Looking out the windows at the Spring/Break art fair vernissage.
Looking out the windows at the Spring/Break art fair vernissage.
14 photos from the Women’s March in Washington D.C. 1/21/17. All photos by Michael Serafino.
Gagosian Gallery in Midtown put up about a billion dollars worth of nudes, mostly men painting women. Here are a few details from the fleshy romp through modern and contemporary figure painting.
What always surprises me when I’m lucky enough to get in front of a Currin is the brushyness of it. The old master technique is visible on the surface, not secretive at all.
The patina on this is stunning, lustrous. You could treat a bronze cast of a clod of dirt with it, and I’d be mesmerized. (A note of caution, I crushed my hand on the door handle going out to the roof deck. There’s not clearence for a hand to go between the handle and the door jam, rather odd really.)
The glass between the viewer and the art is always disappointing (Francis Bacon’s suffer similarly), but it makes sense as this work is likely worth 8 digits before the decimal. Get up close to the hands and feet before the guards yell at you, it’s worth a close look
This Cézanne is basically a detail in the show, it’s tiny and in a huge frame (I’ve cropped about half of it out). The clarity of this piece in person is remarkable, the brushstrokes are fractured, stitched together like a quilt made by a drunkard, but the overall effect is crystalline. I think this guy Cézanne knows what he’s doing, I’d like to sign up for the newsletter.
Another example of Currin’s subtle touch. His sexually explicit and provocative content provides a convenient excuse for the prudish art viewer to dismiss his genius. There’s probably not a greater figure painter working today than John Currin. His women are attenuated, extra-vertebraed impossibilities that are marvelous to behold even as a close inspection shows you they’re about to rip apart.
Nicole Eisenmann is taking over.
She won a MacArthur genius grant. New works are going up at Anton Kern Gallery later this month. And, now open at the New Museum, a succinct, impactful retrospective. During this Spring of 2016, Nicole Eisenman is getting a close look as one of NYC’s premier painters. Here’s a brief post about the New Museum retro.
The paintings are self aware, not in a SKYNET sense, but that references to their own making are embedded on the surface.
The more academically inclined ones seem to know it, and they don’t veer from their stylistic lanes, but still manage to bring a sense of wryness.
Nothing is taken too seriously. Some of the images would be horrifying if they weren’t so over the top.
The variety of ways faces are portrayed illuminates Eisenmann’s understanding of art history. Ensor and Bacon come to mind.
The variety of surface rewards the painters. and everyone else who thinks these little ripples matter a whole lot. The textures feel meaningful. Slicker paint leans intellectual, clinical; chunky gives turbulence, viscerality. Seeing Eisenman’s fluency across styles is the joy of the show.
They are chock-a-block with details to to get lost in.
This looks like paranoia about being two-dimensional (metaphorically and literally), but brings her signature whimsy.
Go take a look, these paintings look back. Open until June 26th.
Author’s Note: My few experiences are in no way an adequate source of knowledge about Saudi Arabia. For that, I’d recommend a book called “The Kingdom”, by Robert Lacey. I wish I’d read it earlier, maybe I would have been more understanding, and more tolerant. I’m sure there are a lot of good books on Saudi. But these are just a couple of pissed-off, smart-ass emails. Don’t expect too much.
“You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.”
The Fucking Wasteland
I’ve only been here a few days, and I haven’t seen much of anything apart for a drive along the highway from the airport to the medical city where I’m living. Clusters of dust-colored, identical buildings, cranes everywhere, lots of trucks carrying powdered cement, piping, rebar. The signs were in Arabic and English, one of them for an “Islamic Port” – I have no idea what that means. The place where I’m living looks a lot like a medical complex in any developed country: glass and cement facades, interiors wallpapered with money (sterile tile floors, subtle lighting, wood paneling, boring-but-probably-very-expensive abstract art, etc.), and lots and lots of parking. The apartment complex where I live is nicely landscaped and maintained. Lots of flowers, palm trees, shrubbery. Olympic-sized pool. There’s another living area for the Filipino workers that I see when I go out jogging – it’s a trailer park behind chain link and barbed wire, four people to a trailer (nurses, techs, construction workers, janitors – the janitors are contracted out by Bin Laden, actually). The barbed wire around the white people’s complex (North American, European, Antipodean) is mounted on top of a ten-foot stucco wall. Which is nicer, I guess.
So, not a ton to report, except for the fact that I’m not dead, or even detained at customs. Actually, having spent six months getting my visa, I was pretty disappointed in the lack of interest the customs agents showed in me. Someone from the hospital met me at the gate, and cut to the front of a line that was mostly women with young children exhausted from a thirteen hour flight, which was off-putting to say the least. This guy joked around with the customs agent who fingerprinted and photographed me, then my bags went through an x-ray machine manned by two guys who either were asleep, or were just resting their eyes for a while.
My job is entertaining, in that I’m amused by how boring it is. People have repeatedly apologized for that fact that I’ll have to work 20 hours per week, and have rushed to assure me that next semester will be much, much less work. My boss gave us a little pep talk today – the phrase, “we are teachers, so our first priority is to get paid and take the money home to our families,” actually crossed his lips. He said that it would be difficult to stretch the curriculum for an entire semester, but that we had to be careful not to present the students with any material that might be too challenging, because if they complain, the administration will have to do something about it. Most of the students got into this school because they’re well connected – their fathers are generals or sheikhs or whatever – so the students are more or less in charge. Inmates running the asylum and all. There is another American guy here – apparently his students complained that he was too strict, so now he’s not allowed to teach any classes, but he’s still collecting a paycheck. He just sits in his office for six hours a day – rumor has it that the school is not going to renew his contract when it expires, eight months from now.
This university is run from a central office in Riyadh, where there is an identical school, and apparently the students here have been out-performing the students in Riyadh, so there have been repercussions – the administration there doesn’t sign necessary paperwork on time, they withhold funding, etc., as a way to pressure the Jeddah branch into lowering its standards. Apparently there is a brand-new housing complex here that has been finished for three years, but we’re waiting on Riyadh to sign the permission slip for the teachers to move in. I’ve also been warned to avoid controversial issues like politics, religion, evolution and dancing. Most of my students listen to music, but the more religious ones can’t hear it even in the classroom. That includes musical scores and sound effects in films, which they can’t watch anyway, unless I can find a movie with no women in it. War movies, maybe.
Also, this place is way too high-tech. I’m not going to be able to use my whiteboard for the first five days, because IT hasn’t set up my email account yet – the whiteboard is digital, and I have to log into it. If I want to show the students how to spell a word, I’ll have to write it on a piece of paper and pass it around the room.
My apartment is fine. Not great, but not bad, either. Life in general is the same every day. Supremely blah. I go to work, I write, I go to the gym, I go to bed. Shampoo, rinse, repeat.
(2 months later)
Sorry I’ve been out of touch (yes, this is a mass email, and yes, I’ve been out of touch with everyone I know). Nothing personal, obvi. There’s just nothing to say. I go to work (sucks), I go to the gym (putting on prison muscle), I read, and i go to bed. I’ve left the compound maybe a half-dozen times. Been out for sushi twice, Italian once, went to a party at KAUST (a science and technology university/city two hours away), went snorkeling (amazing, amazing reefs, fish: colors!). Went to the beach once. Actually, went to the beach twice, but the first time they wouldn’t let us in because Nour is Arab, and they don’t let Arabs into the resorts here. I don’t really get why. Afraid of trouble. They fell all over themselves kissing my ass, but wouldn’t even consider giving her a pass. That, actually, was my introduction to Saudi culture, since at restaurants it’s generally Filipino waiters, and there aren’t any other ways to meet local people. No public gatherings. Thank whichever god for Filipino people. And Ethiopian cab drivers. Normal people to talk to, at least.
Anyway, i have nothing to say about myself – at least nothing you’d want to hear, because honestly, things are bleak. There was a 10-day trip to India in there somewhere, but it’s a blur now, and looking at the pictures, I hardly recognize them as my own. If I learned anything, I’ve since forgotten it.
So, sorry in advance if this is a downer, but I figured I might as well jot down a few things, the very few things, I’ve seen here. Saudi culture and all. Culture being a very strong word to apply to people who collectively shun music, dancing, art, film, and any large public gathering except for executions. [BS. I met a filmmaker and a writer while I was there, both Saudi. I met architects and musicians. I saw concerts at a couple housing compounds and the French Embassy. There’s also some odd public sculpture around Jeddah. I didn’t like them, but they’re still art. I’m also attaching a bunch of photos from a Jeddah historical day, where there were actually crowds out in the street, interacting with each other, and watching street performances – acting, all-male, no music, and it was only one day, but still.] Right. No concerts, because they’re a corrupting influence, but you can take your kids to an execution. One of my student told me his father took him to one when he was twelve, and he wasn’t able to look at him for weeks afterward.
Anyway, as far as I’ve gathered, music and art and dancing and cetera aren’t specifically, legally banned, but there’s this semi-official religious police unit – basically a sanctioned vigilante group, since most of these people appoint themselves – and they roam around enforcing religious laws, particularly if not solely on women. As an aside, these religious police have been specifically banned from conducting high-speed chases, but that didn’t stop them from running over a woman, on foot and in her own garden, my first month here. As another example, there are no laws specifically requiring stores to edit out women’s faces in advertisements, but when you walk around the shopping malls, you see the usual giant advertisements (“usual” meaning pictures of white people), and if it happens to be a store for women, as most are, it’s not unlikely to see a picture of a western woman walking through a field, holding hands with a child, her torso blacked out, and her face a digitized blur.
Regarding the treatment of women in general, it’s a (tiny) bit more complex than I’d imagined. Women are not legally required to cover their faces – that’s a rule imposed on them by their husbands and fathers. In Jeddah, women aren’t even (oh my god, I’m starting to sound like an apologist – I swear, I hate this all more than i can possibly describe, and the degree of hatred i carry around inside me all day long is so much more than i ever thought i could feel) – ok, start that again: women here, in Jeddah, aren’t legally required to cover their hair and face, as I gather is the case everywhere else in the country, with Riyadh being strictest. But, when the religious police pass by, they will stop women and demand they cover up. That happened to Nour and I outside some steakhouse one night. She keeps her veil around her shoulders, in case of emergencies. The guys, both in their 70s and carrying long wooden reeds, presumably for smacking people, actually approached me first, telling me to tell Nour to cover up. I knew what they were saying, but pretended I didn’t, and spoke back to them in English to get them to leave us alone. Nour covered her hair, and they did. At the hospital where she works there is a religious affairs department which tries to coerce Muslim women into covering up, and nearly all of the Muslim women (apart from Nour) comply, regardless of whether or not it’s common in their country. Women are also not legally forbidden to drive – again, though, this is a quasi-official prohibition enforced more by husbands, fathers and the religious police, and I’m told that out in the country, where it’s just necessary for survival, some women drive freely, though i have no idea if that’s true. There was a protest last month where women took to the roads – it was widely advertised on social media, and made all sorts of international headlines both before and after the event. All told, 87 women participated. They received $80 fines from the police (in contrast to a similar protest in the early 90’s, where the women did a couple months in jail).
Anyway, as i said, it’s a tiny bit more complicated than just the systematic segregation and repression of women. To some extent, the culture of segregation is meant more to isolate single men. For example, any restaurant, cafe, or generally public place you go will have a “singles” and a “family” section – these are euphemisms, with “single” meaning “men” and family meaning “mixed”. Nour and I would go to the family section if we’re together, and if I’m by myself, I’d go to the single section, while she would go to the family section. Some places – banks, for example – will have a men’s section and a women’s section. I’m told, though I obviously haven’t confirmed this, that as is the case with men’s and women’s public bathrooms in the US, the women’s sections are better-maintained, just nicer places to be. I’m also told that this is all to “protect” women, with the implicit assumption being that men, particularly single men, are a danger to women. The face-covering thing, again from what I’m told, dates back to the time (two generations ago, and forever before that) when desert raiders would kidnap young women and carry them off to their own tribes, for whatever purpose, marriage or slavery or a little of both. So the face covering came about as a way to keep raiders from identifying the younger, hotter women. It is meant to “protect” women.
Obviously it’s all a fucking joke, and just walking around this little shitty compound in the middle of the desert, or a shopping mall, or whatever, makes me feel like a fucking rapist, and I know it’s not the women’s fault, and I reserve the bulk of my loathing for the men (more on those [content censored] in a minute), but every time a woman avoids my eyes, or pulls back in a panic in case I brush up against her on the bus or in a hallway, or a whole group of women moves away from me and stops talking when I walk into a room, I get a little twinge of hatred and resentment. Being around people with their faces covered gave me the heebie-jeebies at first, then there was a brief period where I felt all sympathetic and whatnot, but now I pretty much just resent it, and i honestly don’t give a shit how terrible their lives are, and if only 87 women in a country of 26 million people will turn out to drive in protest of their own shitty living conditions, then fuck them anyway.
Yes, I know, what a terrible thing to think. This is why I don’t email home. Why I don’t write anything at all, anymore.
In any case, this kind of thing is the reason that everyone I’ve talked to, or read about in the news, says that if change is going to come to Saudi, it’s going to come very slowly, if at all. The Arab spring is just one more season they don’t have here. [Again, I’m calling BS on myself. Just over half of the Saudi population is under 25 years old, and for most of the last generation, the government has been offering full scholarships to any student who gets accepted to study abroad. So not only is there a massive share of young people, there’s a massive share of not just educated, but foreign-educated young people. Beyond that, the fact is that most of the “revolutionary” advances in Saudi society – for example the education of girls and women – were advanced by the monarchy, against the wishes of the more conservative population.]
So, the men… that’s a strong word. To be fair, or at least give the impression of fairness, Saudi men are a pretty smiley, laughy, jokey bunch. They’re like frat boys in funny costumes. Actually, their funny costumes are really pretty cool-looking, once you get over the discomfort of being in a large crowd of people where pretty much everyone dresses exactly alike (though men are allowed to dress however they want, and most young Saudi men don’t wear thobs). A more accurate way of saying they’re a jokey bunch is to say that Saudi men are lazy, incompetent, corrupt, vain, arrogant, loud, oblivious, self-absorbed, absolutely useless hypocrites who seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, as you also might, if you considered yourself the master of all you see, beloved of the only true god and heavily subsidized by the state. Regarding the laziness: this is the dominant trait of Saudi men (women, as everywhere else in the world, are more industrious). Even by regional standards, they are renowned for their laziness. Sleeping on the job is de rigeur. They take 5 breaks a day for prayer (obviously), plus breaks for tea, chats with friends and coworkers, chats on the phone, etc, etc, etc. It’s not uncommon to see a guy at whatever his work happens to be, sitting next to a ringing phone, not giving a flying fuck or a rolling doughnut. Playing Candy Crush. I tried to go to the bank at 3:30 in the afternoon the other day – prayer time had just started (everything shuts down for either twenty or forty-five minutes during prayer time – and i mean everything, like, I was standing in line at customs at the airport during prayer time, and all of the customs agents left their posts, and the lines got intensely long until people were packed into the room cheek to jowl, and all the flights thereafter were delayed by hours, connecting flights were missed, etc.). Start this one again: I tried to go to the bank at 3:30, closed for prayer, waited outside for 30 minutes (inside they were having tea, and a good laugh), poked my head in the door and asked if they were going to open again (sign on the wall says open til 4:30) and the guy looks at his watch, shrugs, and says “khalas” (roughly: “enough” in the sense of “I’m fed up, I’ve had enough, basta ya.“). At the bank, they don’t even bother to disguise their glee when their system is down. A couple nights ago Nour and I were walking around downtown, trying to find a restaurant open – we couldn’t find a restaurant that would seat both men and women together, and we knew prayer time was coming, so we got our driver to stop at the walk-up counter that serves women, but he’d decided to close ten minutes early for prayer or whatever. Nour actually yelled at him, but he just laughed and pulled the grille. People don’t want to work, and seem honestly put out that you might expect them to. Which I’m pretty sympathetic to, actually. Just not when I’m hungry, or waiting at customs to get the hell out of the country.
That is not even the beginning of my rant about Saudi men – I could go on for page upon page upon page without even venting the tiniest portion of my disgust. I’ll spare you.
But, like I said, they’re pretty funny guys, always up for a joke, and generous, in their way.
There’s a lot more I could say, I guess. I’ve sat down a dozen times to write this email, but so far haven’t been able to rev up the wherewithal to try to channel all this lousiness in even a moderately clear-headed way. I guess I’m still more or less failing at that. As an attempt, a semi-disingenuous gesture in the general direction of fairness, I’ll say that nearly all of the young Saudi people I’ve met and hung out with – at various housing compound concerts, embassy dinners, a movie night hosted in an architect’s indoor pool – have generally been abroad, are relatively cultured, fluent in other languages, but have still decided to come back to Saudi, and they describe it as being a safe environment with guaranteed, well-paid work, a good place to raise kids, and free of a lot of the negative sides of western culture (binge drinking, date rape, street harassment, gun violence, etc.). A lot of them have said they were happy growing up here, and even if they are conflicted about being back in the country after studying abroad, and are open-eyed regarding the (stunningly blatant) hypocrisies of this so-called spiritual society, this is still home to them, the place where they come from, where their families and friends are, and they feel pretty comfortable in their day-to-day lives. It’s a stable country (for the region), a very rich country, an influential country (American presidents just line right up to kiss the king’s ass), a rapidly developing country (they’re building a high-speed rail line, which is still decades away from the US), there are good jobs, and they can expect to live reasonably prosperous lives here.
Okay, last thing, regarding what I called the hypocrisies of their so-called spiritual society. There are over 100 shopping malls in Jeddah, a city of about one million people. There are blocks where you can have a mall next door to a mall, across the street from another mall. The streets are choked with Lambos and Ferraris, Bentleys, Maseratis and the like. Gucci, Prada, Cartier, etc. Saudi ladies will wear their niqab with diamond-encrusted wrap-around Ray-Bans, dripping jewels, gold-lamé heels. Rich men wear lots of rings, sunglasses, pricey shoes, love driving their fancy cars at speeds that make you question their desire to go on living such a life. The most ostentatious, materialistic sort of people I’ve ever come across outside of uptown Manhattan (or Beirut, for that matter). Their imams and their politicians talk about western corruption, about Muslim values, and nobody seems to have even the remotest, vaguest notion that they are utterly and completely in thrall already. They are the living and breathing embodiment of everything stagnant and decadent and short-sighted and repulsive about the west, minus any of its redeeming features. Obesity is as normal here as in the deep south (as is religious zealotry). Racism is established fact. Saudi exceptionalism is American exceptionalism to the nth degree – when I raise an eyebrow at, say, the idea of a public execution (to say nothing of the mass beatings and rapes of Ethiopian men and women by gangs of marauding religious police), people shrug and say, “Saudi is different.” Not “incredibly fucked the fuck up.” Just different. Like if you ask an American politician why we’re bombing everybody brown, jailing everybody black, and spying on everybody of every color they’ll say hey, we’re special, we’re different, we get privileges.
Actually, in a lot of ways, this place feels like home, or home maybe seventy-five, a hundred years ago. Maybe fifty years. Hell, I’m sure there are parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana right now that would feel just as fucked up to me as Saudi does. And beyond the beatings and executions and rapes, there’s also a sort of day-to-day racism that would be pretty recognizable to any American. The way that all the builders here are Pakistani and Indian, all the waiters all Filipino, and all the managers and white collar workers are Saudi – if you say “landscaper” to an American, we’ll hear “Mexican”. If you say “7-11”, I’ll think Pakistani, or Indian. Who works at KFC? Black people work at KFC. Who runs the dry cleaner? Chinese people, or Vietnamese. Then, if you look even one generation back, at the phrases like “separate but equal”, or “a woman’s place is in the home” (possibly as sung by Ray Charles in the wonderfully misogynistic chart-topping, toe-tapping, “I’ve Got A Woman”), all of the same shit I’m sounding all self-righteous about is right there, deep in the culture, barely even sublimated in my own generation. And I haven’t met a Saudi yet who’s got a thing on the Westboro Baptist shitheads. So.
Fuck, I want a beer.
The easiest thing to remember is how nice everyone was. I’ve been to plenty of countries where people are exceptionally warm and helpful toward foreigners (Thailand comes to mind, Nepal, Egypt and Morocco, Lebanon, Canada, Kenya), but Cuba is on a completely different level. A couple times I called to book a room in a house, and if they were full they’d tell me to call back in half an hour, and they’d call around town to sisters, uncles, neighbors, etc. until they found me a place – one lady met me at her house, gave me mango juice, and had her husband take me to their friends’ place a couple blocks away. I don’t think they got a commission, just doing it to help out their friends, and for the chance to chat to a tourist. When people told me to feel at home (“you’re in your home” is how it translates in Spanish), they meant it. One lady gave me a little souvenir magnet, the men would stay up to talk and drink rum, the old ladies liked to sit outside to chat before breakfast, but when I didn’t feel like talking – if I was reading or writing or something – people would smile and wave and leave me be. People were friendly among each other, too, bantering with shopkeepers, shouting to neighbors, asking after each others’ families, etc. I never saw any arguments on the street, or heard people speaking unkindly to each other. They weren’t formal at all – just very well mannered.
Also, nobody was at all put off by me being American. All over Latin America, I’ve always had to eat a certain amount of shit for being a gringo – even the Europeans I’ve met there always seem to use the word a bit too gleefully. I never heard it once from any Cuban people, except almost from one guy who caught himself before it came out (I told him it’s okay, you can say it, I know I’m a gringo). A handful of people said I was the first American they’d met – one was the first guy I met in Havana, apart from my cab driver – so, the second Cuban I’d ever met – a 56 year-old guy named Victor who looks about 45, and works picking up cans and bottles. He told me the government tells them the Americans are enemies, but that nobody really believes it. “See, now you’re standing here, and you’re completely normal” was what he told me. I didn’t correct him.
I stayed with a lady in Playa Giron, maybe 65, named Mirtha, who had an uncle who fought in the Bay of Pigs, and she told me some of his story, how he left his family on their farm, joined a militia and went to fight for three days (she was 9 or 10 at the time). I asked her what people thought about the Cubans who came back to fight against the government (for the CIA), and she said very emphatically that they were traitors, but was quick to add she was happy that most were taken alive, treated well, and quickly released (to the US in exchange for food and medical aid – Kennedy later appeared with them at the Orange Bowl for a “welcome home” event).
Essentially, I found people to be super kind, closely knit, generous people who like music and dancing (and rum and cigars) and are proud of their history and their country, at least in a general sense. Economically and politically, though, things are a mess. In most grocery stores, half the shelves are empty and the other half loaded with an entire row of just one kind of ketchup, or bags of sugar, or flour, or juice boxes, or soda (an exception: every store seemed to have a large inventory and selection of rums). The display cases outside shops showed odd arrays of useless crap – a rhinestone tiara next to a plastic fire engine next to a tin toaster and a desktop fan. Even in the richer cities (Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Viñales) stores sometimes sell an odd array of things – I saw a flatscreen television for sale in a gas station, on a shelf with diapers and a crate of condensed milk, above the potato chips. A lot of the manufactured goods I saw seemed pointless, especially as part of a planned economy, like the cuban-themed swizzle sticks for drinks that you can find in bars all over the island (most of the bars and a lot of the restaurants are state-owned, as, presumably, is the swizzle-stick manufacturer).
Other cities seemed to have lower poverty rates than Havana – in Havana itself there were some beggars, a fair number of alcoholics, and if not homelessness, than at least a few people passed out on the street. In my first hour in the city, sitting at a sidewalk table drinking mojitos, three women tried to sell me sex. Young, pretty normally dressed (one had a jeans and t-shirt, and purple streaks in her hair), one of them told me, “I just want somebody to get me off this damn island”. I was going to leave that table, actually, when I met that guy Victor who collects bottles and cans. He took me to see his house, a beaten-up first floor apartment right where the waterfront (Malecon) meets the main street (Prado). The ceilings were fifteen feet, and the place was filled with canvas bags of bottles and cans up to there. He can only sell them to the municipal government starting in February, and was planning to take the money he made to renovate the apartment to rent to tourists. Every hurricane season it floods up to the knee, but it has an open central patio and old terra cotta tile floors and a great location, so I told his wife I thought it was a nice place. “Don’t lie to me,” she said. “It’s shit.”
A few days after that, I met Alian, a 26 year-old lawyer in town from Santiago de Cuba (like a 15 hour bus ride east) looking for work as a tour guide. He makes $25 a month in his law practice, and can do a lot better on tips from tourists (he was one of the few English-speakers I met). A taxi driver I met in Trinidad was actually a pediatric surgeon, but every year he takes his vacation time in January (January is high season), he buys a taxi license ($100 a month plus 10% of his fares, which are recorded in a fare book, which police checkpoints are set up on the roads to verify), and he makes as much in that month as he does the rest of the year (his salary as a surgeon is $50/month). He drives a 1954 Ford Edsel, which he said he hates, and charged me $8 to and from the beach, 20 minutes away (I also bought us some drinks). Another cab driver told me that most people spend about 90% of their salary on food, and that the only people who can get ahead are the ones who have family in the US, who send money back so they can buy a house to rent to tourists (a lot of places I stayed, the family was renting out a nice place and living in a poorer house nearby, or in smaller rooms attached to the main house). So, for a room in a house, you pay a lawyer’s salary per night, a surgeon’s salary every two days.
Which means there is actually a fair bit of inequality being driven by remittances from the US. There are some people driving new cars, nicer cars than I’ll probably ever own – Renaults, Peugeots, Hyundais, a few Audis. A lot of those cars were for reserved for tourists (with a T on the license plate), but there were some government and some private plates, as well. Someone told me the cost of a new car, but I forget – it was a lot, anyway. The bigger cities had a higher standard of living, apart from Havana. Particularly in Cienfuegos, people’s houses had things around to mark them as middle class: porcelain figurines and newly upholstered Victorian furniture and glamour shots of their kids hanging on the walls next to oil paintings and a wooden cross. Carpets and gilt mirrors and tacky chandeliers. In the small towns and in the poorer parts of Havana, more people seemed to be living on cement or packed earth floors with a bed or two, a table and chairs, maybe a sofa and a small TV and a carpet in some of the wealthier places. I also picked up a book on race relations in Cuba, which was making the point that although under communism everyone should be equal, blacks tend to have worse jobs and housing conditions than whites or mestizos. The racial tension isn’t as obvious there as in the US (Cuban cops aren’t just shooting black children with impunity or anything crazy like that), but once I looked for division, I started seeing it. At restaurants and cafeterias blacks would sit with blacks, mestizos with mestizos, and there just weren’t that many white people (at the kind of restaurants I went to, anyway). I only noticed one inter-racial couple (teenagers), and some neighborhoods – the beat-up ones – were definitely blacker than others.
All of the negatives aside, there were at least a few positives, economically speaking. I saw less homelessness in a month in Cuba that I would find in ten minutes on any given block in a major American city. In paintings from the seventeen and eighteen hundreds I saw portraits of free black men in top hats and tails and black women in gowns and pearls alongside landscapes of slaves working the cane fields. Women seem to be well respected – I found them running businesses pretty much everywhere, and the men were way, way less aggressive and more polite toward women than anywhere else I’ve seen in Latin America. When one guy on the street commented to me that the average Cuban is as poor as anyone in Africa, I corrected him (to say nothing of the slums in India). Most of the houses, even in the country, at least had cement walls, which is a lot better than I’ve seen in most developing countries. The roads were in good shape, I did fine drinking the water in the big cities (which is something I don’t usually even try), and the hospitals, if not well-stocked, at least looked clean (I once got a yellow fever booster in a hospital in Buenos Aires where there were broken windows and chickens running around in the hall).
Politically, it’s like a joke. There are two newspapers in the country (Granma, and Juventud Rebelde – Rebel Youth, which is anything but), both of them about eight pages long and printed every other day, full of nothing but “news” about various successes at every level of government, a lot of it related to agricultural science. There was almost no international news at all, except for some articles on El Chavo, one on Innarritu’s new movie, and an obligatory article or two on Barca or Real Madrid toward the back. (One notable exception: I was in a cab – a Plymouth from the 1950s – crossing the island along the main national highway, and the cab driver stopped because there were newspapers blowing all over the road. He picked up a couple, and one that he handed me was from September 13, 2001. It was a copy of Granma, except full-sized, maybe 32 pages, all about the Trade Center and Pentagon, with pictures and background on Bin Laden, etc. Most of the articles were clearly sympathetic toward the U.S., except for one headline about American citizens crying for vengeance, which, journalistically speaking, at least seems pretty accurate.)
Apart from the propaganda newspapers, there are propaganda billboards and slogans spraypainted on walls all over cities. They’re almost entirely in reference to the revolution, how it must succeed or has succeeded, or will continue succeeding, how it has to be defended or remembered, plus some slogans for communist youth parties, down with the imperialists, that kind of thing. There’s nothing in the bookstores but political and economic theory, Cuban history, and usually a shelf of glossy covered books denouncing various aspects of capitalist imperialism, the CIA, American foreign policy, etc (we’ve given them a lot to work with there). Of the four TV channels, at least one is usually running black and white footage from the revolution, and there are five national holidays, of which only one, May 1, isn’t directly related to revolutionary violence. Even January 1 is officially remembered as a day to commemorate the victory of the revolution (Jan. 1, 1957). And, morbidly, there were pictures of Hugo Chavez all over the walls and highways saying things like “Welcome to Your Land, Brother”, and “Our Best Friend”, despite the fact that he’s been dead for like three years now. Che is all over the place, his picture and quotes on schools and billboards, the central bank headquarters and all over the souvenir shops (gov’t owned). T-shirts, posters, postcards for the girls, tattoos for the tourists, etc.
As for discussing politics, most people just don’t. Before I left, I’d read a few travel guides and blog posts advising travelers to avoid the subject, so I mostly did, but a few times, after a few mojitos, I’d occasionally touch on subjects that interested me – what will happen after Fidel dies, or what percentage of people really support the party? Even when drunk, people have the reflex to just change the subject, or politely say they’d rather not discuss it. I took people’s reluctance to be a sign that they held at least one or two opinions that ran counter to the government line – full supporters could speak as openly as they wanted, like a couple young guys I met, boozy and tearing up, saying Fidel was like a father, and they couldn’t imagine him dying (ironically, one of those guys looked just like Obama – by the end of the trip, I was estimating that 1 in every 30 adult Cuban males looks exactly like Obama). Then there was one old-timer I met in a plaza who sold me a history of Cuba and a book of essays by Che – he was boasting of having been a part of the revolution, and when I asked him how and when he joined, he proudly told me, “I killed my first policeman in 1957 in Matanzas.” So, supporters seemed to feel free to say whatever they wanted.
One exception is that everyone was really keen to talk about el cambio – “the change” in U.S.-Cuba relations. Nearly everyone I spoke to brought that up themselves. All together, I’d say a slim majority of people seemed excited and happy about the change, as summed up by one host, a 56 year-old ex-fisherman (now guesthouse owner) named Raul: “once the millionaires come, I can charge $50 for this room (instead of $25).” The number one concern I heard repeated was that the Americans would bring drugs and violence (I would point out that America is a drug buyer, not an exporter – though I guess we’re definitely a net exporter of guns and violence). When I asked if people were worried about American companies moving in, or American people buying up all the property and raising rents, most people seemed confident the government would stop them. But I saw people sitting on Prado, though, holding cardboard signs in bad English offering to sell apartments in old Havana for six to eight thousand dollars, and since they were in English, I guessing foreigners can own property…so, I’ll take two. One person mentioned to me, actually, that the governor of Pennsylvania was in Havana with some investors the week I arrived, looking for “opportunities”. I can’t imagine they’ll find many, outside of tourism, shipping.
In any case, when people asked me what I thought about the change, I said I thought there’d be good and bad results, but that mostly they wouldn’t notice any change at all. They’re already getting a quarter million American tourists a year, plus tons of Canadians, Germans, French, British – the island can’t get much more touristy than it already is. Plus, the fact that it’s expensive ($25 a night for a basic room in a house, $10 for meat, rice and some chopped vegetables) will keep American college kids from turning it into another Cancun. The government isn’t likely to let McDonald’s and Pizza Hut come and compete with all the little mom and pop roadside hamburger and pizza shacks (of which there are many), but presumably there would be some kind of pharmaceutical and food aid that would be a part of diplomatic normalization (under the new rules, U.S. pharmaceutical and agricultural suppliers can already sell, on credit, to state-owned purchasers, which is a good start). I did see European companies working mines in the west of the country, exploiting gold, copper, bronze and oil, so presumably those would be open to American competition, and there would be some benefit to the Cuban treasury if the Americans could underbid them. Deteriorating wages and working conditions might be a concern in that sector, given the state of American miners. The mining towns I saw in western Cuba were nice places with sturdy, brightly painted houses, libraries and cafes, nice-looking schools and medical clinics, clean restaurants, one had a big theater (opera, not movies). Obviously, the mining towns I’ve seen in central Pennsylvania and Appalachia don’t hold up to even the most cursory comparison, especially not in terms of alcoholism, drug use and crime (and apparently the North Dakota shantytowns are worse – people I met in Bismark were talking about rapes and kidnappings, oil workers forming roving gangs, all sorts of Mad Max shit). Presumably, though, the government would be able to ensure its own level of growth and standards, etc.
One negative thing is that I’d expect to see a lot of the classic cars starting to disappear, but that’s only negative from a tourist’s point of view – people would get rid of the cars because they’re uncomfortable, hard to drive, and a pain to repair (Cuban mechanics, however, are geniuses – I looked at a few engines, and they were all original parts in good condition – Edelbrock intakes and Holley carburetors, things I’ve only heard about from old movies and books). For Cuban people, cheaper and more efficient American cars would be a good thing. The biggest and best change, if it happens, would be if Cubans living in the U.S. could travel freely between countries. I met a lot of people with brothers and sisters or parents or children living in the U.S. who they hadn’t seen in five, ten, fifteen years (the U.S. is allowing people to go back, now, but Cubans who left the island “illegally” aren’t permitted by the Cuban government to return). If the Americans can actually stop trying to kill Castro (638 attempts, some people say), and just let nature take its course, and somehow refrain from arming dissident groups, then I’d expect things to go more or less well.
The embargo was a pain in the ass, banking-wise. I couldn’t touch my bank account, not even online, since the little wifi you can find is on unsecured, public servers (usually in plazas and pedestrian areas). For the same reason, I couldn’t buy plane tickets, or send PayPal money to non-Americans to withdraw for me, at least until I started using a VPN. I brought 500 euro and 400 Canadian dollars, which was gone in like ten days. I survived by the mercy of some kindly Europeans.
Havana was worth it, though. Not shabby chic, but dilapidated grandeur, and an odd mix of the beautiful colonial (capitalist, slave-owning) architecture next to the shitty, soviet-style mass-housing complexes with no facades at all. The classic cars really are everywhere, and they’re mint as hell, bubble gum pink and cherry red. The old city has its tourist traps – $2 bottles of water, $8 daquiris at La Floridita, the bar Hemingway favored for daquiris, (and La Bodeguita del Medio for mojitos, both of which are state-owned and overpriced – and it wasn’t until I saw the logo that I realized why the hell there was a little Cuban place called La Bodeguita del Medio in the middle of Beirut). The old city is also being restored/rebuilt, in part with UNESCO money, though the national government also seems to be investing a lot – preservation is a big thing, lots of big projects going on, and parts of buildings being incorporated into new plans, rather than demolished and replaced. Both the US and Cuban capitol buildings are under scaffolding right now, actually. Around the old city there’s a lot of rubble on the side streets (more than in Kathmandu last September), but those are also the most interesting streets, the ones where people are living, and there are hardly any tourists (apart from myself). Those are the places to get a 15 cent hamburger and a 4 cent shot of coffee (there are two currencies in Cuba – the CUC (peso convertible) is pegged to the dollar, 1:1. The CUP (moneda nacional) is 1/25th of that, and its only used in roadside shops, markets, to buy fruit on the street or basic provisions like flour, salt or cheap cigarettes). Shopping at markets and cooking at home, it was a cheap city, and the vegetables and meat were super fresh.
Besides Havana, there are 4 other UNESCO cities (Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Santiago and Camaguey), and Viñales is UNESCO-sponsored park land. Outside the cities it was green, mostly flat down the center with palm and cane fields, hunchbacked limestone mountains in the west around Viñales, and a longer range around Trinidad, both of which were areas for planting yucca, corn and tobacco. The beaches were good but not great. The ports were pretty small, for a country historically big on shipping. There were a lot of cowboys – hats and boots and all – though there wasn’t much cattle. Someone told me that the jail sentence for killing a cow is longer than for killing a person. I don’t know if that’s true, but a lot of people told me that if you own a cow you can legally use its milk, but if you kill it you have to give it to the government to divide up the meat, and you get $100 in exchange (a cow costs $400, a pig $200, a horse $2,000 – so those 15 cent hamburgers are usually pork burgers). I ate a lot of lobster – you can get a lobster pretty much anywhere from $10 to $12. Guesthouse owners at the beaches offered them, and in Playa Giron Raul told me he can only get the tails, because the Bay of Pigs is a protected area and lobster trapping is illegal, so they dump everything but the tails overboard as soon as they empty each trap.
Anyway, lobster-poaching aside, I loved Cuba – jumped right into my top 5 favorite countries – though regardless, traveling from Havana to Cancun, I had the immediate impression of having arrived in a free country (not nearly as strongly as I felt it leaving Saudi Arabia, though – Cuba is not nearly that restrictive, more like being forced to go to a party). Partially that feeling was because I could get off at the bus station, hit an ATM, and use the free wifi to check a map and book a room at a hotel around the corner. I stayed in a poor part of the city, but the shops there were all full – full of Chinese-made crap, but still full – and though the buildings were all ugly, they were in much better repair, the elevators all worked, etc. People weren’t just standing around the corners, hustling tourists, chatting each other up, with nothing much else to do. They all had their little businesses, in actual stores, instead of selling hamburgers and coffee from their front porches or the windows of their kitchens. The pharmacies looked like pharmacies, rather than a garage sale of some bootlegger’s bathtub pill stash. You can buy bus tickets online ($4 from the airport, $20 to Merida), whereas in Havana I showed up at the bus terminal, 20 minutes out of the city and an $8 cab ride, to find out that the next available bus wasn’t for 2 days. Even finishing up writing this 5 days later at an Italian coffee shop in Merida (which was beautiful and charming and nowhere near as captivating as Havana), I still had a lingering sense of having “returned to the world” in a way I didn’t get when I moved from Kenya to Italy, for example, or from New Delhi to West Chester. Cuba is isolated by geography, politics, and a lack of telecommunications, but part of that isolation comes from that fact that it just feels culturally self-contained, and self-sufficient – all that history and art and architecture, music on every corner, dancing every night, cigars for everyone, and enough rum to flood the Caribbean. It’s not an outward-looking place, at all. It doesn’t really need to be.
A now ubiquitous pigment squeezed out in gobs on every art student’s palette used to be so expensive that Michelangelo left a painting unfinished for want of the mineral. For centuries the scarcity made the color the most precious of the palette, so it was reserved for the garments of the most sacred figure. You’d think that would be Jesus, but throughout art history he has a well documented sartorial deficit. So the blue falls to the next holiest, his mom, Mary. Here she isn’t in the lower righthand corner of Michelangelo’s The Entombment.
A quick unpacking of the name ‘ultramarine’ can give you an idea why it was more precious than gold to artists. Its latin form (ultramarinus) means “beyond the sea.” Originally created by grinding up lapis lazuli, a mineral found almost exclusively at the Sar-i-sang mines in Afghanistan. The long journey over land and sea gave it its name and contributed greatly to its high price. Not helping one bit, turning raw lapis lazuli to an natural ultramarine pigment is labor intensive, requiring a blue-fingered craftsman to add the crushed mineral to a host of chemicals (linseed oil, rosin, resin, wax, turpentine, mastic) making a paste, and, as a contemporary recipe describes it, “suffer it to digest for a month.” The blue crystals then wash out in warm water, and the process should be repeated several times to increase the purity of vibrant pigment.
Luckily for painters and other people with eyes, the Societé pour l’Encouragement d’Industrie (a real, not at all made up institute) funded a contest in 1824 that would award a whole mess of francs to whoever could produce a formula for a synthetic version. In 1828 a French chemist and a German chemist both submitted processes that produced slightly different variants of the newly synthetic pigment.
Jean Baptiste Guimet and Christian Gottlob Gmelin (I think you can figure out who’s from where) submitted slightly different variations of a process within a month of each other. Guimet claimed to have discovered the process in 1826 but kept it secret and the Societé pour l’Encouragement d’Industrie awarded their fellow countrymen the prize (quelle surprise!) which explains the occasional labeling of the paint French Ultramarine. By 1830 each mans countries was home to a factory producing the synthetic pigment. Occasionally Guimet Blue and Gmelin Blue still appear on tubes of Ultramarine Blue paint. Dropping the price by an order of magnitude brought the color to ubiquity with half a century to spare before the invention of impressionism.
So how’s it made and what’s the difference from the natural version?
The composition of the synthetic and natural ultramarines are remarkably similar, and the difference comes from the natural’s impurity. When viewed under the microscope (pictured at top) the synthetic ultramarine has a smaller and more regular pigment size than the natural version which is uneven and speckled with white impurities that extend the color and make it more transparent. I did not get actual lapis lazuli to view under the microscope because Afghanistan is still a hard place from which to source materials.
Here’s the difference, synthetic on the left, natural right. They hardly look like related colors at all. The natural ultramarine required underpainting plus multiple layers to achieve its rich and deep blue in art historical examples.
The process of production sounds complicated but can be simplified to heating a list of ingredients in a closed furnace, then cooling and washing. If you had a working knowledge of chemistry your ingredient list would look like this: Kaolinite, Sodium Carbonate, Anhydrous Sodium Silicate, Anhydrous Aluminum Silicate, Sulfur
And in English : china clay, soda ash, coal, charcoal, quartz, sulfur.
And if you want to dumb it down a shade: a particular type of clay, water softener, burned wood, a very particular type of salt, a very particular but different type of salt, and sulfur.
You’ll notice sulfur does not simplify, that’s because it’s an element, and elements do not get simpler, they are fundamental. That’s pretty important. Side note: Sulfur is awesome, really, really awesome. Most elements are just hunks of grey metal. Not sulfur. In its solid form it is bright yellow, when melted it turns red, and when burned its flame is blue!
So you heat all this stuff up in a closed furnace for an hour, remove the brick and wash it in pure water and you get a quantity of a mineral that can be dried and ground into the pigment. The final product bears a marked similarity to lazurite, the compound in lapis lazuli that gives the historical ultramarine its blueness. The standard notation has it looking something like this: Na8-10Al6Si6O24S2-4
Does this complex sulfur-containing sodium silicate look complicated? Well by most accounts ultramarine is the most complicated of all the mineral pigments, so well done sticking out so far.
A fun vocabulary note from this, the word ‘anhydrous’ means without water, but it doesn’t mean just dry. If you add water to salt, say, then let it dry out until it didn’t look wet anymore, it would nevertheless still have water in it. The structure of the salt crystals that formed would contain water, and in a reaction those pesky hydrogens and oxygens would royally screw up the royalist of blues. Beware of oxygen, it will ruin anything.
Explaining what makes ultramarine pigment blue is not simple. The shortest and easiest way to say it is probably “the sulfur does it.” More technically it is a particular ion of sulphur that does it (an ion being an atom with unequal positive and negative parts, so it carries an electric charge). Normally those ions are unstable, but in this case they are contained in a cage made from all the other letters in that formula above which keeps it stable over time. If you add anything to ultramarine pigment that breaks down that cage, the sulfur will bond to oxygen (most likely scenario on Earth) and will fade like it did in this Vermeer painting. In Vermeer’s time the cushion of the chair was brilliant pure ultramarine – today it has a faded grey patina.
Speaking of Vermeer, time for an art history tour! Archaeological evidence at the Afghan mines suggests mining of the blue rock began at least 6,000 years ago. Lapis lazuli adorns artifacts from all over the ancient world. It’s mentioned several times as a measure of wealth in the Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia. When the Old Testament mentions sapphire, the authors are likely referring to lapis lazuli, as sapphire was not seen in the area before the Roman empire. Ancient Egyptians, Mughals, and Persians all worked the stone and left examples that have time traveled through centuries to us today.
The first known use of lapis lazuli turned into ultramarine painting pigment are in Zoroastrian and Buddhist temples in Afghanistan near the sites where the blue stone is mined. The best example used to be the Bamiyan Buddhas, which were giant statues carved into the side of a mountain with paintings decorating the grottos they inhabit, but they were destroyed by people who have a ridiculous problem with pictures of sentient beings (even the made up ones).
This is by far my favorite example:
Around 1000-1100 AD the ultramarine paint which can be traced back to the mines in Afghanistan, starts showing up in Anglo-Saxon and Norman illuminated manuscripts, as well as Chinese and Indian paintings in their distinctive styles (which seems to be scroll vs. mural, respectively). Then the Renaissance happens across Europe. It was pretty great art-wise, and most of the lapis lazuli-turned ultramarine of the time traveled through Venice.
Closer to our own time, art history types love to cite Yves Klein in reverential tones because he patented his own blue, creatively named Yves Klein International Blue.
The pigment is entirely synthetic ultramarine. The distinguishing characteristic is the binding agent, which keeps the paint looking as much like a pure pigment as possible. I’ve seen it, and works made with this blue have a peculiar effect in person. They seem to create space, or make the space seem more dense, as if this part of reality is operating by a different set of fundamental rules. They do not translate well to pixels, so I won’t put an example here, it wouldn’t do any good. I highly recommend setting eyes on one, it’s rewarding experience. France is a good place to look.
The binding agent is a Polyvinyl Acetate, a complicated salad of sounds that acts as a deterrent to understanding. Two examples from this group of thermosoftening plastics are better known by their more common names, Wood Glue and Elmer’s Glue. So Yves Klein mixed glue with blue. Well done.
Klein developed the blue with a pharmaceutical firm Rhône-Poulenc, which later developed Chlorpromazine, an antipsychotic medication that is used to treat disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Good on them for helping out more artists than just Mr. Klein.
And I’ll end this on a fun dystopic digression. The production of synthetic ultramarine produces sulfur dioxide that is vented into the atmosphere. That same molecule spews out of erupting volcanoes and has been shown to be remarkably efficient at cooling the earth by reflecting away a larger percent of sunlight (with the added side effect of influencing artists [Turner] with its increased light scattering, as in the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora which produced dazzling sunsets with its stratospheric deposits). Natural calamity seems to inspire a plethora of weird and dangerous climate engineering ideas to offset global warming. One such idea is to release vast amounts of sulfur dioxide into the high atmosphere to reflect sunlight. Basically an artificial volcano could cool the earth temporarily, bringing with it a sulfur rich atmosphere that can scatter more sunlight which could more intensely color the skies. Our climate engineered future might have the heavens inspired by Titian.