July 21, 2009
This weekend is the last chance to see the many faces of Mami Wata, and if you choose, to leave an offering for her, as well. An exhibition about the water spirit (Mami Wata means “Mother Water” in pidgin English) is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. The exhibition closes this Sunday, July 26.
Over time, the diety Mami Wata has become a blend of cultures and religions, influenced by Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. At the museum, an altar glistens among the paintings and sculptures that depict her with a mermaid-like form, flowing hair and grasping a snake. Even though the altar has not been consecrated, or blessed, visitors have been moved to leave offerings.
Powder has been sprinkled across the bottom tier, while a hair brush, star-shaped swizzle stick and charms from a bracelet have been left behind on the altar. Coins have been rearranged and spread out on the lower tier. The only gift that was removed was a fresh plum, because food is not allowed in the galleries, explains chief curator Christine Kreamer, and would have attracted insects.
The altar is a recreation of a shrine owned by modern-day priestess Mamissi Pascaline Acrobessi Toyi in Ouidah, Benin (a country west of Nigeria). Traditionally, Toyi blesses all the offerings during a seven-day rite of singing, dancing, purifying, blessing and fasting. The items that were installed on the altar as part of the museum exhibit are examples of Toyi’s offerings. One that catches the eye is the miniature plastic guitar, which is explained in the signage with a quote from Toyi: “It is with music that Mami is content… If you play the guitar and sing she will be happy… She loves to go to nightclubs.”
Clearly, the visitor offerings, inspired by the power and lore of Mami Wata, are testament to the exhibition’s impact.
“Visitors have certainly interacted with the altar as if it were a functioning, dedicated altar, and there continues to be great interest in this water spirit and the arts dedicated to her,” Kreamer said.
July 16, 2009
Today is the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, which carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins into history, as humans took their first steps on the moon. The National Air and Space Museum is celebrating this milestone with the opening of a new exhibition: “Alan Bean: Painting Apollo, First Artist on Another World.”
Alan Bean, now a professional artist, spent 18 years as an astronaut at NASA, where he flew in the Apollo 12 mission—becoming the fourth man to walk on the moon—and later commanded Skylab 3, spending 59 days in space. He creates his artwork using acrylics and adds texture with moon boots, his NASA hammer and pieces of his patches that still have a bit of moon dust on them.
Bean will sign copies of his book, Alan Bean: Painting Apollo, First Artist on Another World, today from 11 AM to 2 PM at the Air and Space Museum. The exhibit of the same title, featuring 50 of his paintings, is on display at the museum until January 13.
You have said that going to the moon doesn’t change a person, it reveals things that are already there. What did going to the moon reveal in you?
Well, it revealed this interest in art that I didn’t even know was this strong. I think it revealed [something else] for me, in that I think a lot of times you had feelings toward people and you’re afraid to say it because it might be embarrassing to you or they might reject you. I noticed that since I’ve been back from the moon, it’s given me more self-confidence. Other than that, I still like the same things, but I even like them more.
For instance, I like ice cream. I can remember when I got back from Skylab, it wasn’t the moon, but it was 59 days away. One of the first things I wanted to do was go down to a shopping center and get an ice cream cone and just watch people go by. Because I can remember looking down and saying ‘There’s a lot of people down there and I can’t see any of them,’ and ‘I need an ice cream,’ but I didn’t have one. The simpler things in life seemed to please me more.
I’m just happy every day. By the way, I don’t think you have to go to the moon to feel this way, but it helps if you can achieve whatever your dream is. If you do, then I think that completes a chapter in your life somehow and then you can open a new page or you can risk more.
It seems like being an astronaut and an artist are two entirely different professions, but have you found any similarities?
They are very different. Psychologists tell us that flying airplanes, space ships and doing mathematics, those are left brain (analytical) functions. What I’ve observed over the years is people who are successful have to use both sides of their brains. Certainly the people who were engineers and scientists at division Apollo had to use their right brain (creativity) to conceive that they could do this, and then conceive of a spacecraft, how it might look, and maybe two spacecraft, and maybe a big rocket.
They don’t realize—because psychologists all these years have told them they’re left brain—that they’re really working the right brain. And then in order to do it, then you have to use your left brain and systematically do this by Wednesday, do this by March, and so on. I didn’t know why I wanted to paint and none of my other pilot or astronaut friends did. It seemed like a good thing to do. It seemed like it was nice. I think it was just a natural, they used their left brain more than their right because they had to, and I did, too, at that time.
What shifts in thinking did you make when you started painting professionally?
One of the things that I decided, was that I’m not going to be an astronaut who paints. I’m going be a guy that’s an artist now and used to be an astronaut 28 years ago. That’s the way I think of myself. I went back to art school. I took courses. I didn’t just say ‘Now I’m an artist,’ even though it was my hobby. I said ‘I’ve got to learn to be that.’
You’ve viewed the moon from many perspectives: as a citizen, an astronaut and an artist. Do you look at the moon differently now than in the past?
Yes, because as an artist you’re more interested in how things actually look. When you’re an astronaut, you’re more interested in how you do it, meaning things like what size it is, what’s the mass, and what altitude am I going to pass above it. You know what the moon looks like, but you’re not studying it. Now as an artist, I am looking very careful at everything. This was true about all the space hardware. One of the reasons that I stayed in Houston. I knew it all, but I didn’t know exactly how it looked, so I had to stay somewhere I could go look at spacesuits, look at the connectors, and rovers. It’s a different skill and you have to go back to square one and learn it.
To learn more about Alan Bean’s work as an artist and astronaut, check out this video that is part of the exhibition at the Air and Space Museum.
July 8, 2009
With a steady hand, Oman calligrapher Abdullah al Waili demonstrated how to write in Arabic script to a packed room at the Sackler Gallery of Art.
He and Aishah Holland, a U.S.-based calligrapher, led the ImaginAsia program about Arabic calligraphy, which will be taught again today and tomorrow at 2 PM in the second-floor Sackler classroom.
As al Waili wrote the flowing script, Holland presented a short history of Arabic calligraphy styles. “Most of the letters join, just like English script. Arabic script is very much like music, it has a style and a rhythm to it,” she says.
The rise of Arabic calligraphy as art is closely connected with the Islamic faith. Calligraphy was, and still is, considered a way to represent God by writing the words of the Koran, the Muslim holy text, she adds.
After her presentation, Holland walked around the room helping children and adults alike make the letters of the Arabic alphabet.
Interested in trying it yourself? Here are five tips for beginning Arabic calligraphy:
1. Use a natural wood pen—in this case, a popsicle stick with shaved nib (tip)—that resembles the reeds and bamboo that calligraphers often use.
2. Put yarn in the inkwell to soak up the ink so that you don’t put too much on the pen.
3. Write on a soft surface. At the workshop, participants were given smooth-sided paper (not from the printer) and placed a thin piece of stiff foam underneath it.
4. Begin by writing dots, which in the Arabic script look more like diamonds.
5. Have fun! While Arabic calligraphy requires patience, the sweeping lines and flourishes make for a one-of-a-kind creative experience.
If you want personal instruction or more tips from al Waili and Holland, check out the program this afternoon or tomorrow!
July 2, 2009
Many actors have gained fame for their ability to inhabit completely different characters, but few have been able to continually improve upon their portrayal of the same role throughout their career. Roger Guenveur Smith is one of those rare few.
On July 4th and 5th, Smith will portray Frederick Douglass in a dramatic presentation of Douglass’ famed 1852 Fourth of July speech. But this is not the first time that Smith has played the famous abolitionist, editor and orator.
“I’ve been working on Douglass since I was an undergraduate at Occidental College, and as you know, the work of Douglass is voluminous. It can take a lifetime of study to get a handle on Douglass and that’s really what I’ve been doing,” Smith says, adding that he was inspired as a child by Hal Holbrook’s 1967 Mark Twain performance.
Smith’s past film credits have included roles in School Daze, Malcolm X and Summer of Sam. He has received an Obie Award for his solo stage performance in A Huey P. Newton Story, which he also wrote. With all of his characters, Smith integrates history and a heavy dose of imagination.
“I think with my Douglass, my Newton or even my Columbus, I’ve tried to personalize these larger-than-life figures to make them people that we can somehow relate to, beyond the history pages,” he says. “So, for example, my Christopher Columbus is still among us as a lounge entertainer with political aspirations who runs a travel agency on the side. My Newton does not live in the year 1966 exclusively, but in the present moment. My Frederick Douglass communicates with Harriet Tubman on his Blackberry. So I take imaginative license in trying to bring all of these characters into the present moment, because I’m not interested exclusively in nostalgia or simply historical recreation. I want these characters to live and breath in the moment.”
Smith will deliver an abbreviated version of one of Frederick Douglass’ best known speeches, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” In 1852, Douglass was invited to speak at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He refused the July 4 invitation, and instead gave a sobering two-and-a-half hour speech the following day at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall.
“He begins by extolling the virtues of the American Revolution, but he ends by saying that the Revolution was not complete because one-seventh of the inhabitants of the country were [still] enslaved,” Smith says.
Time moves on, but 150 years hence, the measured cadences of Frederick Douglass’ speech that day resonate.
“One would like to think that Douglass would be kind of a dinosaur or a relic, but for better, and quite often for worse, what Douglass has to say about American civilization is still relevant in our present moment,” Smith says.
Roger Guenveur Smith performs at 4 PM on July 4 and at 2 PM on July 5 at the Oratorium tent as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. To read Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro, please continue to the jump.
July 1, 2009
Comedian and social critic Dick Gregory will take to the stage Thursday, at 6 PM, at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s Oratorium stage.
Gregory will speak with the Smithsonian’s Lonnie G. Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as part of the festival’s program, “Giving Voice: The Power of Words in African American Culture.”
Gregory is known for incorporating messages about social justice and equality in his comedic performances. I had the chance to speak with Gregory by telephone about his development as a comedian and how audiences have changed throughout his 40-year career.
From your perspective, how does comedy relate to the Folklife Festival theme of “Giving Voice: The Power of Words in African American Culture?”
Comedy don’t. Satire do. It’s broken down into two things. Comedy is when you and I exchange something, talking about our pain. For instance, we’re friends all our life, and you hit your finger with a hammer and break a bone. You go to the hospital and they straighten it up, operate, put a cast on it. Five years later, we’re sitting together, and laughing, and talking about how stupid that was. That’s the comedy between you and me. Now, you decide one day you’re going to do a whole satirical play on all the stupid things people do to hurt themselves. So then, that’s different than just a one-liner.
How did you learn to develop your style of satire?
Probably the most brilliant person at satire was the black minister. Think about it, the black minister does not have Hollywood writers and yet that black minister writes 52 sermons every year and never repeats. He doesn’t write the funny stuff in, but once he gets that rhythm—that humming—and then he starts talking about all the stupid things that have happened this week. I had a lot of people ask me how I learned. I was born before television. When the white comics came on TV, I didn’t identify with them. I thought that was some corny stuff they were doing, but they were the biggest things in America. Consequently, when people asked me where I learned it, I say I learned it from the black church. The black church wasn’t doing comedy, it was doing humor and social satire. They didn’t know it, but that’s what they were doing.
What was it like working in the early part of your career?
Hugh Hefner reached out and brought me in. Before that a black comic could not work a white night club. You could dance, you could sing, but you couldn’t stand flat-footed and talk. It was like a black person didn’t have the right to stand one-on-one and talk to white folks. But Sammy Davis, he could dance all over, sweat all over, and then stop and tell some jokes. But when Hefner brought me in, that’s the first time in the history of America that a black comic could stand flat-footed and talk to white folks. Now if you go back and listen to those records, we were hustlers—and I don’t mean hustlers in a negative sense—because it was all we were permitted to do. When Hefner cracked that color line, then the young comics that came up behind us weren’t hustlers, they had an art form.
More from Gregory after the jump.