Image credit: Matthew Willman.
“You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution.”
- Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013
As President Obama said yesterday:
“He achieved more than could be expected of any man. Today he’s gone home, and we’ve lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth.
…We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again, so it falls to us as best we can to follow the example that he set, to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love, to never discount the difference that one person can make, to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice.”
Today we grieve, but we are all inheritors of Mandela’s legacy and moral imperative for justice. We will not let him down.
Wandering around Royal Oak Farms and the Botanic Gardens.
Image source: Asiapacific.unwoman.org
*Trigger warning: Discussion of sexual violence.
An edited version was cross-posted at Hyphen on September 20, 2013.
. . .
Sigh. I really wish I didn’t have to write this, but with everything that has been going on lately, I didn’t feel right letting this one go.
So, last week, my husband’s old colleague (let’s call him Z.), a self-proclaimed lover of poetry, yoga, Eastern philosophy, and beautiful women, posted this publicly on Facebook:
Damn, damn, damn. Where to even begin?
Z. is alluding, of course, to the controversial report released by the UN joint program Partners for Prevention. The results indicated that half of the 10,000 men surveyed across nine areas in six countries in the Asia Pacific revealed that they had used physical and/or sexual violence against a female partner, while 10%-62% of men, depending on locale, admitted to “perpetrating some form of rape against a woman or girl in their lifetime.” (Other key findings: most of these rapes were against intimate partners, not strangers, and the overwhelmingly common justification for rape was the claim of “sexual entitlement” over women.)
Obviously, this survey yields pretty horrifying details that, as the study itself concludes, beg for urgent measures to counter the epidemic of male violence against women and to empower women and girls in both the public and private spheres, especially in societies where equality between the sexes is inadequately underwritten by cultural or legal practices.
But without minimizing the fact that this UN report deserves our outrage and calls to action, it must be said that many Americans’ responses to the study have been bizarre, to say the least: rape-culture denialists, for instance, have dismissed the findings, while in other cases, like Z., reactions have been self-righteous and even self-congratulatory, as a quick look at the comments to pretty much any article about this report will reveal. Over on Quora, a lively debate popped up on the question of why “the west [sic] is hell-bent on studying rapes in the east [sic].” (One user insightfully responded, “Is rape reporting in Western media biased? Yes. Absolutely.”)
Anyway, back to Z. When my husband read Z.’s Facebook post, he immediately posted a response (see C.’s reply below). As you can see, Z.’s flurry of counterattacks became increasingly unhinged, bolstered by his (female!) yoga instructor friend D.’s unhelpful generalizations of Asian men as “disgusting” devaluers of women, and Asian women as “meek and quiet yet manipulative in their own way”:
As I read through this again, I’m stunned by how rapidly the conversation moves from condemning Asian men, to condemning Asian women, to condemning all women, period – leaving American men blameless and victimized by so-called “pussy power plays” and “reverse rape,” which according to Z. is “every bit as wrong as a man physically raping a woman.” Wow. I don’t know, Z. Like my husband, I too seem to be missing your larger point “as it relates to humanity, behavior, culture and perspective.”
The conversation continued. My husband started receiving irate messages from Z., including:
amigo…did you marry an Angry Womyn? You sound increasingly de-balled on here!
say it ain’t so…
another factor to consider: pretty much NO reporting of instances where Women and Womyn use that pussy as a weapon. reverse rape, basically…
happens every day, lots in America
And I wasn’t the only Angry Womyn, it turns out. His cousin, the only other person besides C. to call out Z.’s misogyny, got this rant in return: “You really need to simmer down. And apologize…I sure hope you don’t end up talking to your husband like this. Nasty nasty stuff, cuz-o-roo…”:
Unsurprisingly, the next day Z. deleted the entire original post and conversation and decided to play the victim card instead:
Finally, he consoled himself with some Eastern philosophy:
Well. May the wisdom of the East make you feel better about yourself, Z.
. . .
Of course, my post here isn’t about outing a single misogynist with creepy racist undertones – first of all, because there’s zero chance that Z. will read this, and even if he did, we can probably predict that it would only add more fire to his raging sense of victimhood. As my husband said, Z. is just one sad, insignificant human being in the world. But as much as I want to believe that and then simply forget everything that Z. posted, his toxic words are sadly consistent with the disturbingly universal trend of men – more often than not, men in power – blaming women for sexual assault.
I’m talking, for instance, about two Chicago-area firefighters who were caught allegedly trying to rape a woman, with one of the firefighters claiming to the cops that the victim “had been making eyes at me.”
Or the conservative writer John Derbyshire who argued that women in the military are “eccentric” self-victimizers who are “especially susceptible to the associated pathologies…[of] victim hoaxes for attention, spite, or cash reward” – i.e., they lie about getting raped to get paid.
Or the ex-mayor of San Diego who, stepping down after over twenty women came forth to accuse him of sexual harassment, blamed everyone else but himself, including the “lynch mob” conspiracy fueled by the lies of his accusers, his old evil nemeses Awkwardness and Hubris, and the city of San Diego for not providing him with adequate sexual harassment training.
Or the ex-living monster of a man Ariel Castro himself, who repeatedly blamed his three victims during his sentencing, denying that he’d ever raped or beat them and characterizing himself as a hapless victim of the girls’ lies and sexual appetites.
While all this victim-blaming is going on, the real victims of sexual assault are getting scant support and acknowledgment from their communities and law enforcement. In tragic recent cases, young teenage girls who were raped by their peers or teachers committed suicide while their rapists went virtually scot-free. In the case of 14-year-old Cherice Moralez, the judge in her case sentenced her rapist ex-teacher Stacey Rambold to just 30 days in prison while describing the dead victim as “as much in control of the situation” and “older than her chronological age.” (The judge has since apologized for his remarks, though he couldn’t get Rambold’s sentence extended.)
And these are just some of the headlines from the last few months alone.
. . .
With stories like these constantly flooding the media, it’s alarmingly obvious that blaming the victims of sexual assault isn’t ever just promulgated by losers like Z., who live lives of (not so quiet) desperation, but by serial rapists, law enforcers, public intellectuals, and civic leaders alike. Tragically, such thinking also permeates our younger generations, who are growing up in a culture where online slut-shaming is the norm, and where young perpetrators — boys and girls alike — admit that they “often feel the need to shame other girls for their improper behavior.”
So it’s contemptible and oh-so-hypocritical when some Americans misuse news like the UN report in order to blame “Other” men — lately, Asian men — to feel better about themselves while willfully refusing to take a long, hard look at our own backyard (see for instance, if you can stomach it, the comments to this excellent PolicyMic article about Ariel Castro and rape culture). I’m sick and tired of it. Because, oh by the way, Z., 1 in 5 women in America have stated that they have been sexually assaulted. And, of course, that’s only the number of women who’ve reported it, and in an outdated study, besides.
So as much as I know how many good, good men there are, as long as there are those like Z. believing that American women “have it good” compared to women in the rest of the world if they’re not getting raped, and that men are innocent victims of whatever the hell “pussy power” is, and that whatever the hell “reverse rape” is is somehow equivalent to men raping women, all of us – all of us – have a serious problem on our hands. Let’s just please acknowledge it, please? And then let’s empower ourselves to keep fighting rape culture and victim-blaming in our own communities right here at home.
. . .
10.12.13: An interesting Reddit thread on this post.
Since this article ran in Hyphen late September, it has provoked a lot of great responses and been circulated, among others, by university student groups, yoga schools (ironically enough), and national organizations serving victims of abuse. There’s been an outpouring of outrage against Z.’s comments and how they represent destructively entrenched ways of thinking about rape and the victims of sexual violence in the U.S. While there’s obviously a long, long way to go, it’s good to be reminded that the Z.s of the world are far outnumbered by those who are calling them out and calling for change.
Just got back from an exhilarating, exhausting week in Costa Rica. A lifetime is not enough to experience its many wondrous ecosystems — covering a mere 0.25% of the planet and yet home to an impressive 5% of the world’s flora and fauna in a country with one of the highest percentages of state-protected land — but we tried to make tiny inroads into a few, including the tropical rainforests surrounding the Volcán Arenal (one of Costa Rica’s several active volcanoes) and the beaches and tropical dry forests of Guanacaste in the west. The lush rainforests are so dense with moisture and life that, as C. described it, for miles all you can see are “plants growing on plants growing on plants.” (And apparently algae growing on tree sloths, which, sadly, we couldn’t see up close since the lazy critters were all passed out way above our heads.)
Since we wanted to take in the landscape at a slower pace, we sidestepped the ziplines and tram tours and decided to hike around as much as we could. One of our first tourist stops was the Arenal Hanging Bridges, which took us over the tops of the rainforest canopy and gave us our first unobstructed view of the volcano itself — a miracle in the rainy winter season, when the volcano is typically clouded over for much of the day.
At the base of the volcano is the beautiful, mysterious, and (surprisingly) man-made Lake Arenal, shrouded in mist and surrounded by forests, farmland, hot spring resorts, sodas (food stalls), and the occasional fishing pier.
When we stopped for lunch at a soda, the waiter pointed out a family of monkeys swinging in the trees over the kitchen. Along with the stray chihuahua who had claimed this as her spot, as well as the tiny bird that had made her nest inside the TV speaker (bad idea, mama bird — especially during the fútbol game), the monkeys had joined the club of wildlife that had figured out a symbiotic way of living with the folks at Restaurante Cascajos.
Later in the afternoon, C. and I hiked up closer to the volcano to check out the lava fields from the massive explosion of 1968 that wiped out three villages and decimated crops, livestock, and people’s lives and livelihoods. Today, of course, the livelihoods of people around here center on the countless tourists that the volcano itself now draws in.
The signs everywhere were ominous, and we were constantly ordered to park our cars facing outward for a quick getaway at the first sign of a rumbling. All I can say is, my respect for volcanoes — and the brave, foolhardy (?) townsfolk, animals, and plants that thrive around them — knows no bounds after our encounter with the silently smoking Arenal.
Day 3 (or was it 4?): waking up to Arenal outside our cabin; rescuing a stick bug from the clutches of an over-excited boy; following horseback riders to La Fortuna waterfall, where we climbed down some hefty steps to get to the base and splash around for a while.
We stopped for lunch at Toad Hall, whose relentless road-side advertising was no doubt inspired by the likes of Wall Drug. To my slight dismay, the kitschy restaurant/B&B/store/art gallery had nothing whatsoever to do with Wind in the Willows. It did, however, have great views of Lake Arenal, as well as a tiny, whacked out orphan baby toucan named (what else?) Sam. We did feel a little sorry for Sam, though. He just looked so damn lonely.
We then got in the car and followed this horse, who was blandly chewing on his hay during the long, bumpy ride. Eventually we ended up on the west coast, where we stayed for a few days on Playa Arenilla in the Gulf of Papagayo.
Everywhere — from the beaches to the forests, the town markets to Zoo Ave — was awash in color.
Everywhere there was flair, from the fauna (iguanas, macaws, alligators, emus)…
…to the flora (jungles and forests bursting with croton, heliconia, and maracas that looked like Tequila Sunrises)…
…to the fruit stands packed with bananas, pineapples, mangoes, jocotes, guayabas, and maracuyás.
Of course, not everything on our trip was so vivid and colorful. Not depicted here: C. driving in torrential downpours around white-knuckle cliffs with zero visibility, turned back at a key junction by a large tree uprooted by floods that was threatening to fall across the one bridge through town, adding three more hours to the journey. Maneuvering around unmarked one-lane roads and claustrophobic central plazas where everybody — babies, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, bus drivers, skateboarders, chickens, dogs, and goats — had the right of way, all the time. Monkeys, tropical birds, and iguanas hanging precariously in the branches over our heads, constantly threatening — in one case, successfully — to hurl poop on us. Second-degree sunburns. Burned feet from black sand. Feet sliced open on the rocky bay. Fifteen hundred mosquito bites. One theft. And the saddest street festival in the world. (Santo Domingo, Saturday afternoon.)
Most of all, though, not depicted here is the kindness of strangers who were patient with our Spanish, helped dig our sod-trapped car, invited us to their homes, and went out of their way to help us out when we were miserably lost. And the constant refrain of “pura vida” — literally, “pure life,” but also hello, goodbye, thank you, what’s going on, you’re welcome, fantastic, everything’s great, and may you have a wonderful life.
. . .
(More pictures here.)
This past weekend, C. and I took my dad to D.C. for the official event held by the U.S. Department of Defense to commemorate the 60 year anniversary of the Korean War armistice. My 81-year-old dad, who fled his village in North Korea alone at the age of 13, joined the Southern army at the start of the war and rose to become a lieutenant colonel in the ROK. A few months ago he asked me to write the Department of Defense to inquire about a Certificate of Appreciation that they were sending out to Korean War veterans. One lead led to another, and soon I found myself booking a trip for the three of us to D.C. (My mom was staying behind to take care of business at the old folks’ home, where there was a major reorganization of the head nuns in charge — a whole other heart-pounding story.)
After an initial day of sightseeing on Friday, the next morning we woke up at the crack of dawn to board the bus at the Pentagon to the Korean War Veterans Memorial. It was hot and humid, but the U.S. military servicemen and women who were chaperoning the event couldn’t be more gracious, welcoming, and respectful towards the 5,000 or so veterans and family members who were attending. I especially appreciated the zealous efforts of the Young Marines, who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old, running around to keep us all well watered throughout the day.
The keynote speaker was President Obama, whose participation was kept under the wraps until just a day or so before the event. His presence marked the first time a U.S. president participated in a Korean War armistice ceremony, ever — a fact that I was startled (and not a little annoyed) to find out.
After laying a wreath at the Memorial, flanked by top military and government officials from the U.S. and Korea, the President took to the stage and delivered a moving speech that was steadfastly optimistic and carefully avoided politics to focus more on personal stories. He asked all the veterans — who still fit in their uniforms — to rise, much to the appreciation of everyone else in the audience.
My normally reserved dad made friends all around him, such as these American veterans who were sitting in the row in front of us, and a Korean couple from Virginia next to us who doted on him, listened to his stories, and insisted that a roving Voice of America reporter stop by and interview my dad.
After the ceremony, my dad pulled off the biggest coup of all. As we walked around the Memorial, my dad asked if I could take his picture with this four-star Korean general. While I was getting my camera ready, I watched as he started to talk the general’s ear off. I snapped a couple photos, then the general bowed respectfully and we went on our way.
Last night I was going through articles about the event when I saw this general standing behind Pres. Obama throughout the ceremony. His name was General Jeong Seung-jo, who, as it turned out, is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Republic of Korea Armed Forces. My mouth dropped and I immediately called my dad. “Holy crap!” I told him. “You totally gave military advice to the #1 guy of the whole South Korean army!” “I just wanted him to keep some things in mind,” he said matter-of-factly. “He’s a young guy — he was born after the war, after all.” “But what did you say?” I asked. There was a brief silence. “I cannot discuss this matter over the phone,” he finally said.
Standing at attention.
My dad in front of the Memorial.
Later Saturday evening, we walked around the National Mall again to catch a glimpse of the memorials in the darkness.
This is not, and must not be, a Forgotten War.
Kanye West. Image credit: Nick Knight / New York Times.
Why Kanye West’s Yeezus might be the right album for our times, and not in the best way.
*Warning: Racially and sexually offensive language — all quotes, just to be clear.
. . .
Last Sunday, Anthea Butler, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at UPenn, blogged that George Zimmerman’s acquittal finally convinced her that America’s god is a white racist:
God ain’t good all of the time. In fact, sometimes, God is not for us. As a black woman in a nation that has taken too many pains to remind me that I am not a white man, and am not capable of taking care of my reproductive rights, or my voting rights, I know that this American god ain’t my god. As a matter of fact, I think he’s a white racist god with a problem. More importantly, he is carrying a gun and stalking young black men.
Predictably, the trolls exploded. “Who’s the real racist here?” they demanded, as they defended themselves as “race-blind” while calling Prof. Butler “nigger” and “cunt.” “Anthea Butler – and most professional black racists like NAACP – are FURIOUS that the OFFICIAL MYTH of RACISM is CRUMBLING,” tweeted TeaPartyStance. Slicknick51 tweeted: “you aren’t fit to teach a dog to sit much less at an Ivy League school. Don’t you dare call God a racist. He is the #Almighty.” And so on. Bizarrely (though unfortunately not surprisingly), many kept harping on her use of “ain’t” in a post that was consciously and emphatically written in the black vernacular. (LancerT114: “‘aint’ aint a word, you racist c word.”)
Oh post-racial America, where did you say you were again?
. . .
Meanwhile, in the world of pop music, light years away (or not?), Kanye West offered up a frightening alternative to the white racist god in his new album Yeezus. “I am a god,” he snarled. “Hurry up with my damn ménage. Hurry up with my damn croissants!”
Then he let loose a scream from hell.
When I first heard Yeezus last Thursday, I found myself slammed against a wall of industrial shrieks and noise. While the album’s aggressively bleak soundscape reached back into the past (Chicago deep house, freaky electro, and grindcore, throwing in some Chicago drill for added nihilism), Yeezus bum-rushed the show into an unrelenting, dystopian future. Critics have called it music unlike anything else on the charts, but that’s not really true – even if you didn’t follow pre-“EDM” electronic music in the ’80s and ’90s, you’d still be able to catch the older sound of familiar acts like Prodigy, Crystal Method, Nine Inch Nails, and Marilyn Manson (whose rollicking military stomp “The Beautiful People” shows up pretty much verbatim in Yeezus’s “Black Skinhead”). At the same time, sonically, at least, Yeezus is a brutal, groundbreaking album from a bona fide mainstream superstar, which is why it’s no stretch of the imagination to call Kanye “pop music’s most complex star.”
After Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict came crashing down last Saturday night, though, listening to Yeezus turned out to be an entirely different experience. Mainly because I actually started listening to the lyrics. I’m not normally too turned off by Kanye’s wounded bombast and braggadocio (see my thoughts on his last album here), but this time I found myself way more pissed off than usual at his sexual wordplay, which transcended, as it were, the typical juvenile b.s. about raunchy, porn-tastic conquests (though believe me, there was plenty of the typically juvenile – eating Asian pussy with sweet and sour sauce? And yet another joke about getting head from nuns? Why do I always have to be reminded of how much it sucks to be a female who loves hiphop?).
No – the worst part was the way that Kanye’s lyrics reduced the language of black civil rights and liberation movements into mere metaphors for the “woes” of celebrityhood and sex. In the song “I’m in It,” Ye raps about shoving his fist up in a lover “like a civil rights sign” until she comes, and shouts, “Thank God almighty, they free at last!” at the breasts of another woman, liberated from the shackles of the bra. When I heard strains from Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s devastating song about lynching (“black bodies swinging in the southern breeze”), framing the lyrics of Yeezus’s “Blood on the Leaves,” a story about an ex-girlfriend, I almost choked. At one point in the song, Kanye bitterly spits out, “Now you sittin’ courtside, wifey on the other side / Gotta keep ’em separated, I call that apartheid.”
Let us be reminded that Kanye’s last album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy ended with the late, great Gil Scott-Heron urgently chanting, “America was a bastard / The illegitimate daughter of the mother country / Whose legs were then spread around the world / And a rapist known as freedom, freedom…Who will survive in America?” (Dorian Lynskey takes a critical view of Kanye’s use of this sample, but it doesn’t take away from the force of Scott-Heron’s own words.)
Here, equating the separation of an ex and a wife at a basketball game with apartheid? Are you fucking serious, Ye?
. . .
Small wonder, then, over the backlash against the lyrical content, and the questioning of Kanye’s overall sanity, in the weeks since Yeezus’s release. HuffPo surveyed the critics a few days after the album came out, all of whom echoed Al Shipley’s cutting observation that “increasingly, Kanye West’s lyrics feel like the result of a gross misunderstanding of the phrase ‘the personal is political.’”
But whether in defense of Kanye or in disgust, most folks have tended to attribute Kanye’s “fascinating” failings to the man himself: He’s an artist. He’s unpredictable. He’s a crazy, out-of-control megalomaniac. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
Whatever the assessment may be, however, I can’t help feeling that it’s too easy to dismiss or praise the contradictions in Kanye’s work as the result of one man’s “crazy” or “genius,” or both. For Kanye’s confusion between the personal and political – and even his “flatten[ing of] the troubled history of black America” into his own image, as Lynskey so eloquently puts it – is itself rooted in something much larger than just the personal. Heben Nigatu has already written about Kanye’s dandyist obsession with fashion as a form of “populist narcissism,” or black self-love as a political act. In support, Nigatu quotes the poet Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Of course, this view of Kanye’s “vanity” can become too optimistic and return us, wrongly, back to Kanye himself. (Nigatu, for instance, takes at face value Kanye’s absurd self-alignment within the artist-activist tradition of Scott-Heron.) But I argue that there’s another way of tackling his contradictions without giving too much credit to Ye himself – i.e., from the collective perspective of black experience, as well as from those who are looking from the outside.
Of all the audacious comparisons Kanye has made between himself and other icons (including in his recent much-mocked New York Times interview), the one he gets most right, perhaps, might be Picasso. In the painter’s famous work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, five nude prostitute-Muses, some with African mask-like faces, are flattened against a 2D-plane and stare out (and are stared at) from dizzying and contradictory perspectives. Their direct outward gazes are frightening, aloof, hieratic, contrasted with the formidable sensuality of their bodies. And the angles are all skewed – figures that appear to be standing up are actually lying down, viewed from above, while another figure whose legs seem to be spread wide open to the viewer is in fact twisted around so that all we see are her face and back. I might’ve called it striptease-like in its conceal/reveal, except that these women are so brazenly confrontational and terrifying that playful seduction seems to be the last thing on their minds.
Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).
Similarly, Yeezus refracts multiple perspectives of the black man (figured through Kanye, or some version of “Kanye,” along with a host of other collaborators) at jarringly contradictory angles, screaming from the depths of noise, but also internalizing and then spewing back white America’s fears and desires. In “Black Skinhead,” which he calls “my theme song,” the pronouns keep switching as Kanye both performs blackness and watches others watching him in the lines
They see a black man with a white woman
At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong
Middle America packed in
Come to see me in my black skin…
By the end of the song, he’s trying to revive the bodies of dying brothers, as he addresses them directly, then switches to address a different audience:
Come on homie what happened
You niggas ain’t breathing you gasping
These niggas ain’t ready for action…
In the more problematic “New Slaves,” Kanye bombards listeners with a history of grievances against black people (segregation, slavery, “broke nigga racism,” “rich nigga racism,” corporate power, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Corrections Corporation of America, in that order) without establishing clear relationships or hierarchies. (Is being “enslaved” by the designer goods of Alexander Wang supposed to be somehow equivalent to actually being enslaved, according to the lyrics? Is modern-day racism against “broke” vs. “rich niggas”?) At the same time, the assaultive delivery and cascade of sufferings, transformed into a revenge fantasy at the end of the song where Kanye comes in the “Hampton mouth” of a rich man’s wife, renders the track (together with all the other problematic tracks) into something of a smashed kaleidoscope where shards of distorted images of the stereotypical Black Man – caged, beaten, predatory, oversexed, monstrous – are reflected back at Middle America.
(Update 7.22.13) Screenshot from “Black Skinhead” video on kanyewest.com, directed by Nick Knight.
If we read all this as autobiographical, then yes, Kanye is crazy. No doubt. But if we read all this confusion as a symptom of something much larger, then it might start to make a little more sense. Don’t get me wrong – I think stic.man of Dead Prez is being too generous when he says (in a Facebook post responding to Kanye’s yet another self-comparison to the Dead Prez) that Kanye “looks at contradiction as the way things really are. He doesn’t want to fit in any one sided box. I think for him he has found his lane which blends a lot of points of view that are often polarized but with ye’s art it becomes one.” In my view, to call Yeezus a coherent and unified work is totally wrong, because it means pretending all the inexcusable personal/political confusions aren’t there, which they obviously are. Yeezus is not Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, despite the similarities.
At the same time, in a month-long span in which the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Detroit declared bankruptcy, Chicago’s yearly homicide rate passed 200 while 28 Chicago public schools had their doors closed for good by the Board of Education, 30,000 inmates in California’s prisons kicked off a statewide hunger strike, 250 female inmates in California were revealed to have been sterilized by the state since the late ’90s, and, of course, George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, it’s hard to say that Yeezus’s fractured visions aren’t symptomatic of what’s going on in large swaths of the black community, and especially among black men (if not so much women), in America. As linguists like to say about language, Yeezus’s nightmares are definitely descriptive, not prescriptive.
Kanye West wearing a hoodie from his old Pastelle line.
Is it a troubling reflection of our times that the most exciting and provocative album out right now is filtered through the persona(s) of a black egomaniacal superstar who thinks he’s a god who hangs out with God and uses civil rights iconography as metaphors for sex and greed? Uh, yes.
But the real tragedy here, if there is one, is that Kanye West consciously performs himself as a black man who’s reached the apex of the American Dream, yet is more self-alienated than ever. (And maybe possibly even murdered for it – the final song “Bound 2” ambiguously ends with what sounds like multiple gunshots when the old pimp Jerome from the ’90s show Martin walks in on Kanye doing his girl.) Less consciously, but more ominously, Kanye also disenfranchises himself from the legacy of civil rights at the very moment that he appropriates its symbols in a display of hetero black male swagger. As if these options – success and blackness, civil rights and black masculinity – are either/or choices in America.
Speaking of success and blackness in American popular culture, the two choices seem to be clearly embodied by the differences between Kanye and his “big brother” Jay Z. Go corporate, feed PRISM, lose your soul? You get the Queen Bee, a trip to Cuba, and the direct number to the President. Keep stoking your black rage while accumulating wealth and glory? Well, you might just get slapped with a felony charge to bring your ass down.
In other words, if the latter is the case for Kanye freaking West, then how much more hopeless is it for a young black teenage man who’s wearing a hoodie and navigating the hostile streets of America?
Well, we know the answer. No wonder Prof. Butler calls America’s god a white racist.
But unless we can come up with a more merciful and benevolent one, Kanye’s megalomaniac god of Yeezus is, unfortunately, one of the few alternatives we’ve got out there right now.
Family reunion over July 4th weekend in St. Louis: First Friday art walk in Grand Center, severe minimalism at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, the baking heat of Richard Serra’s weathering steel spiral named Joe, farm residents cooling off in Suson Park, a park full of art and kids cooling off in the Citygarden, and the final strains of Bret Michaels howling “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” set against an epic fireworks finale under the Arch.
More critters and public art here.
Young Jean Lee, Untitled Feminist Show. Image credit: Blaine Davis.
Ongoing shows by Asian American artists boldly place bodies front and center.
(An edited version of this post appeared earlier in Hyphen on June 27, 2013.)
. . .
“She mimicks the speaking. That might resemble speech. (Anything at all.) Bared noise, groan, bits torn from words…From the back of her neck she releases her shoulders free. She swallows once more.”
So begins the story of the halting diseuse, or female storyteller, of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s genre-defying text Dictée, first published just over three decades ago in 1982. Organized in nine parts named after the Greek Muses, Dictée has been described in mythic terms – a Korean Odyssey, a rewriting of the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, a theatrical ritual, a shamanistic exorcism. Above all, however, Cha’s work interrogates history, refracting the history of Korea in the twentieth century through the themes of exile, the displacement of colonized bodies, and the lost – and resurrected – bodies and voices of women.
Cha immigrated to the U.S. from Korea as a teenager and went on to receive her B.A. and M.F.A. at Berkeley before establishing herself as a writer, filmmaker, and performance artist in the Bay Area. Tragically, however, Cha never lived to see her large body of work achieve acclaim in both white avant-garde and Asian American circles; she was brutally murdered in New York City a week after Dictée was published. The challenging experimental nature of her work, and of Dictée in particular, meant that her legacy would remain contested for many years. How was one to interpret (if not reconcile) the relationship between the historical narratives and figures in her work and the avant-garde aesthetic of its form?
Thirty years on, however, there’s been a remarkable flourishing of this interplay among bodies, histories, and avant-garde forms in the work of Asian American theater and visual artists today, which I had the chance to catch a glimpse of in two recent shows in Chicago. In April, a friend invited me and a few other close girlfriends to go see Young Jean Lee’s touring Untitled Feminist Show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in what turned out to be an incredibly emotional experience as we huddled together in front of the stage, watching six fearless performers with female bodies – not all of whom identified as female – in the nude for the entire show, leaping, twisting, and emoting using every possible mode of expression available to them except for spoken word. (I found myself unexpectedly crying at several points, an experience that seems to be a common response to the raw, primal power of the show.)
The show began with the performers, who came from the worlds of cabaret, burlesque, dance, and performance art, marching slowly down the aisles as if “gathering…for some ancient ritual” with their deep synchronized breaths magnified in surround sound. As I watched them in awe, I couldn’t help thinking of Cha’s Muses and her diseuse, shoulders squared, groaning and breathing in place of speech – that is, if they were completely naked and hilarious and awesome, growling forces of nature.
All of this could easily describe the playwright Lee herself, whose past life (English Ph.D. dropout from Berkeley) and playwriting m.o. (only tackling projects that terrify her, casting shows before writing them) have become part of her myth, as she has steadily taken over the New York avant-garde theater world with productions that can perhaps best be described as nakedly destructive, whether of Korean/Asian and African American identity politics (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, The Shipment), autobiographical sentimentality (We’re Gonna Die), or Shakespeare (Lear).
In contrast with the savagery of Lee’s previous productions, however, Untitled Feminist Show felt overwhelmingly like a celebration. In her notes for the MCA show, Lee wrote that her goal was to “make a feminist show that was fun, inspiring, and uplifting” by presenting “a world in which people with female bodies weren’t constrained into particular roles and felt free to embody whatever identities they wanted at any given moment.”
Of course, with the full spectrum of human emotion on display, there were many moments that felt abrasive, even violent: coy pink parasols turned into murder weapons; tender, erotic dances morphed into knock-down drag-out boxing matches; and in one of the most awkward and hysterical episodes, one performer slyly eyed the crowd and pointed at random gentlemen before proceeding to mime exactly what she would do with their crown jewels – namely, pleasure them, then slowly twist them into knots of agony, or worse. Strangely enough, it was during that episode that I suddenly remembered we were watching a naked female body, as if the constant nudity had lulled us into forgetting just how sexualized women’s bodies are in the “real” world.
In fact, while the show aimed to be a “utopian feminist experience,” it seemed to work most powerfully when it called attention to the fact that this isn’t the way things are; that these explosive bodies belonged to women who were circumscribed and defined by the same histories and identities as the rest of us, as we were sharply reminded when the performers reemerged at the end of the show, fully dressed in their everyday street clothes.
Albert Chong, Portrait of the Artist as a Victim of Colonial Mentality, 1979/2010 (2010). Image credit: Warbabylovechild.com.
I must have had Dictée on the brain, because I thought of Cha’s work again a few weeks ago when I dropped by the DePaul Art Museum to see the exhibit War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art, curated by DePaul and San Francisco State University professors Laura Kina and Wei Ming Dariotis. The exhibit is part of a larger project that includes a website and a book published earlier this year, featuring visual media produced by nineteen artists who hail from the rapidly expanding community of 2.6 million Americans (and counting) who identify as Asian American plus one or more ethno-racial groups. While the exhibit blurb explains that the show “examines the construction of mixed heritage Asian American identity in the United States,” this actually doesn’t do justice to its ambitious range, which not only investigates the historical origins of these identities (U.S. wars in Asia, colonialism, transnational adoption, the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia outlawing laws against interracial marriage) but breaks down insidious present-day theories about “post-racialness,” while also featuring work by a younger generation of artists who seem to stay out of the conversation completely.
In an interview, Dariotis revealed that the title of the exhibit was inspired by her own experience fielding annoying questions about her background (which, incidentally, is Chinese, Greek, Swedish, English, Scottish, German, and Dutch). According to Dariotis, people would inquire whether her parents “met in the war.” “And I always ask myself, ha, I was born in 1969, we were not at war with China in 1969. Where did they get this image?” Dariotis’s story highlights persistent mainstream assumptions about mixed-race (if not mixed-ethnic) Asian Americans of a certain age as either/or – that is, either the product of military personnel and Asian women, or free-love hippies indulging in illegal interracial sex. Thus, if Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show offers a critique of the sexualizing of women’s bodies, War Baby/Love Child draws attention to the cultural sexualization of specifically Asian (and mostly female) bodies through the bodies of their mixed-race offspring.
There’s definitely a vast range of Asian-marked bodies and histories represented in the collection (as the wall descriptions suggest), including those of artists who identified more strongly with non-Asian backgrounds, such as the Native American artist Debra Yepa-Pappan (Jemez Pueblo and Korean) and the Chicano artist Richard Lou (Mexican and Chinese). A few artists claimed that their participation in this show opened their eyes to their own Asian and mixed-heritage identities in productive ways. For Yepa-Pappan, for instance, this was the first time she’d shown her work to a predominantly non-Native American audience. “For those Native Americans that are mixed race, and a lot of them are, it’s important to realize that you don’t have to choose one side or the other,” she says. “You don’t have to deny your non-native part.”
Debra Yepa-Pappan, Live Long and Prosper (Spock Was a Half-Breed) (2008). Image credit: Warbabylovechild.com.
Intriguingly, co-curator Laura Kina observed, based on interviews with the nineteen artists, that the artists who passed as more “white” tended to produce and/or talk about their work in terms of “universal” themes and formal aesthetics more than those artists whose race and ethnicities were more visually ascribed on their bodies. This seemed to be confirmed by the Chinese and Black Jamaican artist Albert Chong who argued, “I don’t think you can say anything meaningful with abstraction, period. There’s no way of doing the narrative; it needs representation to communicate.” On the other end of the spectrum was the work of Laurel Nakadate (Japanese, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Cherokee), who described her art as being “about free fall, toying with danger and desire and its relationship to failure…Gravity is hilarious, and it always wins.” (I have to admit that I found her video Greater New York (2005) – a mashup of images of herself dancing, being chased around by sad old white men, and standing in front of the burning World Trade Center towers dressed in a Girl Scout uniform with tears falling down her face – disturbingly empty and self-absorbed, a critique that is often leveled at her work.)
Of course, this bodily ascription/formal aesthetic binary wasn’t entirely consistent throughout: the Indian and African American artist Mequitta Ahuja’s fiery painting Dream Region (2009), an “automythography” of dreams, Indian clothing, and African American hair, was one of the most technically intricate and arresting works on display, and even works that seemed more straightforwardly representational – such as the Filipino and European American artist Jenifer Wofford’s painting MacArthur Nurses VI (2013), featuring a group of Filipino nurses marching in the same formation as General Douglas MacArthur and his troops in a famous staged photo in the Philippines in 1944 – required careful unpacking through an understanding of both ethno-cultural history and artistic representation.
All in all, I came away from War Baby/Love Child with a fresh appreciation for the infinitely possible – and infinitely complicated – relationships between aesthetics and history. Like Cha’s Dictée and Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show, many of the art works in War Baby/Love Child channel corporeal forms to represent fraught histories (sexual, racial, colonial) and to challenge the false myth of the so-called “transcendence” of “universal” art without history or content. In doing so, these works present us with the argument that their supposedly marginal representations are in fact an important lens through which the American public needs to reexamine – and redefine – its histories, its assumptions, and its identities.
Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show will be presented at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on January 30, 31, and February 1, 2014. War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art is currently running at the DePaul University Art Museum in Chicago until June 30. It will reopen in Seattle at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience on August 9, where it will run until January 19, 2014.
Between the short trip to California and the start of summer semester, I had a week off to wander around and catch a few exhibits around town. My first stop was the DePaul Art Museum (DPAM) in Lincoln Park. Opened at the end of 2011, the beautifully minimal three-story museum is part of the university’s expanding Performing Arts Campaign to create more spaces for the arts on campus that engage more directly with the community through free admission, innovative programming linked to faculty teaching and research, green initiatives, and other forms of outreach, taking advantage of their prime location in the city.
Currently running at DPAM are the exhibits “For and Against Modern Art: The Armory Show + 100″ and “War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art.” The Armory Show exhibit features several key works from the original Armory Show, a.k.a. the International Exhibit of Modern Art, which opened in New York and then arrived at the doorstep of the Art Institute in Chicago a century ago and kicked off a firestorm of controversy. Introducing European modernism (albeit including numerous American artists) to the U.S. art-going public and featuring works by Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, Munch, Gauguin, and other heretics of the academy, the show’s wild swath of color, unidealized female nudes, and distorted, twisted features of human faces and urban landscapes shocked — absolutely shocked — the public, who seemed to revel in being scandalized. The Tribune decried the Armory nudes for “pervert[ing] the ideal of physical perfection, and obliterat[ing] the line which has heretofore distinguished the artistic from the lewd and obscene.” Even the students of the Art Institute (the students!) gathered to protest Henri Matisse, or “Hennery O’Hair Mattress,” as they called him, for being “guilty of artistic murder, pictorial arson, total degeneracy of color sense, artistic rapine, criminal abuse of title, and general aesthetic abortion.” And, as the Reader hilariously reports, Chicagoans especially loved to hate on Cubism:
People threw cubist parties, department stores advertised cubist dresses, and one scam artist paid a Hyde Park dry cleaner with cubist money. Newspaper cartoonists played off the pun of “Cub” and “cubist” and drew Picasso-style logos for the baseball team. Arthur Jerome Eddy, a prominent art collector, published a diagram in both the Tribune and the Examiner that outlined where, exactly, to find the nude in Nude Descending.
Edvard Munch, The Kiss of Death, 1899
Based on the selection of works here, I was struck less by the display of overt sexuality and boldness of form (whose shock value, obviously, the passing of a century has all but absorbed) than by the frequent and stylized — almost fairytale-like — reference to the aging and/or mortality of women, usually with stark contrasts between their covered up bodies and their pale, revealed (or partially revealed) faces like masks of death, nearly as brazenly confrontational as the bodies of nudes.
Edouard Vuillard, Les deux belles-soeurs, 1899
In the opposite gallery is the exhibit “War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art,” a show that is hybrid through and through, showcasing works in various forms of media by multiple generations of mixed-heritage Asian American artists, each exploring identities and representations of bodies, histories, race, colonialism, sexuality, war, et al., in myriad ways. (I’ll come back to this show in a later post.) DPAM’s juxtaposition of the two shows is inspired and thought-provoking — a convergence of works that shocked, or still shock, conventional aesthetic sensibilities and cultural attitudes at very different but strikingly parallel historical moments.
. . .
In keeping with the theme of wars, bodies, and bodies of war, my next stop was the National Veterans Art Museum (NVAM), which recently moved from the South Loop into a space just up the street from where we live, at the sorely-in-need-of-revival Six Corners in Old Irving Park. The museum has a long, thirty-year history of promoting art created by Vietnam War vets, and the scope was broadened in 2003 to include art by veterans of other wars. The conceptual range and execution is startlingly vast, from the banally literal renderings of everyday minutiae to the most phantasmagoric of nightmares, somewhat challenging the museum’s description of these artworks as a “timeless, humanistic statement of war.” (Then there’s the issue of Vietnam War art produced mainly from the perspective of American soldiers, many of whom are quoted describing Vietnam — understandably, but no less problematically — as a “state of mind.”)
(Artist’s note: “My squadron made it through unscathed, but one of our sister squadrons lost two crews of twelve men each within one month at night over the water from missile fire…I often wondered if they were conscious during their fall into the sea. Were they reaching for the water to soothe their burning bodies? No one knows if they had parachutes on, but I always saw them with chutes streaming behind them, changing into futile wings that could not support them and save them from the ocean.”)
There are currently three exhibits on display at NVAM: “The Things They Carried,” a collection of artistic works and mundane personal items inspired by Tim O’Brien’s acclaimed collection of short stories; “Tenacity and Truth: People, Places, and Memories,” a curated selection of works from NVAM’s permanent archives; and — the most intriguing because most unexpected — “Not about Bombs,” an arresting exhibit of works by Iraqi women artists and photojournalists who represent present-day Iraq through symbolic imagery and depictions of everyday life. Not about bombs, because while the subject may be Iraq in the long aftermath after the U.S. invasion in 2003, the ramifications of war, as these artists repeatedly point out, ripple through every dimension of daily life.
Sama Alshaibi and Dena Al-Adeeb, Section of Still/Chaos from the Baghdadi Mem/Wars series, 2010. Image credit: NVAM.
Tamara Abdul Hadi, The Next Generation and My Window, 2010. Image credit: NVAM. A juxtaposition of portraits of beaming new graduates from Saint Touma High School in Baghdad, and Iraqi war widows standing in line to receive their widow pensions.
Sundus Abdul Hadi and Tamara Abdul Hadi, Image from Flight series
. . .
Finally, on a totally different note, I took advantage of a free Illinois residents’ day at the Shedd to take my dad out and poke around the river exhibits for a morning. For some reason, all the animals seemed very interested in my dad, who bore a striking resemblance to the sage-looking gourani fish that he stared down. When I approached, however, they looked like this:
Totally uninterested and unimpressed.
. . .
“Not about Bombs,” “Tenacity and Truth,” and “The Things They Carried” are currently exhibiting at the National Veterans Art Museum, and “War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art” will be running at the DePaul Art Museum until June 30. Both are free admission. The blue iguana and sea lion will be ignoring you at the Shedd Aquarium for at least the rest of the summer.
Last Saturday C. left with his dad on a motorcycle trip around Lake Michigan, and I left for San Francisco to meet some babies. I also got lost in Muir Woods and Golden Gate Park. Very lost. I came back to Chicago last night covered in dirt and leaves, feeling like a whole new person. C. thinks I’ve turned into a were-deer.
For baby pics and more fauna & flora, visit here.