Colorful Happy Flashbacks to Childhood at Murakami's Exhibition

"Summer Flowers" ©Murakami

Little did I know when I was lining up for tickets for Takashi Murakami's exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles this past Saturday, I was about to embark on a trip of color, wonder, hope, bizarre cartoons and life-size manga characters. What I also did not anticipate was how these images would suddenly trigger a host of hazy memories of my childhood in Tokyo. Until this recent exposure to Murakami's work, I never realized that I grew up seeing his designs frequently in commercials, bank and department store promotions, cartoons....

As a child I connected with the bright colors and the seeming optimism and unusual but lively characters. Seeing his work as an adult, I appreciated his attempts to cross boundaries, cultures (he is heavily influenced by the work of Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollack); traditions (Japanese, American new and old); and to question assumptions and beliefs.
"Roppongi Hills Spiral Flowers" ©Murakami
With a PhD in tradition Nihonga or traditional Japanese Painting, he draws on traditional Japanese techniques in completely unconventional ways. His images here much like those seen in Nihonga are very flat and two-dimensional. With the two paintings below, he uses silver as the background, often used in traditional Japanese paintings, but the subjects are very contemporary. Traditional high art is juxtaposed against the low art of cartoons.
"Posi Mushrooms" ©Murakami
What is high art? What is low art? Where is the line drawn?
"Hoyoyo" ©Murakami
The blue character with the ears is DOB.

"Time Bokan- Blue" ©Murakami
The skull is sad and yet hopeful with the flowers as eyes - which I assume references Japan's history with the atomic bomb.

Commissioned by Marc Jacob to redesign the logo for Louis Vuitton, Marukami came up with this new design. The collaboration became a melding of decades' old icons of Louis Vuitton with the distinct colorful animation of Murakami. In the Los Angeles exhibition, there is actually a Louis Vuitton store as part of the exhibition selling bags with Murakami's designs. Which then races the question - where is the line drawn between what is commercial and what is art?



Art in the Back Alleys of Hollywood

In Los Angeles, for better or for worse, graffiti has become a solid part of the urban landscape. Some of it is not so pretty, actually destructive, illegal and gang related - but then there are others (sometimes done legally) by certain graffiti crews that are stunning. (Graffiti crews are either ex- gang members who were able to exit the gang through the promise of perpetuating graffiti; or they could be merely influenced by gangs). Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to go around the back alleys of Hollywood with Steve Grody, author of "Graffiti L.A," and get his take on what was painted on the walls. Grody has been studying graffiti in Los Angeles for the past 18 years and has been able to enter a world most of us never know.
This picture only captures half of the total image on the wall but for me it was the most interesting. This production draws its influences from Japanese wood block and is distinctly unlike the style of graffiti found in New York.
This piece was part of a larger image which referenced the importance of music. The train pays homage to the origins of graffiti - the New York subway trains.
This graffiti writer above went to Art school before turning to graffiti as a means of expression.
The image of the two men above known as a graphic print is done using spray cans or paint.
This image is a representation of a graffiti writer sketching in his black book - who as a child is surrounded by and struggles with social, economic and personal demons.
Rarely seen in graffiti pieces is the use of Arabic text as seen here. Most of the text is generally written in either Spanish or English. However, in the 1980's, there were a group of graffiti writers called the Wonton Men who did very creative pieces using kanji. Interesting to note, according to Grody, graffiti crews are open to all races, nationalities, religious backgrounds. There is no discrimination between Jewish or Christian, Iranian, Syrian, Filipino, Chinese, Black, White or Latino.... You are only judged by the quality of your work.
Given the illegality of some of this work, issue of copyright becomes an interesting dilemma; especially since so much of this can now be seen online. The majority of the images I have posted above were done by the CBS crew or friends of the CBS crew such as WAI.

Check out www.50mmlosangeles.com for information on graffiti in Los Angeles and various graffiti crews. To see what is happening globally check out: www.artcrimes.com


Some Talk about Iran...

The warmongering George W. Bush spent last week touring around the Middle East, pounding his chest, desperately trying to drum up support to invade yet another country. I guess some people just are incapable of learning. Since Bush labelled Iran as part of the 'axis of evil' in 2002, he has been trying to spook the American people and those around the world into believing that Iran is not only a threat to global security but will instigate WWIII. Now desperate in his last year of office (366 days - but who's counting) and running out of time, he is ratcheting up the attack lingo, enforcing sanctions and once again fabricating stories, as with the speedboat incident in the Strait of Hormuz, just like he did with Iraq. If this could not potentially cause another humanitarian disaster (in exchange for oil), his behavior would almost be comical. The thing is, the Iranian government is no savior, but their threat, I seriously doubt is to the American people.

A couple days ago, I went to see the animated film "Persepolis," a movie which in black and white two dimensional imagery poetically recounts the story of the coming of age of young girl, Marjane Satrapi in volatile and oppressive pre- and post-revolutionary Iran. Having studied some Iranian history in the past and chatted with some Iranians who have left Iran like Marjane does, I was reminded by this movie that the Iranian government is perhaps a much bigger danger to their own people than the world at large. For decades the West has been manipulating Iranian rulers and government for control of
Iran's oil supplies at a high cost to its people; then there was ten years of an incredibly brutal war with Iraq that left a one million people dead; thousands of activists and intellectuals have been mercilessly tortured and executed; the Iranian people continue to endure a complete lack of basic political and personal freedoms, extreme censorship and the subjugation of women....

How will the U.S. bombing of these people make the world safer?

I read a statistic in Monocle the other day that shocked me - "America's military spending is only just matched by that of the rest of the world combined." That fact gives me little comfort but it might help explain a few things.


Seeing Possibilities in the Rubble of Afghanistan

David Elliot epitomizes entrepreneurship. He has founded numerous successful companies (US Assist, Direct Hit) on both sides of the Atlantic and sold them for hundreds of millions of dollars. He is also a winner of MIT/Inc. Entrepreneur Award. He has worked for the United Nations Development Programme and Asia Development Bank. Having accomplished so much at 49, David Elliot could relax, take it easy but instead he has taken his drive, vision and his profound knowledge of start-ups to Afghanistan.

David Elliot at the market in Kabul
Image by Jason P. Howe (Taken from FT)

I confess, up until today, I didn't know very much about David Elliot. My interest was peaked this morning when while sipping my cup of coffee, I read an article in the Financial Times about his efforts to team with Kabul businesses to improve lives in war-torn Afghanistan.

This however, is not the first time he has been to Afghanistan. He made his first trip in 1976 with his brother. They were travelling from Turkey to India in an old VW van. He was only in his late teens then. His brother Jason Elliot was fascinated with the mujaheddin and smuggled himself across the border to work as a young volunteer to help fight the Russians. This extraordinary trip forms the basis for Jason Elliot's renowned book on Afghanistan "Unexpected Light."

Ironically, when most people were fleeing after the tragedy of 9/11, it was then David Elliot decided to return to Afghanistan. At that point he had decided to spend the rest of his career trying to reduce poverty through what he knew best - private sector businesses. As the quintessential entrepreneur, he saw great opportunity and possibility in Afghanistan's barrenness. "Walk down the market and you will see masses of business going on and they've just had a car bomb 3km away. It hasn't stopped anyone from doing their shopping," Elliot is quoted in the FT.

He believes there is a fortune to be made helping the poor help themselves. (Just look what Mohammed Yunus has accomplished with Grameen Bank). With cash from United States Agency for International Development (USAID), he is backing a colorful mix of start-ups including a chain of pharmacies, a credit bureau, a payphone business run for and by women, and a boutique hotel near Band-e Amir, amidst the five deep blue lakes in the mountains. (It is one of Afghanistan's most visited locations, and yet has no real hotel). He is also developing a website that allows Afghan expatriates to send gifts to their families at home. Gifts can include cash, flour, cooking oil, or a goat. In return, the expatriate receives a digital picture of their family smiling beside their gift.

It is critical he says, that businesses join the diplomatic and military efforts in Afghanistan. Yet most companies remain wary. Undoubtedly, economic development is necessary for any successful transition to peace. I hope he succeeds.

Band-e Amir
(Image taken from Wikitravel)


Some Universal Lessons from Architecture Design Studio

When I was an architecture student in university, one thing became glaringly apparent to me - many people had no idea exactly what an architect did exactly. Come to think of it - for most of my early years in college, I wasn't quite sure what an architecture student did either. All I remember are the many all-nighters in studio, desperately trying to tackle a design assignment which seemed at the time as challenging as solving world peace. And I remember trudging home in the early morning, with bloodshot eyes and coffee breath while the rest of university was just coming alive, refreshed from the night's rest.

The bottom line ultimately, was that I loved design, the creation of space, culture, history and the human ability to push the limits of creativity and possibility and so I persevered and graduated with my degree in architecture. However, what would have my life a little easier during those five years, is this book I just came across recently - "101 Things I Learned in Architecture School" by Matthew Frederick, an architect and studio professor. It crossed my mind when I was reading this book that - I don't think I have ever read a book on how to design or important design considerations or guidelines. However, that is what all our design studios attempt to teach us.

While this book is written for architecture students and professionals, I think there are quite a few universal lessons too....

Lesson 30: [paraphrasing Louis Sullivan, he quotes] "A proper building grows naturally, logically, and poetically out of all its conditions."

I think so many architects today forget this lesson and that is why we have the identical looking building popping up in cities around the world. Or we have architects who view their own personal statement more important than context. Hence, Lesson 86: "Manage your ego."

Lesson 48: "If you can't explain your ideas to your grandmother in terms she understands, you don't know your subject well enough."

Lesson 51: "Beauty is due more to the harmonious relationships among elements of a composition than to the elements themselves."

Lesson 81: "Properly gaining control of the design process tends to feel like one is losing control of the design process."

Lesson 97: "Limitations encourage creativity."

Lesson 99: "Just do something."


Freedom to Read and Create - U.A.E. Slowly Changing the Dynamic in the Arab World

The well publicized Emirates - Dubai and Abu Dhabi often get much attention for their over the top, garish architectural developments. European and American architects are given a carte blanche to push the limits of engineering, design and good taste. And while the gold hotel, revolving skyscrapers, explosion of museums and islands gets more of the media attention, there are other culturally driven developments simultaneously occurring within U.A.E. that I find very promising and make me feel somewhat optimistic about the "Arab Renaissance" that various pundits have claimed is being born out of the Arabian Gulf states. These more subtle developments - such as the promotion of local Arab films and art scene, I feel will transform the Abu Dhabi and especially Dubai for the better and eventually help to foster more complex, organic growth in these cities.

With limited political freedoms, many artists in the Arab world have often found it tough to not only create art, but to fund it and exhibit it. The Gulf Art Fair is changing that. Smaller galleries such as XVA (opened by a Canadian expat) are popping up around Dubai giving new talent and creativity a platform. Emirati artists are slowly gaining international fame and recognition.

Then today in the LA Times, I read "U.A.E. is stepping up efforts to make Western books available to its citizens." The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) has chosen 100 books to be translated into Arabic in an effort to promote knowledge and culture within the Arab state. The books selected this year include Alan Greenspan's memoir; Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom; Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the origins of al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower; and Khaled Hosseini's Kite Runner. A number of Jewish writers have also been included on the list. The goal is ultimately to translate a 100 books every year.

Why is this a big deal, you may wonder?

To answer this question, I reference the 'Arab Human Development' report published by the U.N. Development Programme in 2002. According to this report, Arab societies are paralyzed because of an absence of political freedoms, the persecution of women, and isolation from the world and new ideas. The report also found that the total number of books translated into Arabic yearly is around 300 (which is 1/5 of the number translated in a small country like Greece). More shockingly, the report cited that the number of books translated into Arabic during the last 1000 years since the rule of Caliph Al-Ma'moun (a 9th century Arab ruler who promoted cultural interaction between Arab, Persian and Greek scholars) is less than than the number of books translated in Spain in a year!!! So while 100 books may not seem like a dramatic addition to most people, in the Arab world this is a huge contribution and a very hopeful and engaging shift.

"Yesteryear" by Emirati painter Abdul Kadir Al-Rais sold for $262,400 at Christie's auction in Feb. 2007

By Mohamed Kazem as part of the "Sea Escape" series which explores the destruction of the sea along UAE's coastline.