Monday, March 29, 2010

Kazuyo Sejima

The winners for the Pritzker Prize for architecture were announced today. This story caught my eye because just yesterday I was on a trolley tour of downtown Chicago. My sister Mim was visiting and my roommate’s boyfriend, Brendan, got us tickets because he works as a tour guide. I often forget how beautiful the buildings really are downtown and how many people come to visit Chicago from all around the world. I love being reminded of how amazing it is here.  Spending time as a tourist makes you think about all the things that are easily taken for granted when you live in a place as awesome as this city.

Since I am trying to become as sensitive as possible to feminist issues in all areas of life, the coolest fact I learned from the tour is Chicago is home to the tallest "woman-designed" building in the world. The Aqua Tower is quite stunning and was created by Jeanne Gang. It makes me really proud to know that her design is in “my” city.  

Needless to say, I had architecture on the brain this morning as I perused, so when I came across the Pritzker Prize winners I had to take a closer look.

This year's winners are Japanese duo Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, leaders of the firm SANAA. It is a historic win because only one other pair has ever been recognized together and only one other woman has been honored with the prestigious award.

Their work is beautiful. Their buildings are really pushing design into the future, not only challenging the world of building and structure, but also how we exist physically with one another. Everything they do has an airy, fluid, openness, which they say forces us to question the idea of public space vs. private space. Their aim in building housing projects in densely packed Tokyo is to disrupt how we currently live together with our neighbors. The theory is that acknowledging those around us helps us to accept each other for better coexistence.  

New Museum of Contemporary
Art in NYC
SANAA Design
These are the kind of articles I love because they make me question things I’ve never even thought to consider when pondering what affects me daily. Even physical walls can cause societal barriers between people and how we relate to one another. SANAA’s mantra is to create buildings that feel like parks, where open space leads to openness within the walls of glass and light. I actually have thought about how different my day would feel if my desk faced a window or my cubicle “walls” didn’t feel so cave-like. Knowing that Kazuyo is working to expand our interiors, melting them into the outside world we so often take for granted, is exciting.

All achievement aside, whenever a woman is rewarded for innovation it can’t be ignored she is probably one of the first of her gender to be recognized. This is true of Kazuyo. Zaha Hadid was the first woman to win the prize back in 2004, so this is still a fresh accomplishment for women. In fact, back in 1991, there was some controversy when Robert Venturi was chosen as the sole recipient and not his close contributor Denise Scott Brown. But maybe ’91 was just “too soon” for a female to make her mark in architecture.

Kazuyo has had an impressive career. She holds visiting professorships at both Tama Art University and Keio University in Tokyo and along with her partner, Nishizawa, has a professorship at Princeton University. She is regarded as a visionary by her peers. It is quite significant to note Nishizawa speaks of their partnership in high regard. He says in the NPR interview that he is constantly influenced by her.

When asked about how she perceives this award as a woman, she says simply gender should not be influence its direct meaning to her or anyone else. She hopes this will influence more women to pursue careers in architecture and design. Such a humble way to accept such a great honor. Especially in a field that has previously been dominated by men.

As I mentioned earlier, my goal to is become more sensitive to women’s issues in all areas of life and I have realized that the best way for me to do this is by reading up on as much feminist literature as possible. I thought I would share some sites that I frequent if anyone else is interested in doing the same. I find that the more I expose myself to, the more “awakenings” I have in my day to day life. An example of this is the tour yesterday and thinking about architecture through a feminist lens which led me to this post about Kazuyo. (more political with great links to other blogs and sites) (more pop culture)
I also like to read Ms. Magazine, BUST Magazine, and BITCH Magazine for more articles pertaining to feminist culture. Everyone should read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, The Women’s Room by Marilyn French, and The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability by Laura Kipnis.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Natasha (Natalya) Estemirova

I had a rough week at work.  And by rough, I just mean someone was being slightly rude to me.  Don't worry,  I overly whined about this to just about anyone who would listen.  And made a lot of really mean remarks to make myself feel better.

What this has shown me is just how cushy and comfortable my life has become.  I rarely have negative interactions with anyone, at work or in my social life.  This is something that I normally don't take for granted because I usually have no cause to complain.  Then comes along this minor blip on my happiness radar and I lose all ability to see how good I have it.

How did I manage to end this week of self pity??  Oh, by remembering that there is a whole world of real problems.

A few months ago, my friend Jenny, sent me a link to a BBC story on the violent kidnapping and forced marriage of Chechen women and teen girls.  The first time I listened to it I really didn't pay a ton of attention because remaining ignorant would protect me from the brutal truth of the situation.  The audio of an armed kidnapping and the subsequent interview of a male perpetrator and his inability to see the harm in his actions is so chilling I blocked it out with thoughts of what to wear to the airport that would be cute yet simultaneously warm and comfortable.  You know, an issue requiring action in my life.  Luckily my "work week from hell" encouraged me to revisit the piece and I have now listened to it without distraction several times through.  

Outside of the information presented, it is important to pay attention to the end of the report that involved Natasha Estemirova.  This is one of the final interviews she recorded before her murder last summer.  She was one of the most active and outspoken human rights workers in Chechnya.  Her fearless work helped bring some hope to the civilians who know only violence as a constant dictator.  Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the republic, publicly threatened her life on numerous occasions.  Nevertheless, she saw a need for her voice to be heard and spent her life exposing the terror that rules over women and innocent civilians daily.

Born to a Russian mother and Chechen father, Estemirova moved to the republic when she was 19.  She experienced tensions from both ethnic sides due to the extreme hatred between the two groups.  She survived the first war with her young daughter, continuing to teach other children who were left behind throughout the violence.  Modest estimates put the number of dead at about 41,000.  Chechnya has just about 1.3 million people.  The loss of life was enormous. When she gives her own account of this time and the period following the first war, she writes about living in constant terror from violence and starvation.  Nothing was secure.

Influenced by the Russian federalists and promoted by complete lawlessness, kidnappings began to occur at an alarming rate.  People and dead bodies were returned for cash and food.  Estemirova began to work with individuals who had survived internment camps, reminding her of her childhood and the stories of the people who had survived the fascist camps during World War II.  She describes 1996-1999 as the period where Chechnya was not a part of Russia, nor a separate state, but rather a hole.

She was able to escape during the second war, but when she returned, the aftermath was just as terrible.  Contract killers had gone into the villages and murdered civilians one after the other.  Corpses were everywhere and the horrors that she saw left her determined to record everything from then on.  Nothing was to be forgotten.  Though she loved her job as a teacher, she saw it imperative to work for the lives of her neighbors.  There was no other option in her mind.  Truth was the only thing that could resolve the tensions and pain of the past 20 years.  She didn't disregard the danger her new calling attracted, she just refused to let that stop her.  Silence was not an option.

Over the past decade nothing has improved.  Kadyrov is a 32 yr old tyrannical maniac and while cleaning up the streets to make them suitable for shops and cafes, he has allowed violence to dominate.  Anyone who speaks ill of his leadership faces great devastation.  Home burnings occur regularly and dead bodies are found on a daily basis.  Women have been victimized on numerous levels.  They are routinely kidnapped for forced marriage and sexual slavery.  Brothels are filled with young women who are to service military members against their will. This is all done under the control of the "government" and forced marriage has been woven into Chechen culture as a romantic, fairytale-like experience.

Meeting at the Human Rights Centre
This is what we as Americans should note first and foremost.  Just because something is advertised as a positive part of a particular culture does not mean that it is in fact positive.  It is hard to resist a forced marriage not only because of the weapons involved but because it is said to be a flattering, desirable experience for a woman.  If you listen to Kadyrov speak of women, it all sounds great and that he is just trying to protect women from sexual deviation.  Chechen men are encouraged to be "gentle" on designated women's appreciation days.  Of course, to us this is all crazy sounding bullshit, but think about what we as Americans never question regarding the gender issues that exist in our own society.  Estemirova was able to stand up to immense terror in order to help her nation.  She lost her life for her beliefs.

I consider this whenever I'm worried about questioning something that I know I have been "told" to never question.  What is the greatest negative affect that I would face?  Ideological disagreement?  Loss of a relationship?  Someone not liking me?  I exist in a society that functions around laws and basic rights.  I am also a member of the controlling majority, have an education, and access to money.  This is why I can speak and think about "frivolous" cultural disparities caused by gender.  Throughout the world, gender based discrimination not only silences other women but also threatens their lives. Women, like Natasha, who speak out against their oppressors are often killed. If we are honest with ourselves, American women have no reason to not take every opportunity to push our communities forward. 

Natasha was a mother and wanted all of the goodness and pleasantries of life just like anyone else.  She wasn't working to become a martyr; she was working to reverse the wretched effects of terror that existed within her world.  A quote of hers that encourages me to not only appreciate the peace I experience daily, but also to remain steadfast in my beliefs is this:
"I have lived through this period, the past 17 to 20 years of my life, with great difficulty, but I think I have helped some people survive. And that's the most important thing to me."

Remembering Natalya

Friday, March 5, 2010

Helen Wooten

There are a lot of things I love about Chicago. The Chicago Reader is one of them.  I hate the backwards R logo, but everything else about it is pretty fantastic.  For those unfamiliar with this weekly paper, it's free in the city and provides a variety of local news from where to eat to what to listen to.      

It also has pretty fabulous cover stories.  This year's Feb. 11th edition is my new favorite cover ever,  replacing my former fav, the Obama victory cover, which infamously featured a cartoon portrait of the newly elected president and a caption that read "Don't Screw This Up". 

Here is the photo from the cover...
The title read "The woman on the right

It instantly caught my eye.  The three 
women looked really cool and I LOVED the
"Princess Leia" hair.  It all sucked me in and I wanted to know who exactly was Helen Wooten?

Wooten is an entertainment promoter who was heavily involved with the south side club scene in the 70's and 80's.  She was an original investor in the Jackson Five and helped Teddy Pendergrass achieve stardom.  She has been well known amongst black celebrities since the 1960's, from Muhammad Ali to Will Smith.  She is currently working on telling her story so the rest of the world can know about the crazy awesome life she has led. 

Wooten is a self made woman.  Getting her start booking R&B acts as a teenager she worked tirelessly for her success.  Her original investment in the Jackson Five was a result of saving years of paychecks from various odd jobs all before graduating high school.   Before achieving financial stability from her booking and club work, she balanced motherhood and "regular" jobs.  It took her years to gain the freedom to rely on the entertainment industry as a stable source of income. 

Before I say more about Helen, I think I should explain what has happened to my life in the past month.  Kelly made her stand up debut about a month ago and nothing has been the same for us since.
Life has been so fun!  We have made great new friends and entertaining nights out have not been lacking.  Spending time with people so passionate about their art has been really good for me.  Especially when it's in a form that I really enjoy.  I love how good stand up requires a lot of intelligence, yet its delivery relies on simplicity.  Pretension does not reign supreme in the comedy scene.

There are a lot of comics out there who have taken huge risks to do what they love.  This is where I think Helen can be an inspiration for people trying to make their way off the beaten path.  Her passion was there even when the security of what she was doing was not.  The night the cover photo was taken was Valentine's Day 1976.  Three days before, she and her boyfriend were shot by some men who had broken into her home.  She is at the club because she had invested a lot of money for a show that was going to be done by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the band that made Teddy Pendergrass a celebrity. Wooten had helped them get their start and she had a lot riding on their performance.  She had to leave the hospital to make sure the show went on because the Blue Notes were on the verge of breaking up and if the night was a bust her career could have gone with it.  She checked herself out of the hospital, bullet wound and all, solidifying her as a devoted professional.

We are used to hearing stories about different men who have done whatever it takes to get to the top of their various fields, especially when it comes to any kind of entertainment work.  Wooten should be considered in their ranks.  She was good at what she did, a fact no one questions. It wasn't overnight success, but the kind of success that lasts and is worthwhile.

Since I'm still figuring out what is my life's passion, I am always envious of those who know exactly what it is that makes them complete.  I recognize this makes people a little crazy (checking yourself out of a hospital with a bullet wound is a bit out of control) but the idea of being regular sounds terrible to me.  There are so many different ways to be unique.  I feel like I'm a little bit lazy for not devoting all of myself to something.  I'm sure I'll figure it out eventually but for now I'm happy to know creative people and to recognize how inspiring someone like Wooten is. 

I think once her story is told it will help shed some much needed truth on the way the music world was shaped back in the early days of R&B.   A lot of credit has yet to be awarded to people who were first on the scene and what really went on.  After reading the article accompanying her photo, an intriguing bit of information is the fact that her "Princess Leia" hair predated the Star Wars movies by more than a year.  She wasn't following the trends but starting them.  Maybe we would refer to Carry Fisher as wearing "Helen Wooten" hair if we had known who she was.  You never know.