Friday, August 29, 2008

Olana: Orientalist Mansion in Hudson (NY)

During my month at the Millay Colony, I've taken in so much: Shakespeare and Company (Othello), Tanglewood (Kronos Quartet and the Beaux Arts Trio), Jacobs Pillow (Maureen Fleming, one of my teachers), in addition to the previously mentioned trip to the Clark Art Museum and Mass MoCa and Olana.

The American landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church built Olana, a Moorish style mansion between 1870 and 1890, a house originally intended to be a French style manor but redesigned after a fashionable trip to the Middle East in the 1870s. Church also landscaped the grounds to created sculpted or planned views at every turn of the road to his house on his 126 acres of land. Intricate woodworking from both the Middle and Far East and Arabic script appear throughout the interior rooms and the colors are certainly evocative of Orientalist inspired colors I saw in Egypt and the above the front door of the main entrance there is a sign of Welcome in Arabic. Everything is intermixed with Victorian era taste and fashion, former high society schtick which is so much what Orientalism seems made of.
Church's early fame came from his contributions to the very regional "Hudson River School" But, like Orientalism, this aesthetic lost favor and Church never regained his earliest level of recognition. Though he continued to paint scenes inspired by the Hudson and his many travels to the East collecting many foreign works of art, Olana, the house and grounds became his artistic focus in later life. It's gorgeous and not too far from NYC. Go!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

More on Darwish

More and more on Darwish is floating by my desk. In The New Yorker, an interview with one of his translators and friends, Fady Joudah. Also, a republishing of a 2003 essay by Issa J Boullata in the literary arts journal Al Jadid. (Added August 29: Fady Joudah again with poetry in the Kenyon Review.)

12th Annual Arab Music Retreat (South Hadley, MA)

Leaving Williamstown, we drove through winding roads and hairpin turns through the brilliant greens in the Berkshires to Mount Holyoke College where Simon Shaheen's Arab Music Retreat was having a their annual concert. Rain and darkness made us late though we did hear the faculty performances of works by Zakariyyah Ahmed, Dr. A.J. Racy, and Muhammad 'Abd al-Wahhab. stayed awake until five in the morning visiting, watching music and dance, and walking along the misty stream, and after four hours of sleep, sat in on a morning singing class hashing out: "Muwashshah Ana Min Wajdi Ana." Anyone interested in Arab music or dance should certainly consider this annual event. (photo: stream in night fog if you can't tell!)

The Clark Museum (Williamstown, MA)

On Friday, August 15, I drove with my friend Ranya to Williamstown to visit the Sterling and Francis Clark Museum. In 2000, this venue hosted the well-received “Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930.” (Great catalog.) Among famous works in the museum's permanent collection are Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “The Snake Charmer” (very pale, very male) printed for many years on the cover of Edward Said's Orientalism, and John Singer Sargent's “Fumée d'Ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris)” Lush, evocative, exquisitely detailed, and large, these works certainly reveal more about the artist's role and perspective than the actual subject, a reminder of how artistic vision always reflects its era and how easily one can see these limitations in retrospect. Also at the museum: "Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly," subtle, almost monotone works popular at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, just before World War I when interest in Orientalist art was waning in the United States (slightly later than Europe). Misty rivers, winter landscapes, moonscape over the open sea, and, even in the peopled scenes, loneliness and blurry light.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Palestinian Poet Mahmoud Darwish Dies

Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish died last Saturday, August 9, after surgery. Among posted tributes are: Ahdaf Soueif's contribution to the Guardian UK, Democracy Now's Aug. 11 broadcast, Germany's Deutsche-Welle (their photo used here), and the New York Times' Ethan Bronner from Jerusalem.

Review: "Allure of the East" on Gilded Serpent

The invaluable online belly dance journal Gilded Serpent has published my review of the current exhibit at the New York Historical Society: "Allure of the East: Orientalism in New York, 1850-1930." In Europe, enthusiasts of the aesthetic aimed for art; in the United States, they aimed for sales. Please read the review (and the journal) and go see the show before it closes on Aug. 17th.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Alwan Festival of Sacred Music Sept. 12-27

On Sept. 12, Master drummer Glen Velez and his frame drum ensemble will kick off the third annual Festival of Sacred Music at NYC's Alwan for the Arts. The aim of this festival is: "to explore not only otherdimensions of our human existence but also old and naturalconnections between faiths, cultures, music traditions, and even the sacred and the profane. It is important in our post-modern world togive space to contemplating our spiritual connection to ourselves,others and our environment through music and ritual without religious zeal." Scheduled guests are Moussa Dieng Kala, Gaurav Shah, and the extremely talented Tarab ensemble who I saw last spring. All events 9:30 p.m. (Photo: Glen Velez)

Friday, August 8, 2008

What the West Wants to Hear

Two articles published today brought to mind a certain discomfort for a certain type of literature touted by our media that confirms popular stereotypes. I was thoroughly disappointed by the much hyped Kite Runner, found Reading Lolita in Tehran uninteresting, and Persepolis well executed but a story that has been told frequently of late. Much of this material is based on the writers' own experiences; there is value in that and sometimes even art, but the sudden popularity of a large part of their shared message must at least be put into context. In the Lebanon Daily Star, The Challenge of Having Western Readers See Past Culture and Gender: Women Writers from the Middle East Talk About How They're Read in the West, Alice Fordham interviews Arab women writers dealing with this very issue. Rajaa Alsanea, auther of well received (I haven't read this yet) The Girls of Riyadh states that "...she was saddened that the journalists who wanted to interview her seemed to know what they would report before they spoke to her. She wanted to raise questions, not to see her country condemned across the Western world."

Counterpose that with a blurb from the Edinburg Fringe Festival for "The British Ambassador's Belly Dancer." Again, a woman who was oppressed by her background finds a certain kind of freedom through belly dancing and prostitution and connections with freedom in the West through the British Ambassador in Uzbekistan. Again, this is a work that is based on a true life. While I recognize the individual pain involved, the timing of the popularity and presentation makes it seem not at all "fringe" but rather formula for what the mainstream West wants to hear.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Sacred Temple Dancers in the New Yorker

I first learned about the sacred temple dancers in India, known as devadasis, in the early 90s when I was a member of The Goddess Dancing and again when I studied classical Indian dance. I knew the images I had were romantically outdated: temple dancers were the most educated women in their societies; they were able to converse freely and respectably with men; they were often the only women allowed to own land; their sexuality was revered as divine strength rather than a means of degradation. It's hard to know which if any of these visions were ever true.

In this week's New Yorker, "Serving the Goddess: The Dangerous Life of a Sacred Sex Worker," writer William Dalrymple investigates the life of a contemporary devadasi in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. He accompanies her to the temple of the goddess she serves, Yellamma, where the priests deny the devadasis' sacred status and claim they have nothing to do with those sorts of women. According to the article, Victorian era missionaries who hoped to end the practice perhaps initially turned the situation for the worse by forcing it underground. Once drawn from elite families, most contemporary devadasi are born to impoverished families who dedicate their daughters out of economic desperation . Though the women support the families who sold them through their work, they are also scorned by them. The rampage of AIDS ends this story when the reader learns that the subject of this story has the disease and will soon die as her daughters have already at ages 15 and 16. As I pay $15 an hour or more for yoga and dance classes, this article is a sober reminder of how sterilized and removed our "practices" from other cultures become in our relatively luxurious life in the States. How do we find balance? The full article appears in the Aug. 4 issue of the New Yorker.