Meanwhile, in Africa


While Americans down pitchers of beer and chicken wings in honor of Superbowl Sunday today, the world’s version of football continues on makeshift pitches across Africa, bringing everyday joy to kids who don’t have much but are astonishingly resourceful in their pursuit of the “beautiful game.”

Belgium-based photographer Jessica Hilltout reminded me of that this morning, thanks to a lovely photo essay on African football in this month’s National Geographic, which I finally got around to skimming. My timing was perfect. On a day that highlights the extreme end of U.S. consumerism and its link to professional sports, here are simple, moving portraits of the power of sport to transcend and uplift.

Though Hilltout’s project, titled “Amen,” includes photos of footballs, boots, goalposts, and the players themselves, it’s the footballs I’m drawn to. Each handmade ball, bound in twine, jury-rigged from socks, condoms, plastic scraps, you-name-it, has a story to tell and each a distinct personality. Hilltout has somehow made these comparable to portraits of people.

Jessica Hilltout Mozambique ball

I’ll likely watch some of the game tonight–for the ads if nothing else–but what’s happening in the back lots of Maputo is probably a lot more interesting.

Christmas 2012 and Italy 2013 035

Peggy Guggenheim’s Palazzo

Peggy Guggenheim Collection Venice

I had been told about Venice, but seeing it in person is a different deal. It’s one of those places, like Key West of a different era, with such a strong sense of “otherness,” you wonder if you can begin to pierce it as a tourist. And the light — diffuse and reflective, liquid, saturating. Like nowhere else on earth.

Yes, I get the Venice thing now.

Arts patron Peggy Guggenheim did, too. Her¬†collection¬†of 20th century art, housed in the canal-bound palazzo where she lived for 30-some years, was a highlight of my recent trip to Italy. The Pollocks, the Calders and the Ellsworth Kellys were stand-outs, but it’s the setting that makes it an exceptional viewing experience.

Here, a view from her window, which speaks for itself.

disappearing shanghai howard french

Shanghai Remembered

disappearing shanghai howard french

I bought myself an early, sentimental Christmas gift this week: Howard French’s moody book of photographs, Disappearing Shanghai. French, a former Shanghai bureau chief for the New York Times, arrived in the city in 2003 and spent much of his free time wandering the longtangs, or lanes, in the old French Concession. His collection of black-and-white photos documents these neighborhoods at a pivotal moment, when many were facing imminent destruction in the name of modernity.

I, too, lived in Shanghai, in the same year, and spent my weekends on the same streets, the historic heart of the city. French’s photos capture what I loved best about the longtangs — that people lived their lives out in the open, creating a real sense of community.

French’s photos are accompanied by the prose and poetry of Qiu Xiaolong, whose mystery, Death of a Red Heroine, remains one of my favorite depictions of the city.

Beside the photo above, he writes:

Anqing Road

It is nothing but a dream
in the past, or at present.
Who ever wakes out of it?
Only a never-ending cycle
of old joy, and new grief.
Some day, some one else,
in view of all that is decaying
around, may sigh for me.

The blog Shanghaiist interviewed French about his book back in September.

36 Views of Mt Fuji Hokusai

2012: Top Five Art Experiences

36 Views of Mt Fuji HokusaiMy preference for Asian art is evident in my top five list this year, but I’ve added a couple American artists for good measure. Not a stellar year overall, but these five had staying power:

1. Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird and Flower Paintings (National Gallery of Art): Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This collection of 30 silk panel paintings, on loan for only a month from the Imperial Japanese Household, represented a cultural diplomacy coup for Japan, and a chance to see the works of a master. Hard to describe in words, but I knew I was looking at something rare and exceptional.

2. Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji (Sackler Gallery): The second salvo in the Smithsonian’s “Japan Spring” exhibition, this show went well beyond Hokusai’s famous “Wave,” to convey the mythic quality of Mt. Fuji, guiding pilgrims and travelers to their own true north. A wonderful homage to both Hokusai and the woodblock print.

3. Ai Weiwei — According to What? (Hirshhorn): I was thrilled to see Ai Weiwei’s first North American retrospective begin in my hometown–an appropriate venue given the artist’s activism. A Financial Times review noted that the U.S. State Department assigned a “special advisor” to the Hirshhorn in advance of the exhibit, presumably to broker relations with the Chinese embassy. This is why Ai Weiwei matters. See it through Feb. 24, 2013.

4. Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings (Metropolitan Museum of Art): The Met exhibited these drawings in a back gallery with unfinished cement floors; it worked because they’re all about simple, charcoal lines, stripped down to basics. Kelly’s genius is deceptive. You’re almost tempted to try drawing one of these at home, but you know you wouldn’t come close.

5. Desert Air (National Geographic Museum): George Steinmetz’s aerial landscape photos are unlike any you’ve seen, and from places you’d never dare to venture. I saw him speak at National Geographic two weeks ago, and like his work even more after hearing the stories behind the shots. The Iranians arrested him four times and ran him out of the country. He’s suffered broken bones and lacerations. He invented an elaborate ruse to smuggle his light aircraft across the Libyan border. Yet, he remains determined to record the most desolate patches on earth — a true 21st century adventurer.

Desert Air runs through Jan. 27, 2013 at National Geographic headquarters.

Maira Kalman New York, Grand Central Station

Arts and Inspiration

Seeking creative inspiration on a still winter Sunday, I took to the blog Brain Pickings and the Writer’s Digest website, and stumbled on an artist and writer talking about where they find ideas.

Illustrator Maira Kalman, in the video above, spoke recently at the Museum of Modern Art about seeing Rome with an empty brain, finding “good numbers,” watching people pray and visiting shoe museums. And writer Trebor Healey lists the seven things he’s learned on his writerly journey, in a column that lays out exactly the advice I would give.

I’m visiting Italy for the first time next month, so will keep Kalman’s wanderings in mind. Healey’s words? I try to live them every day.

Ai Weiwei He Xie

Ai Weiwei: Here in Spirit

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the public so engaged with an exhibition. Leave it to the impish, provocative Ai Weiwei to awaken Washington’s conservative soul. If China needs artists like Ai, so do we.

Ai Weiwei: According to What?– the artist’s first retrospective in North America– opened today at the Hirshhorn and more than meets the hype. It spans mischief, defiance and tragedy, and it makes you think.

With Ai, it’s important to understand what you’re looking at; there are layers of meaning that draw on history, politics and language. And there’s the artist’s tense relationship with Chinese authorities (he is not able to leave China and so did not attend the Hirshhorn opening). To grasp all the dynamics at play, I recommend seeing the recent documentary, Never Sorry, which does a nice job of tracing Ai’s personal and political evolution.

Having seen the film, I knew the full story behind Ai’s push to call authorities to account after so many schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake due to shoddy construction. Straight, an installation of several tons of straightened rebar rods pulled from the rubble of Sichuan, is perhaps the most moving piece in the show. It’s designed to mimic Sichaunese topography, with a fissure down the middle representing the quake’s impact, and stands as a fitting memorial.

But there’s plenty more to ponder. A piece called He Xie, for example, plays on the words for “river crab” and “harmony”, which sound alike in Mandarin. He xie is also slang for Internet censorship, and so the 3,200 porcelain crabs piled on top of one another are a statement on free expression.

Kudos to the Hirshhorn (and Ai) for allowing photography for personal use– a rarity for special exhibitions in Washington. It really changed the mood in the galleries, and Ai’s work begs to be shared. My Instagram snaps are below.

Ai Weiwei: According to What? runs through Feb. 24, 2013 at the Hirshhorn.

He Xie (River Crabs)



Bowls of Pearls

China Log

George Steinmetz Desert Air

Desert Air

These Instagram snaps don’t do George Steinmetz‘s work justice, but at least give a flavor of his stunning aerial photos, now on display at National Geographic’s headquarters. They’re well worth a visit.

The collection is particularly strong on Africa and the Middle East, and Steinmetz’s vantage point from a motorized paraglider can be both sweeping and intimate. These were my favorites: A small camel caravan making its way across the Mauritanian desert, following a centuries-old trade route (above) and a flock of flamingos shot against a deep blue lake in Iran. I really had to look closely at the latter–it’s so perfectly composed it looks unreal, almost like a wallpaper pattern.

Desert Air runs through January 27, 2013, and Steinmetz speaks about his photos at National Geographic on Nov. 27. I’m looking forward to hearing his stories.

Donald Rumsfeld and Geisha, Kyoto

Hotel Lucia: Go for the Photos

Donald Rumsfeld and Geisha, Kyoto

Last weekend, this photo greeted me outside my room at the stylish Hotel Lucia in Portland, OR, where I spent the better part of the week on holiday. I knew the man on the right looked familiar, but it took a minute before it clicked. Yes, it’s a young Don Rumsfeld at a 1974 state dinner in Kyoto, being entertained by a geisha.

The photo is one of 680 on permanent display at the hotel, all by Pulitzer-winning photojournalist, former White House photographer and Oregon native David Hume Kennerly. I wasn’t expecting the bonus of a full-on art exhibit with my hotel reservation, but that’s what I got. I wandered up and down hallways on several floors, soaking up Kennerly’s crash course in diplomatic and political history.

As it turned out, this was the one image I couldn’t get out of my head. I should mention it’s part of a series of four; Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger are also pictured playing the same game of “pass the chopstick.”

But there’s an edge to this one, light playing against dark. I posted it on Facebook and one friend immediately shot back, “Woah.” Exactly.

Sexism and hawkishness: the measure of a man.

Ai Weiwei Han Dynasty Vase

Never Sorry

If you’re the kind of person, like me, who’s looking forward to the Hirshhorn’s big Ai Wei Wei exhibit this October, you’ll love Never Sorry, a smart new documentary about the artist/activist.

First-time American director Alison Klayman does a masterful job illuminating Ai’s many facets — brilliant social critic, media manipulator, patriot and loving father. I walked away with a much better understanding of where the artist comes from. Sequences on his family’s experience during the Cultural Revolution and his decade in New York were particularly instructive.

To get all the allusions Klayman includes in the film, it helps to know something of Chinese culture, history and language. China hands will appreciate New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos’s insights into Ai’s cat-and-mouse game with Communist officials. But even if you’re a China novice, the film offers a lot to chew on. It takes on big questions about the individual’s role in society, and should be required viewing for anyone seeing Ai’s installations.

Highly recommended.

On a side note: I had the day off today, so I saw the 3:30 show at Washington’s E Street Theatre. There’s a funny thing about seeing mid-afternoon movies: Sometimes you think you see ghosts from the past.

Palani Mohan Mongolia Eagle Hunter

Eagle Hunters of Mongolia

One of my favorite photographers, Hong Kong-based Palani Mohan, is working on a new book profiling Kazakh eagle hunters in remote Mongolia. The Asia Society blog has a gorgeous slideshow and Q/A with Mohan. It’s a fascinating project; his subjects aren’t easy to reach.