Category Archives: art

Aurangzeb’s Mughal Legacy, 1707

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 62-63, 82-83:

It was the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 that changed everything for the Company.

The Emperor, unloved by his father, grew up into a bitter and bigoted Islamic puritan, as intolerant as he was grimly dogmatic. He was a ruthlessly talented general and a brilliantly calculating strategist, but entirely lacked the winning charm of his predecessors. His rule became increasingly harsh, repressive and unpopular as he grew older. He made a clean break with the liberal and inclusive policies towards the Hindu majority of his subjects pioneered by his great-grandfather Akbar, and instead allowed the ulama to impose far stricter interpretations of Sharia law. Wine was banned, as was hashish, and the Emperor ended his personal patronage of musicians. He also ended Hindu customs adopted by the Mughals such as appearing daily to his subjects at the jharoka palace window in the centre of the royal apartments in the Red Fort. Around a dozen Hindu temples across the country were destroyed, and in 1672 he issued an order recalling all endowed land given to Hindus and reserved all future land grants for Muslims. In 1679 the Emperor reimposed the jizya tax on all non-Muslims that had been abolished by Akbar; he also executed Teg Bahadur, the ninth of the gurus of the Sikhs.

While it is true that Aurangzeb is a more complex and pragmatic figure than some of his critics allow, the religious wounds Aurangzeb opened in India have never entirely healed, and at the time they tore the country in two. Unable to trust anyone, Aurangzeb marched to and fro across the Empire, viciously putting down successive rebellions by his subjects. The Empire had been built on a pragmatic tolerance and an alliance with the Hindus, especially with the warrior Rajputs, who formed the core of the Mughal war machine. The pressure put on that alliance and the Emperor’s retreat into bigotry helped to shatter the Mughal state and, on Aurangzeb’s death, it finally lost them the backbone of their army.

But it was Aurangzeb’s reckless expansion of the Empire into the Deccan, largely fought against the Shia Muslim states of Bijapur and Golconda, that did most to exhaust and overstretch the resources of the Empire. It also unleashed against the Mughals a new enemy that was as formidable as it was unexpected. Maratha peasants and landholders had once served in the armies of the Bijapur and Golconda. In the 1680s, after the Mughals conquered these two states, Maratha guerrilla raiders under the leadership of Shivaji Bhonsle, a charismatic Maratha Hindu warlord, began launching attacks against the Mughal armies occupying the Deccan. As one disapproving Mughal chronicler noted, ‘most of the men in the Maratha army are unendowed with illustrious birth, and husbandmen, carpenters and shopkeepers abound among their soldiery’. They were largely armed peasants; but they knew the country and they knew how to fight.

From the sparse uplands of the western Deccan, Shivaji led a prolonged and increasingly widespread peasant rebellion against the Mughals and their tax collectors. The Maratha light cavalry, armed with spears, were remarkable for their extreme mobility and the ability to make sorties far behind Mughal lines. They could cover fifty miles in a day because the cavalrymen carried neither baggage nor provisions and instead lived off the country: Shivaji’s maxim was ‘no plunder, no pay’.

But what appeared to be the end of an era in Delhi looked quite different in other parts of India, as a century of imperial centralisation gave way to a revival of regional identities and regional governance. Decline and disruption in the heartlands of Hindustan after 1707 was matched by growth and relative prosperity in the Mughal peripheries. Pune and the Maratha hills, flush with loot and overflowing tax revenues, entered their golden age. The Rohilla Afghans, the Sikhs of the Punjab and the Jats of Deeg and Bharatpur all began to carve independent states out of the cadaver of the Mughal Empire, and to assume the mantle of kingship and governance.

For Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and the other Rajput courts, this was also an age of empowerment and resurgence as they resumed their independence and, free from the tax burdens inherent in bowing to Mughal overlordship, began using their spare revenues to add opulent new palaces to their magnificent forts. In Avadh, the baroque palaces of Faizabad rose to rival those built by the Nizam in Hyderabad to the south. All these cities emerged as centres of literary, artistic and cultural patronage, so blossoming into places of remarkable cultural efflorescence.

Meanwhile, Benares emerged as a major centre of finance and commerce as well as a unique centre of religion, education and pilgrimage. In Bengal, Nadia was the centre of Sanskrit learning and a sophisticated centre for regional architectural and Hindustani musical excellence.

To the south, in Tanjore, a little later, Carnatic music would begin to receive enlightened patronage from the Maratha court that had seized control of that ancient centre of Tamil culture. At the other end of the subcontinent, the Punjab hill states of the Himalayan foothills entered a period of astonishing creativity as small remote mountain kingdoms suddenly blossomed with artists, many of whom had been trained with metropolitan skills in the now-diminished Mughal ateliers, each family of painters competing with and inspiring each other in a manner comparable to the rival city states of Renaissance Italy.

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Evacuating Monte Cassino, 1944

From The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2007), Kindle pp. 398-399:

THE holy road up Monte Cassino made seven hairpin turns, each sharper than the one before. Hillside tombs and a Roman amphitheater stood below the first bend, along with remnants of Augustan prosperity from the ancient market town called Casinum….

Rounding the last bend, fifteen hundred feet above the valley floor, the great abbey abruptly loomed on the pinnacle, trapezoidal and majestic, seven acres of Travertino stone with a façade twice as long as that of Buckingham Palace. On this acropolis, in an abandoned Roman tower, a wandering hermit named Benedict had arrived in A.D. 529. Born into a patrician family, the young cleric had fled licentious Rome, avoiding a poisoned chalice offered by rival monks and settling on this rocky knob with a desire only “to be agreeable to the Lord.” Benedict’s Rule gave form to Western monasticism by stressing piety, humility, and the gleaming “armor of obedience.” Black-robed Benedictines not only spread the Gospel to flatland pagans, but also helped preserve Western culture through the crepuscular centuries ahead. It was said that Benedict died raising his arms to heaven in the spring of 547, entering paradise “on a bright street strewn with carpets.” His bones and those of his twin sister, St. Scholastica, slept in a crypt hewn from his mountain eyrie. Over the span of fifteen centuries, the abbey had been demolished repeatedly—by Lombards, Saracens, earthquakes, and, in 1799, Napoleonic scoundrels—but it was always rebuilt in keeping with the motto “Succisa Virescit”: “Struck down, it comes to new life.” After a visit to Monte Cassino, the poet Longfellow described the abbey as a place “where this world and the next world were at strife.”

Never more than in February 1944. The town below had first been bombed on September 10, and within weeks more than a thousand refugees sheltered in the abbey with seventy monks. “To befoul the abbey,” complained the abbot, Dom Gregorio Diamare, “was a poor way of showing gratitude.” As the war drew nearer and wells ran dry, most civilians decamped for the hills or cities in the north. An Austrian lieutenant colonel, Julius Schlegel, who before the war had been an art historian and librarian, persuaded Diamarea to remove the abbey’s art treasures for safekeeping. Throughout the late fall Wehrmacht trucks rolled up Highway 6 to the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, hauling treasures in packing cases cobbled together from wood found in an abandoned factory. The swag was breathtaking: Leonardo’s Leda; vases and sculptures from ancient Pompeii; eighty thousand volumes and scrolls, including writings by Horace, Ovid, Virgil, and Seneca; oblong metal boxes containing manuscripts by Keats and Shelley; oils by Titian, Raphael, and Tintoretto; priestly vestments and sacramental vessels made by master goldsmiths; even the remains of Desiderius of Bertharius, murdered by Saracens in the eighth century. An immense thirteenth-century Sienese cross was “so large that it could only be carried diagonally across a lorry.” The major bones of Benedict and Scholastica remained in their monastery crypt, but silk-clad reliquaries holding mortal fragments of the saints also went to Rome after a special blessing by the abbot. Two monks rode with every truck to keep the Germans honest; even so, fifteen crates went missing and later turned up in the Hermann Göring Division headquarters outside Berlin.

As the evacuation concluded, Monte Cassino on Hitler’s orders became the linchpin of the Gustav Line. Kesselring in mid-December promised the Catholic hierarchy that no German soldier would enter the abbey, and an exclusion zone was traced around the building’s outer walls. But day by day both the town and surrounding slopes became more heavily fortified. A Tenth Army order directed that “allein das Gebäude auszusparen ist”—only the building itself was to be spared—and Hitler in late December ordered that “the best reserves must stand on the mountain massif. In no circumstances may this be lost.”

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Wordcatcher Tales: biombo, subaru

Biombo – The Spanish term biombo ‘folding screen’ comes from Japanese byōbu (屏風 ‘wallwind’ or ‘screenwind’) for the same item. I first learned the term in the caption to Fig. 9 in the book I’ve been reading, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. The figure shows an oil-painted canvas biombo depicting “The Encounter of Cortés and Moctezuma” as imagined by the artist Juan Correa c. 1683. It goes on to describe biombo as “a popular Mexican artform introduced by the Japanese ambassador to Mexico City in 1614”! This left me skeptical because Tokugawa Japan (1600–1868) is far better known for its policy of national seclusion (sakoku) than for international outreach.

But in fact Tokugawa Japan did engage in a bit of outreach before the 1630s. In 1613, Date Masamune, first lord of Sendai, had Japan’s first galleon built in Ishinomaki (one of the cities hardest hit by the 2011 tsunami). Later christened the San Juan Bautista and laden with ceremonial gifts, it set sail for Acapulco in New Spain with Japan’s first ambassador to the Vatican, Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga (支倉六右衛門常長, also spelled Faxecura Rocuyemon in Spanish sources), who spent time in Mexico City in 1614 and again on his return trip in 1618. About 60 of his Japanese compatriots who remained in Mexico until his return were baptized there as Christians. Hasekura himself waited until he got to Spain before being baptized as Francisco Felipe Faxicura.

Subaru – I was shocked a few months ago to realize that I had never bothered to wonder what the name Subaru means in Japanese. The logo on Subaru cars should perhaps have given me a hint, but I only found out about the Japanese meaning from a linguist friend who was researching whether the position of the Pleiades marks a seasonal cycle in any languages I was familiar with in Papua New Guinea.

In Numbami, the two words used to translate English ‘year’ are damana, which also means ‘Pleiades’, and yala, which comes from German Jahr. According to Streicher’s (1982) Jabêm–English Dictionary entry for dam(o): “The Pleiades are the main constellation seen in Jabêm during the dry season (October to March), and governing their activities in their gardens, i.e. the felling of trees to clear the ground for new gardens; the burning and planting of fields is done according to the position of the Pleiades.”

In Japanese, ‘Pleiades’ is usually rendered into プレアデス星団 Pureiadesu seidan (= ‘star group’), but the older native Japanese name for the cluster is Subaru, and the Chinese character for it is 昴, pronounced BOU in Sino-Japanese. I’m not aware that the Pleiades play any role at all in Japan’s highly conventionalized seasonal cycles, but the constellation may be a convenient symbol of the five divisions of Fuji Heavy Industries that merged to create the Subaru car company.

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Westernized Edo-period Woodblock Prints

From Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, by Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. by Gerald Groemer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 70-71:

Gennai, who was well versed in Western art and painted in oils himself, was surrounded by a cultural group whose role in Edo-period culture can hardly be overestimated. Gennai’s coterie included scholars of Western learning, doctors practicing Dutch-style medicine, scholars of Chinese literature, calligraphers, and many others. The interaction of these men led to the creation of a number of ukiyo-e and books.

Nishiki-e were an artistic development that stood in sharp contrast to earlier Japanese prints. In Japanese painting before the age of nishiki-e, empty space was charged with great meaning. Use of blank areas was deeply related to the Buddhist notions of emptiness (), to specifically Japanese ideas of space (ma), and to Japanese philosophies of nature. These concepts are in turn related to the idea of nothingness (mu) found in Eastern thought in general. From the time of Harunobu’s nishiki-e, however, virtually the entire surface of the picture was filled with color. Moreover, many nishiki-e employed Western techniques of perspective. This denial of the Eastern concept of mu and departure from the design and coloration of previous Japanese pictorial art was in part the result of a familiarity with Western techniques of oil painting and copperplate etching. Not everything was taken from these sources, but the works of Harunobu, Haruaki, Sharaku, Utamaro, and Hokusai unambiguously show such influence. These men (with the possible exception of Sharaku) often attended the daishōkai [calendar designing and printing events] and were good friends with Hiraga Gennai, Shiba Kōkan, and Gennai’s outstanding disciple Morishima Chūryō.

The establishment of nishiki-e with perspective within the context of traditional “flat” Japanese painting was an epoch-making event in the history of Japanese pictorial art. Western techniques had here been completely absorbed into Japanese culture. Although the roots of these techniques could be traced back a century and a half to Western influence at the start of the Edo period. Western procedures now reemerged as something entirely new. Nishiki-e met with such unusual acclaim by the Japanese commoner population because Western techniques had been so thoroughly assimilated.

This process of assimilation also led to the nishiki-e fads in Europe and the United States. From the end of the Edo period to the early years of the Meiji era, a tremendous number of nishiki-e masterpieces were sold to foreigners. The works of Hokusai, which were perhaps the most Western in tone, were especially prized and often became the subject of scholarly studies.

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The Strength of Edo-period Culture

From Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, by Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. by Gerald Groemer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 8-9:

The strength of Edo-period culture is not to be found in extant artifacts of the era. Rather, its strength lies chiefly in its spectacular breadth and diversity. This was a period of unprecedented cultural prosperity. Even the general public took part in leisure pursuits and played an active role in the creation of new cultural forms. The average commoner read books or visited the theater; some even wrote haiku verses and senryū (seventeen-syllable comic verse) or performed musical genres such as gidayū, kato bushi, shinnai, or nagauta. Others went on pilgrimages sponsored by religious associations (kō) and toured distant places. The Edo period saw a rise in the quality of culinary fare that commoners consumed; clothing and housing too showed marked improvement. Even the poor managed occasionally to indulge in the luxury of purchasing a “custom-made” comb or an ornamental hairpin. The demand for such cultural items fostered the development of a highly refined handicraft industry. Never before had there been such an extraordinary variety of hand-made cultural artifacts in Japan.

Even in remote areas in the countryside or on distant, isolated islands, inhabitants cultivated rare varieties of flowers and trees and marketed unusual rocks or curiosities. As Suzuki Bokushi (1770-1842) noted in his Akiyama kikō (Autumn Mountain Travelogue, 1831), people in every corner of the land were busy manufacturing local specialties. Such articles were being produced, one by one, by thirty million people. By the late Edo period this activity had stimulated an unprecedented development of the transportation network. Mountain roads, waterways, and sea routes were extended in all directions to every nook and cranny of the country. Indeed, the construction of footpaths during the late Edo period can be seen as a kind of symbol of this golden age of handicraft culture.

No doubt, Japan today boasts a high level of culture. But the price has been high as well: severe environmental pollution and the wholesale destruction of nature. Until the end of the Edo period, red-crested cranes could still be seen soaring through the skies over the city; swans and geese flocked to Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park. Foxes and badgers were found everywhere, and cuckoos (hototogisu) flourished in such numbers that their song was considered a nuisance. Even during the late Meiji period the water of the Sumida River was clean enough to be used for brewing tea while boating. Human activity imparted only minimal damage to nature. Viewed in this way, Edo-period culture seems almost ideal.

Certain elements of the Edo-period cultural heritage were vulgar, no doubt, but a more comprehensive view of the period reveals an almost infinite number of admirable qualities. Nevertheless, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, governmental policies of modernization and westernization dictated a wholesale rejection of the preceding feudal era. Even the best elements of Edo-period culture were deemed outdated and vulgar and were thought to require prompt and thorough extirpation. That the true value of Edo-period culture could not yet be properly assessed had much to do with the lack of any inquiry into its origins and actual conditions. Recent research, however, has shown that Edo-period culture was outstanding in its own way and not at all inferior to the culture of earlier or later periods.

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New Scholarship on Wartime Kabuki, 1931–1945

The latest issue of Asian Theatre Journal (via Project MUSE) contains a review (by UCLA’s Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei) of James Brandon’s myth-shattering new book, Kabuki’s Forgotten War: 1931–1945 (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2009). Here are a few snippets to give a flavor of how stunningly revisionist the book is.

It was in 2002, at a conference honoring the work of Leonard C. Pronko, that I first heard James R. Brandon present the extraordinary research he was doing on kabuki during what the Japanese call the Fifteen-Year War, the last four years of which encompass the Pacific War of World War II. I will never forget the shock waves in the room as he showed slides and told us about a wartime kabuki play called Three Heroic Human Bombs. Here were kabuki actors performing in 1932, dressed in modern military uniforms, looking for all the world like realistic film actors, carrying bombs as they slogged through mud and barbed wire toward a glorious suicide during Japan’s war in China. And then he told us about other new plays from that period, starring famous kabuki actors performing alongside (gasp!) actresses—not onnagata, but females from shinpa and shingeki. The actors wore realistic, contemporary costumes without a trace of kabuki’s makeup or wigs, and there was nary a musician in sight. How could these contemporary propaganda plays about military exploits and home front patriotism be kabuki? We all thought we knew what kabuki was, but suddenly the hard-earned knowledge of about a hundred scholars was totally shattered….

As Brandon correctly notes, the war years have been studied extensively from many cultural and political perspectives, but this is the first book in any language (including Japanese) to focus on the wartime history of kabuki. Despite a few notable exceptions, in most Japanese histories of kabuki, “the war years are simply erased” (p. x)….

The book demonstrates kabuki’s often enthusiastic complicity with Japan’s militarist and imperialist exploits during the 1931–1945 war years, and also puts the situation of kabuki in clear historical perspective. During the early, successful years of the war, kabuki actors and playwrights were in great demand, and they performed many jingoistic, patriotic works. Nevertheless, most actors chose to remember things differently after the war. Brandon quotes from Ichikawa Ennosuke II’s postwar memoir: “The five years of the Pacific War was a dark period, a time of suffering for performers.” Brandon then comments:

Like most others, Ennosuke did not see himself as a participant in the war. Forgotten were his morale performances in Manchuria, flying to China to gather authentic war material, and the many heroic-soldier roles he enacted in war plays. In portraying himself as a victim of the war and dwelling only on the horrors of the war’s end, Ennosuke (and others) erased the victorious years, 1931–1943, when life was good for kabuki artists because of the war.

During the war, kabuki continued its centuries-long tradition of “overnight pickles” (ichiyazuke), plays based on contemporary events that were written and staged within weeks or even days of the actual occurrence. An early wartime “overnight pickle” (when things were still very good for kabuki) dealt with the 1942 capture of Singapore aided by the daring exploits of a young Japanese man whom the popular press dubbed “The Tiger of Malaya.” Brandon notes that more than one hundred kabuki overnight pickle plays were written and set during the Fifteen-Year War….

Brandon argues that official support for such morale-boosting kabuki performances, despite overwhelming evidence that Japan was nearing a disastrous defeat, offers a case study supporting the contention that without the atomic bombing, Japan would never have surrendered. He notes that the Japanese cabinet voted numerous times to continue fighting despite the destruction of nearly half of Japan’s urban areas and devastating losses in the Pacific. He offers the bizarre case of playwright Kikuta Kazuo, who wrote many anti-American, prowar plays for both Shōchiku and Tōhō, as further proof that the government was in total denial regarding Japan’s imminent defeat. Kikuta described what it was like to be one of the last members of the Japan Dramatists’ Association to remain in Tokyo after massive American firebombing began in March 1945. The Bureau of Information considered the Dramatists’ Association’s purpose to be “to gain victory in the war.”

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Ukraine’s Sure Got Talent in Sand Animation

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Wordcatcher Tales: Kara-e/Kōmō-e Mekiki

I came across a few interesting terms, two of them new to me, while browsing through a beautiful and fascinating book: Japan Envisions the West: 16th–19th Century Japanese Art from Kobe City Museum edited by Yukiko Shirahara (Seattle Art Museum, 2007).

唐絵目利き kara-e mekiki ‘Chinese art inspectors’ – When Japan was keeping the outside world at arm’s length during the Tokugawa era, the Shogun employed inspectors to appraise, catalog, and often copy samples of all goods coming from China and the West, perhaps as much to make sure the Shogun got the best goods as to keep harmful influences out. The characters that make up mekiki are 目 me ‘eye’ and 利 ki(ki) ‘efficacy, expertise’. But the latter also occurs in other contexts: ri ‘advantage, profit’; ki(ku) ‘to take effect, operate’; ki(kasu) ‘to use (one’s head), exert (influence)’; ki(keru) ‘be influential’; and ki(kaseru) ‘to season’.

唐絵 kara-e ‘Chinese painting’ – Kara is written with the character for the Tang dynasty, otherwise read (< Tang), as in 唐画 tōga ‘Chinese painting’, a synonym of kara-e. However, 唐 means not just ‘Tang’ or even ‘Chinese’, but ‘foreign’, especially when pronounced kara- in native Japanese compounds, as in 唐行き karayuki ‘going abroad’ (lit. ‘Tang-going’), 唐草 karakusa ‘arabesque’ (lit. ‘Tang grass=flowing style’), and 唐黍 karakibi/tōmorokoshi ‘maize, Indian corn’ (lit. ‘Tang millet/sorghum’).

Compare the wal- (cognate with Welsh) on English walnut (once ‘foreign nut’); or the 胡 hu (once ‘barbarian’) on Chinese 胡桃 hutao ‘walnut’ (‘foreign peach’) or 胡椒 hujiao ‘black pepper’ (‘foreign pepper’ vs. 辣椒 lajiao ‘hot pepper’), or 胡麻 huma ‘sesame’ (‘foreign hemp’).

紅毛絵 kōmō-e ‘Dutch painting’ – By Tokugawa times, the Japanese had to deal with a new kind of foreigner very different from the Asians lumped together as kara. The character abbreviation for the Dutch is 蘭 ran (lit. ‘orchid’), short for Oranda ‘Holland’, as in 蘭学 Rangaku, ‘Dutch learning’, but by extension ‘Western learning’ more generally. So Western-style paintings can be called 蘭画 ranga, just as Chinese-style paintings can be called 唐画 tōga. But this book refers to the more specifically Dutch-style paintings from Nagasaki as 紅毛絵 kōmō-eRed Hair painting’—a term I found especially engaging, as a former redhead myself (now mostly white), married to another former redhead (now more brunette with strands of gray), and the parent of a red-haired daughter.

By the way, Katsumori Noriko, whose chapter on “The Influence of Ransho [‘Western books’] on Western-style Painting” compares Japanese paintings copied from originals in European books imported through Nagasaki, starts by correcting the conventional history that Dutch-language books were banned between 1630 (the beginning of sakoku) and 1720 (during the reign of Yoshimune). She says (p. 99):

In fact, these policies applied only to Chinese translations of Western books. Books in Dutch, presented as gifts from foreign visitors, had been preserved over the decades in the shogunal library but were largely disregarded. When the bibliophile shogun Yoshimune opened his library in 1720, Japanese scholars had the opportunity to reencounter and study ransho firsthand.

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Tijuana’s Cultural Evolution, 1920-2000

From Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration, by Sam Quinones (U. New Mexico Press, 2007), pp. 171-172:

In 1920, Tijuana had been a village of eleven hundred. Eighty years later city officials could only guess the population neared two million people. There were entire neighborhoods populated by people from different Mexican states—Oaxaca, Sinaloa, Sonora, Mexico City. Yet the federal government in Mexico City kept Tijuana’s budget minuscule. So the city could neither control growth nor provide services for the newcomers. Shantytowns popped up on the ever-extending edge of town. “Cartonlandia”—Cardboardland, an awesome shantytown on the bed of the Tijuana River near the border—was almost a tourist attraction itself.

To the bureaucrats in Mexico City, and to most of Mexico, Tijuana was an ugly embarrassment, a virtually American city, and hardly Mexican at all. Government bureaucrats required extra salary to come staff federal agencies in Tijuana. In one sense, they were right. Tijuana resembled the global economy it depended on—an assault of random noises and images. “A modern-art painting” is how one Tijuanan described the city.

Yet Tijuana had a beauty that none of the country’s exquisite colonial towns possessed. Young and far from Mexico City, Tijuana was free of history and tradition. It was close to California, the wealthiest U.S. state. This created better jobs and educational opportunities in Tijuana than elsewhere in Mexico. As a crossroads, its people were open to new ideas. To Tijuana came the hardworking poor escaping the limits and decaying economies of their hometowns. Many of these folks intended to sneak into the United States; but they found lives in Tijuana and stayed.

“A more egalitarian society formed here. It’s part of what makes Baja California different,” said David Pinera, who is a professor of Tijuana history. “It was a society in the process of forming, a society in which the culture of hard work predominates and less the culture of privilege. There aren’t the closed social circles. The rich man here is someone who came from the bottom. His father didn’t give him any leg up. He was a waiter or street vendor and made it according to his own efforts.”

Thus a relatively large middle class could form. In the 1980s, banks, insurance companies, and auto dealers began to arrive to serve the middle classes. Tijuana then got its first supermarkets and shopping malls. Moreover, middle-class denizens naturally didn’t want their children exposed to strippers, shantytowns, drunk gringos, and naked-lady playing cards. They wanted music lessons, ballet, and art classes for their children. So a constituency for a more evolved city was born.

The quirky cast of characters in this chapter include:

  • Enrique Fuentes, who almost single-handedly nurtured a constituency for opera in Tijuana and who in 2001 opened an Internet cafe, El Café de la Ópera, with computers named Aida, Carmen, Madame Butterfly, and La Traviata, linked to a server named Turandot
  • Mercedes Quiñónes, who spent years in a cultural wilderness, volunteering as a choir director and supporting family as a hardware wholesaler, before finding a professional voice teacher and becoming, at age 51, Tijuana’s premier soprano when Pagliacci opened there in 2003
  • The Russian emigré musicians who during the 1990s formed Baja California’s first state orchestra, then its first state music conservatory, teaching a new generation of Mexican music students

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A Velvet Painting Maquiladora in Juárez

From Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration, by Sam Quinones (U. New Mexico Press, 2007), pp. 128-130:

[Doyle] Harden and [Leon] Korol—a Georgia country boy and a blunt Chicago Jew—would become fast friends, business partners, and would transform the marketing of velvet painting in America.

“He changed my life in the velvets,” Harden said of Korol, who died in 2004 at the age of seventy-seven.

Harden had been sending a semi truck a week back to his Georgia warehouse. But Korol believed velvet had national potential. He was the first customer to buy an entire truckload of Harden velvets from Juarez. Within a month, he had ordered five trucks of paintings delivered to Chicago. He kept this up for years. Velvet paintings filled the cavernous warehouse at the Leon Korol Company in Chicago, exuding a smell of oil paint and fabric that years later Korol’s sons still remembered….

It was to meet this demand that, in 1972, Korol fronted the money with which Harden built a block-long velvet-painting factory on a Juárez vacant lot belonging to a Mexican customs commandant. The factory soon hummed with three shifts a day.

Harden’s velvet-painting factory is legendary among Juárez old-timers. It was really a cluster of about two dozen studios of different sizes—each with a master painter and team of assistants. Harden provided the materials and paid dollars for everything the master and his crew could churn out.

Harden tested the painters to see who could paint the best trees, or waterfalls, or clouds. Then he set up production lines. Each studio had a wooden shelf along which the artists would slide the paintings. One man would paint the clouds, slide the canvas to the next fellow, who’d paint the sun. The third guy would paint the mountains and slide it to the guy who’d paint the stream. And so it went until the painting was finished. A crew of framers cut the velvet, stapled it to frames, and fed blank canvases into the maw of it all.

An assembly line for handmade art, the factory was one of the first maquiladoras in a town now dominated by them. Each studio was designed so no painter used more than one color and thus avoided wasting time by switching or cleaning his brushes.

Each day, after reviewing sales orders, the master painters chose the subjects to be painted: a landscape, an eagle, a wolf, an Aztec warrior, a pachuco by his car. An assistant forged the master’s name on each painting. As soon as it was done, the artwork was in a truck and on its way to some far-off part of the United States, sometimes arriving still wet.

Two big rigs would leave Harden’s factory for the United States every day. Urged on by Leon Korol, who bought from no one else, Harden reached awesome heights in velvet production. A dozen or more competitors followed his lead into mass production. A man named Molina had a studio of twenty or more of Juárez’s best artists to whom he paid cash every day; it was accessible off a downtown back street with security guards vetting each person who wanted to enter. But no one equaled Harden’s volume.

In typical Quinones fashion, this chapter is a collection of interrelated stories about unusual people:

  • Edgar Leeteg (1904–1953), the weird kid from East St. Louis, Illinois, who moved with his mother to Tahiti, where he became the father of modern velvet painting
  • Aloha Barney Davis, who marketed Leeteg’s work in Hawai‘i, from which it spread to San Diego, then to Tijuana and other towns along the U.S.–Mexican border.
  • Chuy Morán, the hardscrabble artist who became the king of Juárez velvet painters and, for a time, a very wealthy man.
  • A.M. Shawar and other Palestinian emigrés in Edmonton, Alberta, who sold velvet paintings all over the Great White North, even flying them into isolated villages in the Canadian outback.
  • Hundreds of Scientology students in Florida who paid for their schooling by hawking velvet paintings during “velvet’s last hurrah” during the 1980s.

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