Category Archives: Intersections

Where Three Dreams Cross

Where Three Dreams Cross — 150 Years of Photography From India, Pakistan and Bangledesh…you can see it now at the Whitechapel Gallery.  I loved the website without reservation (and apparently, I am far from alone).

I just got home from the exhibition itself, had to make myself some tea. The photographs were stunning, and I am not quite sure why I find myself unsettled, perhaps this feeling would be better known to me if I went to more such exhibitions. As it is, I just love to take photos. I put them up on flickr, I share them with friends. And I’ve always thought I loved to look at photographs. I don’t think that’s changed, but this has definitely made me think.

I suppose  what is bothering me is the existence of two fine lines I’ve often felt but never really put into words.

Every life has beauty in it. Those moments of deep feeling (not even necessarily happiness) found by everyone, even those living the most anguished back-breaking poverty. Here is another picture (cropped like the first!) from the website…best I can do!

Photos like this seem to be able to capture pure moment, motion, joy. But photography also carries what might be an almost unique ability to make poverty itself beautiful. And I found a kind of creeping horror in suffering itself made picturesque, striking, aesthetic. Of an outsider turning a daily and commonplace struggle for survival into their own art. I wondered how many of these human beings turned subjects ever saw these pictures of themselves? I could not even pinpoint which photographs made me feel so, it came upon me slowly and I am certain it was a minority. I wondered if it could be the exhalation of the photographer’s own feeling towards those within the view finder.

The other fine line is similar, every life has its privacy…what I love about photographs are their ability to capture moments in time, spontaneity, the brilliance of chance. And yet I feel there are some moments that should not be captured, displayed. There were a couple of pieces where it felt an intensely private space, where consent could not have been granted (though I could be wrong, I tell myself).

I suppose crossing either line is my definition of exploitation, I think it is something remarkably easy to do with photography as art, photography for display to strangers. And myself, as a stranger, complicit in it by staring at it on a gallery wall.

And yet, I am glad I went. There were many photographs with stories to tell, lives too often hidden and demanding visibility, beauty and struggle and an incredible hand-colored gelatin-printed history in abundance. And in spite of the above. I think the curators did a very good job of pulling it together. I particularly appreciated that there is an explicit stance on colonialism, and that all of the photographers are Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi. So as levels of exploitation in photography exhibitions go, this one has made the effort to consciously reduce them…

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Baudelaire, Benjamin, Gramsci

Who among us has not dreamt, in his ambitious days, of the miracle of a poetic prose? It would have to be musical enough to adapt itself to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the wave motions of dreaming, the shocks of consciousness. This ideal, which can turn into an idee fixe, will grip especially those who are at home in the giant cities and the web of their numberless interconneting relationships.
–Baudelaire, quoted in Walter Benjamin “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”

I’ve been thinking about dreams, prose, cities…

Benjamin collected quotations, in the sense of the ‘true’ collector, which is just one of the reasons I love him.

He was also haunted by “The Little Hunchback”

When I come into my room,
My little bed to make,
A little hunchback is in there,
With laughter does he shake.

And I wonder at the coincidence of myself reading Gramsci at the same time, himself a little hunchback, a man of action not reflection (though prison changed that), a man who would never have yearned for a kept life where he could wander aimlessly, collect books he valued more for never wanting to read, but who instead starved and sacrificed himself remorselessly to finish his studies and change Italy…both variations of Marxist, and both dearly loved by me. I was originally struck by how they were opposite, but as I think about it, they approach one another…

Santa Teresita and Clifton, AZ

Santa Teresita de Cabora…that is how she was known to the thousands who loved her, and believed she could cure the sick, the blind and the lame. So we went on a quest to find Teresa Urrea today,  one of the more extraordinary figure of the Southwest borderlands. It was inspired by reading Ringside to the Revolution by David Romo (which you should read, without a doubt)…but when we started looking we found so much more.

Santa_de_cabora

Her life defies summary, but I shall try. In 1873 she was born in Culiacan, Mexico, the illegitimate daughter of a Yaqui woman named Cayetana Chavez and the local landowner, Tomas Urrea. She worked with the local curandera…known alternatively as Huila (a Yaqui name) or Maria Sonora (a Yori name, we shall disregard it). While an adolescent she went into a coma, her father ordered a coffin, and the story goes that the night before her burial she suddenly sat up. She said that they should keep the coffin as someone else would die within 3 (or possibly 5 days). She was right, and they buried Huila.

From that time on she was famed for her healing powers, powers both of traditional medicine and faith. She never charged for her service. And the thousands came…so many that Porfirio Diaz feared her powers in leading an insurrection and expelled her from the country…revolution was already boiling along the borders among the Yaqui, the Mayo, the Tomochic. And they revolted up and down down the border in her name, they carried her photograph cut out from the papers next to their hearts. Federales saw her mounted on a white horse leading them, even though she was hundreds of miles away. They were called the Teresista Rebellions, and although I grew up an hour from Nogales, I never knew the Teresistas had risen there.

Diaz said that El Paso was too close, so she moved to Clifton…she traveled, always attracting thousands seeking healing. And she returned to Clifton when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, she built a house there, and died in 1906, peacefully, she was only 33. 400 people attended her body from the church to the grave.

And yet today no one is sure where she is buried. And that is quite a story.

Apparently in the Clifton area there were three cemeteries. There was the whites only cemetery (known simply as the Clifton cemetery, though now it is officially called the Ward’s Canyon cemetery.) There was the Mexican cemetery. And there was the Catholic cemetery. Clifton is a mining town, only a few miles from Morenci, and the largest pit mine in the country. At some point Phelps Dodge decided that there was copper under the Mexican cemetery, and they wanted it. And so they dug it up and dumped all of the bodies from there into…an unmarked place. Supposedly in the whites only cemetery, though that puzzles me really, it would have made much more sense to have put them in the Catholic cemetery, especially as apparently that now belongs to PD as well. And since it was unmarked…it is hard to say.

It’s unimaginable really, especially given the relationship Mexican families have with their dead. It fills me with a kind of fury. But segregation even in death is enough to do that. And there’s the lovely story in the Roadside History of Arizona (full of interesting facts, though nothing about such things as strikes, civil unrest, Mexican saints or etc etc)… in 1904, 40 orphans were brought to the town by New York nuns, happy that they had found good Catholic families willing to adopt them. Sadly, the children were white, the families Mexican, and the good whitefolk of Clifton couldn’t have that. Vigilantes took custody of the kids, and every court up to the Supreme Court supported them in their efforts. Vigilantes are nothing new around here, nor is government support for them.

And so here is the cemetery that was once whites only

You can see Morenci’s open pit in the background. We thought that Teresa’s grave had been (provisionally) identified and marked, we wandered up and down, and found nothing. The graveyard is on a steep hillside, with many of the graves themselves forming the terracing, and the ultimate disposition of bones over years of torrential summer rains an interesting thought. Below is one of the spots I thought they might have dumped a load of calcium and dream rich dirt.

It contrasts with the more worthy sections…

Even Mr. Greenlee for whom the county is named is buried here. Under a small pyramid of rock. I don’t think he would have appreciated PD’s idea, it makes me doubt that they managed to bury an unnamed load of Mexicans here. But perhaps they did, and the outrage was great enough from both communities (united if only in this), that that is what forced them to relocate graves properly when the towns of Morenci and Metcalf were claimed by the pit as well.

We navigated at temperatures of 103 or so…and even hating the idea of a white’s only cemetery (though it isn’t quite at this point…), it was still haunting and some things were impossibly sad, like this, hid amidst great marble headstones

6 years old, chiseled by unskilled hand…and then I found this one a few steps away

Born and died the same day. And you realize how hard and bleak and terrible life could be, for everyone. But heartbreaking as they are, the Chapmans got to keep their headstones. Teresa Urrea has been erased.

So we headed into town to ask where the grave could be found. We started at the courthouse, moved to the recorder’s office, and there met Berta who was amazing and took us to the library over her lunch break, where she had started a file on Teresa. And all of a sudden I started liking Clifton again. I have photocopies now of the original article from The Copper Era (nice title, no?) from January 18, 1906, announcing her death. And a handful of others published in local papers, and one with a picture of a grave they think just might be Teresa’s.  We returned to the cemetery, to the grave we thought just might be the grave in the picture of what just might be the grave of Teresa Urrea. It was missing the wooden cross though….And we left our flowers, red plastic roses, and fresh white calla lilies, deciding that she would be understanding if we hadn’t found her, and anyone else who might be buried there would be happy.

And then we headed into downtown Clifton, up to Morenci…but more on that later. Another stirring tale of racism, labor strikes, evil mining companies…exciting stuff!

And last thing, a brilliant fictionalized book about Teresa is by Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

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Homicide in L.A.

I rode my bike to the gym last night, and passed the little park just two blocks away…my friend Jose helped plant the trees there. I had to stop for a minute, confronted by the spectacle of more cop cars than I have ever seen in one place (outside of the DNC when it was here). 10 or 11 of them, and crowds of neighbors clustered on the corners…I remember hearing the sirens earlier, because there had been so many. But I always hear sirens.

And then I rode on without finding out what was up, feeling a little guilty about the huge spike of curiosity that tragedy always seems to evoke when it is not tied to people I love. When I came back a few hours later there were only two black and whites, and a handful of others with the city crest on the doors. Homicide. Kidnapping. I wonder.

I looked it up in the Times today and found nothing…I shall have to go back I suppose, looking in the list of homicides for next week. I found that John Ortiz, 46, was beaten in the head with a planter and killed only a block and half away from me on May 2nd. While I was sleeping.

And there have been 13 homicides this week in L.A. County, all shootings but the hit and run, and the drug overdose that apparently was not suicide. Almost all young men of color. Almost all in the ghetto. Even when the young men of color leave the ghetto they still get shot, the big story of the week being the rapper Dolla getting shot in the parking garage of the Beverly Center.

There are a structural reasons of racism and inequality and hopelessness that help explain why we kill each other. Mixed in with drugs and alcohol, passion and anger, the flood of guns. Mixed in with frustration turned on the wrong people, and life and death struggles over things that should never be life and death. It makes me angry and sad in equal measure. And sometimes I even despair just a bit. Each of these violent deaths has rocked a family to its foundations, and filled the markets and liquor stores of their neighborhood with old coffee cans, complete with pictures of the victim (usually with their kids or family) and a plea for money to pay for the funeral…I have helped pass those around. It breaks your fucking heart.

I wish the LA Times would print those photos, as none of us is an island… But people from our neighborhoods tend to be treated so, just some more fucked up kids.  They’re online with something that looks like a mug shot. Their names appear in a long list of other murders that is almost impossible to comprehend. One murder is news, 13? In a week? Two a day? Too much to follow up on, though the reporter on the crime beat does try.

Homicides: May 11 to May 18

The Los Angeles County coroner has confirmed the following deaths as homicides. The Times will report more details later this week:

Roberta Romero, a 24-year-old Latina, on May 11. Romero was shot near the intersection of Glenpark Street and Bellevue Avenue in Pomona.

Michael Moore, a 20-year-old black man, on May 13.  Moore was shot in the 1100 block of south Chester Avenue in Inglewood.

Erika Balayan, a 27-year-old Latina, on May 13. Balayan was shot in the 8300 block of Van Nuys Boulevard in Panorama City.

Robert Rodwell, a 28-year-old black man, on May 13. Rodwell was shot in the 1400 block of 105th Street in Athens.

Courtney Adams, a 24-year-old black man, on May 13.  Adams was shot in the 6800 block of Atlantic Boulevard in Long Beach.

Victor Moreno, a 19-year-old Latino, on May 14.  Moreno was shot in the 1700 block of East Vernon Avenue in Central Alameda.

Jose Chavez, a 30-year-old Latino, on May 15.  Chavez was involved in a hit-and-run near the intersection of Huntington Street and Third Street in Pomona.

Ly Tran, a 45-year-old Asian man, on May 15.  Tran was shot in the 13100 block of Lakewood Boulevard in Downey.

Alejandro Perez-Robles, a 25-year-old Latino, on May 16.  Perez-Robles was shot in the 2900 block of Hyde Park Boulevard in Hyde Park.

Javier Gonzalez-Cordero, a 19-year-old Latino, on May 16. Gonzalez-Cordero was shot in the 2900 block of Hyde Park Boulevard in Hyde Park.

Oleida Robinson, a 40-year-old white female, on May 16. Robinson died of an apparent overdose in the 10600 block of Soledad Canyon Road in unincorporated Los Angeles County.

Danny Quijada, a 30-year-old Latino, on May 16.  Quijada was shot in the 6300 block of Milton Avenue in Whittier.

Marcus Smith, a 31-year-old black man, on May 17.  Smith was shot in the 800 block of Osage Avenue in Inglewood.

Louise Bourgeois retrospective at MOCA

Go see it, it’s brilliant.

And I know great art when I see it (though I also know that’s a bit time-worn as phrases go). But she truly is great. Generally speaking I don’t go much for the art of the so desperately personal, but her work is incredibly moving and provocative and it hits you in your stomach where you carry your most visceral of emotions…for decades it has circled and circled around themes of the body, love, family, sex, a traumatic childhood of male patronage and infidelity…it repeats shapes in different forms that skate a continuous line between masculine and feminine, beauty and horror, being and becoming…it comprises an astonishing number of mediums that are all exquisitely carried out: sculpture in wood and plaster and latex and stone, collages with fabric and bits and pieces of everything including orange peels, sewn figures with gaping holes, installations, paintings and drawings, the written word.

They are a strange mix of the tender and the repulsive, sometimes beautiful, always provoking, and so many with a strange edge of terror and violence that trickles down your spine. We both love spirals, and she says of them that they are attempts to control chaos and also freedom, and asks whether you find yourself in the vortex or on the periphery? She says she hates men obsessing over their penis…that it is not the appendage she dislikes, but what it is attached to. I love wit, and her art has both wit and raw emotion in an uneasy balance that gives it power.

No pictures can do the pieces justice at all, for her more than most people I think. But my favourites were the personages and the installations, particularly the red rooms. The personages look like this (This picture from the New York Times)

There were others that were blocks stacked one upon the other…I found them eerie and beautiful and they made me think.

The red rooms, on the other, scared the hell out of me. Here is what the parent’s room looks like, hard to know where the terror comes from I know, even when you’re standing in front of it. Perhaps that is why I like it so much

They are surrounded by a sort of a spiral made by doors, I won’t even begin on the symbolism of that! You can only peek into it, and the parent’s room you can really only see through the mirror, and it is red…and it should be peaceful with a couple of toys on the chest at the foot of the bed, but there is a looming shadow over the pillows and I don’t know, but it was terrifying. The way The Shining was terrifying. The children’s room was overtly terrifying with entwined sculptures of limbs cut off at the elbow, you stare at it through a window in one of the doors, children have no privacy.

I liked the spider as well…nothing represents horror better than a giant spider with long spindly legs ending in rather dangerous looking points, and yet they are oddly protective, maternal…

Go see it if you’re in LA.

There has been a police helicopter circling near my house for two hours now. I hate them. If I were an artist I’d be obsessed with helicopters…such brilliant technology that we use primarily to hunt and to kill.

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Robert King in L.A. and San Diego

I had the honor to drive Robert King around Southern California this past weekend to a handful of events centered on the Angola 3 campaign and his new book From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of ex Black Panther Robert Hillary King.

It’s an incredible story of what it means to be Black in this country; beautifully written and deep and it made me cry at two different points. And never fear, it has an inspiring ending.

I learned that I actually eat more than King, I wake up MUCH later, and that      there were possibly a few too many things edited out of the book (which I take responsibility for, though all complaints should be sent to my colleague ramsey). And a lot of really great stories that should have been in there but somehow never made it. Like the exact plan of how he escaped from Angola, and climbed walls using rope made out of the ticking from the mattresses and stepped on someone’s face and heard one of the women yell hey Tarzan, take me, it’s Jane…Which is why you have to hear him speak. But we were there to educate, not just tell stories, so I’ll be serious for a moment.

Slavery has continued in this country under the guise of prisons. There are now approximately 2.3 million people in prison, another 5 to 6 million people are on some kind of parole or probation, and 1 in 9 black men between the ages of 21 and 29 are incarcerated…

And there is a vast amount of money to be made on prisoners. The prisons get money for housing and feeding prisoners, and money for transporting them. They get money for the work that prisoners do while in prison. Prisons form the entire economic base and are the principal employer in many a small town. In Angola, Louisiana the 5,000 prisoners are counted in the town census as citizens allowing the town to receive additional federal benefits. Angola is 18,000 acres that went from plantation to prison with no break in between, even maintaining the sugar cane and cotton fields. Prisoners are guaranteed no rights in the constitution that supposedly abolished slavery. Here is a view of the place from the book:

So Robert Hillary King. He joined the Black Panther party in a Louisiana prison and worked to organize prisoners to protest the terror of the conditions they lived in. He, along with compañeros Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were actually succeeding in some things, like getting holes cut in the cell bars so that their food no longer had to scrape along the bottom of their doors when it was shoved underneath. They held classes in literacy and political education. They protested and worked to end the physical and mental abuse of prisoners, the constant invasive strip searches, and the prevalence of rape. They were reaching out to white prisoners. And so they were stopped.

King was framed in the murder of another inmate on his tier, found guilty though the man who had killed testified it had been in self-defense and that he had acted alone. Albert and Herman were framed in the murder of a prison guard (based on the testimony of seven eye witnesses – each of whom claimed they were the only ones at the scene besides the murderers! One of whom was shortly released on furlough due to his blindness. All of whom received incredible treatment from that day on, in spite of testimony that was hopelessly contradictory). King, although he was not in Angola at the time, was put under investigation as an accomplice, and was held in solitary for 29 years on that ground.

King fought his case over the years, and walked free in 2001. He said that he might be free of Angola, but Angola would never be free of him. He has kept that promise. Herman and Albert continue in prison, though Albert’s conviction has been overturned. The State has appealed the decision, and are resorting to character assassination in their attempt to ensure that both Herman and Albert remain safe and sound behind bars until they die.

So we started with an event sponsored by the Southern California Library at the L.A. Grand Theatre, a showing of the documentary on the Angola 3 (could use a bit more editing but is really a great documentary) with King speaking after. We had dinner with Gary Phillips and Gilda Haas (both future PM authors), then drove down to Whittier to stay with the Cambrons. It was a weekend of brilliant people and great hospitality I have to say! Then on Saturday we drove down to San Diego, where we stayed with Dennis Childs and his wife Saranella, both of them beautiful in every sense of the word. That day’s event was at the Malcolm X library, and the following day at UCSD.  Here he is at the Library:

And here are King and Dennis at UCSD:

And of course, we were traveling in style in the rented red mustang, here are King, Saranella and I, it has been extraordinarily hot here as you can see:

A brilliantly intense weekend, though I’ll admit my thoughts had a certain tendency to stretch somewhere rather different in a smiley day-dreamy sort of way. And it was an exhausting though rewarding trip, so happy reverie came as some relief in the rare downtime. I don’t think that’s why I did my best to make King miss his flight up to the Bay by jumping on the 605 North rather than South in rush hour traffic after a last lovely night in Whittier, it’s the fact I’ve yet to try my bike on the freeways I believe! Or that I don’t know Whittier. Or that I forgot to clarify the direction with Arturo before leaving. But everything worked out all right in the end…

There is much to be done on the campaign to free the remaining two of the Angola three. For more information on how to get involved, go to www.angola3grassroots.org, and for the book or dvd, click on the images above or go to www.pmpress.org.

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Colour and Invisibility

A man came up to me today while I was waiting for the blue train, leaning against my bike and reading. He nodded towards the handful of people who shunned the shade, and launched into friendly conversation – some people just really love the sun, huh? They’re crazy, the sun makes you blind, they’re going to go blind…I thought about skin cancer and freckles and wrinkles and the way I love the Arizona summer where the world is all white light and heat that wraps around you so heavy on the air you can feel its comforting weight. Of course, the only thing I like to do through the Arizona summer is read while drinking long cool glasses of anything with ice, it’s been a hell of a long time since I was able to do that. Amazing how much can go through your mind in a split second. I love the sun.

I was lucky. He required no response to continue: the sun makes you disappear. My mom was upset when I moved out here, I’m from the East coast and when I went home they thought I was ugly, I was light skinned there but here you stand in the sun and you turn the colour of charcoal, no one can see you at night, you become invisible. He lifted his arms and they were a dark dark brown, and the wiry hair on them a very bright white.

I thought about this means of becoming invisible. You become the colour of darkness, you walk along unperceived and hidden against the backdrop of night, I thought about what it means to disappear. An arcane power of sorts, the ability to become one with the dark, to travel unseen…who has never dreamed of that? With the power of flight, invisibility is pretty high on my list of unfulfilled desires. The train came then and I shall probably never see him again. I wanted to ask him if he had read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, I wanted to ask him if invisibility were really a function of colour and camouflage, or of politics. I wanted to ask him about the invisibility of South Central and all the people in it, the invisibility of the poor to those with wealth, the invisibility that comes with a skin colour approaching the night. The invisibility you endure when you wear an apron or a janitor’s uniform or a name tag proclaiming your willingness to serve. The way that so many people I have known and loved have disappeared. It was not the sun that disappeared them, and I rage that they could have left this world with so small of a ripple. I wanted to reconcile the challenge, and the promise, of the gulf between invisibility in the world of my imagination, and invisibility in the imagination of the world.

I have lost much of my substance behind the name tag and pinned smile of the service employee, the painfully unfashionable clothes and bad haircut of that embarassingly poor kid who really wants nothing more than to disappear (luckily I’ve grown and fought my way out of both for the most part)…but my experience is limited as someone who will only find camouflage if the night becomes the colour of pale sand. I yet sit uncomfortably poised between several worlds none of which seem to be visible to the others, and I could not imagine myself anywhere else…and so this problem of how and what people can see seems to be one of the keys to resolving the injustices that have pushed these worlds apart. And so a blessing on the old charcoal gentleman who disturbed my reading today and set my mind spinning, may he find beauty in his skin…

Economic Bubbles and the Blue Line

I rode the train home late last night, the blue line down through South Central and Watts; L.A. makes me sad sometimes. There is so much speculation on the state of the economy, you can read it in the papers. Taking the blue train late at any time through South Central and Watts, most of that speculation seems rather out of touch. There haven’t been any good times here for a very long time, and when the economy turns, it hits here hardest. And it keeps on hitting. The contrast is stark between this world inhabited by tens of thousands of people, and the world of financial speculation. From here the bubble is very clear, and entirely maddening. Most maddening is that the bubble requires the world of poverty to exist, it is built upon it, immense wealth cannot be held by everyone. It depends on millions of poor in this country, many millions more around the world…

I was talking to an older guy who was only wearing one shoe last night, and white tube socks pulled up high. He was riding the green line train up and down, having nowhere else to go. His legs were swollen the way my gran’s legs became swollen with her diabetes and lack of exercise, the way my friend Mark’s legs became swollen when he was turned out into the streets. Like age and diabetes, the streets swell you up, make you sick, kill you. He was voting for Hillary Clinton, he said he had a crush on her. I laughed at that. He asked me if I was a model and I laughed at that too. He told me I could be anything I wanted to be, this was America, told he was working on his own modeling career. I can forgive this man his bubble, I can forgive him almost anything he needs to survive.

I can’t forgive the people who speculate on the economy night after night on the news, and I can’t figure out who they’re talking about. I don’t know the world they’re talking about either. None of them address the growing gap between rich and poor, growing numbers of people in the streets, growing poverty, growing legions of police to control the poor and protect the wealthy. The only things shrinking are the job pool, the supply of affordable housing, the access to health care, the number of teachers, support for veterans and the elderly, the water table, the ice in the arctic…