Black, white, subtle

What do you see when you look at this design? Chances are, you see colors. Black and white. Patterns, some of which are based on ancient Akan cloth printing traditions.

Now look again.

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Do you see the man? This painting by Ghanaian artist Owusu-Ankomah,  at the British Museum, seems like a Rorschach test. We focus on seeing color– skin color and race– and we miss seeing the person.

This artwork was commissioned to mark the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 2007. The painting’s title is as potent as the patterns. One word: Free.

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Art, death, memory

Lots of art, lots of death. That’s how I’ll remember twelve days touring castles and museums, churches, parks and squares in Copenhagen, London, and Newcastle.

So much of the history and art seemed imbued with fear and desire. The fear of death, the desire to be remembered. We don’t want to die and don’t want to be forgotten.

I saw so many faces and names carved in stone, bone, and marble, painted on canvas, glazed on tile. Many of the faces looked distinctive, rather than generic. The king with the spectacular curly beard, the queen with eyes bulging, the guy with a wart above his lip.  Those warts-and-all busts make me think those subjects wanted to be remembered as they were.

Sometimes the art tells us about the subject; sometimes it reveals more about the artist. Museums full of handcrafts connect the maker from centuries ago with those of us who see the craft today. We who gaze at the statues, the silver skull watch jewelry, the beautiful gravestones, we see the work, and can envision something of the maker and the made.

Art offers immortality, a way for people to live forever, or at least a hedge against being forgotten. The fear of fading away is as common now as it was in the days of Egyptian kings and their elaborate tombs. Instead of pyramids, we emblazon schools and hospitals, all kinds of buildings, with names, sometimes in massive gold letters. Many of us pay to have our loved ones’ names chiseled on gravestones, stone memories that remain long after bodies become dust.

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Aurelius Julianus family gravestone

I think of a gravestone of a young child, the son of a Roman soldier at Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. The stone recounts the sadness of Aurelius Julianus, whose wife died in childbirth and a year later, whose infant son died. The soldier’s grief was compounded when he was ordered to a new post, abandoning his family’s tombstones. “May the gods forgive me. There’s no one left to perform the rituals for my dead family.”

Aurelius Julianus feared no one would remember or honor his wife and son. More than two thousand years after their deaths, their memory remains, thanks to a humble tombstone now in the Great North Museum in Newcastle, England. Aurelius Julianus’s love and grief have kept his family from being forgotten.

A simple gravestone or ornate tomb, a name carved in marble or gold, busts and statues, all reveal stories we tell about ourselves or others. The art portrays something of who we are, as well as our fear of death, our need to be remembered.

Green Card Youth Voices

Want something good to read?

Check out Green Card Youth Voices, a local book featuring stories of thirty immigrant students from Wellstone High School in Minneapolis.

This is not a heavy compendium about the plight of immigrants. This is teenagers telling their stories.

Like kids anywhere, they mention friends, part-time jobs, school, sports and what they think is weird. Weird seems to be a favorite word. But to these kids, weird isn’t a kid who wears awkward clothes. Weird is the gulf between the world they left and the world they live in now.

Weird is living with a mother you haven’t seen in years. Many of these young people didn’t get the chance to grow up with their parents. One parent, often the mom, left home, looking for work and a better life for the families.

“I also felt weird living with my mom because she was like someone I had just met. I knew she was my mom, but I had not lived with her for a very long time.” Eduardo Lopez, Mexico

I felt weird in a new home with people I hadn’t lived with for a long time. I know it’s my mom, but I … I felt weird.” Alexandra Irrazabal, Ecuador.

These young men and women remember how weird and confusing America was when they first arrived. So many things flummoxed them. How do you change planes in a country when you’ve never flown before and don’t speak the language? How do you ride the bus? Tall buildings, elevators, computers, and school lockers, even men with tattoos—all were confounding. Winter, well, no surprise, that was a shock to newcomers from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America. Yonis Ahmed from Ethiopia remembers, “The first time I saw snow, I thought it was salt.” Ahmed Ahmed, from Somalia, wondered if snow was sugar.

These young people have adapted. They’ve learned English, learned to open their lockers, ride the bus, drive cars, get part-time jobs, send money to relatives in their home countries. They’ve done so much while they are still in high school. Resiliency is a language they all know.

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This Green Card Youth Voices photo exhibit is touring at Minneapolis schools this year.

They know loss, too. They miss their countries, their cousins, their brothers and sisters and grandmas. Especially the grandmas. One young man, Wendy Saint-Felix, from Haiti, says, “Sometimes I just go alone in my bedroom and think about my grandmother because I miss her a lot.” He dreams of joining the NAVY ROTC and later, bringing his grandmother here.

These teenagers’ stories brim with hopes and dreams, along with some tears and fears. It’s a good read. Nothing weird about it.

Thanks to Green Card Voices, the Minneapolis nonprofit which has produced hundreds of digital stories, as well as this book and photo exhibit, all of which help Minnesotans meet our neighbors. Watch this Green Card Youth video