A Small Giant Dies, Leaving for Dreamtime
The night I visited Victoria Art Center I lingered too long in the galleries devoted to Aboriginal art. As the galleries closed, I was left behind and locked in the empty gallery. Before discovering a public phone to call for help, I grew very tired walking through miles and miles of empty halls.
I laid down on a bench and fell fast asleep for a brief few minutes. I was suddenly awakened by clicking wooden sounds and the foot stomping of a midget shaman that seemed to have stepped out of one of the photographs on the wall. It appeared that he was cleansing the space, ridding it of bad spirits. As soon as I stood up, he disappeared.
I found myself half asleep staring at a huge painting covered with hypnotic white dots. The name next to the painting, “Nosepeg,” I recognized immediately.
Nosepeg’s real name was Johnny Warangkula Tjunpurrula. He was born 1925 at Minjilpirri, south of Lake Mackay, to a family of Aborigines, speakers of the Luritja language group. Nosepeg never went to school, and was so frightened the first time he saw a white man, that he climbed into a tree to hide. His family later moved east, where he worked as a
construction laborer, and in his teenage years went through a full range of tribal initiation ceremonies. At the age of 29, he was chosen to be one of two Aboriginals presented to Queen Elizabeth II, when she visited Australia. He introduced himself to Queen Elizabeth of England as the King of Pintupy.
In the 1980s he was considered the most successful artist in the Aborigine-colony at Alice Springs, earning as much as $10,000 a picture. Unfortunately, he was unable to save any money, and his health had deteriorated from heavy abuse of alcohol. He lost three fingers from his right hand, and his left arm became useless as a result of an untreated fracture. His eyesight weakened, and he continued to drink. He developed a slight stutter, but kept on painting and telling traditional native stories.
I met him in 1987 in a literary pub/club in Sydney where some writers and journalists gathered to listen to Aborigine storytellers. The evening had not progressed as it should have. The two storytellers took the stage sitting in a crosslegged position, but the noise of the pub did not subside, and their quiet and deep voices did not reach any of us. They proceeded with their stories, although none of us could hear them reciting.
The music from the front pub and the beer-drinking noises had drowned out their performance. Fortunately, my all access pass issued by the travel magazine for whom I was working at the time, brought us to a post-reading party where I finally met the famous Nosepeg and even photographed him. We had drinks with a pair of charming and sociable aborigines.
When Nosepeg had arrived at the airport, earlier that day, he was unsteady on the escalator and began walking backwards, almost falling. He finally regained his balance, laughing and bemused. He had never been on an escalator. He retold this story several times during the evening making fun of himself.
Johnny was not only the founding member of the Aboriginal painters group, but also a great storyteller. He lived in a settlement called Papunya, in the western Australian desert where he had been relocated in the early ‘70s at the age of 35. Under the guidance of an Australian art teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, the Aboriginal artists abandoned their traditional use of bark and okras and began using canvas, Masonite-board and acrylic paints. This new artistic experimentation and production became very popular in Australia, and abroad, with collectors of folk and contemporary art.
During the ‘80s the creations of this thriving school of Aboriginal painters became increasingly prized in the art market. The newspaper accounts and obituary after his death described one of his paintings called “Water Dreaming at Kalipinya” as one of the most representative of this group and period. This painting was inspired by stories of water, because 1971 was a year of exceptionally heavy rain in his settlement. The painting was sold in 1972 for $75, and soon changed hands at a Sotheby’s auction in Melbourne for $263,145, according to Paul Lewis, of the New York Times (February 26, 2001).
NYU anthropologist, Fred Myers documented that the 80 or so Papunya artists regularly sold up to $1 million worth of paintings a year, while the government estimated total sales of Aboriginal arts and crafts at $200 million a year. The inspirational subjects of this art can be found in their belief called the Dreamtime — the moment of creation when their ancestors ran out into the half formed world, singing the names of the mountains, rivers and hills while simultaneously blazing sacred paths. These are song lines related to the elements of landscapes, and they are passed down from generation to generation within each Aboriginal clan serving both as historical records and as maps guiding them across the desert to the sites of water, food or places for sacred, ritual ceremonies.
Christopher Chippendale, of Cambridge University, described Nosepeg’s art as “abstract expressionism on the surface, but representational underneath.” This conflict between regular analysis and the tendency of Aborigines to conceal their symbolism, especially to the uninitiated, is prevalent because Aborigines regard their paintings as religious secrets. Nosepeg and other painters developed a technique of obscuring, on the canvas, the location of particular sacred sites by covering them with dots, giving their works the name of “dot painting.”
In a book published in 1991 called “Art of the Western Desert,” Mr. Bardon complains that the reluctance to disclose such sacred knowledge has muted the simplicity and directness of their work, encouraging an ornamental style filled with claustrophobic and oppressive stillness.
At the age of 75, Nosepeg died a penniless alcoholic, survived by his wife, seven daughters and two sons. His great paintings of mysteriously dotted patterns and colorful maps of wildlife are now hanging at the Victoria Arts Center in Melbourne, in New South Wales Gallery in Sydney and in many other museums. Many museum staffers complained about some noisy ghostly apparitions, mostly at closing time. Nose peg’s spirit lives on!
Disclaimer: “A Small Giant Dies” by Valery Oisteanu is a fictional story, mixing together several biographical/geographical elements from several late aborigine artists, of different tribal groups as one character, for the purpose of this narrative.
At the Cave of the Winds
Crete is one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean situated at the southernmost point of Greece, 50 miles from the Libyan Coast of Africa. Surrounded on the north by the Aegean Sea and on the south by the Libyan Sea, it is quite possible that this is the last surviving piece of land from the destruction of Atlantis. The Greeks designated the mountains of this island as the birthplace of Zeus and they still remain very mysterious and forbidding. With the help of his mother, Thera, Zeus hid from his father, Cronos, who was known for his voracious hunger, even devouring his own children. Four mountain ranges divide the island—the White Mountains in the west, Mount Ida in the center, both over 9.000 feet high, Lassithi Mountains, 7,000 feet high, and in the far east, Seteia, 5,000 feet high. Crete is populated by a mix of ethnic origins who claim ancient heritage, 4,500 BC back to the Minoan civilization. Minoans invented architecture, an alphabet Linea B and a specific culture. still not fully explored or understood.
With their baggy Turkish shalvars flapping in the warm breeze, the Cretan workmen dug their shovels deeper into the mound of Knossos. Slowly, as the trenches drove into the soil, there appeared long massive walls. Soon after appeared stairs and corridors. Enormous jars, standing in long rows were revealed as if by magic. The idols and jewelry had been buried a mere few feet below ground, waiting for some archaeologist with a pick. In 1893, a short sighted Englishman, Arthur Evans, bought some lucky charms in Athens from a Greek woman. As he peered closely at the charms, which were small polished stones with strange markings cut into them, he realized that they were ancient seals that were used to press into clay or wax to mark ownership. He was amazed that the markings were in some way like hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians. He went back to antique dealers to look at some more. When he asked where the stones came from, he was told that they had been found in Crete.
In the Spring of 1894, sailing to Crete with a friend, he explored the Island, going into the cave of Psychro near Mount Dikte, which was rumored to be the birthplace of Zeus. Unfortunately, at that time, the Turks ruled Crete and refused to let anyone to do any excavations. Six years later, when the Turks finally left, he began digging earnestly at Knossos with a gang of thirty workmen. As they peered through a hole in the dig, they saw various painted earthenware jars (five feet high), and bright colored walls (frescoes). To increase the speed of the excavation, the number of workers was increased to 100, but still the site was too big (over six acres) and 25 years later he was still digging. He recovered wonderful objects of clay and ivory, gold necklaces and other precious items used in Minoan times, nearly 4,000 years ago. But the greatest discovery was a broken clay bar bearing the same mysterious writing that he had seen on the lucky charms. More clay tablets appeared, and soon he had collected hundreds of them. What a pity no one could read them! Then he was astonished to find a painting of a Minoan man, his body deep red, his eyes dark, and the line of his chest curved in a graceful form, and a very slim waist holding a funnel-like vase. Soon he uncovered more corridors and walls, and he became convinced that this was indeed the labyrinth of the Minotaur legend. There was a winding maze of passages confusing anyone who entered. White staircases led to a grand palace. Rows of pillars pointed to enormous square doors. These were the royal apartments, chapels, guard houses and large storage rooms. Because the Minoans liked open spaces and fresh air this architecture gave them light without letting in the hot breeze of summer or the chilly blast of winters.
The legend says that the Queen of Minos fell in love with a white bull that came out of the sea, and adopted him as a royal pet. The bull was glowing white, and she decided to make love to him. She asked the court architect Daedalus to build a hollow bronze cow which she entered to be impregnated by the bull. The result of the union was the Minotaur, a scary-looking creature, that was kept in the labyrinth, and offered virgins as human sacrifices.
One of the most unusual activity that Cretans indulged in was called bull-leaping. Many frescoes showed an Olympic competition in which one competitor grasped the horns and jumped over the bull’s head, and as the bull butted his head, competition in which one competitor grasped the horns and jumped over the bull’s head, and as the bull butted his head, another competitor somersaulted over the bull. Behind the animal, there was a woman waiting to catch the youth. This activity could be the beginning of the Olympics as we know them today. Sometimes, the bull gored the daring young jumpers. The bull was a sacred animal, and Sir Arthur Evans believed that bull leaping had a religious purpose. Often the King would wear a bull mask at certain religious ceremonies.
The Minotaur was eventually slain by Theseus, who ultimately escaped from the labyrinth by using an a very long string that had been given him by Ariadne at the entrance.
Until 1,400 BC, the Cretans had used a written language with 88 signs called Linear B, and afterwards a new writing emerged called Linear A, with 54 signs. The signs appear largely the same, but the languages are different. Soon afterwards the palace was burned, and then an earthquake brought havoc to Crete, causing the collapse of many buildings. perhaps a volcano on the island of Thera may have erupted and caused a giant tidal wave to sweep inland and destroy coastal palaces. Several disasters may have struck Crete. The full truth about the Minoans will probably never be known. But their works of art are still standing in the museums in Heraklion, then known as Kydonia.
The first time I arrived there, it was in July 1977, after a long journey oversea & land from New York to Amsterdam by air, and then across Europe by land (Volkswagen bus through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria & Greece). Athens to Crete in an overnight ferry passage from Piraeus to Heraklion. The trip was brutal, freezing cold and windy on deck, but the satisfaction to be in the company of Cretan gods renewed my energy and strength. From there, I proceeded east to the old capital of Crete, Hania, a 15th century Venetian port augmented by Islamic architecture, and perhaps one of the oldest cities in the world.
A Fifteenth Century Venetian church, 100 meters from the old port that had been abandoned during Turkish occupation, was transformed, in 1669, into a synagogue. This historical monument shadowed everything in the Jewish quarter, that at one time, had several synagogues and a cemetery dating to the Sixteenth Century. There were matzo factories, kosher butchers, and other shops located in the Jewish ghetto called” Ovreiky”. Today the only surviving synagogue is called Etz Hayyim. Etz Hayyim is a not just a house of prayer, but also a museum, and a tourist attraction. The synagogue is an important marker that speaks of the long Jewish presence on the island of Crete. The restoration of this holy place pays tribute to the memory of 265 Cretan Jews who, together with Christian brothers, were arrested by the Nazis, forced into the German vessel Tanais, and on June 9, 1944, perished in the Aegean Sea, sunk ironically by the allied troops. The restoration of the synagogue Etz Hayyim is a small miracle and a sign of the resilience of the few local Jews despite the destructions of the holocaust and some local historic amnesia. It has been perfectly restored and serves as a meeting place for Jews from all over the world who visit Crete. Shabbat services held weekly are attended by locals and tourists as well. All are invited to pray and visit a jewel of medieval history of Crete.
Ghost Story in Chania
The secret harem of Suleyman Pasha, the Magnificent, was nestled against the old wall in the Venetian port of Chania in Crete. The terrace of the secret harem overlooked the corner of Zambeliou Street, where the steps descend down to the sea. There too, were the old Jewish quarters, the Turkish steam baths, and the restaurants swirling with belly dancers. Three steps down from the entrance was the shop of a rug weaver, still sitting today at his loom, and demonstrating to passing tourists and travelers, how it was done by hand a long time ago during the Turkish occupation.
During the full moon night, this story was retold, appropriately enough on the same spot where the story was unfolding a hundred years ago. This house, three stories high, was haunted by several ghosts. I borrowed one of the stories from a famous poet who had once owned that house, and who had observed apparitions on the top terrace. The ground floor was now a disco bedroom equipped with a round bed, disco lights and music. In the olden days it was the place where the Pasha kept his goats. The second floor had three rooms, a big reception room, a huge kitchen, a small bedroom and a living room now used to play chess. The main room was almost round and the surrounding bedrooms had high ceilings. From the third floor small windows the Pasha could observe his concubines and wives. In this particular harem, he kept fourteen wives. Each bedroom had a small terrace equipped with a primitive shower concocted from a ceramic amphora-like vessel with holes in its bottom. By pouring the water inside these clay vessels, his concubines could shower under the supervision of Pasha.
The Muslim architecture of the haunted house enabled one to see white apparitions or hear the sounds of a poltergeist. Opposite from the Pashas seat, under the living room table, was hidden trap door. An unruly concubine could be placed in that hot seat, and by pulling a lever, the punished victim would be sent sliding down a chute into the basement to chill with the goats.
Retelling these stories one particular night, loud creaks and heavy footsteps were suddenly heard on the stairs. Paintings slid down the wall, and many of the listeners suddenly panicked and ran from the house. But the storyteller went on. In this house, several deaths had occurred. One of them involved two men who lived in the house, and had a lover’s quarrel that ended in one of the lovers’ death by decapitation. These new ghosts were the most boisterous, and they often woke me up either by knocking off objects or switching on the radio. That kept me awake for over a month every night until roosters began to crow and dogs began barking, and the new day began swiftly on the narrow cobbled streets, buzzing under the delivery bikes of the baker bringing the fresh morning bread. The biker-baker unperturbed, continued his route to the lighthouse, with The pasha’s dagger secured safely to his waist.
Franz Kafka was spotted on the Charles Bridge riding backwards toward St. Nicholas Church Place, where he had a small apartment. Prague was getting dark, and the Vltava River swelled to the max. A rain started and he hurried inside the apartment, where the air was quiet and gloomy. His window opened not outside, but inside a nunnery, where he could observe the nuns during their evening ritual, going to the toilet, and often, lying in their beds masturbating. One lost story left by Kafka to his friend, Max Brod, talks about his secret love affair with a Catholic nun who crept into his room and engaged in libations with Franz, sucking him off all through the night, and smoking cigarettes in between love sessions. She actually never went into bed with him, to keep her vow of celibacy.
The thin wheeled bicycle, hung on the wall. In the morning he could be seen hobbling forward toward his office in insurance company. The bicycle would stop from time to time for a breather, on its own, usually in front of a photo shop displaying erotic postcards, and sometimes in front of a beer joint where a quick Pilsen and an order of kosher pastrami was his breakfast. He usually took off before finishing, because he didn’t want to stick out in the regular crowd as some kind of an observant conservative Jew. In reality, he was an assimilated Germanic Jew, just like some of the geniuses of his time — Freud, Einstein or Bruno Schultz. He was part of a new breed of European intelligentsia, as many of the Jews of his time. He had an old bicycle made in Prague, but with a Jewish squeak. His glasses also looked just like a bicycle and his writing had the speed and the rhythm of the bicycle wheel. He would take a ride down Charles Bridge to look at the high heeled prostitutes in the park, picking up soldiers. One day, a traveling theater came from France, performing Alfred Jarry’s Ubu. Jarry, himself, was riding a bicycle on a stage, shooting a hunting rifle wildly into the audience. A spectator/mother screamed “Assassin! You could have killed my son!” Jarry stopped and politely bowed. “Guilty as charged. My apologies, Madame. May I offer to make you a spare child?” She did not refuse. But the spare child was now Franz Kafka, and the bicycle was left there as a present by Jarry himself. Former owners of the bike were one bohemian poet, a dog catcher named Mein Gott and a lady of pleasure.
Sitting in an orchestra section at the Prague State Opera, Kafka’s fiancée was dreaming of Berlin. It was the last time they had dinner together on Kudam Strassen in front of the Metamorphosis Cafe. They ordered tea, each according to their own ailments, reproducing a tea ceremony they witnessed in a film documentary. Ziggy (their friend Freud) had once explained that the dynamics of a couple are established and perpetrated at the family table, where all the decisions are made and publicly announced. Soon they are joined by Albert (Einstein), Robert (Walser) and Robert (Musil). She daydreamed of a suicide and wondered if Franz would make love to her if she were dead. Necrophilia or narcissism? An urn full of ashes tied up to a bicycle is floating down the river.