Photopost: A Visit to the MFA, part eight


I continued my ongoing quest to visit every gallery in the Museum of Fine Arts by visiting the Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa wings.  It’s unfortunate that the art of the two most populous continents and some diverse island cultures are all clumped together like that, especially since the MFA boasts having a large collection of Asian arts dating back to the earliest days of the museum.  Nevertheless there was quite a delightful collection of works that had me hopping around geographically as well as through time.  One gallery deliberately mixed contemporary and classical Japanese art in a provocative way.

I also took a 3 masterpieces in 30 minutes tour and got to learn about three family portraits from three different artistic styles – Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, a folk art portrait from the 1830s, and Steen’s Twelfth-Night Feast.

After these eight visits, I believe I’ve been to every permanent gallery in the museum.  Of course, art on exhibit is changing all the time, so I’ll have to go back and do it again.  Maybe next time I’ll have a theme like art with families or bridges or pets or something like that.

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Book Review: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe


Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Nigeria

Author:  Chinua Achebe
Title: Things Fall Apart
Publication Info: Heinemann Educational Publishers (1971) [Originally published in 1958]
ISBN: 0435121626

Summary/Review:

Achebe’s novel depicts the traditional culture of the Igbo people in the late 19th century as a complex society unlike many European/American views of Africa of the time as “primitive.”  Central to the narrative is Okonkwo a strong man whose success as a wrestler has opened the door for him to seek leadership in the tribe.  Ambitious and something of a bully, Okonkwo is not a sympathetic character (fittingly as Achebe does not sentimentalize the Igbo and even show some as complicit when the Europeans arrive and “things fall apart”).

For breaking a taboo, Okonkwo is sent into exile and during that time European missionaries and traders arrive.  Some Igbo are drawn to Christianity and some hope that allying with the missionaries will help them redress that political flaws of their own society.  Okonkwo returns home and takes up the cause of driving away the foreigners with predictable results.

Things Fall Apart is a nuanced and truthful (if not factual) account of the colonial culture clash.  This novel is tragic, blunt, and in all things rather grim.

Recommended books: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (for a contrasting view)
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man by Dale Peterson


In my childhood, I enjoyed National Geographic specials about a slight English woman who would sit in the Tanzanian forest by the Gombe River and observe chimpanzees.  In college I read one of her books, Through a Window: My Thirty Years With the Chimpanzees of Gombe and became even more deeply enamored with the woman and her works.  When Jane Goodall received an honorary degree from the College of William & Mary on Charter Day in 1993, my roommate Hal joked that they would need security to keep me from swooping in from the rafters and abducting her.  Thus it was natural for me to read the comprehensive biography Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man (2006) by Dale Peterson.

Peterson relies on a wealth of source material including interviews with Goodall, her family, colleagues and researchers; a huge volume of Goodall’s correspondence; and Goodall’s voluminous notes and published writings.  From early childhood, Jane Goodall seemed to be fated to her future work by observing farm animals, starting science clubs with her friends, and studying the behavior of her many family pets.  At times, the detail of Goodall’s childhood seems a bit too much.  I swear there’s an entire chapter that just lists the names of young men who fancied the teenage Jane.

The strength of this biography is the portion of Jane’s life from the late-1950’s to the mid-1970’s.  Starting with her affiliation with Louis Leakey anthropological & archaeological works in Africa, Jane set off on a new bold path with her quiet observation of the chimpanzees of Gombe, recognizing the chimps as individuals, and building up a detailed record of behavior over time. Her methods were considered unscientific by some, yet at the same time she recieved pressure from her sponsors at National Geographic to make her writing less scientific (National Geographic doesn’t come off well in this book due to a often tempestuous relationship with Goodall and the Gombe Stream reserve.)  Goodall’s family life is fascinating as well, including her mother Vanne and sister Judy who both accompanied Jane to Gombe at times, her two husbands – photographer Hugo and Tanzanian politician Derek, and son Grub who grew up at the research station.  Most of the biography is related in a strict chronological manner although there are some artistic details such as a chapter where the regime changes among Gombe’s alpha male chimpanzees are intertwined with the changes of administration from National Geographic support to a more independent Jane Goodall Institute.

For the excess of detail in the early part of the book, the last portion of the book from the mid-1970’s to the present feels rushed.  The death of Goodall’s second husband seems to be just a few paragraphs tacked onto a chapter about Idi Amin’s invasion of Tanzania and inexplicably long passages about the family dogs.  Thirty years of Goodall’s life – during a period when she became a traveling activist for both wild and captive chimpanzees – seems to be nothing more than a list of awards, appearances, and accomplishments.  I like this book because I love Jane Goodall for her remarkable accomplishments as a scientist, teacher and educator, but Peterson’s writing can be plodding and uneven at times.  I’ve added Goodall’s own book Reason For Hope; A Spiritual Journey to my reading list for 2009 to learn even more.

In the meantime, check out The Jane Goodall Institute website for lots of neat resources.

Jane Goodall : the woman who redefined man by Dale Peterson.
Publisher: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.

Book Review: Rough Crossings by Simon Schama


Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (2006) by Simon Schama (author of the excellent Dead Certainties) tells the story of people who found liberty at the time of American Revolution, but not from the Americans.  Enslaved blacks served in British regiments trading their loyalty to the king for promises of freedom (which makes this book an excellent companion to the Octavian Nothing novels).  After the war, freed blacks attempt to establish their own colonies first in Nova Scotia and then in Sierra Leone.  These efforts struggle against elements of the British government and commerce as well as internal divisions.

Schama’s work introduces a number of fascinating characters including, many of whom I previously knew little or nothing about

  • Colonel Tye — African-American Loyalist guerilla leader who had many military successes against the Continentals.
  • William Wilberforce — Member of Parliament and abolitionist who headed the effort that lead to the end of the slave trade in Britain.
  • James Ramsey — minister and abolitionist who was a prominent leader in bringing an end to the slave trade.
  • Granville Sharp — one of the earliest voices in England to take up the cause of abolition and attempt to have slavery ended by legal means.
  • Olaudah Equiano — freed blackman who became a prominent writer and speaker for abolition in Britain.
  • John Clarkson — an abolotionist along with his brother Thomas.  John acted nobly as an agent for the Sierra Leone company trying to get promises made to the black settlers fulfilled.
  • Thomas Peters — escaped slave who recruited fellow Loyalist blacks from Nova Scotia to found Sierra Leone and is remembered as a founding father of that nation.

This well-written narrative really brings alive an overlooked period in history.  I enjoyed listening to Schama himself narrate the audiobook in his lively, lilting voice. This is also the first time I’ve listened to a book as a downloadable audio file from the Boston Public Library.

Rough crossings [electronic resource] : Britain, the slaves, and the American Revolution / Simon Schama.Publisher:[New York, N.Y.] : HarperAudio, 2006.
ISBN:0061171522 (sound recording : OverDrive Audio Book) 9780061137020
Notes: Downloadable audio file.
Title from: Title details screen.
Abridged.
Duration: 11:52:30.