I have a huge interest in how twins are depicted in different cultures.  I’m guessing it’s because I’m a twin.  My favorite story of twins comes from Antiquity, the myth of Castor and Pollux (who become the Gemini twins).  But a close second is the Yoruba concept of the “ibeji.”

The Yoruba people are an ethnic group from Nigeria, which happens to have the highest rate of twin births in the world.  Unfortunately, however, the death rate is also high.  Yoruba beliefs holds that the first twin born is a sort of “scout” and, once they see the world, sends a message back to the other twin telling them whether they should continue into this world.  If not, the twin yet to be born is stillborn.  If neither twin thinks that life will be good enough, they are both stillborn.  The twins also share a singular soul.

If one of the twins dies then there is the problem of the living twin’s soul being in crisis.  So physical representations of the twins, called ibeji, are created to house the soul of the twins.  These have traditionally been carved wooden sculptures.

As per usual, European colonial powers sought to destroy this practice and impose Christianity.  Under England’s control, ibeji figures were made illegal.  The Yoruba people adapted and created ibeji less noticeably “African” through photography

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and more European looking sculptures.  The actual physical appearance of the twins is not important because the ibeji is meant to capture the soul.  The statues are the same in appearance and for photography, the image of the surviving twin is duplicated.  If the twins are of different sexes, then one of the photos will be of the surviving twin dressed as the opposite gender.

The Stupid Question of Art

This past weekend I visited both the International Erotic Art Exhibition (also called the DIRTY show) in Detroit and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD).  I feel as though I can say, pretty confidently, that the works exhibited at the MOCAD had a lot more artistic merit than the majority of those at the DIRTY, but regardless, both exhibits essentially posed the same question: what is “art”?

Admittedly, I think that is an extremely stupid, overly simplistic question.  There are a million different avenues you can take to answer it and the secret Marxist in me is hesitant to say that only highly educated art historians and critics have the ability to determine “high art” from “low art” (particularly considering they continually get it wrong; case in point: Bouguereau).  When doing research for my art history degree, sometimes I feel as

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though art categorized as “bad” can be the most useful to me, because it tends to be overly reflective of a historical moment or culture and, in critical terms, too obvious.  Too many symbols, too many allegories, etc.

In any case, the DIRTY show is more so asking the question of “What is porn” and where the boundaries lie between art and porn.  About 90% of the works seemed like they were just going for shock value and didn’t seem to have a lot of technique or thought to them.  There were a lot of poorly shot photos of S&M.  Maybe it’s the pretense of labeling these things “Art” that ruins them for me; ironically, I think I could find more artistic value in them if they would just become comfortable with the title of “Porn.”

The MOCAD exhibits were a little more thought provoking.  I love contemporary art and I’m intrigued by the fact that we are still in the process of sorting out its definition.  Many of the works made the same mistake as the DIRTY pieces, wherein they basically become a parody of themselves.  Contemporary art has no shortage of critics and caricatures.  There was one installation in the MOCAD that was simply a banana peel on the ground; the group I was with debated about whether it was an actual piece of art or just a dropped piece of garbage for about 5 minutes.  Maybe the actual “art” being made is just the provocation of the question about what “art” even means.

Shear Shock

Few fashion trends during the French Revolutionary period were able to create the same reaction as la coiffure à la Titus, a haircut that evoked both amusement and outrage.  Its extreme shortness was purposefully masculine, having been appropriated from an earlier male fashion trend meant to imitate ancient Roman busts.   It was also a style that was considered incredibly natural, standing in contrast to the highly powdered and structured wigs of the ancien regime.  Women who cropped their hair in such a way were aggressively targeted in pamphlets, cultural journals, fashion prints, caricatures, books, and at least one play.  This condemnation was, as one might expect, an overwhelmingly male exercise, with one contemporary critic going as far as to say that the women who wore the Titus were “disfigured.”  Regardless of the deprecation, many prominent women wore the blatantly masculine hairstyle well into the first decade of the 19th Century, continually amending it to fit changing definitions of femininity.

An example of a Titus, by Boilly
An example of a Titus, by Boilly

In 1804 the author of the Toilette des dames ou Encyclopédie de la beauté railed against the Coiffure à la Titus, questioning why women would forsake what was universally regarded as their most beautiful feature and opt instead for bare heads.  This was something typically associated with punishment or shame.  Women’s decision to sacrifice an accepted sign of femininity begged an association with cross-dressing. According to critic Rothe de Nugent in his 1809 Anti-Titus pamphlet, one of the principle aspects of revulsion found in the female Titus was the conflation between male hair and female dress, as though a Roman emperor’s head were on the body of a female.  Worries over cross-dressing, long standing in Western culture, signaled that male authority could be overtaken simply by a woman’s supposition that she was not confined to gendered clothing.  This criticism followed in the tradition as le monde renversé.  Le monde renversé was a common theme created in 16th century children’s books meant to illustrate basic societal norms and morals through a carnivalesque inversion of hierarchies. One such image shows a woman about to go on a hunt while the husband stays at home with the children. These publications did not generally show cross-dressing, instead the emphasis was on the

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reversal of one’s purpose in society, which was made entirely readable through appearance and costume by the time of the French Revolution. This print of the king combing out the queen’s hair bears clear thematic influence from le monde renversé. It not only makes Louis XVI a servant to Marie-Antoinette and a pawn in her own political desires but that her hair had become equal to and interchangeable with the crown, as indicated by the caption “Coeffure pour Couronne”.  Regarding the verdict for Marie Antoinette’s guilt, historian Lynn Hunt wrote “the revelation of the Queen’s true motives and feelings came [above all] from the ability of the people to ‘read’ her body.”  Or, at least, the belief that her body could be read.

The Inverted World
The Inverted World

The implication of Le Monde Renversé, and bear it in mind that these were meant to be taught from an early age, was that when a human pulls a cart instead of the mule, the world goes crazy.  When children punish their parents, the world goes crazy.  When a woman assumes the visual presence of a man, the world goes crazy. Le Monde Renversé has its origins in medieval carnival culture, where institutions like government and religion were suspended and social roles were inverted, including gender roles.  What made the coiffure à la Titus a problematic image was that it was not on carnival day; it penetrated everyday life.  Ultimately, the coiffure à la Titus failed to establish itself as a style that could be separated from its highly charged connotations of gender dynamics.  Continual compromises with ideals of femininity robbed it of its once shocking starkness, though criticism followed the Titus to the very end.

I tried the McBaguette for those who cannot

While I was studying in Paris last year McDonalds introduced the “McBaguette;” this is my revue of their bleak attempt to pander to the refined French tongue:

But first, a disclaimer: I am not what you would define as a “foodie;” I care not for the finer dishes that Paris has to offer so I feel that my lowly and unrefined state only makes me fit to review a food group that I know well.

Webster’s Dictionary defines the “McBaguette” as nonexistent, but a semantic revolution is upon us.  Just as Greek mythology held that whoever consumed the food of the Underworld was doomed to spend eternity there, the McBaguette will entomb you within the walls of McDonalds and shame will be your proverbial sepulcher.  But it will be worth it because, unlike the Underworld, the McBaguette is great and only 4.50 Euros! So, dear reader, take a stroll with my palette…

When you first taste the McBaguette a certain sensation will grip you; this is the taste of two peppered steaks (TWO! Because why not!?), nestled between mustard, lettuce, cheese, and of course, a baguette.  Welcome to the sandwich of the future.  No more will you have to deal with the troublesome food of peasants that is the sesame bun.  You are better than that.  With the McBaguette a whole new era opens; finally, a food from McDonalds that you don’t need to be ashamed to eat in public because the thing is that whichever marketing genius decided to create this hydra of flavor was acute enough to make the McBaguette visually resemble your average French sandwich that can be bought in a boulangerie.  Maybe the reason the McBaguette is not being marketed in the U.S. is because this appeal wouldn’t stick.  In any case, I must bid adieu to this seraph in bread form and, like bats returning to their cave, I will adjust back to the darkness.

Shameless Promotion

This coming Friday at 6 pm in the Tappan basement is the History of Art Honors Symposium.  I happen to be one of the poor suckers presenting, so here is a brief explanation of what my fellow thesis writers have been working so hard on:

Genevieve King, “Ideology and the Idyllic: Painting Anarchy in Paul Signac’s Au Temps d’Harmonie”

Gen’s thesis is on a beautiful topic that, frankly, I am pretty jealous of (I had originally wanted to do something similar).  Her’s deals with a Signac painting called In the Time of Harmony and its relationship with anarchist Utopian thought at the end of the 19th Century in France.  Its a complicated subject, as anyone who has even glimpsed at the constantly changing politics of 1800’s France knows.  Her thesis has a landscape, it has propaganda by the deed, it has the Paris Commune.  Its got everything.

Jessica Larson (me), “Shear Power: Scandalous Women and the Coiffure à la Titus”

– My thesis is on a short-lived haircut from the French Revolution.  Originally men wore it in an attempt to imitate ancient Roman emperor styles, but women took it as their own and chaos ensued.  Surprisingly, men in 18th Century France didn’t like it when women cut off all of their hair.  And Napoleon definitely didn’t like it.

Sarah Rabinowe, “Illuminating Jurisprudence: Judges and Judgement in the Wolfenbüttel Sachsenspiegel

Sarah’s topic is crazy complicated and I am so impressed with anyone that does something outside of Modernism.  As my stupid, Modernist mind understands it, her thesis presentation is on how judges are portrayed in a specific medieval legal code.  There are lots of parallels between the gestures of judges and those in Christ imagery.  It is very exciting and the images are amazing.

Melinda Stang, “Rally Round the Flag: Propaganda in Britain During the First World War”

– Melinda’s thesis presentation is on the English propaganda that was produced by Wellington House during WWI.  It is very nice to see someone doing a thesis on something English and post-1900 for once.  Her presentation largely deals with the ways in which the English propaganda bureau manufactured ideas of nationalism through visual imagery.  It is very well done and has crazy diagrams.

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Fantasy Coffins

Beginning in the 1950s, the Ga people of Ghana began a new artistic tradition called “Fantasy Coffins.”  The creation of Fantasy Coffins is generally credited to Kane Kwei, a carpenter whose dying uncle had requested that his coffin resemble his fishing boat.  After this coffin was well received at the funeral the commissions started to pour in, with people generally requesting coffins that reflected their status and wealth during their lifetime.  Not everyone is allowed a Fantasy Coffin, however; you must be sufficiently successful and, of course, be able to afford one (they are expensive).  The coffin reserved for the most prestigious people is the Mercedes Benz, considered by many to be the most expensive and rare car in Africa.

Though most of the people able to afford these coffins are Christian, they are not allowed in Christian Churches (unless it is shaped like a Bible).  This is also due to the fact that many of the death ceremonies that take place incorporate

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animist traditions, including animal sacrifice.  Despite these traditional African spiritual practices, Kane Kwei very emphatically stated that Fantasy Coffins reside outside of the traditional African art cannon, with many of the coffins taking the shape of distinctly Western objects like cell phones, sneakers, and Coca Cola bottles.