July 20, 2014

Artist in a Revolution: Ganzeer and his Wounded Cat

It’s a thrill to read about the graffiti genius Ganzeer in the New York Times Sunday Arts Section, and about his prominence in a big show at the New Museum in Manhattan. And it’s a chill to discover that Ganzeer is a refugee in Brooklyn now — because Egypt under military dictatorship again is not a safe place for an artist of revolution. Ganzeer’s imprint on the walls of Cairo was my epiphany in 2012 about the depth of the art and passion under the so-called Arab Spring, and the universal reach of its graphic language.

 It’s a thrill to read about the graffiti genius Ganzeer in the New York Times Sunday Arts Section, and about his prominence in a big show at the New Museum in Manhattan. And it’s a chill to discover that Ganzeer is a refugee in Brooklyn now — because Egypt under military dictatorship again is not a safe place for an artist of revolution. Ganzeer’s imprint on the walls of Cairo was my epiphany in 2012 about the depth of the art and passion under the so-called Arab Spring, and the universal reach of its graphic language. So I’m re-posting that enlightening moment, and linking to a few of our conversations with Arab artists that, after so many reversals, feel still current: the novelist of The Yacoubian Building, Alaa Al Aswany and the historian, Khaled FahmyMy brief season in Cairo in 2012 was also a grave crisis moment in Gaza.

CAIRO — A coin dropped yesterday as I was looking at Ganzeer‘s painting of a wounded cat in the stylish little Safarkhan Gallery on Brazil St in Zamalek. This is what I came for — the painting and the feeling it induces. Out of an Egyptian tradition of cats and calligraphy, it’s a stunning large (guess: 8′ x 4’) canvas of a cat: fur painted in red; left eye shot out and bandaged, right eye on the horizon. It’s an irresistible image of suffering and survival in a revolution. In an all-Ganzeer show just being taken down, called “The Virus is Spreading,” the cat painting is the piece I would steal. Ganzeer himself is in Berlin, doing a month’s workshop — which tells you something about the spreading of his insight and his touch. Not yet 30, he is exemplifying and teaching defiance in his young generation in the face of every establishment, though in a familiar Egyptian language. Mona Said, daughter of the gallery founder, says Ganzeer (aka Mohamed Fahmy, aka Mofa) was a painter before he was a graffiti artist, and always more humanist than painter.

Immediately, I thought, here’s a statement that will keep, or is keeping, the revolution deeply alive in the world, a current more charged than politics or journalism or social media, finding its own network and resonance. Ganzeer as I imagine him has something in common with the young rockers and rappers in the decorated Egyptian film “Microphone” about the music underground pre-revolution in Alexandria; except that Ganzeer has a much grander talent and now global reach. The musicians remind me of our own Amanda Palmer — defiant energy and confidence to “make art every day” … and then? Ganzeer reminds me more of the late Joseph Beuys (1921 – 1986): “every man is a plastic artist who must determine things for himself.” Ganzeer’s work looks more considered, more beautifully executed, older, newer, more political, more universal than anything new I can think of. It’s worthy of a book project to decode this work, and find the others. Part of the fun of his work, specially this cat, is the element of old “Pharaonic” Egypt about it: the semi-sacred cat who symbolizes freedom and endurance, not to mention the Egyptian tradition of formalist painting on the walls of tombs. The words in the stylized Arabic script come from the cat, in a vernacular Egyptian expression: “One day he entertains me. The other day I’m on my own. And I can work with that.”

Ganzeer — painter, graffiti master, humanist — in Cairo. Photo Credit: Baldwin Portraits

Podcast • March 17, 2010

Whose Words These Are (23): Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell’s Haiti

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell (24 min mp3) “Looking in” by Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell is an oil almost six feet wide, in the collection of Partners in Health. Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell is a ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell (24 min mp3)

“Looking in” by Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell is an oil almost six feet wide, in the collection of Partners in Health.

Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell is a Haitian-American artist in prose, paint and poetry. She speaks to us a poem about the January earthquake, in which the sky, it seemed, let go of the Christ statue that had looked over her childhood; God let go of his son’s hand as the roofs of Port-Au-Prince collapsed on her city.

Marilene Phipps Kettlewell is a visual artist, too, celebrated for her brilliant impressions of Haiti’s street life, its voodoo temples, its spirit life.

And then, in a spooky coincidence, on the very day of the earthquake, January 12, she got the news that her book of Haiti stories, titled “Company of Heaven,” had won the University of Iowa award for short fiction.

She is telling us about a large landscape of memory and imagination — no small part of what the earthquake smashed. Her poem “Man Nini” is a glimpse of the Haiti of her childhood:

    Man Nini was queen of the coal kitchen,

    standing within six square feet of soot,

    in front of four pits glowing with embers,

    churning the bubbling bean sauce, beaming

    the yellow kernels of her smile at the chickens

    flapping in the loose ashes below, strung

    together by the feet with sisal,

    their furious claws resembling the old

    people’s toe nails. She sighed as she sat

    on a low straw chair, the heat-lacquered

    columns of her black legs folded in a squat,

    her soiled apron caught between her knees

    forming a valley just below the wrinkled

    mound of the belly, to sort out

    peas, the good, the diseased, though all

    grew round together in the same pod.

    When she took off the flowered scarf she wore,

    Man Nini’s hair resembled rice paddies,

    with traced avenues on her scalp that

    glistened like the moist red earth

    of Kenskoff Mountain in soft fog. The remnants

    of frizzy white down were gathered

    into inch-long, upright, puffed-up braids

    which, in the darkness of the windowless

    kitchen, seemed the luminous gathering

    of her ancestors’ will-o’-the-wisps, filled

    with murmurs about the secrets of her strength,

    joy, and the sweetness of the food she cooked.

This is the third in a group of conversations with poets, word-artists, about a catastrophe beyond words: the earthquake in Haiti this January. Thanks to the Grolier Poetry Book Store in Harvard Square, Cambridge for studio space. Tomorrow, performance poet Eli Marienthal.

Podcast • January 14, 2010

Erica Hirshler’s Biography of a Masterpiece

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Erica Hirshler (26 minutes, 12 meg mp3) Click here for a high resolution JPEG of the painting. Erica Hirshler and I are standing in many shades of awe ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Erica Hirshler (26 minutes, 12 meg mp3)

Erica Hirshler and I are standing in many shades of awe in this conversation, in front of Boston’s favorite painting by Boston’s favorite painter. Hirshler’s compact little book, Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting is a compendium of ways to look at a picture — at social and family history written in matador stabs of paint.

John Singer Sargent was just 26, an expatriate marvel in Paris, driven to sustain his meteoric trajectory in the Paris Salon of 1883 with this eccentric composition, 8 feet square, titled, “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.” To the often astringent eye of Henry James at the time, young Sargent presented the “slightly ‘uncanny’ spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.”

The most famous and esteemed of American painters a century ago, Sargent’s reputation fell precipitously (except in Boston) after his death in 1925. In comparisons with Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins and J. M. Whistler and then the moderns, Sargent was fashionably slighted as soulless, superficial, even un-American — much as Henry James, too, was slashed for an “instinct for the capillaries,” for being “one of the nicest old ladies I ever met,” as William Faulkner once put it.

But time and your own naked eye have their way of righting these judgments. I was astonished not long ago to see Sargent and the Boit Daughters on the walls of the Metropolitan museum in New York, standing tall alongside the best of Manet and Velazquez in a 2003 show on “The French Taste for Spanish Painting.” And it’s common now to see both Sargent and James less as masterful scholars of the past, which they were, but more as proto moderns in psychology and technique. The contemporary abstractionist painter Robert Baart joins our conversation to detail Sargent’s bold magic with “juicy paint,” with an expressionistic brush that anticipates Willem de Kooning and Richard Diebenkorn.

The emotional readings of the four Boit sisters get juicier all the time: four girls “homeless in their own home,” Sister Wendy judges. Was Sargent imagining four versions of What Maisie Knew, Henry James’ child’s-eye reflections on a disastrous marriage and “the rites of passage from wonder to knowledge,” or perhaps What Maisie Would Find Out. Sargent presents, I think, four “stages” of girlhood, with the youngest, Julia, in the foreground with her doll, playing at a fifth stage, motherhood. Yet none of these girls married or bore a child. Not the least fascination in this painting is looking for John Singer Sargent’s measure of the Boit Daughters’ inner lives and destinies. Can not the careful reader of these four “portraits” find the one who, among four lonely spinsters, would suffer grave mental illness?

I’ve felt secret swoons and longings for these girls since I was 8 years old. Erica Hirshler in conversation gives us all permission to fall in love for all time with the painting.