Monday, July 03, 2006

Artist Gives Me Lesson in Culture

After reading today's sports page and finding nothing to thrill me, unless you call only one player from each bay area Major League Baseball team being selected to the all-star roster a thrill, I jump to the datebook section of the newspaper and immediately see something familiar yet puzzling.

On the front page of the SF Chronicle's Datebook section is a colorful African print of a boy using a bamboo stick to guide a boat down river with a lady and a rooster in it. The fact that the sun brightly occupies the upper right corner of the print and the boy is not wearing a shirt hints to a warm climate environment. The color and style of the lady's dress and headwear are also suited to a warm climate. Two Black people in a yellow boat floating down a blue waterway sandwiched in on both sides by green plants and trees under an orange sun. Where else but Africa I figure.

I realize I like the print but there’s something about its artistic style that seems familiar to me. As I continue to inspect the print I see curly designs in the blue water along with two swimming fish. The designs and fish are what give the water a visual moving effect. I find it odd that on the opposite bank of the river are two trees, one a palm tree leaning toward the sun and the other looks like it could be an orange tree in full bloom. Do these two trees coexist in Africa I ask myself? Underneath the orange tree are three black chickens, or maybe some other type of land birds, strutting toward the dark hills. The green mushroom-like plants along the riverbank nearest you the viewer appear to be a crop of some type.

This painted scene could be anyplace where Black people live off the land, but something about it spells Africa to me and in the back of my mind the art is familiar.

The two Black figures in the boat have no facial or body details. They're made up of a silhouetted blackness. The little Black boy pushing the boat with a bamboo stick is wearing a pair of blue pants that are either cut high above the ankles or maybe he's outgrown them. You can see from the outline of the boy's head that his hair is nappy with short dreaded braids sticking outward and upward. From the back of the boat he faces the distant sun which follows them from behind. The seated woman faces forward appearing to enjoy the ride. Something about her open mouth and dark hands clutching the sides of the yellow boat give off the feeling of an exciting journey or maybe an adventurous rollercoaster ride at an American amusement park many, many miles away. The rooster perched on the front of the boat appearing to be leading them onward has all the colors of the woman and boy designed into its feathers. The rooster is not looking forward though; it's looking back as if the trailing orange sun is beckoning it to roost.

I describe the scene in hopes of relaying the simplistic beauty and orchestration of the print. Once I'm done taking in this colorful delight I flip the newspaper over to the bottom half of the article where I look forward to discovering why this print was chosen to be on this page on this day. I kind of expected to see a write up on someone Black, either a painter or a writer, who’s work was finally getting recognition. My two surprises came when I read the artist’s name along with seeing her picture. The heading to the article read as follows:

Julia Cairns' years spent in a reed hut left an indelible stamp on the artist

The name Julia Cairns stung my memory as it dawned on me why the print was so familiar; however, I was still puzzled by the picture of the artist that accompanied the article.

As I read about this talented British lady, who'd gone from "starving artist" to designing a series of Botswana National Postage Stamps, I caught myself re-evaluating my understanding of what determines culture. As I flipped to page C3 to continue the article I was like a person finding lost pieces to a puzzle. Eventually, I was able to piece together the person with the painting and its African setting.

I discovered that not only is Julia Cairns a gifted painter but she is a courageous woman who's unafraid to venture into a foreign culture, discover it's beauties and ways of life then record her experiences and lessons on canvas. Julia describes some of the harsh environments she lived in while in Africa as well, once defending her campsite from marauding monkeys and on occasions sprinting away from inquisitive lions. Even her black Labrador retriever had brushes with Africa's wildlife when while swimming in the river it was snatched by a roaming crocodile and taken underwater. Miraculously the dog survived and became a local hero of sorts. Julia didn’t just visit Africa, she lived in Africa, what we know as Black Africa.

If you have the time, check out the article by Nick Thomas at this San Francisco Chronicle link. Julia Cairns

The reason Julia's art seemed so familiar to me is that in my apartment, on the wall underneath my living room clock I have a framed print of three African women holding gourds on their heads as they walk to the river. Underneath the river is the title of the print and the artist name: "To The River - Julia Cairns." I saw this print at a thrift store and proudly purchased it for that particular spot on my wall. I've always assumed that an African or someone of African descent painted the picture because you feel the culture of Africa jump out at you when you view it. I've learned from Julia Cairns that you don't have to be born into a culture nor look identical to the people of that culture in order to live in and love the beauties that culture has to offer. Julia Cairns has white skin and blond hair; she probably still speaks English with a British accent, but her years of living on and exploring the African continent has allowed her to capture the essence of what makes Africa and its people beautiful. Culturally, Julia Cairns is probably more African than me, an African-American man living in an American City , who's closest tangle with crocodiles, monkeys and lions was at the Bronx or San Francisco Zoos where I bravely growled, grunted and teased the creatures from the safer side of a locked cage.

Thank you Julia Cairns for teaching us about what it truly means to be multi-cultural. It's the culture that molds an artist, not the race

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