Malawi’s Rock art

A screen shot showing animals silhouetted in white pigment on a rock face in Malawi.

Screen shot of CCTV’s “Faces of Africa” report on Moses Mkumpha, Malawi’s only conservator

Moses Mkumpha is a quiet man with unrushed movements and a thorough approach.  Watching him dust a basket and meticulously bag every strand that broke off, it was clear that he had the perfect temperament for a conservator.  And listening to the respect with which he spoke about the history contained in Malawi’s rock art, the ruins of its ancient slave trading post, and the country’s dinosaur and early hominid fossils, it was  clear he had a passion for his country’s heritage.

Moses Mkumpha studying and cleaning a basket from Botswana as part of his training at the Comservation Center of New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.

Moses Mkumpha in the ethnographic conservation lab of the American Natural History Museum –              photo: Lee Adair Lawrence

I had the privilege of reporting on him while Mkumpha was in the US getting training at the Conservation Center of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.  Now Naashon Zalk, a director in South Africa, has followed him in Malawi and made a documentary that aired in the series “Faces of Africa.”  You can see it here:

One of many treats of Asia week

Painting by Pu Ru made for his student, An HoSuch a delight to see works by one of my favorite painters, An Ho, alongside a painting (on the right) by her teacher Pu Ru, one the last scholar artists of China.  There is also a marvelous hanging scroll of a tiger that Pu Ru and An Ho painted together.

China 2000 Fine Art is showing some of An Ho’s figurative paintings from the 1950s (below) …

by An Ho at China 2000 Fine Arta couple of stark, winter landscapes in ink from a decade or so ago…

and then, a recent landscape (below) where trees are again in leaf.  An Ho landscape at China 2000 Fine Art

An Ho’s vision is as poetic and sharp as ever, and her hand as deft and expressive.  A thrill to see.

(I first met An Ho when I wrote about a show  at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art; I then wrote  a short feature when An Ho was teaching students at MICA how to handle the brush in the way that Pu Ru once taught her. )

Mirroring Devotion

One of the things I love about religious art is the occasional blurring of the line between an object intended to inspire devotion and the depiction of devotion itself.  This happens in pretty much all religious traditions, but for whatever reason it struck me recently at “Buddhist Art of Myanmar,” currently on view at the Asia Society Museum in NY.  I gave it a rave review in the WSJ as have others elsewhere (or so I’m told — I actually never read reviews of shows that I am myself writing about; a sad predicament when you think about it because I miss a lot of great pieces by Holland Cotter and other wonderful writers).

Back to my musings about depicting and inspiring devotion, a word I use in the broadest of senses.  Take a look at the face and posture of this Buddha…                                         IMAG2740
The 11th-century sculpture captures a calm alertness, that sweet spot between relaxation and concentration in meditation.  Am I projecting?  Maybe.  Or maybe (and this is by far my preferred theory) my mirror neurons respond to what I see before me, so that by depicting what a model meditator looks like on the outside the artist creates an object that triggers in those who stand before it an inner echo of what that revered meditator is experiencing.  The sculpture therefore inspires devotion to the Buddha as a being who sees through to the essence of life — and, at the same time, describes the path of devotion the Buddha has taken.

Another, very poignant piece in the show does this double act differently.  It is 12th-century sculpture of the Buddha meditating as he nears death.  In Myanmar such sculptures are placed in niches that cover the walls of temple passageways.  Because they are narrow, you don’t get much distance so you see them as you walk past them.  So what appears in catalogs and art history books like this —

Scene of Buddha's death carved in sandstone around 1198 .

is experienced more like the view below so that the first thing you would see is a fellow devotee kneeling in prayer, his attention focused on the teacher/master/divinity he cannot see…view from the foot of the Buddha, showing a monk kneeling in prayer, separated from the Buddha by a wall.

…but that you eventually do get to see.  A most effective depiction of blind faith and its reward.A frontal view of the Buddha's face as the figure lies on his side, eyes almost closed, relaxed yet attentive

And now I cannot resist revisiting another Buddha head, this one disembodied and from 9th century Thailand that was at the Met in the Lost Kingdoms show (I singled it out in my WSJ review).  I am adding it here purely for the benefit of my mirror neurons… and yours.   Head of a Buddha in terra-cotta, eyes closed, with its eye brows ever so slightly in tension

The mighty “Strange Case of Henry Darger”

Know the work of Henry Darger?   Well last weekend, the paintings, collages, drawings and mad musings of this reclusive, compulsive man came alive through a play by Judith Kampfner.  It was just a reading of The Strange Case of Henry Darger and only of excerpts at that, yet utterly engrossing.  We got a glimpse into the mind whose phantasmagoria of children, monsters, soldiers, and recurring visions of the crucifix are embodied in the hundreds upon hundreds of works Darger left behind.

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 12.07.45 PMThe worlds Darger depicts are in turn lyrical, disturbing, sweet and violent, and in the play we see the man summoning them with the intensity of a person struggling  to do what comes so easily to others: relate — to people, fears, a news story,  beauty, horror, God.  It is art not for art’s sake, but for living’s sake and he goes about it as relentlessly as he breathes.

This comes through beautifully in Kampfner’s play and, the next day, standing before pieces on display at the Outsider Art Fair, the collages and paintings compelled me like fragments of a rich and complex whole, snapshots brought back from a hallucinatory journey which Kampfner’s The Strange Case of Henry Darger conjured the day before.  No wonder the gatekeepers to Darger’s estate granted her permission.

IMAG2723 IMAG2725

Ah, the beautiful world of craft art…

Celadon sculpture by Cliff Lee -- all but the stems and the thorns are thrown on the wheel and, yes, when you hold it up to the light, the petals of the lilies are translucent.

Celadon sculpture by Cliff Lee — all but the stems and the thorns are thrown on the wheel and, yes, when you hold it up to the light, the petals of the lilies are translucent.

Great to dip back into the world of craft art — or whatever name you want to call first-rate works made in clay, glass, wood, metal,…  At the New York Ceramics and Glass Fair I reconnected with Cliff Lee, a ceramist whose work I had written about in 2010  for American Style.   Five years, I now realize, is a long time:  the Lees’  bounding dog Hunter has died, their cuddly three-legged cat has moved in with their son, and, just now, when I tried to link this blog to the article I wrote, all I got was a blank page.  American Style suspended publication about two years ago, and I am once again reminded of just how much I used to love writing for its great editor, Hope Daniels, and how much I love the world of ceramists, woodturners, glass-blowers.…

Pot by Cliff Lee with a lava glaze that has the frothiness of  sea foam.

Pot by Cliff Lee with a lava glaze that has the frothiness of sea foam.

Luckily some things don’t change — Cliff Lee’s work is as terrific as ever…

and I discovered the work of a potter I should have known but somehow had missed before, John Pagliaro.

Shadow boxes with pinch pots by John Pagliaro.

Shadow boxes with pinch pots by John Pagliaro 

Pinch pots by John Pagliaro on display at the NY Ceramics and Glass Fair

Pinch pots by John Pagliaro on display at the NY Ceramics and Glass Fair

Sitting in style

Having just written a story on how much the world around us has (and has not) changed since the passage of the American Disabilities Act (the story is out in this week’s Christian Science Monitor), I was thrilled that “Fashion Follows Form: Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 9.34.24 PMDesigns for Sitting” was still at the Royal Ontario Museum when I was up in Toronto last week.  The show features the work of Canadian designer Izzy Camilleri who some years ago expanded her line to include clothes designed for people who use wheelchairs.

It isn’t immediately clear when you first walk into the show just what the curator is up to — or maybe I had just had a long day and was slow to get it.  There was a tux for a groom with a jacket cut so that it would look its best when the wearer was seated, then a slinky evening dress for a woman who needed to be able to walk with grace while looking sexy, a 19th century outfit for women riding side saddle, and a top that best suited a bustle skirt…  What?

What it took me a while to see was that the show is placing designs for people with disabilities within the flow of history, not as some specialized (do-good) eddy.  The groom’s suit is just one among many examples that illustrates a core principle of fashion: the designer’s business is to respond to the needs and tastes of clients.  When women wanted to ride horses but convention dictated they do so sidesaddle, designers came up with outfits that would give them the comfort and mobility they needed to control their horse while also ensuring their decorum.

So it is with clients who want to wear clothes they like while sitting in a wheelchair.  The challenge there is simple — just ask any woman who has ever fussed with her skirt because she didn’t realize it was going to ride quite so high up her thigh or puff out quite so much at the stomach when she was sitting down; or any man who has ever looked down while seated and realized there was an inch of skin between sock and cuff; or anyone of either sex who has fidgeted in a plane because the back or his or her jacket was bunched up at the back.  We all know that what looks and feels good standing up doesn’t always feel and look good sitting down.


That’s one of the facts of life Ms. Camilleri’s designs address.  Notice in the leather jacket below that there is a belt in the back that you can’t see from the front — someone who needs support to sit upright can get it without sacrificing their style.

Mannequin wearing leather jacket, seen from the front.

design by Izzy Camilleri


Mannequin wearing a hip leather jacket -- the back view shows that the sleeves are attached by zippers (to make it easier to remove and put on) , the back is cut out for comfort and a seat belt can slip over the wearer's waist under the jacket.

Notice that the sleeves are attached by zippers (to make it easier to remove and put on) , the back is cut out for comfort and a seat belt can slip over the wearer’s waist under the jacket.









If you want to read about the designs that a bright group at MIT came up with for clients with disabilities, check out also Bryan Cronan’s piece in the Christian Science Monitor.





A page turner indeed

One spread from ‘Returning Home’ (c. 1695) by Shitao, a Buddhist monk turned Daoist adept. The Metropolitan Museum of  Art

One spread from ‘Returning Home’ (c. 1695) by Shitao, a Buddhist monk turned Daoist adept. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hard to know whom to praise more:

– the Met curator who brings out what Chinese artists could do in an album that they could not in the traditional scroll formats


– the WSJ headline writer who captured this in four words: a real page-turner.

my review of The Art of the Chinese Album