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A Blog About Culture

Recognition, Situation, Identity, Reality

I haven’t written in a reeeeeally long time, mostly because I’m frustrated by my own inability to upgrade from frustrated complaints to meaningful discourse and/or productive counter measures. In fact, embarrassingly, I think I’ve been trying to avoid thinking too deeply about any of the topics that interest me, because I have no answer for them.

I was on Pinterest yesterday looking up crochet patterns. I saw a photograph of a Bolivian girl in “ethnic dress,” crocheting a decorative sash. The caption said “Photographer unknown.” I later found a different photo of the same girl in the same moment, and the photographer was credited on that one. While I agree that artwork should be credited, I find it distasteful that the subjects can remain uncredited, anonymous. I think that would be unusual in American media, where permissions and rights are followed so carefully. Would we find a photo taken at a county fair – perhaps a group of girls eating popcorn – and the caption state “American youths eating traditional fare at a community social gathering?” Probably not. It would most likely name them and their towns and maybe their schools. That we don’t treat “foreign” subjects of photography the same way – that is, as real people – seems unconscionable to me.

Then again, I recently read this article that describes the Twitter hashtag #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou, a collection of articles and photographs that showcase the beauty and modernity of real Africa. That makes me feel a bit better, like people have more agency in their representations and maybe I shouldn’t feel so frustrated.


I do think I give too much power away to unseen forces, societal constructs, the Mass. I shouldn’t do that. It makes me helpless. It makes me feel like nothing will change. My unconscious strategy lately has been to ignore it, which is pretty stupid now that I realize it, because that’s what everyone does and that’s why nothing will change. It’s true that I don’t feel things as deeply as others, but I try to focus on some kind of optimism in the world and make the most of what is in front of me rather than feel constantly as though my life is not enough.  I’m just not sure what to do about any of the feelings that I have, and that is why I’m inactive, because I have no answer.

Photograph: Banksy, Republished in

I just read an article about how the above painting was removed from the side of a building after there had been complaints about racist graffiti. The article stated, “It has been suggested that the council did not realise that Banksy was responsible for the work before scrubbing it off the wall. Other pieces he has painted have been valued in six figures.”

So… this voice is only valid if it’s a statement coming from a known activist artist?

If this message came from an unknown artist (which, of course, Banksy was trying to be at first), does that change its validity or its significance within a cultural context? To me, no. But to a great many others, this is just paint marring a wall until someone tells them, “This is valuable.” Even then, the value is not in the message; it’s in the dollar signs attributed to the artist. Unfortunately.


Image from

Around Thanksgiving of last year, I read Triad, by Mary Leader (1973). I knew it was the inspiration for Stevie Nicks’ song “Rhiannon,” named after one of the characters, so I wanted to experience it for myself and try to surmise how her artistic mind went there. The answer: I am not quite sure.

I had always interpreted the song lyrics to mean that Rhiannon was a free-spirited woman. In the book (and this is not even a spoiler), she is the ghost of the main character’s psychopathic cousin. Sure, there are ties to the novel, but the characters of Rhiannon in the song and book (and even of Welsh mythology) are completely different women and shouldn’t be confused. I have read some articles and reviews that claim that she only used the name because she liked it, but I think there are enough ties between the novel and lyrics that some similarities were intentional.

How often does that occur in a cultural context? When we, as uninformed viewers, experience cultural performances… or when we as cultural workers design exhibits meant to (re)present another culture to the public… how much is presented based on artistic inspiration? How much do we hear and truly understand? Not saying that Stevie didn’t understand the plot of Triad, but she definitely took a snippet and then went in a totally different direction. When I think about that in cultural contexts, it worries me. It’s like reusing a quote out of context. It’s like disagreeing with one tenet of a major religion and then antagonizing all of its followers because of it. That might be extreme, but it’s the trajectory of thinking that I’m imagining.

I was driving through the Poconos with my car radio stuck on “scan,” hoping to pick up a station – any station – that would come in clearly. I was looking for classic rock (Pennsylvania has the best variety on their classic rock stations), but happened to tune in to an NPR broadcast. It was an interview with a bookseller, Elizabeth Bluemle, who insisted on the importance of examining prejudices against children’s books with colored characters on their covers.

Check out the podcast here: NPR, How To Sell Diverse Books: A Bookstore Owner’s Advice.

Bluemle underscored that “diverse books” do not need to feature racial issues. They aren’t always “heavy, serious books:”

Mainstream stories of kids having all kinds of adventures and different genres of literature.

She added, “I think there are so many books published about issues that the consumer culture has developed this idea that books with brown faces on the cover are going to be heavy, serious books. And while those books are very valuable and important and wonderful books to read, they also don’t describe the entire experience of human life in this country.”

I want there to be books about normal adventures and encounters people face, stories in which cultures add context – not necessarily frame a story about conflict, injustice, or racial issues. A novel with a main character who is of a minority ethnicity might not be able to escape that, but I would at least like to see an environment that focuses more on how that character responds to it, how he maintains an everyday existence, rather than the constant ache of unfairness, anger, discouragement, and uncertainty that already permeates so many of the texts (including news and social media) that we read daily. 

At the same time, I do not want to be transported to a completely different world. I don’t want exoticism, or the otherization of tradition disguised as well-intentioned democracy. I don’t want to pick up a book and feel like I won’t be able to relate. The other day, I met a teenager who was reading The Other Side of the Sky, a memoir of a girl from Kabul, for his high school summer reading requirement. I didn’t really have any interest in the book because although I’m sure it would be an adventurous story, and the author, Farah Ahmedi, deserves admiration for her bravery during such a trying time – I felt that it was too hard for me to relate to my own experience. I want normalcy. (Although I should say that I’m aware that I haven’t even read this book, so who knows what I would really think of it if I did.)

I did find the aforementioned normalcy in the book The Householder, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, but I didn’t really like that novel because it was a coming-of-age story and I don’t like those. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it when I read it several years ago.

Recently, I picked up Samrat Upadhyay’s The Royal Ghosts at the library. The back cover says, “These stories brilliantly examine not only Kathmandu during a time of political crisis and cultural transformation but also the effects of that city on the individual consciousness.” I haven’t started reading them yet, but I’ll let you know how it goes when I do. I am hoping to find stories steeped in rich, Nepali culture that comment on those cultural changes while also giving a taste of real life. Those of you who know me personally may also know that I wrote my masters’ thesis on changing cultural markers of Nepali identity during recent transformations, so I’d be interested to see how The Royal Ghosts might interplay with my ideas on that.

On Tuesday, I visited the National Portrait Gallery. To be honest, I was really there to meet a friend for an impromptu happy hour… but I was early, so I wandered the halls. I’d been there many times before, so I wasn’t really paying too much attention, until I saw the current exhibit, Portraiture Now: Staging the Self. The Smithsonian describes the work as featuring “six contemporary Latino artists … who present identities theatrically, in order to rid portraiture of its reassuring tradition that fixes a person in space and time.”

I was most drawn to the work of Rachelle Mozman. Her photography (staged narrative, mostly, I think) depicted the odd disconnect between people of different social classes even in home settings. I spent a long time viewing the following photograph from the “Casa de Mujeres” project, imagining what its story might be. 

“El Espejo” (The Mirror). C-Print, 2010. Rachelle Mozman. Digital image published by

I always feel closer to exhibits, like I more fully understand them, when I am able to contextualize their efforts. Usually, this is by reading the artist statements and descriptive information the museum staff publishes.  I never want to read a lot, but skimming through a gallery without having any idea what I’m looking at feels like a waste of time to me. After I read the description on the wall, I took another look at Mozman’s photographs, and I have to say that I did think about them differently. Here’s what the wall said:

“In the last two decades, Rachelle Mozman has worked between her native New York and Panama, the country of her maternal family. Starting often from her own experience and family history, Mozman explores how culture shapes individuals and how environment affects behavior. She takes on these questions through multiple photographic series that conflate both documentary style and fictional narrative. Mozman’s photographs show servants and masters in their most intimate surroundings. They engage each other sparsely, if at all, playing off of established social roles. The common introspective look of Mozman’s lone characters suggests alienation—not what one would expect in a domestic setting.”

I added the emphasis on that italicized part above so that I could explain my reaction to those lines. They are the first sentences I saw as I glanced up at the wall, and they are the most important to me. We all “stage our self” to define, name, exhibit, and announce our personal identities in public. But what about at home?

How do we act out societal roles and cultural influences even in our most private of spheres, even when no one is watching?

The Staging the Self exhibit of the Portraiture Now series will be open at the National Portrait Gallery from August 22, 2014 through April 12, 2015.

I’m making my head spin. Sometimes I don’t know what I believe.

I read an article in Wild Junket Magazine called “The ‘When’ of Photography: Knowing Which Photos to Take During What Hour of the Day.” It was fine. Good. Informative. But I found myself wishing there was an article discussing not when but if one should take a photo. Many temples, for example, strongly discourage photography … yet here was this photographer saying, “Oh yeah, shoot them in the morning. The sunlight is just right and there will be a lot of interesting subjects.”

You mean… people. People who are just trying to go pray in peace. 

I remember feeling strange, upset, and commodified when tourists took photographs of my family as we were lining ourselves up for a reunion photo on the front steps of our house near Patan Durbar Square. I would have been happy to tell them about the occasion we were celebrating and its cultural and religious significance, but they didn’t care. They snapped and went, like we were the objects of their tourist experience. It made me feel helpless and consequentially angry about it. 

But the more I think about it, to them, I was just an object. I was part of an experience they were consuming. As I read more travel essays in this magazine, and I think about photography as documentation, and I think about any kinds of cultural commodification, the more I wonder how very limiting my own hesitant, traditionalist views are. 

Some people say that cultures are for sharing, for creating beautiful connections, and for growing and forging new, wonderful experiences. What’s an experience? A thing that happened. A thing that happened to you. I just wrote a post last month about how I feel that heritage is a construct of closeness and remembered history, and about how bereft I feel when it is appropriated. So, in the way of my own feelings, are tourists disallowed from experience? In another land, is that place hallowed and only able to be traversed (and even consumed) by permission of its longest-standing citizens? I think that is what I feel inside, and I think that sounds pretty stupid. 

Is experience an ownable object? If my life is my own, and if I am to have the freedoms to move about the world and interact with the places and peoples I choose, then are those experiences mine, too? And am I allowed the right to reify those experiences into documented forms? I guess I think yes. 

I think there are ethical ways of doing so, of course. I think the documentation needs to be presented through a reflexive lens, an emphasis placed on “this is my experience,” not a factual “This is what this place is.” I am not a fan of representation at all, as is obvious in this blog that I wouldn’t even give a proper name. And I guess that I insist that the process of documentation also be negotiated with the process of human interaction. It would be pompous and absurd to go around like “This is my life and I’m going to do whatever I want!” Wouldn’t it. 

I’m in the midst of a delightful binge of Person of Interest, a CBS drama about some friendly spies who save good people by employing Homeland Security cyber surveillance. I just watched an episode about a cat burglar who steals works of significant cultural value – famous paintings, the Gutenberg Bible, etc. In the episode (“Provenance”), the spies go undercover at a museum gala to catch the thief.

Outside the museum, several protesters are seen picketing and waving signs decrying cultural appropriation. One character explains that some people believe cultural artifacts should be shared with the people of their home country, rather than saved in elite and often private circles. (I’ve written about this before, too.)

The protesters weren’t a major part of the episode, of course, but what has got me thinking is how they were depicted… kind of crazy. Protests don’t have the same kind of effect as they did in the ’60s. There are exceptions, but for the most part, in media, protesters are shown as angry, heavily opinionated crazies who only get in the way rather than making any kind of real impact for their causes. Or, if they are making headlines, it is usually more about creating press and shouting the loudest (Westboro).

I know there’s an element of expression, the burning desire for one’s voice to be heard and understood (and agreed with!), that these people do display. But in terms of change? I am not so convinced of its efficacy. I am still pretty wary of anything that could be shrugged off as “hippie stuff” because I am more concerned about converting enemies and changing paradigms in their own languages, cultures, and priorities. Repeating your own views doesn’t go very far in making changes in the minds of someone who doesn’t agree with you. I think the way will come, as it has in environmental cases, in rational explanations of the ways in which those changes can be less expensive, grow economies and job markets, improve life. Acting crazy… not so much.