Monday, November 10, 2014

Between Thorns and Thistles

At night I go to bed exhausted with a swirl of images in my mind.

Painting on the streets of Bil'in, Palestine is hard work and I have trouble sleeping. 
The morning call to prayers comes right when I am beginning to unwind. Nonetheless,
every morning I arise in the early dawn with a clear vision about what to paint next.
At home before I travel, I begin to think about thistles. They are a classic plant,
appearing in the bible, and in many world geographies. The thistle is a plant ripe for metaphor and symbolic use, virulent and fire-resistant; it has lovely thorns and needs little water.  It persists. 

Milk thistle is also known as Holy Thistle, a flowering herb related to the daisy, it commonly grows in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. It has bright pink, purple, and occasionally white flowers. It's popular in flower arrangements. The seeds can be harvested to make tea with many beneficial qualities.

Repeated exposure to toxins such as tear gas, fumes from burning plastic or trash, fear, occupation by military forces and physical beating can leave your liver damaged and working less effectively than it would otherwise. Milk Thistle tea benefits the liver, helping in purification and detoxification. This is seen as beneficial to people who are experiencing a loss of human rights and other disorders.
In these kinds of conditions anger, fear and violence can accumulate and its best to flush waste buildup from the system and the prickly thistle can serve as an ally.
There are many kinds of thistle that are beneficial and Holy Thistle, (Silybum marianum) is often confused with Blessed Thistle (Cnicus benedictus). This latter variety treats bubonic plague and was even used as a tonic by monks. It may be able to prevent heart disease, and so also ease the symptoms caused by the loss of loved ones, incarcerated family members, as well as the heartbreak of a hopeless future.

After demonstrations and exposure to tear gas and other crowd control substances, gauze can be soaked in Blessed Thistle and applied to the skin to treat skin inflammations, boils, wounds, and ulcers. Thistles seem to withstand the toughest conditions and overcome the harshest challenges, and it seems appropriate that Blessed Thistle, often labeled an invasive and noxious weed has anti bacterial properties and is used to promote milk flow in new mothers.

(Blessed thistle is also used as a flavoring in alcoholic beverages as well, but it is not listed on the small batches of beer brought to Bil'in by International smugglers during our residency.)

 In the rugged hills and lands surrounding Bil'in, a number of other thorny plants grow. The flower heads of the stout prickly thistle known as 'Akkub or Kankar are reputed a delicacy worth all the trouble of gathering and preparation, the freeing from the sharper spines, and the blackened hands gained in the process. The plant, Gundelia tournefortii, tastes like a cross between asparagus and artichoke. Even though it is sold in Jerusalem markets, especially the young plant's thick stem and undeveloped flower buds, Israelis do not eat it, but Palestinians do.

 In perfect Bedouin style the plant is considered a tumbleweed. It's use is mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud and the Bible. The plant was called Silybum by Pedanius Dioscorides born in 40 AD. The Turkish born physician, pharmacologist and botanist of antiquity, authored De Materia Medica, the precursor to all modern pharmacopeias regarding herbal medicine and related medicinal substances. It was widely read for more than 1,500 years. The work is the best source for information about the medicines used by the Greeks, Romans, and other cultures of antiquity. De Materia Medica was reproduced in manuscript form through the centuries,  and often supplemented with commentary and minor additions from Arabic sources. A number of densely illustrated Arabic copies survive from the 12th and 13th centuries. In the medieval period, De Materia Medica was circulated in Latin, Greek, and Arabic. Its interesting to note that the work was not "rediscovered" in the Renaissance, because the book never left circulation. 

There is more to the hills and terraced land than meets the eye. There is so much more
to Palestinian culture and history than the myth of impoverished and ramshackle Arab villages that is used to justify the colonization and occupation of this land.  

The tale of the 'Akkub (Hathi haddoutet el 'Akkub):
Collected by the Center of Folktales and Folklore in Haifa, Israel:

There was once a merchant who was traveling through the wilderness with a stranger, and he murdered the stranger for the sake of his riches. As the wounded man fell he grasped at an 'Akkub plant that grew by his hand and cried out with his last breath, "This 'Akkub is my witness that you have murdered me."

But the merchant thought nothing of that and went away with the stranger's possessions.

Years passed and he traveled again through the wilderness and passed that place this time with his friend and partner. The 'Akkub was dead and dry and was whirling about, dancing in the wind. The merchant smiled as he saw it and his friend said, "Why do you smile?"

At first he would not say why, but the friend compelled him. Then he said "I smile, because here I once slew a stranger, and before he died he cried, 'This 'Akkub is my witness that you killed me,' and now the 'Akkub is dead and dances in the wind."

More years passed and one day the merchant quarreled with his friend and struck him. The friend in anger cried out, "Will you slay me as you slew the stranger?" so loud that the neighbors heard. An inquiry was made and at last the merchant was brought to justice. The 'Akkub was indeed the witness.

This story is used proverbially to this day. Villagers will say "The 'Akkub is the witness"

I bring a small sketch of thistles with me to Bil'in, scratched in the margin is the word, persist. One morning I look through the visual materials I have brought with me, along with the notes and sketches accumulated in our workshops with people from the village and it becomes clear that the symbolic thistle encapsulates many of the collective feelings and stories. As the rising sun warms the white walls along the main road we begin painting monumental thistles. We have a vibrant mix of collaborators with us that morning, including, young men, women and children. I am wearing my painting clothes, but the women are impeccably dressed with long skirts and head coverings. Each manages to work without dripping paint on their clothes. As the images appear on the walls, cars slow down and there is a constant honking of horns. Amidst the dust and noise we continue until each thorn is finished. Later a local tells me the thistle is used in the Jordan River Valley as a symbol of resistance to the occupation. He shows me a leaflet with an image of a thistle similar to the ones we have painted, the slogan says, 'To exist is to resist.' Yet many are not familiar with its symbolic use and when an older man on a white donkey ambles by, he engages me in conversation. "What is meaning? He asks in broken but understandable English. I point at the plant and pantomime kicking it and digging it up and make gestures that show it comes back, blooms again. He nods his head, yes, yes.
"Even fire, always life. Thank you"

  In the Old City of Jerusalem, after I leave Bil'in, I visit the chapel built at the site where Jesus is reputed to have been whipped, the Church of the Flagellation. The church has a beautiful gold dome designed in mosaic as a crown of thorns. As a boy, I was always most struck by this aspect of the stories told about the man that was Jesus. He was able to take a whipping, wear a crown of thorns and carry a heavy cross all because of his love for us regular humans. I found it both mysterious and perplexing. As a kid I figured it meant I should let our housekeeper whip me but not tell my mother because it would worry her. Later it came to represent the deprivations and austerities that come with trying to make the world a little better. In Chile and throughout Latin America much of the work done for social justice is connected to understanding both the suffering of Christ as well as his desire to be with those in need, the poor and forgotten. This understanding transcends political and religious affiliations; the constituency of the continent remains deeply Catholic even if we work in a secular manner.

I do not consider the work we do in Bil'in as entirely unselfish. The artistic satisfaction and the human payoffs are huge personal rewards. Our work in Bil'in takes all my mental and creative abilities as well all my physical strength and stamina, yet each day I find a reservoir of energy and ideas. The crown of thorns worn by Jesus and his suffering also came with rewards I suppose,
 it's pretty cool to die and come back to life a few days later.

I take a seat in the front pew, and think about 13-year-old, Bahaa Samir Badir. He is the young boy who is shot in the chest and killed in the village of Beit Laqiya, just 24 hours after a similar IDF (Israeli Defense Force/ Army) raid we experienced in neighboring Bil'in during the small hours of the morning. Bahaa Samir was 13, the age of my youngest son Salvador. He will not come back from the dead. 

I give thanks for life, all of us have emerged from our visit to Palestine unscathed. Later, when I read more about the Church of the Flagellation I learn that archaeologists have placed the place where Jesus was actually whipped and fitted with a crown on the other side of town.

When leaving the church I join a large crowd of people who are leaving services held the Al-Aqsa Mosque. I blend into the devoted moslems, Arabs who amble out of the city peacefully towards East Jerusalem, past streets bristling with weapons and stiff lines of IDF soldiers. Thistles grow in the Valley of Kings, the widening trench that runs below the old city and the Mount of Olives and I walk towards the Arab neighborhood of Silwan. At the entrance to the neighborhood I visit the Siloam Pool, a site mentioned in the Bible where it is believed Jesus healed a blind man. I talk to Arab Christian boys who invite me into their home for coffee. Inside the whole family welcomes me, they have never been to Bil'in, they are unclear of where it lies, they are Arabs from Jerusalem and have lived here for millennia.

That evening, in my reading, I come across the astounding idea that the crown of thorns may have actually been made from Gundelia tournefortii or A'kkub. In 1999 the infamous Shroud of Turin was analyzed for pollen grains and plant images. Some believe the Shroud to be the burial cloth of Jesus, but scientific studies show its origin in Jerusalem before the 8th Century. The analysis, presented at the Internationl Botanical Congess in 1999, identifies a high density of pollen of the tumbleweed. Near the image of the man's shoulder imprinted on the shroud analysts declare they can devise an image of A'kkub.

A'kkub is the witness. Our murals of thistles are part of ongoing creative efforts to use non-violent direct action in Bil'in. There are few who will disagree that people will always struggle for self-determination. We have been the first cultural delegation to carry out a residency in the village and our actions have received support from Palestinian, International and Israeli activists,  creating the possibility of  new dialogues and understandings. Despite the fires, these actions and modes of communication are proliferating.

No matter what side of the road you are on or what stream of history and culture you identify with, it's good to emulate thistles and other democratic and enduring life forms.
As leaders in the movement for self-determination in Bil'in and throughout Israeli and Arab Palestine often say, "One state or two states?” is not the right question to start with. “The right question to ask is, ‘What is the right thing to do that will guarantee the safety  security, peace and humanity of everybody in the long run?’
Once we can agree, we’ll work toward that.”

Perhaps there is no singular right thing, but cultural action helps us have the conversations that must occur, helps us create common goals as we learn to co exist with the painful memories and powerful cultures that exist on both sides.
An intergenerational and international thistle painting crew

Thistles growing in the Valley of Kings

Tear gas grenade that has set fire to brush and thistles in the Olive Groves near the Barrier Wall.

Walking to school in the morning, Boys inspect the painted walls.


A'kkub is the witness

Girls on the way home from school in Bil'in.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Jerusalem at the Crossroads

    There is a crossroads of sorts as you drive down the main road into the village of Bil'in, on the West Bank in Palestine. Three roads meet there and a one room, cinder block structure stands in a triangle of dirt and garbage. It looks abandoned or maybe half built, perhaps there was a fire. The white walls that line the streets begin to narrow here and continue down towards the center of town. The mosque and its minaret stand at the heart of the village, an older mosque and nearby ruins attest to the millennia Bil'in has persisted.
  But at this crossroads, there is nothing distinctive, the dust and plastic swirl as large tractors and vehicles pass. It might be anywhere. The front of the building is gone and it has only a partial roof. White walls hug its ruin, its cipher of nowhere, far away on the West Bank.
It is certainly not Jerusalem.

  In workshops we hold at the start of our residency in Bil"in
a young woman makes a drawing of the Holy City. Palestinians on the West Bank must obtain permission to travel to Jerusalem and cross the checkpoints along the way. Many will never travel there at all.  Her drawing symbolizes a day when the Holy City is open to all.  Her Jerusalem floats in heavenly space, radiating light.

  Later I see sketches, Emma Elliot-Walker, my fellow artist from Scotland, has created; simple box like Palestinian houses in bright colors. Throughout the residency she shows skills as an educator and artist. Emma becomes an indispensable partner on the streets of Bil'in. Soon her simple house forms will become part of the symbolic language we will use in our re-enchantment of walls and roads. I turn in a circle in the patch of dirt facing the cinder block building and white walls enclose me on all sides. Gratefully I consider the stretch of white wall; clear of grafitti and relatively smooth.

  There is a gut wrenching quality to the work that is started on these walls. As I walk by from a site further up the road that evening, I brush the little boxes and touch the walls, a place where the forlorn mingles with fierce hope.  This is a crossroads, a mysterious stop where you take the bus to the next place. But it is no longer a faceless or remote corner, people have emerged from closed gates and doors have opened during the work; we have had a glimpse of vibrant life beyond the anonymous white walls of the street.
Anointed with labor, now the site sparkles, hums with busy hands.
In the final days of the Bil'in residency most of the artists visiting Bil'in help transform the indifferent walls into monument. As a group we have witnessed violence and the power of imagination. Now good people brush prayers of peace on thirsty surfaces. We give our actions substance and power.
  It’s a map of the future. A Palestine with no walls.
"See, there is Jerusalem, and the gates are open."

Perhaps travelers to Bil'in will bring a brush and paint so that the map can continue to be filled in. In between plans for demonstrations, calls to prayer and the endless drone of vegetable trucks someone may ask children walking home from school to make a wish and add to our common work. When I return I want to paint a house with the Chilean flag, another with a star, Inca symbols for the sun and Mayan glyphs for joy.

  In the Holy City, at the Carmelite convent at the top of the Mount of Olives the Lords Prayer is written on in a hundred different languages on large tile murals. People come from all over the world to see them. I took pictures of the Our Father in the Guarani and Cree languages, but as far as I could tell there was no plaque in Mapudungun, the language of the Mapuche in Chile.
Maybe at the crossroads where we imagine the future, we can write peace in a hundred languages, make a house for everyone. First we have to imagine that world, then later we will begin its construction. Again and again until the houses stand, gates stay open, walls dismantle.

When our images fade, we will still remember what is possible when imagination is set into action; the walls and people of Bil'in burning like embers in our memories.

photo Kathleen Blackistone

Emma Elliot Walker  photo Kathleen Blackistone

Sketch by Emma E-W

Imagination in Action- Transforming Palestine

Just returning from Bil'in Palestine. The experience was extraordinary, grateful to all those who supported the project, and for the opportunity to collaborate with so many talented and committed individuals. Bil'in and the magnificent and heroic people who live there burn like embers in my heart.
Francisco Letelier

Transforming Palestine Bil'in Palestine Residency with Imaginaction        

click through to Artistic Protest in Bil'in

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Verses by Francisco Letelier on KCET

 The Verses

El Arte de Francisco Letelier

 Francisco Letelier un artista Chileno residente en Los Angeles California, es reconocido por sus murales, obras de arte publico, exhibiciones y trabajos graficos. 

Sus obras monumentales en el Metro de Los Angeles son vistas cada dia por miles de personas. Fue nominado para un premio Grammy y ha recibido el premio Artcore y el premio Siquieros en reconocimiento por sus aportes a la ciudad de Los Angeles.  En sus performances, instalaciones y obras poeticas, Letelier explora los limites de la memoria, el exilio y la identidad Latinoamericana. 

Durante el exilio Chileno, Letelier fue uno de los fundadores de La Brigada Orlando Letelier, un grupo que ha pintado murales colectivos e organizado proyectos culturales a traves de los Estados Unidos y las Americas por mas de 30 años. En un regreso a Chile durante la dictadura, Letelier se integro con artistas que hacian arte clandestino en las calles y al regresar a Los Angeles siguio creando arte motivado por estas experiencias.  Con un enfoque en los derechos humanos y justicia social sus proyectos de dialogo, educacion y participacion colectiva lo han llevado desde Iquitos, Peru a Belfast en Irlanda del Norte. Las obras del artista han sido exhibidas en el Museo de Arte Contemporaneo en Santiago y el mural ‘La Mujer del Bosque’ se encuentra en comuna de El Bosque.

En 2008 Letelier formo parte de un acto para cual se reunieron miles de personas en el Parque O’Higgins. Colaborando con organizaciones ecologistas e actriz Leonor Varela, el artista diseño una gigante ballena humana, en la que participó la ministra de Medio Ambiente, Ana Lya Uriarte. La ballena fue fotografiada desde el aire por un helicóptero, tal como se ha hecho en otras partes del mundo. apoyando la iniciativa de Chile para crear un santuario de ballenas.
Letelier sigue creando puentes de intercambio entre Los Angeles y Chile y es uno de los fundadores de ARTBLOCK una associacion de artistas independientes que crea programas para el publico.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Venice West mural : somewhere between Ginsberg and Kerouac

"Venice was the epicenter of beat culture in the 50s. In the mural, Venice West (by Francisco Letelier and Mary Fama), two legends, Stuart Perkoff and Philomene Long, of the Venice West Renaissance are depicted. They were husband and wife, and Perkoff was the quintessential "Beat" poet in Venice. He was renowned for his book, Voices of the Lady, but he was loved for his public readings."

Joseph Lapin    La Weekly Blog   10 Essential Beat Generation Landmarks in Los Angeles

The mural is at 518 Rose Ave, on the strip that is bringing hipster culture to that side of Venice. The mural contains other facets of unknown Venice. The mural grew directly from the Becoming the Circle mural painted in 2002 on the Pioneer Bakery, a place that for stood on the site for a century. The developers sought me out when they learned that a mural had existed at the site previously.

Power Points at historic Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park

ArtScene Magazine 
Diane Calder

"Power Points" is a multimedia examination of the abuse and potential of power that joins a trio of artists together who have been recently lauded for major works in public places. Chusien Chang, noted for her public art installations in Chinatown’s Metro Station, focuses on the plight of captive elephants with a window display that superimposes tortuous tools employed to “train” the animals over a poster commemorating these intelligent giants. Inside the gallery, Chang’s pastel drawings of segments of elephant anatomy could be interpreted as referencing “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” an insight into the inexpressible nature of truth. Francisco Letelier, whose numerous public works include murals adorning the Westlake/MacArthur Park Metro Station, centers a stunning copper etching featuring his poetic writing amidst a group of intimately scaled, mixed media works that reflect his personal re-enchantment with the powerful Mayan myth of Popl Vuh. Collaged narratives and weathered images of feathered serpents play off hand written translations of cultural myths. Skin shed by molting snakes and fragments of gilded papers, bone and bark suggest a mysterious mixture of present and past, personal and cultural values. Meanwhile, Haitian born artist Karl Jean-Guerly Petion, a participant in the 18th Street Art Center’s 2011 “Debating Through the Arts,” questions social justice with whimsically re-imagined sculptures composed of a variety of found objects. Petion’s assemblage works interact with his arresting unframed paintings that confront emotionally charged first- and third-world class issues via theoretical texts and compelling images, such as that of his black man vaulting skyward over a strand of barbed wire. Guest curator Nancy Buchanan’s conviction is here validated: that these three artists, when joined together on a more intimate scale, can move us deeply (Avenue 50 Studio, Northeast Los Angeles).
Diane Calder

Pueblo Chucho/ Dogtown Mural

Created with Mary Fama, the Pueblo Chucho mural is located in the heart of the Oakwood neighborhood of Venice on 6th Avenue between Indiana Ave and Brooks Ave. The mural is inspired by the history of the neighborhood and our personal experiences on this stretch of sidewalk.
This is the third mural that I have painted with Mary. Although this mural is a sidewalk level mural and is on a smaller scale than a majority of my murals, we continue to receive great feedback from residents and passerby. The mural underlines the difference between much of the street art seen in Venice; work that is created with less regard to site, cultural histories and realities and murals like this one . The majority of the murals and public art I facilitate and help create provide a departure point to examine identity and local culture in a celebratory and inclusive manner. Viva Dogtown!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

VIOLIN. STEEL PAN. GUITAR. VoiceMusic flowing like water...
Please join us, bring a friend, join our Black-Brown Dialogues, as we again cross borders together guided by Inspiration--June 4. 7 pm @ Highland Park Ebell Club House, 131 S Avenue 57, Los Angeles, CA 90042.
FREE ADMISSION/ peter j harris

The Black/Brown Dialogues
Inspiration House PoetryChoir
curated by Peter J. Harris
Artistic Director, Inspiration House

Date: Saturday, June 4, 2011
Time: 7 pm
Place: Highland Park Ebell Club House
131 S Avenue 57, Los Angeles, CA 90042

Featuring spoken word by:
Peter J. Harris
Gloria Alvarez
V Kali
Francisco Letelier
Gina Loring

Featuring music by:
Curtis Robertson, Jr., bass/guitar
Alan Mark Lightner, steel pan
Rocio Marron, violin