These two posts (this one and the one to follow) are long overdue for me, and as it is, they are completely inadequate as far as even beginning to skim the surface of the depth and breadth of cultural and creative expression we’ve experienced over the last 10 months. But just as at home, there is art overseas, art everywhere, in so many forms. So as a student of music, an arts administrator by profession and lover of all creative things by person, I offer a super truncated survey on the countries and places we’ve been and my (very) brief observations on the art we’ve experienced. We’ve been a lot of places so I’ve divided this into two posts – one for the first ‘leg’ of our trip – Belgium to West Africa and France; and then the second part after we returned from my brother’s wedding in May back to Europe. I love art and creative expression in all its forms (ok most all its forms, I’ll admit uber-modern conceptual dance isn’t really my thing..) and have kept an eye open for glimpses of how cultures in the 9 countries (10 if you include Vatican City! And 11 if you include our upcoming 2 day jaunt to Istanbul) we’ve visited express or the overarching things that struck me. So here we go: a brief review in chronological order of our travels of art overseas.
Hellloooo gorgeous! Not only did we arrive in Bruges as our first stop on our trip – we arrived in one of the most visually stunning places I have ever seen. You may remember us blogging about it, but Belgium has loads of incredible art and expression oozing from all over. I think Belgium gets a bad rap for being boring (I’ve heard it several times), but I had completely the opposite experience.
Both Bruges and Ghent amazed me in the contrast of antiquity and modern right next to and on top of each other. In 12th century churches and cathedrals we saw modern photography, painting and even light installations. We saw modern sculpture in little open squares surrounded by gothic architecture. And in Ghent, an art and design student’s dream destination, we meandered down a world-famous street art alley. All this in the dead of winter – I can’t imagine what it’s like during festival season in the summer.
Beer is also something of an art – and if you are a beer lover like Jon and me you know that Belgium produces an unbelievable amount of excellent brews. And… every brewery needs a label so think of all the artists they’re employing on top of the creativity they offer by making fantastic beer!
Oh, and if you're in Brussels, you must go to the Instrument Museum - the largest collection of unique instruments in the world - it's incredible!
Mali & Senegal
I generally feel wrong about lumping two countries together because the cultures really are different – not to mention that there are multiple ethnic groups in each of these countries - but there are a few similarities I want to point out here about creative expression. These two cultures, in my opinion, are built upon a very foundation of creativity. The line between performer and observer is much more obscure than in the West – and nearly everyone has some kind of craft or has an artisan in their family. Families themselves are artisanal – as in that family are all blacksmiths, and this family are all tailors. The tradition of craft is centuries old, as is storytelling and history told through music by dignified griots. Both Mali and Senegal are recognized internationally for the musical artists they produce, indeed the New York Times has quite the love affair with Senegal and Mali. It’s not only because of their rich traditional music, which is alive, but also because both countries produce incredible hip hop and rap artists that shake the international scene.
Being in Mali in January was a very interesting and difficult time. We arrived 4 days before fighting broke out between the French and Islamists who were threatening the security of southern Mali. Places like Timbuktu – the famous intellectual outpost and desert-trade crossroads – was under siege and these people who cared nothing for heritage but only for eternal glory (which I suppose is cultural it its own right – but so very horrible in the way it’s played out via religious zealots…. I digress) – burned and destroyed ancient manuscripts and cultural treasures within the libraries. As if this, and the fact that thousands of people became refugees, wasn’t enough, the very heartbeat of Mali’s expressiveness nearly came to a stop.
Public gatherings and celebrations were banned, simply for the fact that you didn’t know anymore who was friend and who was foe. Public gatherings include wedding celebrations, concerts, night clubs. Imagine Bamako in normal times. Sunday afternoon. The city is alive with multiple wedding celebrations, music, drums, dance, laughter make Bamako come alive. Then imagine Bamako with no gatherings. People got married, but musicians didn’t play, people didn’t dance. And in the North, which was completely held hostage under the most extreme view of Islam, some of the countries biggest rising musical stars couldn’t play a tune – for fear of awful retribution. This was a very different Mali. But what I will say is how unbelievably resilient Malians are. I think that if we went back now, Sundays, and every day, would be filled with expression.
In terms of visual art, and aside from sculpture and paintings made for tourists, I was very interested to see unbelievably large public art works in roundabouts on roadways. I didn’t really see any other signs of public art except these large installations. This is curious to me!
…has more camels than people. Need I say more about the lack of public art? This would probably be the place to make sandcastles – really big ones – cause… it’s the Sahara. The one look at traditional music was interesting though!
Sweet Morocco. I’m in love with this place. The blending of cultures and traditions is truly amazing. Berber, Arab, Spanish, Ottoman, French – it’s incredible. Outwardly the architecture is pretty uninteresting. But that’s because Moroccans are family-focused and so the tilework, woodwork, painting, filagre and all of the intricacy you think of when you envision Morocco lives inside the home.
Morocco is a place to overload your senses, and in addition to the sights and smells, the people provide such a warm friendly welcome that you can’t help but feel overjoyed to be there.
We took a lot of bus rides in Morocco – it’s the easiest and cheapest way to get around. In addition to the music that was almost always playing for the bus driving (and therefore everyone else), every rest stop in every village as such a sight. Open stalls, butchers with the day’s goats and lamb for sale (yes hanging, for you to purchase), boutiques with tobacco and endless amounts of cookies and tea houses – all with a local radio playing. In the Atlas mountains this was even more interesting for me because all the radio stations were playing local Berber music. Again, the blend of influences of Islamic chant, Eastern rhythms and a special flavor – the native Berber sounds – was simply music to my ears.
I’d go back to Morocco any day – just to be filled with sensory overload. And… to eat amazing food.
Hmm, mon dieu what does one say in a few paragraphs about a country who produced some of the greatest painters, writers, thinkers and sculptures in the Western World (is that too bold?). What to say about the country that welcomed America’s black jazz musicians when we wouldn’t have them; nurtured their art and then let us have them back? The country that gave us French Chanson and Nadia Boulanger and Debussy among so many others. What to say about a country whose language, food, wine and fashion is art? Are you getting the point?
I will say that France, with its plethora of art, has really expensive, and expansive, art museums. It’s very costly to have a holiday in Paris in particular and even with 4 days we didn’t go to Louvre (I know.. I know!!). We did however purchase the Musee d’Orsay/Musee Rodin combo ticket, which was totally worth it, especially if you buy the ticket at the Rodin Museum because there’s never a line. Paris no doubt has some of the world's best art museums, but the gardens, sculptures and simply just the grandeur of the city feels like you're living in a piece of art. The rest of France, with its charming villages, perfectly landscaped countryside and all the wonderful french things that go with it make for a wonderful place to be. Why is it though that American nightclub music is SO popular though??!
To be continued... The UK, Norway, Spain and Italy...