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Friday Feature: Light In the Darkness

We awakened this morning to news of a celebrity’s suicide. Wings and I are not much given to celebrity culture in any form — our own cultures caution against the making of heroes —  but there are a few individuals whose body of work has been sufficiently outstanding to find a place in our lives, whether for educational purposes or for pure entertainment.

Such was the case today. Anthony Bourdain may have been a celebrity chef, but he was also a man unafraid to confront the darker side of his own culture, willing to grapple, and publicly, with the great and bloody price of American colonialism. He was far from perfect; he was human, and the fact of his celebrity does not deny him the human space to be as flawed as we all are. But in our early years together, and in the earliest years of Mr. Bourdain’s television career, he had a semi-regular place in our home by way of his food and travel program. I think perhaps part of what initially brought us to the program was our own sardonic take on the show’s name: No Reservations (for what should be painfully obvious reasons). To our surprise and delight, it matched up to some degree with the man’s own sardonic outlook on life and the world around him: one that was, perhaps, a bit too clear-eyed for his own ability to accept it, but was nevertheless marked by affection and even love for that world, for the foods and places and cultures and people he encountered along the way.

And so we find ourselves doing that which we do only vanishingly rarely: mourning a stranger, one whose wealth and position placed him far outside our frame of reference, and with whom we would never had occasion to interact.

There will be much ink expended, upended, spilled outright in the coming days by vultures of camera lens and written word who seek to capitalize, both monetarily and in psychological terms, upon Mr.Bourdain’s death. Our own feelings about such matters are complex, diverge significantly from those of dominant-culture norms, and are not up for discussion here. Indeed, I mention this morning’s events only as a way of contextualizing the darkness inherent in the larger society, one that infiltrates all aspects of life.

It could hardly be otherwise: The dominant culture is rooted in genocide and chattel slavery, in every sort of deadly bigotry, in colonialism and occupation and militarily-enforced oppression. We know all about dark nights of the spirit — and dark days, too.

For this week’s Friday Feature I had already long planned to highlight the work shown above. We’ve been exploring the light, after all — and in our way, there is little so enlightening, so illuminating, as visions and dreams.  But on this day, given the context up above, I’m showing the description only; including the pricing information seems inappropriate. And it is, indeed, the description that matters — or, rather, it’s the glimpse it gives into the work itself, which is the source of illumination here. From its description in the Other Artists: Wall Art gallery here on the site:

Chief Jo’s Vision Mixed-Media Collage

This framed collage by Preston Bellringer (Yakama/Assiniboine) melds ancient prophecies with modern media in a piece that harks back to a ’60s ethos and feel. The iconic central photograph of Chief Joseph in the upper half of the collage is surrounded by a complex synthesis of images in multiple media: photography, paint, pen and ink, even children’s stick-on decals, all telling a layered intertribal story of warriors protecting the people in their quest for a better time, a better place, one of peace. The studded wood frame is 25.25″ high by 8.5″ wide; the visible image (no glass cover) is 22.75″ high by 6″ wide (all dimensions approximate).

Chief Joseph, whose real name was Hinmuuttu-yalatlat, was a warrior, a leader, a visionary, a man tasked with impossible in the darkest of hours, one who failed in what he regarded as his given mission but in the process left a legacy so profound that it is thoroughly alive today. I’ve written about him, and about that legacy, at length here before:

Hinmuuttu-yalatlat survived another quarter-century [after internment]. Recognizing the futility of challenging the U.S. Army’s massive numbers and firepower, he nevertheless continued to fight in his own way, challenging their words. He spoke, plainly and proudly, to anyone and everyone who would listen. He insisted on the Native right to self-determination, to autonomy, to sovereignty, to existence — as men, as women, as human beings.

He did not, in his lifetime, create the world that he so devoutly wished to see. But his words have outlived his body, unto the seventh generation and beyond, and they are sound guides for our peoples today in the same ongoing fight for the same existential rights.

The famous man who walked on this morning was not one of our peoples; his ancestry lay elsewhere. He was, however, a man who attempted to comprehend our indigenous worlds in an open and honest way, one that was not itself free from colonialism (how could it be, in this society?), yet he nonetheless made a deliberate effort to decolonize his engagement. He might not have called it that, but it was what he was doing — imperfectly, yes, of course, but an honest effort and a good heart go a long, long way toward ameliorating residual impacts. I cannot help but think that Anthony Bourdain had his own vision for the world: one in which people, and peoples, could meet and get to know one another over and through food, the sharing of it, the enjoyment of it, and that that would, in spite of all of our other stupid, venal, violent efforts to the contrary, build some solidarity and understand, build in its own small way a better world for all of us.

It would be a shame if, in the aftermath of his loss, we were to let that vision go to waste.

There is light in the darkness. Let us find it, tend its fire, spread its light: through food, through art, through language, through love.

~ Aji









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