Travels With Gloria

Finding beauty mile by mile.

Tag: exoticism

My space plans will surely be carried out.

The Afronauts. All photographs by Cristina De Middel.

It was 1964, and Zambian schoolteacher Edward Makuka Nkoloso had a dream.

Mr. Nkoloso dreamed that his newly independent country would make its mark on the rest of the world in a way that could never be forgotten.

Three years before, the Soviets had put a man in space. A week after that, the American President Kennedy promised that the USA would be the first to set foot on the moon.

Zambia would do the world powers one better. The Zambians were going to Mars.

Nkoloso took the first step without consulting his government — which was busy planning Independence festivities — and created the National Academy of Science, Space Research, and Philosophy (NASSRP?). He recruited astronauts and began weightlessness training by hurling them down hillsides in an empty oil drum.

This may seem primitive, but if you look at footage of NASA and the Apollo program from the same era, things aren’t a whole lot more advanced. There’s an element of the Cargo Cult in Nkoloso’s editorials from the period, but if you think about it, there’s an element of the Cargo Cult in the early Space Age as a whole. The US could never have won the space race without German scientists who brought rocket technology to the table in exchange for having their Nazi connections erased from history. Seen with 21st century eyes, we got to the moon on firecrackers and tin foil.

What America had that Zambia didn’t was aesthetics: Tang, aerosol cans, go-go boots, and the bee-hive hairdo. I’m not even sure the Soviets had that much. If it looks like you can do something, then people will believe you can do it. The funding comes rolling in. Next thing you know, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are on prime time TV, in color. You’ve sold your mission to the stars like a sweat-shop designer handbag. One small step. One giant leap.

But Zambia didn’t have silver lamé miniskirts or a Space Western in the network TV lineup. Nobody was going to be fooled. And so, when the world reported on Edward Nkolosa’s astronaut training regimen, it did so in the form of a colonialist joke.

More than fifty years later, Spanish artist Cristina De Middel isn’t laughing. After discovering the Zambian space program through old British news footage (what can’t you find in old BBC documentaries?), she has created a series of photographs that explore ideas of the future, the past, stereotype, and image, all surrounding the aesthetic of the Zambian Astronaut.

The Afronaut series, which De Middel hopes to publish as a book, seems on the surface to participate in the joke of the Zambian on Mars. Black men wear space suits accessorized with raffia, pose with elephants, and stride through tall grasses bathed in bright sunlight. Afro hairstyles poke out of the front of their helmets.

But looking deeper, it’s obvious that De Middel is in on it. The poses are too reminiscent of Keith Haring’s cartoon space men not to be a reference to the astronaut as visual code for Infinity And Beyond. The elephant photos are juxtaposed with shots of an alien autopsy. The astronauts’ gloved hands probe; what is this strange creature? What is this bizarre sun-baked moonscape?

After all, what’s more primitive than a man being shot into the sky on the back of a giant bomb?

Note: I absolutely could not have written this piece without the inspiration of Wired Magazine and Laughing Squid.

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Traditional Home of the Way Out

The Human Be-In, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, 1967. I would love it if someone could help me find out who took this photograph.

As I’ve said in the past, I sometimes feel uncomfortable about the place/travel aspect of this blog. I live where I live and am the person that I am. I have the culture that I’ve been brought up with. So to me, everything else is “other” and thus fair game for this website. This is why I like to talk about New York culture, and why I hope to come across an excuse to talk about the South Louisiana/Cajun culture I grew up in. I feel like if I’m talking about my own stuff as often as I’m creating a window on Vietnam or Nigeria or Turkey, at least it’s fair. But then I’m constantly worried that the goal of my blog is to other people through the arts.

I found out this week that someone has already done that. And they’ve done such a good job at it that the piece of American culture they chose to highlight feels not just like another place and time, but another planet.

I’m referring to the BBC documentary series Whicker’s World, in which British journalist Alan Whicker covered social issues in places as diverse as Haiti, Paraguay, and Hong Kong.

In the summer of 1967, Whicker cast his camera lens on San Francisco, and the resulting film is one of those odd examples of earnest British reportage in a world that is decidedly un-earnest — in the case of the UK press reaction to Bob Dylan shown in D. A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back — or maybe too earnest, in the case of this Whicker’s World thing. The honest, straight ahead, unironic treatment of the Haight-Ashbury scene is wilder for the fact that the hippies are completely honest in return. The documentary doesn’t flinch or attempt to exploit the titillating subject matter, which somehow makes the subject matter seem even stranger.

Poster from the Human Be-In designed by Michael Bowen, with photography by Casey Sonnabend. This event kick-started the Summer Of Love and alerted the media and the wider world to what was going on in San Francisco.

In reality, that world isn’t that far away from me. Yeah, it’s the other side of the country in a city I’ve never actually visited, but it’s a cultural moment that backlit everything that was to come in American culture. My mom had Janis Joplin records as a kid. LSD, not Crack, was the real spectre behind the curtain of After-School Specials and the Just Say No Club. Growing up in America in the eighties, The Sixties was the basis of everything. I don’t think The Summer Of Love stopped being relevant until probably September 11, 2001. And in a lot of ways it’s still relevant. But in Whicker’s documentary, it seems a million miles away. Is this my culture? Is this where I’m from? Worse, what about the society the hippies rejected? If the hippies look bizarre, the larger American culture — as described by the BBC, in any case — feels outright foreign.

I wonder if this is the feeling that inspired Gita Mehta to write Karma Cola?

Innocence and Experience

Lug Von Siga F/W collection. Photo by Ayten Alpun, via Cool Hunting.

In 2008, Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk published a novel called The Museum of Innocence, about a man who creates a shrine to a doomed love affair with a much younger woman who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings.

On April 28, Pamuk will open an actual museum called The Museum of Innocence, a physical tribute to the shrine and the novel.  I don’t think anything like this exists in any other city, and in fact I had a hard time both conceiving of what the museum actually is and writing the sentence that precedes this one. I’m really sad that I missed this while I was there, just for the chance to wrap my brain around the idea of a museum centered around the characters in a work of fiction.

Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence, under construction. Photo via The End Of Collection

Meanwhile, the look book for Turkish fashion designer Gül Agiș‘ Fall/Winter 2013 collection centers around some of the same themes, exploring forced marriages between young women and much older men in rural Turkey.

”My tears are my witness.” from fabrika.photography on Vimeo.

Art and Place

Vintage Pan Am destination guide covers designed by George Tscherny. Via Container List.

It’s a little bit difficult to explain to people what my blog is about. Travels With Gloria germinated as a travel blog about art. I’d write about where to find the best Caravaggio paintings in Rome, how to score Coachella tickets, the ethics of travel photography, and whether maha-tourism sites like Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal are worth visiting. In January I took a month off from other kinds of writing, meditated on the fetus of TWG, and somehow she took a left turn and became the blog you see before you. I like where she’s going, but what the hell is this about, anyway?

Baggage, by Chris Stott. This is a fricken PAINTING, y'all. Via Chris Stott, via Jen Bekman's tumblr.

I tend to tell people that I write a blog about Art and Place. This sounds pretentious, and I’m pretty sure it boils down to writing a blog that isn’t about much of anything. I especially started to feel this way when I was trying to brainstorm posts to write about my trip to Istanbul in February. I spent a lot of that trip exploring Istanbul’s contemporary art scene, which according to the New York Times is Kind Of A Big Deal these days. I saw lots of interesting work, and even more interesting curatorial approaches. And yet a lot of what I saw was not really all that Turkish.

Of course, I saw piles of work by Turkish artists. But what does it mean for art to be Turkish? A lot of the art I saw that was made by Turkish people looked pretty much just like the art that is being made by Americans, or Germans, or Israelis. Just, you know, art. The sort of art that fills galleries all over the world and doesn’t inspire anyone to say, “Wow, look how American/ German/Israeli this art is!” Very little of it — in fact, pretty much NONE of the contemporary works by young Turkish artists that I saw — seemed to be about being Turkish, or what Turkey is today, or to offer a perspective on Turkish history or culture. Which is fine, obviously.

Is this worthy of posting on my blog only if the artist is Malaysian or something? Marion Jdanoff, silkscreen. Via BOOOOOOOM.

But it made me wonder. Why do I feel compelled to write these posts about people like Keith Haring and Patti Smith in New York, or Nuria Mora in Madrid, or Carrie Brownstein in Portland? What causes those artists to be associated with certain places while there are millions of painters and musicians all over the world who aren’t associated with any particular place at all? Damian Hirst could be from Nebraska or Capetown as easily as he could be from London. Frankly, I’m not even sure he’s from London. Maybe he’s from Glasgow or Manchester. Does it matter?

Maybe the answer is in something the Somalian rapper K’Naan said about Fela Kuti:

Fela was, himself, an African. He was an African in front of Africans, he was an African in front of Europeans, and Americans, and anywhere in the world. He brought himself as a fully African human being who had something to contribute to sound and your mentality of things — without any concealing of any part of his heritage — exposing an entire sound to the world.

Maybe what these artists share is that particular interest in expressing place and their culture to the rest of the world.

Or maybe there’s no answer at all. Maybe it’s all racist bullshit. Maybe this piece is “about” Mexico because it’s about an aspect of Mexican culture that I, a white person and an outsider, recognize:

Gabriel Dawe, From the Plexus series. Site specific installation in thread and wood. Via Coolhunting.

Maybe I wouldn’t recognize that some other artist is even Mexican at all. Maybe none of the Turkish contemporary art was Turkish enough for me because I don’t know fuck all about what it means to be Turkish. Maybe I’m looking for carpets and Odalisques and Osman Hamdi Bey. Perhaps this blog will find a way to get people thinking about some of these questions, even if I can’t possibly answer them. In the meantime, I plan to continue posting dorky rants about Korean soap operas and how much I want to go to Uzbekistan. So I hope you like that sort of thing.

P.S. Do you guys want to know about Caravaggio paintings and music festivals and whether the Taj Mahal is worth it or what? Because I can do that, too. I think this is a little more interesting, but maybe that would bring in some more traffic. What do you guys think?

Hurry, boy, it’s waiting there for you

In the audience at the Festival Au Desert in northern Mali. Photo by Alfred Weidinger, via Flickr.

Rock stars of the eighties cared a lot about Africa. There was “Heal The World”, “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, and “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City”.  There were also more aesthetic influences, for example Paul Simon’s album Graceland.

And then there was Toto. Created neither to raise awareness for the plight of the oppressed nor to celebrate a rich cultural heritage, Toto’s song Africa managed to jump on the eighties sub-Saharan bandwagon with a vague global outlook and paternalistically nonsensical lyrics. I could break out all the reasons this song is abhorrent, but I’ll let Steve Almond do it instead, in this hilarious reading from Tin House Magazine‘s tenth anniversary celebration a few years ago:

 

Even if your pop music tribute to Africa was a little more well-meaning — or at least well-crafted — than Toto’s ode to Mount Kilimanjaro rising over the Serengeti (by the way, it doesn’t), there was a strong chance that it was performed by white people, or at the very least by people who had never actually been to or lived in Africa.

It’s perverse that for Americans to get behind African social causes and artistic contributions, it had to be done under the guise of whitebread normalcy. As opposed to, I don’t know, making Fela Kuti the international megastar he deserved to be.

 

It’s good that Paul Simon shared some of the credit with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and I think this weird intermediate period in American and British pop ultimately led to the more diverse musical landscape of today. But how many singles did “Do They Know It’s Christmas” sell compared to anything ever released by Miriam Makeba or Ali Farka Toure?

Sidenote: before I die, I’m going to the Festival Au Desert in Essakane, Mali. It’s a three-day music festival celebrating peace through music. Bono made a surprise visit this year, which I suppose means it’s officially jumped the shark. But I don’t care, I still want to go. Maybe 2013 is my year…

The past is a Yakov Smirnov joke.

1961 USSR postage stamp celebrating Yuri Gagarin's space flight. via Flickr.

I have a fascination with Soviet Russia, especially the aesthetics of the USSR from the 60’s through the fall of the Iron Curtain. Call it ostalgia if you want. I’ve always wanted to visit Russia, even nowadays when obviously most reminders of the Soviet days are long gone.

I think it comes from the mystique of the Soviet Union as “other” when I was little. I remember taking a theater workshop when I was like seven years old (yes I was always a dork) where we were given the improv prompt “what if a Russian kid moved to your town?”

The teacher was really mad when I said I would ask him what it was like in Russia and try to become his friend.

Via Coolhunting.

Of course, now ostalgia is trendy. A museum of Soviet arcade games recently opened in Moscow.

There are also two recent books on design behind the Iron Curtain. Iron Curtain Graphics is a book of Romanian communist poster and propaganda design, while Made In Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design is an exploration Russian product design.

A Krugozor cover from 1964. Via krugozor-kolobok.ru

My favorite Soviet product, though is Krugozor, a music magazine published from 1964 through 1991. It came with a flexible record, though I’m having trouble finding out exactly what was on the records. A 99% Invisible podcast episode dedicated to Krugozor claims that the records included sound effects and music, and that somehow the editors were allowed to include rock music. Which sounds weird to me because rock was apparently censored or at least stifled in the Soviet Union at the time. Then again, I’m not up on my Soviet policies on Rock n Roll through the ages — maybe it was only later issues of Krugozor that included that sort of thing, during Perestroika.

It’s really difficult to find out exactly what Krugozor was or what it included, because virtually everything I can find written about it is in Russian. This definitely adds to my fascination with it. If I could read Russian, I would probably discover that Krugozor was the Soviet equivalent of Readers’ Digest, and it would cease to be interesting.

Another Krugozor cover, this time from 1971. Same source.

Sidenote/pointless quasi-proustian reminiscence: For years, there was a Taaka Vodka billboard featuring Yakov Smirnov on Veterans’ Memorial Boulevard (AKA “Vets”, to the extent that I just had to look up the actual name of the street) in New Orleans on the way to the airport. My mother’s parents spent most of the 80’s living in Cameroon, so Driving To The Airport was always a momentous occasion. I will always ever so vaguely associate world travel, the Cold War, AIDS, terrorism, apartheid, Ronald Reagan, and Duty Free, with Taaka Vodka. For no reason other than that this billboard happened to exist and perfectly symbolize everything my five year old brain didn’t understand about the world. (I still totally don’t understand Duty Free.)

The Man Who Saves The World

Dünyayi Kurtaran Adam: the limit of my knowledge of Turkish culture before visiting Istanbul. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

I have a confession to make.

A few months ago, when I bought a ticket to Istanbul pretty much on a whim, I knew only one thing for sure about Turkey. Was it the fact that the Ottoman Empire brought Islamic culture almost to the gates of Vienna in the sixteenth century? Was it the sacking of still-Byzantine Constantinople by their fellow Christians during the fourth Crusade? Was it the beauty of Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace?

It was none of those things.

I knew that, in the 1980’s, Turkey made its own version of Star Wars. The special effects and John Williams’ score were ripped directly from the genuine article, because (this part of my research is a little shaky) apparently Turkey hadn’t signed some international copyright treaty that would explicitly ban such behavior. Or maybe that isn’t true, maybe the Turkish film industry just thought, hey, you know, we’re Turkey. Hollywood has no idea we even make movies. Our language has lots of umlauts in it. We can do whatever we want.

Turkish Star Wars action figure. Image via the Starswar Collector Archive.

For a long time, Turkish Star Wars existed for me in a web of rumor. It was discussed in hushed tones over bong rips and rounds of Goldeneye on Nintendo 64 in the dorms my freshman year at Emerson. A few people boasted of having seen it, and yet nobody could produce a copy. We had no way of verifying any of it in this barely-internetted era, so the stories got more and more ridiculous. Some insisted that there was a whole movement of Turkish copycat films: Turkish Jaws, Turkish Superman, Turkish Wizard Of Oz.

 

And then one day, after I left Emerson for New York, I was digging through old VHS tapes at Kim’s Video in the East Village. It was there: a Radio Shack brand blank tape with a moldering label scrawled with the words TURKISH STAR WARS, a bootleg of a bootleg of a bootleg. I took it home. I’m not sure if it was the cheap production values, the seizure-inducing jump cuts, or the fact that it of course had no English, but it was completely inscrutable. I watched twenty minutes or so, grew bored, and switched it out for The Happiness of the Katakuris, which I’d also picked up that day.

By the time I bought that ticket to Istanbul a decade or so later, the internet had changed everything. Nothing will ever be shrouded in as much mystery as Turkish Star Wars — which Wikipedia now reveals is actually titled Dünyayi Kurtaran Adam — used to be. The world is now laid out in explicit facts and fictions. This film was made; here’s its IMDB page and a clip from YouTube. The kid from the Life Cereal Box did not die after mixing pop rocks and coke; that’s an urban legend. There are obvious benefits to the new way of seeing the world through a constant stream of information. I don’t think Barack Obama would be president if it weren’t for the good people at Snopes. And, hell, I wouldn’t have bought a ticket to Istanbul on a whim if the internet hadn’t laid bare the details of Delta’s winter fare sale.

But a part of me is nostalgic for a time when you could believe that Turkish filmmakers had created a shot for shot reproduction of Star Wars down to the pastries in Princess Leia’s hairdo, and that they might have even done the same for E.T., The Excorcist, and Gone With The Wind.

Side note: I would really love it if someone could explain the existence of these ripped off Star Wars action figures from Turkey. Clearly they are not relevant to Dünyayi Kurtaran Adam, which doesn’t much resemble Star Wars at all and wasn’t branded as Star Wars in Turkey. And yet they share the same bootleggy mistranslated weirdness with the phenomenon of Turkish Hollywood ripoffs. I think this is just a coincidence allowed for by the time before the internet allowed everyone to share the same mass culture and also allowed huge megacorporations to make serious bank by enforcing mass culture uniformity. But who knows?

Disclaimer: Turkish Gone With The Wind does not exist. As far as I know…

Sixteen tons, and whaddya get?


Shoeshine stand, Galata. Photo by Sara Clarke.

 

A couple more photos from my Istanbul Working series.

 

Kofte sellers, Beyoglu. Photo by Sara Clarke

Magic Carpet Ride

Turkish carpets are big business. The first thing you read about when you flick open a guidebook to Istanbul is tips for dodging rug salesmen.

The problem with this?

I love carpets. Unlike the vast majority of visitors to Turkey, I actually want a Turkish carpet. I just can’t afford one.

So I did the next best thing and bought a kilim. A kilim is a flat-woven rug that’s more rustic and “tribal” looking than a traditional Oriental carpet.

It turns out kilims aren’t actually that cheap, either. My carpet seller guy showed me some unbelievably intricate Armenian pieces that run upwards of $700. Even in rustic handicrafts, I apparently have champagne tastes.

So I cut a deal. It turned out that for $60, my carpet salesman was willing to part with a very basic floor model from Kayseri, an industrial city known for cranking out Turkish carpets by the millions.

If you’re desperate for your own Turkish carpet and don’t have a trip to Istanbul planned anytime soon, it turns out West Elm is now selling one-of-a-kind floor coverings from around the world. They’re made with ethical labor practices (something I’m not sure I can claim for my $60 Spice Market special), and aren’t really that expensive compared with what a bland beige American-style area rug will run you.

Maybe you share my love of carpets, textiles, and handicrafts, but you still can’t afford a Turkish carpet no matter what. You could knit up the American handicraft equivalent from this pattern. Add a stripe or a fringe, and you’ve got something a lot like a very simple knitted kilim.

Chthonic is a nice word.

Basilica Cistern engraving by Thomas Allom. Featured in Robert Walsh's book Constantinople, published in 1839.

Did you ever think, “I want to go to there!” and then realize that you’d already been there? And that it was every bit as amazing as it looked in the picture?

This is the Basilica Cistern, in Istanbul (which was Constantinople when this engraving was made!). It’s an underground water… uh, cistern… that was created so that Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul would be impervious to siege tactics. Seriously, the city stored years worth of food and water and encouraged all Constantinopelians* to do the same, so that if there were ever attacks on the city, they could simply outlast their attackers. This actually worked, and is part of why Istanbul is such an old city that it’s had three different names so far.

Photo by Sara Clarke

No longer used to store water, the cistern is so impressive that it’s become a tourist trap very popular with visitors to Istanbul. Which is fine, because seriously, this place is Creepy Looking. There are crazy medusa heads, huge ghostly fish, and the lighting is super eerie. You should go.

You should also go check out Old Book Illustrations, which is where I found the engraving above. They have a bunch of interesting Orientalist engravings of Turkey on their blog today.

Bonus photo:

This is possibly my favorite picture that I took in Istanbul. Inside the Basilica Cistern, for reasons that I hope are obvious to everyone, there’s a spot where you can dress up in Byzantine costume and be photographed by this dude. For money, I imagine. Anyway, I snapped a picture of these people in the process of negotiating their Old Timey photo. Which was probably wrong, especially since now I’m putting it on my blog, and for all I know they’re nice middle class folks from Bursa who totally read traveling artsy fartsy blogs just like this one every day (Hey guys!).

Seriously, that emo girl is definitely in my key demographic. Photo by Sara Clarke.

*I fully just made this up. I have no idea what demonym is appropriate to describe people living in Constantinople before they became known as Istanbullus like they are today.

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