GeoAlaska: Theatre & Film
SUMMER of 1995, Ethiopia
PREFACE. PERSONAL MATTERS
It's not easy for a Russian to be a black artist. The only reason why I can be an Ethiopian is because I had a lot of training in rhizome identity. I was Soviet and Russian at the same time, European and Asian. Then -- American. I was young and old. I studied Marx and I know that I have no fixed identity: "Man is nothing, Time is everything." I try to keep my multiple selves
together but I had to accept my fate -- I don't know what the future holds for me. Is there some other identity ahead? Must be. I welcome it because I can win. I desire it because I learn that resistance to anything new is useless.
In Addis Ababa they thought that I was a "forenji" (foreigner) because my skin was white. I didn't argue with them. They don't know that they are not black. "What is your accent?" Immigrant? There are too many who do not know that they are not Americans. I had a lot of friends in Moscow with their passports marked "Jew" who were more Russians than my relatives. What a surprise to discover that in a land of freedom -- I am asked to put on any application -- White! Fred Myers and the UAF administration believe that I belong to the Whites, that my interests are "white" -- my selection of food or books must be "white." I look through the long list of choices till I find the last line -- Other. I remember a good friend of mine who put on his Soviet passport "Babylonian." He was the only one living Babylonian in the USSR and in the world. He was a one-man nation. I was seventeen when he was fifty; I liked him and learned this valuable lesson of solving problems of national identification.
The Great Art taught me that it's possible to be Russian and Japanese at the same time, man and woman, alive and dead, old and young. Possible, because I don't have to worry about forgetting the past. I still can ride a bike and I can swim, although I don't remember when I did it the last time. I am not concerned about losing, I am worried about not having. I never was an Indian, never lived in other centuries. That's why I write or paint. I want to go away from what I am already.
I painted "my" Ethiopian scrolls in New York, Virginia and
Alaska and I didn't do it for Blacks, Whites or Ethiopians.
I have no experience growing up as "white" -- there were no blacks in Moscow to develop any definite "race" feelings. Only after 1957 did the students from Africa appeared on the streets -- and Russians proved to be racists all right. Of course, they had their reasons -- most of the students were better off than an average Russian! Was it a class feeling?
The race issue in USA often turns into something of an absurdist dimension. We say "African Americans," but discuss it as we talk about "American Africans"! "Black" is an adjective, but we stay away from analyzing what "American" is. We rush to see the differences before determining the common. Could I think about Americans as "black" Europeans? After all, American colonists weren't the aristocracy of Europe. The Irish could see themselves as "blacks" (second rate) in Great Britain. Since the Americans gained the status of a super-power we do not notice our humble origins. (Americans with their practical utopian mentality love the future and have a gift of non-remembering. Also, I suspect that a lack of sensitivity to others has something to do with being insensitive to themselves. NB. Relatively speaking. It's doubtful that any other existing culture is more sensitive).
There is another issue which is not so obvious to me -- "Western civilization." I am not sure that American culture is very western. The American success is a result of being no so western. In 1917 Spengler published "The Sunset of the West (Europe)" which gave some insights into "The Sunrise of America." How much of the "Soviet Idea" belongs to the West? I would rather see both phenomena outside of West or East. Political and cultural geography died in the First World War. To make it final there was World War II. Every time I come back to the US from abroad, I think that it's incorrect to compare other cultures to America. Most of the world, including Europe, is in pre-American time. Historical inertia holds them back to values of the past which have no value in global history; nationality, borders, languages, religions, and race. American is post-modern, post-historical and even post-human universe. There is a price to pay for the advantage of being an American.
But the global transition to the American Age is over, in principle. And how monolithic is/was "Western" culture? The Russians still debate whether they belong to Europe or not. National culture? Ethnicity? And how "mono" is any national culture?
It is even more difficult to understand "culture" in relation to "American" culture. Based on citizenship? Should we even call it "culture"? Spengler advised to use the word "civilization" -- I doubt it could help. I'm a practitioner, I direct plays. American theatre? When I stage Lorca is it a Spanish show? Is Shakespeare British and Chekhov -- Russian? My actors and my public, they are Americans.... On my return to Russia in 1992 I was shocked that I could not work with Russian actors! They saw Williams or Shepard as "American" playwrights!
How could it be?
We know about Bakhtin's dialogism: reading is an event in the life of a book -- the text is reborn, reconstructed, has a new identity (of a reader). An ordinary Chinese (not scholar) reading Shakespeare makes him into Chinese literature. (_Who is Author?_ Foucault) I remember the conversation with Shklovsky: old constructivist -- "we invent meanings." Of course, Ethiopian scrolls are transformed and reconstructed though MY reading, regardless of my intentions. Could it be seen as "cultural colonialism" and "consumption"? I have to live with all possible interpretations of my actions. I have to stick to my intentions.
Motives are the true mystery. "Black American writers" but not "Irish American writers"? Is Nabokov "Russian American writer"? Separating from eing "American" into special Americans. Perhaps, that's how we can approach the study of being "American" -- from the differences and the different.
The most recent news story. U.S. Secretary of State Albright's discovers that her parents were Jews. Does she become a Jew now? I imagine the reverse situation. What if she lived all her life as a Jew and now was told that she is German? Or Arab?...
The paradox: at the time when culture became global (American) we began the separation. I believe that this is only a first step toward PERSONAL CULTURE. What are my connections with Russian, European, Ethiopian, American "identities"? When I write, paint or direct, I am not white or male, Russian or American. It's not more actual than while I paint I still have my US passport, pay taxes and have a driving license. I paint to lose those "social" qualities. I was called a Soviet writer when I was using Russian language! We use English to write American books.
Let say, Universal -- the art criteria. National -- culture.
What is it? Is it an understanding of the Other (Esther), or my children, who are locked into connection with Ethiopia? For a few months in Italy after my defection, I thought about a county to go to. I liked Italy. Under the political refugee agreement I could go to any European country. I knew that I never would be Italian or French. Since I didn't believe that I could ever return to Moscow, I had to see myself not as an exile. I felt better in New York than in Rome, because everybody around me had lost their public nationality. To be Italian, Chinese, Jew, Irish in America is a matter of personal preference. I like it. The "National Idea" is dead. Ethiopians in Ethiopia are Americans, the New Russians are Americans. It's a choice, matter of values. America is a place, not a country in a traditional sense. A Nation at the time of United Nations, when nations are actually replaced by the "states"? Is Alaska a nation? How different in culture are New York and New Jersey? Even in Africa one could see how the French try to resist becoming Europeans (Germans?) -- Americans, of course. No less than Iranians they try to fight against the New Age, where an individual has no homeland. That's the scary side of the global village. You are alone.
I hope that now I can state that in order for Ethiopian culture (or any other culture) to live, it has to become "American." I do not attach any judgement to this statement. I see it as a fact.
I know that each true artist must have his own voice. I lived with myself for so long that somehow I lost any interest in MY art. Less and less I think about expressing myself. I don't think much about what I want to "communicate" -- many hotly debated issues of my youth became of an academic interest for me.
I want to make it into MY art? So, I study and learn it. I don't know how to paint an Ethiopian scroll without becoming an Ethiopian. I can't do it as an American; I am not a historian or an anthropologist. I am not after learning "Ethiopian culture" -- I am after being the one who feels, believes, thinks THAT way.
Could I become a Chinese by ordering Chinese food?
This collection of observations on Ethiopian art is a result of an artistic exploration and research of over a decade. Ethiopian art entered my life with a love for a woman. I was ready, I loved Russian icon style and Ethiopian folk painting added a new naive dimension to the colorful representation of the world. Every time Esther did fundraising, I painted in New York and Virginia. Esther studied my culture at NYU, I learned about her culture on my own. I painted and wrote to bring this culture into our American life; Ethiopian images and stories have a special appeal to children -- we have two. I did it for them. And for myself, of course.
"How should we call the painting?" I asked.
"The skin?" Alex asked.
I started this painting in Addis Ababa in the summer of 1995. For an equivalent of $10 I bought the cow skin (Ethiopians love to paint on goat skin). I waited a week before the skin was prepared (later I tried it myself with a sheep skin, and I had to give up). We moved three times in Addis and every time I would stretch the skin on the floor, I saw the cross, elaborate Ethiopian cross-flower.
"A Tree," said Alex-Alexey-Tafari.
Now the skin hangs on the wall in our home in Alaska.
"What kind of tree?" I asked.
There are several directions one can read this painting. The biblical stories are at the upper side and the last century events below, with the creation of Adam on the left and the exile from Eden on the right. From the top down center is Christ's life, from below up to the center is a story of Solomon and Sheba. I thought that Mother and Child image applicable to both -- Mary and Sheba. I wish that the skin could be bigger; there was too much time before our family was born (four portraits down center).
"Tree of Time. Time-Tree," my boy said.
Here's a guide for some images on this painting "Time-Tree."
(bellow) 20th century. Italian war (left), Revolution and Civil War (right)
The painting has its own story....
Nevertheless, we attempted to make our own sheep skin.
It was before Sasha's birthday when the slaughter of a sheep in the backyard took place. The sheep was no good for "real" scrolls -- black and white spotted. We didn't save sheep's blood to ad it to the red ink for greater magic powers. I used oil paint, anyway. Four of us, men -- Mamush, Adissu, Alex-Tafari and I did it. A house dog went mad and broke his leg.
For a proper scroll skin the animal must be sacrificed, not just killed. It's a long and detailed ceremony. We brought our sheep from the market near bye for dinner. Real scroll "material" has to be of a pure color -- white, black or red sheep. Each of the three is destined for different types of scrolls. I like the goat skin better; it could be very thin and almost transparent. The cow skins are rarely used; I choose mine because of the size. I had an "artistic" idea for the painting, the significance of the scrolls was revealed to me later, during the hours of working on the Time-Tree.
Strong medicine not a work of art! That's the purpose of scrolls. Art is only a method. Not beauty by itself, but harmony is an ORGANIZATION OF MAGIC POWERS. Scrolls are practical, they have to protect the living. They are at the border between visible and invisible, between humans and demons, between good and evil. They are the wall guarding from the numerous misfortunes awaiting you and your family. I had to learn about it first hand.
Our sheep skin was stretched and nailed and my two assistants, Adissu and Mamush, tried to get it to acceptable conditions for several weeks, before we finally gave up.
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I didn't realize that the site would take so much of my time. I would like to have some help from you in cyber space to mantain it. If you're experienced enough to write basic HTML and want to take on some parts of this site (Ethiopian segment, History, Rasta & Reggae, or Art), please, contact us. And I mean it.
Thanks, Sailor, thank you for the corrections of this page and many other pages. Anatoly.
Art that Heals: The Image As Medicine in Ethiopia by Jacques Mercier The book which triggered my interest in Ethiopian Art fifteen years ago. (See Ethiopian Bookshelf at Amazon)
Music by Piotr Chaikovsky, Sheba (piano)
Credits: contributions, music, photos, art, dates and etc. will be on the Reference Page.