Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In the Light of Darkness: Kate Brooks

Spring showers and spring flowers have arrived here in Florence, along with a perspective of spring in the Middle East, seen in the above photo of a woman in Afghanistan walking through a field of opium poppies.  Part of the retrospective In the Light of Darkness, it is the work of  renowned American photographer Kate Brooks, currently on view at Tethys Gallery, via Maggio 58/r through May 1.

The show is part of a larger event entitled "Middle East Now," which includes a mini film festival at the Cinema Odeon, and an exhibition by Iranian photographer Newsha Tavokolian at the Otto art gallery directly across from Tethys on via Maggio 13.

Above is another photo by Kate Brooks, of a highly decorated (see the medals on her chest?)
paratrooper official, forced into early retirement and sent home when the Taliban became a powerful political force in her home country, Afghanistan.

Who exactly is Kate Brooks?  I have to confess, I had never heard of her until I flipped through "D,"
Repubblica's magazine for women.  I happen to detest "D" but it comes as a supplement to the paper's Saturday edition.  I was surprised to see that the exhibition was scheduled to open at my photographers' (Atlantide: Stefano Amantini, Guido Cozzi, Massimo Borchi) gallery, Tethys.
After an animated phone call with Stefano, he confirmed he had never heard of Kate Brooks either until Guido began working in collaboration with "Middle East Now."

In her mid-20s at the time, Kate Brooks went to the Middle East right after 9/11, moving first to Pakistan.  Determined to work as a photojournalist, she also wanted to document the impact of American foreign policy on the region, ultimately covering the invasion of Iraq and the ousting of the Taliban.  In the form of news stories and features, she has documented conflicts in Bagdad, Kabul and Beirut as well as social change in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Above is a group of Afghan women surreptitiously acting out a Shakespeare play at home.

Participating in this scene for Newsha Tavokolian growing up in Iran would have been impossible.   As a child she dreamed of being a singer--in a country where it is illegal for music soloists
to perform on stage or release a CD.
Instead of singing, she decided to document Iranian singers, photos of whom are featured at the Otto gallery.

For Tavokolian, photojournalism became her voice, and ultimately, her weapon in
a male-dominated society.

Below is the artist's self portrait.
As for her American colleague Kate Brooks, she now works for the New York Times, Time magazine,
 the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, Newsweek and other periodicals, never calling anywhere home but the Middle East since the Twin Towers exploded and the world changed.

This is Kate Brook in the field, quite a contrast to her Iranian colleague Newsha Tavokolian.
Makes you think...she's not wearing the helmet because she's having a bad hair day.
Wait a minute, when she packed her camera 11 years ago and up and left the U.S., she wasn't going to  a post fisso (a steady job or job for life, so dear to the Italians, less so to Premier Monti who publicly commented that he would find it boring).
How did she live before she became famous?  Now that's a story.

I actually met Kate at the Tethys opening, which became packed.  She was dressed soberly all in black and Guido Cozzi lifted a camera above the crowd to take photos of her (hey Guido, how about a shot to publish in Beautiful Florence?)

I spoke to her briefly--she was only in Florence briefly as she was returning on assignment to Lebanon a mere day-and-a-half after the show's opening.

This reminded me that there is work that remains to be done in the Middle East, and photos to take.
Part of Kate's body of work has recently been published in the book
In the Light of Darkness:  A Photographic Journey after 9/11.

This is the cover of the book.
These are Taliban in an Afghan prison.
One can only hope that the ray of light had the same effect as the one that 
knocked Saul off his horse in the New Testament, granting him 
a new life 
(and a new identity) as St. Paul.

Observing this from the safety of Beautiful Florence, having lived in Italy for many years and reported on art, I can only say that chiaroscuro (the interplay and contrast of light and shadow) is fundamental in a work starting with the Renaissance.

Kate Brooks is discovering light as well as shining some light
in an area with marked chiaroscuro.
The amazing result is beauty.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Listening Summit, Gargonza Castle

Doesn't the impressive location above look like a movie set?  Gargonza castle
 is not something Hollywood constructed but for real.
Located an hour and a half from Florence, Gargonza castle was built in the 1200s on a strategic hill between Arezzo and Siena.  Dante Alighieri stayed at the castle in 1304 when he was exiled from Florence.  In his Divine Comedy, Dante cites the surrounding valley, the Val di Chiana both in Inferno and Paradiso.  I confess I have not looked up his impressions.

I do confess, however, that the one and only time I had been previously to Gargonza was in the 1990s on assignment.  I had the pleasure of going up in a hot air balloon for a story I wrote for the Italian newspaper "La Repubblica."  More about that later in this post.

Fast forwarding to spring 2012, Gargonza Castle hosted a three-day Listening Summit.  Professors and students from the Florence campus of Pepperdine University, the University of Florence and LUISS-Guido Carli university in Rome met to discuss "U.S. - European Relations, the Economic Crisis and Beyond," in this ancient fortification.

The Listening Summit was presented by Pepperdine's International Programs Division as a pilot project at the school's campuses in Shanghai and Tuscany with the underlying philosophy, as expressed by Ralph Nicols, "the best way to understand people is to listen to them."

Involving American as well as Italian professors and students of political science and communication, examined were the causes and effects of international miscommunication and intercultural misunderstanding.  The lingua franca
was English the entire time, 
no simultaneous interpreters in sight!

Above are the professors who guided the Listening Summit 
(left to right): Prof. David Davenport of Stanford's Hoover Institute; Dr. Rick Marrs, Dean of Seaver College, Pepperdine University; Pepperdine Associate Professor Steven Lemley; Pepperdine Professor Milton Shatzer and LUISS Guido Carli Professor Roberto D'Alimonte.

As an eye witness, I cannot only say that we were privileged
 to listen to wise sages.
Among the topics they discussed were "U.S.-European Relations:  Through Which Lens: Crisis or Normalcy," (Davenport),
"A Union in Crisis--Is the Euro a Bad Idea?" (D'Alimonte), "The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict--Differing Views," (Shatzer), "Western Values Questioned," (Lemley) and a thought-provoking "Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus," (Davenport).

On their part, students completed a survey regarding cultural attitudes and had a chance to put their beliefs to test in their small work groups (above) which had to come to a consensus on issues of foreign policy, culture, domestic policy and economy.

LUISS student Samantha Figeruero, along with Tibein Tedermet of Pepperdine and Michele D'Aloisio of the University of Florence examined the trade partnership between the U.S. and the European Union, which Listening Summit participants learned is
 the world's largest
 (and not China as is commonly believed).
Figeruero spoke for the group, "it would be best if both the E.U. and the U.S. would work towards a greater integration of the economies.  To move in that direction, we would like to see more long-term investment in the U.S. and greater consumer spending, at least in the short term, in the E.U."

All was not purely academic, however, at the Listening Summit.
As an icebreaker after dinner, Pepperdine University director Elizabeth Whatley hired two
professional instructors to teach the students ballroom dancing!
The students were asked to dress the part.
I admit that an instructor pulled me in for a few lessons.  My photographer, Marco Giacomelli,
tactfully did not point his lens in my direction, but focused on everyone else.

So much for cultural understanding.  After a couple of hours of serious and not-so-serious ballroom boogie-ing, disco music was put on and students danced until the wee hours of the morning.
Below is the view which waited for us later outside when we walked back the short distance to our lodgings, Gargonza's rooms and apartments.

Stunning, genuine Tuscany, wouldn't you say?  
So what were all these buildings?  Originally these were the homes of Gargonza's tenant farmers, who all left, with the abolition of sharecropping in the mid-20th century, for the big city.
The owner, Count Guicciardini Corsi Salviati, transformed the complex into a historic holiday residence.

The past is represented by the red doors, which Marco told me were characteristic of farmers' dwellings 
(case contadine) and the Italian three-wheeled utility vehicle, the Ape or "bee" named for the buzzing sound it makes when in movement.

During the Listening Summit, I met the Count's son, Neri, who remembered the hot air balloon excursions and the English pilot, Robert Etherington, very well (molto bene).  They were an attraction at Gargonza in the '90s until the pool was built for guests.

Well, 20 years later, I was impressed by the dialogue created at the Listening Summit as well as the complete renovation of the complex (I remember '60s furniture when I originally stayed over in the '90s).

The experience reminded me of seeing the incredible view of countryside and cities from the hot air balloon.

The entire spirit of the event and the place--dialogue, change, peace and poetry--is captured by the following photo I asked Marco to please take.

In all my years here, I had never before seen fragrant hyacinths actually blossoming in the sweet earth of beautiful Tuscany.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Easter 2012 in Florence

Spring has sprung here in Florence, as shown by the view from our office window at Borgo degli Albizi.
Here in the courtyard of a Renaissance palace, our fig tree is in leaf--if you look closely you will even see tiny figs--with pale violet of a climbing wisteria in the background.

New life, that is Easter's universal theme.  When I cast about for a subject for this post,
 I remembered an Easter article of mine that was published in the national insert of the International Herald Tribune on the unveiling of the newly-restored Giotto crucifix in Santa Maria Novella along with Masaccio's Trinity fresco in the same church.  A sidebar (related story) on the same page that I also wrote was on Easter traditions and happenings in Florence, including the famous Parenti Easter egg display.

GiĆ , Parenti.  Beautiful Florence's faithful blog photographer Allison Clark and I headed over to the Parenti shop on via Tornabuoni, where it has been located since 1865.
Twelve years ago, I wrote about Parenti's famous Easter egg collection displayed in the window for passersby to see.  Now Allison and I are arriving at the shop, our reflection in a silver Easter egg.

You may notice the bronze dancing figure close to the egg.  This Easter, Parenti is also displaying the bronze figures of Florentine sculptor Antonio Crivelli on the theme of form freeing itself from matter, symbolizing subsequent spiritual elevation.

This is one of the Crivelli exhibits we found in an Easter installation
outside the shop.

Inside, we feasted our eyes on Parenti's precious Easter eggs of porcelain, wood, enamel and gold.
The kind owner, Giuliana, explained to us that painted egg is an Easter tradition because it represents "the emergence of new life and the transcendence achieved with the Christian resurrection."

"The elaborate chiseled workmanship reflects the richness of the soul's hidden depth," she said.

This Easter, the theme of resurrection is especially close to Giuliana's heart since her husband Michele, great-grandson of the Parenti founder, passed away last December.

"Florence has always been the city of art and humanism, consequently what it produces is luxurious and of high quality,"  she told us.  "Good taste is innate to Florentines, as is freedom of choice."

As living proof of this philosophy, while we were speaking, a woman from Siena came in asking about 
an antique necklace of coral and jade.
Giuliana took it out of the shop window.

"Try it on," she said to the lady, who asked in turn, "how much does it cost?"

Giuliana answered calmly, "30.000 euros ($45,000)
Wow!  She even laid it down on my 
Beautiful Florence diary.

Gorgeous.  The Sienese woman answered, "I'll have to come back here with my husband."

Well to feast the eye on beauty costs nothing, so here are some more of Parenti's one-of-a-kind Easter eggs.

Too unique to break open.

Speaking of feasting the senses, another Easter tradition is the chocolate egg.
Vestri on Borgo degli Albizi has some of the city's best, in dark chocolate,
chocolate hazelnut, milk chocolate, almond chocolate, even sugar-free chocolate for diabetics.
These delectables may be custom-ordered.

Here is Leonardo Vestri proudly holding one of his handmade chocolate creations like a trophy.
The chocolate egg is hollow, and is meant to be broken open also to discover the hidden surprise inside,"which can be personalized,"
says Leonardo.

Of course, beautiful packaging is important as well in Beautiful Florence, and the decorated egg plus wrapping and bows is a better bargain that the 30.000 euro antique necklace.
The average price is 20 euro.  Here is one artistic example at Vestri.

Buona Pasqua!