Monday, November 27, 2006

Haiti'n it

Christianity has a long history of melding with local cultures, religions and rituals. More often than not it has helped shape many contemporary societies. What is most interesting is to see how Christianity was shaped by these interactions, as opposed to the shape that it may have left.

For instance in Ireland (and some of Scotland) one can survey the land or even a graveyard and see a stamp of the interaction between local culture and imported religion with the Celtic Cross. The Celts had been a long standing tribe that had developed their own sense of culture and art. When Christianity was introduced in 432 AD (some argue 460) by St Patrick, his first moves were to recreate local festivals, so as to attract locals and then preach what he believed to be the word of God. Even here it was necessary to have Christianity submit to local practices so it could then be embraced but by the rules and practices of the locals.

Another example would be Mexico's national holiday, "Dias de los Muertos" (or 'Day of the Dead'). When the Spanish conquered Latin America in the early 1500s, they found that although they were able to eradicate masses of people without any effort, the local culture was going to be harder to erase. For almost more than 3000 years the Aztecs had practiced their own beliefs without any interference and upon the introduction of Christianity they continued to do so with very little restrain. In fact, since all attempts to wipe out their practices failed by the Conquistadores, public events like "Dias de los Muertos" were simply moved to Catholic Holidays and Gods, Saints and Holy Figures were equated with one another. As a result, even today 'Dias De Los Muertos' although primarily an Aztec influenced holiday has varying degrees of Catholic influence, such as Crosses on Floats, statues of Saints on alters and Candles which represent the light of Christ.

What is most ignored and without a doubt most significant is how Christianity was altered and helped shape the nation of Haiti.

Haiti first became the worlds first independent black nation in 1804 after a long bloody revolt. Although initially dominated by Spanish rule, Haiti for a long time served as a slave colony to the French who importated slaves from West Africa. What needs to be recognized is the fact that in the West African regions of Ghana, Benin and Nigeria that Yoruba (along with Bakango and Igbo) were dominant animist religions and were easily exported to Haiti by the Catholic french.
Not unlike both Mexico and Ireland, a new culture with new rituals were founded. However, rather than become simply part of the landscape or embraced as a national holiday, Voudun (or Voodoo) inspired decades of fear amongst a weak empoverished populace.

Haiti is reknowned for its successive unstable goverments that have led to brutal in fighting between neighbourhoods and political rivals. One of the few goverments that lasted longer than 4 years was that of Papa Doc Duvalier and his successor and son, Baby Doc.

In 1957 Dr Francois Duvalier won the Haitian national elections on a platform that appealed primarily to the poor lower class afro-haitian community. It is not long after his election (which was helped by the Haitian army) that he begins to create a private army called "The Tonton Macoutes" named after a Voudun spirit who 'catches people and makes them disappear forever'. Oddly enough this becomes common practice in Haiti as anywhere from 20, 000 - 60, 000 people disappear and/or are murdered at the end of this horrid saga.

To make matters worse Papa Doc openly dresses like Baron Samedi and claims to be a high priest (as well as BFF with Jesus). Within the next seven years (1957-1964) Papa Doc evades an invasion, an assasination, jails the head of the Tontons then kills him and reportedly teams up with the CIA. It was only 7 years after that that Baby Doc Jean-Claude Duvalier at the tender age of 19 takes over the goverment while his father is on his death bed.

It would appear that Baby Doc was equally as brutal but somewhat less religious. Apparently he may have made up for that in corruption as when he did finally flee for France in 1986 (with the assistance of the American goverment, they both hated commies), Haiti happened to be millions of dollars poorer (its pretty hard to imagine that it was even possible at that point).

Even in current times and politics Voodoo (and private armys dedicated to Voodoo saints) are prevelant. It has been suggested that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former catholic priest, was elected with the aid of both Voodoo priests/priestesses and voodoo gangs like the Cannibal Army (who later turned against him). It has been speculated that popular singer and Voodoo priestess, Anne Auguste lead a great deal of these militias in honor of Jean-Bertrand.

Currently there are gangs that rule both suburbs and areas in the countryside and are often referred to by both locals and media as 'Chimeres' or 'Nightmares' in creole. What is very interesting is the fact that in 2003 Voodoo was finally recognized as a state religion in Haiti. Guess who was President at the time... Jean-Bertrand. What would be very curious to see is how and whether Voodoo still affects and influences daily life for the common haitian man or woman, as well as whether or not it Voodoo is involved in how local goverment politics play out. Seeing as it wasnt that long ago that Baby Doc was threatening to come back to Haiti to reclaim his throne, its probably not that far off the mark. I guess neither is the old saying "80% of Haiti is Catholic but 120% of it is Voodoo".

Ooooo, footnote, that i really should have worked in here, Mother Theresa was a close friends of the Duvaliers, seriously, look it up. Im not kidding.

Mother Theresa and Michele Duvalier, no shit.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Jon Naar has led a particularly fascinating and varied life; he has fought fascists in both the streets of London and the Mountains of Serbia, counted Henry Miller and Andy Warhol as personal friends as well as been the first person to document graffiti art.

Jon Naar had no clue (as is the case with most artists) how influential his works were going to be when they were first conceived. Regardless, over the last 34 years since its release “The Faith of Graffiti” has awed artists, photographers and civilians alike. Although this particular work was a focus on the birth and first footsteps of graffiti, Jon’s primary focus with his photography has been to capture ‘the layering of one thing over another as a revelation of history’.

This is exemplified in many of his photos whether it involves writing over top of a brick wall with a can of paint in Harlem in 1971 or the postering of a strong armed government over top of student protestors in France during the ’68 riots.

Pointing to a wall on Queen St W in Toronto, Jon exclaimed in his hybrid English/New York accent “Heres a perfect example, where you’ve got a wall, a 3D mailbox, a poster advertising Spanish. What interests me here is how people are living amongst this and as a part of it; I don’t see it as art that should be hung in a gallery”

“You’ve got the complete relationship between the functional like the mailboxes, the posters and then the graffiti overlay. It’s a fragment of history, as this could only happen here and now. I like to think that I am capturing it and capturing its zeitgeist.”

Although he directed great attention towards graffiti, he never followed up on its evolution. Jon always regarded graffiti as only one of many outlets that have been made available to the general public. He has however been of great assistance to many others who have influenced it over the years. People such as Tony Silver, the director of Style Wars, , whom he introduced to many of the graf writers (Jon, however has never seen the film), Martha Cooper, who spent numerous years studying both hip hop history and the evolution of graffiti. Even today he is being used as a consultant on the unreleased film ‘Bombing it’

As any craftsman would, Jon has figured out how to role with the punches that modern technology has thrown. Owning 3 digital cameras and 16 film cameras (which he doesn’t use anymore), he is still at the late age of 86 taking pictures to this very day. His newest book titled ‘Getting the picture’ (released out of Holland) is a study of his 50 years as a photographer. His subjects range from gang writings in New York in the mid 1950s to corporate photography used in advertisements. He has voiced that he will hopefully be penning a contract with a German publisher that will allow for him to release a second book on New York graffiti in the early 70s titled ‘The Birth of Graffiti’ which is to be outtakes from “The Faith of Graffiti”.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Kyrzy kryzy Kyrgyzstan (or How I met my wife)

Kyrgyzstan is a small central asian country with the population of 5,213,898. Located in the mideast of central asia, it is surrounded by Kazakhstan (home of Borat), China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Annexed by Russia in the mid 19th century, 1864 to be exact, the Kyrgy population soon fell sway to Russian tradition (primarily vodka drinking).

What is most fascinating about central asia (let alone its inhabitants) is the fact that SO many ethnic groups can be found here, from Persians to ancestors of the Mongols (like in Krygyzstan). All of these groups, due to the years of Russian influence, found many of their traditions either bastardized or stamped out. One tradition which was made illegal but merely went underground is the practice of wifenapping in Kyrgyzstan.

What first needs to be done is a description of the Kyrgy people for the reader.
Its believed that the Kyrgy people are a mix of Mongol (like Genghis Kahn) and Kipchak peoples, about 75% of the population are practicing Muslims, however, as previously mentioned, there are quite a few that like to drink vodka (who can blame them). This obviously makes for an interesting interpretation of Islam. Traditionally the Kyrgyz people were of a turkic nomad herding tradition, much of which still exists within the country.

It could very well be argued that much of the original traditions of these people had been put on hold (press pause) throughout the Russian domination of central asia. It was only in 1994 that wifenapping had been made illegal (please keep in mind that Kyrgyzstan had only been an independent country for about 3 or so years at that point). However, even now, it is rarely prosecuted and it is estimated that 1/3 of the population's married women were bridenapped, whether consensually or against their will (it wouldnt be bridenapping if it was consensual hey?).
The practice itself is less than complicated. Essentially at one point or another within a young man's life he (or his family) decides that it is time for him to marry and procreate. It is then up to either the mans parents (or himself) to find him a suitable bride. In some circumstances it is simply an arranged marriage. In other circumstances he may see a girl on a street corner, working at a vendor or simply passing by and it is decided that she is to be his bride.

The girl is then kidnapped by the man and family (sometimes friends) and returned to his parents home where the women of the house (including mother, aunts, cousins, grandmothers) all attempt to convince this girl that the marriage will be advantageous to her being. Arguements vary from "Well, we got kidnapped too and look how happy we are" to "Lookit that Stove, see? You can use it whenever you like, thats right and that goat too!".

Needless to say this doesnt necessarily end well. Some women kill themselves, others simply run away (sometimes to be kidnapped again by the same man). Either way, its an excuse to not move to Kyrgyzstan.

Ooo, to see it all go down, see this film.