Monday, November 28, 2016

Photo Essay: A Museum of Misfit Artists

Baltimore is a gloriously weird city.

Amidst the shot towers and historic parks, the Inner Harbor cruises and chain steakhouses, and the racial unrest and the riots, there are a number of misfit museums...



...and a staggering collection of outsider art.



The American Visionary Art Museum revels in that weirdness...



...its "shattered mirror" facade flanked by mosaic tile walls...



...a decidedly modern architectural footprint...



...and kinetic sculptures that never seem to stop moving, like "Giant Whirligig" by Vollis Simpson, a farmer and mechanic who found inspiration in scrap metal.



At the AVAM, if you're not looking up, you're definitely missing out on something.



Then again, there's so much to see at eye-level, so many shiny things to catch your eye—like the "Gallery-A-Go-Go Bus" by ArtCar artist Nancy Josephson...



...an NYC native who's an actual Voodoo priestess.



All of the art here is really "fantastic" in its own way.



And so much of it has been "blinged out"—like the "Aurora Borealis" wall, designed and constructed by both at-risk youth and incarcerated kids.



Appropriately, the outside of the museum is just as—if not more—important than the inside, with sculptures like the 11-foot "Giant Golden Hand" (which isn't so gold anymore) by Adam Kurtzman emerging from walls and perched on ledges.



Faces stare out at you, judging, yet speechless.



For me, the highlight was the "Cosmic Galaxy Egg" by Andrew Logan...



...whose design was inspired by images captured by the Hubble Telescope...



...of dying galaxies...



...and the birth of new stars.



Sometimes it's only through reflections that we can really see things accurately.



And yet the reflections we see of ourselves are probably the most distorted visions of all.



Other artists embraced by the museum include the dearly departed Salvation Mountain's Leonard Knight (whose "God Is Love" balloon is on display there) and Grandma Prisbrey of Bottle Village and the alive-and-well Kenny Irwin Jr. of Robolights.

I suppose they all had one thing in common: a distinct vision that made them all artists who were (and are) outsiders.

Of course, those are the ones I can relate to the most.

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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Glimpses of Havana in the Final Days of Fidel

The revolución may not be over—it may never be over—but Fidel Castro's Rebel Army only has one member left.



Juan Almeida Bosque died of a heart attack in 2009...



...Che was executed in 1967...



... and Camilo Cienfuegos disappeared in the Florida Straits in 1959.



And now, Fidel himself has finally passed.



The last man standing is Fidel's brother, Raúl Castro, the current Cuban president.



What you see in Havana now can largely be attributed to their collective insurgency against the Batista dictatorship in 1959...



...but mostly in that it's been frozen in time since then.



Most of the "progress" and "development" happened before that—starting with the Spanish colonials in the 15th and 16th century, through the 19th century when Havana was known as "the Paris of the Antilles" and ending in the first half of the 20th century, when Havana was thriving as "the Paris of the Caribbean."



So why are women still dressing in traditional garb, harvesting and roasting their own Cuban-grown peanuts, and selling them on the street with a song of "Maní...maní...maní"? Why the state of arrested development?



It's complicated. The government that Fidel and his army of rebels successfully ousted had, in fact, actually ousted the government before it: long-shot candidate Fulgencio Batista overthrew Cuban President Carlos Prío before he had the chance to be reelected. And to be honest, Prío didn't put up a fight—instead, he fled.



So, a president whom some considered bad (despite Cuba's independence, civility, and free speech of the time) was replaced by someone most would agree was worse. And, while probably well-intentioned, Castro's coup to rid Cuba of its corruption put a merry band of warriors in charge of a country they had no idea how to run.



With ties already severed with the U.S. during the Batista autocracy, Fidel needed to get help from somewhere. As a result, in 1962 he started sleeping with the enemy, the Soviet Union, at the sacrifice of relations with other international economies—until the USSR collapsed and pulled out of Cuba officially in 1991. With it, Cuba lost a huge export partner, and the resulting economic hardship sent the Cuban economy into a downward spiral.



And all Fidel's revolution ended up doing was replacing one dictator with another.



Cuba is considered a country of the "third world," but it's not as depressed as you might think. Sure, the septic system can't handle any paper flushed down into it, and there are practically no wi-fi hotspots to be found. But the dogs and cats you see on the street are loved and well-cared-for. People on the street don't beg—they work and they sell things you actually want to buy. You see children only in their school uniforms, heading to or from class.



Some may say that Cuba is falling apart...



...but, from what I could see in Havana, Cuba is being rebuilt.



Cubans haven't had access to modern automobiles from the West, but they've gotten rid of their post-Soviet-era bicycles from China and are driving whatever they can get their hands on.



And those that manage to get one of the classic cars from the 1940s or '50s soup them up however they can—maybe even with a Hyundai engine—and turn them into a business.



They worship their larger-than-life religious idols and herald their war heroes...



...but they've also surrounded themselves with literary icons, like Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões and Cuban national hero, poet and writer José Martí. Just for comparison, the Cuban literacy rate is 99.8%, while here in the U.S. it's 97.9%; and likewise, the Cuban unemployment rate is only 3%, versus our 4.9%. The poverty rate is practically nonexistent at 1.5%, compared to our 13.5%.



I only caught glimpses of Cuba during my three days and three nights there in November 2016, just weeks before Fidel died at age 90. I couldn't possibly understand it fully yet. I definitely didn't see everything, but being able to see anything with my own eyes—and with my heart—was a lot more enlightening than what I'd been able to glean from the media or pop culture.


Photo: jim & me [CC BY 2.5 es], via Wikimedia Commons

Vas bien, Fidel. You fought against the impossible, and you won. But now it's time to go and let Cubans figure out who they are without you.

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Friday, November 25, 2016

Discovering Religion, Art & Philosophy in a Cuban Alley

Our travels a few weeks ago in Cuba brought us to Central Havana, in a barrio called Cayo Hueso ("Key West").



There, we found ourselves in the Callejón de Hamel ("The Hamel Alley"), two traffic-free blocks of street art murals and scrap material sculptures, named after 19th century German arms dealer and slave trader Fernando Hamel.



If you were to visit, you might come upon a Santería priest smoking a cigar or a band of Afro-Cuban musicians playing rumba while they twirl their brightly-colored dresses.



Of course, it was only after Russia pulled out of Cuba in 1990 (and the resulting collapse of the economy) that Santería was able to emerge from the underground, where it had been hiding from the government stronghold on religion.



You wouldn't have found this alley in Havana before then.



Now, you could swear you're in a California sculpture garden.



While the sounds of rumba swelled around me, and the rain fell on top of me, I noticed a stone wall embedded with metal bathtubs that had been painted with characters from The Little Prince ("El Principito"), one of my favorite books of all time.



But the words aren't those of French author (and pilot) Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. They're excerpts from Cuban literature, namely a 1989 children's book called La Noche by Havana's own Excilia Saldaña Molina.



The excerpted passages chronicle a philosophical conversation between a young girl and her grandmother. It ponders the bigness of the universe through questions she asks her. For instance, "If freedom is happiness, then what's happiness?" The answer, her abuela says, is peace.



The answers aren't always quite so simple. Is it better to be a river or a bridge? Well, that depends on whether you want to keep moving or if you don't want to get cold.



Why do poor people fight? For love and respect. Why do the rich fight? For gold and for fun.



Like The Little Prince, it covers some pretty heavy topics like envy, jealousy, fear, and loneliness.



And those are all things we all can relate to—regardless of which language we speak, write, or read, and regardless of whether we're as young as that little girl (or The Little Prince himself) or as old as the grandmother (or the pilot).

I think there's something about The Little Prince that really resonates in Cuba. You have to see things with the heart in order to see them rightly there. If you're only looking with your eyes, you're likely to miss out on what's really essential.

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