Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Cultural art sensitivity

Having spent five very active years in the ethnographic arts trade, and another decade dabbling in it part-time, I’d like to share some of the fun, here. It would have been grand to have learned more of Native Canadian and Maori carvers, Australian Aboriginal art, Sami and Siberian ornamentation, and carvings found around Altai, but I haven’t been able to. And even about things I dealt in, I’m not expert. But about the Hopi, Dogon and Tarahumara I did learn some, as I did also of Balinese art, Burmese Nats, Yao Ceremonial paintings and bits about weaving, basketry and cross-stitch. I retain a deep admiration for what I’ve seen and learned of these things. Here I’ll focus mostly on the first three. Way back in time, these tribes, ethnic groups, communities or cultures all chose to live in inaccessible places to avoid marauders. As a result they haven’t suffered nearly as much from European interference as so many other “native’ peoples. Their religious observances involve dancing (shudder), masks (horror!) and aspects they’re careful about disclosing to meddlesome outsiders. Sometimes, in response to obnoxious persistence, they’ll give false info, maybe even within an elaborate put-on. Good clean fun on a two-way street that goes both up and down but where all is not equal. Visitors aren’t likely to open up about their longings or addictions, their cravings for status symbols, reliance on overkill, poisons and euphemism or unsupportable energy and resource consumption, are they? No more do Hopis, Dogons or Tarahumara wish to expose their vulnerabilities or failings. When “exotic” cultures became the object of academic study, “artifacts” became monetarily desirable collector items, sometimes quite valuable. Soon similar items were made to supply the demand, then clever entrepreneurs delineated the real (i.e. stolen) from the fake (not so imbued with taboo magic, mystery and titillation). Grave-robbing was part of this, and alcoholic longings proved useful too. I doubt any esoteric knowledge was gained. The fashion for appropriating artifacts died after abut a century, and a few “valuable” items have been returned. Some of the craftspeople are not professional: jewelers, painters, even clothiers. Some tourists still visit and look for souvenirs. At Hopi, they aren’t allowed to take photos, record sound, or even draw what they’re observing there. Dogon folk are often friendly; Tarahumara often aren’t. What’s most significant about these people, to me, isn’t their art but their preference for a simple life where others won’t be tempted to bother taking what little they have. It’s not about being “at one with nature” (maybe some jungle folk are that, or good custodians of nature or at least not very disruptive of it, but in dry places that’s extremely difficult to similarly accomplish). It’s that they’ve been able to exist in their way a long, long time – while in about a century we’ve insured that our culture won’t last another one. Their beliefs are more tenable, effective, practical, and sustainable. Also, traditionally they don’t make a big deal out of who is the better “artist”! Some have more than others, sure, in talent, knowledge, wealth, family or whatever, sure, but the jealous frictions rending apart our society aren’t as obvious. Among the Hopi, I can attest, they DO exist, but the extremes just aren’t there. Nor the injustices, extremes of punitive folly, mean-spiritedness… well, you get the picture. I find that some of the simple artifacts, even if made for sale, can act as a valuable reminder of this. cultural art sensitivity

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