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Now and Then

While an artist's style is particularly important in the art world, an artist is bound to grow and change over the course of a lifetime, and the work should reflect that. The world changes, and we change; and like the ocean, life  brings us periods of intense, often exciting and fulfilling activity and then quiet lulls in between. Like a surfer, we watch, we wait, and when the moment is right, we go.

Sometimes it looks or feels like nothing is happening during the lulls, but there is a lot of unseen churning below the surface, beneath what looks like inactivity;  like a current surging under your surfboard. During this particular period in my life, I have been watching and now am about to go. On the brink of dramatic change, I am about to slide out of the groove and onto the ridges where the future is a canvas, blank except for a few sketchy lines indicating where I might go from here and what  my artistic focus might be. At the same time, my thoughts are colored by current events that send my mind bouncing back and forth between now (2013)  and then (1970's).

I am eclectic and while I have always been an artist, I am also an anthropologist at heart. In 1970, as an independent study I did a photographic essay about the residents of Isla Vista, the community adjacent to the University of California at Santa Barbara (  Our world back then is something worth remembering.

isla vista 1970 copy

That was a time of war; a time of anger and protest against the banks and the war; a time of formidable government deceit. Despite all that, we looked forward to a bright future. We were exploring space, and at the same time  suffering Vietnam veterans and mental patients were not homeless on our streets. Because of the draft, everyone had some skin in the game, someone to lose. People spoke out, they protested, and our voices were heard.

Studying anthropology, I was captivated by a couple Amazonian tribes, their myths, religion and their lives so unspoiled by the modern world. When I traveled around Brazil in 1976, I wanted to visit some of the Xingu. To do that, I needed permission from the National Indian Foundation (F.U.N.A.I.). They dissuaded me from going and sent me away with some black and white photos.  At the time I didn't know if they denied me permission to go  because I was a woman traveling alone, I was a foreigner who didn't speak much Portugese or the Xingu language, or if they were simply keeping the indigenous people isolated from outsiders (common colds can wipe them out). I really had no clue what was going on.

Last week I watched a documentary about this era in Brazil. Nixon and the C.I.A. were engaged with the Brazilian government (and other South American governments) in a clandestine project called Operation Condor. While people were being kidnapped, tortured and "disappeared" in modern day Brazil, part of the project in Brazil was to reduce the population of indigenous people. They also taught indigenous people torture techniques to use on their own friends and relatives. These techniques the indians would demonstrate to bleachers of unfeeling, smiling officials. I guess this is a good reason that F.U.N.A.I didn't want me traipsing around the reservation. Now in 2013, the remaining Xingu are a tourist attraction:

Back in Rio de Janeiro, there was still a lot I wanted to explore in Brazil, so off I went, leaving my friends to travel through Brasilia and Bahia, up the coast, headed to the Amazon and Manaus.

Rio 68-3        Nor, Fortaleza

Looking back, I can appreciate what a challenging adventure it was, traveling alone to a place where a woman of any age did not travel or even sit at a table alone (unless you were a  nun), where a tropical bug might strike you down at any moment, and where no one knew my name.

Nun on beach                Fortaleza backwater 2

Werner Herzog's  movie, "Fitzcarraldo," which took place in the Amazon, ending up in Manaus, wasn't released until 1982. When I look at my few photos of Belen, the port city at the mouth of the Amazon, it is like being in the Manaus of the film, standing there surrounded by the colonial architecture, the riverboats, and time that seemed to have stopped more than a century ago.

Belen Dock

As it happened,  I did become "uncomfortably" ill and did not manage to take a little trading boat upriver to Manaus, as I had dreamed.  It's probably just as well -- sharing a seat with os porquinhos might have been the least painful part of the trip. (What was I thinking?)

Belen dock 2 - riverboat1

Since then thousands of acres of the Amazon forest have been destroyed. With the destruction, gone are a good part of the Earth's lungs, hundreds of animal and plant species and  the habitat of indigenous people now fighting for survival. But, to end this thought on a high note, fellow artist and photographer extraordinaire Sebastiao Salgado has reversed the process of dying to rebirth. Having replanted the land he inherited from his family with native trees, life has returned. Watch his TED talk about this here:

(To be continued)

Posted by Norlynne Coar on 5/3/13

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