Beauty and the Streets

Two summers ago, I travelled to Buenos Aires, Argentina for six weeks on a Study Abroad Program to study the Spanish language and culture. Buenos Aires is a luxurious city influenced by Italian architecture and the cosmopolitan capitals of the world. The people on the streets are beautiful and exceptionally kind. Yet there is a stark contrast in the beauty of this city compared to the beauty of the rest of the country. This difference is not necessarily something bad, yet it turns negative when these differences divide the population in terms of power, status, and opportunities.

Due to the Great European Immigration Wave in Argentina in the 20th century, most of the residents of Buenos Aires are of European descent. The concentration of lighter skinned Europeans being located in the largest city in Argentina led to a beauty standard that resembled more closely the Europeans rather than the majority of the darker skinned Argentinians. When I was in Argentina, even in other parts of the country all of the advertisements depicted light skinned models who looked nothing like the major population.screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-10-55-48-pm

This idolized beauty standard led to noticeable mistreatment of those who did not slightly resemble this image or come from European descent. In order to challenge the status quo, the street artist duo Primo took to spray painting large murals of solely dark skinned and indigenous people on the streets of Buenos Aires.

Primo is made up of two artists, Sasha Reisen and Nicolás Germani, who stand out from other street artists because they exclusively paint darker skinned people which drastically contrast with the abundance of advertisements featuring lighter skinned models. The intended effect of these murals is to not only show that there is beauty in all shades of skin, but also to bring the presence of the darker skinned Argentinians into Buenos Aires in a beautiful way. One piece that I find particularly stunning is the mural of a young dark skinned woman with a pony tail. The image is simple. In this simplicity, Primo is able to show the normalness of having different skin tones. In addition, the angle of the woman’s head is slightly up showing that she is not hiding, she is proud.

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While many people specifically in the street art community praise Primo’s work for the beauty of the portraits, not everyone treats them with the same appreciation. One mural of a black man with a snake coming out of his mouth had not been finished in one day, so Primo wrote “mural en proceso” (mural in process) only to return the next day to see that someone had painted over the image. The vandalizers instead wrote “mural en DESproceso” as well as “Y el respeto?” (and the respect?), “No se tapa, se respeten” (don’t paint over it, show some respect), and drew a speech bubble that said “no respiro” (I’m not breathing) as if the black man was saying that he couldn’t breathe now that the vandalism had covered his face[i]. While it is not clear if these comments are in regards to Primo not having respect, black people not having respect, or just a silly prank, the effect of this vandalism was that the mural was ruined and Primo had to start over in another location. According to the article by BA Street Art, the artist duo commented on the vandalism by reporting that they felt hurt and angry that these people implied a lack of respect and that they wasted a lot of time and resources just to have to start over again[ii]. This act of vandalism could have been a meaningless prank, but it also could have been targeted towards Primo since they are creating somewhat controversial murals by solely painting darker skin people. Since the vandalizer left their street art name “Lake” on their tag, it does seem as though they are directly challenging Primo.

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One critique of Primo’s street art is that since graffiti is a relatively new medium of art, it certainly does not hold the same impact on a community as other longstanding forms of art. People may not attribute the same respect to graffiti artists since graffiti is often associated with rebellious teenagers who are “up to no good.” Potentially, by using a medium that is not well respected, it could lead to these murals not being respected as well and have a reversed effect on the intention to create beauty around darker skinned people in Buenos Aires. Nonetheless, while this street art is not the ultimate fix to racism or changing the beauty standard, it does start conversation about what is art and what is beautiful.

 

[i] “Graffiti Wars as Primo Mural Painted Over Before It’s Finished.” BA Street Art. 2012.

[ii] Ibid, 2012.

Imba Means Sing Reaction

The images of the village in Uganda compared to the homes in the United States are interspersed throughout the film to undoubtedly show the stark contrast between wealth in the two countries. This technique of going back and forth between images of Uganda and images of the United States creates feelings and sentiments like “how lucky these children are to experience this opportunity” and “what a great cause.” While these sentiments are valid, they are only half the story.

Imba Means Sing did a great job of emphasizing the benefits of the African Children’s Choir in that it gives African kids an opportunity to come to the United States and pursue an education. However, this documentary felt more like an advertisement for the African Children’s Choir rather than a complete narrative of this organization. After meeting Bernhardt, I realize that this documentary was made because she loves the organization who she volunteered for and wanted to show audiences in America (specifically younger audiences) about the organization as well. While all documentaries have some sort of narrative or side taken by the filmakers, I felt as though Imba Means Sing only addressed the American view of the benefits of the African’s Children Choir.

I would imagine that not everyone in Africa supports this organization because not all of the kids in the village are given this opportunity, which can lead to potential problems in status and power, and it creates a community dependence on the United States to sponsor their children. While the benefits, such as giving impoverished children an education, teaching American youth about African song and dance, and allowing African children the chance to pursue their dreams, of the African Children’s Choir as seen by the Americans are evident in the film, I would have also liked to see how the community in Uganda perceives this organization. The intended audience for the film is clearly Americans; however, I think it would have benefitted from addressing potential problems of this non-profit such as community restructuring in villages in Africa who have many of their kids on this program. I wonder that if this other side to the picture was presented, they could offer suggestions for how to make the successes more sustainable for the communities in Africa and not just the individuals.

“Looking at War” by Susan Sontag Reflection

In Sontag’s article “Looking at War,” she raises the point of what is the purpose of explicit war photography? While this question was originally raised after a gallery in New York in 2000 displayed pictures of African American lynching victims, this question is also relevant to war photography. Some may argue that the purpose of these images is to expose the “truth” of what is really happening during war. However, as observed in the famous photograph of the Vietnam War where a police chief is shooting a man in a plaid shirt in broad daily on the streets, this photograph does not necessarily display the “truth”. While the viewer does know that a man is shooting another man, we do not know what provoked this situation, who is in the right (if anyone), or even if the trigger was actually pulled. I would disagree with the notion that the purpose of these photographs is to show the truth of the war. Instead, I would say that the purpose of these photographs is to create an emotional bridge between the viewer and the situation. What I mean by this statement is that in order for a photograph to be effective, the viewer needs to relate emotionally to the picture.

Sontag does point out that there is a difference between pity and empathy when relating to a photograph. It is easy to pity the people in these images if the viewer has never experienced or come close to experiencing the situation that is being shown. Yet, this emotional response is still valuable because it draws attention to the situation in which people can further investigate their curiosity about the image. For example, although this photograph was not mentioned in the article, there is a famous image of a man standing in front of a row of Chinese tanks who were invading Tiananmen Square as a form of protest in 1989. Perhaps if a westerner viewed this image they would feel scared, sad, and pity the man in the photo. These feelings are still valuable because in recent Black Lives Matter protests, a photograph of a young girl standing in front of armed police men was similar to the “tank man” photograph in that they both showed a civilian standing up to the powerful forces in front of them. Western viewers who see the similarity in the photo happening in the USA to the photo in China can now empathize with the other situation. Therefore, I would argue that one purpose of these war photographs is to draw connections between different places so we can empathize with each other.

“The Crossing” Reaction

My biggest question when reading about the migrant camps in Morocco is that if one lives in this liminal state long enough, once they make it out can they ever fully immerse themselves in the new state? What I mean by this statement, in the case of the migrant boys in Morocco, is that since they have experienced so much danger, fear, and pain in the liminal state I feel as though it will leave such a powerful impact on them that they cannot fully be immersed in the new state of living safely in the EU. I imagine after suffering so much tragedy that even in the safety of the EU, the fear and pain of the previous states are never fully erased.

In high school, I worked on a project that focused on the rehabilitation of ex-child soldiers in Liberia. Some of the former soldiers that I talked to had been refugees of the Liberian Civil War and lived in refugee camps within Liberia. The life in these refugee camps was one where everyone had suffered a major tragedy and the only thing that kept them going was to hope for peace in the end. Through getting to know Benji in this article, his story was similar to those of the some of the Liberian men I talked to. Through my experience, the Liberians who had made it to the United States still carried huge amounts of pain mixed among the gratefulness of being able to flee. As a white American citizen, I have never experienced tragedy to this degree. Therefore, I am doubtful that it is possible for migrants who have had so many hardships to be able to fully immerse themselves as refugees of the EU. I believe that it is most likely that they will always carry the burden of their previous lives in such a way that they remain partially in the mentality of the liminal state.

Timothy Asch, Patsy Asch, and Linda Connor

Timothy Asch (1932-1994), born in New York, was one of the pioneers in creating visual anthropology. He received his B.S. degree in anthropology from Columbia University and worked alongside Margaret Mead who encouraged Asch to take up filming alongside anthropology. As a teenager, Asch had used photography as a medium to portray different people and their lives and later used film in similar ways by creating over 50 ethnographic films during his career. Asch believed in the power of using film as a means of education and in 1968 his colleague John Marshall and him founded Documentary Educational Research (DER), a non-profit designed to produce, distribute, and promote ethnographic and documentary films. While most of his films took place in South America, specifically Venezuela, he is perhaps best known for his work with Patsy Asch and Linda Connor on their series of eight documentary films capturing the people and culture of Indonesia. These series of eight films included the film Jero on Jero: A Balinese Trance Seanse (1981), the first in the series, which used the commentary from a woman on her experience of possession and the supernatural world while participating in this ceremony.

Patsy Asch was married to Timothy Asch and assisted him in filmmaking in Indonesia. There is not a lot of information solely about her rather only that she worked alongside her husband.

Linda Connor (1944 – present) was also a part of the filming series in Indonesia. Connor is an American photographer who specializes in photographing spiritual and exotic locations. She was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976 and 1988 and received the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1979. Connor is an anthropologist as well as a photographer.