Friday, April 25, 2008

Leo Steinberg on "Oh Say Can You See"

The Clark Director, Michael Conforti (left) with Leo Steinberg before the lecture, April 23, 2008
(Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

Two days ago at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, the venerable, brilliant and strikingly humorous artist, critic and art historian Leo Steinberg gave a lecture titled, "Oh Say Can You See," --which for those who have never gazed at the US flag, the Star Spangled Banner, with nationalistic fervor--are the first lines of the American national anthem. For a moment, on seeing the announcement for the lecture, I thought so what the heck does Steinberg have to say about America? Did he find reason to bring art and art history into the debate about nationalism (check the current ridiculous claim about Obama's antiAmericanism simply because he does not wear the US flag) in contemporary American art? Or What? Well, as it turned out, Steinberg spoke about the ways initial misreading (or mis-seeing) of visual facts on paintings breed generations insistent mis-interpretations. Is this a new trend in art criticism and art history? No, it started, he says, right from the very beginning of art history as we know it, that is from Giorgio Vasari himself! So, you can say that it is usual for people who claim to be specialists in interpreting art to NOT SEE the art they are interpreting, but instead to rely on the authority of someone else who could not claim to have positively answered the question "Oh say can you see...what's on the canvas?"

Steinberg (center) with guests at post-lecture reception in The Clark Fellows Residence
(Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

Clark Fellow, Kobena Mercer (left) and Zirka Filipczak, Chair of Williams College Art Department
(Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

Clark Fellow, Aruna D'Souza and The Clark Resarch and Academic Program Director, Michael Ann Holly
(Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

Williams College Museum of Art Director, Lisa Corrin (left), chatting with Conforti and a guest
(Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

One of my favorite sequences in his case studies (which included Rauschenberg's Bed, Max Ernst's The Virgin Chastising the Christ Child before Three Witnesses, and two of Michelangelo's canonical works, Creation of Adam, and Last Judgment) is when he suggested that centuries-long interpretation of The Last Judgment as a visual epic of Apocalyptic damnation was based not so much on the free-thinking period of the 1530s (when the work was created) and Michelangelo's references to complex medieval sources as on later ecclesiastical orthodoxy. So, looking at Saint Sebastian(?)--seen in the painting clutching several arrows and no bow with a rather benign countenance, but which generations of scholars say is menacing the damned souls beneath him-- he says, is like looking at John Wayne playing with a few spent bullets, without any gun! The angels at the top left corner who are supposedly carrying Christ's Cross--the burden of it!-- are, Steinberg says, actually playing with it. So, looking at the angels after the lecture they now seem like fawners, and inebriated bacchae. Or when he suggested that The Creation of Adam is a "romance of young love," given that even though Adam is limply reaching out to God the Father, his gaze, in other words his attention, is focused on Eve who longingly reciprocates; it as if they see God as--come to think of it--a meddling parent!
Anyway, Steinberg is my favorite art historian, and I know it because for once in a long time (please don't ask how long, because I am still figuring out how time works) I did not doze off listening to an art history lecture.

Friday, April 18, 2008

"Spirit of Dialogue" by Chris Okonkwo

A Spirit of Dialogue: Incarnations of Ogbanje, the Born-to-Die, in African American Literature, has just come hot off the press from the University of Tennessee Press. The author is Chris Okonkwo, my longtime friend and, without equivocation, one of the sharpest literary scholars of my generation. His critical clarity and profound mastery of issues in African and African American literature and literary theory, is incomparable. And I recommend this book to anyone with serious interest in contemporary literature, but especially in the ways some crucial African concepts and ideas--in this case, the phenomenon of Ogbanje or Abiku--motivate and are insinuated in the formal style and narrative structure of work by influential African American writers. If I must entice you, here is a little detail from the publisher:

A Spirit of Dialogue focuses on the sometimes neglected and understudied works of four canonical African American writers: Octavia E. Butler's Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind, Tananarive Due's The Between, John Edgar Wideman's The Cattle Killing, and Toni Morrison's Sula and Beloved. Okonkwo demonstrates persuasively how the mythic spirit child informs the content and form of these novels, offering Butler, Due, Wideman, and Morrison a non-occidental “code” by which to engage collectively with the various issues integral to the history experience of African-descended people. The paradigm functions, then, as the nexus of a life-affirmative dialogue among the six novels, as well as between them and other works of African religious and literary imagination, particularly Things Fall Apart and Ben Okri's The Famished Road.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Barack Obama and Tomorrow

Joanna Hall, 17, listening to Barack Obama at Washington High School, South Bend, Indiana
courtesy Associated Press

I came across this picture today and had to share it here. Because it says a lot about the candidacy of Barack Obama for the United States presidency. Although we know the name of the subject (since the AP photographer provided it), the close cropping gives you only few of the usual data by which you normally identify a person. As such what you see is the face of youth looking up toward tomorrow, a future that, as the mind conjures it, is so awesome, so powerfully within reach and yet...A future that has the power of assuaging the burden of history, of placing an assuring hand on shoulders wearied by not just the vicissitudes of the past, but by a present condition of growing anomie. Looking at the raised gaze and the lone tear at the edge of the eye makes my heart want to leap with joy of the most anxious type! And to ask rhetorically: what sight, beyond Mr. Obama, do these youthful eyes truly behold?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

To Andre Rondon

This afternoon, I met a young man called Andre Rondon--a Brazilian-born American--in front of our neighborhood grocery shop here in Williamstown, MA. He was begging for money. I passed him by. On my way out of the shop, I noticed he had a placard on which was a map of Africa. Instinctively, I stopped to see what he was about. Well, Andre is part of the IICD network, and needs money to pay for his ticket and visa to Mozambique to work with an AIDS prevention initiative. What I saw in him, as he explained his motivation, is that zeal to change the world, which many have at a certain point in their youth, a passion that is usually unrealized, remaining only at the level of thought. What I saw in him also is the spirit only few have to operationalize that youthful passion, not by a flight of fancy, but by embarking on an act of faith, by deferring visions of self-comfort, to make a difference in the lives of the few. I do not know if Andre will get all the monies he needs to make the trip to Mozambique; nor do I know, if ever makes his journey, how many lives he will touch by his commitment. But, this afternoon, I saw in his eyes the future of humanity. Andre, it shall be well with you.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Achebe & Appiah Conversation at Princeton

Achebe and Kwame Anthony Appiah chatting ahead of the public event
at Princeton Presbyterian Church, March 26, 2008
(Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

Princeton Professors Simon Gikandi, Valerie Smith and Appiah at the pre-conversation dinner
(photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

In my last post I said I hopefully would return with a report (since I am yet to complete my wishful diploma in journalism, I will for now only make an incomplete report) on the two events at Princeton last week: the lecture by Danticat and the conversation by Appiah and Achebe. As it is, I can only report on just the latter for lack of time. But also because I understand that there are plans to make the entire Danticat lecture available online.

Gikandi introducing Appiah and Achebe
(photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

Listening to Professor Simon Gikandi, one of the foremost Achebe scholars, introduce the two conversationists of the evening, with his soaringly beautiful diction and powerful evocation of the contributions of both Achebe and Appiah to knowledge, something kept me wishing the introduction continued well into the evening, so I could soak in Gikandi's critical foray into the core ideas we have come to associate with the two public intellectuals and philosophers. It was the perfect preparation for what followed, which is the measured, searching questions and comments by Appiah about the ideological and historical motivations that made Achebe write Things Fall Apart, and Achebe's own multilayered responses that makes you appreciate the awesome combination of wisdom and age. Appiah asked about the Conrad connection, the willful gesture of embarking on a counternarrative of African subjectivity and history? "Even if Conrad never existed, I would still probably have written Things Fall Apart," Achebe responded, as if to suggest that Conrad was only a symptom--a microcosm--of a larger ideological context so powerful and pervading, which made me think of Edward Said's articulation of the insidious symbiotic relationship between colonial knowledge and power in Orientalism.

Achebe reading from the 50th Anniversary Edition of Things Fall Apart
(Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

Then Achebe read from a section of Things Fall Apart that he said he was only now beginning to understand. So, go figure, all you who pull your hairs about meaning or authorial intentions in TFA! This was the section where Uchendu, Okonkwo's maternal uncle, seeing that the exiled Okonkwo was falling into depression, called a family meeting to address the problem. After challenging anyone present--all his juniors--who believed himself/herself wiser to show up, he started by asking Okonkwo if he knew why the Igbo name their children Nneka (Mother is Supreme) and also why a woman is buried with her kindred rather than among her husband's people. Then, after Okonkwo shook his head, he goes on to explain that the mother protects the child in times of great need; that it is to the mother that the besieged child runs to... Although Uchendu does not answer the second question, he ended his speech thus: "Have you not heard the song they sing when a woman dies:
For whom is it well, for whom is it well
There is no one for whom it is well
In a way, I suspect that this section of the novel is crucial to any understanding of, as enunciated in the novel, Igbo conception of the relationship between the child and his mother; between humanity and motherhood and, despite Okonkwo's rash attitude to his wives, the proper disposition a man ought to have toward his mother and women in general. Also it speaks to the centrality of womanhood and motherhood in not just the Igbo cosmos but also in its social relations.

In the Q/A period, Achebe was asked about the state of contemporary Nigerian literature, whether there are any young writers he considers of promise. To which he responded that yes, indeed, there is important work coming out today. But he would not mention any specific names, because according to him, "it is not fair" to do so. You could almost hear in him the sentiments of a proud father of many accomplished children being asked in public to name his favorite child! Wisdom is an immense gift. The last question came from a twelve-year old boy who had just read TFA in his class asked the last question of the evening. He wondered if Achebe should be speaking, as he has, of Okonkwo as a "flawed hero", or is the novel a story of "rash and wise men," since to him Okonkwo did not so much cut the image of a hero as one of a rash man. I never thought of it that way, Achebe responded; but his people called him a hero.