The modern playlist is the descendant of the mix tape. And like my mix tapes, I make a significant effort to make sure they are right—and by right, I mean that there is a certain cohesion and shared texture that moves me. What I love about digital versus tape is the great flexibility for experimentation (though, sometimes I do miss walking around Manhattan with my old yellow cassette Sports Walkman).
Massive Attack are an English electronic band that was formed in 1988 by Robert “3D” Del Naja, Adrian “Tricky” Thaws, Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles and Grant “Daddy G” Marshall. The band currently consists of Del Naja, Thaws and Marshall. The band first came to my attention in 1991 when I was in Tower Records and I heard their first masterpiece, “Unfinished Sympathy”, playing over the loudspeakers. To date, they have released five studio albums, but don’t seem to be well known in the United States. They should be. They have a superb body of work. Over the last 30 plus years, they have collaborated with various singers including Madonna, David Bowie, Tracey Thorn of Everything but the Girl and Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star.
Mazzy Star are an American alternative rock band that also formed in 1988. Founding member David Roback recruited Hope Sandoval after the group’s original vocalist left the band, which was once called Opal. Mazzy Star came to my attention because of their 1994 hit, the absolutely gorgeous and unforgettable masterpiece, “Fade into You.” Too often, Mazzy Star has been unfairly characterized as a “one hit wonder.” The fact is they too have a superb body of work consisting of four albums and one EP. Sadly, we may never hear more from them again because David Roback passed away in February of 2020. Hope Sandoval, in addition to being the vocalist for Mazzy Star, is also the vocalist for the alternative, dream pop band Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions, which she formed with Colm Ó Cíosóig of My Bloody Valentine. To date, they have released three albums, all of which are nothing short of magnificent.
I loved all three bands individually and while Massive Attack have collaborated with various singers over the years, it never occurred to me that they could or should work with Hope Sandoval. Madonna and David Bowie made sense. Personally, I characterize Mazzy Star’s music as southwestern alternative (some of their songs remind me of New Mexico, don’t ask me to explain but when I play “Fade into You” I imagine driving along US-550), but Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions has a greater connection Massive Attack. Regardless, their collaborations were surprising and inspired. My hope is that one day Massive Attack and Hope Sandoval collaborate for an entire album. This playlist brings together their collaborations as well as what I consider to be the best from their respective catalogs. Of course, the challenge here was achieving that cohesion I noted above—but I think I did it! Let me know what you think!
I have provided YouTube links for my absolutely favorite songs.
“Paradise Circus” – Massive Attack with Hope Sandoval, from the album Heligoland.
“Protection” – Massive Attack with Tracey Thorn, from the album Protection.
The last time I set foot in a movie theater was in February of 2020 and with Omicron currently raging, it will likely be longer. I just subscribed to Mubi, and it is one of the best things I have ever done. In the week and half since I subscribed, I have seen quite a few interesting films and documentaries. Just last week I reviewed Red Moon Tide. Today, I wanted to share my thoughts on the 1973 documentary Cousin Jules, which was directed by Dominique Benicheti.
Dominique Benicheti (1943-2011) was a French film director and producer known for documentaries as well as innovative work on 3D film and animation. Starting in 1968 and for five years intermittently, he filmed his second cousin, Jules Guiteaux, who was a blacksmith, and his wife Félicie (who died midway through the shoot), on a small farm in the French Burgundy countryside. According to Moving Image Archive News, when it was released at the Locarno Film Festival in 1973, it was awarded a Special Jury Prize and hailed as a milestone in documentary filmmaking. It was later screened at the New Directors/New Films festival in New York, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the Moscow International Film Festival. And that was it. It wasn’t seen again until a restored version was screened in 2013 at the New York Film Festival at the Film Forum. According to the New York Times, Cousin Jules, unlike most documentary films of the time, was filmed in a larger format (CinemaScope with stereo sound) that was not suitable for most art film houses of the time.
The film opens to the sounds of a rooster. We then see Jules wearing worn out wooden clogs and walking from his house to the large shed that contains his anvil, grindstone, and furnace. We see Jules at work, heating the iron bars that he bends and shapes on the anvil. Benicheti beautifully captures all these details in real time. Worn farming tools and kitchen wares are seen throughout the film, which captures life at the turn of the 20th century—it is a record of pre-industrial domestic and rural artistries. An ode to the handmade. The New York Timesreview, with a hint of snark, notes that the film “may also resonate among 21st-century devotees of the agrarian and the artisanal.”
Some may find the film a little frustrating in that there is no apparent narrative or dramatic progression (there isn’t even any music). It is just a slice of life. However, it is beautifully photographed, and the sound is nothing short of remarkable. Yes, I had questions about Jules and Félicie, and I wanted to know more about their lives (both were born in 1891 and lived through two world wars) but I was remarkably satisfied with it. It was a welcome break from this modern, mechanical world.
“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical.” – Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
The concept of pure cinema has roots in silent film, when filmmakers had to tell a story visually without spoken dialogue. Red Moon Tide is indeed pure cinema for the 21st century: it was filmed on a digital camera and does have dialogue, sound, and music but employs it parsimoniously. It is a feast for the eyes. My lone regret is that I did not see it in a movie theater, but via the streaming service Mubi (but I am thankful for that).
The film is set in the Galicia region of Spain and revolves around the disappearance of Rubio, a fisherman who believed a sea monster was responsible for diminished fishing (as opposed to overfishing or pollution) and hunts it down. Rubio is a local legend in his own right, known for recovering the corpses of shipwrecked sailors. In his absence, the town literally comes to a standstill. Most people in this film essentially stand still (except for three witches), while life around them goes on: horses run, birds sing, water trickles and crashes. Rubio’s story is recounted poetically in voiceover by the residents of the Galician village.
Camille Paglia, in Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, noted in the introduction how the modern eye is constantly exposed to flashing images everywhere via mass media (she wrote that even when one is pumping gasoline, there is often a television screen on top of the pump). Paglia states that we must relearn how to see and find focus: “…The only way to teach focus is to present the eye with opportunities for steady perception—best supplied by the contemplation of art.” I want to applaud the director, Lois Patiño, for fostering pure cinema in a digital world ruled via smartphones by embracing and incorporating elements of still photography. In today’s movie market, too many films are made for those with short attention spans using cutting and camera work does not allow one to consider composition, scenery, and the actors. This film allows you to do all that and more. I feel fulfilled and will always remember this film as a masterpiece in my personal history of cinema. I hope that somehow, someway, this film is released in American theaters. We need less smartphones and more slow looking, focus and the grandeur of the movie screen.
* P.S. If you have previously read my blog, you know I also love all things comic books and superheroes, but that is not all I consume. I concurrently love popular culture and high art. They can and should co-exist in your world of entertainment and education.
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” -Pablo Picasso
Pop culture is exactly that: culture that is popular, easy to understand and entertaining. High culture, on the other hand, is more sophisticated and challenging. I love when pop culture meets high culture. This is exactly what we have in Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons. For those who don’t know, Historia was published via DC comics’ adult imprint, Black Label. DC Black Label is comprised of miniseries that take place outside of the monthly, mainstream story continuity. The books are printed in Prestige Format, which is a square bound comic book with higher quality paper and printing that uses card stock covers.
Perhaps the most dominant visual aesthetic is that of 1960s counterculture psychedelic art. Elements of psychedelic art includes surrealistic subject matters, intense depth and stylization of detail, contrasting colors and elements of collage. Psychedelic art was primarily informed by Art Nouveau, but in Historia, Jimenez also draws inspiration from High Renaissance Art, which is informed by the art of antiquity. Jimenez draws individuals in a manner that recall the works of Michelangelo and DaVinci surrounded in a brilliant, surrealistic psychedelic universe. If you look at the images below you can see the influences: on the left we have a poster created in 1967 by Bonnie Maclean as well as the 2014 album cover for the band Blue Pills created by Marijke Koger-Dunham. On the left are two panels from Historia.
While a wide range of animals are portrayed (which I love especially that panther with Hellene), Jimenez depicts the peacock rather prominently in Historia. In ancient Greek and early Christian art, the peacock was considered a symbol for immortality. Notably, in Greek mythology, the tail of peacock feathers are considered the eyes of the goddess Hera. Jimenez definitely did some deep research here as sometimes comic book artists depict Wonder Woman’s homeland of Themyscira in a generic ancient Mediterranean motif more informed by Hollywood than art history. Below on the left is a terracotta volute-krater (currently on view at The Met) that depicts the Greeks battling the Amazons. The ancient Greeks shared myths to convey their history. Greek artists painted scenes from myths on walls, vases, jars, and cups. On the right we have a panel from Historia.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, in Sense and Sensibilia, notes sight as the most important of the senses because of color. The significance of color as the ultimate manifestation of sight was fostered in Byzantium, where color was associated with both earthly and heavenly powerfulness. Color in the aesthetics of late antiquity and Byzantium is closely connected to that of light: light and color combine to emphasize brilliance, glitter, and polychromatism. Hi-Fi, Prianto, and Fajardo embrace and execute this brilliance in superb glory. Below are two mosaics from Basilica of San Vitale of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora along with two panels from Historia.
Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons is a seminal work for comic books and a must own. In the spirit of the ancient world depicted in Historia, I would like to conclude this blog entry with some quotes from Aristotle on art.
“Art takes nature as its model.”
“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”
“Art is a higher type of knowledge than experience.”
Note: This was originally submitted as a paper (originally titled By the people, For the People) for my Master’s degree in Museum Studies at the CUNY School of Professional Studies. The accompanying video was part of the coursework.
From the Muses to the Aristocrats
The memory of humankind can be found in museums. Humanity has a long history of preserving artifacts. Ancient Greeks filled temples dedicated to the muses with scholarship and sculpture. The ancient Greeks coined the term “mouseion” when they first built a temple to the goddesses who kept watch over the arts and sciences known as muses. This tradition would be followed by conquering kings who exhibited spoils of war . Later we had cabinets of curiosity that would become rooms filled with artistic treasures that were the domains of the wealthy elite, open only to the collector and the occasional visitor . The Enlightenment, which concurrently fostered empirical thinking and imperialism, gave rise to the first museums in Europe. Museums in the United States were founded by wealthy patrons who emulated European models and collecting habits.
From the Bottom Up
Five months before the Metropolitan Museum opened its exhibition, Harlem on my Mind, in January of 1969, Thomas P. F. Hoving, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York City, noted:
“To me Harlem on My Mind is a discussion. It is a confrontation. It is education. It is a dialogue. And today we better have these things. Today there is a growing gap between people, and particularly between black people and white people. And this despite the efforts to do otherwise. There is little communication. Harlem on My Mind will change that.”
There was no meaningful dialogue. Instead, Harlem residents were excluded from the planning process and artwork by Harlem artist was curiously excluded. The museum instead decided to use oversized photomurals to display images of African American people. The exhibition set off protests that fostered activism from the African American art community that looked to address the patently patronizing discrimination.
Two years before Harlem on my Mind opened, in a stark contrast to The Met, The Smithsonian founded the Anacostia Community Museum in 1967 which focused on local African American history and culture unique to the Anacostia neighborhood. The Smithsonian Institution was founded in 1846 and is the largest museum complex and research center in the world. The Anacostia Community Museum is one of the 19 museums, in addition to a zoological park, nine research centers, and 20 libraries that encompass the Smithsonian. The Anacostia Community Museum is the only Smithsonian museum that has a very local focus. The founding director of the Anacostia Community Museum, John Kinard, was a local minister, civil rights educator, and community activist whose engagement shaped the trajectory of the Museum . The community’s values were embedded in the core ideals of the Anacostia Community Museum. With a focus on local African American experiences and community issues, the Museum evolved its exhibition programs to reflect broad national themes in African American culture in the 1980s. The Anacostia Community Museum is the only Smithsonian museum that has a very local focus. It was the first federally funded community museum in the United States but is under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s would see a change stemming from the activism of the day and give rise to museums for the people by people.
The same year the Harlem on My Mind exhibition opened, two museums took root that stemmed from this era of vibrant activism. El Museo del Barrio was founded in Spanish Harlem and was first located in a public school storage room. It focused on the Puerto Rican art from the diaspora that settled in the neighborhood (“El Barrio” is Spanish for the neighborhood). One of the first shows, “The Art of Needlework” was dedicated to the crocheting techniques of Puerto Rican women. Meanwhile, downtown, The Leslie-Lohman Museum, the only art museum in the world to exhibit artwork that conveys the LGBTQ experience, started to take root when Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman, who had been collecting art for several years, mounted their first exhibit of gay art in their SoHo loft on Prince Street in New York City .
El Museo del Barrio’s founder, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, was part of a coalition of artists pursuing representation in New York museums. Unlike most museums in New York City at the time, El Museo was founded without assistance from wealthy patrons. It filed as nonprofit organization in 1971 . Similarly, after that first loft show in 1969, Leslie and Lohman opened a commercial art gallery devoted to gay art, but it closed in the early 1980s with the arrival of the AIDS epidemic . The pair then rescued the work of artists dying from AIDS from their families who wanted to destroy it. In 1987, the Leslie and Lohman applied for nonprofit status to establish a foundation to preserve their collection of gay artworks and continue exhibitions. The IRS actually objected to the word “gay” in the foundation’s title and hindered the nonprofit application until 1990 .
El Museo moved to its current location in 1977, on the ground floor of the city-owned Heckscher Building, on 5th Avenue and East 104th Street. Meanwhile, the Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation’s first location was in a basement at 127B Prince Street in New York City. In 2006, the Foundation moved into a ground floor gallery at 26 Wooster Street in SoHo. In New York City, two museums took root around the same time that were truly by the people for the people: El Museo del Barrio and The Leslie-Lohman Museum. But are they still for the people? Have they stayed true to their original mission?
The Mirror Manifesto
The annual Museum Mile Festival, which went virtual in 2020, offers free admission to a 30-block stretch of Fifth Avenue for the following institutions: The Africa Center, El Museo del Barrio, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Jewish Museum, Neue Galerie and the Museum of the City of New York. In addition to all the art inside, there are outdoor festivities including live music. In August 2019, The New Yorker wrote an article titled “The Battle Over the Soul of El Museo del Barrio ” noting that during the annual Museum Mile festival (of which El Museo was one of the founding members) a group of protesters distributed flyers that read “El Museo Fue del Barrio” (The Museum was from the neighborhood). The protesters read from a printed statement, called the Mirror Manifesto , that accused El Museo of abandoning its core values as a museum for the community of East Harlem. The Mirror Manifesto notes:
“It requires us to first contend with “El Barrio’s” identity. While Puerto Ricans were instrumental in the foundation of the museum, it is not strictly a Puerto Rican museum. It is a museo “del Barrio.” Further, demographic changes in East Harlem and the overall growth of the Latinx diaspora in the last 50 years render the nationalist led push to make El Barrio mean “Puerto Rican” null. If El Museo is to be resuscitated, we must lay these claims to rest and set about addressing who we mean when we say El Barrio.
If El Barrio means neighborhood, or enclave, and we are defining the institution as encompassing a diasporic latinidad, then what we are contending with is what is now being called “Latinx.”
This is distinct from Latin America and should not be confused. For too long, this ambiguity has rendered Latinx artists invisible. Latinx artists continue to be marginalized, underrepresented, and erased. El Museo has shamelessly latched on to this ambiguity and forfeited its original mission. It has done very little as an institution to foster and cultivate Latinx Art.
The museum has failed to launch a studio residency program, it has failed to create an environment where intellectual work for us, by us, can be incubated. It has failed to cultivate diverse board members that represent the Latinx community. It has failed to expand board members beyond funding/development needs, or made sure to its boards’ institutional actions, partnerships, and programs correspond with its mission.
Given the continued failure of El Museo del Barrio to fully embrace its responsibility to the many diasporas that make up the Latinx communities in NYC and across North America, generations of Latinx artists pouring out of BFA, MFA, & PhD programs have come to see the El Museo as irrelevant.
Recent calls to steer the institution back towards its intended mission therefore have remained unanswered. In order to reinvigorate working and emerging Latinx artists to invest their energy in an institution that has gone out of its way to communicate that it cares nothing for their cultural production, the institution must take radical steps to more clearly define what it is. EL MUSEO DEL BARRIO MUST BE EL MUSEO DE LOS BARRIOS. It must fulfill its original mission or relinquish control to the community of Latinx scholars and artists to steer it back on course. It must DECOLONIZE.
Latinx artists, cultural workers, scholars and concerned residents reject the elitism, white washing, LGTBQIA exclusion and anti-blackness perpetrated in the museum against its own museum goers and community of artists.”
How did El Museo get here?
During its first two decades in existence, El Museo’s mission was clearly defined as an institution that researched and displayed the cultural heritage of the Puerto Rican diaspora that lived in Spanish Harlem. By the late 1980s, Spanish Harlem was longer a Puerto Rican enclave; immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and the Dominican Republic had moved into the neighborhood. El Museo, with some struggle, reflected this . However, in 2002, El Museo appointed its first non Latinx director, Julián Zugazagoitia, a Mexican who was previously at the Guggenheim. That same year, an exhibit devoted to Mexico’s most famous artists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera was mounted . For many in El Barrio, elite Latin-American art was overshadowing the El Museo’s grassroots mission. These concerns were fully realized this year when The New York Times reported that El Museo announced that its annual gala would honor Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, a wealthy German art collector known for her connections to the European far-right and Steve Bannon who once complained that Pope Francis is too liberal. After considerable backlash, she was uninvited . Two weeks after that faux pas, El Museo was inundated with complaints over a planned exhibit devoted to Chilean filmmaker and artist, Alejandro Jodorowsky. In the early 1970s, Jodorowsky said that a rape scene he performed for one of his films was real and not staged (something he later recanted). The exhibit was cancelled.
Why hasn’t the Leslie-Lohman Museum encountered similar issues? Both institutions started with the same idea: a museum by the people for people (OR for the marginalized by the marginalized). While both institutions engage the public in comparable ways, the Leslie-Lohman Museum still has not experienced the full growing pains: El Museo was granted nonprofit status nearly twenty years before Leslie-Lohman and it was only in 2011 that the State Board of Regents finally granted a Certificate of Museum Status. However, the Leslie-Lohman museum does publish a quarterly journal, The Archive, while El Museo does not. El Museo’s early research should have been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Perhaps the one significant thing that distinguishes El Museo from Leslie-Lohman has to do with its very specific geographical connection. The Mexican, Central American, and Dominican immigrants who moved into the neighborhood thirty years ago, as well as most of the Puerto Ricans, are now being forced out via gentrification. The New Yorker article noted that the board includes only one member who lives in the neighborhood. The article also noted that El Museo’s founder, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, now resides in Highland Park, New Jersey. Interestingly, the Brooklyn Museum has recently explored the impacts of gentrification. In November of 2016, anti-gentrification artists and activists protested the Brooklyn Museum when it hosted the 6th Annual Brooklyn Real Estate Summit, which was incongruent with the overwhelming gentrification hitting the communities the museum claims to serve. In April of 2018, an open letter called for the Brooklyn Museum to use the public anger surrounding a curatorial hiring decision (Kristen Windmuller-Luna, a White woman, as an African art consulting curator) as an opportunity to address deeply rooted injustices pertaining to the museum that included the colonial history of the museum’s non-western holdings, the lack of diversity among its curatorial staff and executive leadership, the fact that the museum’s buildings sit on stolen land, and the museum’s role as an agent of gentrification in Brooklyn, a long-standing grievance of community groups.
“We are thus calling for the Brooklyn Museum to participate in the creation of a Decolonization Commission of the kind that has recently been demanded of institutions — like the city’s own American Museum of Natural History — that are being publicly asked to account for their own role in the histories of colonialism and white supremacy. This would send a strong message to the people of Brooklyn, and to other art institutions around the country, about the museum’s will to redress ongoing legacies of oppression, especially when it comes to the status of African art and culture. It could be a first step in rebuilding trust with the communities to whom the museum should be accountable.
This decolonization process would have a time-frame, starting with the acknowledgment that the buildings sit on stolen indigenous land, that they contain thousands of objects expropriated from people of color around the world, and that the institution is governed by a group of majority-white members of the 1% actively involved in the dynamics of racialized dispossession and displacement in Brooklyn. Further steps would entail decisions about the framing of the display of its collection; who is appointed to make these decisions, and in consultation with which communities of conscience in the borough and beyond. Decolonization is never a finished process, but, once undertaken, its logic can and should unfold in ways that are transparent and just.”
El Museo needs to do the same starting inside its own doors. Interestingly, in response to the letter, Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, said that the museum “unequivocally” stood by its selection of Kristen Windmuller-Luna for the position.
Regardless of who lives in the neighborhood, El Museo’s leadership should not lose site of the museum’s mission. I would be the first to object if the Leslie-Lohman Museum decided to one day display the work of LGBTQ allies—regardless of their good intentions, they will never understand and properly convey the experience of being LGBTQ, the museum’s mission. The Mirror Manifesto protestors are right, the museum leadership has been gentrified and operating under a disguised blanketed term, “Latin American,” that solely considers the virtue of surname without considering the Latinx communities, and their art, fostered by diaspora (regardless of whether it is from Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic or Central America). And while I certainly think that everyone should experience the work of artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, their work comes from a different PLACE (and time) that has little to do with Spanish Harlem, or the Latinx communities now living and creating in New York City and the United States.
The COVID Denouement
Like every other New York City Museum, El Museo shut down in mid-March of 2020. The annual gala, which normally brings in about $1 million dollars, was canceled, event rentals for the newly restored theater space were also cancelled and its store and cafe were closed. A Paycheck Protection Program loan of about $500,000 helped, as well as a $600,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation but they were still losing money. In September, El Museo’s Executive Director was approached by a representative from the Ford Foundation, which had just announced a $156 million initiative called America’s Cultural Treasures, whose contributors include 16 foundations and private donors. El Museo received 68% of its annual budget in one swoop from the Ford Foundation.
Meanwhile, at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, the director, Gonzalo Casals, announced, just before the lockdown in March of 2020, that he was leaving to become the Cultural Affairs Commissioner of New York City. A new director, Alyssa Nitchun, was hired in December of 2020. Nitchun is the first queer woman to lead the museum. The New York Times reported that her first mission will be to expand the institution’s reputation abroad and help secure its financial future: “My dream is that we can scale up, welcoming a whole new group of artists and audiences.” 
Interestingly, the Leslie-Lohman Museum held an exhibition that would have been perfect for El Museo: “Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell,” is a retrospective that was part of “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA,” a Getty Foundation-sponsored 2017 exhibition of more than 70 concurrent exhibitions in and around Los Angeles that together demonstrated the influence of Latin America and Latino art on the city . In the 1980s, Aguilar came out as gay and in 1986, she began a portrait series titled, “Latina Lesbians.” Meanwhile, at El Museo, it looks like the words and actions of the Mirror Manifesto did not fall on deaf ears.
“Estamos Bien” is El Museo’s first national survey of what it calls Latinx art, using the oft-debated gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina, to describe artists of Latin American descents working primarily in the United States. The museum’s original plan was to have the show coincide with, and reflect, two defining 2020 political events: the United States census and the presidential election. The pandemic derailed that. The title, “Estamos Bien” (“We’re fine”) was inspired by a work in the exhibition, a 2017 painting by the Chicago-based artist Cándida Álvarez, completed in the wake of the devastation by Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico.
The title, “Estamos Bien”, truly embodies El Museo’s history: equal parts of acrimony and hope. However, it is a step in the right direction that promises more and better representation.
Yesterday, on July 30, 2021, I visited The Met. I primarily went to see the Alice Neel: People Come First exhibition (another blog entry to follow). Of course, I brought my camera. From the moment I got off the train at Penn Station, I found myself pointing my camera upward. After the museum, I wandered around Central Park and Manhattan. It was the first time I had wandered around Manhattan since the summer of 2019. While I was cognizant of the gentrifying construction horrors on what is now being called “billionaire’s row”, it was still a shock to see how much of the skyline had changed—and not for the better. I prefer the skyline when Essex House was what dominated the southwestern side of Central Park.
I hope you enjoy this photo essay. Let me know in the comments below what you think.
A skit in the second episode of the brilliant second season of A Black Lady Sketch Show depicts a market research focus group with Black women for a fictious real housewives type series called Black Women Doing Stuff that hilariously doesn’t go very well. Even before the market researcher starts playing the pilot episode, one of the participants invokes Twitter and notes that she would have, “sent my 67 Tweet thread.” The market researcher starts to play Black Women Doing Stuff and the first thing we see is a leg getting out of car wearing a red high heel. Within two to three seconds, the video is paused on the leg: “I have notes!” And WOW, do they have notes:
“A show about Black women and the first thing you show us is a disembodied leg?”
“Why not have her drive a black Jaguar?”
“Don’t link Black women with cats! We are not catty!”
“And where is Miss Leg even from? Are classy people from the diaspora excluded from this experience?”
“If she is not a descendent of enslaved people, I don’t why I am here.”
“A little light to be dark skin and a little dark to be light skin.”
You get the picture. The researcher never gets beyond the leg getting out of the car. I could not help but remember this skit when I saw some of the unreasonable backlash to In The Heights.
Perhaps the most preposterous assertion came from The Washington Post which declared in a headline that “‘In the Heights’ is just more of the same whitewashed Hollywood.” The article asserts, “With its White and light-skinned leading roles, the film became part of a long tradition in the Americas of Black erasure.” Really? We must not have seen the same film. I did not see one white actor playing the part of a Latino/a/x individual. Corey Hawkins certainly isn’t light skinned and no one in the United States would ever confuse Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz, Anthony Ramos, or Daphne Rubin-Vega for white. Most Latino/a/x people are of mixed races. My own DNA shows that I come from people who were Portuguese, Spaniard, Native American, African and several other peoples. In my own extended Puerto Rican family, there is a range of skin tones and hair colors and textures. Better examples of whitewashing would be Natalie Wood playing Maria in West Side Story; Marisa Tomei playing Dorita Evita Pérez in The Perez Family; Kyra Sedgwick playing Suzie Morales in Man on a Ledge. Whitewashing is a film like Birth of the Dragon, which was supposed to be about Bruce Lee but is largely told from the point of view a fictitious white character. Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, noted, “The only way to get audiences to understand the depth and uniqueness of my father is to generate our own material.”
Proper representation is best achieved when the people being portrayed have a voice. Isn’t that exactly what In The Heights is doing? Lin-Manuel Miranda is a Nuyorican (New Yorker + Puerto Rican) from the neighborhood (I grew up a few blocks away from him) who, through this musical, is exploring issues that affect all Latino/a/x Americans, of all colors, in various ways including gentrification, immigration, identity, discrimination, and profiling. The character of Nina, for example, was accused of stealing pearls from her dorm mate at Stanford and her belongings searched: the way the story is told leads one to realize this may not have happened if she looked more like Cameron Diaz. The film even features a brief, but effective, exploration of Latina/x women’s history. Miranda and Chu also manage to prominently highlight authentic Latino/a/x cuisine without one Goya product in sight! Including Goya would have been whitewashing.
During the 2019 Museum Mile Festival, a group of protesters distributed flyers at El Museo Del Barrio called the Mirror Manifesto that accused El Museo of abandoning its core values as a museum for the community of East Harlem. The Mirror Manifesto explored the meaning of Latinx:
If El Barrio means neighborhood, or enclave, and we are defining the institution as encompassing a diasporic latinidad, then what we are contending with is what is now being called “Latinx.” Loosely defined, this is the Nuyorican, the Dominiyorker, the first, second, and third generations of Mexicans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, and Hondurans that make up a barrio in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. It is the El Salvadorian and Guatemalteco kids in Silver Springs, Maryland, the Cubans in New Jersey, the Tejanos, the Chicanos. It is the dreamers and the migrants who identify with a U.S. lived experience. It is the children of immigrants at the border and the children of recently arrived Puerto Ricans in Orlando and Pennsylvania Post- Maria, that have and will grow up here.
In The Heights is not exclusively an exploration of Washington Heights; it is a partial representation of the diasporic Latinidad in the 21st century described above. Miranda and Chu did an exceptional job representing the colors of the Latino/a/x rainbow. Often many of those colors are not represented, except as criminals and maids. You know where the representation is really lacking? American Spanish language television.
James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, wrote, “It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.” Miranda gave us a story of a hopeful and positive diasporic Latinidad that deftly responded to the bigoted Trump era still lingering. It’s not Scarface or Carlito’s Way. Artists with Miranda and Chu’s scope and vision should be revered, not reviled—they are the ones carving paths. Anyone saying otherwise is just a limited focus group participant.
The wisdom on social media lately is that Batman is on the brink of overexposure and that Joker is the most overused villain. I can see the validity in that point of view: consider how many actors have played these characters on film and DC comics has published quite an assortment of Batman stories in recent years (Batman Damned, Batman: Last Knight on Earth, Dark Nights: Metal). The fact is that Batman is an endlessly interesting character: I have read all of these stories and they are all superb, The Joker War Saga included.
The Joker War Saga sees the Joker seize control of Bruce Wayne’s vast fortune to launch a brutal attack against Batman, his crime fighting colleagues (Nightwing, Signal, Robin, Batwoman, etc.), and Gotham City. The Joker War Saga collects the full story from Batman #95-100, plus tie-in stories from Batgirl, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Catwoman, Harley Quinn, Nightwing, Detective Comics, and exclusive to this collection, the Batman: The Joker War Zone special.
Let’s start with the good.
The artwork: stirring, sublime, and superb. I have been a fan of Jorge Jimenez’s work since I was introduced to him when he worked on Earth 2: Society. His work is always wonderful, but since coming on to Batman, he has really created something truly special. Kudos also to the artwork of Kenneth Rocafort: for years I thought the only artist that could do Batwoman was justice was J.H. Williams III until I saw his work.
The new characters. I am eager to see more of Clownhunter. I would love to see him go on all out war against Joker. Punchline is also interesting, and I would love to see her mix it up with other members of the Batman family.
The story by James Tynion IV, is quite intense and engaging. Notably, the conclusion shows that if Batman is forced to choose between saving Joker and another individual, he will let Joker die showing that Batman is more important to Joker than Joker is to Batman. The story, of course, leaves the plot open for a return by the Joker.
Now, let’s get to the bad.
The worst thing about this book was the binding. There’s gutter loss on quite a few pages is so bad that it cuts out several words and key art, making it a very frustrating to read at times. Because of the artwork, I would normally recommend buying this in print, but because of the SLOPPY binding, I recommend you purchase this electronically. In spite of the binding, it is still a worthwhile read.
Charlotte Powell, Village Painter seems to be following me around. Most recently, it came up in a course I recently completed for my graduate degree in Museum Studies. I also belong to many historical New York City photography groups on Facebook (Al Ponte’s Time Machine – New York and Bronx Third Ave El are two of my favorites) where I have seen it several times as well as websites like Gothamist and Monovision.
About the Photographer
Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870-1942) was a pioneer for women, working as the first published female photojournalist in the United States. While working, she carried heavy camera equipment while donning the bulky women’s fashions of the late 19th and early 20th century. Beals later opened her own studio as a divorced, single mother.
At the turn-of-the-century Beals lived and worked in Greenwich Village, which she photographed extensively. Greenwich Village, which resisted the City planning idea of the grid, was a haven for bohemian artists and writers. Beals may have found like-minded peers. It seemed natural that she would gravitate toward photographing the bohemians of Greenwich Village in New York City—the part of the City that said no to the grid and gave birth the Gay Liberation movement! In her photograph of Charlotte Powell, Beals captured a fellow unconventional woman, dressed in overalls, doing traditional men’s work
Notes on the Photograph
The first thing I would like to note about this photograph is the fact that an early 20th century woman is wearing pants. And she is not wearing pants to be fashionable like Marlene Dietrich, she is wearing overalls, work pants, not unlike Amelia Earhart’s aviator pants. Like Earhart, Charlotte Powell is seen working at what was then considered men’s labor. In contrast to her overall gruff fashion, Powell is wearing a rather delicate looking watch. I couldn’t help but wonder what Beals was wearing when she took this photograph.
We see two sets of stairs in this photograph. Stairs are a principal and practical part of architecture that stand with a sense of purpose. In the same way that water gives and takes life, stairs can bring us up and plunge us down. Powell may be at the bottom of the stone stairs, but she is slowly climbing out of the prison (see the bars on the far right) of cultural norms on a rickety ladder being held together by string, of her making.
I find the sign above Powell concurrently appropriate and irksome. Appropriate because it gives us a geographic marker of sorts and irksome, because the curtains are drawn, and we have no idea what that The Village Store sells. But the sign is also well designed—I admired the way the typeface emphasized The Village.
While writing this, I became more intrigued by the photograph and tried to find this location using Google Maps. I wanted to see if this building was still standing. New York undervalues older buildings. I was unsuccessful in finding the possible location of this photograph.
This digital image may be used for educational or scholarly purposes without restriction. Commercial and other uses of the item are prohibited without prior written permission from the New-York Historical Society. For more information, please visit the New-York Historical Society’s Rights and Reproductions Department web page at http://www.nyhistory.org/about/rights-reproductions
Last year I noted that 2018 was not a very productive year with regards to photography largely stemming from health issues. 2019 was not much better, but for different reasons. In the fall, I started a Master’s degree in Museum Studies at the CUNY School of Professional Studies. And just before I started at CUNY SPS, I spent time working on the two photography books I self-published in November. The first book, 21st Century Coney Island, is a collection of photographs taken over the course of three years starting in the summer of 2016 and up to August 2019. Proceeds of this book will be donated to Habit for Humanity of Puerto Rico. The second book, A New Yorker in New Mexico, collects photographs from two trips, one in 2012 and another in 2018. Proceeds of this book will donated to the While they Wait fund.
The photographs I am sharing here have not been published anywhere online or in print. They were taken between February and August of 2019. I hope you enjoy this collection.