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The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II, Part 1 — Some Images

As I vaguely promised when I first laid my (entirely washed and un-grubby) hands on The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”, Part 1: From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood (eds. David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates, Karen C. C. Dalton), photoblogging! In all whiny-ness, photographing high-gloss art books is similar to photographing museum art through glass, with the extra thrill of “How far can I flatten this page without breaking many euros of book spine?”

Before I got to That Section, the one the cover gives away, there were scores of other works. Several by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti (go and read about him. And for an aside follow-up, read about Islam meeting Northern Indigenous Australians long before Europeans arrived), sculptures, works on paper, murals, altarpieces, in any and every form of art in the mediæval age, there were black people. I skimped on photographing most of that, otherwise I’d have ended up snapping every work, and there’s 185 in this volume.

That Section. Volume II, Part 1 is substantially dedicated to Our St. Maurice. I say, “Our” in the same way I would as an Australian say, “Our Kylie” or “Our Mark Webber.” It’s slightly tongue-in-cheek, and slightly proud. The “Our” here denoting Germany because Germany should be fucking proud of its adoration for St. Maurice—this part of Germany even, Sachsen-Anhalt, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. For whatever reasons I’m still learning, the town of Magdeburg were and are the home of both St. Maurice and Mechthild; there’s a strong presence in nearby Halle and many small towns, and through Austria, Denmark, France, as far north-east as Riga.

One thing I noticed particularly with St. Maurice, is the relative lack of former Eastern European works, works which I saw some of in Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary earlier this year. This I think because the original volumes were published in the ’80s and early ’90s, (republished in the last few years) so being Cold War era, and possibly not having easy access to many works which are now in museums like Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu.

Oh! And I have Volume II, Part 2 also.

Enough! Mediæval Art!

Top Ten (Plus 1) Good News Stories in the Muslim World, 2008 (That Nobody Noticed)

Cheerful Saturday morning reading I thought I’d post in its entirety, though I do think anyone who has the slightest interest in the Middle-East and Central Asia should make a habit of reading Juan Cole. Wish that I hadn’t missed number 8 though…

We all too often focus only on negative developments, and while it is understandable for people to keep their eyes on impending calamities, obsessing about the bad sometimes causes us to miss good news. We see a lot of that even with regard to the US. For instance, there has been a 23% decline in violent crime over the past twenty years in the US, but people who watch a lot of television (especially, I presume, police procedurals) tell pollsters they think crime has gotten worse.

I see significant positive stories in the Muslim world in 2008 that don’t get a lot of press in the US, but which will be important for the incoming Obama administration.

1. The Pakistani public, led by its attorneys, judges and civilian politicians, conducted a peaceful, constitutional overthrow of the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf in 2008. Last February, the Pakistani public gave the largest number of seats in parliament to the left of center, secular Pakistan People’s Party. The fundamentalist religious parties took a bath at the polls. In August, the elected parliament initiated impeachment proceedings against Musharraf, who resigned. A civilian president, Asaf Ali Zardari, was elected. George W. Bush is reported to have been the last man in Washington to relinquish support for Musharraf, who had rampaged around sacking supreme court justices, censoring the press, and imprisoning political enemies on a whim. Pakistan faces an insurgency in the northwestern tribal areas, and problems of terrorism rooted in past military training of guerrillas to fight India in Kashmir. But the civilian parties have a much better chance of curbing such military excesses than does a leader dependent solely on the military for support. True, the new political leadership is widely viewed as corrupt, but South Korean politics was corrupt and that country nevertheless made progress. Besides, after Madoff/Blagojevich, who are we to talk? The triumph of parliamentary democracy over military dictatorship in Pakistan during the past year is good news that Washington-centered US media seldom could appreciate because of Bush’s narrative about military dictatorship equalling stability and a reliable ally in the war on terror. In reality? Not so much.

2. The Iraqi government succeeded in imposing on the Bush administration a military withdrawal from Iraq by 2011. The hard negotiations showed a new confidence on the part of the Iraqi political class that they can stand on their own feet militarily. The relative success of PM Nuri al-Maliki’s Basra campaign last spring was part of the mix here. But so too was the absolute insistence by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani that any Status of Forces Agreement not infringe on Iraqi sovereignty. The Sadr Movement resorted to street politics, aiming to thwart any agreement at all, thus providing cover to al-Maliki as he pushed back against Bush’s imperial demands. The Iraqi success in getting a withdrawal agreement has paved the way for President-elect Obama to fulfill his pledge to withdraw from Iraq on a short timetable.

3. Syria has secretly been conducting peace negotiations with Israel, using the Turkish Prime Minister Rejep Tayyip Erdogan as the intermediary. There are few more fraught relationships between countries in the world than the Israel-Syrian divide, but obviously Bashar al-Asad and Ehud Olmert felt that there were things they could fruitfully talk about. Ironically, the clueless George W. Bush went to Israel last spring and condemned talking to the enemy as a form of appeasement. While he got polite applause, the Israeli mainstream is far more realistic than the silly Neocons who write Bush’s speeches, and Olmert went on talking to al-Asad. Unfortunately, the Israeli attack on Gaza has caused Syria to call off the talks for now. It should be a high priority of the Obama administration to start them back up.

4. There has been a “near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.” “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” conducted numerous bombings and shootings in the period 2003-2006, during which the Saudi authorities got serious about taking it on. Saudi Arabia produces on the order of 11 percent of the world’s petroleum, and instability there threatens the whole world. The dramatic subsiding of terrorism there in 2008 is good news for every one. Opinion polls show support for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia plummeting, and determination to fight terrorism is overwhelming. In polling, a solid majority of Saudis say they want better relations with the United States. Yes. The Wahhabis are saying that. And their number one prerequisite for better relations? A US withdrawal from Iraq. (See above).

5. The crisis of state in Lebanon was patched up late last spring by the Doha agreement. Qatar’s King Hamad Al-Thani showed himself a canny negotiator. Hizbullah came into the government and received support as a national guard for the south as long as it pledged not to drag the country into any more wars unilaterally. Lebanese politics is always fragile, but this is the best things have been for years. Lebanese economic conservatism allowed its banks and real estate to avoid the global crash, and hotel occupancy rates are up 25% over 2007, with a 2008 economic growth rate of 6%. The new president, Michel Suleiman, has also pursued responsible diplomacy with Syria, and the two countries are normalizing relations after years of bitterness. For all the potential dangers ahead, 2008 was a success story of major proportions in Lebanon.

6. [pdf] Indonesia’s transition to democracy that began in 1998 has been ‘consolidated’ and it has regained its economic health, paying back $43 billion in loans to the International Monetary Fund. Indonesia is the world fourth most populous country and the world’s largest Muslim country, comprising something like 16 percent or more of all Muslims. It faces many challenges, as do all young democracies, but when 245 million Muslims have kept democracy going for 10 years, the thesis that Islam is somehow incompatible with democracy is clearly fallacious.

7. Turkey avoided a major constitutional crisis in 2008 when the constitutional court declined to find the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) guilty of undermining the official ideology of secularism. AKP is mildly Muslim in orientation, in contrast to the militantly secular military. The verdict gave Turks an opportunity to work on bridging the secular-religious divide. Turkey, a country of 70 million the size of Texas, is a linchpin of stability in the Middle East, and it survived a crisis here.

8. Major Arab pop singers jointly performed an anti-war opera that called for co-existence among the region’s Christians, Muslims and Jews and an end to the senseless slaughter. It ran on 15 Arab satellite channels,and one satellite channel ran it nonstop for days. It was the Woodstock of this generation in the Arab world and it got no international press at all.

9. King Abdullah II of Jordan pledged an end to press censorship in Jordan. Tim Sebastian reports,

‘The man at the center of this event was King Abdullah of Jordan, who last month gathered together the chief editors of Jordan’s main newspapers and told them that from now on there would be big changes in the country’s media environment. Specifically, no more jailing of reporters for writing the wrong thing and a new mechanism would be created to protect the rights of journalists, including their access to information. “Detention of journalists is prohibited,” he said. “I do not see a reason for detaining a journalist because he/she wrote something or for expressing a view.”‘

It is legitimate to take all this with a grain of salt, to be skeptical, to wait and see. But Sebastian is right that if the king means it, it is big news for Jordan and the Middle East, and the court in Amman should be pressured to stand by the new procedures.

10. The United Arab Emirates is creating the first carbon-free city, “Masdar,” as a demonstration project. That the Oil Gulf, a major source of the fossil fuels that, when burned, are causing climate change and rising sea levels, has become concerned about these problems, it is a very good sign.

— Informed Comment

And the eleventh, from the comments:

Anonymous said…

Not surprising that you forgot, but for millions in South Asia recently, there was very good news: Bangladesh just had free, fair, and peaceful elections. In a nation of 160 million (90% of whom are Muslim), a secularist party was elected with landslide mandate. Bangladesh is now the second largest Muslim democracy (after Indonesia) and the 6th largest democracy in the world.

http://www.thestar.com/comment/article/560410

Shayer said…

Don’t forget Bangladesh, the 4th largest Muslim country in the world just had their largely peaceful, free, and fair elections in 7 years with the secularists capturing 230 of 300 seats in the Parliament and Jamaat-i-Islami (the Islamist party)went from 20 seats in the 2001 election to only 2 seats effectively wiping them out and showing a great rejection of islamist ideologies.

The Awami League, the winners in this election, offers to share power with the losing parties and the losing party BNP conceded defeat showing a change from part politics where the oppostion would always take to the streets and protest.

The good news shows the Bangladeshis commitment to democracy and the resilience of a moderate Islam that renounces violence.

women’s social rights are not critical to the evolution of democracy

I have pretty much steered clear saying anything about the great neo-colonial escapade in Iraq, despite keeping up with the Joneses on several blogs who are eminently competent and exceedingly well versed in the war. I’m going to make a change today, and it’s because of the last quote in this piece. It was originally posted by Other Lisa at The Paper Tiger, and cross-posted at The Peking Duck. The title of this post is from a quote of Reuel Marc Gerecht and it’s worth making yourself a coffee now, sitting down and reading the whole thing, and the comments at Peking Duck which further add to the post.

Everybody Look What’s Going Down…

With 60% of Americans now dissapproving of the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq, prominent U.S. Republican senator Chuck Hagel has joined the chorus of criticism, saying that Iraq is looking more and more like Vietnam. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran, also stated that far from making us safer, the conflict has helped further destablize the Middle East:

“We should start figuring out how we get out of there,” Hagel said on “This Week” on ABC. “But with this understanding, we cannot leave a vacuum that further destabilizes the Middle East. I think our involvement there has destabilized the Middle East. And the longer we stay there, I think the further destabilization will occur.”

Hagel said “stay the course” is not a policy. “By any standard, when you analyze 2 1/2 years in Iraq … we’re not winning,” he said.

Hagel’s statements come on the heels of an announcement by the Army’s top general that the Army is making plans for a “worse-case scenario,” in which US troop strength would be maintained at its present levels, over 160,000 soldiers, for the next four years. Hagel, once a partisan of greatly increasing troop strength in Iraq, now believes that we are past the point where more troops can bring any greater stability to Iraq:

“We’re past that stage now because now we are locked into a bogged-down problem not unsimilar… to where we were in Vietnam,” Hagel said. “The longer we stay, the more problems we’re going to have.”

Moreover, he described the Army contingency plan as “complete folly.”

“I don’t know where he’s going to get these troops,” Hagel said. “There won’t be any National Guard left … no Army Reserve left … there is no way America is going to have 100,000 troops in Iraq, nor should it, in four years.”

Hagel added: “It would bog us down, it would further destabilize the Middle East, it would give Iran more influence, it would hurt Israel, it would put our allies over there in Saudi Arabia and Jordan in a terrible position. It won’t be four years. We need to be out.”

To put a capper on this misbegotten, morally dishonest venture, word out of Iraq today on the new constitution is that the US is conceding to Iraqi Islamists:

Islam will be “the main source” of Iraq’s law and parliament will observe religious principles, negotiators said on Saturday after what some called a major turn in talks on the constitution and a shift in the U.S. position.

If agreed by Monday’s parliamentary deadline, it would appear to be a major concession to Islamist leaders from the Shi’ite Muslim majority and sit uneasily with U.S. insistence on the primacy of democracy and human rights in the new Iraq.

(IF the draft is approved – Sunni representatives have just appealed to the US to help stop this draft from being pushed through parliament by majority Shi’ites and Kurds, warning that it will worsen the crisis in Iraq).

So there you have it. Every justification this administration made for this war has now officially been swept into the dustbin of history. Wasn’t one of the reasons we fought this war to prevent the expansion of radical Islamists? Can a government based on Islam possibly be “dem0cratic” in any real sense?

Of particular concerrn is the status of women, who, at the risk of stating the obvious, have not fared well under Islamic regimes. Sharia law has been used to justify women’s lack of suffrage, unequal right of inheritance, of divorce, to control their freedom of movement, their access to education, as an excuse for physical abuse, even murder, at the hands of their husbands and fathers and brothers. I’m going to quote blogger Digby here, as he puts it better than I can:

Iraqi women have enjoyed secular, western-style equality for more than 40 years. Most females have no memory of living any other way. In order to meet an arbitrary deadline for domestic political reasons, we have capitulated to theocrats on the single most important constitutional issue facing the average Iraqi woman — which means that we have now officially failed more than half of the Iraqis we supposedly came to help. We have “liberated” millions of people from rights they have had all their lives.

This is not to say that an Islamic theocracy is fine in every other way. It will, of course, curb religious freedom entirely. Too bad for the local Jews and Christians — or secularists, of which there were many in Iraq. It will restrict personal freedom in an infinite number of ways. Theocracies require conformity in thought, word and deed.

And all of this must be viewed within the conditions that exist in this poor misbegotten place as we speak. The country is on the verge of civil war. Chaos reigns. Daily life is dangerous and uncomfortable.

It simply cannot be heroic for the richest, most powerful democratic country on earth to claim the mantle of liberator only to create a government that makes more than half the population second class citizens and forces the entire country live in conditions that are less free and more dangerous than before.

It is certainly not acceptable for that country to take any credit for spreading freedom. Creating an Islamic theocracy is anything but noble. It is a moral failure of epic proportions.

As an update, Digby passes us over to James Wolcott:

Reuel Marc Gerecht (American Enterprise Institute, neo-con war hawk), discussing the forthcoming Iraqi constitution on Meet the Press, August 21: “Women’s social rights are not critical to the evolution of democracy. We hope they’re there, I think they will be there, but I think we need to keep this perspective.”

Gosh. Thanks, guys. Good to know that this Administration’s war architects don’t think women’s rights fundamentally contribute to democracy. Funny, I’m somehow not surprised…

baghdad year zero

I haven’t written about the war in Iraq, or the radical conservative politics and coming elections either in America or Australia, because firstly other people can devote much more time and considered opinion to it, like Peking Duck, and secondly while I am without a doubt an intellectual who is profoundly disturbed by the current state of the world and the nations who have brought us to this point, I am also an artist, and that is where my attention generally falls when it comes to writing here.

Which doesn’t mean I pretend everything is fine, or avoid trying to stay current with the whole mess. Today however, I read this piece by Naomi Klein, first printed in Harpers Magazine this month, which unlike every other opinion or commentary on Iraq, Bush and big business to me manages to string it all together, in a violently dark tale full of the kind of fanatic political zealots straight out of James Ellroy’s The Cold 6000 or other psychotic stories of rotten American democracy. It’s a long article, and for me answers the stupid, inane question uttered by lazy fools intent on dissembling: why do they hate us?

The great historical irony of the catastrophe unfolding in Iraq is that the shock-therapy reforms that were supposed to create an economic boom that would rebuild the country have instead fueled a resistance that ultimately made reconstruction impossible. Bremer’s reforms unleashed forces that the neocons neither predicted nor could hope to control, from armed insurrections inside factories to tens of thousands of unemployed young men arming themselves. These forces have transformed Year Zero in Iraq into the mirror opposite of what the neocons envisioned: not a corporate utopia but a ghoulish dystopia, where going to a simple business meeting can get you lynched, burned alive, or beheaded. These dangers are so great that in Iraq global capitalism has retreated, at least for now. For the neocons, this must be a shocking development: their ideological belief in greed turns out to be stronger than greed itself.

Iraq was to the neocons what Afghanistan was to the Taliban: the one place on Earth where they could force everyone to live by the most literal, unyielding interpretation of their sacred texts. One would think that the bloody results of this experiment would inspire a crisis of faith: in the country where they had absolute free reign, where there was no local government to blame, where economic reforms were introduced at their most shocking and most perfect, they created, instead of a model free market, a failed state no right-thinking investor would touch. And yet the Green Zone neocons and their masters in Washington are no more likely to reexamine their core beliefs than the Taliban mullahs were inclined to search their souls when their Islamic state slid into a debauched Hades of opium and sex slavery. When facts threaten true believers, they simply close their eyes and pray harder.

“Let the bodies hit the floor…that was the motto for our tank.”

Last night the ABC screened one of the most disturbing documentaries I’ve seen in a long while. Soundtrack To War is George Gittoes’ film of the tunes playing inside the tanks rolling through Baghdad, the soldiers driving them, and the people of the city still making music.

The endless banality of horror as entertainment was something I was really concerned with during making extermination, which culminated in a satanic mass to Slayer’s Reign In Blood. During this film, this track and the band, more than any other was the music that accompanied the images, a disturbing irruption of the very ‘real’ for me I had tried to implant in my work.

The Age wrote a good piece on the documentary which also aired in the US on VH1 earlier in August.

“There’s a whole generation that doesn’t watch the news any more,” says Gittoes from New York on the eve of the documentary’s broadcast in the US.

A frequent visitor to war zones and political hot spots, 54-year-old Gittoes has travelled to Iraq four times since the outbreak of hostilities to make this film, in which American soldiers and Iraqis reveal themselves and their troubles through the music that they listen to and create for themselves.

His decision to tailor what would become Soundtrack to War to young audiences was cemented when he marched in a prewar protest rally in Washington. “It was all people my age and their 30-year-old children. It was like a Forrest Gump nostalgia trip and I thought there had to be a better way. If you’re going to make relevant documentaries that will get to this audience in America, you have to make it for (channel) VH1.”