Just a reminder - the Twin Cities Book Festival takes place tomorrow at Minneapolis Community & Technical College from 10am - 5pm. If you're at all bookish, this event is for you, featuring author talks, a storytelling circle for kids, and lots of books and literary magazines for sale. For more information on the featured authors, see my previous write-up here.
Posted at 9:54 AM on October 9, 2009
by Marianne Combs
Filed under: Criticism
Little did I know when I chose Alma Thomas' "Watusi (Hard Edge)" as the lead image in my post concerning the Obama family's taste for modern art, that this very image would become the subject of heated debate amongst Obama's critics.
Many people have noted the striking similarity between Thomas' "Watusi" (below, left) and a piece by Henri Matisse from 1953 called "L'Escargot" or "the snail."
Since the news that the Obama family was hanging the Thomas piece in the East wing of the White House, critics (such as Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin) have used the piece's similarity to Matisse to deride the Obama administration. And "Bob" posted on State of the Arts:
Of course, it is reproduction of a 1953 piece by Henri Matisse titled "L'Escargot" (rotated 90 degrees). But one does not really expect originality in the Obama White House.
Let's call this a "teachable moment." Alma Thomas was indeed inspired by Henri Matisse, and knowingly used his work "L'Escargot" as the basis for "Watusi" - inverting the colors and "twisting" the work to give a new view.
In fact what Thomas was doing was drawing attention to the fact that Matisse himself was greatly inspired by African art. Matisse himself wrote:
"I often used to pass ... a curio shop called "Le Père Sauvage"... There was a whole corner of little wooden statues of Negro origin. I was astonished to see how they were conceived from the point of view of sculptural language. ... Compared to European sculpture, which always took its point of departure from the description of the object, these Negro statues were made ... according to invented planes and proportions."
Those "invented planes and proportions" had a great effect on Matisse's figurative work:
Blue Nude 2, Henri Matisse
Stark referencing of other artists' work is nothing new in the art world. In fact, the Walker Art Center held an exhibition in 2007 of artists inspired by Picasso, and there were a number of instances where at first glance, it felt like "copying" (those people doing the copying included Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollack). But as curator Michael FitzGerald explained to me, much of what happens in art is the sharing of ideas, the claiming of one person's art for your own and then morphing it into something new.
So was Thomas' piece a plagiary? No. Was it heavily inspired by Matisse? Yes. Does it take Matisse's image and use it to say something new and important? Yes.
If anything, the Obamas' choice of "Watusi (hard edge)" could be seen as extremely clever. It is a work of art that points to a longstanding exchange of ideas between cultures, building off one another as they explore new artistic terrain and ideas.
Posted at 2:49 PM on October 9, 2009
by Marianne Combs
Filed under: Theater
Sonja Parks gives notes to actor Ansa Akyea during a rehearsal of "Othello."
Sonja Parks has a solid reputation as an accomplished actor in the Twin Cities. In just the past year she performed the one-woman show "No Child" at Pillsbury House Theater (for which she won an Ivey Award) and starred in "I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda" at Park Square Theatre.
But Parks has decided that simply acting is not enough for her; she wants to direct. I caught up with Parks at a rehearsal for "Othello" which she's co-directing with Ten Thousand Things' Artistic Director Michelle Hensley. Parks doesn't mince words when she talks about the trade-offs between acting and directing:
To be perfectly honest with you, what directing provides me that acting does not is a say-so.
I've always been the kind of performer who wanted - okay, demanded! - a say in what my character did onstage. I'll never overstep my bounds as an actor in the rehearsal room, but if what you want is a just a body who will show up and move around the stage saying the text the way you want them to say it, I'm not your girl. I know there are those who will argue that that's what acting is and, I'm sorry, no offense, but they're wrong.
Parks says she's committed to a collaborative style of directing in which actors have a voice not just on stage, but in rehearsal. Parks obviously isn't afraid of a challenge, taking on a Shakespeare classic as one of her first projects. She says she loves "Othello," in part because it "pushes my buttons."
The play deals with, among other things, racism. A few times in rehearsal, I had to step back and say: "Okay, I'm not liking this character 'cause they are saying some really racist stuff. But that's what the moment is about, so don't whimp out."
As a black person, it's hard for me to say to a white actor: "You have to make that line sound like the N-word", and I know it's hard for the actor too, but that's what's going on in the scene--that's what it is.
The treatment of women in this play too, is hard for me as a woman. I don't want to see women brutalized, but that's what's on the page. And I joke and kid around about being a violent person, but some of the violence in the play is disturbing. But I'm the director, and if I milk-toast the violence, I'm cheating my audience.
I love the play because it addresses all those ugly things in human nature. I wanted to do the play to bring those things to the forefront. My personal challenge is that I have to go to those places in myself to find the truth of the scenes and that's very difficult.
Even from just attending an hour of rehearsal, it's evident that this is a different "Othello" from stagings I'm familiar with. The Desdemona of this production fights back. The jealousy is not artful - it's real and painful. Michelle Hensley credits Parks with bringing that element to the show.
Othello co-directors Michelle Hensley and Sonja Parks
She brings a great commitment to making all the "ugliness" of the play palpable -- not shying away from the "animal" behavior that jealousy brings out in all of us -- the rage and the violence, particularly the sexual violence. Bringing her perspective as an African American woman as well, she shared my commitment to looking at this play not just as one black man in a white man's world -- but in a world more comparable to ours today, where women and blacks hold positions of power -- but racism and sexism still exist, though in more subtle and complex forms.
Parks adds, "This production is not a glorification of any one society or culture. It touches, rather, on the baggage we all carry around, no matter what our culture. The white characters aren't the kindest and the purest and neither are the blacks. I'm interested in what motivates our actions as human beings and then what labels we put on that."
Parks says directing for her is about growing as a person, and taking on new challenges. And with this production she'll certainly find out what audiences think of her work.
Ten Thousand Things Theater Company performs primarily for people who wouldn't otherwise get a chance to see theater, bringing plays to homeless shelters, prisons and other places that serve the disenfranchised. That often means that if they don't like the show, attendees will get up and walk out, or start talking to the person sitting next to them.
Othello runs October 14 through November 15 at various locations, including public performances at Open Book and the Minnesota Opera Center.