Morocco: Getting There

I purchased a train ticket in Casablanca during my 14-hour layover and waited in the long dank tunnel with few other passengers. Birds, misplaced, or on their own purposeful visit chirped in the wooden beams above the rails. I wondered if, like the birds, I had flown into a new place and became disoriented by all the newness of it all. I stood on the tiled platform and waited in a humid silence for the train to roll up to the airport. Doors opened and then I was being whisked away in a flood of strangers, chattering and rolling baggage along the hall so quickly, the wheels on their bags over tile like rattlesnakes being shaken awake. The bags I carried carved their marks in my skin, making indentations in my neck and shoulders. A moment with the weight removed brought about a swift and stubborn stiffness in my upper body. My lower back felt compressed and sunken under the weight. At the airport in New York, I was told my bag would make it to Tangier and I would retrieve it there, but I had no idea where it could be now. What was the bag limbo of this long layover? Did it sit behind a desk until the plane loaded? Did it sit outside in the brief rain on a canvas cart? Was it revolving lonesome around an empty carousel waiting for my return? I supposed I would find out soon enough.

My next destination was Tangier. Then, in another two days a car would arrive from Tétouan to take me to my final stop, Green Olive Arts. The hunt for a residency began early the previous year when I decided to postpone graduate school applications and hone my skills by the determination of my own instruction. I was denied entrance to every colony until November, when Green Olive Arts, the residency in Morocco I applied to on impulse, contacted me to schedule an interview. I was accepted within the week and used the next five months to organize and prepare for May, the month I committed to set aside to write and travel. On principle, I don’t apply to residencies that charge a fee to their artists, but since it was the first one I had been accepted to, and would scratch the itch for exploration I had been putting off for years, I couldn’t find an appropriate reason to turn it down. I crowd-funded, organized a public fundraiser, wrote grants, and eventually raised all the funds I needed to travel to and pay my way through the residency program. Support came from everywhere, and although I began planning my journey with strategies in place to overcome the obstacles I anticipated, few presented themselves. I was funded, well-researched, and had a clear and unstoppable vision for what my month of creative output would look like.

On a whim in Casablanca, I followed a young man through the steady stream of rails and markets, lit by tempered sun from a cloud speckled sky. Our introduction happened in a small courtyard, palm trees with dead fronds like long unwashed hair stood sentry for the kids kicking soccer balls around. I had gotten off the train at a stop that looked somewhat metropolitan, and was slouched on a park bench no doubt looking dazed and bewildered. A young man sat at the other end and after a while asked me if I spoke French.

“English,” I said.

And to this, his response was: “Do you like ‘Game of Thrones?’” We quickly discovered a commonality between us and he offered to show me around the part of Casablanca I had accidentally happened upon. We drank kiwi juice, warm from the fruit stands, and rode the ambling light rail to a place with espresso where we could sit with our backs to the shop and people watch. After 20 hours of traveling, sitting knotted in uncomfortable chairs, I propped up my feet in a savory moment of total relaxation and drank in the new scenery. When the waiter came by with our coffees he tapped my feet off the chair I was using as a prop. He muttered something to my friend in Arabic, which he then translated to me: “I’m sure it’s normal in their culture.” My legs tangled back into the familiar crossed position and denied me a little longer the ease of rest after cramped and consistent traveling. Soufiane and I exchanged facebook information, because that’s what you do these days, and when the afternoon was coming to a close I re-boarded my train and rode to the airport.

My mind began to fade on the return train. I dozed with my head against the shivering window and found I had no control over my thoughts that threatened to mutate into dreams while my eyes could still be forced open. My bowels were full and tight, responding to every scrape on the tracks underneath as if they would burst like the skin of a plump sausage. I was out of it when the ticketing agent came through. I handed him the ticket for him to punch and waited for him to leave me alone.

“What is this?” At least I recognized those words in French. He flipped around the stub of my last airplane boarding pass, a similar size and shape as the train ticket he had asked for, but wrong for the journey. I dug out the correct document and he punched it impatiently. The man across the aisle looked at me through my thin and pitiful fog. The airport where I was to spend the rest of my long layover had loose rules about lines and customs. My second time going through gates, I flashed my passport and smiled as an apology when met with a question in French. It felt like an old acquired habit. Poorly designated or vague numbers on my boarding pass led me through the twisting rope of terminal one, only so I could be angrily denied access by a man who shouted in English, as if it were a swear, “Terminal two!” He leaned forward into my face, his outstretched hand wagging my passport like an object of scorn. More stairs and lanes, questions from me in English and answers from others in French finally led me to the correct gate. As I approached the lagging conveyor belt that represented Moroccan security, the two guards observed me with little interest and resumed their conversation. Fearing I was, again, predictably, in the wrong place, I waved my boarding pass and stepped through the scanner. One guard glanced at the time of my departure, still many hours away, then up at the pathetic wasted traveler with bad breath and snarled hair that I had become. “You know once you are in, you cannot leave,” he delivered in dry but passable English.

“Yes,” I sighed. “I know.”

I brushed my teeth in the bathroom, neglecting to use bottled water instead of tap water because I had not exchanged any money and could not purchase any. I tried to make myself comfortable in the airport chairs. Once or twice I fell into a strange and disrupted sleep, waking up to cloaked men and covered women staring across the room at my still obvious otherness.

After six hours, a man started screaming in Arabic amidst the flashing lights of the transport van outside the airport window. For a moment, everyone in the airport—or at least everyone who could not understand the man’s words, tensed up as if ready to act. I sat helplessly with my crumpled New Yorker and too much weight in my bags, not exactly ready to turn over the chain of cold steel chairs as a barrack if something unspeakable happened. His voice and anger escalated. Would-be passengers to Marrakech, Rabat, and Chefchaouen stiffened and took a step back toward security. Whispers rang through the room and I strained without avail to understand the foreign words. Three uniformed men in badges and flat hats moved in a brisk walk toward the angry intervener. This is not an American airport, I remembered, and for better or for worse this type of outburst was probably not uncommon to witness. An airport, especially one so far away from every custom and language and person you have ever known, is not a good place for surprises. My nerves settled when I overheard a peppery haired man on a different link of chairs at my gate say to his neighbor, “missed his plane.” Missed a plane. Only missed a plane.

I have been on two other planes in my life that match the size of the plane I rode from Casablanca to Tangier. When it was time to board, we all scuttled from the gate aboard a bus that wheeled us across the tarmac to the pint-sized aircraft that waited with stairs unfolded. Our time in the air was brief and noisy, the engines and propellers making a racket in the sky as we passed over midnight and into the next day. I put my head on the tray table and had bursts of vivid and unsettling dreams, images that had been denied the two consecutive nights I had gone without sleep. When I arrived at the hotel, I didn’t even turn on the light before I hit the pillow and slept straight on through the next twelve hours.

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Popular Modern Games

There is the one with the bowling balls. Not bowling. Only the balls and an open field or empty parking lot. Five or six people get together as at team and lob bowling balls at one another. So each team brings a bowling ball to an empty area at the designated meeting time. The Sparrows face off with The Tornadoes or The Unwed Mothers. On a good day, Big Man Boy’s show up and give them all a real work out. Using the finger holes in the bowling balls, each person must throw the ball at the other team in hopes that the opponent won’t catch it. Points are scored by catching the thrown ball, one point for using both hands, two points for using one hand, and ten points are awarded if you can catch the ball by sliding your own three fingers into the holes of the oncoming cannon. Tournament season is very short.

They call it Crazy Ball. The oddest thing is that Crazy Ball involves no balls or bats or oblong bullets that fly through the air. Nobody is really sure how Crazy Ball is played, but it has become a very popular sport among the young adults. Players have been spotted wearing makeshift clothes from leaves and sticks, digging holes in the backyard of friendly neighbors.

Twice a year, the ski team meets on the mountain. Once in December and once in mid-July. They don their poles and skis and line up together on the peak. The pop of a starter gun sends everyone into a frenzy, pushing and pulling each other to the edge of the peak. Hair in fists, jacket sleeves in teeth, they try to send each other down the hill while remaining on the top themselves. A whack to the face with a ski pole earns two points. Crossing the opponents skis before toppling them over is a six point gain. In the end the points don’t matter. Parents are separated from their children, who are light and easy to toss over the edge and watch them flail, skis tumbling over poles over snow pants over hats in a puff of fresh snow, down the steep side of the mountain. At the end of the game, the two remaining skiers on the peak of the mountain are escorted into the cocoa lodge where they undress and have a nice big window out to watch as the other players untangle themselves from the sticks and the snow, retrieve their escaped mittens and gloves.

The object of this game is to not look him in the eye. The old man in the doorway stares out at passerby, but if you make eye contact, you lose. Nobody has lost in recent years, but trust me. You do not want to lose.

If you can outrun the tractor, you get to keep it. All year a team of rag-tag mechanics work on the engine and body of the tractor. A favorite sport in rural townships, Run Away is usually played in an area of great historical significances. Battle fields with grave markers that stick out of the prairie grass or henge formations made of petrified wood are popular sites for Run Away. While one team works on the tractor, another team picks a Runner to train. They complete obstacle courses, weight training, timed sprints, distance jumps—the complete package if they want to survive the excitement of Run Away and win the super-charged tractor that chases them through the field.

For those with athletic minds, there is Competitive Contact Negotiating. Teams are given topics to debate and a chest full of blunt objects. The arena for Competitive Contact Negotiating is flexible, more so than other sports that have risen to popularity among those born unusual (the only exception being Blind Quest, which has a very strict set of rules). A team wins the debate by knocking the other teams unconscious with their rounded objects and then alerting the other players with a shrill banshee screech that simultaneously supports the thesis of their debate. Audience attendance is low this year.

Over the years, these sports grew out of a very human need. Traditional games evolved through wildly physical experiments that lead to the games we know today. And as the Sedentary Age set in like a cramp, we invented these escalated games to remind us of our roots. We play because at the center of our being we are hungry for human contact, determined to win, determined to feel something.

Thoughts on Loneliness

aloneOne evening I realized I had gone the whole day without speaking more than a dozen words—a mix of English, Spanish, and Derija. Think of twelve words, a twelve word sentence. Think of a going a day using only twelve words, or a week, or a month.

I was not entirely prepared for all the loneliness I feel here.

If you think you can handle being alone, go traveling by yourself.

I didn’t think it was weird to spend more time than usual in the mirror until I realized I was trying to fill a certain degree of loneliness, unconsciously using my reflection as my own company. Disgusted, for two days I couldn’t look in the mirror.

I felt the same as I did last month when I realized I had obsessively worried a bald spot onto my scalp. Living in the mind does this.

In my daily life back home, I spend a good deal of time by myself during the day. I wake up, make coffee, look out the window, and start to write. This routine suits me and my work. It helps me focus and settle comfortably into the contents of my head. I like being by myself and solving the minor problems I create. I have a harmless practice of diving as deep as I can into certain pools of emotion then resurfacing for air, writing it down, and going in again. As long as I don’t have to spend every waking minute deep in the parts of my brain I access to write, I am a functioning human. Creative people know there are places in the mind that need to be tapped into in order to produce meaningful or interesting work, and it takes practice to be comfortable with these places in ourselves, because we are conditioned to believe they are socially unacceptable. You learn how mixing creative waters with social waters can upset a civic balance. Get in, get work done, and get out. Without an exit from these ‘pools’, the mind can take an unexpected turn.

The residents I was hanging out with before have been gone for a week, taking my social life with them. Tétouan is a male dominated town. Women aren’t allowed to socialize in the ways men are. It is not socially acceptable for a woman to sit at a café by herself, or even be alone on the street. She is accompanied by a man, her children, or other women. I hardly see them alone. When I walk around I feel a little unsafe, especially as the light fades. I’ve been followed, grabbed, harassed, and watched suspiciously as I unlocked the door to my apartment by a man or group of men lingering by the entrance. It’s sad how women learn to acclimate to this, to experience isolation on a social and personal level and then be expected to adapt, move on, and burden no one.

To relieve myself at home, I take evenings off to bike around, hang out with one person or a few people, relax my mind with company and exercise. Even going to a job in the evening helps my mind take a break from the creative problems of the day. I think, up until now, I underestimated how important those breaks have been for me. I often declare boldly and confidently “I love to be alone.” I’m realizing now, yes, I still love to be alone, but I need a balance to keep me productive. Here in Morocco, I don’t know anyone, I don’t speak more than three words of the language (yes, no, thank you) and finding a healthy release from being enmeshed in my brain all day is more difficult than I anticipated. My day here looks different from my days back home. I get up, walk to studio, lock myself in my room, emerge for a light lunch, and at the end of the day walk back to my apartment to sleep. Between these movements, I write, read, and try to come to terms with myself, and then there is nothing to distract me from my own intensity.

What I’ve come to realize about myself and my creativity is that without social anchors to my routine, I start to unravel a little. The brain changes when we’re alone, and it changes more drastically when we are lonely. I chose to roll the dice this year and do things I know I’m not entirely comfortable with. I’m in a strange country by myself. I tentatively left my job with no back up plan. I lifted some blocks and created others. I am consciously choosing uncertainty over familiarity. A lot of this is coming down at once here in Morocco. I am trying to connect what I know on an intellectual level to what I feel on an emotional level and apply it to my work. I have had one downright howling emotional breakdown that accumulated from a series of minor punctures I tried to ignore. My work is changing. My immunity to solitude is being strengthened. Maybe with a little more distance, these things will seem minor. But here in the depths of the experience, even the smallest changes feel titanic, as if I am operating on a cellular level. A new condition of being embryonic.

Emotional distance is crucial to writing effective prose, otherwise it sounds precious and self-absorbed. One day all these intense highs and lows will find a way into my writing, and by that time, I will try not to forget what it took to get there.

Uncensored honesty is a growing importance in my life. The dark places in the mind reveal more slowly for a reason. We keep secrets from ourselves until we’re ready to face the truths, and that makes for a greater depth in creative work. I read Blake Morrison last night. He divides people into emotional and psychological terms: those who have lost a parent and those who have not. I think creativity can be divided into those who have accepted who they are and those who have not. Unlike death, a linear condition, self-awareness is a circle and involves a series of smaller deaths. We’re never finished discovering who we really are, because we accumulate experience, love, people, degrees of sadness. It takes a certain amount of loneliness to unveil new dimensions—not just in our personalities—but in our capacity to feel and understand. You don’t really know who you are until you have: a. lost part of yourself and b. gotten time to know yourself. I have found two things to be the biggest contributors to this kind of death: isolation and heartbreak. (In 2011, I experienced both at once, and it changed me on an elemental level.) Parts of us don’t really disappear. They evolve.

My final thoughts are to try it. Destroy your notion of comfort and your grip on yourself. Sink into your mind and your work. Be the deep sea diver of your own emotions. If you wait for life to decide loneliness for you, you will be completely unprepared.

2016 Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artist Awards Exhibition brochure

2016 Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artist Awards Exhibition brochure

Madeline Gallucci

If you’ve ever overlooked it, there’s a chance Madeline Gallucci has turned it into a pattern.

She sees mischief in cryptic messages, such as utility scrawls upon sidewalks, signifying something important but revealing little to the casual viewer. Or in repeating colors in nature that have been co-opted by humans to appropriate the original meaning, like certain hues of neon. Gallucci recycles patterns she picks up along the way, giving them new life in the context of her own conceptual meditations. One of the reincarnate forms a Gallucci pattern becomes is in the body of a cell phone case. In this scenario, the work transcends the gallery walls and evolves into an element of ubiquitous connectivity.

However deep the examinations, it all begins with Gallucci’s diurnal observations. Her influences can be as grand as architecture and as mundane as old gum pressed into the sidewalk, and the work oscillates between these extremes. Inspiration from the finery of diverse subcultures—airbrushed motorcycles and fondant cake—assists to communicate a distinct brand of luxury. Themes of decoration and excess go to work in every Gallucci piece, to varying degrees of impact on the viewer. Dense swatches of color overlay their own backgrounds, repeating busily until a chunk of pattern develops its own identity, claiming ownership over its assigned medium. The Confectionary series makes purposeful connections to the delicate and frivolous construction of fashionable desserts. Each painting, like a sprinkle-crowded surface of a cake, elicits the help of sugary colors to draw the viewer close. A similar approach in the Soft-Serve series manifests as smaller pieces on accessibly sized 8.5״ x 11״ construction paper. Gallucci’s art has a pattern of becoming more ambitious, riskier, as it expands in size and materials. The saturated information is driven home by the serious lack of blank space on the canvas. Small paintings are intimate yet supply a steady stream of color in jostled layers, and large tapestries offer a material diversion that aims to consume.

Glimpses into the twitches of color beneath the foreground only drive the viewer further into the conceptual process. Rounding up Gallucci’s heady ideas from the conceptual prototypes of her sketchbook to a final product is a task well suited for the patient artist. It’s clear Gallucci delights in what she does, unable to resist constructing layer upon layer until the image has reached around the canvas (around, in the case of her hotel residency, an entire room). Similar to a Jackson Pollock painting, images feel hastily applied but are carefully scrutinized throughout the studio process. It is possible to feel overwhelmed with this constant information, as Gallucci’s viscerally impactive colors leap and squiggle and evade capture. A percentage of her audience is repulsed by the work, evidencing a heightened state of anxiety or disgust after staying in her immersive Artist in Residence room at Hotel Phillips. “People have the strongest response to shades of red,” Gallucci says of her color choices. There is a feeling her work can penetrate and course through a healthy body, like a resistant strain of flu, smearing our tame physical state with buoyant parades of color and form.

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Detail of The Sun Will Soon Burn Out Causing Many People Great Relief

 

Rodolfo Marron

Rodolfo Marron’s enchanting installations transform the gallery into a cozy space. Domestic elements, well suited for home shrines, find a new context on display in the intimate formations that link the artist’s past and present. Marron’s unique mythology—which includes departed creatures, color-changing plants, and memories of his childhood—embeds itself in the household paraphernalia he brings to the gallery. Marron constructs stuttering images of the home interior against backdrops of vintage wallpaper and colors that echo the hues of his origins. Vestiges of a Southwestern landscape are painted or planted, and with a delicate hand the spirits of the land come to life. Ghosts of bygone days resurface to haunt the torn pages of books, some of which contain selected phrases Marron uses to connect with his family. Cutout hands—so slight they are almost invisible—lift up to the viewer in a collective plea to return to the temporal realm, but are repeatedly denied. Authenticity appears as a commodified product in the form of potted succulents and reclaimed lace. Watercolor cacti are repigmented to reflect the dyes used to commercialize and redistribute region-specific botany, one of the few direct cultural criticisms in Marron’s recent work. Disembodiment and relocation are central to Marron’s personal past as he adapts to the gentrification of his neighborhood and how his artistic practice sets him apart from his community. “I’m putting the pieces of the past and present together,” he says. “My work has always looked at the immediate present. Now I’m reaching back to where I came from.”

Marron’s interest in ceremonial living manifests in references to Amada Cardenas, the enigmatic peyote pioneer, and using spent incense to transcribe letters from his sister. Exchanges from their letters are copied onto pages torn from books. Original text, “Complex Human Behavior,” acts as a header for the following message in a gentle scrawl: “hi buddah, Just wanna start off with I love you and miss you” written with the charcoaled end of an incense stick. Other text composed with the makeshift pencil reads less like a personal letter between siblings and more like a sober reminder: “you mistook magic for love, and love for obsession.” What these accomplish in the gallery is a tender glimpse into a close bond between brother and sister, who came from the same beginnings but found themselves worlds apart.

A longing for domestic comfort and safety works itself into the space of Marron’s installation. From old wallpaper to the exact shade of turquoise on the interior of Marron’s childhood home, a portion of the gallery is transformed into a personal history. Pigmentation from native berries infuse the wispy images of flora and fauna, connecting origin to representation. A legacy of a family and heritage connects us to the artist on a deeper level, and rather than conceal the process of understanding his roots, Marron lets us in. His kinship toward the late Ella the Deer, a tame doe that resided for two years in the Elmwood Cemetery, is an appropriate affinity to describe Marron’s process of evolution. From ending up in an unexpected place to becoming a local favorite, Marron navigates the complexity of belonging, identity, and gentrification with all the love he can conjure.

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Photo by Megan Mantia

 

Shawn Bitters

In Vladamir Nabokov’s Signs and Symbols, the deranged son suffers from a fictional disorder called “Referential Mania,” which causes him to perceive everything around him as a veiled reference to his own existence, and that “phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes.” For Shawn Bitters, rock formations and volcanic eruptions are transmitters of information, possessors of their own personal dialogue. As outsiders and explorers, we in the audience stumble upon these new formations and are confronted with the task of deciphering the message. The unmissable desert landscape of Utah sparked Bitters’s ideas about his relationship with the natural world, and his affinity to it could be explained by a creation story from his Mormon upbringing. In the story, humans were designated to create the world and all its formations under God’s direction. As a child, Bitters says he thought, “Maybe I’m attracted to [the landscape] because I helped make it.”

Bitters is the first to admit his interest in geology borders on obsession. Every rock in the earth tells the story of itself and the location it was uncovered, and like a good geologist Bitters takes the time to study his inspiration to decide what medium best suits his purpose in the studio. The story of the earth is complex, in many languages, and multilayered. A multidisciplinary practice seems the only way to convey the complexity of geological phenomenon. Printmaking, photography, sculpture, and painting media all find a place in the work, and the language of the stones feels dictated by the chosen materials. Bold colors of the volcanic eruption differ from the cramped marks of an avalanche or the stoic perch of a boulder—evidence of the commitment Bitters feels to render these occurrences in an artistic language.

Bitters translates the letters of the English alphabet into stones that correspond to the geological activity of the art. Prose and image come together to ignite our curiosity of the natural sciences, and our reward for spending time with the work is in the phrase revealed through interpretation, ranging from intimate to obscene to frivolous. Sometimes the stone stanza message in the volcanic bombs—as they plummet from the sky in a trail of ash—is that of laughter.

The Icelandic Stanza series consists of prints on photographs taken while on an excursion to Reykjavik. Part of Bitters’s toolbox is a collected array of precious stones, which he scatters on the gridded ground among the loose gravel. There are many layers of narrative at work in these images, which include the natural landscape and the one Bitters imposes. A laser-cut key on the clear frame around the image invites the audience to decipher the message and complete the story. Without the exquisite color and composition of Volcanic Exclamations, the work would be lost somewhere between the realms of dry science and artistic élitism, where we would refuse to engage. Hand-dyed paper segues from dawn to dusk as the series advances. What emerges is a sense that the volcanoes are talking to each other, but it’s up to us to eavesdrop.

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Photo by E.G Schempf

Markets

The comfort and hospitality of El Reducto seems far from the chaotic medina that streams like an artery at the end of the pathway. Anything becomes possible under the colored tarps strung between buildings that provide a spectrum of shade for the vendors, the colored light broken only in the places where the evening sun slips through. For once it is not raining, so the markets are crowded and busy with families and gangs of youth, pulsating with unspent energy. Bags of grains, bouquets of verdures mint, baskets of brown chicken eggs give way to dazzling shops of steel teapots and crystalline chandeliers crammed so close, the shop itself becomes a faceted diamond. Plucked, dead chickens hang by their feet, the last of the blood dripping from their necks into the walkway. The fluid trickles to the center gutter to join the guts of fresh sardines, and juice from the womb of a cat that has just given birth. Goat heads smile up in a row, unblinking at strings of green peppers that twirl in the wind. Pleasant aromas of cinnamon and cumin in large open sacks are disrupted by rotting vegetables and fresh animal death. Wafts of leather from the tannery vats choke in my throat as I wend by the entrance, where men stand up to their knees in the pungent chemicals. My hand goes out instinctively to a kitten perched on the edge of a vendors table and it lets me pet its soft, scabby head. The air chills around carts of fish on mounds of ice. A little boy waits with his father as the vendor packs the silvery morsels into a bag, and as they wait, the father rests his hand on the child’s head, who is level with the dozens of eyes that gape back. Labyrinthine alleys appear between shops as if summoned, leading to another pandemonium, or down a residential path that is empty and shadowed, somehow forbidden to the casual wanderer. The scent of these medina’s is not for the faint hearted. It is a place where anything can happen, where the cycles of life, death, and commerce come together in a beautiful and intimidating disorder that tries, turn after turn, to knock you over with something new.

If I am being heckled by the young men as I walk the streets of Tetouan alone, I’m lucky I don’t understand the language. To them I am a blonde American, and judging from the TV shows I receive, dubbed over in Arabic, German, French, and Spanish (but never English) their views of American women are about as limited as my views of Moroccan men. Certain signs of heckling are universal: stares, kissing noises, mutterings in the direction of my ear as I walk by. But most of the words in my environment carry no meaning in my uni-lingual mind. It’s rather peaceful to tune out something that bothers me because my ignorance shields me from offense. That never happens in the States—I’m a vocal and aggressive anti-catcaller. In my other proceedings with the locals, I can coast by on a little Spanish—although Mexican Spanish is different from Spanish Spanish—but most of my transactions, such as buying bags of salty olives or a tuna sandwich, are completed with a combination of gestures, self-confidence, and trust in the vendors. If I have been taken advantage of yet, I don’t know it. It is possible, but it seems smiles and pleasant openness will get one far even when there is a language gap. I buy a grouping of garlic pulled fresh out of the mountain farms, a bag of green and purple olives, and a papaya that smells like the air did in Cameroon.

I turn around and make my way back through the uproarious market, remembering to turn at the third pen of live hens clucking behind the butcher. The street signs are in Arabic, and a wrong turn down one of the other alleys would make return from the unknown difficult in the dwindling light. I pass the familiar landmarks, not willing to get lost in the maze of hidden doors and whispered prayers as the sun goes down and the young men begin to travel in bigger packs. I return to my apartment and watch the events unfold from my balcony. Not much changes, except a group of children kick around a tennis ball outside the guarded palace gates, a young man leads an old blind man through the crowds, and I see more clearly the depth and magnificence of the Rif mountains, now that the rain has ended, framed by fine pink clouds as the sun goes down.

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The tannery behind the medina

The Refuge

Green shutters in my large studio open to a small balcony, where I can lean out from my post on the second story and watch the traffic of the fruit markets below. The Rif can be seen from anywhere in the city, but looking straight down the street from my studio, I have a particularly alluring view of the grey tops, often (this week) pointing to the undersides of heavy rain clouds. I can get work done here, wasting a minimal amount of time on worrying about things that would take up my head space back home. New work is flowing out of me, not yet great but not too bad. Being a writer is a day-by-day struggle against ‘I’m brilliant!’ and ‘I’m a fraud!’ I’m lucky if I can keep myself somewhere between. I was sick yesterday with a bad stomach, maybe from a peach or a batch of coffee, but two charcoal pills and a banana eased my discomfort. A forceful exhale at the state of one story or another produced a cloud of black ash from my nostrils that dusted the wood of my desk. I looked down at the soot, perplexed. Charcoal.

El Reducto is our own private refuge. Located in the same alley I stay in, a constant trickle of grey water runs down the middle of the walkway, cutting the road in two small paths. Occasional recessed door frames provide shelter to crowd into, with covered women and men who stroll with their hands clasped behind their backs, when the sudden rains appear. El Reducto is run by the Spanish woman and has a fine selection of wines on the menu. The other writers and I find a booth, lined with decadent red velvet and plush pillows, smelling faintly of sweet cigarettes. We are set with olives, walnuts, and golden raisins on the table. Mustapha brings us a bottle of wine. His English is good but his wine knowledge is dismissed with a passive shrug. He has the necessary beard and glasses combination of a young philosopher, wears collared shirts under dark sweaters pushed up his elbows to complete the impression. Even when I have my hair down past my shoulders and my cheeks are flushed from the wine—signs of a loose woman in this pious town—he is kind and respectful, responding to my zeal for a good Cab with timid English colloquialisms, fingers working the heavy coins of my payment. I am minimally in love with Mustapha, but only in the trivial way a hopeless romantic is with everyone she meets. Outside the ornate door and colored glass of El Reducto, three cats sleep on the entrance rug, waiting for calamari scraps while their fresh fighting wounds dry slowly in the damp air. Presently, there are three of us here at Green Olive, all writers. I am younger by thirty years but I talk the same stories, from Chekhov to Munro, Oates and Joyce, and indulge for hours in conversations about literature I rarely have the chance to do back home. It’s ok to tune me out, because those who are closest to me know I could talk about writing forever.

If you know me, you know how I forget my body. I forget to eat, I forget what I’m wearing, I look at people or things and don’t register who or what they are (I have been told I do this, which perturbs my friends). I pay little attention to my physical needs, because they fade behind my thoughts. I forget people can see me. This is not out of any desire to self harm, or a depressive existence which consumes my routine, but a genuine and extreme case of living deep inside my own head. I feel refreshed and stimulated by these nightly conversations, once the three of us have emerged from our separate cocoons of productivity, greasy-faced and slow as we return to the foreign world of ‘other people’. I crave exchanges which make me feel I am outside my body and her physical burdens, and I can live floating in the world of the inquisitive and self-direction of the mind. What is different here is that I am joined by like-minded individuals. There is no gossip. We don’t know anyone to gossip about. As I recline in the luxurious booth, face heating up and wine dwindling in the tinted bottle, soft Moroccan music plays above us and smoke drifts into our corner from the other room. The decorative tiles and rugs soften with the buzz, subduing crimson, gold, and cerulean into the natural background. Mustapha smiles into his phone, tapping the screen as he sits behind the register, his face above the invasive light that remains on when all other power cuts out. Our conversations barely pause: “…and when the fifth child arrives, the tone flips the narration on its head and—oh!—transforms the home into a prison.” Now we sit in the dark as Ruth and Mustapha fret in Spanish over the fussy breaker. Lights pop back on, and, after a few seconds, off again. This continues for a while, the soft music returning and fading into silence over and over as the owner adjusts the switch. Light returns. The wine is almost gone.

“Well, shall we?” the writers ask, wrapping scarves around their necks to leave. I know it’s time to go back to the apartment, before the streets are taken over by the marriage processions that cause an uproar before Ramadan. I know it’s time to go, but what I want to say is no, gracias, dejarme aqui, in my own fortified refuge.

Greetings from Tetouan

I left Kansas City the morning of May 5th for New York City, and began what I considered a long span of trading glimpses of multiple cities over the next several days. Plane to La Guardia, bus to JFK, plane to Casablanca, train into Casablanca, light rail through the city, propeller plane to Tangier, run across the tarmac, taxi to hotel, car to Tetouan. I ride a boat across the Strait of Gibraltar next month. All I need to complete the list of transportation methods is a bicycle and a horse. Or maybe a camel.

I’m here in Tetouan today at my new studio, with green shutters and glass windows that look over at the market on the street below. I work on a wide desk in the rays of sunlight. I can stand on the small balcony and look down the narrow streets of the village, white buildings rising into the sky on my left, homes dotting the looming grey mountains on my right. The air is damp and cool this morning from the rain the night before. Brown puddles of water gather in the dips of the stone roads, providing the one-eyed cats with something to drink.

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My writing desk

My apartment is two blocks from the studios, just outside the palace of the Moroccan king. Ruth, a warm Spanish woman who runs a cozy traditional restaurant up the street (with modestly priced red wine from her home country) handed me a key to the apartment and apologized, in partial English, for the door that leaked when it rained. Up three flights of spiraling triangular steps, a door opens to the petit penthouse, equipped with a bed, a small bathroom, and a balcony that offers another marvelous view of the town and mountains beyond. During my unpacking, a sound filled the air, a mournful wail that echoed off the flat white buildings. I knelt on the floor, removing things from my suitcase, and the long chanting calls inflated outside my open door, calling the town to prayer. I stood, amazed at the reach of the voice, its ability to penetrate my body and lure me outside. Standing on the balcony, I was gripped by the power of the call, the sound like a song of tired bulls under a swarm of black flies. I was shaken, rocked from a place in myself I never visited. Seagulls cry in hysterical laughs from the edge of the Mediterranean sea, the same as in my home town, making the sounds I associate with a harbor. Milwaukee, Homer, Astoria, Tetouan. The seagull call is a reliable gate to wistfulness.

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From my apartment balcony

Forgive my overly romantic descriptions of Tetouan (sorry WTF). I am overwhelmed with the scenery and power of the town. I am inspired and eager to write, to produce, to learn from the atmosphere. This excitement will settle back into my style, or change it entirely. You don’t really know what you’re going to get when you leave your comfort zone in pursuit of something meaningful. Sometimes it’s what you expect, but mostly you get to be surprised. Stay updated (subscribe, facebook friend, follow on twitter, etc) with the events of this month as I write and travel around Morocco.

Full Review: Vade Mecum

A partial review of Vade Mecum was published as a blog post for The Pitch.

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Hungarian Holy Bible. Photo credit Kiosk Gallery

Back from a seven week residency in Hungary, Emily Connell displays porcelain slip castings of texts like Bibles, dictionaries, and encyclopedias that were cast in her studio overseas. The front room of Kiosk Gallery is transformed into a library of fossils, bearing a variety of pedestal pieces and wall works ranging from weighty blocks of open books to the abstract narratives of cross-sectioned pages. Black, feathered pages embedded in white Hungarian porcelain balance the lightness of the folio with the historical and literal weight of Connell’s chosen materials. Multiple pieces in Vade Mecum are not afraid to live out their existence as “open books.” Connell interprets the phrase to show us even open books retain some inaccessible mystery to their viewers. Words are gone, formerly in our language or in languages we can’t read, but the skeletal remains of the information tell us something about the character of each text.

Among the splayed Hungarian Holy Bible’s is Hungarian Chemistry Pocket Book, different, in its completely circular containment, from the spread-eagled religious texts that share the pedestal. Edges of the bibles glint with gold, a sensitive narrative bearing a precious metal, but the chemistry book is self-contained, independent as an idea and a movement. Hungarian Chemistry Pocket Book isn’t so precious as to endure the same ornamental burden the bibles bear, but such is science to religion. Discriminating decisions like this allow us a glimpse into Connell’s thought process while she makes each casting. Her Catholic upbringing finds a way into her adult life, serving as a jumping off point that inspires Connell to swim deeper into the inner struggle between sacrilege and the construction of art. Rigid adherence to historical and religious texts are reinterpreted during the inventive process—a clever slant on the problems of bibliolatry.

Connell acts as a translator for English, Italian, and Hungarian bibles. But her translation of religious material is understood beyond the written word. The movement of turned pages is captured in each sculpture, even as the book spills open to expose the private construction materials close to the spine. Books are not entirely deconstructed, maybe out of a lingering respect for their history and personal impact on Connell, but the original material changes enough. In fact, the book itself has not completely disappeared, its ashes encased between the fibrous porcelain sheets. By firing the old familiar stories into and expensive physical material, Connell contradicts the humility of the bound book and the teachings between the pages. Wall pieces like Webster’s New World Handy Pocket Dictionary & Webster’s New World Pocket Thesaurus present the pages in four discs, exhibiting the black and white wingspans of two books chopped up to quadriptych. Inner layers appear to flake and degrade as they are viewed, crumbling after being sawed into pieces. It is like viewing the rings of a tree—each page represents the passing of a certain amount of time.

Such a cohesive show does not happen overnight. The process of creating these ethereal sculptures is nothing short of labor intensive and has been explored by Connell year after year. In her studio, Connell coats individual leaves in slip. Page one. Page ten. Page three-hundred. All the way till the end of the volume, Connell’s patience is steady. Post-kiln, some sculptures are displayed and others are sawed into pieces. Book destruction is synonymous with fear and control, but here it is to preserve. Concurrent themes of book burning and preserving find perfect balance in the chosen medium. Is there more heresy in burning a bible than in burning a science text? Is it appropriate to preserve a text purely as a beautiful object when the guiding information has been completely erased? The burning of one book is associated with the rejection of dogmatic principles. And the other—maybe with laboratory carelessness. Pocket sized anything suggests a reduced value, so to coat a miniature bible in mud and bake until it has been reduced to ash might be a lesser strain on the artist’s eternal soul. Let us pray.

Too many iterations of the same basic process can be monotonous in any art. However, Connell is pursuing an arc and she’s taking her time. Working through her own personal upbringing, her Catholic rearing and artistic inclinations, might take a long time. If she can be patient, so can we. For now, the works in Vade Mecum give us a lot to consider.

Gender Rolling

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Priya steps to the stage, pink sari wrapped around their waist and tossed over their shoulder. They dance fluidly to the background music while the photographer’s camera flashes just out of frame of this low-quality video. Priya’s dance follows the unspoken order of seduction: turn, toss, wiggle. Flip, gaze, be coy. Be confident. Be fragile. Priya exudes a grace and elegance in their movements that isn’t expressed in the photographs of the hijras on the wall of Playing Gender, Asma Kazmi’s show in the front room of Plug Projects (until February 27th.) Kazmi spent time with three hijras in New Delhi “learning the conventions of gender parody,” (problematic statements such as this pepper the artist’s description and had me cringing more than once,) in order to interact with hijra culture. Hijras are not simply performers, but part of what is commonly known as the Third Gender in India. Like other cultures, individuals with non-binary identities in India are often part of the fringes of society—relegated to dangerous or unsustainable work.

Of the four individuals in the show’s film, Asma’s performance is the least sophisticated. She smiles the entire time and looks unsure about what to do with her hands. Her hips barely move, leaving her vulnerable to direction and critique from the other hijras. There is a touching moment in the film when Asma’s shoot is interrupted by Radha, who fusses over Asma’s gown and posture like a correcting mother. Radha sashays out of frame, revealing Asma’s new pose that is certainly more genteel than it previously was. We are reminded of the gap between her and the hijras, and, with this reminder, begin to question how much Playing Gender falls into the spectrum of appropriation. Questions add up when you realize the video is the only place to find the names of the hijras in the entire show.

Kazmi chose this direction to embody “the artifice of the hijras,” but our perception of what is artificial differs from hers. In the photos, the hijras are shopped against a white backdrop instead of the red curtain they dance against in the film. I understand the urge to cut out backdrops to emphasize the subject, but the stark white behind the dancers under-values the anthropological aspects of the project. The photos on the wall were not carved by the agency of the hijras, leading me to wonder how influential their roles were in the art and to what extent they were being asked to conform to the vision Kazmi had for the project. The video feels weighted with a history the photographs try to erase. Kazmi has eliminated their background.

One can forgive PC slip-ups in the show’s text because this video touches a place in us where words would probably fail. Kazmi is on the right track with her references to Judith Butler, one of the leaders in gender and sexuality discussions, but deeper reading of Butler’s text is missing from Playing Gender. Butler says gender is not something we are born with, but something we perform daily because society becomes confused when the pieces below our waist don’t connect with the rest of us. It’s a relevant statement, but Kazmi latched onto the performing aspects of the hijras without deepening our understanding of their realities through the power of art. It seems Kazmi is having a difficult time merging her role as an artist with her experiences in the hijra community, but who’s to blame her? Her Playing Gender video encapsulates a small group of people who are as real as it gets.

 

Playing Gender Asma Kazmi

Plug Projects

1613 Genessee Street, KCMO 64102

http://www.plugprojects.com

Watch part of the video: http://asmakazmi.com/artwork/1011740-Playing-Gender.html

Full Review: Dark Days, Bright Nights

A partial review of “Dark Days, Bright Nights” was published in The Pitch on February 10th, 2016.

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Now, in late December, the people of Finland will experience their darkest days of the year. With only about 4 hours of sun per day in some regions, winter has officially arrived. Lakes freeze over with meter thick ice, and snow can rise a couple feet off the ground, covering every inch until March when spring starts to hedge in. It is the perfect time of the year to see “Dark Days, Bright Nights” at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, where a collection of works by Finnish artists mirror the dropping temperatures outside. Political and personal, each piece in the collection feels a part of something bigger than the individual artist. Everything taps into a shared experience of living in Finland, be it the landscape, the necessary layers required to venture into the snow, or the brief but deadly wars that divided the land—the artists here are struggling against something bigger. Cable knit sweaters—familiar worn articles that would spell a frozen death if left behind in a moment of carelessness—are painted with as much care as it would take to knit the garment itself. Memories of a lonesome farm covered in snow bloom from large canvases like selections from anxious dreams. There are no fires in the images, but the glow of a functioning artistic community lights up the work from deep inside. What emerges is a sense of never being relaxed, never being inattentive to what the country produces by weather and by culture.

Finland is reflected in every face, pale and stoic, hungry for warmth—a unique landscape in itself. Rauha Mäkilä’s portrait series—five altogether—are of haunted girls and women with empty eyes and carnivorous expressions. Against flat, single color backgrounds of rose pink and icy blue, the women seem to be momentarily caught in the frame of the paintings, either as they pass through or try to escape their oppressive walls. These are faces in the winter. The uneven exposure to the sun and snow has left splotchy marks around the foreheads and high on pallid cheeks. Mouths have been ripped out or erased, eyes have been blindfolded, and the women press onward through the season, leaving behind something vital as the landscape around them dies. “Petite,” the largest of the five, is striking red and orange, but the warmth of the colors is not a comfort. A young woman bows her head in profile, but it is her mouth we are focused on. Blood and scabs replace what would have been a willowy pout, matching the crimson background. To the left, a smaller “Doora” looks directly into the viewer. Her high white collar suggest a religious association, but the way she stares out with almond shaped eyes sunk into the shadows of her face is deeply upsetting. Her small mouth puckers hungrily like a wolf on a dusky prowl.

Jarmo Mäkelä’s series, “Kärpästen herra (Lord of the Flies),” “Kuninkaiden kumarrus (The Bow of the Kings)” and “Europa, Europa” depict identical boys in school uniforms in three surreal developments. The most striking of the trilogy is the eleven knee-high sculptures of the boys, identical in their stance and solemn expressions, emerging as if from the paintings of themselves on the wall. The material looks like concrete, although the description says clay, and where the mold for their shape was broken, hard flaps of stone stand out from the figures. Material leakage is common in mold-made sculptures, but Mäkelä’s decision to leave the surface unfinished is a queer one. As the little boys march forward into the gallery, they proudly wear their flaws on their skin, on their small faces, like some uncivilized troop of future sovereign. “Kuninkaiden kumarrus (The Bow of the Kings)” directly behind the sculptures represents the boys in a more animated and disturbing backdrop. They brandish sticks, raise a skull above the battleground like an ominous flag. Boys ride on their twins backs, ready to joust, and one of the decanonplets (what is the term for 11 twins?) beats a drum above the frenzy as he looks deep into the woods beyond—or possibly out at the sculptures of his brothers. “Europa, Europa,” the second painting, is a busy, contained drama of the same boys trapped in an underground room with hysterical German Shepards leaping off the ground. A boy’s face on the body and clothes of a grown man stands giant on an oil barrel in the small room, beating a drum strapped to his chest. Above the scene, two of the boys balance on an unfinished roof like fencers in combat. Mäkelä’s series explores the country’s civil war and eventual independence, which had to be defended during the Second World War when Soviet Russia rose to power. The identical boys, locked in battle in the paintings and banded together in the sculptures, signify the internal struggle Finland endured as the people fought for control during the transition into an independent nation. Their strength of self-preservation has eventually paid off, and a young, independent Finland has grown and even prospered.

Although most of the show focuses on paintings, Vesa-Pekka Rannikko’s colorful two-channel video installation, “Canary,” is set up in one walled off part if the gallery. Follow the taut climbing ropes, the sinew that stretches from a carabiner in the wall to the larger-than-life canaries projected into a corner. Masses of bright colors fill the shadows created by the ropes as birds alight on a perch and flit around. While we expect canaries to contain a certain amount of yellow, these birds are flat with primary colors, no shadows or varying hues define them. They are cadmium red, sunshine yellow, and bright cyan. The ropes and their matching shadows build a cage, and although the projected birds can move about freely, the effect of a controlled natural state prevails. A quick search into genetic modification exposes The Red Canary, a story of the first attempts to engineer an animal outside of it’s own evolutionary arc. This popular bird—in the wild and in captivity—caused English canary breeders to experiment with feeding the birds different types of food in attempt to change their color. In the installation, the color of the birds have been digitally modified (another type of human intervention that disrupts the natural state of things) erasing defining features like eyes and feathers and thus erasing naturally occurring traits. The story becomes a metaphor for ethnic cleansing and selective populating—with Finland experiencing some of this during World War II while their borders were still fluid. While the red canary was never perfected, Nazi leaders took notice of the experiment and admired the scientific approach to their brand of ethnic cleansing. While the literal desire to cage and control a wild life may be overstepping the meaning of the piece, the struggle against natural forces in the environment and political landscape which one exists can be so tiresome—so repetitive—that one wishes to exercise any amount of control at all. Within the context of the “Dark Days, Bright Nights,” the imposed cage of shadows reflects a nation’s desire to be self contained.

Anna Tuori’s three large paintings, “It Is All Now You See,” “Splendor in the Grass,” and “Things I’ve Seen I Can See No More” follow the dreary, reflective tone of their titles into glimpses of cold landscapes. The three paintings pulse like a memory slowly coming into focus. The vignette format of these large scenes keep the images from reaching the borders of the canvas, remaining in the stillness of a certain time without overtaking the present. A dreamy countryside is glimpsed through a clear spot in a frosted window, swirling with cold wind that does not disturb the culminating icicles. From our vantage point, the rural locale is safely in the past where it cannot freeze us. Tuori takes us gently into these moments while keeping us out of harm’s way, and as the vignette seems to breathe—expanding a little and contracting slightly—we may feel a stiff and far away breeze reach out to us from the cool colors of “Things I’ve Seen I Can See No More.”

Once outside the museum, the cold sets in for real. Chilly winds blow down Warwick and above the nearby park. Cheeks chap and fingers search for the warmth of deep pockets. It is as if you have traveled a great distance in a short amount of time, retuning home with a new appreciation for the environmental restrictions art can thrive in. There is no such thing as a culture without art, and the perspective the artists of “Dark Days, Bright Nights” bring to Kansas City is a fresh and effective reminder that anything can be accomplished in any weather.

“Dark Days, Bright Nights: Contemporary Paintings from Finland”

October 2nd, 2015, to February 21st, 2016

Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art

4420 Warwick Blvd

Kansas City, MO 64111

www.kemperart.org