A Different Wavelength

It has come to my attention that a photographer I criticized five months ago is allegedly offended at what I wrote.

There must be some concerns on his behalf I hope to address on this post.

I do not claim to be the smartest tool in the shed, my limited talent lies in researching and parsing out information for my more serious writing. This casual blog is a little place where I write “random thoughts and better organized concepts about what I see, feel, and think is happening in our fragile, dramatic, and vulnerable art world.” It is not, by any means, a deep philosophical exercise on art historical perspectives. This blog also happens to be read by a very small fraction of people and is of no consequence to someone’s big celebrated career. I am surprised he found the three-paragraph stub where I accused him, summarily, of having the arrogance of a colonizer’s lens, because Google has it hidden in its many pages. Not surprisingly, Google produces more positive, profound, informative and praising results about said photographer and his body of work. Why would he take the time to contact me to tell me off? This blog space is pretty much insignificant in the art world and for him to focus on my accusation, when there is so much good stuff out there about him, baffles me.

He and I come from different cultures and sometimes misunderstandings are bound to happen. However, for a person of mixed heritage who lives on this side of the world and has seen firsthand the damages of colonization and is particularly sensitive to what that looks like, it can be hard to pipe down and let things of this nature run me by. I take no shame in that – it is my personal experience. I also happen to live in a country that, in spite of its many flaws, is at the forefront of serious collective conversations about colonization, race, ethnicity, socio-economic, gender privilege, and cultural sensitivity.

Although, my response to the article may not have been the best or most cohesive one, and decidedly caused some stress, I still believe I have a valid point:

In the history of photography, we have seen the impact photo-journalists and other kinds of photographers have on native subjects - notably Edward S. Curtis. On the one hand, it helps document and preserve the memory of a way of life, a culture, a people. From an artistic point of view, it can be aesthetically wonderful, ground-breaking, and original. From a humanistic point of view, it shows us that we can connect and understand each other, that with enough empathy we can all inhabit this planet Earth. But it can also leave a bitter after taste.

Appreciation for a culture is a delicate line to walk and what may be OK with some members is not OK with others. Romanticized portraiture of "Vanishing Peoples" doesn’t do any favors to the generations that come after, for as cultures naturally fuse and change they will never live up to a what is portrayed by an outsider. This photographer is not the only one to go down this path, however.

I honestly do not know how this photographer supported the community or in what ways he empowered them to retain their traditions. If his point was to teach me a lesson and put me in my place, it just reinforced my original impression of him. I think we all could have learned more if he would have confronted me with the issues at hand instead of sending an ad hominen rebuke.

As my original stub expressed, I believe his photographs to be beautiful and appreciate the fact that he did not direct their poses – they appeared however they wanted to. It is not the work itself but the way the photographer talked about this culture that touched a nerve. A nerve honed to hurt when White/Western men talk about people in developing countries and their way of life to serve a personal agenda. A nerve that pricks at the whispers of Primitivism, Orientalism, Exoticism, and Otherness.

A. Iaroc

Female Body Autonomy

"Body autonomy means a person has control over who or what uses their body, for what, and for how long." 

If body autonomy is really important and understood by a person, that also means that person is capable of respecting the intentions behind another person's motivation to control and display their body. Calling people out for "exhibitionism" for doing an art piece naked is the antithesis of the previous statement. Do not let the bizarre, contrarian relationship to nudity and sexuality in this country confuse you into prudish ways.  

Do not worry American! those European libertines were once there, too. 

My favorite art historical example is this capolavoro by Edouard Manet:

Édouard Manet, "Olympia", 1863. © Musée d'Orsay 

In 2016 this painting of a nude woman with her maid and cat does not cause too much controversy, except maybe for the racial disparity between the two female figures and their social standing at the time. In 1863 this was a shocker, madness I tell you! how dare Manet confront the French art establishment with a disgraceful portrait of a courtesan? while the men at the time (like many men today) felt comfortable hiring courtesans (prostitutes) for sexual pleasures and lively conversation, just like Roman men in symposiums were intellectually and sexually entertained by the hetaerae, they refused to accept one in an art museum. 

What is so bad about this? have humans not created female nudes since antiquity? Well... yes, there have been nudes for thousands of years (Venus of Willendorf) but if you pay close attention you will see that these nudes either do not have defined faces or are innocently looking away:

  Venus Kallypigos, 1st Century,   ©    Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli . 

Venus Kallypigos, 1st Century, © Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

It is quite convenient for a patriarchal society (in the making since 4000 BCE) to let the male gaze eat up a woman's naked body without her intruding by looking back at them. So when we had Manet turn this concept on it's head, people were angry. One would think that after such a move the history of art was going to prove everyone we are capable of fast adaptation and open mindedness.

Le sigh.

It really bothers me when I see artists after Manet - male or female - cover, distort, or remove a nude's face. Let me see the face of the body's owner! Look at Olympia; she isn't allowing the audience power to slut shame her (not a term used back then but same foundation). She even looks down in condescension, don't you think?

And yet, I see this in the XXI century:

 Giovanni Di Rosa, Untitled (#20),  ©   BAC Bogota Arte Contemporaneo

Giovanni Di Rosa, Untitled (#20), © BAC Bogota Arte Contemporaneo

At the same time, I want to check myself by giving power to the models and female artists who do have a legitimate reason for covering their or the subject's faces. I just hope they understand the history behind that action. As for male artists: if you guys are using a female model ask how she feels about having her face covered/distorted/removed/frontally depicted, etc. and take into account you are portraying a gender that your frame of reference will not allow you to fully understand. Both male and female bodies should be depicted with all respect, of course, but female nudity has been manipulated in ways male nudity has not. At least, as a well read art historian, I have not seen anything to indicate they are at the same level of violation. 

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Update: I started my research paper on cultural hybridity!! :) cannot wait to finish and submit it to the College Art Association's Art Bulletin in four years or so. In the meantime I have some calls to make to an artist in Dubai. 

Also, in the spirit of female body autonomy, I want to share with you an event I will be participating in. It is called Read + Bleed. It is a "women only" event at Twilight Gallery on February 13, 5 to 8pm. Click on the blue highlighted link to learn more. 

A. Iaroc

Reassessment with a dash of uncertainty

“Siempre supe que es mejor cuando hay que hablar de dos empezar por uno mismo” S. Isabel Mebarak Ripoll

"I always knew that when speaking about two it is better to start with oneself” A lot has been lost in that translation but you get the gist. 

Ed and Steph (my siblings) keep telling me to move to Los Angeles - their reasons are different from mine but convenient to my cause. See, here in Seattle the general lack of ethnic, gender, sexual identity, religious and ideological diversity and parity at times is a bit too much for me. If I need a fix I can always spend a day down in Rainier Valley and reset. Some people will say that diversity in Seattle is better seen by neighborhood in what they like to call “block groups”, but this is another way of showing that some sort of segregation is still in place. This can either be self-imposed or the result of class/racial lines that to this day different groups are not allowed or willing to cross. Local Caucasians may say that they are very progressive and pro-diversification but at the end of the day there’s only so much they can tolerate from those that come from different cultures, and vice versa. (Going back home to Magnolia after a hard day of slacktivism or pretentivism is very comforting.)

US vs THEM

Is the music they play too loud because it isn’t Bach? Is the food they cook lacking soul? But their food is so smelly! Why are they so loud when talking? They use big words to be condescending, Ugh! they move too sexual when dancing, well they don’t know how to dance because they can’t give it their all! 

Keep it coming.

Point is, if I am truly serious about my research then I cannot do all of it here. I have to go where the melting already started. Seattle just started dancing and L.A, most ethnically diverse city in the United States, has dancer’s feet – broken down and bruised, with black nails but ready for the show. 

How I am perceived when in LA vs. Seattle: When I've said "I am from Brooklyn" to an Angelino, 95% of the time they take that as my final answer. In Seattle, the answer apparently begs another question 99% of the time, “but where are you really from?” – I cannot possibly be American with my looks, see. To save myself more questions I just spill out everything as fast as I can. 

Anyone who knows me will say I am proud of every ethnicity that makes up my DNA – I am mulatta, mestiza, Semitic and I don’t apologize. My sister joked the other day that we are the result of an ethnic orgy (some Hispanics think she’s half Japanese/half white because of the way she looks… sleeping genes, go figure). We get used to this most of the time but it can cause identity issues that at worst become insecurities. In Colombia we are gringos judíos, nevermind we were raised in a very Catholic country, within a family that is mostly Catholic, and went to Catholic school. {I want to note that American Jews have the privilege of disavowing their Jewishness and still be as American as apple pie. Jews in Latin America are never trusted to be part of their country because their Jewishness is not about religion - it is about ethnicity. We are never allowed to forget that and therefore have a different take on what being “Jewish” means.} In the USA, we present ourselves as Colombian because it is the easiest answer and the identity with which, at the end of the day, we feel most comfortable. And still… we are sometimes not believed when we talk about our origins (you can’t be that mixed!). We just become too much for the boxes where others want to put us in and we end up being too round to fit in that square.

What do ethnocultural hybrids look like?

Image courtesy of National Geographic

There are days when me and my siblings look more ambiguous than others and get mixed results – people who are fascinated, people who fetishize our mixed background to the point of exoticization, and people who seem offended we exist. Whatever! Humans have been mixing since we broke things off with Neanderthals and  have been working our way up to being 50 shades of beige. 

I am just one of the many mixed people living out there and so happy to know that artists and others, more creative and talented than me, have a beautiful outlet to expose the complexities of our kind. I just have to go wherever they are.

A. Iaroc

Do you hear that?...it is the winds of change.

Around this time each year I change my webpage a little bit. *I am just giving you guys a heads up for when you visit next and find that some things are not where they used to be.

This has been a season of changes. Sometime during August I decided to use a COAL (curiosity, openness, acceptance and love) approach to life. It led me to try a few different things and discover myself a little more. For instance, there was a phase when I was all into mountain climbing geology, documentaries, and then Everest and Meru came out (yassss!). Now I am into Crew (rowing and sculling). Next season, who knows?

The best part of these digressions is that they broke the lull in my cultural hybridity research. I am hoping my newfound discipline will give you guys a post worthy of reading next month. 

A. Iaroc

Diversity vs. Inclusion

After a decade of working for museums and reading countless articles on their diversification efforts… I know they are trying. They are trying big time. However, the success is a little mediocre for all the money and effort put into it.

What I have seen in the past decade, and now, is that the effort lands on creating programs that include people from different backgrounds. These are performers, lecturers, artists, professors, etc. of different races that may come from a less privileged socio-economic background, are from different countries, or belong to various religious groups. Unfortunately, it stops there. This is shallow diversification and most audiences fall for it.

As many of you have noticed, many museums have a diverse entry level staff - receptionists, secretaries, assistants, etc. And, I am excluding ethnic museums for obvious reasons. Now, have you looked at the directorial body and the board/patron/donor body? What we tend to see is a gynocentric directorial body, which is good news for women, and an androcentric board/patron/donor body. One common factor between the groups: about 95% is Caucasian, from a privileged/wealthy background, educated, cisgender/heteronormative, and able-bodied. I want to see both groups equalized in gender and more minority diverse; by "minority diverse" I not only mean race, I mean LGBTQ, disabled/abled, socio-economic level, education level, and age groups.

These efforts can only go so far because the museum board and high level staff members deciding on the path they want to take the museum/organization do not empathize or sympathize with the audience they want to attract. They think they know how to reach these groups but language barriers, vocabulary, location, presentation and other crucial marketing strategies end up alienating said audiences. It easily comes across as too intimidating. Not inviting. Not inclusive.

If an organization wants to genuinely diversify they have to start from within. I want to see more diverse boards and more diverse high level staff. I also want to see those minorities in entry level positions move up the ladder. And if you believe that museum audiences reflect the population in this country, think again.

Since this is the time of the year I open up my spreadsheets to see what organizations deserve my hard-earned money, I want to suggest you do the same. If there is an organization getting real through actions NOT words, support them in any way you can: Donate, become a member, if funds are low you can go on a free day or with a coupon - just participate!, volunteer, network with the staff. If you are in any minority group, do what you can because we would love for you to be representing and pave the way for others like you. If you end up in a board or as a donor, understand that even though privileged people like to think of themselves as being progressive and politically correct, the truth is that many times they are blind to their own prejudices – call them out on it when you see micro/macroaggressions or hear stupid comments (e.g. people making cocaine jokes to Colombians because they cannot begin to image the damage it has done to the country and its nationals). Don't be a bystander and be mindful of the ways people do defend themselves, step in when required and stay true to your values.

A. Iaroc

 

New Waters... I am on a raft with floaties.

Starting a new research project and defining my focus is never as easy and/or smooth as I imagine. Cultural hybridity is a broad topic and I am just getting an idea of what I want from it and, most importantly, what it means to me.

I have not posted anything on the last three months because of my uncertainty. I am a product of globalization, an ethno/religious hybrid, and I think I know what this project means to me. I know a few artists that create work that expresses their pride/confusion/interest/contempt, etc. on cultural hybridity, which helps me establish where I stand on certain issues.

But what about you? what does this mean to you?

A. Iaroc

It's a Wrap!

Professor Andrea Pappas, Art Historian Ph. D., inspired and encouraged me to talk about my research on Jewish Art. I was hesitant and, quite frankly, did not expect much reception to my subject of study. Robert Beiser and the staff at the University of Washington’s Hillel were very receptive, however, to my lecture proposal for the summer of 2012. And so a three-year lecture series based on my thesis research began.

On June 16, 2015 I presented the last lecture.

My research on Jewish art iconography started in 2006 and continued for five more years. During that time I traveled a lot and learned from many people in the Jewish community, art history professors, scholars, experts, and artists, about the development of Jewish art, its foundations and future.  It was very exciting and, many times, very new. Taking advantage of a nascent topic within the history of art, I developed original ideas and learned to respect artists’ input and perspective. They do not have everything figured out, nor pretend to, but they can be very wise. In the intensity that their work requires, they develop the humbleness that scholars, many times, do not have.

Everything I learned, like, and look forward to in art history, has changed since 2006… as it should. My lecture series was a passion project and now it’s time to move onto other things. Even though I have enjoyed working with the Jewish community and will continue, in one way or another, working on art & culture programs that serve it, I am very interested in cultural fusion contemporary art. Identity issues and cultural hybridity are subjects explored quite often, but more so now with pressing societal changes in terms of race, socio-economic equality, gender, and self-definition.

Thanks to all of you who followed these lectures and engaged me in conversation.

"If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading." Laozi

A. Iaroc

 

Defining Jewish Art in the Contemporary World

Art is an ever changing thing. It echoes the surrounding world and expresses artists' interpretation of it in a myriad ways. When we think of art movements, we understand that they can encompass many styles, media, concepts, and perspectives; and yet Jewish art is generally and narrowly conceived of as Judaica. It is not usually presented as a diverse group of styles, media, concepts, and perspectives.

I like to think of Jewish art as a river from which Judaica, Talmudic art, Visual Midrash, Feminist Jewish art, Cultural Jewish art and many other channels, that do not yet have a name, branch out of. In spite of all the information that is out there about contemporary Jewish artists and what they do, the notion of what Jewish art is supposed to be is stubbornly traditional and restricted. 

For one thing, artists are attracted to different aspects of Jewish art and fall into one or many channels. If none is to their liking, they can, and do, create another one. It is imperative that these decisions are respected, studied, and understood for the sake of Jewish art's progress and growth. 

In contemporary Judaica, there is an artist whose work is in almost every website that sells Jewish ritual objects: Yair Emanuel. Emanuel is, in my view, a Jewish Romero Britto, with his Pop Art, commercial, colorful, geometric, and puerile style. Like other contemporary Judaica artists, Emanuel puts his own twist on Jewish objects like menorahs and Shabbat candle holders. These do not look like the traditional gold and silver, heavily ornamented objects of years/decades/centuries ago. It is stimulating to see how artists are recreating these objects for new audiences. And, I wonder, will this at some point become Neo-Judaic art?

Now, Talmudic art is a very interesting niche, for it interprets Talmudic arguments and dilemmas according to the artist, which inevitably adds to the tradition of debate. Jacqueline Nicholls, is an exemplary Talmudic artist whose work many times overlaps with Feminist Jewish art. Nicholls' work also acts as a social experiment, for it brings medieval perspectives on certain issues (women, family, morals, etc.) to a contemporary audience that has either mostly grown apart from them or is generally apathetic, defiant, or contemptuous towards them, forcing an interaction that is bound to bring some interesting reactions and responses from viewers.

On the same branch as Talmudic art is Visual Midrash. As defined in Robin Atlas' website, this is "the process of investigating Hebrew biblical and other sacred Jewish texts as well as Halakhic laws" and creating art from it. This is a movement that is gaining momentum in Jewish art circles for it, like Talmudic art, draws inspiration from religious texts and interprets them from different points of view (feminine, personal, spiritual, etc.) Nancy Current, like Atlas, is also a Visual Midrash artist. Both work with different mediums (Atlas generally uses paper, fabric and thread, while Current works with glass and paper) and have unique working styles, but seamlessly manipulate them to express their thoughts on Jewish tradition and sacred texts.

As for Feminist Jewish art, I dare say that women Jewish artists inevitably create it, as it is difficult to separate one's gender from intimate work such as art. There is no art medium impermeable to Feminist ideas. Hadassa Goldvicht and Hila Karabelnikov, are representative of this Jewish art channeling. They challenge centuries-old ideas of what being a woman means in Judaism. Art pieces of this nature are not comfortable, complacent, submissive, or meek. As all Feminist movements around the world, this channel of Jewish art embraces other kinds of activism and brings them along for the ride, e.g. Jewish cultural issues with minorities, LGBTQ justice concerns, and other matters of contention. As a result it has lead to an overlapping with Jewish art that deals with cultural, rather than religious, matters. Chief among them are issues of cultural-religious differences, racism, and the ever present Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Cultural Jewish art is another channel open for consideration and quite popular among Israeli artists.

I think that what contemporary Jewish artists propose is pretty straight forward. In spite of my disdain about pigeonholing artists and their creations, this idea of channels emerging from the powerful river of Jewish art, helps me put into perspective what has been happening, what is presently going on and what I can expect in the future of this field.
 

A. Iaroc

Gato Molina

(My apologies for skipping March’s blog entry.)

Video is an art medium relatively new and now widely used. It can aid artists expressing complex ideas to “narrate” them optically. In North America and Europe it has been used for approximately 40 years and has slowly caught on in Latin America in the past 25 years.

In Colombia, where classical media (paint and sculpture) reigns and where Abstract Expressionism has deep roots, a new wave of artists has quickly adapted to new media as used everywhere else. These artists have been trained abroad or by foreign art teachers instructing in Colombia’s art schools. As the internet became a tool for learning, access to different artists, techniques and styles allowed them to familiarize with video as a medium, among many others. Now experimentation with video is part of Colombian artistic learning.

David Molina, is a contemporary artist who is primarily a photographer and illustrator. Recently, he decided to play with the concept of “low brow” video art in a project dubbed Gato Molina. He is inspired by pop culture icons, like Marilyn Monroe and Amy Winehouse; kitschy porcelains; cats, especially his; and the matriarch of the family, Marina. His Warholesque work is full of nostalgia. Molina is an example of the intellectual hunger, creativity, and practicality we are seeing in Colombian art.

As things change in Colombia and new approaches to art teaching come along, we will continue to see more neoteric artists create a different school of art in the country.

I can hardly wait for this new golden age.

 David Molina, Colombian contemporary artist.

David Molina, Colombian contemporary artist.

A. Iaroc

Artistic Intention

In the past couple of months I have had repeated conversations with various artists about how they feel art historians, scholars, and museum professionals (particularly curators) interpret their artistic process. 

A few issues keep cropping up:

  • Many times, they feel bullied into writing wall texts or artist statements. Most of the artists I've spoken to do not write for artistic purposes; writing for them is a difficult task and feel they better express their emotions, thoughts, and feelings through their creations. My friend and artist, Andrew Le, introduced me to this "artist statement generator" webpage that just proves how much B.S the art world can be filled with.
     
  • When curators, docents, and other "experts" talk about artists' work, they explain it as if there was always one intention from the beginning and the final result was always the planned outcome. The process of creating art is much more organic than anyone who is not an artist thinks. 
     
  • Navigating the socially poisonous art environment can be emotionally taxing. Many art organizations and galleries claim to be democratic while always catering to an elite that the artists are forced to interact with. 

An added resolution to this 2015 will be:

As an art historian, I refuse to do the artists that I work with and collect from these type of disfavors. Even though I have always tried to be careful with my interpretations, now I am much more aware of the damage I can do when assuming that my credentials license me to elucidate freely just because my interpretations  "come from a place of knowledge". Arrogance can be an academic's Achilles Heel. 

A. Iaroc

Jewish Art? Jewish Artist?

A few of the questions I struggled with at the beginning of my research on Jewish art history were "what is Jewish art?", "does that even exist?", "who is a Jewish artist?". As I continued my research and developed my own theories, I figured that it was not important if the work of art was done by a Jewish artist for it to be considered Jewish art. I had quite a few examples to validate my point. For instance, Salvador Dalí's Aliyah: The Rebirth of Israel series, which portrays the struggles of the Jewish people to return to their homeland, is an example of Jewish art. Yes, Dalí was a Surrealist artist with a Catholic background but he created this series using a Jewish theme and therefore created Jewish art. Is he considered a Jewish artist? no, the greater body of his work is not connected to Jewish culture at all and he is not part of that ethnoreligious group either. 

Well, what about the opposite? a Jewish artist that does not create Jewish art? - lots more examples! Amadeo Modigliani, Alfred Stieglitz, Judy Chicago, Louise Nevelson, Mark Rothko, Audrey Flack + thousands more (and counting). Most artists with a Jewish background allude, at some point of their lives, to their heritage. Judy Chicago is known for being a Feminist artist and she has created several works that deal with Judaism and Jewish history. Audrey Flack is a photorealist artist and considers her WWII piece from the Vanitas Series to be her capolavoro. However, in the broader sense both women are not thought of as "Jewish artists". I could write a lot more examples, but you get the gist.

In February of 2012, while I attended the Jewish art session at the College Art Association's 100th conference in L.A, scholar Celka Straughn caught my attention by helping me think about these questions in a better way. Straughn said  that instead of asking "what is Jewish art?" or "who is a Jewish artist?", we should ask "how or why is it Jewish art?". As things in the contemporary world become more diverse, complex and fused, I think that Straughn has given many of us the key to think about these types of "definitions" in an open way. After all, this not only applies to Jewish art. But will we insist in pigeonholing artists and their creations? Time will tell.

NOTE: For Vivian Calderon Bogoslasvky's post scroll down until you get to a stub titled: Talento Colombiano. 

A. Iaroc