From the Ancestors:

“It takes fortitude to be a man and no less to be an artist. Perhaps it takes even more if the black man would be an artist.”     ~Ralph Ellison

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“Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself.”          ~Franz Kafka

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Stir the Masses: The Necessity of Art (Part VIII)

There is nothing like art to wake us. Art has the power to get under the skin, splinter nails and moisten brows. Hang a urinal on the wall and get a rise (No pun intended). Draw a comic the Prophet and get blasted out of this life. Paint a portrait using multiple perspectives and challenge convention. Art is noise. Art is a thumb in the nose of static notions.

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Art and revolution are long-time companions. Militant art directs movements by giving people motivational images, reflecting their thoughts and capturing possibilities: You could be her; this could be you. We need art to energize us. The United Farmworkers Union employed an iconic eagle as their emblem; the Black Panther Party and Mao’s China used art to manipulate, agitate and propagate a message (not necessary in that order).

It was Honoré Daumier, who in the late 18th century glorified the masses of the “Third-class Carriage” even while giving us a peek into the lifestyles of the first-class passengers. I relish neither classification, because poverty is the domain of those who do not own their destinies. Calling attention to disparities is the domain of artists. Take Goya’s criticisms of public figures through allegory and blatant representation of government atrocities, which led to public outrage. Likewise, satirical political cartoons have been the voice of dissent since the American Revolution.

Art also has unintentional consequences. Take the writer Nicolai Gogol, whose most famous, and nearly seditious work, Dead Souls, foreshadowed the fall of the monarchy and led to political strife when it was published in 1842. In fact, Gogol, a nobleman, believed in the crown and serfdom—he did not expect Dead Souls to be interpreted as criticism of the state. For Gogol, he was simply depicting Russian life. Ironically, he was unable to “correct” his book though he tried, twice, to create a second volume; in frustration, Gogol committed suicide by starvation, proving we cannot control Art.

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Rebecca Solnit assures us that artists have a place, poets have a place—and protests have a place. Without art, she implies, we succumb to dichotic thinking, viewing the world and everything in it as binary opposites, rather than complicated, nuanced situations that we have the power to impact.

Art is no trivial matter. It is skillful, thoughtful, daring and courageous work that must be done. Whether imagery or words, film or created objects, performance or free association—these are the pillars of a thriving society. Art is not merely the purview of advertisers and marketers. Art belongs to us.

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Wives’ Tales: Winter’s Cold Brew

Medicine is not only what can be bought with a prescription. Medicine can be grown in a garden, found on the herb rack, and prepared in the average kitchen. After our national and unsuccessful war on drugs, (more than 55,000 people died in 2015 from accidental opiate overdoses many of which were prescribed drugs; that number is expected to be topped in 2016) it’s time to look into traditional forms of healing to soothe the pain.

Since I was a girl, my mother would stop along the street in New York City to show me plants growing out of the cracks in sidewalks, or springing up along hedges. My mother would tell me the names of the plants and how to use them. Her wisdom is increasingly useful to me as I find that Western medicine does not always work in the way we need, want or expect. Sometimes, a little help from Mother Nature’s pantry is needed. Here’s a recipe that has gotten us through the bitter winter colds in resilient health. Try it.

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Winter’s Cold Brew

 

In a quart pan, combine the following ingredients in cold water:

Star Anise, 3-4 stars

Cinnamon, 1 stick

Jamaican Allspice, 10-15 pearls

Clove, 15-20 pins

Fresh Ginger, ¼ cup, thinly sliced

Heat the mixture under the lowest flame possible. It should take about an hour to boil. When the infusion is roiling, add 1-2 tablespoons of Echinacea let that boil for 8 more minutes (Okay to use 2 tea bags in lieu of fresh herbs). In an 8-ounce cup, add fresh lemon and honey. Strain the brew into the cup, and drink it as hot as possible. The various herbs and spices work to boost the immunity; many act as analgesics and astringents to soothe a sore throat, reduce and expectorate mucus and clear a stuffy head. You can drink as many cups a day as necessary to abate cold symptoms.

Stay healthy, and happy healing!

 

The Uses of Visual Images as Envisioned by Douglass: The Necessity of Art (Part VII)

 

Art is a visionary’s tool (among others). For a long time artists have used the medium of photography to foretell, criticize and reimagine the way we see, what we see, but also why we see. Take the great reformer, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who in moving from images of Black poverty and nakedness to dignified and well-dressed statesman, understood and recognized that art could liberate Black men and women in the consciousness of the viewer. Douglass embraced photography in the form of Daguerreotype and used his own image to bombard the social media of the era. What had easily become a keepsake token of affluence, the portrait became a force for transforming consciousness in the hands of a powerful Black American, who used it to define himself and a people. With his actions as a writer and a subject of the gaze, Douglass used art to change America.

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Today selfies are a widespread phenomenon misused by young people all over the world. The intoxicating image of the self has us giddy with self-absorption (you can even by a stick for this). For his part, Frederick Douglass employed the power of the portrait that few of us seem to value or recognize today because of the proliferation of cameras. Yesteryear, however, Frederick Douglass, the original selfie King, sat for numerous portraits as an act of liberation, intending to shatter static notions of Black identity using his own changing image. Given that he did so well before the advent of cell-phone cameras, the selfie king had to make deliberate efforts to make his image available to a 19th-century populace, many of whom eroticized the African body as a side-show attraction, or relegated them to an exotic sub-human status unworthy of the lens. It was under these circumstances that Douglass envisioned a narrative that could only be told through the camera’s eye—a story he would repeat dozens of times to become the most photographed figure of his epoch.

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Pillar in Print

For Douglass, art in the early manifestation of the selfie, the portrait, was a vehicle used to normalize Blackness. By sitting for portraits wherever he went, Douglass realized that the image of a free Black American would provoke the viewer to consider his personhood and, thereby, challenge the perceptions of White Americans that he used to gain a kind of social currency, an invented algorithm inserted into the mainstream dialogue. Douglass did so in the struggle to abolish slavery; Douglass knew art had power, whether by creating it, starring on the canvas or generating a frequency of sound; art’s power was undeniable.

Frederick Douglass was able to harness the power of art and use it to reframe an entire narrative about Black identity. Later artists of the Harlem of Renaissance—writer, painters, poets, dancers and sculptors—would continue his legacy, crafting a movement of empowered self-expression that would begin to heal a people from a history as a formerly enslaved people. Art and change are not separate. One births the other and the other fathers the revolution—more on that later.