Protest Poster or Valentine?

Decades of Dissent installation shot. Photo by Christina Williams.

“Dear Erin” began a letter I received almost one month after the opening of Decades of Dissent: Democracy in Action: 1960–1980. The letter continued, “You can imagine my surprise and amusement on finding my Gay-In poster reproduced in the Los Angeles Times. Produced 42 years ago, the poster had minimal exposure or impact. Today, it serves as a reminder of the time when gay people were beginning their journey to full equality.”

The letter was from Bruce Reifel, who had created one of my favorite posters in Decades of Dissent. With affectionate couples set against a bright background, Gay-In announced a gathering of gays and lesbians in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park in 1970. The event, organized by the Gay Liberation Front, was revolutionary. During a time when gays were expected to confine their social activities to private spaces, they asserted their right to inhabit public space.

Gay-In, Bruce Reifel, Silkscreen, 1970, Los Angeles, California

I had learned these things about the Gay-In poster in the process of curating Decades of Dissent. What I had missed, however, was the fact that Bruce had made it. The label I had written for the poster attributed the piece to the Gay Liberation Front. When Bruce’s letter arrived, the historian in me was extremely excited. Not only would I have a chance to correct my error, but I would likely deepen my knowledge of an object and the story behind it in the process. Continue reading

Rough Draft

Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, June–July 1776 (detail). Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, June–July 1776 (detail). Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Visiting Mount Vernon, Virginia, recently, I had a good look at George Washington. His original terra-cotta likeness, by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, is on display there. Washington was looking down at me. (He was six foot three.)

Our usual image of the father of our country is conjured from the dollar bill or the stiffly posed portraits of his day. But this likeness is different. It dates from 1785, when Houdon followed Washington around for weeks, waiting for the moment that would capture the great man’s character. It came when Washington was negotiating the price of a horse. The seller apparently asked too much. Washington’s expression, as captured by Houdon, is priceless: imperious, dubious, somewhere between high and mighty—and so lifelike that, standing there beneath his gaze, I was glad I wasn’t the one selling the horse. Not even the King of England could stand up to George Washington.

Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co.The British Surrendering Their Arms to Gen. Washington After Their Defeat at York Town in Virginia October 1781 (detail). Philadelphia: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., January 28, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co.The British Surrendering Their Arms to Gen. Washington After Their Defeat at York Town in Virginia October 1781 (detail). Philadelphia: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., January 28, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

To capture the living person before he became an icon—this is just what the Library of Congress exhibition now at the Skirball, Creating the United States, sets out to do. Visitors are invited to witness the founding of the nation as it happened, before it was set in stone. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were once rough drafts, with cross-outs and add-ons you can still see. Before they were ratified, they had to be debated;  before they were proposed, they had to be composed. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

Continue reading

Gallery Visitor Jane Roberts Seeking 34 Million Friends

Women Hold up Half the Sky has been attracting a lot of amazing folks who are involved in organizations that work on behalf of women and girls. On any given day, we seem to bump into activists exploring the exhibition and sharing stories during their visits.

One day, a Skirball docent stopped me in the hallway to tell me that a woman “who was in the book”—that is, Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky—was in the gallery. The docent was referring to Jane Roberts, who is featured prominently in chapter 8 on family planning and maternal health. I went to the galleries to welcome Jane to the Skirball and to learn more about her remarkable life’s work.

Hear Jane Roberts talk about her impactful 34 Million Friends movement,
“I believe that when the world takes care of women, women take care of the world.”

Jane shared that she was upset to learn that during President George W. Bush’s first administration, the U.S. was withholding $34 million from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) because of false claims that the organization funded coercive abortions as part of its family planning program. UNFPA does much to help women by promoting reproductive health, prenatal care, and safe deliveries. Jane felt that something should be done to restore the withheld funds so that women needing maternity resources could receive them.

In 2002, Jane started a movement, working with another incensed American, Lois Abraham, to raise the missing $34 million. They are asking people to donate one dollar each. To date, 34 Million Friends of UNFPA has raised over $4 million that goes directly to UNFPA. In 2005, in recognition of their efforts and accomplishments, Jane and Lois were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize! Continue reading

An Afternoon with Edna Adan

Edna Adan Ismail views the section of the exhibition that tells her story and describes the impactful work that her hospital does to promote maternal and infant health. Photo by Bonnie Perkinson.

When Edna Adan Ismail, founder of the pioneering Edna Adan University Hospital in Somaliland, walked into Women Hold Up Half the Sky a few weeks ago, she exclaimed to the crowd of visitors who had gathered to see her, “I am very emotional by the way, so if I get emotional, bear with me.” She walked through the gallery, half a world away from her home in Hargeisa, and took in the stories and images of her life on display. Edna did get emotional. And impassioned. And I did, too.

As I learned in chapter seven of Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, one woman dies from childbirth every minute somewhere in the world. The personal narratives they share in the book put a face to that statistic, making every heartbreaking word worth the read.

In a country like Somaliland, Kristof and WuDunn write that there are four main factors that account for such grim maternal mortality: biology, lack of schooling, lack of rural health systems, and disregard for women. This only makes it that much more impressive that against all odds Edna learned to read and write even when there were no schools for girls; was the first Somali girl to earn a scholarship to study abroad in Britain; trained to become the first qualified nurse-midwife; served as First Lady of Somalia while her husband served as Prime Minister; had a career at the World Health Organization; held the position of Foreign Minister of Somaliland; and finally reached her lifelong goal of founding and administering a hospital. Being in her presence is inspiring, and I feel proud to know that she is out there fighting for every woman’s right to good health care and education. Continue reading