The Hidden Feminine: Examining the Female Image in Yemeni Art

Muslim women are frequently shortchanged by stereotypes. How do artists help to change minds and destroy prejudice?

I have selected the work of two female photographers, Boushra Almutawakel and Yumna Al-Arashi, and two male painters, Hakim Alakel and Mazher Nizar, to show us the face of Muslim women. All of these artists are of Yemeni blood and wrap up synkroniciti’s series on Yemen.

Recently I posted about the difficulty of being female in Yemen today and how current attitudes toward women do not square with the history of the nation, a place ruled in the past by Muslim Queens. You can read that post by clicking here. This post explores how those ultra conservative attitudes make their mark on the Yemeni soul and how they impact the way Yemeni artists, male and female, seek to portray the female form.

No exploration of the feminine in Yemen is complete without acknowledging and unpacking the hijab, the head covering worn by many, but not all, Muslim women around the world. The graphic below illustrates just a small portion of the diversity in female coverings in the Muslim world. There is a great deal of variety and opportunity for self-expression.

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Boushra Almutawakel

Boushra Almutawakel was born in 1969 in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. She earned a BSBA in International Business at American University in Washington, DC, where she also fell in love with photography and worked as a photojournalist for the university paper and yearbook. Returning to Yemen in 1994, she became an educational adviser, but kept taking pictures and participating in exhibitions until embarking on a career in photography in 1998. Professional female photographers were unheard of in Yemen at the time. She balances her own projects with photography for magazines, charitable and cultural organizations and has garnered an international reputation for her insightful work. Boushra served as a cultural advisor for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington and later worked at the Ministry for Human Rights in Sana’a, specializing in women’s rights. She moved to France with her husband and children in 2013.

Her Hijab Series employs feminine humor and dignity to take aim at prejudice against Muslim women in both Eastern and Western culture. You can see more of this series as well as other works on Boushra’s website.

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“True Self”

“I first started the series on the hijab/veil while attending photography school, where I attended a lecture by the Egyptian feminist writer Nawal Elsadawi. At that lecture she said that she felt that women who wore the hijab/veil or nigab were the same as women who wore makeup, in the sense that they all hid their true identities. I thought that was a fascinating perspective, and so decided to interpret this photographically.”

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“What if?”

“In this ongoing project on the hijab/veil I want to explore the many faces and facets of the veil based on my own personal experiences and observations: the convenience, freedom, strength, power, liberation, limitations, danger, humor, irony, variety, cultural, social, and religious aspects, as well as the beauty, mystery, and protection. The hijab/veil as a form of self-expression; the veil as not solely an Arab Middle Eastern phenomenon, the trends, the history and politics of the hijab/veil, as well as differing interpretations, and the fear in regards to the hijab/veil.”

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“Mother, Daughter, Doll”

“A lot of people think that covered women are oppressed, backwards and uneducated. That is far from the truth. But at the same time I can’t hear very well if I am veiled and I can’t see the lips of women wearing the niqab. The biggest problem I have is with children being covered—there is nothing Islamic about that. I prefer our traditional veils which are colourful and more open. The black we’ve imported from the Gulf and the Wahhabis—with gloves and the rest of it—is too much.”-Boushra Almutawakel

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“Sitara, Rada’a”

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“Eye Motion”

Hakim Alakel

Hakim Alakel was born in the artistic city of Ta’izz in 1965. He studied first in Yemen under the famous master artist Ali Hashim, following up at Moscow State Academy in Russia, where he graduated with a Master of Arts degree cum laude, specializing in frescoes, art history and conceptual art. There is a marked Art Nouveau influence in his lush and colorful paintings, which are on display all over the world. Learn more about Hakim and his paintings here. A large figure on the Yemeni cultural scene who has worked as a Professor of Art, a magazine contributor and critic, a consultant for the restoration of Yemeni architecture, a coordinator for children’s art and theater projects and much more, Hakim now lives in Jordan. The irony is that the elimination of his duties with the Yemeni Ministry of Culture, which is unable to operate in a country torn by war, has freed him to return to painting, imbued with a profound sense of nostalgia.

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Hakim’s paintings recall city life in Yemen before the civil war, when communities functioned and family life was not dogged by death and warfare. There is a palpable longing for the emotional stability and simplicity of that time. Sleeping or awake, pensive or free-spirited, regal or humorous, the women he paints have personalities which are only rivaled by his vivid use of color. He must have had great affection for the women in his life to render them with such humanity and honesty.

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“In my work, I depend on a range of aesthetic references, especially Yemeni ones, which form the basis of my artistic language. These include architecture, clothing, and other aspects of Yemen’s huge cultural inheritance, which goes back to 5000 B.C. and continues to the present day. This cultural heritage, especially its urban aspects, influences me greatly, and I feel that the Yemeni city lives inside me.”

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 “These cities, and their inhabitants, whether in Sana’a, the capital, or other cities, form a primary reference for my work… the clothing, the weather, the nature, and the environment. You’ll find the Yemeni women actually form the main inspiration for my art work. They are unique in their style, their vision, their dress… and there is also a certain kind of silence in their faces. I see these women as symbols and representations of the larger environment in which they live.”-Hakim Alakel

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Traditionally, Yemeni women have dressed in bright colors and patterns. Most favored a bright cotton hijab rather than the burka or niqab, but those days have faded in the cities, where women are arrested for being on the street without permission and bullied for not being “properly covered”. Women in smaller villages, such as those picturesque towns in the Haraz Mountains that I have spoken about in an earlier post, still tend to dress in this fashion. It is good to have artists remembering and witnessing to better times. Maybe one day those good things can be restored and even bettered.

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Mazher Nizar

Born of a Yemeni family in Mumbai, India in 1958, Mazher Nizar came home to Yemen in 1985 after receiving his Diploma in Graphic Art from the Government College of Art & Craft in Kolkata. He lives in Sana’a and is frequently inspired by the Old City. Mazher’s paintings hearken back to the Queen of Sheba, blending Arabic and Yemeni motifs and elements with a romantic Indian painting style. He has exhibited his work across Europe and Asia, as well as Canada. His decision to remain in Sana’a through the Civil War and share his art online through his Facebook account have inspired many Yemeni to hold on to hope. You can see more of his work on his website.

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The feminine “inspired me a lot because it was hidden, and something hidden creates imagination, and imagination is good for the artist to go on and on with.”

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“It was very good for me to paint on the Queen of Sheba, and I started painting ordinary woman as a Queen. It became fact that all my women became very spiritual and they were very out of this world. They are not portraits of any particular women, they are just women of my expressions, how I feel them.”

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Mazher is inspired by women and believes them to be more spiritual in nature than men. Rather than seeing the covered woman as a victim, he sees her as an exalted mystery. If she is not completely human it is because she is superhuman- a mythological force which nurtures hope, symbolized by flowers and birds- not because she is in any way inferior. Veiling her stokes her desirability and spirituality, heightening romance. This is lovely, although there is a certain loneliness in being mythical.

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Yumna Al-Arashi

Born in Washington, DC in 1988, the child of a diplomat, Yumna Al-Arashi was in middle school when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 struck. Overnight, she became subject to intense intimidation and bullying stemming from misguided hatred in the wake of tragedy. I recommend you read her moving experience here. Yumna holds a Bachelors Degree in International Politics with an emphasis on the Middle East from the New School in New York City and is now a documentary photographer who has lived and worked in many places around the world. She has worked with prestigious cultural organizations and magazines and has exhibited her own projects in the United States, the Middle East and London. You can see her credentials and more of her beautiful work on her website. Her work does a fantastic job of unifying the mythological feminine with the human.

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from Northern Yemen

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from Northern Yemen

“There’s this prevalent idea of a woman who is covering her hair or her body as totally oppressed, and that’s never a viewpoint I’ve agreed with,” explains Al-Arashi, who is Muslim and grew up in Washington, D.C. “My whole life I’ve been surrounded by Muslim women who cover themselves, and they’re such badasses and have such incredible depth—as much as any of the uncovered women I’ve met. As a Muslim woman, you’re often boxed into a single identity. I wanted to shift that stereotype.”
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from Northern Yemen

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“I wanted people to see that there is a Muslim woman that exists that can be comfortable with her body and who still supports other women who are covered, who thinks that’s okay.”
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from Portraits

“I believe that controlling sexuality is the root of controlling all power in a society. To be able to openly bring a woman’s sexuality to light is an incredibly important step in expressing a woman’s freedom and humanity. Discussions of sexuality shouldn’t be taboo, and my hope is to be able to open the forum for further thought on the issue.”-Yumna Al-Arashi
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from Water

 

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from Water

Portraits of a Nation: The Devastating Beauty of Yemen

Challenged by the unknown and unfamiliar, we often turn away. Can our curiosity help us to become better, kinder people?

This is the first post of a series exploring foreign cultures. We begin with Yemen, focusing not on the bloodshed and the destruction wreaked upon her, but the humanity and beauty that make her both vulnerable and resilient. I’ll be posting more about the culture and arts of Yemen later this week.

 

The images that follow were graciously shared online by Rod Waddington, yeowatzup and Valerian Guillot, who have made most of their illuminating and risky 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. Please follow their magnificent output on Flickr.

As I curated these sets of people, places and animals, which date from 2010 to 2016, I could not help but wonder what has been lost in these few years. Are these buildings still standing? What has become of these people, especially these bright, playful children? I had to stop several times in my gathering to mourn the innocence and beauty that has surely been changed, if not destroyed. The human and cultural price in Yemen is very high.

Travel to Yemen is not suggested nor is it easily feasible, as the Yemeni Civil War and the presence of Al Qaeda and ISIS, as well as airstrikes (Saudi and American), make it a dangerous place for anyone, particularly Westerners, who have been detained and kidnapped. Mismanaged from within and exploited from without, it is a place that is lost to the outside world. Some might think that the poorest country in the region, a desert nation without an oil industry, doesn’t hold much. They couldn’t be more wrong. It’s a beautiful country, with fantastic architecture and a long, proud history.

 

Faces of Yemen

Yemen lies on the southwestern Arabian Peninsula, near the crossroad of three continents, along trade routes that cross both land and sea. This has made Yemenis a very diverse group. Some trace their roots to Africa, especially the northern Sahara, some to Persia, ancient Israel or other nations, ancient or modern, on the Arabian Peninsula, while others hail from India and South Asia. There also Yemeni of European descent, particularly Russian and eastern European.

Images © Rod Waddington with CCLicense

The vast majority are Muslim, but Christians, Jews and others have a place in the culture, although the advent of more extreme fundamentalism has strained that somewhat. You will notice that women’s faces are under-represented. All women are encouraged to cover up, regardless of faith, in order to avoid negative attention. Photographing women in Yemen can be risky and is discouraged. This is an uncomfortable truth for a nation that counts two prominent Queens in its history, the biblical Queen of Sheba and the beloved Queen Arwa, who ruled from her early twenties until she died at the age of 92.

Note the gentleman below wearing the jambiya, a ceremonial curved dagger that is a symbol of male honor and status in many Arab countries. They are worn on expensive belts and many of the hilts are made from precious substances such as jade or ivory.

Images © yeowatzup with CCLicense

The favored pet in Muslim households is the cat, admired for its cleanliness and beloved by the Prophet. Cats are commonly considered indoor animals while dogs are kept outdoors. It is said that Muhammad once cut a sleeve off of his robe rather than awaken his cat Muezza, who had fallen asleep on it while he prayed. It is good to know that cats have remained constant throughout time and across cultures!

 

Sana’a

Sana’a, the largest city in Yemen, and until recently the capital, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on the planet. It has been a seat of power for much of that time, presided over by Sabaean (from Sheba) rulers, Himyarite Kings (who converted from polytheism to Judaism), Ethiopian Viceroys, Muslim Caliphs, local Imams of the Zaydi tribe and Ottoman Turks, who took the city twice over the span of a few centuries. Yemen includes four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the old city of Sana’a. Some of the buildings in Old Sana’a, including the Grand Mosque, are over 1,400 years old. There are more than 100 mosques, 12 bath houses and around 6,500 residences. These homes are several stories tall with flat roofs and elaborate decorative elements. The architecture is unique and lovely.

Images © Rod Waddington with CCLicense

 

Jabal Haraz

The Romans called Yemen Arabia Felix, “Happy Arabia”, because the country has a great deal of fertile ground. For centuries, much of the food for the Arabian Peninsula was grown in Yemen, which was also world-renowned for growing coffee. If you are a coffee drinker, you may enjoy coffee mocha, named for the fabled medieval port that distributed it to the world. Mocha, or Mokha, isn’t much to look at now, as it was upstaged by other Yemeni ports long ago. Recent damage has plunged Mokha even deeper into poverty, but coffee is still grown in the Haraz Mountain region of Yemen, known as Jabal Haraz. Terraced farms are visible on the mountainsides and fortified villages cling to rocky mountaintops. Long ago, in order to break the Yemeni  monopoly on coffee, Westerners stole plants from this region and transplanted them into their own countries.

Images © Rod Waddington with CCLicense

 

 

Socotra

Away from the mainland lies Socotra Island and the tiny islands of Abd al Kuri, Samhah and Darsa. Together with a few rocky outcrops that support seabirds, these islands make up the Socotran Archipelago, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a tough, isolated life for those who live out here, but it is probably safer than any of the mainland cities.

Images © Rod Waddington with CCLicense

Approximately one third of the plant life here is endemic, occurring naturally nowhere else on the globe. The Dragon’s Blood Tree, Dracaena cinnabari, and the Bottle Tree, Adenium obesum, are the most striking of these plants. Socotra was occupied by some of the earliest humans during the Lower Paleolithic Period (1.7  to 2.6 million years ago) when it was attached to the mainland.

 

Images © Valerian Guillot with CCLicense

There are many inscriptions in the rocks of the island, most in Brāhmī script, which was used across south Asia and India, while others are in South Arabian, Ethiopic, Greek, Palmyrene and Bactrian. Socotra was once an important landmark and stopover for boats moving from the Arabian Sea into the Indian Ocean and vice versa.

In addition to mountains and beautiful white sand beaches, Socotra features a karst region with stunning limestone caves.

Here we will stop, although there are many more wonderful places in Yemen, including stunning Taiz with its walls and gardens and lovely Jibla, where “Little Sheba”, the powerful Muslim Queen Arwa ruled for more than seventy years. Her story is a story for a different post.

It is humbling to realize that Yemen was a sophisticated place in better days, a reminder that poverty and lawlessness are never as distant from the human experience as we would like them to be. May this terrible conflict end before more is lost.

 

 

 

 

From the Trail: A Walk at Lake Brownwood State Park

It is easy to miss delightful things when we only accept and cultivate experiences that we expect to be life-changing.

Last summer, my husband and I stayed one night at Lake Brownwood State Park here in Texas on our way to New Mexico. I woke up early that morning and decided that I would take a walk over to the lake. I didn’t expect much, being far more excited about the places to come, but it was not too hot yet and I needed the exercise.

The hike was a pleasant one, notable for the interesting mix of desert and wetland plants and the juxtaposition of habitats. The Western Cross Timbers, Edwards Plateau, Grand Prairie and Rolling Plains regions all come together here. There are also some attractive stone structures and features made by the  Civilian Conservation Corps before and during the World War II era (1933-42). Moths and butterflies were plentiful, and I met up with an itinerant road runner who kept me from missing the trail on the way back. This trail reminded me that some of life’s great moments happen unannounced. If we only take those walks that promise to impress us with spectacular scenery, we miss the subtler beauty that lies all around us. Sometimes that is all we need and all the more precious.

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Stone Tables and Benches

A Question of Currency: Mark Wagner’s Money is Material

Reality is shaped by human constructs of which nature never dreamed. Art exposes and reevaluates these things, creating necessary discomfort.

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Let’s talk about money, once labeled the “root of all evil” in the Hebrew Bible. Our modern social system runs on it, and yet what is money? A promise that vouches that we are worthy of the things we need and want, a watermark of our usefulness. If you have more of it, you are thus a better person, right? Something in many of us seems to fidget at this, to recognize that there is error here, an error that has been multiplied many times over, creating cracks that reach to the bottom of our society and threaten the planet which cradles us. Mark Wagner reveals and exploits those cracks to create art.

This ingenious video presented by The Avant/Garde Diaries plays up sociopathological overtones, even putting Mark into an orange shirt and shooting in such a minimalistic way that he seems to be some sort of prisoner speaking from his jail cell, or, worse, some sort of serial killer of dollar bills hard at work in his dark attic, stabbing and slicing his victims into pieces for his brilliant, grisly collages. All this from a guy who might ride next to you in the subway-a hidden, dangerous subversive.

 

Despite their immense cleverness, intricacy and beauty, which make me smile in spite of myself, I’m not completely sure how I feel about Mark’s collages. The destruction of hundreds of bills that could possibly help people in need reveals a certain privilege, an artistic hubris that smacks of a large ego. And yet, I appreciate the boldness of striking at a taboo that has sanctified our currency. Many people believe it is illegal to destroy or deface the American Dollar, but that assertion lies in a gray area. It is illegal to alter or destroy a bill for the purpose of defrauding someone, but the government itself destroys bills or coins when they become too disfigured for use. Doing so for artistic purposes, or even for simple low-tech mischief, is not typically construed as a crime.

The message here cuts deeper. The very word currency refers not only to money, but to “the quality of being generally accepted or in use”. If we accept the system money creates without acknowledging that it has a dark side-the extra pressure and amplified greed which it adds to the common goal of survival-we fail to safeguard our souls and our world against the resulting injustices. And yet, if we suddenly reject a system that underlies our entire civilization, we will destroy that civilization. We have to establish some sort of compromise, recognizing that money is only material, a necessary evil, at least until humanity thinks of something different. And what of all that “digital” money, the disembodied credit that floats through our modern cities like a soul or a ghost animating our desires? Will that ephemeral nature make it even more powerful and more cruel?

I think the world needs iconoclastic art such as this to call out the conflict between morality and the system we have built to sustain our society. What do you think?

Please take some time to peruse Mark Wagner’s fantastic website.

Between Wildness and Domestication: Wolf Mountain Sanctuary

Humans are fascinated by wildness, but interaction with humans changes a wild animal permanently. Where do such animals find a home?

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Tonya Littlewolf runs Wolf Mountain Sanctuary in Lucerne Valley, located in the southern Mojave Desert in California. She makes a home here for wolves whose lives have been threatened by humans. Most have been raised as pets, only to be discarded when they grew too big, too hard to control and too expensive to feed. A wolf that has lived with humans does not become a tame dog, neither is that animal wild anymore. These wolves, if released from their sanctuary, would approach humans in search of food. Sooner or later, that kind of behavior will get an animal killed, especially a large predator that stirs a mythological fear in human beings.

Born in New Mexico of Chiricahua Mescalero Apache and Sicilian heritage, Tonya was introduced to wild animals at a young age and developed strong bonds with them, especially with wolves. In the Native American tradition of the Wolf Sibling, it is her mission to minister to these glorious creatures and to help heal the strain between humans and wolves. You may find her unorthodox, feeding wolves raw meat from her mouth and speaking freely of her spiritual connection to them, but you cannot deny that she loves them and they her. How different would our world be if we had more people caring for the animals and plants around us with this kind of dedication and respect?

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This beautifully understated short film, echoing the simple starkness of its desert locale, was created by cinematographer Sam Price-Waldman, who is also video producer for The Atlantic. Wolf Mountain is a fantastic introduction to Wolf Mountain Sanctuary, moving and sensitive without becoming maudlin and sentimental. Price-Waldman has given his subjects dignity. The wonderfully textured closeups allow us a peek into the personalities of these individuals, while the communal keening of the wolf pack cuts right into the soul with its melancholy music. I can’t imagine how electric it must be to be there. At the end of the film Tonya clears the air by burning sage, dispelling negativity, and we see Native American prayer threads worked into the fence. This is a ministry, not a scientific study nor a exercise in activism.

 

 

It would be better if these animals had not come in contact with humans, but it’s too late. Our curiosity wounds and our desire to own maims and kills. Tonya and her wolves are trapped in a place that lies between civilization and wildness. She cannot leave it anymore than they can. No matter how nice a cage is, it remains a cage. And yet being stuck in this “in between” place gives the Wolf Sister and her pack a unique opportunity to be ambassadors between wolves and humans. The hairy ones have things to show us.

 

If you are interested in helping Tonya and the wolves with their mission, you can visit the Wolf Mountain Sanctuary in person, where you can go inside the wolf enclosure and meet these splendid, expressive animals. You can also donate online. Large quantities of red meat and chicken, loads of vegetables such as pumpkins and carrots-you might be surprised at how much wolves enjoy these-and vet bills are expensive and Wolf Mountain receives no money from the government. Please visit the Wolf Mountain website, where you can learn a bit about each member of the pack.

Images from the Wolf Mountain Sanctuary Website used in accordance with Fair Use Policy.

Owning Aggression: Sonya Tayeh’s Baggage

Many believe art should always emphasize the beautiful and balanced. Can art help us understand and heal our dark side?

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Photo © Sara Krulwich at The New York Times

 

Sonya Tayeh is best known as a choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance, but this brilliant dancer, dance teacher and choreographer is enjoying a tremendously varied career, premiering works with the Los Angeles Ballet and the Martha Graham Dance Company, choreographing musicals such as Spring Awakening, The Wild Party, Kung Fu and The Last Goodbye, as well as creating moves for Madonna, Florence and the Machine and Kylie Minogue, among others. You might not realize that this is a career that very nearly didn’t happen.

 

As a teenager, Sonya was a house dancer. House dancing grew out of the party scene in large cities of the American Northeast, and involves intricate footwork and fluid torso movement that follows the rhythm of the music very closely, punctuating much smaller, subtler details than many forms of dance. It is often improvised and can require a great deal of skill, but it isn’t recognized as a formal dance style. When Sonya realized she wanted to continue dancing in college and beyond, she applied to dance schools, only to be rejected six times on the grounds that she was too old to begin training.

Sonya did not give up, despite the voices that told her she was wasting her time. She graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Dance, blending her previous skills with a knowledge of art history and anatomy as well as new skills gleaned in formal dance performance. Over time, this blend solidified into a new style, one she calls “combat jazz”. Combat jazz retains the intricacy and intensity of house dancing, combining quirky, often aggressive, non-classical movement with elements of more formal dance. It is a striking union, as you can see in her short piece, Baggage.

 

 

What is so shocking about this work is its honesty. We see these partners are sometimes baggage for one another, heavy and difficult to move. In turn, we see them treat one another like baggage, slinging each other around and asserting control. How many people, particularly women (but not exclusively), can see this piece and walk away gratified that someone has noticed their struggle?

The jerky, house dance derived movements that are Sonya’s bread and butter highlight the conflict. As opposed to the more refined lines of ballet, they connect with our emotions at a visceral, non-intellectual level. When we look at these dancers, we don’t see performers using their technical skills. We see ourselves.

There are those who say that the aggressive, abusive relationships portrayed in Baggage have no place onstage, that we should spend our time looking at things that are more positive and harmonious. There is value in order and beauty. There is also value in truth. If we are unwilling to see that there is much in human relationships that is controlling and aggressive then how will we confront and deal with that behavior? Performance, with its suspension of reality, gives us a place to work through difficult situations and to recognize and identify human darkness, within and without. It can also give those who have lived through abuse a voice to tell their story, creating opportunities for catharsis, empathy, and healing.

The danger in turning away artists who don’t fit the mold and in censoring art that doesn’t conform to predetermined standards is that we will lose voices that we need to hear, or even worse, that we will become unable to hear at all.

Video via Sonya Tayeh Choreography on YouTube.
Tayeh Dance performing at the El Portal Theatre
Dancers: Cheryl Smith, Adrian Lee, Jill Chu, Will Johnston

 

 

Wistful Moments: Rebecca Bathory’s Presence of Absence

During our lifetime, places that are special to us either change or become abandoned, decay and disappear. Visiting places that we used to inhabit is disorienting, as feelings of absence and loss mix with poignant memories, both happy and sad.

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Dust From Your Eyes © Rebecca Bathory

Photographer Rebecca Bathory, née Litchfield, seeks out neglected places, capturing a sense of this disorientation on a communal scale and documenting what remains of the memories of forgotten people and defunct communities. Her work is often identified as dark tourism photography. Some of her images have a romantic element that borders on the mythological, a power equal to those of more famous buildings in ruin, but much more unique. Many of these places will not survive the ravages of time much longer and there is no one who cares to preserve them. They are structures humanity passes everyday without much thought, their windows boarded shut, languishing and rotting behind tall fences and locked gates, marked only by signs that warn us to keep out. We are conditioned not to see them, but they have stories to tell. Rebecca has gained entry to them for us, bringing back surreal images that stir up buried emotion. These images not only have much to say about our ancestors and the world in which they lived, they also help us comprehend and come to terms with our own future.

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The Show Must Go On

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Symphony of Silence

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All That Remains

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Thy Kingdom Come

These powerful photographs are from a collection called Presence of Absence. Although the places pictured are empty, the memory of their inhabitants lingers, slipping away slowly in dark corners, fading from our world. What a precious thing, to catch a piece of human history before it is forgotten!
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The Cavern of Lost Souls

Rebecca, who holds degrees in photography and graphic design, is currently pursuing a PHD in visual anthropology, linking her images with those of a century of documentary photographers and expanding her reach into new media and visual forms. Please spend some time on her website, where you can also order prints or a copy of her book, Soviet Ghosts.
All images are © Rebecca Bathory, used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for educational and critical purposes.

A Strange Authenticity: The Spirit of Johnson Mesa

How do we recharge when the world becomes too much to endure? Seeking different sights and sounds can help.

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The recognizable prominence of Johnson Mesa, from Little Horse Mesa in Sugarite Canyon State Park.

Near Raton, New Mexico, a small, shabby town along I-25, a place where you can buy tobacco and school supplies on the same grocery aisle, lies Johnson Mesa. The mesa dominates the area to the east of Raton, near Sugarite State Park. NM Highway 72 clambers up the sides of it and cuts across. The world up here is different: rolling grassland with mountains in the distance and a wind that howls like someone looking for a lost soul. I’d be nervous to be on the mesa during a storm, but I am sure the show would be spectacular. Ever since we found this road years ago (at the time the mesa top was white with snow) I’ve wanted to take pictures up here.

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Johnson Mesa, Set 1: Hello

Farmers have eked out a living on the mesa since the 1880s, when coal miners and rail workers searching for a safer, more stable occupation settled the small town of Bell, which had some of the first telephone connections in New Mexico. That’s a bit ironic, considering how hard it is to get a cell signal anywhere around Raton. This plain, 2,000 feet above the valley floor, was once a place of relative hustle and bustle, with 5 schools and a post office. Life was difficult and the entire community was snowbound every winter. After World War I, Bell fizzled and the post office closed in 1933. A few families live here in the summer, but no one makes a habit of staying through the winter anymore.

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Johnson Mesa, Set 2: Barns

The old barns are magical, but the jewel is the Johnson Mesa Church. With pink pews and fake hydrangea blooms, the chapel has its share of the tacky and the provincial, but there is something more here, something enduring and reassuring. Maybe it’s hearing the mad roar of the wind outside or seeing bird’s nests solidly anchored under the eaves. Maybe it’s seeing an obviously beloved space exposed to the elements and to human experience, the door unlocked and the outhouses pristine. Perhaps these things help us feel the presence of a God too often obscured by modern noise. And if God is on the mesa, as lonely as it is, then God is in our world, sustaining and preserving and experiencing with us.

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Johnson Mesa, Set 3: Without

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Johnson Mesa, Set 4: Within

It’s been a hard summer for my family. Our home flooded for the second time this past April (we flooded previously in 2009) and my mother’s health has been terrible. Between working to get things in Houston stable and running up to Oklahoma City to help my mother, there hasn’t been a lot of time to listen or create. When I have tried to keep up with the world around me, I’ve been struck by the tragedies: Orlando, Nice, Turkey, and depressed by the incredible rudeness and lack of compassion in American politics. It is a difficult time, but Johnson Mesa tells me that something always survives, always endures. I needed to see that. Maybe you need to see it, too.

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Johnson Mesa, Set 5: Farewell

Peace,

kat

If you would like to see more photos, please check out my Flickr album. All images are licensed with Creative Commons Licenses, so you are free to download them and use them in any way that makes you happy, as long as you attribute the image to me.

Building Faerie Houses, Part Two: Faerie House Listing Gallery

Synkroniciti and FAE Realty present recently listed faerie houses, all built at our last synkroniciti gathering, In the Garden.

I hope you enjoy looking at them even a quarter as much as we enjoyed making them. My thanks to Kelly, Susan, Louis, André and Shanáy for their originality, creativity and friendship. I’ve enjoyed my stint as real estate editor over at FAE and hope the listings are all to your liking. Wink.

Listing One: Broken Pot House and Snail Guesthouse (Katherine)

These two low lying homes, designed to be perfect for small toads or frogs and stylish enough for fairies, nestle happily into the mulch. The main house is colorful, yet blends into the garden, while the guest house is a picturesque bungalow that would be a great fit for a single fairy. Style meets functionality beneath the crepe myrtle.

 

Listing Two: Pine Cone Garden Apartments for the Wee-est of the Wee (Susan)

Teeny folks will appreciate this lovely set of garden flats in a pine cone, artfully constructed for the artistic eye with a lovely view near the acanthus. Longing for the romance of Greece or the Mediterranean but don’t want to leave your tidy flat? This is your place.

 

Listing Three: Shell Basket House (André)

You’re not a sea fairy, but you’ve always wanted to live in your own sea shell. Now you can, as the rooms of Shell Basket House are just that. The arms of this house are flung out in celebration, imitating the upright attitude of the nearby calla lily. When the sun hits it just right the entire place has the feeling of an offering. Offering and celebration, not a bad way to see life, eh?

 

 Listing Four: Vine Gazebo (Kelly)

This delightfully crafted tall gazebo in our hottest neighborhood, between the elephant ear and the pink camellia, is a real stand out. Lounge in a romantic mood, as sun and shade drift by. The epitome of high flying garden elegance and airy sculptural form!

 

Listing Five: Yellow Cup House (Shanáy)

Just next door to Vine Gazebo is this gorgeous, evocative home for a big fairy family of sensitive taste. It recalls the essence of sea and forest, some of nature’s most holy places. At the same time, a variety of color, form and texture keeps the place from feeling too reverent. This is a place to make memories.

 

Listing Six: Feather Cup House (Susan)

This charming domicile is all about soft textures and luxury. For the sustainability conscious fairy, the feathers catch the morning dew and dry out nicely by mid-day. On the other side of the pink camellia from Yellow Cup House, it is a favorite with the local cat, a large half Maine Coon tabby named Yuri. The ideal resident is a cat whisperer and certainly should not be allergic. Fairies, if you would like a furry feline friend, look no further.

 

Listing Seven: Bark House (Louis)

Looking for your fairy dream palace? Near the ginger stalks and fern stands this stunning home made of bark and twine. Elegant and refined, it still looks completely natural on the wild side of the garden. Beautifully appointed and inviting, it’s already attracted attention from the creatures in the garden. CONTRACT PENDING

( Can you find our newest resident and happy customer? Bark House is Lizard approved.)

 

The process of making these Faerie houses was so much fun. We learned and were influenced by each other, and yet each piece has a completely different character and structure. As adults we don’t have enough creative playtime in our lives. Can’t wait to do it again sometime!

Imitating Nature: Green Cacti of Lina Cofán

Nature is a great source of inspiration for creatives of all types. Lina Cofán takes a whimsical look at cacti.

Cactus 101

 

Lina Cofán was working as a performance and theater based artist in Berlin when she decided to move back to Spain and pursue an interest in ceramic sculpture. The majority of her pieces are plants, specifically cacti. Cacti come in a wealth of textures and shades of green to which Cofán adds her imagination and skill. The result is simply enchanting.

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Cofán’s creations are life size, rendered with playful ridges in glowing greens that delight the eye. From barrel shaped to tall saguaro, from prickly pear to pincushion, these quirky cacti have an astonishing amount of personality.

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Please check out Lina Cofán’s website. I hope to see and learn more about this talented artist in the future.

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All images © Lina Cofán