Monday 14 July 2014

A Chinese Outsider Artist from the Streets of New York

In October 2013, I saw these colourful drawings on a wall outside a shop in New York City's Chinatown district. I almost passed them by, thinking they were regular street posters...

...but a closer look revealed they were handmade artworks, lovingly (if clumsily) executed on paper with ink and watercolours. The artist had a definitive style and a clear angle - he loved to represent animals and beasts iconic to China. I set about to photographing as many of his works as possible.

Two magpies huddle together on a cherry tree. These birds are symbols of happiness and felicity in Chinese culture.

Two pandas celebrate their birthday with a cake. I think this picture was referenced from a photograph.

A tiger at rest.

The rooster is another symbolic Chinese animal. It stands for pride, flamboyance, honesty, vigilance, etc... That's a lot of symbolism!

A yellow-headed crane...

...and its counterpart, a white one. This was one of my favourite pieces by this artist.

A big, happy-looking catfish, with red and green things attached to its tail.

This was the only representation of a human in this artist's work. I think this is meant to be a portrait of Confucius. 

The unknown artist's repertoire extended to more vernacular subjects. Here, a sand-yellow cat stalks its unseen quarry.

A cheetah on a graceful run.

Most interesting, however, were the street artist's pictures of Chinese military might. This was an unmistakable portrait of the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning, which was built around a titanic, unfinished ex-Soviet hull named the Varyag. A Chinese company purchased the derelict under the pretext of turning it into a floating hotel, and tugged it all the way from the Black sea to China. Once in China, the floating hulk was turned into an aircraft carrier with full military capability. I actually watched the Varyag pass from the Bosphorus en route to open seas, all the way back in 2001. It was funny to encounter it again in New York.

Another one of my favourites was this naive illustration of a nuclear bomber, most possibly a representation of the fabled "H10" aircraft, an adaptation of the Russian Tupolev Tu-22M bomber.

There were a few more pictures in the selection, but I could not get their close ups as a man suddenly emerged from the adjacent shop and warned me to take "no photo!" Nevertheless, this was a neat and surprising discovery - and a welcome break from the repetitive torrent of "street art" found in big cities such as New York. "Street art" looks cool, spectacular even, but let's face it - it is also instantly forgettable.

These tiny watercolours were remarkable because they told the story of a particular person; an immigrant in America, and his romantic nostalgia for his native China. From birds to dragons, tigers to aircraft carriers and nuclear bombers, this artist had stamped his little corner of the city with naive yet proud symbols of his distant homeland.

Thursday 3 July 2014

Penetrating the Mystery Cenotaph of Heybeliada (The Tomb of Sebasti Cangelaris)

In January 2014, I visited the beautiful island of Heybeliada, (Halki) for a research project.

I was particularly interested in a crumbling, elegant old structure, sitting on a plot of land next to a small monastery owned by the last Greeks of Istanbul. The structure was surrounded by barbed wire, and I had no way of gaining entry. Something about the edifice struck me, and I made a mental note of exploring it someday.

This summer, I returned to that particular monument. Quick-thinking and a few minutes of garden-wall acrobatics (something I was unable to do in heavy winter clothes,) meant that I was able to get inside pretty easily.

An ornate monument lay inside the building. Both the obelisk and the building it was housed in were doubtlessly very elegant structures before time and Turkish nationalism had had their ways with them.

Detail of the haunting woman from the front side of the monument. I first thought her to be the Virgin Mary, but then I saw the tall cross she carried by her side and identified her as St. Helena of Constantinople. Helena was a Byzantine empress and the mother of Constantine the Great. She made an important pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She was responsible for the preservation of early Christian relics and establishment of many monasteries across the Eastern Roman Empire. A vandal had chipped off her nose.

On the left side of the monument, another ethereal woman was offering something that looked like a burning, two-headed bird to a ray of light from the heavens. Below her was a frieze of a pelican, piercing its own bosom in order to feed her young.

I won't pretend to know who or what this woman is supposed to represent. The star atop her head reminds me of the depictions of Yemaja, the syncretic sea goddess worshipped across the Carribean, but I'm sure this is a coincidence. Perhaps she is one of the seven Virtues of Christian lore. Whatever she was, this was a hauntingly beautiful carving.

The Pelican, on the other hand, is an antique/medieval symbol of charity and selflessness. The legendary pelican was quite different from the ordinary ones waddling about on seashores today. The Physiologus, an early Christian work, describes pelicans in the following paragraph:

"The little pelicans strike their parents, and the parents, striking back, kill them. But on the third day the mother pelican strikes and opens her side and pours blood over her dead young. In this way they are revivified and made well. So Our Lord Jesus Christ says also through the prophet Isaiah: ‘I have brought up children and exalted them, but they have despised me’ (Is 1:2). We struck God by serving the creature rather than the Creator. Therefore He deigned to ascend the cross, and when His side was pierced, blood and water gushed forth unto our salvation and eternal life."

On the following side of the monument, a sad-looking angel rested by his fallen trumpet.

Close-up of the resting angel figure. This was most likely a symbol of sorrow and loss.

On the following side - portraits of a man and woman, separated by the grinning skull of Death. The bottom panel was broken - I wonder what it displayed in life? This monument was possibly a cenotaph, dedicated by a mourning husband to his dead wife.

Close-up of the death's head figure.

The front side of the monument had a long epitaph or inscription. Before writing this article, I shared this inscription with a few Greek-speaking friends, one of them identified it as "something for a dead woman." You can see the Mystery Cenotaph's map coordinates at this link.

This was one of the strangest, not to mention the most poignant adventures I've had in Istanbul. The barbed wire was doubtlessly erected around this monument to protect it from the casual vandalism of Turkish encroachers. Western cities have dozens, if not hundreds of such beautiful monuments and sculptures, but in Turkey, the scant remains of the country's artistically-skilled, culturally relevant non-Moslem minorities seem like relics from a lost age, especially when compared to the soul-crushing torrent of banality and ineptitude dominating this country in the present day.

UPDATE: This "mystery" has now been solved thanks to my friend Mr. Aydın Örstan, who pointed out this monumental grave as the tomb of Sebasti Cangelaris, the wife of Spiridon Cangelaris, a distinguished British consul in then-Ottoman city of Kios. She died in 1865. Later on, Spiridon Cangelaris was buried in the same tomb. Our source for this information comes from a recent book named "Halki'den Heybeli'ye," (From Halki to Heybeli,) by the Turkish researcher Orhan Türker.

Spiridon Cangelaris was a member of the distinguished Cangelari clan - a noble Byzantine family who continued to hold important posts in the Ottoman Empire (and later, Greece) after the fall of the Byzantine Empire.