Xolo the Messenger

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The Xoloitzcuintli is sacred.  This hairless dog has lived alongside humans in Mexico for more than 3,000 years and is believed to help souls pass safely through the world of Death, toward the evening star. The Aztecs believed that the Xolo was made from a sliver of the Bone of Life.

This Xolo is made of paper, wire, and covered with blackboard paint. It is one of many messenger animals I have created on which you can write with chalk, and ask it to carry your prayers for the journey.

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Menininha’s House

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Entering Menininha’s house is like walking inside a birthday cake. White paper strips hang from the ceiling like freshly grated coconut. Fluorescent lights shine between layers. Three windows on each side are curtained pink, Grandma Naná’s favorite color. It is her birthday we are celebrating. Naná, mother of Yemenjá, Queen of the Sea.

Before we can join the party at Menininha’s Candomblé House, we have to wait, outside, in back, while the initiates drum and chant. Women arrive, dressed in white cotton skirts and cut lace petticoats. Table-sized cloths are wrapped tight across their chests, and tied with lace bows. Mostly it is women. A few men arrive. They are gorgeous. All men in Bahia are gorgeous. They carry in trays of pastries covered in brown paper: tapioca tubes stuffed with coconut, white corn steamed in husks, thin baguettes of tuna, brown balls filled with cheese. Coffee brews, guava and mango juice pours into paper cups. Then we are ready.

To enter the House, climb up the front steps; dip a cup into the water bucket and toss three times behind you. Women enter left, men right. Find a place on a sea green bench, look around. Take it in, slowly.

The room is big; square, the size of my entire house, thousands of miles to the north. Three drummers pound, 100 people begin to dance. This is the dance of slaves, servants, and workers: their arms churn in cooking. The rhythm quickens, they hunt. It slows, they turn the soil. Hours pass. White lace spins, women swoon and when they drop, they are held, lifted. Sweat and tears are dried with cloth, and then the lace bows are tied tighter – to hold the spirit. This is a weekly gathering of love. And today, it is even grander: a birthday party for the grandmother of all the deities in this story: the gods and goddesses of the sea, the river, thunder and wind. No baby in a manger. No sitting in silence. It is a tradition whose rituals I have never seen.

I take in more. A woman circles the room holding a basket. Reaching in, she tosses popped corn on our heads. I lean into the woman next to me, with questions, “What does popcorn signify?” A Blessing. “Who is the gold warrior in the corner made of Styrofoam?” Oxun, Goddess of the River, Naná’s other Daughter. She likes honey and kindness. “Who are the African women pictured on the wall?” The Mãe de Santo lineage, the matriarchs of this Candomblé House.

Sitting under the white satin tent covered in stars, planets and the crescent moon is the daughter of Menininha, and her daughter in turn. Surrounding them are the most sacred images: A portrait of Yemenjá, as white-breasted mermaid. A life-size sculpture of St. George on his horse. A wooden African mask. I open with joy to such a crazy mix. I kneel before the living Mãe do Santo, lift my hands and say, “Benza Mãe”, a blessing, Mother. I feel her power.

Returning to my sea green bench I extend my hands out in front of my body, holding the holiness. A man in white pants and giant lace bow approaches: a black and white butterfly. I bow to him. He presses his cheek next to mine. It is wet and warm. Touched, I turn to watch the dancers jumping, falling, the release of emotion, the sound of the heart, the place to be held on this Sunday morning. The drumming quickens, and the dancers form a line. Each, in turn, dances her dance, then bows to the source of life: the sun shining through the eastern door. Axé.

That night, I dream I am the Mãe de Santo of my own Candomblé House. We push the sofa back and the dance begins.

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21st Century Warriors

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I recently led a workshop on art and identity for a group of fifteen students at a Bay Area community college. The students, ages 18-22, are undocumented. They can legally attend university, but cannot receive financial aid. And, without social security numbers, there is no legal opportunity for work once they graduate. Many came to the US from Mexico when they were very young. Their parents came with dreams for a better life through their children’s education. The students carry those fierce expectations in their bones.

These students have formed a support group. I was asked to share my art and my process for creating it in order to build leadership and group solidarity.

We met on a sunny Friday morning. I began by telling them of my work in community and how I had always encouraged others to tell their stories, but had only recently begun to tell my own. I had found it easier to find my story through shaping objects with my hands. The group of students gathered around my sculptures and I invited them to touch the work and ask questions. I wanted them to have a direct experience with art- that it is something to take in with their senses and explore.

Then, with the help of the student leader who organized the event, we turned the focus of the workshop to their experiences and making art. We began by acknowledging our common experience of pain and trauma. We then invited them to call forth their dreams for the future: a college degree, meaningful work, a family, travel. Between the traumas we carry and the dreams we hold are obstacles that can get in our way. They began to name them: fear, insecurity, family, friends, society, discrimination, domestic violence, globalization…We asked how they felt speaking those words aloud, “embarrassed”, “vulnerable”, “We feel it but don’t want to talk about it, don’t want so show that it affects us”. We identified the obstacles that come from inside, from those closest to them, and from larger institutional forces. We likened the obstacles to arrows that can come from all directions and cause harm.

We invited the students to make shields of cardboard to protect themselves as they walk into battle against these forces. We asked them to represent five different strengths on their shields: family, culture, place of origin, name and something unique and special about them. We encouraged the students to find these images from magazines we had collected. They could then glue them onto the shield, add words with crayons and decorate it with colored tissue paper, making any shape for the shield that they might choose.

The work began and a tree formed, a cat’s claw, a teardrop, a hand, a circle. As they completed their shields, one by one, we asked the students to stand in front of the group and present their shield. They didn’t hold back. Tears came. A man admitted his mother was the only one in his family who supported him. Another confessed that he learned about his Zapotec roots during his time in jail, and learned to accept who he is. Another described his name in Nahuatl meaning “hand opening to the flowers”. A woman envisioned her future as an engineer, giving back to her community through scholarships. One by one they lined their shields in a row.

We thanked them for making such beautiful works of art, and by expressing their vulnerabilities, building support and connection within the group. I asked them to stand in a circle and close their eyes while I told them a story. It was the Shambhala Prophecy, a Tibetan Buddhist story told across the last 12 centuries, brought to the Bay Area by teacher and activist, Joanna Macy. The story tells of our need in these times for warriors of great courage who hold the dual strengths of compassion and insight. These undocumented students, struggling against the greatest odds for their education, hold the experiences, insights and courage of Shambhala warriors. I wanted them to know that.

In closing, we invited the students to display their shields in an art exhibit, on the night of their graduation. Each shield would be accompanied by their artist’s statement to educate other students, faculty and the college administration about who they are. They all agreed.

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Tina Modotti, Diego Rivera: Art, Politics and Prayer

Paper Mache Sculpture of Tina

I traveled to Mexico in the fall of 2009 because of a photo I’d seen in a book on Mexican muralists. It was a mural, painted by Diego Rivera, in the chapel at the University of Chapingo outside of Mexico City. The painting was a nude, lying seductively on the earth, holding a small plant, surrounded by the bluest sky imaginable. I turned the pages of the book, and learned Rivera had filled this chapel with nude women rising through fire, swimming through water, gestating as seeds. I’d never seen anything like it. I had to go.

It was not simple. The University of Chapingo is about two hours east of Mexico City. I arrived after a long subway trip, followed by a harrowing ride in a little white minivan with no windows or shocks. The chapel was closed, and I was told to wait. The only person who had the key–I learned after the first hour of waiting–was teaching on another campus and wouldn’t be back that day. The only remaining person who might be able to help was the waitress in the university café who was doing the job of three: making the food, waiting tables, and taking the money. Two and a half hours and a few coffees later, I was told a student could let me in. I breathed a sigh of relief.

The University is located in a centuries-old hacienda that was reclaimed for the People during the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century. Rivera was hired to commemorate the agrarian revolution throughout the administration buildings and in the former hacienda chapel. I waited outside while the door to the chapel was opened. The sanctuary was small, dimly lit, filled with murals of worker’s struggles, martyrs buried beneath fields of corn and, above the altar, the most magnificent woman harnessing the forces of nature. I then turned around and there was the painting of the woman, as “Sleeping Earth”, that had first drawn me to this journey. I had never seen anything like it in a chapel. It was too beautiful for words.

I felt I had to explore why this painting, this symbol, meant so much to me. Upon my return home, I decided to sculpt her out of paper mache. By touching and shaping her, I could pay attention to what might be trying to speak to me. I put the photo of her image on my work table. I made the flour and water mix and crumpled the paper. Slowly, with wire, paper, and tape, a woman’s body formed. I bought a new Dremmel sander to smooth her skin. I spent hours painting her lips.

I learned that the Italian photographer Tina Modotti had posed for this Rivera mural before becoming the official photographer of the Mexican muralist movement. I was familiar with some of her photographs of peasants, and of course, her delirious bouquet of white roses, but I wanted to learn more. I first read a biography, Tinisima by Elena-Poniatowska and then read a second. I was struck by the tragedy of her life: she had traveled to Mexico, drawn to the art and politics post-revolution, with her lover Edward Weston. She gained fame for her intimate portraits of rough hands holding a shovel, and fields of sombreros marching on the capital. She ultimately joined the Communist Party and found her way to the Soviet Union. There, she gave up her art to go underground as an agent for the revolution. She died young, and mysteriously–in the back of a taxi cab–never touching her camera again.

Tina’s story led me to my own question: How can I bring my art into my political work? What is lost if I don’t? Tina was unable to do both. But, as I learned more, her choice began to seem less tragic, and more complex.

A friend calls, she’s found a prayer stand at a local salvage yard. She thinks I might like it. I wander through the aisles looking for something I’ve never seen before–what is a prayer stand anyway? No luck, so I head for the door. The hint of red catches my eye. It is the red pillow on the base of what must be the prayer stand. My friend was right: I pay my $30 and leave with the stand under my arm. Once at home, I lay the sculpture of Tina on the top, in the place where a candle or prayer book might stand. She fits perfectly. The stand, though, is a little worse for the wear: the varnish is peeling, the red vinyl pillow shows mold. I strip off the dark stain, sand it, then rinse it in Japanese black ink. I cut a pillow to size, encase it in velvet, and attach it into the base.

A new question forms, what is the connection between this nude woman and prayer? On first review, the answer might be because I first saw her image in a chapel. But, that’s not really it. I begin interviewing everyone I know, asking, “What is prayer?” Their answers surprise me: “Prayer is a call and response…a dialogue… Prayer is listening…It is surrender.” I read an academic book on prayer which helps not at all, then turn to the poets: first Rilke and then Mary Oliver, “…I don’t actually know what prayer is. I do know how to pay attention…how to kneel down in the grass…”*

I too, know nothing of prayer, but, I do know something about grass, and the connection I feel to something larger than me when I am in nature. I also have felt something like surrender. An idea forms: I could make grass out of paper mache, and place it right where one would kneel on the prayer stand. I laugh–it seems a little preposterous, but I give it a try. The dozen or so grass fronds take hours and hours to make. Finally, though, I am ready to paint.  I finish and tie them to the stand.

The piece is almost done. But still I wonder, what is Tina’s message to me? I return to Mary Oliver’s poem for answers, but find only questions, “…Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?”

The hint of something, maybe a prayer forms. I fall on my knees, and listen.

*Mary Oliver, The Summer Day

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