Archive for June, 2009

A Brief Comparison: Kahlo & Ferguson, Ability, Gender, Race and the Structure of Conveying Difference

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on June 30, 2009 by thebibliophile

The Broken Column, Frida Kahlo; 1944.

Frida Kahlo was an amazing, daring artist, who I, like many others admire. I find myself over the years, returning to her paitinings, and finind something new, meaningful, and insightful in her work.

Yesterday, I posted about artist Laura Ferguson, a newYork-based artist, who uses her own medical expeeriences, in a visual autobiography, to examine the ways in which her body as object is subject to manipulation and the gaze. Ferguson’s work is detailed, highly technically skilled, and moving. This is is large part, because it is so accurate. Ferguson took pains to render a realistic portrayal of the body and its inner workings. In this way she argues, she takes something flawed, and shows its beauty.

Yesterday, I thought a lot about intersections, particularly of race, (dis)ability, gender, and class. Today, in thinking more about Ferguson’s work, and how the work of Frida Kahlo, a womyn of color, is really the progenitor/ancestor of Ferguson’s concept and work.   

Kahlo managed (dis)ability her entire life. According to biographies of her life, she was diagnosed with polio at the age of six. As a result she had some paralysis in her right leg. As a young womyn, she was in a devastating bus accident that had life long consequences.  Like Laura Ferguson, Kahlo sustained injury to her spinal cord. Ferguson’s spine has a curvature of her spine, while Kahlo’s spine was  broken (along with her leg, foot, and three ribs) in three places. for the rest of her life, Kahlo would suffer from chronic pain and illness for the rest of her life. 

I’m struck at how you can see a difference in the way that Kahlo represents her (dis)ability and the way that Ferguson  represents her difference.

The Broken Column, Frida Kahlo; 1944

  

What I am struck by is the fact that Kahlo looks directly at the viewer, through and amidst her preceived brokenness. She shows her pain in a bold and direct way. We do not know what Ferguson’s expression is and we cannot guess at the pain, because her face is hidden. It’s odd but Kahlo seems powerful to me in The Broken Column  – even through her pain.

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Straightened Out: The Art Work of Laura Ferguson, Body Politics, and Gender

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on June 29, 2009 by thebibliophile

Laura Ferguson   is a New York-based artist whose work focuses on the intersections of medicine, art, the body, sexuality, and femininity. Her most famous work is The Visible Skeleton Series, a visual autobiography of her experiences with her self-concept and body, as a womyn with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, which you can learn more about here. As the artist explains, “Scoliosis is a flawed model of the beautifully designed human musculoskeletal system, but I wanted to portray it as having its own more complex beauty, one that viewed deformity as differentness, and differentness as individuality.” I find Laura Ferguson’s work evocative, powerfully touching, and beautiful.  I think she challenges the gaze and understanding of beauty, particularly at a time, when our society so quick dismisses, erases, and loathes bodies that represent difference.

Ferguson uses x-ray film of her own spine, and incorporates them into her multi-media work.  Her images are carefully constructed, intricate, and Ferguson pays special attention to the anatomical accuracy of her representations. Not only is her work medically accurate, but it is also techinically skilled. Ferguson uses a techique of “floating colors,” that give her work a powerful and unique look. Ferguson combines thinned oil paint with bronze powder, so that the paint on the paper has near glow, further enhancing the viewer’s sense of being inside the body, observing an organic beauty.

Ferguson’s work has traveled widely – in 2004 she had an exhibit at Walter Reed’s Medical Museum, and she’s written a great deal about her experience. On her website she says:

I have scoliosis, a deformity of the spine. My body’s asymmetry creates the need for a subtle effort of balancing, in my physical relationship to gravity and space, as well as in my psychic sense of centeredness and wholeness. The conscious awareness of walking, moving, breathing – bodily processes that usually unfold by themselves – has made me attuned to my bones and muscles, nerves and senses, like a dancer. Drawing my body, I focus on this heightened awareness and transform it into visual imagery.

Much has, and rightly so, been made of the ways in which womyn’s bodies are depicted, (re)imagined, (re)purposed, and exploited, but less has been written – at least in the blogsphere, about the complexity of (dis)ability, the body, and femininity; even less about those intersections when race, class, and sexuality are considered. What does it mean, and how does it feel, to be a womyn who’s body can never conform to the desired form? When exercise, eating disorders, surgery none of it can be utilized (and arguably perhaps shouldn’t) to create the desired body, because the body itself, at its core has resisted and denies any form but the very one it has taken. In other words, how does a womyn claim beauty when (dis)ability is deemed so crippling and ugly? Even by other womyn, who are (at least for now) able-bodied, or who can inhabit a less different sphere because they are white or have resources, or a less threatening disability?

There are of course, many womyn who have discussed these intersections: Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Octavia E. Butler. In The Disability Studies Reader, an anthology edited by Lennard Davis, writer Danquah says, “I am black; I am female; I am in immigrant. Every one of these labels plays an equally significant part in my perception of myself and the world around me.”

Ferguson is unique because she is overtly tackling and answering this question through a different medium: art. Nancy Mairs, one of my favorite writers and essayists, and who has multiple sclerosis, candidly  and eloquently writes about the intersection of class, (dis)ability, and gender in her works, such as Carnal Acts  and Waist-high in the World. I think, Ferguson captures through her visual autobiography, what Mairs illuminates in her writing. Both are interpreting and negotiating how a womyn’s sense of gender is impacted: of what kind of womyn you might be, of what your body can and cannot do, and how your body will be perceived – by those who love you, and those who do not,  art,  and how that calls for a different invention, protection, and understanding of the self.

Twitterature: The Joy of Reading in 140 Characters or Less

Posted in Uncategorized on June 27, 2009 by thebibliophile

A group of innovative and daring writers are turning to Twitter to publicize and publish their writing through tweets.

The term twitterature was coined by two 19-year old University of Chicago first-year students, Emmett Rensin and Alex Aciman. They’ve taken “the world’s greatest book” and are presenting thim in “twenty tweets or fewer.” They’ve sent their tweets to John Siciliana at the publisher Penguin. The wesbite, Twitterature,  it up, but I havne’t been able to find out any word on what books were selected or to see a sample of the retelling of these works. The Gaurdian, wrote a piece about it on Wednesday, where the two creators are interviewed:

“So what if you put the two together? If great literature and Twitter were combined into one new form – Twitterature. “We have embarked on an attempt to bring the two pillars of our generation together, once and for all,” the students said.

In the blurb for the new book the authors give a clue to their incentives for writing it, which are not entirely ethereal. Aciman and Rensin, from New York and Los Angeles respectively, both harbour ambitions to become writers and both clearly also hanker after cash.”

My solace: literature by folks of color is almost always ignored.. 

 

In Memory

Posted in Uncategorized on June 26, 2009 by thebibliophile

 

Being Introduced to the Graphic Novel by the Bayou

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on June 25, 2009 by thebibliophile

I came across this beautifully illustrated graphic novel over the weekend at Forbidden Planet in NYC. I stumbled upon the store with a friend. On the counter was this exquisitely colored graphic novel Bayou. I’d never seen anything like it. What I discovered was unlike what I, a novice to the graphic novel, expected. It was so impressive and intriguing that I’ve added it to my summer reading list.

Bayouis set in the 1930s and tells the story of Lee, the daughter of a Black sharecropper and her father, and the devastating impact of her white friend Lily, lying and accusing Lee of stealing and loosing her family heirloom locket in the bayou. According to graphicnovelreporter.com, Bayoubegan as a webcomic at Zuda.com, and has since been published by Zuda Comics, which was launched in October 2007 in order to solicit and encourage creative and original comics.  Zuda is planning to release Bayou in three volumes, with the next in the series coming out in early 2010. Bayou was illustrated and written by Jeremy Love, and the stunning color was done by Patrick Morgan.

Lee looks for answers. An image from Jeremy Love's award-winning Bayou.

 Keep in mind that I’m completely new to this genre, but from what I’ve read/researched on line, Bayou is quickly winning esteem. This year it won five 2009 Glyph Awards, which according to popcultureshock.com, “recognize[s] the best in comics made by, for, and about people of color from the preceding calendar year. While it is not exclusive to black creators, it does strive to honor those who have made the greatest contributions to the comics medium in terms of both critical and commercial impact. By doing so, the goal is to encourage more diverse and high quality work across the board and to inspire new creators to add their voices to the field.” The Glyph Awards were started by comics’ journalist Rich Watson.

What struck me about Bayou, is the melding of what I love: art, storytelling, and history. Bayou opens with an eerie scene where we meet Lee diving into the bayou for a body, and meeting a spirit. The illustration and color is so beautifully rendered, I had to focus and remember to read the text. Immediately we can see the bravery of Lee and are acquainted simultaneously orienting the reader with the racial oppression of the era; Lee is looking for the body of a boy who’s been accused of whistling at a white womyn – a reference of course to the murder of Emmit Till, a 14 year-old Black boy from Chicago, accused of whistling at a white womyn in 1955, who was subsequently tortured and drowned.

The central figure of the graphic novel is Lee, who searches for a way to save her father. Love says his influences included the Uncle Remus stories, and his own background as a native of North Carolina. Love said he wanted to create a work that combined history, a Southern Gothic aesthetic, and Black mythology. You can learn more about the Jeremy Love and his graphic novel here. Publisher’s Weekly has also written about Jeremy Love and Zuda Comics. I’m really looking forward to reading Bayou, learning more about the graphic novel – and authors and illustrators of color.

Take My Land, Give me a Happy Meal Instead: Racism Hasn’t Gone Vegetarian Yet

Posted in Uncategorized on June 24, 2009 by thebibliophile

 McDonald’s decided it was a great idea to create a Happy Meal toy that involves featuring:

Who is this you ask? Why it’s none other than George Armstrong Custer, updated for the modern age. Starting on Friday 6/19, this toy became available with the Happy Meal in Vermillion, South Dakota according to and article on reznetnews.org. Where shall I even begin…?

I learned of the story via DiversityInc magazine, which has also chronicled the racist/colonialist/super hero ideology of Burger King, allowing the chain an opportunity to “clarify” in an articlethey published about how the chain fixed their “multicultural misstep. ” DiversityInc’s interpretation is different than my own – I wrote about the Burger King ads in a post entitled “Imperialism Becomes a Born Again Virgin, But Will Turn Tricks for Meat.” DiversityInc gave both Burger King and now McDonald’s an opportunity to offer a fairly weak and staged mea culpa, filled to the brim, with insincere language about their commitments to diversity and inclusion. And yet, you wonder, if they value and respect diversity and inclusion so very much, how is it that those on their development teams seem  so comfortable  creating profit from racist ideologies?

These companies seem to care about diversity only when it impacts their money, they are for-profits, meaning they are for what makes them money. The concern and fear here is that Native Americans and other people of color will not support McDonald’s, not that either Burger King of McDonald’s have transgressed around a central company value. The figurine according to Kevin Abourezk from reznews.org was developed in a partnership between McDonald’s and Twentieth Century Fox, to be part of the distribution/publicity and toy tie-ins with that studio’s film “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.”

 First, who is Custer:  Custer a native of Ohio, graduated last in his class from West Point. According to PBS, “Custer is hardly a hero, after high school he enrolled in West Point, where he utterly failed to distinguish himself in any positive way.” He was court marshaled shortly after graduating, for failing to break up a fight between two of his classmates. As a cavalryman, he was known for flamboyance and recklessness in battle. In fact, at the Battle of Gettysburg, his troops sustained some of the heaviest casualties – and that an estimated 10,000 – 12,000 died at Gettysburg. Custer’s popularity grew from what was perceived as his valor during battle in the Civil War, and his mentor General Sheridan continued to promote and support him. Custer rose in prominence and the rank of Lt. Col in the U.S Calvary, primarily through his well known brutality toward Native Americans, and combined with his lack of military prowess. In that role, he led several massacres, of unarmed and undefended Native villages; the most violent, a slaughter of Cheyenne men, women, and children. Featuring him as a Happy Meal toy, is the equivalent of featuring George Wallace in a Happy Meal (with cool bull horn and water hose accessory),  or David Duke, (complete with pristine white sheet and instead of voting rolls, a Blackberry), or John Wilkes Booth.

What precisely is the merchandising opportunity here? And why is the Smithsonian’s name in any way connected with this? Is he on the motorcycle to be better able to chase down, pillage, and harm Native Americans? Are we now imagining racist agents with access to more technologically advanced tools to carry out their “work”? Is this a ” a wonder what he could have done if he had a motorcycle?” moment? You’ll notice that the U.S. insignia is still present on the motorcycle, suggesting, that were Custer alive today, the U.S. would still support his reign of violence and malevolent leadership.

And can I just say, what child young enough to still be able to order a Happy Meal, educated in our U.S. school system, would even know who the heck George Armstrong Custer was? I mean for real, do we all understand what we think constitutes an education in this country? No Child Left Behind, would have left Custer behind. I know he wasn’t on the test…But wait, apparently McDonald’s anticipated this and provided a helpful education card, which read: “Ever hear of Custer’s last stand? It was named after George Armstrong Custer who lead (their spelling) his troops into the battle at Little Big Horn.” It does not mention that the brave warriors at Little Big Horn, whom he grossly underestimated, rose to defend themselves and defeated Custer. 

Since we’re in a post-racial era (ha,ha,ha) are people of color now supposed to valorize American mythology and participate in the sainting of people who have perpetuated brutality and violence on our communities? Are we supposed to look at this, and just see a toy, and not a way to erase the history of U.S. sanctioned violence and removal of American Indians. And lastly, it’s just a foolish un-fun toy….

According to reznews.org and DiversityInc, the Custer toy is no longer being distributed….

Racialicious Breaks it Down: Femininity, Fashion, and the Power of the Image

Posted in Uncategorized on June 23, 2009 by thebibliophile

In yesterday’s post, Twitter Redeems, or How the Western World Could Use Social Networking in a Meaningful Way, I expressed a changing view  on Twitter and Facebook, primarily because of the way I’ve observed them utilized in Iran over the last month. Recently while reading, what is possibly my favorite website, Racialicious, I came across a post from Mimi, originally posted on Threadbared entitled, You Say You Want a Revolution (In a Loose Headscarf). In her elegantly written piece, Mimi highlights the gender, racial, and citizen-specific representations being shown via news coverage of the protests in Iran. She explains that, “clothing practices play a large part— [in creating] forms and norms of gendered citizenship, both national and transnational. What Moallem calls the civic body becomes the site of political performances in the particular contexts of modern nationalist and fundamentalist movements.” Mimi does an excellent job of tracing the history of the veil in Iran, and how it has been used to make and remake the political body of the country, explaining that “forced unveiling and forced veiling are not dissimilar disciplinary practices that regulate the feminine body as a civic body subjected to the order of the visible.”  Her post is a must read.

And it follows in the footsteps of Mimi’s June 9th post, History and the Harem Pant, which also challenged the Western gaze’s understanding of fashion, the co-optation of  imagined identity, and fetishizing of the “other.” Mimi elucidates the process by which a fashion trend borrows from non-white Western culture, allowing for Western womyn to incorporate or literally briefly wear the imagined ethnic fantasized other. Mimi says, “as numerous feminist scholars note, Orientalist fantasies about the sexual proclivities –and possibilities– assigned to the “loose” clothing of the harem’s imagined denizens were often received as liberating for the corseted Western woman. For her, donning the harem pant (or the beaded veil or the fringed “Chinese” shawl) powerfully enacted a series of resonant fantasies about the ostensible transgression of bourgeois domestic life for a more spectacular and sensuous one, defined by shocking indulgence and theatrical intensity.” In a elegantly rendered sentence, Mimi just explained to us why its so whack that fashion is always co-opting the styles (real and imagined) of the designated “IT” ethnic “other.” Mimi sums it up well when she describes this as “sartorial tourism.”

HalloweenCostumes.com advertisement for Native American Wig

The terminology and concepts used in these two posts, help me in my own thinking in my recent posts about fashion (“Can Topshop Cure my Fashion Malaise?”   and “Fashion and Its Social Agendas”) where I am trying to articulate what Reina Lewis explains, (via Mimi’s post), that “Clothes operate as visible gatekeepers of those divisions and, even when worn against the grain, serve always to re-emphasize the existence of the dividing line.” This is evidenced for instance, in the ensemble Gemma wears in “Can Topshop Cure my Fashion Malaise?”. Apparently designed to be taken as a rift on U.S. western-chic, at the time, I focused on the obsession with trendiness, and did not engage what is another glaring reading of Gemma’s ensemble: the appropriation of Native culture, as implied by Gemma’s headband. The beaded suede and feathered head band harkens to images of Native Americans that corrupt and de-contextualize the importance and role of regalia (often hand-made, with specific meaning, and carefully collected), instead building on the referenced image of the threatening or othered “Indian.” While I originallynoted this when posting the picture, I always intended to come back to it – and was admittedly okay with Gemma’sensemble, because I was focusing on the plaids. But then, I did a little Internet research, and now I feel a tad bit uncomfortable with the similarity between Gemma and this image advertising a “Native American wig” for Halloween.

Such casual use of clothing items worn by other cultures, de-emphasizes the appropriate use and meaning. I notice, time and time again, that this “trend,” is often featured on pale-skinned womyn with dark hair – a tantalizing proposition of  “could this be an Indian?”, while simultaneously affirming the whiteness of the womyn, usually through another sartorial device – in Gemma’s case, the Western plaid paired with the urban aesthetic. But undoubtedly, this look is to be read as “updated Pocahontas.” It’s indicated, not only in the headband, but also in the blunt cut bangs and emphasis in the photo of long hair.

If Vogue magazine’s quick guide to Summer 2009 style is any indication, we are in for a long fashion season of appropriation. Vogue provides an easy list to understand and anticipate the trends for the summer, identifying eight key trends: 

  • Buy a hat (or a head scarf or a hair accessory of some description – the ponytail tubes at Louis Vuitton are a good option);
  • Buy a really, really fabulous pair of heels (you need asking twice?);
  • Buy at least one single-shouldered dress (one for evening and one for summer daytime flirting would be best);
  • Buy something gold;
  • Plan plenty of monochrome outfits;
  • Put all your blues together, and all your greens, and practice wearing them layered up, all at once;
  • If you’re keen to invest in one of the bags of the season, go for a long strapped one slung across your body or clutch a teeny weeny one in your palm (as at Chanel and Louis Vuitton), or, for the real deal (and bank) breaker, check out the scrunchy, hand-held ones at Prada, Miu Miu and Louis Vuitton;
  • Plus, if you’re feeling brave and you really want to look the spring/summer 2009 part, be the first to master Stefano Pilati’s Yves Saint Laurent baggy nappy pants. We dare you
  • Find full article at http://www.vogue.co.uk/news/daily/081006-trends-report-springsummer-2009.aspx

    Two trends that Mimi deconstructed are referenced: the headscarf and what here is referred to as “baggy nappy pants.” I’m afraid, very afraid. Will are fascination, willingness to exotify, and the zeitgeist encourage Western womyn to adopt the headscarf in an ill-advised and sad attempt at solidarity; let us watch. I wouldn’t put it pass folks….I wonder if fashion is the un-examined and excusable terrain for expression of racist ideals and ideology? Certainlywe see that in magazines, on the catwalk yes, but can individual fashion choices in the West represent a level of comfort with cultural appropriation, disrespect, and even racist viewpoints? There’s a certain vapidness that allows Western culture to wildly and blindly follow a trend, as long as it looks of the moment, without understanding the history behind it.

    Which brings me to femininity, is the idea that womyn unquestionably adopt a trend without the need to know its provenance? Are we expected to only be the object, the mannequin to be clothed as “the other.” Which womyn have access to multiple identities? Who is marked as “other” and who as a fashionista. If one looked to the recent U.S. Vogue featuring Sienna Miller on the cover, one could surmise, that the only expectation is for womynto look beautiful, even if our internal selves are less than secure or healthy. In what can only be described as a cringe-worthy feature article on Miller, we’re presented with a Western womyn who seemingly knows little to nothing about aesthetic meaning, who at 27 lacks a the maturity I always imagine womyn near 30 should possess, and who other than looking beautiful in the trends on a blank modern background, is like a mannequin – only a blank canvas. Until we get to the part about her international aid work with the “coloreds,” then she just pops…..

    On another note, while my evolving understanding and burgeoning belief in the possibility of sites like Twitter and Facebook in community organizing and social movements isn’t completely deterred by the insights of Mimi’s essay, it certainly is complicated and forced to a deeper nuanced reading. Most importantly, it makes me stop to note that though the news media coverage is dispersed among citizen journalists using Twitter and Facebook, that does not mean that a politicized gaze is not at work, or that Western audiences won’t exotify, promote , and reproduce certain images – most notably of beautiful, Iranian womyn wearing loose headscarves, in the service of controlling the narrative. In fact, one might argue that having less control of what images are gathered, that may very well intensify the mainstream Western media’s desire to select from certain users of Twitter and Facebook, searching for an image that fits the narrative the media wants to tell. What, I think can be powerful, is that with Twitter and Facebook there is (or at least there is supposed to be) no intermediary; meaning, it’s far harder for the media to control the images that are seen. One could argue, and certainly forsee, that major media outlets will soon turn their eye toward trying to control what images are perceived as being most popular or viral. An easy feat really: think a room full of folks constantly clicking on and forwarding certain images, they just saw from a “friend.”