Head Where the Hats Are

hatart1

The Zulu isicholo (left) and Haredi shtreimel (right) both signify marital status. © Cassiopeia Neely

We put hats in boxes, but the inverse is often true, too. Hats evoke a sense of place and time—they conceal the head, but they also reveal something about the wearer. A Stetson suggests a rugged lifestyle, just as a cloche conjures the image of a Roaring Twenties flapper. An Australian book I recently edited described a character in a “flat cap,” and based on context I knew this was a contemptible sartorial choice, but I couldn’t picture the hat without Google’s help. (Apparently they’re called driving caps in the United States.) I started to wonder, What other headwear don’t I know about?

Continue reading

Scenes of Italy

Italian gelato

Corner gelato shops are as ubiquitous in Italy as Starbucks cafés are in America.

Art, history, food, fashion, and culture; Italy has something for everyone. I’ve written about my experiences in Venice and Florence and will undoubtedly go into further detail about the Vatican and Rome later. Below, I’ve chosen one representative photograph from each stop on my tour of Italy.

Continue reading

Die Küche

The first installment of my "First 1000 Words" in German.

The initial installment of my German “First 1000 Words” project. Art by me.

Polyglots are linguistic superheroes. Some kids want to be Superman when they grow up, but I was more interested in expanding my lexicon than battling Lex Luthor. Throughout the years, I’ve attempted to learn Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Dutch. Most of these efforts have been ill-fated; I gave up on Japanese after memorizing ten Kanji characters in elementary school, and I gave up on Dutch when I realized I would never use it. Despite the six years I spent studying Spanish, I am not fluent in the language. I was able to ask for directions in Barcelona, and help hispanohablante customers at work, but I think too slowly in Spanish to feel confident in conversation.

Continue reading

Under the Watercolor Sea

Mermaid and Trident, 2015

Mermaid and Trident, 2015

Due to my Internet service being the worst, I had to take an impromptu hiatus, but I’m back. I should have an entry on France up tomorrow, and I’ll definitely have a new Cultural Parallels segment up by Tuesday night.

During my blast-from-the-past, analog week, I read a bit of Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber, and I ventured into the world of watercolor painting. I used to draw and ink little characters in high school, but I haven’t kept a steady sketchbook since. Instead of the ink bottle and pen nibs I was accustomed to, I used a 0.35 mm pen to put down the lines on this mermaid drawing. Surprisingly, my hands are steadier with the pen nibs? I’m not yet confident enough in my watercolor skills to attempt shading, but with practice I’ll get there. My real question: Should mermaids have bellybuttons?

The Human Canvas

Cultural Parallels

Modern tattoos are an outlet for self-expression. A symbol of devotion toward a loved one or a hate group, an act of empowerment after a mastectomy, or a drunken mistake, tattoos speak to our sense of individuality. Though historically used to dehumanize Jewish people during the Holocaust, tattoos today are generally viewed as a permanent brand of free will.

In certain civilizations, however, body art functions as a link to one’s culture. Painfully carved into the flesh, the permanence and prominence of Samoan tatau is an enduring nexus between ancient and modern tradition. Tatau are physical manifestations of a person’s mana, their spiritual influence or life force. Similarly, despite their impermanence, Indian mehndi (henna tattoos) are culturally significant. A representation of the sun, mehndi is a Vedic custom meant to evoke the awakening of one’s inner light. Henna body art is an ancient medium known by many names within many cultures. Though commonly attributed to India, the art form has also been practiced throughout the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Despite minor variations in customary style, henna is frequently applied in Morocco, Israel, Turkey, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.

Likewise, while tatau is a Polynesian tradition once practiced in Samoa, Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, and the Cook Islands, it is now most commonly associated with Samoa alone. The practice declined throughout Polynesia in the 19th century as a result of the emergence of Western missionaries and their Christian beliefs. Tatau was completely eradicated from Tonga and has failed to reemerge, on the basis that the procedure is unsafe and unchristian. The people of the Samoa Islands were unique for their uninterrupted preservation of traditional tatau.

Excruciating, and dangerous for the risk of infection, the continued practice of the traditional tatau process is a testament to the significance of ritual. Some modern Samoans have turned to contemporary Western tattoo machines, though master tattoo artists argue that the resulting tattoos are not authentic. These artists, called tufuga tatatau, are responsible for determining the placement and design of traditional tatau. Samoans believe that patron gods bestow tufuga tatatau with their skills, and as such the artists are revered and well compensated. Tufuga tatatau use handmade tools constructed of animal bones, shells, and wood. Driven by short taps from a mallet called the sausau, the au works like an adze, to carve out patterns in the flesh. The au consists of serrated bone combs affixed to a small turtle shell, with a bamboo hilt.

Soga’imiti with pe'a tatau

Soga’imiti with pe’a tatau. Photo credit: Todd Hunter McGaw.

All tatau are rites of passage, though some are of greater symbolic importance. Covering mid-torso to knees, and meant to represent bat wings enclosing the legs, the pe’a is the most extensive tatau. Men who complete the pe’a are henceforth referred to as soga’imiti, and are commended for their commitment to their extended family and heritage. Historically, this demonstration of courage was required of any man seeking the chief title, matai. While malu encircle women’s thighs, perhaps the most significant tatau for women is the lima. Performed on the hands, lima were necessary for any woman who wished to serve the ceremonial narcotic drink called kava.

Mamanu, or traditional patterns, are overwhelmingly geometric. The placement of a certain shape on the body can alter the design’s meaning. The tufuga tatatau who determine the outcome of the tattoo act as a guide, transitioning the tatau recipient from one stage of their life to the next. Tatau procedures are ceremonial events that can take upwards of three months to complete. Individuals are not tattooed alone; instead two or more people undergo the process at once.

Mehndi applied to the hands. Photo credit: Unknown.

Mehndi applied to the hands. Photo credit: Unknown.

Like traditional tatau, mehndi application is often a group event. Women from every generation of a family gather to adorn their hands and feet before holidays or major life events. One of the most popular applications is the Bridal Mehndi, performed before a wedding. Traditionally performed in the past by members of the Nai caste – an economically and educationally disadvantaged group considered an Other Backward Class by the Indian Government – modern mehndi artistry is a lucrative business for women of any social class.

Unlike tatau, the mehndi application itself can be completed in one session. However, both processes rely on curing, where there is an element of time involved. The tatau may take a year to heal and set properly, while the final color of a mehndi depends on a gradual oxidation over the course of one to three days. After being drawn on the skin from the tip of a cone, the design is washed in a mixture of lemon juice and sugar, and left to set. The henna itself is derived from a thick paste of mashed henna plant leaves. In fact, tatau and mehndi processes are both deeply rooted in nature. As previously mentioned, the tools a tufuga tatatau uses are all organic, and much like the natural henna leaves, tatau ink is a composite of soot from burned candlenut, sugar cane juice, coconut milk, and other plant-based liquids.

Tatau traditions have been passed down through legends, songs, and ritual ceremonies over the past 2,000 years. According to Samoan mythology, two sisters named Taema and Tilafaiga brought the art of tatau to Samoa after a visit to Fiji. Their original tools were made of human bones and their ink was human blood. Though the tatau is old, the henna tradition is perhaps thousands of years older. Hopefully, both traditions will endure long into the future.

Wooden Effigies with an Inner Spark

Matching Yoruba Ere Ibeji statues, signifying the death of both twins

Matching Yoruba Ere Ibeji statues, signifying the death of both twins. Artist unknown.

Various cultures throughout the world believe that the human body is an ephemeral vessel for the soul. Among the North American Hopi and African Yoruba there exists a conviction that spirits can also endure within the confines of small wooden effigies, respectively called Katsina dolls and Ere Ibeji. The Hopi Tribe, a sovereign nation located in northeastern Arizona, spans 1.5 million acres and comprises twelve villages across three mesas. The Yoruba primarily occupy the city of Lagos, situated in southwestern Nigeria, though they have also migrated to cities in neighboring countries.

Continue reading