Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Great News Starts with a Crazy Sentence

I would love to know the very first sentence that ultimately led to Theja's cultural tour of the United States through the U.S. Department of State's International Visitor Leadership Program. I imagine that the words were
un-spectacular, spoken over dinner in between other words that were used to compliment the spice on the chicken and to plan for a meeting the next day. I also can't remember the first sentence that Brian and I exchanged about the possibility of going to Nagaland, though I can guarantee that it had nothing to do with how to pack our suitcases. I remember very clearly, however, the first time that Brian floated the idea of bringing Naga filmmakers back to the United States. We were sitting around the fire in Theja and Angel's kitchen on the last night of our trip. At the moment this photo was taken, everything was imaginary.

Now, as I sit in my own kitchen in Rochester, I am THRILLED to announce that, in less than three weeks, we will be standing at JFK Airport awaiting the arrival of five Naga filmmakers: Ms. Sesino Yhoshu, Ms. Sophy Lasuh, Mr. Myingthungo Lotha, Mr. Liyo Kikon, and Mr. Kele Yhoshu. Our itinerary includes a whirlwind tour of New York City, Rochester, and the Adirondack mountains. We will be going to film studios, art museums, music festivals, and movie screenings. Our hope is that they will be able to develop as many artistic relationships and gain as many new experiences here as Brian and I did there.

Theja wrote this week to confirm that all five visas had been granted. Only hours later, he sent another email with the title "CRAZY THOUGHTS". It starts, "Just thinking out loud, what do you think about the possibility of Rattle & Hum [Music Society] inviting a few artists from Rochester to come to Nagaland and just paint for one whole week?...How about another possibility of having a few young filmmakers from your city come to participate with other Naga filmmakers during Glocal this year?"
As of July 29th, 2011, these are only sentences. :)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

One to One Hundred

As each week passes, I worry that Nagaland is moving back to the other side of the world again. When we were there, the days overflowed with conversations about future artistic collaborations and promises to stay in touch. Since then, our days have been defined by holiday travels and preparations for the new semester. I wonder and worry, how much silent time can pass before friends turn back into strangers?

Last night, I received an unexpected email that suggested this will not be the case. It starts, “Helo sis! Its meh Ajungala frm Nagaland. Ope u remember meh. u n bro brain used to visit AO tribe….” When I opened the attached photos (below), the space between Rochester and Kisama collapsed.

Again, I am reminded of the warmth of Naga people. In the United States, it seems that we have well-defined categories to describe the proximity between our selves and others: strangers, acquaintances, and friends, for example. In Nagaland, it does not take long before you are addressed as a sister or brother. We met Ajungala only once but our conversation developed as if we had known each other much longer. In my experience, this intimacy between strangers--the assumption that we share common ground unless proven otherwise--seemed to be the norm and not the exception. Kids, as I mentioned in a previous post, called us aunt and uncle from the start.

It was a great privilege (thank you again to the U.S. State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Program, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Arts & Cultural Council for Greater Rochester, the University of Rochester, Nazareth College, the Rattle and Hum Music Society, and Nagaland University) to also see my inbox recently fill with subject lines that read, “Happy New Year from India!”, “Happy New Year from Tajikistan!”, “Happy New Year from Palestine!”, “Happy New Year from Nagaland” and, in return, “Happy New Year from America!”

Our relationships with distant countries do not have to be dependent on economic interests or military presence. Artistic exchanges can be at least as powerful. As musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, curators, dancers, writers, patrons, advocates, and administrators, we have the potential to dramatically change our global community. If there is not a path in place, we can make it. And it may be easier than we think. This whole visit to Nagaland, and everything that is growing out it, started with one person (Theja) believing that it can be done. One by one, he is literally turning hundreds of strangers into brothers and sisters.

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?