Redefining Womanhood: Triste, Louca ou Má by Francisco, el Hombre

Bombarded with cultural traditions and unrealistic fantasies, we often forget that a woman is a person and it is her right to define her life in her own terms. When she is allowed to do so, the power, truth and beauty of her uniqueness far surpasses anything culture or advertising has shown us. Men experience cultural objectification to some degree, as well, but are more likely to be rewarded for breaking the mold, while women are most often castigated.

The following is a luscious music video by the Brazilian band Francisco, el Hombre (Francis the Man) from their 2016 album Soltasbruxa (LettheWitchesOut). The video was directed by Rafa Camâra and filmed in an early 20th Century mansion in Havana, Cuba. It features the sultry voice of Juliana Strassacapa backed by guest vocalists Salma Jô, Helena Macedo, Larissa Baq and Renata Éssis, as well as the Cuban dance company Danza Voluminosa. The gentleness of the song and the fluid elegance of the dancers do not diminish the defiant spirit that gives this song power.

Danza Voluminosa was founded in 1996 by Juan Miguel Mas. Unlike conventional dance troupes, they do not pressure their dancers to maintain or lose weight, but seek out heavier body types. They teach their dancers to embrace their bodies and express their emotions through movement. These dancers may move differently than the body types the world is used to putting on display, but they are no less creative and expressive. Their work has been praised for its sensitivity, emotional impact, beauty and uniqueness.

Francisco, el Hombre was formed in 2013 when two brothers, Sebastián and Mateo Piracés-Ugarte, left Mexico and moved to Brazil. There they met Juliana Strassacapa, Rafael Gomes and Andrei Martinez Kozyreff and decided they needed to do something different with their lives.

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Francisco, el Hombre

Named for a legendary folk musician from Colombia, who sang and played as he traveled, Francisco, el Hombre spends a great deal of time touring throughout Latin America, singing about the struggles of common people. They are no stranger to injustice themselves. In 2015, the entire band was robbed and lost all of their possessions after playing a show in Mendoza, Argentina. They had to crowd source to rebuild the band, but the experience seems to have made them more resilient. They did not travel to the Latin Grammys when Soltasbruxa was nominated, preferring to tour among the people who understand them best.

Latin American art and music has always been among the most political and socially conscious, and Soltasbruxa is no exception. It is a stirring mix of feminism, anti-capitalist and anti-greed sentiment, and idealism shattered and bent by reality. Triste, Louca ou Má is among the gentlest tracks on the album, which starts with the keening excitement of the title track and builds into to the riotous harmonic strains of Calor da Rua (the Heat of the Street), a exposition of domestic violence on the street. The entire album is full of surprises and quick changes in tone. Sensual melodies, daring harmony and infectious dance music are all present and delightful, but it isn’t merely entertaining. It is an explosive shout for those who are tired of losing.

Images used in accordance with fair use policy

Resilience Does Not Forget: June 4, 1989 by Sherry Cheng

Years after a catastrophe, resilience continues to express itself. Memory lets us relive and reinterpret past events, unpacking things that overwhelmed us and growing our response over time. It is not an easy process. The approach of a date, a particular smell, image, or snippet of music can send us back to a deeply fearful place. Some try to forget, but the things we hide from the daylight have a way of resurfacing in our dreams. Unexpressed emotions can be powerful poisons. A world that suppresses history is a world in which violence simmers continually just beneath the collective consciousness. Resilience grows in the soil of our stories, informing the people we become, passing through us into our relationships and communities. We must share with one another if we want to survive.

This prose poem is the work of my friend, Sherry Cheng, a vibrant, warm and intelligent Chinese American woman who came to the United States in her teenage years. In it, she relates how the catastrophic events that happened in Tiananmen Square on a fateful day in 1989 impacted her, her family and her future husband. Her raw honesty speaks volumes, simple and clear. There cannot be many things more terrifying than a government that kills, imprisons and intimidates people with impunity.

Let me set the stage. On June 4, 1989, a peaceful, student-led protest is violently suppressed by the Chinese government, as the military, armed with rifles and tanks, kills at least several hundred unarmed people in Tiananmen Square. The images of tanks plowing down students shocks the world. Wei, Sherry’s future husband, is at the Central Conservatory, where he studies viola. Almost a decade before he will meet his wife, he steps out of the conservatory into a war zone. Sherry is sixteen and sits in front of a television set in an apartment in Starkville, MS, as horrific reports of the violence in her homeland flood the screen. Sherry’s aunt, a student at the University of Chicago who had taken donations from Americans to the student protesters at Tiananmen Square, boards a plane back to Chicago with her three year old son. She is also pregnant. Plain clothes police waiting on the plane meet her and take her and her son to prison. They will be missing for nearly two weeks, while her family uses every connection they have to find them. It will take a couple of months and a promise that she will never again be politically active for the family to secure their release.

Violence is not an anonymous phenomenon. The aggressors, the injured, the killed, the witnesses: they all have faces.

 

June 4, 1989

29 years ago today the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square,
bullets flew overhead while a young man lay prostrate on the ground right outside the Central Conservatory gates.
He saw a little girl shot down,
an innocent bystander,
her Mother wailing.

A 16 year old girl across the ocean sat transfixed,
as events transpired on her TV screen.
She could not control her tears as images passed by of bloodied bodies piled on makeshift carts.

Hope turned to fear that day and for months after.
Innocent deaths, interrogations, terror, arrests…
The girl’s aunt, who had helped distribute funds to the peaceful protesters,
disappeared from the airport on route to Chicago,
her whereabouts unknown for weeks.
She had her 3 year old son with her, as well as another one on the way.

Fast forward 29 years…
I mark this day every year because forgetting is easy,
even for those who experienced the terror first hand,
like my husband.
even for those who believed so strongly in an ideal that they would’ve given their lives for it,
like my aunt.
Because life does go on.
We move forward.

So many have forgotten.
For each new generation the memory grows dimmer.
History is reevaluated and reinterpreted.
Black and white, right and wrong, everything is blurred.
Amnesia sets in. Ideals are lost.

But I’m still here, so is Wei.
We carry that history with us.
We will tell our stories every year,
even when no one is listening.

 

More Than Repair: Elevating Memory with Kintsugi

Humanity can be callous and wasteful, but we often form attachments to things. Can connecting with sentimentality help encourage awareness?

In this age of technology and mass production, we are accustomed to replacing things as they age and break down. It is usually easier to buy a new item rather than repairing an old one. At the same time, who hasn’t lamented that new products are not made like they used to be, that they break down more quickly or are just plain cheap? There are also those items that have sentimental value for us: grandma’s china, a trinket from a beloved friend or spouse, a piece of art or serving ware picked up while traveling. We don’t like losing these things. Any replacement will lack resonance and memory, which lie not in the form or function of the thing, but in its symbolic value as a connection between us and another person, place, time or culture. Once that connection is broken, we slide farther away from our past and feel a little less grounded. As a person who has been through three floods in my home, I have felt that discomfort and can vouch that it has little to do with materialism. We often say that stuff is “just stuff”. That is true most of the time, but not when it has memory attached to it.

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Image © Howard Freeman with CCLicense

Japanese artisans have a way of memorializing such objects when they are broken. It’s called kintsugi, the art of repairing ceramics with lacquer and gold leaf, elevating them to the level of fine art. They may or may not lose functionality in the process, but they become more precious and gain more significance as symbols. This beautiful film from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England gives a marvelous taste of this traditional art form.

The golden connections of kintsugi remind us that relationships and connections are important, that they cannot be replaced. In our pursuit of innovation and excellence, we have to be careful to safeguard and nourish those things that make us human. The synchronicity we find there is worth the time and effort spent.

The next time you break something precious, think about making it into a piece of art. If you need help doing that, there are artisans like the makieshi and disciplines like kintsugi in many cultures. They can enrich your life with symbols, repurposing and elevating what has broken or been worn out. These artisans need the work and our global culture needs the richness they supply. What can be more excellent than honoring our experience and those who have impacted our lives?

 

 

 

Expanding Connections: Please Touch the Art

As artists, sometimes we assume that we understand our creations. Connecting with an audience shows us the things we miss.

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Andrew Myers makes clever paintings by screwing screws into a wooden base and painting them. He was deeply moved when a blind person attended one of his shows and was able to experience his art by touching it. Struck by the lack of tactile art and the prevalence of a hands off policy in museums and galleries, he wanted to do something to reach out to those who could not partake in the visual aspect of the art world.

George Wurtzel has spent his life working with wood. He is a craftsman, making fine furniture and other projects, and teacher. In the summer he works at Enchanted Hills Camp in Napa Ca, a camp for the visually impaired, where he inspires blind folk to make things with their hands. He does this by example, as George is blind.

This wonderful project brings these two talented artists together.

 

What an incredible gift to be able to “see” things differently! When art can bridge boundaries imposed upon us by our nature and our nurture, it is a transformative experience that changes us forever. I wonder how musicians might use vibration to reach out to those who cannot hear, how dancers might move with those who have movement issues, how singers might make sounds with those who cannot form words. Our art and culture could not help but be enriched by new perspectives and the therapeutic value of these endeavors would be tremendous.

Maybe you are the next artist to reach out and connect with an unexpected audience. I can’t wait to see what you will do!

All images and video used in accordance with fair use policy for educational purposes.

Patterns of Connection: The Land Art of Dietmar Voorwold

Why should modern humanity regain and hold on to its connection with nature at a time when technology seems omnipresent?

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AmWeg207 © Dietmar Voorwold

I have always loved making things: textures and patterns create a sense of calmness for me. In my early years I made a texture book into which I glued pieces of fabric. I would spend hours rubbing my hands over the small swatches. Geometric patterns, fuzzy fake furs, textured weaves… they were all delightful. I think I must have worn that book out at some point, but I never lost my love for fabrics, texures, patterns and colors. This love would resurface from time to time. A few years later in grade school I would get in trouble for filling my desk with pretty rocks from the playground.

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AmMeer71 © Dietmar Voorwold

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AmWeg97 © Dietmar Voorwold

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AmMeer430 © Dietmar Voorwold

These creations by German land-artist Dietmar Voorwold take me back to my childhood. Trained as a photographer and graphic designer in Dusseldorf, Voorwold returned to school later to study Art Therapy at the Institute for Humanistic Psychology (IHP) in Eschweiler, Germany. For several years, he spent time working with children, adults, and people with special needs in educational and therapeutic institutions in Germany, Holland and Great Britain, focusing on “self-expression, joy and inspiration.” He found great satisfaction and collaborative potential in making patterns from stones, leaves and other natural materials. In 2008 he moved to Scotland and began to concentrate on making temporary outdoor installations.

Nature is the perfect stage and canvas for the beauty and lightness that I like to express. –Dietmar Voorwold

Land art, the arrangement of collected natural materials into patterns and forms is increasingly popular. In a world that seems so technological and so regimented, it becomes more and more important that we cultivate the simple side of ourselves, that we recognize who we are as part of nature. Otherwise, it is simply too easy to get lost on the sea of social media, to become ungrounded and feel that we are being carried away on the current. Nature is far more difficult to fake than our daily online lives and it offers us a tactile, physical relationship that we cannot replace with virtual reality. If we are clever, we can find ways of using technology to help us record and memorialize those moments of synchronicity and meaning that are the fruits of that relationship.

 

 

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AmMeer578 © Dietmar Voorwold

Thankfully we have rebellious artists like Dietmar Voorwold to take us down the paths less traveled to those places where everything connects. The result is never quite what we expect, and that is the allure and magic that keeps us interested in the world around us. Call it enchantment, call it synchronicity, but do not let it pass from our existence.

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AmWeg193 © Dietmar Voorwold

All images used in accordance with fair use policy for educational purposes. Please spend some time on Mr. Voorwold’s website, where you may purchase prints of his luscious work.

 

 

Connecting Flourishes: Norway By Way of South Dakota

In Rapid City, South Dakota, USA, on the edge of the Black Hills, in a peaceful green space on the older side of town, there stands a delightfully unexpected structure: a carved wooden church in medieval style called the Chapel in the Hills. It is in fact a replica of the Borgund Church, a Stavkirke (Stave church) built in the late 1100s, which stands in Laerdal, Norway. So what, you may wonder, is it doing here?

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Well, in the 1960s South Dakota native Dr. Harry Gregerson, the creator and preacher of the Lutheran Vespers Radio Hour, was looking for a way to expand his ministry and make something more tangible than a radio broadcast. He decided to build a structure near the Black Hills that could give vacationers a place of pilgrimage and worship. In choosing to make a copy of the Borgund church, he created a link to the cultural roots of the Norwegian Lutherans who settled in South Dakota. The Norwegian Department of Antiquities sent the blueprints of the church and a local construction company spearheaded the effort. The wood carvings were a joint project between the Norwegian master carver Erik Fridstrøm and Helge Christiansen of Rapid City. These fantastic flourishes inspire awe and yet seem quite at home here. Rapid City is right next door, and yet the area recedes into the hills, feeling quite remote and peaceful, an excellent place to meditate. There is also a small Norwegian museum and a stabbur, a small grass-roofed storehouse, that serves as a visitor center. The stabbur was built in Norway, shipped to Rapid City in pieces, and rebuilt here.

 

 

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The flourishes on, in and about the church weave together Christianity with pre-Christian Norwegian symbols. The continuity between the Christian and naturalistic symbolism is both beautiful and striking. It can be interpreted as a refreshing acknowledgement that the same God might choose different ways to speak to different peoples. The first congregants of the Borgund church would have been converted Vikings, with minds shaped by Norse myths and naturalistic rituals.

I: Runestones

Runestones are stones decorated with naturalistic motifs. The Vikings and the Celts were masters at making runestones; many of their descendants Christianized the art form so they could keep their artistic language. These two feature serpents and dragons, symbols of chaotic forces which shape time and nature, ambivalent forces which both destroy and build up. The rectangular, seated runestone on the left shows that time and Creation have been forever marked by the Cross. In the crucifixion, life has also been destroyed and rebuilt. Common themes were important to encourage conversion and promote understanding.

 

 II: Doorways

The entire church is circled by an antechamber/corridor. Weapons were to be dropped in this space and were not allowed in the house of worship. In case you think the Viking converts were progressive, you should know that men and women entered through different doorways and did not associate with each other in the church building. Children entered with the women until the young boys came of age. Young men were then allowed to use the men’s doorway inside the front entrance.

The men’s entrance with intricate carving. More dragons and serpents.

The women’s entrance on the side of the church, featuring carvings of lionesses, a rather ferocious symbol of femininity. Note the lioness faces at the bottom of the pilasters. I imagine these Viking ladies were not wallflowers.

One of the outside doors features a metal ring. In medieval Borgund, any criminal who was touching this ring could not be apprehended by authorities. It was apparently not unheard of for such people to starve to death on the steps of the church, covered in their own excrement.

Inside the church, there is a plain door with no adornments next to a sliding window that opens into the corridor. This was a station for people with leprosy, so that they could take Communion without entering the church proper.

III: A Ship of a Different Kind

The church interior is fashioned as an upside down Viking ship, cleverly using the most familiar of forms, but also turning it on its head. Look at those ominous faces carved on the high posts!

The altar and chancel area stand out for their simplicity. The pan fixed in the front served as a baptismal font.

IV: There Be Dragons

High atop the church building there are four dragons, fashioned like those that would have been at the prow of a Viking ship. In addition to serving practically as aids to drainage, they functioned much like gargoyles, impressing people and “chasing away devils”. The detail and the care that goes into each shingle, each cross, each flourish is absolutely marvelous.

I happened to catch a squirrel sunning himself on the high branches, mimicking the dragons astride the church. Nature seems playfully at peace with this Stavekirke from another land. On another day, in another post, I may take you on the walkway that leads back toward the hills, where the rabbits feed lazily, and the forest is peopled with life-sized stone figures that range from moving to creepy. But for today this magnificent building is more than enough.

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All images by Katherine McDaniel, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

The Flourishing Soul of Flamenco

The word flourish signifies not only rampant growth, but a gesture or set of gestures that personify vitality and life. That gesture may be expressed in words, carpentry, architecture, music, dance, cooking. There is no pursuit known to humanity that cannot be executed with flourish. One of the most striking exhibitions of this creative gesture is in the music and dance style known as flamenco.

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Flamenco’s origins lie in Andalusia with the Roma people of southern Spain, known as gitanos. The ancestors of the gitanos came across Europe and north Africa from northern India and were known pejoratively as gypsies. It is no accident that this vibrant celebration of life and passion came from a people who were persecuted and denigrated. The subject matter is often painful and dark, presented with an emotional intensity and controlled artistry that transmutes such feelings into beautiful, cathartic moments.

Flamenco is a musical tradition that flowered into dance. The dancer embodies the anguish and beauty of the singer’s voice, the rhythmic anxiety and ferocity of the guitar. In most traditions, dancing favors the young, with supple bodies that are flexible and strong. Flamenco favors the emotional palette of the mature dancer and it is not unusual for a flamenco artist to dance well into their fifties and beyond. The duende, or soul of the dance will not give itself easily to the dancer who has not experienced the difficulties of life. In a happy contrast, the flashy and spellbinding footwork is likely to keep the dancer in shape for many years.

This video is from the documentary, Flamenco, Flamenco by Carlos Saura. It’s a beautiful documentary you should check out when you have the time.

The form above is alegrías, or “joys”, a particularly fast paced style, or palo, of flamenco in twelve-eight time, with accents on beat 3, 6, 8, 10 and 12. As the strong beats get closer together in the second half of the bar the rhythm pushes forward with a tense agitation. The dancer is Sara Baras, who has toured the world as a soloist and as the lead dancer of her own company. She has also appeared as a model in London, Madrid and Lisbon, and been featured in Mission: Impossible 2. When she was younger, teachers complained that her feet were too loud, but their percussiveness is a strength and hallmark of her particular gift. Both Sara and her dancing exemplify the meaning of the word flourish in all its shadings.

Sara is a native Andalusian, but it should be noted that, during the Spanish recession, the flourishing of modern flamenco has been sustained and enriched by people from other lands, among them northern Africa, the United States and Japan. It seems fitting that its Roma roots have been extended back out into the global sphere. They carry with them a very important message: We do not flourish when life is easy; we flourish when we surmount our difficulties.

A Testament to Motion: The Art of Toots Zynsky

Have you ever created something that made you feel more alive? Amazing things can happen when we follow our passion.

 

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Delizioso, Image © Dane Gallery

 

Mary Ann Toots Zynsky, known as Toots, decided as a pre-teen that she was meant to be an artist, beginning her creative life as a painter and sculptor. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which she had been told was the best of the best. And yet, nothing really sparked her interest; everything felt stilted and quiet. In fact, she planned to leave the school at the end of her Freshman year in order to pursue studies leading toward medical school. One day she grabbed a map and decided she would visit each department, perhaps hoping for a reason to stay. Everything changed as she walked down a hallway to a room that had been deliberately placed far from the main studios. Here, loud music played and hot glass swirled in the air, manipulated by artists that moved together to make colorful shapes that solidified into glass. I’m sure the music was loud and the atmosphere somewhat wild… it was 1970 after all…but the voice inside of her must have spoken with a voice to match. The next week, after classes ended, the glass studio, which had recently gained independence from the ceramics department, opened its doors to anyone who was interested. Toots Zynsky did not miss her opportunity.

Video via Corning Museum of Glass on YouTube

It is fascinating to note that Toots was not drawn so much to the final product as she was mesmerized by the process. It was the music reverberating in the space, the concept of collaboration as a kind of dance, the roar of the furnace, the hot liquid glass in motion and the counterpoint of color that quickened her pulse. When art comes from this kind of place, the final form it takes is secondary. It also didn’t hurt that this was a new medium for art and there were few rules to be broken. It was an exciting time to work with glass. On top of that, she earned her BFA working under the guidance of Dale Chihuly, who remains one of the biggest names in glass art worldwide.

In the early 1970s, along with Chihuly and some fellow RISD graduates, Toots was part of the founding team of the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington state. Her work was groundbreaking: experimental installations featuring slumped plate glass and forays into video and performance art in collaboration with artist Buster Simpson. Finding new and interesting possibilities, she wasn’t sure she wanted to stay with glass. She returned to the east coast to pursue new projects in new media.

“I started wondering what I was doing with glass and why. There were other materials and ideas that fascinated me, and I started working with cloth, light, wire, and barbed wire. I was interested in barbed wire because it’s such a powerful symbol of the failure of humanity— that we had to come up with this material to keep each other apart.”

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AWOL, 1982 © Toots Zynsky

In 1980, Toots became assistant director and head of the hot shop at the New York Experimental Glass Workshop in New York City, now UrbanGlass. Here she pioneered works that combined glass with barbed wire, pulling her interests together. She began to work with nets made from heavy glass threads which she dubbed filet de verre. These threads were fused and shaped inside of a kiln. Her first piece made entirely from filet de verre was Clipped Grass (1982). It is a beautiful, humble work of realism, glass fashioned into the image of a nest made from grass clippings. This simple piece was the precursor to the fanciful colored forms which would become Toots’ signature work.

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Clipped Grass (1982),  Image © The Corning Museum of Glass

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Spring Grass (1983),  Image © Yale University Art Gallery

In the early days, she had to employ teams of assistants to pull the glass into threads using an old Venetian method. This took time and resulted in unevenness. There was also a limit to the length of thread that could be produced. When Mathijs Van Manen, an inventor who had also worked with special effects for film and television, came to New York from Amsterdam to check out her work, he was amazed at what she was doing and dumbfounded at how she was doing it. Within 24 hours, he rigged a machine to turn rods of glass into threads. Toots took a trip to Europe to collaborate further on the design of this machine and stayed on the continent for 16 years. Together, she and Van Manen produced a series of kilns which she still uses in her work, although these instruments now incorporate cutting edge software and electronics. She also has special heat resistant gloves that allow her to reach into the kiln and twist the work into shape. These are the product of a desperate moment in Italy when, showing her technique to Italian craftsmen, she plunged her hands into a kiln to rescue a piece that was going awry.

“The architects were so curious and I was so nervous and the piece just wasn’t going right. All of a sudden, I reached into the kiln, grabbed the vessel, and gave it a big squeeze. Finally, I had the form that I wanted! And I thought, Why didn’t I think of this before? I was fed up with the piece, so I tried something different because I had nothing to lose.

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Contrappunto, 2015 Image © Habatat Galleries

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Davvero, 2014 © Habatat Galleries

There is more to her work than technique, innovation and boldness. There is a great deal of sensitivity. As a synesthete, Toots relates sound to color. The rhythms of music are translated into patterns of colored glass that are like frozen portraits of sound.

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Pajaritos en la Cabeza and Cabellos de Angel (“Tierra del Fuego” Series), 1988 © Toots Zynsky

 

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Sottacqua, 2005 Image © Hooks-Epstein Galleries

After going through a period of loss in which she no longer felt like dancing, or even moving or listening to music, she began to create darker pieces with fewer colors and more shading, explorations not of music rhythms, but of the feelings she had for people she had lost. What an honor to be remembered in such a personal way by such a great artist!

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Avvincente (left), Avviluppare (center), Avvio (right)
2010 © Toots Zynsky

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Rondine, Image © Echt Gallery

Toots Zynsky continues to make beautiful things that fill a need in her life and delight others. She has collaborated on costume and scenic design for theatrical works and continues to explore what glass can express. Please check out more of her work on her website.

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Riposo, Image © Echt Gallery

 

 

 

 

Portraits of a Nation: The Tenacious Beauty of Sudan

Did you know that Sudan contains more pyramids than Egypt? There is much beauty hidden in this war torn land.

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Satellite Image of Sudan

Sudan is largely a country of desert, the Sahara reaching deeper and deeper into the nation with every passing year. Ancient civilizations once flourished here on the banks of the Nile: Kerma, Nobatia, Alodia, Makuria, Kush, Meroë- their names fade into legend. Nubia, the area of Sudan and Lower Egypt along the Nile, developed alongside and equal to the more famous kingdom of Northern Egypt and was ruled by its own line of Pharoahs. The name Sudan comes from Arabic: bilād as-sūdān, the “lands of the Blacks”. These were proud lands for centuries, but today are war torn and famine infested. We must never forget that human civilization is a fragile thing.

This is the first of a series of posts on Sudan, focusing on the beauty and artistic creativity of that nation. It is a gallery of images which have been shared online by photographers traveling and working there. Christopher Michel, David Stanley, Mark Fischer, Petr Adam Dohnálek and Arsenie Coseac have made their work available with Creative Commons Licenses. Click on the captions beneath the the photo collages to see their full albums and link to more of their images. Synkroniciti is indebted to the generosity and boldness of these travelers and artists. I encourage you to follow them.

Travel to Sudan is not easy, nor is it encouraged. The Darfur region, Blue Nile, and Southern Kordofan states are listed as off limits by the U.S. State Department, but, to be honest, the U.S. Embassy’s reach does not extend far outside the capital of Khartoum. Armed conflict is heaviest in the south of the country, where terrorism, warfare and violent crime abound. Genocide has been attempted in the provinces of Darfur and war crimes have occurred in various places across Sudan and South Sudan, which gained its independence in 2011. Both countries have been terrorized by corrupt governments, lawless military forces, disease and famine. This series will concentrate on the northern nation.

Faces of Sudan

© Christopher Michel with CCLicense

The Sudanese are descended from a combination of indigenous East African peoples and immigrants from the Arabian peninsula. By recent estimates, Sudanese Arabs make up around 70% of the population. Sudan is also home to 18 other ethnic groups and almost 600 subgroups speaking more than 100 languages. Nubians, Nuba, Zaghawa, Copts, Fur and Beja are among those groups. Most Sudanese are Muslim (around 97%), with Christians and adherents to indigenous religions filling out the mix. South Sudan, on the other hand, is less than 20% Muslim.

© Arsenie Coseac with CCLicense

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Home

What does home look like in Sudan? Most are built of mudbricks or thatch, or a combination of both. Mudbricks may be covered with stucco and painted. Many houses consist of a single room, which may be round or rectangular, while others contain multiple rooms. There are also apartment buildings in Khartoum and other large cities. Some homes are designed for permanent use, while others are simple shelters for semi-nomadic families who move about the desert with their livestock. It is common for permanent residences to include a walled courtyard or garden on premises.

Toteil, Sudan, near Eritrea © Petr Adam Dohnálek with CCLicense (wikipedia)
© Christopher Michel with CCLicense

In the slums outside of Khartoum, where refugees cluster and the government periodically knocks down homes on the pretense of urban planning, one can see people eking out their lives in houses cobbled together from sticks, cloth and cardboard. If they are lucky, they may have a wall or two that survived demolition. If the government ever makes good on its promise to build new homes with electricity and water, it isn’t likely that refugees and the poor would be able to live here. Unlike the nomads, these people don’t have anywhere to go.

Demolition Area, Mayo, Khartoum © Arsenie Coseac with CCLicense

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Khartoum

Khartoum is a sprawling city at the confluence of the Blue Nile, flowing from Ethiopia, and the White Nile, flowing from Lake Victoria. The waters mass together here on their journey north into Egypt. The metropolitan area comprised of Khartoum, North Khartoum and Omdurman, three neighboring cities separated by the Nile and its tributaries, is home to over 5 million people.

© David Stanley with CCLicense

The bulging form of Burj al Fateh, also known as the Corinthia Hotel, is prominent on the skyline. The five star hotel, which opened in 2008, was built and financed by the neighboring government of Libya and has 18 guest floors, 173 rooms and 57 suites, with 6 restaurants, a gift shop, a club lounge, a spa and fitness center, Turkish baths, a gym, and courts for squash and tennis. Designed to mimic the shape of a billowing sail, it is known pejoratively as Khaddafi’s Egg, named for the former Libyan dictator.

© Christopher Michel with CCLicense

On Fridays before sunset, except during the month of Ramadan, crowds gather in Omdurman at the Tomb of the 19th century leader Sheik Hamed al-Nil for a festive celebration of Islam featuring Sufi dervishes praying, singing, chanting, drumming, dancing and whirling as inspiration takes them. It’s a very colorful, happy expression of faith which is, incidentally, a major draw for tourists.

Khartoum Dervishes © Mark Fischer with CCLicense

Khartoum has an easy-going façade, but there is much hiding beneath the surface. Like any large city, Khartoum contains diversity which creates flashpoints for animosity: rich and poor, Arabs and Africans, Muslims and Christians. The situation in refugee camps and slums like Mayo is dire for the poor. Skin bleaching has become a trend in many places in Sudan as young people try to look less African in order to improve their living conditions. The Sudanese government continues a disturbing tradition of seizing Christian churches without compensating the community, repurposing or selling them for profit. These injustices are not unique to Khartoum, but the lack of legal recourse in Sudan has allowed them to become highly institutionalized.

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Scenes of the Northern Desert

© Christopher Michel with CCLicense

The deserts of Sudan are wild places where civilization will always be tenuous. The desperate need for water and the fearsome aspect that nature takes here, full of scorching heat and immense sandstorms, called haboob, which block out the sun, create a profound isolation from the rest of the world. While fighting is intense in the southern part of the country, where there is water and oil in close proximity, the northern reaches see less human interference. To call the desert safe would be neither correct nor prudent, but there is freedom in not having accessible desirable resources.

© Mark Fischer with CCLicense

These deserts do contain small communities, full of tenacious people. Whether it’s a scrubby rural town, a well that provides sustenance to nomadic herders, or an archaeological site preserving the glories of Sudan’s past, life depends on the wise use of water. Sets of communal jugs can be found in such places, used by humans and and their animals. The threat of illness due to the shared vessels is outweighed by the extreme danger of dehydration. Despite, or perhaps because of, the difficulties in these desert outposts, there is a certain good humor, a certain quirkiness that plays out in the juxtaposition of donkeys and Toyota trucks. Life out here is no stranger to the beauty and resilience of absurdity.

© Christopher Michel with CCLicense

There is so much history to be seen here, evidence of the early Nubian civilizations, which built beautiful temples and pyramids; the Romans, who never quite managed to get a toehold in Nubia after conquering Egypt; the Coptic Christians who introduced Christianity and built churches; and finally the Arab travelers who brought Islam and dotted the desert with small shrines where the traveler may pray and seek temporary shelter. The Nubian desert which so resists human habitation and meddling also preserves these fragments of the past.

© Christopher Michel with CCLicense

There are 228 known pyramids in Sudan, more than three times the number that exist in Egypt. They are smaller, more intimate tombs than their cousins in the north, but many are beautifully detailed and well preserved. None of the Sudanese sites is as well known as Meroë, an ancient city on the east bank of the Nile that served as the capital of the Kingdom of Kush for centuries. The Meroitic civilization will be the focus of our next post on Sudan, but here’s a little sample, since I promised you pyramids.

Meroë © Christopher Michel with CCLicense

Where is the Refuge? The Melody of our Alienation

The power of the spoken word and the captured image can be woven together in a way that evades description.

I thought I had finished synkroniciti’s short cycle on Yemen, when I ran across this beautiful poem by Yemeni poet Dr. Abdulaziz Al Maqaleh read so sensitively by Sarah Ahmed. It is a lament for the city of Sana’a, the longtime capital of Yemen, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It reduced me to tears.

The soft, sensual sibilance of Arabic, the restrained elegance of Tony Anderson‘s Ember, which makes a perfect musical backdrop, and the moving images of Sana’a and its residents, especially the young girls in white dresses running freely among the growing flowers and the crumbling ruins, imbue this short film with deep longing, nostalgia and hope.

May we hold this lovely city and its people in our thoughts. Even more, may we work to end participation in her destruction. Thank you to director Abdurahman Hussain and all who worked on this stunning piece of documentary video. You can read more about Hussain here. Such splendid, human work.

I hope one day that I will be able to visit this incredible, resilient city and to pay her and her citizens respect. Peace!

If you would like to read more of our series on Yemen please check out these links:

Portraits of a Nation: The Devastating Beauty of Yemen

In a Land of Queens: Daughters of Yemen

The Hidden Feminine: Examining the Female Image in Yemeni Art