Partnering with Strong Women: It’s Enough to Make a Girl Dance

Check out excerpts from our Women Hold Up Half the Sky dance residency performance. How amazing are these young ladies? I get teary just watching it. And I rarely cry. Except when “Say Yes to the Dress” is on.

While many of my Education department colleagues spend their days enamored with smiling young children or playing with families aboard Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, my job here involves a far surlier crowd: TEENAGERS. [They’re a demographic that puzzles many—so much so that the Skirball recently offered a “Teenagers: Wonder Years or Worry Years” parenting workshop for moms and dads needing some guidance.]

In my role as Associate Educator for School Programs, I develop gallery-based curricula for students in Grades 6–12 on topics ranging from immigration to archaeology to the onion ring collection of artist Maira Kalman (true story). One of our offerings for high school students is a six-week, in-school residency program that relates to the Skirball’s changing exhibitions. Teaching artists engage with students to explore exhibition themes and create original works of art, which they then perform at the Skirball for an audience of fellow students from other schools. These in-depth programs have produced slam poetry, choreography, and short films. They’re also an opportunity for educators like me to really get to know a group of students, most of whom I’d otherwise only get to work with for about ninety minutes on a typical teen tour.

Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.

Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.

This past year’s residency focused on the topic of empowering women and girls worldwide as explored in the recent Skirball exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky. Working with renowned choreographer Robin Conrad, six members of the Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnet (WESM) Drill Team developed a dance performance based on their visit to the exhibition. They also went on a field trip to serve lunch at the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), one of the Skirball’s many community partners, which provides housing and support for the city’s ever-growing population of homeless women. Continue reading

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Report from Secret Headquarters: Craig Thompson Loves Gloria Estefan

Graphic novel and comic book retailer Secret Headquarters (SHQ) are not only big fans of Craig Thompson but seem to know a lot about him. In a blog post expressing excitement that Craig will be at the Skirball late next week, our SHQ friends shared this funny “little primer” on our illustrious speaker.

Born: 1975 in Traverse City, Michigan Continue reading

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Getting Comfortable with “Productive Discomfort”

Allison Lee, American Jewish World Service (AJWS)'s Los Angeles Regional Director, explains how AJWS helps make change possible.

Allison Lee, American Jewish World Service (AJWS)'s Los Angeles Regional Director, explains how AJWS helps make change possible.

For me, one of the most intriguing and valuable aspects of Women Hold Up Half the Sky has been the Expert Insights program on the weekends. From an inspiring Afternoon with Edna Adan to Jane Roberts Seeking 34 Million Friends, these in-gallery discussions have added dimension to the exhibition and to Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky movement.

This afternoon, the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) will be sharing their expert insights on the work they do each and every day around the world. I was fortunate to be in the audience for one of their previous gallery visits and I learned a lot, not just about what they do but how they do it.

AJWS was founded about twenty-six years ago. The organization is inspired by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice and to help secure it for even the most marginalized communities in the developing world. AJWS has been an important partner in presenting the exhibition for many reasons: because of the work they do on the frontlines with women in the developing world, because of the Jewish lens with which they approach their work, and because of their longstanding relationship with Nick Kristof.

These were all things that I already knew, but that afternoon listening to Allison Lee, AJWS’ Los Angeles Regional Director, I learned what it all really means. Continue reading

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Sistuhs Are Doin’ It For Themselves

Equality and justice are issues that drive singer, songwriter, dancer, and women’s rights activist Sayon Bamba.

When I first saw Sayon Bamba live in concert, I was immediately struck by her charisma and power. She has a bold voice and a stunning stage presence. I was taken not only by her mastery of different styles, from Afropop to singer/songwriter, but also to her unwavering commitment to human rights and women’s causes. While I never had the opportunity to see Bamba perform as onetime frontwoman for the iconic Les Amazones de Guinée, I am thrilled that this under-known artist will be making her US debut at the Skirball next Friday night as part of Women Hold Up Half the Sky related programming.

As we planned for the concert, it made me realize just how captivated I am by strong female artistic voices. Below is a short list, in no particular order, of some of my favorites, all of whom I have been fortunate enough to meet.

Patti Smith—From the earliest days of her career, Patti Smith captured my attention. There has never been anyone quite like her. Although she honors all the “strong female influences” on her art—check out this recent BBC Radio interview in which Smith acknowledges Janis Joplin and Grace Slick—she is a true trailblazer, with a unique voice and a singular ear for the English language. Her music and poetry have led me to a greater understanding and appreciation of literature and spirituality. It’s hard to pick just one, but as far as I’m concerned, her debut release, Horses, is the must-have Patti Smith album. And where did I meet her? I presented her in concert back when I was vice chair of the University of Pennsylvania concert committee. I won’t soon forget hanging out with Patti in a backstage bathroom of all places.

Doris Lessing—One of my favorite writers, the 2007 Nobel Laureate in Literature started her career writing about the injustices she witnessed in her native Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and has never waivered from trying to imagine a better world. Her attachment to the inequities of Harare and the apartheid system led her to political activism, both personally and through her writing. Lessing’s interest in all that is possible motivated her to create science fiction, which were really explorations of her utopian ideals. My favorite Lessing work? The Making of the Representative for Planet 8. It didn’t make a recent Huffington Post “Lessing Top 5” list (compiled in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of The Golden Notebook), but I stand by my choice.

Phranc—In the midst of citywide Olympic sponsorship fever, Phranc unofficially declared herself the “Official Jewish Lesbian Folksinger of the 1984 Summer Olympics.” Even if that seems like a narrow field in which to distinguish oneself, the singer, visual artist, and athlete—Phranc is a competitive swimmer and a skilled surfer—possesses a gold medal–caliber voice and a winning sense of humor, and is a torchbearer for social justice (is that too many Olympics references? Sorry…). Her cultural identity as a Jew has played a central role in her life’s work. Phranc has performed at the Skirball on three occasions and remains a favorite of mine after twenty-eight years. Continue reading

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Connecting (and Coloring) the Dots

This gallery wall was designed to illustrate the sixty million girls and women who are “missing”  from the world because of their gender. It’s a participatory experience that one student who visited recently took very seriously.

This gallery wall was designed to illustrate the tragic fact that sixty million girls and women are “missing” from the world because of their gender. It’s a participatory experience that one student who visited recently took very seriously.

Inside the exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky, one wall of the gallery is covered with dots—20,000 of them, give or take a few. Each one measures about an inch in diameter, a thin blue line rounding an empty center. Over time visitors have filled in the white circles, transforming the mostly blank space into a field of tenderly hand-colored dots.

The 20,000 are meant to represent, if only in part, the sixty million girls and women estimated to be “missing” worldwide because of sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, or gender-specific abuse or neglect—or what an article in The Economist calls “gendercide” (the article also increases the estimate to 100 million). It’s a startling, sobering figure. While standing before this giant display of thousands upon thousands of dots, visitors are invited to take a moment and color in a circle in honor of a life lost.

A young middle-schooler, B.J. Dare, who toured the exhibition as part of a recent school field trip, colored in more than a dot or two, then chose to share the experience with online reading and writing community Figment. We stumbled upon it late last week, and we were moved. Here’s an excerpt of B.J.’s composition “A Trip to the Skirball”:

I colored and colored and colored and colored. Every dot was a new color, some were multi-color. For each dot, I felt like I was trying to help, or give support, somehow. Continue reading

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Mamak Khadem: Connecting the Old to the New, One Culture to Another

It was 1994, and I was living in New York. One night, as I tuned into a radio program called “Hearts of Space,” I heard a song that stopped me right in my tracks. On the air was a Los Angeles–based band called Axiom of Choice. Though distinctly Persian, the music was nothing like I had heard before. It was innovative, a perfect fusion between classical Persian and modern sounds, between East and West. I was hooked. The band defined a new sound in Persian music and has influenced many musicians of the younger generation.

Acclaimed solo artist Mamak Khadem—who will perform at the Skirball on International Women’s Day,
March 8—was the frontwoman of progressive world music band Axiom of Choice, a personal favorite of
mine for years. In this clip, the trio performs their beloved tune “Valeh.”

The vocals in particular were arresting. I did some research and found out that the singer was Mamak Khadem. A couple of years later, I moved to Los Angeles, where I had the opportunity to connect with the band and become friends with Mamak. Continue reading

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Goods That Do Good at Audrey’s: It’s All About the Stories

Raven + Lily co-founders Sophia Lin and Kirsten Dickerson discuss why they felt compelled to work with
women in impoverished communities and how consumers themselves are empowered by purchases that benefit communities in need. Sophia will be previewing Raven + Lily’s spring 2012 collection at a trunk show hosted by Audrey’s Museum Store on April 20–22.

Just north of the capital of Ethiopia is a mountain region known as the Entoto Mountains, a place where villagers believe lies a cure for HIV. Ostracized by their families and communities, many HIV-positive Ethiopian women leave behind their hometowns to come to the Entoto Mountains in the hope that they will be made healthy again. Many of them, unfortunately, end up with no way to support themselves once they arrive at this new place.

Raven + Lily necklaceBut there is some hope for these women thanks to socially responsible jewelry and gift brand Raven + Lily and the Entoto Project. This initiative provides HIV education and healthcare to Ethiopian women while also offering sustainable employment. The women of the Entoto Project create beautiful jewelry, like this necklace (pictured at right), using beads made out of vintage coins and artillery shells from past tribal conflicts. As they say at Raven + Lily, “what was once intended for harm now brings hope and life.”

It is stories like these that made the Women Hold Up Half the Sky Holiday Pop-Up Shop—which was open to visitors during gift-giving season—such a meaningful endeavor. For me, what is moving about goods that do good is their potential to empower both the artisan and the customer. The artisans are able to improve conditions for themselves and their families, fulfilling basic needs and building a better future for the entire community; the customers (or “smart buyers,” as Katy Leakey of our Beads for Learning vendor, The Leakey Collection, calls them) are able to make more socially conscious purchases that can make a difference in the lives of others.

Making a difference was the inspiration for the Skirball’s decision to mount the exhibition—and, by extension, to organize a related Holiday Pop-Up Shop. As it turned out, many thousands of visitors were happy to “shop for the cause” and help champion opportunities for women to make a sustainable living. To keep the momentum going, Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball will continue to carry, well into the future, beautifully handcrafted merchandise from women’s cooperatives and fair-trade organizations around the world. I couldn’t be more proud! Continue reading

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Building the Sky

For years I have longed to make full use of our museum galleries’ great ceiling spaces. With the exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky, we not only had the chance to do something special with the Getty Gallery “sky,” as it were, but our first-ever opportunity to integrate the full play of daylight within the space into the design. The team jumped right on board with the idea and began to think of different ways we could use the ceiling not only as a visual element but as an interactive component that would add to the show’s content as well.

View of the sky in the Women Hold Up Half the Sky gallery

This is how Wish Canopy, a commissioned work by architectural office Layer, is looking these days. Colorful and luminous.

The Los Angeles–based architecture practice Layer was approached to create an installation that would somehow represent the sky. One major inspiration was Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree project. For Wish Tree, people are invited to write their personal wishes for peace and tie them to a tree branch. The fact that our “sky” would be mostly out of reach of visitors precluded a hands-on interaction with the artwork in the same manner as for Wish Tree. Nonetheless we wanted the installation to be more than a sculpture and provide an outlet for creative and affective responses to the exhibition’s content.

Consulting curator Karina White (left) and Layer co-founder Lisa Little discuss prototypes in Layer’s offices in Venice.

The team came up with the idea of inviting each visitor to write down a wish for girls and women around the world and have it added to a “sky of wishes.” The resulting sculpture, which would transform over time, would give visual testament to the power of collective action to effect change. Continue reading

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“Unapologetic Agitations” by Modern Dance Artist Nora Chipaumire

Nora Chipaumire: Zimbabwean native, Bessie Award winner, and 2011 USA Ford Fellow. Photo by Antoine Tempe.

Although I’d heard about choreographer/dancer and 2011 USA Ford Fellow Nora Chipaumire for several years, it wasn’t until the summer of 2006 that I saw her perform for myself. It was at Bytom, Poland’s XIII Annual International Contemporary Dance Conference and Performance Festival. Nora’s master classes in modern and African dance created a buzz among both the students and her fellow teachers, and the solos I saw her perform were transfixing. Both works—Convoys, Curfews, and Roadblocks and Dark Swan—demonstrated not just her physical prowess, but also an intriguing intellect. These will be presented as part of her evenings of performance at the Skirball this weekend.

Nora will also give a sneak preview of a substantial excerpt-in-progress from her latest solo work, Miriam, which employs the music of Miriam Makeba (1932–2008). Widely known by her nickname, “Mama Afrika,” Makeba was an exiled South African musician who brought the realities of apartheid into the living rooms of music fans around the world. While Miriam examines the burden of representing a culture to a larger society, it’s not meant to be a biography of Makeba. Instead, it draws inspiration from Makeba’s life story, as well as from Chipaumire’s own experiences as a self-exiled Zimbabwean.

Click on the image above to see a snippet of Nora performing Convoys, Curfews, and Roadblocks. At the Skirball, she’ll perform inside our spacious Milken Gallery.

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Kim Abeles Talks Art, Community, and Change

A Pearl of Wisdom on the gallery wall

I pass through the exhibition Pearls of Wisdom: End the Violence every day. I am always moved by the “pearls of wisdom” that the participants have shared as part of the project. The one above strikes me as particularly heartfelt and true.
Photo by Peter Turman.

Interconnections and interdependency lie at the heart of acclaimed Los Angeles–based artist Kim Abeles’ work, both in her community-based projects like Pearls of Wisdom: End the Violence, now on display at the Skirball, and in her fascinating environmental work. I had the chance to chat with Kim recently and find out a little about how she approaches her art.

For Kim, process is the most important part of any work she does, whether alone, in the community, or with collaborators. She told me, “The result is always a surprise. The unexpected connections that you discover along the way have the most impact on both the artist and the viewer. For Pearls of Wisdom, it was most important to look for ways to engage in conversation about the topic of domestic violence, because most people don’t want to address it. Some people get emotional about the show as a result of it touching their own history. Taken in its entirety, you can feel and see that Pearls of Wisdom is a chorus of people, all of them standing up and standing their ground.” Continue reading

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