n+1 article: Yarmouk Miniatures

behzad_timur_egyptian

Last night I read an article, Yarmouk Miniatures, appearing in Issue 23 of n+1 magazine, which made the situation in Syria vivid for me in a way that the none of the news and articles I’ve read ever did. I visited Syria long ago, and spent a lot of time in particular in Aleppo, now all but destroyed. The people were kinder than any I had met in my travels, anywhere and it was a magical country, living under, even then, a harsh regime.

The article, written by English writer Matthew McNaught, tells the story of how he got to know many Syrians in Yarmouk when he was living there and learning Arabic. He tells of the teacher, Mazen, his parties, and the social circle surrounding him, and especially of the books Mazen had him read. One of these was Historical Miniatures by Sa’dallah Wannous, a playwright, who wrote political theatre. Mazen told McNaught that the miniatures of the title referred to detailed paintings celebrating legendary warriors and great battles and were meant to validate imperial rule and their domination of other peoples. Mazen explained:

Wannous…wanted to play with this convention. He chose a setting straight out of these victors’ narratives but passed over the buff men lopping off heads, the battles, the imperial pomp and ceremony. Instead, he portrayed the people usually left outside the frame of history. The quiet silk weaver and his wife. The refugee girl who cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy to escape exploitation. The trader finding ways to discreetly profit from war. The religious leaders, united in their pious public rhetoric, each picking out his own private compromise among convictions, self-interest, and fear.

The stories of those people that I met in the streets of Syria all those years ago are the people we care about, not the “people” who are abstracted away in the nightly news. The article was illuminating, and if you subscribe to n+1, in itself a great magazine, you can get access to all the digital versions. Here is one of the stories McNaught relates from Historical Miniatures, The Silk Weaver:

A small house within the city walls. A young couple, Marwan and Khadija, are arguing. They have heard the news of the approaching armies and are discussing the choice that lies ahead of them. Khadija wants to stay. “I’d rather be with our own people and meet our fate together than beg on some foreign street. We’ll lose everything if we go. The house, your workshop and loom.” But for Marwan, the uncertainty of flight is preferable to the certainty of violence and destruction if they stay. He has heard of the savagery in Aleppo. He is a silk weaver, not a soldier, and the prospect of taking up arms against Tamerlane’s armies seems absurd and suicidal. The argument goes back and forth until Khadija takes Marwan by the hand. ‘‘I’m tired of all this argument and hesitation,” she says. “Since dawn we’ve been torturing ourselves. If you’ve made your decision, let’s just leave. The bags are already packed. Go and pray. I’ll get dressed.”

Marwan holds on to Khadija, whispering words of adoration, pleading with her to come back to the bedroom: “Just let me taste your sweet honey before we leave.” Khadija wriggles out of his embrace: “Not now, Marwan!” She starts dragging bags to the front door. “Look, are we leaving or not?” Moments later, there is a knock at the door. It is Khadija’s brother Ahmed. He tells them that the city gates have been locked. All travel is forbidden. The palace guard has been ordered to fortify the citadel and arm all men of military age. They have missed their last chance to leave.

More reading:

Syria Speaks, an anthology of recent writing from Syria, including the work of Ali Ferzat, Samar Yazbek, Khaled Khalifa and Robin Yassin-Kassab.

Ellen Cantor at the Wattis

There are only a few days left to see the Ellen Cantor show at the Wattis, curated by Jamie Stevens and Fatima Hellberg.

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Jamie Stevens writes, in an introduction to the show:

A prolific artist who lived between New York and London, Cantor combined readymade materials with diaristic notes and drawings to probe her perceptions and experiences of personal desire and institutional violence.

In her drawings, paintings, collages, and videos, Cantor lifted characters and sequences from iconic films, reorienting the ideological transmissions of the source material. Fictional figures from Disney cartoons, cult horror films, New Wave cinema, and family movies provide a visual foil to Cantor’s intimate disclosures. Magnetized by the doeful naivety of characters such as Snow White and Bambi, Cantor would, in her drawings, extend their narrative horizons to include vivid sexual encounters and crisisridden relationships.

For the final eight years of her life, Cantor was working on the featurelength film Pinochet Porn. Originally a suite of drawings named Circus Lives from Hell (2005), Pinochet Porn is an episodic narrative about five children growing up under the regime of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Featuring a cast of close friends and collaborators, and shot in New York and London, Pinochet Porn stages a libidinal critique of the systematic and sadistic destruction of selfexpression and experience.

The Wattis is one of the best things about the San Francisco art scene–Anthony Huberman moved out here from P.S.1. in New York just over a year ago, and was joined by Jamie Stevens, formerly of the Serpentine Gallery in London, who are doing great work bringing artists to San Francisco who’ve yet to have big solo shows in the U.S. or West Coast. I am looking forward to the upcoming Wang Bing show as well.

Alice Neel and the Rat Race

Fuller Brush Man

Alice Neel painted most of her paintings in the living room of her apartment on 107th Street in New York. She sometimes painted a painting each week, living off of $100 a month from the Works Project Administration, until it ran out in 1943, after which she lived on welfare, and 23 years later, found a patron who paid her $6,000 a year. She had four children with four different men, and was investigated by the government for her involvement with the Communist Party. Her son, Richard, became a lawyer and said, “I don’t like bohemian culture, frankly.”

I like to paint people who are in the rat race, suffering all the tension and damage that’s involved in that, under pressure–of city life and the awful struggle that goes on in the city.

Startups as a Second Language

One of the issues we face here in San Francisco and Silicon Valley is a sense that the people all around us are as conversant in startup and tech culture as we are. But we need to remember, and remind ourselves repeatedly, that we’re a small minority in a larger population. We get a lot of attention, because we are new, and trendy, and fashionable, and commercial, on the outer layers of Stewart Brand’s pace layers of culture.

So I was happy to see that Kristina Lee Podesva was presenting “Startups as a Second Language” at Yerba Buena. I met Kristina when she moved from Vancouver to San Francisco, because she was the editor of Fillip, a magazine I had a small part in getting off the ground, and has consistently published significant articles about art and culture.

Here are some of the terms from her presentation, via Ceci Moss:

Learning SSL

So jargon-y! Kristina has written more about the project on her site.

Morality, Disgust and Political Parties

“Morality isn’t just about stealing and killing and honesty, it’s often about menstruation, and food, and who you are having sex with, and how you handle corpses.” –Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt’s research into disgust and politics is fascinating. For example, many conservatives are disgusted by the ideal of gay sex and are therefore against gay marriage. Libertarians tend to have the lowest levels of disgust. I saw a TED talk of his in which he said that most people would find it disgusting to contemplate, but college students are able to consider “eating their pets”. College is an environment designed to encourage openness — the ability to think of things in novel ways, and entertain unconventional beliefs. Here’s a lecture by Haidt on Reason that’s a good intro to some of his ideas.

Most people ign…

Most people ignorantly suppose that artists are the decorators of our human existence, the esthetes to whom the cultivated turn when the real business of the day is done…Far from being merely decorative, the artist’s awareness is one of the few guardians of the inherent sanity and equilibrium of the human spirit that we have.

— Robert Motherwell

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