Sunday, December 11, 2011

Race: Are We So Different?

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through January 8, 2012

"Human diversity is the end result of two complex, interrelated and fascinating processes: evolution and history." - Alan Goodman, biological anthropologist, Hampshire College

This is a fantastic exhibit and one I would urge everyone to go see.  It's very large, and to see it properly requires much longer than a lunch hour.  Even in a limited period of time, however, you can learn quite a bit about race, and unlearn quite a bit more.

First of all, there is no such thing as race, viewed scientifically or biologically.  The traits that most people think of as making up race: skin color, eye color, hair color and texture are all inherited individually, and so actually have no relationship to one another.  Skin color is simply a function of how intense the sun's rays are in the area of the planet where the people whose genes you inherited lived.  If they were from Kenya, where the sun's rays are quite intense, you will have darker skin, as protection from the sun.  If  they were from Norway (like some of my ancestors) you will have light skin, as you need to soak up every bit of Vitamin D you can get in a sun-starved place.

Secondly, when people think of race, they think of black, white and Asian, but in fact, the world is far more diverse than this division would imply.  If you looked at a person from Kenya, one from Egypt and one from Norway, they would appear very different from one another.  If however, you walked from Kenya, through Egypt to Norway, you would find that the changes in the appearance of people you met along the way were far more gradual.  Each person looks much like the people living around them, and the changes that are so apparent when you take people from different places and put them together are far less obvious if you see them in their native place.  The question of how to draw the line between races may seem simple, but in fact, is quite difficult, and has been fraught with power struggles over time, not least here in the United States.

I found out that sickle cell anemia is not related to race, so much as place.  In areas where malaria is prevalent (such as Africa, but also parts of the Middle East), sickle cell anemia is also prevalent.  This is because the same gene that causes sickle cell also protects you from malaria.  The exhibit showed a man, of Middle Eastern descent, who has sickle cell, as does his daughter, who looks as if she just stepped off the boat from Ireland.  He was undiagnosed for years, as the doctors thought he couldn't have sickle cell because he's not of African descent.

Race is not found in nature; it's created by people who wish to dominate others and find appearance an easy way to do that.  One can only hope that as people migrate even more around the globe and intermarry with those who look different from themselves, this rigid view of race will give way to an acknowledgment that we are all human, and have much more in common than outward appearance would indicate.

Verdict: Go see this exhibit!

Seasons: Chinese Flowers

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through January 8, 2012

This is another in the Freer's year-long series of exhibits on the portrayal of the seasons in Chinese and Japanese visual art.  Most of the flowers depicted in Chinese art are grown in gardens, not in the wild.  The meanings ascribed to them influence the art, rather than scientific study.  I've often noticed the relationship in Western art between scientists and artists.  In these paintings, that's not what's on view.

Seemingly realistic paintings are actually puzzles where each element has a meaning.  Putting certain elements together makes a message for the recipient, perhaps good wishes on a birthday, or marriage.  For example, the painting Hollyhocks and Ducks is actually meant as a wish for a long marriage with many sons.

This is not the most colorful exhibit I've seen, although there are bits of red here and there, if you look for them.  One of my favorite pieces featured large red peonies, which, I found out, are originally from China.  I also discovered that a narcissus is what I've always called a daffodil.  I really never fail to learn something in each exhibit I attend.

Verdict: I love going to the Freer, if for nothing else than the tranquility.  This exhibit would be worth seeing, even if it were in one of the busier museums.

The Great American Hall of Wonders

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through January 8, 2012

This exhibit showcases the accomplishments of the American people of the 19th century.  If the Founding Fathers saw the United States as a "great experiment," then subsequent generations saw themselves as an inventive people.  They invented many things that we still use, in some form or fashion, today; they explored the North American continent, and we live with the consequences of their views of themselves as masters of their environment to this day.

The exhibit covers many aspects of 19th century invention and exploration, beginning with the hunting of the buffalo.  I came away thinking that technology can be a wonderful thing, as it increases efficiency, but that sometimes a little inefficiency is not a bad thing.  Buffalo used to exist in such enormous numbers that it seemed incredible that they would ever be endangered.  They were no match for rifles, however, and now their numbers are considerably diminished.  It reminded me of the book Cod, which details the same story as regards that fish.

In the room dealing with railroads, there is a painting entitled Two Artists in a Landscape by Harrell.  It is on loan from the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, NY, which I visited when on a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Also in the room is the last spike of the transcontinental railroad.

In the botany room, I was struck by Rubens Peale with Geranium, by Rembrandt Peale.  Apparently, this was one of the first geraniums in the United States, and was described as a finicky, exotic plant.  That has not been my experience - I've found they'll put up with even my neglectful watering, so I'm guessing they've gotten hardier over time.

Verdict: This is a large show, difficult to take in if you have only an hour.  It also feels a bit disjointed, as if there are so many things to cram in, that you only get a bit of each one.  It might be worth choosing only two or three rooms to visit, in order to get a better sense of what's contained in each one.

Artists in Dialogue 2: Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliveira

Where: National Museum of African Art

When:  through January 8, 2012

This is the second in a series of exhibits in which two artists (one of whom is African) are invited to exchange ideas with one another.  Zulu is from South Africa and Oliveira is from Brazil.

Zulu uses fire to create his works, patterns on canvas, and they are very interesting.  Most of his pieces are similar to the one displayed here, and they are quite large.

Oliveira's works are abstracts - paintings of color that are psychedelic.  I liked his work; you could look at it for hours and not see every element contained in it.

I also liked the videos that were playing, showing the artists creating their work.  It's something you usually don't see in an exhibit.  You have the sense of being "behind the scenes."

Zulu's influence on Oliveira was to encourage him to use fire in his work.  He created two enormous wood sculptures: one, which is slightly charred, appears to be bulging out of the wall, and the other is a gigantic sculpture of wood entangled and attached to the walls.  I could not help but wonder: how did they get this in and how will they uninstall it?

Verdict: Go see this exhibit.  It's not terribly large, in terms of number of pieces, so it's manageable in a lunch hour.  It does, however, feature some wild, large art.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Words Cannot Express, Death in the Archives

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through December 31, 2011

The Archives of American Art is a room in the American Art Museum that showcases parts of the archives collection.  The archives has 16 million items, the largest collection of its kind in the world.  Again, I'm reminded how fortunate I am to live here in DC, with access to all of these resources.

This exhibit shows expressions of sympathy for artists who have died, written by other artists.  In a way, they are like any other letters people write to the survivors.  They mention how much they loved the deceased person, how big an influence they were on their lives and how much they will miss them.  Because the people they are mourning are artists, however, these condolence letters serve as the beginning of the making of the artist's legacy, and so are more than the usual notes of sympathy.

Verdict: A trip to the archives is always worth while, and the subject matter, while somber, is interesting.  A way to escape the nonstop merriment of the holiday season, if you are in need of such.

50th Anniversary of JFK’s Inauguration: 1961 – 2011

Where: Portrait Gallery

When: through January 8, 2012

This small collection of pictures is in the stairway in the Portrait Gallery/American Art building, on the second floor.  It's easy to combine with a trip to another exhibit in either of the collections.

The painting shown here is by Elaine de Kooning, who was so taken with the president that after his death, she didn't paint for a year.   The painting has a tremendous energy to it, in keeping with Kennedy's personality, well worth seeing on its own.  Interestingly enough, it was adopted by the Mondales.

The inauguration took place in a snowstorm, where streets were unplowed and cars abandoned.  The more things change, the more they stay the same...

Verdict: If you're here in the building to see another exhibit, and there's lots going on now to see, take a few minutes to look at this little show.

Invention at Play

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through November 27, 2011

The subject of this show is invention's relationship to play, how inventors play around or tinker with ideas to come up with their inventions.   The first thing I noticed was something called "27 scraps of paper" by Arthur Ganson - it reminded me of an exhibit I saw many years ago at the Hirshhorn (prepare for weirdness) that involved picking up pieces of paper and dropping them on the floor.

The next case was a description of how a set of inventors at a company came up with a better baby stroller - interesting to see how they decide what features to add and subtract.  I also found out that Kevlar was invented by a woman, Stephanie Kwolek, who worked as a chemist at Dupont in the 1960s.  Alexander Graham Bell was also highlighted, and I found out he had what he called a "dreaming place"- the edge of a bluff in Ontario, Canada.

I confess I didn't really spend a lot of time in this exhibit.  It was filled with noisy kids, which is perfectly understandable, given the subject matter and the fact that much of the items were interactive.  Still, my tolerance for the rambunctious is limited, and I decided to beat a hasty retreat before I reached the end of my admittedly short rope.

Verdict: A great place to go with kids, but something the person looking for a bit of quiet reflection can safely miss.

Frank Kameny

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through January 16, 2012

Frank Kameny, who died recently, was a gay rights activist.  He was fired from his government position in 1957 because he was gay, and this led him to speak out against discrimination towards gays and lesbians.  Three of the posters he carried in demonstrations during the 1960s are on display in the cases close to the Mall Entrance.

Again, I was struck as I looked at these posters that there were no references to the AIDS quilt panel in the Constitution Avenue cases or to the Archives exhibition.  Puzzled, I thought that someone interested in one item would be interested in all three, and it would make a good lunchtime trip.  Then, I happened to read an article in the Washington Post:, which explained that, in an effort to avoid the unpleasantness surrounding last year's Portrait Gallery exhibit, Hide/Seek, the museum deliberately divided the exhibits, putting the AIDS quilt panel in a more prominent place, and the archives exhibit, which has some material that some might find objectionable (gasp, a condom) in what the article describes as a "less trafficked area." Of course, any child too young to be told about condoms would have zero interest in the archives exhibit, as it contains no bells or whistles, but I guess that's beside the point.

I also found out that the Hide/Seek exhibit is now in a museum in Brooklyn.  If you live in that area, do check this out.  The controversial video has been restored to the show, so you can actually see more than what was available to us in DC.  It will be traveling to Tacoma, Washington, so those of you on the West Coast have that to anticipate.

Verdict: Go see these posters, and check out the AIDS quilt and archives exhibit - easily manageable in a lunch hour.