CultureNatureVisual Arts

Ancient Venus Figures–Origins and Significance

Venus Figures are small bone, ceramic or stone carvings which exhibit exaggerated female breasts and hips. The term ‘Venus figure’ is strictly used as a metaphor for the female form. These carvings predate the mythological Venus – the Roman goddess of love, sex, beauty, and fertility – by thousands of years.

Venus figures are unique and hold artistic and cultural significance simply by being the earliest representations of humans in sculptural form. They also mark the humanity’s earliest use of ceramic materials.

Venus Figures have been found all across Europe. Map Credit: Natural History Museum of Vienna.

The majority of these mysterious figurines date from the Upper Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) period between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. This period contains the first archaeological evidence of small-scale human settlements along with more complex social organization. Numerous cave paintings, petroglyphs and carvings and engravings on bone and ivory indicate a blossoming of the arts during this period.

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Hope

May 2020 Be a Year of Hope

The truly futuristic sounding year of 2020 is almost upon us. While 2019 has most likely affected us all in both positive and negative ways, let’s dwell on the positive aspects as we say goodbye to those things that caused us emotional stress and physical discomfort.

Many Colombians burn ‘old year’ dolls to ritually say goodbye to the past and welcome the new. Año Nuevo celebrations can be found in many pueblos and cities around the country. Photo: Henry Lewis 01/01/2019

During this week while we consider how we’ve changed over the past year and look forward to a new script yet unwritten, I’d like to thank all my fellow bloggers for making me part of your online community. Many of you feel like old friends and I can’t express how much I appreciate your support for following this blog and for the enormous contributions you’ve made by sharing your own insights along the way.

My hope is that in 2020, we can join together to promote peace, understanding, tolerance and social justice for ALL.

In 2020…

May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the warm rays of sun fall upon you,
May the hand of a friend be always near,
May green be the grass you walk on,
May blue be the skies above you,
May pure be the joys that surround you,
And may true be the hearts that love you.

~From a traditional Irish Blessing

Peace and Happy New Year

~henry

Politics

Art of Impeachment–Nixon*Clinton*Trump

The impeachment of Donald Trump has turned what was already an editorial cartoonist’s dream administration into a full-on party. The rich cast of characters legislating our lives from their Capitol Hill offices in Washington, DC can always be depended upon to create the kind of drama that can best be summed up in a cartoon.

Political commentators have been busy recently drawing comparisons between the on-going formal proceedings involving Donald Trump and those of Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Due to overwhelming evidence of his knowledge of the Watergate break-in, Nixon actually resigned before being formally impeached by a full House vote, while Clinton was impeached by the House in late 1998 but acquitted in the Senate early in 1999 after a trial that lasted just over a month.

While we may think partisan politics is a recent phenomenon, a look back at some political cartoons produced during the impeachment inquiries into Nixon and Clinton tell a different story. It seems that in the past party loyalty has been prioritized over moral and ethical principles just as it often is today.

In this post, I’m presenting a curated selection of cartoons that illustrate and compare the political will and public mood in all three of these periods during which the strength of American democracy has been tested. Mind you, Trump’s political fortunes – and those of his GOP supporters – are yet to be determined as history continues marching on…

In this cartoon, Richard Nixon is depicted as a man about to be hanged – Wild West style – by the Democratic House Judiciary Committee. Artist: Carl Hubenthal (07/21/1974) LA Herald-Examiner and The Opper Project, Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library.

Bill Clinton being chastised for his sexual history. For those who weren’t around at that time, Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about having a sexual affair with a White House intern and for obstruction of justice during the investigation which followed. Artist: Steve Sack – Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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Politics

American Democracy–Down for the Count?

Growing up during the divisive Vietnam War era, political discussions at the dinner table were the norm. True to their North Carolina farm roots, both my parents were socially conservative, but their views on politically charged topics varied greatly.

Prior to Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office, much of the American South was solidly Democratic. Politicians such as North Carolina’s ‘country lawyer,’ Senator Sam Ervin, who served from 1954 to 1974 and famously chaired the US Senate Committee that impeached Richard Nixon, supported policies with benefits that reached far beyond their provincial constituencies. Years later, another North Carolina senator, Republican Jesse Helms, made an art of conducting mud-slinging campaigns and using the senate filibuster to promote his own personal agenda.

Even given that background, neither of my parents would recognize today’s American political landscape. Despite my mother’s Democratic leanings and my father’s closet Republican mind-set, they both valued the shared truth that our nation’s government was designed to work for ALL the people, and not just any select few.

They believed that just as successful personal relationships involved inevitable struggles and a great deal of compromise, so did a properly functioning government.Their values of honesty, integrity and respect for human dignity seem completely out of fashion now, having been replaced by verbalized hatred and the belief that unethical and immoral behavior is to be tolerated as long as someone’s narrow agenda is being fulfilled.

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NatureTravel

Communing With Pandas in Chengdu, China

I’ll admit it. I’ve always had a thing for bears. These furry – and seemingly cuddly – creatures have held a special fascination for me since I was a child. I remember my excitement the first time I laid eyes on an American black bear mother and her cub resting beside the main highway that traverses the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While it’s sad to realize now that the mother bear, with cub in tow, was lured there in search of human food from the tourists gawking from the safety of their cars, at that moment it was pure magic.

Over the years, I became more accustomed to seeing bears on hikes and backpacking trips while living in the US Pacific Northwest. My time spent in wilderness areas gave me a healthy respect for the keen sense of smell and great power of these creatures, and I was always lucky enough to leisurely view individuals from a comfortable distance. This included watching a large and beautiful honey-brown specimen for over an hour while it foraged for berries on a mountainside slope in Washington State’s North Cascades National Park.

Let’s Go See The Pandas!

More than a decade later while traveling in China, I had the good fortune of visiting the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in the country’s south central Sichuan Province. The research center has been ground zero in the fight to save this unique member of the bear family (Ursidae) from extinction.

Is there any human alive today whose heart doesn’t melt at the site of these adorable creatures? Photo: Henry Lewis

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PoliticsVisual Arts

Celebrating Berlin’s East Side Gallery

A mural on Berlin’s outdoor East Side Gallery. International artists have created more than 118 murals on a section of the former Berlin Wall that divided East and West Germany during the decade’s long Cold War. Photo: Henry Lewis

This week Berliners have been celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This concrete barrier, which split the city into a West Berlin – controlled by the USA and its allies, and an East Berlin- where the Soviet Union dictated all aspects of daily life, was one of the most poignant symbols of the decades-long Cold War.

A series of events across Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe earlier in 1989 led to the eventual breaching of the Wall in central Berlin, allowing throngs of East Berliners to stream freely through the broken barrier and into the streets of West Berlin on the evening of November 9th, 1989. It was a pivotal moment in history that sent shock waves around the world and set the stage for peaceful revolutions all across Eastern Europe, finally leading to the break-up and decline of the Soviet Union.

Berlin’s open-air East Side Gallery has become a huge draw for tourists visiting the reunified German capital. Photo: Henry Lewis

A young Iranian immigrant and artist, Kani Alavi, watched that evening’s jubilant chaos in the streets from his apartment window, just opposite the famous central Berlin border crossing known as Checkpoint Charlie. What the young artist witnessed that night, and on those that followed, moved him to spear-head an effort to preserve a portion of the wall in order to create an open air gallery where artists could celebrate the triumph of freedom over oppression.

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ArchitectureVisual Arts

Mosaics of the Byzantine Empire

My journey to learn the secrets of mosaics began while I was working in Los Angeles in 1990. At the time, a contemporary revival of mosaic art was taking place in LA due to its creative vibe, great number of artists and the dry Mediterranean climate which is perfect for the preservation of outdoor mosaics.

I began creating my own mosaic works as I delved more deeply into the materials and techniques used in producing traditional mosaics, an art form that stretches back to ancient Greece and Rome. Like any poor artist, I collected materials wherever I could afford–asking inside retail tile stores and dumpster-diving near design centers. Having always had an affinity for the beauty, luster and durability of tile, I fell in love with this medium as a means of creative expression.

Byzantine mosaic artists built upon the mosaic traditions of ancient Greece and Rome. Two gladiators (c. 1st century CE) are depicted in this mosaic from the Roman archaeological site of Kourion on the island of Cyprus. Photo: Henry Lewis

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CultureTravel

The Muisca and the Search for El Dorado

Gold makes monsters of men.

Erin Bowman, Vengeance Road

Gold, glory and God

The origins of the quest for El Dorado can be traced back to the early 16th century when a story about a place containing vast golden treasures began spreading from one Spanish settlement to another along the Caribbean coast of South America. In contemporary times, the name has been exploited in fiction and film, and has long carried the connotation of a search for riches.

Despite the Spanish translation of ‘el dorado’ being ‘the golden’–an adjective meaning ‘the golden one’ and not denoting a city of gold–the legend quickly became embellished to refer to an entire city made of gold which was said to be located in the Valley of Dorado, a place hidden deep in the mountains of the continent’s northern Andes. It was this feverish quest to acquire gold in all its forms that drove numerous European expeditions–from which most adventurers would never return–over the high ranges of the Andes and through dense jungles filled with wild animals, deadly reptiles, unfriendly tribes and jungle fevers.

The first regional expeditions in search of gold were led by German and Spanish explorers traveling along the Orinoco River in what is now Venezuela. Soon after, Spanish conquistadors stationed in the Caribbean port town of Santa Marta heard stories from wandering natives of an Indian chieftain living high in the mountains whose wealth in gold was so great that he covered his entire body in the precious mineral.

A mural depicting traditional Muiscan figurines rendered from gold and silver. Artist: Edgar Diaz.

Encountering the Muisca

In 1636, the news of this gold-laden chieftain led Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada and his army of 800 men to abandon their mission of finding an overland route to Peru, and instead head east and up into the Andes. There they encountered the Muisca people, a highly advanced civilization whose territories were divided into a confederation of states without a single centralized leader or ruler.

Physical map of Colombia indicating the approximate range of Musica territory along with the locations of the 3 main Muisca administrative centers in the eastern range of Colombia’s Andes Mountains.

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Human RightsPolitics

Kurds: “We have no friends but the mountains”

This week, following the Trump Administration’s betrayal of a long-time Middle East ally, I received a message containing these words from one of my former students in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan Region.

We as “Kurds have no friends but the mountains“ history repeats itself!

Over the past 100 years, the Kurdish people–whose territory includes northern Iraq, northern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran–have been repeatedly lied to, stabbed in the back, gassed and violently murdered by successive regimes from both the West and the Middle East.

The US Government has called on the Kurdish people repeatedly for help and these loyal allies have at all times capitulated to Washington’s requests. In 1972, they were asked by the CIA and US-placed Shah of Iran to rise up against the Ba’athist Party-led government in Iraq. The Kurds were used and then left alone to suffer the wrath of the Iraqi military when Iran’s Shah make a back-door deal with the Iraqi government.

Still willing to trust the Americans, the Kurds in northern Iraq once again rose up against the Baghdad-based government of Saddam Huessein at the urging of George H. W. Bush’s administration during the Gulf War in Kuwait in 1991. While the Kurds did eventually receive US support in setting up a no-fly zone over their northern territory, other promises of oil wealth sharing and possible independence were not kept. Establishing border security was left to the Kurd’s very capable military, known as the Peshmerga, which created a safe haven in an otherwise extremely dangerous and chaotic country.

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EnvironmentHealth and Well-being

Coal and the Price of Prosperity

Working as a miner has long been one of the most perilous occupations on the planet. As the ancient Romans famously conquered lands near and far, they sentenced the slaves they took prisoner to a life of back-breaking labor in their mines. The hardships of such labor were famously portrayed in the Hollywood production of Spartacus, the story of a slave who worked in the mines, refused to submit to the torture of his captors and eventually led a rebellion against Roman tyranny.

Fast forward to mid-18th century Britain–the mining of coal produced the energy needed to power factories and run transport networks, bringing about what would later be known as the Industrial Revolution. As knowledge of new industrial technologies spread across Western Europe and then on to the Americas, countries rich in this relatively inexpensive resource developed into industrial powerhouses.

The advent of industrialization sparked an exodus of rural folks from the countryside to rapidly growing cities where they found employment in factories, and for the first time had wages which enabled them to purchase goods. Using abundant coal reserves as fuel allowed factory owners to produce more goods than were needed, thus introducing the concept of buying things as a sign of status. Later industrialists, such as Henry Ford, developed methods of mass production for goods which accelerated these emerging trends. Factory jobs, in turn, provided the steady incomes that built a middle class which could afford to consume more, and therefore, set the stage for contemporary economic systems based principally on the mass consumption of goods and services.

The discovery and use of coal as a tool for rapid economic development not only changed the way people went about their daily lives, it also became a tool for political propaganda. According to Barbara Freese, author of Coal, A Human History:

In the 1800s, a lot of theologians who wrote about coal saw coal deposits as signs of God’s favor. And that’s why God gave America so much coal and gave England so much coal because he essentially wanted English-speaking countries to have a controlling influence over world affairs. So it was seen really as further evidence of our manifest destiny–Barbara Freese

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