A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Where Men Are Men, and Men are Women

Thalia, named "Princess" the night before, waits for a parade to start.

The United States is known as the "Land of the Free", but many who live here would debate that.  In many states gays and lesbians are not allowed to marry or share the privileges of straight people.  Transvestites are often objects of ridicule or humor.  So much for freedom of expression.

Carmelo, 13, in his first appearance as a girl at an annual muxe celebration.  

Yet Mexico, which brings immediate thoughts of machismo, has a very enlightened region that not only allows freedom of expression, but respects and values it.  In Juchitán, Oaxaca, gays and transvestites live with complete tolerance.  
Alejandro, 16, is one of six children but the only muxe.
This attitude owes its legacy to the Zapotecs, who have inhabited this area for centuries and resisted domination by first the Aztecs, and then the Spanish.  In fact, anthropologists have traced the acceptance of mixed genders to pre-Columbian times and cross-dressing Aztec priests and hermaphroditic Mayan gods.  Spanish colonization and Catholicism forced changed views, but in the area around Juchitán there was a resistance to adopting these new attitudes, and mixed-gender identities and holding women in esteem endured.  In fact, many people still speak Zapotec instead of Spanish

Beth-Sua gets ready to attend a transvestite beauty pageant.
A "muxe" (pronounced "moo-shay") is a Zapotecan word for woman, derived from the Spanish "mujer".  For many families it is a blessing and considered good luck to have a gay son.  Women in general are held in such high regard that if you weren't born one the next best thing is to become one.  When a male baby is born mothers soothe one another with thoughts that perhaps he'll be gay.  Some people believe muxes have special mental and artistic gifts.

Beth-Sua enjoys a smoke at the pageant.  She represents her city's muxes,
and is a local organizer and HIV-AIDS activist.  She also embroiders huilpiles.

At least one third of all males in Juchitán are gay.  Unlike the rest of Mexico, where putos ("faggots") are targets for ridicule and abuse, in Juchitán gender is simply a matter of natural impulse.  Muxes express their identities in different ways.  Some dress as women; some take hormones and/or surgically alter their bodies; some favor traditional male demeanor.  Many just take pride in their difference preferring to be neither male or female, but just themselves.

Ninel, 23, with her parents, is one of the few muxes who has had surgical
augmentation.  She is supported by her boyfriend, who lives with her
family.  She used to work, but now stays home and tends to her
younger siblings and does the cooking.
Ninel with her boyfriend, Sebastian, 18.  They first met in Mexico City and
then moved in with Ninel's parents in Juchitán.  Sebastian did not know that
Ninel was transgender at first, but doesn't care and sees no problem with it.
Muxes are active and successful business people.  The area is famous for huipiles, hand-embroidered blouses, which many muxes are involved in making.  They own hair salons and specialize in dressing women.  Festivals and parties provide business opportunities as well.  Some muxes have quinceañeras, the traditional Latin American coming-of-age celebrations of a young woman's 15th birthday (another Aztec tradition).  The muxes have their own celebration called "The Party of the Authentic Intrepid Ones Who Search for Danger",  "The Intrepid Ones" being what gays in Juchitán call themselves.  Every November there is a festival that attracts people from all over the world.

Mistica, 30 is popular and well-known.  She is considered an astute
businesswoman who has a cosmetics business.
This region is a haven for those who relish blurring gender roles, and where the tradition of doing so goes back in time.  Here you are free to be male, female, or the best of both worlds.

Photos courtesy of Katie Orlinsky for the NY Times

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Twisted Art of Ruined Books

"No important books have been injured during the making of these photographs."
Cara Barer

"Butterfly",  2006.
Book lovers are very protective of their books.  Dog-earred pages are definite no-nos.  So is cracking the spines.  Never, never, never place an open book face-down.  Wash your hands before handling.  Bookmarks should be kept nearby. Keep food and drinks away.  So what has photographer Cara Barer done?  All of the above, or at least most of them.

"Midnight", 2004.
"Carousel", 2007.

Barer once found a rain-soaked Yellow Pages on the ground.  She photographed it and was inspired to push this idea further.  She started considering using more books, and also more methods to alter their appearance.  Her photographs are mainly the edges of pages, formed in curliques, crinkles, twirls, and twisted spines.

"Karasu", 2007.
"Indigo", 2007.

She realized she had books that were no longer pertinent - "Would I ever need 'Windows 95'" she asks?  After soaking it in a bathtub for several hours, it had a new life and a new purpose.  She started haunting used bookstores, and even found an abandoned house with moldy, neglected reference books.

"Vortex", 2008.
"Journey to Zaragoza", 2009.

Barer takes into consideration the contents of the books she uses.  Some of her images contain isolated pieces of text.  The color(s) of the fore edges may influence her design.  This process influences her choice of books - size, paper quality, illustrations - all come into play as she decides how to alter the form.

"Cocoon", 2009.
"Stargazer", 2010.

The photographs are available in limited editions of various sizes - 36" x 36", 24" x 24", and 14" x 14".  They are mostly photographed against a black background. Besides soaking the books she may use hair rollers to curl the paper, or use velcro to position the pages.

"The Pathfinder", 2010.
"Sonnets", 2010.
She considers herself an artist who uses photography as her medium, rather than a photographer.  There is perhaps a bit of guilty pleasure looking at her photographs. While one would never want to see a rare or fine press book treated this way, who hasn't thought of torturing a badly written text?  As the question of books becoming obsolete is debated, what a grand way to treat obsolete books.

Images courtesy of the artist.  Please see her website for more images 
and information on purchasing the photos.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Amir Timur Museum

Amir Timur.

Museums are the direct descendants of the cabinets of curiosities that became popular in Renaissance Europe.  In the 19th century as countries emerged as nation-states they exhibited a need to establish a paternity.  A collection of cultural artifacts did much toward this end.

Uzbekistan did not exist as a national idea until the Soviets created it in the 1920s, and the nation itself did not officially come into being until 1991 (with the dissolution of the Soviet Union).  It is one of two doubly landlocked countries in the world - a landlocked country in the middle of landlocked countries.  (The other is Liechtenstein.) Sometime in the 15th century, a tribe within the Golden Horde emerged as a distinct ethnic group, calling themselves Uzbeks, who headed south in their desire to leave behind the nomadic lifestyle and adopt a more sedentary one along the Silk Road.  They took over the area of the Timurid dynasty, which was founded by another interloper, Amir Timur.  Establishing an identity in this case is difficult. The only way to do it is by geography, claiming anyone who once lived here - which includes the Persians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and Russians.

Map courtesy of www.lonelyplant.com.

A 14th century conqueror and ruler of Central Asia whose capital was in Samarkand, Amir Timur, made the Uzbekistani  province of Mawarannahr into a cultural center by gathering scholars and artisans from the lands he conquered.  He initiated the exchange of knowledge with neighboring countries.  His grandson, Ulugh Beg, was a great astronomer and mathematician, especially noted for his contributions to trigonometry and spherical geometry.  His great-great-grandson was Babur, who founded the Mughal dynasty in India.  Timur's motto was "Rosti Rusti" - "Strength is in justice".

Forensic facial reconstruction of
Timur by M. Gerasimov, 1941.

Timur (1336-1405), also known in the West as "Tamerlane", was the founder of the Timurid Empire and the Timurid dynasty.  Although he is often mistakenly referred to as a direct male descendant of Genghis Khan, in actuality he was associated with the family of Chagatai Khan through marriage, rendering him unable to assume the "Khan" title.  He was a contrary figure in his own time and remains so.  He wished to bring back the Mongol Empire, yet fought against the Tatar Golden Horde (Mongol Khanate).  He was an urbanite, not a steppe nomad, and preferred city life.  Although he was a great patron and promoter of the arts, his campaigns destroyed much of what he came across.  He was lame from a battle injury to his foot, and hence was called Tīmūr-e Lang, "Timur the Lame" in Persian, which led to his westernized name of Tamerlane.

Statue of Timur in his birthplace
of Shahrisabz (formerly known
as Kash) in Uzbekistan.

The talented artists from other conquered lands were given free latitude to create, and much of the architecture that he commissioned is still extant.  Perhaps it's for this architectural legacy that modern Uzbekistan has chosen to honor him as a national figure and hero.  In 1996, the Amir Timur Museum opened in Tashkent, commemorating the 660th anniversary of his birth.  The blue dome and ornate interior are typical of Islamic architecture in Central Asia.  

Image courtesy of Jiri Planicka.

The museum's collection consists of items contemporary to his rule, including a 14th century Syrian Quran.  There are paintings, engravings, ancient manuscripts, musical instruments, military attire, weaponry, and jewelry.  Timur's military career is depicted.  Of course, his bloody destruction is overlooked.  This is an obvious attempt to venerate Timur and create a national legacy.  Let's ignore the fact that Timur was from a Turko-Mongolian tribe, and not of the Uzbek Khanate, which eventually took over after the fall of the Timurids.  We will also ignore that he slaughtered tens of thousands of Kipchaks - the forefathers of the modern Uzbeks. This is a prime example of national myth-making.

Quran photo courtesy of Tenil.
Timur defeats the Sultan of Delhi, Nasin
Al-Din Mahmu Tughluq, winter of 1397.

There is also an exhibit in the Museum for Islam Karimov, who has served as the first president of Uzbekistan since 1990.  Karimov has repeatedly extended his presidency through a series of elections that have been called unfair by virtually everyone, even the U.S.  In December of 2007 he was elected for a third term despite a two-term rule. The Karimov administration has been critized internationally on human rights issues and freedom of the press.  The United Nations revealed that torture is rampant in the justice system, and Karimov has been deemed one of the world's worst dictators.

Mural from the museum with Timur north of center, and
Karimov bottom left.

Due to an absence of reliable historical documents, as well as their nomadic nature, it is difficult to trace the early history of Central Asian peoples.  After centuries of migration and invasion there has been a lot of ethnic intermingling of Turkic and Mongol (related to Turkic) tribes.  Situated along the Silk Road, the region itself gained much importance.  However the Uzbeks arrived rather late on the scene and appropriated many aspects of Central Asian culture that technically don't belong to them, claiming all to be Uzbeks by virtue of their living in the area now called Uzbekistan.  Thus, when you have little to choose from, you go with what you can, which makes the Amir Timur Museum an ironic piece of cultural identity - foreign invasion, war, torture, and tyranny.  But then again, maybe that's appropriate.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Funk U

Hold it!  Calm down, and read it again slowly.  I said "Funk U", as in the online university that educates students about funk music.  Begun last July by William Earl "Bootsy" Collins, the online bass guitar school hopes to eventually expand to cover other music styles.

Image courtesy of www.bootsycollins.com.

Bootsy Collins rose to fame as a groove guru when he was the innovative bassist for James Brown in the late 1960s/early 1970s.  His driving bass guitar made him famous, and coupled with his humorous vocals he became a leading artist in the funk genre.  He was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, along with fellow members of the collective known as Parliament-Funkadelic.

Although Bootsy has stated that Brown taught him discipline and was a father figure as well as a great teacher, Brown's rigid command eventually rankled him. Collins and his brother Phelps "Catfish" Collins formed the band House Guests, which released several singles.  He then met George Clinton, and in 1972 joined Funkadelic.  Funkadelic and Parliament were two groups which shared most members, but operated concurrently under their respective names.  Bootsy was a major contributor to the P-Funk sound, and was featured on most of the albums up until 1980.  P-Funk is the collective name for Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy's Rubber Band, and the P-Funk All Stars.

Bootsy Collins, 1997.  Photo courtesy of AP.

In 1976 he formed Bootsy's Rubber Band, which was a separate touring unit of the P-Funk collective.  They recorded four albums, three of which are considered to be cardinal examples of P-Funk recordings.  In 1984 Bootsy worked in collaboration with Talking Head's Jerry Harrison on a dance record edited from Ronald Reagan "Five Minutes" speech.  Credited to Bonzo Goes to Washington, it's called Five Minutes.  In 1990 he collaborated with Deee-lite on their huge hit "Groove is in the Heart".  Since then he has been involved with a varied number of musicians and groups.   Last October he was awarded a Bass Player Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award in Los Angeles.

"Casper the Funky Ghost" and "Bootzilla" ("the world's only rhinestone rockstar monster of a doll")  are two of his alter egos.  His revolving character is an alien rock star who gets gradually more bizarre.  He also adopted a trademark "Space Bass", which has been several sequential custom-made bass guitars.  During last year's NAMM show (National Association of Music Merchants) German bass guitar company Warwick introduced a customized Infinity Bass - "Bootsy Collins Black Star Signature Bass" with either black or orange stars.

Warwick's Bootsy Collins Artist Serie - Bootsy Collins Orange bass guitar. 

Cory Danziger was a child actor who currently is involved in several business enterprises.  He partnered with Bootsy in developing Funk U.  This is an online only school with Bootsy as curator and lead professor.  Guest professors include: John B. Williams, Flea, Victor Wooten, Les Claypool, George Clinton and Meshelle Ndegeocello.  There are online lessons and periodic staff reviews of student performances.  Because of his own abilities, the curriculum starts with funk and it starts with bass guitar.  Eventually he would like to expand to include other instruments and genres.

Bootsy Collins, 1978, image courtesy of Getty images.

Funk U offers year-round enrollment, and the video lectures, lessons and exercises are available on-demand.  Classes run $34.99 per month/$189.99 for six months/$349.99 a full year.  No enrollment numbers have been released as of yet. But if you want to get seriously funked up, here's your chance!


"Keep it funky" and donate to the Bootsy Collins Foundation,
which promotes learning by giving youths, teens, and adults
the chance to experience life through music.

Check out Bootsy's page on Facebook for updates on his

Thanks to Ralph Dumain for turning me on to Funk U.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Wooden Books

Age appears to be best in four things:  old wood to burn,
old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read.

Francis Bacon (paraphrasing Athenaeus)

Close-up of paper made from spruce, poplar, pine, and fir trees.
Image courtesy of Science Photo Library.

Well, let's not burn all the wood.  Yet.  Let's look at the connection between wood and what old authors wrote to read:  books.  Specifically, books made of paper made of wood.  The Arabs were the first to produce paper books in the 8th century after learning papermaking from the Chinese.  Europeans used paper made of rag until about 150 years ago, when it became standard to print books on paper made of wood.

Front and rear of a piece of birch bark.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

From an etymological standpoint,  "book" and "beech" are related.  The Germanic root of both words is *bk- from an Indo-European root which means "beech tree"; the Old English form of book is bc, from the Germanic *bk-, and it meant "book, or a written document".  This makes sense when you consider that the early Germanic people used strips of beech to write on.

A birch bark inscription from Novgorod, circa 1240-1260.  This contains
spelling lessons and drawings by a boy named Onfim, whom experts deem
to have been between 6 and 7 years old.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The early Romans also used the smooth inner lining of a tree to write on.  Their word for it, which literally means "bark", is liber, which came to be the word for book, and eventually library.  Likewise the Latin word for codex, comes from caudex which means a tree trunk.

The relationship between books and wood is obvious, so news of books made of wood doesn’t seem so extraordinary.  But there are fifty-six of them that are quite exceptional.  These books are kept by the Orto Botanico di Padova.

The University of Padua, founded in 1222, is famous for many things and an all-star cast of alumni.  But another stellar thing they are famous for is their wooden books.  These books are about trees, and also made of trees.  There is a different specie of tree in each book.  The covers were made of a piece of wood from its respective tree showing radial, longitudinal, and cross profiles.  On each spine is a sample of the bark from that tree.

Inside the books are parts of the tree:  seeds, seedlings, flowers, leaves, roots, sawdust, charcoal, and ash.  Each is fastened to the insides and numbered.  Also inside are pieces of parchment with a handwritten legend identifying the samples.

These were created in the late 1700s or early 1800s, and there once was about one hundred of them.  Unfortunately so many have been lost or destroyed that only fifty-six of them remain.  Those that are extant are a much better way of recording information about their respective trees than drawings or written accounts, because the items saved serve as DNA blueprints.

If you really love wood, no doubt you are familiar with your local xylarium.  But if there isn’t one near you, don’t despair.  The World Woods Library is an ongoing project of wooden books made from woods from all over the world.  Choose your favorite tree, then buy the book: 

Graphic designer Jason Arias made up a typeface design called Ringbearer, that was influenced by tree rings.  He decided to make a book for the typeface, made of actual tree rings from a tree trunk.  Each round "sheet"  bears a letter of the font, other information about the project, and at the bottom is a niche that holds a folded poster that shows all the characters.

Not content to stick with the innovation of the somewhat eponymous book, Arias also redesigned a magazine cover using his font:

So before you chuck another log on the fire, think about what else you could do with it.  The mind you save could be your own.