Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Ramayana: The Lotus flower of the East , Love a Mosque in New York

Produced by Thunder Bay S.O.U.L. (Social Organization for Unity & Love)
Directed by Bhaktimarga Swami
Article and Photos by Duncan Weller

Theatre! Living breathing human beings on stage! Whereas a movie is a product in a canister, infinitely reproducible and shown simultaneously the world over allowing the lead actor to sip his martini on a tawny beach in Cabo San Lucas, an audience for theatre is keenly aware that before them are live actors having to deal not only with portraying heroes, heroines, animals, gods, spirits, devils, and trees, but having to conquer stage fright and memorize their lines, movements, and dances in order to win the hearts of the audience. I believe many people avoid theatre because they empathize too much with the actors on stage – feel for them when they fall or flub their lines. No audience member likes to squirm in their seat because they’ve witnessed an actor’s shortcomings or the multifarious stage mishaps that can occur. This I think is a primary reason why support for theatre is more difficult to obtain. These human beings, these live actors, are too close to us. A film is safe. In a movie theatre we can say what we want, boo openly at the screen and laugh mockingly at the lack of verisimilitude. When live actors are before us and slip up, we wince because we feel the actor’s pain, or feel guilty for having laughed or thought ill of a person on stage who exists with us in the same room. In a theatre an audience has a natural empathetic desire to see people brave enough to expose themselves on stage succeed and excel without embarrassing themselves.

There are tip-offs that the production of Ramayana, held over a week ago, was not going to be a Stratford-like production. A) we are in Thunder Bay; B) the ticket cost for students was five dollars; C) the production was held in the Bora Laskin building, here on campus. However, and to illustrate a point I’m going to make, this production of Ramayana had so much heart and humour that for all its faults I couldn’t help but love it, and I can’t wait for the next production.

The upcoming Spring production is entitled, The Anishnawbe/ Native Seven Grandfathers. And if it is anything like Ramayana, it will fail only for audience members whose expectations is built on the belief that huge productions are supposed to be attempted only by seasoned professionals. Yes, the director’s reach outstrips his grasp, but with multiple attempts to attain something leaning towards enlightenment through theatre he may not get harmonic convergence, but he may delight an audience to rapture. What I saw in Ramayana was an enjoyment in the production by the actors on stage that was infectious. Some audience members were visibly uncomfortable where the play faltered, and I snorted a laugh here and there, but most of the time I felt what I was meant to feel. Many scenes were surprisingly affecting. Although we were entertained by a sudden intrusion of what felt like a public school play where child actors lifted their monkey masks to have a look at the audience and smile at their parents, there were also scenes of terror, pathos, beauty, and courage that bigger productions have a hard time pulling off. There is a terribly conflicting vision of a white man (a very white Cameron Willis) with his white belly and monkey-minstrel brown face playing Hanuman who battles a huge monster in a cloud produced by a fog machine. With dramatic light effects and fantastic music (albeit far too loud at times) the battle and dance sequences added action and speed to a play whose plot is a simple as a Disney film. The narrated voices gave a mythic feel to the play, but at times I wanted more voice from the actors themselves. The trees were amazing. Although a simple invention, they made the entire set move, and added character. The love interest between lead actors Nesan Tharmalingam as Ram and Shelly Phair as Sita was played coolly and deftly to be realistic rather than saccharine sweet. They were more believable as people in a mythic play. They were the straight characters in a sea of otherworldly events and creatures. The underworld rose up under the lead of Ravana, played by the commanding Vasi Thanapulu. The multitude of dancing creatures that backed him were wild and unkempt and fun to watch. The children were endearing as monkeys in a monkey army, but totally unbelievable in terms of the story. Adults playing the monkeys in more realistic or outlandish outfits would have lent the play more credibility and could have allowed for a battle scene of two armies, monkeys versus the underworld creatures!

Fantasy and imagination was of paramount importance in this play. The exotic, the otherworldly and the mystic was infused with pop culture pizzazz leaving me with great expectations for the next production. If you would like to get involved with future productions, S.O.U.L is actively seeking interested parties. Write to

Love a Mosque in New York
by Duncan Weller, 2008. Photo of Azarnoosh and I in North Vancouver. 

Last month commentator Mindelle Jacobs argued that the Islamic Cordoba House be allowed to exist in the shadow of the former twin towers only as an interfaith centre with a 9/11 memorial, but not solely as a mosque. Funnily enough, the Cordoba House was already destined to have an interfaith section and a memorial. Still, Jacobs had argued, its location would be in bad taste.
Jacobs tasteless commentary on Muslims inspired me to pull out my copy of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Iran,” where I began to reflect on my relationships with two groups of Muslims – Persians I knew and loved, primarily from Iran; a group of young men in Toronto, and a family dominated by women in North Vancouver.
I met my first group of Persians when I left Thunder Bay in the early nineties. Jafaar was a roommate of Lisa and Shawn’s – who I knew from Lakehead University. Jafaar barely spoke English, but picked it up after a few months with ESL courses and help from friends. He spoke and wrote Japanese fluently, having lived in Japan for four years. He taught me how to use chopsticks.
Jafaar was a refugee. In Iran he would have been tortured and jailed for distributing anti government pamphlets. He took part in student protests and saw many of his classmates gunned down by government security. In one protest he survived by jumping behind a steel pole in the street when the shooting began. He tells a fascinating story of how he survived the Iran/Iraq war. He happened to be in a shoe store when the owner told him that a special truck was coming to the local square to pick up conscripts. Service was mandatory, so, taking the advice, he ran home to say goodbye to his parents, and ran to the square, which was filled with Mercedes Benzes and Rolls Royces. The truck took the wealthy sons of the community to Tehran where they would be kept from fighting on the front lines. Jafaar spent the war working mostly as a bartender and waiter to officers in Tehran.
Jafaar’s Iranian friends in Toronto also fought in the war. Feradun told only humourous stories, while Saied sadly recounted throwing limbless bodies onto the back of a flatbed truck. Hassan just shook his head and refused to talk about his experiences. Jafaar got drunk one night at a party. In mid-laughter he dramatically burst into continual sobbing. When he began to scream I had to hold him and reassure him that he was safe. He was overcome with memories of friends he’d lost and the violence he saw during the war and during student protests.
Jafaar’s humour and smile were infectious. He was incredibly thoughtful and felt he should study philosophy. He ended up graduating from a Medical Information Technology program. He quickly made friends, and other Iranians were drawn to him. Hassan became my roommate and was the most religious of any Iranian I knew. He prayed quietly in his room and was such a great cook his friends would find excuses to drop in around mealtime. Hassan was one of the most generous and gentle men I’ve ever met.
After a trip to Victoria, my Iranian friends took my advice and we all moved from Toronto to Victoria. In Victoria they quickly made new friends, obtained girlfriends of different races and happily settled.
When I moved to North Vancouver I met Azarnoosh. She was a cashier at Future Shop (the entire chain was owned by an Iranian). At that time Azarnoosh had been in Canada only three months. She spoke Farsi, Russian, Arabic, and broken English. Her English improved at an amazing pace. After a few dates she introduced me to her relatives who lived in Woodcroft, an area of five apartment towers arranged in a semi-circle cordoned off by incredible trees. The Iranians jokingly referred to Woodcroft as “mini-Tehran”, as the occupants were 75% Iranian.
Power brokers of the family were women. Most of the Iranian women I met were headstrong and determined to get an education, a job and/or husband – of Iranian or Canadian descent. Many had graduated in Iran with science or medical degrees. At parties the women cooked traditional foods while wearing dresses and high heels. Some men wore ties. I had to ditch my frumpy hick clothes so as not to stand out. I learned how to pronounce the “hei” sound in order to say Kheili Khoshmazeh (very delicious) in Farsi. I fell in love with saffron. They introduced me to Pablo Neruda, the benefits of boiling meat, jumping fires on a beach, Persian dance, manners and dress, and a kind of affable honestly familiar to Americans. “You’re fat!” my good friend and neighbour Arezoo announce dramatically one day, concerned about my health.
I also got to know that Iranian culture is a mixture of many others, Russian, Asian, Jewish, and American. Every fad to hit North America quickly made it to Iran, although they were restricted to celebrating popular culture indoors. They were break dancing when we were break dancing. Some put ketchup on everything.
I saw Googoosh in concert in Vancouver. Googoosh hadn’t performed in thirty years and voluntarily stayed in Iran where many other artists and performers were murdered during the 1979 revolution. The concert, held in a huge hockey rink, was packed with the most beautiful and well-dressed men and women I’d ever seen. During the performance, the woman sitting next to me cried at the opening of every song.
And lately, the air – news static – is filled with worry of an encroaching otherworldly culture that we are encouraged to think might just be out to get us. Here comes the Islamist Jihad. Just this week, I rented a DVD for the TV series The West Wing. The first episode of the third season illustrated the difference between Islam and Jihad. The apt statement was made: “Jihad is to Islam as the KKK is to Christianity.” And the next day I read that Christian and Catholic evangelists are currently inciting the murder of tens of thousands of Africans. These evangelists are pushing African governments to rid their countries of homosexuals. So, should we condemn the building of churches here in Canada in protest? Or target these nut-jobs directly?
Proximity of abuse becomes irrelevant to blame when the crimes committed are related only by name and not actions and certainly not by actions of a much larger group who are peaceful. The jihadists, right-wing evangelists, orthodox Jews, etc. are not the same people who peacefully practice their religion in our country, their country, or who work hard with NGOs to save children and families around the world. There will always be extremist right wing/left wing radicals who would love to have us think they have widespread affiliations, when they are shunned or outright disowned by the very groups to whom they claim affiliation. They are the dividers, the levelers.

We don’t have to buy into their hatred. The best display against the Jihadists would be to allow the building of a mosque right next to the very spot where the radicals intended to make a statement. The statement we can make is: We are better than you. And it would be the Christian thing to do. It would be the secular thing to do. It’s what Benjamin Franklin would do. “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Collection X 
Arts Access symposium discusses the liaison between artists, galleries, and the community at large.
Article and Photos by Duncan Weller
A question for those in the art world from the lay public has been “what can you do for us?” It is a fair question since artists and their supporters typically demand the public get themselves educated about art, support them financially, know at least a few names of contemporary artists, and appreciate what value artists have for society. People who seem quite happy to get their culture from television, movies, and sports wonder aloud, and often with divisive criticism, why so much money is spent supporting artists who seem to be concerned only with self-expression and not much beyond. Exacerbating the problem is a popular culture filled with cynical humourists who enjoy sarcasm and exposing irony everywhere; who have little patience for the snobbery associated with the art world. So contemporary art, with all its inherent challenges to be understood, has been the butt of the cartoonist’s pen since the 1800s. The father of modernism, the ego-giant, Gustav Courbet, was considered technically incompetent. A popular cartoonist in France mimicked the stiffness of his work by drawing child-like stick figures, mocking Courbet’s understanding of Reality, with a big R.

The lack of faith in the art world has grown in equal ratio to the loss of traditional functions of art - primarily the ability to beautify and celebrate a community. One result is the explosion of the popular arts, enormously entertaining, but a huge distraction away from one’s own community and local values.

Another result is that the once defensive art scene, has of late, become reflective. Initiatives have been devised to better legitimize the arts, to bring the arts back into the community. Endeavors like Arts Access, with a symposium currently underway at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery is an attempt to restore public faith in the arts; explore functions and new ways for galleries to partner with the communities they represent.

Arts Access is a partnership of art galleries in Toronto, Thunder Bay, Brantford/Six Nations and Kitchener Waterloo where it is “the artists role to build relationships, lead workshops, organize exhibitions, connect public and community collections and make the completed work accessible to a larger audience through the Arts Access website, “Collection X”. There’s a lot to see at You will find lists and images of previous projects. I particularly like the “misfortune cookies” and many examples of visual art. The site is a bit daunting in its variety, but anyone interested in developing community arts based projects will find the site instructive. Sadly, like so many attempts to engage the community, a website is not the best method of communication. Like a flyer delivered to your front door, a website can be discarded forever more. What will keep people interested is an active site that inspires people to return again and again.

Gillian McIntyre from the Art Gallery of Ontario explained that many projects are the result of community groups proposing projects and working with a roster of artists under the Arts Access umbrella. Facilitated by the galleries involved, the artists bring their abilities out of the gallery and into the community.

Locally this liaison created a very worthwhile project called the “Shooting Gallery.” Orchestrated by local artist Derek Khani and social worker Leanna Marshall, disadvantaged youth from the Ka-Na-Chi-Hih Centre and the Biidaajiwun Community Outreach Centre taught young adults basic photography techniques. They produced some truly wonderful landscape images and portraits. Many can be seen on the website mentioned. Khani was particularly invigorated by the results. Not only has he imparted basic knowledge but has created a legacy by giving the young adults a worthwhile hobby. He was particularly satisfied that one young man was inspired to make a career out of it.

Overall, as Gillian explains, the galleries are attempting to increase their relevance by enacting a different model of working with the public, fostering creativity in communities. This helps to increase public responsiveness to the galleries and dissolves some of the opinion that the many in the arts are hostile to the public.

Powerhouse Abstract: The Art of Guy Dufresne

Article and Photos by Duncan Weller

Entering Lot 66 on Port Arthur’s downtown Court Street you may get the impression that a curator from the National Gallery stopped by and generously donated some of the galleries best modernist works. The energy, richness, and size of the abstract acrylic paintings have such a command presence that they take over the room. They demand contemplation.

These new works by local artist Guy Dufresne suit their lounge setting. They are two-dimensional explosions, simultaneously expansive and contained. Nearly indistinguishable from oils they are rich paintings that complement the deep maize coloured walls. The paintings are dark, yet energetically moody. Their only drawback is that they suck up some of the minimal light and seem to sink deeply into the walls in an atmosphere that is sexy and sophisticated.

Where there is light from the few small fixtures, and when seen in daylight, the intermixed colours of the paintings burst forth. There are subtleties in the deftly handled paint that have the professional artist’s love of richness and movement.

A series of larger works reveal the experimental side of an artist falling in love and exploring possible permutations of a visual theme. Guy refers to the central white vertical streaks in these paintings as “canals.” The intention is to explore the basic properties of painting; movement, texture, balance, colour. In their near nonrepresentational impressionistic manner they could be considered classic abstract art, art that took hold back in the 1950s where emotional expression dominated over recognizable images or heady theory. This is the kind of modernist-purist painting requiring skill and daring, where the intentions are obvious instead of inferred, unlike many post-modernist works relying solely on ideology. Guy’s paintings speak of endurance and talent, not overwrought thought. One result is that a sense of play permeates the work.

But the paintings overall reflect a deeper mood, an adult reflection in ones’ own life. One painting conflicted by the desire to play, and the need to reflect is called “Ice Meets Metal,” a phrase from a Tom Cochrane song. The de Kooning feel is accomplished by the contrast of beautiful blues with bloody slashes of red. At once playful and shocking the painting looks like it might be a detail of a crime scene.

Guy describes his working methods as intense. To accomplish this current show at Lot 66 he spent two months of powerhouse painting with both brushes and palette knives. He says he has no fear “slamming down the paint”, which results in being covered in various spatters of colour, as evidenced by his work cloths and chaotic studio. Like most good artists he “zones out” when he works and doesn’t wait for inspiration to hit him. He sets to work, attacks the white canvas without fear of it, and demands results from the effort.

Within the swirls of paint there are impressions of his favorite influences – namely trees, landscapes, cityscapes, water and sky. A few of his favorite artists include Monet, Gauguin, and Gerhard Richter. In terms of style he is all over the map, but his various approaches are all identifiably his. Broken horizontal lines and streaks in the bigger paintings suggest a horizon lines. Impressionist cityscapes are similar to the landscapes. A love of intermingling colours and direction can be seen in all his paintings.

Unlike many artists, he enjoys talking with friends while he paints. His affability is a quality that helps him in his regular job as an advertising representative for this newspaper. His layout and design skills, partly acquired by his artistic background, help to build trust with his clients. His clean-cut good looks, professional attire and manner won’t give you the impression that he has an artistic temperament. People are genuinely surprised that he considers himself an artist at heart. His black suits might be a hint.

The Art of Guy Dufrense, 2011. Thunder Bay

And like so many artists Guy has the fantasy of living through his paintings, leaving a legacy to his children and the community. His says his next steps are to market to larger cities, find a gallery, an agent, and hold more shows of his work. Subsequently, more powerhouse painting is in order.