Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Warren Robbins Remembered: A Life of Purpose

Warren Robbins in front of the NMAA.
A man with a dream, who lived a purposeful life.
photo by Arnold Newman.
The National Museum of African Art (NMAA) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and paying what I consider long-overdue homage to its founder, Warren Robbins. When I lived in Washington I became close friends with Warren. It was a friendship that brought many memorable moments to that chapter in my life.

Warren was a brilliant and fascinating man, and we enjoyed each other's company. We both attended lots of Washington parties and gatherings, mostly work-related.  In those days, everything was connected to work.

I met Warren at the exhibit opening of the Jacob Lawrence migration series at the Phillips Gallery in 1986.  It was an historic event, a fantastic exhibit, and Lawrence was present.  I remember that special time so vividly to this day. Warren and I bumped into each other regularly at cultural events after that. I also enjoyed meals at his art-filled home on Capitol Hill, where he hosted lots of meetings and programs as director of the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communications, his educational nonprofit.  I think the DC humanities council funded a few of Warren's educational programs, always popular. He opened his home to a humanities council event notable for the synergy of fascinating people with a shared interest in the arts and humanities. Warren was always a charming host.  

Warren started collecting African Art when he was a cultural attache in Germany after World War II.  It started, he said, with a wood carving of a man and woman representing the Yoruba people of Nigeria that he bought in Hamburg. He was strolling the streets with his friend S.I. Hayakawa, who later became a US senator from Hawaii. "It caught my eye, and seemed to touch my soul."    I wish I knew more about this period in Warren's life, but it was the beginning of his lifelong passion.  Warren had found his path.

Warren with author Alex Haley.
SI photo.
Warren went on to amass hundreds, then thousands of pieces, and this at a time when few if any Westerners were interested in the art of the African continent. As one African country after another rose up against colonial rule, Warren kept in touch with Africans who were creating new identities and restoring indigenous cultures. He loved to tell the story of a trip to Cameroon in 1973 when he returned a once-lost object. He was treated as a hero and made an honorary king. He had some great stories, photos and artifacts from that trip.

His deep interest became the foundation for his dedicated efforts to collect and preserve African art, and through the collection to promote cross-cultural and interracial understanding.  This was his life's purpose until his death in December 2008, at the age of 85.  How that news shocked and saddened me.

Warren first housed his collection at a home he bought on Capitol Hill in the 1960s, the historic home of the freedom fighter Frederick Douglass.  It seemed fitting, and attracted hundreds of people and future supporters of a National Museum of African Art that arose on the Mall in the nation's capital some 20 years later.  The Warren M. Robbins Library, named in his honor, opened at the new museum at the same time.  It has since become one of the major centers in the US for the research and study of the arts of Africa.

Warren also had hundreds of art pieces and artifacts in his own Capitol Hill homes, two adjoining townhouses.  The first thing one noticed when entering his home was the floor to ceiling art that covered its walls, all manner of African art along with contemporary and European art inspired by African art.

Warren was fascinated with the links he saw between African art and 20th century Western art.  He noted the art of Picasso, Matisse, and Mondrian, for example, and many others.  I believe Warren was among the first to explore this connection, which became embedded in subsequent art criticism and art history.  I learned from Warren.  This remained one of  his favorite topics, and he wrote and gave many lectures, over a thousand, on the African influence on western art.  It was pioneering work.

SI photo. 
Ever the advocate, promoter and fundraiser, Warren was the engine for getting Congressional approval for the Smithsonian Institution's NMAA.  His relentless advocacy was documented in photos, of Warren and several Presidents; Warren and the Mondales and with Hubert Humphrey, a close friend; Warren and Hayakawa and other Congress people; with Alex Haley, Jacob Lawrence, Joseph Campbell, Maya Angelou, great authors, artists, photographers; with movers and shakers. Each photo told a great story.

Warren invited me to be his guest at various cultural functions at international embassies, local theaters and art galleries, and at the exclusive Cosmos club, a private Washington, DC club once closed to women.  Through Warren I met many interesting people, including Frances Humphrey Howard, sister of Hubert Humphrey, with whom Warren was a close friend; Joan Mondale, who loved all kinds of art; Congressional representatives and elected officials who supported Warren's vision.

I'll always remember a gathering at the Cosmos club, when I was seated next to Maya Angelou, another friend of Warren's.  He had made the arrangements because he knew how much I admired this poet.  She talked about poetry and philosophy, and she and Warren laughed at stories I knew nothing about but found fascinating.  I listened and basked in the glory  Two of my favorite people, now gone.

The last time I communicated with Warren I was living in Florida, and had decided to join the Peace Corps.  When I told him I'd be going to Ukraine, he wished me well "in the land of my ancestors."  "What do you mean," I asked him.

"My parents were from Ukraine," he said, "Ukrainian Jews who fled to America, and ended up in Connecticut, where I was born."

"I never knew that. How I wish I could talk with you about them, and talk to them."
"Me too,"  he replied. Warren died a few months before I left for Ukraine. The serendipity of it touched me, such a confluence of emotions. Here I was leaving for Ukraine as Warren was leaving this earth.

I like to think I took my memories of Warren with me, re-connected him with his Ukrainian roots, and fostered a conversation about cross-cultural connections, interracial understanding, and the joys of a self-defined  purposeful life.

Warren taught me the greatest lesson of my life, which he had learned from Joseph Campbell: "to give up the life you planned in order to have the life awaiting you."   And, indeed, a new life awaited me in Washington, where I began to find and make my own path.  I never dreamed it would be like that.  The path is full of many twists and turns, but I feel blessed that I found Warren on it.





Thursday, June 12, 2014

Bergdahl, Free but not Released

Bowe Bergdahl
 Alain Jocaird/AFP photo
Bergdahl looked so fragile, so confused and lost. He looked hollow, fractured.   I understand there are lots of questions and concerns, but I don't understand how any American can have anything but compassion for a soldier who lived under such incredible duress for 5 years of his life.  President Obama did the right thing, the morally right thing, to free this American. "No American left behind."

We will learn more, beyond the loathsome hysteria of partisan politics and the media moment,  but it's hard to imagine being the victim of a terrorist Taliban group in Afghanistan for so long, deprived of freedom, free will, any control over your own life, at the whim and mercy of your captors. For five years.

All human beings suffer from high stress that lasts a long time. I can't imagine living through the level of stress Bergdahl endured, so intense and unpredictable, and surviving with a sense of self intact.  Any of us, I think, might lose ourselves.

We would be focused solely on survival, solely on making it through another day, day after day, year after year after year  Can any of us know how we would respond under such circumstances?

I've thought about it. Like I've thought about what I might have done had I been a slave. I think I would try to please my captors, my owners, so as not to be hurt. I don't think I would be a rebel. I don't think I would resist. I would give up my innate responses, and become submissive, fueled by fear and confusion, perhaps silenced by lashes of the whip or being locked in a small dark space for days on end, as Bergdahl may have been.  It's embarrassing admitting to such weakness, let alone having actually to live through such terror.

Psychological deprivation, along with inevitable physical decline, would be the ultimate torture, a wounded spirit, and it would take the ultimate toll, one's sense of self.

Who would we be at the end of such captivity? How would we recover an identity? Where would our soul reside? How would we deal with a sudden burst of freedom from such enslavement? What shame and guilt would we carry for the rest of our lives, no matter the circumstances of our captivity?  Free, but not released.

The outrageous rants of Republicans, media "pundits," and other politicians and polemicists are galling. Why? Why not give it time to play out, to get the facts, to strive for some perspective? Why the beating up on every move Obama makes? Why the rush to judgement?  

Bergdahl and his family were victims of the Taliban and now they are victims of our disgraceful partisan politics. Victimized again.

Bergdahl needs time and compassion.  I pray to the goddess of healing grace and forgiveness that Bergdahl in time recovers his sense of self and returns to some sense of wholeness.

I'm not sure what it will take, on the other hand, to save America's poisoned political system and toxic partisanship.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Major Change in Ukraine: A President who Loves his Country


I have a good feeling about Ukraine's new president, Petro Poroshenko. He's only 48 years old, was born in Odessa oblast and grew up in Vinnytsia in central Ukraine, went to the University of Kiev, became a business man, politician and billionaire in Ukraine.  I feel confident he loves his country, has a sense of  healthy patriotism, and will put its interests and well-being first. This alone is an enormous change.

This is kind of how I felt after the new pope was selected.  When I learned about his Italian heritage and his experiences as a priest in Argentina, I was excited to think of the compassion and humanity he would bring to the position. A down-to-earth guy. When he chose the name Francis I felt even better, because his namesake was a peace-loving man.  And his evolution as Pope, his deepest concerns, his openness and kindness, has affirmed my initial impression.  I have faith in Pope Francis, and his tremendous influence for good all over the globe.

I feel this way about Poroshenko.  Positive.  Reading about his background and experiences makes him highly qualified.  After seeing him in Poland standing next to a man who is fomenting unrest in his country, creating turmoil, arming special ops, viligantes and pro-Russian militants, I was almost in awe, that Poroshenko could restrain himself from punching Putin out, because one could see Poroshenkos anger and skepticism on his face. After his inauguration I was more convinced that this is the right man for the job at this difficult time.  He gave a great speech, humanitarian but firm.

He cares about Ukraine.  He loves Ukraine.  He's not in the pockets of the Russians, or anyone.   He's not an apparachik; he is moderate, and yes, he seems honest.  Poroshenko embodies the aspirations of the Ukrainian people.

He wants a strong united Ukraine,  east and west, north and south. He said he will defend his country's territorial integrity, all of it, including Crimea.  "Crimea is, was and will be Ukrainian soil." He knows Ukraine must strengthen itself and defend itself, because no one else can do it.  He understands that Ukraine is responsible for its own destiny.  Poroshenko's loyalty to Ukraine seems strong, unshakeable.

This was not so with his disgraced predecessor.  It is such a different feeling than when Yanukovich was elected, in 2010.  I went to the polls with friends.  They questioned, as did many people in the east, Yanukovich's loyalty to Ukraine.  They wondered how much he would focus on uniting the country, not dividing it.  And they were right.  But they gave him a chance, and he blew it. Just like happened in Egypt with Morsi and the Brotherhood.   Yanukovich was a Soviet-style thinker who put the interest of Ukraine as a nation last, who stole shamelessly from the people, as did his son and his cronies.  The corruption was rampant and out of hand, to the point he was willing to sell Ukraine itself down the river, hand it over to another country.  It is shameful and unbelievable his willingness to destroy the self-determination of his own country, to violate it's territorial integrity.  I view him as a traitor.  I view those officials in the East that he paid, in Lugansk and Donetsk, whose disloyalty to Urkaine he encouraged and condoned, as traitors to Ukraine.

I am glad that Poroshenko shares the outrage of the majority.  How dare another country march into his county, occupy it and take it over, piece by piece, with such advanced military weapons that the "thugs and killers" can down helicopters and launch missiles. How dare armed foreigners and vigilantes just march in without regard for territorial boundaries and take over buildings, block roads, barricade major highways in and out of cities, halt the mail, take over an airport, take over a hospital and murder, yes, murder, Ukrainian soldiers and civilians at will.

Poroshenko will not allow this, not for long.  Ukraine will belong to Ukraine under his leadership.  I believe his devotion to Ukraine will put the country on the right path, at last.   Pride in Ukraine, a healthy does of positive Ukrainian nationalism, is what Ukraine needs now.   Poroshenko will provide it.

"We're not naive...but we are all very hopeful," John Kerry said.  "We want the people of Ukraine to choose their own future, not Russia, not the United States." Viva Ukraine.  

Thursday, June 5, 2014

"Not one more"-- Better Safe than Sorry Laws needed

couragecampaign.actionkit.com
Like millions of other Americans, I've signed dozens of petitions begging Congress to pass gun laws that keep weapons of war off the streets and out of the hands of the mentally ill through background checks and other preventive measures.

Nothing happens, until the inevitable next tragedy. Then nothing happens again.  It's a cycle of violence/reaction, violence/reaction without end.

I see the agony on the face of a father who lost a beautiful 20-year-old son who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and I weep.  An only son, a young life extinguished. We cannot imagine the horror and the pain.  I've signed more online petitions: "Not one more."  An anguished father's plea.  I stand with Mr. Martinez.

After every tragedy, I along with millions of Americans wonder about our mental health system.   What changes are needed so that mentally ill people who could be a danger to themselves and others are placed in safe houses of some kind.  What legislation is needed to allow police to act on warnings and suspicions foretelling the murders of innocent people? How improve the communication between mental health officials and law enforcement?

We obviously need some kind of "Better Safe than Sorry" legislation addressing both guns and mental health issues.  I believe that the Santa Barbara cops could have stopped this last tragedy that killed Mr. Martinez's son if such laws existed.

With so many Americans wanting reasonable gun control legislation and mental health reform, why can't we make a dent?  Why is the gun lobby still able to scare our legislators? Australia changed their laws and took most guns off the street. It's made a difference.  If they did it, why can't the United States? Nothing changes, if nothing changes.

https://www.facebook.com/ProjectEGV
To sign up for "Not One More, End Gun Violence"



Monday, June 2, 2014

Masterworks Chorale's Collage VII: Many Voices, One World

The dancers floated elegantly on the stage, lovely in flowing pastel costumes, as the chorale lifted its voice in songs by Antonio Estevez, Henk Badings, Allister MacGillivray, Ro Ogura, Giacomo Puccini, and Jean Baptiste Lully. Songs from Venezuela, Korea, the Netherlands, Canada, Japan, Italy and France.  A cultural stew. A synergy of ethereal movement and ethereal sound.

It was the opening program of Collage VII, a collaborative performance of the Masterworks Chorale, under the artistic direction and baton of Timothy Cloeter, and the Ballet Theatre of Toledo, led by Nigel Burgoine.  The music from around the world and the lovely ballet together transported us to heaven.  

The Four Points Off, a versatile barbershop quartet, whose members met through the Men's Chorus at BGSU, brought us down to earth with wonderful renditions of After You've Gone, Irish Lullaby, and John Denver's Take me Home, Country Roads.  It was hard to keep from standing up and singing along, so engaging were the intricate harmonies.

Then we floated up again to the iconic classical jazz tune of My Funny Valentine, accompanied by a love dance duet that was as sweet as honey, followed by another jazz standard, Sweet Georgia Brown, with a solo by Gwen Senerius. Love knows no boundaries.

The performances perfectly illuminated the theme of Collage VII, "One World, Many Voices."   The selected songs and dances enshrined the universal values of love and harmony, transcendent, glorious, a world without borders.  What a much-needed contrast to the sorry state of our conflicted and violent world.  

The riffing on the theme knew no boundaries either.  The ALMA Dance Experience (Yaya Kabo, artistic director) rocked the house with West African sounds and movements, powerful dancing and drumming.  I loved that these dancers were real women of all shapes and ages dancing their hearts out, soulful and sensuous. They embodied an ageless beauty that truly inspired.  The Four Points Off  returned with Mellow, My Baby, Darkness on the Delta, and Coney Island Baby, covering a geography of musical traditions.  Call and response. Perfect!

Collage VII closed with the Masterworks Chorale's lovely rendering of Four Slovak Folk Songs by Bela Bartok, then took us to Scotland with the incomparable Loch Lomond (Dan Ferguson, solo, in Scottish dress), and back again to America with His Voice as the Sound and Hark I hear the Harps Eternal (Alison Reed, solo), songs by American composers and arrangers Robert Shaw and Alice Parker.

Such an intelligent and creative selection of songs and pairings of performances, one flowing into another; such a diversity of musical and dance traditions; so many different voices!  And yet, this thoughtful program, from beginning to end, trumpeted the sounds of a humanity united, of harmonious relations across cultures and borders.   "I hear the Harps Eternal."

Collage VII: One World, Many Voices
Masterworks Chorale
Tim Cloeter, Artistic Director and Conductor
The Valentine Theater, Toledo, Ohio
May 31, 2014