What happens when anti-racist protesters gather in the streets and are not met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons? For one thing, they make art and graffiti. Lots of it, on walls, streets, sidewalks, courthouse doors, the plywood of boarded-up windows, wherever. Public activist art serves not only as a memorial for victims of state oppression, but as a way to imagine what the future needs and visually occupy the space to make it happen. In the intertwining “mutual relations of the political and the aesthetic,” symbols can begin to call real conditions into existence.
The streets of cities around the country have become temporary galleries of artworks that remember victims of systemically racist police violence and call for justice, even as they imagine what a more just world might look like: one where people are not trapped in cycles of poverty by austerity and state violence. Such displays have proliferated especially in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed. There, the “memorial… is constantly changing. In the days following Floyd’s murder by the police, street art, flowers, handwritten notes, and more” appeared.
The project includes in its wider scope a database of COVID-19 street art, with many an acknowledgement of how government failures in response to the pandemic connect to the willful disregard for human life the Black Lives Matter movement calls out. “Artists and writers producing work in the streets—including tags, graffiti, murals, stickers, and other installations on walls, pavement, and signs—are in a unique position to respond quickly and effectively in a moment of crisis,” notes the COVID-19 Street Art site. As we limit our movement through public space, that space itself transforms, responding in direct ways to a multitude of intersecting crises none of us can afford to ignore.
“Vengo de Japón.” With those words Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo introduces himself to us in “Stone Cut,” the short film from NOWNESS above. Since coming to Barcelona in 1978, Sotoo has not just mastered the Spanish language but converted to Roman Catholicism and dedicated much of his life to laboring on the completion of the most famous building in Spain: Antoni Gaudí’s magnum opus, the Basílica de la Sagrada Família. Not that it was quite so revered when Sotoo first encountered it: “Back in the day, no one really cared about Sagrada Familia,” he says. “There were stones and rubble, but it was mostly an abandoned ruin. This situation lasted many decades.”
Even the young Sotoo himself had no interest in the architect of Sagrada Familia, but “back then it was mandatory to know Gaudí’s name. Slowly, my interest in Gaudí started to grow in me. And today it keeps growing.” As it should: for more than 40 years now, Sotoo has worked to complete what Gaudí left unfinished at the time of his death in 1926, a decade before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. That bitter conflict not only put a stop to the construction of Sagrada Familia for nearly two decades, it also damaged what had already been built: the sculptures of its Porta del Rosari, for example, which it has fallen to Sotoo to restore.
Sculptures constitute much of the elaborate decoration of Sagrada Familia’s exterior and interior, both of which present the viewer with nary a straight line nor a flat surface. Even in the incomplete building, the effect is at once organic and otherworldly. “Gaudí is way beyond where we are today,” says Sotoo, and his filmmaking countryman Hiroshi Teshigahara must have shared that sentiment, having paid tribute to the architect with a worshipful 1984 documentary. The project of realizing the architect’s unprecedented aesthetic vision — the result of a conversation “with God about something very big and profound” — continues to this day, 138 years after the commencement of its construction, which moved slowly even during Gaudí’s lifetime. “My client,” history remembers him having said, “is not in a hurry.”
The current push to complete Sagrada Familia has a more pressing deadline: the year 2026, the centenary of Gaudí’s death, at which time less than a quarter of the project was complete. (You can see a 3D rendering of the remainder of the process in this video from the Sagrada Familia Foundation, previously featured here on Open Culture.) But that time frame only covers completion of the structure, including the eighteen spires Gaudí envisioned as representing the Twelve Apostles, the Virgin Mary, the four Evangelists, and Jesus Christ. The decorative elements should be finished by the early 2030s, granting more breathing room to artisans like Sotoo — who, having spent four-decades being reshaped by Gaudí himself, knows that architectural genius can’t be rushed.
Nina Simone’s creative and political community meant everything to her, and the many losses she suffered in the 60s sent her deeper into the depression of the last decades of her life. “Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry [were] prominent,” writes Malik Gaines at LitHub, “among… socially engaged writers and dramatists” whom she considered not only her “political tutors” but also her heroes and closest friends. She never stopped grieving the loss of Hansberry and Hughes and frequently memorialized them in tributes like “Backlash Blues.”
Written by Hughes, and one of Simone’s fiercest and most timely civil rights songs, “Backlash Blues” represents the significant influence the poet had on her and her art. In a live 1967 recording, she sings, “When Langston Hughes died—He told me many months before—Nina keep working until they open up that door.” The two first met when Simone was still Eunice Waymon from Tryon, North Carolina: an aspiring classical pianist, “president of the 11th-grade class and an officer with the school’s NAACP chapter,” explains Andrew J. Fletcher, a board member of the Nina Simone Project in Asheville.
This was 1949, and Hughes had come to Asheville to address Allen High School, the private school for African American girls Simone attended through a scholarship that her music teacher and early champion collected from her hometown. The poet “could not have known,” Maria Popova writes at Brain Pickings, “that [Simone] would soon revolutionize the music canon under her stage name.” But nearly ten years later, he recognized her talent immediately.
On the release of Simone’s first album, Little Girl Blue, Hughes was “so stunned that he lauded it with lyrical ardor” in his column for the Chicago Defender.
She is different. So was Billie Holiday, St. Francis, and John Donne. So in Mort Sahl. She is a club member, a coloured girl, an Afro-American, a homey from Down Home. She has hit the Big Town, the big towns, the LP discs and the TV shows — and she is still from down home. She did it mostly all by herself. Her name is Nina Simone.
They would become close friends and mutual admirers. Hughes sent her “books he thought would inspire her,” including several of his own, and wrote “words for her to set to song.” She wrote to him with earnest expressions of appreciation, especially in the letter here, penned in 1966 just before Hughes’ death.
Simone had just read Hughes’ autobiography The Big Sea. The book, she says, “gives me such pleasure—you have no idea! It is so funny.” She also writes, with candor:
Then too, if I’m in a negative mood and want to get more negative (about the racial problem, I mean) if I want to get downright mean and violent I go straight to this book and there is also material for that. Amazing—
I use the book—what I mean is I underline all meaningful sentences to me…. And as I said there is a wealth of knowledge concerning the negro problem, especially if one wants to trace the many many areas that we’ve had it rough in all these years—sometimes when I’m with white “liberals” who want to know why we’re so bitter—I forget (I don’t forget—I just get tongue-tied) how complete has been the white races’ rejection of us all these years and then when this happens I go get your book.
Hughes’ is rarely “mean and violent,” but Simone brought to her reading her own despair and rage and raw sense of rejection, emotions she was never afraid to explore in her work or talk about with humor and fierce ire in her life. “Brother, you’ve got a fan,” she gushes. The Big Sea “grips my imagination immediately plus everything in it I identify with, even your going to sea and I’ve never been to sea.” She had not been to sea, but she had been adrift, “depressed, alienated and low,” as she sang at Morehouse College in 1969 in a performance of her civil rights anthem and tribute to Lorraine Hansberry, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
The adlib framed Simone’s feelings with the same “emotional and political dimensions,” writes Gaines, she found in Hughes’ work. Though she does not mention it in her letter, her annotated copy of The Big Sea surely marks up the passage below, in which Hughes’ describes his early unhappiness and his transformative encounter with art:
When I was in the second grade, my grandmother took me to Lawrence to raise me. And I was unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome, living with my grandmother. Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books–where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas.
For Simone, music gave her suffering purpose, but not the music she played for audiences and on record. One of the saddest ironies of her career is that the woman dubbed “The High Priestess of Soul” had little interest in playing soul. She embarked on her popular music career to fund her classical education. However, the opportunities to play the way she wanted to did not arise. “Nina closed her letter on a strangely down note,” writes Nadine Cohodas in Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. “Her melancholy overwhelmed any excitement about playing for the first time in France and Belgium. ‘No pleasure,’ she told Langston, ‘just work.’”
So much of Simone’s frustration and burnout in the music industry came out of a deep sense of alienation from her work. The shy Eunice Waymon had never craved the spotlight, something Hughes must have come to know about her in the years of their acquaintance. In his first note of praise, however, he gets one thing wrong. As she was always the first to point out, Simone did not do it “mostly all by herself.”
The support of her mother, her teacher, and her small “down home” community took her as far as it could. Her relationships with Hansberry, Hughes, and other artists/activists carried her the rest of the way. Until they were gone. But when Hughes died, Popova writes, “a devastated Simone turned her coveted set at the Newport Jazz Festival into a tribute and closed it with an exhortation to the audience: ‘Keep him with you always. He was a beautiful, a beautiful man, and he’s still with us, of course.’” See much more of their correspondence at the Beinecke.
Today, the world celebrates the 100th anniversary of Ray Bradbury’s birthday. And, to mark the occasion, Neil Gaiman, William Shatner, Susan Orlean & many others will host a reading of Bradbury’s classic book, Fahrenheit 451.
The online special, like the book, is separated into three parts, each introduced by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. The voices of librarians, notable authors, actors, scholars, and students are bookended by the opening and closing readings from Neil Gaiman and William Shatner. The special includes commentary by Ann Druyan, director and co-author of Cosmos, an afterword by Susan Orlean, author of The Library Book, and a special appearance and reading by former NASA astronaut and administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr.
You can watch the videos the reading the videos above and below. The videos should be available until September 5th.
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I like to think that, when the occasion arises, I can speak passable Japanese. But pride goeth before the fall, and I fell flat on my first attempt to order a whisky in Tokyo. To my request for a Suntory neat the bartender responded only with embarrassed incomprehension. I repeated myself, pushing my Japanified pronunciation to parodic limits: saaan-to-riii nee-to. At some point the man deciphered my linguistic flailing. “Ah,” he said, brightening, “suuu-to-raaay-to?” To think that I could have handled this situation with dignity had I but seen the Suntory commercial above, in which Herbie Hancock suggests having a drink “straight.”
Would even the maddest men of the American advertising industry countenance the idea of putting a jazz musician in a commercial? Japan thinks differently, however, and in its economic-bubble era of the 1970s and 80s thought more differently still.
Of all the things American embraced (and repurposed) by Japan after its defeat in the Second World War, jazz music has maintained the most intensely enthusiastic fan base. Japanese-made jazz has long been a formidable genre of its own, just as Japanese-made whisky has long held its own with the Western varieties. But when the makers of Japanese whisky made an effort to sell their own product on television to the newly wealthy Japanese people, they looked to American jazzmen to give it a shot of authenticity. Having recruited Hancock to promote drinking their single-malt whisky at room temperature, Suntory got bassist Ron Carter as well as both Branford and Ellis Marsalis to promote drinking it hot.
Could the cultural association between jazz and whisky extend to other liquors? That was the gambit of a 1987 commercial featuring Miles Davis, recently investigated by InsideHook’s Aaron Goldfarb. Its product: shōchū, “a colorless, odorless, yet often challenging spirit typically distilled from rice (known as kome-jochu), barley (mugi-jochu) or sweet potatoes (imo-jochu).” Newly launched with an apparent intent to pitch that staid beverage to moneyed younger people, the brand VAN hired Davis to play a few notes on his trumpet, then take a sip of its shōchū and pronounce it a “miracle.” He also describes himself as “always on the vanguard,” hence, presumably, the name VAN (though its being reminiscent of VAN JACKET, the company that had earlier brought Ivy League style to the same target demographic, couldn’t have been unwelcome).
Though Davis’ brand of cool did its part for the success of Honda scooters and TDK cassette tapes, it proved not to be enough for VAN shōchū. The brand “was a big flop and had a very short life,” Goldfarb quotes an industry expert as saying, “probably because shōchū is so quintessentially Japanese, and a foreign-style shōchū just didn’t make sense to most.” Perhaps the commercial itself also lacked the pleasurable simplicity of Suntory’s many jazz-oriented spots, none of which turned out simpler or more pleasurable than the one with Sammy Davis Jr. performing a cappella just above. In the process of pouring himself a drink Davis plays the part of an entire jazz combo, using only his mouth and the objects at hand, including the ice in his glass. The concept wouldn’t have worked quite so well had he taken his Suntory neat — or rather, straight.
As critics and fans wrote excitedly upon its release, Marvel’s Black Panther did an excellent job of creating sympathy for its villain. Many found Erik Killmonger’s radicalism more appealing than the hero’s moderation for some specific reasons, beginning with the heist at the “Museum of Great Britain,” a thinly fictionalized British Museum. “In one scene,” writes gallerist Lise Ragbir at Hyperallergic, “the blockbuster superhero movie touches on issues of provenance, repatriation, diversity, representation, and other debates currently shaping institutional practices.”
As a gallery director who is also black, I was awed by Killmonger’s declaration to an overconfident curator that she was mistaken. When the curator condescendingly informed Killmonger that items in the museum aren’t for sale, my hands began to sweat. And I was downright thrilled when the villain bluntly confronted her: “How do you think your ancestors got these? You think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it like they took everything else?”
He does not exaggerate. The scene “describes a centuries-old truth,” artist Deborah Roberts remarks”—”colonialists robbing black culture to put on display for European consumption.” The issue, in other words, is not only who gets to tell the stories of African and other non-European people, but who gets to see and hear them, since so many non-white people have been excluded from museums and museum culture.
As Casey Haughin wrote in the Hopkins Exhibitionist, the film “presented [the museum] as an illegal mechanism of colonialism, and along with that, a space which does not even welcome those whose culture it displays.” So-called “disputed museum treasures,” the Vox video above shows, are essentially stolen artifacts, with claims of ownership that elide, omit, or fabricate the history of their acquisition.
Some looted treasures have been returned, but when it comes to the majority of the Museum’s “disputed” collections, “so far, it isn’t giving them back,” Vox explains, despite calls from formerly colonized nations. It’s easy to see why. If they were to honor historical claims of ownership, the British Museum would lose some of its most celebrated and significant holdings, like the Rosetta Stone or the Benin Bronzes, “some of the most contentious items in the museum.”
These bronzes, from the wealthy Kingdom of Benin, located in modern-day Nigeria, were “looted by British soldiers during an 1897 raid,” Sarah Cascone writes at Artnet. Faced with calls from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments to return them, the British Museum held meetings that lead to more meetings and a “declaration” that “outlined an intention”—all stalling tactics that have not produced results. Learn why these artifacts are important to Nigerians and how the 19th-century “scramble for Africa” created so much of the museum culture we know today, one still heavily mired in its colonialist roots.
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