Monday, February 22, 2010

More on Oaxaca, Mexico and Art on the Street

(Please click on the photos to enlarge)

Here are the photos of the art on the walls of a small restaurant in Oaxaca Mexico called (I think) Nuovo Babel. I really like the sort of magical realism and graffiti/street art quality of these paintings and I'm sorry I couldn't read the name of the artist in the signature. I thought the wall of men in masks were meant to be superheroes, but the teacher in our art course, Mari Seder, tells me these are members of "Lucha Libre" a violent kind of masked wrestlers very popular in Mexico.

By the way, the title of the masked men painting is "odios" which I'm told means "hatred."

I can't get over how often the skeleton and the skull appear in contemporary Mexican art and folk art. The Mexicans have a completely different attitude toward death than North Americans. It's an accepted part of life--not to be feared. I think the skull on the mariposa (butterfly) indicates that death is just another phase of life, like the transformation of the caterpillar into the butterfly.

I am also posting four last photos that I took before leaving Oaxaca. These are all taken in the immediate vicinity of the beautiful church of Santo Domingo, near the studio where we spent most days of our art class (sponsored by the Worcester Art Museum.) In the last photo --taken to illustrate the amazing colors that you find everywhere in Mexico--the figures are our two instructors, Mari Seder and Humberto Batista, and one of our fellow students, looking into one of the shops on the side of Santo Domingo.

My next post will be about "Life, Death and Carnival in Puebla".

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Art and Graffiti in Oaxaca, Mexico

(Please click on the photos to enlarge them.)

In Oaxaca, art is everywhere, from the works of local artists like Francesco Toledo, hanging in galleries and museums, to the embroidery on the traditional trajes (costumes) worn by women in places like Tehuantepec and sold for hundreds of dollars in the shops here.

The people of Oaxaca seem to create art instinctively, even when choosing to paint their houses and doorways in startling colors with a sophistication that never ceases to amaze me. A mask hanging on a wall near the door to a latrine, or signs glued to a wall, constantly make me stop and stare. An orange doorway becomes abstract art worthy of Mondrian. The sign about the ¨Ninos¨advertises that the store is a place to dress your Child of God. These Christ Child dolls which sit on the family altar, evidently need to get a new set of clothes and to be blessed in the church before Lent begins (last Tuesday) which is why I have seen so many people carrying their Christ Child dolls lately.

I’m presently in Oaxaca taking an art class sponsored by the Worcester Art Museum and led by photographer Mari Seder and artist Humberto Batista. They are teaching us the art of collage. Above is a photo of the first one I tried in its UNFINISHED state. I incorporated photos I took of Mexican church statues and photos taken by daughter Eleni Gage and myself of women encountered in various parts of Mexico. Most of them were selling their traditional art — embroidery, bracelets, necklaces, weaving. We always asked their permission before taking their portraits. I’m calling this collage “Our Lady of the Sorrows” because these women all seem sad or reflective.

I’m also posting some photos of the graffiti that you see everywhere in Oaxaca. The people who own these buildings consider the graffiti destructive and a terrific nuisance, but I can’t help thinking it’s another kind of striking Oaxacan art. One row of the photos above shows graffiti art taken indoors to decorate a small restaurant called Nuevo Babel. (Whoops--I just realized I didn´t download that series of photos to this Mexican computer--will use it in a posting tomorrow.) I’m sure much of the street art is politically motivated, inspired by the riots here four years ago and government corruption and oppression, but as an outsider, I enjoy it as art without understanding the underlying political message, if there is one.

Last night, Friday, we were privileged to see more local art in the costumes and traditional dances of the seven different regions of the state of Oaxaca, presented at the beautiful Camino Real Hotel in a buffet and dance spectacle held in the former convent’s chapel. The men are wearing costumes of the Dance of the Feather, which symbolizes the Mixtec-Zapotec fight against the Spaniards. The women in the black embroidered costumes come from the Isthmus, where women rule in a matriarchal society. Their dance celebrates the gathering of turtle eggs (with erotic undercurrents.) Each of the seven regions of the state of Oaxaca have their own embroidered costume and dance. In two of the regions, the women dance slowly, looking grimly down at the floor. But not the women of the Isthmus!

It’s going to be hard to leave the colors, flowers and art found everywhere in Oaxaca to go back to the snow of Massachusetts.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mardi Gras with Devils in Oaxaca, Mexico

I’ve been in Oaxaca for three days now and have had lots of adventures while on an art course from the Worcester Art Museum led by my friend photographer Mari Seder. Today I want to tell you how we celebrated Fat Tuesday in the village of San Martin Tilcajete about a 45-minute drive from Oaxaca. It’s all about devils and gossip and cross-dressing and music and a faux wedding where the bride, groom and attendants are all male.

The bride is prepared by her attendants amid much loud band music, shooting of fireworks and drinking of Corona beer. The nuptial donkey is also decorated. Eventually the band and assorted devils lead the wedding parade to the house of the mayor.

All over town young men have painted their faces, covered their bodies in dark grease (I think from cars) and, wearing skirts of noisy cowbells and brandishing sticks and machetes, they run about trying to terrify people while bystanders hand them cold beers.

When the bridal procession reaches the mayor’s house, there is a false wedding ceremony where a “priest” does the honors and then, in rhyming couplets, tells over a loudspeaker the scandalous gossip about everyone on hand. I couldn’t understand a word of it, but the villagers, from small children to old crones, were doubled over with laughter.

When he concludes, favors like rubber balls are tossed at the crowd and the bride stands on a chair under a tent while ribald comments are made and grotesque monsters dance around her. The devils and monsters terrify the children, make obscene gestures to the adults and generally have a good time dancing.

I wish I could have been able to understand the Spanish, but the bizarre celebration didn’t need an interpreter. It seems that every nationality needs to go a little crazy and misbehave once a year and often it is on the day before the strictures of Lent begin. We have cousins in Corfu Greece who e-mailed that they are off to hear the gossip of their town announced in a Carnival celebration. I don’t know if there was a faux wedding involved (although such silliness goes back to pre-Christina times in many cultures) but I doubt that any other town, including Corfu and New Orleans and Rio, has more fun than San Martin Tilcajete on Fat Tuesday.

More Oaxaca adventures soon!

Friday, February 12, 2010

My Funny Valentine & “Playing with Pictures—The Art of Photo Collage”

When I go into my favorite store—Target-- I always look at what’s in the $1.00 section. Recently it was all about Valentine’s Day and I gravitated straight to these ugly velvet roses that cost a dollar each. “These are so bad they’re good!” I said, snagging three of them. Daughter Eleni feared I would put them in her (unoccupied) room but I promised I wouldn’t. Now they’re in one of the upstairs bathrooms.

I do like things that are whimsical—And today, as I drove into Manhattan on my way to tomorrow’s flight to Mexico, I made a bee-line to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “Playing with Pictures—The Art of Victorian Photocollage.”

Since I am an avid collector of antique photos and I love anything whimsical, I knew this show was for me for many reasons.

The exhibit, which I highly recommend,(Google it!) focuses on albums made by aristocratic English women back in the 1860’s and 1870’s by cutting out photographs of people they knew (often titled and royal) and gluing them into fantasy scenes which the women painted or drew. It’s a trip. Check out 2 examples above.

The exhibit was charming and highlighted something that I have noticed for many years—women in Victorian times poured their creativity into creating friendship books, scrap albums , folk paintings and things like these exquisite and humorous album pages—just to amuse themselves and their friends. I bought the catalogue and may write about it in future. You could see in the photo collages the fantasy influence of books like Louis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

But since I’m off to Mexico in the morning and will be participating in all sorts of crazy Carnival activities in Oaxaca (which I will report, including a crazy faux wedding ceremony and lots of devils and transvestites) I will only say a few things about Victorians and photographs.

In 1839, when the first photographic process was announced by Louis Daguerre, having your portrait taken “by the sun” was a serious business. For twenty years, through the daguerreotypes and the ambrotypes that followed, you had to go to a photographer’s studio—usually lighted by a skylight (because sunlight was required) and you had to sit very still—possibly with a head brace. Children were strapped into chairs to keep them still. Sometimes moms were seated in the chair, covered with a sheet and then they clutched the toddler to keep him still long enough for the photo. If someone died, the photographer would come to the house to make the only photograph his loved ones would have to remember him or her.

Many people gazed at the camera in total terror—having no idea if the photographic process would hurt or not. (And many daguerreotypyists became ill from the chemicals needed to develop the polished metal plates into photographs.)

But in the 1850’s and 1860’s—in time for the American Civil War—they invented metal tintypes, which a solider could carry in his pocket or send home in an envelope, and cardboard cartes de visite, --the size of a calling card--which could be made in multiples for a very low price.

This created a mania for collecting photographs of freaks and famous people, and putting them into albums, and exchanging photos among friends. And many women —especially the aristocratic English women who were encouraged to develop talents like painting, decorating china and playing the piano, as well as croquet and fox hunting—turned their creative drive into making albums of amusing and fantastic pages on to which they glued cut-out images of their titled friends.

The exhibit at the Met makes a big point about how this was done by aristocratic English women, but I know from collecting Victorian photo albums that ordinary women and men in the U. S. as well, turned their photographic experiences into humorous portraits. Before the carte de visite and the tintype, it was an extremely serious business sitting for the photographer. But many funny Victorian photos exist as tintypes or cartes de visite, such as cross-dressing ones like the gentleman above wearing a woman’s hat. Cross dressing and funny poses are frequently found in tintypes and cartes de visite (and if you want to sell me any, let me know.)

I have collected Victorian scrapbooks, photo albums, friendship books and tintypes which display lots of humor and creativity. I want to write more about them later, as I think they are an art form that has been ignored up till now but deserves to be recognized. But for now I’ll just show you the tintype above of a man in a woman’s hat and also the collage a young woman made of her own portrait surrounded by cigar labels. It is a kind of collage that lines a bowl and that sells for big bucks today.

More later. Now I’m off to Oaxaca, Mexico and some crazy happenings to mark carnival!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Oscar, the Cat Angel of Death & Our Cat,“PS”

I’m sure by now you’ve heard about Oscar the cat who lives in a nursing home in Providence R.I. and has accurately predicted 50 times when a patient was about to die.

In 2007 Dr. David Dosa wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine about Oscar’s uncanny ability to sit with dying patients right before their death. Oscar is not particularly friendly and will not sit on beds of patients who are not about to meet the Grim Reaper.

Now Dr. Dosa is publishing a book about Oscar and how the cat, over five years, has correctly predicted which patients are within hours of death—in 50 cases—often trumping the opinions of the nursing staff. The book is called “Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat.”

The whole staff now knows to call family members in when Oscar stretches out beside one of their patients, (who are generally too ill to know he’s there.) If someone closes the cat out of a room of a dying patient, Oscar will scratch at the door trying to get in.

Dr. Dosa was worried that families would be horrified to see the furry angel of death lying on their loved one’s bed, but for most, Oscar provides comfort, and he recently received a wall plaque commending his “compassionate hospice care.”

What is the secret of his powers? How does he know? Everyone has a theory. Some devout Christians believe that Oscar is an angel in disguise, since angels can take many forms. On the other hand, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, who directs the animal behavioral clinic at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, says it’s possible his behavior could be driven by self-centered pleasures, like a heated blanket placed on a dying person.

Dr. Dosa theorizes that Oscar may smell odors given off by dying cells, like some dogs who seem to be able to detect cancer with their noses. I think this is the most likely explanation.

Reading about Oscar reminded me of an incident that occurred about seven years ago with our dear departed cat “P.S.” (That’s a photo of P.S. near some flowers in the photo above. Oscar’s the one with the wings and halo.)

I was in New York City with my husband when I came down with a 104-degree temperature, chills, aches. I felt miserable, and when we got home, I walked in the kitchen door and straight up the stairs to crash on the bed, feeling too sick for anything else.

Our cat P.S. had been well trained never to enter our bedroom (because my husband really dislikes cats, most especially if they jump on the bed.) But this time she followed me right up the stairs and into the room and onto the bed, clearly concerned and wanting to help me. I hadn’t even come near her, but she must have smelled or sensed that I was really sick when I walked in.

When we put her out and closed the bedroom door, she scratched at it. This never happened before or since in the 18 years of her life. (PS is now planted in the garden under a small statue of a black cat and an azalea bush.)

Luckily, I did not pass away back in 2003. Antibiotics got me well, but I never figured out how the cat knew I was so sick that she’d defy everyone to try to come to me.

On May 7, 2008, in a special euthanasia room decorated with a memorial wall of pet photos, after long painful months of kidney failure and daily re-hydration, P.S. was put to sleep (with incredible tact and compassion) by the veterinary staff. I’m glad I could be with her as she took her last breath. I know she would have done the same for me.