Category Archives: Art

An imperiled treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Huichol people live in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, in in the states of Jalisco, Durango, Nayarit.

They were rediscovered in popular culture north of the border in the 1960s because their religion centers on the use of peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus native to their mountains, and because of their colorful and utterly psychedelic artworks.

In this Wikimedia image of a Huichol mask, the symbol for peyote dominates the forehead, an apt representation of the central role played by the cactus in Huichol life:

BLOG Huichol mask

Huichol culture is in danger, in part because a generation of elders has died, often without leaving behind students who have mastered the rich and intricate oral traditions that bound the preliterate Huichols together.

Our first video offering, a short 1992 documentary by Ryan Noble, features Huichols from the villages of Las Guayabas and San Andreas, in which one remarks on the threatened loss of the ancient culture: “We want to live and remember so that it doesn’t end.”

Note also the system of agriculture employed by the Huichol, the traditional Mexican milpa, the only system of agriculture which has allowed for continuous cultivation for millennia without the use of either pesticides or fertilizers.

The Huichols: History – Culture – Art

Huichol art a sometimes take on a larger scale, as illustrated in this image from Mexico’s Museo de Arte Popular, a sight to stir twitches of envy in the souls of Berkeley’s own art car ornamenters.

BLOG Huichol art car

But the mountains that are home to the Huichols are coveted by multinational corporations, which have been logging the trees and devastating the landscape, forcing ever-larger numbers of Huichols to head to the lowlands simply to survive.

And the jobs awaiting them there are killing them, quite literally.

From Huicholes Contra Plaguicidas:

Huichols and Pesticides

Program notes:

Huichols & Pesticides, documents, through witnesses, reports and persuasive images, the indiscriminate use of pesticides in the tobacco fields, and the poisonings, and even deaths, resulting from the use of agrochemicals.

One notable effort to preserve the Huichols and their way of life is being undertaken by the Huichol Center for Cultural Survival and the Traditional Arts:

The Huichol Center: A model for cultural survival

Program notes:

This documentary was produced to support The Huichol Center. The Center helps the Huichol people of Mexico maintain their culture, art and spirituality. The Huichols have been almost untouched by modern civilization, and have been able to maintain their ancient ways despite crushing poverty and disease.

With their ancient heritage, their system of sustainable organic agriculture, and an artistic tradition that merges the sacred and the profane in unique ways, the Huichol surely deserve protection from the ravages of corporate imperialism and agricultural toxins.

To close, a final image, via Wikipedia, this time of a Huichol yarn painting:

BLOG Huichol yarn

And now for something completely different. . .

We’re always willing to sit back and given a listen when older British actors sit down to reminisce.

British actors traditionally flowed easily between film, television, and, of course, the stage, unlike in the United States [until recently], where agents typically kept film stars off the tube, and where the capitals of stage and film are a continent apart.

Today’s video treat comes from this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, across the Bay from Casa esnl, where one of Britain’s finest actors, Sir. Ian McKellen, sat down, microphone in hand, to pay tribute to the women of film — both in front of the camera and behind it — who have graced his life.

From the Mill Valley Film Festival:

Ian McKellen Remembers. . . Women I’ve Filmed with

Program notes:

From Ava Gardner and Meryl Streep to Mrs. Harold Pinter and Laura Linney, McKellen has worked with the best on screen. This one-hour talk was a unique event devised exclusively for MVFF. A great companion piece to his Tribute at the Festival, his presentation highlighted his work with some of cinema’s most legendary actresses, including Gardner, Streep, Pinter, and Linney as well as Grace Kelly, Flora Robson, Sandy Dennis, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Annette Bening, Lynn Redgrave, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates, Stockard Channing, Halle Berry, Natasha Richardson, Audrey Tatou, and Cate Blanchett.

And now for something completely different. . .

The late Scottish-born Canadian animator Norman McLaren pioneered or refined many of the forms of animation we take for granted today, and much of his best work was done for the National Film Board of Canada, one of the greatest nurturing institutions in the history of film and video animation.

Bring together the talents of McLaren and another Canadian genius, pianist supreme Glenn Gould, then throw in one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s greatest compositions, and a work of singular magic is assured.

Do pop the video up to high resolution, turn off Annotations to get rid of that annoying logo, then pop it up to full screen and sit back and enjoy.

From the National Film Board of Canada:


Program notes, from a Google translation from the French:

Animated short film by Norman McLaren and René Jodoin. In a kind of playful movement, white spheres in a colorful sky. These spheres are aligned, are grouped and multiply, sometimes colliding against each other. At the piano, Glenn Gould performs excerpts from the “Well-Tempered Clavier” by Bach and gives the film its rhythm and pace that characterizes it.

And now for something completely different. . .

Here’s another visually and conceptually stunning offering from the National Film Board of Canada, an Oscar-winning animation about animators.

And do watch at full screen and 1080p resolution, available by clicking on the gear icon. While you’re at it, turn off Annotations to get rid of the logo so you can watch this remarkable work free of distraction:


Program notes:

Winner of the 2005 Oscar® for Best Short Animation

This Oscar®-winning animated short from Chris Landreth is based on the life of Ryan Larkin, a Canadian animator who produced some of the most influential animated films of his time. Ryan is living every artist’s worst nightmare – succumbing to addiction, panhandling on the streets to make ends meet. Through computer-generated characters, Landreth interviews his friend to shed light on his downward spiral. Some strong language. Viewer discretion is advised.

Directed by Chris Landreth – 2004

Salt of the Earth: A cinematic blacklist riposte

Bryan Cranston has been getting rave reviews for his performance in Trumbo, starring as Dalton Trumbo, a brilliant Hollywood talent blacklisted from the American cinema  during the 19o50s for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the long-disbanded platform for demagogues looking to build political careers by capitalizing on the anti-communist hysteria of the early Cold War years.

Trumbo was a brilliant screenwriter and an acerbic novelist [Johnny Got his Gun, a 1938 anti-war novel, had a powerful impact on an 18-year-old esnl and played a critical role in our opposition to the then-developing Vietnam War.

But Trumbo was a Communist, a member of the Communist Party of the U.S.A.

Like other blacklisted writers, Trumbo continued writing and producers kept buying his scripts, which uncredited, credited under a pseudonym, or credited with the name of an actual human serving as front.

Dalton Trumbo was a member of the Hollywood Ten, the writers and directors cited for contempt of Congress following their refusal to answer the infamous question “Are you now or have you ever been” a member of the Communist Party.

A fair number of famous writers found refuge writing for a British television rebroadcast on CBS in the U.S. A young esnl never missed an episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood.

[As David Bushman, television curator for the Paley Center for Media, noted, “Robin is the perfect metaphor for the blacklisted left-wing artist—refusing to surrender his principles, he chooses to live outside the law rather than endorse a pernicious regime, and devotes his life to championing the oppressed.”]

All of which brings us to another member of that select list, Herbert J. Biberman, and another way of fighting the blacklist under his own name. The result was a 1954 film he wrote and directed, Salt of the Earth, about a strike by New Mexico miners, a strike transformed when the strikers’ wives took their places on the picket line. The film is based on a 1951 strikes by New Mexico minors.

The film deals with themes that would continue to resonate in decades ahead, including ethnic conflict [mine owners paid Hispanic workers less than their anglo counterparts and provided them with inferior housing], female equality, and the right of workers to organize and strike for a larger share of the profits from their own labor.

The film was produced by another blacklist victim, Paul Jarrico, and featured only five professional actors, with the rest recruited from the community where the film was made. One actor, Will Geer, would later become a beloved member of the cast of a popular television series, The Waltons, while another cast member, David Wolfe, would never act again for the large or small screens. A third actor, Rosaura Revueltas, came up from Mexico to take the lead role as narrator and driver of the action. She was arrested and deported near the end of the filming, forcing some of the final shots to be made in Mexico. And for her labor, she was herself added to the blacklist. The American Film Institute describes events that transpired days after her arrest:

On 2 Mar 1953, the film’s cast and crew were met by a citizen’s committee in Central, NM, and ordered to leave town. The following day, in Silver City, NM, the company was warned to “get out of town…or go out in black boxes.” Jencks was beaten and shots were fired at his car while it was parked outside his home. When the company did not capitulate to the demands, there was a “citizens’ parade” led by a sound car blaring, “We don’t want Communism; respect the law; no violence, but let’s show them we don’t like it.” The UMMSW, which had been expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations for alleged pro-Communist leanings, responded that “we have the right to make and complete our movie.” Then on 8 Mar 1953, the union hall in Bayard, NM was set on fire, and the union hall in nearby Carlsbad was burned to the ground, according to Biberman’s book. Biberman also notes that cast member Floyd Bostick’s home was destroyed by fire.

The troubles didn’t end once the film was in the can. Only a dozen theaters in the U.S. braved threats and violence to screen the film, and its was rarely seen thereafter, resurfacing on colleges campuses during the 1960s.

While some aspects of the film are dated and most of the cast had no acting experience, the film remains surprisingly relevant, confronting many of the same issues now confronting a growing percentage of the American working class.

And with that, now for the movie [and do click on the gear and up the resolution to 720p.

From Floyd Corcoran:

Salt of the Earth [1954]

Finding Monet’s palette in a mountain stream

Impressionism was born on the water, or, more accurately, from the play of light and color upon the constantly shifting surface of water stirred by winds and tides.

From Encyclopedia Britannica:

In the late 1860s Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and others began painting landscapes and river scenes in which they tried to dispassionately record the colours and forms of objects as they appeared in natural light at a given time. These artists abandoned the traditional landscape palette of muted greens, browns, and grays and instead painted in a lighter, sunnier, more brilliant key. They began by painting the play of light upon water and the reflected colours of its ripples, trying to reproduce the manifold and animated effects of sunlight and shadow and of direct and reflected light that they observed. In their efforts to reproduce immediate visual impressions as registered on the retina, they abandoned the use of grays and blacks in shadows as inaccurate and used complementary colours instead. More importantly, they learned to build up objects out of discrete flecks and dabs of pure harmonizing or contrasting colour, thus evoking the broken-hued brilliance and the variations of hue produced by sunlight and its reflections. Forms in their pictures lost their clear outlines and became dematerialized, shimmering and vibrating in a re-creation of actual outdoor conditions. And finally, traditional formal compositions were abandoned in favour of a more casual and less contrived disposition of objects within the picture frame. The Impressionists extended their new techniques to depict landscapes, trees, houses, and even urban street scenes and railroad stations.

Here, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is one such result, Claude Monet’s triptych Water Lilies [1914-1926], depicted in an image we captured [and do click on it to enlarge]:

19 August 2007, Nikon D200, 24mm. F/3.8, 30 sec, ISO 800

19 August 2007, Nikon D200, 24mm. F/3.8, 30 sec, ISO 800

Two years later, and one the other side of the continent, we were wandering through Muir Woods on Mount Tamalpais north of San Francisco when we came upon a mountain stream in the late afternoon and noticed reflections on the water.

Where had we seen that before, we mused. Then thought of that image above. We lifted our Nikon, and captured this:

23 July 2009, Nikon D300, 105mm. F/5.3, 1/30 sec, ISO 2000

23 July 2009, Nikon D300, 105mm. F/5.3, 1/30 sec, ISO 2000

We edged closer to the water, and captured this:

23 July 2009, Nikon D300, 200 mm. F/5.6, 1/30 sec, ISO 2000

23 July 2009, Nikon D300, 200 mm. F/5.6, 1/30 sec, ISO 2000

Finally, we walked into shadow, and captured another image, reflecting yet more of the colors in Monet’s palette:

23 July 2009, Nikon D300, 130mm. F/5.6, 1/30 sec, ISO 1000

23 July 2009, Nikon D300, 130mm. F/5.6, 1/30 sec, ISO 1000

Impressionism, it’s truly everywhere.

And, no, we didn’t edit the the colors in the photos in any way.

Life at Guantanamo Bay and the art of protest

Our video offering features the latest edition of the Laura Flanders Show, a report on the art of protest in the form of an unusual performance piece featuring an American musician and performance artist teamed up with one of the youngest prisoners ever held at the Guantamo Bay concentration camp.

Because Mohammed el Gharani is barred from entering the United States, he appears in the form of a hologram projected onto a chair that is also a work of sculpture.

So who is he?

From Wikipedia:

Mohammed el Gharani is a citizen of Chad and native of Saudi Arabia born in 1986, in Medina. He was one of the juveniles held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp with an estimated age of 15–16 years when he arrived at the camps. Human Rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith identified Al Qarani as one of a dozen teenage boys held in the adult portion of the prison.

The Independent said Gharani was accused of plotting with Abu Qatada, in London, in 1999 – when he was a 12-year-old, living with his parents, in Saudi Arabia. He was detained for seven years in the United States Guantanamo Bay detention camps.

On January 14, 2009, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon ordered the release of Gharani because the evidence that he was an enemy combatant was mostly limited to statements from two other detainees whose credibility had been called into question by US government staff. Gharani’s attorney Zachary Katznelson said after the ruling “Judge Leon did justice today. This is an innocent kid when he was seized illegally in Pakistan and should never have been in prison in the first place.”

In a piece for the London Review of Books, el Gorani described one experience at Gitmo, a conversation with another black man, intermediated by prison bars:

Once, in 2005, one of our brothers was badly beaten in front of us. I sat in my room not speaking to anyone all day. During night shift, one of the good guards, a black guy from Louisiana, came to me. We called him Mike Tyson because he was a boxer. He used to bump my fist through the bars: ‘Wassup, Chris?’

‘If at least we’d done something bad, I could understand …’

‘Brother, look at my face!’ he said. ‘How long you’ve been here with Americans?’

‘Four years.’

‘I’ve been suffering 27 years, man! I know what it is. They put my brother in jail for no reason, instead of a white guy.’ Most of the people in jail in US are blacks, he told me. ‘My grandfather and my great-grandfather were in the situation you’re in now.’ He meant they were slaves, shackled like us.

So how did Anderson work to convey a sense of the emotional intensity of Gharani’s experience given his physical absence?

From Telesur English:

Laura Flanders – Laurie Anderson & Mohammed el Gharani: Habeas Corpus

Program notes:

Like all men held at Guantanamo Bay, Mohammed el Gharani, who was imprisoned at the age of 14, is barred from entering the USA. But American artist Laurie Anderson found a way to bring him to the states, via telepresence. Laura talks with Anderson about presence, absence and the questions raised in Anderson’s latest attention-getting performance, Habeas Corpus. We also hear from el Gharani, who was held at Guantanamo from 2002 until his release in 2009, about prison-camp solidarity, the prisoner who is his hero, and his thoughts on slavery and the Middle Passage – then and now. All that and an F Word from Laura on a long, 40 second delay.