yoga.

Similarly, it seems like I’m constantly hearing about new ways of extending the boundaries of theater. In this story from Hyperallergic, sharing food with audiences in person and through Skype is the focus.

As Sarah Rose Sharp writes, artists are practiced “in finding ways to forge interpersonal connections through gesture, metaphor, and performance — or sometimes just by inviting people to dinner.

“ ‘Food is so interesting, because it evokes memory, and it’s a multi-sensory experience,’ said Liza Beilby, in an interview with Hyperallergic during preparations for one in a series of µTopian Dinners, staged by Detroit-based experimental theater ensemble The Hinterlands and co-produced with Poetic Societies, a performance lab fostering cross-cultural and poetic connections. …

“Since 2017, the group has been staging permutations of the µTopian Dinners as a subset of a larger work, The Enemy of My Enemy, a hybrid, digital-live performance project that simultaneously links performers and audiences in the US and so-called ‘enemy’ nations of China, Russia, and Iran. …

“The Hinterlands views the µTopian Dinner projects as a kind of a laboratory to investigate the cultural values that are reinforced through eating, meals, and cooking. [In August], µTopian Dinners took literally to the streets, as the ensemble presented a four-part performance and rotating series of events, during the homegrown and wildly popular Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts. …

“[The group] — as well as their foreign counterparts tuning in from Moscow, Bejing, and Tehran — operated out of the modular traveling unit from Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead, which is permanently housed at the [Museum of Contemporary Art], making one of the rare forays into the farther-flung Detroit neighborhoods for which it was expressly designed. …

“Artist and designer Yi Zhou, who runs a studio out of Beijing called Body Memory, met The Hinterlands during her 2016 residency at Popps Packing, and the ensemble has visited her twice over the last two years, touring with their previous show, The Radicalization Process, and other performances.

“ ‘In between the first year that we went and the second year that we went, she and a bunch of friends who are designers and architects started this group called TGIS,’ said Beilby. ‘It’s a Sunday brunch in this little courtyard at the studio of one of the members, and they invite people to come and have brunch, and then there’s a lecture, or talk, or conversation, which are themed.’ During the Sidewalk performance, Hinterlands Skyped into the beginning of the brunch taking place in Bejing. …

“ ‘It’s like translation, in a way. You’re trying to contextualize something for the people where you are, that’s meaningful, and then express something about the people here to another group. … It’s an interesting way to try to bridge two spaces or times or peoples, through sensory experiences that aren’t just talking.’ …

“One could call it a new medium, enabled by the tools of our increasingly interconnected world, or one might consider it the mission of any meal undertaken by people who begin as strangers, and perhaps leave with a better understanding of each other.”

More here.

Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead traveling unit at the Sidewalk Festival for the Performing Arts in Detroit.

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Photo: Jose F. Moreno / Inquirer Staff Photographer
In South Philadelphia, young Khmer women are earning to perform traditional Cambodian dance.

When one marginalized community taps into its roots and strengthens its identity, other ethnic groups may benefit, too. Consider this story about young Cambodian women in South Philadelphia and their how traditional dances are often performed for neighboring communities of color.

Bethany Ao reports at the Inquirer, “When Lanica Angpak started the organization Cambodian American Girls Empowering three years ago as a personal project, she visualized it as a safe space where young Cambodian women could talk about ‘taboo’ topics they didn’t feel comfortable discussing with their families.

“But when Angpak broached that idea with the women she was mentoring at the time, the group had an addendum: They wanted Angpak to teach them traditional Cambodian dance.

” ‘I was already teaching some of them,’ said Angpak, who learned how to dance from her mother. ‘But bringing it into this organization allowed us to build bridges through dance.’

“On a recent Sunday, the organization gathered at Bok Bar, a popular rooftop bar in South Philly with gorgeous views of the Philadelphia skyline, for a sunny afternoon workshop performance.

“The women slipped off their shoes and completed stretches that were harder than your average yoga pose. Eventually, they shifted into formation and performed a dance about a Cambodian celebration for young children. The dancers moved slowly, but their movements required just as much precision as ballet. Their mastery of balance was impressive, as was their flexibility. …

“Cambodian dance is a crucial part of storytelling in the country’s culture. It has existed for thousands of years and draws its roots from Indian mythology and religion. Every component of the dancer’s body is engaged during a performance, from their fingertips to their facial expressions. …

“The Philly area has the fourth largest Cambodian population in the United States — about 13,000, according to the most recent census — centered in South Philly. Angpak works closely with the Cambodian Association to help support the community here. Besides the performances, CAGE also holds dance workshops for females as young as 6 and as old as 72.

” ‘On average, we do about 14 performances a year, and we’ve already surpassed that number this year,’ Angpak said. ‘We prioritize public events.’ … The group particularly enjoys performing for organizations representing other communities of color.

“Angpak said dance is an alternative way of sharing between communities, an exchange of culture and art, of sorts. The organization charges on a sliding scale for performances. Workshops, including the one at Bok Bar next month, are free and open to the public.”

More at the Inquirer, here. And click here for my 2017 post about how Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, half-sister of Cambodia’s King, is working to reenergize the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. Perhaps some of these Philadelphia women and girls will get a chance to audition for that.

Photo: Jose F. Moreno / Inquirer Staff Photographer
A mother and daughter learn traditional Cambodian dance at the Bok Bar in South Philadelphia. Cambodian American Girls Empowering (CASE) helps women and girls preserve their heritage through traditional Cambodian dance.

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Photo: J. Urban/Smithsonian
Arev Armenian Dance Ensemble

Because I live in the Greater Boston area, where there is a large Armenian population, I was interested to read how how Armenian dance is helping to preserve the culture in the diaspora.

Roger Catlin writes at Smithsonian that Armenian dance has adapted in intriguing ways over time and place.

“Can dancing preserve culture?” he asks. “Those who circle up, link pinkies and swirl to the traditional village dances of Armenia believe they can.

“And as part of the 52nd annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival this summer, scores of dancers from Armenia and across North America will perform, present master classes and share technique. [Note: This took pace in July.] …

“One of the oldest centers of civilization, Armenia once stretched from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea and between the Mediterranean Sea and Lake Urmia in present-day Iran. Its key location in the South Caucaus region of Eurasia made it a central place for commerce with other cultures, but also a site for constant invasion from neighboring empires, the Ottomans to the west and Iran to the south and Russia to the east.

“Already the dance traditions of individual villages, separated by mountainous topography had been unique to each town. But with the Armenian diaspora, the dancing, which continued as a way to keep connected to the old country, became even more individualistic, [says Carolyn Rapkievian, who is serving as an Armenian dance advisor for this year’s Folklife Festival], noting that the dances were further influenced by the host countries. …

“Gary and Susan Lind-Sinanian, dance historians at the Armenian Museum of America in Watertown, Massachusetts, say traditional western Armenian music and dance remained an important cultural touchstone for the immigrating community.

“ ‘As the Armenian language fell into disuse among many American-born Armenians, the music and dance gained even more importance, as one of the remaining avenues of cultural identity maintenance,’ they have written. ‘Today, this music and dance have developed into a characteristic form unique to the United States, and one of the principal means that today’s Armenian-American youth assert their Armenian identity.’

“ ‘The two means of expression, outside of being a member of the church, to mark you as an Armenian are dance and food,’ Gary Lind-Sinanian says. ‘Those are the two every Armenian family practices to some degree.’ Still, every village seemed to have its own style, he said. ‘When people make their pilgrimages to some monastery for a festival, they could see, when various groups danced to a melody, by the way they danced, you could tell where they came from.’

More at the Smithsonian, here. If you are ever in Watertown, try to get some Armenian food. It’s delicious — a little bit like Middle Eastern cuisines you already know, a little bit not. And you can get an interesting angle on the Ottoman Empire’s relationship with the Armenians from this wonderful book, Destiny Disrupted, by Tamin Ansary.

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Photo: Sunaina Kumar
Women of Jad tribe spinning wool in Dunda village, Uttarakhand. Their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group of languages and is one of 780 (possibly 850) in India.

Here is a heretical thought from someone who loves language: if practically everyone speaks a different language from everyone else, maybe we don’t need language? One must at least ponder the question of whether there is a better way to communicate with others. I’ve no idea what it could be. Even gestures have different meanings in different cultures.

There is always a need to communicate, isn’t there? It’s a puzzle. Even English, despite its frequent role as the bridge language Esperanto was meant to be, suffers from so many Orwellian uses of common words today, you can hardly trust it to convey what you mean.

These thoughts came to me because of an article by Sunaina Kumar at Atlas Obscura on the amazing array of languages in India alone.

Kumar writes, “In 1898, George A. Grierson, an Irish civil servant and philologist, undertook the first ever Linguistic Survey of India. It took Grierson 30 years to gather data on 179 languages and 544 dialects. The survey was published in 19 volumes, spanning 8,000 pages, between 1903 and 1928. …

“Ganesh Devy was frustrated by this lack of contemporary data, especially the discrepancies he saw in the existing numbers. Since the government wasn’t likely to start on a new survey in the near future, Devy, a former professor of English from the western state of Gujarat, launched the People’s Linguistic Survey of India in 2010. The name refers to the fact that it was the people of the country, and not the government, that embarked on this project.

“With single-minded ambition, he put together a team of 3,000 volunteers from all parts of the country. Since 2013, the PLSI has published 37 volumes, featuring detailed profiles of each of India’s languages. The project is expected to be completed by 2020 with 50 volumes. In the linguistic landscape of India, the work done by PLSI is not just pathbreaking, it is crucial in recording and thus preserving the languages of the country for future generations. …

“The challenge of putting a disparate team together with a minuscule budget of 8 million rupees ($1,17,000) — provided by a private trust — to map the languages spoken by 1.3 billion people was enormous.

“ ‘My team was not made of linguists, but people who could speak their own language,’ Devy says. ‘We had writers, school teachers, philosophers, social scientists, some linguists. We also had farmers, daily wagers, car drivers, people who had been in and out of jail. They had an intimacy with their language. Even if it was less scientific, it was authentic.’ These volunteers were asked to record data about the languages they spoke, including the history of the language, its grammatical features, and samples of songs and stories. It was chaotic, Devy admits, but he traveled to every corner of the country to train the team and the final product was vetted with academic rigor.

“So far, the PLSI has recorded 780 languages in India and 68 scripts. When Devy embarked on the mammoth project, even he did not expect to unearth that many. He says that the PLSI could not report on nearly 80 languages for various reasons, including accessibility of a given region due to remoteness or conflict, which brings the estimated total number of languages closer to 850.

“Based on data from the survey, Devy estimates that in the last 50 years, India has lost 220 languages, including some within the last decade. …

“ ‘India has some of the oldest surviving languages,’ says Devy. ‘A language like Tamil has been around for 2,500 years. Some of the tribal languages would be even older.

These languages have survived because they have a philosophical context to them and that philosophy is part of the lived lives of the speakers.’ …

“After mapping India’s languages, Devy, whose spirit is unflagging at 67, has turned his attention to the world at large. His next project is the Global Language Status Report. The UNESCO states that nearly half of the over 6,000 languages spoken in the world may disappear by the end of this century. The GLSR proposes to cover the languages of Africa and South America, two regions where languages are fast disappearing without any trace, and where linguistic diversity has not been mapped. …

“ ‘I have been traveling to Africa for a year now and I am not deterred by the scope of mapping 54 countries,’ Devy says. ‘The experience with PLSI was great fun, and I believe if people decide to do something, they actually can.’ ”

More here, at Atlas Obscura.

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