Watching Malcolm X

Spike Lee’s Malcolm X came out in 1992, much too long ago to write a relevant review.  Think of this not as a review, then, but an interpretation out of context.  I saw the film for the first time a few days ago.  Afterwards, slightly teary and numb, I realized three things.  First, I realized I had made it to over 50 years knowing next to nothing about Malcolm X.  Second, I realized that Spike Lee must have been born with the ability to punch his audience in the gut.  Third, I realized that when you watch a film outside the box created by its immediate cultural construction, it can signify other, more universal truths.

I knew that Malcolm X was a controversial figure; the opposite bookend to Martin Luther King.  I knew that he converted to Islam and said things that scared white people.  I knew when the movie came out that there was controversy over whether it was too black or not black enough. But that’s about all I knew.

When you go to the theater to see a film, you usually have read reviews or heard things about it so that you go to the theater with certain expectations.  In a sense, you’ve already been told how to “read” or see the film.  In 1992, I would have gone to see Malcolm X at a theater expecting to decide for myself if he was a scary, militant black figure, or a misunderstood one, portrayed too harshly or too softly.   But, through the magic of passing years, I had no such expectations this time, allowing me to experience a different reading of the film.

To me, Malcolm X was about a man searching for who he was and what he believed in (shiny suits, booze and drugs, white girlfriends and money).  That didn’t work so well for him, and he landed in prison where he continued his search (converting to Islam, taking pride in being a black man, finding a mentor/idol, becoming an advocate and speech-maker).  Perhaps to Malcolm X, at this point in his life, he felt he had arrived; his search over and his life dedicated to advocating and helping others in their search.  But, that’s not the way it happened.  Malcolm X found out that his mentors were hypocrites not heroes.  Suddenly, everything Malcolm believed in was on shaky ground.

What Malcolm X did next is what made the film so powerful to me.

He admitted that he’d been mistaken to trust his mentors.  He admitted that some of the positions he’d taken before, he could no longer support.  He said, essentially, “I was wrong.”  The triumph for Malcolm X was that he was able to throw out the bath water without pitching out the baby, too.  He continued to be a fierce advocate for black people, but had the courage to reject the hypocrisy of the leaders in whom he’d invested so much time and devotion, and the skill to determine which pieces of his belief system were corrupt and which still rang true.

Take all the racial and religious and civil rights issues aside, (just aside, not away) and the film has a different, more universal story.   Who hasn’t struggled to define themselves and the beliefs they hold?  Who hasn’t been disillusioned by those in whom we place our trust?  But, how many of us would have, afterwards, turned bitter, become jaded, fed up with the whole lousy thing?   The real lesson here is that the story of a black man is the story of us all.  Malcolm X stood for many things.  His life is something all of us should know more about.  But, his story, as told by Spike Lee, is a mythic tale of a hero.  Like a true hero, Malcolm X searched, failed, searched again and failed, then searched some more.  May we all have such stamina.

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Mural Stories

Recently I picked up several rectangular shaped canvases – wider than they were tall.  The format feels like a mural, one that invites the viewer to “read” the finished piece from left to right.  Sure, it’s smaller than what we think of as a mural, it is fun for me to try to tell a story on these canvases.

Murals have been around for thousands of years.  Think cave paintings.  Our early ancestors tell us about how they lived in the paintings they left behind.

Chauvet Cave Paintings

Fresco of bull jumping in Knossos

Many murals throughout history were frescos.  Fresco comes from the latin affresco which means “fresh.”  In frescos, the paint is applied on plaster on walls or ceilings.  The frescos of the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods told biblical stories and mythic tales.  They were stories about the way people viewed their relationship with the world and its cosmic forces.

Giotto, Kiss of Judas from the Scenes from the Life of Christ fresco, Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padova.

The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, Annibale Carracc, 1597

In the 1930s, the Mexican muralism movement gave us stories of social issues by artists like Diego Rivera and Jorge Gonzalez Camarena.

Precencia de America Latina by Jorge Golzales Camarena

These artists drew on stories from their ancient past to reflect on social and political ideas.  In Diego Rivera’s mural of the Market in Tlatelolco, you can lose yourself in the ancient streets.

Diego Riveres’ Murales Rivera Market in Tlatelolco
Murals bring art to the public.  They are costly and outsized projects that generally require financing from a sponsor, like a local government or business as in Chemainus.  Throughout history, murals were financed by wealthy patrons of the arts.  Murals reflect a symbiotic relationship between artist, public, and our collective “story of the world.”   A mural brings exposure for an artist.  They bring exposure to the arts for the public.  Murals are a way of expressing the beauty and the heartache of world in which we live.
The west side of the Berlin Wall was poignant outcry against living in a world without freedom.
1986 view of the West side of the Berlin Wall
The Bardia Mural in Lybia by John Frederick Brill.
The Bardia Mural, created during World War II in Libya by artist John Frederick Brill shows images of war mixed in with beautiful images of the culture of his home.  Unfortunately, though the mural still exists, it has been defaced.  In 2009, Italian artists began renovating the mural.

Last year, Colquitt, Georgia was proclaimed Georgia’s First Mural City by its state legislature.  It will be the host of the 2010 Global Mural Conference.

Poster for the 2010 Global Mural Conference

The goal of the organization that sponsors the Global Mural Conference is to promote the wealth of artistic and creative talent available world-wide.  The Global Mural Conference was born in the Vancouver Island town of Chemainus.  Chemainus was a dying town, with closed factories and a sagging economy.  Then, in 1983, backed by the Ottawan government and local businesspeople, Chemainus commissioned 7 murals, plus 20 more over the next nine years.  The themes for the murals were mostly based on old photos from a book about the history of Chemainus.  Artists faced the challenge of painting directly on buildings, working around roof overhangs, windows, and door.  The tallest mural was 33 feet.  The longest was 120 feet.  The changed Chemainus into a cultural attraction.

Mural by Carl Marcano of Hong Hing's old store

One wonders sometimes how a person can remain committed to a project that is too big, too expansive, too unwieldy.  I believe the commitment comes from the deep need to tell our stories.

It’s Greek to Me

parthenon

If you’ve not been to Nashville, you may not know about our version of The Parthenon.  A full-sized replica of the ancient Greek structure stands in the middle of Centennial Park near Vanderbilt University.   It’s such an accustomed sight that I hardly notice it anymore, but Friday I had the opportunity to revisit the architectural gem.  On the bottom floor of the building is a fine arts gallery that has changing exhibits.  I was thrilled to see several collage and mixed-media pieces among the oil paintings.

Athena Gilded

The main level, though, is where the jaw-dropping piece of art resides.  I is a 41 foot, 10 inch statue of the Greek Goddess Athena by Nashville uber-sculptor Alan Le Quire.  I’ve seen Athena before, but each time I’m bowled over – at first by her massiveness, but ultimately by the uncanny grace and detail of LeQuire’s work.  You can see an amazing slide show of the making of Athena at http://www.alanlequire.com/athena.shtml and visit LeQuire’s  gallery at  http://www.lequiregallery.com/home.html 

We visited Athena in her temple to see a production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.   Three actors in traditional masks performed the tragic tale, and in place of the Greek chorus between scenes, each actor gave a brief recitation on the art of Greek tragic  drama. 

Their voices echoed eerily in the cavernous room where we sat in chairs at Athena’s feet.  The masks magically transformed the actor and despite the stiffness of the ancient drama convention, the modern audience had no problem suspending disbelief in order to travel back in time.  Theater has come a long way since Sophecles’ day, but it doesn’t get anymore dramatic that Oedipus at the golden-sandaled feet of Athena.

Artists and Myth Makers

If you ever waver in your belief in the importance of the work of the artist, read what Joseph Campbell said in The Power of Myths:

“Myths must be kept alive.  The people who can keep them alive are artists of one kind or another.  The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.”

Symbols in Art

I’ve been reading Dan Brown’s new book, The Lost Symbol, so I’ve been thinking lately of symbols.  I’ve also been reading Joseph Campbell on myths.  In the past, I’ve always thought verbally – analogies, parables, myths – all these are written symbols.  Words were the tools I tried to use to express myself. 

Never before did I realize how powerful visual symbols can be and how rewarding it can be to express oneself visually.  I found it to be a much different and profound expression.

That said, I don’t think I’ve quite got the hand of it yet.  Two nights ago, as I was immersed in The Lost Symbol, I decided to delve into my own experiment with symbology.  I found an image of a vintage-looking woman superimposed on the shadowy profile of a man.  You don’t have to be Isaac Newton to get that.  I glued that image in the center spot on my panel.  Then, I found a few more image of stereotypical damsels looking longingly for something they could not possess and affixed those around the central image.  I found an image of an audience and cut it into tiny pieces and scattered them around the whole piece — aren’t we always playing a role, us girls?

I added a few frilly images, and then affixed an image of Father Time.  It was a short leap from this to the brass clock charms for which I’d never figured out a place and glued three of them about the piece.  Who knew those little charms were biological clickers! 

The final piece was of chaos.  Perhaps I overdid.  My first festival is in a couple of days and I think I may have drained my creative well for the moment.  Still, I am reminded of an 8th grade English Class.  Mrs. Benningfield was teaching us about symbolism.  I wrote a story about a dog who had a special bone that he believed gave him special powers.  He carefully buried the bone so that he wouldn’t lose it.  He went about his life courageously, knowing that his powerful bone was in a safe place.  One day he went to dig the bone up, but it wasn’t there.  He had been courageous all on his own.  He didn’t need special powers.

Heavyhanded, yes.  But still a basically good message.  Hopefully I will develop more finesse with my visual images just as I gained a certain degree with my verbal symbology.  

May the force be with you.