Philanthropy is generally defined as an act or gift done or made by someone for a humanitarian purpose. The word itself comes from the ancient Greek, meaning roughly the love of humanity; to care and nourish. I have been pondering the many ways in which we are exposed to and influenced by artistic events; plays, music, art, lectures – all made available to us thanks to the philanthropic acts of an individual or business. I readily admit to mixed feelings, actually, a lot of discomfort at the level of philanthropic giving in the Vancouver arts scene; the fact that so many spaces, performances, and careers seem beholden to the favour (patronage) of local philanthropists. There is much celebration of the generosity of the benefactors and the benefits bestowed upon the public and the arts community, however I cannot shake an uneasy sense of apprehension each time I participate in a cultural event in this city and realize the space or the performance has been underwritten by a local entrepreneur or wealthy philanthropist. I found Peter Dickinson’s article on Vancouverism (and it’s cultural amenities) provocative; it stimulated my interest to probe a little more deeply into my discomfort issue, guided by several of the discussions raised by Dickinson on the influence of developers on civic arts facility planning. Our group visit to the Audain Museum was the last push needed to move on with an exploration of role of philanthropy in our current arts culture; the theme of patronage and sustenance for artists; an attempt to understand the personal motivations and desires of an individual philanthropist. This essay is intended to be a critique of philanthropy by means of a visit to the Audain Art Gallery using commentary on the art seen and the feelings evoked, referencing recent interviews with the philanthropist and reflecting on the work of Peter Dickinson, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Max Wyman and Globe & Mail journalist Russell Smith (who’s writing I admire but did not incorporate directly into this inquiry). I also meandered along a smaller sub theme alluding to the importance and subversive nature of the very wealthy gaining a positive public image by supporting and aligning themselves with the aspirations of an appealing ‘underdog’; specifically British Columbia First Nations Artists. Are their actions genuine and laudatory or cynical and sinister? And what are the personal motivations and internal desires which are being played out in these philanthropic actions? I seem to have been left with more questions than answers and hope that indicates there is still room for compromise and genuine generosity on the part of those with means and power as opposed to opportunistic and shiny endowments to those who struggle to bring their creative works to light.
Ever participated in an extraordinary event and immediately wanted to share it with everyone you know? This was my reaction to a recent contemporary dance performance, Dialogue, by local choreographer Wen Wei Wang, presented at Vancouver’s Dance Centre, May 25-27, 2017. I saw this performance several weeks ago and still have not lost the visual memory of that experience. I am compelled to share in words what I saw and felt on that evening in May, if only to persuade others to aspire to attend future works by this talented choreographer.
Dance is an exceedingly ephemeral form of communication; at its’ very best, providing and provoking an assault on our senses, emotions and beliefs; challenging our ability to retain the messages received. In Dialogue, Wen Wei Wang has successfully risen to this challenge, providing the audience with an experience which was both emotional and thought provoking through an evolving set of individual stories of men of different cultures and backgrounds, performed by an ensemble of six highly talented male dancers. Wang told writer Shawn Connor (Vancouver Sun, May 24, 2017) that his goal in Dialogue was “to create a piece about our different cultures and different backgrounds and how we communicate and…..see each other” and to try “to find how we use our bodies to communicate, tell us something, feel something”.
Dialogue opens with ‘in your face’ club bravado; the dancers creating a form of hip hop braille; conveying the sense of dissonance with one another, sexual energy on controlled display, electronic background soundtrack by Ben Frost reinforcing our collective feeling of unease and disconnection. Just when we were sufficiently on edge, the performances shifted to the very personal including the vulnerable and powerful writhing contortions of Nicholas Lydiate, exposing his inner demons, clad only in underwear and shades and the equally mesmerizing and provocative presence of Alex Tam, the cheeky bravado of his campy blurring of sexuality strutted repeatedly before his peers in a manner which engendered both envy and the desire to console and protect.
The stories told in Dialogue were an overlay of individual experiences juxtaposed on the larger community; each dancer sharing with the audience some aspect of his identity and background. Arash Khakpour conveyed his journey of displacement to inclusion, highlighted by themes of racism and exclusion, using the device of repeatedly pulling his T-shirt over his face and head. As the conversations of movements continued and trust and caring between the dancers revealed, his shirt was pulled back into place by the others and energy shifted to bringing the excluded into a circle of solidarity. The display of physical power, vulnerabiltiy and inter reliance portrayed by the dancers each time they came together in a circular movement of unity was particularly effective. Each of the dancers was masterful in their individual artistry. The communication without words between them was almost audible, truly dance as a transcendent form of expression. Wen Wei took the audience on an intimate journey into the experiences of these six men. It felt like something very private and personal; extraordinarily generous to have been invited to participate. Leonard Cohen’s “Dance me to the End of Time” ushered us back into the here and now, desperate not to forget a single move. This performance was an exemplary example of dance as a communication form, the body moving through time and space, sharing with us intimate hopes and fears and challenging us to remember.
Wow! A recent class visit to the Maiwa Handprints atelier accomplished two things for me: a behind the scenes look at the operation and product at one of my favorite stores on Granville Island (even though we visited only the atelier/workshop/research lab area and did not venture into the retail store) and a whole new learning and appreciation for the skill, determination and effort required to marry humanitarian interest and motivation with the complex challenges of working in the traditional context of rural India.
Charlotte Kwon is the owner of Maiwa Handprints Ltd, which she founded almost 3o years ago, selling artisanal cloth, clothing and jewellery, handmade in India. The product is beautiful and unique; a wide array of fabrics both functional and ornamental; wearable works of art, the kind which conjure up for most of us the mystique and romantic lore of colonial India; jewels, the Raj, kings, queens, antiquity! Most of the inventory is made available to the international, particularly North American public, through Charlotte’s ongoing passion for the support and promotion of artisans in India, specifically of the artists involved in the intricate art of hand dying and printing and her status as an international expert in fiber arts and natural dye techniques. In addition, she is a researcher and documentarian, constantly seeking to preserve the techniques and recipes of the practitioners of this unique art form. Her nuanced knowledge and love of her life’s work shone through the demonstrations she provided of the various cloths, shawls and fabrics of intricate stitchery and embroidery. I felt the intense rush of the desire to acquire; the almost physical impulse to possess and own everything we touched. Such colours; such artistry; some of the handprints sublimely intricate and ornate; others subtle and of beautifully muted elegance: I wanted them all! William Morris’ sage old advice to acquire and possess only that which is “either functional or beautiful (or both)” suddenly made perfect sense and it didn’t hurt to consider that such a Maiwa purchase would be functional as well as lovely, not a speculative commodity purchase as is common in today’s overheated art world.
Ms. Kwon’s work with the indigenous peoples and artisans of India’s rural areas is both inspirational and humbling; she seems to have succeeded where so many other well intentioned individuals and organizations have failed. Maiwa’s business plan and mission have been effective in their goal to advocate for the preservation and promotion of traditional artisanal handiwork as well as address humanitarian needs in the communities they work in by raising money through their Maiwa foundation for the small but necessary ‘helping hand’ kind of grants. In the process, they have managed to navigate the treacherous shoals of humanitarian work while forging a business, evidently profitable enough for them to continue for these many years, as well as the artisans they work with. Ms. Kwon, along with Tim McLaughlin, business partner, writer and photojournalist, have forged a demonstrably successful model of combining the emotion and passion to save and preserve an art form and the theoretical framework for doing so and presumably, how it could be done again. Maiwa, in Cantonese and Mandarin means “a word used to name the language through which art speaks”. How very appropriate.