Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Engaging in a dialogue that spans religions, cultures and history

At the de Young Museum /
Objects of Belief from the Vatican

Eketea, god figure /
Gambier Islands, wood (collected 1834-1836).

Objects of Belief from the Vatican: Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, an exhibition of 39 rarely seen holdings of the Vatican Ethnological Missionary Museum that is on display at the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco through September 8, celebrates the multiple paths of spirituality represented by the objects on display and serves to invite viewers to engage in a dialogue that spans religions, cultures and history.

On a recent Friday evening, I had the opportunity to see Objects of Belief from the Vatican, drawn from a collection that numbers more than 80,000 objects. The softly-lit, upstairs gallery was both quiet and meditative as I viewed these beautiful works of art, which were selected for their artistic and cultural significance. I was impressed by the exhibition's design to offer each patron with a personal viewing experience, "allowing for reflection on the diversity of human expression manifest in objects of belief, and on the multiple paths to religious understanding."

According to the de Young, Objects of Belief from the Vatican draws its inspiration from the Vatican's recent efforts to highlight world cultures through important special exhibitions such as this one. It marks the first time that an exhibition consisting solely of works from the Vatican Ethnological Missionary Museum from continents and cultures beyond Europe has traveled to the United States.

Jesuit Father Nicola Mapelli, director of the Vatican Ethnological Missionary Museum, believes using these objects as a means of reconnecting with indigenous communities throughout the world is very important. "Through the objects we can show the living story of a people: their history, hopes, joys, and desires," said Mapelli, in a Fine Arts magazine article about the exhibition. "Through our exhibitions, we can show our visitors from around the world something about the wonderful culture and spirituality of indigenous people."

One thing which I enjoyed about the exhibition was its presentation allowed me to learn about the local and global significance of these "objects of belief" and their journeys, leading from one culture to another and from the past to the present, without an imposition of a single dominant cultural storyline.

Among the many important "manifestations of spirituality" in the exhibition are two masks and three shrine carvings that were obtained in 1691 by Fray Francisco Romero in Colombia's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and presented to Pope Innocent XII, which represent the beginning of the Vatican's ethnological collections.

Also, there are two rare and figurative sculptures depicting the gods Tu and Tupo that were gifted by Father Francois Caret, the first missionary in Mangareva, to Pope Gregory XVI in 1837. And, easily noticed is a 15th-century Mexican stone sculpture of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. This embodied image serves as a visual and physical reminder of a manifestation of belief in a dynamic ritual culture.

To learn more about Objects of Belief from the Vatican:



Photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2013

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

At eye level in Iraq: An invitation to learn more about sorrow and hope

Sadr over Prayer, Thawra, Baghdad, Iraq, April 18, 2003.
Photograph © Thorne Anderson.

Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq, July 22, 2004.
Photograph © Kael Alford.

Eye Level in Iraq: Photographs by Kael Alford and Thorne Anderson, an exhibition which presented the photographs of two American-trained photojournalists who documented the deep impact and aftermath of the U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, concluded a four-month engagement at the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco last weekend.

I viewed this incredibly compelling and moving exhibition Friday evening, which drew upon 62 digital inkjet prints that were representative of the work Alford and Anderson produced over a two-year period -- often under duress. (They were loaned to the de Young by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.)

In an interview earlier this year with the PBS NewsHour, Julian Cox, the chief curator at the San Francisco Art Museums, told of how he was spellbound by the photos which he first saw in 2006. "I felt vehemently they needed to be seen by a large audience.

"Those kinds of pictures are not typically seen in major art museums. There are one or two institutions across the country that do show these kinds of pictures, but you don't usually see them in art museum context ... The pictures are incredibly moving."

For most freelance photographers who are working in a war zone, getting good action photos and selling them to newspapers and magazines around the world -- as well as merely staying alive -- comprise their daily to-do list. That's what Thorne and Anderson did 10 years ago when they went to Iraq as freelance journalists and covered the beginnings of America's war in trying to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Maintaining objectivity was paramount and, indeed, they were hardworking photographers. By not being embedded with the U.S. military, it enabled Alford and Anderson, who are now married and teaching at a university in Texas, the opportunity to cover Iraq itself -- to photograph objects of interest -- and to portray the daily life and realities of a people as they were living with war going on all around them. And, although there are no photographs shot in a combat zone, the bravery and commitment shown by Alford and Anderson was evident throughout this haunting exhibit.

"From the beginning I sensed that Americans' view of the war was obscured," said Anderson in his artist's statement. "Perfectly descriptive words like 'invasion' and 'occupation' were sidestepped in our national press. Prisoners, we were instructed, must be called 'detainees.' These taboos felt like veils, and I wanted to tear them away."

According to Anderson, he tried to abandon his preconceptions of war and asked Iraqis to guide him through their experiences of the war. "I went as deep as I could, even behind 'enemy' lines. It wasn't easy. I tried to remain open and nonjudgmental, and I never felt so patriotic as when I was doing this work."

In the years following the events which comprise Eye Level in Iraq, new political leaders have emerged in Iraq. Yet, even today's headlines coming out of Baghdad in which two coordinated suicide bombers targeted a Shiite mosque, killing 29 people and wounding 55 others, are just the latest in a string of attacks to hit Iraq. While violence has surged as well as political tensions, it revives the fear that Iraq could be headed for a return to widespread sectarian bloodshed.

"Violence has breached nearly every household and Iraq's cities have been divided by fear along sectarian lines," according to Alford, in her artist's statement. "Educated professionals have been targeted and millions of people have fled. Today Iraq is widely regarded as one of the most corrupt and dangerous places in the world."

Alford returned to Iraq in 2011 and found the people in her photographs "plagued by insecurity, a deeply iniquitous judicial system, failing public infrastructure, and a wariness of foreign intervention.

"I found men and women haunted by loss and disappointment and young people, as always, pressing toward the future."

Searching for solace in Iraq, Alford found it in the depth of the country's history and its rivers. "The Euphrates River flows south past Babel, the mythical birthplace of languages, where it joins the Tigris River. Together they cradle the legendary site of the Garden of Eden. Although I am one more on a long list of invaders, I am invited by families to sit beside these rivers. We share meals and sweet flutes of tea and trade stories of sorrow and hope."

To learn more about the Eye Level in Iraq exhibition:


To watch the PBS NewsHour story "Remembering the Faces of the Iraq War Through the Eyes of Photojournalists":


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Canadian dish that's found a home in Oakland -- and that's no joke

Poutine / At Beauty's, French fries with cheese curds and
mushroom gravy ... What's not to love?

As a punch line, poutine has a lot going for it, wrote the American humorist Calvin Trillin, in a 2009 New Yorker article, "Canadian Journal: Letter from Montréal." He pondered the question: "Is a national joke becoming a national dish?"

You see, Trillin mused that "Canadians' fondness for poutine is often the basis of the punch line, since an outlander who hears a description of poutine in its basic form -- French fries with cheese curds and brown gravy -- is likely to think that it sounds, well, disgusting."

While poutine (pronounced poo-TIN rather than the commonly heard poo-TEEN) was invented in rural Quebec in the late 1950s, in recent years it's seen a rapid widening of its range. Canadian franchise restaurants like Tim Horton's and Harvey's routinely serve poutine on its menu, and even Burger King, the global chain of hamburger fast food restaurants headquartered in Miami, has included it in Anglophone provinces and in the northern-most United States.

According to Wikipedia, the legend of poutine's origin dates back to 1957. "One often-cited tale is that of (restauranteur) Fernand Lachance, from Warwick, Quebec, which claims that poutine was invented there in 1957; Lachance is said to have exclaimed 'ça va faire une maudite poutine' (it will make a damn mess) when asked to put a handful of curds on some french fries, hence the name. The sauce was allegedly added later, to keep the fries warm longer. Over time the dish's popularity spread mainly across the province (and later throughout Canada), often served in small town restaurants, bars, as well as being quite popular in ski resorts."

I had my first taste of poutine at a Tim Hortons restaurant in Vancouver, B.C., during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. While it's an acquired taste -- so, too, is liver -- I was game and wanted to expand my culinary borders, if not my waistline. And, I wanted to feel Canadian.

Fast forward to this month, where I had my most recent taste of poutine. This time, it was memorable. Not lost or ironic was this: I enjoyed my delicious dish of poutine for lunch on a recent Saturday at Beauty's Bagel Bakery in Oakland, Calif., where the signature menu item is a Montréal-style wood-fired bagel. For the uninitiated, a Montréal-style bagel is hand-rolled, boiled in honey water and baked in a wood-fired oven. The result is a bagel that's texturally soft with a crunchy crust as well as a slight sweetness and just a hint of smoke. Varieties include: sesame, poppy, onion, salt, whole wheat, plain and everything. At Beauty's, they're baked in small batches and served fresh and warm, too. 

So, I thought to myself: What better way to complement one taste of Montréal (in this case a free-range egg and cheddar breakfast omelet sandwich served on a Beauty's Montréal-style whole wheat bagel) than with another -- albeit dubious -- Montréal staple, poutine? It was only later after talking with one of Beauty's owners, chief bagel baker Blake Joffe, who stopped by our table in desire of feedback for his newest culinary creation, that I found out poutine had been added to the menu just the day before.

At Beauty's, their beloved Quebecois dish is served with mushroom gravy, which may be the key to its taste and success. Joffe's attitude and that of his partner and co-owner, Amy Remsen, as expressed on Beauty's Facebook page the day poutine debuted, is simple and straightforward: "What's not to love?" 

Indeed, and love their poutine I did.

The mushroom gravy Joffe created made a wonderful fondue for the thick, hand-cut French fries. As for the the white cheddar cheese curds, they simply added to the pleasure of the dish. There was enough poutine smothered on the platter to share community-style with my two dining companions.

Which brings us back to Calvin Trillin. "Poutine might be an appropriate dish for a country that prides itself on lumpy multiculturalism," he says. "So what if it's also a punch line?"

I couldn't agree more. So what?

We have much to learn from the Canadians, and from a local bagel bakery which embraces their cuisine. Bon appetit!

Learn more than you ever wanted to know about poutine: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poutine

To read more of Calvin Trillin's New Yorker article about poutine: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/11/23/091123fa_fact_trillin

Photograph of Beauty's Bagel Shop poutine by Michael Dickens, copyright 2013. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

125 years later: Still no joy in Mudville tonight

Casey at the Bat /
At 125, still no joy in Mudville.

The baseball season is in full swing. Across the country, America's Summer Game is heating up with pennant race fever.

Here in the Bay Area, we're fortunate to have two Major League teams, the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics, to cheer and support. Each team has its own personality and rhythm, just like the cities they represent. Both teams are full of colorful players, too.

One need only look at the Giants' lovable slugger, Pablo Sandoval, nicknamed (Kung Fu) Panda for his friendly demeanor and girth, who often changes the outcome of games with one mighty swing of the bat.

Sandoval hit home runs in his first three at-bats  bats during Game 1 of last year's World Series. It earned him most valuable player honors, and the Giants amazingly swept the Detroit Tigers in four straight games to win their second World Series title in three years.

While Sandoval loves to swing for the fences ~ and his Ruthian home runs are truly a thing of beauty ~ sometimes, he swings and misses, striking out to kill a rally. Sandoval's successes, and his sometime failures at the plate, bring to mind another mighty baseball swinger. Mighty Casey.

"Casey at the Bat", a baseball poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, was published in the San Francisco Examiner 125 years ago on June 3, 1888.

As you might imagine, the poem is filled with a lot of references to baseball as it was in 1888, and in many ways, the game hasn't changed too much in 125 years. The poem captures a lot of the appeal of America's National Pastime and there is a lot of audience involvement and baseball jargon, too.

In the beginning of the poem, we learn of the baseball team from the fictional town of Mudville, which is losing by two runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. The team and fans are hopeful that they can win if Mudville's star, Mighty Casey, who is scheduled to hit fifth, comes up to bat with the game on the line. With two outs, Mudville's Flynn and Blake both successfully reach base on a single and a double, and it brings to the plate Mighty Casey with runners in scoring position and Mighty Casey representing the potential winning run. 

As Mighty Casey is so confident of his abilities, he does not swing at the first two pitches and both are called strikes. Suddenly, he finds himself behind in the count 0-2. On the next pitch ~ the game's final pitch ~ an overconfident Mighty Casey strikes out, ending the game. Then, as now, Mudville has lost and the home crowd goes home unhappy.

For 125 years, "Casey at the Bat" has been part of baseball's lore and literature. And, still, there's no joy in Mudville tonight.

* * * 

Here is the text of Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat":

The Outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same, 
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that --
We'd put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And he former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little change of Casey's getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, the the wonderment of all, 
And Blake, the much despis-ed , tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile on Casey's face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt 'twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped --
"That ain't my style," said Casey. "Strike one," the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand;
And it's likely they'd a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, "Strike two."

"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men and laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville -- mighty Casey has struck out.

* * *

To listen to a reading of "Casey at the Bat" by NPR's Frank Deford:

To learn more about "Casey at the Bat": 

Baseball player figurine by Mississippi artist Walter Inglis Anderson, courtesy of Shearwater Pottery.
Baseball tile art "American Game" by Michael Dickens.