I first encountered the image of the harem in the 1992 Disney film Aladdin. Now before I say anything else, you must know that I have a lot of Millennial nostalgia attached to the movie. Like all other Disney movies, it shaped my understanding of love and life. Jasmine’s feelings of confinement in her home and her longing to explore a whole new world and Aladdin’s adventurous spirit resonated with most impressionable 90s minds.
But with some awareness and some hindsight, I have to acknowledge that the movie was a perpetuation of Orientalist stereotypes. So, what is Orientalism you might ask? Orientalism is a complex and even contradictory discourse of Western ideas and representations of the region including the Middle East and South Asia. This discourse emerged during the time of French and British Imperial power and continues to form the foundation of Western perceptions of the “East.”
So what I considered a Disney masterpiece growing up was actually a series of racialized caricatures and stock images. The “Arab culture” which the movie invokes is as fictional as the city of Agrabah, where Aladdin and Jasmine live. The portrait of the city includes all stereotypes one can possibly summon; the entire region is nothing but deserts and harems. It is a world of turbans and tigers, henna, and harem pants.
The real diversity and richness of the Middle East are subsumed by this whitewashed monolith of what Americans think it is. This representation is dangerous. Yet it is the first exposure to Arab culture many white children might have. Hell, it was the first exposure to Arab culture I had! And I am brown! And that is really telling. So for the longest time, I thought the Middle East was all desert and decadence. I know that is a paradox. But that is exactly what the Orientalist appropriation of the harem was; paradoxical and conflicting.
In the fictional movie, Jasmine lives inside the harem. The harem, in Arab and Ottoman history, was basically the inner domestic space of the court or palace reserved for women. This is where the king’s family and concubines lived. So Orientalists, with their lack of access to the private courts of Muslim women, conjured this hyper fantasy of the harem as a place of desire, where the king would interact with his women.
Many Orientalist paintings of women lounging around in suggestive poses bearing cleavages and midriffs are not historically accurate. In fact, considering that the Ottoman Empire was relatively conservative because of its Islamic values, it is highly unlikely that any foreign travelers ever even glimpsed the inside the harem.
I still love Aladdin, but it's still a film that contains stereotypes of Arabian culture and people that haven't aged well (not that they were right in the first place) and unfortunately many of those stereotypes were brought into the TV series.
So the idea of Arab men with untamed libidos, multiple wives, and a culture of indulgence was propagated. This in turn added to the exotic appeal of the Middle East for Western audiences.
But while Arab men were written off as being insatiable, women, as it appears, could only be one of the two: veiled, meek, and submissive (from the King’s family) or sexually promiscuous (slave-girls). In the case of the former, they were considered as oppressed and caged, unable to leave the harem. This Orientalist perception, of course, was not formed through any proper ethnography or interviews, but just an assumption of what Arab women felt when they were veiled in public.
In much of American and European pop culture today, the harem remains inherently sexualized. Remember how Jafar (the villain in Aladdin) tried to capture Jasmine? That is what many Orientalists thought it meant to be an Arab woman, to be treated like a commodity or a property which was transferred from man to man, from harem to harem.
But a fact overlooked by history is that many women in court exercised political power. As was the case for the Sultanate of Women in the Ottoman empire which was a century when women reigned supreme in the court. This era produced figures such as sultans Kosem and Hurrem who have been celebrated by Turkish pop culture and chronicled on TV.
The actual historical harem was not the same as the harem fantasy which occupied the mind of the Orientalist for centuries. Even the etymology of the word harem stems from the Arab world. Haram simply means prohibited. Somehow another culture claimed the word that does not belong to them and transformed its meaning with plain ignorance.
I first encountered Gertrude Stein through her avant-garde poetry in Tender Buttons, an evocative series of short poems that forced writing to its breaking point with sentences like: “Dirty is yellow. A sign of more is not mentioned.” I met her blindly, only through her words, yet I already fell for her eccentricity. I knew there was something wonderful behind the mind that put down on paper the bold tongue-in-cheek yet unbelievably serious statement, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. I just had to explore her art further. So I began scouring old journals and artist profiles to learn more about her.
Little did I know that the radical art Stein created could almost be rivaled by the art that she nurtured in the artists around her. I found multiple sources that called her the ‘mother’ of modernism, but after getting to know more about her, I am sure that she would scoff at such a title. After all, she left the United States in 1903 to flee the pressures of gender norms. She was also bored with medical school and seeking an outlet to express her eccentric point of view, she settled down in Paris, where she intended to pursue a life free from heteronormativity. She opened a salon in her home for the world’s creative mind, including some of the world-renowned names such as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. She was the voice of this ‘Lost Generation, the group of American expatriates flocking to Paris– and even coined the term.
The way I see it, she brought together these esteemed artists and in many ways, elevated them through her no-nonsense critique of their work. I had always internalized that a woman inspiring other artists (typically male artists) was a muse. That term is loaded, as there were often sexualized or romanticized elements typically tied to a muse. Instead, what I admired about Stein was that she was a mentor to the ‘greats’. I see her as a woman that had an undeniable presence in her time, respected by those around her.
Nothing about her was conventional and she embraced her own strangeness, something that drew me to her further. Stein deserves the title of a trailblazer of the modernist period and of queer identity at the time. Stein’s essay Miss Furr and Miss Skeene were among the first story to be published about homosexual revelation, containing the first noted use of the word “gay” in published works to refer to same-sex relationships. She also hosted one of the first avant-garde exhibitions in the United States, funding it with the money she collected from her art dealerships. I have no doubt that every piece of art in the period has her fingerprint.
And she didn’t hesitate to acknowledge her accomplishments either. Stein didn’t believe that women must be modest, proudly proclaiming “I have been the creative literary mind of the century.” She never sold herself short, a habit I found myself doing as I presented my own poetry or other writing. I was still working with my own feelings of inferiority, belittling my stories as ‘just’ relevant to female-identifying communities. While she wrote about women and her partner, she didn’t restrict herself to writing women’s stories. I found it so refreshing to see her unabashed pride, as it reminded me to take hold of my own achievements and to be confident. No matter how unconventionally and ‘weirdly’ I experimented with my creativity, I learned that I could (and should) still demand to be taken seriously.
Regardless of all this, I don’t think she should be idolized. I often like to give powerful women in difficult situations the benefit of the doubt, as do most of the historians and writers that grapple with creating a retrospective of Stein’s life. I witnessed a trend in the way that they wrote about her, that she was ensuring her safety as a Jew in Nazi-occupied France by making these questionable alliances with Nazi figures. As much as I respect her as a feminist and as the backbone of the Lost Generation of artists, I cannot excuse her political affiliations and ironic, confusing pro-Nazi expressions.
At the end of it all, Stein didn’t strive to be accepted or allow herself to be molded by the society around her. She carved her own place into history and I believe it is important to commemorate it, lest she is lost in the shadows of her male counterparts. As a woman in the art world, looking at Stein as an example liberates me and allows me to embrace subversive expressions of creativity.
My hesitance with being creative started with a set of simple words on my screen: “Nowis the perfect time to write your book!” I encountered variations of these words on Twitter, against the scenic backdrop of a forest in an inspiration post on Instagram. They seemed to follow me everywhere I clicked. These words became a trickling of an inner voice in my head that demanded one thing: write a book. Write the book.
At the time, we were all in our first few weeks of the world-wide lockdown. There was a wave of posts that encouraged people to look at the bright side of staying home. After all, we had the many privileges that came with being able to have our own spaces during this time. We didn’t have to share a common eating space with colleagues and we could work in our pajamas. It wasn’t all bad, right?
Not to mention, while we self-isolated and stayed inside, our schedules had significantly cleared up. These reminders and gentle pushes served as an incentive for us to sit down and do the things we said we’d do if we had more time. My current circumstance, if I would have let it, could have been inspirational. This was the time I had been waiting for, so why wasn’t I typing away?
I imagined myself as an artist who was finally in their own element with nothing but time and energy to create. Cocooned away in blankets, frantically typing away at her next screenplay, she uses the time she would have spent commuting to work to instead perfect her craft. Or perhaps I’d relate more to a woman whose hands dance in the warm light streaming through the window. There are paint streaks on her cheeks and the coffee in her mug has gone cold.
Then, there is also the image of a struggling artist who perseveres against all odds. Their hand is shaking, but resolute, as they photograph minute details of their surrounding, working with what they have. This artist scrapes the barrel for their inspiration, regardless of the clamor outside. Fair. But we need to remind ourselves these are heavily romanticized ways of approaching creativity.
Reading the pandemic was the perfect time to ‘write my book‘ made me feel discouraged. I felt bogged down. I was in mourning for the perfect end to my senior year that now would never be. Trapped in my room, I felt the need to escape. Writing allows me to delve deep into myself – something I could not have been bothered with before the pandemic hit. However, as any writer can tell you, it is an incredible feeling to share your work, but writing can be a terribly lonely and internal process.
I wasn’t partaking in much leisure creativity in those early days. Even writing my college senior project, a creative fictional piece, felt like a chore. All my energy went into listening to the voices that streamed out of my laptop during the last of my online courses.
All I wanted to do was scoop out my mind and leave it in a warm tub to rest. I watched movies, listened to music, and chatted with my roommates, using up the energy I had left on reserve. I didn’t feel inspired to produce some great masterpiece. But I had all the time in the world to do it. Since I wasn’t going anywhere, why wasn’t I writing my book?
Weren’t the arts meant to be those places where we could escape from capitalist expectations of labor and product?
Over time, I felt myself spiraling. I didn’t have an idea of what I would write. I just felt like I had to make something productive out of my time. I genuinely felt I was going to disappoint myself either way, whether I chose to pick up my pen or not.
This is all sounding gloomy, but actually, there were times when I wanted to be creative. When I felt that sudden urge to set off and start working on a new piece of writing or pick up painting as a hobby. I knew when I started working I would feel good about it, but the benchmark had been set so high that I felt discouraged.
When I was packing up to move back home, I stumbled upon a product of my literary past. I had written up a small outline of a short story sometime in January. Immediately, I wanted to drop everything, move aside the boxes from my desk, and bring the story to life.
I had an epiphany- this mindset of creating perfect art was (and is) toxic. Creativity doesn’t have to be productive. Weren’t the arts meant to be an escape from capitalist expectations of labor and product?
I am not wasting my time even if nothing comes of the writing– I am perfecting a craft.
Art didn’t need to be performative either. It didn’t have to wear the fancy label of a ‘novel’ or perform for an audience. I didn’t need to parade around and place a glossy cover over the pages. Instead, I needed to give myself permission to not even have to finish whatever project was in my drafts. Ultimately, I must accept no creative pursuit is ever wasted. I am not wasting my time if nothing comes of the writing. Rather, I am perfecting a craft. As for talent, there is no wasting that unless I don’t use it.
The sooner I realized I could follow my creative instincts without oppressive expectations, the sooner I felt creatively liberated. Whether it bethrough sporadically writing a scene of a story or picking up (and putting down) a paintbrush when I feel inclined, I shouldn’t have felt pressured to fully pursue my creative urges if I didn’t want to. I should be allowed to surrender to that flurry of excitement and passion to simply express myself. Then, when the passion was over, to let it go. Truly, I didn’t even have to show my creative work to anyone or look at it ever again.
I am teaching myself creativity isn’t meant to always be translated into something productive. The funny thing is I often did return to those pieces and paintings and continued to work on them. But that was only possible when I didn’t feel the heavy benchmark of producing a bestseller or a museum-worthy mural on my shoulders.
For stories of Black history and excellence, check out our Black History Month series. Celebrate with us by sharing your favorite articles on social media and uplifting the stories, lives, and work of Black people.
I first heard about the Harlem Renaissance when watching Black Nativity, a retelling of the Nativity story with Black characters.
The Harlem Renaissance was a twentieth-century African-American movement in art, culture, literature, politics, and music. Creativity and intellectual life flourished at this time for African-American communities following the Great Migration, where hundreds of families migrated from the South to the North for economic opportunities and to acquire cultural capital. Major players include Langston Hughes, Adelaide Hall and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
The name Langston was a frequent recurrence in the Black Nativity and I thought to myself, “who was this man?” After researching, I found out that Langston Hughes was an exceptional poet who contributed immensely to the Harlem Renaissance. However, as great as Langston’s poetry is, I began to think about the countless Black women who must have had an influence on the birth of this new African American identity.
It was not limited to only Black men or just Harlem. Despite being centered in Harlem, it was a diasporic movement with Black Francophone writers in Paris being influenced.
As mentioned above, the Harlem Renaissance has been known to be about the emergence of new forms of art and literature by African Americans living in Harlem, New York. After the First World War, artists such as Meta Warrick Fuller were influenced by African themes and this was reflected in her artwork. She was the first Black woman to receive a federal commission for her art. One of her most notable sculptures, ‘Ethiopia Awakening’ (1914) catalyzed the resurgence of numerous African themes in the Harlem Renaissance.
Jessie Redmon Fauset has been described as the “midwife of the Harlem Renaissance” due to her position as the literary editor of The Crisis, an NAACP magazine. Her position as editor gave her the opportunities to promote literary work relating to social movements of the era. Fauset was ahead of her time as an editor! She discouraged writers to write about their struggles being Black in the early 20th century but rather encouraged them to speak about positivity, ensuring there was positive representation of Black identity in the magazine.
It’s interesting to see how even back then there was a collective understanding of what constitutes Black joy, Black identity, and why it must be preserved for future generations. It’s just bittersweet to see that up until today Black people are still writing about struggle given our experiences in the world. I wonder what Fauset anticipated for the future of Black writers. Would they be writing about joy and positivity?
Her influence during the era was unmatched, she bolstered the careers of figures we now know to be Langston Hughes and Nella Larson.
Remember Betty Boop? She was inspired by Josephine Baker. Dubbed the trendsetter and fashionista of the Renaissance, she served as inspiration for Black women and white women at the time with her outfits. Even across the Atlantic, she was causing a commotion. I mean, this is nothing new.
One of the most notable aspects of her career as a dancer is her refusal to perform for segregated audiences and this speaks volumes. By refusing to do so, she acknowledged her worth and respected herself enough by not doing so. I guess not everything is worth the bag. Her fashion influence left people copying left, right and center. Josephine was an influencer before her time.
After shining a light on three prominent women during the Harlem Renaissance, I’ll remember that there are so many stories out there and sometimes you just have to find them.
Visual art can serve as a form of recognition and representation of oppression, history, and violence, especially in the case of visual art created by and for marginalized communities who are denied space in the public sphere. I am speaking specifically about street art and social media art. This type of art is accessible to millions of people across the world, unlike traditional “high art” which is steeped in Western cultural imaginary and acceptability. Public art often pays tribute to narratives which belong to those whose voices are suppressed, and sometimes to the artist. In this way, art is a political tool used for advocacy and social justice.
Art is a political tool used for advocacy and social justice.
Shirien.creates has created powerful visuals of Ahmaud, Breonna, and George on Instagram that hundreds of thousands of people have liked, commented on, and shared on their own profiles as well as other media platforms. The art pieces read “Justice for Ahmaud,” “Justice for Breonna,” and “Justice for George” with their faces, eyes closed, surrounded by a wreath of flowers. These pieces of art are a beautiful contrast to the brutal way all three of these Black men and women were murdered in the name of systemic racism.
Taking the time to draw and paint the faces of those brutalized by racist acts and rhetorics is impactful – it is an act of compassion and respect. Through these drawings, the faces of Ahmaud, Breonna, and Floyd are immortalized.
The art of the artists mentioned above are also championing Black people, Black culture, and Black power in a way that people have not been able to do before. This art has been around for decades. For example, the killing of Rodney King, which was the first incidence of police brutality on camera, inspired incredible art that illustrated the systems of violence in the United States.
The advent of social media, however, has allowed for the fast spread of images and has created an environment in which people cannot get away from these images without completely logging off of all forms of media.
The spiraling events of 2020 have also spurred a huge surge in art created for social justice, partly because social media allows for the simple sharing and transference of art. Art is now made specifically to be shared and reproduced rather than remain isolated in one place.
The street artist who goes by the name, Dugudus, creates murals to bring attention to specific social justice issues. Recently, a mural on the wall of a building in Paris, France of George Floyd’s gruesome death has been circulating social media. In it, the ex-officer who murdered Floyd by kneeling on his neck has Donald Trump’s face and is also holding up a bible, a reference to Trump’s recent photo op preceded by the forceful removal of peaceful protesters with violence in front of St. John’s Church in DC.
This mural proves Black Lives Matter goes beyond US borders and public art transcends the material the world. In his art, Dugudus has implicated and connected so many facets of power that are responsible for the oppression of Black people in the United States. From depicting the ex-officer kneeling on George’s neck as Trump, to Trump holding up a bible as he kneels, to George Floyd’s eyes – which show fear and shock – Dugudus reveals the intricate network of oppression in America that is characterized by police brutality, intolerance and corruption of religion, and an apathetic leadership. These are all parts of a system that purposefully holds Black people and other people of color back from safety and success.
On George Floyd’s body is written, “I can’t breathe.” A phrase that echoes Eric Garner’s pleas and haunts hearts and minds.
More murals of George Floyd have been painted all over the world. From Syria to Ireland, to cities all over the United States. These murals are not just art, but symbols and reminders of the progress that needs to be achieved to eliminate systemic oppression and violence.
When art is advocacy, it is also a decolonial praxis and historical evidence of the state of society.
When art is advocacy, art is also trauma. Art is pain and anger. Art is social justice.
“A little boy in a cowboy suit, writing in a puddle with a stick, a dog approaching. Deaf or dumb, the boy is, like anyone, a little timid, partly stupid, ashamed, afraid, like us, like you. He is there. Picture the boy. See his eyes. Sympathize with his little closes. Now, break his arm. Picture violin section. The violins are on fire. (The following is said almost without anger as if it’s just another request) Now go fuck yourselves.” –Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), Will Eno.
That’s a little absurdism for you there. The next few lines go into the character trying to sound like he’s fine, but he really isn’t. He is spiraling while trying to understand the colloquial term ‘whatever’ because he thinks it will describe how he wants to feel. Did you get that? I hope so. Because underneath the strangeness is a deep vulnerability– and joy in being alive.
It doesn’t want to have a purpose, it embraces being purposeless.
At its core, absurdism is rooted in social activism and rebellion against the norm. At a time when everyone was taking art very seriously and enforcing standards on artist’s practices, absurdists challenged the system. They said, what if we make an art form that defies expectations by being intentionally bizarre? When everything around us is so devoid of reason, embracing irrationality and strangeness may be the next best thing.
With the current pandemic, there is little that we can control. At first, I felt so powerless against it all. That’s when I turned to absurdism. It doesn’t want to have a purpose, it embraces being purposeless. The Dadaist slogan of “art for art’s sake” and absurdism’s love of nonsense is exactly the type of energy we need to be bringing into our lifestyles.
Absurdism taught me to embrace chaos and life not making sense (most of the time). I spent most of my life, as I expect a majority of you did, trying to assign value to myself by the things that I achieved and the decisions I made. Wanting my life to mean something, I quickly grew desperate when things did not turn out as I imagined.
Absurdism taught me to embrace chaos and life not making sense (most of the time).
Take, for instance, applying to jobs or sharing creative work. There is a powerlessness that I feel every single time. I can’t help but think that I am putting myself out there to be judged– which I am, to a certain extent. Recently, after being ghosted by a couple of jobs I had applied to, I was starting to fear that the rest of the year would be the same. All my efforts seemed to be in vain. Keen to maintain a certain image I had of my life, I started reaching out to places that I had no interest in. But I soon became so thankful that things turned out the way they did when a professor reached out to me, excited to have me on board to work on her screenplay– something I deeply enjoyed doing.
Like that last line by Will Eno, I often forgot that life was full of surprises. I learned to be okay with it. More than that, to be happy.
By reading absurdist writers, I embraced the joy of being surprised. I found humor in unexpected things. There was a strength in accepting chaos that I did not find anywhere else. When it seems like the year is going entirely on its own path, I cling to these teachings more than ever. We can’t be stubborn and try to force the year to go in the direction we want it to. We are doing more damage by pulling on the leash and digging our feet into the ground then if we let loose a little and see where the year is headed.
All in all, when things don’t work out, whether it is with your school, career, or relationship prospects, remind yourself that having ‘nothing’ going on shouldn’t be terrible. Just take Daniil Kharm’s The Red-Haired Man, where at the end he admits that he is writing nonsense and gives up entirely. This poem has gotten me out of all types of ruts, both creative and personal.
We can all take a note from absurdism. If we embrace chaos in this way, we can enhance our own sense of wellbeing.
Throughout history, art has been used to challenge hierarchies and protest the status quo. This is still true today. Following the murder of George Floyd, there has been an uprising in support of Black lives led by the Black Lives Matter movement in America and around the world. As millions use their voices to protest injustice, artists are following suit, using their brushes and other tools to create powerful art exposing police violence and systemic racism in America.
Using murals, portraits, and sculptures, artists are delivering political messages through powerful imagery within their art. Below are 17 of these artists.
Based in New York, Errin Donahue is an artist and photographer. In her work, she recreates famous works of art with Black women. Inspired by “Janelle Monae and her racially imaginative Afrofuturism”, the portrait above is titled ‘The Monae Lisa’.
Freelance artist Nikkolas Smith has recently been working on pieces that relate to police brutality. He began sketching as a hobby but his artwork soon went viral and he quit his job as a Disney Imagineer to focus on art. During the Black Lives Matter protests, Smith posted a sketch of Ahmaud Abery on his Instagram, with the caption “…Today I sketch injustice. Today I paint a prayer… “If I shall die before my run, I pray the Lord my case is won.”
Based in Chicago, Ariel Sinha is an artist, designer, and improviser. After hearing about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, Sinha decided to challenge the anger and sadness she felt into her artwork. Using her iPad, she drew portraits of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. In the image above, Sinha drew Riah Milton and Rem’mie Fell, Black trans women who were murdered with the caption, “…Yesterday, in the middle of pride month, on the fourth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub attack, the President took away protections for trans people. It’s not enough to say their names. We must keep standing up and fighting for trans lives and rights.”
Award-winning journalist illustrator and author of Drawing Blood and Brothers of the Gun, Molly Crabapple’s work has been published in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker. She began her journalistic career by sketching illustrations of Occupy Wall Street, and then eventually covered Guantanamo Bay, the US border, refugee camps, Lebanese snipers, and more. Molly’s coverage of police brutality and the ongoing protests is available on the NY Review of Books (the images above). She has also helped to launch the “Drawing as Resistance” program as “a way for volunteers to not only observe [what is going on], but to participate–by drawing as an act of resistance.”
An anonymous England-based street artist, Banksy has used his art for political activism since the ‘90s. He produces pieces of art that pop up in public places, such as the walls of buildings. Banksy has shown support for the Black Lives Matter movement on Instagram, posting his work along with a message, saying “people of color are being failed by the system…This is a white problem. And if white people don’t fix it, someone will have to come upstairs and kick the door in.”
A musical and visual artist and a founding member of the Afro-punk movement, Simi Stone, created a portrait of George Floyd, using her artistry to protest on the canvas. Stone chose bright tints that make Floyd look luminous. Haunted by what had happened to him, Stone wanted to draw him in bright colors.
AJ Alper, a portrait painter, started the social media movement titled #GeorgeFloydPortraitProject to use his voice and Instagram audience to spread awareness about racism. In his project, he did a call out on Instagram, looking for as many portraits as possible to make a video in memory of George Floyd. In the finished piece, attached above, Alper created a compilation video including the nearly 700 artists worldwide who participated and submitted portraits of the project.
Adrian Brandon is a Brooklyn based artist. On his Instagram, he has started a ‘stolen series’, which is dedicated to “the many black people that were robbed of their lives in the hands of the police.” Brandon uses graphite and ink to draw each portrait but also uses time as a medium to determine how long each portrait is colored in: 1 year of life = 1 minute of color. Brandon says, “I played with the harsh relationship between time and death. I want the viewer to see how much empty space is left in these lives, stories that will never be told, space that can never be filled.”
Shane Grammer is a muralist located in Los Angeles. In June, Grammer created a mural of George Floyd. His mural is “dedicated to all of my precious brothers and sisters who have found themselves the victims of racism. You are precious, loved, needed, and vital for our future. We see your pain. We hear your voice.”
Lola Lovenotes (@lovenotes) is a mural artist and creator in New York City. On Juneteenth, Lovenotes shared a mural she created commemorating Breonna Taylor on Instagram, saying she’s “going to keep to keep painting until she and countless others get the justice they deserve”, following a previous message on Instagram saying, “there have been countless racial injustices against Black women, girls, [transwomen + girls], and yet their names are forgotten. Their murders don’t seem to get the same attention as Black men and boys. When we say Black Lives Matter, we need to make sure Black women are included in our demands for justice too!”.
Based in Los Angeles, Otha “Vakseen” Davis III is a visual artist, curator, and musician. He has done a group of portraits in commemoration of Black lives who have been killed by police brutality, titled “Remember Me:” In the portrait above, titled “Remember Me: Elijah McClain”, celebrates the life of Elijah McClain, an innocent young man who was murdered by police in Colorado. Vakseen writes, “A YEAR later and we’re just hearing about this, while the family has been demanding an investigation all this time…A painting isn’t going to end racism. Racism won’t end until we’re ready to have REAL conversations, self-reflection, and make REAL change.”
Sarah Dahir is an artist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her Black Lives Matter art, which features faceless women to represent everyone, has been inspired by photographs from the civil rights movement. Below the illustrations, she writes, “the power of the people is stronger than the people in power.”
Co-founder of Cato Press print studio, Rosanna Morris is located in Bristol U.K. She has created downloadable PDF’s of her Black Lives Matter prints that the public can use, “Put them in your window, take them to your local protest, post them through letterboxes. Do as you like, just please do something more than posting on here. Reach out to your community, your MP, your Granny, and help to do the hard work of change.”
Boyd Samuels is a New York-based artist with a focus on oil painting. He “brings the beauty of the African American form onto his canvas and hopes that his art will inspire his viewers to see it as well.”
Niamah Thomas is an artist and art therapist located in Chicago. Thomas, when creating her portrait of Breonna Taylor (pictured above) wanted Taylor to be illustrated as soft but strong, using softer colors and floral imagery. Thomas writes, “Breonna was shot 8 times by police issuing a ‘no-knock’ warrant on her home. Then they called it a ‘clerical error’. NO. WE DEMAND JUSTICE”.
Teddy Phillips is an artist based in Seattle. He has started a “Justice Series”, which are portraits featured Black men and women who were murdered. One of these portraits, titled “Manny is the Culture/Justice in his name” portrays Manuel Ellis who died while in the custody of four Tacoma police officers.
Ryan Adam is an artist located in Maine. His mural of George Floyd in Portland, Maine, is shown in the picture above. He writes, “However you choose to act, whether it be self-care, education, marching in the streets or expressing yourself through your work, please, please do something.”
Similarly to these artists, there are many ways to protest and challenge the structures that allow racism and police brutality to continue. Your responsibility isn’t absolved by reposts on Instagram. Educate yourself and actively challenge these injustices in whatever way you can.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock this past decade, you’ve probably heard of Charli XCX. The music provocateur broke out in the early 2010s by featuring in Iggy Azalea’s iconic smash-hit Fancy, and then made her own mark in the music industry with her song Boom Clap.
Truth to be said, none of these songs appealed to me. Their brashness, and lack of lyrical creativity was something I disliked (along with how overplayed they were). But over the years, Charli XCX has managed to completely flip her sound, from a traditional raucous pop formula to a futuristic, unique techno-rave one that’s ahead of its time. Simply put, Charli has become a niche, unstoppable force in her field – a kind of evolution that’s nothing short of admirable.
And that’s why, it’s no surprise to her fans that in the past 6 weeks, she’s made an entire album from scratch. Dubbed as ‘the first album of the quarantine’, How I’m Feeling Now features experimental club tracks, edgy ballads and anthemic production. In true millennial fashion, Charli documented the whole album-making process – collaborating with fans for song lyrics, sharing melodies on Instagram Live and vlogging her all-nighters while editing its tracks – a kind of transparency in creative process that is almost unheard of.
The album heavily centers around the rollercoaster of emotions she’s felt during this uncertain time, isolation, nostalgia and the highs and lows of her relationship. The album kicks off with “pink diamond”, a bombastic, electronic expression of missed adrenaline rushes, with a Grimes-esque influence. It’s glossy and laser-sharp- setting a good precedent for the rest of the album.
It’s similar to “anthems“, a club banger designed specifically for a party for one. The track is studded with synths, cut-up and layered in just the right places – making it feel refreshing yet familiar at the same time. It’s a Charli classic – the noisy, glamorous aesthetic that she’s mastered in previous mixtapes, like Vroom Vroom.
However, it’s at her most vulnerable that Charli XCX truly shines on the record. On “claws”, which is a neon-pink, mutant pop confession of being helplessly in love, she puts forth one of her catchiest melodies. It’s an upbeat song with an incredible beat – one that’s definitely a hidden gem in the singer’s discography. “forever”, the album’s second single, is possibly quarantine in a song. Charli XCX wistfully reminisces on the lifestyle we all took for granted before the pandemic. The production is invasive and harsh at first – but is somehow complemented by the gentle, fairy-like vocals Charli provides.
Charli manages to lend her signature, electro-pop touch to the albums ballads as well, a prime example of this being the emotional “7 years” – a tribute to the beauty of long-term love. It’s endearing and complemented by its low-key, subtle instrumental.
While How I’m Feeling Now does have its weak, almost excessive moments – such as “c2.0” whose artistic aim is ruined by splintered, static production – it’s a cohesive, varied body of work. Charli encapsulates the anxious, yet hopeful emotion that we’re all feeling right now. With no collaborators (unlike her previous work, the self-titled Charli), it puts the singer at the forefront of music, proving how much of an innovator she is in her arena.
If there’s anyone who knows how to do internet-pop, it’s Charli XCX, and How I’m Feeling Now is a testament to that.
There has always been a lingering, extremely negative stigma around tattoos. Whether that be the impression that they’re a reckless craft or profession, that they’re a reflection of unprofessionalism on the wearer, or that the kind of person who gets tattoos is a bad influence and misguided. My whole life, the narrative that tattoos are associated with illegal activities and reckless behaviour has been practically embedded into my social imagining. For a while, I believed it too. I thought that having a tattoo very much meant being unsuccessful in the career that I chose and that I would be going against the picture that had been painted for me. And in doing so, I would be letting everyone around me down, everyone who played some kind of part in raising me. Funnily enough, these are the same people who told me countless times that it is important to march to the beat of my own drum and to be the captain of my own ship. Go figure.
Especially being a girl, I’ve been told that tattoos are ugly, inappropriate, and distasteful. That the second I taint my body with ink, the body that is also supposed to be my own canvas, my worth diminishes dramatically. People start to look at me differently. I am no longer the girl that they thought I was. In a matter of seconds, their entire perception of me changes and everything they know about me is altered.
This is the reality for so many young people and it is incredibly disheartening because most tattoos, if not all, can hold a deeper meaning. Plus, it shouldn’t even matter if the tattoo is meaningful or not, as long as the person adorned by it is happy and comfortable. Tattoos can be an exceptional medium for self-expression. Every little detail in a tattoo is an example of individuality that is impossible to replicate because everyone’s skin and everyone’s intent is entirely different.
Most tattoos are real-life embellishments drenched in symbolism and motifs, and if you really think about it, tattoos are beautiful beyond being art. They are meant to be read like a book and tell you something about the wearer. You can learn a multitude of unspoken stories about a person just by looking at their tattoos, and these are usually the things that are most dear to their heart and truly make them who they are. These are the things that they’re so determined to never let go of that they literally make it a part of their skin and their blood. They tell you stories of growth, romance, culture, grief, passion, religion, wit, and determination. People wear art that speaks to them and makes them feel something. Tattoos are a love story in and of themselves.
I cherish my tattoo. It’s a very small pink dove near my left rib cage. I was 18 years old at the time that I got it done. Most people thought that I was acting in defiance, that I was being rebellious, and that I would regret it eventually.
Well, they were all wrong.
I wasn’t being defiant and I will never regret it. I got my tattoo because it is something that I knew I needed to do for myself if I was ever going to move past what had happened, if I was ever going to move forward. That year, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, had a double mastectomy, and went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy. With all of those odds against her, she survived. She is the strongest woman that I’ve ever known and will ever know.
But still, the pressure and the helplessness that I felt and continue to feel can sometimes seem never-ending. I can never shake that fear, no matter how relieved I am to be out of the thick of it. So, I decided to commemorate the moment with something meaningful that is mine, and mine entirely.
My favorite quote from the novel Jane Eyre says this: “I am no bird and no net ensnares me, I am a free human being with an independent will.” That quote seemed to describe what I was feeling, and really what I needed to be told, effortlessly. So, my bird is pink for breast cancer. I got it as a daily reminder of strength, resilience, and soaring above the ashes, just as my mother did. I too can soar.
“I think I’m going to apply for Journalism,” I said without a second thought. It was the last year of high school and teachers were constantly inquiring about our future plans. I saw my teacher stop in her tracks. I could almost see the knobs turning erratically in her mind while the wires glitched and sparked. “Journalism? How is that going to make you any money?” she asked while looking incredulously at other students who stared back at her in confusion.
This was not an isolated incident. My plans to pursue a career in journalism were constantly interrogated and mocked in my last years of high school, especially by my teachers. The same treatment was not afforded to students who sought a degree in medicine, mathematics, engineering, and computer science. The sciences were simply glorified more than the arts.
I lived in a community that was founded by the first Indian settlers who were brought as indentured laborers to work in sugarcane plantations. Their lives were difficult, and education, as a means to escape poverty, was (and still is) an immense privilege. A culture of striving to attain high paying jobs was born out of this poverty my ancestors constantly fought to escape from.
Both India and South Africa are developing countries. When my ancestors left India for South Africa, they brought with them the mindset of only pursuing things that are monetarily advantageous. Studying towards a high paying job was the goal, and that demanded one to excel at mathematics and science. Many believed the average doctor or engineer to bring in a higher income than the average painter or poet. However, being good at (or simply just passionate about) English Literature and writing? Well, that was of no use.
My grandfather saw his own father pursue his passion to the detriment of his family. My great-grandfather fought against the Apartheid government – an undeniably admirable thing to do. However, this did not afford him the luxury of having a stable job or home. He was constantly on the run. Constantly in hiding. You can imagine the effect it all had on my grandfather’s childhood. To put it quite simply- he grew up with zero financial security. It shaped the way he thought about work, which in turn, shaped his life.
My grandfather loves singing. In his youth, he was in a band. When I was growing up, he used to burst out into song whenever the mood suited him, and all his grandchildren loved to listen. However, despite expressing regret at not being able to pursue his passion, he knew that becoming a factory manager was the responsible thing to do for his family at the time. They needed to eat, and singing did not pay the bills.
No one can deny the immense sadness that comes with this mindset. Many in my community had to sacrifice their passions in order to live with the security that a stable income brings. This is not to say that people aren’t passionate about maths or the sciences, or that the arts can never make one any money. However, occupations paid through a commission system or only pay once someone gets a gig provided a less constant income – something people living in poverty can just not afford to risk. As seen in my grandfather’s case, some just do not have the luxury of pursuing what they love.
Things have changed for the worse in my experience. This culture has evolved into not just viewing education as a means to earn more money, but it has become a shaming tactic. The prioritization of the sciences over the arts resulted in my community attributing intelligence to only those who excel academically in the former. Anyone else was basically considered stupid.
There is a stereotype that both East and South Asians excel in school. My mere racial identity placed this pressure on me to prove my worth through academic achievements. But even when I did well in school, if it was not in mathematics, then it meant very little.
Though the historical context of gravitating towards certain professions to alleviate poverty makes sense and once served a purpose, I now see how outdated and unhealthy it can be for a community, especially their youth. Money can be a powerful thing, so choosing between what you love and how much you want to earn can be an incredibly difficult decision. However, I like to believe that if you follow your heart, you’ll figure out the practicalities along the way.
Some may believe my decision to make a career out of writing was too risky…perhaps outright irresponsible. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
Getting to the Oscars is the dream of everyone who’s ever wished to work in entertainment,
It’s been almost three years since the Harvey Weinstein exposé (did you hear? He got a 23-year prison sentence!). When I was young, I always wanted to work in entertainment, and Miramax was the Holy Grail. Learning that this man who I revered so much abused his power in a myriad of ways was terrifying. So I did what I always did, I tried to make sense of it all. How exactly was this man able to hold an entire industry hostage for three decades? My search for answers led me to all ends of the internet.
Then in a stroke of luck (but really, intelligent algorithms), I found the Be Kind and Rewind Youtube channel. The very first video I came across was the titled ‘Harvey Weinstein and the Oscars.’ In this video essay, the Youtuber discussed how Harvey Weinstein refined the art of Oscars Campaigning. From finding out where Oscars voters vacation and setting up screens there to utilizing press relationships. All of these things induced a particular kind of anticipation for Miramax films. Miramax studios created ads specifically for high profile magazines like The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. Harvey Weinstein’s effect on the Academy Award process is apparent. What we often declare as ‘Oscars bait’ films, such as period dramas and inspirational movies, were perfected to garner wins by the Miramax Company.
This Youtube channel also discusses how an award isn’t necessarily a pronouncement of someone’s talent or quality of the film. An excellent example is Elizabeth Taylor’s Academy Award win for Butterfield 8. A film about a Manhattan call girl that is in a doomed affair with a married man. The narrative surrounding Elizabeth Taylor was closer to her winning the award rather than the film itself. Butterfield 8 isn’t a good movie. I could argue that’s a bad film. Elizabeth Taylor disparaged the film for the rest of her life. However, the image Elizabeth Taylor took on after filming the movie is what is of great importance.
During the filming of Cleopatra, she contracted pneumonia, which could have killed her. As Be Kind and Rewind is quick to point out, this coincided with the Academy Award voting period. One of the most bankable stars in the world had been on the brink of death. After years of snubs, Elizabeth Taylor got what she wanted: an Oscar.
Be Kind and Rewind focuses on the stars of old, not because of nostalgia. But because in our contemporary times we have somehow convinced ourselves that the machinations of film studios and actresses are a new phenomenon. There have always been ‘just due’ awards. Before Leonardo Dicaprio had to suffer for The Revenant, Geraldine Page suffered an entire career’s worth of Oscar losses. She finally won in 1986 for the film Life is Beautiful in the Best Actress category even though Whoopi Goldberg had a fantastic run that year. Life Is Beautiful was a good movie, but Geraldine was not being awarded for that film in particular; she was being awarded for a lifetime of excellent work.
Insights like these are essential because, as we look back at the best films of 2019, we often think about which films should be awarded in simplistic terms. But awards are never just about the film, the director or the cast and crew. They are a way to leverage the power and gain influence in the industry. They are a pronouncement on what a governing body thinks is valuable. That being said, it’s the audience that can ascribe life to art. After all, The Color Purple is still a beloved film.
The Youtube channel Be Kind and Rewind also hits the apparent failings of these awards – consistently excluding women. Particularly women of color. The refusal to reward films that are challenging rather than safe ones and how these awards encourage a winner take all mindset. The lack of attention and respect that foreign films get is another failure. Foreign language films are less likely to win awards in major categories, creating a bias against them. Truthfully, most winners we see kiss their statues are American and British actors and actresses. This is why Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite Oscar sweep was so satisfying to watch amongst so many people.
On some level, we all know that people in expensive gowns handing out awards is an exercise of vanity and navel-gazing. Yet we still enjoy it because we believe it’s a meritocracy when the truth is murkier than that. The relationship between the Oscars voters and Oscars winners is uncomfortably close. Through discovering this channel, I was able to understand the real importance of taking award seasons with a grain of salt.
Awards are a very narrow arbiter of excellence. And the real power of a film lies with those who watch it with no reservations or motives.
Late last year, Martin Scorsese landed himself in the ire of moviegoers all over the world. The question that must be asked is, what could this beloved filmmaker possibly have said? There is a certain amount of goodwill that is granted to people who make good art. In labeling superhero films as ‘not cinema,’ he opened up an entire can of worms. Like many people, when I first heard the snippet of his comment, I was pretty upset myself.
I love Marvel films and superhero films in general. I enjoy going to the movies and knowing what I’m getting. To me, and countless people, it sounded like Martin Scorsese was giving the fans of these juggernauts the kiss-off. However, I decided to avoid the clickbait temptations of the internet and read Mr. Scorsese’s New York Times’ op-ed in its entirety. In doing so, I gained a deeper understanding of his comments. I also realized that I think he’s right.
In his thought-out and lengthy response to the mounting criticism, he laid out a few things. The first being the undeniable talent of every single arm of these films, from the cast to the set designers and creative directors. It takes skill and precision to make films of that caliber. The second, and I think, the most critical point he expanded on is the quality of the movie. He never said they were terrible or poorly written and acted. He said they weren’t cinema.
So what does that mean? In my opinion, for a film to be part of cinema, there is be something in the story that mirrors reality. Reality is messy, unfair, beautiful, and tragically funny. Nothing is promised. You won’t be getting that in a Marvel film. Sure, our heroes will go through some growing pains, but in the end, you know they’ll be fine. In other words, there is no emotional risk involved. There is no acknowledgment that sometimes the bad guys win, and no, you don’t get a do-over.
That in itself isn’t a problem. Sometimes it’s comforting to know exactly how a film is going to end. The growing diversity and racial reflection of our society is beautiful to see as well. The real issue is that these well done, fun, massively entertaining, and formulaic movies are pushing out riskier, less straight-edged ones. Superhero franchises are a sure thing, unlike the work of independent filmmakers. Directors like Greta Gerwig, Ava Duvarnay, and Mounia Meddour continue to make waves. Still, the space for them in the broader film landscape is smaller than ever because of franchise superhero films. Smaller, more intimate pictures by independent directors are gaining a new life on streaming platforms; however, there is still a novelty and magic in physically leaving your space to experience something new with strangers.
Our artistic education can become a lot more limited and narrow-minded when we only see particular stories. We need to accept that the trend of seeing everything through as superhero lens isn’t necessarily a good thing. The return of the more corporatized model of filmmaking is, in the long run, detrimental because it reduces every artistic choice to money alone. When we watch Marvel films, a writer didn’t decide that he or she had something interesting to say and then penned a story. A director didn’t take a said script and roam free with artistic license.
The truth is way less romantic than that. A board room full of people sorted through what licensed properties they already owned the rights to and decided what would be the most profitable to make. Every single aspect of production is tightly pre-designed down to the color grading, which is how we end up with Ant-Man (who needed this film??). In between the endless reboots that occasionally get wrapped up in racist rhetoric, we are completely ignoring the dearth of original, exciting content that isn’t getting made. Even if some of these films are getting the green light, it is not on the same scale franchises and reheated intellectual property are.
Martin Scorsese’s comments came from a place of concern for the future of film that encourages a little faith that what you are about to see is worth your time and effort.
In an age where ‘sameness’ seems to prevail more than ever, thanks to the rise of social media, we need independent filmmakers more than ever. Variety and risk are what makes just about anything worthwhile, and in the film business, we stand a higher chance of losing it.
The next time you decide to see a new film, consider seeing something that challenges you. After all, that’s the whole point of cinema.