Monday, December 20, 2010

The Darker Side of a Holiday Sale

I recently Google-searched for art museums in Nagaland to see if I could dig up more information about the three that we know about: The Nagaland State Museum in Kohima, the gallery of items in Mopungchuket, and the recently inaugurated WWII Museum in Kisema.
Rather than finding the museums I was looking for (only two of which have Internet presence at all), I found a slew of American, European, and Australian galleries that are selling Naga art. The prices? At the MB Abram Galleries, this pair of Naga bracelets, circa 19th century or before, were originally $6,600 but have been reduced to $4,950 for the holiday season.

This rare example of a late 19th century Naga headhunter shield, made by the Konyaks from Mithun hide, is on holiday special for $3,800 from its original price of $5,000. The gallery owner himself introduces the sale. He says the items have been vetted by independent experts and carry an unconditional guarantee of authenticity. He doesn't, however, note how the objects were obtained in the first place. Only, "We are confident that any of these art pieces would make a great Holiday gift."

These early 20th century (possibly earlier) coiled armlets, also from the Konyak tribe, are on sale for $700. Ironically, the gallery writes, "These were treasured signs of wealth and prestige amongst the Naga" as part of his sales pitch. I am doubtful that the Konyaks are receiving any portion of the sale. Something seems wrong when the vast majority of Naga people do not have the purchasing power to buy their own art back. The per capita annual income in 2008 for those living in Nagaland was 20,417 rupees. The price of these armlets is 31, 739.4 in Indian rupees and the price for the first set of bracelets is 223, 231, over ten times the annual income of the average Naga person living in that region.

This next Naga hunter Blow Dart Case, complete with bamboo tube, attached wicker basket, carrying strap, and a pair of wristlets were originally $2600 but marked down to $2000 for the holiday sale. "Payment may be made through Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover, U.S. Check, Bank Transfer, Google Check-Out, or Paypal." After visiting such an incredibly beautiful and culturally rich region of the world, it is difficult to see such essential parts of Naga history being separated and shipped off to the walls of living rooms several continents away.

Perhaps this gallery owner is working with the support of the Naga people, though I'd be surprised. Even in the case that each of the pieces has been been imported fairly and legally and ethically and the gallery owner has good intentions and is just doing his best to make the rent, it is still sad to see so many sold stickers underneath the objects that could be part of Nagaland's own museums. I am certainly not against the sale of antiques in general. In this particular case, however, when the Naga people have had such a disadvantage in protecting their heritage and, in this specific time period, when they are making such efforts to recall and document it, it only seems natural that we should be helping and not hindering the process.

This is why, on the ride home from the Hornbill Festival, I had an uneasy feeling when I thought of the two necklaces that I had bought for our own living room wall. I bought many holiday gifts for friends and family, but they were all undoubtedly contemporary pieces made by living Naga people for the non-sentimental purpose of sale. The ones that I bought for myself, however, describe the slippery slope:

While I am certainly not a historian or an expert in determining the age or authenticity of artifacts, I have 131% confidence that the first necklace (seen above) is a recent reproduction of the headhunting necklaces that men used to wear as a trophy for each head they brought home (one brass head per real head). The rope is new; the beads are clean and unscratched; the metal is shiny; it was one of many similar (though delightfully never the same) necklaces spread over a handful of stalls. Since I only spoke one phrase in Nagamese ("How are you?") and Mele was back at the Morung eating pork Anishi and drinking rice beer with Brian, I payed exactly what the woman told me to pay without a question asked.

I then saw this next necklace later in the day and immediately loved it. The beads were uneven, the rope was worn to shreds, the head showed the horned earrings that Angh was wearing when we met him (see previous post on the Hornbill Festival). The stall was unlike the others in that there were no piles of anything at all. Mele told us to disappear so that he could dispute the price in Nagamese without the seller knowing that he was buying it for a foreigner (side note: there aren't any foreigners--at least western foreigners despite what the website says). Mele came back without the necklace, saying that the woman wouldn't budge on the price so he didn't get it.

We asked him if he would go back to the stall again and buy it even if the seller didn't lower the price. He left us, but he didn't come back. When Brian went to see what had happened, Mele was searching through surrounding stalls for newer, less expensive ones. In the end, Mele reluctantly bought it for us at the exact price that the woman first named. She explained that the necklace is over 80 years old and that it's an original. When we asked Mele about the provenance of the object and if it he thought that it was problematic that we bought it, he flatly said no. The fact that Vikhor, a young Naga artist and now friend, bought an item, too, was reassuring through a convenient albeit entirely flawed line of logic.

In the case that this necklace is worth more (in monetary or cultural terms) than we had considered at the time, should I accuse myself in the same way that I accuse the gallery owner? Does it make a difference that we bought it in 2010, when the movement to preserve their culture is strong rather than in 1850 or even 1980, when the Naga people may have been less prepared for global intrusion? Does it make a difference that we bought the necklace at the price the woman asked for in the context of a kiosk at the Hornbill Festival? Does it make a difference that we did not buy it for resale? Does it make a difference that we were actually there?

I just Googled "Headhunter necklace" to look for new information regarding the history of the particular necklaces that I am writing about. The first thing that popped up was "Shopping results for headhunter necklace". The second hit said, "Nagaland Headhunter's Necklace with Three Heads (item #919284)". Ugh. I hope that Mele is right.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bedtime Stories

Without a written history, storytelling still plays a significant role in Naga culture. On one visit to a village (Rengma tribe), we heard a grandfather telling two younger generations about his experiences as a child.

Notice the traditional male haircut for the village elders.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Grand Prize

Outside In

It is impossible to fully understand a culture outside of your own. Since learning about Nagaland ("Where is Nagaland?") back in May, I have been picking up pebbles. This process has significantly relied upon articles and conversations about British colonization, 19th century Baptist missionaries, and the struggle for Independence from India starting in the 1950s. In a recent post, I wrote about the ridiculous nature of this strategy and how funny it would be for someone to come to the United States for two weeks and start each discussion with a question about the Revolutionary War. At that time, I assumed that no one would ever do that. I stand corrected.

I was just reading "Swadeshi Now", a newsletter from the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence. On the front page, there is an interview with Guy Frishman, an Israeli college student who has been interning there for the last six weeks. One of the first questions was, "As an Israeli citizen and current peace activist, what have you learned or discovered about Americans?" His response started, "The concept of 'America', the values that stand behind it and the message it brings for the future has much varied and shifted from 1776 until today." I am embarrassed to say that I had to Google 1776 just to confirm the significance of that date. I don't remember the last time that I thought about claiming independence from British rule.

As an outsider, how much can you learn about people by their history? As an insider, to what extent does our history accurately define us?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Touch Screens and Door Knobs

One of the most amazing parts about Nagaland was the range of accessibility to technology not only from village to village but from house to house and person to person. How is it possible that our driver had perfect cell phone reception throughout the deepest stretches of the jungle when we can't get it in the Adirondack Park? It was surprising to find such a significant number of Facebook users in a region that doesn't promise electricity or running water. The youth filmmakers that Brian is working with just completed the first 3-D music video in India while the armed officers at checkpoints stopped our vehicle with a hand-knotted, rope pulley.

I am still curious as to what we would have found behind the green doors of the dusty shed with the hand-painted "ELECTRONICS" sign above.

"Parables for a Compassionate Revolution"

It was quite an honor to find out that I was the first artist to be invited to Nagaland and to know this was the first formal art exhibition to ever be held in the state. We had a press conference immediately following our arrival at the airport and the three major newspapers from Northeast India printed articles about the exhibition the day it opened, followed by additional articles and television segments the next day. I exhibited 14 paintings through two spaces (one of which is shown in these photos), gave a short artist talk at the reception, and gave a longer artist lecture followed by a lively discussion the following night.

The Commissioner and Secretary of Art, Culture, and Tourism, Shri. Himato Zhimomi, inaugurated the event with a ribbon cutting ceremony and gave a truly inspiring speech about the critical role that art will play in preserving the history and defining the future of Nagaland. He emphasized (I blogged about this before but it's worth repeating) the family in the United States that is giving their extensive collection of Naga art back to Nagaland as a turning point in their efforts. He finished by promising full support for emerging Naga artists and for continuing the example of art exhibitions and related events as exemplified by "the developed world".

Throughout the week, Brian and I met with many Naga artists and musicians. The major challenge that visual artists are facing is that there aren't any exhibition spaces in the entire state of Nagaland--not one. There are three small museums holding primarily WWII artifacts in Kohima, Kisama, and Mopunchuket, but they are not able to accommodate 21st century art and they are far from what they could be. When I asked about the possibility of starting a gallery in an abandoned building or in an empty store space, they unanimously responded that there aren't any abandoned buildings or empty storefronts. In one of our brainstorming sessions over dinner, artists talked about the possibility of securing government funds to start a retreat center outside of Kohima that would have three parts: an exhibition space, a open space for artists to work without invitations or reservations, and living quarters for an artist-in-residence.

Throughout our travels through the state, I found there to be a very high degree of sophistication amongst the Naga artists, musicians, filmmakers, and University students--far more than they were giving themselves credit for. The greatest obstacles that I perceived were not about the art itself but rather the presence of infrastructure for display and performance and the level of confidence that the artists (and students) have in what they are already doing. Both of these obstacles are being dismantled with great momentum. The Press Secretary for Nagaland himself vowed full support for emerging filmmakers and has followed through, in only a week's time, with paying for "The Headhunters" to come to Nazareth College to work with Brian this summer (as he already wrote about). I give a tremendous amount of credit to Theja Meru for exemplifying the impact that one person can make on a much larger society. Thanks to his determination, we inaugurated the first art exhibition, the first youth film festival, and the first International Photography Exhibition all in one week.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Rice Beer, Song & Dance

Heather and I got to experience a rare glimpse into tribal traditions at the Hornbill Arts and Cultural Festival in Nagaland. We will write much more about this experience but I thought it would be cool to have two videos tell a part of the story. I also included a picture of the beer that we drank at the festival - it looked like milk and did not really taste like beer but it was still really good - especially when you drink it out of a bamboo cup!!!

The Long Road to Nagaland University

Heather and I had the opportunity to give lectures at Nagaland University in Lumami. Lumami was a 4 1/2 hour drive through some of the roughest roads and steepest cliffs in Nagaland. I don't usually get car sick but this drive was special. See the video below.

When we arrived in Lumami it was much more rural than Kohima. Were were shown to our dorm room and then treated to an authentic Naga dinner by Dr. Monalisa who teaches in the Political Science Department at Nagaland University. Were were also advised to use our mosquito nets when we slept.....see below.

The sunrise in Lumami was incredible as was our interactions with students and faculty at Nagaland University.

After our lectures, which both spoke to the transformative power of art and education, we met with students who were interested in talking about college teaching, life in America, politics, culture, etc. It was one of the hardest days in Nagaland (I was really sick) but also one of the most meaningful.

GLOCAL Film Festival

Below is an excerpt from the letter that I received from Theja Meru, President of the Rattle and Hum Music Society, an organization that supports Naga youth in developing their artistic abilities and personal growth.

Dear Dr. Bailey,

I am writing to invite you to Nagaland, India, to participate in an exchange of ideas regarding our common interests in developing public programs that foster and promote the creative potential of our youth through popular culture, music, filmmaking and the entertainment industry. For this opportunity, you will fly into the Dimapur airport on November 22, 2010, and continue to Kohima, the state capital. It is here that you would visit Dream Café, a venue designed to specifically showcase original music and videos of young people in our community.

That letter that Theja sent was the start of my involvement in what began as a trip to Nagaland for Heather to show her art. Originally, I was going to support Heather and discover a new part of the world. As the trip developed, and we learned more about Theja's work with Naga youth, new ideas emerged which connected my work to our adventure.

My research is on the combination of adolescents, popular culture, literacy and education. Mainly, I study youth media production as a valuable form of literacy and one that should be encouraged and facilitated on a larger scale as a literacy practice in schools. One of the things that has grown out of my research is the Rochester Teen Film Festival which has led to a partnership between Nazareth College and the 360/365 George Eastman House Film Festival. Each year we collect student-produced films from youth in the Greater Rochester Area, judge the entries and then show the finalists at The Little Theatre in downtown Rochester. Working with a number of organizations in Nagaland through our collaborator, Theja Meru, we held the first ever Youth Film Festival in Nagaland called GLOCAL (where global meets local) Film Festival. Films were screened by finalists from the 2010 Rochester Teen Film Festival along with films that were created by a group of young filmmakers who call themselves the Naga Head Hunters Entertainment Group. I was blown away by the quality of the Head Hunters productions, especially the stereoscopic 3D music video for an original song called Save Me by the Kohima-based band OFF. As with the Rochester youth filmmakers, I was blown away by the talent and stories that come through in video productions. Both the music and the video were creative, thought-provoking and enjoyable - you can see the pictures below where we are wearing 3D glasses for the screening at the film festival. The plan is to find funding and plan a trip to New York this summer for the Naga Head Hunters so that they can participate in the 2011 Rochester Teen Film Festival - more news on this to come!!!!

You can see Heather in the picture above holding a video camera during the film festival. Below is the after party where we talked about bands that we like and listened to Ray Lamontagne on my i-pad.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Night Carnival

There is electricity in the section of the street in Kohima where they held the Night Carnival but it didn't stay on the whole time. When the lights went out, the shop owners and street vendors lit candles, creating a more intimate but equally festive affair.

Even when the electric lights were on, the atmosphere felt strikingly--for lack of a better term--cozy. Brian and I recognized this while we were there and we tried to figure out what was creating that vibe. We noticed that the people didn't seem to be in any rush. No one was drunk (though maybe people would be if Naga rum and beer weren't outlawed by the Church). Everyone was smiling. They were walking at approximately the same pace and talking in the same volume. No one was trying to get you to buy what they were selling. It took us a little while to recognize that there weren't any homeless people and to realize what a significant impact this made on the social environment. The idea that there have not been beggars in the history of the Naga people suddenly connected to our observation that Naga culture seems to lack the anxiety that fuels American culture. I'm not saying that one causes the other, just that there is a connection.

One significant detail that I didn't notice until I got home was that store signs don't light up. Imagine how the Night Carnival scene would change if each of the shops was labeled with signs such as "Staples", "Barnes and Noble", "Michael's", "CVS", "Wegman's".

In the photo above, Brian is trying to find allergy medicine in a pharmacy lit by a single candle. Notice how he is proudly wearing the shawl of the Angami tribe.

Beyond romantic visions, however, I admit that I don't want to have to throw buckets of water on the street in front of my house to temporarily keep the dust down. I would protest if the town ripped the pavement off our roads. Would I be happier in a place that requires back-up candles and hand-carried water? I'm not sure. I only know that it would be very difficult--if not impossible--to request inconvenience.

"The Opposite of a Tribe"

Before leaving for Nagaland, I was invited to exhibit work in the first Hornbill International Photography Festival in Kisama, Nagaland. "The Opposite of a Tribe" was my attempt to portray spaces in between neighbors in the United States.

The following objects stand between my location now (on the couch in my living room) and the interior space of my closest next door neighbor's house: a segment of carpet, a coffee table, another segment of carpet, a tile hearth, a ceramic vase-like-thing with a candle on top, the gas fireplace insert, the back wall of the brick chimney, a fern, 8 feet of grass, a snow-covered bush, Jim's exterior wall. Wallpaper. I think that this is a relatively short distance when compared to the American ideal.

Notes On Faith

It is impossible to write about Nagaland without addressing religion.

I would have posted earlier except that I have not had the month of uninterrupted time that it would take to write a single paragraph of merit. I'll write something here, though, if you promise to keep in mind that the universe can't be explained through a set of styrofoam planets. I can only hope that this brief and scattered post will be better than nothing.

First, Nagaland is an overwhelmingly Baptist state surrounded by a continent of non-Christian people. Our introduction to modern Christianity in Nagaland went like this: Upon our arrival, Mele picked us up at the airport in Dimapur and drove us (straight up, back and forth) to Kohima. From the moment the car door shut, the Christian pop music started. The music continued for the entire two hours of the trip. Mele's cell phone ringer was also set to a Christian rock song. It is important to note that Mele is 23. Many articles that I have read suggest that Naga youth are at least, if not more, dedicated to the Church than previous generations.

We experienced several more examples of the role that Christianity plays in everyday life. One man said that, "Nagas love Americans because [we] were the ones who brought the good word." On several instances, highly-educated, professional people said, "We need you to open our eyes." I mistakenly assumed they were talking about economics or media culture. After reading more articles about the presence of the Baptist faith in Nagaland, I discovered that this was a phrase used by the missionaries and continues to be a phrase used by ministers today.

Over 90% of the Naga population is Christian, with the overwhelming majority being Baptist. Only a very small percentage practice Animism (the religion that was universal before the missionaries arrived), Hinduism, or Islam. Now, Nagaland is known as "the most Baptist state in the world". Throughout our travels, if we ever looked at a building and thought, "Wow!", it was safe to say that it was a church (the only exception being the police headquarters in Kohima which looks like the White House). Churches dominate the landscape in Nagaland. They seemed significantly out of place in the village environments, both in scale and architectural form. Most village gates held company with banners and signs announcing the name of the church in that village. The public/government trucks (delightfully covered with tinsel and colorful patterns that stretched from the wind-shield to the back bumper) were not shy in displaying religious slogans. In addition, Biblical scenes were often painted in enamel across the the passenger door.

The missionary movement was started when, in 1868, Dr. & Mrs. E.W. Clark sailed from Boston. There seems to be a widespread belief that, as the Nagas accepted Christ, they were "transformed into a peaceful and civil society". One of the arguments for the missionaries (by Nagas) is that the missionaries brought education, health care, public utility systems, and a plan for ensuring peace between the warring tribes.

While the missionaries were only met with minimal interest at first, the movement strengthened when the British withdrew from the Naga Hills in 1947. When India forcefully began to take control of Nagaland a few years later, the Christian movement gained further momentum. "Nagalim for Christ" became a popular rally call. India's decision to expel all foreign missionaries from the region again strengthened the alliance between Christianity and the hopes for a sovereign nation. The mission went into the 1960s and 1970s, with a significant revival happening in 1972, when Reverend Billy Graham made a 3-day visit to Kohima and over 500,000 people attended. Side note: Into the 1980s, many of the northeastern tribes had still not been converted from Animism. Several of the tribes in Burma are rumored to still be Animist to this day.

Nagaland is now training missionaries in record numbers. There are eight theological colleges that draw students from all over Asia, as compared to the University of Nagaland which draws primarily Naga students. Fr. Abraham Lotha, a world-renown anthropologist in native cultures, notes that the Naga Baptist Church Council (NBCC) currently has a goal of sending 10,000 missionaries throughout Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, and China. While he supports their right to do so, he cautions about the potentially tragic scenario where Nagas, once stripped of their culture, participate in doing the same to others. "Nagas have to seriously examine the rationale of such a flawed argument. The villagers cannot be blamed for such misunderstandings after all they are only acting out their belief taught to them by their leaders." Whereas now it is common for Baptist churches to teach respect for the Naga culture, Dr. Lotha writes, "[It] sounds like an oxymoron. In reality, when the Baptist church began in the Naga areas, Naga culture was the first victim. Anything Naga was considered as that of the devil."

My own views on these issues continue to change directions as I read more and continue to reflect upon our small sampling of first-hand experiences. Initially, I assumed that the arrival of the missionaries was inherently bad and that their purposes were self-serving. Their actions [unarguably?] brought an end to a culture that will never regenerate to its original form. If, however, Naga people are truly happier in a Christian society than they believe they would be in an Animist society, who am I to say? Since this trip, I have started to play devil's advocate with my assumptions and wonder to what degree my skepticism of "spreading the good word" is tainted by my idealization of an indigenous culture (and isn't that self-serving?). Would I maintain the same desire to have a 19th century Nagaland if I had to live in it (and in saying this am I making the assumption that an Animist society would not have progressed in terms of public utilities, eduction, technology, etc)? Maybe it is because I am not connected to my own history that I feel invested in others who are. If I trace back far enough, my ancestors would be the colonizers and I am 100% sure that I don't want to embrace and/or protect that.

Mary Clark (Dr. E.W.'s wife) writes this about Naga culture in the late 19th century: "Every form of demon worship, open or suspected, was attacked--Sunday-breaking, rice-beer drinking, licentiousness, and all social vices...Instead of congregating promiscuously at different houses to sleep at night, singing objectionable songs, telling doubtful stories, and engaging in lewd conversation, these young [Naga] reformers separated themselves and built a dormitory for their own accomodation, in which purity and holiness should reign....The Nagas, once civilized and Christianized, will make a manly, worthy people." (Hello American Puritanism?) Her notes on Nagas being "savage", etc. are offensive on sooooo many levels. At the most tangible level, they fail to mention the deeply embedded, traditional Naga values that include respect for elders, forgiveness, care for each other, protection of the environment, patience, and (as we found out on a personal level) hospitality.

Perhaps with this very short introduction you can sympathize with my procrastination in blogging about the palpable presence of religion in present-day Nagaland. A Google search for "Nagaland Religion" brings up 323,000 hits alone, each with dramatically varied facts and perspectives. Before I sign off, I feel compelled to include two last tangents:

* I can imagine starting with a belief in one god and coming to the realization that there are many. I can also imagine switching philosophies on how the world works or how people should treat each other. I just can't imagine--on the most technical level--how one could believe in an infinite number of gods and then suddenly realize that this guy Jesus is the true savior. Doesn't that type of faith have to start at birth?

* The vast majority of thoughts that I have about Nagaland's past, present, and future are, in some way, linked to events that occurred in 1868 or 1947. Is that as bizarre as having a visitor come to the United States and then see it only through the lens of the Declaration of Independence? The clothes we wear? Declaration of Independence. The food we eat? Declaration of Independence. The subjects we teach? Declaration of Independence. Wait. That makes sense.