September 20, 2011
Each year the MacArthur Foundation embraces “genius” in many forms, providing a $500,000 no-strings-attached five-year fellowship to select individuals that show an innate creativity in their respective fields. Plus, of course, the potential for more of that creativity in the future.
Proudly, one of this year’s recipients has a Smithsonian connection. Silversmith Ubaldo Vitali, age 67, was one of four artists featured in the recent Renwick Gallery exhibition History in the Making: Renwick Craft Invitational (March 25 – July 31, 2011).
Vitali fuses old-world style craftsmanship with modern design. I spoke with him this past spring and he told me that silver was in his blood, and that it “always kept pulling me back.” The Italian-born and trained, Vitali came up in the old-school guild system in Rome, later emigrating to New Jersey in the late 1960s. And he maintains those roots, still a member of a Roman goldsmith’s guild. In fact, he’s the only member allowed to reside outside of Rome. Read the full interview.
Congratulations Ubaldo Vitali!
July 26, 2011
Looking to infuse your nightlife with a little culture? Then maybe it’s time to get your Asia After Dark on this Thursday evening, July 28, at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. The “One Thousand and One Nights”-themed event kicks off at 6:30 p.m. and features Arab beats courtesy of DJ Turbo Tabla and a belly dancing performance by the Barakaat Middle Eastern Dance Company. Cocktails and finger foods will be provided available for purchase, and each guest gets one free drink with his or her ticket. Themed attire is encouraged, naturally.
But let’s get back to the belly dancing, shall we? As a newbie to this graceful, flowing genre, this was the perfect chance for me to uncover the meanings behind those mysterious hand gestures the dancers make, as well as find out if dancing really does work the abs. I caught up with Mariza, a seven-year belly dance veteran and one of the members of the six-person Barakaat Middle Eastern Dance Company, via email below:
Why were you initially interested in belly dancing?
I’ve always loved dance and took classes here and there as a kid, but as a very tall kid I always felt like the lumbering giant in the back. Belly dance does not require a certain body type, nor does it require that you begin training at the age of three. So as a very tall adult I was glad to finally find a place where I could enjoy dance movement without feeling too weird.
What style of belly dancing do you practice, and what makes your style distinctive?
I have trained in Egyptian Cabaret, Tribal Fusion and Oriental style belly dance. My style is a conglomeration of everything I’ve learned plus things I make up and other stuff I see on America’s Best Dance Crew.
Are there levels of certification, like belts in karate?
There is no generally accepted certification or credential system in belly dance. Some individuals have taken it upon themselves to create certification programs but these are particular to that individual and their philosophy. The vast majority of belly dancers do not possess any certification, and it is far from required.
Are there specific meanings attributed to the body motions and movements?
Dancers will at times make gestures, such as pointing to their heart, but belly dance movements themselves are not imbued with any particular meaning.
What are some popular misconceptions about belly dancing?
One common misconception is that belly dance is inappropriate for certain audiences. Belly dance is fun for the whole family. Kids in particular love the joyful nature of the dance and often get up and try to dance along. Another is that the dance is derived from some mystical fertility dance. Belly dance as it is today arose out of the social dances of the Middle East, which were then stylized for the stage.
What’s your favorite dance move, and why?
“The Shopping Cart” because it’s awesome.
What do you find the most challenging about belly dancing in general?
A lot of the movements require you to isolate the lower abs and obliques, muscles that we don’t consciously use in our day-to-day life. It can be difficult, particularly at first, to access these muscles. After their first belly dance class, many people comment that they can feel muscles they never knew they had!
Do you think belly dancing offers benefits that other types of dancing don’t?
Belly dance offers the same benefits as other types of dance—a great way to get moving and increase strength and flexibility. Belly dance is also a very accessible, low-impact form of dance. Dancers are often very grounded and movements are usually within the body column so it is not as stressful on the joints as other dance forms. Plus, in any city of decent size, there is often a friendly, supportive dance community.
And are you limited in the type of music that you dance to?
Dancers who choose to perform a very specific folkloric style of dance would be limited to the culturally appropriate music for that dance, but many belly dancers–particularly American belly dancers–dance to a variety of music, including Middle Eastern traditional music or pop music, Western pop and rock or the Muppets’ “Mahna Mahna.”
What kind of dances should the audience expect to see at Asia After Dark?
Barakaat has prepared a modern sword fusion piece; we’ll also be improvising with drummer/DJ Turbo Tabla. It’s going to be a great night!
July 21, 2011
This Sunday, July 24, two chefs will enter the American Indian Museum’s outdoor amphitheatre, but only one will leave victorious. They won’t be squaring off in hand-to-hand combat, but knives will be drawn as they compete in an Iron Chef-style showdown from 2-5 p.m. as part of the museum’s 2011 Living Earth Festival. As for the competitors. . .
Smithsonian’s own Chef Richard Hetzler, the executive chef for the museum’s Mitsitam Café, does battle on his home turf once again. He stands undefeated at 1-0, after carving out a victory at last year’s event over L’Academie de Cuisine instructor Brian Patterson. The good-natured Hetzler likes to push the envelope, and is “not afraid to take risks and do some fun stuff with molecular gastronomy.” Whether that will be possible in the heat of the amphitheater kitchen remains to be seen.
His opponent, Chef Don McClellan (Cherokee), who will be competing for the first time, hails from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and what he lacks in battle experience, he makes up for in confidence. “I believe that I will win, yes,” he states. The executive chef at Atria Vista del Rio, McClellan prefers to keep his preparations simple and flavorful, and his southwestern style should mesh well with the battle’s not-so-secret ingredients.
Each chef must prepare two appetizers, three entrees and two desserts using ingredients of the traditional Three Sisters–corn, beans and squash. They’ll also have other ingredients, including fresh proteins such as salmon, duck and buffalo, at their disposal. The chefs won’t have to go it alone, however, as they each will have assistants provided by the local organization D.C. Central Kitchen.
Judgment, the final part of the competition, will be handed down by a group of local chefs. This year’s panel includes Scott Drewno, executive chef at The Source by Wolfgang Puck and last year’s Washington, D.C. Chef of the Year; Brian Patterson, Hetzler’s opponent from last year; and Pati Jinich, executive chef at D.C.’s Mexican Cultural Institute and host of the cooking show Pati’s Mexican Table.
I spoke to both chefs below to gain some insight on their battle plans, their guilty pleasures, and whether or not they’ll be trash talking in the kitchen:
Briefly, how would you describe your style of cuisine?
Richard Hetzler: Kind of new age, and not afraid to take risks and do some fun stuff with molecular gastronomy.
Don McClellan: Good-flavored food utilizing the ingredients simplistically
What’s your favorite guilty pleasure food?
DM: Chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy
How do you plan on training for this match-up?
RH: That’s great! (Cracking up). I think that’s the first time I’ve ever been stumped on a question! I would say just a lot of general tasting and checking out the product and sizing up my opponent. No push-ups and sit-ups. And a couple glasses of wine.
DM: I plan on eating lots of corn, beans and squash to make sure my palate will be able taste what I need to do the day of the competition.
Which of your skills do you think will be the most advantageous for this kind of competition?
RH: My skills as a jokester!
DM: My ability to multi-task. And having a good sense of time-management.
How will you have to adapt your style, since you’re going to be cooking outside in the heat?
RH: I think definitely. The weather always takes a toll on anything we do, whether it’s items we’re cooking, or what we decide to make, or how we’re going to make things, because the temperature affects a lot.
DM: I’ll drink lots of water. And maybe bring a clean jacket so I look presentable once the actual judging stats.
Do you have any idea in what direction or style of preparations you’ll be going with?
RH: Not really, because I think in these competitions we try to go outside the box and give people something crazy they normally wouldn’t think of and really give them something wild.
DM: In my mind it’s going to be simple, flavorful food with a twist, most likely on Mexican and new Mexican style food, reducing lots of chilies, with a flavorful profile.
Will there be trash talking?
RH: In this type of event, I don’t know (laughing). I imagine it’ll stay pretty civil. Of course, there’s always some animosity whenever you’re dealing with chefs. . .
DM: There very well could be. I just found out, though, that I am going to be able to bring a posse of other chefs with me as well. Meaning probably two other chefs. So I’m hoping that the banter is shared equally both ways.
Why do you think you’ll win this weekend?
RH: Just because I’m going to pull out all the stops and all the tricks I’ve got! And we’re on our home turf–how can you not win when you’re on your home turf?
DM: I believe that I will win, yes. I know that I have stiff competition. My sources have told me that Chef Hetzler is very talented, and again, having been the winner of last year’s competition, there’s some big shoes to fill to make sure that his competition is stiff and that he has a run for his money.
June 29, 2011
You want camp? You got it! But don’t delay, kids. The final film of the Hirshhorn’s “Summer Camp: Sauceriferous” film series, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, the 1956 “classic,” will be showing tomorrow night at the Ring Auditorium at 7:00. Plus they’ll be giving out the last of the glow-in-the-dark Sauceriferous Frisbees!!! And yes, I did just use three exclamation points!
So what’s this movie about? Aliens, baby. And misunderstanding. Kind of like an episode of Three’s Company, minus Jack Tripper, but with laser beams. Basically, there’s an initial alien saucer visitation that goes awry–a “meet-cute” of sorts that ends up in death rays and destruction. Then the aliens come back with a bunch of their friends and invade, attacking five of the world’s largest cities. And it’s up to Hugh Marlowe’s character to stop them.
And how did the world feel about the Earth vs. the Flying Saucers back when it was released? It seems as though the film might have been exhibiting camp tendencies back in 1956, too. “If I have to see many more of these idiotic items,” panned the Chicago Tribune movie critic upon the film’s release, “I’m going to be in the market for a handy portable disintegrator myself.” Ahhhh…Camp at first sight.
June 24, 2011
Vernon Reid is usually pushing the envelope. The British-born and Brooklyn-raised guitarist is the founder and primary songwriter of the hard rock band Living Colour. But Living Colour isn’t your typical hard rock band—its members are all African American, a rarity in the genre, and their music is heavily influenced by funk and jazz. The band hit it big with its debut album Vivid in 1988, and their Grammy-winning hit single, “Cult of Personality,” from that record. Reid’s versatile style of play and speedy chops propelled him to number 66 on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
Living Colour has never been afraid to tackle social issues when it came to songwriting, and Reid co-founded the Black Rock Coalition in 1985, an organization designed to encourage the creative freedom of African American artists. This Saturday evening, June 18, at 6:30, Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art presents “Artificial Afrika,” Reid’s current multimedia project that examines the modern mythology of African culture. Computer-generated graphics and images that dilute Africa into the simplest, stereotypical terms, such as famine victims and child soldiers will serve as counterpoint to more modern images of Africa on the video display while Reid provides a soundtrack of live guitar and electronic sounds. Nicole Shivers, the museum’s education specialist, is excited at the prospect of bringing in a work that she says tries to “dispel all the misperceptions of Africa, that it’s not this dark continent.”
I was able to speak with Vernon Reid about his inspiration for the project, his thoughts on the state of African American rock today, and the current status of Living Colour below:
It seems like there may have been a specific catalyst that started you down the road on this project—a visit to Africa, perhaps?
I think that there were several catalysts that inspired it. One thing was the images of Africa when I was coming up. Everything from cannibalism to “Yum Yum Eat ‘Em Up.” Then there are images that are representative objects of black people. Sort of “darky art.” That was another thing. And then there’s a certain way that I was supposed to feel about these things. They were supposed to be shut away. I was supposed to feel ashamed about them. And the sheer absurdity of the representations started to grab a hold of me. It was as if I went to the other side of what that is. I have been to Africa twice . . . . and I was struck by how there was supposed to be an epiphany, the sense of coming home, and that didn’t exactly happen. But what did happen was my fascination deepened . . . . And that’s where it all kind of congealed into the impulse to start making the work . . . . using my Macintosh and some public domain footage and eventually doing my own textures. It’s been described to me as paintings that move, as opposed to linear animation.
What do you think is the most surprising thing you learned about yourself during this project?
My goodness, that’s a great question! I’ve learned that there is no ultimate answer. That the culture is always going to change, that things that seemed very solid can shift completely . . . . I think for all of us there’s a way we’re supposed to feel about Africa. We’re supposed to be concerned, and it’s a serious situation. And one of the things I’ve had to stay with is that looking at Africa aesthetically is still worthwhile. Even with everything else that’s been happening, aesthetics and beauty, the collisions are still worthwhile to pursue for their own merit because they are still a part of the whole. I don’t think I actually used the footage, but there’s some footage I saw from the BBC about child soldiers. And there’s a bunch of child soldiers literally dancing with their AK-47s. Like they adopted a ritual dance in a march with their AK-47s. And the dance was beautiful. And that’s the thing that struck me. That this is something of aesthetic merit, but it’s also horrible. And the two things coexist. That’s something that I struggled with.
You’re known for pushing the envelope when it comes to guitar style—how do you stay ahead of the curve?
I just try to follow my own impulses toward things that interest me. I’ve been known to use a lot of effects and guitar processing. And my interest in that is kind of multi-faceted. And of course hearing Jimi Hendrix and the things he did with guitar just opened my head completely up to what’s possible. And at the same time, there’s something to be said for the sound of the instrument unadorned. And the kind of effects that can happen with that–extended techniques. It’s kind of a balance between those two things. There are amazing things going on. I always keep an eye towards not just what’s for the moment, but what’s really truly innovative.
You co-founded the Black Rock Coalition back in 1985 to encourage African American rock artists. How do you feel about the current state of African Americans in rock?
You know, I’m not totally satisfied, but I will say that TV on the Radio is a band that I dreamed about back then. Literally, TV on the Radio is the reason why the coalition started. This is what it’s all about. It’s fantastic to me. Could there be more? Should there be more? Yes, but I couldn’t be prouder of that . . . . I think it’s wonderful, and there needs to be much more. And I am very happy with the creativity.
Speaking of music, what’s Living Colour’s current status?
Yeah, we’re literally in a transition, a management transition. We had done a bunch of work with the Experience Hendrix project. We’re gearing up to work on our next record. We are still functioning–or dysfunctioning! (chuckling)
Artificial Afrika will take place in the McAvoy Auditorium of the National Portrait Gallery at 6:30, Saturday, June 25, 2011.