If I were to take you to the museum, we would walk there, you and I, down the path through the university, with the rust-colored stones all around, the sky grey overhead, a couple nearby taking a photograph. We’d walk somewhat fast, it’s hard to walk slow. The rust-colored stones rising and guiding us, unintentional labyrinth, unintentional paths but I know the right one through the stones all around, and we must walk somewhat fast. Outside the broad glass expanse in grand introduction to the small building, an Indian man is sitting on ledge with a golden retriever, cut flush diagonal. We approach. His hair is somewhat shaggy and he wears a black coat and grey turtleneck. He does not smoke a cigarette. He is just sitting. He watches us but we don’t watch him. We cross him. A glance does not inform me as to whether he wears jeans or not. We go inside.
I take you through the Japanese exhibit, the one of which my dad is so fond. Look at the urn, I tell you, look how they put it into an old wooden case within an old wooden case within an old wooden case, as if it were a precious Russian doll of porcelain. Look, I say, it has a name. The jar has a name originating from court poetry, it has a pedagogy. It is a hideous urn and large, mud colored. But the letters, in graceful, manic brushstrokes--note the flecks in the brown paint, they say, these are the flecks where the sparks hit the paint and burnt through the acrylic, to the clay; see the naked body glow through, the fineness of the kiln. They say, look at the delicate loops on which our intricate and meaningless blue knots of rope wrap, on the mouth, over the lip, around the waist. They say this tea urn Chigusa has been in my family for centuries. They say please, can I borrow Chigusa just for one night? They say take care of Chigusa, here are the instructions. They say, yes, Chigusahas safely arrived to address – .
You are reading this half aloud, explaining it to me, in wonder of a big Japanese pot that is actually Chinese and appropriated, ascribed significance, if it deserves any, a name, any [more than the tea]. But I am looking at the small room, four yoga-not-yoga mats fitted into a square, the hole in the middle where a fire and tea kettle would rest. Did you know that for the tea ceremony the host picks out each individual set of bowls and cutlery per guest? That I would personalize your utensils, your plate, based on your taste? That I would pick for you whatever pleased you best? Would you get it, or would you say, “Oh cool. That’s kind of a lot of effort. Isn’t that like so Japanese, to be pleasing and shit? I’m pretty sure that’s a major thing.”
The urn rests in a blue net, fitted round it, like a knapsack of silk, swung over the shoulder, over a stick. I picture somebody carrying it, carefully. All the knots wrapped round the Chinese appropriated red silk lid. We see them on display, a row of them, how large and elaborate. Would you say, ceremonial? Make a comment about aesthetics or pragmatics, like “how” (or) “why” –“would you make something like that?”
Would you understand, if I took you through the Japanese exhibit?
I say look, do you see the faint sparrow on the gold silk scroll on the wall by the exit? Behind glass? It’s faded but look at how delicate and old it is. They don’t know who painted it. He’s the same guy who did the portrait on the scroll over there, and dressed the guy in black instead of white robes? Because white means death in Japanese culture, but he didn’t want the guy to be memorialized that way? I wonder if he painted for the court only?
You are looking at the modest white, glossy urn in the center of the last room. “White, like bones. That makes sense,” you would say, looking at the urn. It is shiny, without flecks, it is the appropriated Greek ceramic method, it is painted rather than monochrome, it is made later, there are no accidental burn marks, there are black birds swooping over an ocean. It’s beautiful, you say. The ravens are so angry, I say, they’re attacking each other, they’ve got red eyes. It was commissioned by a warrior. Oh wow, you say, I didn’t see that.
I take you to the paintings.
The satiric ones, because some of them are funny, I’ll think that you’ll like them.
One is mocking a Famous French painting depicting a picnic. Except here it is cartoonized, and the picnickers are all one smiling Asian man in different outfits. It is hanging in the main foyer. “Ha ha,” you are saying, “That’s pretty funny. Look when it’s made. Fuckin’ communism.” But I say, look, do you see the curve of his smile, how perfectly it mirrors the curve of his head? How it looks like an apple, like the apples on the trees in the background? Look at the colors, do you see how undiluted they are, how the shadows are cut, how there are no gradients or tones? Look, do you see how the curve of his left elbow mirrors the curve of his right shoulder like that? Do you see how they all carefully fit the frame, each rounded body and splitting red smile, like they all evenly fit into a puzzle, with measured negative space between them? See how big this painting is? Do you see the geometry? Do you see the lines? How they all point in?
Across from this is a black canvas with cracks, 3D cracks that pop off like tar, a multitude of jutting shapes. We stand back to take it in. “It’s a city,” you say, “a black and dismal city.” Birds-eye view. I say, “Is it?” and I look at it for a while. I get up closer, so close to the canvas that is large enough to dwarf the other, see the cracks inside the cracks? The sweeps of streets, from where you are, or that of canyons, but what if it was an echo? An echo steadily losing traction?
You’re asking about the titles. I say, don’t look at the titles. You say, why not, what’s the point then? Because a title means everything about the painting and nothing about the painting. It changes the context, I try to explain, I try to explain about judging books by covers, I try to explain the titles to contemporary poetry, how sometimes you don’t get them, how it’s more relevant to the author than to you, how it might be a reference that you might understand but not its connection, and how that shouldn’t be relevant sometimes, how it’s more important to feel something than to understand it and how that’s just as valuable and you ask about the untitled ones, and I say, they get it. Those artists are unselfish, they allow you free interpretation. But I don’t actually say this. I say, forget about the untitled ones.
I take you to the strange paintings.
“Your favorite,” you joke or ask, smiling. But I am self-conscious, about taking you to the modern art and surrealism.
In the tall and narrow white room, the small sets of obscure images, there is the twisted flag. Unfurling like a woman over a desolate, barren landscape with littered vaguely with sharp objects. The Witches, in peeling tones of skin, petaling outward and disfigured, centered over a smudged forest, so tiny the frame is like a hand mirror—the orange foxes drenched in mud, leaping over the wispy blue elves, all of them swimming—if you step back, that looks like fire. Step closer, look at their expressions, they’re wearing hats but are naked, I think they’re laughing—and the canvas that has a bloody sun filling an actual tire wheel, an immense black sky and white plaster in which a hammer, a stethoscope and a pen is pressed in as though floating or swimming in the canvas and it is titled Feminism, or something like that—and the canvas that is raw scratches and drops and called The City, and would you say, “Which city?” or more knowingly, “All cities” and would I ask, “Maybe that’s what it brought out in him,” or, try to lighten it, to casualize it, say, “Maybe he’s in a mood. Maybe that’s how he paints.” Anything. Because I can’t stop thinking about the painters, beyond their paints. Because artists decide the titles, not the interpretation. Would you get that?
And if I were to take you to one of my favorite pieces, the blasphemously modern canvas of navy blue, perpendicular to the wall as though it were its own wall, or wing. Would you get it? Even when I try to explain, He’s trying to make you look at the color blue. To really look at it and value it. He’s trying to capture its essence, a perfectly even sample which is actually very difficult to paint, appreciate the rawness of color, he wanted to capture the purity of its glow, which is actually very difficult to paint and look, step closer, you see how actually it’s very subtly divided into five squares of differing hues? You see how when you step back your mind blurs them? You see how one blue is so many blues? Would you get it then? Modern art?
Or would you just smile/nod and say, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” Would you keep walking, like everyone else, past and beyond it, the color blue? Just blue?
We walk through the Congo exhibit.
In it there are small and large wooden figurines with nails stuck through them like porcupine quills, they have large flat faces and wide eyes and jarring paint, they’re called nkisi and Power Sculptures and are used for voodoo to summon spirits. You read about how during the colonial period the chiefs appropriated the Belgian military uniform hats and jackets and stuck feathers in them, associating the clothing with power, “so fucked up,” you’ll say, and I’ll want to say, “is it?” and make a comment about Japanese appropriating Chinese pots, or the next object over, a New Orleans adaptation of Congese ritual: the Conga dance that spread across the United States, but I won’t say anything, and then you start talking about corruption but I tune you out, I am tuning you out, and you say, I want to save the world-- no you don’t say that, you say, I want to work for the UN and you are talking about American corruption and I am thinking about Colombia and I want to say, did I tell you about how my uncle Jime does business in Colombia? Would you get it, if I did, if I didn’t talk about Congo but of Colombia?
How we sat down in my grandmother’s dim parlor and Tio Jime asked what I was studying and then he asked, Where’s the money in that? And then I told him where I would work and he asked, Where’s the money in that? And I tried to reason it out, find a way to maximize that career and he asked, Where’s the money in that? Did I tell you how my grinning and ruggedly handsome Uncle Jime traded a farm for an apartment? That you can trade, like that, without papers, with a handshake? That he saw opportunity in every hormigero, a place so full and bustling it is analogous to a place swarming with ants, an ant-swarm, hormigeros like marketplaces and problems and vivacious children’s heads –how people drove mopeds because they were cheaper than cars and villagers worked hard to get themselves out and registered in the city so my uncle gave the village police a sum so that he could set up a moped registration in a town, and then another in a different town? That not just the cops can look the other way for the right price but the mothers of the murdered to keep quiet, on the promise of protection and one less death of the next daughter down? Have you ever been to a place like that, seen the details and the people in the Big Picture, that everyone in my mother’s village knows the drug lords and the druggies by name, that they invite them to dinner, that my mother was the daughter of the wealthiest farmer in town but Peace Corps Americans came to her esteemed private school handing out milk and they didn’t know, that she was the daughter of the wealthiest farmer in town and that this was an esteemed private school, have you been to a place where someone like my uncle Jime made a deal with a mafia member for a plot of coffee beans, how the markets dropped a week later and he was almost murdered? That he took a big abandoned shack and put in a few walls and called it a storage garage for mopeds? With one lock and one key and a helluva lot of trust? Did I tell you that in Colombia the cemeteries are thin plaster tombs that look like cubby holes where the bodies are shoved in, a slab of wood over them, that some just have a last name and a date in scribbled in charcoal and you can see the ants crawling in and out of the cracks, that it looms like a towering bookshelf stacked with corpses and is painted yellow, is guarded by a smiling Jesus and is in fact next to my uncle’s storage building?
A few black women elegantly dressed with a lilting Southern accent tap at the glass and one says in a hushed voice, “You know, I have a theory on that,” to her companion, gesturing to the bright feather Belgian military cloaks with her long orange nails, and they walk by us quietly, and I want to know her theory but I don’t follow her, but you are listening to the music, the Congen music, saying something about blues or jazz that has been said before. So I look at the people in the video, how young they are, how they are mostly elongated children, and I want to know the date of the video, and I want to know if they knew they were being filmed or were smiling superficially, in the Congo, I want to know if they were having dinner afterwards, but you are talking about blues or jazz or something that has been said before and for no reason I want to scream, I’m going to do it, I’m going to scream, I don’t scream, and we keep walking.
If I take you to the Congo exhibit, would you understand?
A stout woman in a uniform with a long braid and round glasses informs us with her hands behind her back that the museum is closing, so you and I walk out, and you are talking about art and culture and Big Picture and I am thinking about the woman and her bright orange nails, wondering if it was her daughter she was addressing, and outside there are two Indian men on the ledge with a golden retriever.
They are arguing. One is American. One is Not. They are lovers. They do not pay attention to us. The Not says in a clipped, slightly British accent with much agitation, “But there, there is heart all over the street. There is heart smeared on the windows and on the doorknobs, on eyes.”
“You’re wrong,” his lover corrects him gently, “You mean hearts.”
“No!” He responds angrily/with annoyance. “I don’t mean hearts! I mean heart! Not plural, one. Heart all over the street, one heart, everybody. That’s the problem with this language. It is not hearts,” he enunciates, Is Not, in two separate words,
“It is not you and I or you versus I,
It is us,
It is our problem,
that we need to fix.”
You and I have slowed down.
You and I are listening.
In the winter there are no ants on the stones all around.
You and I keep walking.
Our heads are full to bursting but along the rust-colored stones through the university labyrinth we do not open our mouths.