Art Sharing, Storytelling, and Affirmation: ACTA's Bay Area Artists Gathering


ACTA - Posted on 23 August 2015

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One of the things that ACTA has learned from our 1,000 case studies of traditional arts practice, is that the practice of gathering lies central to most cultural communities in the State of California, whether it is a Karuk community uniting to engage in a White Deer Ceremony, a group of Chicanos and Mexicanos participating in fandango jarocho, or people gathering to celebrate Chinese Lunar New Year. We have seen the incredible energy that goes into organizing these events, the powerful engagement that occurs at the event and the wonderful impact on people’s lives, community bonding, and community bridging. It is for that reason that ACTA works to promote and advocate the practice of gathering in a significant and rich manner.

On August 16, 2015, ACTA gathered a group of Bay Area traditional artists and practitioners from the Living Cultures Grants Program (LCGP) and Apprenticeship Program (AP) at the historical Heyday Books office in Berkeley, California. The meeting was to provide a chance to check in on the work that they are doing, meet other awardees, and to partake in a discussion around traditional arts and storytelling. This is an annual event that ACTA puts on with the support of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund and their program director Frances Phillips, who ACTA would like to thank for affirming our efforts and intentions.

ACTA would like to thank all those that attended, especially the traditional artists that contributed by demonstrating their art practice, such as Arash Shirinbab of the Ziya Art Center, who is currently apprenticing with master artist Mohammad Bazargan in ACTA’s 2015 round of AP, in the art of Persian calligraphy. For the event, Shirinbab shared that he is "learning this new style... it's actually not a new style its almost 600 year old." In comparison to the rich history of calligraphy, the ancient style known as Nastaliq is a new style. Nastaliq is a highly complicated style, which becomes apparent in the manner which brushes or writing elements are used to develop degrees of brush strokes to give more nuance to lettering. Shirinbab interpreted an excerpt of an ancient poem by the Iranian poet Sa'adi (Shirazi), about the connectedness of human beings that is written in the Hall of Nations at the United Nations, translated as:

The sons of Adam are limbs of each other,
Having been created of one essence.
When the calamity of time affects one limb
The other limbs cannot remain at rest.
If you have no sympathy for the troubles of others,
You are unworthy to be called by the name of a human.

The response to this work was silent captivation, as the young calligrapher gracefully maneuvered a small writing brush over a large piece of art paper to create the visually stunning poem.

A second sharing of art was provided by the well-known African American quilter Marion Coleman and her apprentice Ora Clay, both of whom are members of the African American Quilt Guild of Oakland, and are also in the 2015 round of AP. The artists presented a piece by Clay called Court House Steps in which the apprentice was pushed by Coleman to think bigger around one of the basic patterns of quilting called the "block." Clay, utilizing the theme of steps, developed a repeating pattern that had an effect of steps, pyramids, diamonds, and squares that was evocative. The piece was inspired by the historical case Brown vs. the Board of Education, and as a first time competitor in the Alameda County Fair in textile arts, Clay was awarded first prize for the work. The quilt stood approximately 5 feet high and 4 feet wide and integrted different types of fabrics, creating wonderful textures when closely observed. Court House Steps also integrated appliques with the names of the lawyers and the names of the plaintiffs of the cases leading up to Brown vs. the Board of Education, and a black and white doll, to reference to the case study, the "doll test" by Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark that influenced the decision of the case. Coleman clarified that this quilt is a story quilt that would be hung on a wall rather than used as a bed cover. Nevertheless, the functional bed cover quilts usually carry stories as well, as they are compilations of recycled materials, a family member’s pants, shirt, or curtains that index memories for people.

The gathered group right away engaged in a discussion about the significance of storytelling in their art forms, and the importance of maintaining the stories, histories, and meanings embedded in the cultural expressions they practice. We first responded to Clay’s quilt and how this textile reached and opened personal memories and historical comprehension of the Civil Rights Movement and of the actual case, resonating for different people in different manners. For one participant, she recalled when she was a child, seeing a film on the "doll test" study and how the film resonated throughout her life. The discussion achieved various things, from an acknowledgement of how deeply inherent history is in the forms of music and art that people practice, to asking hard questions of how do people rigid in the traditional practices connect with others that practice the same forms with the intention of innovating the forms, to recognizing how traditional arts and practices help us position ourselves in our communities and society and formulate a huge part of our identity.

These types of gatherings, in where people are able to share experiences and have horizontal dialogue with each other, always leave those attending with much affinity and affirmation about the work they do. This specific meeting achieved that, but it also left a sense of affirmation that there is a wonderful future for traditional arts, as the youngest participant of the gathering, Julia Kim, the 14 year old apprentice to Kyong-il Ong, a master of Korean dance and drumming, states:

"I think that Ong sensei, which is teacher, she is really responsible for a Korean culture diaspora. Because if you think about it, how many times have you heard of Korean dance or even seen Korean dance?... We are lucky enough to be in a place that is accepting of other cultures... like a salad bowl of all these cultures living together. And my teacher is really responsible for reclaiming the Korean name, kind of like spreading it and making it known. My mom, the reason that she put me in Korean dance was because she actually met my teacher when she was 19 years old, before she was world famous, before she had performed at the Olympics, before all of these things. My mom really fell in love with the Korean drum because of my teacher... and then she put me in Korean dance, and that’s really helped me as a Korean American, to reclaim my Koreaness, to connect to a culture and a heritage that is, well, somewhat present, I am not able to fully connect to, you know, I am not in Korea, but it has helped me regain and reclaim my roots. I think she does that for all of her students, even if they are half Korean or even if they just like Korean culture... and for her audience especially... to have an understanding of what Korean culture is because it is very rare and it is evolving a lot, and so traditional culture has to be preserved."

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ACTA's Bay Area Artists Gathering

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Arash Shirinbab, a Berkeley-based Persian calligrapher, shows us his practice sheets that help to perfect the brush strokes and angle of his hand and wrist while lettering. The script is the same for Persian and Arabic, but are different languages. It is similar to the Roman alphabet used for English and Latin. Commenting on his T-shirt, he explained that calligraphy had made its way into Iranian fashion.

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Starting with a blank canvas, Arash explains that he sometimes works in silence or listens to traditional or religious Persian music as he works. It can be meditative.

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Arash creates the first line from a poem from the Persian-Iranian poet Sa'adi, whose eight-century old poem became a motto on the entrance of the United Nations building.

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The tools of calligraphy.

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Ora Gold (left) shows the piece she worked on through her apprenticeship with master quilter Marion Coleman.

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Ora explains that quilt which initially began with "steps" made of fabric swatches slowly became a piece that depicts the landmark legal case of Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned segregation.

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Marion Coleman and the African-American Quilt Guild of Oakland also received a Living Cultures Grant this year to create neighborhood quilts. She holds a sample of one patch made by a sports team fan.

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The Bay Area gathering attendees.