Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Lining up the Dead: Aleksandra Krasutskaya

The journal “.coda” has asked six artists from around the world  to depict the Covid-19 experience in the country where they live.

Aleksandra Krasutskaya, the fourth artist featured, reflects on the disturbing weekend of March 13-15, 2020, when the Trump administration bungled the mass return of Americans from Europe. Major airports were swamped by long lines of returning travelers, with visibly ill people cheek by jowl up against other, for hours at a time. No one will ever know how many returnees were infected with SARS-COV-2 as they waited in close quarters to be processed through Customs and Immigration, before being released into the general population, likely to spread the infection exponentially

Krasutskaya depicts an airport, perhaps New York’s JFK, on that fateful weekend. In the foreground,. under a sign pointing to "Baggage Claim. Welcome to the USA" ≠ a dozen or so people of multiple ethnicities are packed together like luggage in a cargo hold.  Some are packed in horizontally. Their flattened angular forms call to mind the jagged violence of Picasso’s Guernica.

From about half of their mouths a yellow-orange miasma extrudes. This is manifestly the viral load spreading like wildfire. But the empty ellipses can also be read as empty speech bubbles, a tangible representation for how little voice the public actually has at this moment of crisis, amidst endless official denial, distortion, distraction and delusion.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the image is in the upper left quadrant.  Two rows of passengers, drawn in black descend, perhaps down escalators. Clouds of yellow-orange rise from some of them as well.  (Through some sort of .gif they actually appear to move downwards in a slow procession.)  These may be more than mere passengers disembarking. They may be premonitions of what is to come, as the virus spreads unchecked: they are dark souls descending, not just to Baggage Claim, but into Hades itself.  Welcome home.

Icarus Rising: Sarah Banks

Sarah Banks  (Silkscreen and fine cotton collage. 46" x 78") 
Seattle-based artist Sarah Banks has shared with Susan Platt a striking work in progress, inspired by the birdlike masks worn by early modern physicians to ward off the plague.  (Since miasmic odors from the afflicted were thought to transmit plague, the masks were stuffed with fragrant herbs.)

The artist explains that before the advent of the novel coronavirus crisis, she had been in the process of creating five large silkscreens as a series, exploring our contemporary plague of over-consumption, imperiling the survival of the planet, The silkscreen project was brought to a halt by the Covid-19 shutdown in Seattle. We await the return to normalcy that will allow her to complete all panels of this major series.

Sarah Banks writes, "Since all our stories have already been lived by the gods, I often start there for inspiration."  In this panel, our attention is centered on the Greek mythological figure of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and plummeted to earth.  A great winged figure, wearing a bird-peaked plague mask, floats off up into the air, just barely tethered to a small image of Sisyphus below.

Although adorned with an archaic medical mask, the large figure seems to be the pandemic itself, its outstretched wings casting all below in shadow.  (Perhaps its wings recall the nightmarish bats of Goya's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.)  Its large sword-like weapon points down, consigning the small figures of Achilles and Hektor to endless combat in front of the walls of Troy.  At the outer edges, below the wings' tips, two small winged figures of Icarus struggle to take flight. Below the large being's feet, Sisyphus stoops and raises his heavy burden endlessly.

The small figures and the plague bird's head are silk-screened to a great cloth, upon which the body and wings of the large Icarcus plague bird are built up through layers of collage. Given the overarching theme of endless return, one reference might be to the tapestry created on Penelope's loom, which she unthreads each night to ward off the hordes of suitors as she awaits Odysseus' return, a teller of tales who must labor in secret (Perhaps, some have argued, the weaver Penelope is a coded doppelgänger of the secret woman authoress of the Odyssey!)

Although Banks conceived of the series before the Covid-19 crisis, at our present moment we may  be inclined to read the large cloth panel as a stage curtain, rising on the First Act of a drama that is not yet written  At the present instant of terror,  the great winged being,  avatar of the pandemic, seems unstoppable. Yet, perhaps the virus, like Icarus of old,  is ultimately doomed. Might the disease itself, in effect, fly too close to the sun, that greatest of disinfectants, and someday come crashing down to earth?  Our challenge then, like the Greeks of old, will be to learn from older mythic narratives of hubris--to triumph over overweening pride and plot a more sustainable pathway forward, seeking balance and survival for our planet, ourselves, and our posterity.

David Zinn's Street Art in Ann Arbor

Journalist Meredith Bruckner reports that beloved street artist David Zinn continues to create street art in Ann Arbor, Michigan's outdoor spaces, reflecting playfully on our current conditions of lockdown and social distancing.  His chalk drawings still figure the friendly green critter Sluggo with his prominet eyestalks and Philemona the Flying Pig, now doing their best to stay safe in the age of the novel coronavirus.

David Zinn
In one image, which Zinn has shared on Instagram, Sluggo self quarantines on a Desert Island, waving at Philomena, who remains at a safe social distance. Zinn provides a caption: "Sluggo knows how to make paradise out of wherever he is"

As always, Zinn cleverly plays with shadow and dimensionality to grant his characters the illusion of hanging out on pavement and outdoor walls. At a time when the city's streets are nearly deserted, and residents hurry past each other at safe distances, his colorful miniature beings re-enliven their environs, and remind of us of the dynamic energy of a normally vibrant cityscape.

A city is sometimes defined by socioogists as a space within which there are more social networks than any single individual can keep track of; thus cities can be awfully lonely places at the best of times. But Zinn keeps on providing us with heart warming glimpses of new connections being made even when physical proximity is forbidden.  On a bricked corner, a separated couple re-discovers the joy of serenading at a distance.   A lovely four part sequence shows a mouse drinking coffee alone on a window sill, and then a neighboring mouse pokes her head out from the next window (safely distanced), bringing a smile to the face of our friend. We can't frequent cafes or the Literati Booktore, but we can still have third spaces, and the joy of conversing with strangers.

In his classic essay, The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903), Georg Simmel notes that city dwellers, amidst incessant sensory stimulation from all sides, end up developing all sort of unique personal quirks and odd characteristics: the urban resident, he writes, "has to exaggerate this personal element to remain audible even to himself" Such seems to be the case with Zinn's instantly recognizable idiosyncratic imaginary friends, who keep on popping up in unexpected places throughout A2: in them, we see and hear an echo of our unique personas,,even if they are just about to to be trod upon by self-absorbed pedestrians. They hold up a joyous mirror to each of us, as we rush off on the next errand, or as we, as so often these days, wander the streets alone--wondering, anxiously, just what the next corner, and the next day, might bring.

Painting the Demon in Karnataka, India

Manjunath Hegde Bomnalli in the Deccan Herald reports that artists in  Old Hubballi (northwest Karnataka, India) have painted a giant image of the virus that causes Covid 19  on the ground, to spread awareness of the virus.

A large circular image, about twenty feet wide, has been painted in oil on the ground at Indi Pump Circle by artists in the India Art Firm. The figure, it appears from a photograph, has an orange head, outlined yellow eyes,  sharp teeth dripping blood, and a blue claw like arm extending from its yellow body. Slogans promoting public health measures  (Wear a mask, Stay indoors) have been inscribed as well.

The Deccan Herald  earlier reported that substantial crowds in the city have resisted social distancing methods, and that there have been confrontations with law enforcement over public health restrictions. Perhaps this motivated  the artists in the firm to create this striking image in a prominent public space.

Although the explicit purpose of the image is didactic, it does seem consistent with a long history of vernacular painted images in the region that provide protection from dangerous forces.  Ground paintings are common throughout South India, at times centered on geometric designs that are said to repel demons from entering a household, or bring blessings by depicting sacred and mythological beings. At times, ground and floor designs are drawn in ephemeral rice flour, but in this instance oil painting has been deployed, evidently with the expectation that a long term campaign is called for.

My impression is that tradition-based ground paintings may at times depict a god or hero slaying a demon but that it would be unusual to paint a demon on its own.  But perhaps in this instance the written inscriptions effectively encase the demonic coronavirus, and in that sense peformatively show it being "slain" by righteous action.

I'd be grateful for any insights from the artists themselves or specialists on floor design and ground painting in the region.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Between Men and Monuments: The Art of Paul Emmanuel

by Pamela Allara and Mark Auslander

 Paul Emmanuel,'s recent exhibition, "Men and Monuments," opened at the Wits Art Museum (Johannesburg, South Africa) on March 3, 2020 and was closed prematurely due to the national public health shutdown.  The exhibition now exists through the memories of those who viewed it  leaving behind powerful after-images, which we continue to reflect upon. 

Photograph taken to create a banner for
The Lost Men France
Photographed by Charl Fraser
Courtesy of Goodlight Studios and Art Source South Africa

We begin with Pamela Allara address at the "Men and Monuments"  exhibition opening, Mark Auslander next considers the current scenario in this moment of national and global confinement in light of Paul's 2018 work, "Rough Collar." We conclude with Paul's own artist's statement on the 2018 piece, created for the future exhibition, "Substance of Shadows."  

I. Opening Remarks 

Pamela Allara: Monuments are public sculptures or structures we tend to walk by without thinking about who or what is being honored. Most often these structures are designed to be permanent, to freeze history into an immutable form.  But recently, both in the United States, where I abide, and in South Africa, monuments have become lightening rods for increasingly splintered democratic citizenries. What are we to do with all those men on horses whose deeds we no longer admire? What is the appropriate form and content of monuments today?

The origin of the word in Latin is moneo means to remind, advise or warn. In that sense, monuments are designed not simply to commemorate past events or persons, but to speak to both the present and the future. Paul Emmanuel, who has been rethinking the conventions of monuments for nearly two decades, recognizes the futility of attempting to embalm the past, especially in the current,  post-1994 era when South African history is being re-examined,  contested and revised to include numerous voices and perspectives.

The Lost Men France
1 July – 1 October 2014
Counter-memorial, World War One Centenary
, Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the
Somme, Picardy, northern France
Five pigment-printed photographs (500 x 500 cm each),
 silk, steel
7 x 7 x 300 metres
Photographed by Paul Emmanuel
Courtesy of 2014 Centenaire de la Première
 Guerre Mondiale and Art Source South Africa
The title of Emmanuel’s decades-long project is direct: Lost Men. The term is resonant, speaking to both lost lives and lost histories. Because history is narrated by wars, the majority of monuments are memorials, commemorating wars, and celebrating the assumed heroism of those who died. Lost Men, with the ‘left/right’ marching rhythm of its name, puts the sine qua non of war up front: the violent death of human beings.

The Lost Men project begins with a local armed conflict and expands to what became designated a World War. In 2004, a year marking the 10th anniversary of South African democracy, Emmanuel installed Lost Men Grahamstown at the site of the Xhosa wars with the British between 1820 and 1850. There for the first time Emmanuel used his naked body as a surrogate wall on which to inscribe the names of the Lost. Because he was only able to obtain the names of the Xhosa dead through the letters written by British soldiers, Lost became the apposite term: they had been lost to white men’s history.  Now resurrected to share a temporary space with those they fought against, the Xhosa combatants became, briefly, comrades, joined in death.  Emmanuel’ use of his white body to emboss the names of various races and ethnicities might be considered problematic, but it is evidence that history has been selectively told from white point of view.

The Lost Men France
1 July – 1 October 2014
Counter-memorial, World War One Centenary
, Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the
Somme, Picardy, northern France
Five pigment-printed photographs (500 x 500 cm each),
 silk, steel
7 x 7 x 300 metres
Photographed by Paul Emmanuel
Courtesy of 2014 Centenaire de la Première
 Guerre Mondiale and Art Source South Africa
In Lost Men Mozambique from 2007, Emmanuel continued to investigate the politics of memory, to borrow Karen von Veh’s term, by joining names of Mozambican and South African Lost Men during the 1980s civil war. However, because Mozambican authorities refused to release those names, Emmanuel’s skin was embossed instead with ‘Unknown Soldier’ repeated in Shangaan and Portugese. The term reinforces Emmanuel’s effort to make underscore the fragility of memory: even if proper names are available, they reduced to a mere string of letters when all who may have remembered them are gone. What do we really know about those who have died in war? They are all unknown.

The third of the Lost Men projects seen in this exhibit, is Lost Men France from 2014. Installed near the Thiepval Memorial at the start of the centennial memorials of World War I, his counter memorial offered an alternative narrative to the Circuit of Remembrance pilgrimages that year. In northern France, the harsh winds tore his delicate silk voile banners to shreds, an apt metaphor for the desecration of the bodies of 38 million men from Europe and its colonies in Africa, India, Australia, and New Zealand.

Paul will have to provide an answer to the question of why he has exhaustively pursued the issue of the loss of men’s lives through war, despite the fact that he personally has not endured such loss. There are many ideas and concepts his work asks us to examine: the construction of masculinity through concepts of aggression and war, the vulnerability of the masculine body itself, and the pathos of the impermanence of memory. The images on the delicate silk banners ask us to suspend our ideas about masculinity, and to contemplate the violence inflicted on male bodies not simply through war’s conflicts, but through the imposition of an identity that denies gentleness and sensitivity, qualities that like the images themselves, simply fade away.

II. The Masculine, Confined

Mark Auslander:  Reflecting on Pam's framing remarks, I'm struck how Paul's work reminds us that masculinity has long been centrally concerned with dominating the public square, with fleeing from the feminine-coded domestic, with flinging body after body into the maw of the battlefield, and then marching the survivors, as shattered as they may be, back home in massed triumph, or the simulacrum thereof. The male Dead are recruited, in one way or another, into the National and Imperial project, amalgamated into towering monuments that dominate other public spaces, ostensibly for all time, to inspire new generations of boys to follow in their father's footsteps, out of the household, into the battlefield and the public realm.

Paul’s work, in its brilliant explorations of the interconnected traces of male bodies and their afterlives after trajectories of violence, asks us to ponder what happens after the roar of the massed crowd has passed, and the quiet descends once more, on the empty battlefield or in more interior spaces and places.

That is what the world is now facing, in the shadow of the virus: the Quiet, the contemplative, back within the house, under conditions of the shutdown and the lockdown.  What place is there now, for the patriarch, when there is no public square to dominate, where all is turned inward? What now? What next?

Paul Emmanuel, Rough Collar, 2018
Hand incised, perforated carbon paper, carbon thread, carbon residue
45 x 40 x 40 cm
Courtesy of Art Source South Africa
It seems to me that Paul's work, "Rough Collar," (2018) created for the future exhibition project, "Substance of Shadows," may speak to these difficult questions.  Composed of painstakingly hand incised and perforated carbon paper, carbon thread, and carbon residue, within a perspex display case, the work presents a ruff-like black collar, reminiscent of Dutch formal neckwear of the 17th century, with a permanent circular black shadow underneath. (Please see the artist's statement at the conclusion of this post.)

Although conceived and fabricated before the pandemic, the work speaks to our present predicament, in which we find much of humanity locked down within the highly confined space of the household. The ruff collar is a uniform of the Dutch financial and mercantile elite, evocative of the enormous power of Capital that forged the Dutch colonial system from Batavia to Surinam to the Cape. It is equally evocative of the iron "rough collars" within which millions of enslaved people were bound. Now, confined within the miniature house of the display case, it becomes difficult to disentangle who precisely is the Master, who the Slave.  The men whose histories Paul has excavated remain yoked together in complex dances of power and subjection.  Rough Collar is a haunting miniature monument to (ultimately fragile) masculine claims to domination, now confined in the closest of quarters. None can escape the shadows of the master-slave dialectic,  even as our mortal remains, all made of carbon, return to the dust from which we were born.

As a highly focused counter-memorial, Rough Collar poses important, urgent questions for us in the age of the pandemic. Will we allow the global shutdown to exacerbate and intensify long-term inequities? Will those who are heirs to the ruff-wearing Dutch bankers of old, celebrated in Rembrandt's portraits, be allowed to shelter in place in well-stocked luxury, while those in townships and settlements face slow starvation and ever-deepening daily deprivation, confined to the shadows? Or will the shared crisis call forth our better angels, inspiring profound restructurings of society, a compassionate sharing of the national patrimony, and a renewed covenant that honors the bonds of common humanity? Will the enforced Quiet of the lockdown allow for a collective intake of breath, a period of reflection, a new resolve to lift all of us, together, out of the shadows and into the light?  Emerging from the shadows, may we all put on a collar that is neither a signifier of total victory or complete submission, but rather an enveloping circle of shared, human substance?

III. Paul Emmanuel's Artist's Statement  

Paul Emmanuel, Rough Collar, 2018
Hand incised, perforated carbon paper, carbon thread, carbon residue
45 x 40 x 40 cm

Paul Emmanuel: Created in the hearts of stars, the element of carbon continues, unlike any other
element, to be re-purposed into new forms.

Paul Emmanuel, Rough Collar, 2018
Hand incised, perforated carbon paper, carbon thread, carbon residue
45 x 40 x 40 cm
Courtesy of Art Source South Africa

In 2016 I had a dream, in which I saw my skin being peeled away from my body,
as if I was discarding a burnt and charred membrane. This stimulated the idea of
scratching away at the thin black film of carbon covering a piece of diaphanous,
skin-like carbon paper.

To create Rough Collar I spent three months scratching away at the black carbon paper to create 7,6 metres of delicate lace pattern. The lace pattern was emblazoned with mantling borrowed from the Union of South Africa’s 1932
‘embellished’ coat of arms. I then hand stitched this lace into a 16th Century
Elizabethan-era ruff collar. The collar is presented as either rising out of, or
disintegrating into, the carbon residue – the element that gives it substance.
The resulting work is a rarefied object created out of the throw-away medium of
carbon paper. It speaks to me of the generations whose symbols continue to be a weight around our necks, signalling identity, perpetuating difference. Even as they are increasingly less valid, these
Paul Emmanuel, Rough Collar, 2018
Hand incised, perforated carbon paper, carbon thread, carbon residue
45 x 40 x 40 cm
Courtesy of Art Source South Africa
symbols continue to exert an influence into our democratic and digital age. They imprint our image of ourselves with inheritance – carbon copies in the cycle of life.

 This conversation continues with our discussion of Paul Emmanuel's "carbon dad 2017." and his "Veil 1954"

Near and Far: The “COVID, Uncovered” Project

I’ve been fascinated and moved by the “COVID, Uncovered” Project, based in Italy, as that beleaguered nation has endured tragedy upon tragedy amidst national lockdown.  Initiated by the well- known illustrator Emiliano Ponzi, the project seeks to make possible classical live model drawing, at a time when direct physical proximity between artist and model is prohibited for public health reasons. A male and female model are viewed and sketched remotely through digital video links by far-flung artists in their individual studios, who in turn auction the resulting works on line to raise funds for the Italian Red Cross.

(Ponzi explains the project in a short video.

Direct sketching from life models had been foundational to studio art education for generations, although the practice has in many quarters fallen off, to the detriment, many would argue, of the integrity and richness of painting and art more broadly.  This point is advanced quite eloquently by the marvelous painter Paul Resika (my father’s first cousin) in a recent, spellbinding video clip from Jack of Diamond Productions/Bookstein Projects, shot in his studio.

By working with a live model, the gaze constantly moving back and forth between a tangible person’s body and the sketchbook or canvas on which the charcoal stick or brush moves, the artist learns to engage with “near and far,’ seeing "what the camera cannot get." All this, Resika insists, is foundational to serious painting.

What kind of live drawing or painting, then, can be pursued when the camera is inserted into the equation, and a screen is interposed between model and artist?  A flat screen eradicates “near and far,” in Resika’s sense: the model’s head, torso, and limbs are the same distance from the artist’s eye and the challenge of reducing dimensionality and sensed physical presence to the pad or canvas is  undercut.

Nonetheless, the resulting images are still pretty interesting. (See the list of auctioned images: here )  The whole project works, I think, because the organizers introduced a new kind of “far-ness” into the relationship between model and artist. Each model is asked to wear, over the course of a sitting, several different kinds of facial protection devices, from clumsy gas masks to surgical masks. The challenge for each artist in a sense is to re-humanize the essence of each sitter, to capture each body’s distinctive curves, areas of tension, tautness, and relaxed flesh, to bring precisely back to us what is obscured by the face mask.

Along the way, I suggest, each model’s body comes to signify more than just a solitary individual. We are in a sense getting a glimpse of the Italian national body, which these days is invariably covered, hidden away, fearful, half-suffocated with anxiety, under siege by a ubiquitous, invisible enemy. (A condition which so many of us in the United States are now learning first hand, as our country becomes the global epicenter of the pandemic)  The job of each artist then, is to find a way to “uncover” this besieged national body, to allow bodies once more again to breathe free, even though, paradoxically, we can only encounter, for the moment, this art, and these subjects, through the mediation of the digital screen.

It is fascinating, in this light, that Ponzi writes of the Covid, Uncovered Project as "exorcising" the virus. The demonic power of SARS-COV-2, it would appear, lies not solely in the physical illness and death it causes, but more pervasively, and perversely, in the total scenario of fear it engenders, as citizens of the world find themselves cowering in corners, necessarily hiding themselves and their bodily beings away from another. The Covid, Uncovered Project seeks, it would appear, to demystify the virus, first by explicitly representing the terrifying masks, which separate us from one another,  and then "unmasking" the virus's terrifying power, by resolutely bringing  bodies, and souls, back into the light.  Out of far-ness, we regain our lost sense of nearness. Relations of simultaneous presence and absence, foundational to the full experience of being human, are reintroduced, and thus art, and humanity, once more have a fighting chance.

Note: Emiliano Ponzi has kept an evocative diary, for the Washington Post  integrating text and drawings, documenting life in Italy during this past heart-breaking month. 

Scholarship on Art and Epidemics

This is an informal sampling of the substantial art historical  and related scholarship on art, plagues, and epidemics. Please let us know of significant work we have missed, or send along annotated commentaries  on sources you find useful.

John Aberth. From the brink of the apocalypse: Confronting famine, war, plague and death in the later Middle Ages  2013

 BAILEY, Gauvin Alexander ; JONES, Pamela M. ; MORMANDO, Franco ; WORCESTER, Thomas W. eds. Hope and healing : painting in Italy in a time  of plague, 1500-1800 (Catalogue of exhibition)  University of Chicago Press, 2005. 

Sheila Barker. 2005. Plague art in early modern Rome : divine directives and temporal remedies.
_______________.Poussin, plague, and early modern medicine The Art Bulletin 86 (4), 659-689
 _______________. The Making of a Plague Saint. Saint Sebastian's Imagery and Cult Before the Counter-ReformationPiety and Plague: From Byzantium to the Baroque, 78-90. 
__________________. 2002. Art in a Time of Danger: Urban VIII's Rome and the Plague of 1629-1634 

Christine M. Boeckl Giorgio Vasari's "San Rocco Altarpiece": Tradition and Innovation in Plague Iconography. Artibus et Historiae.  Vol. 22, No. 43 (2001), pp. 29-40  

 James Crump. 1995.  (Dis)regarding plague art : current strategies for representing AIDS.
New art examiner (1985), 1995, 22, 8, Apr

Naming Names: The Art of Memory and the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt. Critical Inquiry.  Volume 19, Number 4 | Summer, 1993
Hopkins, Andrew. 2005 Combating the plague : devotional paintings, architectural programs, and votive processions in early modern Venice

Todd J. Kowalski, William A. Agger. Art Supports New Plague Science. Clinical Infectious Diseases, Volume 48, Issue 1, 1 January 2009, Pages 137–138.

Long, Thomas.  Plague of Pariahs: AIDS 'Zines and the Rhetoric of Transgression

Millard Meiss   1951.  Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death; The Arts, Religion, and Society in the mid-14th Century  (Princeton University Press) 

Ortega, Jessica, "Pestilence and prayer saints and the art of the plague in italy from 1370 - 1600" (2012). HIM 1990-2015. 1367. 

Peiffer- Smadja, Thomas. [The plague: A disease that is still haunting our collective memory].
, 27 Apr 2017, 38(6):402-406 (in French) 

Raymond Craxford, P.   Pestilence in Literature and Art 1914 - Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sontag, Susan. AIDS and its Metaphors. Allen Lane (Penguin) 1989  (Preliminary 1988 version in New York Review of Books)

Weisberg, G. (2004). Cholera as Plague and Pestilence in nineteenth-Century Art: Disease as Metaphore in Art and Popular Wisdom. In L. S. Dixon, & G. P. Weisberg (Eds.), In Sickness and in Health: Disease as Metaphore in Art and Popular Wisdom (pp. 82-100). Delaware University press & Associated University. 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Shape of Fear: Race and the Novel Coronavirus (A Report from Rural Georgia, USA)

by Mark Auslander and Avis Williams

John Sims, The Shape of  a Breath Blocker, 2020
John Sims and David A. Love's March 10, 2020 co-authored essay in The Grio, "Should Black America be worried about Coronavirus?" and John Sims' accompanying digital art image, inspire us to reflect on how the COVID-19 crisis is impacting persons of color in Putnam and Greene counties, Georgia, home of some of the lowest-income rural black communities in the United States.

Sims' haunting image, entitled "The Shape of a Breath Blocker," features a digital simulation of the novel coronavirus SARS-COV-2, the cause of COVID-19, resting ominously on old wooden floorboards painted with the classic colors of Pan-Africanism, Red, Black, and Green. The spike-like crowns which give the coronavirus family its name, and which allow the virus to bind to a human cell's receptors, are colored with an ominous deep red, evocative of the blood coughed up by patients suffering from advanced COVID-19 disease. Much of the underlying sphere is colored gray, perhaps signaling the virus’ tendency to hijack and ultimately kill the cells of its human host deep in the respiratory tract.

The Shape of our Moment?

We read the title of Sims’ haunting apparition, "The Shape of a Breath Blocker," as echoing W.E.B. DuBois' brilliant 1926 analysis of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, "The Shape of Fear," in the North American Review. DuBois presciently analyses the rise of the second Klan and renewed violent white supremacy in the American heartland as a counter-reaction to the political and economic dislocations of the Great War, which had unleashed global waves of xenophobia. Anglo-American white economic supremacy, he argues, is threatened by the upward trajectory of people of color, and this unleashes the "shape of fear" that fuels the Klan's exponential growth, allowing it to invade and hijack American democracy from within.

Although DuBois does not make explicit reference to the 1918 global influenza pandemic, his analysis retains much relevance to the current predicament, in which anxiety over the novel coronavirus intersects with local and global patterns of ethno-nationalism, placing internal Others (including African Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans) at particular risk. The virus in effect presses down not only on the lungs' capacity to draw breath, but weighs disproportionately on low-income communities of color, already afflicted by social and economic structural deficits.

Such is certainly the case in communities of color, primarily African American and Latino, in Putnam and Greene counties, Georgia. As of this writing, there is one positive result in Greene county, and  no reported cases in Putnam, but everyone knows that hospital and ICU beds in both counties are extremely limited. A great number of uninsured or under-insured individuals haven't seen a healthcare provider in years, and are particularly at risk for underlying conditions, including Type II diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and COPD.  Local households, already on the economic margins, are even more precarious as local "non-essential" employers have closed their doors under shelter in place policies.

Food insecurity

In areas where something like 80 percent of public schoolchildren are on free or reduced lunch, the public school system is a vital source of nutrition. To date during the emergency, the school systems have been able to maintain weekday food distribution to schoolchildren of hot meals through scattered sites, but this may not be long sustainable.  Non profits are doing what they can. (There is no food pantry in Putnam County but there is one in Greene County. ) The Rotary Club has recently facilitated obtaining food for distribution at the Greene pantry for distribution, as they do each month. Yet the Greene County distribution is usually held at the High School, which is now challenging  given the closure of schools.  Activists are working on assembling nonperishable food items for distribution to Putnam County families sometime in April.

Tests of Faith? 

As we think about  food security and the imperative to feed the hungry, a reading from Genesis occurs to us of John Sims' image of the prickly, spherical virus: might we behold, crouching on the tri-colored Pan-African floorboards,  the fruit of temptation?  Will we, when isolated physically from one another, succumb to the allure of selfishness, narrow individualism, and xenophobia? Will we give way to the "shape of fear" that DuBois so long ago denounced?  Or will we instead commit to deep fellowship with one another,  to generosity and compassion, opening ourselves up to the boundless gifts of Grace?  Can we find in the silence imposed by quarantine not descent into terror and anxiety, but new opportunitise to honor our better selves. Can we effect, hear the words of Howard Thurman:  "In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair." (Thurman, For the Inward Journey)

For generations, the community has been comforted and strengthened by Scripture, including Jehoshaphat's prayer in the face of supreme peril: "If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house, and before you, for your name is in this house, and cry to you in our distress, and you will hear and save(2 Chronicles 20:9. New Revised Standard Version), Yet how, many ask, do we stand before the House of the Lord--and how are we to be heard--when we are so isolated from one another?

In the local African American community, many fear the Black Church, for centuries the foundation of resilience and mobilization in the face of oppression and crisis, has been largely stymied. This seems in part due to the public health restrictions on large gatherings in worship or at funeral "Home-going" celebrations: the community's capacity to see itself and its own potential strength through face to face encounters with one another, may be paralyzed. By and large, sermons delivered through social media platforms (in any event, inaccessible to many lower income households) have not been able to articulate an effective social justice diagnosis of the crisis, and have failed to bind together an imagined community of the faithful that might effectively challenge current injustices.

The Road Ahead

Sims' image of a single crouching novel coronavirus on aged floorboards thus effectively captures the current predicament. We suspect the virus is lying seemingly dormant, perhaps spread among asymptomatic carriers, waiting to flare up and reproduce exponentially, with fatal consequences for vulnerable populations in these low income communities. For the moment, anxiety over the anticipated waves of illness induces paralysis, blocking the body politic's capacity to mobilize and respond in solidarity. Even before the full pandemic hits locally, the virus truly exhibits, in Sims' evocative phrase, "The Shape of a Breath Blocker." Stony the road we tread.

Rev. Dr. Avis Williams, DM  a Baptist pastor and community organizer living in Covington, GA, received her Doctor of Ministry from Emory University's Candler School of Theology in 2018. Mark Auslander, an anthropologist now based in Michigan, writes about race and power in east-central Georgia. Mark and Avis have collaborated extensively across the years in community-based research and social justice projects in the region. Special thanks to John Sims for allowing us to reproduce “The Shape of a Breath Blocker.” 

UPDATE: Since posting this piece, we've learned from Cara Giaimo's report in the New York Times that the digital image of the virus used in the above illustration was created by two medical illustrators at the CDC. See Mark Auslander's commentary on this image.  

Projecting Anne Frank

The progressive Jewish group "Never Again Action" has undertake a striking activist art intervention, in solidarity with detained immigrants held in ICE facilities. As Eoin Higgins reports, activists recently projected text and image referencing Anne Frank on the walls of the JFK Federal Building in Boston and a Federal immigration court in New York City.  The Boston text declares, “Anne Frank died of an infectious disease in a crowded detention center. Governor Baker, release everyone in ICE Detention before it’s too late” The New York projection states, “Anne Frank died of Typhus, Not a Gas Chamber/ If all detainees can’t social distance, Governor Cuomo, Free them All!” Both texts are accompanied by familiar, grainy photographic images of a smiling Anne Frank.

Presumably, the projections cite implicitly the famous project of Shimon Attie 1991-92 "Writing on the Wall" project in which the artist projected 60 year old photographs of former Jewish residences onto the outer walls of the same houses or locations in the Scheunenviertel neighborhood of Berlin. Attie's projections made the absence of those lost in the Shoah palpably, painfully present, activating, as it were, the haunted, uncanny qualities of buildings from which so many were ethnically cleansed and subject to deportation and mass murder.  His flickering, transient projections enabled a remarkable kind of time travel, as viewers found themselves hovering between the present moment and a past careening unavoidably towards horrific extinction.  As Roland Barthes famously wrote in Camera Lucida of a photograph of a condemned prisoner on the eve of his execution, "He is dead, and he is going to die." We are forever, though Attie's artistry, trapped in the film loop of History, painfully reminded that the Holocaust is never really over,  but is forever looming just over the immediate horizon.  In Faulkner's words, "The past is not dead. It isn't even past."

In contrast to the Attie enterprise, the 2020 projections emphatically move the emphasis on "Never Again" outside of the specifically Jewish frame of reference, to stand in solidarity with refugees of all nations.  Yet, as with "Writing on the Wall," they make use of architectural exteriors to re-enliven the city is powerful ways, transforming the metropolis into a curious kind of memory palace that demands moral engagement with a long-repressed past by all city-dwellers who see the images.  This is, the activists are clearly arguing, all the more important in the age of SARS-COR-2, when the primary temptation is to lapse into fear,  to retreat within our separate houses under shelter-in-place, caring only for ourselves and nearest kin, forgetting our fundamental ethical obligations to those were,  like us, once strangers in a strange land.

The use of Frank's photographs calls, at least to my mind, Walter Benjamin's observation in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1935) that early portrait photographs preserve the ancient "aura" of the image, largely lost or diluted through the mass mechanical (and now digital) reproduction of pictures.  Benjamin proposes that certain photographic portraits, fixing transient shadows for all time,  summon up  older numinous presence along the lines of ancestral ritual images, making, if only briefly, the Dead and the Living mysteriously co-entangled with one another.

Anne Frank, who through her surviving words is perhaps the world's most famous of all Shoah victims,  is through her ghostly projected image now elevated to the status of sacred ancestor of us all.  Her face, illuminated in the dark  upon the modern temples of law and justice,  seems to speak urgently  to us, an eternal candle lit against the dark, commanding us to save our fellow sojourners from the fate that so cruelly befell her.  For a brief moment, the illuminated nocturnal Cityscape becomes an ancestral altar, binding us all to a shared moral imperative at the present moment, in honor of the martyred Dead.

Amabie Goes Global: Talismanic Images from Japan

Japanese-inspired talismanic images responding to the Covid-19 crisis are circulating through global social media. Claire Voon in Atlas Obscura reports that images of the folkloric spirit “Amabie,” said to safeguard makers and viewers against epidemics, are now being reproduced widely and shared on line worldwide

1846 drawing and article on Amabie
"Amabie" is written in katakana, the Japanese syllabary script used to write foreign loan terms and regional dialects, as アマビエ. The creature, Voon notes, first appeared in print in  a 1846 Kawaraban, tile-block prnted, newspaper article (see image to left), documenting a supposed encounter with a yōkai, or spirit on the shores of Higo Province, now Kumamoto Prefecture on the southern island of Kyūshū.  The spirit, which manifested itself, surrounded by bright lights, as a long-haired fish like creature with three legs or tails and a bird’s beak, is said to have instructed a local official to draw and circulate its image as protection against a coming plague. In recent weeks, versions of Amabie have been created by artists and posted on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, offering comfort and  protection in the face of SARS-COR-2. (See some examples at Know Your Meme.)

Hybrid mythological beings are hardly unusual in East Asia. The classical Chinese and Japanese dragon is said to be composed of nine different animals, a “camel’s head; deer's horns; rabbit's eyes; cow's ears; snake's neck; frog's belly; carp's scales; hawk's claws and tiger's paw” (Chinese Sage)   Speculatively, the Amabie’s fusing of fish and bird like qualities may be evocative of these creatures’ capacities to cross borders through air and sea, and the mythical being moves across watery and terrestrial realms. Similarly,  as diseases such as cholera penetrated national boundaries during the late Tokugawa era. Unusually long and unkempt hair similarly protrudes across conventionally restrained bodily boundaries; the spirit’s extra leg may assist in long-distance travel or transmission. The logic, as is often the case in Japanese popular cosmology, seems to be homeopathic: it takes a superlative border-crosser to defeat the border-crossing curse of a foreign affliction. 

Kaori Hamura Long (by permission of artist)
A particularly imaginative rendition of Amabie is showcased by Voon at the start of her article. The work was recently created by artist Kaori Hamura Long  during the period she self-quarantined with suspected Covid-19 symptoms in the city of Fukuoka in northern Kyūshū. In one version of her work, the spirit wears a face mask over her beak, her long fair flapping like wings as she floats above the waves, in an aesthetic inspired by the original monochrome 1846 image and by colorful Meiji-Taisho ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Another version, shown here, shows Amabie without a mask, smiling, heralding the hoped-for return of health and normalcy to the world. 

Amabie are also being created, sometimes through knitting and crocheting, in three dimensional form, as amulet-like ‘masukotto ningyo” (mascot dolls). Some are made with small loops attached to their heads, so they may be hung from school backpacks,for protection, like regular amulets or mascot dolls.   Photographs of the dolls are then posted on line, sometimes with prayers for health and safety during the pandemic; these can be  tracked through the hashtag #アマビエ (‘amabie’):

One of the most interesting aspects of the entire Amabie phenomenon is the way in which global Pokemon, manga and anime aesthetics are helping, almost overnight, to create a transnational “imagined community” at a time of intense physical separation, Copying and adapting this instantly recognizable “cute”  aesthetic, and then circulating the resulting images through Twitter and other social media platforms seems to be a kind of antidote to the anomie threatened by our moment of Shelter in Place.  

Front and rear views of mascot "Quaran"
It may be that Japan’s official mascot of the quarantine, “Quaran,” is partially inspired by this long-term imagery.  Created by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare before the novel coronavirus crisis, the mascot has become the visible face of Japan’s response to the emergency, especially at airports where individuals wearing the Quaran costume remind international visitors to self- quarantine.  As I have published elsewhere, the global term "Mascot," popularized by Edmond Audran’s 1880 operetta La Mascotte, is derived from the Provencal concept of the "mascotte," a magical wish-granting being or inanimate object; in Japan, the new term was integrated with millennia-old sensibilities about the spirit- bearing capacities of images and object that resembled the human figure.  (See Ellen Schattschneider, The Bloodstained Doll, " Journal of Japanese Studies. Volume 31, Number 2, Summer 2005. pp. 329-356)  The modern mascot Quaran, now safeguarding sites of international border-crossing, seems to reproduce this classical ritual function. As is so often the case with powerful images, the manifest function of this representative form is didactic or formally communicative, but an older ritual aesthetic, echoing a cultural logic of spiritual prophylaxis, evidently endures. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Virtual Exhibitions curated during the Pandemic

. In Time of Quarantine, Zwirner Shares Online Platform With Smaller Galleries. New York Times.

Media Stories on Art and the Crisis

Here is an informal list, more or less chronological, of media stories about art being created or responded to, in response to the novel coronavirus:

March 2020

March 4, 200  Jason Ii As Covid-19 takes the world by storm, cartoonists and illustrators express statements of solidarity, share experiences (and grievances), and laugh a little. Hyperallergic.

.  March 9, 2020.    A Daily Report on How COVID-19 Is Impacting the Art World  Hyperallegenic.

March 17, 2020. Jing Li.  An Artist Quarantined in China Illustrates what it is like to live on lockdown. Washington Post

March 18, 2020.   Michael Cavna. How the world’s political artists are depicting the covid-19 pandemic. Washington Post.

March 18, 2020. Daryl Goh. Covid-19: How the art world is taking on the virus. The Star.

March 18, 2020.  How Chinese people came together when separated by quarantine, creating hope, humor and art. The Conversation.

March 19, 2020. Karina Tsui. What happens when a map artist goes into quarantine  CNN Style  (on Gareth Fuller, when quarantined in Beijing)

March 20, 2020. Artists draw life under coronavirus: Artists from around the globe draw what they’re seeing and feeling in isolation. Politico.

March 21, 2020. Rae Alexander   Artists Fight Coronavirus-Related Racism on Instagram. KQED.
March 22, 2020    Nadine Fahmy. Quarantine Kitchen: An Iranian Artist's Series Documenting People's Routines During Lockdown   Scene Arabia.

March 22, 2020. Raed Shakshak. COVID-19 Comes to Gaza. We are not Numbers.   (Several striking photographs)
Raed Shakshak- See more at: https://wearenotnumbers.org/home/Contributor/Raed_Shakshak

COVID-19 comes to Gaza

- See more at: https://wearenotnumbers.org/home/Story/COVID19_comes_to_Gaza

COVID-19 comes to Gaza

- See more at: https://wearenotnumbers.org/home/Story/COVID19_comes_to_Gaza

 The Saint Who Stopped an Epidemic Is on Lockdown at the Met. Jason Farago. New York Times 

March 27, 2020. How LA's Street Artists Are Responding To Coronavirus

A Healing Spirit From 19th-Century Japan Is Back to Face COVID-19. Atlas Obscura.

March 26 2020. Meredith Bruckner. Chalk artist David Zinn’s characters cheer up Ann Arborites during COVID-19 crisis. All About Ann Arbor. 

March 27, 2020. Teresa Machemer. Amid Pandemic, Artists Invoke Japanese Spirit Said to Protect Against Disease. Smithsonian Magazine

March 27 2020. Elisa Wouk Almino. A View From the Easel During Times of Quarantine. Hyperallergic

March 29, 2020. Christopher Knight .Bubonic plague in Europe changed art history. Why coronavirus could do the same. Los Angeles Times.

March 30, 2020.  Beatrice Garcia.

Some Spanish publicists have created a virtual museum with works on the coronavirus.

March 31, 2020. Manjunath Hegde Bomnalli Artists paint giant image of Covid 19 in Huballi to spread awareness Deccan Herald  (northwest Karnataka, India)

March 31, 2020. Katia Patin.   Drawing Covid-19: Artists around the world illustrate coronavirus in their community. Source: .coda

March 31. 2020.  Lanre Bakare. Art project captures sound of cities during coronavirus outbreak
The Guardian

April 2020

April 1, 2020.    Annika Hammerschlag. Senegal's Graffiti Artists Offer COVID-19 Information Via Murals. VOA News.

April 1, 2020.  Shannon Connellan. Toilet Paper Art.   Mashable.   (The "Give-a-Sheet" Project)

 See also  >

April 1, 2020 Ben Davis. Why the Centers for Disease Control’s Image of the Coronavirus Is a Very Effective Work of Biomedical Art. Artnet News
 April 1, 2020. Stephanie Garcia.  ‘I am not a virus.’ How this artist is illustrating coronavirus-fueled racism. Canvas: Arts. PBS Newsbour.


Flour Figurines as Offerings in the Age of the Virus?

I'm fascinated by a set of Chinese flour figurines, created by master artisan Zuo Ansheng, evidently in early February 2020, honoring medical workers combatting the COVID-19 crisis in his home region of Yinan county in east China's Shandong province: 


Since at least the Han period, skilled Chinese artisans have created these kinds of elaborate figurines out of mixtures of wheat and glutinous rice flour (leavened at times with honey, wax, and paraffin), often as decorations or offerings at Chinese New Year or other festive occasions. The figurines tend to depict divinities, mythological figures such as the Monkey King, Zodiac animals ,and classical literary characters. Carefully prepared, dyed dough paste is sculpted with bamboo and other tools, to create remarkably lifelike miniature figurines. 

As in many East, South, and Southeast Asian contexts, these sculptures tend to play on core foundational paradoxes of votive images, they are at one level manifestly representations, but in another sense are understood as the represented being itself. They must usually be treated with respect and honored during the course of a festivity or ceremony, and must be disposed of according to proper protocols, even when eaten. The ephemeral quality of the flour figurines seems to make them especially precious, particularly appropriate for temporary events, such as New Year celebrations.  Even when they are sold as handicrafts, they appear to retain some numinous qualities  One northern Chinese artist explains, "Each of my works contains a story, and each figurine has its own soul," (Xinhuanet, 7.22.19

It is hard to know without speaking or corresponding with Zuo Ansheng himself, but I suspect that these medical workers, fully swathed in protective garments and face masks, should be understood as more than mere decor or ornaments. They seem to share many classic qualities with ritual offerings, carefully balanced according to principles of symmetry. The two figures in the foreground are supported each by a hand gently touching one another (fully gloved) almost as if in a ceremonial dance.  Perhaps the taller one to the left is a male, and  the shorter one to the right is female. All seem enlivened by their outlined eyes and arched eyebrows, the rest of their faces obscured by protective masks.

Speculatively, I  wonder if in the mind of the artist, or those who gaze upon these sculpted objects in the epidemic zone, the figurines might be understood to be efficacious, as not simply honoring these heroes and heroines of the nation, but as in formal offerings, conferring a degree of protection upon those who create or encounter them. It may also be that Zuo Ansheng is drawing here upon the ancient Chinese practice of mortuary effigies, through which ancestral beings are given vitality and honored though mimetic representation, in ways that help safeguard their descendants across the generations, or, as with statuary buried armies, charged with protecting and serving the Dead in the Other world. The artist may be directly honoring those who have died in service to their patients, or evoking, through this transitory medium, the very real possibility that frontline medical staff may imminently pass from this world. 

Friday, March 27, 2020

Prayer on the Street

It occurs to me that some of the new public or street art created in response to the novel coronavirus seems to have ritual dimensions,  echoing much earlier votive images through which help was petitioned from divine or sacred realms.

For instance, I’m struck by a clever work of street art in Los Angeles by street artist Jeremy Novy, showcased in a recent article by Mike Roe ( LA-ist; 3.27.20):


On the back of a street sign, two hands are clasped in prayer, wrapped by a rosary-like string attached to a bar of soap, reminiscent of a Bible or a medallion box dedicated to the Virgin or a Saint. Soap bubbles surround the soap and hands, evocative of the hand-washing with soap we are all reminded to do multiple times a day.  The artist explains to the reporter that the work is a critique of the authorities who act as if the virus can be defeated only by “thoughts and prayers,” instead of a broader commitment to social solidarity and mutual compassion.

I wonder, though, if at another level the work might be understood as implicitly evoking the folk art form of the ex-votos, found in the Old World and Latin America, an image dedicated to an interceding Saint as a visual prayer, transmitting a fervent appeal from this world to the next. Is it possible that at this time of looming crisis, as our roadways are increasingly vacated and as we shelter in place within doors, the streets themselves are being blessed with an ancient invocation? Has the artist put part of himself into this visual prayer, which becomes a channel from the visible world in turmoil to another space--of hope, restoration, and repair?

Popular catholic imagery also seems to inform Franco Rivolli's outdoor mural on a hospital outer wall in Italy's hard-hit Lombardy region, listed as #4 in Daryl Goh's piece in The Start (3.18.20):


The caption states,"A mural by Venice-born artist Franco Rivolli pays tribute to the heroic hospital staff in his country. It depicts a nurse wearing a face mask, with wings behind her back and cradling Italy. It can be found on a wall of the Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital in Bergamo, Lombardy in Italy." 

Atop the image is written, "A tutti voi..Grazie" (Thanks to all of you). Here, the angelic nurse takes on Marian attributes, with fever-stricken red Italy cast in the role of the Holy Child. The imagery may parallel that of earlier paintings honoring those who protected others from plague--including Van Dyck's  "Saint Rosalie interceding for the Plague-stricken in Palermo," celebrated in  Jason Farago's recent commentary in the New York Times.   Rather like Van Dyck's Saint Rosalie, lifted up into the heavens by cherubim, Rivolli's nurse hovers between earth and heaven, blessing earthly sufferers of the latter-day plague.  This seems particularly appropriate given that medical workers are quite literally putting their lives on the line in the emergency, and that many have, or are expected, to die as a result of their heroic service.  (A March 21 report by medical staff at this hospital is published at: https://catalyst.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/CAT.20.0080 )

In a manifest sense, the written phrase, "Thanks to all of you," is addressed to the nurses, doctors and other medical professionals on the front line of the crisis. At the same time, as in Novy's hands clasped in prayer in LA, there does seem to be an intercessionary quality to the mural, mediating between visible and invisible worlds, as  the forces of the Divine are appealed to.  The image can be read, again, as a kind of ex-voto, a ritualized image blessing all those on the street below, and by extension, all those at risk throughout the nation. 

Evidently, an Iranian adaptation of Rivolli's Italian image of a nurse.
Note 1: It would appear that Rivolli's image has been repurposed in Iran, and is being digitally circulated on Instagram, with the map of Iran now substituting for Italy:


The archetypal imagery of a maternal figure caring for an infant would seem to transcend religious or national boundaries.  

Harvard's Aga Khan Islamic Arts librarian Andras Reidelmayer explains in reference to the Iranian instagram post, that the "The text at right is a very recent (and very secular) poem in Persian by the man who posted it as a comment -- Ibrahim Khalaji. His poem is about Nowruz (the traditional Persian New Year, normally a festive occasion celebrated at the Spring Equinox) and how it is different this year, grim as if winter had never left, because of the pandemic, and with everyone wearing masks one cannot see anyone smiling."