Tag Archives: Culture

L.A.’s Underground Museum is a Vital Hub of Contemporary Black Culture

Guests attend the John Legend performance at The Underground Museum for Belvedere DARKNESS AND LIGHT listening event on November 16, 2016. (Photo by Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Columbia Records)

In a feature for W, editor and writer Diane Solway talks about how the Underground Museum, an arts space in a nondescript building in Central Los Angeles founded in 2012 by figurative painter Noah Davis and his wife, sculptor Karon Davis, became a vital convening point for creatives, culture workers, and audiences interested in ideas of black excellence.

These days, guided by Karon, Kahlil, and other family members, the Underground Museum is an anomaly in this era of starchitect-designed private museums and foundations: a modest, black-family-run art collective whose convening power is likely the envy of every cultural institution in the country. Beyoncé, the artist David Hammons, and the actress and activist Amandla Stenberg have all been spotted in its purple-themed garden; John Legend and Solange Knowles have launched albums there; and the director Raoul Peck visited to screen his acclaimed James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Equal parts art gallery, hangout space, film club, and speakeasy, the UM, as it’s affectionately known, focuses on black excellence, not struggle, though it’s been nimble enough to address recent racial turmoil by creating a forum for talks by Angela Davis and by Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors. Jenkins likens the museum to “a salon you would have found during the Harlem Renaissance,” in the 1920s and ’30s. “There’s something coming out of that place that is so radical in its potential that you can feel it,” concurs the L.A.-based sculptor Thomas Houseago. “And it draws a mix of people that I don’t find anywhere else in the world. As a white artist, it’s not like, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ It’s, ‘Great, you’re here! More hands.’ ”

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Five Questions for an Actor in the Ensemble of ‘Julius Caesar’

Elizabeth Marvel as Marc Anthony delivers a speech to the crowd in 'Julius Caesar' at Shakespeare in the Park (Joan Marcus / The Public Theater)

The crowd is its own character in Julius Caesar; they are there to be angered, to forgive, to protest, and most importantly, to be persuaded. In Oskar Eustis’s controversial production, the ensemble sat among the audience for most of the play, standing up to protest only midway through the show. This became confusing during one of the final performances, when a 24-year-old, right-wing activist named Laura Loomer rushed the stage after the assassination scene in the Senate, shouting “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right!” (“We’re not promoting it,” an actress onstage said to Loomer in the moment. “This is Julius Caesar.”)

Cassandra Cushman was an actor in the ensemble, and we asked her about her experience performing in a 400-year-old play that made national headlines in its final week.

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Not Really A Distant Aunt: My Family’s Slave

The Atlantic -- June, 2017

In this poignant, posthumous feature at The Atlantic, Alex Tizon tells the story of his family’s slave, Lola. An utusan (“person who takes commands”), Lola was given as a gift from his grandfather to his mother in 1943, when Lola was 18 years old. Lola worked, unpaid, for Tizon and his family for 56 years. During a turbulent childhood where his parents were out of the house for days at a time, Lola was a constant source of love and devotion for Alex and his three siblings. In this moving piece, Tizon attempts to understand his parents’ point of view and motivations, and reconcile himself with Lola’s life of servitude.

We landed in Los Angeles on May 12, 1964, all our belongings in cardboard boxes tied with rope. Lola had been with my mother for 21 years by then. In many ways she was more of a parent to me than either my mother or my father. Hers was the first face I saw in the morning and the last one I saw at night. As a baby, I uttered Lola’s name (which I first pronounced “Oh-ah”) long before I learned to say “Mom” or “Dad.” As a toddler, I refused to go to sleep unless Lola was holding me, or at least nearby.

Mom would come home and upbraid Lola for not cleaning the house well enough or for forgetting to bring in the mail. “Didn’t I tell you I want the letters here when I come home?” she would say in Tagalog, her voice venomous. “It’s not hard naman! An idiot could remember.” Then my father would arrive and take his turn. When Dad raised his voice, everyone in the house shrank. Sometimes my parents would team up until Lola broke down crying, almost as though that was their goal.

It confused me: My parents were good to my siblings and me, and we loved them. But they’d be affectionate to us kids one moment and vile to Lola the next. I was 11 or 12 when I began to see Lola’s situation clearly. By then Arthur, eight years my senior, had been seething for a long time. He was the one who introduced the word slave into my understanding of what Lola was. Before he said it I’d thought of her as just an unfortunate member of the household. I hated when my parents yelled at her, but it hadn’t occurred to me that they—and the whole arrangement—could be immoral.

“Do you know anybody treated the way she’s treated?,” Arthur said. “Who lives the way she lives?” He summed up Lola’s reality: Wasn’t paid. Toiled every day. Was tongue-lashed for sitting too long or falling asleep too early. Was struck for talking back. Wore hand-me-downs. Ate scraps and leftovers by herself in the kitchen. Rarely left the house. Had no friends or hobbies outside the family. Had no private quarters. (Her designated place to sleep in each house we lived in was always whatever was left—a couch or storage area or corner in my sisters’ bedroom. She often slept among piles of laundry.)

The woman who used to hum Tagalog melodies as she rocked me to sleep, and when I got older would dress and feed me and walk me to school in the mornings and pick me up in the afternoons. Once, when I was sick for a long time and too weak to eat, she chewed my food for me and put the small pieces in my mouth to swallow. One summer when I had plaster casts on both legs (I had problem joints), she bathed me with a washcloth, brought medicine in the middle of the night, and helped me through months of rehabilitation. I was cranky through it all. She didn’t complain or lose patience, ever.

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American Media is Still Getting Chinese Food All Wrong

Chinatown window by Pam Mandel
Chinatown window by Pam Mandel

Of the 263 entries under the “Chinese” recipe filter on the New York Times food section, almost 90 percent have a white person listed as author in the byline. Only 10 percent of the recipes are authored by Chinese writers.

On Munchies (a Vice channel), Clarissa Wei shares what we’re missing when Chinese food is covered by writers with no personal connection to the cuisine. Many writers still use a colonial era style guide (the Wade-Giles guide). Some are stuck on the notion of Chinese food as cheap eats, with no sense of what it takes to make the food. Writing about Chinese food is also subject to a lot of “discovery,” as though a dish hadn’t been around for hundreds of years, influencing other cuisines we take for granted.

Prosciutto, in the Western world, is glorified, but people have rarely heard of Chinese ham. Marco Polo allegedly brought ham-making techniques from the Chinese city of Jinhua to Europe, and many of today’s processing technologies for dry-cured hams have evolved from the techniques from this modest Chinese city.

Clocking in at about 5,000 years, China is the longest continuous civilization in the world. The Chinese, after all, were master farmers and cooks. Though the country only has 10 percent of arable land worldwide, they produce food for 20 percent of the world’s population.

Yet, here in the West, we read and commission more stories about poop-themed restaurants, Communist hot pot eateries, and dog-eating festivals than deeply, thoughtfully researched pieces on Chinese pickling techniques and the art of Chinese lamb roasts.

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Milo. Kind of Our Fault.

The Beach Boys, 1965
The Beach Boys, 1965 via Wikimedia.

Iain Martin, former senior editor at The Sunday Telegraph and current columnist at Reaction, muses on finding the Beach Boys on YouTube, why the Telegraph made room for incendiary characters like Milo Yiannopoulos, and the impact of doing so.

The voracious appetite for clicks hasn’t been without cost.

Milo had plans for Telegraph blogs. Lots of plans. And suddenly, for a brief period, he was the Telegraph’s visionary guru handing out internet kool aid to us baffled and sceptical hacks and to the seriously talented people then in charge of the site. He was parachuted in to meetings with the company’s leaders where he mapped out his vision of a Telegraph at the forefront of a millennial media revolution.

This all sounds ridiculous now. Hell, it was ridiculous then. But it was before we had all realised that Facebook and Google were not our friends. They were going to suck up all the ad money and kill all but those with the sense to charge for quality content. We didn’t know that then. Anyway, the ferocious pace of change in media at that point, and the need for novelty, for an answer, any answer, meant that a character like Milo (a charismatic conservative chameleon) could walk right in.

With hindsight, I failed miserably in my responsibility as comment editor and should have made a stand. I was not alone in this. Quite a few other experienced executives thought the Milo for clicks experiment would blow up but we agreed in the pub that there was no point being near the scene of the explosion.

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“A Seriousness That Fails”: On the High Camp of Melania Trump

Photo by Darwin Bell, (CC BY-NC 2.0).

By reconfiguring and repurposing Melania as an absurdist character whose presence momentarily undermines the legitimacy of her much more sinister husband, viewers can act as curators of the Trump spectacle, restoring some sense of agency and hope when it is in short supply. The camping of Melania isn’t a radical or necessarily effective political strategy. Rather, it’s a meaningful and distinctly queer method of poking fun that offers fleeting moments of catharsis.

Daniel Spielberger, writing in Real Life magazine, wonders whether turning Melania Trump into a laughable, campy caricature is more than just mockery, but a way to feel a sense of control in a disempowering political climate.

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Between Their Arab Past and American Present

With each leg of my grandparents’ journey—from Damascus and Istanbul to New York and finally Los Angeles—the markers of their previous lives fell away: my grandmother’s first language, the Koran, the prayer rug, the community of Arab émigrés in Brooklyn. Though certain customs remained: Neither of my grandparents ever learned to drive, and they always spoke Arabic at home. They preferred my grandfather’s Syrian cooking to what they called American food, and didn’t cotton to eating in restaurants or taking vacations. In Los Angeles, they were content to live apart from the mainstream, within the bounds of home, family, and the community of Armenian and Lebanese immigrants who, like my grandparents, found California’s weather and geography agreeably familiar.

In the assimilation that took place between the first and second generation, the tensions between the old and new were constant. When my father came of age, he didn’t care to be matched with the young women my grandmother called Syrian girls. His brothers felt the same, and the result was four intercultural marriages, each a hybrid but uniform in its shedding of Arab identity and customs. None of the grandchildren in the third generation were taught to speak Arabic. Nothing of the religious or cultural identity was passed down. This, more than anything, brought about the break with our history: the missing knowledge of our ethnocultural past. Without it, there was only the sense of our difference, one that was at once deeply rooted and unfamiliar.

In Catapult, Lauren Alwan narrates her family’s migration from Syria to California to explore how people’s evolving identities help gain them a foothold in America and create unintentional tensions across generations.

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The Case Against Christmas

Long after winter has ended, hating on Christmas remains popular sport, as much a holiday tradition as eggnog and overspending. In the New Republic in December, 1990, James S. Henry published an essay outlining his yuletide complaints and what he sees as Christmas’ flaws. The magazine republished Henry’s piece online for Christmas this year, so I thought I’d share it here, too. The stats might be dated and popular toys no longer the same, but the case Henry builds is as evergreen as a spruce. Each New Year I hope we live in a world with less hate and more understanding. But complaints? I have a few. Happy Holidays.

Christmas destroys the environment and innocent animals and birds. These have perhaps not been traditional concerns for economists. But when one takes account of all the Christmas trees, letters, packages, increased newspaper advertising, wrapping paper, and catalogs and cards, as well as all the animals slaughtered for feast and fur, this holiday is nothing less than a catastrophe for the entire ecosystem. According to the U.S. Forest Service, 33 million Christmas trees are consumed each year. Growing them imposes an artificially short rotation period on millions of acres of forest land, and the piles of needles they shed shorten the life of most household rugs and pets. All the trees and paper have to be disposed of, which places a heavy burden on landfill sites and recycling facilities, especially in the Northeast.

This year, according to the Humane Society, at least 4 million foxes and minks will be butchered just to provide our Christmas furs. To stock our tables, the Department of Agriculture tells me, we’ll also slaughter 22 million turkeys, 2 million pigs, and 2 million to 3 million cattle, plus a disproportionate fraction of the 6 billion chickens that the United States consumes each year. To anyone who has ever been to a turkey farm, Christmas and Thanksgiving take on a new and somewhat less cheerful meaning. Every single day during the run-up to these holidays, thousands of bewildered, debeaked, growth-hormone-saturated birds are hung upside down on assembly-line racks and given electric shocks. Then their throats are slit and they are dropped into boiling water.

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Longreads Best of 2016: Arts & Culture Writing

We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in arts and culture writing.

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Tobias Carroll
Freelance writer, managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and author of the books Reel and Transitory.

Michael Jackson: Dangerous (Jeff Weiss, Pitchfork)

Earlier this year, Pitchfork began publishing Sunday reviews that explore albums released in the time before said site debuted. This, in turn, has led to a whole lot of smart writers weighing in on the classics, the cult classics, the interesting failures, and the historically significant. Jeff Weiss’s epic take on “Jackson’s final classic album and the best full-length of the New Jack Swing era” is the sort of narrative music writing that’s catnip for me, the kind of work that sends me deeply into my own memories, and leaves me rethinking my own take on the album in question. Read more…

The Surprising History and Ongoing Controversy Behind the True Panama Hat

Image source: Compass Cultura

What North Americans refer to as the Panama Hat is actually a hat that is made in Ecuador. But the hats that are actually worn throughout the country of Panama, known as sombreros pintados, are quite different. On a recent journey to Panama to replace his worn-out Panamanian-made sombrero, travel writer Darrin DuFord met with one of the country’s most renowned hat makers to discover the origins of the infamous controversy and to find out that sombreros pintados are more than merely a simple fashion accessory for rural Panamanians — they are both a symbol of victory over foreign influence and a device for communicating one’s mood.

At Compass Cultura, Darrin DuFord uncovers the history, meaning, and ongoing controversy behind the true “Panama Hat.”

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