A Malian Master Returns to Los Angeles

This week, the Skirball continues its nineteenth season of Sunset Concerts with Mali’s Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba, who will perform songs from their celebrated new album, Ba Power. I thought I would take this chance to break down Kouyaté’s musical lineage and show why this Thursday night the Skirball will be the best place to experience the future of Malian music.

Bassekou Kouyate with first-born son Madu, right, his wife Amy and their son Moustapha.

Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba: (left to right) Moustapha Kouyaté, Bassekou Kouyaté, Amy Sacko, and Madu Kouyaté.

Since exploding onto the scene in 2007, Bassekou Kouyaté has established himself as a leading world musician, appearing at major music festivals such as Glastonbury and WOMAD in support of three critically acclaimed albums. He has played and collaborated with such esteemed musicians as Taj Mahal, Paul McCartney, and Damon Albarn. To those who have seen him perform live, Kouyaté’s extraordinary rise may come as no surprise, but his career trajectory appears more unexpected on paper.

Kouyaté descends from a long line of griots, Continue reading

How I Found the Skirball By Way of a Missing Painting

<i>Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Lyon(s) at the age of 101 Years</i>, John Constable, 1804. Gift of Mr. Ben Selling.

Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Lyon(s) at the age of 101 Years, John Constable, 1804. Gift of Mr. Ben Selling.

When I first met my son-in-law’s father, George, we instantly bonded over our shared interest in family history. One of George’s most interesting ancestors is Sarah Lyon, who lived from 1703 to 1807. A notable fact about Lyon is that she was painted by the great English Romantic painter John Constable when she was over 100 years old. However, George didn’t know where the painting now was. Intrigued by the story, I asked a friend in England to contact the National Gallery in London and see if they had any information. The next day, my friend called me back and told me that the painting was actually right here in Los Angeles, at the Skirball Cultural Center, just a short distance from where I lived. The timing was fortuitous because the location of the painting had only recently been discovered. Immediately, I called the Skirball and asked if they could send me a picture of the painting. Shortly thereafter I received a phone call from a docent, David Welsh, who told me he had been instrumental in gathering information about Lyon. David said he would be happy to meet me for lunch and give me a copy of his notes.

I was excited to visit the Museum, see the painting, and discuss genealogy with David Welsh. And I was not disappointed—it was a marvelous experience. Here is what I have learned about Sarah Lyon and her family: Continue reading

What’s Your Story: Fifth Graders Share Their Family Histories

When you enter this classroom you are:
unique, explorers, authors, musicians, readers, successful, inventors, respected.

These words welcome visitors to teacher Debbie Elkayam’s fifth grade classroom at Haskell Elementary School, an LAUSD school in the San Fernando Valley. And they are a perfect representation of the teacher and her students.

Several years ago, I met Ms. Elkayam during her class field trip to the Skirball for the extremely popular Grade 5 School Tour of Americans and Their Family Stories. I was one of the educators leading the interactive tour in which students explore the commonalities and differences among immigrant stories from around the world. At one point in the tour, Ms. Elkayam mentioned that she uses this tour—along with the Skirball’s teacher guide and creative activities she designed herself—to make the topic of immigration and heritage more personal for her students. Curious about how she did so, my next question was: When can I visit your classroom?

Soon, I was happily on my way to Haskell Elementary for the first of two planned visits. On my first trip in February, I learned how Ms. Elkayam prepares students for the program at the Skirball by connecting the theme of immigration to their lives.

A warm greeting in Polish, my native language, welcomes me to Ms. Elkayam’s classroom. Dzień dobry (d͡ʑɛɲ ˈdɔbrɨ) means “hello,” or “good day,” in Polish.

A warm greeting in Polish, my native language, welcomes me to Ms. Elkayam’s classroom.
Dzień dobry (d͡ʑɛɲ ˈdɔbrɨ) means “hello,” or “good day,” in Polish.

Looking around the classroom, I saw projects displaying illustrated family stories, art making, and explorations of the diverse heritage of her students. Clearly, the Americans and Their Family Stories tour worked extremely well within Ms. Elkayam’s curriculum. Continue reading

President’s Greeting: May/Jun 2015

When it comes to rock & roll music, I can’t claim much familiarity. I grew up with the music of Israeli folk dancing, which still moves my heart (and my feet!). The world of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Santana was known to me only through my children. I was well aware that this music had become a worldwide phenomenon, but I knew very little about how it happened.

Photo From the collection of Bill’s sons, David and Alex Graham, this treasured photo depicts a young Bill, when he was Wolfgang Grajonca, with his mother and sisters. Berlin, ca. 1938, Gelatin silver print.

From the collection of Bill’s sons, David and Alex Graham, this treasured photo depicts a young Bill, when he was Wolfgang Grajonca, with his mother and sisters. Berlin, ca. 1938.

Now, with the Skirball’s presentation of the exhibition Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, I am finding out. I am learning of the life and legacy of a remarkable Jewish immigrant, orphaned by the Holocaust, who did as much as anyone to launch that revolution and transform it into a communal experience and a social force.

Born Wolfgang Grajonca in Berlin, Germany, Bill was in many ways a classic example of the American success story: a young boy with no advantages, rising from obscurity to the pinnacle of success solely on the strength of unstoppable personality, drive, and determination. Continue reading

When Bauhaus Meets Judaica: A Unique Hanukkah Lamp

Hanukkah lamp, Ludwig Y. Wolpert, ca. 1960. From the Skirball collection.

Hanukkah lamp, Ludwig Y. Wolpert, ca. 1960. From the Skirball collection.

Hanukkah lamps come in all styles and materials. Here at the Skirball, the permanent collection of lamps is as varied as the artists who crafted them, each piece a reflection of the generation and the community for which it was fashioned. For example, lamps from countries surrounding the Mediterranean were demonstrably influenced by Sephardic traditions and style. Others reveal inspiration from modernist innovations popular in early-twentieth-century Europe.

The lamp pictured above, currently on display in the Skirball’s core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, was designed by German sculptor Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert, the son of an Orthodox rabbi. Born in Hildesheim, Germany, Wolpert began his artistic studies at the School for Arts and Crafts in Franfkfurt. He then worked as a sculptor, specializing in metalwork. Artistically, Wolpert was inspired by the Bauhaus slogan “form follows function,” and also by Leo Horovitz, a silversmith and designer of Judaica. Under Horovitz’s guidance, Wolpert became involved in creating modern Jewish ceremonial art. One of his signature practices was to incorporate an abstract of a Hebrew letter in his pieces. The design of this lamp recalls the Hebrew letter shin.  Continue reading

Welcoming America at the Skirball

Whether our families are recent immigrants or our ancestors journeyed to this country 200 years ago, sharing our stories helps us learn from each other and build bonds with one another. During the week of September 16–21, 2014, as part of National Welcoming Week, the Skirball hosted an interactive event where visitors shared their family immigration stories in the Noah’s Ark gallery.

The Skirball partnered with the online storytelling group Immigrant Nation to create story cards that visitors filled out with their family histories, their ideas about the meaning of home, or details about their family traditions. Once the cards were completed, staff members snapped photos of the visitors and displayed the cards in the gallery for others to read and enjoy. Below is just a sampling of more than 100 cards that were created over the course of the week, highlighting the rich cultural diversity of Skirball visitors.

Where does your family’s story begin?

America3

2

Continue reading

A Show of Love

fallen-fruit-1

Now on view in Fallen Fruit of the Skirball: a selection of portraits of people who love each other, all submitted by the public. In making the selection, the artists looked for candid moments that were personal but also spoke to the broader public—smiles, hugs, hand-holding, kisses, and other gestures of affection that everyone understands. Photo by Timothy Norris.

Since May of this year, the Los Angeles art collaborative Fallen Fruit (David Burns and Austin Young) has been in residence creating Fallen Fruit of the Skirball, a multi-phase exhibition exploring the meanings of love and commitment. For the central part of this project, the public was invited to submit photographs of themselves with someone they love. A selection of these would then be displayed salon-style over the custom-designed pomegranate wallpaper covering the walls of the Skirball’s Ruby Gallery. People from Los Angeles and beyond, including several from our own Skirball community, responded to this call for participation.

With the proliferation of smartphones, with which we can take and post snapshots and selfies on social media at any time, we are able to capture moments with loved ones and express ourselves more easily than ever before. But there are also photographs from old family albums and archives, studio shots and wallet-sized prints. Fallen Fruit embraced all kinds of portraiture to explore complex expressions of love—friendships, marriage, familial ties, and nuanced social messages. They carefully sorted the submissions and chose images to construct a collective portrait of a lifetime, from birth and adolescence through adulthood and old age.

Once the portraits started pouring in, so did the amazing stories behind them. The images portray weddings, both recent and long ago; couples celebrating anniversaries; grandparents sharing special moments with their grandchildren; mothers holding newborn babies; a young dad napping with his toddler children; and a gay couple getting married on the day the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was overturned. Continue reading

My Sukkot Traditions

My sukkah, set for a potluck lunch with friends—old and new.

My sukkah, set for a potluck lunch with friends—old and new.

Next to Passover, Sukkot is my favorite holiday. I think it always was, but it became even more so when, sixteen years ago, I invited a gentleman named Burt to join me and my family for dinner in my sukkah. I don’t think it was the brisket or homemade round challah, but later that year we were married and Burt has joyfully been building that sukkah ever since. A win-win.

My tradition of building a sukkah began forty years ago when my youngest daughter, a student in a local day school, said she would like to invite her classmates to enjoy some juice and cookies in our sukkah. Didn’t I think that was a great idea, she asked? I agreed, but surely she must have noticed that we didn’t actually have a sukkah. Not a problem. She quickly and enthusiastically suggested that it would be great fun to build one. She was right, and so began a wonderful and very meaningful tradition.

We designed it, according to Jewish law, in the shape of one of the Hebrew letters found in “Sukkot.” We selected the “hey,” a square letter that is wide open on one side. Oh, the symbolism! A trip to the hardware store to buy the decorative wooden lattice sides, a talk with the gardener to request some palm fronds, and a call to my synagogue to order a lulav (closed palm frond) and an etrog (citrus fruit), Continue reading

Family Photo Comes to Life

Ever had a picture come to life before your eyes? Recently, while sitting at the admissions desk, I had the opportunity to speak with a mother and daughter visiting from New Jersey. After several questions about our Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America exhibition and the docent tour, I came to understand that these ladies had journeyed a long way to see a particular photograph on display. It was precious to them because they are the descendants of the family captured in the image.

Karen (left) and Ann (right) join in their family photo.

Karen (left) and Ann (right) join in their family photo.

If you’ve ever visited the Liberty Gallery in Visions and Values, you’ve probably seen this photo reproduction near the Statue of Liberty torch. And, like most of us, you’ve probably wondered about this family. I asked Karen Humphreys and Ann Riley, great-great-granddaughter and great-granddaughter of matriarch and patriarch Sylvia and William Mirkin (seated in front of the bride and groom), to pose in front of the photo and it really brought it to life! Ann’s grandparents, Jacob and Sarah Schneper, or “Bubbie and Pop,” stand to the bride’s right-hand side. Karen’s strong family resemblance to her great-grandmother Sarah and great-aunt Bertha (peeking her head through between the bride and groom) is almost magical.

Pulling in our docent coordinator Noga Sherman to capture as much of the family story as possible, we learned that six of the Mirkin children are included in the wedding picture of son Jacob (Jack) and his bride, Anna (née Danzig), taken June 13, 1911. All had recently arrived from Russia (a seventh child stayed behind), and they were celebrating this marriage in the new land in high style. Note William’s traditional skullcap and the younger men’s top hats, accessorizing the family’s already grand fashions.

Skirball_FirstWedding_painting

The 1911 wedding photo and this related painting, First Wedding in the New Land by Marlene Zimmerman (also on view in the gallery), were donated to the Skirball by Harry and Ida Mirkin’s grandchildren—Howdy Kabrins, Ron Kabrins, and Sandy Bayley—in 1996.