I looked out the window at the black clouds ahead of us. I opened the back window and smelled the rain. You could smell the rain in the desert even before a drop fell. I closed my eyes. I held my hand out and felt the first drop. It was like a kiss. The sky was kissing me. It was a nice thought. It was something Dante would have thought. I felt another drop and then another. A kiss. A kiss. And then another kiss.
I’ve recently returned to painting and, searching for inspiration, ran across Agnes Pelton’s extraordinary transcendental paintings, images full of energy balanced with a cool serenity. She has quickly become one of my favorite painters.
Agnes Lawrence Pelton was born in 1881 to American parents, William and Florence Pelton, in Stuttgart, Germany. She spent her early childhood in Europe before moving to Brooklyn with her mother when she was seven. Florence Pelton ran The Pelton School of Music out of their home and kept food on the table by teaching piano, as well as German and French. William Pelton overdosed on morphine at his brother’s home in Louisiana when his daughter was nine.
Awakening: Memory of Father, 1943
Agnes Pelton graduated from the Pratt Institute in 1900, continuing her study of painting with Arthur Wesley Dow, who also taught Georgia O’Keeffe. His emphasis on structure, imagination and non-naturalistic color deeply affected both women. Pelton referred to her early works as “imaginative paintings“, “moods of nature symbolically expressed” that exhibited humanity in harmony with nature and experimented with natural light. She often dressed in flowing gowns with flowers twisted into her hair and set up her studio in Greenwich Village, a hotbed for political radicals and avant-garde artists.
Vine Wood, 1910
West Wind, 1915
Room Decoration in Purple and Gray, 1917
In 1919, Pelton made a visit to Taos, New Mexico, as a guest of the colorful Mabel Dodge Luhan, who built the image and brand of “Southwestern Modernist Art” by inviting artists to her home and promoting their work. Here Pelton painted realistic portraits and romantic desert landscapes. These paintings honed her technique and sold and showed well, but her true calling was to paint inner visions rather than realistic representational scenes. Enchanted by the desert but, most likely, uncomfortable with fitting in to a commercial, mainstream artistic movement, especially one so aggressively shepherded by a personality like Luhan, she returned to New York to be near her mother. After Florence died in 1920, Pelton took up residence in a historic windmill on Long Island, seeking solitude and deeper abstraction, still heavily influenced by nature. It was here in the winter of 1926 that her first introspective, abstract paintings were born. She also traveled heavily, feeling herself to be a bit of a nomad. In 1932, the windmill was sold. Homeless at the age of 50, Pelton decided to travel across the country to Cathedral City, California, intending on a short stay. She would live out the rest of her life in the California desert.
California Landscape near Pasadena, 1930
Early Morning in the Wash, 1936
The vibration of this light, the spaciousness of these skies enthralled me. I knew there was a spirit in nature as in everything else, but here in the desert it was an especially bright spirit.
Star Gazer, 1929
The Voice, 1930
Sea Change, 1931
In 1938, a group of artists based in Taos calling themselves the Transcendental Painting Group contacted Pelton. They were inspired and excited by her work and wondered if she would become their first president, sort of a patron saint for spiritual abstract painting. She accepted, and for five years she had an artistic community. The Transcendental Painters sought “to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new concepts of space, color, light and design, to imaginative realms that are idealistic and spiritual.” The group broke up in 1943 as World War II made life difficult for everyone. Pelton’s work became more personal and abstract, and she receded not only from the art world, but from society in general. She had no interest in promoting her art, and died largely forgotten in 1961 at the age of eighty. Recently, her work has been rediscovered and promoted. I am very excited about a traveling exhibition originating at the Phoenix Museum of Art this spring called Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist. It will tour to the Whitney Museum in New York City, The New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe and to the Palm Springs Art Museum. I’d like to see it, wouldn’t you?
The Blest, 1941
Passion Flower, 1945
What I love so much about Pelton’s painting is its serene luminosity. Her light is powerful and energetic but remains benevolent and nurturing. She had a profound interest in spirituality and in finding common ground with other cultures. Heavily influenced by numerology, spiritualism and yoga, her work lies at the beginning of what would become the New Age Movement There is something very feminine and abundant about the portrayal of her inner world. At a time when many modernist painters were paring things down to straight lines and redactive images, her work is refreshing in its roundness and expressivity. Organized and elegant, she never overwhelms the eye, although she has a lively sense of color. World War II must have been a great challenge, yet she remains strong and hopeful in her painting, as if presenting a vision of healthy humanity undimmed despite pain and difficulty. What a refreshing vision for any age!
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.
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.
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.
Earthen hut with thatched roof in Toteil, near Kassala, Sudan
View of the Taka Mountains from Toteil near Kassala, Sudan
Thatched hut house in Toteil near Kassala and Taka Mountains, eastern Sudan
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.
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.
Sudanese women visiting Tuti Island where the Blue Nile and White Nile converge
Republican Palace Museum, Khartoum, formerly and Anglican Cathedral
Cattle Drive, Omdurman
Sudanese children visiting the National History Museum, Khartoum
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.
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 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.
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.
Boys at a rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan
Building near rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan
A set of traditional water jugs at a rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan.
Mosque near a rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan
Some of the painting in the ancient Nubian tombs at El-Kurru near Karima, Sudan.
Boys at a rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan
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.
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.
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.
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.
Humans react profoundly to images of places, natural or man-made. Why are we moved by locations we have never visited?
From the mystical glow of the Aurora Borealis to the crumbling majesty of the Egyptian pyramids, places make a deep impression on us. We may have no ancestry there, we may never have walked there, but the image of such regions raises a lump in the throat. We wax romantic imagining what it would be like to occupy time and space there. In fact, sometimes a visit to such a place is a let down, as it is difficult for reality to measure up to the glowing imagination of the human mind.
Many of these places are famous, and justly so. But, occasionally, we are struck by an unfamiliar image that stirs us just as deeply. I was watching the 2011 movie Samsara, which I wholeheartedly recommend, when I was blindsided by images of houses invaded by the desert, filled knee deep with sand. There are so many profound images in Samsara, but this one haunted me desperately. I had to know its name.
I am fond of the desert, having traveled quite a bit in the American Southwest, especially Utah. It has been said that all deserts are one in the imagination, and I think that is essentially true. Love for one desert translates quite easily into love for another. It’s a harsh environment and one that requires respect to ensure survival. If we could drop the CEOs of large corporations into such places for a few days without outside aid, I think we would have a revolution in the way we treat the earth. Life in the desert is too fragile to waste, resources too valuable.
Kolmanskop, or Coleman’s Hill in Afrikaans, is an abandoned mining village in the Namib desert of southern Namibia, just 10 kilometers, 6.2 miles, from the port city Lüderitz. It was named for Johnny Coleman, a transport driver who found himself marooned in a fearful sandstorm and abandoned his ox wagon here.
In 1908, a railway worker by the name of Zacharias Lewala found a shiny rock resting on the sand and showed it to his supervisor, the German railway inspector August Stauch. The shiny stone turned out to be a diamond. German miners flocked to the area and a large portion of desert was declared Sperrgebiet, or prohibited area. The famed mining company DeBeers, who ran the mines in the area, had strict rules, one of which was that equipment or vehicles that entered their facilities were never allowed to leave. Most of this area is still off limits to the public, with the exception of a National Park centered in Kolmanskop and run by Namib-DeBeers. The fame of the Sperrgebiet is legendary. It is rumored that some miners would slide across the sand on their bellies, picking up dozens of diamonds as they slithered about.
In its day, Kolmanskop was incredibly wealthy and the residents used their money to recreate a German village in the savage African desert. For entertainment, there was a ballroom, theater, sport hall, bowling alley and casino. The tiny town possessed its own power station, school, ice factory and hospital. It was the location of the first x-ray station in the southern hemisphere and the first tram in Africa. Despite its glory, purchased with resources purloined from the earth and from local people who saw little benefit, the life of Kolmanskop was brief. After World War I the diamonds began to peter out and it was too expensive to keep things going here. Kolmanskop was empty by 1954. The ghost town has been reclaimed by the desert, sandstorms invading the structures and creating an eerie scene.
There is something powerful about things buried in the desert, mummified, arrested and yet not rotting. In a more humid climate, they would be assimilated back into the soil, but here they remain preserved, a warning and a reminder to the human race. Although we think ourselves important, we too will die and become a riddle to the future.
Mission San Antonio de Padua, California, ca.1906 Public Domain Image
Through the window, I saw the beautiful world outside: the sky, the sun, the cacti, the rocks, and the dirt.
How I longed to return to it! I licked at the air, trying to smell the desert’s delicious dusty scent, but could not. How was I able to see it without smelling it? Did humans control scents as well as the temperature and the waters?
Is that what windows were for, to keep out scents? Why did they wish to put invisible barriers between themselves and the world?”
Marble Canyon rest, Second Powell Expedition, 1872
I am not sure that we can climb out of the canyon here, and, when at the top of the wall, I know enough of the country to be certain that it is a desert of rock and sand. I almost conclude to leave the river. But for years I have been contemplating this trip. To leave the exploration unfinished, to say that there is a part of the canyon which I cannot explore, having already almost accomplished it, is more than I am willing to acknowledge, and I determine to go on.
—John Wesley Powell, leader of the Powell expedition from Green River, WY to the mouth of the Virgin River, which lies in Utah, through the heart of canyon country, May 24th to August 30th, 1869. He retraced the route from 1871-72, this time taking photographs.
And how should a beautiful, ignorant stream of water know it heads for an early release – out across the desert, running toward the Gulf, below sea level, to murmur its lullaby, and see the Imperial Valley rise out of burning sand with cotton blossoms, wheat, watermelons, roses, how should it know?”
I’d like to see North America become a dry, sunny, sandy region inhabited mainly by lizards, buzzards and a modest human population – about 25 million would be plenty – of pastoralists and prospectors (prospecting for truth), gathering once a year in the ruins of ancient, mysterious cities for great ceremonies of music, art, dance, poetry, joy, faith and renewal. That’s my dream of the American future. Like most such dreams, it will probably come true. That is why I’m still an optimist.
―Edward Abbey, Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast