Illustration by Patrick Jenkins.
Mark Twain wrote about the city of Damascus, Syria, in his 1869 book “Innocents Abroad.” “Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies,” Twain predicted. “Though another claims the name, old Damascus is by right, the eternal City.”
Syria is where it is believed the first alphabet was invented and the rise of the world’s earliest civilizations occured. Christianity and Islam both flourished there, leaving behind some of the earliest and most important religious sites in the region. It’s one of the only countries where Aramaic, the Semitic language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken to this very day.
Today, headlines worldwide carry messages pertaining to the death and destruction in Syria, especially in cities like Damascus and Aleppo. After four decades of totalitarian regimes, the country rose up against oppression and tyranny. The Syrian civil war is now in its third year. Brutal government crackdowns and unprecedented violence have made Syria one of the most dangerous spots in the world. Violence in the country continues to escalate, bringing the death toll to 70,000, and facts on the ground tell us there is a lot more to mourn than a body count.
In May 2012, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, issued a public appeal for the protection of Syria’s cultural heritage, expressing “grave concern about possible damage to precious sites.” Only 10 months later, however, Aleppo’s ancient marketplace known as the “old souk” — a UNESCO world heritage site that survived the rules of the Greeks, Romans and Ottomans — did not survive attacks by the modern weaponry of the Syrian regime. After the stone walls had been pockmarked with bullet holes, and snipers surrounded the old quarter from every corner, a fire following clashes between the regime’s army and the armed opposition lit the souk up in flames, burning a large portion of its shops and historical assets.
Bokova further expressed her concern following the fire, calling Aleppo “a crossroads of cultures since the second millennium B.C.” and warning of possible destruction threatening other important sites. Joanne Farchak, a Lebanese archaeologist who also investigated the destruction of Iraq’s historical treasures after 2003, was quoted by The Independent’s Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk saying the situation of Syria’s heritage today is “catastrophic.” While other archaeologists and groups such as the World Monuments Fund have been monitoring the losses, government forces, thugs, looters, and terrorists have been playing a more significant part in lengthening the heritage casualty list. These parties, however, have yet to be identified as it becomes increasingly difficult for international agencies to enter the country. In the meantime, government officials claim the opposition army forces are responsible, while opposition members blame government forces and regime thugs.
Recent reports have shown that the holiest Jewish site in Syria — the 2,000-year-old Jobar Synagogue — has been looted, burnt and destroyed. The holy site built atop a cave is believed to be where the prophet Elijah hid from persecution; it is located in a Damascus suburb that has been under indiscriminate government shelling for the past two months. Mohammed al Shami, an opposition activist who lives in the area, said in a Skype interview with NBC News that the shelling has not spared any building. “Luckily, many artifacts from the synagogue were removed by a local council in Jobar and are now being stored for safety,” al Shami added.
Much as in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has been reported that nearly $2 billion worth of artifacts have already left Syria. The list of damaged heritage sites and missing antiquities is approximately four pages long. A writer for a Syrian opposition newspaper mentioned that a rare gold statue of an Aramaic God was stolen from the city of Hama, and various YouTube videos show ancient ruins torn down and destroyed in several parts of the country.
The Syrian regime has been wiping out entire neighborhoods, destroying towns and displacing millions of civilians through violent warfare. And while heavy Russian army tanks still surround citadels, snipers hide behind ancient limestone city walls, and shells continue to rain on the alluring courtyards of Umayyad and Ottoman mosques, the rallying cries of unknown heritage organizations remain unheard. Whether that is due to a lack of funding or publicity, sites that have provided generations with knowledge and richness are in a perilous state. As renowned British historian Dan Snow said recently on BBC World, “The treasures now being destroyed matter to everyone on the planet.” But the underwhelming inaction in response has been proving otherwise.
This list below shows only a few of the world’s archeological sites in Syria that have been seriously damaged by the ongoing fighting, bombing and shelling:
1. Great Mosque of Aleppo: The UNESCO World Heritage site is the largest mosque in the city of Aleppo and one of the oldest. It is said to be a former Roman temple and then a Byzantine church.
2. Krak des Chevaliers: A crusader castle, built by the knights of St. John in the mid-12th century on the site that had previously been inhabited by a settlement of Kurds. It lies on a hilltop between Homs and the coastal city of Tartus.
3. Al Omari Mosque: One of the earliest mosques in Islam, located in the city of Daraa in the south of Syria. The symbolic minaret built by the Caliph Omar was shelled and completely destroyed in April by the regime army forces.
4. The old palace of Junblat: One of the largest palaces in the northern city of Aleppo; it dates back to around 1604, originally built for a prominent Kurdish leader in Aleppo during the Ottoman rule in Syria.
5. Temple of Bel: Located in the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria consecrated to the ancient Semitic god, Bel. Palmyra was a stronghold of Queen Zenobia in the third century.
Photos courtesy of Christina Obregón (Calles y Sueños – Chicago)
“From My Altitude,” an art exhibit at the Calles y Sueños Community Center in Pilsen, showcases the work of two Latin American political prisoners serving time in penitentiaries in the United States. Running through May 4, the exhibit seeks to raise awareness about the intransigent nature of U.S.-Cuba relations while drawing ties to the underlying inequities of the U.S. legal system.
The show features 30 paintings by Antonio Guerrero, each piece completed during his ongoing imprisonment. Among the prisoners known as the “Cuban Five,” Guerrero was convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and sentenced to one life-term plus ten years for blowing the whistle on a group of Cuban exiles, known as Brothers to the Rescue, who were planning an assassination attempt on Fidel Castro.
The show also includes four paintings by Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican nationalist who was sentenced to 70 years in prison for seditious conspiracy, armed robbery, and minor arms charges. He is one of longest held political prisoners in the Western hemisphere – he’s going on his 32nd year in jail.
In light of the background of these artists, “From My Altitude” is intended to act as a platform to speak out against the Cuban Five case and the ongoing mistreatment of political prisoners. Their case is unique in terms of its disproportionate sentences, repeated overturned appeals and convictions, severe detainment parameters, and persistent neglect from American media.
The exhibit is hosted by the Chicago Cuba Coalition, a pro-normalization organization for the rights of Cubans. The coalition supports the eradication of the US policy toward Cuba of the economic embargo and diplomatic isolation, and aims to help inform the community about the major issues going on between the two countries.
Steve Eckardt one of the lead organizers of the Coalition wants the show to serve as a two-fold educational tool, both on U.S. domestic and foreign policy. “We see the exhibit as a way to break the silence of the case of the Cuban Five,” Eckardt said. “But also to show that these types of injustices are commonplace in the U.S.”
In 1998, the five men were sent to the U.S. by the Cuban government to infiltrate, thwart, and expose the anti-Castro activities of the Brothers to the Rescue organization. They were subsequently seized by U.S. officials during the operation and branded as spies. After a lengthy trial in Miami, a city with a long history of hostility toward the Cuban government, the five were sentenced to terms up to double-life, put into geographically isolated ‘super-max’ prisons, and denied spousal visits. The Cuban Five members are the first persons to be sentenced to life imprisonment for espionage in the United States without a secret document ever handled.
Since the original trial in 2000, the Five have been through an extensive appeals process, achieving some success with the U.S. Court of Appeals and reducing three of the five sentences. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has continually refused, without explanation, any review of the case. The group has received support from Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, and eight other Nobel Laureates.
This April, the Chicago Cuba Coalition will be hosting several other events in defense of the Cuban Five and calling for their release. Happenings will include film screenings, talks, and a women’s open mic event featuring presentations about the wives of the five who have been continually denied visitation.
“From My Altitude” runs through May 4 at the Calles y Sueños Community Center, 1900 S. Carpenter Street. A closing event on May 4th will feature First Secretary of the Cuban Interest Section Patricia Pego Guerra, Stefanie Beacham of the ANSWER Coalition, and Stansfield Smith of the Chicago Committee to Free the Five.
Photos by Chris Johnson.
Just near the corner of Ashland and Hubbard, with a foggy Chicago skyline to the east and brick industrial structures in all directions, sits a friendly red schoolhouse. Through a window of its late 19th century façade, pristine drafting desks patiently wait to be smudged with the graphite and eraser dust of a new student body. A yellow, ringed planet adorns the front doors — a futuristic twist to the building’s vintage charm. This will be the new Scuola Internazionale di Comics, an Italian school of comics and graphic arts opening its first U.S. location in Chicago’s Kinzie Industrial Corridor.
Headquartered in Rome, the Scuola Internazionale di Comics has locations in nine Italian cities. The school was originally founded 34 years ago by artist Dino Caterini as what he calls an experimental “creative factory,” during his time working as a designer and illustrator for Italian publishing houses. “When I was young, all the artists wanted to work in the U.S.,” explains Caterini in an interview with F Newsmagazine. “Now, I want to give American artists the opportunity to work under European instructors.” More than 30 Scuola alumni currently work for U.S. comic publishers DC Comics, Marvel and IDW. A particularly prominent alumnus is Sara Pichelli, of Marvel’s “Ultimate Spider-Man” fame.
The school’s U.S. introduction is well-timed. In December 2012, Italy’s foreign minister, Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata collaborated with Hillary Rodham Clinton to announce 2013 as “The Year of Italian Culture” in the U.S. The announcement spearheaded a series of Italian cultural events to take place in the U.S. this year, including Italy lending key works by Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, and numerous tributes and festivals for renowned Italian scientists, designers and artists.
With an emphasis on a “master-apprentice” dynamic inspired by 15th century Italian art guilds, the Scuola Internazionale di Comics’ curriculum recalls Caterini’s experiences working as a young artist in Italy. Originally trained as an architect, Caterini’s drawing ability led him to assist comics creator Alberto Giolitti, then later Guido Buzzelli, Vittorio Cossio, and Renato Polese, who he considers “a few of the greatest comics artists of all time.” Caterini’s workflow increased until he was driven to start a new studio with his own team of assistants. In 1979, the artist noticed that despite the comics industry’s flourishing popularity, there was nowhere to learn the craft. The Scuola Internazionale di Comics was born. “The school started out as a combination training facility and small production studio,” he explains. “Kids could get hands-on experience working on real projects. That is the model that laid the groundwork for the school as it exists today.” The school’s three-year program excludes general education courses in favor of an intensive all-arts curriculum.
Comics in Italy are called “fumetti,” which literally translates to “little puffs of smoke”— the term refers to the cloudlike speech bubbles which accompany the images. Caterini pinpoints the characteristics that he feels make fumetti — and in turn his school’s methods — distinctly Italian. The first is highly rigorous anatomy training with live models. Also key, he says, are ample material experimentation and aspiration toward “a highly individualized, mature artistic style,” or what the director lovingly calls the “artistic soul.” “The U.S. is known for specialization, concentrating on getting great in one area. In Europe, we do the opposite. We force artists to experiment with a wide range of styles and materials like ink, tempera, wash and oil. You have to know the materials to understand which one is best for your personal expression.”
Responding to the demands of a changing industry, the Scuola Internazionale di Comics will also offers courses in graphic design, animation and 3D-Maya software. But embracing technology has not loosened the school’s stronghold on tradition. Caterini stresses, “Even with these new course offerings, we emphasize the art of storytelling, storyboarding and most of all, the need to develop what are called basic hand-skills. These require an appreciation for anatomy and working with pencil and paper, like the good old days.”
“American West through Italian Eyes,” the comic art exhibit which debuted at the school’s public opening on March 22, showcases another characteristic of Italian comics’ “good old days” — a deep-seeded fascination with the American West. Caterini lends this public interest to the theme’s popularity in cinema.“The West was totally dominant in the comics scene when I grew up, because it was like ‘pocket-size’ cinema,” he remembers. “Sam
Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ and [Arthur Penn’s] ‘Little Big Man’ influenced us all. You had to have violence, tragedy, humor and romance. Comics creators were the best directors, screenwriters, costumers and actors all in one.” “American West through Italian Eyes” displays original pen and ink drawings from Scuola Internazionale di Comics Artistic Director Paolo Eleuteri Serpieri. Serpieri’s attraction to the region led him to co-create “L’Histoire du Far-West” (“The Story of the West”), a series on the history of the old West. Serpieri is perhaps best known, however, for his erotic science fiction series “Druuna.”
Chicago was not the only contender when choosing a site for the new school, but Scuola Internazionale di Comics International Marketing Director Lesley Pritikin, a Chicago native who has lived in Rome for the last 25 years, still felt strong ties to the Windy City. She ultimately persuaded Caterini of the same. “Her pride in Chicago’s amazing and vital artistic community was very convincing, and after my first visit, I cancelled visits to San Francisco and Miami,” recalls Caterini. “I knew that our first school outside of Italy was destined to be in Chicago.”
Pritikin and Caterini wanted a location near the West Loop gallery district and away from the already college-dense South Loop area. The Kinzie Industrial Corridor neighborhood they selected, once considered an area of high crime, is a burgeoning arts hub. The nearby Arts of Life studio, founded in 2000, is an alternative day program and creative space for artists with and without disabilities. Meanwhile the 1821 Hubbard Street Lofts, on the same street as the new Scuola Internazionale di Comics, house numerous artist studios and exhibition facilities, including the collaborative project space Johalla Projects. It will be interesting to see how Scuola
Internazionale di Comics fits in among this varied selection of local arts organizations. “Like the art our students produce,” Caterini notes approvingly of the new site, “we wanted something, unique, distinctive and, as [Lesley Pritikin] puts it, ‘very Chicago.’”
Art Bash 2013, organized by the Contemporary Practices department at SAIC, is an ambitious collection of the work of first-year students. On April 12, opening night, the live-art event, “Interaction,” featured the work of first-year performance artists selected by faculty members. For ”10 New Videos,” a juried selection of student video work was screened. Select student work is spread around SAIC’s Sharp building, in both random spaces and designated display areas that present viewers with the opportunity of engaging with work unexpectedly. The end of year-exhibition runs through April 26.
Ultimate Loop, video installation by Mallika Chandra
Noise Pollution, Video installation by Paula Nacif
Neiman Center Second floor display, main hallway
Main gallery, Sharp building
Main gallery, Sharp building
Performance by Sam Haid
(From left) DeGenevieve, Rodriguez, Majeed, and Crawford joined Brown for the “Controversy, Community and Curriculum” panel
SAIC has been having a series of institution-wide conversations about diversity since 2009, when the school released a new Strategic Plan with diversity as one of its seven initiatives. Recently the Diversity Action Group (DAG), composed of SAIC students, faculty and staff held two rigorous, several-hour long symposia to discuss the issue that has been deemed a priority at SAIC. The DAG then presented the most pressing issues concerning diversity — delineated by students participating in these symposia — to President Massey’s cabinet. You may or may not have seen one of the school-wide emails sent by the Office of the Provost that discusses this topic — the information is all there.
That’s why it should come as no surprise that the panel discussion “Controversy, Community and Curriculum,” held on Wednesday, April 10 on the first floor of the Neiman Center, was a well attended event. Spearheaded by Rashayla Brown, co-chair of student group Black at SAIC, the panel brought together four faculty members to discuss “the unique role of the artist in addressing power dynamics, how controversy can affect an artistic community, and why critical consciousness of diversity and inclusion should become part of the curriculum.” Romi Crawford (VCS), Barbara DeGenevieve (Photography), Oli Rodriguez (Photography) and Faheem Majeed (Sculpture) all joined Brown to address questions that mostly focused on how to discuss art work that addresses race, class, gender and sexuality.
The panel, sponsored by Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Dean’s Office, began with each faculty member introducing their practices, their interests, and how they deal with the these issues that tend to affect communities of difference. Crawford said she is constantly engaged in looking at race and ethnicity in aesthetic work and tracking the dialogue that exists about these topics in literature and film, for example. Majeed is currently teaching an “Introduction to Social Practice” coures at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is a former executive director of the South Side Community Arts Center. Rodriguez has explored queer identities in his work, and curated the recent “The Great Refusal” show at Sullivan Galleries on queer aesthetics. He is currently co-teaching a course with Catherine Opie, the William and Stephanie Sick Distinguished Professor at SAIC, on sex and S&M. DeGenevieve, who has been at SAIC since 1994, has very candidly explored issues such as pedophilia, pornography, and nudity through photography.
A set of three questions, collected from students by Black at SAIC members, guided the panelists. The topic of controversy and student work was present throughout the whole conversation. There was a repeated mention of the controversial as a genre, and an agreement that controversy is at its most productive when there is a possibility for a larger conversation about what a controversial work is addressing, not just about how problematic the work is. DeGenevieve mentioned that it was necessary to give students the benefit of the doubt, and letting them explain what is going on in their work first.
It is important, they all agreed, that students realize they are not the only ones trying to address these issues — of sexuality, of class, of gender, of race — critically at SAIC; they must unite and mobilize. Learn to speak about your work aggressively, with swagger, Crawford suggested, and don’t be afraid to confront faculty members. It’s a recurring problem, a student pointed out, that many instructors are not always willing, or prepared, to address issues that concern communities of difference. The panelists, and many audience members, agreed that it is imperative that the school implement faculty-wide training on how to appropriately discuss these issues with students.
Controversy and student work has been a prevalent topic of conversation and FNewsmagazine was recently a forum for this discussion. Black at SAIC, the organizers of the panel, responded to the work of SAIC BFA student Jason Guo in the recent “New Work” show at Sullivan Galleries in a recent Letter to the Editor. “We question what we are being taught at SAIC, if a student can run amuck with the school’s media, school-sponsored galleries, and faculty approval despite making awkward, stereotypical, and underdeveloped work,” they wrote. “An administration that addresses inclusion and diversity but promotes undefended work that exploits a painful history runs the risk of being hypocritical and ineffective.”
The content of Guo’s work was brought up at the panel discussion and Brown steered it away from specifically talking about the work of one student, but about talking about the larger issues at hand. In light of the conversation, a student then expressed that these discussions must include students, like Guo, that do not tend to agree, or are just not aware, of the issues that are discussed at events like the panel, and how their work affects others. If students want to make controversial work they should be able to, the student pointed out, but they must be able to discuss it and express clearly what it is that they are trying to address.
Hundreds of Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers, students, parents, and workers descended on Daley Plaza on Wednesday, March 27th. They protested the proposed closing of 54 schools in Chicago, announcing to Mayor Rahm Emanuel that they will not let go of the schools without a fight.
The protesters rallied in the Plaza to hear speeches from Chicago Teachers Union leader Karen Lewis, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and other labor leaders before marching to the CPS building and City Hall. The police issued tickets to 127 demonstrators who participated in a sit-in on the southbound lanes of LaSalle Street.
Most of the 54 public schools scheduled for closing CPS claims are “underutilized.” They are located on the South and West sides of the city, affecting roughly 30,000 in mostly Black and Latino communities. The Board of Education determines which schools will be closed down according to a “utilization formula.” Schools that are “underutilized”, according to the formula, are under 60% capacity. Opponents of the closure say the formula does not take into account many factors that could influence the number of students within a school, such as special needs services that require lower student-teacher ratios. One of the issues in the CTU strikes last September was class size.
Leonard Hayes, retired CPS teacher from Conrad Military academy said the closings are “a man-made problem, a joke.” Hayes believes the utilization formula is unfair and is designed to fail the public schools. He makes clear the outrageous disconnect between the Board of Education that claims some schools are “underutilized” and the teachers who work in classrooms that are overfilled with children. Schools are not being examined on an individual basis. The School Board merely looks at numbers, Hayes said.
He called the school closings “racist and classist” and a great destabilizer for middle class neighborhoods. The sentiment was shared by many who marched Wednesday outside the CPS building and City Hall.
Because the school closings disproportionately affect the Black and Latino communities, some argue they even undermine the history and achievements of African Americans in Chicago. “They are closing down schools that have names of African American icons,” stated Chicago Teachers’ Union leader Karen Lewis. “but they’ll open up schools to put a living billionaire’s name in the front. These are injustices.”
The real issue, according to Jim Vaile, a teacher at Hammond Elementary, is privatization. Though he agrees Mayor Emanuel and his administration seek to break the CTU, Vaile argues “the school closings are driven by business interests.” Protesters fear that the closed public schools will be re-opened as corporate run charter schools. “The underlying agenda is privatizing,” continued Vaile, “and it’s happening all over the city.” He said the public schools in Chicago will meet the same fate as the parking meters and the CTA.
The Chicago Teachers’ Union and its supporters made clear their determination to keep these schools open. Karen Lewis called all present at the rally to “be in the streets, wherever we need to be” and encouraged students to show up at their real school on the first day of school in protest.